Dennis Boyle: The Power of Smart Design

He helped shape the breakthrough Palm V -- and he thinks portable devices are about to become amazingly powerful

Dennis Boyle discovered the joys of product design at the tender age of 10 -- when he decided to build a sailboat and float it on a pond near his house in Michigan. A local news photographer showed up and snapped his picture. "I thought, this is really cool. You make stuff, and people put you in the paper," Boyle laughs.

Nearly 40 years later, as a senior design engineer at IDEO, Boyle can claim to have worked on several of the most important high-tech designs of the past 20 years. IDEO, a Palo Alto (Calif.) design firm, developed the first mouse for Apple Computer and the very first notebook computer, the GRiD Compass. More recently, Boyle came up with a way to transform the Palm V from a clunky handheld computer into a sleek fashion accessory for geeks and business executives alike.

His mission: To make high-tech simple. "People don't want to read a manual. They don't want something confusing that makes them look dumb," he says. "What regular people want is a product that does a few things really well."

Apparently, he's right. IDEO is consistently named the best design firm in the country by the people who judge such things. In fact, BusinessWeek has given it 44 design awards over the past five years.


  Boyle, 48, was one of seven children of a chemist mother and an architect father who encouraged their children to think about the way things are built. Young Dennis originally wanted to be an architect, too. But when he entered Notre Dame, his father persuaded him to try mechanical engineering since, even in the 1970s, architecture was a tough business.

After the first year, he began studying industrial design as well. "The two groups [of students] were complete opposites," remembers Boyle. "On one side were the calculator-carrying nerds, on the other were the arts-and-crafts-loving free spirits. I was an outsider -- the tech guy in one class, the free thinker in the other."

After graduation, he entered a masters program at Stanford University in product design. "It was a whole bunch of people who didn't fit in from all over the place," he says. "It was great." At Stanford, Boyle met David Kelley, who ultimately went on to found IDEO. After a brief stint back in Michigan, Boyle joined Kelley in 1980.


  Almost immediately, he was drawn to the high-tech side of the business. "Tech people think too much about what technology can do," he says. "If it can play MP3s, why not have it make toast too? They get trapped by that." Part of the reason, he adds, is that technology cycles move so quickly. Often, there's no time to think through a design and figure out what makes a product appealing and easy to use.

And therein lies the future of technology design, Boyle says. In a nation where most people still can't program their VCRs, the key is imposing discipline on designers and technologists who pride themselves on their quirky style or technological prowess -- without, of course, quashing creativity. At IDEO, that means following a well-defined process that includes a heavy emphasis on teamwork, brainstorming, and prototyping.

Take personal digital assistants, Boyle's latest high-tech obsession. The first version of the Palm, while undoubtedly innovative, was clunky and intimidating to many nongeeks. Boyle's first step was to develop prototypes that addressed key design flaws and ask everyday people to try them out. Prototyping is key to IDEO's design process: "You have to make simulations and bring in people to test them who have no knowledge of the product and no agenda. That and only that will tell you what people like and how they will use a product," says Boyle.

He noticed that Palm users were extremely frustrated with the original calendar tool -- one of the most popular reasons for buying a digital organizer. To get to the current date, users had to go through three screens. The Palm V solved the problem by automatically opening to the correct day -- with one click to the time. Features like these ultimately made the Palm V one of the fastest-selling computer products.


  The IDEO design process is outlined best in IDEO cofounder Kelley's 2001 book The Art of Innovation. Along with brainstorming and prototyping, the book focuses heavily on creating "hot groups" -- teams within the company that work and play together. Forget the idea of a lone genius toiling in a basement. At IDEO, teamwork is key. At Boyle's twice-monthly lunches, his 40 designers share insights and progress on various products between bites of pasta and enchiladas.

What's next? Boyle believes the future is all about portability. "In 10 years, we will have these amazingly powerful tools right on our body. They will be our belt, watches, glasses, and in our pockets. They'll have voice and text capabilities, and let us surf the Internet at high speed."

The design challenge will be to find ways to get information into and out of these tiny devices. To that end, IDEO is working with a British company called ElekSen to invent uses for its new electronic fabric, ElekTex. Made of synthetic fibers and thinly coated in metal, the fabric can be folded, scrunched, and washed without losing functionality. Already, the team has developed a keyboard that translates electronic impulses from a user's touch into keystrokes. The keyboard can be attached to a PDA or mobile phone and then folded up and put in a pocket.


  Another innovative way to input information is to integrate speech recognition technology into portable appliances. But Boyle says speech recognition won't become ubiquitous: "It's possible, but it may not be socially acceptable or private enough. If you're in a meeting, for instance, you might not be able to say what you want freely. On a plane, your neighbor won't want you to be talking to your computer."

Style, too, will become increasingly important. Just as consumers now change screensavers and buy iMac computers in a range of colors, in the future they'll have more options when it comes to the look, feel, and functionality of high-tech products. Boyle compares it to buying a car: "Some people want a car with good gas mileage. Some want a sports car to look cool. Products have to be configured to the person using them."

For insight into future tech users, Boyle often turns to his two young sons, ages 6 and 12. "Kids want to know why things are the way they are," he notes. "Why doesn't the window in the back of the car go all the way down? Why do batteries run out so often? Their complaints give a lot of insight into what the problems are," he muses.

Which brings up a salient point. Most people don't notice good designs, only bad ones. Most people, except Dennis Boyle.

By Jane Black in New York

Edited by Alex Salkever

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