Beauty in technology design isn't just skin deep.
Apple's breakthroughs with the iPod and iPhone, for example, weren't just about sleek exteriors or easy-to-use touch screens, design experts say. Apple also mastered the intangible of design--the underlying software engine that connects people to an iTunes music library, or to videos from YouTube or a home photo collection. The design, for the most part, frees people to forget about wonky things like software or licensing agreements with Hollywood studios.
"Design isn't frosting or gravy, something you add at the end, but something you weave into the process," says John Maeda, a designer and professor at MIT's Media Lab. "That's the challenge of design in the future."
More than ever, that idea is pervading the development and manufacture of consumer electronics, home appliances, automobiles, and Web services--any product that requires a chip and software. It's also a common meme at universities teaching future business leaders, designers, and software engineers. Northwestern University, for example, will, beginning this fall, offer an MBA manufacturing program that includes a master's degree in design. Executives from Google and Cisco Systems--eager to hire managers with such diverse skills--have joined the advisory board of the new program, according to Don Norman, partner at the design firm Nielsen Norman Group and one of the program's co-directors.
The shift toward making design a top priority is driven by the fact that microprocessors are turning up in an increasingly large array of everyday devices, from home entertainment systems to kitchen appliances to automobiles (which are so infused with electronics that they are, essentially, computers on wheels). Consumers don't want to deal with the complexity of networking these devices--they just want things to work. That's one area of focus for designers. The other is making devices visually attractive: for some extra money, people will pay for looks and brand image, and that creates a lucrative business opportunity for many companies.
"There's much more of an emphasis now on thinking holistically about the design experience and how all these media connect," says Lisa Strausfeld, a designer at New York-based Pentagram Design, which is working on the design for the $100 laptop being developed by the One Laptop Per Child project, whose aim is to bring PCs to children in developing nations.
The Apple of your eye
Many of Apple's products proved the case for design's relevance, and their popularity has turned up the pressure on many companies to develop products that are functional, beautiful, and more natural to use than a mouse and a keyboard, design aficionados say. In that regard, Apple presents just one example of a trend toward novel-by-design products that are built to stand out among look-alike digital cameras, MP3 players, and gaming devices. Of course, the novelty doesn't last long. When a design element succeeds, a slew of companies will seek to mimic or build on that feature in their products.
Design experts cite the Nintendo Wii, rather than Microsoft's Xbox 360 or Sony's PlayStation 3 game consoles, as an example of innovative design because its motion-sensing technology lets people use natural movements like hand gestures to play a game. At the D5: All Things Digital conference this spring, Microsoft founder Bill Gates suggested that the Wii is just a taste of what's to come: he described a video game system in which players can pick up a baseball bat or a tennis racket at home and swing it naturally. Unlike the Wii design, this system would offer a more powerful experience for players through its use of video-recognition technology, which can detect a player's motion and translate it into the game, he said.
With the Wii, "you can't sit there with your friends and do those natural things. That's a 3D-positional device. This is video recognition. This is a camera seeing what's going on."
Gates' comments highlight a key area of focus in design that emphasizes new ways of interacting with computers and other devices with software platforms. Although the computer has grown far more powerful since the 1980s, the means of interacting with it--through a keyboard and mouse--have remained largely the same. And as new computerized devices emerged, their means of interaction have largely mimicked those of the PC. Cell phones, for example, have scroll wheels and small keyboards.
A multitouch trail
But more companies are tampering with the mold. One way to do that is with so-called multitouch displays that let people interact with devices by touching a display screen with their hands. Jeff Han, who in 2006 introduced new multitouch technology at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design media conference, launched a company called Perceptive Pixel to sell the multitouch technology to a range of prospective clients, starting with the military and with Hollywood studios. Displayed on a large graphical wall, Han's multitouch technology eliminates the need for a keyboard and mouse by allowing users to manipulate information on a screen--zoom in on data, edit pictures, or manipulate 3D maps--by touching the screen at multiple points.
Microsoft has developed similar technology in its Milan Surface Computer, a tabletop machine. With no cables, USB ports, keyboard, mouse, or trackball, Surface lets people upload photos from a cell phone just by placing it on a special table, for example. With two fingers, users can expand a photo or move it around to a new folder. Microsoft plans to start selling the table later this year, marketing it initially to the hospitality industry.
Perhaps the best-known device featuring a multitouch display is Apple's recently released iPhone. Mark Rolston, senior vice president at Frog Design, whose clients have included Apple and the Walt Disney Co., predicted that multitouch will quickly reach other products, including the iMac desktop computer. He predicts that the new iMac will look much like Apple's existing 23-inch cinema display.
The multitouch interface "is a much more intimate emulation of the physical world," Rolston says. "It's something we've talked about for a long time as user-interface designers."
Apple's iPhone points to other improvements in user interface. It has a flexible display that lets people type on a digital keyboard displayed on a touch screen, rather than one that's linked to hardware buttons. That kind of interface will be more adaptable to a "smart" refrigerator or dishwasher.
"The idea of creating devices that can get updated by software rather than new hardware seems like a much better vision for the future and better for the environment," says Lisa Strausfeld, the designer at Pentagram Design.
Not that the mouse and keyboard are endangered species. Design experts say that they serve a valuable function in office computing. It's just that so-called gestural interfaces will become more prevalent in home-networked devices, and companies have indeed experimented with new ways of interacting with the PC for office tasks.
Design and mobile tech
At Microsoft's TechFest science fair last year, for example, the company showed off a research project called StepMail that lets cubicle dwellers wade through their e-mail and delete messages using their feet, in the style of the dance-based video game Dance Dance Revolution.
A lot of design innovation during the next couple of years will focus on mobile devices and applications, experts say, because cell phone use is so integral to people's lives. Cell phones will increasingly double as digital cameras, social-networking and office tools, music players, video players, navigational devices, and Internet search tools.
Jim Wicks, corporate vice president of consumer experience and design at Motorola, says that his group has focused in recent years on humanizing products through design. The Razr, for example, is styled for the extroverted buyer who likely appreciates pragmatic interface layouts. Motorola's Pebl line of phones, on the other hand, is built for the introverted buyer, with more graphical and artistic displays that are expressive of different moods, he says.
"Everything gets smaller and smaller, except the experience, which is getting bigger, richer, and more emotive. One of the challenges is that as devices get smaller, we must make sure that we maintain the interface, like big screens and keyboards, for example," Wicks says.
He says that some of the biggest design innovations across platforms are fueled by software. That means that what was once accomplished through changes in the physical configuration of a device will now be handled by its digital interface. Designers can play with the controls of a device so that, depending on the situation, it can quickly morph from function to function, such as from a music player to a camera to a communication device, he says.
To be sure, Motorola has sold phones in the Asian market that include touch screens and features similar to those offered by the iPhone, and Wicks says the company plans to expand those features into other markets.
"Software, particularly in the mobile space, has the processing power of what computers were at a few years ago. We see a lot of advancement in software that will start to merge with advancement in the physical side of mobile devices, in everything from color to lighting and information display," Wicks says.
Don Norman, the Nielsen Norman Group partner, also is author of two books that focus on these issue, Emotional Design and The Design of Future Things, the latter of which will be published in November. He says that good design must involve three elements: function (the product's behavioral qualities), form (appearance), and brand image (reflective). Apple plays to the reflective qualities in products--design that suggests you must be a special person to own them.
"Up to now, most consumer electronics companies worried about the behavioral level--i.e., do they do the job. What I would like to see is a focus on the activity, not on the technology," Norman says.
The pressure for new kinds of interfaces will be even greater in a future where, for example, a smart refrigerator can chide a dieter for eating a second piece of cake. To some extent, that shift to smart objects is already happening. Luxury-car manufacturers, for example, are building in features like automatic lane-detection that, with the help of sensors, warns drivers if they drift from their lanes.
"When our devices are intelligent and can make their own decisions, the effect can be in disagreement with what we wish to do. That's when the difficulty arises," Norman says.
Norman argues in his upcoming book that automation should always be optional, designed to allow people to customize its use. Navigation systems in cars can provide an early example of where automation can go wrong. Maps in navigation systems often present one route to a destination, without giving the driver the ability to choose from among several routes.
"The car has to make suggestions without being the pest, without being the proverbial rude in-law or backseat driver," he says.