A Smartwatch That Tells Time, A Life of Good Design

“What gives the word design such cachet? … Design suggests real-world substance and real-world use, it suggest three-dimensionality and mass. Good designers know the materials they work with; they consider the good of the user; they think holistically; they reshape the world.”

– Robert Grudin, Design and Truth

Design is everywhere. John Maeda delivered a talk at this year’s SXSW called Design in Tech Report 2015, where he argued that not only is design everywhere, it’s now more important than ever (he cites himself as evidence: he left his job as the president of Rhode Island School of Design to become a design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers). An undeniable part of the design’s rise in prominence is its connection to technology and our own correlated rise in device use. In Maeda’s presentation he noted that we “unlock our phones every few minutes—every 5.6 minutes”, before going on to point out that a single bad design decision will plague a user (and millions of others) dozens of times a day. “That’s a lot of ouch.”

But how can so many designers working on the latest technologies to improve our lives be designing that hurts us? Aren’t they, as Grudin says, considering the good of the user? Is it in fact the user who is to blame for their clumsy interactions with technology? Donald A. Norman, in his book Design of Everyday Things, writes that the fault lies in bad product design, which stems from designers (and their companies) not empathizing with the product’s user. Since everyday things – from faucets to doorknobs to iPhone applications – all have the potential to be designed well, the impact poor design has on our lives has an equally massive potential.

Watches are one of those everyday things currently being thrust into the design and technology spotlight The most successful of these smartwatches (for the time being) is the Pebble Watch, which is compatible with iPhone and Android phones. The company’s original Kickstarter effort set off a crowdfunding frenzy before coming crowned the most successful campaign of all time. Then, last month, the team launched a second Kickstarter, which is now, once again, the most successful of all time. Steven Levy writes about the preparation before the launch in A Pebble In Apple’s Shoe. Pebble, the indie darling of the smartwatch industry, is making every effort to grab as many wrists as it can before Apple enters the pool, because even in speculation and announcement, Apple is the tide that all technological boats rise up on – (see: the already record-breaking Pebble Time Kickstarter Drew 167% More Money Per Hour The Day After Apple’s Event).

The calls for Apple Watch apps began in earnest with the Apple Watch’s announcement, as David Frankel writes “I Want to Invest In Your Apple Watch App” about how Apple is prepared to dominate yet another new marketplace. In addition to their history of success, Frankel argues, they have one key weapon: “They have Jony Ive. For the last decade Apple has been building up Ive’s reputation as a craftsman, telling his story as the son of a silversmith, giving him lots of video launch time to explain every bevel on every bezel. I don’t think it’s an accident that the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, rather than any tech magazine, got exclusive interviews with Apple’s secretive style-definer.” If any company understands the importance of telling a story, and telling it well, it’s Apple.

Steve Jobs, as Walter Isaacson writes in Steve Jobs, was ruthless about choosing reporters and media outlets to cover the releases of each of Apple’s product launches, because control over the launch story ensured favorable press. That ruthlessness over the control of the company’s image combined with his push for great, groundbreaking design in products as well as user experience and the steadfast belief that the software and hardware must be inextricably intertwined to lead Apple to its current dominance today.

Jonathan Ive, one of the few people who Jobs had as much enthusiasm for as the products he worked on is now the senior vice president of design at Apple (the only Fortune 500 company with that title). The aforementioned New Yorker Profile, Jonathan Ive and the Shape of Things To Come, solidifies Ive as Apple’s new chief personality (alongside the modest Tim Cook). Telling the story of Ive, the designer, as part of the story of Apple, makes Apple the foremost design agency in the world. As Robert Brunner, Apple’s former Director of Industrial Design, explains it, at Apple “design is part of every conversation.” That focus on design in every product enables each of their products to stand out in its market, insuring that the Apple Watch will continue to be a part of every wearable conversation.

An unexpected cousin in the fast-expanding wearables category is Disney’s MagicBand, intended for making your time at Disneyworld more pleasurable (which generally makes Disney even more money). Cliff Kuang details the design and creation of the MagicBand in Disney’s $1 Billion Bet On a Magical Wristband, one of the more fascinating articles I’ve read recently, partially for the technology, but mostly for the peek inside the Disney experience-manufacturing machine. The MagicBand enables its wearer to a great time the second you arrive at the airport. You’re able to travel from the airport to the hotel to the park to the rides arranged in an efficient schedule without needing anything but your MagicBand (your luggage is tagged and transported automatically, rides and payments are already linked, and your movements are tracked so you can be met at Disney restaurants by maitre’d’s who know your name and can lead you to an already reserved table where menus are superfluous because your order has already been placed – oh, look, my soup is here). There’s no friction. No more waiting in lines. No more pulling out your wallet to see a dwindling stack of $20 bills. Everything is taken care of, and everything is seamless. The team at Disney was ruthless in seeking out every potential pain point in their park, and removing it (except churros still cost $18).

But without friction, without frustration, how do we understand our seamless life experience? Without problems, what would Seinfeld have been about? If our patience isn’t tried as we wait for a table, there’s no Chinese restaurant episode. If we don’t struggle to find our parked cars, there’s no Parking Garage episode. If we don’t have a lot of problems with you people, then there’s no Festivus episode. I don’t want to live in that world.

Or, depending on how the technology is employed, could it possibly have the more sinister result of keeping us from realizing our potential? Arianna Huffington says “Steve Jobs Wouldn’t Have Invented Apple If Distracted by a Smartwatch” and while I disagree with the letter of her claim, I agree with the spirit. Someone with Jobs’s tendency to go for long walks, to strategize about trends and to think about the timing of his company’s product launches, would be disciplined enough to limit the impact technology had on his thinking and creativity. But what about us mortals?

Unfortunately, technology tends not to be designed to reduce our reliance on it (though, to be fair, there often isn’t a value judgement placed on it at all). Nir Eyal’s book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products is about designing our experience so that our emotional states trigger actions (Lonely? Check Facebook. Bored? Open Instagram!). While he says it’s possible product people will use this psychology to foster a world of fewer ads (if you’re addicted to a drug, you don’t need to be reminded to use it…), I doubt that all designers can maintain such pure ideals in the face of mountains of money (or the threat of being replaced). So what, then, should a designer’s motivation be? To do what the company wants and make the stickiest app possible, without regard to whether a user checking a photosharing app ten times a day is actually good for said user? Does that mean a designer is just a draftsman?

Matt Manos writes in “Dynamic Innovation: Learning Through Making” that “we are in an age in which the role of a designer is shifting dramatically – design is no longer about production, it is as much about thought leadership and problem discovery as it is about crafting solutions” and that “because of this reality, discovering problems and solutions will become a very difficult task.” Designers should be allowed the freedom to design good experiences that fit naturally into a user’s rhythm, should question being asked to design something addictive, and should be granted the time to realize a good product.

But where do they get the time? Is there an app for that?

It’s funny that in the search for the “killer app” (WSJ: Challenge for Apple Watch: Style but No ‘Killer App’, Forbes: Killer Apps That Could Make Me Love The Samsung Galaxy Gear, Wired: Why Siri Could Be the Killer App for Smartwatches), the conversation doesn’t circle back to the obvious: the killer smartwatch app is telling time. Time design in a fast-approaching future will be critical to our productivity, functionality, and well-being. Being able to take moments for yourself, or whole mornings, is crucial. Indeed, designing time to allow yourself to engage in conversations with your past (via journals, for example) and with your future (the absurdly simply honor of planning your free time) allows for clarity of thought and purpose. To end with the author we began this letter with, Robert Grudin writes that his book Time and the Art of Living would not have been possible had he not given himself space to write (in and amongst teaching, preparing lunches for his kids and walking his dog) through the design of his time.

While there may be no malicious intent in designing products that make our lives better, easier and less painful, the sum total of so many designs encroaching on so many disparate parts of our lives may be a life we engage with less fully. There is a fine line between respecting good design, and allowing our fascination with it to steal away the most human parts of us all. To that point, all that’s required of us to stay grounded is, to paraphrase Otis Redding, that we try a little mindfulness.

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