To recap: Generation C demand 3C products, which are the new breed of products taking the internet and their presence in the social world for granted, and treating people as involved, creative peers, not “end users.” As a design and development approach, the route of interaction design and a focus on the product life-cycle is useful. This life-cycle can be thought of as a series of experience hooks, activities around which stories gather. These hooks are opportunities for good design and I want to wrap up by looking at a few a little closer.
I mentioned a number of ‘intrinsic activities’ associated with a product, those that aren’t specific to what the product does. They were: Design, manufacture, discovery, selection, being wished-for, purchase, being shown-off, review and resale.
The intrinsic activities are often hard to reach if the scope of design is considered to end at the physical surface of the product. Yet they still contribute, heavily, to ongoing experience of the product… and therefore to the brand (the brand is the sum over all the experiences). Since Gen C relate to their products via the activities they experience together, the design scope should include whatever is necessary to make these hard-to-reach activities good ones.
Design, here, should include advertising and marketing.
The human brain is an incredible thing. It’s a carrier bag of thoughts and emotions, stored by association and popped to the top by association too. Advertising, through whatever medium, can be used to feed in stories that’ll come to the surface when the appropriate experience hook is encountered. Or it can use the memory of a particular experience hook to show what the brand cares about.
Two examples spring to mind:
- The Coke Happiness Machine commercial dispenses with building a glow of generic “happiness” or “family life” or “Christmas” around the logo of a soft drink. Instead it concentrates on the experience of an important intrinsic activity: Vending. This neglected moment becomes coloured with a story that makes the drink itself sparkle with fantasy and magic. This advert will improve the perceived taste of my bought drink, not just nudge me to purchase it in the first place.
- Orange, the mobile phone operator, has in the UK a scheme called Orange Wednesdays. Orange mobile subscribers get two-for-one cinema admission once a week. I’m not sure how many people use it, but as marketing that infiltrates (and influences!) conversation, and demonstrates the company’s commitment to personal relationships and small groups, it’s spot on.
Now these are both advertising/marketing efforts that demonstrate a shift from lifestyle or aspirational branding to experience-driven brands–but they remain in traditional media.
More exciting to me are the obsession with experience shown by Amazon and Apple (see yesterday) who have a continuous approach to brand, and new media such as games (a favourite: Project Rub affects your body to communicate its story). What these have in common is interactivity and lack of explicit rules (you use play and experimentation, not instruction manuals, to find your way around Nintendo games, Amazon, and Macs).
Traditional media are good for showing. Games, shops, vending machines, interactivity: these are the media channels for experience.
Focus on individual activities
It was by considering the activities I take part in with my printer that the idea of the printer as social letterbox came about.
If this approach of looking for activities is taken to other products, more new features can be found.
Take the unboxing moment, an experience hook for stories if ever there was one (I discussed unboxing more here). Or customisation in vending machines, as explored in our metal phone project (not just a re-castable lump of metal but a performance mirroring the importance of the transformation).
In my notebook, I have sketches of how each of these could apply to trainers.
On the left: I was trying to find a satisfying approach to customisable shoes. On the one hand, the customisation shouldn’t be superficial and lack meaning, like choosing the colours or adding stickers. On the other, it should carry the intelligence of the designers with it, so a good shoe is easy to make.
Here my sketch shows soles with slots in them, looped through with a continuous strip of velcro. The strip could be wound and re-wound, making a reconfigurable shoe. Patches or ribbons woven into the velcro could decorate it (and I’m sure we’d find a way to cover the ankles). Importantly, the more you did it the better your shoes would become, and there’s the possibility of making uncomfortable or ugly shoes (risk is vital, otherwise doing it well has no value). As well as expertise and social knowledge sharing, there’s the opportunity of more personal artistic expression. I think it would be a pretty interesting instance of co-creation.
On the right: Could unboxing be applied to trainers? Given trainers are tried on before purchases, what doesn’t vary before that great moment you wear them out of the house for the first time? Laces are often threaded in the shop, and even having to unstuff your shoes from a box full of extra-fancy paper would feel inauthentic.
How about peel-off plastic covering the leather stripes on the sides of the shoes? It’s potentially authentic, because the plastic has a protective function, and it wouldn’t be removed just for trying the shoes on. As with the peel-off protection on new mobile phone screens, it would make that experience hook – the transition between shop-owned and me-owned – special.
Technology products and websites benefit from the same approach. How about online radio you can listen to with your friends? My work at the BBC, with Tom Coates, on social software and listening tackled exactly this. (The conference session Reinventing Radio includes our Group Listening prototype towards the end–Tom is hosting the Reinventing Radio presentation [PDF].) Or how about using physical computing to address the process of discovery, besotted-ness, and eventual boredom with novel TV and radio channels. Or even an RSS reader that forgets.
While we’ve used this approach on the Web and in mobile, the physical product opportunities have the most potential. The existing areas of printers, cookers, magazine racks, underwear, wooden toys or any number of other product categories would benefit enormously, I believe, from this kind of design research and product ideation.
From pixels to plastic
Not only is there opportunity with physical things, there’s an imperative. Just as manufacturing techniques are becoming shorter-run and more accessible to individuals and small companies, the knowledge of how to use these techniques is becoming more available. People are learning how to use 3D software using free tools such as Google Sketchup, and stepping more easily to professional software, previously reserved for expert product designers. The communities gathering around actuators, electronics and microcontrollers are infected with the internet sensibility, fully aware of the social worlds their technology will inhabit. And as Instructables shows, they’re sharers through-and-through. Not only this, but the net has put logistics, vending and distribution channels at our fingertips.
We’re looking at, as Tim O’Reilly puts it ‘a future in which the creative economy overflows the thin boundary that separates “information” from “stuff”‘. Traditional manufacturing and technology companies will soon be competing with small, responsive companies who are at once just Good Enough technologically, but way more in tune with the social and creative needs of Generation C.