Magical Software

One of Frito-Lay’s largest factories produces more than half-a-million pounds of snacks daily. Potato chips are transported around the factory on conveyer belts moving as fast as 60 miles per hour. How is it possible to do quality control on all those chips?

In this podcast, Brendan O’Donohoe explains how Frito-Lay and others pull it off. Chips move down a conveyer belt while an overhead camera photographs them. The images are analyzed by a computer program that determines if any of the chips are the wrong color, size or shape, and records their positions. Moments later, the chips go airborne over a gap in the conveyor belt. Above that gap is an array of jets that deliver precise puffs of air, blowing away offending chips, just like magic.

An optical sorting machine in action. Notice how quickly the chips are moving as the rejects are blown away. The action is 10 seconds long beginning at 1:21.

We don‘t naturally give serious consideration to ideas as outlandish as optical sorting quality-control systems. Could you have imagined this idea? If you had, would you have seriously considered it, or dismissed the idea as being too complicated?

Penn Jillette (of the magic duo Penn & Teller) revealed in an interview that “the absolute secret of magic” is that the magician is willing to work harder than the audience would expect. He explained that it’s not so much that you’d refuse to do the work required, it’s that you’d subconsciously dismiss the idea as preposterous before giving it actual consideration. All that effort just doesn’t seem reasonable to most of us.

Penn Jillette explaining the secret of magic. The relevant portion starts at 1:08.

Products that work well are often described as working “like magic.” This means the products are fast, beautiful, useful and delightful. As a designer, you want all of your products to be magical.

So how does one make the mental shift necessary to concoct and give full consideration to these magical ideas?

When designing anything, ask yourself, “how would this work if it were magic?”

Don’t think about how you’d build the product, just think about how it would work from the user’s point of view. Give your idea a moment. OK, now think about what it would take to make the product reality.

Is it within the realm of possibility to create the product in the way you’ve imagined? If it appears not, slowly take a small step back toward reality and consider your idea again. Make sure you explore every possibility thoroughly before dismissing the idea. Magic happens when we work on something that seems too difficult or too time consuming. By working backward, you’ll end up at the most magical outcome.

Not every difficult idea is worth pursuing, but this exercise at least makes you consider such ideas.

When building Flinto Lite, we applied this way of thinking to create LinkSnap. Our process started with the question, “How would this work if it were magic?” The most magical solution we thought of was for all the links to be created automatically. That solution seemed impossible. We took a step back toward reality—how about a single click to create a link? After some consideration, we realized that was possible, just very difficult. It took weeks before we had an acceptable version of LinkSnap. It ended up being our most magical feature. LinkSnap never fails to make people say, “wow!”

Like a magic trick, truly great design is not something that is created with ease, but almost always requires more work than seems reasonable. A typical business-oriented designer won’t take this path. An artist will. Decide to be that artist. The execution will be challenging. Jump the mental hurdle to magic. Don’t stop before you even get started.