Zen and the Art of Connected Hardware

There’s a classic novel that’s dwelled, unread, on my bookshelf for nearly 30 years. Last weekend, I finally got around to finishing it. Using a backroads trip from midwestern America to San Francisco as a vehicle for philosophical discussion, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance explores the idea of quality, and how people interact with technology — using the lens of motorcycle technology.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“That’s all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There’s no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone’s mind.”

Connected hardware is a lot like the motorcycle at the center of Robert Pirsig’s book. Most people use connected devices without having any idea how they work. But there is a sense among those users of what differentiates high quality connected devices (like Nest, Eero and Sonos) from low quality devices. The feel, the responsiveness, the interfaces in high quality devices create strong positive emotional bonds with users. Low quality devices frustrate users.

Like a well-designed motorcycle, high-quality connected hardware is created by the minds of great designers and entrepreneurs. Every single part of a great device springs from creativity and genius.

“Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not.”

Great devices are the manifestation of the skilled people that created them — they don’t just “happen.” I spend my days looking for those geniuses, helping them, and encouraging them not to compromise their dreams of building quality products. Even if it means a higher price point. Even if it means delayed product launch dates. Give up on quality, and you give up on the soul of your company. Be the entrepreneur that never sacrifices quality.

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