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Creating Cool

Lessons from the iPhone

The new iPhone is out.

Don’t panic, but you need to make some changes.

First, when you go home today, do something for the other side of your brain – you know, the right side.  Don’t roll your eyes, this is important.  It’s for your career.

It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it engages your intuition rather than reason.  Go hear a band.  Visit an art show.  Dance.  Finger paint.

As embedded systems designers, our job is to create products for people to use in their everyday lives.  Our engineering training teaches us to problem solve.  We are given a set of requirements from Marketing (more on that later), and the problem is to come up with a system that meets all of those requirements – or as many as possible.  USB connectivity? – Check.  SD card slot? – Check.  Touch screen?  – Check.  Six days’ standby time? – Check.  Cool? – Whoa, wha.. hang on a minute.  How do you do “Cool”?

USB has a plugfest.  You stick some hardware into your product, take it to the plugfest, and presto – you’ve most definitely got USB.  You can buy touch screens from about a million different sources.  SD slots are a definite – we learned everything we need to know in engineering school.  Battery life – a little power engineering will get us there.  It may be a stretch, but we definitely know what we’re doing. 

There is no plugfest for “cool.”  You can’t download “cool” IP and drag and drop it into your design.  Agilent doesn’t make a cool-o-scope that you can attach to JTAG ports.  Neither does Tektronix.  Cool doesn’t even have an IEEE or ACM working group defining a standard.

When we don’t understand a requirement clearly, we usually bounce it back to Marketing.  If Marketing says, for example, “low power,” and we need more information, we ask clarifying questions – “How much battery life in standby?  How much active time?  How much cost and weight can we afford for batteries?”  As engineers, it makes us feel more secure if Marketing has responsibility for most of the customer-related touchy-feely stuff.  Marketing can go run all their little focus groups and surveys and such, and we get a nice ordered list of requirements that we just have to balance in our engineering work.

In our dreams.

In most companies’ realities, those marketing guys are really engineers with “engineer” scratched out on their business cards and “Marketing” written in crayon.  Oh wait, not crayon – proper marketing typeface matching the corporate standard for business cards.  They problem-solve just like we do.  Marketing’s version of this is to collect a bunch of data – sort, collate, and analyze that data – and condense it into a list of “customer requirements.”  Usually, such a list is useful for getting the basics about what customers will buy, but not so helpful about generating the “wow” factor that makes them buy with passion, and in droves.

Unfortunately, no focus group will ever tell you to make your product cool.  Even if they did, they would have no idea how you could get it there.  You might get bits and pieces, but it would be things like “make a slim form-factor, that’s cool.”  Unfortunately, the sum of the “cool” ingredients is most definitely not a recipe for cool.

To illustrate this point, the artist team of Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid set about conducting “market research” to gather a set of requirements to create the ideal piece of artwork for a US audience –  “America’s Most Wanted Painting”.  In their market survey, they asked questions about favorite (and second-favorite) color, modern vs traditional preference, indoor vs outdoor scenes, preferred type of animals and people, sharp angles vs curves, etc.  Once they collected the requirements from over a thousand adults, they set about creating both the “Most Wanted” and the “Least Wanted” paintings.

Of course, the results are probably not what many people would consider interesting art.  Predictably, the US painting (the artists did the same process for several different countries) is a landscape.  It contains a large body of water, a wooded area, and a grassy area to accommodate the variety of preferences in landscape.  The dominant color is blue – both in the sky and water, as that was what most people indicated they preferred.  Because respondents liked wildlife in the painting, there is a pair of deer in the water near the shore.  The mixture of answers about human figures in the work resulted in the inclusion of three children in the foreground, with George Washington watching them from a few feet away.

The painting is definitely not cool.  It has no vision, no passion, nothing to challenge or engage the viewer.  It appears to be a generic (albeit quirky) landscape, indistinguishable from those hanging over sofas in psychologists’ waiting rooms and all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants.  You can see the results here: http://www.diacenter.org/km/usa/most.html

The net effect of trying to please everyone (or even trying to please the majority of people) is usually the same.  You end up creating a product with no soul, no vision, and no “cool” factor.  Cool is generally all about a cohesive vision.  Often, even some functional sacrifices are made to reach that goal, but the results are well worth the conference room conflicts.  The iPhone shows this clearly.  There is no SD card slot.  While many would consider this a “must have” feature for a smartphone, it apparently didn’t fit the mood or form-factor Apple was trying to achieve.  Without it, however, the iPhone is still cool. 

If you tried to make a list of what makes the iPhone cool and then tried to use that list to build a new product, you’d probably end up with something that was definitely not cool.  I observed this effect with the iPod over the years.  Imitators got many of the elements – sometimes even more, but never the “cool” factor. 

Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to work in a place where there are “designers” helping to police the vision of coolness.  If those designers are good, and if they have the right influence in the product team, the results can be spectacular.  As a friend of mine described it, “The engineer makes sure the knob works correctly.  The designer makes sure you really want to turn that knob.”  If you can’t wrap your engineering brain around the intangible nature of working with aesthetic design, however, it may be one of the most frustrating experiences of your career. 

If you don’t have a designer, and marketing gives you a generic list of requirements that would probably fit every competitive product on the market, the responsibility for coolness falls directly on the engineering team.  Don’t lose heart – you can do it.  The elements of coolness are everywhere just waiting for you to notice.  Put down the lists and formulas and budgets.  Listen to some music you enjoy.  Picture the product that your non-engineer friends would love – not just one they’d use, but one they’d show off to friends.  You’ll be proud of the results.

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