Episode Sixty Five: Apple and Nike; Critiquing Everyone Deserves Great Design; Odds

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Today, I was back at the office, where the value of “office” has been set to “spend the day down at Facebook in a workshop”. I don’t actually mind flying down to Facebook – depending on whether you get a prop plane or a jet plane, it’s either a two hour or hour forty minute trip flight from PDX to San Jose, and then there’s always the food on campus. And the people at Facebook are smart, and it’s always good to have conversations with smart people.

I am, however, going back to an empty house. Well, an empty house where I might finally plug in my PS4. Also I bought Tokyo Jungle for the PS3 when it was on .99c sale and that game looks mental. And I have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to watch, too! But, nonetheless, an empty house where my wife and son who I deeply miss are far away.

1.0 Apple and Nike

Well, the Apple and Nike reckons won’t stop coming, so I’ll throw my hat into the ring as promised on Twitter the other day when I said:

“I will eat a cupcake in the shape of a hat if Nike+ is built into/preinstalled on an Apple wearable that supports user-installed apps.”[1]

Previously on “stuff people have reckoned about Nike and Apple” we agreed on the following things:

– Tim Cook sits on Nike’s board and wears a Fuelband
– Apple and Nike introduced Nike+iPod in 2006
– Nike is likely discontinuing the Fuelband with the Fuelband SE, and no more Nike+ hardware will be produced
– Apple introduced the M7 motion co-processor in the iPhone 5S in 2013, demoed on stage with Nike+ Move
– Certain Nike+ mobile software was only ever available on the iOS platform

Here’s some other things I think we can also agree on:

– Apple is definitely up to something in the “wearables” space, by which I mean: something that isn’t a phone, that’s more passive, and probably is designed in favour of gathering data rather than presenting (not just displaying) it.
– Battery life is a bitch.
– Wearables are either in, or entering, the Creative Labs Nomad stage: a nascent, non-mass market, expensive, with a terrible user experience. The Samsung Gear Fit is, I think, exactly what cmdrtaco would be calling a Nomad, and it isn’t even as good as a Nomad was. Come to think of it, I think the Pebble is the Creative Labs Nomad.

So, that said, what are the reckons?

I think there’s value to be gained from drawing a distinction from the Nike+iPod launch story. In 2006, both parties had a lot to gain: the iPod was not yet the juggernaut that it would become. Sales in 2005 were around 23 million units, by 2008 they would peak at around 54 million units. Nike had everything to gain. Apple had something to gain by tying the iPod to fitness. But it’s hard to say whose needle moved more.

I’ll go right out and say it’s damn out of character for Apple to launch a new product in a new category and have one of the defining aspects of the user experience of that product be another company’s proprietary, third party metric.

More simply, I don’t think an Apple Wearable will be default calculate activity and present it primarily in terms of Nike Fuel. The hierarchy will, I think, be easily understood terms to people like steps and calories.

Nike, however, has nailed its flag to the mast of NikeFuel and is attempting to build an ecosystem around its proprietary metric. But here’s the kicker: for Nike’s ecosystem to be *the* ecosystem in the way that I am thinking people are implying, with Tim Cook leaning into the Nike board’s ear to whisper “Hail Hydra^W^WHey, the iWatch is coming and I want you guys to get on board”, Nike *needs* to be a pre-install and NikeFuel *needs* to be the default metric for the NikeFuel ecosystem to be viable. I honestly don’t think it’s big enough. And Apple don’t – or shouldn’t – care. The best Nike can hope for, I think, is partner status in terms of placement in the App Store for whatever device Apple release.

At the same time, Nike is trying to get other companies to join the NikeFuel bandwagon through its Fuel Lab in San Francisco. But I honestly don’t see the benefit for those other companies in the activity space. Yes, Nike has a massive brand. But you work at a startup because you want to grow something big, not because you want to partner with The Man. And here, Nike’s The Man. If I were Strava or Runkeeper, I would view a call from Nike to be part of the NikeFuel ecosystem as a gauntlet-thrown challenge to iterate faster and better to grow a bigger ecosystem. Because, again, what does Nike bring to the party? Does it bring a massive audience that can convert to new Strava users? Will it be marketing third party apps? Will there be a giant TV campaign? These are all unanswered questions that need to be understood when you’re asking startups to become part of your ecosystem.

I also think NikeFuel is an opaque metric. Again, if you want me to participate in your ecosystem and to use your metric (and, presumably, to use your metric *over* other metrics), then you need me to be sure that my users will understand it. And maybe that’s what Nike will do: a stupendously large full-spectrum air-dominance marketing campaign that only Nike can do, getting everyone to understand what NikeFuel is and why they should measure their daily activity using it. Personally, I don’t rate this as happening.

[1] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/458669660817600513

2.0 Critiquing Everyone Deserves Great Design

Provocation of the day comes in the form of a manifesto[1] from Ehsan Noursalehi, founder of non-profit startup madebybump[2]. Noursalehi’s looking for a way “to incentivise capitalism to do good for the people of this planet independent of their respective geographic, cultural or economic status.”

Every great manifesto starts with a statement that you can get behind. And with this particular one it’s that Everyone Deserves Great Design. Which is true: everyone does deserve great design. Along with, say, food, water, education and the right to life and to not be coerced into slavery, for example. Let me just say that if you’re looking to do social good, or if you’re looking to do as unallloyed, pure good as you can, then at least saying what everyone deserves great design *for* would introduce clarity of purpose.

Noursalehi’s manifesto is a sort of extension of the Californian Ideology in the same way that we saw with yesterday’s manifesto from Undercurrent. It draws from the dominant examples of the Valley – highly successful, network and software-based companies that have been able to derive their success from the inexorable progress of Moore’s law. In this case, Noursalehi’s exemplars are Google and Facebook, because they are “relying on ‘poor’ users in developing countries as significant sources of revenue.” Would that were true, of course: there’s no doubt that Google and Facebook’s plans are derive significant sources of *future* revenue from developing countries and the bottom of the pyramid, but make no mistake: current revenue is mainly derived from developed nations. Right now, significant sources of revenue aren’t coming from populations subsisting on a dollar a day.

Now, where Noursalehi’s right, of course, is that Google and Facebook are focussed on user need. In a broad way (and it’s easy to find counter-examples where these companies may appear to have not), these companies and their products “treat people as humans – people with needs and desires. These global heuristics are breaking down traditional economic, social, cultural, and geographic barriers of discrimination in product design.”

If we’re just talking about “bad design”, then we’ve got an agreement hands down. If we’re talking about “the frustrations of numerous products being designed every year and given away free to people who don’t want them,” then we’ve again got agreement hands down. But I think it’s the way that Noursalehi goes about constructing his argument and his way forward that has some holes in it that I’d like to examine.

Why do useless products exist?

Noursalehi opens his manifesto by asking why useless products exist. In his mind, they’re the result of wrong mindsets coupled with good intentions. We can discount the people who’re trying with *bad* intentions, obviously, so we continue with the essentially head-nodding statement of “just because a product has a social mission doesn’t mean the product is great,” which as an example of rhetoric is an unoffensive statement that can feel like it’s designed to ease you into the argument.

Perhaps part of the visceral reaction against Noursalehi’s position is in the examples he chooses. The LN-4 prosthetic arm that he shows is “a prosthetic arm given away for free by the Ellen meadows Foundation… … the intention is good, but the product is little more than some plastic and a few velcro straps. The arm is difficult to put on [and] take off and can barely lift more than 5 pounds.”

Now, I don’t have a bachelors in Materials Science or a Masters in Industrial Design like Noursalehi does, so I’d like to assume that he’s more qualified to speak on these matters than me. But, I find it hard to understand why a product is “little more than plastic and a few velcro traps” is an inherently *bad* thing, especially when the image Noursalehi chooses to illustrate the product with appears to be set in a developing country. While plastic and velcro may not be aircraft grade milled aluminium, it is cheap and, one hopes, durable and easy to repair or replace. That the arm is difficult to put on and take off may well be indicative of a bad product, but again, depends on how often that activity is expected to be undertaken, and similarly the fact that the arm can barely lift more than five pounds feels like it needs to be taken into context. Is your choice, right now, lifting five pounds, or no pounds? I know I would choose five over none. And the rest of the context around the product matters, too: I am making the assumption, due to the imagery used, that this is *designed* to be a cheap product.

Now, let’s be clear here. Noursalehi isn’t saying that the LN-4 Prosthetic arm is *bad* design. He’s saying that it’s *useless*. And if we believe that design is as much the language that we use in the world as well as the objects and services we produce that exist in it, then we should aspire to be as careful and considered in the words we use (perhaps Noursalehi himself isn’t sure about the terminology he wants to use – the anchor tag he uses in the URL for this section is #bad). For me, a prosthetic arm in the possession of someone who has no prosthetic arm, that enables a person to lift five pounds when they could lift none, is not useless. It’s life-changing.

For the other product examples that Noursalehi cites as “useless” design, his concerns may well be more valid. He says that an electricity-generating soccer ball often breaks in a few weeks, that there are at least ten detailed problems with a water pump design.

The last example Nouraslehi uses is that of the Free Wheelchair Mission, “made from readily available plastic chairs, mountain bike tires, castors, and a custom metal frame. Over 700,000 have been distributed in 90 countries – they could have easily and affordably produced a more appropriate and desirable wheelchair.”

I feel like it’d be a diversion to pick apart “appropriate” and “desirable”, but I do have an issue with the phrase “they could have easily and affordably.” From my point of view, the first person to throw stones should be the one who’s actually shipped 700,000 wheelchairs in 90 countries. There’s value in armchair criticism, of course, but I frequently find that it’s hard to start a productive dialogue if you’re on the sidelines saying that what was done could have been “easily” bettered by someone not involved in the process.

Where I do agree with Noursalehi is in his use of Kelsey Timmerman’s quote – that too often we objectify people living poverty, and that “we pait them as two dimensional characters that we pity.” That, I feel, is true, and requires almost a sort of leveling-up of empathy. Where I think Noursalehi is right is in saying that more attention needs to be paid to people’s needs and desires and that simple do-gooding doesn’t in and of itself satisfy those needs and, in some cases, may even reinforce a sort of helpless victim complex that privileged people unintentionally maintain.

All of this equates, in Noursalehi’s mind, to discrimination against the very people the non-profits say that they’re attempting to serve. People I know with more experience than me in living and working with the NGO world (but from outside of it) have expressed frustration with how the NGO and non-profit world works, a world that is as in need of Californian Ideology style “disruption” as any non-digital Western business. (Chris Locke – here’s your sticky)

At its heart, I think what Noursalehi is trying to say is that NGO’s and non-profits have been subverted by chasing the money, who they think is their “user” as opposed to the people they’re supposed to be serving. Like yesterday’s Undercurrent Responsive OS manifesto, the core point here is one of agility: putting something out in the world that makes progress toward a goal, gathering feedback, and then adjusting course to better achieve that goal. It’s that simple.

Where Noursalehi goes a little off-course is in saying that the appropriate mindset to adopt is not just caring about the other 90% but in producing products and objects that the other 90% *desire* to own.

Desire, of course, is a tricky thing.

How to prevent useless products

The manifesto now sets up a problem: that social product design is driven by tough constraints, and bad design results when user desires are ignored. Even worse product results when “the poor are accidentally seen as helpless people that need to be saved who have no agency.” I agree that seeing a group of people like that “strips [them] of their dignity.”

The suggested solution is to embrace the constraints of the developing world and “merge it with the typical desires of the first world.” By doing this, Noursalehi says we can “more frequently avoid bad products” but also produce “very innovative and meaningful products.”

What’s interesting is that although Noursalehi opens this section of his manifesto with a quote from Tim Brown of IDEO that “Great design satisfies both our needs *and* our desires” [my emphasis], there’s no talk of peoples’ needs in this section. There is only talk of desire. And the thing about capitalism that it’s not clear that Noursalehi understands (and this may well be a product of him being ensconsed in academia) it’s that Western Capitalism is very, very good at *manufacturing* desire these days.

The manifesto lists four principles that should be followed in order to produce “Great Design for Everyone.”

The first is to simultaneously embrace desires and constraints. I hope Noursalehi qualifies that in recognising *local* desires, or culturally specific desires. And also the danger in and allure of manufacturing desire where none exists.

The second is to “minimise resource inefficiencies”, and to use first principles to reinvent problematic aspects: and in formal Californian Ideology manner, there’s reference to the work of Elon Musk at Tesla and SpaceX in terms of bottom-up design.

The third is to “optimize value”, which again, isn’t necessarily aligned to the goals of capitalism. Providing the “maximum functional, social, and emotional value for a minimum initial investment and low long-term maintenance cost” sounds, in some ways, like asking for the moon to be carefully positioned on a stick of a design specified by a complex multivariate equation. Again, this feels a bit like teaching people to suck eggs, or, less charitably, designsplaining: “hey, you know what you should do? You should try to make the best product and the lowest price that lasts forever. Got that? Awesome, let’s ship it!”

The fourth, and the principle I have least objection to, is that we should “dignify everyone” and here Noursalehi cribs liberally from Warhol: a homeless person and the President should be treated equally, and discrimination should not take place based on geography, culture or economic status. I feel there’s a problem here, but the good news is that this is just a set-up for something that’s coming up.

Noursalehi says we should be hopeful, because there are “countless great products that do not discriminate based on geography, culture or economic status.” So what are they?

He has five examples.

The first is a digital watch, the Casio F-91W, introduced in 1991 and “a popular product worldwide today.” It’s water-resistant, features a calendar, alarm, stopwatch and a battery that lasts over 7 years.”

The second is the BIC Cristal Pen, “a tool of utility and creativity,” that is “highly reliable, stylish and one of the most affordable ballpoint pens in the world.”

The third is the monobloc polypropylene chair, “produced by numerous manufacturers worldwide,” and is “affordable, need no maintenance, can be used in any weather, and are stackable.”

The fourth is “a carbonated soft drink sold in over 200 countries worldwide,” and “the world’s most valuable brand.”

The last is Gangnam Style, the music video that became the first to have over a billion views on YouTube, “becoming a globalization phenomenom”. Of this, Noursalehi says “it is without doubt a marker in history that there is now a means and interest to distribute products, or in this case a digital product, globally to everyone, without regard to social, economic or cultural status.”

I’m not exactly sure what point Noursalehi is trying to make here. Is it that these are lowest common denominator products? Is it that they fulfil desire? Is it that they are, in Coca-Cola’s case, a valuable brand?

In the Casio watch example, I see how a cheap product that lets you tell the time fulfills a need. I don’t necessarily see how it’s *desirable* to people of both the first and third world in the way that I think Noursalehi says we should be aiming for. In any event, one critique I have with him picking this particular watch is that the illustration is of a watch built for a Western market, with English as the user interface (but then, is it patronising to assume that people want products in their local language, fit to their local culture? Or is Noursalehi saying that a successful invasive species is “good” design?)

There are a bunch of factors that I don’t feel Noursalehi is unpacking here. There’s “popular products” that sell worldwide, but again, correlation isn’t causation. Can I make the same accusation that the Casio coud have “easily and affordably produced a more appropriate and desirable” watch that served emerging and developed markets equally? Because let’s be clear: some of these products are Western/Developed-Country-First products, that just *happened* through industrialisation and economy of sale to be easy to import into other markets. Is the Bic Cristal pen stylish? That’s a matter for debate. Is it cheap? Does it do the job? Are there better pens? Is it sustainable? Can you say the same thing about the monobloc chair?

Is Noursalehi saying that these are *inherently* great products that *also* do not discriminate based upon geography, culture and economic status? Or are these products instead just examples of successful capitalism and colonisation of market? And, let’s be clear about Coca-Cola: Coca-Cola’s product is as much a brand as it is the drink. And that’s manufactured desire. It may well have been a *strategy* of theirs to say: you know what the thing is about Coke, it’s the same for everyone. But the simple matter is, the *brand* of Coke is for everyone. Because what’s in Coke isn’t the same, market to market anyway.

Does that mean Noursalehi is saying that we should be developing desirable brands for developing markets?

Because when Noursalehi asks “have you ever wondered about how a homeless person on the side of the street and the leader of the free world consume the same fizzy soda drink just to have a fleeting moment of happiness?” it kind of feels disingenuous when you’re talking about doing social good.

This is all without me taking issue with his usage of Gangnam Style. Here, Noursalehi’s falters again, because he commits that Californian Ideology mistake of saying “everyone”, when he actually means “everyone with internet access,” again, an interesting mistake given that further down he talks of the internet.org project. Two thirds of the world is not on the internet. Two thirds of the world has no access, or even no *desire* to be on the internet. There is still a large population of people in developed countries like the UK and the US who have expressed no interest and no desire to be on the internet. So to say that “there is now a means and an interest to instantaneously distribute products globally to everyone, without regard to social, economic or cultural status,” I only have one response: bullshit. This type of thinking is, in my opinion, as bad, and as poisonous as Noursalehi alleges of the bad NGOs and non-profits. Did you hear that? There are people who aren’t on the internet. And they matter, too.

The World is Constantly Changing

Yes, the world’s changing. And for a lot of people – a *lot* of people, it’s getting significantly better. Organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative are working on programs that are applying rigorous methodology to actually make a difference. Programs like the GSM Alliance’s mHealth run out of their Mobile for Development fund are improving quality of life through products and services that are designed to actually be used, and mPesa to this day remains the big thing in digital currency that’s not bitcoin that not many people have heard of. If you’re interested in what people who know what they’re doing and are bringing the NGOs to task to actually deliver, then you should check out with Chris Locke, ex-director of the above GSM Alliance’s Mobile for Development fund is doing over at Caribou Digital[3].

But there’s a disconnect here: Noursalehi says that Apple, Google and Facebook see growth in the developing world, while at the top of the manifesto we’re told that the same companies *rely* on “poor” people in the developing world for significant revenue. Which statement might be true if Noursalehi meant that those companies are reliant on bringing up those “poor” people for future growth, but not current revenue. Apple is notorious for not wanting to compromise on product, so while the Street might be penalising them for not going after “growth” at the expense of net profit, and while its products are desirable to consumers in developing markets, they’re certainly not affordable. And I don’t think Apple will compromise on that.

Noursalehi similarly says that $199 Chromebooks advertised (to consumers who can afford them) are for “everyone”, but again, not everyone can afford a $199 Chromebook. And, sure, Facebook has its counterpart to Google’s Loon project to bring affordable internet access to the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have it – which, hang on, wasn’t Gangnam Style proof that you could distribute product to *everyone*? So which is it?

I don’t think the GE story is particularly interesting: yes, they’ve done product development thorough developing for external markets first and then bringing them back to their home markets, and again I might just be being naive, but I don’t see why this needs a special label of “reverse innovation” – it’s just innovation.

Noursalehi’s manifesto then goes on to explain to us what the right mindset is to “develop the great design everyone deserves”.

Noursalehi wants designers to remember that we design for people first, and that designing for poverty means focussing on and being biased by inequality. But I think that’s an oversimplification: because you can imagine situations where being able to focus on an attribute allows you to properly examine how to solve for it. In this way, designers are supposed to focus on products and services that are desired equally by the top 10% *and* the bottom 90%, but are simultaneously affordable for both the top 10% and bottom 90%. I am not sure whether he is asking for a miracle or merely something very hard, or honestly even a part of the solution space that no one has genuinely explored.

For me, though, that bottom 90% is exemplified by the population of the world that *is* basically clawing its way up out of a subsistence economy. So the “good” examples that Noursalehi shows, at price points of $20, $130 and $40 to my mind don’t solve for the criteria that he has set.

A $20 water straw *as it stands*, does not meet his criteria. A $130 wood-burning stove does not meet his criteria (but does, interestingly, act as a step in the chain toward helping that two thirds of the population without internet access start powering devices that enable access, through USB outputs). Similarly, a $40 foam football, even if it’s on a buy-one-give-one model, doesn’t solve the same problems.

I think there’s a bit of a false equivalency going on here. Noursalehi says that no one in the developed country would choose the LN-4 prosthetic arm, given the choice. They would choose something better. But do those in developing countries have the choice to *not* choose the LN-4 arm? I feel that the criticisms he levels at “bad” products, or even worse, the ones he labels as “useless”, can be similarly leveled at the ones he espouses as being good.

To be sure, Noursalehi doesn’t say that following this manifesto is an *easy* process. But I don’t think he’s done the work to show that it’s a viable one, either. It’s a map to a way out for a future that we can agree we all want (modulo the highly suspicious bit to me about creating brands to solve social problems through sugar water). All he’s saying, with a bit of hyperbole that I think is unwarranted, is that perhaps we should be trying harder.

He is saying, though that “companies like Apple and Samsung cannot ignore the massive potential of the bottom 90%”. With all due respect, I don’t think he understands what Apple does and what Apple stands for. Apple exists in the world, and it’s not necessarily Apple’s job to uplift or produce a product, that can produce a profit, right now, for the dollar-a-day income people. I don’t thin Noursalehi has actually advanced a concrete reason for firms that are staggeringly profitable to produce products that reduce their margins other than “because it’s good for the human race”. He is, essentially, making a volume number and hoping that the volume of the bottom 90% is going to make up for almost absurd wealth concentration at the top end, something that I don’t think pans out when you do the maths.

And I do feel like Noursalehi is patronising when he’s saying that “optimising for cheapness” is “not the most important thing” for poor people, that quality and value performance are often the most important factors in the decision making process.” Well, for starters, how does Coca-Cola figure into quality and value performance? Is it the best at delivering happiness to those at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid? Or, is Noursalehi essentially saying that of the phrase “good, cheap, long-living” he no longer wants to pick two?

The manifesto ends with the giant pullquote: “No one wants a shitty product.” Which isn’t really a particularly insightful rallying call. Well, no shit sherlock. Words matter. If you’re advancing the argument that considered design in service of people is going to make a difference, then don’t throw up the straw man that people are going around saying, “Hey, you know what? We should make a useless product or service that will save the world.”

No-one sets out to make a useless product or service on purpose, I don’t think. Especially the audience that Noursalehi is hoping to engage.

It can be easy to write something that feels like a manifesto. It’s hard to write something that’s *right* and that doesn’t just feel like it’s moving and emotive and a rallying call. I could make the same accusation here and say: “the most misleading proposition is a badly thought through, badly expressed manifesto tarted up with a parallax-scroll style website.”

Let’s be clear: this type of manifesto *is* a rallying call and propaganda. And it’s in the service of a noble cause. It’s failures are self-inflicted.

[1] http://www.everyonedeservesgreatdesign.com/
[2] http://madebybump.org/
[3] http://cariboudigital.net

3.0 Odds

First, the random thought that an Apple wearable product could take the form of headphones. It doesn’t actually make *that* much sense, because you’d have to wear them all the time, but hey, you can whack a three-axis accelerometer and pulse/blood-ox sensor package in there (earbuds, right?) and it’d be *totally* Apple to do a keynote where they throw up a picture of some headphones and say “Guys, you’ve been doing headphones wrong all this time.”

Anyway, on reflection I don’t think it works because people would need to wear headphones the whole time. But hey, Google Glass kind of needs you to wear the glasses the whole time and maybe we need a do-over with the whole “please put stuff on your face/head” angle.

Second, following on a bit from Nick Sweeney’s point that “bullshit arguments are allowed to proliferate on the web because of parallax scrolling” and his beautiful coinage of “snowfallacies”. We’re suckers for good presentation. But words matter. I need to find it, but there’s a great manifesto at work, that self-referentially talks about how to write a manifesto. There’s something in this. I bet Robin Sloan would be all over this. A sort of tap/fish means of content/presentation for rhetoric.

Third, I throwaway mentioned that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a bit New Aesthetic Zeitgest Bingo. There are *so* many things packed into that movie that feel like they’re of the moment, at least to me, so I’m probably going to write something about it this week. Oh, and Freedom, Suarez’s follow-up to Daemon, is getting much better.

Okay, that’s it. Another long one today. In fact, Tinyletter’s got a little badge (sigh) down there telling me that I’m at five thousand, one hundred and fifty eight-ish words, a *new record*. Yeah!

So, yes. Notes. I imagine there will be some following this episode. I always love notes and feedback because otherwise this really is just random neuronal firings in my brain and I don’t know if I’m getting any “better” or not. And again, if you’re a new reader, check out my archive at http://danhon.com/newsletter, and send a quick note introducing yourself.I promise I’ll reply.

Best,

Dan