What is the product?
The product can be a lot of things. For starters, it is an artefact: it is a man-made object consciously created for some specific and explicit purpose (i.e., designed).
From the user’s perspective, the product is a unified set of features to interact with, in order to achieve specific goals. It is unified because the particular set of features and functionalities it provides is considered as a whole (or unit). For instance: a car is a product, but a car rental service is a different product, despite including or making use of a car.
There are three fundamental variables that define a product:
- The set of values it provides
- The set of features it exposes
- The set of functionalities it performs
If two products provide similar value, functionality and features, then those products are similar for all intents and purposes.
What is value?
Every product potentially holds different types of value: use value, emotional value, ownership value, aesthetic value, etc. In loving memory of our good old friend Occam, we will place all these under three major categories:
- Aesthetic value
- Use value
- Semantic value
There is aesthetic value in a product if you derive aesthetic pleasure in its presence. You don’t need to own or use a product in order to benefit from its aesthetic value, nor do you need to derive any particular meaning from it — you just need to have an aesthetic experience in its presence.
There is use value in a product if you gain any sort of value as a direct consequence of using it. Furthermore, all products have semantic value, for this is the value you derive from what the product means to you and to others. Emotional value and ownership value can be seen as specific types of semantic value. It is not a necessary requirement to actually use or own a product in order for it to provide semantic value to someone.
Different products may provide similar value, partially or fully, depending on how they provide for each of the above value categories. If two products provide more or less similar aesthetic, use, and semantic value, then those are competing products. For instance, a Casio watch does not compete with a Rolex watch, even if both provide the same use value.
What are features and functionalities?
The features of a product are those distinctive attributes with which the user comes into contact. The complete set of features in a product comprises its user interface (UI). For instance, buttons and alphanumeric display are common features of many different products, such as calculators, microwave ovens, digital watches, washing machines and remote controls.
The functionalities of the product are all those operations the product performs that are of consequence to the user, and which happen at the time and space scale of the user — this excludes any internal operations of the product or its components (e.g., when a user presses a key he is not concerned about jumping electrons or spinning cogwheels: the only concern is that a keypress operation takes place, regardless of how it is accomplished).
It is all too common to mix up these two terms (I do it all the time) and use them interchangeably, but features and functionalities are actually two completely different things (though they are very tightly coupled). Two different products can use similar features while providing different functionalities, and vice-versa. But when two products show the exact same features and provide the exact same functionalities, then those are the exact same product (even if there are internal differences, for any such differences are irrelevant to the user).
Some may argue against this proposition by invoking that people can value other attributes, irrespective of features and functionalities. However, by definition, any such attributes will be either features or functionalities in the eyes of the user. For instance, if you prefer a platinum-coated iPhone to any other iPhone with the same tech specs, then the platinum coating is an important feature, providing you a specific function the others don’t — in this case, probably a semantic function, if you see it as a symbol of status or as a means to achieve the specific goal of impressing other people.
Tangible and intangible products
A product can be a physical (tangible) object, but it can be something which in itself has no physical existence (intangible). Examples of such products include services and intellectual properties such as artwork, music, and software. A product can also be any combination (or system) of different physical and intangible things, as long as they function as a unit (e.g., a car rental service).
Most of what is nowadays called UX Design is applied in the development of products which are complex systems made of many different tangible and intangible components. For instance, what might look like a simple website is really an extremely complex system made of many different software components (not to mention the infrastructure and the machines required to serve and access the website) though the vast majority of these components are standardised, freely available, and very easy to put together.
The lifetime of the product
A product has a lifetime with specific milestones, from design and production all the way to its regular use and eventual abandon and/or demise. For tangible products this might include design, prototyping, production, distribution, retail, purchase, usage, return, repair, recycle, etc. Intangible products such as software have very different lifetimes, and most notably the lack of definite “death”: because the product itself is not subjected to physical decay, it can live forever (in theory… do keep in mind that software requires hardware that might actually cease to be functional or altogether exist).
Products may be abandoned for a long time and then return to use. Most software products are nowadays constantly being developed, sold and used, in a recurring cycle. In this cycle, each iteration (or upgrade) is a new version of the same product. Only specific versions of the product have an “end of life” because what is considered to be the product encompasses all versions, thus living forever through this constant and recurring process.
Any product with an exceptionally long life can jeopardise the sustainability of the company that sells it. This has historically resulted in what is called planned obsolescence: companies try to make sure products become useless after a certain time, as an incentive for consumers to buy the new version. This is what Apple notoriously has done with iOS updates that deliberately introduce delays in older iPhone models. Planned obsolescence raises several important issues that are really worth discussing, but that’s outside the scope of this article, so we won’t do that here.
A good way to start a UX design project might be by establishing what portion of the product lifetime should be considered the focus of your UX design efforts. It’s not hard to find examples of products whose designers were notoriously concerned with a small fragment of a product’s lifetime, completely disregarding everything that happens outside that timeframe.
This approach has something in common with the product development technique known as “Customer journey mapping”, mainly because it doesn’t focus on a single touchpoint between the user and the product.
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