The future of product design

How emerging technologies are disrupting the product lifecycle

By Jonathan Follett
September 19, 2015
3-D printer 3-D printer (source: O'Reilly)

A Product Design Renaissance

The world is changing. The lines between software and hardware blur; fresh approaches to manufacturing reduce the time from idea to market; and new smart objects and systems herald our connected future.1

A product design renaissance might be on its way, but despite all this potential and promise—or maybe because of it—the ride could well be a bumpy one. The human aspect of the equation remains the x-factor. And, how we work together as participants in this product revolution, both as people and as organizations, will play a key role in the outcome.

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There’s never been a better time to be a product designer, although there’s also perhaps never been a more confusing time, either. Today, the combination of emerging technologies and powerful new resources and methods—from open source reference designs to crowdfunding—are democratizing innovation, compressing the design cycle, and reshaping the relationship between consumer and product. If the amalgam of user experience (UX), software, industrial, material, and engineering design had a name, it would probably be product design—although it’s likely that product designers themselves wouldn’t agree on it.

In this report, we’ll examine from a product designer’s perspective the ways in which these changes are disrupting design and the product lifecycle as well as considerations for people and companies looking at new ways of approaching product innovation and creation. This is not an all-encompassing overview; rather, it’s a snapshot of a rapid evolution, as seen from the trenches of product design.

Is This the Third Industrial Revolution?

Twenty-first century product design is being disrupted by factors both cultural and technological. The confluence of crowdsourcing, new manufacturing methods, and other emerging technologies has set the stage for what we might call a Third Industrial Revolution. In a prescient article2 on the next wave manufacturing phenomenon, The Economist postulated the following:

…the cost of producing much smaller batches of a wider variety, with each product tailored precisely to each customer’s whims, is falling. The factory of the future will focus on mass customization and may look more like… weavers’ cottages than Ford’s assembly line.

In this new revolution, economies of scale and the mass production required to reach these are replaced by the efficiency and leverage of highly targeted, rapidly developed, and, hopefully, less wasteful products that retain an artisanal value for the consumer.

Manufacturing for the mass market will no doubt remain for the many products that have a universal appeal, but for those items that truly intersect with our unique needs—that seem to have our personal imprint in them—these individualized products will grow and flourish in a new period of craftsmanship at scale.

In this burgeoning new era, the designer’s understanding of the user will be paramount—an in-depth comprehension that goes beyond typical use cases, workflows, or trite personas and begins to resemble something more like a relationship that grows over time.

This understanding of the user DNA will drive product personalization. And we’re not talking personalization in a trivial way, such as printing a child’s name on a toy, or a family’s photo on a coffee mug; this new personalization will be the creation of objects that fit into our daily lives with impeccable ease. For example, for the busy parent perhaps a set of connected home appliances that help to measure the overall nutrition, caloric intake, from freezer to refrigerator, to oven for each family member’s meals; or for the avid athlete, custom training gear that adheres to changing body measurements and adjusts over time.

The “return to craftsmanship” will be transformative economically, as well. Research from McKinsey Global Institute indicates that by 2025, additive fabrication alone could have an impact of $550 billion3 as it changes forever the manufacturing industry. Add this to the trillions of dollars of market disruption for the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and so on, and we can begin to appreciate the scale of change that is coming.

Reshaping the world

If past is indeed prologue, we must come to terms with the fact that although the emerging technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution—from the automobile to electric power—reshaped the world, they did so in many ways that were negative as well as positive. From rampant pollution to the abuse of our planet’s natural resources, the environmental consequences that are the Second Industrial Revolution’s legacy remain critical areas with which we must contend.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century: If we consider the massive number of new objects that a product renaissance—propelled by the IoT and 3D printing—could bring, introducing millions of new things into our world, it’s clear we must also consider design not just for mass adoption, but also for mass decline and return to the stream of natural resources.

Everyone can sketch on a napkin

How are new products imagined, created, tested, and produced? Generally speaking, this was once the purview of specialized professionals, backed by large companies, who had the resources and knowledge to invest in time-consuming R&D cycles, complex manufacturing lines, long supply chains, and expensive marketing and distribution. And even though there were certainly plenty of upstart startups and disruptors, these were far from the norm.

Emerging technologies are not just changing what’s being made or how fast it’s being developed, they’re also changing who is capable of making it. The ambitious entrepreneur who understands an audience—the young mother who has an idea for improving products for her baby or the coffee fanatic who can see the future of specialized brewing—are enabled to move their ideas from mind to reality, from napkin sketch to use by an appreciative audience. And, as these technologies evolve and mature, we can expect more democratization to come.

The Evolution of Product Design

The powerful interplay between innovative use of new technologies and creative methods for working collaboratively is transforming product design.

New Ways of Working

Sometimes, we forget that we are still, relatively speaking, in the first moments of the information age, saddled with the legacy structures of the industrial past. These structures continue to govern and guide our interactions—from societal to organizational to interpersonal—despite being relics of a bygone era. As such, we are still discovering how to organize our efforts together when it comes to knowledge work, whether that be scientific discovery, engineering, design, or otherwise. But we are making progress.

As the creative class discovers and implements new forms of collaboration around ideas and information, it opens new opportunities for building objects in both the digital and physical worlds. And, if building on the work of others is crucial to innovation and human advancement, the speed at which this work is disseminated and re-used is also a critical factor. What the age of information has given us is the ability to stand on the shoulders of others, taking advantage of their efforts, to build new work, ideas, and even funding in real time.

Preparing for a new product lifecycle

A product typically moves from design, to prototype, then into the marketplace, through growth and maturity, and finally into decline. For decades, this model has given business stakeholders, designers, and engineers alike a way to understand and contextualize the interactions between a product and the marketplace, and ultimately between the product and the many people who use it. It is on this foundation that the practice of product lifecycle management (PLM) has optimized the financing, development, manufacturing, and marketing for companies.

Today, this familiar model is being upended by emerging technologies that are not only reinvigorating existing categories but creating entirely new ones, as well. We can already see that the lines between software and hardware products disappearing as the many variants of the IoT—from connected objects such as wearables and automated appliances to sensor laden environments like Smart Cities—begin to take hold. Perhaps sooner than we think, the lines between biological and mechanical products will follow suit. Not only must companies contend with the difficulties of introducing emerging tech into their product portfolio, they must negotiate a labyrinth of complex factors as the product lifecycle itself is remade. Within this new product lifecycle, as designers, we must be concerned with the myriad of development and production considerations, which will vary at every stage.

Part 1. Hello, Market!

At the market introduction stage of the product lifecycle, the cost of designing, prototyping, and validating with users continues to drop precipitously due to advances in 3D printing, open source designs for mechanical and electrical engineering, and of course, crowdfunding.

A Tale from the Trenches: Prototyping at iRobot

For a decade, Scott Miller was an engineering lead at iRobot where he contributed to the creation of the seminal in-home service robot: the Roomba automated vacuum cleaner. He is currently the CEO at Dragon Innovation, a hardware innovation and manufacturing consultancy.

Scott reflects on his experiences with prototyping the original Roomba and contrasts that with the prototyping process of today:

“Mechanically, we wanted to get a working prototype to be able to understand how the robot behaved in unstructured environments. We would create the files… and build $25,000 models of stereolithography, or SLA, which was incredibly brittle. There are all sorts of examples of us turning off the cliff detectors and having the robot just drive off the end of the table and shatter itself to pieces.

Today, you could pick MakerBot for FDM [Fused Deposition Modeling] or Formlabs for SLA, for a much cheaper price. In fact, for a couple thousand bucks, you can actually buy your own machine and be able to create models that work even better than what we had 10 or 15 years ago, at a fraction of the price, and a much quicker iteration cycle. Rather than having to wait a week or two weeks to get your parts back, you can even have them back in the morning. And this lets you go much faster.

On the electrical side at iRobot, when we wanted to build the first circuit board to spin the wheel modules, we had to get down to the bare metal and design our own H-bridge with flyback diodes and transistors, figure out what components to pick, and actually do the hardcore engineering. It took probably a month between designing it, sending the board out, getting the board back, and writing the code just to get a simple motor to spin. Whereas today, literally in 20 minutes, my 7-year-old son can grab an Arduino, copy and paste some sample code, adjust the key variables, and he’s spinning motors.

There’s been a really interesting abstraction from the complexity of how the thing actually works to much more of a, ‘Let’s focus on getting the product working and not worrying as much about the details.’ I think that’s incredibly enabling for the prototype.”

Software and the Speed of Sharing

The speed, agility, and open ethos of the software world have made inroads into product design and engineering, as well. In the past, software systems for design and engineering were entirely closed, which limited sharing across big teams; even more significant, it discouraged it across the industry. But that is beginning to change as the sharing of mechanical and electrical designs means that such elements are reusable.

In the realm of software development, services such as GitHub make it easy to keep track of and share code—creating a virtuous cycle in which designers and engineers can build upon the foundations of open source libraries and contribute back to the larger community. Electrical engineers are starting to take a similar approach using services such as Upverter, where they can share reference designs. Although still in its early stages, Upverter has made the leap from an initial user base of hobbyists and hackers to enterprise clients. Similarly, on the mechanical side, GrabCAD makes it possible for engineers to share models so that they don’t need to design a product from the ground up.

The move to cloud-based software is also helping to accelerate product design. In the past, something as essential as CAD software could be a barrier to entry for a startup. CAD software can be expensive, especially if you’re an early-stage company with a great idea for a product and not much else. Enter the next generation of CAD in the cloud, with less-expensive alternatives to traditional seat licenses, like subscription pricing and even free versions. CAD software is being reinvented with the nimble startups, makers, and hackers in mind. In this realm, both established players like Autodesk, with its Fusion 360 offering, and newcomers like Onshape, a company started by the former founders of SolidWorks, are competing to become the product designer’s choice.

Design, engineering, and project management techniques are beginning to cross-pollinate across the domains of software and hardware, with a focus on modularity of design and quick iteration. The timeline from the napkin sketch to the works-like/looks-like model has become incredibly compressed, making it possible now for designers to get something in a customer’s hands quickly. Although the first prototype version might well be unrefined and buggy, designers and engineers are able to learn much from quick iteration cycles, as opposed to trying to make that perfect initial product—an ethos not all that much different from that practiced by their counterparts in software.

And, on the business and finance side, crowdfunding is wrapping test marketing, promotion, and preliminary sales into a convenient package. Early adopters from Kickstarter or IndieGoGo become your core test audience, giving startups a critical initial market for their new product ideas. Crowdfunding also limits the amount of money you need to recoup from R&D, or, at least, it gives you the opportunity to find that initial capital.

Part 2. Growth and the Difficulties of Production in Volume

When you’ve proven there’s a product/market fit for your prototype and validated the features and price point, the next great challenge for product companies comes with the shift to manufacturing in volume. Not only do larger product runs require an equally large financial investment, but quality control becomes increasingly difficult.

If all goes well on the market side, the adoption rate for your product will accelerate—represented by the so-called growth “hockey stick” on the graph—as the product’s audience moves from early adopters to more general acceptance.

Unlike the initial design and prototyping phases of the product lifecycle, change in manufacturing processes has been slower in coming, and for good reason. Factories still use steel molds to create injection-molded parts, which is by far the fastest and most reliable process for manufacturing runs of plastic parts in volume. But steel, of course, can’t be easily changed after it’s created, so the penalties for generating an incorrect mold can be substantial.

At least for the time being, you can’t 3D print a new steel mold. And, even though 3D printing using metal is indeed an emerging technology, the low surface quality of the print makes for a poor mold. However, as these processes are refined, it seems clear that the next evolutionary phase of the product renaissance could be on the volume manufacturing side. Looking even farther out, we can see how the advances in emerging technologies like robotics will make greater automation of manufacturing not only possible, but likely.

A Tale from the Trenches: Technical Machine and the Prototype-to-Production Problem

Technical Machine is a hardware startup headquartered in Berkeley, California, that has found a niche selling boards that interactive product designers can use from prototype into production. Technical Machine’s Tessel 2, shown in Figure 1-1, appeals to those entrepreneurs who find themselves caught in that awkward production middle ground where a startup could be supported by thousands of crowdfunding backers, but lack the tens of thousands of early adopters necessary to ensure the economies of scale that make volume manufacturing sensible.

The Tessel 2 board (Photo courtesy Technical Machine)
Figure 1-1. The Tessel 2 board (Photo courtesy Technical Machine)

The team at Technical Machine realized that because most existing prototyping products on the market today weren’t designed to scale for production, it could help product designers and engineers take that next step. The popular Raspberry Pi board, for instance, was designed to be a learning tool; try to put it into your production product, though, and you’ll find that the sourcing costs at volume make it prohibitive to use. Tessel 2 fills that gap, serving not just as a development board, but also as a path from development into production.

“If you’re generating the first batches of a product for early adopters, the volumes needed can be in the low thousands. With these kinds of numbers, it’s very possible that using an off-the-shelf part makes more sense financially than building your own custom hardware,” says Jon McKay, CEO of Technical Machine. With the Tessel 2, Technical Machine is taking advantage of the economies of scale for off-the-shelf parts while still allowing for some lightweight customization to match its customers’ specific needs. As Figure 1-2 illustrates, this gives product designers a professional-looking offering, at an acceptable volume. “If [customers] are not using the Ethernet, or USB ports, [or] some of the ten-pin module ports, let’s just take those ports off and save them money on their bill of materials. That’s relatively easy to do. We’re trying to find these creative ways to make pseudo-customization possible at this median-level scale for people who are trying to build products,” Jon explains.

Tessel 2 modules (Photo courtesy Technical Machine)
Figure 1-2. Tessel 2 modules (Photo courtesy Technical Machine)

“We came from a web development background, and we just wanted to be able to make hardware at the same sort of iteration speed that we made software. Obviously it’s not going to be entirely possible because there’s shipping physical goods involved in that, but… there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

A Tale from the Trenches: Dragon Innovation and the Challenge of Going from One to Many

Dragon Innovation is a manufacturing services firm that helps both startups and established companies negotiate the difficult terrain of outsourced production and the challenge of moving from prototype to volume. “You have to pick a great contract manufacturer or factory to work with you. If you get this right, you can build a really strong foundation and create a successful company. But, if you get it wrong, then it’s like death by a thousand cuts, and it’s very, very difficult to recover,” says Scott Miller, Dragon’s CEO.

Dragon is on the forefront of manufacturing service innovation, making the process as transparent as possible and helping companies select factories from a comprehensive network of service providers, such as the one shown in Figure 1-3.

Factory workers in China assemble circuit boards. (Photo courtesy Dragon Innovation)
Figure 1-3. Factory workers in China assemble circuit boards. (Photo courtesy Dragon Innovation)

“More often than not, you’re not going to find them doing a web search, because it’s very difficult to know who’s good and who’s not good. At Dragon, we’ve got a database of a couple hundred factories we’ve worked with and are constantly expanding that,” Scott explains.

The Request-for-Quote process

For the product designer, understanding the ins and outs of putting together a Request for Quote (RFQ) can be intimidating. As a part of an RFQ package, the team at Dragon recommends that you have three to five factories bid on your work so that you can have a strong basis for a line-by-line pricing comparison.

The first part of the RFQ consists of a document describing the product, company, and team, as well as the key areas in which they’re looking for assistance from the factory. If you’re a startup, this document can be crucial because reputable factories in the Far East work with substantially larger customers, making money when shipping products in volume, not in short runs. It’s critical in the RFQ, therefore, that a startup illustrate for potential manufacturing partners the opportunity that comes from working with them.

The second part of the RFQ is the Bill of Materials (BOM), which specifies all the component parts and quantities needed to construct the end product. The BOM is critical for having insight into the cost of everything that’s going into a product, as well as being able to make comparisons between different factories.

The third part is the all-important schedule. As Scott explains, “Once you’ve got that, you go visit the factories [Figure 1-4], start to figure out who’s good to work with, the capability of the team… things like that. Then, finally, you’ll come back and do the apples-to-apples comparison to understand the key cost drivers, and then how they line up, based on your visit. Having gone through that process, a company is in a great position to pick a factory.”

The factory floor (Photo courtesy Dragon Innovation)
Figure 1-4. The factory floor (Photo courtesy Dragon Innovation)

“At Dragon, we’re always agnostic on where our customers build. The only thing we care [about] is that they succeed. Because we build a lot of consumer electronics, China often makes sense; but if you’re doing lower volume—say, under 5,000 units, as a rough guideline—the United States makes tremendous sense,” adds Scott.

“What we typically see, if you contrast the United States and China, in China, everything is very vertically integrated. So you’ve got the molding, the SMT [Surface-Mount Technology] for the circuit board, the quality testing, and the pack-out all in one facility. Whereas in the United States, it tends to be more fragmented. You may work with a molding shop to do the injection molded parts, and then a different circuit board shop to put together your PCBAs, and then a different house to do the final assembly. You just structure the RFQ in a manner that’s conducive to that, but the process is exactly the same.”

As product designers, it’s important that we understand how manufacturing processes work, how they could change in the future, where there are risks, and where there’s room for greater efficiency. However, with outsource manufacturing this can be difficult to do because the industry lacks transparency. In the future, we could benefit from software tools that enable products to move through the process more predictably. But for the time being, it might very well be that service innovation, like that provided by Dragon, will be the driver of disruption.

David meets Goliath: Achieving Innovation Speed for Enterprise Companies

With emerging technologies moving more quickly than ever, it can be hard to steer a large vessel, such as an enterprise organization, to take advantage of them.

For larger companies that already have an established product portfolio and are seeing innovation happening at the grassroots level, the ability to utilize crowd-sourcing or rapid prototyping might still be problematic. The question comes down to this: when is it appropriate to retool a product process when you’ve got standard operational procedures that make money for you today?

The ambiguity that can come with experimentation is always scary and potentially costly. And, there are many aspects of innovation process that don’t match up with the large company production methods optimized to do one thing really well.

According to Dragon’s Scott Miller, “When it comes to product design and development, the biggest thing on the minds of the CEOs of larger companies is: ‘How to get an enterprise to go faster? How do we get the speed of an entrepreneur to innovate and stay on top of things?’ Their biggest concern is how do they innovate more quickly. It’s certainly a challenge. If you look at what it takes to move the needle for a big company versus a small one, it’s a tremendous amount of volume. When you do that, there’s a lot more risk, that it’s very difficult to fail fast to succeed sooner.”

Risk Taking and the Enterprise

Enterprise companies don’t want to lose out on opportunities because they can’t take risks; they need new ways to evaluate innovative ideas and make good decisions about developing their products. To solve this dilemma, innovating in small bites, by acquiring startups or forming incubators—where employees can have greater freedom to experiment outside the regular organizational structure—is a reasonable strategy. For example, the Boston area is a hotbed of large-company innovation lab activity, from CVS, Johnson & Johnson, Staples, Verizon, and others.

Small Pilots

In the past, starting the manufacturing of a new product in significant volume always required an enormous leap of faith. Unsurprisingly, the result was that many projects never saw the light of day—a difficult outcome for product designers, indeed. For even the largest of companies it can be understandably difficult to justify occupying a manufacturing facility and initiating a 100,000-unit run when you lack all but the most basic of market validation.

However, in contrast today, as large companies recognize the importance of rapid innovation, they’re finding ways to run smaller pilot programs—manufacturing 5,000 to 10,000 units in order to get a full understanding of the product/market fit. By testing products in the market at a small scale and gathering data quickly, companies can make informed decisions about whether they should scale-up manufacturing. If a company gets the signal that there’s strength to a product line, they can ramp up to full-scale production rapidly.

Developing Infrastructure

The product landscape is changing as Fortune 500 companies begin placing their bets on emerging technologies. At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Samsung announced its focus on the IoT and the connected home. This might have seemed like a big bet for the tech giant. The bigger play, however, might not be in the way Samsung changes people’s interactions with their home appliances, entertainment, and living environments, but rather in how the company creates the infrastructure that binds it all together.

The IoT itself still lacks a solid infrastructure, which might still be years from being developed. “While the Internet itself is accessible, there remains a huge gap between the devices that we create and getting to the Internet,” says Ben Salinas, a designer and engineer at emerging technology consultancy, Involution Studios. “WiFi networks require a lot of power to connect to and are inconsistent. They’re not universal. We see a lot of devices tethering to a phone to use that Internet connection. That still has issues.”

Salinas continues, “If you’re one of these small companies that are building a product for less than a few million dollars, you probably are playing with the frameworks that larger companies, like Samsung, Apple, and Microsoft, have already created.”

When it comes to emerging technologies, for entrepreneurs and smaller companies, the opportunities lie in bringing products to market quickly, even if you’re playing on someone else’s network or using someone else’s infrastructure. For the larger companies, making that network, driving the standards, and owning the ecosystem are the big plays in the long term.

Part 3. Product as Dialogue

We are approaching a moment when product lifecycle maturity does not preclude further innovation; rather, it provides a platform for it. In the past, companies have dealt with mature product lines—those with wide adoption but minimal growth—by adding more features and attempting to find new uses and audiences to rejuvenate them. Of the many places in the product development and manufacturing lifecycle that can be disrupted, this could be one of the most significant. Emerging technologies, especially the bevy of connected machines promised by the IoT, offer an opportunity for companies to not only regularly update, but also analyze usage data returning from these connected machines—making mass customization on a user level possible. This data-driven interplay between company and consumer, between user and designer, might begin to alter the product lifecycle to resemble more of an ongoing flow.

If data flow goes both ways—a conversation between designer and user, rather than a speech—the product represents a living relationship and is never fully completed. Rather than think about a finished product, as designers we should also incorporate into our thinking how a company can be hyper-responsive to users of its products.

Connected devices and the IoT offer great potential for creating ongoing dynamic interaction. For example, consider a product such as a washing machine that can respond to energy cycles; variables, such as the speed and pattern of agitation, and the amount and temperature of water can be customized based on our personal usage patterns. Through this, the relationship that we have with our washing machine changes, and the decisions that the designer and the manufacturer make about which wash cycles to push to us become valuable touchpoints in an ongoing conversation.

A Tale from the Trenches: Making LEO, The Maker Prince

LEO, The Maker Prince is a book by Carla Diana (a Smart Design fellow and New York Times contributor) that celebrates emerging technology, inspiring young designers with a creative message, made possible by 3D printing.

LEO, a visitor from space who you can see in Figure 1-5, prints 3D models based on sketches that are created by the book’s narrator. The imaginative tale can truly become real for readers, as designs of the characters are available for them to 3D print, along with various accessories, from musical instruments to a planter to a chess set.

LEO, The Maker Prince (Photo courtesy Carla Diana)
Figure 1-5. LEO, The Maker Prince (Photo courtesy Carla Diana)

But where the book really shines, at least from a design standpoint, is as an example of a product as dialogue. Readers share their works on the book’s website and Diana makes ongoing adjustments to the designs based on input from them. So, the book in some sense, is always being updated, and Diana is having a conversation with the book’s readers through the medium of a physical product.

One reason Diana created a children’s book about 3D printing was to put virtual objects such as those in Figure 1-6 out in the world as an experiment to see who downloaded them, why they downloaded them, and what they did with them. “That was a fascinating moment for me,” says Diana, “because I felt like, ‘Wow, you could have never done this before.’”

“People commented to me about some of the prints. They said, ‘Oh, this particular part grows more successfully for me standing upright.’ I worked as hard as I could to try to get the objects to print as well as they would with a typical FDM at-home printer. That was a really interesting moment for me, too, because I felt like, ‘Oh, I can try this and I can just change the file.’”

All of the characters from the book can be 3D printed. (Photo courtesy Carla Diana)
Figure 1-6. All of the characters from the book can be 3D printed. (Photo courtesy Carla Diana)

“I did that because I am envisioning this future where it comes to distribution: A designer, manufacturer, entrepreneur no longer has to think about, ‘Okay, well how many parts of this do I have to make and where does it get warehoused? Where does it get distributed and what retailers is it going to? There’s that whole dream of the streamline distribution and I think it’s very realistic,” states Diana enthusiastically.

A Tale from the Trenches: Understanding Consumer Decision Making

How does a company know when it’s time to place a bet on emerging technologies?

“I think disruption for disruption’s sake will never win,” says Ellen DiResta, a strategic design advisor for companies like Sanofi and Becton Dickinson, and former Managing Director for innovation consultancy Design Continuum.

DiResta goes on to say, “Every single client I have, I always love the moment when I say to them: ‘Nobody wants your products. No one wants to buy an extra thing. Nobody wants to think about your stuff. The people who think the most about your products are you guys. That’s it. You have to give them something. You have to enable them to do something. If you don’t know what that is, and you’re busy just focused on your thing, you will miss the mark eventually.’”

The relationship between the designer and the user of products is becoming ever closer. Understanding the intrinsic motivations of the population engaged with your company is paramount to facilitating those relationships going forward. In many instances, companies base their product portfolios and their future plans on emerging technologies and how they expect those technologies to evolve. But the product-based relationship you have with your customers can be deeper and potentially longer standing.

DiResta suggests that companies need to avoid being seduced by the functionality of a potentially disruptive technology; instead, they need to ask, “How can these capabilities better enable our customers?” At the same time, the product designer needs to understand the full extent of a technology’s capabilities, because from this knowledge, she can help define the desired user experiences.

Companies can err by going too far in the opposite direction, as well—expecting consumers to tell them what to do and what to design. When, in reality, the motivators driving a consumer’s choices might be something that they’re not ever going to be aware of, let alone be something that they can articulate.

Decision Motivators

“When I worked with a housewares company, I was interviewing women at home who had kids in school. One lived in a very depressed area and another person lived in Wellesley, Massachusetts, which is very affluent,” DiResta elaborates.

“They had very similar values. Their choices were very different because their means and their circumstances were very different. The woman in Wellesley sent her kids to public school, because she grew up so privileged and isolated and segregated… She felt like she lived in a bubble. She wanted her kids to have a chance to be more normal. Wanted and picked Wellesley and had a very, very nice house—but by her background standards, very modest—because she wanted her kids to be normal.”

“The other woman home-schooled her kids, because she felt that the school in town was just bad. Her house was not that great, but she said, “I can’t send my kids to this school and expect them to ever get out of this town.”

DiResta continues, “So you would say they are very, very different. But the way they made decisions and how they chose, if you reversed the two people, they would be making the same choices as each other. The values that those products or services had to speak to had to be the same.”

The disruptive technologies that will be the most successful will enable people to do what they want to do from the beginning—just in better ways that fit with their changing context. “That’s really what Apple did,” DiResta says. “Nobody wants to interact with technology. Apple provided technology in a way that you can work through technology to do the things you want to do.”

Part 4. Design for End-of-Life

Sooner or later, a product will reach the end of its useful life. As overall usage declines, a company will gradually reduce support for it, and eventually “sunset,” or phase-out, that product.

If one of the natural outcomes of a Product Renaissance will be a great many new products imagined and brought into the world, designers will increasingly need to be concerned about the entirety of the product lifecycle including its decline, and perhaps most important, with what happens to the product after people are no longer using it.

Although we as designers might not like to admit it, the fact is that design and pollution are inexorably connected. The design activities in which we engage at the beginning of the product lifecycle inevitably create positive or negative environmental outcomes at its end-of-life. To effect positive outcomes, we can and should ask: “What are the considerations for sustainability and environmental impact?”

This is not a new idea in design; rather, it is one whose time has come. The Design for Environment (DfE) program, put in place by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as far back as 1992, includes as a part of its toolkit the lifecycle assessment (LCA), “a systems-based approach to quantifying the human health and environmental impacts associated with a product’s life from ‘cradle to grave’.”

Today, using software tools such as thinkstep’s GaBi, designers can complete a product lifecycle assessment to determine its carbon, water, and overall environmental footprint, along with resource and energy efficiency for its manufacturing and usage.

We can select materials that are environmentally friendly early in the manufacturing process, because recently there has been great innovation in materials such as biodegradable plastics.

From a recycling standpoint, the biggest opportunity might lie in Design for Disassembly (DfD), making electronic products much easier to separate into their core components—from circuit boards to metal and plastic parts—and sending each of these into their appropriate recycling streams. Perhaps one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we will have printed circuit boards (PCBs) designed for easy component removal, minimizing the need for desoldering and exposure to heavy metals.

Design for Remanufacturing (DfR) is a similar strategy that strives to remove durable components of a product at the end of its lifecyle, reprocess them, and use them once again in a newly created item.

Even though this kind of design for a product’s end-of-life—whether it be for disassembly and recycling or remanufacturing—does take more effort, there is a tremendous opportunity here for product designers to take responsibility for and control of the aspects of the product lifecycle that were overlooked during previous eras. For both startups and large companies alike, this systemic view of product design is worth remembering, when encountering the pressures to release something quickly and just get a product on the shelf.

On-Demand Production

In the future, we can also consider that there might be no need to phase out products if manufacturing can be generated on demand and the price for creating individual versions is low. Today the print-on-demand segment of the publishing industry ensures that books with an audience will never go out of print. The digital files for any book can be stored in the cloud until a customer orders it, at which point the book is printed, bound, and shipped. It’s not hard to imagine a similar scenario for more complex products. There are already 3D printing platforms today, such as Shapeways, for creating simple objects on demand. In a similar way, distributed manufacturing is becoming reality as crowdsource services such as Hubs give makers access to an extensive local network of 3D printers. We can imagine how distributed fabrication for business might be accomplished with such a system: add together enough Hubs providers in an area and you could quickly complete a modest run, depending on the availability of the network.


In this evolving world of emerging technology and product creation, designers who can create objects that are both compelling to the consumer and within the bounds of manufacturing capabilities will be exceptionally valuable. Understanding your materials—what they can do and what they can tolerate—is key, be they plastics and metals or pixels and code. With such an understanding, product designers can offer their insight, not only to envision future products, but also to think about the process for getting there.

How do we approach product design and the evolving product lifecycle?

Here, inspired by Dieter Rams, the influential industrial designer known worldwide for his landmark product designs for Braun and Vitsoe, we’ll conclude with three principles for good product design in this brave new world of emerging technologies:

Good product design serves as an enabler for people.
To make a product useful and understandable, our understanding of the user must be of primary importance.
Good product design is innovative in process.
Drawing on new ideas for working together—from crowdsourcing to open source reference designs—we can stand on the shoulders of others to create better products.
Good product design is environmentally friendly.
As we design, we must take into account end-of-life planning that enables disassembly, recycling, and even remanufacturing.

1For a fabulous overview and vision of this universe and the technical trends driving it, check out the report “Building a Solid World” by O’Reilly editors Mike Loukides and Jon Bruner.

2 (accessed April 20, 2015)

3Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business and the global economy.

Post topics: Design