Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Designing Technologies in Context

An interesting thing happened today: Apple introduced the second generation (hereinafter, 2G) iPod Nano. Now let's talk about why this is interesting.

It is early 2004, and the iPod has smashed all manner of records in sales ... but the iPod is relatively high-priced and beyond the reach of a significant section of the potential market. And so, Apple introduces the iPod mini at significantly lower price point. The mini comes in capacities of 2 and 4 GB -- much less than the 30 GB iPod -- but the price is right, and the capacity of the mini is enough to carry around a couple of days' worth of music. The mini is sheathed in brushed aluminum and therefore able to withstand some level of abuse. Given its relative ruggedness (compared to the iPod) and the lower capacity, the mini becomes quite popular with younger users on the go, including some who carry it along for a jog in the park.

The mini, however, suffers from a technical problem -- since it contains a hard drive, it tends to skip when tossed around. Come October 2005, just about 20 months after its introduction, Apple retired the mini and introduced the iPod nano. The nano is created in the image of its older sibling, the ful-sized iPod, and looks just as gorgeous, perhaps even more so. It has a glossy black or white front bezel and a mirror finished stainless steel back. Watch Steve Jobs introducing the Nano. Note how he keeps emphasizing its small size and shows how it fits into the tiny inner pocket of his jeans, suggesting that owners could do the same.

The nano traded the hard drive of the mini for a flash memory drive, thereby eliminating the skipping problem of the mini. The nano could withstand all manner of shocks. Consequently, it was subjected to even greater abuse than the mini. And here's where the problem arose: the glossy, shiny exterior of the nano could not withstand bumps, scratches and similar abuse and began to look old and ragged rather quickly, angering its owners. The nano's beauty faded rapidly. Intriguingly, though the full-sized iPod is sheathed in material identical to the nano, its owners hardly complained.

It turns out that the larger iPod, being heavier and more expensive, was treated with much greater care by its owners and hence aged quite well. The less expensive mini was likely purchased by younger customers who were more likely to carry it around with them and exercise less care. The combination of a different user profile and different use scenario resulted in a similar product being perceived and treated differently, thereby delivering a different user experience. Apple seems to have learned its lesson.

Today, less than a year after its introduction, the company unveiled the second generation iPod nano which has married the dimensions of the first generation nano with the look and feel of the iPod mini. The dimensions of nano2 are almost identical to those of nano1 it is sheathed in the same sturdy, brushed aluminum skin of the mini. Apple's designers are the best in the business, but they too fall prey to seductions of looks thereby missing the importance of context. Fortunately, they learn and correct themselves. Watch Steve Jobs introducing nano2. Note how he focuses on how it is made of aluminum, and how beautiful it is, but not on its size. In its entire history, Apple has never reintroduced a design it has retired; the nano2's imitation of its mini ancestor is a first for the company. The mini was the best selling mp3 player in its time, according to Apple. Perhaps even Apple can learn not to mess with a good thing.

Although the regular iPod and the nano/mini delivered near-identical functionalities, their very physical appearances caused users to perceive -- and therefore use and experience -- them differently. The interaction designer's task goes beyond merely providing features and functions, and indeed, beyond even excellently designed features and functions. The ID's goal is to design experiences and to do this she must gain a deep appreciation of those experiences. This is why the Palm Pilot's designer Jeff Hawkins walked around for weeks with a wooden mockup of his product-to-be, pretending to use it in various relevant contexts. Only by living with his product could he fully understand what it would be.

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