Category Archives: Products

Kickstarters, you are not Jony-Bloody-Ive

Jony Ive has many guises. To Queen Elizabeth II, he’s ‘Sir Jonathan’. To an army of sweaty-palmed Apple fanboys and girls he’s ‘Jony the Grey-Shirted’, a designer/magician who wields the Staff of Simplicity – Lvl 18 magical item, +4 attack roll when facing iCal or Scott Forstall – smiting the evils of skeuomorphism and banishing them from his pastel-hued utopia. To me, though, Jony Ive is a brilliant designer, someone who changed the game for product designers of today, but also someone who riffs just a bit too much on the work of Dieter Rams to claim he’s merely taking “inspiration”.

Jony Ive creates blank sheets of paper

To some on Kickstarter, however, Jony Ive creates blank sheets of paper. Really. If you don’t believe me go to Kickstarter, search under “iPad” and scroll through the lists of projects. It quickly becomes clear that many ideas simply address the two greatest shortcomings of the iPad: a) it’s heavy; and b) the sound is lousy. Search a little further, though, and you’ll feel a general sense of unease followed by the helpless feeling of impending dread – like when the bloke in the deli starts talking to you and stops looking where his fingers sit in relation to the salami slicer. As we scan the walls of specimens, the iPad becomes the starting point for some weird and disturbing creations.

Introducing our Dissection subject

The Curve Cover
The Curve Cover

It was whilst browsing in these darker realms that I came across this wonder, The Curve Cover. Firstly I’m going to be nice, because the creation of the Curve Cover really is a triumph. It takes some seriously impressive delusions for someone to: a) disregard the fact that the iPad is a bit more than a digital photo frame; b) decide that Jony Ive doesn’t have clue about design; c) believe that a clunky wooden frame will sell; and then d) convince a manufacturer of all of the above. That’s the sort of delusion that David Koresh and Jim Jones can respect – or should I say “could”.

I’ll start with the frame because, really, how could I not? Despite my earlier reference to Dieter Rams, the iPad really is a beautiful piece of industrial design. Yet our perky Kickstarter believes that it can be vastly improved with a frame that looks like something you’d find in a shop situated in a sleepy coastal village. You know the ones, they sit there, gathering dust on a shelf amongst the patchouli oil vaporisers and pamphlets for the local “wellness therapist” – the one who believes the moon landings were faked and that Reiki can repair electronics. The lesson here is – take the accumulation of dust as a sign. If it won’t sell to recent-retiree stoner tourists, it won’t sell to anyone.

Moving beyond the design let’s have a think about the concept of a wooden frame. There are many people who have made wooden peripherals, generally they’re seeking something a bit organic yet in keeping with the iPad design aesthetic… oh who am I kidding, they’re pretentious hipsters who can’t repress the misguided urge to tinker. My suspicion with wooden peripherals is that you’d use them once or twice before you realise they make your iPad significantly heavier, and sound even worse. The really beautiful stuff may get funded initially, but like a puppy at Christmas, the novelty will wear off, it will be neglected, and before long, end up on eBay.

Curve Cover Production
Curve Cover Production

Last and not least is the full expression of delusion: the efforts by the creators of the Curve Cover to establish a manufacturing process. Part of me does admire their forethought in ensuring that the enormous demand for their product can be met; that’s something Apple could actually learn from. But sadly it’s all a wasted effort – what was really needed testing for demand in the first place (pro tip: Your family and friends don’t count).

Lesson 1: It’s not about you

The lesson from the Curve Cover is this – focus on what other people want, not what you want. You find this out by asking them. It’s really very easy. Kickstarter allows you to harness the opinions of people who generally want you to succeed. Given some of the stuff that does get funding, an unfunded project is a clear sign you should give up and go back into management consulting.

Lesson 2: Relentless customer focus

Finally there’s this: don’t be the idiot that quotes Henry Bloody Ford and his “faster horse” line, or talks about Steve Jobs’ disregard for market research (or Jobs quoting Ford on the faster horse thing). Ford was eventually overtaken by competitors who did listen to their customers, and though he didn’t directly ask customers what they wanted, Jobs was relentlessly focused on customer experience.

In the end, none of us are at the same level as Ford or Jobs. If you are, by all means ignore me, but chances are you are not, so shut up and listen to your customers.

Kickstarter – Failed Ideas in Formaldehyde

If you like this introduction, the first post in this series can be found here: “Kickstarters, you are not Jony-Bloody-Ive”

The first thing I should say is that I’m a fan of Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general, services like these connect ideas with money in a way which bypasses the middlemen, investors and “experts” and provides a marketplace for ideas… ones you’d think could not possibly work. For the self appointed “experts” a random trawl through the list of stuff that has received funding is a refreshing way to put your own prejudices in their place – the wisdom of the crowd works in funny, surprising and just occasionally, successful ways. But this would be a rather dull post if I focused on simply on success and the occasional worthy failure; sadly we’re all human and it’s simply far more enjoyable to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude and who knows, in the process we might a few lessons along the way.

Dissecting Specimens

x_lFortunately, here again, Kickstarter can come to the rescue. For if you wander far enough down the lists, beyond the hordes of perky inventors, quirky musical tropes, and budding entrepreneurs with all their interminable attempts to replicate Apple ads, you’ll discover a vaguely disturbing world of failure, hubris and some incredibly ill-considered product design. It’s a bit like one of those episodes of the X-Files when Mulder and Scully stumble into a warehouse only to find it filled with row upon row of aborted clone foetuses, all preserved in glass tanks and displayed with unexpectedly moody lighting (I mean it’s a science facility… aren’t labs supposed to be well-lit?) There they stand in mute condemnation of their creator, who made attempt after failed attempt to generate something of value, only to find the still-born “thing” has a tail, or an abnormally enlarged elbow, or a jaws where its buttocks should be. We the audience shudder in horror as Scully asks what kind of mad man could have done this so many times and yet still kept trying. Mulder, dead-panning, responds that the true sign of madness is trying the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. Well Fox and Dana, those mad men and women have a new warehouse to display their efforts. In the nether-reaches of Kickstarter you can find bizarre picture frames for iPads, carry cases for iPads, and entirely irrelevant cotton pyjamas… for iPads. And much like the aborted buttock-jaw cloned-human foetus, these abominations to the sight of St Steve of the Book of Jobs, should be brought to light so that budding product designers will learn that on Kickstarter your shit ideas will haunt you for eternity.

Inflamed Passions

So that’s idea behind this new series of blog posts on product. Starting next week, and every so often thereafter, I’ll will bring forth one of these abominations to put it under a harsh light of the examiner’s table for dissection. But rather than stoke the passions of a flaming-torch-wielding mob, I’d rather incite some self-reflection. Hopefully we’ll all be forced to concede that just because we think our product ideas are best things since the iPod, chances are that they’re not. And despite a perky project video with its interminable ukulele soundtrack, in all likelihood the whole project is simply an exercise in poor taste and hubris, preserved online, for eternity.

Next Week’s Post

Come back next week for the first post in this series: “Kickstarters, you are not Jony-Bloody-Ive”

Is Sergey Brin the new Steve Jobs?

This post may focus on hardware, but the implications for anyone designing a product are pretty abundant. If you can design a product with appeal that overcomes reason, you’ll always do better than one with better features:

Remember when we all used to salivate at the thought of the next Apple convention? What did Steve have up his sleeve? What amazing piece of kit would he reveal that would have us all ignoring Apple’s rather large price premium and just slap down our cash to have a slice of that amazing Apple cool? Year after year, product after product they seemed to do it – iPod (multiple versions); iPhone (fewer versions); Macbook Air; iPad… the list was amazing and made even Mac-sceptics like me feel the urge to just get me one.

What Apple Did Well

There wasn’t much secret to it, in true Apple style it was simple, they just made fantastic products that worked in perfect harmony with each other backed up by a beautiful OS. The trick is that it’s really hard to do well. Google (with Android) for all of its dominance was far too fragmented to match Apple in that compelling human way. Its OEMs were far too focused on that bane of the OEM – features. Bigger screen this, faster processor that, brighter, more colourful etc etc etc. People bought these things certainly, but deep down really they just wanted an Apple because their devices worked better.

But something has changed… at least that’s how it seems for me. Less than a year or so on from the untimely loss of Steve Jobs, Apple has continued to release fabulous products – Jobs made certain there was a few years worth in the pipeline – but something is different. As I see it, they’ve taken to marketing them in a really misguided way. Apple has now fallen into the features trap, it seemed to start with the “New iPad” with fab new screen but not much else to speak of, and has continued with the recent launch of the new Macbook with Retina Display. Don’t get me wrong, both are excellent devices; powerful, beautiful and functional. Fanboys and tech geeks adore them and there’s no shortage of evidence of sales, but it’s a dangerous road that Apple has taken themselves down.

The Features Folly

Why should this be a problem? When you play the features game you get yourself into a margin-destroying arms race, and whilst Apple is king right now, this advantage can be very quickly chipped away by hungry and capable competitors like Samsung who have already taken top place in Mobile sales, have blitzed iPhone in terms of performance, and can’t be far away in terms of desirability. Likewise HTC are doing a reasonable job of a come back with the HTC One. Previously Apple traded on its desirability and the “lifestyle” aspects of the brand to retain dominance, but now Apple has decided to play the feature game, how long will this residual goodwill last (especially when brands like HTC roll out campaigns like this for the HTC One). I’m not saying that Apple won’t see a spike in awareness and sales whenever they release a new product, this is natural. But the longer they play the feature game, the shorter those periods will last. The inevitable grind of the product cycle demands this; the market for smartphones has now caught up with Apple, it’s only a matter of time before the same happens in other categories.

The Benefits of… umm… Benefits

Which brings us back to the subject… what is the opposite of the feature game? In marketing terms it’s the “Benefit” game… and we’ve just had a Jobs-like demonstration of this from Google with their Glass. In one self-deprecating swoop, Sergey Brin and his tech guys and assorted extreme sports buddies at Google have just laid siege to Apple. Sure their Nexus tablet may not knock the iPad off, but with Glass, Google have done what iPad did, created a market, showed everyone in a real and highly compelling way the benefits of Glass (and mind-bending Hangouts are just one potential of the device) and induced the I WANT ONE factor at a level not seen since people twigged to the iPad. True it’s not everyday you get to demo a product like Glass, but the principles are the same – show people how their lives can be better using the product rather than getting all fetishist about the product itself.
This won’t happen overnight. Jobs did remarkable work and has build a generations-worth of product goodwill, so Apple may hold out for a long time to come, but if Google have really figured out what made Apple so desirable, then it’s just a matter of time before things get really interesting.