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.

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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.

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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].

Innovation Is Scary

The recently released beta 4.3 version of Apple’s iOS for iPhone and iPad contains references to a feature called “Find My Friends.”

According to MacRumors, “the obvious interpretation is that Apple may be looking to offer a location-based friend-finding service like Loopt and Google Latitude.”

When I read this news I thought “that’s cool.”

When I told my wife about it she said, “that’s scary.”

Okay. So we don’t agree on absolutely everything. What couple does.

Her reaction made me consider the impact innovation has on our lives. We each have a vision of the future. Perhaps its a future with farms growing on the sides of skyscrapers. Perhaps its a future where we can travel to distant planets in the blink of an eye. But no matter what your vision of the future is, there is only one way to get there — one step at a time.

Beam me up, Scotty*

Every innovation that has happened in the past 100 years has been predicted by science fiction. (This is my theory anyway.)

My ideal future looks like Star Trek. Well, kind of. I see us evolving in that direction IF we don’t self-destruct first. The only way we will develop future technologies like transporters, sub-space communicators, time machines, and personnel locators is if we make baby-steps today to create and adopt new technologies that take us in that direction.

Figuratively transport yourself to early 1973, prior to the invention of the internet. Pretend you have a computer (probably a very big computer that doesn’t do much). Imagine someone says that they have a technology that can link all computers on the planet together so you can access all digital information everywhere, so you will always be connected to everyone, and that you will be constantly bombarded by communication in dozens of forms form hundreds or thousands of people — many of them you don’t even know. Does this sound scary? Does this sound like it could be abused by big brother?  Does it sound overwhelming? Would you want your computer connected with this technology?

Find My Friend may sound scary. It may have the potential to be abused. It may be boring or useless. Or it might profoundly change the way we communicate and relate with others. We won’t know how people will use it until we have it. We won’t know how it will change our lives until we are changed — until we are the future.

* According to Wikipedia, this phrase was never uttered in any of the Star Trek television episodes or movies.

Visualization: Beautiful Data

Visualization: Beautiful Data

I characterize myself as a visual person who loves analytics. Occasionally I go on visualization binges, consuming every infographic, visualization, and cool presentation I can find. Some of my latest joys…

Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling is a passionate and charismatic presenter. He obviously cares about numbers and makes understanding large concepts easy, and fun.

Hans Rosling’s 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes, an update to his classic Ted talk

David McCandless

David McCandless VisualizationDavid McCandless finds patterns and connections in data that most people might miss. His graphic visualizations are aesthetically simple, but conceptually powerful.

The beauty of data visualization Ted talk

Microsoft PivotViewer

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Microsoft never does anything cool. PivotViewer is a powerful tool for viewing large datasets, especially image based ones. I haven’t seen too many real-world implementation, but a few proof-of-concept deployments point to PivotViewer’s potential.

PivotViewer sample app using NetFlix data


Wordle isn’t new, but it is fun. Pull text in using several useful methods (try pulling in your Delicious bookmarks) and get a word-cloud you can customize the look of.

Visual Thesaurus

I fell in love with Visual Thesaurus last year during the re-architecting of See relationships between words. Find better words. Learn new words. Great for vocabulary creation in IA, and for word-geeks.

Visual Thesaurus VocabGrabber is similar to Wordle — semantically more powerful but less pretty.

If Web Browsers Were Celebrities

Aparently I am currently using the Samuel Jackson 5.0.3 browser.

BeeDocs Timeline 3D

BeeDocs TimelineI’m going to use BeeDocs to map a product development roadmap. Export to PDF, movie, or Keynote. Importers built-in for some Apple apps, as well as a CSV importer. Applescript-able too.

10 Free Data Visualization Tools

A good resource linking to open tools you can use to build visualizations.

Google Charts/Interactive Charts/Visualization API

I occasionally use Google Charts. Simple and easy to use.

The URL of the homepage of this site as a QRCode generated by Google Charts:

Visual Complexity

Wow. I haven’t even begun to explore the library of projects demonstrated in Visual Complexity—a collection of network visualization apps. Founded by Manuel Lima, Senior UX Designer at Microsoft Bing.

RAMA (“Relational Artists Map”), for example, maps relationships between bands using data. A fun way to explore music. Using RAMA I found The Concretes, a swedish band that I am listening to right now.


Processing is an easy to use programming language and environment for building data-driven graphic applications. Awesome for visualization. Processing is the engine behind a lot of the examples at Visual Complexity

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I just this very moment discovered that a related project, Processing.js, lets you run your Processing code in any HTML5-capable modern browser using the tag and javascript. (Traditional Processing apps required Java.) “[pullthis id=”magic”]It’s not magic, but almost.[/pullthis]” I guess I know what I an doing this weekend. Geek-time.

My related Delicious bookmarks

Pros and Cons of Digital Magazines


The office was abuzz this week with the launch of Virgin Digital Publishing’s iPad-only Project digital magazine.

“Have you seen the new Virgin app?” one of my staff said, holding our research iPad.

He held up the iPad and flipped through a few stories.

“It’s pretty cool. They’re trying to make content interactive, and include video in the layout,” he gushed.

“Like the web?”, I asked.

Later that same day, my boss was looking at Project, and was a bit unimpressed by the clunky and unintuitive feel of the interface.

“It’s a bit buggy and hard to use,” he said.

“Like the web?”, I asked.

In art school, I had a history professor that taught me one very important thing—the old medium becomes the content of the new medium.

I’m not sure how that’s relevant here, but it sounds cool.

Where was I? Oh yeah, new mediums. The iPad, as much as I love it (you should buy one if you haven’t already), is not a new medium. It’s a new package for a medium we’ve had for quite some time — the internet. It’s a great package, a tactile package, but not more than that.

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Taking older mediums (pre-web mediums) like books, magazines, or television and trying to port them to the internet, or worse, to a mobile app, just doesn’t make sense. [pullthis id=”appification”]We abandoned magazines and newspapers for the internet years ago, didn’t we?[/pullthis]

If it is not hyperlinked, social, real-time, user-generated, and ubiquitously available, does it have a place in our lives today? Does a general interest magazine, produced by one of the richest men on the planet, with more artifice than art have any validity?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for experimentation (R&D is my job). I’m all for pushing the boundaries and coming up with new ways to use a medium. Or coming up with new mediums. But content is king, and traditional magazine content is just not that relevant anymore.

Publishing now

Prior to the launch of the iPad, a group called Bonnier released a video detailing the research they’d been doing to bring magazines into the digital age. Mag+ was the result. (Appropriately, Popular Science+ was the first Mag+ published when the iPad was released.) The interface in the Mag+ prototype was refined and the concepts well thought out. Editorial content was given priority over interface artifice. At the time, it seemed as though tablets would provide a fresh and interactive way of navigating content — a much needed improvement over the age-old and not-so-intuitive keyboard and mouse.

When the iPad was released, the digital publishing revolution never really happened. E-books and digital magazines just didn’t hold the prominence that people thought they would. Sure, I’ve mostly eliminated my printed magazine purchases in favour of viewing them digitally (mostly to save paper and space), but, in general, people aren’t using the iPad (or their smartphones) to view statically produced content (even it is multimedia). They are using their devices to stay connected to the internet and all the dynamic and social content it contains.

The iPad (like the iPhone before it) did change the way people interact with content, but that content primarily comes from the web, not traditional media vendors, like Virgin. I’m going to make a completely un-scientific estimate and say that 95% of the text and video content people are interested in today comes from user-generated articles, blogs feeds, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.

Bonnier have recently announce the next phase of their digital publishing research, News+. Similar to Mag+, News+ promises to bring newspaper publishing into the digital age, packaging the news in a format that makes sense in the mobile, ubiquitous computing age. Content will still be packaged and curated by the media vendor, to “filter out the din of the web”1, but will update throughout the day as stories change. You will be able to share comments with authors and other readers. Again, it looks promising, but I can’t help but think that this is effort is too little, too late. Or even a bit misdirected.

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As digital citizens we know where to find content that meets our interests. We have friends, networks, people we follow on Twitter, and blog feeds we subscribe to. We don’t need another source of content. We need a better package for the personalized content we are interested in. [pullthis id=”uber-aggregator”]We need an über content aggregator, with the ability to get content from any source, filter it, and present it in an interactive and meaningful way.[/pullthis]

Qwiki, a beta multimedia information aggregator, is a step in the right direction. It mashes together text-based wiki content, photos, and videos and presents them in an interesting audio-visual format. But it’s more like an encyclopedia of knowledge than a source for real-time information.

Real-time aggregator tools and apps do exist today. One of my favourite apps, Reeder for iPhone and iPad (in combination with Google Reader), let’s me create a taylor made constantly updated feed of information from multiple sources and consume it whenever and wherever I am. Likewise, the iPad app Flipboard streams content from Facebook and Twitter activity, organizing it in a topical multimedia magazine format.

Unlike Project, the experience of these apps is great and the content is, well, mine. Like the web.