What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.
DESIGNERS STRIVE TO IMPROVE THE WORLD, looking for user needs and situations where a new product or experience could make a difference. The human-centered design process, with its inspiration and input from users, provides confidence that a solution will work today but often has less consideration for the future. Needs change, technology expands, and context shifts. Beyond fulfilling the needs of today, how can a design create long-lasting value?
The reasons to create a new product are usually well intentioned, but in the mid-20th century a less honorable purpose for newness was popularized. Planned obsolescence became a common business strategy to incentivize customers to keep buying. In this approach, products are purposefully designed to be replaced on a regular basis, due to artificially limited durability or the psychological obsolescence of yearly model updates. There is little regard for the long-term needs of users and even less for ecological sustainability. As we will discuss in Chapter 7, designers have a responsibility to avoid unnecessary waste and disposal. Longer-lasting products are better for users and for the environment.
When discussing the quality and longevity of products, a common trope is that “they don’t make them like they used to.” This attitude is usually paired with an example of an enduring product, one that someone has owned for years or that has been passed down between generations. Beyond an engineered durability—the basic requirement of not breaking or falling apart—what makes people keep a product in their lives? An enduring design has both functional and emotional durability, getting better or more meaningful the longer it’s used.
There are some contexts where longevity is unnecessary, where disposability is appropriate to offer safety, convenience, or integration with a time-limited event. Consider the case of single-use drug injectors, on-the-go food packaging, or conference badges. On the other end of the spectrum there are major purchases, such as cars and appliances, that most people plan to keep for a long time. Most products live in between these poles, where an enduring design may be valued but is rarely offered.
Digital products won’t end up in a landfill, but their longevity is no less important. We increasingly rely on digital systems to support our lives, providing information retrieval, health monitoring, security, commerce, and communication services. When these systems are short-lived, their obsolescence can cause very real pain and annoyance. Finding, switching to, and reintegrating our lives with a new digital product is not as trivial as it appears. In theory, digital products should be able to outlast their physical counterparts by shifting and adapting their form over time. This requires a different kind of design process, though; one of continual evolution and codevelopment with the changing needs of users.
In this chapter, we will look at ways of designing enduring products, both physical and digital, by examining the qualities that can encourage longevity. An enduring product might wear in instead of wearing out, or represent the quintessential version of its category. It could be highly tailored to an individual user, or adaptable to change and easily serviced. These qualities represent different approaches to promoting longevity, but consistent among them is a shift in mindset where designers must strive to make something useful, usable, and desirable both today and in the future.
For physical products, one of the biggest inhibitors to longevity is the simple fact that over time things wear out, causing users to discard them earlier than they otherwise would. Engineers are continually developing new ways to enhance the durability of materials and finishes, but designers can also play a role by looking at the problem from a different angle. What if a design could “wear in” well instead of wearing out?
The idea of a product wearing in, or breaking in, is familiar from clothes and accessories. A leather wallet in your pocket fits better over time, an often-worn hat becomes perfectly shaped to your head, and your favorite pair of jeans just keeps getting more comfortable. We think of these items as improving over time, at least up to a point, because their materials soften and mold themselves to our bodies through use.
In some instances, a worn-in product is a matter of pride, or at least accomplishment. Websites devoted to raw denim enthusiasts post photographs of worn-in jeans and jackets alongside details on how old they are and how often they’ve been washed. The appearance of authentic wear and tear on a pair of raw denim jeans has reached a point where the UK denim brand Hiut has employed “50 denim breakers to wear in jeans before they’re sold, or auctioned, to customers.” Hiut’s “No Wash Club” celebrates customers who wear their jeans without washing them for a full six months, the base requirement to join the club.
The fervor around raw denim can seem overblown at times, but in a world where many products are designed for planned obsolescence, it’s a good example of not just a product but a business model built around longevity. Contrast that to the world of consumer electronics, where it made international news that the first buyer of an iPhone 6 in Perth, Australia, dropped the phone upon opening the package. Many smartphone buyers put their pristine new purchases in protective cases immediately, in an attempt to keep them free of scratches and even fingerprints. The fades and rips of a worn-in pair of jeans are judged as a beautiful accomplishment, but a scratched-up iPhone is simply worn out.
Wearing well isn’t the only way to promote longevity, but when designers intentionally plan for how a product will wear they are one step closer to an enduring design. Consider the Broken White collection by London-based designer Simon Heijdens, in which a ceramic dish has unique characteristics such that “during the time it is in the user’s life, it will tell and show an evolving story.” As shown in Figure 4-1, the dishes appear to be undecorated when purchased, but through normal use they reveal small crack lines below the ceramic surface. These cracks “slowly begin to form a floral decoration that grows, like a real flower would.”
The concept behind the Broken White dishes is to go beyond fulfilling the basic functionality of a plate and reveal something more through use, an experience that renders them “increasingly precious to the user over time.” There is an element of surprise at work here, where the end state of the design is unknown, and the user feels a sense of participation in its conclusion. Even when the pattern of cracks is fully revealed, the story behind the dish contributes to its timeless nature, an interesting artifact in a person’s cupboard to be celebrated and talked about for a long time.
The notion of surprise is a quality often found in products that are designed to intentionally wear in. In his Cups with Hidden Decoration collection (shown in Figure 4-2), ceramicist Andy Brayman creates anticipation for an eventual surprise by hiding a unique message that can only be revealed through wear. The cups are ringed with a 23k gold glazed band, which covers a printed question, statement, or instruction that is only revealed once the user has worn away the glaze. The gold band, which is placed where the user would naturally hold the cup, creates a “kind of lottery ticket” that the user scratches off very slowly, through normal actions like holding the cup or running it through a dishwasher. The anticipation of revealing the hidden sentence imbues the product with long-term value, a reason to keep the cup around and to choose it from the cupboard so that each day’s minor wear can contribute to the eventual disclosure of the message underneath.
At the University of Brighton, Jonathan Chapman is a professor in the sustainable design program, where he champions the idea of “emotionally durable” design through his own research, classes, and workshops with industry partners. Chapman argues that design can move us away from a “throwaway” culture by highlighting the journey an object has been through and celebrating the memories that we share with it. In his broadened definition of durability, he encourages designers to frame the challenge of longevity so that it’s “just as much about emotion, love, value and attachment, as it is fractured polymers, worn gaskets and blown circuitry.”
The sportswear brand PUMA is one of the companies that have partnered with Professor Chapman to explore the topic of emotional durability. As part of a student competition hosted by PUMA, Emma Whiting created the Stain Sneakers, a pair of white canvas shoes that feature an invisible pattern printed with stain-resistant coating. As the shoe accumulates dust, dirt, and grime, a series of PUMA logos are slowly revealed, becoming more visible as the shoe gets dirtier. The Stain Sneakers invert the fashion trend of celebrating brand-new sneakers by turning unavoidable wear into a positive outcome.
For companies like PUMA, the business case behind an emotionally durable design requires longer-term thinking, but it’s not incompatible with company goals such as growth and profitability. As Chapman notes, “When consumers develop empathy with products, a visceral empathy is nurtured with the brand; customers are subsequently kept loyal and market share is healthily sustained.” Considering the business case for longevity is an important part of the design process and a key factor in promoting an alternative to planned obsolescence. A product can only last for a long time if a company invests in making it in the first place.
When products are enhanced with sensors and computation, they gain entirely new ways of wearing in, using algorithms and data to mold themselves to a user’s behavior over time. Just as a new pair of leather shoes needs to be broken in, these devices need to learn our habits and preferences in order to provide their full value. Take, for example, the Nest Thermostat (shown in Figure 4-3), which is designed to go through a learning period after being installed. The Nest records the manual adjustments users make to the temperature, and at what time, until it can detect a pattern and begin automatically scheduling the appropriate changes.
This capacity to learn is something the company refers to as Nest Sense, which uses data from a combination of near and far field sensors, along with algorithms that are regularly improved through updates to the product’s firmware. Nest considers every interaction “a way for the user to communicate with the device about his or her preferences for a particular temperature at a particular time and day of the week.” Critically, this includes lack of interaction as well, using motion sensors to determine that a user is at home and inferring that non-action is an expression of satisfaction with the current temperature. It also involves learning about the home environment, tracking how long a room takes to heat or cool so that it can improve its ability to reach a particular temperature at a specific time.
Once Nest has learned your behavior and preferences, there is an incentive to continue using the thermostat. This can contribute to longevity, but also raises questions about whether Nest’s data profile is intended for “wearing in” or “locking in,” where a company sets up purposeful switching costs that create barriers to competition. The difference between wear in and lock in can be found in the reason someone continues to use a product. For a product to wear in well, it needs to learn from a user’s behavior over time, developing a kind of human-and-machine relationship that would need to start over if the user switched to a competitor. A system designed to lock someone in might also result in product longevity, but based on an artificial hostage taking more than the desire for a continued relationship—for example, if a user has purchased music files that are DRM encrypted, which won’t play on a competitor’s platform.
To further emphasize the difference in intent between wear in and lock in, a product that wears in should work well with others. In traditional products, physical materials can mold to a user’s behavior to improve the product over time. But Nest Sense uses data as its material, which allows for improvements to extend beyond the Nest Thermostat, making other products better as well. Using the Nest API, a product can be certified as something that “Works with Nest,” enabling both products to work better together. For example, an LG refrigerator can go into energy saving mode when the Nest detects that inhabitants have left the home, the Jawbone UP24 band can trigger a temperature change when the user goes to sleep, and a Whirlpool dryer can delay running if Nest informs it that electricity will be less expensive later.
Although the way that the Nest changes over time is significantly different from the Stain Sneakers or Cups with Hidden Decoration, these products share the quality of reflecting their relationship with a user. They feel “human” in their recognition that a relationship changes over time, and in their subtle shifting of appearance or behavior each day. This stands in contrast to products that age poorly, where changes in appearance or functionality are always framed as a decline, gauged by how much they’ve worsened since they were removed from their packaging. An enduring product is one that gracefully embraces change.
It is usually the inconspicuous objects which really mean something to us.
Design is sometimes positioned as a way to make something special, so it stands out from other “less designed” options. But in fact, everything is designed: both the ordinary, plain versions and the flashy ones with patterns and flair. When people refer to a product as having “less design” or being “undesigned,” what they really mean is that the product has not drawn attention to itself; it has not announced itself as “special.” But as the industrial designer Jasper Morrison has noted, “things which are designed to attract attention are usually unsatisfactory.” He believes that “special is generally less useful than normal, and less rewarding in the long term.”
One path to an enduring design is to avoid fashion and seek normality. If a product is designed around the latest trends in presentation, shape, color, pattern, structure, or interaction, then it will feel dated in a shorter period of time, triggering people to move on to a new, more “now” version. When a product is closer to the quintessential essence that defines a product category, it may not attract as much attention in a catalog or on a showroom floor, but it will likely remain in people’s lives for a longer period of time. Purchasing a trendy product is like starting two lifespan countdown timers: one for when the product will break and one for when its style will be out of date. The latter is sure to happen first.
The topic of quintessential design was explored in 2006 by Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa through an exhibition and book called Super Normal. The pair curated a collection of objects that represent archetypical forms, including both anonymous classics whose creators have been lost to history and contemporary objects by famous industrial designers. The show prompted reflection on the purpose of design and how one can evaluate the essential qualities of an object. In discussing his selection process, Morrison defined Super Normal as something a product becomes through use. You can’t fully judge a product at first glance, but only through “more of a long-term discovery of the quality of an object, which goes beyond the initial visual judgment and basic assessment that we make of things when we first notice them.”
This assessment of a physical product over time draws a parallel to interaction design, which is notoriously hard to evaluate through static images or basic descriptions. The kind of evaluation that Morrison refers to is revealed through living with something, exposing it to a variety of situations, and testing it against the unpredictability of life. Quintessential forms have more longevity because they’ve gone through a process of evolution, their form refined for their purpose by many different people through an evolutionary-like process. The wild mutations that Darwin observed in living creatures can be seen in products too, but these fashion-driven novelties don’t tend to survive very long.
Fukasawa has described his process as beginning with a study of archetypal form, which he then refines to “suit today’s lifestyle.” This is what separates Super Normal or quintessential design from nostalgia. It is not about slavishly maintaining a design from the past, nor being different for its own sake. The middle ground of Super Normal involves finding the essence of a design and then updating it with modern possibilities such as new materials or technology.
This approach can be seen in Morrison’s work as well, such as his 2008 piece for Established & Sons called simply “Crate” (see Figure 4-4). The design was inspired by a wooden wine crate that Morrison used as a bedside table. He found the anonymously designed object fit his needs quite well, so he designed a similar one, built from higher-quality materials. His refined crate is constructed from Douglas fir instead of cheap pine, and is built with stronger joints for increased stability. However, aside from a small stamp on the side, visually there is little to distinguish Morrison’s Crate from the typical anonymous design.
The normality and lack of personal expression in Morrison’s Crate caused a bit of controversy when it was first released, due partly to the $220 price tag but also because of an expectation that famous designers should be leaving their mark in less subtle ways. We are used to designers having a signature style, and products being instantly recognizable as part of a particular brand or collection. There are times when that kind of personal expression or branded style is desirable, but if the goal is to create an enduring design, then the discriminating and incremental improvement of Crate is completely appropriate. It’s no surprise that both Fukasawa and Morrison have worked with the Japanese firm Muji, a company founded on the intersection of two ideas: “no brand (Mujirushi) and the value of good items (ryohin).”
It is fairly straightforward to design for the essential qualities of a crate, but what about Internet of Things products that have increased complexity due to embedded computation and network connectivity? Because these devices are both physical and digital, they encounter a broader set of situations that could cause them to become out of date. Designers can’t control all the factors that cause a product to become obsolete, but there’s no reason to throw out years or decades of design evolution just because a product is now “smart.”
Take, for example, the Kevo Smart Lock, a connected door lock that uses Bluetooth to enable a smartphone to lock and unlock your home. On the digital side, Kevo offers an app with many expanded capabilities over a traditional lock, such as time-limited electronic keys and an access log of home entry and exit times. However, the physical form of the lock from outside the house looks very typical, with a standard deadbolt appearance including a slot for a traditional key. The design blends in with its surroundings and doesn’t draw attention to its new capabilities or enhanced behaviors. The lock is activated by simply touching it, which triggers Bluetooth to connect to your phone and authenticate access. The additional feedback necessary for this new interaction is handled through a circular ring of light, which is hidden until the user touches the lock (see Figure 4-5).
If a “smart” device adds new capabilities to an existing product, then designers should try to build upon the essential qualities of that product category. It might be tempting to announce exciting new capabilities through a radical look and feel, but that will make a product seem dated in a shorter period of time. Instead, consider what new behaviors and feedback need to be enabled and how those can best be integrated into a trusted and familiar form.
What does a quintessential design mean for a purely digital product? Many of the same approaches of avoiding the latest trends and fashions apply equally well to an on-screen environment. There are always fads in interaction design that can betray the era in which a website or system was designed. Ultra-tiny pixel fonts, animated website intros, and parallax scrolling are examples of fashionable styles that helped websites look modern and fresh, right up to the point where they seemed passé.
As with physical products, the quintessential design of a digital product involves finding the essence of that product’s use and purpose. What actions is the product trying to support? What are the qualities of the information? What methods of presentation, navigation, consumption, and sharing most naturally support that information? An enduring design prioritizes core actions and content while getting out of the way by minimizing interface chrome, using direct manipulation where possible, and ensuring that graphics and animation are used in meaningful ways.
One can see this focused prioritization at its extreme by looking at some of the longest-lasting software programs still in use today: the command-line tools of the UNIX operating system. The UNIX design philosophy encourages programs that are extremely focused, doing one thing well and working in a modular manner to accept and send input and output to and from other tools. In his book on the UNIX philosophy, programmer Mike Gancarz extolls principles such as “Small is beautiful” and “Make each program do one thing well.” This philosophy has helped the UNIX operating system steadily improve over many years, without the need to rewrite everything as it evolved.
Simple, focused tools are not exclusive to command-line programs. In recent years, a number of desktop and mobile applications have differentiated themselves by addressing a singular task with clarity of purpose. One example is iA Writer, whose designers call it a “writing machine” that strips away all but the essential qualities writers need to focus on their words. There are numerous distraction-free text editors designed to help writers focus, but achieving that goal requires nuance: a design that gets to the essence of the action, not just a minimal feature set.
iA Writer has unique features, such as a “Focus Mode” where the sentence you are currently writing has more prominence than others. But creating a quintessential tool for writing is less about any particular feature than finding the right balance and structure for all of them. A key part of the design is deciding where the purpose of the application begins and ends. Like the UNIX tools, iA Writer is designed to be part of an overall workflow, not a monolithic end-to-end solution. The goal is to prioritize writing, and thus not editing, formatting, or embedding references. This separation of tasks means that iA Writer can strive to be the writing tool that users choose for a long time, even if they change their preferred footnote manager or layout program in the future.
As discussed with Super Normal products, one can only evaluate if a product has achieved an essential quality through use. On the iA Writer website, the company attempts to convey this through testimonials, including one from the American writer Augusten Burroughs, author of the best-selling memoir Running with Scissors. According to Burroughs, the program “is the single most useful and remarkably clever—invisibly so—device for writing.” He continues, “Only at first glance does it appear to be an ordinary text editor. Once in use, I discovered that while it has only a tiny number of features, each is just the one you want.” The creators of iA Writer say that receiving this feedback gave them goosebumps, and rightly so. This is what you hear when you’ve designed an enduring product: clever but invisible utility revealed through use by having just the right number of features.
Designing a quintessential product is a humble act, a removal of the ego and an acceptance that the best, most long-lasting design may not be the one that stands out from the crowd. The notion that a product, physical or digital, can be refined to its essence is in some ways similar to the idea of invisibility that typographic scholar Beatrice Warde promoted. In her 1932 essay “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible,” Warde said that “Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas.” A quintessential design is not truly invisible, but like good typography, it doesn’t stand out because its form is so appropriately aligned with its purpose.
Industrial design has historically been associated with mass production and products designed for a broad audience. New manufacturing capabilities developed during the first and second Industrial Revolutions catalyzed the profession and created a consumer culture accustomed to repeatable goods, where each instance of a product conforms to the same design and standard of quality. If a mass-produced product is lost or damaged, it can be replaced with an identical copy as easily as taking a trip to the store. The one-off creations of craftsmen in pre-industrial times may have been better suited to an individual’s unique needs, but mass manufacturing offered desirable trade-offs such as consistency and cost savings.
In an attempt to better meet people’s needs while still appealing to a broad audience, companies will often segment their customers into groups based on interests or behavior. If the overall segment is large enough, then this approach allows a mass-produced product to address more specific needs while still justifying the up-front cost of production. Chris Anderson, author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, argues that we are entering a new era in which truly individualized products can be offered affordably at scale, a kind of Third Industrial Revolution that “is best seen as a combination of digital manufacturing and personal manufacturing.” In this new era, companies can design for the smallest possible segment: a single person.
Anderson points toward the Maker movement as the dawning of this new era, highlighting early adopters who embraced technologies such as 3D printing and open source hardware. Today, these systems have matured beyond their hobbyist origins, enabling businesses to embrace mass customization over mass production. In a world where manufacturing is digital, why should every product be the same? By combining rapid manufacturing with the communication possibilities of the Internet, companies can get input from a user and dynamically tailor a design before it’s physically made.
Tailoring products to better fit the unique needs of an individual has been shown to increase customer loyalty, but is also believed to reduce the “replacement rate” of a product, meaning that people will continue to use a bespoke design for a longer period of time. This is a different approach to longevity, one based on up-front perfection rather than molding to a user over time. There’s no need to keep searching for a better product if the one you have is perfect for you.
Normal is a company founded on the idea that products should be custom made for individual users. Nikki Kaufman, the founder and CEO, had trouble finding earbuds that fit her well—a common problem considering ergonomic designs for the ear are notoriously difficult. The shape of each human ear is unique, to the point that computer vision researchers have suggested using ears instead of fingerprints to identify people. Some earbuds address this challenge by designing for an “average” ear, while others, like the original iPod earbuds, are round, seemingly defying the shape of any human ear. Kaufman found herself surrounded by 3D printing technology at the New York inventions lab Quirky when she realized that headphones were a product in desperate need of a more individualized fit.
Normals are in-ear headphones that are 3D printed to perfectly fit the wearer’s ears (see Figure 4-6). Custom earbuds are not a new idea, but they were previously limited to a high-end market where a fitting session involves sitting very still as silicon is squirted into each ear to make a mold. With Normals, this fitting is done through an app, which prompts users to take a photo of each ear while holding up a quarter for scale. This photo is used to create a custom “earform,” one for each ear, that is 3D printed in a storefront factory in New York. The app allows users to pick the color of the earform, cord, and housing, and the resulting product is assembled and shipped within 48 hours.
The name Normal is a reversal of a problem people often express, that “my ears are so weird, nothing fits.” This kind of self-blame is similar to when users struggle with poorly designed software, faulting themselves for usability challenges rather than blaming the product designers. In a world of mass-produced physical products, finding a good fit can be a foraging expedition, and there’s no guarantee that anything will work perfectly. The company’s slogan expresses a new vision for tailored products, the normalization of the idea that “One Size Fits None.”
The uniqueness of our bodies is matched only by the idiosyncratic environments we inhabit and the collections of belongings we fill them with. Every person lives side by side with their own unique assortment of items, trinkets, and oddities that they struggle to find the perfect place for in a home that was built without knowledge of these particular items. Storage solutions abound, many of them offering flexibility and modularity, but none as tailored and designed for longevity as the Vitsœ 606 Universal Shelving System, designed in 1960 by Dieter Rams (see Figure 4-7).
Included in the cost of the Vitsœ 606 is the planning service, which begins with a conversation and a photograph. The individual in need of shelving measures the room in question and discusses their needs with a Vitsœ planner. The planners view the process as a collaboration, in that “we don’t plan a system for the customer, we plan a system with the customer.” This consultation period is allowed to take as long as necessary, with the goal being to find the perfect combination of shelves and drawers, custom designed for a particular wall with all its constraints of outlets and lighting fixtures. When the design is complete, the unique set of components is packed and shipped to the customer’s home.
Vitsœ was founded on the idea of “designing down-to-earth furniture that could be used for as long as possible.” Although the planning process results in a custom fit for the purchaser’s home today, the 606 system is designed around interchangeability, with components that can be rearranged and added to over time. It is not meant to be permanently installed, but to move with you and your stuff, reconfigured as necessary for each location. After a move, the planners will take into consideration the pieces you already own and suggest additions or changes to perfectly fit the new space. The company values longevity, marketing the fact that it has been making the same product for over 50 years and encouraging customers to have confidence in starting small and adding more later, even if it’s just “one more shelf in 20 years’ time.”
Information about a person is the enabler of any tailored product, whether it’s customized to fit someone’s body, home, or life. The Internet has made it easier to learn about and communicate with potential customers, which has driven a 21st-century boom in personalized products. The desire for mass customization in physical products is partly influenced by expectations that users bring from the digital world, where a certain level of tailoring is expected due to the inherently dynamic quality of the medium. It’s no longer surprising that the Amazon homepage is full of products based on our browsing history, or that Google prioritizes search results that are relevant to our location. Tailoring is often a key value proposition for digital products, whether it’s Netflix highlighting a movie you might like to watch or Foursquare sending you a push notification that you’re near an interesting restaurant.
In the early years of the Web, knowledge about users and their preferences had to be built up over time and was limited to what they chose to reveal to each specific site. Today, the possibilities have changed, as data collected elsewhere can more easily be imported, shared, and utilized. Consider what happens when a website or app requires someone to log in via Facebook Connect. Linking a Facebook account to this third party not only eases the onboarding process but also provides a wealth of personal information, including a user’s demographics, preferences, interests, and friends. This allows the site or app to offer a tailored user experience from the very first moment.
The increased ease in sharing and importing personal data means that digital products must do more than simply provide access if they wish to achieve longevity. What matters is the specific way that a product tailors the data, creating a relationship with the user that feels more like a helpful guide than a system to be used. Enduring products blend into the fabric of your life, becoming something you increasingly rely on even as you think less about them.
The more information a product has about your preferences, history, schedule, contacts, finances, health, and travel plans, the more it can infer about the actions you’ll want to take and automatically provide the information you might need. One can see this in Google Now, where the company that wants to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” is going one step further to provide “the right information at just the right time.” The premise of Google Now is that Google knows you so well it can deliver the right information without you having to search for it. Music to listen to, groceries to buy, traffic alerts, sports scores, schedule reminders, or tips on nearby attractions are all served up contextually based on where and when Google thinks you’ll need that information.
In his 2007 TED talk, digital visionary Kevin Kelly reflects on the first 5,000 days of the Web and ponders what will happen in the next 5,000. One of the trends he sees is that we are becoming codependent on digital products, increasingly at a loss without access to the information and capabilities they provide. We already outsource our memory to Google, permitting ourselves to forget a phone number or address because we know how easily we can find it. Kelly acknowledges that some people perceive this as a problem, but he takes a long view of technology and points to our dependency on other systems we rarely think about, such as the alphabet and writing. In Kelly’s envisioning of the future, the Web will become more personalized in a good and supportive way, but he points out that “total personalization in this new world will require total transparency.”
Total transparency sounds like a scary idea, but Kelly takes pains to differentiate this concept from total surveillance. In Kelly’s optimistic view, the notion of transparency “suggests a more active role, rather than an imposed view. You have to BE transparent.” Of course, in recent years the issue of Internet privacy has come to the forefront, especially after the Edward Snowden revelations of NSA domestic spying. We have at least partially gone down the wrong path: one where the Web resembles a panopticon, where all of our actions can be seen without us knowing if someone is watching.
Design has a role to play in the debate on surveillance versus transparency. One definition of privacy is “the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world,” which interaction designers can support by giving people control over how their data will be captured, used, and shared. The benefits and trade-offs of transparency should be made clear. If a users choose greater transparency, they will receive a more tailored experience that improves over time. If they choose not to share, a standard experience will always treat them like a stranger.
While physical products are just entering an era of mass customization, digital products are struggling with the ethical challenges that emerge when a company knows so much about its users. As computation is embedded into objects, these privacy considerations will find increasing relevance in the world of physical products. Even today, the personal data captured to tailor a set of Normal earphones or Vitsœ shelving unit should raise questions about how that data is stored, used, and shared. Tailoring is a powerful option to create enduring products that blend more seamlessly into our lives, but that comes with a new level of responsibility to provide both trust and control.
A traditional human-centered design process involves observing user needs and designing products, services, and systems to address them. This process is well intentioned, meant to make sure that people’s needs and desires are prioritized above engineering possibilities or business imperatives. However, it can also lead designers to focus too narrowly on situations that exist today, neglecting how people’s lives might change over time. Architect Christopher Alexander contrasts this to the way that nature works, where you have “continuous very-small-feedback-loop adaptation going on, which is why things get to be harmonious... If it wasn’t for the time dimension, it wouldn’t happen.” No matter how well suited a product is for today, to be enduring it must adapt to a changing world and evolve over time with the needs of its users.
When designing for adaptation, there are two distinct approaches designers can take, depending on how well they can foresee a future state. Adapting to anticipated changes means that user needs are structured in a predictable progression. If a design can evolve to support the next known step, then it can effectively replace one or more products. Adapting to unanticipated changes, such as shifts in technology, society, or policy, requires a more flexible approach. Unplanned product evolution is a process of co-creation with users.
The Fold Pot by Italian designer Emanuele Pizzolorusso is an example of a simple product that adapts to accommodate an anticipated change. A houseplant is expected to grow, at least if properly cared for, and will eventually need to be transplanted into a larger pot to make room for its lengthening roots. The Fold Pot, which is made of flexible silicon, can adapt to support a growing plant: by flipping up the folded sides, you can double its capacity when the time comes to add more soil (see Figure 4-8). The pot looks “correct” whether folded up or down, supporting two stages of the plant’s growth without compromising its design during either one.
Similar to plants, products designed for babies and young children are ripe for adaptation due to the rapid pace at which they are otherwise outgrown. Many parents choose to purchase a baby crib that can later convert to a toddler bed, a sensible adaptation that increases longevity and saves storage space. When a child is ready for more nighttime freedom, the side rails of the crib can be removed without rearranging the whole room.
The Echo Crib, by Los Angeles design firm Kalon Studios, is a beautiful example of crib-to-bed adaptation. Its solid maple construction is meant to last for generations, but it can also grow with a single child in a few different ways. The rails can be removed, turning the crib into a toddler bed, and the optional Echo Bed conversion kit aesthetically integrates curved safety rails for a more gradual transition from crib to bed (see Figure 4-9). The designers believe that “Graduating from a crib to a bed is a milestone for children that should be fully experienced.” To achieve that goal, the bed is set low to the ground, allowing a child to build confidence by easily climbing in and out once the rails have been removed.
Charles and Ray Eames explored modularity in much of their work, including their classic fiberglass chairs, which feature a wide variety of interchangeable bases. Their approach provides an instructive example of how modularity alone is different from designing for adaptation. On Herman Miller’s website, users can configure an Eames chair for a dining room, office, nursery, or school by selecting from a diverse set of shells, bases, colors, and finishes. The bases can technically be swapped out later, but this is not the primary positioning or intent behind the design. The modular system was originally chosen for manufacturing efficiency and affordability, not to encourage adaptation of a single chair over time. Swapping out a base to fit a new need is clearly possible, but not explicitly encouraged, as evidenced by the fact that Herman Miller’s website does not offer bases and shells separately.
A more explicitly adaptive use of a modular base can be found in the Orbit Infant System, a series of products and add-ons designed to ease the transition of a moving a baby between car, destination, and home (see Figure 4-10). Created by Orbit Baby, the system is centered around a standardized SmartHub base that allows the Orbit car seat, stroller seat, or bassinet to snap securely into place and rotate forward, backward, or sideways. The SmartHub can be installed in the backseat of a car but is also integrated with the Orbit stroller and rocker bases, allowing for numerous combinations, including a car seat on a rocker, a stroller seat in a car, or a bassinet on a stroller base. A key goal for the system, which any parent can relate to, is to transport a child without waking them up.
The Orbit Infant System can also adapt to support a growing child—the toddler car seat snaps into the SmartHub as easily as the infant version. If a second child is born, the stroller can be extended with another base using the Helix Plus Double Stroller Upgrade Kit (see Figure 4-11). Older children can ride alongside an infant using the Sidekick Stroller Board add-on, a foldable wooden extension styled after a skateboard with grip-tape on top.
It’s telling that the designers at Orbit Baby have referred to their product as a system since founding the company. When a product offers a significant level of flexible adaptation, beyond the simple two-stage transformation of the Fold Pot, its value is inherently located in the connections between its parts. The individual components have innovative features on their own, such as the one-handed collapsing of the stroller base, but their value is only unlocked when combined with other parts of the system. There is a network effect within the Orbit Baby product line, where adding a new component that uses the SmartHub increases the value of all the Orbit products a parent already owns.
Anticipating the changing needs of a parent with a growing child, or a second child, is relatively straightforward. The Orbit system gets better over time, as new extensions are designed, but all of the additions so far have remained in the realm of infant transport. Imagine if Orbit branched out further, designing components that are optimized for moving groceries or postal mail instead of children. This kind of radical shift in purpose or use case is rare with physical products, but happens all the time in the digital world.
Startups refer to a shift in user group or product focus as “pivoting,” and many try to pivot as fast as possible to discover the most desirable and profitable outcome. Perhaps the best-known example of a radical pivot is Flickr, which began as a photo sharing feature within an online game called Game Neverending. As the photo feature got popular, the rest of the product was scrapped and the startup pivoted to focus full-time on photo sharing. A fundamental shift of this proportion is obviously jarring to an existing user base, but it highlights the essentially mutable nature of digital products. An enduring digital product continually adapts, in ways both small and large, to accommodate shifts in technology and user needs. The end result may include changes the designers never anticipated.
Designers are used to observing a need in the world today, whether functional or emotional, and crafting a particular experience to satisfy that need. How can designers plan for unanticipated changes in the future? How can they design for the unknown? Although the future is murky and unpredictable, designers can put structures in place that allow products to adapt over time.
Designing a user experience is a bit like creating a script for the user—not a rigid one like in a movie with set lines and linear scenes, but a flexible one in which every moment has a range of possibilities and potentialities depending on the actions a user takes. This script defines the intended experiences a designer has in mind for the user, and during the design process a series of scenarios might be developed to communicate this intentionality to stakeholders. However, once a product is out in the world, users can rewrite the script of a product in various ways. They can appropriate, misuse, and combine products, using them for unplanned purposes and in unplanned contexts.
The philosopher Don Ihde uses the term “multistability” to describe technologies or products that are successfully used in different ways based on context. Because of their wide reach, most digital experiences achieve some form of multistability, where users redefine the purpose of the product in an unexpected way. Websites and apps that allow for user-generated content or communication will regularly have users who ignore, subvert, or simply reinterpret the purpose of the platform. They successfully use the capabilities provided for means other than intended, such as stores that use Instagram as an ecommerce platform. Other times, users try to extend a system’s existing capabilities, exposing a desire for features that don’t exist—for example, when users on a discussion forum create site-specific shorthand to make searching more effective.
When users reinterpret or extend a product, designers have a choice to either ignore, actively prevent, or incorporate the new usage. A high degree of multistability could mean that a product is bumping up against a different world than it was designed for, one where needs have changed or society has shifted. Or perhaps it’s just kids messing around. Figuring that out, and adapting as necessary, is how product evolution is co-developed with users. Designers have two main roles to play: encouraging multistability and paying attention to whether the official identity of a product needs to change.
One way to encourage multistability is to design products where users can easily perceive the capabilities and limitations of the system. Ubiquitous computing pioneer Mark Weiser refers to this as being “seamful,” in contrast to being seamless. Designers often strive for seamlessness, where all parts of a system work flawlessly, and invisibly, to support a singular experience. The problem with this approach is that the underlying enablers of the experience are effectively, or literally, sealed away from the user. This creates a tightly controlled “script” for the product, removing some autonomy from the user and requiring that everything work flawlessly behind the scenes. In contrast, if there are visible seams—ideally, what Weiser called “beautiful seams”—then users can more easily understand and adapt the capabilities of a product.
Professor Matthew Chalmers, of the University of Glasgow, has further explored Weiser’s notion of seamful design. One example he gives is the status bar on a mobile phone, which could technically go beyond signal strength to indicate the specific cellular tower it’s connected to. Normally this information is hidden, but exposing it could help users know when a phone is jumping back and forth between two different towers. Extending that example, the physical casing of the phone could use color or texture to indicate the location of embedded antennas, helping users to avoid accidently attenuating the signal with their hands. Recognizable seams help users develop a mental model for how a product functions and find workarounds for when it doesn’t.
The most direct way that a digital product can reveal its seams is by exposing an application programming interface, or API. An API allows users, or user/developers anyway, to directly access the capabilities of a product, separate from the official experience that designers have created. Many popular products have APIs, including Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This is why third parties are able to build entirely new Twitter clients, tweaking the official design or offering new ways to use the platform.
Twitter also provides an instructive example of how to pay attention when users extend a product. The core features that define Twitter today, @ replies, #hashtags, and retweets, are all features that were originally developed by users. Early adopters used the constraints of 140 characters per message in creative ways, adding codes such as @, #, and RT that other users copied in their structure and meaning. As their usage reached a critical mass, Twitter added official support for these conventions. It’s possible to find the user who first used a hashtag or retweet, but the individual is not the point. The adaptation was necessary because the collective decided that’s how the product should evolve.
Sometimes the collective leads a product down an entirely different path than the designers originally intended. Take, for example, the Chinese video-based social networking site YY. The website began as place for gamers to stream video games as they played, letting others around the world watch as they vanquished foes on virtual battlefields. Because typing is difficult while gaming, the site included a high-quality audio feed for users to chat or talk about game strategy. Over time, the company realized that some users weren’t playing games at all but rather singing—using the audio stream as a platform for karaoke (see Figure 4-12).
YY didn’t shut down these singers who appropriated the website for performances, but it also wasn’t sure how to respond. As an experiment, YY created a contest where it gave users virtual tickets to vote for their favorite performers. A light bulb went off when it noticed that users were selling their tickets on Taobao, a Chinese online marketplace, for roughly 25 cents apiece. After that, YY embraced singing as an official use of the site and developed a variety of virtual currencies at different price points that users can gift to their favorite performers. If you like a singer, you can give them an emoji lollipop or cotton candy graphic, or throw virtual roses on their stage. These simulated gifts translate into real money, and the singers get a cut of the profits. Streaming video games are still allowed on YY, resulting in a strange kind of split personality, but karaoke now drives over half of the company’s revenue.
We have looked at two different scales of unanticipated adaptation. Turning hashtags into search links was a small but powerful improvement to Twitter, while YY underwent a larger transformation in features, identity, and business model. Organizational learning theorist Chris Argyris calls these “single-loop” and “double-loop” changes. Single-loop adaptations can move a product forward but are largely meant to maintain equilibrium, like a thermostat turning on and off. In a single-loop adaptation, designers tweak the system to support evolving needs of existing users. In a double loop, minor adjustments are not enough, and major new features or a new identity might be necessary. Double-loop changes are rarely anticipated by designers and are commonly driven by what economist Eric von Hippel refers to as “lead users,” people who are not satisfied with existing products and hack or appropriate others to approximate the experience they want. Lead users may be extreme, but designers should pay attention to them because what seems unique today may be commonplace tomorrow.
Everything will eventually break. Whether physical or digital, some part of a product or system will stop working, no matter how durable or adaptable it is. Enduring products plan for this eventuality and are designed to be easily repaired, preferably by the user. Today’s products are complex, involving scores or hundreds of components. Repairability avoids having to throw a product away when just one of those parts fails.
In the past, America had a stronger culture of repair, where one was expected to take worn-out shoes to a cobbler, or a broken radio to the service center. The increased pace of consumerism and mass production has changed that, although this shift is not universally felt around the world. Take, for example, India, where lower incomes drive demand for increased longevity and city streets are filled with repairmen who specialize in particular items, from umbrellas to bikes to cellphones. In America, where cobblers and other repair crafts are in steady decline, people seem more willing to just throw things away. But the culprit is not only disposable income and callous attitudes; products are no longer made to be repaired. The soles of shoes are irreversibly attached with glue, appliances fit together with irreplaceable plastic snaps, and electronics prioritize thinness over repairability.
The difficulty of repairing modern products has gotten so bad as to spawn advocacy groups. iFixit is one example; their Repair Manifesto is a call to arms highlighting environmental, budgetary, educational, and empowerment reasons for repairable design. Another is the Right to Repair group, which fights for legislation that gives car owners the tools and information to fix their own vehicles, or take them to independent repair shops. Vehicles have had a historically strong repair culture, but as they become increasingly embedded with computation and sensors, manufacturers are requiring that repairs happen only at authorized shops. The Digital Right to Repair coalition calls for similar action from medical device companies, electronics manufacturers, agricultural conglomerates, and data centers. The coalition’s argument is that companies are creating a monopoly on repair and unfairly restricting what consumers can do with the products they own. In some instances, the government has responded against this corporate suppression of user autonomy, such as through the recently passed bill that requires wireless companies to unlock users’ phones.
Autodesk, makers of design and engineering software, maintain a knowledge base on how to design for improved product lifetimes. One of the tools they offer is a quick reference guide, a helpful list of tangible considerations that make a product easier to disassemble, repair, or upgrade. Not every product can achieve all of their suggestions, but checklists like this are a useful tool for designers to share with team members and aspire to achieve.
One of the goals on the Autodesk list is “Use modular assemblies that enable the replacement of discrete components.” A great example of this principle in action can be seen in the carpet company Flor, which has rethought how floor coverings should be assembled and replaced. Instead of a giant roll of carpet, Flor is a modular system of carpet squares, 20 inches on each side, which can be assembled by the user to make custom rugs (see Figure 4-13). The Flor system allows a rug to be tailored to your space and personal style, but also makes damage incredibly easy to repair. If a stain occurs, from a pet accident or a spilled glass of wine, then only the affected tiles need to be removed and either cleaned or replaced.
Another Autodesk guideline is to “Make replacement parts available and affordable.” This, of course, is not always under a designer’s control, and highlights the need to champion repairability throughout all roles in the organization. One example of a design-led approach can be found in the company Teenage Engineering, makers of the OP-1 portable synthesizer, shown in Figure 4-14. Replacement parts and add-on knobs for the OP-1 are available from the company, but users often complained of the high cost, which was largely driven by shipping. To address these concerns, the company released CAD files of the parts, so users can 3D print them on their own. Users without access to a 3D printer can order these versions through the Shapeways service at significantly lower cost than directly from Teenage Engineering.
The stated goal of releasing the CAD models for the OP-1 accessories was to make users happy. This kind of attitude is the exact opposite of planned obsolescence, and results in a high degree of loyalty and user evangelism for the product. The open source accessories are not encumbered by license restrictions, which allows users to modify them or build their own knobs, cranks, or wheels to enhance their synthesizers. Releasing the source for parts that are still in production may not be viable for every company, but should at least be considered for products and accessories that are no longer officially supported. Imagine a product “sunsetting” process where a company no longer takes responsibility for repair, but hands over the necessary tools and information to the user community.
For physical products with embedded computation, hardware components aren’t the only type of repair to consider. The firmware and software drivers that allow these products to boot and connect to other devices can break when changes are made to the underlying operating system or third-party APIs. Generally, users consider these fixes the responsibility of the company, but this kind of support doesn’t last forever. Similar to releasing CAD files for parts, companies should consider enlisting the open source community to repair their legacy products. Some companies avoid this problem completely by using open source components from the start; for example, Buffalo routers come preinstalled with the open source DD-WRT firmware.
Along with obtaining parts or source code, users need access to technical documentation to guide them through a repair process. With older electronics, like CRT televisions, manufacturers used to tuck a printed repair manual inside the casing itself, but most products today aren’t even designed to be repaired. The website iFixit seeks to remedy this situation through a wiki-based structure where detailed repair manuals and step-by-step photographic teardowns can be collaboratively created by users (see Figure 4-15). The founders of iFixit “believe that the easier it is to fix something, the more people will do it.” They see their information platform as a social good that “lengthens the life of products and conserves vital resources.”
There are many important roles in supporting repairability, but the underlying iFixit philosophy is one that designers everywhere should strive toward. What small change in a design could make it easier for a user to repair a broken product? If we want our products to endure, we have a responsibility to empower users to repair them.
In this chapter, we have looked at various approaches to promoting product longevity. Each of these qualities can be designed for individually, but combining different techniques may prove more valuable. The longevity of buildings is an analogous example we can look to for inspiration. Buildings routinely outlast their original occupants, and even their original purpose. To do this, they change over time, in similar ways to what we’ve discussed for products. Architect Frank Duffy has said that “there isn’t such a thing as a building... A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components.” Stewart Brand expanded upon Duffy’s notion of layers that change at different rates in his book How Buildings Learn.
Brand’s “shearing layers” (see Figure 4-16) provide a common-sense way to think about various time scales within a single design. The six layers (Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff) accelerate as they move inward. Any homeowner can relate to his observation that the exterior skin of a building will last a couple of decades, while services like plumbing, HVAC, and elevators might change in half that time. A space plan might adjust every five years, while our stuff—from furniture to books—moves around all the time.
For products the time periods are generally shorter, but similar to buildings, every product has components that can change at different rates. Consider this attempt to map a smartphone onto Brand’s building layers:
Processor, touchscreen, charging port, battery, sensors
Color, headphones, OS theme
Operating system, application launcher
Apps, plug-ins, protective case
Music, photos, video, text
The mapping between buildings and smartphones isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be, because every product can have its own unique number of layers. Each layer changes at a different speed, but in relationship to the ones below and above it. Slower layers tend to constrain faster ones, so choices made about Structure limit the possible Services and decisions about the Space Plan affect the possible Stuff. Many products today are part of a larger ecosystem of products and services, so designers should consider all parts of that ecosystem as they map how various layers enable and constrain each other.
What are the layers of change for the product you’re designing? What approaches to longevity are appropriate for each layer? As designers, we want our work to provide lasting value in the world. Using the techniques in this chapter we can intentionally design for longevity, creating the conditions for a product that works well today and in the future.
 Giles Slade, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 2006, 5.
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 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 101.
 Mike Gancarz, Linux and the Unix Philosophy (Amsterdam: Digital Press, 2003), 8.
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