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Products Are People Too

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What I find in common here is that they all say: “Here is something you ought to know about how people work. They have groups. They change things. Their brains work like this. In short, here is something else to take into account when you design.”

Let’s see.

My background is in physics. The design approach reminds me of a technique used there called ‘perturbation theory.’ In short, it’s this:

You’ve got a problem – a mathematical problem – that can’t be solved exactly. Or it’s too hard or too big or something.

What you do is you break it down into two parts: The bit that can be solved exactly, and everything else.

Then what you do is you solve the big bit exactly – that’s the circle, on the left, big and easy to draw – and then you perturb it – you change it very slightly – by adding on the approximate solutions as you figure them out. You iterate to the final answer.

Perturbation theory works when the ‘everything else’ is very small compared to the solvable bit, which must be very big.

It seems to me that this is how design sometimes works.

You solve the big bit first: How is it going to work. What’s the function. What does it do. What’s the utility.

And then you perturb it by tweaking it slightly: Make it social, make it adaptive, put some sensors on it.

We assume that these things – sociality, adaptability, materiality – are only ripples on the surface of the ocean that is functionality.

What concerns me is that maybe, in this case, perturbation theory doesn’t apply. Maybe the function of the thing isn’t what we should be designing. Maybe the importance of things being social, or adaptive, or physical is so large that we can’t treat the design solutions as minor variations to the object itself. Maybe we can’t iterate to a solution, if we start from utility.

And so what I’m looking for – what I’m trying out on you today – is a way of thinking about design that fully takes into account all these different things, and is also simple.

But before we get to that, it gets worse.

It gets worse.

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June 25, 2007

This presentation puts forward an approach to product design which emphasises experience and stories, and is called Products Are People Too. It was originally delivered in June 2007 as the closing keynote to reboot 9.0.