Phil Patton | Essays

The Meek Shall Inherit the Market

Nokia's 1100 cell phone does nothing but make calls. Price: $16.

Frugal engineering is a hot topic in development circles. A recent article in Strategy and Business magazine summarizes the virtues of “a cell phone that makes phone calls — and does little else; a portable refrigerator the size of a small cooler; a car that sells for about US$2,200 (100,000 rupees).”

Such objects are the fruits of “a powerful and ultimately essential approach to developing products and services in emerging markets,” the story explains. But frugal engineering is needed everywhere, and in fact, it has long been with us.

The iPod Nano is an example of frugal engineering as much as the Tata Nano — the $2,200 Indian “people’s car,” whose single windshield wiper sums up the impulse for austerity in product design. Versions of the tiny music player did away with the screen and controls of other iPods in an effort to lower the price as well as increase portability.

In its analysis of the most recent iPod Nano — the sixth generation — the market research firm Suppli found the manufacturing cost very low, just $45.10. Only “the fourth generation product had a less expensive BOM at the time of its introduction, at $40.80," the group reported. The previous generation had included a scroll wheel controller and camera. These were eliminated. "Instead of piling on features, as so many brands do with their latest products, Apple with the sixth-generation iPod has maintained or even removed some attributes in order to fit the form factor and function desired," wrote Andrew Rassweiler, an analyst with the firm. By making the product accessible to a less affluent part of its market, Apple not only attracts new customers, but may keep them for future purchases.

Many ideas of frugal engineering grow out of theories of technology appropriate to emerging or underserved economies, as derived from the books of Victor Papanek (Design for the Real World) and E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful). The results include the evaporative water filter called Watercone; crank-driven radios and other electrical devices for areas off the grid; and the recently much publicized “car parts” infant incubator, called Neonurture. The Spartan nature of these devices is appropriate to a limited infrastructure of energy and technical support.

But frugal engineering has another long tradition in its introduction of new technology. The Nano’s ancestor, the Model T, is exemplary. So are such classic American inventions as the balloon frame house and the Town truss bridge. In the world of consumer electronics alone, the Sony Walkman famously became a success when engineers took a full-function tape recorder used by reporters and secretaries and removed the recording equipment. The resulting machine was play-only. It was also less expensive and its lack of recording ability reassured record companies concerned about piracy.

More recent examples include the Flip digital video camera and the netbook configuration of laptop computer, which is used mostly to link to networks. These products reflect the state of fast-advancing technology but features like disc drives are left out.

A Wired magazine story last year highlighted “The Good Enough Revolution: ”When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine." But there is no revolution, only a basic principle. “Good enough” products have long been common in the development of new technologies. As the cost of the technology falls, as it typically does through economies of scale and other factors, more sophisticated, specialized models appear. The Model T remains the prime example, but also think of early personal computers like the Radio Shack TRS 80 (so crude it was nicknamed “Trash 80”) or the Kaypros and Osbornes that helped bring desktop computing to a wide audience three decades ago.

The world of military design and acquisitions is famous for cost and feature overruns. That may be why the great exception is so glaring: the famed Lockheed Skunk Works that developed the U-2 spy plane and F-117 stealth fighter. Because this group worked for intelligence agencies, hiding budgets in the nooks and crannies of normal appropriations, free from political influence, economy was a value. (The Skunk Works is often credited with coining the acronymic motto “KISS,” or “keep it simple stupid.”) It demonstrated that off-the-shelf parts make for frugal design. The U2 of the 1950s was cobbled together from many other airplane components. The F-117 of the 1970s was built with engines purloined from the F-18 fighter factory and a navigation system from the B-52 bomber.

Another exceptional story of military design is the Jeep’s. Although its origins in 1940 are made murky by many stories and claimed by many authors, the design clearly had to be vigorously scrubbed so it could meet military weight limits. This sort of editing is another from of frugality. An engineer named Delmar G. “Barney” Roos directed the process that stripped out every ounce of expendable structure, drilled holes in parts to lighten them and even deleted paint.

A recent interview with members of an Ikea design team showed a similar process at work, but in their case the cuts were in packaging and shipping. Ikea famously declares that “first we design the price tag.” It’s another way of saying frugality dominates. The designers reported that they changed the shape of a lamp so that more lamps would fit into each box and more boxes into each shipping container.

The impulse to economize can have beneficial aesthetic consequences. Consider the famous story of New York’s George Washington Bridge. Its carefully planned masonry exterior, designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building, was ultimately abandoned, after the bare steel skeleton proved so popular with the public that it was painted and left naked, the legend goes. (The real story may have been more complicated. Saving money, especially in the 1930s, had to have been a powerful incentive for the builders.)

Warehouse retailers like Costco have frugally designed the sales process by combining sales and transaction areas.

Frugal design in the developed world could be seen as an antidote to “feature creep,” the complexity and distractions of design associated with aggressive marketing in mature markets. As technologies fall in cost, feature creep adds bells and whistles to basic models. It is what keeps us from being able to buy a basic one-button toaster oven or other simple product. Frugal engineering demands — and is identical with — frugal design. Which capabilities are essential and which expendable are questions development teams must collectively answer. The challenge for mature technologies and saturated markets is to produce goods that are streamlined rather than bloated with unneeded features because little profit is left in basic technology.

Posted in: Business, Product Design, Social Good

Comments [9]

Phil, I think you mean the iPod Shuffle, not the Nano. iPod Nanos have screens and retail for around $149.00. The iPod Shuffle has no screen and retails for around $49.00.


Yes, Carrie is right and I was wrong. While the Nano has been frugalized, as Suppli noted, the real frugal star of the iPod lineup is indeed the Shuffle, the base model with no screen and no controller. Thanks for pointing it out.

My uncle uses that phone, he's a taxi driver in Beirut, he can't really afford anything better and it does the job perfectly. I actually miss those little buggers, they're damn ugly though.

Wired magazine recently ran an article where they drew attention to the 1 laptop per child project. This project which had low cost as its start point resulted in a cheap computer with many design innovations necessitated by the price point. The resulting product led to the design and proliferation of net book computers. These pared down laptops can claim a 1st instance in the computer industry. New models typically have had more features, faster processors, more memory, storage, etc... The net book computer has highlighted the end of feature creep.

Good article, though fancy features and functionalities often sell.

The article quotes that minimal design works especially in underdeveloped economies, though i would disagree. in fact quite the opposite, most people want more value for money.

To comment on the iPod, the new nano has, in a way, become more frugal in the aspects that the old nano was larger and had more features, where as the new one is sleeker and is basically removing the shuffle from the market. I cannot say that I am not a consumer of frugal things, nor can I state that I only use frugal technology. My car is the base model (no air conditioning, no power doors or windows) yet when I look at computers and things that I hold near and dear to my heart, I tend to look at a lot of the bells and whistles. I feel that a great deal of the community of buyers for different devices look at the false promises of grandeur and make their purchasing decisions based on the extras rather than the base of what you are getting, which is described here.
Mark Samuelson

Wow. Thank you-- I thought I must be the only person in this country under 35 that didn't care much for features on phones or cameras or computers or MP3 players, etc. Just not that into gadgets. Generally speaking, in my experience, the more bells and whistles, the more complex to use and the less reliable long term... and the more expensive, usually because of features I don't want to pay for. Some people take great joy in spending time with a new device to learn all about it. For me, the longer I have to fool with a device before it reveals it's secrets, the less I like it. It's about time for me.

Recently I got rid of my Blackberry in favor of an el cheapo, free with rebate model that has my old Blackberry beat in my book simply because it has a dedicated speaker phone button. The Blackberry's was buried in menu with a dozen other features. Really? Who designs this stuff?
Joni B

The Tata Nano is a terrible, terrible example for this article, IMO. Take a population of billions that has thrived without cars for thousands of years, introduce them to a car that's simple and cheap and what do you get? Increased air pollution, congestion and traffic fatalities. Unlike cell phones, which increase connections and improve life with less infrastructure.

Great ideas that I have never thought of-thank you!
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