Seven Ways to Spot the Next Big Thing
5. Bank on openness.
5. Bank on openness.
In 1997 Wired’s founding executive editor, Kevin Kelly, wrote a story called “New Rules for the New Economy” (it was in many ways the inspiration for this very piece). His focus was on networks, the “thickening web” that was forging connections of catalytic power.
Many of his radical rules have become commonalities today, but two of them are just coming into their own: Connected individuals with shared interests and goals, he argued, create “virtuous circles” that can produce remarkable returns for any company that serves their needs. And organizations that “let go at the top” — forsaking proprietary claims and avoiding hierarchy —will be agile, flexible, and poised to leap from opportunity to opportunity, sacrificing short-term payoffs for long-term prosperity. Since Kelly wrote his piece, these forces have flourished. Back then open source software was a programming kibbutz, good for creating a hippy-dippy operating system but nothing that could rival the work of Oracle or Microsoft . Today open source is the default choice for corporations from IBM to Google . Even Microsoft is on board, evangelizing Hadoop and Python and opening the Xbox Kinect controller so it can be a platform for artists and roboticists. Supported by coder clubhouses like SourceForge and GitHub, collaborative circles can emerge with stunning spontaneity, responding elastically to any programming need.
More tellingly, in many organizations openness itself has become a philosophical necessity, the catalyst that turns one employee’s lark into a billion-dollar business. Companies from Lego to Twitter have created a product and then called on its users to chart its course, allowing virtuous circles to multiply and flourish. Time after time, the open option has prevailed, as Zipcar has gained on Hertz and users have upvoted Reddit over Digg.
The best example may be nearly invisible, even to a dedicated user of the Internet: blogging platforms. Less than a decade ago there were a multitude of services competing for the emerging legion of bloggers: Movable Type, TypePad, Blogger, WordPress. Today, only the last two remain relevant, and of these, the small, scrappy WordPress is the champ. WordPress prevailed for several reasons. For one, it was free and fantastically easy to install, allowing an aspiring blogger (or blogging company) to get off the ground in hours. Users who wanted a more robust design or additional features could turn to a community of fellow users who had created tools to meet their own needs. And that community didn’t just use WordPress — many made money on it by selling their designs and plug-ins. Their investment of time and resources emboldened others, and soon the WordPress community was stronger than any top-down business model forged inside the walls of their competition.
Sure, there are Apples and Facebooks that thrive under the old rules of walled gardens and monocultures. But even they try to tap into openness (albeit on their own terms) by luring developers to the App Store and the Open Graph. And for all the closed-world success of these companies, the world at large is moving the other way: toward transparency, collaboration, and bottom-up innovation. True openness requires trust, and that’s not available as a plug-in. When transparency is just a marketing slogan, people can see right through it.
6. Demand deep design.
6. Demand deep design.
Too often in technology, design is applied like a veneer after the hard work is done. That approach ignores how essential design is in our lives. Our lives are beset by clutter, not just of physical goods but of ideas and options and instructions — and design, at its best, lets us prioritize. Think of a supremely honed technology: the book. It elegantly organizes information, delivering it in a compact form, easily scanned asynchronously or in one sitting. The ebook is a worthy attempt to reverse-engineer these qualities — a process that has taken decades and chewed up millions in capital. But still, despite the ingenuity and functionality of the Kindle and the Nook, they don’t entirely capture the charms of the original technology. Good design is hard.
Indeed, good design is much, much harder than it looks. When Target redesigned its prescription pill bottle in 2005, the improvement was instantly recognizable — an easy-to-read label that plainly explains what the pill is and when to take it. It was a why-didn’t-I-think-of-it innovation that begged to be replicated elsewhere. But judging by the profusion of products and labels that continue to baffle consumers, it has been largely ignored. Same with Apple : The company’s design imperative is forever cited as intrinsic to its success, but Apple still stands curiously alone as a company where engineers integrate design into the bones of its products.
Thankfully, we are on the verge of a golden age of design, where the necessary tools and skills — once such limited resources — are becoming automated and available to all of us. This timing is critical. “Too much information” has become the chorus of complaint from all quarters, and the cure is not more design but deeper design, design that filters complexity into accessible units of comprehension and utility. Forget Apple’s overpraised hardware aesthetic; its greatest contribution to industrial design was to recognize that nobody reads user’s manuals. So it pretty much eliminated them. You can build as many stunning features into a product as you like; without a design that makes them easy to use, they may as well be Easter eggs.
No company has managed this better than Facebook, which outstripped MySpace because it offered constraint over chaos and rigor over randomness. Facebook has tweaked its interface half a dozen times over the years, but it has never lost the essential functionality that users expect. Indeed, its redesigns have been consistently purposeful.
Each time, the company’s goal has been to nudge users to share a little more information, to connect a little more deeply. And so every change has offered tools for users to better manage their information, making it easier to share, organize, and access the detritus of our lives. Privacy concerns aside, Facebook has helped people bring design into their lives as never before, letting us curate our friends, categorize our family photos, and bring (at least the appearance of) continuity to our personal histories. Services like Pinterest only make this more explicit. They promise to let us organize our interests and inspirations into a clear, elegant form. They turn us into designers and our daily experience into a lifelong project of curation. This is deep design commoditized — the expertise of IDEO without the pricey consulting contract. And done right, it is irresistible.