Design Is Not A Product

This is not a smartphone

I had to do some shopping this week. I needed antiperspirant (deodorant, pit-stick — choose your synonym). Mundane, I know. Yet, the process of buying antiperspirant sparked an idea in me.

[pullshow id=”smell”]

When I left the house I noted the brand and version of antiperspirant that I had been using (Right Guard Sport Regular, if you must know). A stick of antiperspirant lasts a while, so I don’t always have the particulars in my head. That, and I am a bit OCD — a creature of habit who is not likely to try something new just for the sake of it.

Standing in the personal hygiene aisle at the grocery store, I couldn’t find an antiperspirant package that looked like mine. Apparently antiperspirant is a fast paced industry, with new products coming out every six months or so. I sniffed a few alternates, but was unimpressed. Finally, I found a Right Guard Sport Regular stick that DID NOT look like mine and had the words “New 3D Odour Defense” written on it in big orange letters. This imposter stick smelled like mine, so I figured marketers had just been busy messing with a good thing.

Every time an app sells on iTunes an antiperspirant product designer cries


I’ve written recently about the nature of innovation. This episode with the antiperspirant got me thinking about the nature of product design.

Design pundits have argued that design is the driving factor behind all relevant companies today. Apple for instance, owes it’s existence, and its dominance to it’s design-driven philosophies.

Yet, anyone can make a stick of antiperspirant, or a smartphone, or an HTML5 website. What separates highly innovative products from merely functional ones? (I’ll ignore badly designed products for the moment.)

These days, good products are ones that take advantage of innovative new ways of formulating experience (e.g., Flipboard app, or Netflix). Really great products, the game changers, are those that are the genesis for shifts in behaviour and progenitors of vast product ecosystems (iPhone and the App Store, Facebook, the internet).

According to Bill Buxton, in his book Sketching User Experience, design is not about the “product,” but our responses to it.

Some academics, such as Hummels, Djajadiningrat, and Overbeeke (2001), go so far as to say that what we are creating is less a product than a “context for experience”. Another way of saying this is that it is not the physical entity or what is in the box (the material product) that is the true outcome of design. Rather it is the behavioural, experiential, and emotional responses that come about as a result of its existence and its use in the real world.

Another way of categorizing designs is by differentiating between products and tools. Products can be used. Tools change how we do things. Designing a stick of antiperspirant is a very different process from creating an ecosystem.

With this realization, I started to think about my own work in the microstock photography industry. Am I creating products, or an ecosystem for visual communication and commerce?

Design is a conscious process

Great design doesn’t happen by accident. You have to know what you are building and how it will be used. But, just as importantly, you have to leave some ambiguity and open ended-ness in your design, so that the tool can be extended and used as flexibly as possible.

[pullshow id=”harmony”]

Based on what I know about Steve Jobs’ design philosophies and emphasis on a closed loop system, I doubt the iPhone design brief stated “just make a slightly better smartphone.” Because Apple’s introduction of the iPhone really said “here is a handheld, powerful computer, which is mobile, wirelessly networked, motion-, light-, and sound-sensing and emitting, with an easy to use development environment and central distribution platform — go ahead and create software and experiences around it. We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we bet it will change a lot of things.”

Mark Zuckerburg, in his onstage interview at the November 2010 Web 2.0 Summit, was pretty clear about his design philosophy as far as Facebook is concerned: Facebook is a platform for social experiences. He will keep extending the platform into new verticals as long as it helps people share (photos, messaging, etc.) Facebook know they can’t do everything themselves and are very open to other people and companies building on-top of the platform (gaming for example).

Both Apple and Facebook are prime examples of the age old design adage, “the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.” Creating designs and thinking about usage in its totality results in a better overall physical, intellectual, and emotional experience for the user. [pullthis id=”harmony”]As in a Japanese garden, aesthetic and experiential beauty are found in harmony, rather than in singularity.[/pullthis]

And what about my antiperspirant. How does it fit into this über-product, experiential design paradigm? Well, [pullthis id=”smell”]I smell good, and I guess that counts for something[/pullthis].

2 thoughts on “Design Is Not A Product

  1. As reported on MacRumors, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop recently published a memo to his staff in which he all but admits defeat in the high-end smartphone market. He attributes dominance of Apple’s iPhone not to the fact that it is a better piece of hardware, but because it supports a vast ecosystem of communication that Nokia has not replicated.

    “The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem.”


Comments are closed.