In some instances, the saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" just doesn't cut it; this is perhaps most true for designers. For example, one artifact that has seemingly been preserved under this notion is the humble home doorbell—unaltered in function for ages, to say the doorbell cannot be improved on is a lazy designer's excuse for inaction and an ambitious entrepreneur's potential goldmine (anyone who has missed a FedEx package or hosts their home on Airbnb may be well aware of this).
Designers Avril and John Nussey
This brings us to the case of Avril and John Nussey, two married designers based in London persistently on the search for well-designed home objects. A few years ago after moving into a new home together and needing to replace a broken doorbell, they found themselves unsatisfied with the selections on the market, as John pointed out to Core77:
"We couldn't find a replacement for [the doorbell] that either suited the looks of our house or was modern enough...and it was either super high tech or super low tech; there's not really much in between. So you either have to go for a brass door knocker or a high-tech door entry system—webcam, doorbell. We fell into that middle ground where we wanted something that looked good but [since] we're young people who live on our phones, we appreciate the technology side of it as well."
So the couple did as many designers would do and started to pick apart the traditional doorbell to see how they might improve it. In 2014, they came up with an idea: Ding, a doorbell connected to your phone that matched the traditional look of the doorbell (no fancy video capabilities) while adding the helpful ability to talk to whoever was at the door, wherever you are.
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To see if this idea had potential, they entered their idea in Design Council Spark, an accelerator program run by the UK Design Council that helps fast-track products to market. "We got into the top 30 on the idea alone with no sketches or prototypes, and this encouraged us to explore the idea further," notes John. They then dug into research, surveying people to see what they would want out of a doorbell while buying as many models on the market as they could. The duo also began by creating quick working prototypes, which helped them test the user experience they wanted. Starting with the tech, the team tested the ability to connect to a phone first through SIM card technology and then through Wifi. They came to the conclusion that Wifi works as a more commercially viable option, as they predict that "any person considering smart products will probably have Wifi and most homes in general will."
Enter a caption (optional) The first model for DING
When in the accelerator program, they spent most of their thinking on their business model, "to prove that it had the potential to even make money," says John. After finding that much of their attention was spent focusing on the business side, they decided to seek out a partnership with designers who already knew the business of smart products well. After meeting designers from the well-known creative consultancy, Map, at the Hardware Pioneers meet-up in London, they began a loose conversation about the direction of the product. Avril and John said they ultimately chose to work with them because "they understood what we wanted from the moment we first met them. We didn't want to turn it into a video doorbell, and they totally understood the usability side that we were able to go for."
A variation of different foam models for the doorbell and speaker hub
Once the basic idea was established, detailed iterating for both the doorbell and the home chime speaker began. "Another reason for working with Map was they make beautiful models," says the design pair, "they prototype it all out in foam, so that way you get a good idea of the size and very slight difference." They also mention that testing out this product proved why handmade model prototype is still so relevant in the digital age: "I think foam actually works quite a lot better for getting a feel of something than the 3D prints we got back...it's almost too precise making renders and then getting it 3D printed. You almost want it like the sketching process to keep it loose, otherwise you focus too quickly on the little details rather than the overall size and shape of the product."
The pair emphasizes that they "spent more time iterating on the software than the hardware in some ways," and the act of modeling the forms and figuring out the pure product design of the object was the most interesting. For example, making sure the doorbell and chime were both well-designed for their specific contexts. John remembers the chime speaker hub being the first big design breakthrough in the project: "the lozenge worked really well, either hung vertically or resting on a shelf, and the fabric speaker cover made it more like soft furnishings in the home." Next, the team had to figure out how to get the same visual feel for the doorbell so it would work well with the exterior of the home. This ultimately led them to the solid brass button, a modern riff on the look of traditional doorbells.
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The product, as of now being pledged on Kickstarter, is well over their original funding goal with a little over 2 weeks left before the campaign is over. The Ding team is confident the reason for one has to do with their dedication to creating a simplistic product while also really coming to understand who their audience is. "I think a lot of smart products out there have a more challenging pitch for people, and they're trying to sell a new behavior or new feature. In our case, for example, we found a lot of people who work in their back garden or they've got a home studio and they love this doorbell because they're always working from home and missing parcels. It's a product with a very practical everyday use and has a true benefit to the people buying it."
When it comes to developing a smart product in the age of thousands of superfluous tech-enhanced devices, Ding is active proof of how important it is to keep this idea of indispensability for a specific group at the forefront of product development—and to realize that a smart product doesn't succeed due simply to its tech-savviness, but also its attentive consideration of the human using it.