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Create ‘Beautiful’ Products

I have worshipped Steve Jobs for a long, long time. As an innovator, what’s intriguing about him is how consistent he’s actually been, how cohesive the innovation has been. It’s not surprising of course; it’s simply the vision he has in his mind of the future playing out as technology plays catch up.

I’m sad we’ve lost Steve Jobs. I was hoping someday we’d see his version of iBanking. The truth is though, that much of the design & focus that influenced Steve Jobs & Apple’s chief designer Jony Ive is from the design godfather, Dieter Rams.

Rams is famous for his elegant, simple approach to consumer products. His Mantra? “Less, But Better.” The German industrial designer’s functionalist school of design is still the hallmark of the clean, modern aesthetic; just look at your iPhone for what the soul of good design looks like.

Dieter’s “Ten Principles of Good Design” are below, along with some questions we should be asking ourselves.

From Michael Pearlman at Registered Rep:

Principle Investment Application (Ask Yourself)
Good design is innovative Does the innovation stem from a materially new concept or purely superficial characteristics?
Good design makes a product useful Does this additional element add to the usefulness of the product or is it functionally unnecessary?
Good design is aesthetic Is the structure of the product in tune with the product’s purpose?
Good design makes a product understandable Does the design of the product make its function and benefits clear?
Good design is unobtrusive Does the design allow the product to be a compatible component within a diversified portfolio or a building block for further innovation?
Good design is honest Does the product set realistic expectations for risk and return?
Good design is long-lasting Will the product still be relevant years from now?
Good design is thorough, down to the last detail Are even the most minor aspects of the product optimized?
Good design is environmentally friendly Is the product detrimental to the entire system?
Good design is as little design as possible Is functionality at the core of the product design?

If you watch those old Apple videos, all of the elements were always there: the tablet form factor, a networked database of answers (now known as the internet), touch, personal organizational tools, communication, entertainment, and voice interaction. All coming from magical devices.

Sure the Apple Newton was a failure, but it was also the first attempt at what is now the iPad. Apple Lisa, was a failure but was the first attempt at multitasking, something we expect from our cell phones, let alone our computers. Apple’s first laptop weighed 16 pounds and failed miserably, today they make the lightest, thinnest laptop in the world.

See, through all of the innovation (and failures) there’s been a theme & refinements made on that original vision. And what we now have is a result of form factors & technology that are forging a new future. The evolutionary process has always been to make the technology more user friendly, more intuitive, & more of a natural extension of us, taking a deeper more relevant role in our lives. What we do with that technology is up to us.

Very few have gotten it as right as Apple, and many more have gotten it very wrong. Today’s banking and investing interests are the anti-thesis of what Apple stands for. If anyone today represents “the man” in Apple’s 1984 commercial, it’s the bankster.

And the banksters’ approach? Every year financial institutions develop thousands of new investment products & numerous new services. But what real innovation do we actually use? ATMs? Debit Cards? An iPhone App to pay our bills? Yet, we still stand in the same line and fill out the same deposit slips at the local branch, where you can sell me stuff I don’t need. It’s progress I suppose.

And decade after decade banks fail (remind me, how many times have we saved Citibank?). But after each failure things don’t get better, do they? In fact today, the stench is worse than ever. And yet, there is still seemingly no commitment to design. There is seemingly no vision behind their products, other than pushing out more senseless, selfish things to shill. Things that are very profitable for them, but we would all probably would have been better off to avoid.

The latest product push from the industry is structured products, which are the embodiment of anti-progress progress. I remember sitting in the meeting where we were told “these things are the future.” Opaque, filled with promises that may or may not come true, and some sort of magical experience for the advisor and client alike I suppose. It pays the firm quite nicely, but leaves you, the user investor, usually with a blue screen of death holding the short end of the stick.

But Wall Street has soul, don’t they? They donate to museums & hospitals. But I guess that’s also what rich people do — make millions (sometimes nobly, even on Wall Street) then put their name on the wing of a building that helps everyone. So maybe it’s not all bad, but without a doubt Wall Street’s products are, if nothing else, unoriginal. I mean, they’d create or sell anything to make a buck. Isn’t that kind of the consensus here? If Goldman could create an Occupy Wall Street fund, they probably would, wouldn’t they?

It’s not a coincidence that new products are almost always brought to market at the height of the craze. That’s when they’re easiest to sell. So, are we selling furbies or good sense? Are we designing things to help people make better financial decisions & purchases or helping people torch themselves?

Where is the style & taste — the grace — from Wall Street? Is it sitting in the foyer of their third beach house’s umbrella stand, or in their approach?

How many of you have had a pleasant experience with the paperwork involved? How about calling into that 800 line? Do any of these legacy firms go through a thoughtful process that creates an experience someone might actually seek out? Where’s the commitment to “less, but better”?

Is anyone developing products or an approach that is truly aimed at the consumer’s uncovered wants or needs?

Have you ever talked to a Money Coach? I have, it’s pretty cool. In a couple of simple exercises you can see your entire financial world differently. Has your advisor ever suggested that you might need something a bit more intensive? To maybe talk a money therapist, someone who specializes in money issues? Some of my richest clients and biggest spenders could really use it, and some would probably appreciate it. So, why can’t my firm have something like that? It actually could; it probably should.

But what do we have today? Advice in sheep’s clothing. Another new product or service riding on some new trend du-jour (they probably invented). Worst of all, most investment products & services are more times than not going the opposite direction of being user friendly, with processes intentionally abstruse to hide the conflicts of interest they’ve manufactured.

So, I suppose we should pay more attention.

But you don’t need to know how to solder a circuit board to enjoy an iPhone. You don’t need to know every hairy detail — but you do expect certain things from the experience just the same.

So, is this it from the banks? This is what we should expect?

  1. Rules changed (because you almost killed us all).
  2. Monthly fees raised.
  3. Bonuses & parachutes still abound.
  4. Repeat.

So, that’s the best they’ve got? How innovative.

Hey Bank of America! Instead of rounding up my transactions and putting the extra money in my savings account (so you can make more from merchants on credit card fees and charge me for two accounts), why aren’t you offering groupon-like deals leveraging the buying power behind the millions of accounts you hold? Why aren’t you offering real money saving ideas based on algorithms that review your customers’ spending habits? Why am I standing in the same line at my bank? Why aren’t we seeing true innovation, instead of watching you copy the real innovators like Mint.com?

So, where do we go? We need to look no further than Dieter Rams ten principles. And personally, I think banking & finance are ripe for revolutionary design change, based in-part on these principles.

Today I see new companies trying & moving closer to truly challenging and changing the old guard (Blueleaf, Bundle, Bank Simple, Wikinvest, Personal Capital, Wealthfront) but most of them still lack the cohesive approach I think it will take to truly unseat these legacy firms. We need to think different. A New Kind of Wealth Management Firm. From top to bottom.

I see so much disgust with the current way of doing things from advisors & clients alike. I see so much potential in some of the new paradigms technology is introducing for us all — new services & approaches the current field is even thinking about. So, where is finance’s Steve Jobs?

Where is the commitment to creating beautiful products?