MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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GM's iPhone?

skateboard_00034fe5-ba99-1d80-90fb809ec5880000_1Finding a discussion today between Steve Portigal and Chirag Mehta around the subject of designing to requirements or not, I was impressed with Chirag's framework suggestion to "Look beyond the problem space and preserve ambiguity." I've been thinking lately about new concepts for retail design, and specifically  in the automotive domain. Chirag's admonition had aligned with some coincidental wandering around the Apple App Store as a model. I was imagining a place where the conventions of brand (GM, but also Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac, etc.) and predefined models and packages disappeared, and customization to "my brand" was the norm.

The concept seemed so attractive, and could affect not only the vehicle design space, but the retail space as well. It seems a concept that could provide new brand image and vitality, and also energize the customer base.

Then I recalled that it'd all been done before. Well, in the vehicle space, at least. Somewhere between concept and execution---that typical source of disappointment in this industry---was a future lost by GM but an exploding market found by Apple.

In 2002, GM took a concept, affectionately and compellingly known as the "skateboard," to the North American International Auto Show and other places. The concept involved a thin 20-year chassis with all the propulsion technology embedded in it, and a fully customizable style frame including interior and exterior features and appearance.

Imagine this platform as an iPhone, and an extraordinarily robust industry seems to unfold. The automotive App Store---imagine even the tonal difference from "car dealership"---becomes a place of innovation where suppliers, using the parameters of the core skateboard platform, design, deliver and install innovative components pitched to the different needs, and styles, of a diverse constituency.

Five years after GM introduced the skateboard concept, Apple introduced the iPhone and, about a year later, the App Store. GM wanted the profits from SUV's and as a result needs a bailout from the government. Apple got the profits from thin, lean, customizable, open systems, and everybody involved seems to be doing fine.

If Apple were to ask people what they would want in their phones people might have said they want a smart phone with a better stylus and they do not expect their phone to tell them where they should eat their dinner tonight. We wouldn’t have had a multimodal interface on iPhone that could run Urbanspoon.

Embracing and preserving the ambiguity as long as you can during the design process would help unearth some of the behaviors that could lead to great design. Ambiguity does make people uncomfortable but recognizing that fact that “making stuff” is fundamentally a generative process allows people to diverge and preserve ambiguity before they converge. (Chirag Mehta)