Fireside Chat: John Maeda and Diego Rodriguez Matt 14 Sep 2006

11 comments Latest by Parand

[Fireside Chats are round table discussions conducted using Campfire.]

The Chatters
John Maeda
Diego Rodriguez
(Moderated by Matt and Jason from 37signals)

Topic: Simplicity
In this chat, the participants discuss John’s new book The Laws of Simplicity, teaching, TiVo, iPods, cars, Japan, and more.

Sample quotes
John: “I find that MIT students are a bit too smart. In my courses I try to make them ‘dumber’ in a sense.”

Diego: “I don’t think individual human beings are as actualized in complex, mystifying systems as they are in simple, intelligible systems.”

John: “Companies selling less simply need to market more.”

Diego: “I think businesses tend to put too much value on intellectual property and patents and not enough on operating systems and tacit knowledge.”

John: “The problem with Japanese design today is that it’s too perfect. Look at the success of Samsung over Sony. Sony design is perfect; Samsung design is fun. You do the math.”

Diego: “Not all complexity is bad. Especially in a business/venture context: complex systems that work well can be very hard to imitate. You can live off of those for a long time.”

Matt
What classes are you guys teaching these days?
John
I’m trying to reduce what I teach. I used to try to mix computation and visual art. I realize now that MIT students get enough computation for their entire lifetime. I’m trying to simplify things by just teaching them "how to see."
Jason
How to see is basically trying to teach taste, isn’t it? Do you think that’s possible?
John
Ah, teaching taste. Very hard to break through the mind of a geek. But still an enjoyable puzzle. If anything I try to teach them how to understand their own tastes. It’s a start.
Diego
I think there’s a level of judgment associated with taste which doesn’t do much for a student over the course of their lifetime… but teaching them be more aware of how the world works, to "see" everything, that’s powerful.
John
I find that MIT students (and I’m sure it’s the same at Stanford) are a bit too smart. In my courses I try to make them … errrrr … "dumber" in a sense. Maybe try to get them to be a bit more natural. See with their eyes, instead of their mind.
Diego
In the Spring Quarter I co-taught a class called "Creating Infectious Action" (CIA), which was about designing remarkable stuff and also designing remarkable systems to spread the remarkable stuff. We’re teaching one this Fall called "Click-n-Bricks" which is going to look at customer experiences which span atoms and bits, using sustainability at Walmart as the vehicle of exploration.
John
Diego what do you mean by sustainability in the context of Walmart?
Diego
All classes at the d.school are "real" in that the students work on projects sponsored by industry. This Fall they’re going to work with Walmart to see what a good customer experience feels like when it comes to issues of sustainable business practices or even perhaps cradle-to-cradle methodologies.
John
How do you feel about classes that are sponsored by industry Diego? Do you believe there’s a conflict of interest?
Diego
There’s always the potential for conflict of interest. I (we) try to remove that potential by making it explicitly that class sponsorship is all about getting to hang out with incredible students, not about their ideas generated in class.
John
Diego, that makes sense. I think it’s like when you have great clients — they let you be you. Because they know that it’s easy to pay you to be someone else, but it’s a higher risk (= higher reward) to let you be just you. I love gutsy companies out there. It’s usually about gutsy people, isn’t it?
Diego
My favorite project last quarter was done for the folks at Mozilla. The project was simple: how might we spread Firefox to people who don’t know the difference between Firefox and Google? This is a real challenge for Mozilla and they gave it to students to work on. Gutsy, indeed.
Matt
Big picture question for both of you: Why is simplicity important to you?
Diego
Why is simplicity important to me? I think it is because of my bias for things that actually work in the world. From systems, objects, and services, to the stories, methodologies, and initiatives to spread them, I find that simplicity is the thread which ties all the successful ones together.
John
"Why is simplicity important to you?" I think because living in a world that is increasingly littered with technology, you can’t help but notice that everything’s getting more complex. You’ve got Web 1.0, then Web 2.0, then Web 3.0 — everything always goes up (= more). It can’t go down. I found it interesting when I looked at my old MacPaint disk from the first Mac and it doesn’t have a version number stamped on it.
Diego
John — in your book you suggested a crazy business scenario where software companies charged more as successive versions became more and more simple. I think that business model already exists: hosted software. Incentives between creator and user are much more closely aligned in that model.
Jason
Diego, I agree with you re: hosted software. It removes the incentive to have to deliver the huge upgrade every year. That’s the only way traditional software companies make $ — hitting you up with the big huge release with way more stuff than you need. And that keeps piling up over the years.
John
Diego: Your point on paying more for version -1.0 (minus one-point-oh) in the case of Hosted software. I think it does become more of a reality because with hosted software you can become like BK and "have it your way." When a customer buys Fireside Chat they can buy 2.0 access or else "premium 1.0 access" perhaps.
John
I love how the Web enables creative folks to make a decent living in all sorts of ways.
Jason
One of the things I love about simple is that there are less things to go wrong.
Jason
It’s easier to execute on the basics beautifully if you have less you have to worry about.
Matt
Any specific product (or products) you’ve worked on at IDEO or MIT that have been affected by your views on simplicity?
John
Regarding devs at MIT, I think there isn’t a particular product or project per se that’s struck me in the head. I think it’s mainly the interactions I’ve had with folks here that tend to believe in terms of "absolute truths." Right and wrong. So much of the good thinking in life seems to be gray. "Simplicity" is a really gray gray term.
Diego
Most of the "stuff" I’m working on these days at IDEO actually isn’t stuff (am I starting to sound like George Carlin here?), but are actually relatively intangible services, organizational models, and experiences. Simplicity is always at the forefront of our design work in those situations, because our most common task is to take an incredibly complex system and create a situation where any mortal human individual can interact with that system and have a satisfying experience. More often than not, that means hitting the right level of simplicity for that person.
John
Simplicity = Reliability
John
Yay for George Carlin!
Jason
Sidenote: John, I just loved that your book is 100 pages. That made me smile.
Jason
I think it’s a good goal to strive for.
John
Getting to 100 pages was something that I debated myself whether I could work towards. But in the end Law 1 (Reduce) won.
Jason
100 pages is a lot of space to tell someone something.
Diego
I have some good friends who were fighter pilots in a former life. They argue back and forth about whether it’s better from a reliability perspective to fly an F-16 (simple, with one engine), or an F-15 (more complex, with two engines). There’s twice as much to go wrong with the F-15 (at least), but more redundancy to get you home.
John
I like that thought Diego. "Getting home." When it’s about getting home, you really don’t care about simplicity or complexity because you’ve got such a simple meaningful goal.
Diego
It’s like my TV (yes, I watch TV) or my TiVo. The unit itself is very simple, but what happens when we lose the remote? Ever tried to operate a TiVo without the remote? You can’t.
Diego
I bought an iMac recently, and it came with a remote. I thought, "what’s THIS for?"
John
I think that companies selling *less* simply need to market *more*. It works for shoe companies…
John
I think the coolest thing to buy out there is the "iPod universal dock." It comes with all versions of the docking hardware to the iPod. It’s a real perverse product for something that’s sold to be so simple.
Diego
As you point out in your book (can you tell I devoured it last evening?), you need to market those elements which are more invisible, less obvious.
John
Yes Diego. Invisible = Beautiful to the designer. But subtle is as subtle does.
Jason
I think the best ipod accessory is still the Apple iPod Sock
Jason
fits all generations and nanos. Just like a sock fits just about every foot.
John
Yes I love that. Makes the iPod feel warm. Seems very humane.
Jason
and yeah, it’s humane. That too of course.
Jason
John
Although kind of perverse as it only helps to overheat the little guy.
Diego
That’s something I used to struggle with as a mechanical engineer: even if electronic connectors get smaller, should we adopt them for future variants and create a mechanical Tower of Babel for our users? Why not settle on a less-than-optimal connector and live with it for a few decades?
Jason
"Why not settle on a less-than-optimal connector and live with it for a few decades?" — great question. Makes you think about when is good good enough? Is better always necessary?
Jason
Good is often good enough. It’s not that it can’t be better, it’s just that better may not be better enough to worry about.
Matt
What do you think when you see simplicity touted by companies like Phillips ("sense and simplicity"), Citibank ("simplicity" credit card), and Ford ("keep it simple pricing")?
John
I thought about getting a Citibank simplicity card but I found the ads to be rather complex (what am I getting?), and the card didn’t strike me as looking any simpler than my regular credit card.
Diego
When Phillips talks about simplicity at that level, they’re talking about a broad worldview. The Citi credit card is a specific marketing offering built around simplicity, while the Ford pricing initiative is really just a channel tactic. I admire the stance that Phillips has taken — it’s gutsy. The Citi stuff is very compelling. It will be interesting to see how long Ford can stay with simplicity pricing. If it isn’t viable from a business perspective, it’ll get dropped.
John
I was completely stymied when I bought a Nikon S6 recently and it had this little piece of plastic I didn’t know what it was for. Later I realized it’s to be able to universally dock into photo printers for different manufacturers. I appreciated the thought, but it made me sort of unhappy as it seemed gratuitous.
Diego
A lot of times what we see in products like John’s Nikon S6 is the organizational structure of the company speaking to us.
Matt
what do you mean diego?
Diego
Well, that part was put there to help out with another system beyond the camera. Who knows what conversations had to happen to get it in place? Maybe corporate marketing told a divisional product group that it had to happen. That’s the organizational model speaking to us, because to John it didn’t make sense. They didn’t go to the trouble of explaining to him what it was for, because it’s hard to be user-centric across competing (or just siloed) divisions.
John
I get what you’re saying Diego. We’re seeing the organization speak instead of the product speaking. Sort of like "tagging" physical products in a gratuitous sense.
Matt
in a similar way you can often look at a company’s website and see the organizational structure represented in the navigation
Matt
instead of what’s most logical for the CUSTOMER
John
Matt’s point is keen. Corporate website = Org chart but not embodying their model of doing business.
Diego
One might argue that the brand structure of US automakers isn’t simple enough. For consumers or for the employees of those companies to really know what to do or not do. If I work at Honda, I know I make Hondas. If I work at Ford, I could be working on Volvo, Ford, Jaguar, Range Rover, Aston Martin, Mazda…
John
I like Jason’s "good enough" point. Simplicity is often good enough. I guess you can say it’s "satisficed" in the Herbert Simon space (Wikipedia: Satisficing)
Jason
Aston Martin’s are made by hand, so it’s unlikely a Volvo worker would be working at Aston. Just had to defend Aston there ;)
Diego
You’re right Jason, I didn’t mean literally working on the cars, but I meant from an engineering/design/marketing point of view.
Jason
Vantage
Jason
Yeah I was just kidding. I just hold Aston in such high regards. They still *craft* cars. That is precious.
John
I was glad to see Diego blog my favorite all time speaker Sir Ken Robinson. I met Diego finally for the first time at TED and we were both raving about this guy. I had the same life-transforming experience as Diego.
Matt
yeah, i watched that speech he gave. invigorating.
Matt
Diego, you wrote this: "What I find stunning about [John’s simplicity] design principles is that they apply equally well to the domain of designing business models and venture structures appropriate to the realities of the 21st century." What do you mean?
Diego
What I meant with that pithy expression is this: I see successful business ventures becoming much less about rigid boundaries and much more about the free flow of information. It used to be that you created a company, built IP, and guarded it with your life. Now you create a cause, have people inside and outside of your organization create IP (Mozilla), and share content creation (Amazon). Simplicity is key here because it helps everyone understand the system and their part in the system. I don’t think individual human beings are as actualized in complex, mystifying systems as they are in simple, intelligible systems.
John
Simplicity of system; because humans will always be complex.
John
And we like that.
John
For the car guys, what’s simplicity in the car space?
Jason
Most cars are actually a complex mess. I can’t think of many I’d call simple. But I’m a very big Audi fan. I think they’re the closest to getting it right inside and outside.
Diego
Simplicity in the car space? Go to http://www.carsdirect.com and pretend you’re buying a Camry V6 with navigation and leather seats. Then go "buy" a Honda Accord with a V6 and navigation. The Toyota experience is really complex, because they force you to buy option packages which vary by region. Honda has very few options and colors, but they all work together. Toyota is a bazaar experience, Honda is a curated experience.
Matt
diego, intelligible vs. mystifying is a nice reframing of simple vs. complex
Diego
As John points out in his amazing book, not all complexity is bad.
Diego
Especially in a business/venture context: complex systems that work well can be very hard to imitate. You can live off of those for a long time.
John
Imitation — important concept. The inimitableness of a complex system. The easy imitability of a simple system.
Matt
you spent a lot of time in japan, right? how did this impact your views on simplicity?
John
Living in Japan made me realize how god-awesome living in the US is. Japanese people live in an extremely uncomfortable environment of 1.5 hour commutes, tiny houses that don’t have clothing dryers so you hang your clothes up in every room, and extremely thin walls (to ensure that moisture can depart during summer) so you freeze during the winters.
Diego
I agree with John. I worked at Nissan for a while in Japan earlier in my career and my day-to-day life was really complex. Just to get to the office, I had to ride two subways, one train, and one bus.
John
Jason, I’ve noticed all kinds of stuff out there looks 37signals-ish. What that means is something extremely good. It means you guys can stop what you’re doing and invent a new paradigm.
Jason
I see a lot of people reusing some of our elements and I just think to myself "uh, why would you do that anyway? It looks out of place because the decisions we made to build this element don’t jive with the other decisions you made on the stuff you didn’t copy"
Jason
Mixing design decisions shows. And it shows bad.
Diego
I think businesses tend to put too much value on intellectual property and patents and not enough on operating systems and tacit knowledge. Isn’t that the lesson of the Toyota Production System? Everyone knows everything about it, and Toyota will even train you on it, but it’s very hard to implement well.
Matt
execution is key.
Matt
John, you wrote, "Take simplicity in the Japanese sense. There, style is the cleanest, most perfect goal: wa." Tell us about wa.
John
The problem with Japanese design today is that it’s too perfect. Look at the success of Samsung over Sony. Sony design is perfect; Samsung design is fun. You do the math.
John
TPS works in Japan. I can’t imagine folks in the states living under the maniacal Law-1 society they can achieve in Toyota.
Diego
Then there’s Muji
Diego
Simplicity as a brand
Jason
Muji is fun and perfect
John
Muji’s an important brand. It’s the brain child of Ikko Tanaka, who I mention in LOS. It’s important to consider it in the context of Japan which is an OVER-branded society. It meant a lot there — the contrast.
Diego
So John, what’s next?
Diego
Where does the simplicity movement go?
John
What’s next = the next chapter of simplicity. Watching things move over to the simplicity trend, and then start moving towards complexity when the time comes. And then back again later. And hopefully enjoying life along the way.
Matt
how about you diego, what are you excited to be working on in the future?
Diego
I’m going to keep on working on cool stuff. I’m so happy to be alive at this point in history. it’s great to live in a connected world we can talk about simplicity from Boston to Chicago to NYC to Palo Alto.
John
Diego’s truly metacool.

11 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Jake Walker 14 Sep 06

I’m reminded of something taught by Edward Tufte at his lectures (which are going to be in Chicago in early October) when both were talking about organizational hierarchy seeping through product design.

Tufte basically talks about web sites and other interface design, and how people are prone to make their website design match the hierarchy of their organization, rather than focusing on what it is the users really need to accomplish. Basically — that design metaphor too often mirrors organizational hierarchy.

I think it’s a valid point. In fact, searching around, I find a reference to something called Conway’s Law, which says:

“Any organization which designs a system … will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

Dainius 14 Sep 06

There is a book “Culture of software” which elaborates al little bit on how organizational structure reflects on the products. As a example, you can see elements of Microsoft org. structure in the toolbars of Word.

But this does not surprise me at all. I am professional sociologist, so really a lot of what we are inclined to call “best” is not based on any final truth but just reflects social practices in which our decisions are made.

On the simplicity. I am very simpathetic to all this ideas, though one remark. This is actually very much philosophical discussion you have here. It is very much relates to what is western culture, what is technology’s role. And what is a good way of live. Are we better living in countryside simple lifes or in big metropolis with everything fast-forwarding around.

Michael Chui 14 Sep 06

Simplicity is well and good, but it’s not the right goal. You shouldn’t try to make things simple; you should be making things simple in order to [insert goal here]. Such as increasing usability, decreasing mystification, narrowing scope, understanding the problem, etc.

Simplicity for its own sake is as bad as complexity for its own sake. It’s an easily missed point.

Anonymous Coward 15 Sep 06

Regarding cars and simplicity…

Volkswagen South Africa is still producing the 1980 Mark I Golf. they’ve only added what counts: alloy wheels, air-conditioning, fuel-injection, and most recently a new dashboard.

What counts is that this model has been a topseller for years. Makes you think…

http://www.vw.co.za/models/citigolf/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_Citi

Nicolas

Sandy 15 Sep 06

The technologist-philosopher Lewis Mumford described society’s use of technology as often being a ‘stopgap’ measure that performs a temporary function but doesn’t provide a real permanent solution to our challenges, which would need biological or social adaptation (i.e. we need to get our act together).

This is an interesting angle on the generation of complex software - seeing it as a stopgap helps pull back from techn-thrall, or from being sucked in to the who techno-game.

Brian Sweeting 15 Sep 06

Speaking of people copying 37signals, I saw a demo of Mercury Grove’s software at the Future of Web Apps summit. The design of their app is almost a total knockoff of Basecamp.

http://www.mercurygrove.com/

tobto 18 Sep 06

‘Whatís next = the next chapter of simplicity. ’
Things simply back to themselves. As the rule. Recollect thought of Chineese: ‘The coming back is a clearness’. I’d say: - a simplicity. Simplicity - is the moving back.

dmr 19 Sep 06

The Mercury grove web site is a great example of what JF was saying about people copying the elements, but not the execution. The text is awful; it’s jargon/marketspeak; the highlighted text doesn’t say anything meaningful; poor stuff!

doesntmatter 22 Sep 06

Simplicity can not have a next step when organizations are getting more complex and we all evolve into more complex organisms…I think simplicity is a marketing term thrown out by those who will sure benefit from it, at least temporarily…

Parand 26 Sep 06

“How to see is basically trying to teach taste, isnít it? Do you think thatís possible?”

Taste can be taught, at least to some. Put another way, a person’s ability to recognize and exhibit taste can be significantly improved in the right environment.

Think of all your friends who moved to Manhattan for at least a year. They’ll be better dressers and likely more discriminating eaters for the rest of their lives. Increase the value and reward associated with taste and provide an environment where taste can be observed first-hand, and the typical person will not only become more tasteful, but also down-right tastier.

Parand 26 Sep 06

“How to see is basically trying to teach taste, isnít it? Do you think thatís possible?”

Taste can be taught, at least to some. Put another way, a person’s ability to recognize and exhibit taste can be significantly improved in the right environment.

Think of all your friends who moved to Manhattan for at least a year. They’ll be better dressers and likely more discriminating eaters for the rest of their lives. Increase the value and reward associated with taste and provide an environment where taste can be observed first-hand, and the typical person will not only become more tasteful, but also down-right tastier.

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