02/21/2013 06:33 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

The Karma of the Keypad

You may make great changes for good and affect the lives of many people and yet remain relatively unknown to the larger world.

Accomplishment doesn't necessarily equal fame.

Take the late John E. Karlin, who died at the end of January.

Karlin was an industrial psychologist for Bell Labs: He figured out how people might use its products. (Karlin had also been a professional violinist, was trained in electrical engineering and had a PhD in mathematical psychology, which deals with problem-solving and decision-making, sensing, perceiving and cognitive processes.)

But to get to the point of what he did that changed so many people's way of communicating: He was the leader of a team behind the push-button telephone dial, the one that replaced the old rotary dial.

Why is this important? Because this development has affected a branch of industrial design ever since -- including ATMs, many varieties of touch pads and even medical devices.

It seems like a little thing -- a dial pad! -- but something as seemingly inconsequential as this affects in a profound way how we interact with the world. And Karlin and his colleagues had placed a great deal of thought into how to design something that was everyday and functional, but also easy to use and intuitive, with its conception based on how people might use it, rather than simply creating something and expecting people to learn.

As the New York Times obituary On Karlin stated, "By studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, he trained the telephone, then a rapidly proliferating but still fairly novel technology, to assume optimal form for use by mid-century Americans."

Think of how ungainly some electronics are, and some computers have been, and you get the idea of what passes for design in so many new technologies: clunky, hard-to-use devices that prevent you from enjoying their so-called efficiencies as a result of the difficulty in understanding how they should be employed.

What Karlin did is especially interesting, because he comprehended that people are what matter, that technology serves them, not the other way around.

This is important, and not just in terms of product design. You have to take into account the people who are using your product, reading your book, visiting your website: it's not just you who calls the shots. It's your customer.

You'd be surprised how many people still think that they simply have to introduce something and expect people to figure it out. That's not what we expect or want, especially in our current social cycle, when we want to be coaxed rather than preached to. We want our opinions to matter.

Samsung knows this. It's making great strides in the smart phone business, even nipping at Apple's heels, by devoting so much of its research to what people actually want, what trends are emerging -- and by following them.

But back to Karlin. His and his team's idea of making a touch pad simple to use changed how we interact with products. His design -- such as putting the 1-2-3 at the top of the dial pad -- made for more accurate and simpler dialing. You wouldn't think this mattered so much -- it was a telephone, after all -- but little things matter. Small actions matter to the big picture.

As I explore in my book Pendulum, which I wrote with Roy H. Williams, we're in an age when taking small actions for the greater good means a lot to a lot of people. Karlin's work emerged at the tail end of the last such social cycle -- the "We" cycle we're in now -- and at the beginning of the "Me" cycle, when people are generally more swayed by hype, hipsters and hucksters. (Our book examines how society moves in cycles every 40 years or so, and how that affects the way we look at and judge the world around us.)

Take a look around you and see how the dial pad has become the ubiquitous way in which many products are made accessible to us -- and you'll see how this deep-thinking little-known man affected everyone on the planet to some degree.

Karlin wasn't famous -- but his work was important. And for him, that was what mattered.