The Genius of Dumb Devices

I’ve been enamored as of late by my Nike+ Sportsband. I started running several weeks ago in an attempt to shrink the “survival pouch” I carry about my waist, and being a bit of a gadget freak, I surveyed the scene of product offerings to see what technology I could use to augment my fledgling running career. The Sportsband system consists of two parts, the first is a small “puck” that fits in a hollow in certain Nike running shoes. It is nice round plastic, but absent of any buttons or appealing features, and once installed in the sneaker can essentially be ignored. The Sportsband itself looks unimpressive, and its feature list seems downright pitiful compared to your average digital watch available for a pittance at Wal-Mart. There is no backlight, no alarms or stopwatch function, indeed, there is not even a date display. Aside from the ability to record the distance and time of a run, the watch is one of the most underwhelming pieces of technology I’ve ever purchased.

Where the magic happens, is that the watch component detaches from the wrist band revealing a small USB connector. Pop the watch into a USB port, and your run data are uploaded to the website. Relatively uninteresting data are presented as colorful graphs, and motivational indicators of your progress. Beyond the dazzling colors, Nike has built one of the finest examples of social networking site I’ve ever seen. You can connect with friends that have the Nike+ system, and challenge them to complete a certain mileage by a certain date, or participate in virtual group runs. There is also a team system where you can band together to motivate or heckle friends and acquaintances from around the world. Each new challenge, widget or gimmick added to the site adds a new level of value to the device, allowing it to keep on giving even after it has been purchased, a rare trait of any product.

Most of the competing systems are bulky or complex, with tiny buttons and functional overload on the device. While most provide more robust data gathering abilities, the magic of Nike+ is the social network behind the tool. A fairly dumb device gathers rudimentary data: time and distance; then builds it into an entire community around running. There’s a lesson here for everything from product design to implementing IT projects. The “magic,” whether it’s an online running community or a startlingly efficient ERP system, is not always in the technical complexity and functionality delivered to the end user. Often how the data are used and presented, and the intelligence and community that can be garnered from the data are vastly more valuable than the bits and bytes operating behind the scenes.

And with that, I’m off for a quick run.



  1. Love my Nike+. 1,100 miles and counting.

  2. I’m just over 50 miles, although for a reforming couch jockey I’m quite pleased!

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