Doing More With Less: 4 Design Lessons from the Flip

In 2007, a company named Pure Digital released the Flip Video camera. It has quickly become the best selling video camera on Amazon.com. It has captured 13% of the video camera market in just a few months.

How does a product from an unheard-of company come to challenge an industry dominated by established big players, such as Sony, Panasonic, and Canon? It's simple. Create a better experience.

The Evolution of Camera Features

JVC and Sony manufactured the first camcorders in 1982, making low-cost video creation a possibility. Before the camcorder, you needed two devices to record: a video camera and a VCR. These combined devices opened up a new market. It was simple for anyone to point the camera, press the record button, and make a movie.

Over the years, the manufacturers have competed by adding new features, such as digital recording capabilities, longer battery life, and more compact form factors. Today's cameras can do a lot, but they are very complicated to operate. They have a bazillion buttons and a slew of settings, few of which users understand and only get in the way of using it.

Along Came the Flip

With the Flip Video camera, Pure Digital's designers have done something very interesting: they've reduced the functionality to just the useful subset of features. The camera has a simple set of buttons, just enough to control the operation. The built-in software works fast and only has the critical features.

The designers obviously thought about what is necessary to have a great camera experience and did the unthinkable: they trimmed every other bell and whistle out of the design. What's left is a barebones product that does exactly what most users want and need.

Let's look at some of the lessons we can learn from the Flip's design:

Lesson #1: Minimalist Controls

The latest Sony camcorders feature a Home Menu button, to bring you quickly to the camera's home menu. Arrow keys let you navigate quickly to the dozens of menu options and settings you'll need to operate the camera. These are just a few of the dozen or so buttons on the outside of the unit, needed to control the variety of available features.

The Flip doesn't have a Home Menu button. That's because it doesn't have a Home Menu (or any other menus).

Instead, the buttons are simple. There's a power button, a record button, a play button, and a delete button. There's a +/- toggle for adjusting the zoom when recording, which doubles as the volume control when playing back. And there's a left/right toggle for scrolling through the videos you've recorded, to select one for playing or deleting.

That's it: four buttons and two toggle sets. It's a very simple and elegant control system. The user can record movies, scroll through them, play them back, and delete them.

When we think about our designs, we want to ask ourselves: What are the least number of controls we can get away with? Can we get down to the core functionality with only a few buttons? Would that be enough for a great experience?

Lesson #2: Removing worries

The designer's have also simplified one of the biggest concerns of budding videographers: will their battery last? Battery life is the bane of modern technology. For a device, such as a camcorder, the user has to remember to charge the battery at the least convenient moment: when they aren't thinking about it back at their home or hotel room. If they forget, they'll end up with a dead camera and no way to capture an exciting moment.

Worries like this become a burden on the user. It's one more thing for them to keep track of. People who don't want that burden quickly end up foregoing the product, since they can't count on it to be available.

The Flip uses AA batteries available in any corner store and makes swapping easy. The user no longer needs to worry about whether they remembered to recharge their camera before they left the house. Just throw a couple of extra batteries in your bag and you're covered. The burden is removed from the users, making it more likely they'll carry the camera around and use it when the right moment arises.

As we create our designs, we want to think about the worries our users have. Is there a way to rethink our design to eliminate their concerns?

Lesson #3: Eliminate Value-less Steps

In today's world, we've become accustomed to installing PC software on our computers. Everything needs new software to read the data and control it, so we're used to popping in a disc and slogging through a multi-step installation process. If we're lucky, the installation process will go quickly and not fill up our drives with unnecessary applications. If we're extra lucky, we won't change computers and need to reinstall the software, now from a disc we've long since "put away for safe keeping" and can no longer find.

While they're accustomed to it, users don't receive any value from this process. Users don't enjoy installing software. At best, it happens without much notice. At worst, it asks troublesome questions and reports issues the user is unprepared to handle. If we eliminate this step, nobody will miss it.

That's what the Flip's designers did. They put the software right on the camera. When you plug the camera into your computer, using a pop-out USB arm, it automatically loads the camera's software. (On a Mac, you have to click to open the application, while on the PC it automatically starts up.)

By eliminating the process of loading software from a disc, the designers also allow the camera to become more useful. Users, not near their own computer, can still load up the movies on a nearby PC and enjoy them. This is another example of an improved experience with a simpler design.

Lesson #4: Integrate the Next Step

The previous generation of camcorders declared their job done when the movies were on the user's hard disk. Some provided editing software to enhance the videos. Implicit in the design was the decision to leave the users to figure out on their own what they wanted to do with their movies.

The Flip's designers didn't do that. Their design takes into account the next step: sharing the movie.

The built-in software has simple functions to email movies for private sharing. For people who want to be a little more public, they provide an easy way to upload the movie directly to YouTube or AOL Video. As with the rest of the design, they've made these processes as simple as possible, so users don't waste effort on value-less steps.

When someone finishes with your product or service, what is the next thing they do? Is there a way to build that next step into your design?

Doing More with Less

The Flip isn't the first to do more with less. When Apple introduced the iPod, it greatly simplified the process of loading and controlling the selection of music on an MP3 player. When Microsoft introduced Word for Windows, it provided a much simpler method to do word processing, making the feature-laden market leader, Word Perfect, obsolete.

We've noticed there becomes a point where the features in a product set no longer help the user, instead becoming a hindrance to its usage. Video camcorders reached that point, opening an opportunity for someone to come in with a better product that has only those essential features. By studying how the Flip takes advantage of this opportunity, we can all learn how to make better designs by doing more with less.

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Have you been working to make your designs simpler? What lessons have you learned in the process? Please share your thoughts and comments with us on the UIE Brainsparks Blog.

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