It's such a relief to have a new cause celebre in the world of product design—particularly something not made by Apple. I am talking about the new Kindle, of course. I can finally take the iPhone out of every one of my presentation decks. Like the Wii, the Kindle seems to be breaking new ground, appealing to people (like my wife, an editor at a women's magazine) who are not Luddites (she has used a smartphone for email for years) but don't fetishize their gizmos at all. The Kindle is a different story.
It is particularly exciting for anyone in the product design community when a major consumer brand makes the leap to hardware. Unfortunately, this usually takes the form of "logo slapping," by the likes of Disney and others. The results are superficial at best. But they can also do real damage to the brand.
At frog, we talk a lot about "brand-led innovation," a concept that is becoming core to any brand or marketing strategy. But innovation cannot be delivered through conventional marketing media alone. It requires new products or services of some kind, like Hulu. And I would argue that innovation has a different impact when the product is something you can hold and love. A tangible product tells you much more about a brand than an advertisement (or even the richest media-encrusted, experiential Web site). A product (or service) also gives you insight into how that business sees the world—your world—and the role that they would like to play in it. That is why so many marketers like Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Anomaly and Arnell (okay, not the best example) are building product capabilities. And why Best Buy is investing in consumer-led innovations within their white label product lines.
But where exactly is Amazon's brand story in the Kindle? The design is pure Apple, circa 2000. The putty color, and rounded edges seem to slightly predate the first iPod. The product design is comfortable but not distinctive in anyway, even with the familiar keyboard and joystick that were added in round two.
So how is the brand story being told? Through behavior. What stands out are the choices Amazon made around interaction. Like the Flip camcorder, Amazon has focused on simplification. And this requires a strong set of beliefs and insights about what consumers want (or should want) out of a product experience. These beliefs are the only compass for making real trade offs—for filtering the glut of features and functions that technology makes possible. These are exactly the types of strong beliefs that companies like Sony shed long ago (otherwise the PSP would be one of the most powerful franchises ever...don't get me started).
So what does the Kindle say about Amazon's beliefs? The most obvious is the belief in on-demand delivery. The first thing people who own one brag about is their ability to download new books in that awkward 8 minutes and 14 seconds between boarding a plane and getting harassed for not turning off "approved" electronic devices. But it is not just the network. It is the way the network is delivered as part of the book!
Amazon is putting its brand in a completely different category than Comcast or AT&T. The network is only as valuable as what it delivers—so just pay for that! They are also saying that books should be sampled, whether "War and Peace" or the latest Sue Grafton. Books exist for our pleasure and stimulation. You no longer have to be intimidated by cracking an 800-page classic. Sample it like the latest track from "Fatboy Slim!" This is a pretty democratic notion—one that speaks volumes about who Amazon (and Jeff Bezos) wants to be now and in the future. In other words, these things tell you about their brand. If you look back at Amazon's history, the Kindle's simplicity is hardly a surprise. After all, Amazon brought us one-click ordering, and undeniably created the most customer-centric shopping platform in the world. The Kindle design is truly brand-led.
Another brand story that comes through strongly with the Kindle is that this is one innovation that is not going to be driven by geekdom. The reason I haven't bought a Kindle is its lack of synergy with my feed-driven life. In other words, I'm too geeky for it. I keep track of approximately 75 RSS feeds every day on my iPhone through the Newsgator app, which now sits in a permanent spot on my dashboard (having ousted the Safari icon long ago).
But setting up, managing, and searching your feeds introduces a lot of UI overhead and complexity. Tempting. But Amazon is saying: "Thanks, but no thanks. We can do just fine without it." Amazon would rather minimize the visibility of services like RSS than risk confusing the "Snuggie" market. If you need to keep up-to-date, up-to-the-minute, and always connected, then this is not the device for you. Which relates to my first point: The connection is assumed, not celebrated.
So what do you do if you want to take your software/services brand into the 'real world'? To extend your business and enrich your brand perception through product-based innovation?
Over the years I have fielded this request from a lot of clients like MTV who have toyed with a move into the device market. Well, guess what: You may not believe it, but Steve Jobs has a gift for you.
I am working with a team at frog on developing a series of custom iPhone applications. While these are not tangible products, thanks to the iPhone they can to pretend to be. Launch your favorite game orapp on the iPhone and you have a pretty rich prototype of your own product experience.
With the next version of the OS you can even add hardware peripherals that allow you to further transform the iPhone into a surrogate device experience for your brand. After all, Apple was kind enough to put their logo on the back. And the AT&T logo is relegated to the "fine print" (Wow! They didn't even get a power-up animation. Go, Steve!). You can lie in bed, ride the subway, walk through the park, and get a better sense of how your brand fits in the world. Want to know how this innovation is transforming your brand story? Well now you can find 20 or 30,000 people (through the app store) who will try it out and give you feedback on the experience. Nice way to kindle some brand innovation.
Robert Fabricant is VP of Creative for frog design based in New York, where he leads multidisciplinary design teams for clients such as BBC, Comcast, GE, MTV, Nextel, and Nissan. He has developed user experiences for numerous digital platforms, including handheld devices, in-car information systems, medical devices, retail environments, networked applications, and desktop software.
Robert is a leader of frog's health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog's health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world's worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.
Read more of Robert Fabricant's Design4Impact blog.