A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 8, 2017

The Growing Impact of Design in Consumer Technology

It has improved performance and raised expectations - to the point where, for the first time, it has created a challenge for tech companies in that increasingly knowledgable consumers' anticipation may now exceed the companies' abilities to meet them. JL 

Steve Vassallo reports in the Wall Street Journal:

In a generation, consumer tech went from unreliable and confusing to so intuitive that children are creating immersive three-dimensional worlds on devices. Design refers to a methodology that places experience of the end user above all. This isn’t concerned with how good something looks, but, how well it works for consumers: brilliant syntheses of engineering and emotion.. (It) raised consumer expectations for technology.  Tech will fade into the background; it’ll be about experiences, with less emphasis on (how) those experiences get made.”
Walt Mossberg, the dean of tech journalism, officially retired earlier this summer. He began his first column for the Journal, in 1991, with the now-famous line, “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn’t your fault.” In his final column, Mr. Mossberg bookends the quarter-century of products, personalities and progress he’s chronicled with this assessment of where we are now: “Personal technology is usually pretty easy to use, and, if it’s not, it’s not your fault.”
In a generation, consumer tech went from unreliable and confusing to so intuitive that children are creating immersive three-dimensional worlds on devices with barely any instruction. Mr. Mossberg doesn’t put a name to this remarkable shift, but as someone who witnessed it firsthand, I will: design. By design, I don’t mean a spiffy logo or a pretty website. Design now also refers to a methodology and a mind-set that place the experience of the end user above all. This form of design isn’t concerned chiefly with how good something looks, but, rather, how well it works for ordinary consumers.
I’m a venture investor and was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. But I started my career as a product designer at IDEO in the ’90s, when as Mr. Mossberg puts it, “engineers weren’t designing products for normal people.” I largely credit designers for bringing the needs and desires of everyday users to the development of new tech products. Engineers tend to focus on sheer technical limits: what can be done. But designers are preoccupied with what should be done. In other words, whether they’re building things that solve actual problems or fulfill real wants.
Over the past two decades, advances in computing power have met typical users’ speed and reliability needs, and the means to launch products have grown better and more affordable. As a result, design is now the differentiator—and the driving force behind billion-dollar companies.
Apple is the canonical example. The iPod was not the first MP3 player; the iPhone was not the first smartphone. Nor did many of the underlying technologies originate with these devices. In other words, they weren’t technical breakthroughs. Rather, they were brilliant syntheses of engineering and emotion. They were design breakthroughs—instances of creative need-finding and human-attuned problem solving. And they raised consumer expectations for technology, ushering in a new era of innovation.
Witness how the industry has embraced design in the last several years: Google has invested heavily to reinvent itself as a design-centric business. Incumbents like Samsung , General Electric and IBM have spent hundreds of millions to build in-house design studios with thousands of designers. Dropbox might’ve been an uninspiring file storage offering—a dumb bucket—but instead it distinguished itself with seamless integration across devices. Slack, through its design, used familiar technology to create a better team-messaging experience.
The last two examples are emblematic of a seminal development in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Slack and Airbnb—like Pinterest, Instagram and Kickstarter—are recent successes founded by designers, people who are devoted to the practice of building impeccably considerate technology. Design is the key to building the next great wave of companies. To compete seriously on design, startups must make it central to their strategy from the beginning.
Like other commentators, I think we’re entering the age of “ambient computing,” when personal technology will become invisible and omnipresent. Augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, the Internet of Things, and other nascent tech will fade into the background of our lives. Technology will no longer come in the form of gadgets. Instead, as Mr. Mossberg predicts, “it’ll be about actual experiences, with much less emphasis on the way those experiences get made.”
In this new era, design will be ever more critical to how we build and use our technology. The 21st century will be the century of the designer founder, when core value for businesses is created by entrepreneurs who have a deeper, more intuitive sense for the human condition.


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