In an earlier post, we talked about the marketing wisdom of informercial superstar Ron Popeil. Here’s a passage by Malcolm Gladwell that we found so compelling, we had to explore it in a post of its own:
“Thirty years ago, the video cassette recorder came on the market, and it was a disruptive product: it was supposed to make it possible to tape a television show so that no one would ever again be chained to the prime-time schedule.”
“Yet, as ubiquitous as the VCR became, it was seldom put to that purpose. That’s because the VCR was never pitched: no one ever explained the gadget to American consumers–not once or twice but three or four times–and no one showed them exactly how it worked or how it would fit into their routine, and no pair of hands guided them through every step of the process.”
“All the VCR-makers did was hand over the box with a smile and a pat on the back, tossing in an instruction manual for good measure. Any pitchman could have told you that wasn’t going to do it.”
Here’s how Ron Popeil might’ve marketed the VCR:
“If Ron had been the one to introduce the VCR, in other words, he would not simply have sold it in an infomercial. He would also have changed the VCR itself, so that it made sense in an infomercial.
“The clock, for example, wouldn’t be digital. (The haplessly blinking unset clock has, of course, become a symbol of frustration.)”
“The tape wouldn’t be inserted behind a hidden door–it would be out in plain view, just like the chicken in the rotisserie, so that if it was recording you could see the spools turn.”
“The controls wouldn’t be discreet buttons; they would be large, and they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step of the taping process would be identified with a big, obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it.”
“And would it be a slender black, low-profile box? Of course not. Ours is a culture in which the term “black box” is synonymous with incomprehensibility. Ron’s VCR would be in red-and-white plastic, both opaque and translucent swirl, or maybe 364 Alcoa aluminum, painted in some bold primary color.”
Let’s revisit the underlying design principles:
1: Leave out the non-essential.
Why do VCRs have clocks, anyway? The original reason was so that people could program their VCRs to record TV shows when they weren’t home, but in practice this worked out so badly that almost nobody managed to do it effctively.
Here’s a rather amusing article published in 2000 by the IEEE which, after receiving countless letters of complaints and frustration, concluded that “VCR autoclocks cannot be fully trusted.”
2: Make it transparent.
Being able to see the spools turning instantly lets you know whether your tape is recording or not. It doesn’t always make sense to reveal all the inner workings of a tool to the end-user of a product, because that can confuse them too. You’ll have to identify what the important elements are, and reveal those to them.
This doesn’t need to be taken literally- think about the dashboard of a car, which gives the driver a bunch of useful information without the car actually being transparent.
3: Big, Clear, Simple.
A user should never be allowed to be confused about “What does this button do?”, or whether or not they just did something. Every possible (and confused) action must be accounted for, and every step must be familiar and reassuring.
4: Celebrate the product.
There may be some products that are best kept discreet and hidden away, but most consumer-facing products aren’t. Consider the roar of the engine of a Ferrari, or the boldness of Nike shoes. If somebody’s going to pay you money for something, make them feel good about it. Make them feel like they made a great decision. Give them a cool story to tell their friends. (Free marketing!)
Ultimately, that’s what we’ll pay money for, as consumers.