Air quotes, product

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:

  • products have to be shelf demonstrable – they can tell their story in 15 seconds, with no interaction beyond looking.
  • a good product is explainable in a sentence. We’ve since refined this: we ask ourselves how whatever we’re designing can be described in 140 characters or less. This is how ideas spread, but also - in big companies - it’s an important component of getting organisational buy-in. You can rally behind a short description.
  • a product knows its audience. You’d be surprised how often, in design work, a product doesn’t know its audience. We’ll start off imagining a website or film or prototype is going to be shown to customers… but really the audience is senior management, or the investors.
  • products are measurable! Regular physical products are sold for money. You can talk about units shipped, margin, profit, returns, love and so on. Given these metrics, a product can be improved. A mobile website is way more abstract: these metrics need to be decided and built in to give the team direction.
  • a product is predictable. This is more abstract, but I think it’s critical. People get really upset if a website or app violates expectations, such as when (say) private information is shared when the tone of the brand is that it’s like a buddy. That’s because our expectation of buddies are that friends aren’t gossipy blabbermouths. Predictability is easy when you have a non-networked, physical product: it obeys mechanical rules and gravity. But these metaphorical products? Predictability is a risk.

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:

  • the product/service mix! The iPod (rest its precious little soul) wasn’t anything without the service of iTunes and the iTunes Music Store. And the Nike Fuelband is half display of a fitness tracking service and half a conduit between the physical and the virtual. Kuniavsky calls these service avatars, products that aren’t just better with a well-designed service around them, but entirely to do with the service. I think about Little Printer: is it a product? Well yes, it’s a gorgeous object and we’re sweating the industrial design. But the industrial design and the brand creates a space in which publications - part of the service layer - can really shine, and the value of Little Printer rests almost entirely on the quality of these publications! So it is a product or a service? I don’t think it’s possible to make that distinction, you wouldn’t separate the two.
  • the object/interface separation! The user interface is an interface because it’s the surface of the thing, the interface between the thing and the world. The controls of a physical thing used to be on the interface, the surface. The design cue for a control surface was the idea of affordances. No longer. I control Little Printer through a portable screen, separate from the object itself: my smartphone. To control a thing, you no longer necessarily look at the thing. Weird.
  • little brain/big brain! This is an idea that cropped up in the studio - I can’t remember who said it first, sorry - but it’s found a regular spot in my notebook. When a product is connected to the network it has two brains. A little local one that can perform cheap calculation, and a big one in the network that can do potentially anything at all: massive facial recognition, searching all of Amazon, advanced artificial neural networks, whatever. Think of Siri on iPhone: iPhone’s little brain records and compresses the voice, and does simple matching with local data. Siri also talks to the network, and that’s where the speech recognition happens. And the Wolfram|Alpha facts and calculations. And anything else Apple adds to Siri’s big brain in the future. So how do you do product design when the physical shape of the product no longer bounds what its functionality, and the behaviour of a product can be side-loaded from the network, entirely changing what it does without the product physical altering at all?
  • the product/brand/experience singularity! Not so much a change as a realisation this one. Some time ago I became interested in the idea that products were also designed experiences, and that they could be understood less as passive lumps of matter and more like nonhuman actors, companions with personality traits and quirks. You can read more about this in my talk Products are people too. It was also being generally understood that the experience of a product was a key determinant of the brand. And because knowledge of a product is increased when people tell their friends, a product becomes its own marketing too. Products, brands and experiences all fold into one another, to such a point where you have to consider them holistically.

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.