Wednesday, November 22, 2006

November 2006 Early Indications: Devices We Love (and the people behind them)

Review Essay

Steven Levy, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006)

Bill Moggridge, Designing Interactions (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007)

Coincident with the iPod's fifth birthday, Newsweek technology reporter Steven Levy produced a book that helps situate the importance of the iPod on several landscapes. The book continues Levy's longstanding interest in Apple Computer and is enhanced by the author's relationship with Apple CEO Steve Jobs. At times a history but more often a love letter to the ultimate gadget, The Perfect Thing raises some useful questions about the defining personal artifact of the 21st century.

-How did it come to be?

Levy is at his best in reporting mode: interviews with principals, clear chronologies, and an eye for the telling detail make these chapters some of the book's strongest. He details the processes whereby a collection of vendors and subcontractors, under strict secrecy, converged in a notably seamless device. Within Apple, the passion for music among employees on the project infused the team with extra motivation: "the chance to make a product they would kill to have in their own pockets," in Levy's words. PortalPlayer, a startup also located in San Jose, solved many hardware issues, including power management of the miniature hard drive. For software, Apple enlisted Pixo, another Silicon Valley company that had to meet Jobs' exacting standards for usabiity, stability, and audio quality.

One hard-fought decision made by the interface team illustrates a deeper theme in both the iPod project and Levy's book. Jobs, long known for holding strong design ideas, finally approved the typeface used in Pixo's interface software. For those who think it looks somehow familiar, it is: the font is Chicago, which had been created by Susan Kare for the original Macintosh menus. As Levy points out, Jobs has now launched four technology revolutions: the Apple II, the Mac, the computer-animated feature film at Pixar, and the iPod. The last of these was far from preordained: the company Jobs inherited upon his return in 1997 lacked the focus, passion, and distinction of what he had left 12 years before. In many ways, the Mac and the iPod are tied by Jobs' characteristic combination of vision, unreasonable expectations, and skills in building and driving a team to bring true breakthrough products to market.

-Why can't anyone build a viable competitor?

Comparing the iPod to its competitors illustrates a great deal about the current computing and entertainment market. Recall first that upon Jobs' return to Apple, Michael Dell advised him publicly to "shut [the company] down and give the money back to the shareholders." Fast forward to January 13, 2006, at which time Apple's market capitalization exceeded that of Dell. While Dell and other tech vendors brought out iPod imitators, none has succeeded, and the odds for Microsoft's Zune do not look good based on historical precedent. Dell's DJ player illustrates the pattern: the DJ had longer lasting batteries, cost less, and used an industry-standard MP3 file format. But not only did the DJ fail to dent iPod sales, it was the rare Dell failure, shut down as it was in 2006. At launch, a Dell spokeswoman nicely summarized the gulf between Apple and its competitors: "Style is nice," she said, "but function and value are what ultimately matter to consumers." DJ sales proved otherwise: great design can make a product or even a market.

In addition to its design, the iPod also benefits from a tightly integrated platform of content licenses from record labels, an unusually clean software interface for both Apple and Microsoft operating systems, and a truly idiot-proof device that solves many of the usability issues that typically characterize computer peripherals. For all the elegance of Jonathan Ive's iPod case and the status markers of the white earbuds, the power of the iPod lies in how well everything works together. Finding content from a formidably large catalog of legal downloads is easy, and so are importing CDs, buying downloads, and playing music or spoken voice recordings.

Contrast the Zune, which uses a complicated point scheme for buying Microsoft-licensed music, to iTunes, which simply charges 99 cents per song. You need to buy Zune money in $5 increments for 400 points, then pay 79 points per song. Simple math indicates that you'll always end up with a small point balance, giving the user a choice between stranding money or adding more points. Not surprisingly, Microsoft's scheme has the effect of locking in a customer. Paradoxically, Apple's lock-in is ultimately stronger, which has prompted government efforts to open the platform, but infinitely more graceful and compelling.

-Why do people love the iPod so much?

In this aspect, Levy attempts both the personal essay style of an Andy Rooney or Nick Hornby and the cultural anthropologist mode. Neither really works. Beginning with the book's title (what does it mean to "shuffle commerce, culture, and coolness?") and continuing with its conceit of printing the books with the chapters in varying, shuffled, orders (which is why I can't cite page numbers), Levy is wrestling with concepts and vocabularies outside his comfort zone. The section on Identity, in particular, fails to connect Levy's personal experiences to some larger phenomenon.

That said, in reportage mode the book does decode some of the iPod's uniqueness and appeal. The particular whiteness of the original case, for example, comes from a "double-shot" polycarbonate: an opaque white layer underlies a transparent one, giving the device a feel that no Dell product has ever possessed. The iPod's heft is not an accident, and feels pleasing. Similarly, the lack of mechanical artifacts on the case - hinges, screws, or other fasteners - contributes to a runic quality: the device is at once signifier, totem, and tool. Finally, and Levy gives this topic less attention than he might, the iPod is highly personal on several levels. Not only is every device with more than ten audio files going to be unique, but the act of inserting earbuds and wearing the player on one's person introduces an intimacy not found in most electronic or mechanical devices.

For a better understanding of how people can and do relate to their digital technologies, the interviews collected in Designing Interactions were accessable, compelling, and difficult to put down: IDEO founder Bill Moggridge has produced, with considerable help, a 766-page beast of a book that is as addictive as popcorn. The people behind so many defining artifacts of our world - the Acela, the Sims, the Palm Pilot and Treo, Google, and of course the WIMP (windows, icons, mouse, pointer) interface - tell fascinating stories about the design process. A few representative insights should give some flavor for the richness of the book:

-Will Wright, on the origin of Sim City:
"When I was designing ['a stupid shoot-up'] game, part of it involved me creating this landscape that you would fly over and bomb. It was a landscape of islands with roads and factories and things, and I created an editor for doing that, where I could scroll around and put down roads and things. I found I was having more fun designing and building these islands than I was bombing them in the game, so I took that editor and kept working on it [by incorporating systems dynamics theories from MIT professor Jay Forrester]."

-Alan Kay, the father of the laptop concept, on the effect of Marshall McLuhan and Jerome Bruner:
"The computer is a medium! I had always thought of the computer as a tool, perhaps a vehicle - a much weaker conception. . . . Now, if we agree with the evidence that the human cognitive facilities are made up of a doing mentality, an image mentality, and a symbolic mentality, then any user interface that we construct should at least cater to the mechanisms that seem to be there."

-Google co-founder Sergey Brin on resisting the urge to universalive your own experience:
"We have always wondered about how many search results we should display. I have my default, I always show fifty search results, so I thought, 'Why would you want to have just ten?' It turned out in testing that people really wanted just ten. Sometimes your personal bias really colors your way of thinking. I don't know that we've fine-tuned it between nine, ten, or eleven, but once you're in that range, ten is a number that people deal with pretty well."

-Pixo founder Paul Mercer, on the puzzle of the iPod's lack of a credible challenger:
"The iPod is very simple-minded, in terms of at least what the device does. It's very smooth in what it does, but the screen is low-resolution, and it really doesn't do much other than let you navigate your music. That tells you two things. It tells you first that the simplification that went into the design was very well thought through, and second that the capability to build it is not commoditized."

Many industry pioneers tell stories (some with DVD videos) of the details behind landmark designs, providing a sense of just how hard it is to get things right. It was both great fun and dramatically illuminating to hear about some of the industry's defining moments:

-GRiD founder John Ellenby's "Gzunda" computer, a Xerox ALTO that "goes unda" the desk because it was too big to fit on top
-Mouse inventor Doug Engelbart's daring demo of an interactive graphical user interface in 1968
-Apple graphics genius Bill Atkinson's designing the pull-down menu bar for the Mac - overnight
-Pen computing veteran and sometime student of neuroscience Jeff Hawkins' surprise at people's rejection of Graffiti and adoption of the thumb-size QWERTY keyboard.

The icing on the cake, to mix food metaphors, is Moggridge's closing summation of the design process, which focuses heavily on people and thus on the prototyping process. This section alone will be worth the purchase price for practitioners in the field, informed as it is with decades of personal experience along with the collected insights of his peers.

In the end, the two books drive home the importance of personality in great design: the old stereotype about something looking like it was "designed by a committee" embeds much truth about the differences between great products (or services, or interactions) and the vast majority of experiences that lack the coherence, utility, and appeal of those few efforts that get it right. Whether it's Tom West's Eagle in Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, or Doug Englebart's mouse, or Mari Matsunaga's iMode medium, many great designs embody the personal capabilities of a designer or team to a greater degree than most people realize. Getting a glimpse behind the curtain in these two books was both enlightening and humbling: enlightening because of the sheer number of design decisions that can be involved, and humbling because of the degree of genius from which we as customers are privileged to benefit.