Design innovation: notes from product designers


Following are some notes I made at a recent panel of product designers in NYC.

Single Use vs Swiss Army Knife. There’s a significant difference in the way the Americans and the Chinese use mobile apps. In the West, designers prefer apps that do one thing and do it well. Single use apps.

Foursquare separated its two functionalities – unbundling the ‘here’s where I am let’s meet up” folk to Swarm and leaving Foursquare for the local explorers to discover new shops and restaurants around them. Each functionality, now separate, became much fuller and richer. Foursquare designer Nicole Formica said that the unbundling of Swarm happened once it was realized that almost all of the original Foursquare users were engaged in just one of the two use cases and were not interested in the other. This deep focus approach was contrasted by the designers to the Swiss Army Knife, multi-purpose approach favored by the Chinese whose popular apps like Baidu and WeChat bundle many, many services into one app.

Death to the GUI long live Predictive Design. The new challenge is to design for human behavior in space. Designing not just for a thing you do, but for who you are as a whole person.
According to Mikey Campbell, the Apple ring will incorporate “a tactile feedback interface capable of responding to user input via audio cues and controlled vibratory pulses.” The GUI is disappearing with input coming from location sensors, motion sensors, cameras and voice. Designers are now working on predictive design: design that anticipates what the user is going to want and delivers it in a timely fashion. This combines knowledge of location, personal preferences and time.

Your history shapes your future. Each Foursquare user might receive different suggestions even though they are together at the same time in the same place – these are based on what the app knows about their own preferences and the history of their choices.

Music is not about listening. Elliott Breece of Google Play said that an important insight for their concierge music service was that most music is used as a “lifestyle enhancement tool” to improve the experience as you work, commute, work out – listening is not the primary event.  It is used by listeners to help them focus – and to improve what otherwise might be a negative experience.

Known problems and unknown problems. Foursquare and Google Play have identified opportunities that maybe we hadn’t known we had, but Square’s payment and business service products are designed to solve problems that business owners were only too keenly aware of. According to Square designer Thomas  Petersen, the design function of the products is to minimize friction. The goal for Thomas is to make these solutions delightful, both hardware and software.

The device itself has to be welcomed. Day Jimenez who is the lead product designer of Canary (“a new approach to home security”) said that the important realization in their design process was that the home is “sacred space” so in order for their device to be allowed in, it had to be approachable and human, beautiful industrial design that would blend in.

Design: fashion and timelessness. According to the panel, the visual style aspect of design is like fashion, featuring of-the-moment fonts, palettes – and so is constantly changing. But the important aspects: the constructive thinking, the critical thinking is timeless. The great understandings, the great solutions can come from anyone.  In fact companies are making an effort to not have “repetitive cycle of the same three people” always be the ones coming up with the answers.  Hack weeks and offsites are held to break open the routines and get fresh points of view from fresh brains.