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.