eBulletin - Alan Dix (vfridge limited, aQtive limited and Lancaster University)

artefact + marketing = product

This paper appeared as:
Dix, A. (2001). artefact + marketing = product.
Interfaces, no. 48, Autumn 2001, pp. 20-21

Business is quite simple: you make something, you sell it - right?

Those involved in product design and software usability know that it is not as easy as that. You don't just make something, you need to understand who is going to use your product, what their needs are etc. in order to design the right product for the right people.

This looks like a one-way process, but of course, in a commercial world, deciding who you are going to address and which needs you address will be largely by determined by who will pay money. So marketing certainly seeds design.

In fact, things are far more closely tied than that.

First of all the features that sell a product are not necessarily those that are really useful.

I have three use-words for design.

We need to design products so that they are:

do what the users need - functionality
users can do these things easily and effectively
users actually do start and continue to use it

The last of these includes acceptance within an organisation, aesthetics of the design so that people want to use it, and marketing it so that users can see it is there and buy it.

If a product is not used then it is useless however useful or usable it is!

Standard usability typically stops after the first two!

There are exceptions to this. Participatory design is ostensibly about making a better design because end-users are involved. However, the process also makes sure that the future users are committed to the final system and are far likely to use it whether or not it is better at meeting their real needs. That is participatory design is a form of marketing!

It is often said that software products have too many features that no-one ever uses. However, customers (who will become users) are likely to be attracted by long lists of new features. If you want the 20% of features that really are useful to be actually used, you may need to add the other 80% of irrelevant features that mean that customers buy it!

So the needs to market a product change what may go into a product.

But, the interplay goes deeper still.

If you market a car as powerful and sexy this will influence who buys it, but almost certainly the person who buys it will drive it faster and more recklessly than the same vehicle marketed as a family car. Our use of a product depends on our perception of the product.

At a deep level you could say that the artefact we have designed only becomes a product once it takes on a set of values and purposes within the users mind - and these are shaped intimately not just by the design, but also by the way we market the product.

In usability we know that a product is more than a raw technical artefact it also consists of the documentation and training that goes into, what some call, the wetware of a system (the humans!). The first a user sees of a new product is when it is advertised and sold to them. We are missing a crucial element if we ignore the effects of the way the artefact is marketed to its future users.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Internet products and services. The users are fickle and critical, products are virtual with uncertain boundaries, and documentation, if provided, is unlikely to be used. How we present a product on a website, in PR in advertising will intimately determine the use of the product.

Think about web-based email. Your personal mail is received by a multinational corporation, siphoned into their internal data stores and dribbled out to you when you visit their site. Would you do that with your physical mail? However, this is not how we perceive it. Users have sufficient trust in the organisations concerned that they regard the web mailbox as 'mine' - a small section of a distant disk is forever home.

The factors that build this trust are complex and intertwined, but certainly include the interface style, the brand and reputation of the provider, the wording used on the site, the way the service is advertised to you, newspaper and magazine articles. In the UK a few years ago an executive of a large jewellery store said, in an off-the-cuff remark, that their products were cheap. The store's sales plummeted as public perception changed. Imagine what would happen if a senior executive of Microsoft described hotmail in the terms at the beginning of the previous paragraph!

As we address the needs of a networked society, we must go beyond the creation of useful usable artefacts, and instead design products that will be used. To do this we cannot rely solely on cosy relationships between users and designers, but open up the design remit to consider every stage of product deployment from the first advert the user sees until the consumed product hits the bin, is deleted from the hard disk or the URL is cleared from the favourites list.


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also in Interfaces, no. 48, Autumn 2001

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