Recently in the technology press, there was a lot of excitement about the launch of two new products, the iPhone 4 and the Sprint EVO 4G. With launches in June, both phones have received a lot of comparative media, making it the Ali vs. Foreman of the technology press for about a week. As with all historic battles, that conflict isn't framed simply as a comparison of two pieces of hardware, it's about much larger issues shaping the evolution of technology and the smart phone market. Well, it was last week anyway -- this week, we've moved on. Still, if you look at the two products and compare some of the design principles behind them, you'll find some important lessons about design and product marketing that often tend to be underplayed.
Apple, the iPhone, and the Great Problem with all of their Products that Is So Frustrating to Some People in the Technology World
One of the most common strategies for product differentiation is using specifications to create "mine has more" features. While some of these specifications may actually be actual performance differences, often, these differentiators are simply, "this one goes to 11". And yet, in many segments of the consumer world, you can find outrage over products that don't "go to 11" simply because a lot of product marketing simplifies differentiation into specifications. If you're looking for a digital camera this year, you want one with more Megapixels than the one that came out last year, even if the image sensor or the lens of the camera isn't any better -- sure the camera is just creating larger image files, but if you don't know much about cameras, it's an easy way to see that the new one is better (there was a great post about digital cameras on Techcrunch about a month ago).
So with the EVO vs the iPhone4, you have this great battle of kitchen-sink functionality vs good design and intuitive user interface. The EVO approach is all about adding hardware and features, while the iPhone is focused on maximizing select features that people interact with and increasing integration so that things have unified functionality.
Good design is about understanding the essence of the thing that you are trying to achieve, then making the trade-offs that bring you closer to that functionality. Take multitasking as an example: whenever something is running -- even if you aren't looking at it -- it's eating up your battery. Sure you need to run multiple applications on your PC, but on a mobile platform the rules change. Apple's approach to this challenge is been to limit what applications run so that you're always aware of what is using up your battery and enabling you to maximize your battery life. Running Droid, the EVO allows you more flexibility in running multiple applications at the same time, but you suffer a corresponding hit your battery life. Simple equation -- stuff running takes power and eats your battery -- two different strategies for prioritizing what's important.
So What Makes Good Design?
Good design is all about answering the question, what am I using this thing for. While a hammer is a simple tool, you can find a number of options for hammers, depending on the size of the nail you are trying to hit (tack hammer vs. a framing hammer) or a number of other aspects of your application -- a sledge hammer is a poorly designed tool for hammering those tiny tacks that you use to hang pictures. Sure a hammer is a simple tool, but good hammer design means not including a claw on the back-end of a sledge hammer because you won't use it to pull nails out of a wall. And while there are some people out there who might dream of a sledge hammer with the flexibility to remove nails or a tack-hammer that can bust concrete, what core functionality do you lose by adding these capabilities?
Years ago when I started bicycling seriously, I sold my sports car to buy a bicycle. At the time, I was looking at an $800 Cannondale, one step below the top of their line. My parents suggested I look at the sub-$100 bicycles that they had at Sam's Club. To their unresearched eye, both products were equivalent, but the cheaper one offered the benefit of cash in the bank. Looking back, had I gone down the path of the cheap bike, I probably wouldn't have become an avid cyclist or ridden all of the miles that I have. There would be no cycling market in my world.
For some, the sub-$100 bike would have been the wise choice. For those people, a frame was a frame, wheels were wheels, and pedals were pedals. A bike is just a bike. With today's phones, it's big displays, memory, processors, touchscreens and app stores. It's difficult to see the subtleties of design when you just walk into the store and are bombarded by specifications.
The art of design comes through in day-to-day use, in those moment when you encounter and issue or a challenge and you realize that somebody expected you to face that, that they saw it coming and they made it easy for you. Good design is not just when Step 7 follows logically from Step 6, it's also when all of the parts that you need for Step 7 right have been collected in front of you so that you don't find yourself scrambling to find the pieces that you need.
The Elusive Apple 'Recipe for Success'
Right now, in a host of technology companies, there are teams working to craft the iPad killer or the iPhone killer. Odds are, those discussions center around statements like, "it doesn't have enough of this" or "it doesn't do that." Contrast that to the iPod -- it didn't add features to an .mp3 player, it made cool technology easier to use. So the question you have to ask yourself is, what problem are you trying to solve?