Design Matters

Last night, during an IM conversation with Nate Mook (of Betanews fame), he broached the topic of smiles, saying Apple’s little iPod nano makes people smile. It’s just so damn cute. So are babies, for that matter, and they make people smile, too. Coocheecoo!

Shouldn’t good products bring a smile? When I think of my Apple purchases, I can say that just about every one brought a smile and great delight. I lugged my first Mac out of a CompUSA on a sunny day in December 1998. I marveled at the simplicity and accessibility of my iMac. That little compact computer generated lots of smiles, not just from me but from everyone first seeing it in my home.

A few months later, I bought a refurbished PowerBook G3 (it could have been a Wall Street model) from PC Connection. I marveled at the curvy design and breathtaking 14-inch display. I watched my first DVD on that notebook, rented in February 1999 from Netflix. I smiled lots over that computer.

My March 2002 review of the 15-inch iMac captures something of the computer’s smile generation. I quote myself:

Anyone who has used PCs for a long time knows the joy has gone out of computing. The “wow” experience from setting up that first computer or exploring the vast information riches of the Internet are memories. It is like the first time having sex, only sex is still great other times. Getting another new computer just doesn’t reach the same level of excitement or joy. Until now. I cracked open the box on a new iMac in mid March 2002, the midrange model with 700MHz PowerPC processor, 256MB of RAM, 40GB hard drive and CD-RW/DVD combo drive…For the first time in as long as I can remember, working on a computer is fun. And that’s doing work. Other activities just get better from there.

Few months after writing this review, I carted a Titanium PowerBook into my local Starbucks. The computer gathered a crowd of gawkers. Lots of smiles, and fingerprints on the notebook.

Apple makes products that are delightful and beautiful. They evoke emotion, attachment—heck, joy. The iPod nano is certainly good example. I feel odd owning one. It’s a guilty pleasure. People smile and then they grab. They want one, but they can’t buy here; 4GB iPod nano is sold out around Washington. So, for now, I actually try to hide the iPod nano.

Like Apple, Sony sells good design; many of its products are delightful to look at and to use. My Sony VAIO VGN-S460 is simple, yet magnificently elegant. Next to PowerBook, I would recommend a Sony “S” or “A” series notebook.

I think too many product companies underestimate the power of good design, of creating products that evoke emotion, that make people happy to use them. The emotional quality is perhaps the main reason the rumor of any new Apple product generates so much buzz. People feel good about Apple products.

Design matters. Particularly in high tech, many products are poorly designed. Too often, there isn’t enough thought put into ergonomics or appearance. I simply can’t believe Apple has some corner on good design. The problem has to be one of priority. Many companies just don’t make ergonomics or appearance—good design—a priority. Maybe for some companies design isn’t viewed as important; others look at design as unnecessary cost. The whys don’t matter.

Must it be rocket science for product companies to understand that people should feel good about products? Won’t someone be more likely to buy again if he or she feels good about the purchase? Apple understands the smile quality, the emotional quotient. More importantly, good design can and should lead to discovery and new joy.

On the original flat-panel iMac, owners had to open a metal plate on the bottom to upgrade system memory. Apple included spring-loaded bolts, significantly decreasing the likelihood of their loss. This attention to detail could help make the product owner feel good over time, rather than frustrated because of little gotchas. C`Mon, when that bolt falls and rolls through a crack in the floor, who does the product owner blame? The manufacturer!

Every weekend, even when snow falls from the sky, a line of cars backs out of the local car wash onto Connecticut Ave. Why? People want to feel good about their cars. Good products make people happy.

As much as I like the VAIO S460, I miss my Mac (a PowerBook). The joy runs deep from the hardware down into Mac OS X Tiger. Least for now, I can look at the iPod nano. And smile.

Photo Credit: Yuichi Kosio