Max Cougar Oswald on Design You Don’t Notice

Interview with Designer Max Cougar Oswald

Conducted and condensed by Avra Kouffman

Max Cougar OswaldQ. Can you restate your talk’s three main principles?

A. The first is transparency, this idea that the best design is the kind you don’t notice. It’s counter-intuitive for most people because they think of design as fancy aesthetics that stand out. One of my favorite designers, Naoto Fukasawa, has this idea that great design just dissolves into your behavior. You shouldn’t have to think about using a product – it shouldn’t distract from your experience. If a writer stops to think about his pen, it means he has forgotten about his story.

The second part is about micro-interactions. All the tiny, seemingly inconsequential details that add up to create a product’s personality. In the talk I mention the password screen for when you log into a Mac, and the little chocolate mint you find on your pillow at a hotel. They seem trivial from a functionality standpoint, but on some level there is emotional functionality to these things. Micro-interactions are becoming especially important in web design and UX design [Ed. Note: user experience design] – tiny improvements in how you navigate from one page to the next, how you get feedback on commands, or how you layout an interface to make it a little bit more explorable or intuitive. Those moment-to-moment interactions can be micro mood-swingers. They make the difference between a product you tolerate and a product you cherish.

Q. Is it hard to convince funders of that, though?

A. Totally! But it is getting easier, as design is becoming less of a luxury and more of a standard. Apple has changed everything. People are much more conscious of design than they were ten years ago. People expect a beautiful, seamless user experience in everything they use.

Q. And the third principle?

A. This one’s my favorite. I call it “irrationally human design.” It’s when products acknowledge the fact that people do not always behave logically, and instead of ignoring our quirky habits or trying to correct our irrational choices, they embrace them. It’s the core of human-centered design, which is what they teach so well here in the Stanford Design Program. An example I use in the talk is IDEO’s defibrillator. By empathizing with people in the extreme circumstance of a heart-attack, they realized that we think differently under stress, and we have different needs. Rather than try to calm the person down and make them behave rationally, just accept their behavior, and design a system that works for that mood. To design like this, you have to get rid of all preconceived notions of how people behave and just observe them like a scientist.

This topic is my favorite because it boils down to this idea that design is not what we make, it’s how we make it. It’s a mind-set, and a way of thinking. Where you try to see everything with fresh eyes, and question the intention behind every detail. It’s a way of breaking down all the variables that shape an experience, and then recognizing which ones ought to change. Anyone can do this! It’s really empowering.

The idea came up a lot in our Lean Sink and Roomswitch projects for Solar Decathlon. For example, we realized that people never look at light switches when they use them. Everybody does the same thing: reach out for the wall, turn around to look at the room, and then flip the switch. So if you put any visual feedback on the interface, they’re not going to see it. It’s got to be tactile. With the Lean Sink, we watched hundreds of different people using sinks, and noticed that they all had one thing in common: they lean forward. So we took that unconscious movement, and turned it into a gesture for controlling the water by building a bumper with a push-button underneath it, so that leaning into it would complete a circuit turn on the water.

Q. What micro mood-swings in design have you noticed lately?

A. Hmm, that’s a good one. There’s a stylus that just came out called Pencil, by this company 53, which also makes the drawing app Paper. The stylus has this amazing Bluetooth feature called “kiss to pair,” where you just touch the tip to the bottom of the page for three seconds it syncs with the device. With any other product out there, you have to go back into settings, locate your device, and deal with some sort of messy correspondence between the two before you can sync it and get back to what you were doing. With Pencil there are no menus, no settings, no setup rituals. You just touch the screen for three seconds, like you’re dabbing a quill in an inkwell, and start drawing. I love it! Such a great micro-interaction.

Another product with fantastic micro-interactions is KOR water bottles. They had a booth at the TEDxOC conference. The way the spout of the bottle is shaped. Just looking at it, you don’t notice anything, but then you take a sip and notice how they’ve curved it in this really unique way, and it feels so sensual. It feels like you’re getting a kiss! And right when that happens, you open your eyes and notice there is there’s a secret customizable message on the bottom of the lid – and no one can see it but you! Those two micro-interactions create this intimate little moment just between you and your water bottle. It’s beautiful.

Q. What redesign do you feel is most needed and could affect the most people?

A. The sink faucet. It’s one of those everyday objects that’s been around for way too long and no one has bothered to rethink the way we use it. This drought we are experiencing in California right is a serious wake-up call. We need to start thinking about how we use water. The truth is, no one wants to waste water, you just leave it on because your hands are busy – you’re brushing your teeth, or rinsing your face, or washing a dish – it’s just silly to reach up and turn it off and on during each one of those little interims.

I honestly think the Lean Sink is the future of water. It just make so much sense. It’s faster to use, more hygienic, and it cuts down on water waste without enforcing any kind of automated limit, or compromising the experience. I love watching people try the Lean Sink for the first time, because everyone reacts the same way. First they laugh, and then they pause and say, “It’s so obvious… Why aren’t all sinks like that?”

The only alternative out there are those annoying hand-sensor sinks, and they just never work how you want them too. You end up waving your hand around trying to figure out where it is, and then it’s on a timer, so you have to do it twice if you need any more. If you just let people take exactly as much as they need, you can cut down on waste and also promote more sustainable behavior. Like when you brush your teeth, to wet the brush you only need like half a second of wate¬r, but no timer is going to get that right. So… sinks! That’s what’s most in need of a redesign is.

Q. Can you sell the sink you redesigned at Stanford?

A. Stanford is the best place on earth for launching new products! It’s amazing how many resources there are here for entrepreneurial ventures. I’ve been working on product development and manufacturing all year, but it’s also a complicated market to enter. There are a handful of massive companies in the U.S., like American Standard, that make like every single plumbing part. People don’t really want to install a new sink in their house if they have one that works already. It’s definitely not a traditional startup market, but I’m pretty confident that the idea is good enough for us to make a dent. The world needs it!

Q. What design concepts or books do you return to the most?

A. I’m a huge IDEO fan. The founder, David Kelley, also founded the Stanford d. school, and he has been my academic advisor all through Stanford. So you could say I’m a little brainwashed, but I think their methodology is just so powerful. It’s all about finding creative and extreme ways harness empathy, leaving yourself open to discovery, and getting your hands dirty to learn from failure early on. There’s a reason why they’re the biggest design consultancy in the world.

In terms of design philosophy, I always try to remember “design without thought.” From the Japanese designer I mentioned earlier, Naoto Fukasawa. He’s a genius.

A great book I read recently is “Micro-interactions” by Dan Saffer, the head of Interaction Design at Smart Design. It really changed my perspective on interaction design. And on that same subject, “Talk to Me” by is a fascinating book that showcases all these different creative experiments with how people can interact with objects. My all-time favorite, though, is Don Norman’s Emotional Design. It’s a classic.

Q. Whose TEDx OC talks did you most enjoy?

A. I loved Rodney Mullen’s, but I’m also a biased because he was such a huge hero of mine growing up. I grew up in Santa Barbara where skateboarding is insanely popular, and he was just a legend of the sport. Totally in his own league. When I saw him backstage, I totally freaked out and ran up to shake his hand. And he was so nice! He let me talk his ear off for like five minutes before he said, “I’m really sorry man, but I should probably go get ready. I’m on stage in five minutes.” His talk was so inspiring. Watching all the accidents, with those guys falling over and over down giant staircases and watching them conquer that visceral fear, where everything in their body is telling them to walk away, but they try it again anyways. He did a really good job of connecting to skateboarders in a way that only they can understand, but then also relating it to everyone universally. That’s what TED is all about.

Q. Can you suggest an exercise to help us all impact the day with positive micro-interactions?

A. I love the concept of emotional economy, how every time you interact with someone or something there’s some sort of exchange, and it’s either plus points or minus points in your emotional bank account. Just paying attention to that, and being intentional about the impact you have on the people around you. Find little ways to be a micro-mood swinger in someone’s day, like smiling at a stranger when you walk past them on the sidewalk, or waving at a baby, or paying someone’s parking meter. You have the same sort of exchanges with products, but that’s much more of a one-way street. It’s more fun to give back with people. Leave someone a Post-it note with a smiley face on it. All those tiny things have big ripples!

Posted on: March 13th, 2014 | Posted in: TEDxOC

  • lynette la mere

    awesome read. the concepts translate to many business issues unrelated to product design as well. thank you for this!

    • Aaron Aslin

      Lynette, which business issues do you find this concept most relate?

      • lynette la mere

        Primarily customer service, the transparency of outstanding service is that it is intuitive, like the fulfilling of needs before they are identified by the client and the creating tools and systems for employees that “dissolve into their behavior”. Love the “emotional bank account” it’s a great way to look at the interactions with my staff and management team.