Product Design, a Zero-Sum game?

In our digital age, big data, cloud services and the internet of things allows us can do anything, anywhere, anytime. This was not always the case, and looking back, we can see the process of product designing shifting from making technology accessible to – now – competing for attention, for time. This has turned product design and development into a zero-sum game.

At the time that products were still purely mechanical, design was about making technology accessible. I used to drive an 1964 Citroën Ami6 and the dashboard was phenomenal, with handles and levers. The car was from before when they discovered how to manage levers remotely through wires (like the breaks on a bicycle). Therefore all switches, valves and controls were managed through metal rods directly connecting the ‘control’ as direct as possible the item being controlled. Another nice example is an old Philips cassette player (see image below, thank you; Tom Djajadiningrat), where the controls are mechanically linked to the elements acted upon. I imagine designers’ focus was on how to make the control’s function visible; how to show the technical function. The goal was to make the technology as accessible as possible.

The digital age changed this. With the introduction of digital components, electric controls, affordable servo systems etc, the action operated and the control controlling this action became independent. The act of placing the head of the cassette player on the tape and the control to start play were linked only through an electrical signal. This created enormous freedom for the designer of the user interface, and the fact that this was a struggle is demonstrated by the still unresolved design of a decent remote control. The constraints for the designer reduced to the physical object and function, which indirection restricted time and location of usage. You could watch the news there were you could see the television. Product designers challenged to make give access to the function, make it usable. Hence, enters the concept of affordances to compensate for the broken perception/action coupling. With physical/mechanical linkages, the coupling of perception and action was obvious. The flexibility of the electronic/information linkages introduced the need for a concept to help designers think about the relation between representations (perception) and the specification of action/consequences.

The internet and information age continuous connectivity, cloud services have broken the coupling between time and space; removed the constraints of the physical device and the device’s location, also referred to as the “death of distance”. With internet and internet of things, everything is always accessible from anywhere. Traveling through an ancient city, surrounded by – no doubt – interesting people, and we look at our phone. Everything has come under control of, and at the will of the user. For the designer this means that, apart making the product or service accessible, and usable, the product also has to be meaningful. We can watch the news standing in a street car between the train we just took going into the city and the underground that brings us to our work location, even if the news was originally broadcasted 36 minutes, or 3 hours ago. Before the internet you had to be proximal to your device (TV) to use it.  Now you carry ‘many devices’around on your smart phone – so there are fewer spatial constraints on how you spend your time. The coupling between time and space is much looser.

With all this, the ‘battle ground’ shifted to competing for time. Everyone having faced a deadline knows that a day only has 24 hours, and if that is not enough you can always work through the night. But for me that only applies to very special situations or extremely interesting sparks to have your attention override basic needs such as to sleep, eat etc. The day is one big pie. It will be consumed, and everybody wants to have a piece. How big a piece are you taking? Not only does this mean that designers need to think about how to utilize these new degrees of freedom (i.e., to compete for their slice of the pie), it also re-introduces the moral question back into product design. I remember my construction professor asking if an engineer designing a bridge is responsible / accountable for those who decide to jump of the bridge and take their life. When competing for time, are you taking time away from paying attention to the road while driving? Are you taking time away from playing with the children.

Even knowing all this, it is easy to get lost in the creative process. Engineers just love building and creating, that the competing for time bit often is not the starting point of even part of the first iteration of the development cycle. Well, not for me. Currently I am prototyping, chasing an ambition, shaping the vague image of a possible great product while aiming for simplicity, and even so, seeing it grow in sophistication and complexity. And I might only ship the intended first version without considering the competition for time, which to me would have been worth the investment, but if I like to see it grow beyond this initial stage, I need to address the time challenge, to understand the other players whom I will be competing with for time and attention. Play the zero-sum game and face my adversaries. Compete for my piece of the pie

In our digital age, users have access to everything throughout the dat. They can do anything, anywhere, at any time, and designers (unknowingly?) find themselves competing for attention, battling for time. This is a zero-sum game. Who are your adversaries? Whose pie are you eating?

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