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The 13 Watt Light Bulb and the Bulldozer on the Falcon...
The power of design in getting people to adopt new technologies
One of the things that gave Star Wars ships their distinctive look are "greebles." Greebles was term invented by George Lucas for the little bits of pipes, doodads, and extra material all over the surface of every Star Wars vessel. They came from off-the-shelf model kits for World War II tanks, planes, and any other plastic toys that Lucasfilm could find, a process called kitbashing (as a hobby, people like to identify where various elements of the original Star Wars props come from, as you can see in the picture). This was cheaper than creating all-new model pieces, but it served another, more subtle, purpose.
Because they are vaguely familiar to us, greebles help make a connection between our world and the world of the film. They make these space ships feel less impossible, so much so that we almost take them for granted. The back panels on the Millennium Falcon seem real because they are blades from a bulldozer model, something we have seen in the real world.
The same philosophy behind greebles explains the success of one of the greatest inventor/entrepreneurs of all time - Thomas Edison. It is worth considering the challenge Edison faced, and the magnitude of his success, in rolling out electric lights. By the early 1800s, many cities were lit by gas lights, supported by a widespread gas delivery system of pipes and meters. In 1882, Edison revealed a completely new system for both lighting and power distribution: the electric bulb and electrical system. It seemed a huge battle to get people to adopt this scary new technology.
By 1892, 10 years later, New York City had basically completely switched to electric lights. How did he do it?
In a famous (and readable!) article, Hargadon & Douglas discuss how Edison used the principles of robust design, by taking advantage of skeumorphs (a design throwback to an earlier use) connecting his new scary tech to a familiar one: gas. By making the technology like gas technology, adoption would be easier.
For example, gas lights gave off light equal to a 12 watt bulb, so Edison limited his bulbs to 13 watts.
Similarly, lampshades weren't needed for an electric light, since they were originally used to keep gas lamps from sputtering. But Edison added them anyhow. While not required, they are comforting and, again, made a greeble-like connection to the older technology.
He also developed the electric meter as a way of charging (because gas was metered) and insisted on burying electric wires (because gas was delivered through underground pipes).
Neither of these choices were ideal. Burying electric wires created huge issues, since the wires were uninsulated, and often failed or leaked current. He also couldn’t come up with a good way to use electric meters at first, so the first six months of electrical use was free as his team tried to figure out how that would work (and the ultimate solution wasn’t that great). But they felt familiar to consumers, and were easier to adopt.
Two of the most successful tech companies of the last decades have taken Edison’s lessons to heart. Ironically, while Tesla-the-person never learned this lesson from Edison, Telsa-the-company has. Electric cars could have plugs anywhere, so why does charging a Tesla feel like putting gas in a regular car? It’s skeuomorphic, linking the old to the new!
Steve Jobs famously insisted on skeuomorphic design in the original iPhone to make a series of complex apps easier to understand & work with at a glance. They might seem outdated looking, now, but they served a clear purpose.
The lesson is useful for anyone creating new technologies, and especially radical ones. As Hargadon and Douglas write: “the dilemma Edison faced is a common one among designers of new products and processes. The old adage, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door," may be more optimistic than realistic. Edison, for instance, might well have learned from the phonograph that the public is not interested in beating any new paths when confronted with an entirely novel innovation. Instead, entrepreneurs might find it more profitable to build their new enterprises on some already well-traveled paths.”
By balancing familiarity and novelty, innovators can make transitions to new products easier. This is often against the instincts of founders, who want to introduce something new and radical to the world. But, often, the closer a new innovation is to old usage patterns, the less friction there is in adoption.