After I eagerly purchased Echo when it was first launched, it sat unused, attracting dust and guilt for several months. Each and every week, I’m emailed by Amazon to remind me what the Echo can now do. It’s an extraordinary product. As I get better at knowing when to use it, it equally gets better at understanding my voice, and more companies and systems integrate within it. The Echo’s functional capability slowly improves.
This is not how products are supposed to work. We are supposed to buy them, all shiny and new and full of hope, before they become slower, overtaken by newer devices, and seem ever less exciting. My lovely car is only ever going to get slower, its brakes a bit worse, and the lack of a USB input more annoying. We know that software improves but hardware ages badly.
These days, many consumer products, from smart TVs to smart speakers, headphones to automobiles, have been built with software at the core. We suddenly need to think of ownership of products in a new way, as a world of services means we essentially get membership to a club with our new items.
Tesla have not made enough software advances yet to allow their cars to be fully self-driving. Rather than give up on this dream they future proof the hardware of the cars. Now, all Tesla cars sold today have the physical equipment needed (the cameras, the drive by wire technology, the local processing power and connectivity) built in, to one day become fully self-driving. Owners and the company only need to wait before the software can actually be created that allows this, beam it over the air, and generations of cars become automated at the flick of a switch.
A change in mindset to products that improve.
We see this more routinely than ever. Devialet Phantom speakers one day became compatible with Airplay thanks to an Airplay update. Last year they created a “Live with Phantom” program that gave access to exclusive live concerts from the Paris Opera. Meural Digital Art frame each week receives new images to show; Nest becomes more efficient. However, this type of thinking is not prevalent… yet.
What Apple got right above everything else was to realize that the battle for hardware was actually won by software. My Nokia N95 could do everything that the first few generations of iPhone could do, several years before. However, it was a lousy experience a terrible interface. What made the iPod better than thousands of competing products was the iTunes interface and the ease of doing things we’d never tried before: downloading, synching, creating playlists. They were a tranche of new behaviors we needed to be gently introduced to.
Design is hardware, software and services together
We need to get better at thinking about products and services in a better way. When you become an American Express Platinum Cardholder, you don’t own a nice credit card, you become a member of a club that gives you access to a concierge, exclusive lounges at airports and more. When you buy a Black Label Lincoln from the Ford Motor Company, you do receive a car, but you also are enrolled in a program, with your own dedicated liaison officer, and your car will be serviced regularly with no hassle.
Customer-centric design is your USP.
So here’s a thought for 2018. Whatever your company does, forget what it makes and think about the entire customer experience. What does the product do now, what can it do later, what does membership to its club feel like.
If you’re a mobile phone operator, you could either spend billions on advertising and or billions on promotions, or you could consider ways to use software and experience design to make things better.
This could be with a membership-like experience offering improved access, or by reducing advertising when using one of your handsets.
If you’re a bank, why not become the gateway between me and my money? If you’re a car maker, what if the entire lifecycle of car ownership was improved? What if the car self-diagnosed issues in advance and booked services for me? If Nest was for cars, what would it look like?
I now choose Zipcar over usual car rental because while the car might be further away, I can change my booking with a text message. I chose Chiltern Railways over a bus because the Wi-Fi is free and fast. I choose certain online retailers that cost more, because buying takes fewer clicks. I’ll chose specific suppliers because they offer accurate delivery windows and I can track the courier’s location.
Maybe I’m a weirdo, or maybe this is life in the modern age. Either way, we need to think of products as the combined efforts of software, systems, hardware… although, increasingly, the latter is least important.