Product vs digital design: the Extreme vs the Majority


Blog article / Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

I was watching Objectified yesterday, one of the best product/industrial design documentaries I know of. Great insights in the relationship between people and objects and why industrial design takes up such a pivotal role in our recent (and ancient) history. Jonathan Ive is featured in it, just as Dieter Rams is, the world famous Braun designer that first coined the 10 Commandments of good design: a list of 10 principles that every product designer should live by. Definitely check out this list and ask yourself: which of these principles can also by applied to digital design? (Wouldn’t surprise me if you get higher than 9!)

Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about. There was a quote in the documentary by Smart Design partner Dan Formose, one of the leading industrial designers of the last decades:

“Then it’s easy to think about what’s needed design-wise in the kitchen, or in the hospital, or in the car… we have clients coming to us saying: ‘Here’s our average customer’.  For instance, female, she’s 34 years old, she’s got 2.3 kids… We listen politely and say, well that’s great, but we don’t care (about that person). What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the fastest, or the strongest person. Because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.”

Why is this interesting? Because it made me think about the difference in mindset between digital and product design. Let’s dive in a little bit more.

Distribution of users

Take a look at this curve:

When we plot the complete user base for any product or service evenly, we get a distributed model as shown above.

Side note: This probably reminds you of Rogers’ innovation adoption theory, an often quoted framework that sets apart ‘laggards’ from ‘early adopters’, basically pointing out how some people can’t wait to get their hands on a new innovative tool (such as an iPhone), while others ‘lag’ behind and only are convinced being one after 1) these iPhones have proven their value, 2) the price drops significantly or 3) they have become SO mainstream that it’s basically the top-of-mind choice in any situation.

So, going back to Dan’s quote, he states that good physical product design (i.e. objects) focuses on the 2,5% on each sides. By doing so, you will make sure you capture the rest of the user base because either they’re not as challenged (weak) as the left 2,5% and not as ‘needy’ as the right 2,5% – I call them ‘power users‘ (a term derived from digital/computer design). An example of this would be potato peelers that have improved grips to suit people with arthritis or reuma:

Examples of potato peelers for disabled people

Interestingly – and this it the point I want to make – in digital design we often focus on the Majority of users, the 95% in the middle. This is a striking contrast from product design, where it’s the complete opposite. In digital design, we want to ensure that most ‘normal’ users can navigate, choose, decide, buy, pick, play, etc. in a way that is easy and understandable. Little time is spent on people that are technology-averse (i.e. your grandmother) or on the contrary: super advanced (the whizzkid/system administrator).

The handlebars clearly ‘afford’ you to pick up and hold the teacup.

This is the reason why digital design often incorporates UX trends and best practices and universally known ‘digital affordances‘, resulting in a shorting learning curve and making interactions as simple as possible (or else you’ll reduce adoption or conversion). The adagium seems to be: design for the mass and don’t make them think, the rest will follow.

“The adagium seems to be: design for the mass and don’t make them think, the rest will follow.”

How does the phygital era fit in this?

Now that we’re approaching a new technological era, in which digital and physical are blending into one (‘phygital’ or whatever you want to call it), the question raises whether this will change the way exercise design: are starting from the ‘extreme cases’ as Dan Formose puts it (e.g.: are we designing AR/VR experiences for our grandmothers, children, mentally challenged, handicapped, etc.), or are we ‘generalizing’ our customer groups and finding the greatest common denominator to start our design process, so that we appeal to the majority?

I don’t have the answer. Food for thought. Maybe when we evolve our ‘phygital’ design capabilities, we’ll further specialize and find niches in which designing for the extreme, is required.

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