Up until a couple of years ago, the average home thermostat wasn't exactly considered cutting-edge technology, let alone anything to look at. It was functional--and that was about it. Then two former Apple designers decided to rethink the unloved device in terms of what it should do and what it should look like.
The result was the Nest thermostat, created by co-founders Matt Rogers and Tony Fadell. Unlike its somewhat bulky and confusing relatives--who knows exactly how to program their household thermostat, anyhow?--Nest is a sleek and simple circular dial, that "learns" your preferred energy settings.
Rogers believes that there are a number of unloved devices waiting to be reimagined. "People appreciate design. They spend a lot of money on art, on painting their homes. Why wouldn't they want these other products well-designed?" he said Thursday evening at meet-up for designers and entrepreneurs at Yelp's San Francisco headquarters. The key to smart design and innovation, he says, is to live by these three rules.
1. Don't be afraid to replace yourself.
"You must be willing to risk your own business to do the next thing," Rogers said. His distinctly Jobsian philosophy dictates that good inovators replace their own products--before someone else beats them to the punch. "We're constantly asking: How can we out-do, out-smart, out-innovate ourselves?" Nest's solution is to stay three steps ahead of the competition--and be open to risks in the name of a better product.
Rogers cited the iPod as a good example of self-replacing innovation; each new generation of the device has effectively replaced its former model--outstripping MP3 competitors like Sony and Zune. "Blowing up" the acknowleged pedigree of a product is crucial to creating better design, even if your company developed the very product you are working to replace.
2. Be your own worst critic.
"We don't ask consumers what they think of [our product]; we tear it up ourselves," Rogers said, adding that worrying was "in his DNA." According to the designer, it's your job to anticipate the flaws in any new creation, and work to eliminate them in subsequent generations. There is little room for one-hit wonders in technology, he warned. "You keep going, you keep moving. You don't just rest on your laurels," he said.
3. (Good) marketing is everything.
"Telling the story [of your product] should be the most important thing," said Rogers, who added that coherent packaging and branding go a long way toward achieving product marketability. (Um, did we mention that he's a former Apple employee?)
Nest--with its sleek bamboo packaging, do-it-yourself installation kit, and matching Web and mobile interfaces--illustrate what he means. The aesthetic of your physical product should be reflected in every aspect of its design, advised Rogers. From the packaging to your website to an accompanying mobile app, it should "feel like a family" he said.
Finally, Rogers concluded, your product should be able to speak for itself. Nest Labs' no-nonsense video demo demonstrates a confidence in the product's design. Show consumers the "why" and the "how" and let them decide for themselves, suggested Rogers. He believes that any product that provides an attractive, well-designed solution to a consumer need should virtually sell itself. "Great marketing should not be about putting lipstick on the pig."