Sonos Design: Interview With Mieko Kusano

Sonos Design: Interview With Mieko Kusano

Mar 20, 2009

With a name like Unplggd, you have to assume that we, at the very least, hate wires… maybe also wall outlets. You might even take us for hippy off-gridders who would be more likely to lay down rhythm on a Djembe than p-shop on a Mac.
The truth is, we love technology and the future… we just want it to be easy to use. We want to be able to do what we are best at without all the compatibility issues and clutter. We want to have a clean home with everything in its place, lookin' fine. We do NOT want to chase our tech around, tripping over wires, begging it to comply with our needs. We want FREEDOM.
We have evaluated the products coming out of the Sonos studio before here on the site and this week we have a special treat. Follow the jump for an interview with Mieko Kusano, the product designer behind the Sonos wireless home audio system of the future.

What is the Sonos story?

Sonos started with four guys in a coffee shop at the end of 2002. In 2003, they got the first people on the payroll, that's pretty much when I joined.

We came out as a company in 2004 during the All Things Digital Conference- coincidentally when Steve Jobs launched the Airport Express… gives you an idea of what kind of timing that was! And uh, in January 2005, we actually started shipping our first products.

So, how much design had already been done and how much did you have to change people's minds when you started with the company?

When I joined, I found a typical high-tech startup setup; Lots of very bright software engineers and while they had the idea and great technology, it was clear that they had not been able to incorporate the customer into the experience.
My contribution was to change people's mindset and get to a new common goal of who our end customer was and to try and define what the best user experience would be for that customer and to take THAT to drive the hardware and software.

One of the first things I said was let's stop, well maybe stop is too big a word, but let's ignore the hardware and software development and bring an interaction designer onboard. I want the experience to be designed before you start programming.

I really believe that the right way of doing this is understanding who your customer is, what the right usage scenarios are, what type of total experience you are trying to create,
And then to really work with a multi-disciplinary team to come up with all those different pieces in the puzzle, a total solution.

It seems like you (Sonos) were really able to hit the ground running here, that from the get go, you had the financial backing you needed to do things correctly from the start, can you talk about that?

Yeah, well we were really lucky that the founder used to have another company, that merged with another and then went public. He was very experienced with taking a small company public and was very successful at that. And the other founders were also very experienced in their different areas. And the focus has always been on people so we tried to get the best in class from all their different industries and work together in a very focused way. We had a very small team to actually crank out the core concept. That enabled us to, first of all, keep the costs down when we were still iterating, and secondly, we were able to really work together as a small multi-disciplinary team to get to the right product. And I do have to give credit to the CEO, John, for managing that very tidily and indeed, the rest of the team never had to worry about money.

And at what point did you feel like you had the product you wanted?

In June 2004 we had a complete story, we had the website, we had the brand Sonos… it had originally been called Rincon Networks, someone came up with it pretty quickly, it happens to be a famous surf point below Santa Barbara (Rincon).

Ha ha. Catchy name!

Yeah, it was really a placeholder- it stuck a little too long with us. Sonos is an easier and more user-friendly name.

You have so much functionality in this product. I mean its pretty impressive- if I were to write down a list of things that I would want a product like this to accomplish, it seems as though you have checked all the boxes I would have… with the exception of a few obscure items that you wouldn't expect the mass market to digest. How did you get all of this to work together?

We have a great team…

Rob is your husband right?

Ha ha, that's right.

Did you meet at Sonos?

We actually met at Philips Design in the Netherlands. We have managed to work together at several companies!

Ha, that's great! And then you have Nick, who is the systems designer. Would you say that you are the three point people, in terms of putting everything together?

Well, we actually have just become a much bigger company and there are a lot more people involved, but yeah, all three of us had a major influence on how the product was shaped. So yeah, Nick has a very rich software background and has moved also to hardware- he is a systems thinker and was very influential in how the product got designed from a technical perspective. Rob is responsible for the whole user experience, what it should do and what it should not, how to design it for enjoyment, rather than productivity, and my background is more in interaction and product design. I work very closely with Rob on the interaction on one hand and I work with an outside agency on the product design to make that work. I am responsible for what the product should be and why.

And all of this has led to a more… I'm going to call it a more feminine design, which I have to say I find enlightening- that the Sonos system looks the way it does. I would love to know how you convinced, I am assuming it was you, everyone on the team to go forward with that, given what your competition looks like…

…And not go with a 17" black box with gold feet?


Well of course it needed some persuasion but it was actually not too hard to convince the team. We figured out that we wanted to make a multi-room system so we talked to users and they said "So you are telling me that I need to put one of these boxes in every room?" and you say yes and then they say "Well, then it really should blend in with my interior."

So you realize that people's walls are not black, usually kind of off-white and you look at other categories of products like furniture and people are happy to adopt that and feel really good about letting these products in their homes. You see the guys who are happy with the gadgety look of electronics but the women say "Please put it away and never show it to me again".

We are not designing a product for the old days, we really felt like we could have it all with an elegant design that actually has a lot of technology underneath that makes it work but it doesn't need to be represented by many antennas and wires. I really wanted to make sure that the product itself embodied a totally new design language so that people would immediately stop and think and say "What's that? I need to check it out.!"

Well it seems to be working. I read somewhere that December 08 was a really good month.

Yeah- our best ever!

Well I suppose in this economy, that is saying something.

I hope so. We are very happy about that

Do you have an Unplggd home? What does your house look like! Do you use the Sonos system?

I actually bought a home with remnants of a multi-room audio set up already in it. I had some of those awful rock speakers in my garden and some speakers on the patio. They all came out in the living room where presumably the controls had been. The master bedroom had speakers that worked with the television that also were controlled from the living room. The living room also had a bunch of speakers in it. So what I did, I set up a few zone players in a cabinet there that are putting music through the speakers that I already had. Oh yeah, the kitchen has one of those as well. I have a whole bunch of zp 100's and zp 120's. So, in all the other rooms I added zones and I use a zp 90 for the receiver for the home theatre set up.

In terms of controls, I have a controller 100 in the living/dining room and one in the master bedroom. I am using a Mac Cube for storage- it's getting a little old, I guess. And then we have an iPod touch lying around somewhere with the latest controller software for the iPhone/iPod touch.

That is defintely Unplggd.

It's a work in progress.

Well, I want to thank you for talking with me today, really appreciate it. It's great to hear more about the Sonos system and your involvement.

Thank you, Peter.

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