7 Lessons You Can Learn From Tesla About Product Design

Alex Obenauer
Sep 15, 2016 · 6 min read

I have to start this article with a disclaimer that there is no disclaimer. This post might look like sponsored content with Tesla, but it isn’t (I wish).

The fake grille over the years.

Carry People Into The Future

Thanks to cognitive science, we already know that how a product looks helps define what the product can do in the minds of the consumer. Knowing this, Tesla originally ensured consumers viewed their vehicles as fully capable sports cars, grille and all, as opposed to some of the uglier, less capable, grille-less all-electric vehicles of the past. Having the fake grille there helped consumers’ minds define what category a Tesla-made vehicle was in. But as the world got to know Tesla, it became less relevant, and the designers could move the car more toward the future — by removing the unnecessary and outdated fake grille.

Lesson learned: sometimes we have to help carry consumers into the future. For example, if your product is so innovative that the consumer will have a hard time knowing what it is or in what category it stands from its visual appearance alone, sometimes you could consider visual elements that, even if functionally unnecessary, guide the user’s understanding of the product.

Use Everything You Know to Require Less From the User

The lesson is simple: get creative about what your product knows, or could discern on its own, to require less from the user. I’ve never used a product that I thought was fully capitalizing on this principle; once software is involved, there’s always smarter ways of inferring things on behalf of the user.

Here’s a dead simple example that you’ll run in to almost every day: the first four digits of a person’s credit card number will tell you what type of card it is. So don’t ask for it! Stripe’s Checkout does a great job of this: the card icon changes to show the logo of your card after you type in the first four digits, never asking you to select it yourself. That’s why we use it in Throttle.

Form Begets Function

In 2006, Elon Musk published a blog article exposing his “secret master plan” for Tesla. He knew the goal could not simply be to mass-produce an all-electric vehicle. With that as the goal, you’d end up with an ugly car with worse than average performance that cost more (proof, also notice: no fake grille here).

Instead, his goal was to create “an electric car without compromises,” and even starting with his first — the Roadster — his team “designed [it] to beat a gasoline sports car like a Porsche or Ferrari in a head to head showdown” (funnily enough, just a few weeks ago they introduced the P100D model which is the fastest production vehicle in the world — trumping every Porsche and Ferrari in production). And it’s working.

When we’re creating products for consumers, form matters. Unlike selling to businesses, consumers are human and emotional. Consumers care about social status and achieving life aspirations. Form matters — it can be one of the biggest drivers of repeat business and high user ratings.

Plus, the longer a new technology has been around, and the more similar competing products grow, the more form matters.

The Importance of Purpose

“The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution.”

This is true innovation in pursuit of a larger purpose — Elon’s purpose became Tesla’s (as it did his other companies, SolarCity and SpaceX). The company’s vision and purpose are set and driven by Elon. And it’s not fake. Tesla even open sourced all of their patents — helping future competitors. And these days, many of their customers are customers for this reason — because they resonate with the purpose (besides wanting to own their own personal rollercoaster).

Pricing: Charging More Out of the Gate

Raise Prices

He explains:

The №1 theme our companies have when they get really struggling is they are not charging enough for their product. It has become absolutely conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley that the way to succeed is to price your product as low as possible under the theory that if it’s low-priced everybody can buy it and that’s how you get the volume.

They don’t charge enough for their product to be able to afford the sales and marketing required to actually get anybody to buy it. And so they can’t afford to hire the sales rep to go sell the product.

Much like Tesla did, sometimes the solution in an industry is not to charge less, but to charge more. And not to charge more for the sake of more — but to create a product worth more, and to use the larger overhead to fund growth and what’s next — in Tesla’s case, a more affordable all-electric performance vehicle.

The Toilet Method

It takes a really useful, but sophisticated technology — autopilot that can change lanes at the driver’s command — and allows the human user to interact with it in a way that is most natural and intuitive — flipping the turn signal, something we’ve been doing for over 70 years.

How can you employ The Toilet Method in your own products?

Disruption and Newcomers

Leaders in the email industry told me I’d fail within a month when we tried putting a new kind of email client — to compete with Gmail and Outlook — on Kickstarter. One you had to pay for. Our Kickstarter campaign raised over $50k by February, 2012. In the years that followed, besides our own successes on the App Store and beyond, dozens of third-party email clients flooded the market.

The New Industrialist by Mindsense

Mindsense’s Company Blog.

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