THE BLOG
11/14/2013 10:52 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Increasing Importance of Design for a Meaningful Technology Experience

Before I learned that Tony Fadell was former SVP of Apple's iPod division and had reported directly to Steve Jobs, there was a sense that he abided by the "Real Men Ship" rules and I hadn't yet read his GigaOm Roadmap profile, where he presented on stage this month in San Francisco.

Tony and Om Interview2

GigaOm events have always been more B2B and enterprise at their core regardless of the theme and this case was no different despite the fact that the conference was atypical in many ways, almost TED-like. Taglined "The Intersection of Design and Experience," you were almost waiting for earth shattering insights from some of the best geeks, inventors, designers and visionaries in the industry.

In this case, I probably should have started with Tesla's Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen, except I sadly missed that session, or Adobe on design or even the very cool discussion around using data to program creative spaces, which included Jennifer Magnolfi's design examples and experiences with Herman Miller and most recently, the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.

But, Tony intrigued me largely because he had a "say it like it is" personality, which was refreshing and ever so beautifully arrogant at the same time. He acknowledged how easy it was to raise money now because he was a known and trusted entity because of his so many successes while reminding young 20-something-year-olds how much faster they could work alongside mentors and get their projects to "go" because of easy access to people compared to two decades ago. It made me want to have lunch with him, maybe even dinner.

Gigaom

You can't be in your forties or beyond and not disclose at some juncture that you stand by profitability and having real metrics in place to build not just a perception for a "perception sale" but a sustainable company with an inherent value-add for customers that solve real problems again and again.

Post-Apple, he built an energy-efficient home near Lake Tahoe and in the process, was so frustrated with the limitations of the traditional "thermostat," he redesigned it with former Apple colleague Matt Rogers. The end result became Nest Labs, his current entity and where he spends his energy and time.

While the man has authored more than 300 patents, has a history of successes and seems to get "design" and the design process, it was his going back to basics message (rarer in Silicon Valley) that had me at "go." He spoke of magical moments, a phrase that made me think of Tony Robbins who talks about creating magical moments in life as a daily practice.

He thinks its just not just our duty to create daily magical moments for ourselves, but in that creation, the trickle effect has a significant impact on everyone and everything around you.

You create them, you don't wait for them to happen. Once in motion, they have a spiral bowling ball effect. You give (e.g, provide magic in some way shape or form) and the universe gives back in profound ways you never imagined.

Says Tony, "rethink experiences from ground up to create magical moments." Obviously in this reference, he's directly referring to product design, yet it's a way of thinking, a way of life, not a principle in a board room or behind a computer. Enuf said!

Other messages included how data and connectivity shape our world. There's a ton of Einsteins here she thinks but not a whole lot of Picassos. (Refer to the Steve Martin play Picasso at the Agile, which transformed my interaction with an engineering team earlier in my career.) Perhaps design is and has always been as important as the technology itself and as it becomes more prolific in our lives as time marches on, more people realize it.

In the play, both men are on the verge of an amazing idea (Einstein will publish his special theory of relativity and Picasso will paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon) and they embark on a debate about the value of genius and talent. Who provides more value, the artist or the inventor? You can probably guess my take away on this one.

Instagram's Kevin Systrom was on their A-list of speakers, someone I've heard speak at large business conferences, technology geek fests and in a more intimate setting with Sarah Lacy and Pando Daily. I'm a passionate photographer but still haven't drunk the Instagram coolaid despite how many times I've tried.

I have an account yet never use it and when I compare Instagram to so many other "blow it out the park" examples of design genius, I'm dismayed.

Don't get me wrong -- it's not as if I don't get that filtering basic photos on a smartphone isn't a good idea or sticky, but worth what Facebook paid for it? Worth the frenzy that market gave it? Worth the badge of honor that the industry labeled as a game changer? Cool is cool, but we have an industry which has crowned thy jewel as such when it really shouldn't be a jewel at all but in the cool is cool category only.

Says Tony of the service, "the filters thing created an initial wow factor so it created hope." Hope inherently comes from creating a solution that provides a new way to do something, solves a problem people have had for a long time or in this case, something that makes people feel more creative with very little effort.

Renowned designer John Maeda, who is now president of Rhode Island School of Design talked about how Moore's Law is influencing design. Connected devices and the web have fundamentally changed the world's relationship with design, but compared to other aspects of information technology, design can be much harder to quantify.

GigaOm Roadmap (2)

I first met and hung out with John in the early TED Conference days, where he spoke about design concepts on the main stage some 12 or so years ago. I was a fan then and remain a fan today. Says John, "you don't 'do' technology, you 'do' people and the people thing and then you add technology back in." I couldn't help but want a bunch of Johns to replicate themselves in Silicon Valley.

It's basic enough but not being implemented on a grand scale today. Developers more often than not, still build for technology's sake and the human piece is an after thought, so much so that the UI is often confusing enough that mass scale adoption doesn't happen.

John spoke of empathy, one of my favorite words. "Take the empathy route," he encouraged the audience. He asserts that empathy is the grounding force of the intersection of technology, art and design. If the root of technology is in fact art then figuring out where technology, art and design collide is fundamental to understanding art.

"Design is in the details -- it is all about empathy," says John. Great design is as much about taking away as it is about adding to a structure, a product, an idea or a concept. More is great when it is measured against enjoyment (we always want more of a good thing), but the concept of "more" is flipped on its head when it equates to more work or more effort.

Design balances the two and yet as we are learning, computers despite their ability to fabricate real situations and design, don't do a great job at creating that balance. Today, we want more and more technology and yet "more and more of it" doesn't necessarily serve us in the most productive way regardless of how much state-of-the-art technology we integrate into our lives.

Ten years ago, technology made things better and more useful, but when "more of it" stops being a continuous and consistent positive return, then we begin to look elsewhere, like design. Design is on the rise again because we are yearning for balance. Great design can help balance the two and re-teach (and remind) us that less is more.

Focusing less about product design (although that was part of his message) and more on creating compelling customer experiences, Square and Twitter's Jack Dorsey took the stage with GigaOm's Om Malik.

GigaOm Roadmap (12)

Jack spoke about simplicity (critical to great design and his work on Twitter is a great example of it) and how so many companies focus on what they do rather than the value they provide. With regard to Square, he asserts over and over again that they're not in the payments business but the e-commerce business and it's the entire e-commerce customer experience, not just a piece of it.

GigaOm Roadmap (8)

Offline merchants never had access to analytics before but by using Square, they can get simple data on customer behavior in real time which can dramatically change the focus and priorities of their business. "End-to-end is what its about," says Jack. "We want to make sure they focus on the human experience of their business, not the transactional piece of it."

Jack says Square's mission is to focus on the most meaningful pieces of small business, such as the daily human interaction and communications. Square essentially brings commerce to people wherever they happen to be and in this way, transactions, communications and relationships are all conducted in parts of the world that never would have been possible before.

Internally, Square is extending that attitude by showing transparency and trust with their employees, demonstrating an open and caring "voice" inside the company's walls. Jack's philosophy is that when you keep things open, you empower employees and build trust.

Truth be told, some of the best ideas can come from employees in other departments or through random ideas they come up with at the water cooler over lunch. With trust comes new innovative ideas and it often happens randomly when you least expect it. "

"You can't schedule innovative ideas," says Jack. It's serendipity: ideas come, get formed and executed quickly and seamlessly when you gather great minds together in one place and say "go." The same applies to instilling that behavior and culture across an organization so free flowing ideas can not just see the light of day, but thrive.

Hear, hear! I think entrepreneurs with like-thinking like Richard Branson and Tony Hsieh would agree.

Photo credits: Two images from Tony Fadell interview snipped from the GigaOm Roadmap video and all other photos Renee Blodgett.