#3: Ambient delight
The story of the ten year old mini screwdriver
👋 Hi friends, it's Hesam with issue #3 of 4 bits. 4 bits is a biweekly newsletter where I share thoughts and musings on how to build memorable experiences.
Three quick life updates:
- 🌍 Booked summer travel tickets. Traveling to a city feels like playing a video game.
- 🇳🇱 Met the enrollment numbers for my first study abroad program in the Netherlands. ~10 Rice undergraduate students will take a design thinking course with me for two weeks in Amsterdam. I can’t wait to share the Netherlands with them.
- 🧂 Trying to get better at dry brining meats in advance of cooking. Still experimenting. The last few meals have been…salty.
I have a confession to make. I used to be an early adopter.
Most people have at least one early adopter in their life. The person who eagerly awaits a new product launch. The person who buys the first version of an unproven product, sight unseen, without waiting for reviews or to hear about bugs.
It’s no surprise that early adopters were excited when Tony Fadell, the person who designed the first iPod, started Nest Labs in 2010. Tony’s team was on a quest to design beautiful, smart thermostats. Early adopters swarmed at the opportunity. Including myself.
But the average programmable thermostat costs $20. Why pay $249 for a thermostat?
Early adopters defy reason and logic when making purchase decisions. Forget the fact that my wife and I were in the process of buying our first house. I needed these thermostats ASAP. I ended up buying the thermostats before the house was even finished.
Over a decade later, these two Nest thermostats still power our HVAC system. I remain evangelical on why people should replace their generic thermostat with a Nest.
It looks like art!
It saves energy!
My appreciation grew stronger once I learned about the thoughtfulness behind Nest Labs’ first product. Tony shares the story in Build, his recent book that is full of bits on designing exceptional experiences.
The first Nest prototypes had a problem
When the Nest Labs team had prototypes for their first thermostat ready, they sent it out to people for testing. They wanted to understand how self-installation would work.
Would installation be effortless? Would people struggle at any step of the process?
It should be an easy DIY installation. Cut off power, unscrew your old thermostat, disconnect some wires, reconnect wires to new thermostat, screw in new thermostat, turn on power. You should be done in 30 minutes or less.
Except that's not what happened.
Instead, the team received reports from testers that it was taking up to an hour to install the Nest.
An hour was beyond what most people would be willing to do. How did the team massively underestimate the effort?
Shocked, they combed the field reports, dug deeper, and discovered an insight. Tony recalls what happened:
They [customers] spent the first thirty minutes looking for tools—the wire stripper, the flathead screwdriver; no, wait, we need a Phillips. Where did I put that little one again?
Once they got everything they needed, the rest of the installation flew by. Twenty, thirty minutes tops.
I suspect most companies would have sighed with relief. The actual installation took twenty minutes, so that’s what they’d tell customers. Great. Problem solved.
But this was going to be the first moment people interacted with our device. Their first experience of Nest. They were buying a $249 thermostat—they were expecting a different kind of experience. And we needed to exceed their expectations. Every minute, from opening the box to reading the instructions to getting it on their wall to turning on the heat for the first time, had to be incredibly smooth. A buttery, warm, joyful experience.
An expensive thermostat with a broken installation experience was a deal breaker for the team.
The team had an idea on how to solve this, and made one small addition to the Nest package.
The Nest screwdriver
We added one new element: a little screwdriver. It had four different head options, fit in the palm of your hand. It was sleek and cute. But more importantly, it was unbelievably handy.
The screwdriver wasn't handy just for the installation, though. Years later, it would serve as a gentle reminder of the Nest experience.
Our thermostat was made to be on people’s walls for ten years. By design, it would become like a piece of art—occasionally admired and adjusted, mostly fading into the background.
But every time they opened the random-stuff drawer in their kitchen, they’d see the cute little Nest screwdriver. And they’d smile.
Every time they’d need to replace the batteries in their kid’s toy car, they’d grab our screwdriver. And suddenly the screwdriver became the toy and the car was forgotten.
We knew it wasn’t just a hardware tool—it was a marketing tool.
It helped customers remember Nest. It helped them fall in love.
And it helped people discover us. Journalists wrote articles about the screwdriver. It appeared in every five-star review. It was free PR, a boost to word of mouth. Instead of a bowl of candy at the Nest front desk, we had a bowl full of screwdrivers. It became a symbol for the entire user experience—thoughtful, elegant, long-lived, and deeply useful.
To this day, the Nest screwdriver sits in our kitchen drawer. When I need to open a toy or gadget, I know the screwdriver will be there. It has become a trusty old friend.
The Nest installation experience and screwdriver is a sharp contrast to assembling IKEA furniture.
Instead of cursing at yourself, staring at vague instructions, and scrambling for tools, you have everything you need in front of you. Instead of all the installation materials going in the trash, you hold onto a tool that you can reuse for countless projects after.
And every time you do, you crack a brief smile.
We know that when designing great products and experiences, we have to think of the entire customer journey. But sometimes we focus too much on the front end.
When a company gives that kind of care and attention to every part of the journey, people notice. Our product was good, but ultimately it was the whole journey that defined our brand. That’s what made Nest special.
Reading Build has made me curious about how we can ambiently delight people. How can we reconnect with someone weeks, months, or even years after delivering an experience?
The Nest screwdriver is proof that even the most mundane, manual tasks can spark delight.