Two things product designers and manufacturers need to know

I had a nice chat on the phone this afternoon with a journalist who was looking for some quotes for a piece he’s working on – a wide-ranging conversation, inevitably, rambling over the course of an hour from the prospects for truly useful telepresence to the comparative legibility of global cities.

We began and ended our conversation, though, by talking about product design in the age of ambient informatics. I found my thoughts on the subject crystallizing into two very straightforward propositions, two insights that everybody responsible at any level for designing or manufacturing a physical product of any sort should take to heart if they want not to be caught out by the emergent state of affairs.

I do apologize if this is a little Tom Friedman. These are simplifications. But hopefully there’s a little more to them than, say, something you’re likely to read in an in-flight business magazine:

You can no longer safely assume that your product will stand alone. One way or another, it will be subsumed into an ecosystem, an information ecology.

I mean this in a much stronger and more literal sense than the ethnographic. The lamp you’re designing will be reconceived as an appendage of a networked household management system. The season of running shoes you just shipped? Retrofitted with wireless accelerometers by clever hobbyists, frustrated by the limitations of the packaged offering. And even a building front can be reimagined as a networked display.

The lesson here: if it can be connected, it will be. Even if it doesn’t always make sense.

So even if you make something you don’t think of as technological, even if you’re not one to be seduced by the logic of interoperability and the open API – even if you’re having trouble imagining what conceivable end could be served by plugging the thing you’ve designed into anything else – you might want to consider the outright hunger our glocal network has for new input and output modalities.

Your product needs to tell me what it can do, and what I can do with it.

For a long time now, those of us in the associated user-experience fields have more or less tolerated what I rather pedantically (but correctly, dang it) continue to regard as a sloppy usage of the word “affordance.”

The Wikipedia entry glosses the situation rather well, but I’ll give a quick recap here, for the sake of saving you a click: its coiner Gibson meant for the word to refer to all of the “action possibilities” latent in a given relationship between a human user and an object or environment. Chairs afford sitting, phones afford calling, and so forth. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.

So far, so good, right? Good ol’ Don Norman, though, in his deservedly foundational The Design of Everyday Things, confounded matters somewhat, by collapsing this potential with the design intervention conveying it to the user. (One or two rounds of conceptual Telephone later, this inevitably led to Web designers saying things like “If users can’t figure out how to add this to their shopping cart, we’d better slap an affordance on it.”)

And there matters have remained; at the risk of seeming the worst sort of bore, we no longer draw much of a distinction between “affordance” and “perceived affordance.” But the distinction returns with a vengeance when the outer form of an artifact of networked technology offers the person encountering it little or no guidance as to what its capabilities are, or to what uses it can be put.

After all, part of what makes our everyday environment so robust and so reliable is that the objects comprising it are by and large trivially self-authenticating as to the range of potential uses inherent in them. (Admittedly, the place where people begin to stress and probe everyday objects, discovering from them new and unsuspected uses, is deeply rewarding. I have a riff on this vis à vis the whole “honesty of materials” trope beloved of architectural Modernists…but that’s a story for a different night.)

To the degree, then, that the things you’re designing and bringing to market are capable of doing things other than the obvious – especially when connected to an informational network, as all the above suggests they surely will be – you should be thinking long and hard about ways to explain their “action potentials” to people encountering them. Graphically, materially, formally, even dare I say explicitly. Your users and customers will thank you for it.

And that’s it. Really wrap your head around these two facts, and what they imply for your product’s lifecycle and movement through the world, and I’m tempted to say that a great deal of the rest will fall into place. But I suppose some of us, as ever, will have to find this out the hard way.

12 responses to “Two things product designers and manufacturers need to know”

  1. Fred says :

    Interesting read, haven’t checked out Everyware yet, Adam, but I’m looking forward to it.

    That difference btw ‘affordance’ and ‘perceived affordance’ brings up the whole layer of dissimulation, obfuscation, and outright lies that already accompany networked information. And that layer seems like it will inevitably insert itself into an ecosystem of networked objects as well. It seems like the problem might be less that networked objects are not explicit about what they can do, but that they might be deliberately deceptive as to their capabilities and uses.

    I’d like to hear that other rant about Modernist material honesty and network technologies as well, I think it’d be relevant to the issue above. The next question might be about the kind of Situationist critique of Modernist material and functional honesty: user reappropriation. A paperweight can be used as a hammer, a pool can be used as a skateboard ramp. How do you ensure honesty when the material itself may not know everything that it can do?

    Maybe mandating open APIs for networked objects is the answer to both these issues, but I can’t see markets being too happy with that solution.

  2. speedbird says :

    From the above: a cogent example of an artifact embedded in a system.

    This is interesting, also, for what it leaves out. Schematically, business consultants are so close to ANT here that it hurts, but they still lack any accounting of what constitutes and motivates relations between the things inside their boxes.

  3. Adam Richardson says :

    Lots of great points, but I’m struck by one thing, which is that I think many “lay” people conceive of product ecosystems in quite a different way than designers or manufacturers do. What composes an ecosystem, what it can do, and what linkages exist between components are not the same for most people as they are for designers (or manufacturers)

    An example of this would be how people tend to replicate the component stack for each TV in their home – DVD player, old VCR, extra game console, additional cable box, etc. The notion of “whole home networking” is still far beyond most people, and for them the sneakernet, basic solution works just fine. Though it is wasteful in material, it is economical cognitifively.

    Designers (myself included) tend to want to make the cognitive and material systems the same because it’s more elegant this way, but that is not always how users see the world.

    A couple of things you might enjoy reading, if you are not familiar with them already:

    Dan at City of Sound writes a lot about the topic of adaptive design:
    http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/adaptive_design/index.html

    Michel de Certeau’s book “The Practice of Everyday Life” is a philosophical look at how people make the world their own. Semiotics of the same period from Barthes, Levi Strauss etc. also plays a lot into how products signify their intents/meanings.

    And lastly and leastly, I’ve written a bit about system design myself :)
    http://richardsona.squarespace.com/main/2006/11/15/why-designing-systems-is-difficult.html

  4. speedbird says :

    Thanks, Adam. Dan’s a good friend, and the de Certeau is a standby I’ve relied on heavily in preparing both Everyware and more recent talks.

    I tend to agree that what designers think of as “elegant” does not always align particularly neatly – or at all – with what actual people want in their day-to-day lives. In all but the most design-driven environments, you have to assume that the thing you’re crafting is going to wind up in an environment where its form, its function, and its semiotics are at odds with everything else around it. And that vision that we carry around in our heads as designers – the little interior picture where capital-D Design is the governing logic of a space, and every element of a domestic system has a place in it – can be such a terribly hard thing to let go of.

    Wood and Beck’s Home Rules has a great passage on this exact phenomenon, discussing how an austere, glass-top Mies coffee table both draws energy from and conflicts with other elements of a room largely given over to relaxation and comfort. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy.

  5. Christopher Fahey says :

    #2 has always been a pet peeve of mine. del.icio.us was fairly bad about this until recently, but they’ve gotten better. ma.gnolia.com, to this day, doesn’t think it’s worth their time to spend a couple of hundred bucks to hire a copywriter to come up with a way of saying on their home page, in 20 words or less, what the hell their product is and why I should use it.

    There’s something about early adopter culture that allows many companies to get away with shirking this critical responsibility. Sometimes I think I’d prefer a superficial, seductive — and even deceptive — sales pitch to the complete lack of introduction/affordance most products provide. If I feel all psyched up by a bunch of bullshit marketiningspeak to actually *try* a new product for long enough to get the hang of it’s inherent value and usefulness, then the product’s makers have done their job. Weird huh.

  6. speedbird says :

    ma.gnolia.com, to this day, doesn’t think it’s worth their time to spend a couple of hundred bucks to hire a copywriter to come up with a way of saying on their home page, in 20 words or less, what the hell their product is and why I should use it.

    This is so true, Chris. In this regard, I also think about outside.in, which is a few months old now and still hasn’t thought it important to explain concisely just what it is. (I think you’d probably agree that a front-page essay of explanation is not at all the same thing, or adequate substitute for, a dang seven-word tagline that tells me what I’m supposed to do when I get there.)

    And, hey, you know what? Maybe mag.nol.ia and outside.in are doing just fine the way they are. I’m certainly willing to stipulate that. But I’m also willing to bet they could be doing so much better if they’d make even a token effort at explicating their USP.

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