words Dan Hill
In the latest of icon’s occasional series of essays, Dan Hill explores the psychology of how we adapt and interact with technology. Is “adaptive design” – products that allow the user to modify, upgrade and customise them – better than products that can’t be altered? And is the iPod just too perfect?
Occasionally, design flashes into the glare of the public eye, usually because of some very obvious failing, such as the wobbly Millennium Bridge and the faulty SA80 rifle issued to the British Army last year. However, occasionally public opinion bestows the exalted status of “design classic” upon a product within its lifetime. Right now, the undoubted contender for living design classic is the Apple iPod, hailed by all and sundry as an instant masterpiece.
Most notably, and perhaps most importantly, the public have voted with their dollars and euros, and Apple’s traditional five per cent customer share has been overturned in the mp3 player market. This is to the obvious delight of Steve Jobs and Apple.
But that iPod-buying public has just suffered the first serious blow to their previously unlimited confidence in the product: the Great iPod Battery Debacle of late 2003. The story spread that iPod batteries die after 18 months and you have to get them replaced by Apple at such great cost you might as well get a new iPod. This wasn’t actually the case as such, but that didn’t stop the story spreading. Thus something approaching a backlash occurred, apparently because a seemingly insanely great product was suddenly shown to have a fundamental flaw.
It doesn’t even really matter whether Apple’s battery replacement scheme is good value or not. Whether it’s $100 or $10, the point was actually the general sense of shock that the product was less than perfect. Its halo had slipped. This is a cultural field, not a simple interplay of economics, hence the column inches.
So why the shock? Why, on the one hand does Apple engender such a positive brand experience, and on the other, garner an equal and opposite reaction when it goes wrong? In both, I think we see the effects of a design strategy that pursues perfection.
When this strategy works – and it has often approached perfection since Jonathan Ive took over industrial design at Apple – it creates a community of users who will not just consume, but actively fight its corner. In his article “Lick Me, I’m A Macintosh”, Mark Morford describes the facets only Apple seems to reach: “Detail and nuance and texture and a sense of how users actually feel, what makes them smile, what makes the experience worthy and positive and sensual instead of necessary and drab and evil.”
Pursuing this perfection is a winning strategy, but it can also be held responsible When iPods Attack. Moreover, it could be out of step with both the broader cultural themes around technology over the last 30 years, and a way to move forward.
This isn’t about whether the iPod design is good or bad as such. It’s clearly a fabulous device built by what is quite possibly the most talented product design team on the planet. What this is about is the underlying design philosophy at Apple, and the way that culture thinks about design in general.
Most product designers, informational or otherwise, are taught to attempt to attain perfection: to create the perfect device, the pixel-perfect user interface, the perfect newspaper layout. To create something for the user which gets it so right, first time, that the user achieves some heightened state of nirvana, falling in love with the product at first sight, before going on to form a lasting relationship. We covet things that attain this status: say the Citroën DS or a Eames lounger … and the iPod. Yet ironically perfection still isn’t good enough. Because “good enough” is arguably all we should be striving for. But why?
Here we get to the notion of adaptive design, as inferred from IBM’s Tom Moran and his keynote presentation at Designing Interactive Systems 2002, in turn heavily drawn from Stewart Brand’s classic book on the lessons of vernacular architecture and well-understood design patterns, How Buildings Learn. In essence, adaptive design is about designing to enable the user to change things. You strive for “good enough” as a starting point, such that the user feels they have a “way in”, almost an implicit goal of working through the finished design themselves. It sees design as a social process, developing over time, via a relationship with the user. It draws heavily from Brand’s idea of separating a building’s architecture into six different layers, from slowly developing layers through to relatively quicker ones.
The domain of the user is in those fast layers, where the innovation occurs; that they are best-placed to define on an everyday basis in order to keep products useful. Enabling these layers to move at these different paces is what’s actually key overall. So if a design team attains perfection, the user is shut out of the process. This provides echoes of thinking around other interactive media, such as in David Weinberger’s Small Pieces, Loosely Joined where he notes “the imperfection of the web isn’t a temporary lapse; it’s a design decision”. This “looseness” enables the web user to join in. To work themselves into the fabric of the web. It’s why it works. And it means the professional designer has to be somewhat humble.
What adaptation enables is a device to mould itself over time in response to changing circumstances. On the one hand, this can be technological/cultural change – given how rapidly technology develops, how can we be sure this particular model for portable music storage is the right one for the future? On the other hand is the inexorable long march towards entropy, as exemplified by diminishing battery life.
As regards the former, technological change, there are two approaches: an adaptive approach whereby you upgrade bit by bit over time; or the wholesale replacement model, whereby you buy a new machine every couple of years.
Generalising, Apple has tended towards the latter, despite positive signs like the G5 side doors. Its designs don’t give you the feeling that you can fundamentally change the device. It’s never been a platform for tinkering with, ever since the original Mac came cased in the all-in-one housing.
This elicits a feeling of total confidence in the design – the Apple philosophy is of giving you everything you need, with no tinkering and minimal hardware upgrades. In many ways a good thing. It’s what I personally prefer. I don’t want to have to think about that stuff. It’s not because I can’t – I just want it to work, smoothly, easily, beautifully. And Apple products do.
Simpler consumer electronic products work this way. The good stuff – say, the PlayStation2 – you just buy, plug, and play. Likewise radios. Likewise, increasingly, mobile phones. The only thing you might change from time to time on these devices is, tellingly, the battery.
However, the overriding hegemonic model within personal computing is the Wintel PC, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of the market. And the design philosophy behind that, such as it is, is one that enables constant tinkering with the hardware – swapping in and out RAM, hard drives, graphics cards, sound cards and so on.
This is a more adaptive approach. And it’s interesting that this would appear to be the populist approach – people like to feel they can buy a machine, and then adapt it over time, rather than replacing it every few years. The first problem here is that technology in this market is tending to take exponential leaps forward every few years and there’s a limit to the effectiveness of adapting after a certain point. The second problem is that this places a huge burden on the user to engage with this. It’s a pretty steep learning curve.
However, those users are there. Most normal PC users at least consider incrementally improving their machine in a way Macintosh users don’t. And that doesn’t seem to have ever been part of the Apple strategy, post-Apple II. This story at folklore.org makes clear the “Jobsian” model of hardware upgrade: “[Steve Jobs] decreed that the Macintosh would remain perpetually bereft of slots, enclosed in a tightly sealed case, with only the limited expandability of the two serial ports ... Burrell [Smith] was afraid the 128kb Mac would seem inadequate soon after launch, and there were no slots for the user to add RAM. He realised that he could support 256Kb RAM chips simply by routing a few extra lines on the PC board, allowing adventurous people who knew how to wield a soldering gun to replace their RAM chips …
“But once again, Steve Jobs objected, because he didn’t like the idea of customers mucking with the innards of their computer. He would also rather have them buy a new 512Kb Mac instead of them buying more RAM from a third party.”
Leaving aside the economics of forcing the user to replace rather than upgrade, the design strategy means a lack of ability to adapt, to evolve. All the evolution goes on within Apple labs – there is no room for the user. But the above story is from a time when computers were built in garages, following instructions from magazines. Times have changed, but the basic human desire to adapt its surroundings and tools has not.
Back to batteries, though, for that’s where we came in. Mobile phones enable batteries to be replaced relatively easily. Also, the design of these phones suggests you can do this. My Nokia battery hasn’t needed replacing yet, but it’s clear how I might do that when I need to. The affordances are all in place. There is a removable panel, flush to the back of the casing but with a fingernail-sized catch for release. These affordances are visual clues that you can do something, interact. Cellphones have ‘em and iPods don’t. Could it be that simple?
Perhaps it isn’t. A comment by Andrew Barnett to an earlier post on this topic at cityofsound.com noted that: “Tightly integrated design is exactly necessary for disruptive technologies at the start, simply because performance of the technology is not yet good enough and tight integration offers maximum performance, at the expense of flexibility. Once performance, through development, reaches “good enough” levels, architectures shift to a more decoupled, component-based model.”
This may be so. Moreover, the iPod is basically a miniaturised hard drive and therefore has quite different constraints to work within as compared to, say, a mobile phone or digital camera. However, Apple has considerable experience of designing removable battery covers from their excellent laptops, which have to be equally robust and portable, albeit at larger size. The battery compartment on the PowerBook does the job of both enabling the easy replacement of batteries and effortlessly indicating to the user how one might go about it. Hence the famously slim Apple user manuals. Their products are so well designed in the first place that much interaction is self-evident.
One of my team’s software engineers described how he’d actually replaced an iPod battery: “You get sent some spiky sticks by Apple, you shove them in the top, kinda near the FireWire port, and then you crack it open like a lobster!” My less technically able colleague and I exchanged fearful looks – that didn’t sound straightforward. That just didn’t sound like the right thing to do to my lovely iPod. It sounded more like a physical attack than any normal resuscitating operation.
It’s hugely reminiscent of the non-adaptive architecture that Brand wrote about in How Buildings Learn, with tucked away “service layers” in buildings such as IM Pei’s MIT Media Lab: “Getting new cabling through the interior concrete walls – a necessity in such a laboratory – requires bringing in jackhammers.”
The shock – which inspires the visceral response of the iPod’s Dirty Secret – isn’t that you can’t necessarily replace the battery, but that the design of the iPod suggests you don’t need to worry about this. Then, when you realise you do, you’re helpless and reliant on either after-sales service pushing you into buying a new iPod, or sending your device off to strangers. Or treating your beloved like a lobster.
Because the product wasn’t designed to look and feel as if it could change, the product itself appeared to be perfect, impervious to the ravages of time. Time in this instance manifests itself in the inevitable dying of the light in the battery. After 18 months, your iPod’s functionality – the screen, the tunes, your ratings, your playcounts – fades away in your hands like a ghost. You are left with a husk where once a great product lay, unable to breathe life back into it, unable to see the battery, unable to see how you’d replace it. No matter how many times you revolve the gorgeous beast in your hands, there is simply no way in – and no way out for the festering, dead battery.
Apple provided no clues that you might want, indeed need, to change some physical aspects of the device. Hence the shock when that display begins to fade and just doesn’t come back.
But Apple did build in some ability for the iPod to deal with the progression of time. For instance, its software can be easily upgraded. Change is built into the device on some level.
To Brand’s way of thinking this is separate layers changing at different rates. Apple are able to change the “space plan”, “stuff”, and even some of the “services”, without having to touch the “structure”, “skin”, or “site”. This works.
One expects an ability to change software because the iPod is designed to be part of a system with your computer. You can change the tracks on the device, you can download software – it even shows up like a disk on your desktop, and we know they are changeable. The user sees those clues and figures they can change things.
Ironically, compared to the (again, largely deserved) adulation for Ive and team, Apple’s software designers take a lot of flak, not least from former colleagues. But leave aside the aesthetics of those candy-coloured window buttons, and the system design of Mac OSX exhibits advanced behavioural features.
Steven Johnson has noted how Mac OSX is proving the value of adaptation, how a flurry of incremental improvements can be effected through a modular approach; an architecture so flexible as to enable the differing layers of change fundamental to adaptation. “Mac OSX changes so significantly and improves so rapidly because it can,” says Steven Johnson in Apple On Speed. “Whole subsystems are refactored, recoded, or resynchronized with work done elsewhere (for example FreeBSD, XFree86, OpenSSLand so on).”
Software can be adaptable in a way that today’s physical products can’t be, but this is another pointer to the benefit of an adaptive design, from within Apple itself.
It’s also worth noting another overlooked aspect of the now-infamous iPod’s Dirty Secret movie (www.ipodsdirtysecret.com) – the affable after-sales care, which suggested replacement rather than modification. If the notion of user-experience design means anything, we should be able to state that the design of a system should extend to thinking through the after-sales service. This restates the importance of looking at the device as a social production – whose real life begins, not ends, at the point of sale. Apple is generally perceived to be not exactly great in this respect, though that’s not exactly unusual for a computer manufacturer.
So, although I acknowledge Apple’s general understanding that it’s not just about aesthetics, and that the iPod’s simplicity and fitness-for-purpose are evidently part of its success, Apple still seems to be failing on two fronts: the broader user experience, and then the lack of adaptation within their product design strategy. The concomitant backlash must be frustrating, but the stakes may be somewhat higher.
The problem with not involving the user in the ongoing design and life of the product is not just one of ensuring ease of use, but more fundamentally solving any problems so successfully for the users that they have nowhere to go, nothing to learn. Again, the likes of Moran and Brand would probably hear echoes of buildings designed to be “just so”, and then needing jackhammers to rewire an office.
A central cultural theme here is of users who want to engage, to be part of the design process. At one end of the spectrum are the descendants of the PC hobbyists. At the other are the everyday design strategies carried out by all of us, from organising your MyYahoo page layout to organising your garden shed.
In How Buildings Learn, the musician and artist Brian Eno wrote: “We are convinced by things that show an internal complexity, that show the traces of an interesting evolution. Those signs tell us that we might be rewarded if we accord it our trust. An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface … I think that humans have a taste for things that show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet.”
So, Apple has produced a series of beautifully near-perfect products – honed, polished, focused, designed to be “one-reading-only”. For this, its team is rightly lauded. However, as a result of this near-perfection, the effect of each slip will be grossly amplified, as each product feels so finished that users don’t think they can adapt; they don’t feel part of a process of evolution. Apple needs to find a way of retaining its brilliant simplicity and attention to detail while also enabling change in its products – visibly enabling adaptation and seeing design as an experiential process after point of sale. In this way, they’d not only engage a generation who need a way in to technology, but nurture a generation who want to get involved in the product, modifying it over time.
This points to adaptive design as a strategy potentially running across most of what we do. As a broad cultural theme.
With the design of user interfaces, we must surely consider enabling interfaces to become complex at the behest of the user, such that they can keep on adapting the fast layers of interface, just as they design their everyday surroundings.
With the design of social software products, the movement of thousands of people through those spaces should erode, define, and form those environments just as the sea shapes the shoreline – as long as the ability of the product to change is built in and signposted to be part of the deal.
As physical products and ubiquitous computing become further embedded in what it means to be us – in our communication and identity at every level – we must surely keep on striving for enabling adaptation. And since adaptation is what sets us apart, adaptive design is the only design strategy which will enable these increasingly sophisticated devices to remain truly meaningful.
This is an edited version of an article originally posted at www.core77.com
Dan Hill is technology and design manager at BBC Radio and Music Interactive
Dan’s weblog is at www.cityofsound.com