Let My People Design Great Products

I finally read Let My People Go Surfing because Bill Buxton told me to. Actually, he told everyone at CHI 2008 during his keynote address. I actually wrote it down and found the reference later — personal information management for the win!

In his keynote, I remember Bill saying something like, “it’s a pity about the book’s title.” The author, Yvon Chouinard, is the founder of Patagonia (the outdoor clothing company). Let My People Go Surfing is the name of Patagonia’s employee benefits package, which is not all that exciting.

The reason Bill mentioned the book to an auditorium of human-computer interaction professionals is because of its incredibly compelling chapter on product design. Chouinard’s goal is to “make the best products.” But realizing how abstract and useless that phrase is by itself, he delves much deeper and lays out an insightful “philosophy” of product design standards. Below I’ve selected the ones that also apply to software, in my view.

  • Is it functional? (“Who needs it?”)
  • Is it multifunctional? (versatility. “Do I really need a new outfit to do yoga?”)
  • Is it durable? (“The poor can’t afford to buy cheap goods.”)
  • Is it as simple as possible?
  • Is the product line simple? (“The best restaurants in the world have set menus, and the best ski slopes have already decided which skis are best for your skill level.” “The best-performing firms make a narrow range of products very well.” “Fewer parts mean less to go wrong; quality comes built in.”)
  • Is it an innovation or an invention? (“It may take thirty years to come up with an invention, but within a few years or months there can be a thousand innovations spawned from that original idea.”)
  • Does it have added value? (“We treat customers with respect.”)Is it art? (“An illustrator becomes an artist when he or she can convey the same emotion with fewer brushstrokes.”)
  • Are we designing for our core customer? (the customers who “define the state of the art”)
  • Have we done our homework? (read: usability research. “You can minimize risk by doing your research and, most of all, by testing. Testing… needs to be included in every part of [the industrial design process].” “Measure twice, cut once.”)
  • Is it timely? (“To stay ahead of the competition, our ideas have to come from as close to the source as possible.”)
  • Does it cause any unnecessary harm? (ongoing environmental assessment)

It’s always useful to read a well-informed list like this one and try to apply its insights to my own product design work.

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