A "product" today is rarely just physical, but consumers' expectations for meaningful product experiences are greater than ever. The challenge for designers is to bring empathy and sensitivity to their work, regardless of the tools and technologies at their disposal.
Last month marked Ziba's 30th anniversary as an innovation and design agency, and besides giving us a reason to celebrate, this milestone is also a perfect opportunity to look into the past as well as the future. Ziba today is a far different company than the one I founded in 1984 in a bedroom in Beaverton, Oregon. We're a larger organization now, of course, but also a far more multidisciplinary and collaborative one. It's a shift that reflects the product design field as a whole.
To help quantify this shift, we recently hosted a panel conversation between three of the most forward-thinking designers and educators in the country. "The Future of Product Design" asked these panelists—Allan Chochinov of the School of Visual Arts and Core77, Aura Oslapas of A+O, and John Jay of Wieden + Kennedy, plus myself—to evaluate how product design has changed since we first entered the field, and to make some predictions about where it's headed.
All four of us have been working designers since the '80s or '90s, and we've all seen dramatic changes in the tools that people use to turn concepts into products. And while our opinions diverged in some ways, we all agreed that the tools matter far less than the intention and empathy behind them. It's true that software like Adobe Creative Suite and various 3D CAD and rendering packages have gotten much more powerful and easier to use, empowering millions of people to take on design tasks once reserved for professionals. The real expertise of product designers, though, isn't in their mastery of computers, but their ability to identify needs, create meaning and form a thoughtful point of view on what a design should do... and why.
Out of the themes that emerged from the discussion, five were especially pronounced, and worth exploring in greater detail—not just as a way of taking stock of past achievements, but of anticipating where product design could go in the next 30 years.
1. The product is rarely just physical anymore.
The term "product" was once reserved for physical objects, but since the late '80s it's been used to describe software, websites and other digital offerings. More recently, we've started calling almost anything that brings value to consumers a product, from apps and financial investments to banking and car-sharing services. Part of this is an attempt to make something abstract feel more substantial. But it also reflects a fundamental shift in perceptions. The growing preference among younger consumers for services instead of products—using Zipcar instead of buying a car, for example—is well established. The growing flexibility of the word "product" points to the fact that, in many cases, what we value today is not the object, but the experience that the object provides.2. As more services go digital, real world experience becomes more meaningful.
Despite the transition from goods to services described above, there's still enormous value in physical interaction—but the nature of that value has changed. Many tasks that once required a product (a VCR and a tape to watch a movie) or a trip to a physical location (driving to the bank to deposit a check) can now be achieved through a digital service. This is a great benefit, in terms of convenience and efficiency.
What digitization leaves behind, though, are those parts of the physical world that bring emotional satisfaction. Music is increasingly digital, but we're buying more LPs and going to more concerts than ever. There are dozens of ways to have food and groceries delivered, but restaurants, farmers markets and gourmet food stores have never been more popular or diverse. The challenge to product designers now is to augment or replace physical products with digital ones where appropriate, but also to redesign physical experiences to deliver more meaning to people.
3. Consumers expect better design across the board.
Remember when audio equipment came with 60-page manuals, kitchen utensils hurt your hands, and a crashing website made you think you just didn't understand computers? There's been a deep transformation in our expectations for design over the past decade, to the point where it's no longer enough for a product to simply offer a desired feature. Today, we expect a new tool, device or digital service to work perfectly, immediately, and any exception is seen as a failure of the design, not our own understanding.
This is exactly as it should be. Companies like Google, Apple and Amazon leapt to the top of their categories by creating products that "just worked", while their competitors expected customers to deal with senseless complexity. Retailers and service providers like Costco, Uber and Virgin Atlantic showed that responsive service didn't have to be confined to expensive luxury brands. Taken together, efforts like these have brought about a renaissance in products and user experiences. Today, design that's sensitive to the needs of the user and the context is as important as basic function.
4. Improved tools make us more efficient, not more effective.
When Ziba started out, computers were an expensive rarity. We explored concepts by sketching and sculpting, and delivered final designs to our clients as technical drawings and marker renderings. Our offices today, like most design studios, are filled with computers, plotters, CNC routers, digitizing tablets and 3D printers. These technical tools are incredibly powerful and flexible, and often surprisingly easy to learn. They allow us to explore more concepts more rapidly than ever before, with incredibly high fidelity. They've also made it possible to prototype a wider array of user experiences in a realistic, integrated way: not just physical products, but interfaces, environments, graphics and services.
But none of this guarantees that what we're designing will be effective or valuable. In the hands of a thoughtful, empathetic designer, better tools get you to a better solution faster. A poorly-trained, insensitive designer, on the other hand, will simply use them to generate bad work more rapidly. For designers, technology is a double-edged sword: it makes us more efficient, and offers incredible flexibility, but it can also propagate poor designs by making them look better than they are.
5. Tomorrow's crucial design skills will be empathy and translation.
With the tools of design so accessible, and expectations so high, the designer's role has shifted. Technical skill used to be the primary differentiator for great creative professionals, but behind this has always been profound empathy—for the user, the business and the culture. We tend to value designers for their concrete skills, but what makes a design good is not a beautiful image or an intricate model, but the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the person who's going to use it, and the organization that's going to produce it.
This is more true today than ever. Handling the technical details of design is now relatively easy, but delivering an integrated, meaningful experience is exceptionally hard. It means translating the wisdom of technologists, business analysts and researchers into a single, coherent language. And it means thinking about the entire product experience, from its production, delivery and unveiling to the services and business models that support it. It's a tall order—in some ways, much more difficult than simply sketching something beautifu—but for the connected, deeply personal products that will fill our future world, it's the only way to approach design.