Tony Fadell: How Can We Design For A Better Experience? The designer behind the iPod and the Nest thermostat explains why design is in the details, and why designers often get those details wrong.
NPR logo

How Can We Design For A Better Experience?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/478560438/478708877" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Can We Design For A Better Experience?

How Can We Design For A Better Experience?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/478560438/478708877" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Tony, can I tell you something that totally drives me crazy?

TONY FADELL: Sure.

RAZ: So you know when you have to join a conference call from your smartphone?

FADELL: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

RAZ: You've got to dial the number on your phone...

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTERIZED VOICE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome.

RAZ: ...And then flip back...

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTERIZED VOICE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please enter your meeting ID or audio...

RAZ: ...To that screen to get the conference code.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTERIZED VOICE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Invalid entry.

RAZ: And then you flip back and then you lose all the codes.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTERIZED VOICE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You have entered invalid meeting credentials. Goodbye.

RAZ: It drives me crazy.

FADELL: Oh, I do that every day.

RAZ: Yeah.

FADELL: And you're, like - why does it have to be so hard?

RAZ: Right? It's crazy that nobody has figured out how to, like, make that much easier.

FADELL: You hit on a really great problem.

RAZ: This is designer Tony Fadell. And what he's probably best known for - a somewhat revolutionary device known as the iPod.

FADELL: Yeah, I had a big hand in the early days of the iPod.

RAZ: You could say Tony is obsessed with great design. And it means that he spots bad design all around him all the time.

FADELL: You know, being around me is not such a great experience (laughter) because I'm, like - who designed this? I'm like - it drives you nuts. Like, everywhere I turn I'm driven nuts by this and this. So I'm never really satisfied by so many things in the world. And when I do, you know, I go crazy. I'm, like, oh, my God. This is brilliant. So the amount of good design in the world is very rare...

RAZ: Yeah.

FADELL: ...Versus all this mediocrity that we deal with.

RAZ: And the solution, he says, isn't to just deal with it, but to actually do something about it to fix it because, Tony says, we all have the potential to improve the world around us through design.

FADELL: If done right, everything around us could be transformed to be even better than it is today to bring a better experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So today on the show, The Power Of Design, from the buildings we inhabit and the objects we used to the intricate patterns in nature, even the ways we interact with other people. Design is all around us all the time.

FADELL: Each thing that we touch that isn't natural - from the natural world, someone had a hand in.

RAZ: And for Tony Fadell, design begins by noticing those tiny little problems that most of us usually ignore like those stickers on fruit in the grocery store.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FADELL: That sticker wasn't there when I was a kid.

RAZ: Here's Tony Fadell on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FADELL: But somewhere as the years passed, someone had the bright idea to put that sticker on the fruit. Why? So it could be easier for us to check out at the grocery counter. Well, that's great. We can get in and out of the store quickly. But now there's a new problem. When we get home and we're hungry and we see this ripe, juicy piece of fruit on the counter, we just want to pick it up and eat it - except now we have to look for this little sticker and dig at it with our nails, damaging the flesh - that rolling up that sticker, you know what I mean, and then trying to flick it off your fingers.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

FADELL: Right? It's not fun, not at all. But something interesting happened. See, the first time you did it, you probably felt those feelings. You just want to you eat the piece of fruit. But it was - you felt upset. You just wanted to dive in. By the 10th time, you start to become less upset. And you started to just do the peeling the label off. By the 100th time, I simply picked up the piece of fruit, dug at it with my nails, tried to flick it off and then wonder - was their another sticker?

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: OK. You've totally ruined fruit for me. I notice that sticker every time now.

FADELL: (Laughter) Once you focus your attention on it, it will never go away now because it's going to be utterly annoying.

RAZ: Like, the fact that we accept it, it makes me think that we're just drones. We're just sheep. We just go through our lives and the world accepting so many of these design flaws that actually don't improve our lives.

FADELL: I fully agree with you. And that's because I think we have such a, you know, a demanding day every day with family, with work - all these things...

RAZ: Yeah.

FADELL: ...That we're just so inundated with all these different things that we just kind of go through life through the motions. And we lose control to these things that are thrust upon us as opposed to wrenching control back, going I'm not going to do that anymore. We need to get this fixed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So back in 2001, Tony was part of a team at Apple working to fix just the kind of frustrations that the rest of us didn't know we had, specifically the way we used to listen to music.

FADELL: Great CDs are wonderful, but they only fit so many songs. There's these other things called MP3 players out there. But at the end of the day, you want to put a thousand songs on them. But they were too slow. The battery life was too short. How could we innovate? And so we were trying to not just make it as good as the existing technology, but make it so you could have a thousand in songs in your pocket. You could put the thousand songs onto it very quickly. You could quickly go between tracks. You could find the track you wanted, right? All of these things were parameters that we were designing around to make sure it was an incredible experience. And that's where we made sure that we looked at each of those details.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Every single detail. And of course, Steve Jobs made sure of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FADELL: Steve Jobs challenged us to see our products through the eyes of the customer, the new customer, the one that has fears and possible frustrations and hopeful exhilaration that their new technology product could work straightaway for them. He called it staying beginners and wanted to make sure that we focused on those tiny little details to make them faster, easier and seamless for the new customers. See, back in the '90s, being a gadget freak like I am, I would rush out to the store for the very, very latest gadget.

I'd take all the time to get to the store. I'd check out. I'd come back home. I'd start to unbox it. And then there was another little sticker, the one that said charge before use. What? I can't believe it. I just spent all this time buying this product. And now I have to wait what felt like an eternity to use that coveted new toy. It was crazy. But you know what? Almost every product back then did that. When it had batteries in it, you had to charge it before you used it.

Well, Steve noticed that. And he said we're not going to let that happen to our product. So what did we do? Typically, when you have a product that has a hard drive in it, you run it for about 30 minutes in the factory to make sure that hard drive's going to be working years later for the customer after they pull it out of the box. What did we do instead? We ran that product for over two hours. Why? It'd be easy to test and make sure it was great for the customer. But most importantly, the battery came fully charged right out of the box, ready to use. So that costumer could just start using the product. It was great, and it worked. People liked it.

Now today, almost every product that you get that's battery-powered comes out of the box fully charged. But back then, we noticed that detail, and we fixed it. And now everyone else does that as well. No more charge before use.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADELL: These are those little, little details that are so important.

RAZ: Yeah.

FADELL: And I call it emotional momentum. From the time you first learn about a product, you engage with that. And then you learn more and more about it if it's intriguing to you. And you hope that there's this positive emotional momentum that builds on itself at each step of the process. And you don't have something like a battery that causes you to hit a brick wall. And you lose all the momentum. People are like oh, I'm frustrated. You just threw away this entire great experience you were designing for people.

RAZ: What explains why some products really take off, like, you know, like, the iPod, obviously, hugely popular. But then the Microsoft Zune, you know, perfectly well-designed product. And yet it died.

FADELL: So this is a thing that I've been wrestling with with my, you know, 25, 30-year career. And I think I figured it out. And what you always have to look at is when you design something, there are two halves to design, just like there's two halves to your brain - the emotional part and the rational part.

If you want people to truly adopt your product or what have you, it has to have an emotional component, you know, something that grabs you and go oh, I want to learn more. It unlocks that curiosity that says there's something cool here. It also needs to rationally work. There's got to be a good reason why I'm doing it. Is it for saving money? Is it for saving time? Is it going to be more convenient for me? And you need to separate your features into both the rational features that cause people to want to buy it and the emotional features that get people off their duff to actually buy it. So you have to blend these two halves in a very good blend to be able to get people excited and off their butt to go and buy it because they see value beyond the sexiness.

RAZ: How can, like, the rest of us do it? Like, how can we learn to have the same kind of eye that you do for good design?

FADELL: Well, I think the first thing is - you know, there's truly incredible, innovative designers that you don't know where their inspiration comes from. But they can come up with these very interesting ideas that the world's never seen before. And then there's designers who, through a really rigorous process, come up with new designs we haven't seen before either. And both work. But the latter one is actually something you can learn yourself. You can teach yourself. And it just takes practice.

And just like learning the piano, some people have incredible talent. But you can still learn to play the piano. And I think design's the same way if you set your mind to it. So no one should ever think that there's this whoa, incredible design person and that we have to go to the oracle for all design. No, you can do it yourself. And you can tune your eye to see that. And you can design even if you don't think you have the utter talent that you see others have.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FADELL: Picasso once said every child is an artist. The problem is is when he or she grows up is how to remain an artist. We all saw the world more clearly when we saw it for the first time, before a lifetime of habits got in the way. Our challenge is to get back there, to feel that frustration, to see those little details so we can stay beginners. It's not easy, but if we do, we can do some pretty amazing things.

For me, hopefully, that's better product design. For you, that could mean something else, something powerful. Our challenge is to wake up each day and say - how can I experience the world better? And if we do, maybe, just maybe, we can get rid of these dumb little stickers. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's Tony Fadell. He designed the first iPod. And he's now the CEO, founder and designer of Nest. They make smart thermostats. You can watch Tony's full talk at ted.com. More ideas about The Power Of Design in a minute. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.