Good product design ideas once came in the form of simple, discrete objects. You would invent, say, a hammer with a claw on one side to remove nails, or one of those apple-peeling contraptions, or a piece of material that you'd place around a bare lightbulb to shield your eyes from the glare. And those objects provided an experience superior to what came before them—carrying a second nail-pulling tool, peeling an apple with your fingernails, squinting to avoid glare.
Increasingly our better experiences aren't coming from new, simple objects, but the interconnectedness of technology. The iPod is a single object, yes, but it's really a perfect storm of things—plastic molding, metalworking, hard drive storage, software, a small LCD, interface design—that was wrangled into a rectangle. All of those things except the interface design and exact form factor existed independently for years, but it was that masterful blending, coupled to the interface, that made it a hit.
This morning I stopped by the Citibank ATM to deposit a month's worth of paychecks. I realize I am hopelessly behind the times, but if your employer doesn't want to give you Direct Deposit, what can you do. So I still need scrips of paper denoting my remuneration, and those scrips have to be filed along with a little envelope and a form I have to individually fill out every time, then bring to an ATM and feed into a slot. Which means every few months I swing by the bank to pick up a stack of deposit envelopes and forms, and I spend that afternoon filling out the forms en masse to make my ATM drops quicker.
I even had a rubber stamp made up to fill out some parts of the deposit slip more quickly, using trial and error to get the stamp's letters to line up with the form's lines. And that rubber stamp periodically needs to be refilled. So to deposit a check I need the check, a deposit envelope from the bank, a deposit slip, a pen, the rubber stamp, ink for the stamp, and the time to glance up and check the date and fill out the forms.
But this morning something was different. The first two machines I tried in the vestibule said they could not take deposits at all. At the third machine, as I punched onscreen buttons and went through the deposit sequence, an unprompted video animation started playing. It showed a hand inserting a paycheck—a bare paycheck, no envelope, no filled-out deposit slip—into the slot of the machine. No way, I thought. I ripped open the envelopes, got rid of the deposit slips and stuck the checks into the slot one by one. The machine ate my checks and a moment later the numbers in my account moved accordingly.
Finally someone has assembled the perfect storm of scanning technology, networked computers, computer animation and video editing (for the simple, language-less demonstration of how to do it) so that I don't have to fill out the goddamn form and Citibank doesn't have to print up millions of envelopes. In retrospect the two machines that wouldn't take deposits are probably in the midst of having the scanners installed or the software upgraded.
I know it seems like a small thing, and some of you are already using your cell phones to photograph checks and deposit them that way (which I cannot do due to amount limits), but this small thing has vastly simplified my life and saved ink, paper and time. And it's unheralded; I saw nothing on Citibank's website or in the news denoting this new feature. I don't know if any industrial designers were even involved in developing this process, but this morning I had a better experience because someone or some team thought about the problem and took the time to assemble a technological solution.