What Defines Value?
We live in a world with too much stuff. As someone who designs products, I’m constantly experiencing an existential crisis about the things we create as a profession — both digital and industrial. Does this thing really help people? Are we solving a viable problem? Does this product or service actually better the world?
Regardless of the consequences, it is safe to say that humans will continue to innovate. It’s in us to seek, explore, and ultimately advance the things we use on a day-to-day basis. Not only is iterative improvement inevitable given adequate resources — but invention, the birth of a completely new product — happens all the time, everywhere.
This article examines why we buy what we buy, and how a product ‘spreads’ to reach profitability. How do some products seemingly reach critical mass so quickly, while others never gain traction? How are these products invented and who are they invented by? These are the questions every creator should ask, because to understand the history of products and why they work is to understand how to build for the future. Understanding the why behind invention will help you create profitable products that transcend time. This list is the 10 commandments of good products.
1 · It Makes an Undesirable Task Easier
The most simple and obvious way to invent a product or service that has value is by making something that people don’t like to do, easier, faster, more efficient, or non-existent. We type on a keyboard, shoot people with machine guns, blend food, and drive to work because the predated alternative just isn’t as easy.
This extrinsic, utilitarian approach to innovation is a good starting point for anyone who wants to invent or improve a product or service. By looking at behaviours or systems and identifying problems, you can use both technology and design to make it better and/or more intuitive. Think about the steps involved in completing a specific task, and how you can eliminate some of those steps to maximize efficiency. Amazon, Uber, and Netflix — all of these companies cut out the middleman resulting in an easier user experience and better profit margins.
Sound information (graphic) design is also an example of this appeal to utility. If a book or web page is properly designed (sound typography, measures, leading, white space etc) it’s going to be easier to read and understand, thus its functional value has increased. If you (an entrepreneur or creator) is stuck trying to figure out what to build or are wondering why you may not be getting traction, look to other successes, discover their strengths and uncover their flaws. This is what makes product audits such a beneficial part of the design process. When you begin asking why you start to see your product or business from a different angle. This shift in perspective is critical for entrepreneurs to have, and why it’s such a good idea to cycle consultants along the product lifecycle. Sometimes the first glance is the purest perspective one can get.
2 · It Has Focused Value
Great products don’t try to do everything. They’re minimal, and they usually do a few things, very well. I remember at the beginning of the native app boom (and still to this day), so many startups wanted to build ‘lifestyle’ apps that do everything. I recently had a project with a client where I had to steer them away from making this critical, often-committed mistake. Your product can’t be a real estate engine, a business discovery tool, and a social engine all in one. People won’t use it. Why? There are multiple reasons but the biggest one is that you can’t do everything right. People don’t look for restaurants with the largest, most eclectic menu. They Google, ‘best pizza in X city’.
Moreover, users must understand the value and functions of a product even before they buy it. They need to know what it does and how it’s going to improve their lives in a specific area. They have to imagine value before experiencing it. Even Google has made this mistake when it tried to go social. Does anyone actually use Google Plus? No. Google has cemented itself as a discovery and exploration tool, not a social tool. Also keep in mind that in order to penetrate a different ‘class’ of products, one must migrate users from other platforms enough for it to reach critical mass adoption. This is incredibly challenging.
3 · It Lasts
Great products are engineered and designed well enough that they last a considerable amount of time. They don’t need to be constantly redesigned in order for it to continue to be successful. They don’t really go out of ‘style’. The iPhone is a perfect example of this. Although the featured specs have all increased, the functional qualities of the phone remain somewhat the same since the original. I can easily text, browse images, take pictures, and phone my friends and colleagues. That’s it. The size and shape are relatively unchanged as well, aside from the increase in screen size.
The Vespa scooter is another example of how great design truly transcends time. The Vespa has been relatively unchanged in decades. The simplicity and style of it still make it a desirable item to this day. Other products that have stood the test of time include; the standard chefs knife, BIC lighter, computer mouse, and the Playstation controller. All of these products do their job well enough that they are more or less a finished product.
Great products also don’t fall apart after limited use. Although this is a testament to the engineering of it, it’s simply not ethical to create products with planned obsolescence built into them. Planned obsolescence refers to the strategy of intentionally making a product have a short shelf life so that it will become unfashionable or nonfunctional after a certain period of time. General Motors first started practicing this strategy after the automobile market reached saturation in the mid 1920s. At this time, everyone had already bought their cars, and sales were slowing down. So, in order to stimulate sales the head of GM (Albert P. Sloan Jr.) suggested they come out with yearly design changes to convince car owners they need to upgrade.
Planned obsolescence exists to this day. Companies often have the technology for the product they’re going to release two years from now, but they choose to make and market incremental changes so that customers buy each subsequent model, adding to the total profit these companies make. Is it ethical? Absolutely not. Great products should last a considerable amount of time — they should not withhold technology, and they shouldn’t be built to break. Great products should aim to last forever.
4 · It Has Aesthetic Appeal
Great products not only function well, they look well too. Balance and visual harmony actually serve to make products more intuitive, as each group of functions has a clear time and space within an experience. For industrial products these were finite components that served a specific task. For example, in a standard record/cd/music interface, it’s common for the volume control to be larger than the others because this is a more important feature. Think about how many times you adjust the volume when you’re listening to a playlist. It’s a lot. Thus, great product designers know how to group functions/features and differentiate them by location, size, colour, texture.
Aesthetic products sell. What is the first thing someone mentions when they see a car? They talk about how it looks. Humans are the same way. There is a multitude of studies showing how better-looking people receive less critical feedback, make more money, and are just generally treated better than their less attractive counterparts. Good products looks good.
5 · It is Intuitive
Good products are simple and easy to use. They have a hierarchical foundation that allows the user to operate on its multiple features quite easily. Good products use vernacular and cultural norms to communicate functions. This allows them to work well the first time someone uses them. This is especially critical, because we buy when we try. Almost every product now has a free trial period, and even physical products allow you at least two weeks before you can return an already operated-on product.
Unfamiliar products can be difficult to use at the beginning. Think of learning a new complex interface, video editing software, or even a video game. It may take some time to ‘get it’. That in mind, some products — very important, high-risk products — are almost never used by the average human. Take an emergency train exit for example. Ninety-nine percent of the population will never have to use one of these — but when one does — it could affect the lives of hundreds of other people. Intuitive design can be the difference between life and death.
6 · It is Efficient
Good products always adhere to a high value:resource ratio. Not only with use of materials per se, but also the people that put these materials together. Good products are born out of typically small teams if not one person. They are compact, not spending an exorbitant amount of time and resources on ornamentation. Ornamentation should always be saved for art and craft.
Good products don’t take up more space than they need to. They fit elegantly into the space they belong, and so do the elements within that product. They can be packed and moved easily. Good products are not awkward.
You can tell a bad product when there are superfluous additions to it. Heavy stylization is an example of this. Good products use the least amount of resources, or stimuli to give the desired effect, value, or function. The same goes for interfaces. If you see an interface with heavy line-use, exaggerated headings, and a lot of animations — it’s a usually a sign that they lack confidence in the core concept. At the end of the day, in the product world — concept is king.
7 · It is Visceral
Good products hit the soul. When you hold the weight of a Rolex, press the accelerator on a Ferrari, or slice an onion with a hand forged Japanese chef’s knife, the product works on multiple senses that add to its feedback and ultimate value. Good products feel good, like when you first hold an iPod, computer mouse, or even a gun. They just fit.
In psychology and design, they have a term to describe this fit — it’s known as stimulus-response compatibility. Stimulus-response compatibility refers to the degree to which a person’s perception of the world is compatible with the required response. For example, a doorknob affords turning/rotating, while a door handle affords pushing/pulling. Similarly, ergonomic design could be considered ‘visceral’ as well.
Video games and their controllers are visceral products — they aim to strike humans on multiple senses—they’re tactile, visual, and auditory. Going to a great restaurant that has perfect lighting, the aroma of fresh bread, and a steaming kitchen is an example of a visceral experience. Digital products are visceral too. Not only does a product need to be visually organized, but audio and tactile feedback are just as important for an optimal experience. Imagine how bad a mouse would feel if it had no ‘click’ feeling. Good product design goes beyond the eye.
8 · It Satisfies the Seeking System
The ‘seeking system’ is humans intrinsic drive to explore, try novel things, challenge themselves, and to learn. All social media products satisfy the seeking system, as do the internet, television, travel, and every single video game ever made. People want to play just for the sake of playing, and there are a plethora of products and services that cater directly and indirectly to this burning emotional need. Take the Rubik’s cube for example, which is the worlds top selling product of all time (350,000,000+ units sold).
The seeking system was first discovered when Harry Harlow, a very famous American scientist, noticed that his rhesus monkey subjects would continue to play with the mechanical puzzles after his experiments ended. This was a huge discovery because prior to it mainstream science thought that humans were solely motivated by things that served a physiological purpose. For example, one would get better at completing a game or puzzle if there were extrinsic rewards (food) given after each success. Harlow’s discovery proved that there is an even more powerful motivating force behind universal behaviour, and that force comes from within. Harlow called this ‘intrinsic’ motivation, where people desire to feel free, challenged, and ultimately expressive in the world. They need to be in control, and they want to explore.
Products can have both utilitarian and seeking qualities. For example, a bicycle can get you to work faster, but it can also be a tool used to explore the world around you. A chefs knife makes it easier to prepare food, but it also allows you to express your skill and artistic nature. Instagram allows you to express yourself, only now faster than ever. Even product dashboards, which are seemingly purely utilitarian, also satisfy the seeking system. Humans like analyzing, inferring, and making judgements even if those judgements don’t lead to an increase in performance, output, or resources. People research for the sake of researching — it’s about the ego. Humans need to feel autonomous even if they aren’t.
9 · It Serves as an Expression of the User
People buy things not necessarily because it makes their lives better. In fact, one could argue that more ‘things’ could actually reduce one’s quality of life. People purchase products that are an expression of their inner ethos and they often do this to communicate who they are to others. They purchase to project. This is why media and marketing have such a huge impact on our collective values. Humans are very quick to associate a particular thing, with an ideal state or status.
When you design a product that works and market it in a way that caters to the expressive nature of the users you’re dealing with, the chances of it working are much higher than it being void of some intrinsic value that goes beyond the functional offering of that product or service. The developer in his twenties who values innovation and technology owns an Apple watch, while the banker in his fifties who values money owns a Rolex. Regardless, these items are purchased not for their functional offerings, they’re purchased so the user can project what type of person they are to others. Product purchasing is an expression, not necessarily a rational utility-based behaviour.
Also note that attachment to a product increases if it’s either gifted-to or partially created by the owner. In psychology, there is an actual phenomenon called the ‘Ikea Effect’ where customers build an affinity for their self assembled furniture, even though they may have done a poor job doing it. People become attached to their creations and products and they start to define themselves by them. Marketing experts both know of this phenomenon and reinforce it through ‘branding’ strategies. They know that people buy for status and values — and these can be sculpted through messaging, media exposure, and cultural norms. Regardless, humans are very quick to associate products with people, values, and stories. Great products always have a story behind them, whether companies choose to write them or not.
10 · It Helps People
Is an AK-47 a good product…? Good products should always aim to help people and the environment they live in. Creating things like toys, furniture, and strictly novel items with a short shelf life — products with low utility but high appeal are ultimately not good for the people using them. Products that help people live longer, healthier, more spiritual and socially connected lives are good products. Products that are gimmicky, aren’t.
The problem with having a product that’s value is strictly novel — is that the creation is ultimately unnecessary. Children’s toys are a prime example. We (adults) look in awe at their craft and think that children will have the same wondrous amazement for them. Have you ever noticed that young infants are disinterested in these toys, especially when you encourage the child to play with it? Play is intrinsic, as is imagination. Have you noticed that encouraging a child to play with a toy will make it want to play with the box instead? These toys then, not only stunt the creative development of children, they add unnecessary pollution to the world in which we live and depend on.
The best product is the one created by its user. Have you ever sculpted your own spoon, crafted your own jewellery, or sipped tea out of your own pottery? Have you ever been in a time of struggle when you literally needed to innovate to survive or at least survive better? Chances are this process of innovation was highly rewarding. You value that product more because of the visceral experience of creating it. There was a journey.
This in mind, we live in a world that in many ways is too easy. We are completely disconnected from our sustenance, friends and family, and nature. We don’t swim in the lake if it’s cold, we don’t build our own shelters, and we don’t cook our own food. We don’t slice our bread with our own knives and don’t express ourselves with our own paintbrush. This is where products have failed us. By disconnecting extraction, production, and action we have a more spoiled sense for what life actually is.
Products have also distorted our sense of what is valuable in the world around us. We want money to have more stuff and more status. We literally define ourselves by the things we collect over time. Our houses, our cars and our Rolexes. We stay at our unfulfilling jobs to make more money to get more stuff and for what purpose?
News flash: Having more stuff will not make you more likeable. It will not bring you closer to people, and it will not make you happier.