A Higher Calling for Product Design — Emotional Intelligence

Great products of tomorrow must be in tune with human 
form, feeling and function 


By Gadi Amit

The art of product design is in crisis. Too often the latest and greatest creations value form over function. As wearable technology gets “smarter” about detecting the human condition — say, an imminent heart attack or the sudden need for a caffeine jolt — designers, in turn, must create products much more in tune with the human element. Gadi Amit is the designer behind some of the most innovative and lasting technology products created over the last decade (including the wearable device Fitbit). As founder of San Francisco–based design firm NewDealDesign, Amit was named "Master of Design" by Fast Company in 2010. Here, he argues that next-generation product design is not a veneer to be overlaid on a product; it’s a process driven by feeling and emotional intelligence.

As a designer, every day I see how the human side of technology becomes more important to my job. Our technologies are now connected to the human body through wearable devices and our emotional need to connect, so more often than not I’m tasked with trying to marry technology to human beings.

For me, it starts with simplicity.

More than any other Silicon Valley icon, Steve Jobs paved the way for designers. He once said: “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

When it comes to a user interface, the dominant paradigm is often 'the more the better.'

Yet there’s an unfortunate trend among engineers today to load more onto the product during the design process: more data, more features and more complexity. When it comes to a user interface, the dominant paradigm is often “the more the better.” As a designer, I believe engineers and designers must focus on simplicity. That requires subtlety — a smaller, cleaner user interface with technological complexity hidden underneath, running quietly in the background.

 

Simplicity also means a small user interface or no user interface (UI). That approach is what delighted customers when Apple unveiled the first iPod in 2001. The device was stripped to just a few outer functions — play, rewind, forward. There wasn’t even an on/off switch. It was so simple that it didn’t require an owner’s manual. And people loved it. It made sense to them; it understood them. That’s what technology needs to do in order to have an impact.

The tension, for designers, is to work with multidisciplinary teams of technologists and software developers who don’t always share our understanding of design to create more products like the iPod.

As I design, I try to follow an inner compass that directs me to the best product I can create. Working with Fitbit, for example, we adhered to the small UI or no UI approach — designing a wristband that few would know, at first glance, was working behind the scenes to track a person’s steps, distance walked and calories burned. The Fitbit doesn’t look like your usual fitness gadget; it uses LED lights instead of blips and beeps to measure your fitness progress.

Making a physical connection through design

Once you put something on the human body, you are dealing with a very complex challenge that is both psychological and social. Good designers understand the geometry of the human body as well as the human factors that will make specific technologies attractive or unattractive to consumers. A large screen on a woman’s wrist isn’t appealing, for example. They ask important questions about how a person feels when wearing a device. Is it comfortable? Does it pinch? Does it work well when she moves around? Is it durable? How others see her is equally important to a designer. Is it ugly? Does it make her feel silly? Is everyone staring when she wears it?

Google Glass, for its entire wow factor, ignores some of these fundamental questions. The glasses hide a person’s eyes. Our eyes are a primal way for people to communicate with others. This product isolates people. Placing technology on humans will always be a puzzle, but I believe in order to move wearables forward we need a reset around how people think about design and technology. We need to think about how we entice people to adapt and try these new technologies. To do this, designers must create devices built on emotional intelligence.

An environment around every product

The way we interact with our environment today is very different from how we did it even two or three years ago. Now, we’re connected to our homes, cars and myriad other devices and objects. Because of this, it’s important that our future devices interact with us in a meaningful way. One way products interact with our environment — now and in the future — is through open and closed platforms.

For technology to move forward, technologists need to accept the leadership of designers, artists, and writers, who see the world through a different, more humanistic lens.

Cars will create a need for new platforms, too. In the future, I think you will simply plug your smartphone into what used to be the dashboard, and the phone will become your interface. The car will essentially become a microchip with wheels, and will communicate with an Internet-based car app, which drivers can then customize.

I believe the biggest challenge in Silicon Valley today is building more products based on good design. Yet too many people with technology backgrounds who lack a deep understanding of those principles populate the industry.

 

For technology to move forward, technologists need to accept the leadership of designers, artists and writers, who see the world through a different, more humanistic lens. In the next few years, design’s influence and authority will continue to grow among businesses. Companies that won’t — or don’t — acknowledge this will fade.

We know this not only because Apple succeeded with a design focus, but also because companies that all but ignored design a few years ago — Google and Microsoft for example — embrace it today. They had to. The reality is that certain problems cannot be solved without design, and it is simplicity that lends integrity to the discipline. Leonardo da Vinci put it best more than 500 years ago when he wrote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Founder of San Francisco-based design firm NewDealDesign, Gadi Amit is the designer behind some of the most innovative and lasting technology products created over the last decade, including the wearable device Fitbit. Amit was named "Master of Design" by Fast Company in 2010.