Noticing Life’s Problems Can Lead to Better Designs

Tony Fadell notices the small problems that most people have internalized, and then creates solutions.

Tony Fadell designs products based on the things most people don’t notice. He says that when something happens often enough it becomes a part of the landscape. Our brains first begin to take it for granted and then ignore it. In his TED Talk The first secret of design is… noticing Fadell explains several of his ideas and how they’ve led to him becoming a better designer and engineer.

Fadell’s first example is the produce sticker that comes on many fruits and vegetables. He explains the frustration that can be felt when peeling off the sticker and then pulling it away from your fingers. By the tenth or hundredth time we remove the sticker it’s a part of the process of eating fruit.

Fadell says that our brain moving these tasks from new information to old is called habituation, and one of the ways that we learn. Comedians are able to point out the small things but designers, innovators and entrepreneurs are required to not just notice the issues but present and develop solutions.

Tony tells a story of working for Apple and being challenged to see the products as a brand new user, Steve Jobs called this ‘staying beginners’. One example is early ipods and Apple running the hard drives for two hours in the factory for testing. The customer can then pull the product out of the box and use it right away instead of being required to first charge their electronics.

Another example is Mary Anderson on a streetcar in 1902. She noticed that the driver would open the window to clean snow off of the front of the car, and then the cabin grew colder and wind blew on the passengers. Other passengers might have discounted the blasts of wind and cold as the opportunity cost of riding a streetcar but Anderson decided to fix the problem and invented the windshield wiper.

Fadell shares his own design tips for noticing the problems that should be solved and figuring out how to solve them. His first idea is to look broader. When we focus on a problem often the steps before and after the problem are discounted.

The second design tip is to look closer. Fadell’s grandfather taught him about screws and needing the right screw for the right job. First shipments of the Nest thermostat included three different existing screw types that the team thought would cover all wall types. Customer complaints drove Fadell and his team to design a custom fastener that worked for any wall.

Fadell’s last tip is to think younger. His three young children constantly question things in life, and when kids try to solve problems with imaginative ideas they can sometimes find a better way. Tony tells us that having young minds on design teams and thinking younger will help us to stay beginners.