Innovation & Design

Handing Over the Keys


Earlier this year, I bought a Volvo S40 -- a sports sedan billed as the "simplicity car." The interior lines are clean and completely seamless. The dashboard looks fantastic. Yet when it recently started to act up and refused to eject the CD I was playing -- freezing up all of the central controls -- the love affair quickly ended.

Suddenly the sleek dashboard became an impenetrable shell. And with no way to open it up, nothing to prod in the hopes of ejecting the CD, I was left at the mercy of the dealer. As a consumer, such closed systems are maddening. Can they really be good business?

From a designer's perspective, there's an upside and a downside to creating a product that can be easily serviced by the customer. The downside is that the product's case will require removable panels or some other kind of functional mechanical seam. Translation: It won't be a sleek, seamless form. The upside is that the object will be infinitely easier to self-service when problems arise -- and I guarantee you, problems will arise. From the consumer's perspective, this is a real added value.

IS THAT ALL THERE IS? At the same time, if consumers are able to solve their problems themselves, then there's no market for the lucrative business of service contracts. This leads us to the fundamental dilemma in the development of technology-based products and services today: Should companies make open systems that, on the surface, appear less profitable but put power in the hands of the consumer? Or should they make closed systems that guarantee service profits and protect them from competitors?

The cursory answer from a business standpoint is the latter -- closed. After all, you can't measure ROI if you've already made your R unmeasurable and you've given away your hard-earned I for free. A successful open system cannot be reduced to a set of quarterly measures tied to a company's bottom line, and thus the financial downside is immediately evident. By going the closed route, however, companies close the door on realizing true, lifelong simplicity.

Short-term simplicity is about creating the immediate moment of understanding. Having fewer controls translates into having less to learn. Yet the romance ends when you discover you've figured everything out and begin to ask yourself, "Is this all there is?"

EVOLUTION CYCLE. The essence of computing technology, especially networked systems, is that you always have access to more possibilities. An open system enables you to modify a simple (and now tired) product just when you're ready to move up to the next phase of your relationship.

In other words, open systems allow your product to evolve along with the consumer. So while a closed system creates a monopoly around a product, an open system creates a free-market economy. Which is the consumer likely to trust (and love) more?

Now excuse me while I try to pry the CD out of my car.

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