Full transcript of designer Tony Fadell’s TED Talk on The First Secret of Great Design.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The first secret of great design by Tony Fadell
Tony Fadell – Inventor, designer, entrepreneur, and angel investor
In the great 1980s movie “The Blues Brothers,” there’s a scene where John Belushi goes to visit Dan Aykroyd in his apartment in Chicago for the very first time. It’s a cramped, tiny space and it’s just three feet away from the train tracks.
As John sits on Dan’s bed, a train goes rushing by, rattling everything in the room, John asks, “How often does that train go by?”
Dan replies, “So often, you won’t even notice it.”
And then, something falls off the wall. We all know what he’s talking about. As human beings, we get used to everyday things really fast.
As a product designer, it’s my job to see those everyday things, to feel them, and try to improve upon them. For example, see this piece of fruit? See this little sticker? That sticker wasn’t there when I was a kid.
But somewhere as the years passed, someone had the bright idea to put that sticker on the fruit. Why? So it could be easier for us to check out at the grocery counter. Well that’s great, we can get in and out of the store quickly.
But now, there’s a new problem. When we get home and we’re hungry and we see this ripe, juicy piece of fruit on the counter, we just want to pick it up and eat it. Except now, we have to look for this little sticker. And dig at it with our nails, damaging the flesh. Then rolling up that sticker — you know what I mean.
And then trying to flick it off your fingers. It’s not fun, not at all. But something interesting happened.
See the first time you did it, you probably felt those feelings. You just wanted to eat the piece of fruit. You felt upset. You just wanted to dive in.
By the 10th time, you started to become less upset and you just started peeling the label off. By the 100th time, at least for me, I became numb to it. I simply picked up the piece of fruit, dug at it with my nails, tried to flick it off, and then wondered, “Was there another sticker?”
So why is that? Why do we get used to everyday things?
Well as human beings, we have limited brain power. And so our brains encode the everyday things we do into habits so we can free up space to learn new things. It’s a process called Habituation. And it’s one of the most basic ways, as humans, we learn.
Now, habituation isn’t always bad,. Remember learning to drive? I sure do. Your hands clenched at 10 and 2 on the wheel, looking at every single object out there — the cars, the lights, the pedestrians. It’s a nerve-wracking experience.
So much so, that I couldn’t even talk to anyone else in the car and I couldn’t even listen to music. But then something interesting happened. As the weeks went by, driving became easier and easier. You habituated it. It started to become fun and second nature. And then, you could talk to your friends again and listen to music.
So there’s a good reason why our brains habituate things. If we didn’t, we’d notice every little detail, all the time. It would be exhausting, and we’d have no time to learn about new things.
But sometimes, habituation isn’t good. If it stops us from noticing the problems that are around us, well, that’s bad. And if it stops us from noticing and fixing those problems, well, then that’s really bad. Comedians know all about this.
Jerry Seinfeld’s entire career was built on noticing those little details, those idiotic things we do every day that we don’t even remember. He tells us about the time he visited his friends and he just wanted to take a comfortable shower. He’d reach out and grab the handle and turn it slightly one way, and it was 100 degrees too hot. And then he’d turn it the other way, and it was 100 degrees too cold. He just wanted a comfortable shower.
Now, we’ve all been there, we just don’t remember it. But Jerry did, and that’s a comedian’s job.
But designers, innovators and entrepreneurs, it’s our job to not just notice those things, but to go one step further and try to fix them.
See this, this person, this is Mary Anderson. In 1902 in New York City, she was visiting. It was a cold, wet, snowy day and she was warm inside a streetcar.
As she was going to her destination, she noticed the driver opening the window to clean off the excess snow so he could drive safely. When he opened the window, though, he let all this cold, wet air inside, making all the passengers miserable.
Now probably, most of those passengers just thought, “It’s a fact of life, he’s got to open the window to clean it. That’s just how it is.” But Mary didn’t.
Mary thought, “What if the diver could actually clean the windshield from the inside so that he could stay safe and drive and the passengers could actually stay warm?” So she picked up her sketchbook right then and there, and began drawing what would become the world’s first windshield wiper.
Now as a product designer, I try to learn from people like Mary to try to see the world the way it really is, not the way we think it is. Why? Because it’s easy to solve a problem that almost everyone sees.
But it’s hard to solve a problem that almost no one sees. Now some people think you’re born with this ability or you’re not, as if Mary Anderson was hardwired at birth to see the world more clearly.
That wasn’t the case for me. I had to work at it. During my years at Apple, Steve Jobs challenged us to come into work every day, to see our products through the eyes of the customer, the new customer, the one that has fears and possible frustrations and hopeful exhilaration that their new technology product could work straightaway for them. He called it staying beginners, and wanted to make sure that we focused on those tiny little details to make them faster, easier and seamless for the new customers.
So I remember this clearly in the very earliest days of the iPod. See, back in the ’90s, being a gadget freak like I am, I would rush out to the store for the very, very latest gadget. I’d take all the time to get to the store, I’d check out, I’d come back home, I’d start to unbox it.
And then, there was another little sticker: the one that said, “Charge before use.” What! I can’t believe it! I just spent all this time buying this product and now I have to charge before use. I have to wait what felt like an eternity to use that coveted new toy. It was crazy.