Human-Centered Product Categories

credit: from the book Enchanted Objects by David Rose

The designer’s role on a product team is to be an advocate for the user of the product or system that’s being developed. This advocacy starts with empathy–understanding the user’s values, behaviors, environment, problems and so on. This empathy and understanding then manifests itself in the product as usability and delight–designs that are not only easy to use but that inspire joy.

Designers might find the periodic table of enchantment above by David Rose particularly useful and joyous. It organizes product categories not by industry sector or manufacturing process, but by the human desires that they address. The six categories that Rose calls out are: the desire to be omniscient, to be telepathic, the desire to be safe, to live forever, to transport from one place to another, and the desire to be expressive.

When you think about your product in this way, you think less about your team’s technical capabilities and more about helping your users and customers become the superheroes that they so long to be. It’s an excellent perspective from which to design.


On Scaling

Technology scales. That’s why people get so excited about it. If you have one gadget that does one thing faster and better, the very nature of technology makes it easy for you to replicate that gadget and, in no time at all, you’ll have a million gadgets doing a million things faster and better.

Scaling can be a good thing or a bad thing. This is why there’s so much talk about adding “art” to STEM to make it STEAM. This is why there’s so much talk about the value of a humanities education. Artists and Humanities folks ask questions about scale, like, “What’s the potential impact of this scaling?” or “What about the unexpected outcomes?”

Another issue with scaling comes up when founders seek funding. If they take VC money, they are expected to scale to a specific size at a specific speed that is not a great fit for many companies. If your business doesn’t need to grow beyond 50 employees, then other types of funding might be better.

Check out this recent interview with DigiFab entrepreneurs Danielle Applestone and Bre Pettis. They are breathing new life into their company, Bantam Tools, and the future does not include a strategy for venture capital. They want to scale at their own pace.

Danielle Applestone and Bre Pettis in Inc.

The Role of Data in Product Design

In this new age of invention, devices are smart. They either collect data or are driven by it. Artists and Inventors can no longer get away with thinking only about the object they are building. They need to think about how data is a part of the object and the user’s experience (UX) with it.

Important questions about the data UX must be asked: Is this data needed in real time or is it needed in a daily digest or a monthly statement? What is the best way to display this data and where is the best place to display it – on or near the object or in another location? Does this data need to be glanceable or in depth?

If you are an artist and inventor who wants your ideas to stand out, show us that you have considered these questions. Not so much in words, but as part of your prototypes. Pencil sketches are ok. Just be sure to work out a strategy for the data piece of your project. Don’t leave to chance or treat it as something that gets figured out at the end. Give big data the design attention that it deserves.


Realtime and Historical Data

When sensors and microcontrollers and cloud connectivity become cheap, they will be in every product and system that you can imagine. They will be generating data. Sometimes it will be customer facing, sometimes it won’t be.

Either way, it’s important to think about user experiences with data in time and space. Important questions should be researched:

  • What is the purpose of real-time data?
  • Does it need to be glanceable or detailed and text-based?
  • Does it need to be seen on location or remotely?
  • Does it need to be acted on? If so, by a person or a machine?

Similar questions apply to historical data though the answers will be different in many cases. And those differences should inform design decisions:

  • What is the purpose of historical data?
  • Does it need to be glanceable or detailed and text-based?
  • Does it need to be seen on location or remotely?
  • Does it need to be acted on? If so, by a person or a machine?

As inventors, we need to think about this data piece as an integral part of the experience with the life of a product or system. It’s not something that gets tagged on at the end like the packaging which is a short-lived aspect of the UX. Data, you could say, is the language the product speaks. It needs to be clear and smart and engaging.

Features, Benefits, Assumptions, and Tradeoffs

When you design a product or system for a customer, you are designing an experience for them. So it’s important to think about the relationship between the features that you choose and how they affect your customer’s experience.

Let’s take a food processor. And let’s say that the feature that the design team is discussing is “lightweight.”

  1. FEATURE: Lightweight
  2. BENEFIT (to the customer): Product is easy to move, perhaps less expensive
  3. ASSUMPTION: “Easy to move” is a benefit that my customer cares about more than other potential benefits
  4. TRADEOFF: Making it lightweight will require that the design team choose a smaller, less powerful motor

Well, I can tell you from experience, I buy a food processor to process food. And that motor had better be powerful. The tradeoff I make for a heavy machine is counter space — I leave it out so that I don’t have to deal with its weight when I want to use it.

So how do you find the right features for your customer? A good dose of humility and a lot of testing. Test your prototypes with customers and the truth will emerge. It may be in code so you’ll have to decode it. But if you watch your customers use your product, you will see the rough spots where the features that you’ve chosen don’t support the experience you hope to create. And then you can make it right.

Long Live the Touchscreen?

This headline caught my attention the other day:

Pebble [smart watch] is dead and hardware buttons are going with it: The future is all touchscreen, for better or for worse

Eh not so fast. Sure, it’s true that touchscreens are the status quo for interface design. But as with anything status quo, the players that are invested in it are well positioned to defend it. It’s easy to confuse their power with permanence.

But the status quo changes. There are plenty of artists and inventors working on tangible, gestural, and conversational interfaces that don’t involve touch screens at all. While these inventors acknowledge the economics and reality of the status quo, they don’t let it limit their imagination or their drive to change it.


article: Pebble is Dead

for fun: tangible media


The Tools for Co-Creation and Open Innovation

In 21st-century design manifestos, the terms “co-creation” and “open innovation” abound. Co-creation is the phenomenon of designers designing new products, services, and systems with users and not for users. Open Innovation is the belief that the next big thing could be invented by anyone, from any walk of life, with any level of education.

Tools for prototyping and testing new products, services, and systems play a big role in these two concepts. And let me tell you, these prototyping tools are becoming remarkably accessible. They look like toys right now. Emerging technologies often start out that way. But I hope you can see, and harness, their potential.

Some tools:


Out of production, but never out of style:

The Braun Lectron Set


Inventor Spotlight: Sabine Seymour/SUPA

Dr. Sabine Seymour is the Founder & CEO of SUPA. SUPA designs a modular system of trims (like zippers) that performance apparel companies can integrate into their product line to give it sensing and data tracking capability. Wanna make an impact? Design modular systems with emerging technologies for companies that already have distribution.

Seymour is also the Director of the Fashionable Technology Lab at The New School. Check out more interviews with her in this PBS series called “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.”

embedded video via Forbes, Oct 2017


From Objects to Systems

One of the transitions that inventors are going through is a transition from designing the one-and-done, disposable, standalone objects of the 20th century to designing smart objects that communicate with complex systems in time and space.

The inventors and companies that will rise to the top of this new, competitive landscape will be the inventors who think beyond their product’s capability. These inventors will thoughtfully explore how their inventions fit into the big picture–an ecosystem of sensors and actuators and computation and data. They will strive to design objects, data sets, and communication protocols that play well with others.


for fun: Twin Objects ECAL/Elise Migraine from ECAL



Use Off-the-Shelf Parts for Early Prototypes

for inventors of smart devices and systems

Once you have an idea for a smart device or system and an understanding of the needs of your customers as well as the features and benefits that your competition provides, you need to do some prototyping. Your first prototypes are for internal use with your team. You want to build quick and dirty functional prototypes to figure out what you need to build to conduct your first tests with customers.

Warning: your team will probably want to build something from scratch because “it will be easier,” they’ll say. But for these early prototypes, you want to use off-the-shelf parts. Why? Because if you build something from scratch, the building might be easier, but pivoting from your initial idea will be harder because you’ll have an unhealthy attachment to your creation. So in these early days, it’s best to use off-the-shelf parts because your team needs to be nimble in these early stages of product development. Below are some ideas for off-the-shelf parts that you can use for prototyping.

For your hardware, there are dozens if not hundreds of off-the-shelf platforms to chose from: Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Flora, Particle, Bean, and many variations on size, power, communication protocols, and capability. Start with breadboarding, then solder it up for customer testing.

If you have an app component for your device, wireframing platforms abound: InVision, Balsamiq, Mockups, and on. All allow the quick design of app architecture which can then be tested and tweaked with your team before you test it with customers.

As for the form of your product, you could 3D model and print something right away. But in the early days, off-the-shelf materials allow you and your team to be more fluid than if you were to model and print original designs. You are better off using wood, cardboard, cardstock, fabric, thermo-plastic, or air curing foam or rubber.

Off-the-shelf parts and materials are natural extensions of your sketchbook and pencil and whiteboard. These parts will help you bring your ideas to life quickly so that you can test these ideas with your team and then test them with customers to see if you are on the right track. And if you aren’t on the right track, prototypes made from off-the-shelf parts make it easy–both technically and psychologically–for your team to go back to the studio and make the changes that need to be made.

10 Boards for IoT Prototyping