January 11, 2007

Engineers of the West, engineers of the East

Outsourcing is all the rage these days, everything but my pizza delivery seems to be outsourced to India, China or some other far off place that takes away jobs. Years ago the western nations calmed themselves by agreeing that only low-tech production, assembly of paperclips and realdolls, would be outsourced - that complicated products needed our expertise. Then came callcenters. Then came high-tech production. Then came development. Will this ever end, or will all our engineers be stuck with pizza delivery jobs?

Of course not. So what is the solution?

If you look at the weakness of almost all Asian companies, and engineers it is design. Good design requires much more than good engineering. It requires a whole back-catalog of ideas, opinions, and culture. And it takes time for a society to develop good design standards. It takes time and effort to create beautiful products.

The two mp3 players below illustrate my point.

The first one, of course, is an Ipod from Apple, the second one is a player from Shenzhen Jingguanzun Electronic Science & Technology Co., Ltd., and it features FM radio, digital voice recorder, and 7 equalizer modes, all of which the ipod is missing. Yet it is not as popular as the Ipod, even though it is considerably cheaper. Why?

The answer is design - the ipod is beautiful. The no-name mp3 player from Shenzhen Jingguanzun Electronic Science & Technology Co., Ltd. isn't. Even the name is ugly...

This is not a unique example, most electronics that come out of Asia have the overall lack of usability, and lack of good design that this no-name mp3 player has. And most well designed electronic products (Apple, Bang & Olufsen, Thomson) are simple, elegant, and easy to use. In a word they are beautiful. And they are not from low-income Asian countries.

So why do some companies make beautiful products, while others don't? The answer isn't simple, but it has to do with cultural heritage, and maniac attention to detail.

The asian economies learned in the eighties that they could make a substantial amount of money by copying western products, because they had cheaper labour, and plenty of it. The requirement for this effort was speed, low pricing, and lots of features. The Asian economies grew to be masters of this trade, and churned out copycat products at a rate that was alarming to many western companies. And this is, to a large extent, what they are still doing. But society is moving on, and the standard of living keeps rising in the western world. And the consequence of this is that we can buy as many no-name mp3 players as we care for - we can afford it. But we don't. We would much rather have a beautiful product, that shows how much style, elegance and coolness we have. And we don't mind paying for it.

And this is where many of the Asian copycat companies fall short - it is much harder to copy "beautiful" than it is to copy the technical specs of a product by buying the same components as the competitor and putting them in your own box. The Ipod copies are just not as cool or elegant, we would rather have the real thing, and pay a premium for it - afterall we have the money to do so.

When you make a beautiful product you need very different virtues than when you make a cheap product. You need patience, and you need rigorous attention to detail, making mock-ups and prototypes until you get it just right. Steve Jobs is well known for being a pain in the ass to work for because he is never satisfied - every little detail must be perfect. But the Ipod has a 60% market share even though it doesn't even come close to being the cheapest - Apple is virtually printing money with it. So it is obviously worth the effort.

And this is where especially European companies have a tremendous advantage. They tend to be much more focused on detail and quality than their Asian and American counterparts (Yes, I know Apple is Americen, but they are an exception) - Beautiful cars come from Germany, beautiful clothes come from Italy, and beautiful furniture comes from Scandinavia.

Style is not something that is easily copied, it is weaved into the fabric of society. Look at how the cities of Vienna, Venice and Copenhagen compare to Shenzhen, Shanghai, and New York. If you have been to these places it will be obvious what i mean. European cities have a calm and tranquil atmosphere, Asian and American cities have a hectic and confused atmosphere. I overheard a conversation about the Copenhagen Metro by two American tourists, "Wow - this is so beautiful, everything is smaller but cooler" and it hits the nail pretty much on the head - not big or full of features that nobody needs, but beautiful. And this trickles down through society, and shows in the products that we make.

So European electronic companies should not be pursuing the faster-quicker-cheaper road, but the beautiful-elegant-simple road - the success of the Ipod clearly shows that this is where the money is.

If you made it all the way to the end you must have found it interesting.

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Anonymous Dave said...

Nice. Borderline racist and not especially accurate.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Spyros said...

Nice post Max, although i must point something out.
Beauty, as you mentioned, is tightly tied to culture and civilization. This means that it cannot be interpreted by an unbiased observer, as there isn't one. We all judge designs based on our own beliefs of beauty and elegance.
Although I generally agree with you in your post, I have to admit that I might find European products more elegant exactly because I myself am European. Their whole design and marketing strategy is targeted at me, unlike the similar Asian product.
For all we know it could be the ugliest contraption on earth, but in Asian cultures it might be the most beautiful gadget ever designed.

1:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even my old 2nd generation iPod has multiple equalizer presets.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My iPod came with 22 equalizer presets. It's under the 4th menu, "Settings".

"Number of features" and "Organization of features" are orthogonal.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Douglas said...

The difference between Apple and Shenzhen Jingguanzun Electronic Science & Technology Co., Ltd. is Jonathan Ive.

12:45 AM  
Blogger Delackner said...

This post has been removed by the author.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Delackner said...

Please ignore the thoughtless calls of racism. Anyone who has ridden the subway in San Francisco (BART), New York, and any european equivalent can see the stark contrast of design sensibility (or lack thereof).

What I want to see explained in more detail is why Japanese consumer software and hardware often have such poor aesthetics. In practically every other area of product design the Japanese have a thousand years or more of devotion to simple and elegant product design, yet that sense seems to go completely out the window in the digital age.

5:33 AM  
Anonymous Latisha said...

Interesting to know.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A large part of the reason for this is that Japanese consumers (and presumably others in that part of the world) *want* (and pay good money for) cheap complex no-name devices. It's a status symbol to have more features on your phone, even if you don't know how to use them.

Economically, these east-Asian companies are doing great. I bet the average Japanese person bought more cell phones in the past year than I have in my life.

Design isn't about "simple or complex". It's about what's appropriate for your user. Nobody would put an F-15 cockpit in a minivan, nor a Toyota Sienna cockpit in an F-15.

Your comment about German cars seems misleading. Japan also makes more than their share of simple, elegant, beautiful cars (a Toyota Corolla looks like the iPod of cars), and Germany has its share of really ugly ones. Only America seems to have the monopoly on uniformly ugly cars.

Of the cities you've mentioned, I've only been to Venice and New York City. Venice is a very nice city, but it's "relaxed" mostly because it's half underwater (sometimes more) and the only way to get anywhere is waiting for a boat (which aren't exactly quick). There are plenty of relaxed coastal towns in America and Japan where you can only get around by boat, but they tend to be less populous because they don't have the "once was a great city" reputation that Venice has. I didn't think that Venitians today have better taste than New Yorkers, on the whole.

I'd like to suggest another cause. If you're a Chinese company, how are you going to get yourself an Ive? You don't need many designers, but you need one Ive. Jobs couldn't find one in America, either -- he had to import his from Britain. Convincing a top designer to move from London to Cupertino is a lot easier than convincing him/her to move from (just about anywhere in) Europe or America to Shanghai.

10:58 PM  

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