The Difference between the Design of Digital and Analogue Products

Francisco Inchauste, a User Experience (UX) designer passionate about all things web, writes a very insightful analysis on the difference of approach between his design of intangible digital products, to that of Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s more analogue (or tangible) products.
He writes:

The digital medium is perhaps the most forgiving canvas we have ever been able to create on. It’s like a clay that holds shape and never dries, or a pencil with a never-ending eraser. The ability to easily change the user interface or modify how a website functions is what makes the digital stuff we make so great. To top it off, our raw material (bits/bytes) costs us nothing. If you have ever designed and built a physical product you quickly find the limitations. There is no forgiveness in creating something out of wood or metal. You can’t just quickly tweak it if you find something wrong once it has been produced. For example, putting a sticker on a table that says “beta” and then sending out a “table update” later to fix issues doesn’t work. When it’s a table, you measure twice (maybe three times) and cut once. There is no “undo” if you get it wrong. You start over.
So, with all the benefits of the digital medium, why does the final product seem to degrade so quickly? Searching through website galleries for designs that could be studied for years to come for their ingenuity and insight seems to be a fruitless endeavour. Search through something like an architecture gallery and you’ll find at least a handful of homes or buildings that will certainly stand the test of time. The work there will age well and has a better chance to be appreciated more in 10 years than it is today. Our mindset is completely different with digital products. Being able to quickly iterate on a design until we get to a superior product is something we can easily achieve. The downside is that clients have begun to expect things to be bigger, better, and faster. That final product has become an iteration, rather than a solid end product. Less time is available to think things through and get to that finely crafted solution. Every design, every piece of code, is “good enough” for now. There’s no real commitment because it can always be changed.

I think he nails it right on the head.
Furthermore in my opinion, both design disciplines can learn much from each other’s process. Product (tangible) designers can reflect on pushing through more rounds of iteration and failing earlier in the design phase before finalizing on a design.
UX or Interaction Designers should move past the easy lure of a “beta” tag and force themselves or their clients to spend more time making sure the content is at a much higher level before it is released for public consumption.
But lets take a moment to consider this. Just imagine how powerful we would be, if both disciplines attacked a design problem together?
On a small parallel, I have always enjoyed games on the Nintendo Gameboy or DS platform. The natural constraints of a memory cartridge force the software designers to ensure the highest quality content before it gets shipped. A refreshing change in an era of PC games that often forces you to download patches to cover up their bug laded software.
Via: GetFinch

2 Comments
  • René Lee

    November 9, 2010 at 3:10 pm Reply

    Very insightful post! Although I am more in love with the benefit of digital media than it’s flaws. Kind of reminds me of a teacher I had at elementary school who demanded that we write essays on paper and not on computer. She argued that since writing on paper doesn’t let you go back and make changes, it forces you to rewrite the entire paper again, conducing an iterative approach to writing. Somehow pressing spellcheck doesn’t really improve the literature.
    But I think there is value in googles approach of being in perpetual beta and releasing products, not waiting for perfection. It also tends to enable co creation based on user feedback. Apple, on the other hand seem like they take a more physical approach when it comes to their software, releasing after they achieve a high level of polish.
    I’m curious to hear how your thoughts as to how these seemingly opposing design process can work in conjunction.

  • Design Translator

    November 18, 2010 at 2:11 pm Reply

    @Rene: Always good to see you here.
    In a similar analogy to your writing story, I used to refuse to white out or photocopy my sketches (plus photocopiers were not so big back then). Instead I would force myself to re-draw the entire sketch. Doing it over and over again also allowed me to refine my skills and capture the essence of the design.
    With regard to your question. I have touched on this briefly in the article. Product designers can adopt a similar approach to the UX public beta release. But it often boils down to resources. More time and/or money spent to iterate. This iteration has to be done earlier in a product’s process. To a certain extent it is already done during the mold testing phases, but it is not “officially” released to the public, so it does not count as there is no validation.
    So far the only company I can tell that works this way is Samsung. With their strengths in vertical integration, they can quickly launch products and iterate based on actual market feedback. Any lesser company would buckle under the weight of the resources required to do this.

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