Teaching people how to use innovation to make others feel smarter

MAYA Design chief Mickey McManus earns a living unraveling the complexity companies build into their products. Why? Because the appearance of simplicity makes people feel smarter.

How do you convince a company that it doesn't need to add new features to a product to sell more of them?

How do you teach people that clarity needn't necessarily mean simplicity?

How do you help people help themselves?

MAYA Design chief Mickey McManus earns a living unraveling the complexity companies build into their products.

Why? Because the appearance of simplicity makes people feel smarter.

I spoke with McManus about his design firm, the reasoning behind Apple products and the life-changing effects of innovation.

SmartPlanet: What is MAYA?

Mickey McManus: MAYA is a technology, design and innovation lab. We focus on complex technology and innovation around how people use that technology.

We focus on people and information and the intersection between the two of them. MAYA stands for, "Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable."

We work on existing products, services and experiences and make them easy to use. We help people innovate in that world. We often here, "I've got great technology in my labs, but I'm having a hard time getting there -- getting it out of the lab." We teach our customers how to innovate themselves.

Or, "How do you get better ideas from people quicker?"

SP: How did everything get so complicated? I thought simple was supposed to be, well, simple.

MM: In the last 100 years, the cost of powerful complex stuff has dropped incredibly. A hundred years ago, the most powerful complex thing might be the printing press, and you'd have a few in a small town. Today, you can put websites on a chip and talk to someone around the world. The cost of complexity and power has plummeted to the point where the cost of making something complex is almost free.

For example, you've got people returning electronics at a pretty alarming rate. In 2007, returned consumer electronics products was a $13.8 billion problem. If [consumers] can't figure it out within 20 minutes, they return it.

The other thing is that information is exploding. They make more transistors than grains of rice and they make them cheaper. It's cheap to put complexity in things.

We're all tech tired, but this is just the beginning. A hundred years ago, the world's information was stored in books, in libraries. Today, current estimates are that all the information that humankind has collected doubles every two years.

The pickings are not bad for us. We made money when we first opened in 1989. We've never taken outside debt, we've never had external investments. Some years, we threw a million bucks into research.

SP: Will this trajectory ever slow down? Seems hard to fathom that so much information is being created so quickly.

MM: I don't think this is slowing down. This is logarithmic -- this is getting worse. IBM believes the amount of structured information will double every 11 hours by something like 2012. I think they're trying to sell servers, but it's a fair assertion that it is going to accelerate.

Technology got faster, information exploded -- but what about us? Is my brain bigger than my grandfather's brain? We are not going to keep up. It takes a long time to grow more brain.

Humans are sort of a flat line when it comes to evolution -- it takes a long time to add new features. If you look at cognitive studies of kids -- 18-year-olds studying -- they do worse when they multitask. We like to lie to ourselves and fool ourselves that we can cope.

There are some interesting patterns, though. We've evolved to survive. There are all sorts of amazing things that humans are good at -- even better than computers. Pattern recognition is one of them. Humans index things physically -- we can index thousands of things physically without thinking about it. But if you were to read a bunch of bullet points off a slide show, you'd only remember seven.

Look at the [Apple] iPhone. They're doing a lot of things right. You go to your photo app and you skid across the display [with your finger]. It makes you think they're really smart, but in reality, they're just tapping into something.

We're not the only ones good at this -- squirrels are, too. The companies that actually map their products and services to those are going to win.

Nintendo is a similar story. [It's] complex technology that's easy enough for 60-year-olds to use in a retirement home.

These are patterns. They're not going to change tomorrow. If you make your products work this way, people are going to feel smarter.

SP: So how does MAYA go about designing simplicity?

MM: We have a graph we write out. On one end is the customer that apologizes or make excuses. At the other end of the spectrum is smug. We want users to be smug. We'll paper prototype it, then we'll Wizard of Oz prototype it. After a few iterations, they're smug. "This is so obvious, I don't need to say it out loud." And we want that.

Companies look at it, and go, well, you know, the iPhone designers must have just gotten lucky. And then they copy it -- but they're copying the surface, not the intent.

The other thing is that they dismiss it and say, well, they had good focus groups. But we don't use focus groups. Neither does Apple. Focus groups are great at marketing, but they're guaranteed mediocrity -- the middle of the bell curve.

Then they'll throw out half the features to make it easier. They'll put a big, red easy button on it. But Apple and Nintendo didn't just put a big red easy button on it.

Think about if Microsoft-designed eyesight. All these drop-downs!

We aspire to helping people have another sense.

SP: If it's so obvious, why do companies churn out so many needlessly complex things?

MM: Companies don't do it because they're enamored with the technologists. There are a lot more technologists than human scientists. We were founded by a Ph.D cognitive psychologist and an engineer who worked on the very first computer in Xerox Park and a designer who understood form and function.

We think you can hide complexity. We encourage our customers to be interdisciplinary. It's not either, or -- it's "and."

A lot companies are saying wait a second -- teach us how to do this. It's overwhelming. We've got one client who has trained more than 800 of their engineers.

SP: How do you quantify successful and innovative design? How does a CEO justify human scientists on the payroll to shareholders?

MM: Let me give you an example.

We worked with one startup -- a contact lens manufacturer -- they started with a kiosk that goes in retail stores like Walmart to check your eyesight. They said, we can't get anybody to finish the interaction, which was 10 to 12 minutes. They were going to start paying people to use it because people wouldn't sit through it.

We come in, and in two months, we go through prototypes and put it in Walmart, and get to the point where 90 percent of people sit through it and recommend it to a friend. We got the test down to five minutes. Walmart saw a 17 percent increase in sales in eyewear wherever the kiosk was.

It wasn't the engineering, which was brilliant. It was not studying people. The theory that 'if you build it, they will come' -- that's bullshit.

Seventy percent of our customers are word-of-mouth. We're small, but we're busy all the time and always have incoming calls. We do have to tell people, if you increase usability, you will increase customer satisfaction 40 percent -- and that affects your bottom line.

So we give [clients] some tangibles.

SP: You've also done work for the U.S. government.

MM: We did work for part of the [U.S.] Army -- DARPA. They continue to fund way-out-there research -- 10 years into the future.

They came to us in 1998 and asked us to help with Command and Control, where a bunch of high-level [strategy] guys are in one tent. That's dangerous [because one bomb can take out the whole team].

They asked us to create a distributed collaboration system. They said, "We want to close the last 18 inches of Command and Control between the computer screen and the commander's brain." The goal was to deliver something by 2010.

The old system -- a billion-dollar system -- took a week or two to learn how to use. We started prototyping and took ideas from the lab and them and ran war games. Some commanders wanted to see everyone's screens, but not show theirs, to not [prematurely] set off their troops.

But the commanders that shared their screens with their troops won more battles.

This liquidity allowed a new way of reacting. In 2004, Gen. [Peter] Corelli saw this and said, "I want to deploy to Iraq with this in three months." We hired a bunch more people, worked night and day, sent some guys over there, and they haven't turned it off since. Generals have said it's the biggest advance in Command and Control in 30 years. Corelli has told us that it has saved countless lives. Fratricide is a big problem.

The new system takes less than one day to learn. There was a 400 percent increase in missions planned and decisions executed. There was a 300 percent increase in situational awareness.

We're doing the same kind of thing with tracking environmental change -- tracking cutting down forests, carbon credits, pollution.

SP: I imagine there is plenty of room for this kind of innovation.

MM: People have hard problems and there's lots of room for companies like us in the next decade, and a lot of room for corporations to learn this.

Can we do something that's actually going to make a difference?

You still have to innovate. You can't sit still. In this recession, I don't think we can cost-reduce ourselves out of a bad economy. We have to innovate.

It all boils down to people and the connected world.

Watch a short video on MAYA's philosophy:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com