During the last months I was involved in the teaching of 60 IT-students in the AGILE development program “connecting startups” at the HvA in Amsterdam. Responsible for the UX and concept development I gave constantly feedback on their projects. The three best projects were presented yesterday at the StudioHvA. Winners are rent a cube – an mobile app to rent startup-facilities (future project), virtual campus – an online game which places startups on the virtual campus, and assemble.today – a platform for startups to find and offer resources and skills. More information soon on connectingstartups.nl.
“Who thought I would be involved in teaching IT-students once?!”
So how did I – as an Industrial and Communication Designer with a further background in Jewelry Design and Glass Art – ended up in teaching IT students how to build digital products? First, it’s not the “end”; second, I see it more as a development which recently can be observed more often. The world shifts more and more from physical to virtual/digital products. Nowadays, applications replace somehow those “old” products. Let give me an example: we all use the same phone (more or less), but we personalize it by downloading different features and by putting in a colored case. Secondary products as well as the interface become more important.
As consequence of this, I decided to do my graduation project not in the classical Industrial Design which I studied for several years, but to go deeper into Concept Development and Interaction Design. After graduating in the beginning of 2015 with the field service management system emistime I got a lot of positive feedback and interest in the combination of virtual and physical products.
“It’s easier to understand virtual products with a product design background than the other way around.”
Each product is build on an idea, which will be worked out to a concept. This concept is the core, the fundament and should always take into account the “why” and the “for whom” (user) which leads than to the “how”, the realization – this might be a service, product, website, campaign,…
For me, physical products consist of 7 elements: the user/environment, the purpose/function, the experience, the three dimensions (x,y,z),and the material. In contrast, the digital product is build out of the user experience (UX), the purpose, two dimensions (x,y), the architecture/structure – which replaces somehow the third dimension (z) of the physical product – and the device which can be seen as a combination of the environment and the material and which is closely linked to the UX (same applies for the interface structure).
We lost one element and furthermore, the parts mentioned above are much more linked to each other when it comes to a digital product. On the other side these design factors are less dependent of each other compared to the seven elements of a physical product. I will make it more concrete: Let’s say we did all our research and testing for the housing of an autonomous plant, we know our users and the environment they will use it (1), the purpose (2) and what the experience should look like (3). We still miss 4 parts of the product: the design itself (3 dimensions) and the material. We can now approach it in two different ways – from the design side (Form follows function) or we start with the material (Form follows material). Actually, we should rather say “Form follows material which follows function” because the function/purpose limits us to certain materials with specific characteristics. The flower for example needs light and the user wants to see it. Therefore we are limited to transparent materials e.g. glass. As a result of the material choice, the design will/should depend on the material abilities and its production process.
“We define our own truth.”
This dependance of design parameters is the big difference between physical and digital – we can try to change the abilities of materials (and we are getting better) but we are still limited. In the virtual world we can chose and define characteristics… and this is where it becomes interesting and boring in the same time – we define our own “truth”. This digital “truth of choice” gives us new possibilities. We are able to make things that weren’t possible before. We learn new ways of interaction, communication but also our values and understanding adapt to it. Anyway, we are still interacting with the digital world through physical products (voice commands and gestures will replace those on an interaction level).
At this point, I would like to come back to the link of the UX, device and architecture/structure. Due to the fact that we still rely on an interaction medium we need to take in account the characteristics of the device – which interaction possibilities are given (touch, voice, keys,…), how accessible is it (ease/complexity, location,…), product features (battery, size, speed, capacity,…), and so on. Based on the device we define the product. Since digital devices are so integrated in our daily lives we often forget this link and take it as neutral given.
As a conclusion you might say that the design of a physical object is more complex than a digital – many people will not agree with this, and I admit that “complex” might not be the correct word. Interaction Design is not less complex but its complexity has a different focus – the feel (UX) and structure (what happens when?). The ability to think logical, to define processes and workflows is also required in other fields than Interaction Design (basically or society likes to plan, organize and forecast everything). That is why it seems to be easier to shift from Product Design (3d) to Interaction Design (2d).
“We build your future.
Updates are required to keep it alive.”
Another reason for the shift is that the need of online and digital products increases while the physical product development stagnates. The virtual world moves faster. As designer, we build your future which is our present. The faster and the more flexible we are the newer and refreshing your tomorrow. I see Interaction Design more on the trend side which gives new impact and always changes but doesn’t last that long – the short run. Updates are required to keep it alive. Product Design in contrast takes longer and will (hopefully) be used over a longer period. Sustainability plays here a very important role for me (e.g. cradle to cradle). Being involved in both (industrial and interface design) widens your perspective.