The rediscovery of function in product design

The ACM IT magazine publishes an article written by Andreas Pfeiffer titled »Why features don’t matter anymore: The new laws of digital technology«. He lists ten fundamental rules for the age of user experience technology. The article begins with this:

The iPod was never sold on the grounds of its technical merits: Apple hit a gold-mine by marketing a cool new way of integrating music in your life. Even when Apple announced the iPod with video, it presented it not as the best multi-media player in the universe, but as a cool new way of watching “Desperate Housewives” and other TV shows.

This observation applies a meme to marketing that I often present in one of my lectures: the differences in the definition of the term »functionality«. In a system-centered perspective functionality is based on features and potential things one could do. In a user-centered perspective functionality is based on tasks and actual actions that are performed. With simpler words: »Functionality« is not about what I could do with a system in theory, but rather what I am actually doing in practice.

This is really hard to understand for developers who tend to focus on the feature list of a system and then suggest users just need more training to get the most out of the product. The marketing would make packages filled with things you could do (if only you would be a power user enough to handle that power!). But the daily frustration with software that is oh-so powerful taught users to become sceptical: they’d rather buy something that does few things right than something that does many things wrong.

I think the iPod was never appealing as a standalone product but rather as a piece of an integrated and thought through product system with the Music Store and iTunes as “missing pieces” for anything you could possibly do with your music: listening, ripping, mixing, collecting, burning CDs, archiving, shopping, gifting, subscribing – and taking it with you on the go, to a party or in the car. In the WIndows-world you had all this functionality spread over different applications and hardware from different vendors – which often requires mere luck to get everything to work without problems.

Update: Tim Bruysten pointed me to this funny parody: How would the iPod packaging look like if Microsoft would have designed it?






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