By David Hoffer
I m freaking sick of the iPod, so I was very much looking forward to CES this year. I thought that I would see something new and well-designed in Las Vegas, but I realize now that I was being nave. If CES were a high-school dance, design and companies are, for the most part, still standing on opposite sides of the gym while Apple waltzes around gracefully. Rather than engage with design and learn to dance themselves, most companies apparently find it easier to gawk at Apple from the punch table, or step on their partner's feet while they awkwardly try to dance like Apple.
The ubiquity of the iPod was the most notable thing this year at CES. Standing in the Microsoft booth at the Playsforsure kiosk, an attendee looking at the 40+ MP3 players before him said, "Where's the iPod?" "Apple doesn't come to CES," the flummoxed Microsoft responded. "They have their own show." Looking around CES, it was clear that Apple didn't need its own booth, since the iPod was everywhere. Companies either have an iPod product (like Bose speakers, the Griffin iTrip, or Belkin cup holders), products that work with the iPod, or products with the "iPod look" (think Sonos). Apple sets the standard for design.
According to the NPD Group, iPod peripherals will have a market north of $2 billion in 2006. That's a nice little industry as it is. But look for this to grow as product peripherals develop around video like they did for music. Made for iPod, a program which will apply an Apple "iStamp" of approval on products that work with iPod, is gaining ground just as quickly, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Apple's intention to monetize the program. iPod has officially joined the ranks of products where the company's brand name has replaced the actual product name and become the product: you use an iPod to listen to music in the same way you use a Kleenex to blow your nose, you make Xeroxes with a copy machine, and you Google for information.
The iPod's success has inspired a deluge of compatible products. At this year s Macworld, for example, Apple announced a car stereo deal with the Chrysler Group. Apple s vice president of Worldwide iPod Marketing says that in addition to the 3 million Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge automobiles, "over 40 percent of all cars sold in the US in 2006 will offer iPod connectivity." Wow. So in addition to the iPod accessories, cassette adapters, FM adapters, cables, headphones, and cases that are iPod compatible, the entire car should be added to the list. iPod integration into cars isn't new, but the sheer number of cars is astonishing. I wonder how many people purchasing a car consider how well integrated it is with the iPod? Perhaps just a few of the Apple faithful.
There are also numerous products that have adopted the Apple aesthetic. Companies seem to think that if their products look like an iPod or an Apple, they are also recreating the entire User Experience—a supposition that simply isn't true. It's one thing to look like a product, it's another to behave like one. This point has been made by a number of people, but it s worth repeating. The iPod is successful because of a combination of things that look-alikes can t deliver. It's clean and easy to use (see "The iPod and the Bathtub"). It is backed by iTunes that has integrated e-commerce, and iTunes is supported by relationships that encompass, essentially, the entire music industry.
The iPod has succeeded far beyond what anyone expected. When it launched, everyone said, You re kidding right? Another MP3 player? But here s the thing. You can t just encase your product in white plastic, call it a day. Companies have to look deeper than that. From a design perspective, it s clear that many companies think that if they follow this pattern, they can achieve what Apple has with the iPod. But the pattern they see is one of imitation. The pattern I see is one of imitation. Apple is clearly engaging design where most other companies are not. In order to get closer to what Apple has achieved, companies can do several things:
A. Hire a competent designer at the C-Level in your company, and trust her/him to help integrate design into your infrastructure. Apple follows this model, as Jobs serves as the CDO (Chief Design Officer). He has a great aesthetic and works closely with his design team to build superior products.
B. Take a user-centered approach to product design. Seek out real people and engage them in the design of your products by asking them what they need, prototyping the possibilities and getting feedback from them on the result. I m not talking about focus groups, either. Groups end up being ruled by one or two strong-willed people, and the rest of the group will defer to their opinions. Do one-on-one interviews in people's homes to get their personal opinion, and observe their surroundings. What they say and how they live will tell you more than the lemmings that comprise most focus groups.
C. Craft a distinct look and feel for your entire product line, thereby
setting your products apart. NAD has such a distinct look, and one could easily pick them out in of a line-up of components. The design isn't award-winning, but at least it's recognizable.
Hannspree, which had its first appearance at CES this year, has a very distinct line of flat screen TVs that are all crafted to match a particular taste: basketball, racing cars, etc. Seen together, they comprise a unique Hannspree brand, but individually, the products take on the persona of their specific design. I wouldn't think "Hannspree" if I saw the Buzz Lightyear TV, I would think of Pixar instead. It remains to be seen if the Hannspree products will sell well and if their brand will emerge from this variety, but at least they stand apart from the sea of gray/black/silver flat panel TVs. It's a start.
Which brings us back to my discontent with the iPod. With the iPod, Apple has achieved an excellent design which has been brilliantly marketed and has transformed the consumer electronics industry. We're all very proud, but I'm sick of talking, hearing and reading about it. Is there a product besides the iPod that we can hold up and say, what a brilliant and well-executed design this is? No. Not at this year s CES. Companies seeking to innovate like Sony, who s recent failures have made them look really bad (see Sony rootkit) need to be willing to think more about solving customers problems by incorporating a user centered design to achieve what the iPod has. Who has the guts to step out on the dance floor, ask design to dance and shake their thang?
David Hoffer is a Senior Design Analyst for frog design.
The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.