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Design conversations, not products

These seem to be apocalyptic times for designers. If you happen to be a member of this threatened species, you better look for another calling.


These seem to be apocalyptic times for designers. If you happen to be a member of this threatened species, you better look for another calling. We had just put Pillippe Starck's "Design is dead" fatalism to bed, and then I read Peter Merholz's essay from 2007: "Stop designing products!"

What sounds like another shocker initially, however, turns out to be a milder riff on an old and well-known theme that Merholz himself has been promoting for two years now: "Experience is the product -- and the only thing users care about:"

"When you start with the idea of making a thing, you're artificially limiting what you can deliver. The reason that many of these exemplar's forward-thinking product design succeed is explicitly because they don't design products. Products are realized only as necessary artifacts to address customer needs. What Flickr, Kodak, Apple, and Target all realize is that the experience is the product we deliver, and the only thing that our customers care about."

I guess what Merholz wants to point out is that while many brands may think they're all about the experience, their thinking is still centered on the eventual "thing." You could counter that, of course, and contend that it's a question of how you define this "thing." "It" could be an amalgam of both the physical form and its history and meaning. Whatever your approach (the experience as the Holy Grail or a broader definition of "thing") the overriding theme is the same: A product is not just a product. But what is IT?

In an era "when all of us, journalists, business people, and designers are making the transition from being leaders of thought to curators of conversations," as Bruce Nussbaum describes it, designers, including product designers, evolve from information architects to communication architects. Interaction designers start designing interactions between people (a.k.a conversations) and not just interaction with machines. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, while typically not the most eloquent CEO, nailed the mantra of the Generation C(onversation): "The other guys think the purpose of communication is to get information. We think the purpose of information is to get communication."

Good designers are conversation starters. They instigate opinions and re-create the "aura" of the (art) object that German philosopher Walter Benjamin considered to be erased by the mechanics of technical reproduction. While the destruction of "aura" signaled the passage from the artwork as cult (i.e. as a religious object) to the artwork as exhibit (in museum and inevitably in cinema), the "age of conversations" catapults it back into the sphere of cult.

The "aura" of the product is the people who talk about it. Products are the stories of products, and meaning is construed by memories, associations, and provocations. If product and user story match, at least partially, a narrative sandbox, a room of emotional resonance emerges that creates new, proprietary meaning: a third story, if you will. Call it "branding."

Designers are marketers; marketers are designers. They are unified by one and the same task: branding. Or in other words: creating a memorable, auratic and yet reproducible experience for consumers. Conversations are part of this experience; they are integral to the "aura." Designers visualize it. They unearth, discover, and articulate the consumer stories. They invent the product stories. And then they connect both. Industrial design, web site, software design, organizational design, etc. -- all design is essentially an act of branding, regardless of the proportion of emotiveness to functionality.

For designers as curators of conversations there are three trends to take into account:

First, the stories behind products and the consumer stories increasingly appear on the web. More and more consumers spend their social lives on the web, networking, shopping, producing, consuming, socializing, etc. And so do products: The web is where they are discovered, examined, and experienced by consumers. The digital domain is the sounding board and the archive for the stories behind them. It is the emotional resonance room that resides at the intersection of click streams, transactions, virtual encounters, and real-time and recorded conversations.

Second, a growing number of product and consumer stories on the web are "social." This means, they are open-sourced conversations that anyone willing to engage in a multi-logue can enter and shape. Many of these conversations are cross-platform and cross-media. They can go on for a long time; they may start anytime, anywhere, with anyone; and other people may choose to join them. They can start in one medium and continue in another. (Imagine a conversation via IM that continues in e-mail -- Gmail allows for that already -- or a Wiki entry that continues on Twitter and then on the mobile phone before it ends on Facebook.)

Third, both product and consumer stories may occur at the intersection of virtual world and the traditional web: the boundaries are blurring and not only do the interactions and transactions converge but also, increasingly so, perceptions and behaviors. Virtual worlds like Second Life have serious implications for products: they give form to"intangibles" and dematerialize the "tangibles." Virtual worlds create forums and experiences to express and visualize intangibles such as emotions, perceptions, and opinions, and at the same time, they create virtual artifacts (avatars, 3D objects etc.) that represent real world physical objects.

For designers, the task at hand is to listen to all these crossover conversations and design the conditions for them to take place in hybrid forms and formats, enabling, facilitating, and curating them without creating them.