Thoreau on perfect product design

My brother-in-law got me a copy of Thoreau's Walden for Christmas (Thanks Phil!).  I'm only halfway through, but the pages are dripping with inspiration for good product design.

Check that.  Perfect product design.

For example, Thoreau proposes that:

"a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone."

Or as I read it,

"the less crap you have to deal with, the wealthier you live".

It's what good product design is (should be?) all about: helping people live better by cutting the waste from their lives.

Sadly, when the standard is truly improving lives, most products fail.  They fail because they they are not efficient in the three places it really matters.

Our Time

Some products simply cost us more time than they save.  Or as Thoreau put it:

a lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door.  It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.

When  a product  consumes more time than it saves, it is a fundamental fail. It's an insight that has become common sense to designers, so most products that make it to market pass this test.

But being a time-saver doesn't guarantee wild success (every infomercial ever made dubs itself "quick and easy" or a "time-saver").  A product must also make an efficient use of space.

Our Space

I love my food processor.  I can take my stale, hard baguettes (I always buy too many), and in a few minutes I pulverize them into bread crumbs for fried chicken or baked cod (yum). Doing it the old fashioned way takes me at least 15 minutes.

It definitely saves time, but I only use it for maybe 15 minutes a week.  The other 99.6% of the time it just sits there, disrespecting my space.

Buy enough disrespectful products and you quickly run out of space to put them.  You could throw them away (ugh) or donate them (better), but why would you do that when they save so much time?

So we don't get rid of it, we store it.  We become a society that fills our homes with crap.  It's no wonder that the size of the average home has jumped over the past 50 years.

Ok, so a good product saves time and space? Definitely.

Just one more thing...

Our Attention

Thoreau didn't talk much about attention (perhaps there weren't too many distractions in the woods near Concord), but it is just as important as time and space. Maybe more.

Our capacity for attention is what makes us alive. Any inanimate object can consume time and space, but only life cultivates the ability to pay attention.

It's a special gift, and I want to spend it on my family, my friends, art, music, and food. Not on my cell phone, car, or printer.

A product is one that saves time, makes an efficient use of space, and doesn't require my attention?  Perfect...I'll take two.

What do you think?  What makes a perfect product?

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  • Porgynbess

    My exact sentiments. I couldn't have it explained it better. >r.

  • loughnane

    I get so many comments on my more technical posts, but this is the one that (so far) I've had the most fun thinking about and writing.

    Glad to hear someone is picking up what I'm putting down.

  • Kngiron

    Elegant simplicity, as Don Lancaster puts it.

  • postby

    When I was a young engineer I often heard people say "make it as easy to use as a telephone". That will make sense to those who remember rotary-dial telephones; they were once considered a great example of simplicity and usability. My, how times have changed.

    "I have always wished that my computer would be as easy to use as my telephone. My wish has come true. I no longer know how to use my telephone." - Bjarne Stroustrup, originator of the C++ programming language

    "That's the thing about people who think they hate computers. What they really hate is lousy programmers." - Larry Niven

    "Elegance is not a dispensable luxury but a quality that decides between success and failure." - E. W. Dijkstra, (EWD1284)

  • loughnane

    I'm fond of using the example: "If tomorrow apple (to pick a company) designed a product that was perfect... i mean perfectly tuned to the human condition, do you think it would interrupt their release cycle? Unlikely. They would add some "features" (not necessarily benefits) and market them".