About a month back there was a great TED talk by Tony Fadell about how he approaches design. He’s one of the people who worked on the original iPod, and more lately he’s well known for creating the Nest smart thermostat. In the talk he explains how we follow the rules and put up with things to such a point that we don’t even notice them anymore. At first something is difficult, then we learn how to do it, and eventually we don’t even have to think about it anymore. The example he gives in the talk is of those little stickers that are placed on apples – the ones which tell you the variety and where it’s from. You probably forgot they’re there, because you’re so used to peeling them off and throwing them away each time. It’s annoying at first, then you just accept it, and eventually you don’t even realise they’re there. Ordinarily, this is a good thing – your brain is saving you the hassle of thinking about this repetitive task so you can focus on something else. The problem is, we do this so well that we can end up doing lots of repetitive and inefficient things because we can’t spot that we’re doing them anymore.
Tony Fadell says that once you become aware of this, you can become a better designer, because you start to see the problems that really need fixing. This doesn’t just apply to product design – what about business? What about productivity? When working on the iPod, Tony realised (where many of us simply put up with) the problem with other devices is that they needed to be charged before first use. You buy your mp3 player, get home, take it out of the box and… charge it for 16 hours overnight before you can use it. What a bummer. He made sure all iPods were charged when they were being tested at the factory so people could start using it as soon as it was taken out of the box. As a designer, seeing the world this way can really help uncover the things that people don’t know they want, or even need. As a manager, we have the same responsibility. We need to be able to look at things with fresh eyes, as if we were seeing them for the first time. Can you see the problems that need fixing, or is your brain saving you the trouble? Are you or your team doing things because “that’s just the way we do things”, or is there a better way?