12:42, Thursday 8 Mar., 2012

Bruce Lee: Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.

Back when I was a whippersnapper, back when my business was a consultancy named "Schulze & Webb" with a skull and bones cellphone on the homepage, we used to write strategy and do interaction design for web and mobile companies.

A product is just like a product

We visited a bit of IDEO where they invent toys, and they told us about products. Products they told us have to be "shelf demonstrable" (an alternate term I heard later is "shelf evident" which you have to say like Sean Connery saying "self evident"). This is the idea that regardless of what your toy - your product - does, you have 15 seconds for it to tell its story to the customer, before they even touch it. This doesn't need to be every feature of the product, and it doesn't even need to be accurate. But in 15 seconds, you need to communicate that combination of usefulness and desire that makes a potential customer walk to the shelf, pick up the product, handle it, and put it in their basket.

This was an approach to product design that had never really occurred to me before. I'd thought about "form follows function," and even concentrating on designing an experience rather than the aesthetics. But the idea that you should be concerned with not just the product but how the product is understood was enormously powerful for me.

That last phrase is from a talk I saw last year by Jonathan Ive at Apple.

As it happens I once related the 15 seconds anecdote to someone else from Apple, and they looked at me then said (I paraphase): HA! 15? One! You've got one second! Maybe two!

So there you go.

A product was no longer a product

The concept of "product" felt like a really good metaphor for the at-the-time new world of websites, mobile services, etc. It's not just how products are understood easily by individual customers, but also how people can talk about products easily to their friends, and how products attract focus inside teams and organisations.

So we would suggest, in our consultancy, that websites could learn from these qualities of products:

The idea of "product" ended up feeling like a really good filter for design work.

The most laissez faire measure for how good design work is is the market itself.

And one of the challenges in consultancy is making the consequences and "next steps" of the work and strategy relevant to unseen audiences. By framing strategic recommendations as products, we implicitly introduce the market, and the market brings with it its own natural evolutions and desires. The next steps for a product, as opposed to a design thought piece, are obvious: you scale it, you platformise it, you make it more desireable, you grow it, etc.

So our workshops turned into product invention workshops in which strategic recommendations are expressed as briefs for new products, making the strategy (a) understandable, and (b) testable.

I'm still a believer in the metaphor of "product" in design.

But meanwhile!

While we were using good old fashioned solid products as a metaphor for these weird ephemeral fuzzy website things, the nature of products was shifting. Products got smart.

It's so significant that physical things now have computation inside them, and access to the network. It's insane what this means. Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things has one approach to this -- spimes: objects that have knowledge and history of their place in space and time. In Smart Things, Mike Kuniavsky catalogues ways of designing products infused with computation and networks. But my main understanding of this has been working on Little Printer and my proximity to client work in the studio on other connected product prototypes.

Recently I noted down some places in which traditional products have changed:

Let's not even get into my and the studio's general preoccupation with products with "fractional artificial intelligence" and a world with robots in it, of all shapes and sizes.

Through all of this mish-mash, "product" thinking (I'm quoting "product" diligently) continued and continues to be important in our consultancy and design work! "Product" is a powerful idea.

A product is just like a product

While "product" is a powerful idea, product (no quotes) is an increasingly useful term - in its original sense - and one I now need to personally reclaim.

As we're working on Little Printer, I need a way to refer to the object itself -- the thing that the tooling is for, that contains the electronics, that will sit inside the packaging, that has painfully long lead times on the PSUs. Yes, it's fuzzy with service-thinking because it's nothing without the behaviours controlled by the network such as deliveries and publications. And it's separate from the interface which sits on the smartphone. And it has a face which is part of the brand, and to make things more complicated the face is printed so is it part of the network and the service, or is it part of the product design?

Metaphorically of course, according to all my "product" thinking, the entire thing - publications, marketing, brand, smartphone interface, plastic and silicon all - is the "product," because it's the entire "product" by which the market will judge our success.

But still I need a word to refer to the physical thing. And with all that nuance, and with all that muddy complexity, with all of that, I'm taking back the word. Taking it back from myself! Product. A product is just like a product.

Which leaves me having to find a new way to refer to the metaphor of "product"... but that's fine, challenges are good.

Interconnected

A weblog by Matt Webb, CEO of BERG, makers of BERG Cloud and Little Printer.

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