More on the Future of Digital Product Design

by December 14, 2004

Last Wednesday I was part of a panel discussion on The Future of Digital Product Design at Yahoo in Sunnyvale, CA. A few follow-ups thoughts on the topics we discussed and the ideas Dirk Knemeyer presented beforehand:

Future Design Skills

As we increasingly move toward a convergence of digital information and products (essentially interfaces to that information), designers will be required to build up strong rationalization skills. The ability to not only see the connections between products and information, but to also reduce those connections to the bare essentials will ultimately be responsible for avoiding overly complex interfaces. Convergence in science argues that all knowledge is unified around a small number of natural, interlocking laws. I’d like to believe that interface design is no different.

Design is Problem Solving

Positioning design as an “added value” with an independent ROI may sometimes carry the unintended message that designing a product is “optional”. This perception is very visible when design is referred to as “making things pretty”. “Do we want to make an investment in design? Let’s do the ROI…” In reality, design represents an integral part of any product decision-making process. In addition to technology and business considerations, design considerations are vital to making appropriate choices for product features, product marketing, and more. It is the designer’s role to represent the design opportunities and constraints that inform product decisions.

An additional potential pitfall of positioning design as an “added value” is that it does not adequately prepare product stakeholders for situations where design best fits the product equation as a constraint. Sometimes, it is the designer’s job to apply limitations (for example to retain consistency or simplicity) to a product in order to achieve the best solution. This practice enforces the idea that good design solves problems not just through “addition”-but more importantly (and perhaps more often) through subtraction.

During the panel at Yahoo, a question was raised about who the decision maker on a product team should be and which discipline takes on the role of “innovator”. In both cases I replied “the one who best understands the problem”. When the problem is well understood and shared between engineering, design, and marketing, solutions are much easier to share as well.

Users, Products, and Gizmos

In his opening presentation, Dirk spent some time defining User Experience Design and Digital Products. In particular, he mentioned the term 'user' is “outdated and dehumanizing, though understood and accepted by most organizations in our industry”. While I wholeheartedly agree the term does not reflect well on the uniqueness and vitality of the people who interact with digital products, “user” is a good reminder of where we are in the history of objects:

“Products are made and used by consumers. Your parents were consumers, back in the 1960s. A Gizmo is something like a Product, but instead of behaving predictably and sensibly for a mass market of obedient consumers, a Gizmo is an open-ended tech development project. In a Gizmo, development has been deputized to end-users. Not a consumer. An end-user. An end-user is the historically evolved version of a consumer. Now, I could redesign this Gizmo to make it into a simple Product. But then this Gizmo would become a commodity. There would be little profit in that; in an end-user society like ours, Products come in bubblepak or shrinkwrap in big heaps, like pencils. There is no money in them.” –Bruce Sterling, SIGGRAPH Keynote, 2004

I brought this distinction up during the panel to illustrate the difficulty of globalization. Localizing products is much easier when your customers are consumers. With “end-users” the nuances of cultural and best practice differences can significantly impact user experience design, making adequate attention to international product variations all the more important.