Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Lightbulb Lost Weight. And That's Important.

First let me say it feels good to be writing again. It's been too long.

There's been a surprising amount of news about Phillips and their newest LED light bulb that's sporting a new design.Well...a slightly new design. It's a flatter version of the bulb shape. It might not sound like much but I think the reason for all the hype is that there are some important implications in this skinny new bulb.

Now if you know me, you know I geek out about product design and innovation and 2013 has been a good year for geeking out. In the digital world we've seen a sudden (though Android fans may argue this) and rapid shift toward design that favors simplicity and elegance over bulky elements that hold the users' hand. In the physical world, we're seeing more and more products becoming "smart" and "connected" thus really transforming the way we control and manage those items. It's truly an exciting time.

So at this point you may be saying, "Ok, so what about this light bulb?". For a little context, aside from the fact that it's LED and has a life span of some 22 years, the main optimization that I read about was pretty damn simple: the bulb is flat rather than rounded which, logically enough, makes it easier to hold and screw in. That's it.

Now what I think is so key here is the marriage in this product between technology and design. Light bulbs have looked the same for as long as I can remember and while they're not especially difficult to screw in, it can be a challenge to stand on a ladder, grip a delicate object either over or around it without shattering it and defy gravity by twisting upwards. But with this new design, you can hold the bulb easily in a manner that doesn't require too much pressure and twist.

We're at a point now where new technologies are being applied to mature, commonplace products and that opens the door for designers and product engineers to start rethinking structures that have been left unchanged for years. Let me be clear, a flat light bulb is not thrilling by any means, but sometimes it's the littlest things that have the most everyday value. Another good example is the new Nest smoke detector, which allows you to stop a false alarm by waving your hands. God damn I could use that in my tiny kitchen.

What I hope to see in the coming year, and it doesn't even have to be technology related is innovations, even incremental ones, applied to basic products that add practical, enjoyable value at an affordable cost. This is as opposed to another year with four versions of the iPad. Too often we get caught up in enhancements that are purely aesthetic or too technical to use. I want to see the pizza box where the cardboard tears apart per slice to be used as a plate, or the desk with the built in dock for my smartphone. Show me changes to pens and bars of soap; traffic lights and my tennis racquet. Some of these changes may be as simple as flattening a
light bulb, but it's the changes that address issues we all have on a daily basis that can really have a long lasting effect.

Product developers and marketers are constantly reacting and adapting to technological advancements and that's great. I think going forward, we should step back from using technology to create fancy new experiences that are more gimmick than good. Instead, we should consider how we can truly affect change in products and processes that consumers use everyday (or in whatever it is that we're trying to market) and use technology or design to make small simple tweaks that can make things just a little bit easier for people. Aside from being useful, coming up with changes to long-standing items can be surprisingly fun and rewarding, and there's a certain pride in developing an extremely useful, yet subtle experience that may help you stand out in a crowd of virtual reality and flashing lights.

What're your thoughts on this new bulb and the idea of subtle innovations? What products would you like to see changed either through technology or design? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. Marriage between technology and design is CRUCIAL. Hence my major and work in the field. Great post!

  2. It was surprisingly an article similar to this, about re-designing smoke alarms, that initially sparked my interest in Human Factors and product design. As a UX designer, it’s our job to make products as user friendly and intuitive as possible. In order to do this, you need to step back and identify what the core problem is and how to solve this problem. A single design change of flattening the bulb, improves the functionality and user perception. This is a great example of how sometimes a simple change can have a large impact.

  3. First off. Great piece David. Love. It.

    Second, Phillips is on the forefront of reinventing lightbulbs, lighting, energy use, ambient lighting, etc. Have you check their truly "smart" hue connected light bulb?

    Not only does this allow owners to save up to 80% energy remotely, but it allows them to control the type and quality of light the bulb gives off! Amazing! Talk about end user benefits!