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Q&A: Bill Moggridge

What makes for good design?

Bill Moggridge has been an industrial designer for 40 years. In 1979, he designed what many call the first laptop computer: the GRiD Compass, which was used by businesspeople as well as by NASA and the U.S. military. The Compass established the language of laptop design: hinged closure, flat display, low-profile keyboard, and metal housing. In 1991, Moggridge cofounded Ideo, a design consultancy based in Palo Alto, CA. He is the founder of a movement known as “interaction design,” which aims to do for the virtual world what industrial design does for the physical. In the recently published book Designing Interactions, he interviews 42 influential designers.

Technology Review: You say that at the beginning of any design, two things matter most: people and prototypes. Why?

Bill Moggridge: What we’re looking for is the latent user needs in a ­situation where, at least at the beginning, you don’t know what you’re going to be making. So you have to have insights about people driven from their psychology, their desires, their interests, and then apply that to the context where you might be inventing or coming up with a solution for a new product or service or space, or whatever the context may be. Once you’ve got to a first prototype, build it quick and try it out. As soon as possible–even a small attribute of it–try it out, because you’re likely to be wrong.

TR: Do companies get this more now than they did 10 or 15 years ago?

BM: Oh, definitely, yes. The whole idea of design and design thinking is becoming much more recognized as an essential element for success. Industrial design was seen as important in the early years of mass-­produced consumer products in the U.S.A. In the 1940s and 1950s, everywhere else that was in an advanced stage of development was suffering from the aftereffects of the Second World War and just trying to put bread on their table, whereas in America, it was a stimulus. And the result was that we had a consumer society in the 1950s. At that time, designers like Raymond Loewy [who designed everything from the Lucky Strike logo to the Studebaker Avanti to the inside of the Saturn V] made a big contribution as innovators. And then the business leaders thought, Okay, it’s cheaper if we build an internal industrial-design department instead of using consultants, but they usually buried it in the R&D department, reporting to midlevel engineering. So American design got lost and only came back relatively recently, in the last 15 years.

TR: How can tech companies better understand the needs of customers?

BM: They should always be looking at what people are doing and why they want things. In my book, David Liddle [a Xerox PARC alumnus and user-interface pioneer] explains that there are three phases of adoption for a piece of technology: enthusiast, professional, and consumer. There comes a point where an industry realizes that the enthusiast phase could be applied for work. And then they start designing products which make us more productive. We’re actually quite willing to learn something that’s difficult to use and not very enjoyable if it makes us more productive. Then, finally, that technology becomes less expensive and more obviously applicable to our daily lives, and then people realize, Well, there could be a consumer product. And then suddenly, it’s completely essential for success that the thing is enjoyable to use and easy to learn. It fails unless it is.

TR: Why did it take so long for something as physically beautiful as the iPod to come about?

BM: When I went to my first Hanover Fair in 1972 in Germany and went into this enormous place–22 halls they had, which included computers–I was just blown away by the excellence and the beautiful wonder of these machines. Companies like Nixdorf from Germany and Datasaab from Sweden were doing just stellar designs that seemed to be really inspirational. Then it seemed that we kind of stepped way back. We lost our ability to be doing interesting things in computers for a long time.

TR: Why?

BM: Well, I think maybe it just moved into the mainstream professional phase. In the early days, they were more driven by prestige, probably.

TR: What’s a good example of stellar design today?

BM: The iPod. And it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the iPhone. I haven’t had a chance to play with that. All you can tell at this point is that it’s a stunning visual design. But whether it’s going to be important, influential, successful–all those things are yet to be discovered. It’s a much more challenging task to move into the telephone world now than it was to be at the leading edge of the iPod world.

TR: Parting advice?

BM: Put together a team with a great engineer, a crazy designer, a good businessperson, and a good human-factors scientist or psychologist of some kind, and put them in a room and get them to try to work together. It’s a big challenge, but they come to a point, surprisingly quickly, where they realize that what they can achieve together is much more than they could do individually.

More design articles: Take an inside look at the making of the Ocean, a new phone from a company called Helio (see “Soul of a New Machine”). Take a decidedly non-inside look at how Apple approaches design (see “Different”), and read a review of how Apple remains deeply committed to being a computer company (see “The ‘New’ Apple”). Get insights on the state of Web design from print-design legend Roger Black (see “Help Me Redesign the Web”). Take a glimpse at the pieces of technology that the prominent industrial designers featured in these articles say have influenced the way they think about their work (see “Objects of Desire”). Finally, hear from Technology Review’s Editor in Chief, Jason Pontin, on the well-designed technologies that are “beautiful machines” in this video.

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