You Can’t Make Meaningful

The last 50 years have been spent adding “features”. The march of technology has been defined by Moore’s Law: faster and smaller every 18 months, and boy has it delivered. Scientists and Engineers have truly moved the human race forward in our quest for a better, more comfortable world.

Over that time, the sources of competitive advantage have shifted, as Stuart Rosenfeld noted:

  • The 1960s & 1970s were about making things cheaper. Advantages came from things like mass production, Cost, and Functionality
  • The 1980s & 1990s were about making things better. Advantages came from quality, Total Quality Management (TQM), Just in Time (JIT) Manufacturing, and automation.
  • The 2000s were about making better things. Advantages came from aesthetics and originality.

This 50 year march enabled our products1 to be functional, reliable, usable, and at times, convenient. Much like Maslow’s hierarchy, our basic needs have been met.

UX Hierarchy of Needs Illustration by Ben Jordan.

There are countless writers trumpeting that design is the future of business, that to succeed you have to have gorgeous products. There are just as many that shout about how gamification is the future, that we need to use psychology to persuade our customers. Or innovation is the future, you have to innovate to succeed!

These points are all true, but they are prescribed solutions for companies because they’ve worked for Apple or Facebook. As we move up the hierarchy of needs for our customers, what they’re really looking for is meaning. Consumers want a deeper connection to the things we use every day.

Here’s the dilemma over the coming decade: as a product builder, you can’t make meaningful. It is entirely defined by the consumer. That’s in stark contrast to where we’ve been: creating functional, reliable, and usable are entirely in the hands of the product maker. That’s why it was so easy to define something like Moore’s law: it’s merely a checklist of where you need to go.

Success in the coming decade has no single roadmap. In fact, “best practices” are useless when it comes to creating meaning because copying someone else’s approach does not come across as authentic and genuine, two important factors to make something meaningful.

The sprint through the last 50 years has all been inward focused. That’s why the enhancements that product makers are looking for today are things like pop-overs, more marketing space, and things that let them push push push. They’re all me-focused, not customer focused. We’ve been trained to think this way as we’ve made our products more functional and reliable.

Success in the next 50 years starts with a complete shift in thinking. It starts with the question of “why are my customers even buying what I make,” rather than competitor analyses, feature check lists, and “best practices”.

I’ll be exploring that shift in thinking in a series of posts over the coming weeks.

  1. I use the term products to encompass anything that is made, physical, digital, or service based. []
May 15, 2012