Why context matters for product design

What makes a product successful? It's all about context, writes Nasahn Sheppard, director of industrial design at Smart Design.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

What makes a product successful? What makes an object touch a nerve among users?

New York Times tech reviewer David Pogue wanted to know more about why Cisco stopped producing its iconic Flip pocket camcorder. (If you really want to know why, head to our sister site ZDNet for the answer.) But instead of the business strategy perspective, he wanted to know why standalone, single-use products sometimes work -- or sometimes don't.

To find out, he asked Nasahn Sheppard, director of industrial design atSmart Design, for the theory behind the reality. And it's a revealing peek into what's on the drawing board before products like this launch.

First, the basic argument: the Flip was killed off because smartphones -- now equipped with high-definition video-capable lenses -- can now complete the same task as the dedicated device.

But is it really comparable? Sheppard explains, using the metaphor of the does-it-all Swiss Army knife versus the single-purpose kitchen knife:

As great as my Swiss Army knife was, when I got home, I didn’t use it to prepare dinner. Why didn’t I want to use it as a primary kitchen tool? Because its versatility comes at a price. In my travels, it fit my needs perfectly; but at home, it’s…well, completely inadequate.

Context dictates the scale of people’s need. And people’s product experiences depend deeply on the context in which they’re used.

Then he brings the metaphor home:

A smartphone will someday be able to unlock and turn on our cars, but that doesn’t mean we’ll want to use it as the steering wheel. In some contexts, it’s just better to do one thing really well instead of five things adequately.

That's why the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad continue to coexist peacefully, he argues. Because one company shows "great restraint to keep it simple" and the other looks in a different direction.

Smart Design was the firm behind the original design of the Flip camcorder, he notes.

Throughout the development of the Flip, there was one question the team repeatedly asked ourselves: “What can we take out, not what can we put in?” This simple question guided every design decision. The result was a product that people immediately understood, enabling them to incorporate video into their lives in a ways they never imagined.

Great points, all of them, and a morsel more of insight to why the world around us is the way it is.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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