Full transcript of designer Tony Fadell’s TED Talk on The First Secret of Great Design. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.
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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.