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The successful Kindle

Below is my reply to Bruce Nussbaum’s Design blog about the Kindle titled “Amazon’s Kindle Is A Success–Hooray For Designer Bob Brunner.” I’ve modified my post below a bit so it makes sense without reading Bruce’s post and the readers comments.

Does good design make a product “successful”? Does bad design kill the chances of success? From the replies above, we have a UI and Experience professional saying the ergonomics of the Kindle are bad. Walt Mossberg also confirms this in his review. We’ve also got someone pointing out that “ecosystem” is what is making this successful. And finally, the host of this column (Bruce) says its Oprah and Bob’s great design work, which once again, some folks aren’t happy with. And now we can go back to the start and continue to debate the Kindle’s success. But let’s not.

What also makes this interesting is that we’ve got some very qualified folks speaking to the pros and cons of this device. Of course, they probably haven’t debated in person on this topic, but all present a different POV on the product’s success. So what is the missing component here in this dialog of design? According to Amazon’s figures, its the 240,000 consumers who have bought this thing. What I wonder is, how many of these consumers are “design saavy or qualified” like the blogger and the responders here? And, as Rob (a responder) points out, I’ll bet that those 240,000 people trust Oprah more than any of us qualified “designers”.

I’m a product designer as well, I know Andy and Bob and they both do great work. On a similar, yet off path…What I’ve always wondered about is the Designer/Consumer taste barometer, that is when the consumer wants something that most designers don’t. Like fake wood grain for instance, the designers fight it, “oh my god, there is no way I’ll put fake wood grain on a product”. Yet, somehow, with all those designers fighting it, that fake wood still gets out in the market!

I guess the other question is, is a commercially successful product, always well designed? Seems like, not.

Converging thoughts

The saying goes great minds think alike and designers should also know that while you’re thinking of one thing where ever you’re sitting at this moment, someone else is thinking the same thing. So I guess it’s a matter of what company can actually produce the thing first.

I just saw this interesting product from Playaway on the Gizmodo website. Basically, it’s an electronic audio book and hardware device all in one. No need for the ipod or mp3 player, just the content. Neat idea, but without actually using the product, here’s my initial thoughts. Each book costs about $30-$50. (DaVinci code $50, on Audible $20) That’s a lot of money for one book. It also looks like each package has its own ear buds. Seems wasteful if that’s the case. Let’s talk about the package, which in itself seems wasteful, open it to get to the player, throw away the PETE. This product seems like a netflix model could work here.

So back in 1999, the idea above was initiated by Tad Toulis while at Lunar Design. He called it Service as Product. The basic premise was that you buy or rent the service or content but not the hardware. The thought was that you could buy for instance, travel guides or a book at the airport, use them on your trip, then return them after you are done. Another scenario could be one where you pick the book up at Safeway, “listen” to it, and then return it later. The manufacturer could reuse the electronics and just implement graphics changes to match content changes. This was also a greener solution in that the packaging itself, was the product exterior. Just plug in headphones and press play. It’s sort of like disposable cameras in a way, buy the pictures, not the camera. (Re: the disposable cameras manufacturers do reuse many of those parts; it’s a pretty amazing process) Yes this “concept” wasn’t perfect either, look how big this thing was back in 1999!

I give the folks at Playaway kudos for actually getting something like this to market as I do believe that in the future, we will be buying more content and less hardware. We’re doing it already, prepaid cell phones, city share cars and netflix. What’s next?