Square’s Design Miracle: EMV, NFC And An Amazing $49 Pricetag

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FastCompany recently took a fascinating deep-dive into the strategy and tactics behind Square’s design. It’s a terrific read, if only to explain the design genius behind a thoroughly under-appreciated feat of engineering. It’s certainly no surprise that the Square team would have taken so much time perfecting it’s design, which delivers a beautiful—yes, I think it’s beautiful—fast and truly effortless interface. The biggest surprise here is how difficult it was to deliver the price they needed to hit.

It’s a longheld project reality that you can have your timeline, your price or your scope, but never all three. Such realities don’t cut it at Square. What is going on here is Square making a strategic longterm bet on mobile payments. Their top brass felt that someone has to suck it up price-wise to get the market moving. It’s a loss-leader mentality, but not in the quintessential razor-and-razor-blade mode. It’s more in the “we’ll pay a lot more now for a big slice of this worthless pie, betting that we can make this pie worth a bundle if we make the first move.”

And Square’s engineering team has succeeded in a big way, not merely in capturing marketshare but in moving the entire market. They crafted something that could handle EMV and NFC, but made it with smooth rounded edges that made the device seem comfortable and inviting. How many POS systems can you say that about?

They didn’t bother to put a PINpad in it, which was a move I applaud, given how few shoppers actually need it. They also used Bluetooth so that it could work with almost any phone or tablet. That’s how you build market.

But Square’s mission was not merely to change the payment space. It wanted to do the opposite of what had, up to that point, been standard operating procedure. Instead of pushing the cutting-edge efforts at the largest chains and letting it trickle down, they exclusively focused on the smallest one-location merchants and let the technology trickle up.

“It’s rare for any startup to have as symbiotic a relationship with a single hardware device as Square has had with its credit-card reader. The original version, which debuted in 2009, democratized credit-card acceptance by building a magnetic-stripe reader into a tiny square gizmo that plugged into a smartphone’s headphone jack,” said the FastCompany story. “Combined with Square’s app and payment-processing service, which charged a flat rate per transaction, the reader let even the smallest of small businesses easily take plastic for the first time.”

It’s definitely worth a read if, for no other reason than to see how a simple design can trickle up to change a global economy.

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