Saturday, March 04, 2006

Sophisticated Simplicity

If you have been following Apple, (which I do), then you would have known that Apple invited the press to show off some fun products. Withough disclosing before the event what these “fun” products where Apple increased the buzz it generally generates. However, after the event it kind of hit it back. Why?

Apple released a iPod boom-box and the Mac-mini not improved and positioned as the “living room PC”.

However, the mac fanatics and the media were more worried about the lack of effect then what was really shown.

But Micheal Greeson, President of the Diffusion Group, wrote what I think is one of the most balanced report on the latest releases from Apple.

He acknowledges the fact that the event did not live upto the hype and blames it on Apple saying, “Such is the danger of being an industry innovator”. This is so true. Apple is getting ready to face the problems of success.

6-button remote control

What interested me in the article is what Greesman calls “sophisticated simplicity”. The ability of Apple to design sophiticated products like Mac computers, iPod and in this case the Mac mini and its six-button remote.

Why does Greesman think is important?

Apple’s remote control is yet another example of the company’s emphasis on designing elegant, easy-to-use solutions. Yes, it’s just a remote control. But it’s the remote control’s banality that makes it such a powerful expression of deeply Apple believes in this vision, what I call the “sophisticated simplicity” strategy. If one looks closely into the remote control, you can almost make out images of Apple’s future…

The Mac Mini remote control only has six buttons and looks similar to an iPod but without the viewing screen. Let me repeat that just in case you missed it the first time: the remote control has only six buttons and it looks similar to an iPod. Unlike other MCPC vendors and the CE community in general, Apple seems to think that six buttons and a killer graphical interface are enough to enable consumers to easily access and control their digital media.

Avoid adding buttons to a remote control even though we can? Brilliant!

As Ockham’s Razor (also known as the principle of parsimony) reminds us, given a choice between two equally valid explanations, the simpler of the two is preferred. This principle applies equally well to architecture and product design, although it may seem foreign to most CE designers. For example, I recently purchased a multi-room/multi-zone AV receiver from a upscale CE manufacturer, a complicated beast with a remote control that looks like the pilot’s panel of a 737. I’ve had the system for more than two months and I’m still learning how to execute the basic multi-device commands. Does it have to be so difficult to use? Not at all, but many CE vendors fail to grasp the importance of an elegant user interface.

This goes back to Apple’s elegant design of the Mac OS, the Newton, the ‘Books. Its part of the Apple design philosophy which is sometimes coigned terms like “zen-like design” due to its simplistic brilliance.

I was reading the other day about Josn Kauffman’s Personal MBA. In that he lists 42 books which should make your reading list for a personal MBA. The list of books are impressive.

He lists two books which are connected to this discussion. One of them is “The Substance of Style by Virginia Postrel”.

His introduction:

Ever wonder why people are willing to pay $6.00 for a designer toilet brush when the plain old $1.99 special accomplishes the same goal? Why Apple’s iPod is so popular? Why some people are slaves to the fashion industry? It has to do with aesthetics: all things being equal, people will consistently choose products and services that please their individual sense of style.

Businesses all over the world are beginning to pay attention to design for a simple reason: good design has real economic value. In The Substance of Style, Postrel argues that aesthetic value is becoming an increasingly important differentiator in a world where product function and quality are consistently high.

This is exactly what is needed to succeed in the business. I agree, marketing is important, strategy is important but design is becoming very important. Sometimes as important or more important than the other parts of the equation.

However, the traditional MBA schools do not even get this. For example: my MBA at UniSA does not talk about design nor have any course remote connected to aesthetics.

To give you an example, compare this HTML version of the Personal MBA to the ChangeThis version. And then think about it.