TWICE: In your book, your mantra was simplicity in meeting a consumer’s needs, that technology must be subordinated to people it serves. Did that lead you to introduce the first mono receiver and first stereo receiver in the 1950s?
Yes … I’m pausing because I think there is a kind of profound lesson there, whether it drove Harman/Kardon to its first receiver or not. The lesson is so complex. That’s the reason that story is so important to me. In its most fundamental terms, that story says the technology is there to serve the customer, not to terrify, not to intimidate the customer. That’s a mindset of colossal importance. If management and engineering believes it’s there to show off how damn smart we are, you get a product with so much complexity that it baffles the consumer. If the mindset of management is that technology in effect needs to be doing its magic without the consumer really being aware of how it does it, and having the process intuitive and transparent, then if that is the mindset, you produce a very different kind of product. I don’t work for technology — technology works for me. I’m the subject, not the object, of technology. That’s the first thing.
It also has implications for me about the role of the employee, of the worker. It says to me that the technology is never the end, a substitute for the human being, that real opportunity, the greatest potential for innovation, lies in the human being, with honoring people within the company, honoring all those people who are working, including every last person who works on the production line. That is crucially important in the development of a really healthy, innovative and surviving company.
TWICE: Has the CE industry heeded this advice in making technology serve the consumer?
The consumer electronics industry has done a good job at times, and a superb job at times … There are examples all over the place.
Years ago, a company developed a car that spoke to the passenger and actually delivered verbal instructions, and people were driven crazy by it. And here was an effort at innovation that failed utterly to consider whether people would be comfortable with it or not comfortable with it. If they [engineers] knew how to do it, people would love it.
I came upon a little product six months ago or so, a camcorder no larger than a package of cigarettes, called the Flip. It’s a wonderful expression of something that I have always thought was the essence of consumer electronics design. It is a really inexpensive portable device, intuitive in its usage, one button that does it all, with nice simple but elegant industrial design, lightweight, and it is a substantial success.