Designing products that stand the test of time
Published on: 21st November 2018
For many of us, some of the most cherished objects that we interact with are the oldest. They are perhaps the things that we have grown old with and formed memories around, such as a family table or a favourite mug. Others may represent specific events – such as a gift of a watch or an item of jewellery.
Other cherished objects may be viewed as just better, reminding us of simpler times. For me, this list includes hand tools inherited from my grandfather and a watch from the 1950s. They may also include vintage furniture, motor cars or steam engines. These products often represent a simplicity, a focus on craftsmanship, and a commitment to use materials in a way that would be cost-reduced out of modern mass-production processes.
The modern drive for connectivity and smart products has undoubtedly influenced the lifespan of products. Moore’s law tells that processing power doubles approximately every two years, it is therefore easy to see how products are soon left behind, particularly if the ecosystem they are connected to is keeping pace with the latest technology. This results in smartphones that were once state of the art, becoming almost unusable five, or so, years later – often not as a result of the product itself degrading, but simply their failure to keep pace with the systems that they connect to.
A shorter product lifespan may be music to the ears of some retailers, as it allows more products to be sold. However, in many industries, such as public transport design or complex medical devices, products need to last for many decades in order to present a viable business case. Even where the business case does not demand it, an environmental conscience might. Furthermore, most product designers are also motivated to design things that will last – the cherished objects of the future.
This then begs the obvious question – how do we design products that stand the test of time? To develop products that last, and continue to be appreciated, we need to understand the impact that the passage of time will have on them. Both at a physical level (the physical behaviour of the product), as well as an emotional one – the relevance that the product has to those interacting with it.
Physically standing the test of time
The best classic cars are those that look like they could have rolled off the production line yesterday. They represent a snapshot of the past – they have almost no sign of wear and no modifications. Conversely, our expectations for a period property are quite different. We expect these to have been modernised – retaining period features and charms, but embracing modern living and comforts (e.g. central heating, open-plan fitted kitchens, and en-suite bathrooms).
From a physical perspective, there are two core approaches to managing the passage of time, (1) to design products so that they are resistant to changes due to time and the impact of wear, or (2) to design products that grow old gracefully, celebrating their signs of usage, and adapting to fit the changing context of use.
Patina is a word used commonly in design circles; it is used to describe the, often visual, signs or use and wears on a material’s surface. Think of the much-loved leather sofa or, or perhaps a pair of jeans, that look better after being used and appreciated. Or perhaps more fittingly, the pair of shoes (or slippers) that, not only look better but actually mould to our feet – becoming more comfortable. A traditional wok is another good example. Not only does the product look better after many hours of use, the food actually starts to taste better when prepared in a well-used and well-cared-for wok (part of the reason non-stick versions are often avoided).
However, the idea of visual signs of use (patina) can be highly subjective. It may be celebrated for an intimate object such as items of clothing, however, they may be less well received for a communal object such as a train.
Interestingly, the idea of physical change as a result of usage does not necessarily translate directly to digital services.
At an emotional level
Engagement with a product typically comes from developing an emotional connection to it. This emotional connection may be formed in a number of ways. Its value may be linked to the way it was acquired (or first encountered) – creating a connection to someone involved in that process (a gift from a loved one) or a moment in time (a purchase on a special holiday or trip). Alternatively, its introduction may represent an investment in time and resources. The ‘IKEA effect’ is a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they have, in part, created (See Norton et al 2012).
This phenomenon is well researched and understood, but it is limited to the start of the experiential journey. Just like our relationships with people, not all strong bonds are formed upon first meeting. Others are formed based on gradually building trust. Others still stand the test of time almost through attrition, because they adapt to fit changing requirements and needs – they remain relevant by changing their value proposition to fit the given environment and context.
At a systems level
At a systems level, the whole idea of developing a relationship with a physical object may be called into question. In many markets, it could be argued that we are moving away from a connection to products towards a connection to experiences or brands – physical objects simply have too many constraints to adaptation – limiting their ability to remain relevant. Continuing with this argument, any given artefact (or product) is simply an embodiment of the brand that can be replaced or upgraded. For example, we may build a very strong and meaningful connection to a particular brand of smartphone, but be very happy to trade in our current model for the latest and greatest version every year or so – as the relationship is more with the service than the artefact itself.
That said, it’s fair to say the counter-argument against this disposable-culture is growing stronger. Environmental concerns are becoming far more mainstream. Furthermore, the role of the physical artefact in a meaningful relationship is becoming far clearer. In our haste to embrace the clear advantages of the new, digital aspect of a brand ecosystem, we were, perhaps, too keen to disregard the merits of the lasting relations with physical highly-crafted objects – and the multi-sensory experiences that they bring.
It is argued that these physical relationships are key to lasting engagements. This can be evidenced by large brands, such as Google, Amazon, and now Facebook, who once lived exclusively in the digital world, investing in developing physical products. The physical assets representing not only a multi-sensory experience but also a commitment to an ecosystem.
So how do we design physical products that remain relevant and have the potential to become the cherished objects of tomorrow?
The simple answer is that “it depends…” the most appropriate solution will be dependent on the specifics of the project and the context of use. However, it’s fair to say that it will involve a consideration at a physical, emotional, and a systemic level.
Accurately predicting the future requirements of a product requires predicting the future. While we may not have a crystal ball, we do have structured processes to anticipate future use. There is much that can be learnt from looking back and exploring the variability of use in the past (over time) as well as exploring the variation in use today (between use cases).
Where products are relatively simple and have experienced little change in their use (such as hand tools), perhaps the simplest option is to look back in time and emulate the qualities of the cherished objects of the past. A return to more traditional materials and manufacturing techniques may create niche but viable business propositions – as long as the value, over much cheaper mass-produced alternatives, can be communicated. We are currently seeing a resurgence of more traditional tools such as brass razor handles that offer an alternative to single-use devices.
For physical products, that experienced greater variability in the ways that they are used, to stand the test of time, they need to remain relevant as the world around them changes. In most cases, this means adapting. Products that change their value proposition based on their environment and context of use; have the potential to create a greater level of engagement. Just like the sympathetically modernised period home, they perhaps retain the charms of a particular era or aesthetic but remain relevant to any given movement in time.
Explicitly considering future use, and adaption, at the time of design is critical to this process. By understanding the past, current and future variability, along with far less transient human values, products can be developed that remain relevant.
Our recent work with Linn on the Selekt DSM Network Music Player is one such example of this.
The product has considered the passage of time in two main ways. At a more physical level, the product has been designed to be fully configurable, modular and upgradable. Allowing new functionality to be added at point of purchase, or upgraded and even repaired with ease over time (by opening the casing and inserting new ‘cartridges’, each of which has been designed as a product in their own right).
This results in a product that is flexible to the user’s requirements and to new technologies that will become available as time progresses.
On a digital level there are six customisable ‘smart buttons’ that adorn the front of the product and feel like piano keys beneath your fingers. These smart buttons can be programmed to perform a range of functions based on the user’s requirements allowing personalisation more common with a digital app while retaining a physical connection to the product.
The result is a product that has been designed to last, at a physical, an emotional and systemic level.
Written by Dan Jenkins, Research Lead (Human Factors & Usability)