Fast Talk: Apple in Their Eyes

Digital-audio players weren't exactly virgin territory when Apple entered the fray in 2001. But the iPod — with its sublime design, intuitive usability, and unparalleled cool quotient — set a new standard by which all other MP3 players would be judged. Four rivals talk about designing their answer to an icon.

Go the Distance With the Details

Dan Harden

Principal, Whipsaw Inc.
San Jose, California

If there's anything anyone in this field is chasing, it's Apple's quality and simplicity. Pick up an iPod, and you get it, you feel it, you sense it. When it first came out in 2001, the iPod had a pretty serious impact on Rio Audio. Rio came to us and basically said, "We need serious help. Our market position has slipped, and we may even go bankrupt." We helped them beat Apple to market by a year on a mini hard-drive player.

We were working on its successor, the Carbon, when Apple shot back with the iPod mini. Suddenly, the philosophical underpinning became, How could Rio possibly compete with this powerhouse? We decided that we had to be radically different from Apple. Where Apple was the ivory tower, we were going to be the dark rebel. Where Apple was geometric, we were going to be smooth and curvy. Apple was so enamored with absolute pure, minimalist design that some designers may argue that ergonomics were compromised. We also saw an opportunity to beat Apple in materials and battery life.

Some companies have reacted to the iPod by loading up with features, but that can backfire. It's control and discipline in the details that conveys Rio's commitment to quality in the design. We went to Asia and worked closely with the contract manufacturers, holding them accountable to the standards we set. It cost an extra 25%, but we could design out mistakes this way. That's crucial since Rio doesn't advertise. The Carbon had to be its own salesman.

Dan Harden, 45, started his own firm after 10 years at frog design. The Carbon is the second-best-selling midsized player, behind only the iPod mini.

One Design Does Not Fit All

Ellen Glassman

General manager of brand design and strategy
Sony Electronics USA
Park Ridge, New Jersey

At Sony, we believe What customers really want is choice. How we deliver that is a collaborative process between designers, engineers, and marketers. What we've found is that consumers have very different needs that can't be fulfilled by a one-size-fits-all approach. So we believe in offering a breadth of designs, price points, and features: In March, we introduced nine flash-based players to the Network Walkman lineup, which includes last year's 20-gigabyte HD3.

Competing in this space? Honestly, it's all about customers first. We accomplish that by having our designers watch for emerging trends and technologies and then marry them to the needs of the customer. Our designers must have an extra sense of what will come. We send them all over the world to different kinds of exhibits, such as the Milan furniture fair. We have designer exchange programs, where someone from, say, Tokyo will work in the States for a while. Senior management realized very early on how important it is for designers to understand different cultures. It's a way for them to keep their minds open to possibilities.

We believe we're in a unique position as an entertainment company. As digital technologies converge, we're evolving to combine portable audio and entertainment. If someone wants to play games, listen to music, or watch a movie, we offer that in one device. If they want to make a call, take a photo, and listen to music, we do that too. So we're going to continue to pursue what we've always pursued: identifying consumer lifestyles and making products that work for them. In the end, we're really competing with ourselves to make the products better.

Ellen Glassman, 40, was formerly director of the Sony Design Center. Early reviews of Sony's newest set of flash-based players say it's a strong contender to take on the iPod shuffle.

Let the Customer Drive Design

Steve Gluskoter

Codirector, Industrial Design and Usability
Product Group, Dell
Round Rock, Texas

Sometimes, something that looks cool or neat is of no value to the customer. By the time we entered the market for MP3 players in 2003 with the Dell DJ, there had been a lot of products out there, and we studied the vast majority, including the iPod. There were positives and negatives for every player, and we tracked them. But we didn't want to focus on what everyone else did.

At Dell, we don't make design decisions based on style alone. Customer input is a huge driver, which is why we talk to our customers directly through our in-house usability lab. This is where we test our concepts alongside our competitors'. Then we watch and learn. That's how we realized the importance of volume control, which has a dedicated button on the Pocket DJ. It's something people want to adjust constantly but was often buried or difficult to find on other players.

We also do our own trend watching. Honesty of materials was one trend that factored into the design. People want to know that the cold feel of metal in your hand is the real thing, so we chose to go with anodized aluminum, which gave us the strength and rigidity we needed. Also, our surface is fingerprint resistant. In the labs, we saw that people were incredibly annoyed by that with the iPod.

There's a sign in the lab that says two things: listen to the customer and you're not the customer. We bring in people across a broad demographic, from target customers to owners of our competitors' players, from teenagers to corporate executives. It's hard to do the wrong thing if you're talking to enough people and listening to what the masses are telling you.

Steve Gluskoter, 41, joined Dell in 1993 as its first industrial designer. The Pocket DJ, released last October, was named one of Oprah's Favorite Things in 2004.

Put Design First

Young Se Kim

CEO and founder, Innodesign Inc.
Palo Alto, California

In the first 15 years of my career as a designer, many clients would come in with an idea already set and then ask me to make it pretty. The trouble is, their ideas were based on research from competitors' products or trends. It's very difficult to make a completely different product that way. You'll end up with more of the same.

That's what happened with iRiver's first hard-drive player. It was based on an engineering spec, and we didn't have as much freedom with the design. So with the H10, its successor, I felt we had to start from scratch. We obviously couldn't ignore our biggest competitor, the Apple iPod, whose design is so popular. But we wanted to do something different. With the iPod's click wheel, I noticed lots of people using only one-quarter of the turn with the thumb. So I thought, if that's all they need, why not make it just go straight up and down? That idea — that a vertical touch pad might make more sense — came from just watching people at coffee shops.

Industrial design has become one of the few cards manufacturers can play these days. It's especially true for MP3 players, because the technology processes have become commoditized. At the end of the day, users will buy what they feel attached to, what they're happy with, what they can show off as part of their identity. Design is no longer an easy process that comes at the end. It's a matter of life and death, so it should come first.

Young Se Kim, 54, founded Innodesign in 1986. This past January, Bill Gates showed off the H10 during his keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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