TED Talks of 2007

Design is in the details

And so the first thing that pretty much every nurse did, was hold the patient's hand to comfort them. Human gesture -- which made the fabulous two-handed data input completely impossible. So, the thing that we designed, much less sexy but much more human and practical, was this. So, it's not a Palm Pilot by any stretch of the imagination, but it has a thumb-scroll so you can do everything with one hand. So, again, going back to this -- the idea that a tiny human gesture dictated the design of this product. And I think that's really, really important.

We wrote a book recently, I think you might have received it, called "Thoughtless Acts?" It's been all about these kind of thoughtless things that people do, which have huge intention and huge opportunity. Why do we all follow the line in the street? This is a picture in a Japanese subway. People consciously follow things even though, why, we don't know. Why do we line up the square milk carton with the square fence? Because we kind of have to -- we're just compelled to. We don't know why, but we do. Why do we wrap the teabag string around the cup handle? Again, we're sort of using the world around us to create our own design solutions. And we're always saying to our clients: "You should look at this stuff. This stuff is really important. This stuff is really vital." This is people designing their own experiences. You can draw from this. We sort of assume that because there's a pole in the street, that it's okay to use it, so we park our shopping cart there. It's there for our use, on some level.

And, again, as designers, we wanted to make this thing incredibly beautiful and spend a lot of time thinking of the form. And that was completely irrelevant. When you put yourself in the position of these people, things like the fact that this has to be able to fold up and fit on a bicycle, become much more relevant than the form of it. The way it's produced, it has to be produced with indigenous manufacturing methods and indigenous materials. So it had to be looked at completely from the point of view of the user. We had to completely transfer ourselves over to their world.


In praise of slowness

A world obsessed with speed, with doing everything faster, with cramming more and more into less and less time. Every moment of the day feels like a race against the clock. To borrow a phrase from Carrie Fisher, which is in my bio there; I'll just toss it out again -- "These days even instant gratification takes too long." (Laughter) And if you think about how we to try to make things better, what do we do? No, we speed them up, don't we? So we used to dial; now we speed dial. We used to read; now we speed read. We used to walk; now we speed walk. And of course, we used to date and now we speed date. And even things that are by their very nature slow -- we try and speed them up too. So I was in New York recently, and I walked past a gym that had an advertisement in the window for a new course, a new evening course. And it was for, you guessed it, speed yoga. So this -- the perfect solution for time-starved professionals who want to, you know, salute the sun, but only want to give over about 20 minutes to it. I mean, these are sort of the extreme examples, and they're amusing and good to laugh at.


Simplicity sells

If you ever are feeling lonely, get a New York Times column, because you will get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails. And the email I'm getting a lot today is about frustration. People are feeling like things -- Ok, I just had an alarm come up on my screen. Lucky you can't see it. People are feeling overwhelmed. They're feeling like it's too much technology, too fast. It may be good technology, but I feel like there's not enough of a support structure. There's not enough help. There's not enough thought put into the design of it to make it easy and enjoyable to use. One time I wrote a column about my efforts to reach Dell Technical Support, and within 12 hours, there were 700 messages from readers on the feedback boards on the Times website, from users saying, ""Me too, and here's my tale of woe." I call it "software rage." And man, let me tell you, whoever figures out how to make money off of this frustration will -- Oh, how did that get up there? Just kidding.

Here's another pet one of mine: you have a printer. Most of the time, you want to print one copy of your document, in page order, on that printer. So why in God's name do you see this every time you print? It's like a 747 shuttle cockpit.

So Steve Jobs had always believed in simplicity and elegance and beauty. And the truth is, for years I was a little depressed, because Americans obviously did not value it, because the Mac had three percent market share, Windows had 95 percent market share -- people did not think it was worth putting a price on it. So I was a little depressed. And then I heard Al Gore's talk, and I realized I didn't know the meaning of depressed.

But it turns out I was wrong, right? Because the iPod came out, and it violated every bit of common wisdom. Other products cost less; other products had more features, they had voice recorders and FM transmitters. The other products were backed by Microsoft, with an open standard, not Apple's propriety standard. But the iPod won -- this is the one they wanted. The lesson was: simplicity sells. And there are signs that the industry is getting the message.


The paradox of choice

But I want to start with what I call the "official dogma." The official dogma of what? The official dogma of all Western industrial societies. And the official dogma runs like this: if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is, in and of itself, good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human, and because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.

You've got to admit that's a lot of choice. In other domains -- the world of communications. There was a time, when I was a boy, when you could get any kind of telephone service you wanted, as long as it came from Ma Bell. You rented your phone, you didn't buy it. One consequence of that, by the way, is that the phone never broke. And those days are gone. We now have an almost unlimited variety of phones, especially in the world of cell phones. These are cell phones of the future. My favorite is the middle one -- the MP3 player, nose hair trimmer, and crème brûlée torch. And if if by some chance you haven't seen that in your store yet, you can rest assured that one day soon, you will. And what this does is it leads people to walk into their stores, asking this question. And do you know what the answer to this question now is? The answer is "no." It is not possible to buy a cell phone that doesn't do too much.

We all know what's good about it, so I'm going to talk about what's bad about it. All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I'll give you one very dramatic example of this, a study that was done of investments in voluntary retirement plans. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard, the gigantic mutual fund company, of about a million employees and about 2,000 different workplaces. What she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds -- 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it's so damn hard to decide which fund to choose, that you'll just put it off till tomorrow, and then tomorrow and then tomorrow and tomorrow, and, of course, tomorrow never comes. Understand that not only does this mean that people are going to have to eat dog food when they retire because they don't have enough money put away, it also means that making the decision is so hard that they pass up significant matching money from the employer. By not participating, they are passing up as much as 5,000 dollars a year from the employer, who would happily match their contribution.

So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. And I think it makes the world look like this.


Why believe in others

In this rare clip from 1972, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl delivers a powerful message about the human search for meaning -- and the most important gift we can give others.