The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart.
In 1940 author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts set off on an epic collecting expedition, which they documented in the book entitled the Sea of Cortez. Their log was an unlikely place to uncover a wonderful product review—of an outboard motor euphemistically referred to as the Hansen Sea-Cow—that bears many ironic truths about how the products we design to sell can deliver unintended experiences, and how an imaginative and creative writer can express qualities of experience design and theories on invention that no designer I know could muster:
We do not think that Mr. Hansen, inventor of the Sea-Cow, father of the outboard motor, knew what he was doing. We think the monster he created was as accidental and arbitrary as the beginning of any other life. Only one thing differentiates the Sea-Cow from the life that we know. Whereas the forms that are familiar to us are the results of billions of years of mutation and complication, life and intelligence emerged simultaneously in the Sea-Cow. It is more than a species. It is a whole new re-deﬁnition of life. We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:
- Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.
- It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion. It had always to be ﬁlled at the beginning of every trip.
- It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our minds, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion. Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement. This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false conﬁdence in it.
- It had many cleavage points, and when attacked with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, Which also fall apart in simulated death when attacked with a screwdriver.
- It hated Tex, sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.
- It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, early morning, and evening, (d) in rain, dew, or fog, (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by—in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row—the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.
Could this be the Hansen Sea Cow?
- It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.
After the spotlight fades, and despite our best efforts and intentions, our products develop relationships and deliver experiences that we often never see. I deeply appreciate the wit and wisdom in this passage. It left me with a flash of humility, both for the fate of our designs and the genius of good writing.
Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Fall 2013.
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