Interview with David Kelley

Source: Interview with David Kelley, 24 July 2000.

Pang: This is an interview with David Kelley, July 24, 2000, at the IDEO world headquarters.

Kelley: There you go!

Becoming a Product Designer

Pang: I want to begin by asking about how you got into the Stanford Product Design Program-- the story of your origins and involvement there.

Kelley: Sure. That's a program which I still teach in-- I never left-- and how I got there is an interesting story.

Work before Stanford

I was out there in the world, I'd graduated from Carnegie-Mellon, which is a respectable university in engineering, and I was out there in the real world being a bad engineer. [Pang laughs] I just wasn't good at what they were asking me to do. What they were asking me to do was primarily analytical, at Boeing, and National Cash Register, and other big companies. But it wasn't creative, it was analytical: you were supposed to calculate this, and if it didn't work you were supposed to go back and work harder. I had always had an interest in art, but I came from a small town in Ohio where if you were male, art was not a potential career; if I'd been born in Manhattan, it would have been a different deal. But I was also good in math and science, so I went into engineering. I really love engineering, in the way I'd define it today, but the jobs I had then weren't like that.

So I was relegated to having this kind of job during the day that I didn't really like-- which is kind of a downward cycle-- and doing my art sort of as a hobby in the evening: I'd go and do sculpture, or make jewelry, as part of some group. And that was really exciting, but you didn't think it was a way to make a living. In 1973, I was working at the Boeing airplane company. It was the gas crisis, and I put a sign up that I wanted to share a ride, to save gas.

Discovering Stanford

Hearing about the program

The guy who answered the ad was a guy named Bill Potts, who had just come the year before from the Stanford Design Program. I had no idea about Stanford: I thought Stanford was in Los Angeles, that's where I was at that point, being a good guy from Pittsburgh. So he was in the carpool, and we drove for 40 minutes every day to Boeing. He worked in a different group than I. But he's still my best friend; we've been friends from that day forth.

One of the things that cemented our friendship was what he did for me: he said, "You're the right guy for this program." I have a low self-image at this point: "I'm a bad engineer, how can I get into Stanford?" was my response. But he kept pushing and pushing, and saying, "Look, this program's right for you," and talking about product design, and McKim, and telling the story. And so eventually I applied on his urging, and got in. Then-- and this is one of the things I try to convince students of-- when you find the right fit for your life's work, it's really obvious, and your really enjoy it, even though you might change that at a later time, and have a different career.

At Stanford

I got to Stanford, and it was like heaven. Instead of being a bad engineer, I was-- actually, I didn't care what I was, I loved it so much. So from the very first day, I met this guy Bob McKim, who was my mentor, and I studied under him, and with Jim Adams, and all the other guys. The idea that engineering is a creative thing, that it's dreaming up possible futures, trying to understand what people want and give them that, and resonate with people-- that was so different from my electrical engineering training, where what was macho was who could do this math homework set. It was completely different.

So I felt the program was vital and exciting, and a good fit for me. We've remained small, however: it's not like it's a huge thing. We have 12-15 new graduate students every year, and it takes two years, so at any time we have about 30 students. So it's small. But all these guys like Manock-- Manock was like class of 1966-- and I was just this weekend with Marshall Turner, who was head of the EPA, and was an early Stanford Product Design graduate.

Pang: So how did you get into teaching at Stanford?

Kelley: Remember, I'd just fallen in love with the place. I was there three years, and had never gotten to Stanford Shopping Center, I was in the machine shop the whole time. What happened was, I went for two years, I'd TAed every class that I could, and it was like a debt to the university at some level: so I said, "I want to teach this." We've always had lecturers in the program. We've always believed that a practitioner who delivers one class a year can prepare all year and do a really great job. So that was my aspiration, to do that.

I got involved with a professor named Larry Leifer, who was doing smart products, and just starting the smart products program. That meant understanding microprocessors, and giving that knowledge to mechanical engineers. The electrical engineers already knew about it, but mechanical engineers didn't, and they could put microprocessors in some product to make it work. Well, that's what I had just done at National Cash Register. I had microprocessor experience, and I was converting from EE to ME, so I taught that class with him-- actually, I was a TA, but it felt like I was teaching it, you know how that it is.

Anyway, that was a great experience, and Leifer was crazy enough to say, "Why don't you do a Ph.D." McKim, who was my real mentor, said, "Oh, that'll ruin you as a designer, don't do a Ph.D." But the idea was intriguing, and so I started on a Ph.D., so I did the course work under Larry, and I had a vague notion that I'd do something on robotics for handicapped people. And then two things happened. I realized I didn't like reading or writing as much as I liked building, and that was a negative. The other thing was that Silicon Valley was booming, and these guys would call Stanford, and say, "I've got this little microprocessor-based printer, and I want somebody who will design it so the processor will work;" and they'd come to me, because I was the electrical engineer/mechanical engineer combo guy in the division. So I'd go down and see them, and it'd be fun, and you'd do some medical pipetting device, or it'd be a reading machine for blind people-- that was more exciting than writing a Ph.D. So I said, "I'm going to quit and do this."

But it was definitely in my decision that there were these lecturer positions that I could still have. I was very close to McKim-- he lent me money to buy my first house, it was more than a professor-student relationship by the time I'd graduated-- and so I knew I could do this lecturing thing. At first I did one class a year, and pretty soon two, and got some kind of consulting professor appointment a few years later, and then in 1990, when McKim retired, and Rolf Faste was head by then, there was a search, and so I got a formal appointment and tenure in 1990.

So from 1980 to 1990, basically, I taught as a lecturer.

Pang: Was the smart products class where you hooked up with Jim Sachs?

Kelley: Jim was taking the class; I don't remember if he was a TA or not, but he was certainly working as hard as a TA. We were in the same crowd: he was hanging with Leifer, and I was hanging with Leifer, and that's how we met. One other person who was there, by the way, was Tim Koogle, who's now the president of Yahoo. We were all on that same floor.

Jim Sachs describes his education at Stanford, involvement with Hovey-Kelley, and work on the mouse project.

Industrial Design vs. Product Design

Pang: I want to get to Hovey-Kelley in a minute, but first I want to ask something else. At this point, in 1979 and 1980, what was the market for product design like? Were there established companies--

Kelley: No, no--

Pang: --or was it mainly freelance?

Kelley: This a really interesting thing, down at the level you're at. Here's what it was.

There was a profession called industrial design, and Manock was more like that than a product designer. Industrial design is taught in art schools, and it asks things like, "What's the shape look like? Should it be round or square?" In a camera [grabs a camera], people like things to look precise, so it has this knurling [points to detail on the lens], because it feels more precise when you handle it. So industrial design is taught in art schools, and it's how McKim was trained, at Pratt. The Stanford product design program was a reaction against that. It holds that a holistic design could only be done by someone who understood the technology and the human issues, so they could do the guts and the aesthetics at the same time. That's the main core of the product design program.

Stanford's the only product design program that exists. There were two kinds of people who existed at the time: industrial designers, trained in art schools, and technical experts, who were hired one at a time as you needed them. If you had a problem, you'd get an engineer who specialized in optics, or thermodynamics, or adhesives, or vibration, or whatever. That isn't to say that some of the people who were good at the technical stuff weren't also good at human issues, or some of the more technology-based industrial designers couldn't understand the technology well enough to integrate it into their work. But as far as a firm that had the point of view of integrating art and technology and business, there was nothing like that before IDEO.

In some ways, we were really lucky to have this point of view, because we had no other point of view. If McKim had been a Nazi artist, I'd be a Nazi artist now. He just created this ground that didn't exist. Now, later on that was a problem for us, not being part of an industry. A smart marketing, branding person would say, "You're better off being in an industry;" so some people thought of Hovey-Kelley-- and we didn't ruin that myth-- as part of the industrial design community, because there was a magazine, and awards, and a society, and ladder to climb-- as opposed to this that you had to always explain.

But the program was unique. Of course, that's not true today: the whole world's followed since then.

Pang: So when you started Hovey-Kelley, were there more conventional industrial design companies in the area that Hewlett-Packard or other big companies could go to?

Kelley: Yes, yes. There was a company called GVO, and there was one called Interform, or something like that. But again they were all artistic types.

Founding Hovey-Kelley

Pang: How did you start Hovey-Kelley?

Kelley: Well, I'd realized that I'm not cut out to get a Ph.D., and all these guys are calling me, so I had all these little projects to do, and I'm a much more collaborative person-- if I have a problem, I find a lot of other smart people, I don't go try and solve it myself-- and so I started needing help for this work. Then I thought, "You know, it would be fun to have a company." Stanford's a very entrepreneurial place, and McKim had made a bunch of money in little entrepreneurial companies-- Oxford Laboratories was his big hit, where he was just a consultant, and got stock instead of a fee-- so in order to get this work done, I'd have a more formal business structure, and put a bunch of people together to solve these problems.

Meeting Dean Hovey

So I went to McKim-- I didn't know Dean Hovey, I knew he was one of the students in the program a year or two behind me-- and said, "Bob, I've got this idea for starting a company," and he said, "That's a good idea, except for the fact that it'll be very cyclical, like architecture: you'll hire a bunch of people, then there won't be any work and you'll have to fire everybody." He and I laugh about that, because since then we've never had a slow moment: he didn't see how big Silicon Valley would become, but he was speaking from his experience.

So I said to him, "Okay, but I need some help, I don't have any business acumen. Who's the best kid graduating from the class? Who do you think is the smartest guy in the program?" And he said, "Dean Hovey." So I went and found Hovey, and we'd both worked for McKim's little company, Kimetrix, but at separate times and in separate places, so we had that experience in common, and knew those guys. So we just decided to start. he had a bike frame business-- Hovey made bike frames in high school-- so he had a checking account called "Hovey Design." We didn't have to open a checking account, we just used "Hovey Design," and added Kelley in there later.

That was it, that was the start. We rented a little place downtown for $90/month. We were scared to death, paying $90/month. Actually, it was almost exactly 22 years ago, in July of 1978.

Pang: Did all the early members of the company come out of Stanford?

Kelley: Yeah, Jim Sachs, Jim Yurchenco, Rickson Sun-- It was just a clique, it was like, who did I want to hang around with during the summer? You remember like in high school, you hang with your buddies because you've got nothing better to do? It's the same, it was exactly the same deal. We just started picking people we knew and liked. And then of course those people have people who they like: Hovey had some guy from his church who joined the company. Nobody expected this to last very long, it was just something we were doing until we grew up. But it just kept going.

Jim Yurchenco and Rickson Sun also talk about the early days of Hovey-Kelley.

Hovey was smart enough to get out: Hovey was the business acumen guy, and I was the nurturer of the staff and the design guy, and if you're a business guy you get out pretty quickly. There's no leverage, everyone's working hard, and if you want to make more money, you have to work more hours and hire more people and have more headaches. If you don't love the design part of it, it's not a good business. So he left in 1981.

Pang: When did it become IDEO?

Kelley: It became David Kelley Design in 1981, and then we changed to IDEO in 1990, when we merged with some real industrial designers.

The Apple mouse

Pang: Let's turn to the Apple mouse.

Kelley: Right.

Pang: I've talked to Jim Yurchenco about the design of the ribcage, Jim Sachs about the electrical work, and I want to understand what you did on it.

Hovey-Kelley and Apple

Kelley: I actually did very little on it. The Apple story starts pretty clearly with McKim-- when I tell the story, I'm amazed at how big an influence McKim is.

Anyway, when we formed the company, McKim said, "There's this guy who graduated a few years before you guys, who's working with this company Apple, and you should go meet him. His name is Jerry Manock." So I wandered down one day to his office.

Manock was on University, on the other side of High Street, in a big building with an atrium in the center-- I don't know if that building still exists-- and he was just by himself, just sitting in there drawing. I went in and introduced myself, and since we're this small little program, anybody else from Product Design you're endeared to immediately. Manock was working away: he was a consultant, he wasn't an employee at Apple, and he'd done the Apple II case. We introduced ourselves, let him know we were existed and were getting started, and he right away said he had more work than he could do with Apple. So we got started on that.

Jim Yurchenco talks about how sharing a common culture Hovey-Kelley, Jerry Manock, Bill Dresselhaus, and Apple employees made their work easier.

The first thing we did was-- I'm trying to remember, we've done about 50 projects for Apple now, and the mouse was not the first things we did-- the first thing may have been the Apple III. I did all the industrial design personally, because we didn't have any industrial designers. Manock wasn't an industrial designer, and Dresselhaus wasn't; they were both better than me, but they were really engineers. So I think-- and someone with a better memory can tell you this-- we were working on Lisa-- Apple IV-- first, and I remember saying we wanted to work on our own project, because Apple IV was really mixed up. Douglas Dayton was working on Lisa with Dresselhaus, and he worked on the keyboard and the first Lisa mouse.

Designing the Apple mouse

[Pulls out box of mice prototypes, molds, and first Lisa mouse; we sort through it for a moment.]

This is the one where we really got going [gets second prototype], where we learned that the ball had to float. In this one [holds up first prototype from May 1980], when you pushed down hard on it, it would force the ball against the table, and it would skip, because the ball didn't float. This was the second prototype, and this the one we really got going on. The ball now floats on the table, we have now the two commutators, and the thing works great.

Jim Sachs explains the significance of having the ball float in his interview; Dean Hovey describes the "a-ha" moment when he realized it was possible to unconstrain the ball.

Pang: Does this also have the spring-loaded roller?

Kelley: No. By the time you get the ribcage you get that. Anyway, my Apple projects basically were the Apple III, a joystick, a bunch other stuff, so I wasn't really on the team: I helped the brainstorm, but I wasn't very deeply involved.

Mouse ergonomics

I was working on what the mouse should look like, about the time this [the second prototype] was done. I went around and asked, "What feels really good in the hand?" And I found one of these sanding blocks. You ever see these sanding blocks, where it's a big hunk of rubber and you put the sandpaper in it? I took one of those and chopped it up, and then put little divots in it like a golf ball, and painted two little eyes like a mouse, and that was the first mouse case. Apple rejected it completely.

So it wasn't really my project. In those days there were only five or six of us in the office, so I can remember trying to figure out how to get the ball to not make noise on the table, and keep the eraser junk from getting in it, but I wouldn't put myself down as one of the designers of the actual mouse. But it was great fun, because you got to make all these discoveries. I don't know if anyone told you, but it took like no time whatsoever: we had nine months, and we were hardly paid anything, but we were happy as clams.

Pang: What were some of the other shapes that you experimented with?

Kelley: Well, after the one that I did that had way too much personality, shall we say, we started making wooden blocks. Douglas did a lot of that, and I did some of them [gets box of blocks] and we started doing all kinds of shapes. The path I went down for a long time was, there were trackballs-- in fact, our mechanism was similar to a trackball-- and I thought you should be able to use it as a mouse or a trackball. We went down that path for a long time, where you could use it as a trackball or a mouse. It didn't fly, and didn't need to: people caught on to the mouse much faster than we expected them to.

Pang: You've got all these different models. What was it that you thought would define a really good mouse shape?

Kelley: To me, the really important thing was, what's the scenario of use? People kind of react to new things according to what they're used to holding. That's why I went to the sanding block. So how are you going to use it? Are people going to hold it like a bar of soap? Are you going to drag your hand across the table, where your wrist is up, and it's something you'd do more precisely, or would you rest your hand on the table? Watching people play with them, it looked like users were going to rest their hand on the table, so it was going to be like the sanding block; it was not something that needed to be precise, because you were holding its weight, or because you were going to get your larger muscle groups involved. When you watched people, they were more relaxed when they held it.

Jim Sachs also discusses the ergonomic issues in the design of the mouse.

So now it was a question of, How big should it be? We could make the guts of the mouse small, so the mechanical design wasn't much of a limiting issue. You'd normally think that smaller was better, but it needed to be to human scale. I learned that at Boeing: when I worked at Boeing, you'd calculate what size screw you needed to hold two pieces of metal together, and the answer would come out 0.080 screw. That was structurally enough, but you needed something big enough for people to handle manually, so you'd use a number 6, because that was the first size humans could see and hold. It was the same thing here: what's the size, what's the shape that works on a human scale.

There are all kinds of issues. Was precision important? A big thing came when we realized that the human brain's in the loop: I'm looking at the screen, and I'm moving the mouse, and it doesn't have to be absolutely precise, because my brain will see that it's off and will correct for minor errors automatically. Was right-handed and left-handed a big deal? We were obsessed with putting the button under the index finger, but once you do that you make the mouse handed. Today, I'd bring in hand surgeons, to make sure that no muscle groups were used unnecessarily, and have tests with typical users; but then, we were just blasting it out, it wasn't that way at all. You know, you'd use your intuition, and show it to whoever you could find-- "What do you think about this one? Okay, now what about this one?"-- but not in any systematic way. We were just trying to get done so Steve wouldn't beat us up. [Pang laughs] That's still true today.

Pang: Some of these the hand slopes downward, whereas on the final mouse the hand curves upward.

Kelley: I think these were basically early models, and we were a little naive. The sanding block model makes sense to slope down because your hand's supported up higher; but we saw that most people would rest the palm of their hand on the table.

The BMW story

Pang: There was a story that Jim Sachs told about you cutting off the knob of the stick shift of your BMW during your search for various kinds of shapes that worked well in the hand.

Jim Sachs tells this story in his interview.

Kelley: We certainly took stuff off my BMW. Cut it off? I don't remember that. I remember the same day we went out and bought the sanding block we bought a butter dish, which was the first cover of the mouse, I can certainly remember having gear shift knobs on the table, that was really early.

And again, this is not Macintosh, which was a lot later, this was Lisa. But let's put it this way: we were not above going to Macy's and buying things and later returning them-- we didn't have a lot of money, right? But going to the hardware store, we just bought all kinds of stuff there. The gear shift knob also could have come from Dean's BMW. We bought twin BMWs, for grins.

But the butter dish was the most memorable, because we went to Walgreens, and we needed something plastic to put over the guts of the mouse, and that was it.

Dean Hovey tells the story of making a mouse prototype from a Walgreens butter dish.

[Holds up P3 mouse] This one is one we did before we found out that eraser stuff was going to come up off the desk and jam up the mouse.

Steve Jobs' involvement

Pang: It sounds like Jobs was involved in the early stage, working with Dean, and then you'd bring him something at the end of the process--

Kelley: That's kind of how I remember it, but having done 50 projects with him, I'm sure he was more involved along the way. On the other hand, he was really busy. In looking back, once we got the initial design, and he saw the thing move around on the screen with our electronics, he saw that we were going to be okay, and he focused on other things. When we got into this fight about whether we were going to manufacture the mouse was when he was next heavily involved.

See also Jim Yurchenco and Rickson Sun on Apple as a client and Steve Jobs' involvement in the mouse project; Dean Hovey on Steve Jobs and his appreciation of product design; and Jim Sachs on Jobs' vision for the mouse.

The button debate

Another really interesting story is about the two-button or one-button mouse. Apple couldn't decide which one to do, and decided on the one-button mouse for ease of use: you didn't have to explain so much if you just had one button.

Pang: I know there were people within Apple who were arguing about that, and it sounds like Hovey-Kelley is working fairly separately--

Kelley: Yeah, it was a client relationship--

Pang: But were you involved in Apple's debate over how many buttons there should be? It sounds like Hovey-Kelley comes to the same conclusion in favor of one button independently.

Kelley: Involved first-hand? No. My remembrance of the thing is that our guys came back and said, "There's a fight about the buttons, and they decided in favor of ease of use." The woman who was writing the user's manual was heavily involved, and they thought that it would be easier to explain how to use it if it had one button.

See also Dean Hovey, Jef Raskin, Jim Sachs, and Jim Yurchenco and Rickson Sun on mouse button issues.

Pang: Would that have been Joanna Hoffman?

Kelley: Joanna Hoffman would be my guess, but I wasn't there.


Pang: I also found a mention in some correspondence of an interest in manufacturing the mice as well.

Kelley: Oh yeah. It was more than interest. We really had the expectation that-- See, Apple was really focusing on all the stuff they had to focus on, and the mouse, they really gave it to us. We owned it. There was little involvement from them, other than getting the protocol right so Sachs could talk to the computer.

So we went to them-- Dean, being the business guy, went to them-- and said, "We should be more involved, we should be making these. Then we could make better ones, and different ones," and we could be a mouse company, basically. That happened later, with a guy named Kirsch--

Pang: Steve Kirsch?

Kelley: Yeah, he had a mouse company.

Pang: Was he connected with Hovey-Kelley?

Kelley: No, he wasn't connected to us in any way; he just proves that we could have had a mouse company. And so we were counting on it: we were starting to think about it, and then some guy from Apple came in and said, "Nope," and just shut it down. We should have been more adamant about it and pushed harder, but we were just kids, so we didn't know what to do.

So it was our expectation-- not at the very beginning, but somewhere in the middle of the project-- that Jobs and Dean had had a verbal agreement that we were going to manufacture the mice. Remember, Dean is moving towards that anyway: he's thinking, "This isn't a very good business, this consulting business. We need to find a way to make a product," which he eventually did.

Dean Hovey talks about Hovey-Kelley's interest in manufacturing mice in his interview, and in a 1980 memo.

Mouse design competition

Pang: There was a second company that Apple contracted with, who was working parallel with you guys--

Kelley: I don't think I ever knew that--

Pang: I've found a couple references in memos. Apple felt it was such an important project, they wanted a second source.

The reference to the second outside consultant is in a 1980 memo.

Kelley: That makes perfect sense. I can remember them doing that on other things, so I'm not surprised, but I'd never heard that.

Pang: My next question was whether you knew anything about that other company, but obviously not.

Kelley: It doesn't surprise me, and wouldn't have been a problem; it probably would have made us more aggressive about doing a good job, which was part of why they would do such a thing. But I don't remember it. Did you ask Dean? He'd be more likely to know.

Pang: I haven't yet, though I got the memo from him. Bill Lapson remembered very vaguely another company, and that the design wasn't worth much.

The Stanford Program and the Mouse

Jim Sachs talked about the philosophy of rapid prototyping that he picked up at Stanford; Dean Hovey talked about this was a perfect project for someone who came out of Stanford-- not too electrical, not too mechanical, not too big--

Dean Hovey, Jim Sachs, Jim Yurchenco and Rickson Sun all talk about the Stanford program's influence on them.

Kelley: Not too big-- you can't do 37 iterations of a Space Shuttle in the time we had--

Pang: One of the things I want to understand how the development of the mouse reflected the educations of the people who created it. It sounds like there are ways of working that you can blame on McKim or your other teachers--

Kelley: Right, right--

Pang: But were there other ways of working or approaches that were important to its success that you learned when you were in that program?

Fluency and flexibility

There's two. Rapid prototyping is the most important. The Stanford program has this thing about fluency and flexibility. That's what we teach in the very first class. In order to have breakthrough ideas, you have to have a lot of ideas, all different from one another. Fluency means that it's easy to come up with those ideas. So many inventors have an idea, and they lock into it and hold onto it, and it's like their baby, and they think they're never going to have another good idea. You have to get the students to break out of that. We give them a brick, and tell them, "Come up with 50 things you can do with a brick, other than use it in a building." And they say you can grind it up and make it into paint, or use it as a doorstop, and so on. You show them that in a very short period of time they can come up with a lot of ideas. So flexibility means that the ideas are different, one from the other: a doorstop to hold down papers, or using it to prop up a chair, those are all close to the same idea; but grinding it up is a different idea.

You start from a very early time in the program valuing lots of ideas and different ideas. So when to a problem like the mouse you come up with all these ideas, and you show them to all the smart people you can find, and they give you feedback, and it's easy to make the creative leap from the world of the possible. The trouble comes when you have one idea, and you show it around, and people say, "Yeah, yeah, that's okay;" then when you implement it, there's some "gotcha," some weirdo thing, that breaks it. If you have a whole bunch of ideas, someone's going to point that problem out. So prototyping is probably the easiest thing to talk about.

Human values

The other thing that's important, but is more subtle, is human values. A Stanford kid would never get in trouble with design a VCR no one can use, where the main person you're trying to go after can't program it. That's a lack of understanding of human values. We always have a central person in mind, who we're trying to design for; it might be an actual person, it might be a composite or someone we made up. But always in our minds, we Stanford designers are really clear about who it is we're designing for. And so you're taking these prototypes and thinking about that person: how big's that person's hand, what are they likely to do, what things will affect its use.

Rickson Sun talks about the importance of empathy in product design at IDEO.

Recently we designed a recharging system for GM's electric car. They had it in the basement of a parking garage, and our central persona was a 30 year-old woman, and she's not going to go into the basement. She'd be afraid to go into the basement of a garage; she's going to be more comfortable with an "energy spot" next to the handicapped spot.

The mouse might have worked because we had that human values point of view, and we were showing it to people all the time. That's why I think it worked, and worked better than if all the engineers in the lab had just worked on it. One way to think about it is to look at the early Xerox mouse prototypes: I'm sure those were engineered in the lab, and while they did incredible work, they weren't human-oriented. In one sense they were, in that they made computers easier to use, but down at the detail level they weren't.... I don't really know, I'm just making that up.

The Mouse and IDEO

The mouse project compared

Pang: So within Hovey-Kelley, how did this compare to some of the other projects you were working on? Was it the first complete product you did?

Kelley: No, but it was the most successful-- you hang around with Steve Jobs long enough, good things happen, right? At the same time, we were working on a differential cell counter for a microscope, a computer housing for Zilog, which wasn't so interesting mechanically, but it was modular, so you had to figure out how to put it together and take it apart and all that kind of stuff. But the mouse really stands out in the memory because it was the most interesting, and the most successful thing we did.

Jim Sachs also talks about other projects Hovey-Kelley had at the same time as the mouse.

Pang: Dean talked a little about how the mouse helped solidify the company's reputation--

Kelley: For sure. It had a lot to do with Jobs, too. First of all, I should say I consider Steve a good friend: he introduced me to my wife, I go over to his house for dinner all the time, and so on. But he's so critical-- and I don't think he would mind my saying that-- that makes people do their best work, and people know that. If I need a travel agency, I call Steve and say, "Hey, who do you use?" and I know he's found someone who'll put up with his exacting concerns.

So it helped us to be able to say, "We've worked with Steve Jobs, you can call him." They couldn't get to him, but it was kind of an endorsement: if we could please him, we could please you as a new client.

Learning from the mouse

Pang: Do you think there were things you learned from this project that helped the company in its later work?

Kelley: Sure, sure, absolutely. It was a confidence-builder to set a high goal. You have to give that to Steve, too: he's really good at getting you to set a high goal. He said, "You can make this for $12 or $17," or whatever our goal was, it was in that range, when they normally cost $400. The thing I remember about the mouse was, we're kids, we don't know what we're doing, we're given this task-- and everybody at Apple are kids, too; Steve's younger than me-- and we broke through this brick wall. That was a real confidence-builder.

The mouse is clearly the best example in the early days of where you apply the Stanford product design process, you set a high goal, and you can do it. Even though you were naive about business or manufacturing, you can learn those on the fly. As a result of that, today the most sought-after projects in the company are the ones in areas where we don't have a lot of experience, not the ones where we do have a lot. We have a lot of experience designing furniture, and Pepsi products, and computer housings, and other stuff; but the big bang for the buck is projects like the mouse, where we take on something where we don't know anything about the market, or how the last one was designed. There, we can really wow the client, because we're not tied to convention.

So we continue to build on our confidence from the mouse, and say, "No, we've never designed one of these before, but we just apply our process, and in the end you'll get a more innovative solution than if you went to a guy who's already designed fifteen of these." And we learned that from the mouse. For sure.

I'm sure we learned a lot of other specific technical things, like about injection molding-- Yurchenco was pushing the state of the art-- and we learned about optics, and quadrature, and manufacturing. Even though we weren't responsible for manufacturing, every time some little thing went wrong we were beaten up over why we designed it this way, right? We learned there's a consequence: we can design something, but if we haven't gotten the manufacturing engineer involved, it's hard to explain why we weren't negligent in doing something a certain way, or why the tradeoffs made sense. There's probably a million things like that that we learned in the early projects. Apple was definitely our premier client, through Macintosh.

Document created on 12 September 2000;