A legendary designer told us why the best products are 'invisible'

Yves Behar is one of the most iconic designers alive.

As the founder of the design firm Fuseproject, he’s the brains behind the Jawbone Up, the Jambox, the August Smartlock, and the XO Laptop, an ultra-cheap laptop that has made such an impact on the developing world that it’s featured on Rwandan money.

Each of Behar’s products have a certain simplicity and elegance to them. You can sleep wearing the Jawbone Up, his firm’s sleek fitness tracker, and the clean angles of the cable-free, portable Jambox wireless speaker make other audio equipment look clumsy.

At the core of Behar’s design philosophy is “invisibility.” The best products, he maintains, blend into user’s lives rather than distracting from them.

Theo Rigby, Tech InsiderThe Fuseproject office in San Francisco.

“There are some things, psychologically and physically, that humans do well, and every time you have a product or an experience that lives within that flow, when you enhance somebody’s feeling or understanding or comprehension of the world, you may have something that is successful,” he tells Tech Insider.

But if you force people to do something unnatural, he says, you get into trouble. The product is no longer invisible.

Take the ill-fated Segway.

The rolling transit vehicle puts you a foot taller above everybody else, Behar says, so it distracts from the human experience.

“That’s why it’s a product that’s mostly used by police these days. That one-foot difference isn’t natural, it breaks the human condition,” he says. “When technology comes along with you, when it’s more invisible, then it has a much bigger chance of being successful.”

Fitness trackers, which sold an estimated 70 million units worldwide in 2014, are far more popular than the Segway. One possible reason for their success: invisibility.

The Jawbone Up, Behar’s take on the wrist-worn tracker, was first introduced in November 2011.

“It lives on your body, you can sleep with it, it doesn’t take you out of an interaction with another human being. that’s when technologies get adopted and people like them,” Behar says.

The device tracks steps and heartrate, like other fitness trackers. It’s most exceptional feature: a data-mining service called Smart Coach that will crunch your stats to give you tailored advice — like when to go to bed to get the most rest, and how to optimise your workout.

The Up “becomes a mirror,” Behar says. “It becomes the way that people understand themselves better. And people love to more know about themselves, they love to discover patterns, they love to get insights.”

At the same time, Behar emphasises, it fits discretely into your pre-existing life. It lives on your body, it’s unobtrusive, and you can sleep while wearing it.

According to a 2015 Rocket Fuel wearables survey of 1,262 consumers, the Jawbone lags behind the Nike+ FuelBand and Fitbit in terms of adoption. The Jawbone PR teams tells Tech Insider that “we’re seeing a strong growth in sales in the U.S. and internationally, and just launched in India last week,” and that there’s demand for new colours.

The August Smart Lock is similarly invisible. As we’ve reported before, the battery-operated lock aims to replace the traditional door knob lock. It uses a Bluetooth app to talk with your phone to open and close the door.

At the center of the August is the “autolock” feature, which automatically opens the door as you walk up to it and locks when you leave, with your phone vibrating or chiming to let you know that it’s working.

“We want this to fit really smoothly into people’s lives,” Behar says. “I haven’t had keys on me for nine months now, and I would never go back — having to look for my keys and having no sense of control whether my door was locked or not.”

First released in October 2014, August has now partnered with Nest, Comcast, and other connected home companies. To date, 20 million keyless entries have funneled through the August system.

With the August, you don’t have to pull your phone out of your pocket or fumble with your keys. You just walk up to the door.

The cues are discrete, just the way Behar likes it.

“In many ways,” he says, “when we work on technologies, we like them to be invisible, and we like people to perceive and enjoy the experience, rather than the technological layer that was used to deliver that experience.”

This is the first in a series of posts from Tech Insider’s conversation with Yves Behar.

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