You have probably ridden an electric car or scooter, but have you ever ridden a Onewheel? This lightweight mobility vehicle has one giant wheel and a motor, and sensors that control the motion of the motor to balance you. So it balances for you, and you lean forward to go, back to slow down, and lean on the side to make a turn. But perhaps most importantly, it is designed to create a joyful feeling while riding it. What does it mean to design and engineer a product for a feeling? In this episode of Thanks for Making It, our host Beth Altringer Eagle interviews Kyle Doerksen, the creator of Onewheel. They discuss his background in design and engineering, how he turned a Design Engineering passion into a successful business while still working at IDEO, Onewheel's creative process, and the many benefits of mixing design and engineering.
Thanks for Making It is brought to you by the MADE Program at Brown and RISD. Learn more: All TFMI episodes / MADE Program Information and Application / MADE Program LinkedIn.
[00:00:00] Beth Altringer Eagle: Hey.
[00:00:01] Kyle Doerksen: Hey.
[00:00:04] Beth Altringer Eagle: It's so great to have you join us on the show. Um, Kyle Doerksen, uh, we've known each other for a while, actually. Um, I'm trying to think when we first, we first met at the, uh, is it called DLD? That conference?
[00:00:24] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, I think it was
[00:00:25] DLD in New York.
[00:00:26] Beth Altringer Eagle: DLD in New York. And I remember you had, uh, you had the Onewheel outside. And I think, honestly, I was like a little bored at the conference and I saw the Onewheel, and I was like, "What is that magical thing?
[00:00:42] I need to learn more." And then you let me write it. And, um, and, uh, I, we, I don't know, I feel like we became, like, instant friends.
[00:00:52] Kyle Doerksen: Totally.
[00:00:53] Beth Altringer Eagle: was.
[00:00:53] That was awesome. You know, we, we talk about destroying boredom, so, you know, it's perfect, perfect application.
[00:00:59] And it was good that we, good that we, uh, you know, got the ride then too, because I ended up, that was the early days when, when Onewheels are hard to come by, and I ended up selling that one that I had there to some Russians who were there for the, the conference.
[00:01:13] So, like, "We want to buy this one. Right now. Cash." It was like, "Okay."
[00:01:16] Oh, okay. All right.
[00:01:18] Kyle Doerksen: Had to walk back to my hotel.
[00:01:21] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. What was that? Would that have been 2014, 2013?
[00:01:27] Kyle Doerksen: Like, mid-2015 or so.
[00:01:29] Beth Altringer Eagle: 2015, alright, cool. Well, um, that was really exciting and, and then yeah, you, you know, you've come, and you've been a guest in my class a couple of times, uh, while I was at Harvard and, uh, and hopefully we'll come to Brown and Wristy, uh, now that I'm there, but, um, anyway, it's been wonderful to get to know you as a person
[00:01:56] and I continue to be a huge fan of the Onewheel as a product. And so, I don't know, maybe in your words, do you want to tell us a little bit more about what the Onewheel is?
[00:02:07] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. So, Onewheel is, uh, you know, a product that has one giant wheel with a motor in it and, uh, sensors that control the motion of the motor to balance you. So, it essentially balances for you, and you lean forward to go, you lean back to slow down and you lean on your heel and toe side, to, to make turns.
[00:02:28] You know, that's sort of the technical description. And I think, you know, emotionally, it's like the feeling of snowboarding on powder
[00:02:35] and, uh, you know, which is really what I was trying to create from the beginning.
[00:02:40] Beth Altringer Eagle: So, you are now the head of this company. You have multiple, multiple products. You're the founder of the company and continue to run it. You have multiple Onewheel products. Can you tell us more about what those are?
[00:02:52] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. Um, so, you know, we started with a single, single product, you know, which, I think, was an interesting design engineering challenge. It's kind of like, I think about the expression about the Ford model T, you know, any, any color you want, as long as it's black, um, you know. And we had one product in one color and, you know, that was kind of all we could do as a, as a small company.
[00:03:13] Um, subsequently, you know, first of all, we made, uh, our product line go faster and farther and, you know, kind of things that the, the core users were asking for. Um, and then in 2019, we also came out kind of based on, on insights, about, you know, our future customer base, right? That was like, "Hey, maybe there should be a smaller, lighter, less expensive model
[00:03:36] and that'd be good for people that are just starting out or they want to use it for transportation, or especially, um, you know, women could appreciate the lighter weight and, you know, kids and stuff like that as well." And all of us frankly, can appreciate the later weight, so we came out with Pint, uh, at that point, and then in, um, late, uh, October of last year, we came out with the Pint X, which is so small, but goes now about 15 miles on a charge and a GT, which is our flagship, it's the most powerful.
[00:04:08] It's about three horsepower, it goes 20 miles an hour 'cause 32 miles on a charge. And, you know, just, it, it's really a board sport, so there's, there's this element of progression, right? People want to go ride more advanced terrain and features and go farther and do things that, you know, we never would have imagined in the early days, but they see someone do it and they're like, "Oh, I can do that
[00:04:29] Kyle Doerksen: and even better," and then they go challenge themselves and, you know, I think that's been an interesting part of what we've created.
[00:04:35] I remember visiting your offices in Santa Cruz and seeing the first prototype. Could you take us to the story of sort of not just where the product was, but where you were in your life at the moment of creating this initial prototype, that's basically, you know, wood and chains? And we could hopefully put a picture of that up, but I just want to get to know Kyle in that moment.
[00:05:00] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, so my education was in engineering. I studied neuro engineering as an undergrad and then realized nobody would hire me with that degree back in that era, so I did a master's in mechanical engineering because I figured I could always get a job with that, uh, diploma. And, uh, then ended up working at IDEO, uh, doing product design consulting for about eight years
[00:05:24] and, you know, really was just developing products for clients, like, you know, every, every day, you know, day and night, um, working across a bunch of different sectors. I was working on kids' toys. I was working on furniture. I was working on, um, consumer electronics, medical products and a really, you know, it's really interesting cross-pollination between, you know, design trends, new technologies, you know, market sectors, business needs and, you know, trying to put that all together in a creative way
[00:05:56] and it's sort of the ultimate playground and the ultimate, you know, place place to learn that design process, you know, really a special experience to, to work with that many designers, you know? I think IDEO is about 500 people at that point, most of them designers. And so, it's pretty rare, you know? Often designers are, like, the only designer in their organization or something like that.
[00:06:17] Beth Altringer Eagle: Or maybe there's a couple. Yeah,
[00:06:19] Kyle Doerksen: I don't think I appreciated at the time that, you know, to really have, like, hundreds of designers working shoulder to shoulder, teaching each other new tools and ideas and, um, you know, it's a special place to, to start my career.
[00:06:32] Beth Altringer Eagle: Absolutely. And for people listening, if you're not familiar with IDEO, they're probably the most famous design consulting company today, product design consulting, uh, and they don't offer a direct-to-consumer product, so not everybody has heard of them that doesn't already work in an adjacent field.
[00:06:52] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. And, you know, IDEO really started at the intersection of mechanical engineering and industrial design. Uh, as I mentioned, my background's in mechanical engineering, then over time, it sort of evolved and shifted, sort of towards more strategic projects, brand strategy, interaction design, um, you know, campaigns and things like.
[00:07:14] And, and for me, you know, I always have the urge to tinker and build and so, especially when I was staffed on some of the more, you know, brand-focused projects, I'd be like, "Oh, I just, I need to get to the workshop, and I need to build something." And so, the w, you know, the Onewheel, um, what became Onewheel was a side project originally
[00:07:34] and it was inspired by a couple of things. One, I, I grew up in Western Canada, and I loved snowboarding on powder, particularly, and, and sort of a powder hand. Like, I could really care less about going to the mountains if it's not snowing. I love that, just soft floating feeling. And then, you know, IDEO had a few offices, one of which is in San Francisco,
[00:07:55] Kyle Doerksen: so it's about a 40-minute train ride for me and then a 15-minute walk, except I was always running late and so I was always thinking, "Wow, I wish I had a little gadget I could take with me on the, on the train, um, you know, so I'd be there on time for my meeting. Um, and so those two daydreams of how can I feel like I'm snowboarding on powder and, you know, how can I get where I want to go kind of intersected with, with work I'd been doing on some of the first motion control, uh, kids' toys.
[00:08:23] So, if you flash back to, um, you know, the Nintendo, we was one of the first consumer products incorporated accelerometer and gyro sensors and then a couple of years later, the iPhone. And they took what was a fairly esoteric motion-sensing technology and really, you know, drove the cost down to, you know, sub $1 for that, you know, type of tech.
[00:08:47] And I realized that, you know, that, that could let us do some pretty interesting things, um, yeah. And, you know, it was really thinking about a vehicle from the perspective of, like, "What is the minimum vehicle, uh, that, that can exist? You know, how do you take stuff away? You know, bicycle is pretty minimal, but that's two wheels.
[00:09:08] Kyle Doerksen: Can you take one of them away? It has steering. Can you take that away? Um, it has this frame that sort of defines how big it needs to be, can you take that away or reduce it?" And, and kind of came, came down to, you know, a single-wheel, you know, form factor that then, you know, as you're mentioning, I, I worked in the, in the workshop, cutting pieces of aluminum and had a big motor and an Arduino in there, uh, with some early, you know, algorithms that I, I've written that, you know, we're not really anything like the,
[00:09:38] the product is today, now that we have professionals on the case, but, um, you know, it, it demonstrated the basic experience. And, I think, to me, you know, the, the most interesting products to design are ones where it is really all about the experience. I think that's true for most products, but to me is like, you know, for the initial,
[00:10:00] "Why don't we build prototypes?" that didn't really matter what it, what it looked like, it was really about, you know, "What is the experience of riding it?" And if that was compelling, you could always, you know, make it more refined and, um, so on, but the core of those early explorations where all the experience, you know? "What does this feel like?
[00:10:18] Is it compelling? What would make it better?" um, and, uh, doing a lot of experimentation in those early days. You know, the very first ones actually did not have, uh, a control system to control your, uh, balance. Um, and that made it impossible to ride. So, I realized that, okay, you, you, you know, you're going to need some help here.
[00:10:37] And, you know, narrower tires and wider tires and a lot of, kind of searching for the Goldilocks, you know, solution, you have two narrow, uh, tires, it's too tippy, too wide, it's hard to turn. Uh, but the just right tire, you know, is both stable and provides great corner, um, you know, and, and, uh, just kind of dialing in and chasing this ride experience that I had in my mind from snowboarding that I wanted to create, you know, in riding the Onewheel.
[00:11:09] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. I mean, one thing, there are so many things that I love about this product. Like, it is really beautiful and the evolution of it, both, you know, technologically and, uh, you know, kind of from a visceral or identity perspective has evolved, they're all, all elements of this are beautiful in that way,
[00:11:34] but the, the thing that I love so much about it even more than, than, like, the quality of the design of the product itself is that the experience is the motion, right? It's the feeling and the, and of a certain motion and the emotion that that motion generates for a person. And, like, as a design brief, it would be so hard to deliver that if somebody said, "Okay, here's your challenge.
[00:12:06] I want you to create the floaty feeling of, um, of snowboarding on powder, uh, what, as a talented snowboarder, right? Not as a first-timer."
[00:12:20] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. I think one thing that's interesting, right, is, you know, you think about design, and you often think about industrial design and graphic design and, you know, it's, it's pretty easy to go look at, like, mood boards and inspirations and award-winning designs for, for what they look like, right? But then you think about designing a product that the core of what it is is what it feels like
[00:12:41] and that's really hard to put on a mood board, you...
[00:12:44] Beth Altringer Eagle: Totally. Yeah. I don't even know how you would do it.
[00:12:46] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, you, you know, you don't, I never took any classes, and I had to design a motion, you know, or how to design, you know, carvability, you know, but yet I, you know, obviously have an idea of, of what the north star is that we're chasing.
[00:13:00] And I think, you know, obviously in, in areas like automotive, right, they're often designing the sound of the door when it closes and, like, the feeling of the way that the vehicle corners and things like that, the acceleration profile, so that it feels sporty or it feels safe or whatever they're trying to achieve.
[00:13:18] Kyle Doerksen: And a lot of these sort of borderline and tangible, um, you know, things that are hard to describe, but really are the intersection of engineering and design because there's a lot of different, you know, ways you could engineer it and to me, you know, design is looking at all those engineering, you know, approaches and, and basically deciding which you're going to take.
[00:13:44] Um, and you know, the engineering is more quantitative, right, but the design is more subjective, you know, to really define what a product's going to be, what those feel factors are going to be. Um, that's, that's to me, like, the core of what design is, right? It's a taste of judgment, you know, applied to a landscape of alternatives.
[00:14:04] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. And I wonder, so you, you mentioned, I'd like to learn more about your background and, like, how you, it sounds like you had to fall in love with a few different things that ultimately kind of came together in your mind to create this side project that, of course, became, you know, a product and then a company that you continue to run, you know, what is it, uh, when, when did you found, is it about a decade ago?
[00:14:31] Kyle Doerksen: Um, started in 2013. Yeah. So, we're 9,
[00:14:34] 9 years in now.
[00:14:36] Beth Altringer Eagle: Exactly. So, yeah, it's become, you know, an enormous part of your life, and it feels like you had to fall in love with snowboarding, you had to fall in love with mechanical engineering, you had to fall in love with design in different ways that this would not have otherwise happen. So, I'd love to hear more about, you know, where you were born and kind of some key moments along the way that led you to have this mind that could, could kind of come up with this integrated product.
[00:15:08] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. So, if you go all the way back to, to the beginning and being, you know, a kid, um, you know, my dad was a carpenter and a builder, um, so there were always tools around our house, and I would borrow them and usually lose them or use them incorrectly and, you know. That
[00:15:28] Beth Altringer Eagle: Did he get mad? My dad would get so mad.
[00:15:31] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. There were, there were often consequences, but, um.
[00:15:34] Beth Altringer Eagle: Did he label them? Did he get the, like, the label gone out?
[00:15:39] Kyle Doerksen: No, I don't think they were labeled.
[00:15:41] No, but, um, you know, there, there obviously is. But, you know, that kind of feeling that, you know, you can shape the world around you, you know, I think, like, a lot of people never have that. Um, but you know, people that are, like, literally building houses and, um, you know,
[00:15:56] kitchens and whatever, for folks, they get to experience that every day
[00:15:59] and, you know, it's sort of reminiscent of that Steve Jobs' quote that, you know, w, one day you realize that everything around you was built by people just like you, right?
[00:16:08] And, um, you know.
[00:16:10] Beth Altringer Eagle: And, and what age are you about this time when you're thinking about this memory?
[00:16:15] Kyle Doerksen: Oh, when I was losing my dad's tools, I was probably around six or seven years old.
[00:16:19] Um, yeah.
[00:16:20] Beth Altringer Eagle: Okay, something like that. Okay. Gotcha.
[00:16:21] Kyle Doerksen: Of course, you know, like, most kids, right, you learn how to ride a bike, ride a scooter or whatever, you know, zoom around. And for many of us, those are, like, some of our most fun childhood memories. Um, and I think that was, that's been an interesting part of bringing Onewheel to the world is that people get to kind of flashback to that same mode of, like, learning how to ride a bike.
[00:16:41] Right? Like, the first time you tried to ride a bike, you're like, "I'm never going to be able to do this."
[00:16:44] Um, and then, you know, you try it a few times, and eventually it clicks and you're like, "Wow." And like they say, you know, you never forget how to ride a bike. And Onewheel has a little bit of a similar, um, you know, short learning curve, but it's still a couple minutes where at first you're like, "There's no way that's going to work."
[00:17:00] And then it, like, starts working and you can do it and you're attentively riding, um, and then, you know, you get a little more confident on it and then you're, like, having time of your life. So, bringing back that kind of, you know, childlike joy, you know, are some of the most fun moments of, of what we get to do.
[00:17:17] But, yeah, then I got into, you know, I was, I was a nerd, you know? I was always into science and robotics and all that kind of stuff and programming, like, I learned how to, um, write code as, uh, you know, I dunno, elementary school student, I guess and, you know, I kept with that, doing projects and different things.
[00:17:38] And, you know, then when I went to, um, college, I was, uh, really, uh, really interested in neuroscience and the brain, um, and particularly a few things. I mean, one was artificial neural networks, which, uh, you know, now mainly called machine learning and AI, right? But, you know, I kind of had an early look at how, you know, this is going to be a really amazing technology, um, you know, computing that was inspired by the brain, but I was also interested in the flip side of that, which was how do you use computers to study the human brain
[00:18:16] and so I got the opportunity to work with some really amazing scientists, uh, that were working in that space. You know, as an undergrad researcher, mainly I was interested in perception, um, you know, so how our senses work and, and relay information to the brain and then what the brain does with that,
[00:18:34] right? And I mentioned that because, you know, Onewheel, the core of it are the sensors, right? That then need to feed into the quote-unquote the brain, right? The controller of the Onewheel. And he's to interpret those signals, um, it needs to filter them, it needs to decide what's important, what's not important,
[00:18:54] it needs to integrate them, and then it needs to make some decisions about how it's then going to control the motor in order to keep it balanced. And that kind of, you know, like feedback system, you know, smart system is something that I think is a really interesting, um, you know, and th, that, like, the, you know, the control techniques that are in Onewheel are really things that were developed, uh, for the aerospace industry, uh, back in the early days of, of electronic controls.
[00:19:26] You know, going back to, you know, the, basically, like, the 1940s and 1950s, you know, where suddenly these jet aircraft, military aircraft were very fast, um, and they had stability issues because they needed to have really teeny wings in order to fly through the sound barrier. Um, and the really teeny wings meant that unlike, you know, the longer, you know, straighter, wider wings of previous aircraft that provided some inherent stability.
[00:19:52] Kyle Doerksen: Now you needed aug, you know, control system augmentation to maintain stability in the aircraft. Um, and so, I always thought that was a really cool technology, but was kind of bummed that it was only really applied for, you know, killing people and, you know, tools of war, right? And I was like, "How can you, you know, sort of take this, like, swords into plowshares kind of thing, where you could use, you know, these, uh, technologies and techniques to, to build something that, like, enhances the human condition and instead of, you know, threatening it?"
[00:20:26] And so, my, my interest in aviation along the way, you know, kind of in, was another influence. Um, and if you look at kind of the design and the positioning of, especially the first-gen Onewheel product, is very, you know, aesthetically, you know, to me, the inspirations were aerospace, you know, skateboarding and, and auto racing, which to me are all these, like, Southern California influences,
[00:20:53] right? Um, and putting those together into something that feels like, it feels like a sport, maybe it's a motorsport, maybe it's a gravity sport, it's unclear, but it definitely feels sporty. Um, and not like a, not really like a gadget, you know, um, that's all plasticky and, you know, smooth and techie, but something that's a little bit raw,
[00:21:15] um, and a little bit, I mean, especially if you look at the first-generation Onewheels, like, it's a little unclear what, what era they were built in. Like, they might've been built in the 1960s, might've been the 2010s, might be 2030, you know? Um, it's yeah, it's, it's sort of unclear, and that was, that wasn't intentional.
[00:21:34] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, when we used to ride them around and, um, my husband and I used to ride them around in Harvard Square when I lived out there and, uh, and a lot of people would ask us if we made them ourselves because they had this kind of robust, like, you say, nothing plasticky. This was the really, this was an
[00:21:58] Kyle Doerksen: yeah, Yeah. I mean, it's, like, straight lines, kind of just minimal, right? Like, if you can use a straight line, use a straight line, you know? If you can use a flat surface, use a flat surface. And, um, you know, we also had wood, um, in, in the, know, footpads, which to me was sort of an homage to obviously skateboarding with skate decks, laminated from, from maple ply,
[00:22:18] um, but also just the, the humanizing element, right? It is technology, but it's technology for people, you know, and the organic element kind of, um, you know, I thought, uh, underscored that and connected that with people.
[00:22:34] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. I love those design decisions and, you know, they continue to be reflected in the product, um, today.
[00:22:41] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. And I think too, I mean, especially if you think about designing, like, first-generation products, you need to have some, some elements that make them relatable to people because people are really trying to figure out, like, "What is this thing? What world does it live in? Is this for me?" And so, that's where, you know, we consciously wanted to be a bit more, more literal and more closely connected, um, to those worlds of, of, you know, um, scape and aviation and motorsports
[00:23:11] and then over time, you know, we can kind of define our own lane and do things our own way. But, um, you know, that was, I think, important in the beginning.
[00:23:22] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, I mean, some elements of this conversation remind me of going to the Vespa Museum in Italy and you see, you know, your, uh, another personal mobility vehicle that was, um, radically innovative for its time and a lot of their design references are also from aviation and it's just, it's an interesting coincidence, but, the way you describe it reminds me of that.
[00:23:52] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, it was funny to me, you know, when I was in college and doing my masters, I had, like, no interest, really, in vehicles. And it's funny 'cause a lot of mechanical engineers go on to work in the vehicle industry. And to me, it just, like, I wanted to create, like, smaller and more personal products versus essentially cars, which is what, what vehicles meant at that point.
[00:24:14] Um, and then it's interesting to kind of focus more on this, you know, human and personal products and that was mainly what I worked on at IDEO. And then to basically, like, combine that with this
[00:24:25] sort, you know, interested motion and moving and then, and then to do that in a moment where, you know, electric vehicles were just kind of coming into the mainstream, right? 20, 2013 is when I founded this company, in 2014 we launched the first gen.
[00:24:43] And if you go back to that era, right? I mean, Tesla had, like, was shipping the Roadster, I think, and everybody was like, "Yeah, that's not going to be a thing. You know, electric cars are going to die out as they, you know, as they did before. Um, and, you know, this is, you know, not really going to gain any traction."
[00:25:02] Uh, of course, all these people were wrong, and I could, I could see that coming, right? I could see that the technology is now at a point where this time, it was going to be different, you know? The first Onewheel prototypes, I feel they had LED acid batteries, which meant they were really heavy and it's just not, you can't really create something that's elegant and powerful.
[00:25:22] But with the lithium batteries that came onto the scene in the early 2010s, essentially, that had a high enough power density to build vehicles, um, now you could build an electric car, you could actually pack enough power into a 20-pound Onewheel that it can, you know, take you, you know, 20 miles an hour. Uh, um, that, that just wasn't possible until the technology got to a certain point.
[00:25:45] Kyle Doerksen: And so, I think, to me, it's always been about, you know, looking at different technologies and, and things that are out there and how do you put them together in a new way, um, and how do you forecast, like, ways in which they're getting better, uh, over a timeline that you know is relevant to your, um, you know, the problem that you're trying to solve.
[00:26:05] Beth Altringer Eagle: Totally. And I wonder, I mean, 'cause you, there's something about being in the right place at the right time and with the right knowledge to be able to recognize that things are different this time. And I wonder what you think that thing might be today, you know? Um, our audience for this, for this show is a lot of young people who are figuring out what they want to do next, or, you know, people changing careers, um, at any age, and leaders of companies that want to get better at integrating design and engineering in, in their own creations.
[00:26:44] But I just wonder, um, what you think that thing is, that, that has, everybody says, you know, VR, for example, is, is about to
[00:26:58] be different, and then it, so far, hasn't, you know, fully become that thing people have been waiting for. Do you have a sense of what might be different this time?
[00:27:08] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, I mean, that's a great, great question. I think, you know, I, I don't claim to be an expert for VR, but if I make the analogy to kind of stuff that we're working on, I think sometimes people get, get caught in the trap of, of universal design, which, which is a beautiful concept, but at the same time, uh, in certain categories, it's, it's less relevant,
[00:27:30] I would say. Like, in transportation, you know, people ask me like, "Is there going to be an iPhone of personal mobility?" And when they say that they mean one single thing that everyone has, and in my view, that answer for mobility is no because there's just too many different needs. Like, if you need to go by yourself versus you need to go with your kids, if you need to carry cargo versus you don't, if you need to go 1 mile versus 100 or 1000 miles, like, they all demand different solutions.
[00:28:04] And then even within like, okay, it's one person, and it's three miles, there's a lot of different ways that, that could, you know, you could solve that problem. And, you know, when we developed Onewheel, like, I didn't say every single person that needs to go three miles should use this. I said, "If you're the kind of person that likes having fun, um, you like adventure, you want wind in your hair,
[00:28:25] you know, then you should, you should try this" and recognizing that that's not everybody. And I think one of the amazing things about living in this period of time is that you can build products that are not for everyone and still scale them into large businesses because direct-to-consumer and sell things over the internet, you can build, you don't just need to convince
[00:28:47] Kyle Doerksen: that one, you know, buyer at Sears, uh, and then if you do, you know, you'll win, if you don't, you'll lose. Now, you know, it, it really is, uh, you know, each individual customer can, like, vote with their wallet, whether they, you know, want to be part of the product that we created. Um, and so thinking that over to VR, right?
[00:29:09] It's, like, a lot of the questions are, like, you know, really about the sort of universal, like, will everyone use VR? And, you know, if I was trying to build a business in VR, AR, I would be looking more at, like, A use case. You know, like, what is one use case that is really valuable to that user? And, you know, can I, can I build a business there?
[00:29:32] Um, because if you can do that, that is ultimately what bubbles up to, "Well, it's essential for this person, you know, this person uses it for work because you made a work application and they also end up using it a little bit for fun. And then they use it for socializing." And, you know, there's like some, each head where it, it enters into people's lives and then they get more comfortable with it
[00:29:57] and then they can use it across like more areas of their life. I think, obviously, my world is really mobility and I think there are tremendous new and untapped opportunities in mobility because, um, of several factors coming together, I mean, one is we're in a once-in-a-generation shift in the energy source that we use for transportation, um, which is predominantly to electric.
[00:30:28] I mean, there are some other things that are useful for aviation and whatnot, but basically, you know, until now, it was you either use internal combustion gas engines or use human power. And, like, that was it. That's how you move people and, you know, goods. And now, like, basically you're gonna use electric and the, the foreign factors that you can create using electric propulsion, maybe using dynamics stability, like, using Onewheel
[00:30:55] like, they can just fundamentally be different than what the human-powered or gas-powered products, you know, had to be, right? The gas engine is, is heavy, and so you need to build a fairly robust vehicle. Um, you know, you can build a motorcycle, most motorcycles are, you know, at least 200, 300 pounds minimum, about 2000 pounds,
[00:31:16] right? Build a car, obviously, a couple of tones, right? But with electric, you can build, you know, uh, vehicles, uh, of, you know, of any scale, right? Down to Onewheel or even smaller, up to, you know, a heavy semi-truck or even larger. But it's not just about, like, electrifying existing form factors, it's about thinking about, like, what new form factors could exist with this new technology that it doesn't have the constraints, um, that of the past, you know?
[00:31:51] And I started an electric bicycle company along the way as well and I thought that was, you know, that was cool, but I was kind of frustrated that we weren't taking it farther, you know? I'm like, why are we taking this form factor that's, you know, 130 years old, that's basically defined by where you need to sit in order for your legs to be able to generate maximum power
[00:32:12] if now, you know, you're sharing that with an electric motor and, you know, there's just, like, a way more open design space that people have, you know, barely begun to explore, you know? Like, I mean, even take electric cars, they basically look like gas cars, uh, at this point. And you know, I'm optimistic that, you know, 10 or 20 years from now, they're going to look totally different because they should look totally different.
[00:32:39] The constraints are totally different.
[00:32:41] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, we were just having,
[00:32:42] Kyle Doerksen: I think there's a lot of opportunity.
[00:32:44] Beth Altringer Eagle: I was just having this conversation about the DeLorean that you see that come out. Yeah.
[00:32:50] And, like, "Ah, it's, it feels like it should have gone further, you know, in terms of the design."
[00:32:55] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. I think, you know, obviously retro, I think in transportation retro is always, you can always reach for retro, right? There are people that are nostalgic. There are people that, you know, they had the Mustang when they were 18, and now they're 50 and they want a thing that looks the same, but, you know? So, it's sort of safe, right?
[00:33:14] It's same as, like, remaking, you know, a sequel to a movie is safe, you know, but I think, like, the more exciting opportunity is to try something totally new, um, and, you know, that's, that's what we've been doing.
[00:33:28] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. And I like how, you know, even the way that you answered this last question, how you're thinking about it is, is similar to how you, when set up, uh, you know, your description of how you came up with the Onewheel in the first place. There was this sort of breakthrough technology that was being used for things, like, the iPhone, and you were thinking about, "Well, you know, what else could that be used in?"
[00:33:53] And now that the price point is, has changed really dramatically, I love that way of thinking, and you can apply it in a lot of different fields. I wonder how you, um, you know, you've been in design for much of your professional career, I wonder how you think about, you know, what is the difference between good and great design?
[00:34:17] Like, how can you tell?
[00:34:20] Kyle Doerksen: I
[00:34:21] think that's,
[00:34:21] Beth Altringer Eagle: For yourself.
[00:34:22] Kyle Doerksen: that's a great question. Right? Everyone has their own, their own perspective. Um, you know, but I think, to me, a lot of it comes down to elegance. Um, and, and a lot of people in the, you know, sort of industrial design world have that same concept, which is that, you know, if there's, uh, you know, a, a hundred lines you can use to connect to thoughts, you know, what's the most elegant one?
[00:34:46] Right? And I think that's, like, what, like, you know, I feel like I'm often chasing and what, you know, I, I appreciate, you know, the designs and that can lead you to minimalism, you know? That can lead you to sort of essential, uh, design versus more ornamental, you know? And I think that's, that's particularly relevant to the product design,
[00:35:10] uh, you know, I think there are there ways in which more ornamental design is, I would say relevant, in things like architecture, you know, where, um, you know, minimalism brings us certain psychological comfort, maximalism also brings a psychological comfort and the question is where to, where to apply, you know, those different tools.
[00:35:33] Kyle Doerksen: But, yeah, I, I think that, you know, ultimately, like, design is, is meant to be humanizing, right? It's like, you know, in my, my world it's really, like, engineering and, uh, and design. And the engineering, like, I think when you start your career, you look at an engineering problem, you're like, "I don't know if there's any solutions."
[00:35:58] And then, as you get farther along in your career, you're like, "There's at least a thousand solutions." The question is which one, you know,
[00:36:05] which one is right and you get this just much broader view of like, you know, "Okay, not only does it work," which is the engineering question, "Is it reliable over the long-term?
[00:36:16] Is it cost, is it cost-effective to build, you know? Is it maintainable? Is it beautiful? Does, you know, um, how, does it do it the way that my competitor does it, or does it do it in a fresh and interesting way that's ownable, you know, to the brand that I'm trying to build?" you know? All these questions that when you're, you know, one year out of school, you're like, "I just want to try and solve this problem, but I don't even know, like.
[00:36:38] Beth Altringer Eagle: I just, I was just trying to make it
[00:36:39] Kyle Doerksen: I mean,
[00:36:40] Beth Altringer Eagle: function. Yeah.
[00:36:41] Kyle Doerksen: I went through that, you know, I remember, like, the senior engineer yelling at me being like, "Solve this problem." And I'm like, "I don't know," you know? But, um, you know, over time, you can start to realize that, like, yeah, there are, the problem isn't that there aren't enough solutions, the problem is that there's too many solutions. And, you know, then you need to decide, like, what your sort of personal criteria that you're going to apply, um, to, you know, select what you should move forward with.
[00:37:09] Um, And I think when you look at, you know, for the most part, I would have to say that you look at most great designs, it's because they winnowed down from a lot of options into, down selecting to something that, that really worked. And, you know, you'd look at, like, Jony Ive at Apple, you know, like, people I know who work with him were like, "Guy would make a zillion models of, like, every single thing. Like, oh, the, you know, the power button for the iPhone."
[00:37:37] I mean, they'd probably be thousands and more, you know, models to get it, like, just right. And it's not, like, they just, you know, sat down and drew it, and they're like, "This is it. This is a good design." It's like, it, it is refined.
[00:37:50] Um, yeah.
[00:37:50] I remember talking to a friend of mine that designs motorcycles, and he was saying, "You can always tell when a motorcycle was purely designed on computer or when it was sculpted in clay and built in the workshop" because there's just a human touch that,
[00:38:06] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:38:07] Kyle Doerksen: um, you can just feel when, when you look at design, and I think that's, um, you know, that's true for a lot of, um, you know, physical product design, right? It's, um, it needs, you need to build it, you need to hold it, you need to realize that that edge is too rough and you need to slightly smooth it. Um, and I, you know, I think that's where a lot of, you know, designs move from being good to great, or those little, little refinements that, that humanize and simplify and.
[00:38:39] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:38:40] Kyle Doerksen: You just...
[00:38:41] Beth Altringer Eagle: Like this deep attention to detail and the craft of whatever the thing is, you know? Craft is kind of like an old-fashioned word in a lot of ways, but I think it might be appropriate to what you're describing.
[00:38:57] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. And, and behind, yeah, I think, behind, uh, you know, people that are good at craft is, is generally, like, experience. I mean, even if they're young, it's that they went and just like, you know, sat in their basement, like, you know, sanding and filing and, you know, or working on their art, right, um, you know? And I think that's where, you know, a lot of the innovation comes from, it's just people that, you know, are, are deep into however it's made, you know, whether that's, you know, pixels on the screen or, you know, carving a block of wood or
[00:39:35] you what have you. Yeah.
[00:39:38] It comes from just working with material, until you get, like, an inherent sense of how it works, right? And then your intuition becomes a lot better. Like, then, you know, your, your first pass will be probably a lot closer to the final because you, like, deeply understood that, the media that you're looking at, but you still need to do the refinement.
[00:40:01] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. I mean, as I understand, Apple has, like, an entire color team and honestly, like, an entire materials teams, uh, that just focus on that specific element and sort of hard to imagine for a lot of people what a color team would do, right? But it's the dedication to, to just, like, fully focusing on building out all of those options and then narrowing them down to, you know, what we ultimately end up seeing as consumers.
[00:40:36] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. I mean, color, color is interesting. I don't claim to be a color expert, but I got a chance to work with some over the years, and you know, color is, uh, in, in product design is the interact, intersection of a few different things. One is technology. Like, what, what colors can you create and often color isn't, isn't just the color,
[00:40:58] it's not just the, the hue, but it's how does the color work with light and is it,
[00:41:03] you know, is it a candy color? Is it metallic colors? Is it a very matte color? The same, same hue can, can behave very differently, so there's that technology of like, "Oh, is it paint? Is it, you know, is it integral material?" et cetera. But then there's also the, like, what the cool color is, is, uh, socially determined, um, you know, factor.
[00:41:26] So, color teams around the world, whether they're working in fashion or on smartphones or on vehicles, are actually defining the colors that we're going to like, you know, a couple of seasons from now, right? And so, they are, they are the tastemakers and they're, you know, in general, can interconnected across industries that, you know, we're sort of surprised that
[00:41:50] "Oh, the, the jackets this season are the same color as like the, you know, cool, um, you know, bicycle that came out," but you shouldn't really be surprised because, um, you know, they're, they're, you know, color trends are created by, um, you know, the design industry kind of working together, working with the, you know, the, the contours of, um, or in, you know, the pendulum sort of swing back and forth, the bold colors, the more muted colors,
[00:42:19] right? And, you know, you know it's going to come back at some point, so I think that's, like, a very interesting space of, of design
[00:42:27] and trend work, um, for sure.
[00:42:31] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. And then you also have, like, the color in the context of use, right? So, like, if, if, if the product tends to always be used in a dark environment, right, like, um, versus a light environment, you know, that affects the perception of color, um.
[00:42:52] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, and, you know, you might have your favorite colors, but your favorite color might look terrible on something as big as a car, you know? Um, it might, it might be great as a little pop color here and there, you know, but the, yeah, so, you know, there's different, very different uses, um, based on, on what you're designing for.
[00:43:12] Beth Altringer Eagle: One of the things I like to ask everybody is about a, um, a favorite example of great design that is something that somebody else made and I like to frame it as something that is just so well designed that
[00:43:29] it almost feels magical. Does something come to mind for you?
[00:43:37] Kyle Doerksen: Um, I have this object that is sitting in my living room that, that comes to mind and I'm not sure if it's a magical, but it is really a good design, I think. And it's, uh, it's the Ikea chair called the POÄNG. You know this one? It's made with bentwood on the sides.
[00:43:57] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:43:59] Kyle Doerksen: And, you know, I think I got my first one when I was in college and had it in my dorm room and, you know, I've had a few over the years.
[00:44:06] But I think it's this pretty amazing example of design that's both human, it's industrial. Um, you know, it, the Benwood is, is flexible, right? So, it, it creates, like, a recliner, you know, rocking chair with, with no moving pieces, right?
[00:44:27] Um, it's remarkably economical. I think they're still, like, $89, um, you know, compared with, if you know, a few thousand dollars for a contract furniture or, you know, probably $10,000 for an Eames chair, you know? And it, it's, um, I, you know, it is, like, taken from, you know, it takes a lot of inspiration from, you know, all of our Altos, uh, chairs from the early
[00:44:59] 20th century, um, and some people would complain, I'm, sure that it's derivative of, of those designs, um, but I think that the creativity there is, like, to create such a universal design, you know, apparently, they sell over a million of these chairs each year. Um, you know, it, it packs down into a tiny box, right?
[00:45:22] Um, it's super durable. Um, you know, it's, I think it was developed in the 1970s, you know? It's still, um, top seller, it still feels current, you know? And it's, it's not the most impressive, you know, chair to impress your, like, designer friends with, but it, it is like 97% of the way there like, 1% of the cost
[00:45:46] and, you know, in, in a way that is just remarkably universal. And, and, you know, the materials are very authentic to what you're asking them to do. Um, and I think, like, that is just very clever to me, you know? Like,
[00:46:04] design, I think it's how do you combine all these different constraints? Like, doing more with more, that's easy. Like, doing
[00:46:12] more with less, that's really the challenge.
[00:46:15] Right? And, um, you know how to do that and then actually make that work at scale of mass manufacturing, you know how do you take craft, which is inherently kind of one of one and then express that across, um, you know, the most massive mass manufacturing, um, you know, which obviously Apple achieves too, you know? There are over a billion iPhones, and yet they each feel like they have this element of craft in them, you know?
[00:46:43] And I think that's, you know, those kinds of designs, I think, are, are the most effective to, to me. And yeah, so that's one, um, design that I
[00:46:55] Beth Altringer Eagle: I love that it's simple.
[00:46:55] Kyle Doerksen: think is, you know, an underrated, but, um, it really quite impressive example of other really successful design.
[00:47:05] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. I mean, I can, in general, if it manages to do this, that particular chair, I have also one of those and I just, I also admire them as a company. Like, I studied architecture, so I've always been sensitive to creating a, you know, a very kind of beautiful interior environment. But, um, you know, the price point of that beauty is, is prohibitive for, for most people
[00:47:37] and, and I feel like IKEA makes it a really beautiful, authentic minimalist environment possible, you know, for everyone, if, if that's what they're into. It's, it's, and to do that at the level of innovation, not just product-wise, but business-model-wise, um, information-design-wise, packing-wise, it is radical and super cool.
[00:48:06] Anything else come to mind?
[00:48:07] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. Yeah. And I think too, like, that whole, you know, uh, you know, Scandinavian design and, and whatnot, and the sort of, a lot of the highlights of German design, like, they, they came out of a year of sort of hard times, you know, and, like, the, the goal that many of those designers had was to make their customers just sort of like, feel better, you know, at a time in the world that was really challenging.
[00:48:35] And, you know, the simplicity, it's like understandable, it's minimal, you know, it's optimistic at the end of the day, right? And I think, like, that, you know, the world goes through its, you know, gyrations, but I think that's, like, always relevant, you know? Like, how can, how can design make you feel, you know, comforted and, you know, human, um, and optimistic, um, you know?
[00:49:05] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. I love that.
[00:49:06] Kyle Doerksen: Uh, yeah. I think that's one of the grand challenges.
[00:49:10] Beth Altringer Eagle: I think it's totally true, and it's easy to, like, when we talk about how design and engineering are coming together, that's not how a lot of people would talk about the role of engineering, right? But, um, but I agree with you that design often is playing this fundamental role of, um, creating a feeling of, of optimism,
[00:49:34] if not also, you know, other types of emotional comfort. That's cool to think about. Um, any other, we were ready to kind of, like, shift into, um, takeaways and stuff, but are there any other designs you want to share that feel magical to you?
[00:49:55] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, there's, there's so many different things, you know? I, I think, you know, what one aspect of designs that I think is fascinating is that, you know, the quote-unquote, they don't, they don't make them like they used to, um, you know, and I think, like, the, the role of cost reduction in industrial design leads to that being absolutely true
[00:50:22] and I think a fun thing to do is do a tear down of the same product versus one deal, the same type of product from 30 or 40 years ago. And you realize that, like, it is pretty genius the way they managed to reduce the cost and amount of material, you know, in every aspect of the design, but yet if you had to have only one of those, you know, you'd probably rather have, you know, the heritage one, um, you know? And I think that's, you know, this sort of question of, you know, for
[00:50:54] reasons of sustainability and economy and whatnot, like, cost reduction is, of course, inevitable and, and it is a good thing, you know, but also to go back to, you know, some of these very successful designs from, from a long time ago, you know, like I, I think about, you know, some of my favorite designs are, are just everyday objects, like, uh, you know, a nice kitchen knife, you know? A nice kitchen knife,
[00:51:24] you know, those designs were locked in many decades, in some cases over a hundred years ago. They've basically not been significantly changed since. They work awesome. If you have, you know, a knife from your parents or grandparents, uh, it's probably as good or better than what you could buy, um, today because the, you know, the
[00:51:48] long arch of the wood was old-growth, and the metal came from Sweden at the height of their steel-making. And, you know, like, these sort of geopolitical impacts on the products that we get to use. You know, now it's like, "Oh, the wood is the third growth and comes from a plantation, which yeah, sure, that's sustainable,
[00:52:07] but it, you know, as an object, like the, you know, like I said, you know, they, they don't make it like they used to, you know? And so, I think that's always interesting to kind of reflect on. And, you know, in some product categories, of course, legacy products seem absurdly out of date, right? Fast-moving technology, you know, uh, categories, um, you know, um, they're, they're a bit different, but in the sort of stuff of everyday life, I think it's, it's, you know, worth paying attention to some of those aesthetic elements and, and, like, how come that design, like,
[00:52:46] it just, like, it basically didn't get changed from that point? Like, is it, is it done? Is there some new kitchen knife that would be, like, way better, but nobody's, like, thought about it yet? Like, uh, or is that like the end state of, like, that is as, does the end of the evolutionary tree, you know? Like, it is, it's done.
[00:53:04] Um, you know, which I think is a pretty fascinating thought starter when you look at different designs.
[00:53:12] Beth Altringer Eagle: Wow. I, like, want to have a visualization somehow of, like, the end of each design trajectory. Um, well, so we've talked about a lot of different ways just through the examples of who you are and what you've made and what you admire about other products that all, you know, represent this intersection of design and engineering.
[00:53:38] Um, and so, you know, I don't know from, from what I can see, it appears like these fields, you know, even calling design a field and engineering field is not really quite appropriate, there are many fields within them, but it feels like they are increasingly kind of bleeding together. I wonder if you have any observations on that and, um, and how better to, to educate for that intersection, um, and, you know, feel free to couch that
[00:54:12] in terms of the types of people you're looking for, you know, when you're hiring?
[00:54:18] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, I mean, one of the most exciting moments, uh, to me, it was when I learned that design engineer was actually a job description. Um, you know, and that's, that's what it, you know, it's more commonly used in the UK, uh, than, than here in the US but, um, that's what I had on my business card, uh, when I was at IDEO. And,
[00:54:39] uh, you know,
[00:54:41] To, to me that.
[00:54:43] Beth Altringer Eagle: So, that was like 2012 or something?
[00:54:46] Kyle Doerksen: Oh, yeah, that was back in the, you know, 20, yeah, the 2010s. Um, and, uh, you know, to me, the design part there meant that you're the kind of engineer that starts with a blank sheet of paper, right? A lot of engineers are, are focused on the optimization, they're focused on, um, statistical process control and many other important things,
[00:55:08] right? But, but the design part there to me meant you start with nothing and create something, um, and, um, which is totally different skillset, frankly, than optimization. Um, and so, yeah, I think the, you know, I, I would say that the best way to learn is by doing, right? I think that's why project-based work is so, so important
[00:55:31] and, um, you know, you, you can learn some things by benchmarking and looking what people have done before you, but design is, uh, is really more of a process, right? And so, it's learning the steps of that process, you know, how to generate ideas and go wide and then how to thoughtfully, you know, curate those and, and choose the way forward, how to prototype, how to take things far enough to learn what you want to learn, but not get too far down the rabbit hole that you ended up sidetracked.
[00:56:05] you know, and, and then of course, one of the challenging things is how do you get a finished product out the door, right? How do you, you know, um, you know, like, Steve Jobs said that, you know, real artists ship, um. And, uh, yeah, I think that's, that's true, obviously when, you know, you're, you're learning design,
[00:56:24] Kyle Doerksen: like, you need to bring your projects to completion essentially. Um, you know, and then kind of onto the next thing. Um, And, yeah, I think now there's, so there's so much, there's so much inspiration, there's so much input, right? I mean, there's, you know, go look for your favorite, you know, hashtags on Instagram or TikTok or, you know, um, wherever
[00:56:49] and there's just so, so many designs out there, you realize how many creative people there are in the world, how many ideas have been tried and whatnot. But, you know, I think, like, the design process is pretty personal, you know? Like, you, you kinda need to do it for yourself. Like, even if other people have, you know, made some strides into it, um, you know, you need to give it a shot and then you'll have, like, a whole different understanding of, um, you know, the problem that you're trying to solve.
[00:57:20] And if you're going to be, you know, build, um, a career in design, right, you're going to need to get really comfortable with taking that blank sheet of paper and creating something that you believe in and then sharing it with people around you who, maybe you need to convince them, you know, maybe you need to bring them along on the journey,
[00:57:37] um, you know, that's, that's where, like, design intersects business, right? How do you actually, you know, shepherd your designs through the many, you know, through the gauntlet of other considerations, besides aesthetics, um, you know, that, that apply their own filters on what actually, um, you know, ends up out in the world.
[00:57:59] Um, and I would say that's sort of, like, the, uh, yeah, the, the more advanced and of, of design, um, you know, and figuring out, um, you know, how to, how to keep things true to their essence, right? I think that's something that all designers know and are motivated by. Um, and you know, when you start looking at that in a business context, like, you need, you need supporters that, at all level of the organization to back
[00:58:27] up the designers in that belief system
[00:58:30] and companies that do that become phenomenally successful and their designs, um, you know, are, are beautiful. And many other companies, you know, don't, don't experience that, um, you know, because they don't put design at the top or the center, depending on how you look at it, and they, they approach things other way, which frankly, maybe okay
[00:58:52] for business, you know? There's a lot of successful businesses that are not design-led, um, but, um, frankly, I think they're a lot more boring than the ones that are.
[00:59:03] Beth Altringer Eagle: Well, I think the challenge is if, if a competitor enters your space, that is design-led, uh, and you know, really listens to the, to the experience of, of the people who, you know, use or consume this, this creation, expectations will change in, in many categories, even things that feel boring, like banking, right?
[00:59:29] If you, uh, if your competitor begins to provide a much better user experience, um, you're likely to have to, have to learn to do this as well, right?
[00:59:42] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah, I mean, design can always be a strong differentiator, um, you know? And then, uh, I think there's the sort of quality of the design and then, you know, once you get farther down the, you know, or your competitive set, then that's where the, the aspect of taking a strong perspective, I think, becomes even more important.
[01:00:09] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. Well, those are great takeaways for both, um, you know, people looking to work at the intersection of these fields and for, um, leaders who are trying to up their game in this intersection. Um, I wanna really thank you for joining me and sharing, uh, your background, uh, sharing, uh, your own inspiration
[01:00:34] and, of course, what you have built and given to the world is, uh, is very inspiring to others, including me. So, I, um, I just wanna really thank you for, for joining me today. I hope you have a great day.
[01:00:47] Kyle Doerksen: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.