Better Than New

Designing for Experiences That Change by morepete
June 28, 2007, 2:20 pm
Filed under: Roadmap

Have you got 10 minutes? Good. Because there’s an excellent debate rolling right now in the world of design and innovation. First, be sure to read the paper my Jump colleague Conrad Wai and I presented at the Persuasive Technology conference at Stanford in April. Then, check out Adam Greenfield’s comprehensive and fairly wonderful exploration of the pitfalls of so-called experience design. I’ll do my best to sum up, but it’s really just best if you read the whole thing. I think we’re reaching a very interesting point in the discourse. It’s cool. I’ll wait.

Done? Good. Because I buy into a ton of what Adam has to say, and I also see a lot that isn’t on the money. Specifically, his piece is extraordinarily focused on the current execution of a few high-profile experience design projects, including the Nike+iPod Sport Kit, the subject of the paper Conrad and I wrote.

Admittedly, the current functionality of the system is quite basic and focuses on a specific kind of runner: The sorts of adrenaline hounds who are Nike’s core customers, as well as their employees. The Nike+ kit is also officially constrained to a small set of Nike shoes (though it can function strapped onto anything, even bare feet), and it is comprehensively constrained to just the iPod nano, despite pin compatibility with both full-size iPods and the nano-preceding iPod mini. Greenfield slams the device for all this. And he’s right – the Nike+, right now, doesn’t do everything that it can:

– What about users, and uses, of the system outside the envelope imagined by its designers? Nike+ feels unnecessarily over-optimized for a single kind of runner, and a single kind of run. (Heathcote nails it: “I can see the persona on the flipchart now,” and anyone who’s worked in the field for more than about ten minutes knows precisely what he’s talking about.)

There’s nothing in the system’s technical capabilities that prevents it being of utility to walkers, for example. They may not necessarily be as sexysweaty as the users featured on the Nike+ site, but would surely appreciate being able to take advantage of its pedometer and calorie-tracking features. Why exclude them, literally by design?

Here’s where Greenfield and I diverge. You design to exclude them, because you’re launching a new technology that people are unlikely to understand right off the bat. As a result, you choose to make a device that appears limited but has greater capabilities that unfold over time, both through user discovery and also by pushing out software and content updates. If you launch a radically new idea into the market in full bloom, with all of the parts and pieces advanced as far as you can possibly take them, a lot of bad things happen (Just ask Xerox PARC about the Alta development process):

  • Your sales price will be too high
  • Your development process will take too long
  • Your capabilities will be so robust that you’ll freak out the early adopters you need to reach in order to reach a mainstream audience
  • A competitor will eat your lunch

Basically, you get screwed. And so companies compensate for this problem by very gradually introducing the pieces of the ultimate system they envision, road-mapping their offerings to help people change their behavior while also learning more about how successful the solution is.

And that often means starting with a surprisingly cheap piece of the solution. Take the iPod+iTunes ecosystem, for example. It did not arise in its current form over night. First, Apple rolled out iTunes as a music management program (one they bought and redesigned, at that) for Mac users in January 2001. It was totally free. Mac users moved their mp3 libraries to iTunes (or created them for the first time, if they hadn’t gotten on th etrain already) over the next few months as Apple emphasized CD burning.

Wait, what? Seriously. Apple introduced iTunes as a better way to burn CDs. The iPod didn’t come out until October, 2001. So for 9 months, we Mac users thoughts, “Why did Apple release such an uncapable mp3 library? I mean, it’s fine, but I can’t play movies in it, and it doesn’t hook up to mp3 players directly. They could have easily added those features!”

And then, of course, Apple played the big card. But the iPod, again, had big problems off the bat. It was too expensive, it relied on music ripped from CDs to get legit content (instead of stuff from file-sharing), and it could pretty much only play music, which lots of other products did. Why not make it a video player or a PDA? Why make it Mac only? The product could grow much faster if it were on Windows, too!

And so Apple brought out the iPod for Windows. And then they introduced the iTunes store. And then finally, in 2005, Apple rolls out a video iPod, rolling in a feature people had been seeking for years. And it arrived in a beautifully seamed environment, to borrow a reference from Greenfield.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the iPod+iTunes ecosystem. What matters is that Apple perfectly set themselves to get their products adopted rapidly by a wide number of people. Most importantly, they let obvious, desired features, show up later on. But they made their first features really easy to understand rather than doing everything they possibly could.

So in that way, maybe Nike+iPod is more like iPod+iTunes than we think it is. It’s set up for runners, a limited set of shoes and the iPod nano right now. All Nike shoes will work with it soon, and software and content updates could make the Nike+ work on any iPod and measure virtually any kind of mobile exercise the second it gets released. If Nike finds out that walking is what Nike+ folks are interested in, they can send out the walking updater and walking coach motivators.

Nike’s Explore group is very sophisticated in how they launch innovations, so I would be shocked to learn they haven’t thought about this stuff in this way – especially since they’re working with Apple, a company that has rewritten the book on product road-mapping in the last decade.

And it’s for this reason that we can’t get caught up in the limitations of a first edition of a platform – quite often, it’s something of a Trojan Horse, just waiting to show what it can do. Smart designers hold a lot back and focus on driving adoption and then figure out how to expand its capabilities. That’s a launch that will grow for years to come – just ask Facebook.

I’m not totally sold on how I feel about this yet, but I don’t think it can be ignored. Thoughts, anyone?


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