future of product design pdf pdf

The Future of Product Design
Jonathan Follett

The Future of Product Design
by Jonathan Follett
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Chapter 1. The Future of Product Design
Jonathan Follett

A Product Design Renaissance
The world is changing. The lines between software and hardware blur; fresh approaches to
manufacturing reduce the time from idea to market; and new smart objects and systems herald our

connected future.1
A product design renaissance might be on its way, but despite all this potential and promise—or
maybe because of it—the ride could well be a bumpy one. The human aspect of the equation remains
the x-factor. And, how we work together as participants in this product revolution, both as people and
as organizations, will play a key role in the outcome.
There’s never been a better time to be a product designer, although there’s also perhaps never been a
more confusing time, either. Today, the combination of emerging technologies and powerful new
resources and methods—from open source reference designs to crowdfunding—are democratizing
innovation, compressing the design cycle, and reshaping the relationship between consumer and
product. If the amalgam of user experience (UX), software, industrial, material, and engineering
design had a name, it would probably be product design—although it’s likely that product designers
themselves wouldn’t agree on it.
In this report, we’ll examine from a product designer’s perspective the ways in which these changes
are disrupting design and the product lifecycle as well as considerations for people and companies
looking at new ways of approaching product innovation and creation. This is not an all-encompassing
overview; rather, it’s a snapshot of a rapid evolution, as seen from the trenches of product design.

Is This the Third Industrial Revolution?
Twenty-first century product design is being disrupted by factors both cultural and technological. The
confluence of crowdsourcing, new manufacturing methods, and other emerging technologies has set

the stage for what we might call a Third Industrial Revolution. In a prescient article2 on the next wave
manufacturing phenomenon, The Economist postulated the following:
...the cost of producing much smaller batches of a wider variety, with each product tailored
precisely to each customer’s whims, is falling. The factory of the future will focus on mass
customization and may look more like... weavers’ cottages than Ford’s assembly line.
In this new revolution, economies of scale and the mass production required to reach these are
replaced by the efficiency and leverage of highly targeted, rapidly developed, and, hopefully, less
wasteful products that retain an artisanal value for the consumer.

Manufacturing for the mass market will no doubt remain for the many products that have a universal
appeal, but for those items that truly intersect with our unique needs—that seem to have our personal
imprint in them—these individualized products will grow and flourish in a new period of
craftsmanship at scale.
In this burgeoning new era, the designer’s understanding of the user will be paramount—an in-depth
comprehension that goes beyond typical use cases, workflows, or trite personas and begins to
resemble something more like a relationship that grows over time.
This understanding of the user DNA will drive product personalization. And we’re not talking
personalization in a trivial way, such as printing a child’s name on a toy, or a family’s photo on a
coffee mug; this new personalization will be the creation of objects that fit into our daily lives with
impeccable ease. For example, for the busy parent perhaps a set of connected home appliances that

help to measure the overall nutrition, caloric intake, from freezer to refrigerator, to oven for each
family member’s meals; or for the avid athlete, custom training gear that adheres to changing body
measurements and adjusts over time.
The “return to craftsmanship” will be transformative economically, as well. Research from
McKinsey Global Institute indicates that by 2025, additive fabrication alone could have an impact of
$550 billion3 as it changes forever the manufacturing industry. Add this to the trillions of dollars of
market disruption for the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and so on, and we can begin to appreciate
the scale of change that is coming.
Reshaping the world
If past is indeed prologue, we must come to terms with the fact that although the emerging
technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution—from the automobile to electric power—reshaped
the world, they did so in many ways that were negative as well as positive. From rampant pollution to
the abuse of our planet’s natural resources, the environmental consequences that are the Second
Industrial Revolution’s legacy remain critical areas with which we must contend.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century: If we consider the massive number of new objects that a
product renaissance—propelled by the IoT and 3D printing—could bring, introducing millions of
new things into our world, it’s clear we must also consider design not just for mass adoption, but also
for mass decline and return to the stream of natural resources.
Everyone can sketch on a napkin
How are new products imagined, created, tested, and produced? Generally speaking, this was once

the purview of specialized professionals, backed by large companies, who had the resources and
knowledge to invest in time-consuming R&D cycles, complex manufacturing lines, long supply
chains, and expensive marketing and distribution. And even though there were certainly plenty of
upstart startups and disruptors, these were far from the norm.
Emerging technologies are not just changing what’s being made or how fast it’s being developed,
they’re also changing who is capable of making it. The ambitious entrepreneur who understands an

audience—the young mother who has an idea for improving products for her baby or the coffee
fanatic who can see the future of specialized brewing—are enabled to move their ideas from mind to
reality, from napkin sketch to use by an appreciative audience. And, as these technologies evolve and
mature, we can expect more democratization to come.

The Evolution of Product Design
The powerful interplay between innovative use of new technologies and creative methods for
working collaboratively is transforming product design.

New Ways of Working
Sometimes, we forget that we are still, relatively speaking, in the first moments of the information
age, saddled with the legacy structures of the industrial past. These structures continue to govern and
guide our interactions—from societal to organizational to interpersonal—despite being relics of a

bygone era. As such, we are still discovering how to organize our efforts together when it comes to
knowledge work, whether that be scientific discovery, engineering, design, or otherwise. But we are
making progress.
As the creative class discovers and implements new forms of collaboration around ideas and
information, it opens new opportunities for building objects in both the digital and physical worlds.
And, if building on the work of others is crucial to innovation and human advancement, the speed at
which this work is disseminated and re-used is also a critical factor. What the age of information
has given us is the ability to stand on the shoulders of others, taking advantage of their efforts, to build
new work, ideas, and even funding in real time.
Preparing for a new product lifecycle
A product typically moves from design, to prototype, then into the marketplace, through growth and
maturity, and finally into decline. For decades, this model has given business stakeholders, designers,
and engineers alike a way to understand and contextualize the interactions between a product and the
marketplace, and ultimately between the product and the many people who use it. It is on this
foundation that the practice of product lifecycle management (PLM) has optimized the financing,
development, manufacturing, and marketing for companies.
Today, this familiar model is being upended by emerging technologies that are not only reinvigorating
existing categories but creating entirely new ones, as well. We can already see that the lines between
software and hardware products disappearing as the many variants of the IoT—from connected
objects such as wearables and automated appliances to sensor laden environments like Smart Cities

—begin to take hold. Perhaps sooner than we think, the lines between biological and mechanical
products will follow suit. Not only must companies contend with the difficulties of introducing
emerging tech into their product portfolio, they must negotiate a labyrinth of complex factors as the
product lifecycle itself is remade. Within this new product lifecycle, as designers, we must be
concerned with the myriad of development and production considerations, which will vary at every


Part 1. Hello, Market!
At the market introduction stage of the product lifecycle, the cost of designing, prototyping, and
validating with users continues to drop precipitously due to advances in 3D printing, open source
designs for mechanical and electrical engineering, and of course, crowdfunding.

A Tale from the Trenches: Prototyping at iRobot
For a decade, Scott Miller was an engineering lead at iRobot where he contributed to the creation of
the seminal in-home service robot: the Roomba automated vacuum cleaner. He is currently the CEO
at Dragon Innovation, a hardware innovation and manufacturing consultancy.
Scott reflects on his experiences with prototyping the original Roomba and contrasts that with the
prototyping process of today:
“Mechanically, we wanted to get a working prototype to be able to understand how the robot

behaved in unstructured environments. We would create the files... and build $25,000 models of
stereolithography, or SLA, which was incredibly brittle. There are all sorts of examples of us
turning off the cliff detectors and having the robot just drive off the end of the table and shatter
itself to pieces.
Today, you could pick MakerBot for FDM [Fused Deposition Modeling] or Formlabs for SLA,
for a much cheaper price. In fact, for a couple thousand bucks, you can actually buy your own
machine and be able to create models that work even better than what we had 10 or 15 years
ago, at a fraction of the price, and a much quicker iteration cycle. Rather than having to wait a
week or two weeks to get your parts back, you can even have them back in the morning. And this
lets you go much faster.
On the electrical side at iRobot, when we wanted to build the first circuit board to spin the
wheel modules, we had to get down to the bare metal and design our own H-bridge with flyback
diodes and transistors, figure out what components to pick, and actually do the hardcore
engineering. It took probably a month between designing it, sending the board out, getting the
board back, and writing the code just to get a simple motor to spin. Whereas today, literally in
20 minutes, my 7-year-old son can grab an Arduino, copy and paste some sample code, adjust
the key variables, and he’s spinning motors.
There’s been a really interesting abstraction from the complexity of how the thing actually
works to much more of a, ‘Let’s focus on getting the product working and not worrying as much
about the details.’ I think that’s incredibly enabling for the prototype.”

Software and the Speed of Sharing
The speed, agility, and open ethos of the software world have made inroads into product design and
engineering, as well. In the past, software systems for design and engineering were entirely closed,
which limited sharing across big teams; even more significant, it discouraged it across the industry.
But that is beginning to change as the sharing of mechanical and electrical designs means that such
elements are reusable.

In the realm of software development, services such as GitHub make it easy to keep track of and
share code—creating a virtuous cycle in which designers and engineers can build upon the
foundations of open source libraries and contribute back to the larger community. Electrical engineers
are starting to take a similar approach using services such as Upverter, where they can share
reference designs. Although still in its early stages, Upverter has made the leap from an initial user
base of hobbyists and hackers to enterprise clients. Similarly, on the mechanical side, GrabCAD
makes it possible for engineers to share models so that they don’t need to design a product from the
ground up.
The move to cloud-based software is also helping to accelerate product design. In the past, something
as essential as CAD software could be a barrier to entry for a startup. CAD software can be
expensive, especially if you’re an early-stage company with a great idea for a product and not much
else. Enter the next generation of CAD in the cloud, with less-expensive alternatives to traditional

seat licenses, like subscription pricing and even free versions. CAD software is being reinvented
with the nimble startups, makers, and hackers in mind. In this realm, both established players like
Autodesk, with its Fusion 360 offering, and newcomers like Onshape, a company started by the
former founders of SolidWorks, are competing to become the product designer’s choice.
Design, engineering, and project management techniques are beginning to cross-pollinate across the
domains of software and hardware, with a focus on modularity of design and quick iteration. The
timeline from the napkin sketch to the works-like/looks-like model has become incredibly
compressed, making it possible now for designers to get something in a customer’s hands quickly.
Although the first prototype version might well be unrefined and buggy, designers and engineers are
able to learn much from quick iteration cycles, as opposed to trying to make that perfect initial
product—an ethos not all that much different from that practiced by their counterparts in software.
And, on the business and finance side, crowdfunding is wrapping test marketing, promotion, and
preliminary sales into a convenient package. Early adopters from Kickstarter or IndieGoGo become
your core test audience, giving startups a critical initial market for their new product ideas.
Crowdfunding also limits the amount of money you need to recoup from R&D, or, at least, it gives
you the opportunity to find that initial capital.

Part 2. Growth and the Difficulties of Production in Volume
When you’ve proven there’s a product/market fit for your prototype and validated the features and
price point, the next great challenge for product companies comes with the shift to manufacturing in

volume. Not only do larger product runs require an equally large financial investment, but quality
control becomes increasingly difficult.
If all goes well on the market side, the adoption rate for your product will accelerate—represented by
the so-called growth “hockey stick” on the graph—as the product’s audience moves from early
adopters to more general acceptance.
Unlike the initial design and prototyping phases of the product lifecycle, change in manufacturing
processes has been slower in coming, and for good reason. Factories still use steel molds to create
injection-molded parts, which is by far the fastest and most reliable process for manufacturing runs of
plastic parts in volume. But steel, of course, can’t be easily changed after it’s created, so the penalties
for generating an incorrect mold can be substantial.
At least for the time being, you can’t 3D print a new steel mold. And, even though 3D printing using
metal is indeed an emerging technology, the low surface quality of the print makes for a poor mold.
However, as these processes are refined, it seems clear that the next evolutionary phase of the
product renaissance could be on the volume manufacturing side. Looking even farther out, we can see
how the advances in emerging technologies like robotics will make greater automation of
manufacturing not only possible, but likely.

A Tale from the Trenches: Technical Machine and the Prototype-toProduction Problem
Technical Machine is a hardware startup headquartered in Berkeley, California, that has found a
niche selling boards that interactive product designers can use from prototype into production.
Technical Machine’s Tessel 2, shown in Figure 1-1, appeals to those entrepreneurs who find
themselves caught in that awkward production middle ground where a startup could be supported by
thousands of crowdfunding backers, but lack the tens of thousands of early adopters necessary to
ensure the economies of scale that make volume manufacturing sensible.

Figure 1-1. The Tessel 2 board (Photo courtesy Technical Machine)

The team at Technical Machine realized that because most existing prototyping products on the market
today weren’t designed to scale for production, it could help product designers and engineers take
that next step. The popular Raspberry Pi board, for instance, was designed to be a learning tool; try to
put it into your production product, though, and you’ll find that the sourcing costs at volume make it
prohibitive to use. Tessel 2 fills that gap, serving not just as a development board, but also as a path
from development into production.
“If you’re generating the first batches of a product for early adopters, the volumes needed can be in
the low thousands. With these kinds of numbers, it’s very possible that using an off-the-shelf part
makes more sense financially than building your own custom hardware,” says Jon McKay, CEO of
Technical Machine. With the Tessel 2, Technical Machine is taking advantage of the economies of
scale for off-the-shelf parts while still allowing for some lightweight customization to match its
customers’ specific needs. As Figure 1-2 illustrates, this gives product designers a professionallooking offering, at an acceptable volume. “If [customers] are not using the Ethernet, or USB ports,
[or] some of the ten-pin module ports, let’s just take those ports off and save them money on their bill
of materials. That’s relatively easy to do. We’re trying to find these creative ways to make pseudocustomization possible at this median-level scale for people who are trying to build products,” Jon

Figure 1-2. Tessel 2 modules (Photo courtesy Technical Machine)

“We came from a web development background, and we just wanted to be able to make hardware at
the same sort of iteration speed that we made software. Obviously it’s not going to be entirely
possible because there’s shipping physical goods involved in that, but... there’s a lot of room for

A Tale from the Trenches: Dragon Innovation and the Challenge of
Going from One to Many
Dragon Innovation is a manufacturing services firm that helps both startups and established

companies negotiate the difficult terrain of outsourced production and the challenge of moving from
prototype to volume. “You have to pick a great contract manufacturer or factory to work with you. If
you get this right, you can build a really strong foundation and create a successful company. But, if
you get it wrong, then it’s like death by a thousand cuts, and it’s very, very difficult to recover,” says
Scott Miller, Dragon’s CEO.
Dragon is on the forefront of manufacturing service innovation, making the process as transparent as
possible and helping companies select factories from a comprehensive network of service providers,
such as the one shown in Figure 1-3.

Figure 1-3. Factory workers in China assemble circuit boards. (Photo courtesy Dragon Innovation)

“More often than not, you’re not going to find them doing a web search, because it’s very difficult to
know who’s good and who’s not good. At Dragon, we’ve got a database of a couple hundred
factories we’ve worked with and are constantly expanding that,” Scott explains.

The Request-for-Quote process
For the product designer, understanding the ins and outs of putting together a Request for Quote
(RFQ) can be intimidating. As a part of an RFQ package, the team at Dragon recommends that you
have three to five factories bid on your work so that you can have a strong basis for a line-by-line
pricing comparison.
The first part of the RFQ consists of a document describing the product, company, and team, as well
as the key areas in which they’re looking for assistance from the factory. If you’re a startup, this
document can be crucial because reputable factories in the Far East work with substantially larger
customers, making money when shipping products in volume, not in short runs. It’s critical in the
RFQ, therefore, that a startup illustrate for potential manufacturing partners the opportunity that
comes from working with them.
The second part of the RFQ is the Bill of Materials (BOM), which specifies all the component parts
and quantities needed to construct the end product. The BOM is critical for having insight into the
cost of everything that’s going into a product, as well as being able to make comparisons between
different factories.
The third part is the all-important schedule. As Scott explains, “Once you’ve got that, you go visit the
factories [Figure 1-4], start to figure out who’s good to work with, the capability of the team... things
like that. Then, finally, you’ll come back and do the apples-to-apples comparison to understand the
key cost drivers, and then how they line up, based on your visit. Having gone through that process, a
company is in a great position to pick a factory.”

Figure 1-4. The factory floor (Photo courtesy Dragon Innovation)

“At Dragon, we’re always agnostic on where our customers build. The only thing we care [about] is
that they succeed. Because we build a lot of consumer electronics, China often makes sense; but if
you’re doing lower volume—say, under 5,000 units, as a rough guideline—the United States makes
tremendous sense,” adds Scott.
“What we typically see, if you contrast the United States and China, in China, everything is very
vertically integrated. So you’ve got the molding, the SMT [Surface-Mount Technology] for the circuit
board, the quality testing, and the pack-out all in one facility. Whereas in the United States, it tends to
be more fragmented. You may work with a molding shop to do the injection molded parts, and then a
different circuit board shop to put together your PCBAs, and then a different house to do the final
assembly. You just structure the RFQ in a manner that’s conducive to that, but the process is exactly
the same.”
As product designers, it’s important that we understand how manufacturing processes work, how they
could change in the future, where there are risks, and where there’s room for greater efficiency.
However, with outsource manufacturing this can be difficult to do because the industry lacks
transparency. In the future, we could benefit from software tools that enable products to move through

the process more predictably. But for the time being, it might very well be that service innovation,
like that provided by Dragon, will be the driver of disruption.

David meets Goliath: Achieving Innovation Speed for Enterprise
With emerging technologies moving more quickly than ever, it can be hard to steer a large vessel,
such as an enterprise organization, to take advantage of them.
For larger companies that already have an established product portfolio and are seeing innovation
happening at the grassroots level, the ability to utilize crowd-sourcing or rapid prototyping might still
be problematic. The question comes down to this: when is it appropriate to retool a product process
when you’ve got standard operational procedures that make money for you today?
The ambiguity that can come with experimentation is always scary and potentially costly. And, there
are many aspects of innovation process that don’t match up with the large company production
methods optimized to do one thing really well.
According to Dragon’s Scott Miller, “When it comes to product design and development, the biggest
thing on the minds of the CEOs of larger companies is: ‘How to get an enterprise to go faster? How
do we get the speed of an entrepreneur to innovate and stay on top of things?’ Their biggest concern is
how do they innovate more quickly. It’s certainly a challenge. If you look at what it takes to move the
needle for a big company versus a small one, it’s a tremendous amount of volume. When you do that,
there’s a lot more risk, that it’s very difficult to fail fast to succeed sooner.”

Risk Taking and the Enterprise
Enterprise companies don’t want to lose out on opportunities because they can’t take risks; they need
new ways to evaluate innovative ideas and make good decisions about developing their products. To
solve this dilemma, innovating in small bites, by acquiring startups or forming incubators—where
employees can have greater freedom to experiment outside the regular organizational structure—is a
reasonable strategy. For example, the Boston area is a hotbed of large-company innovation lab
activity, from CVS, Johnson & Johnson, Staples, Verizon, and others.

Small Pilots
In the past, starting the manufacturing of a new product in significant volume always required an
enormous leap of faith. Unsurprisingly, the result was that many projects never saw the light of day—
a difficult outcome for product designers, indeed. For even the largest of companies it can be
understandably difficult to justify occupying a manufacturing facility and initiating a 100,000-unit run
when you lack all but the most basic of market validation.
However, in contrast today, as large companies recognize the importance of rapid innovation, they’re
finding ways to run smaller pilot programs—manufacturing 5,000 to 10,000 units in order to get a full
understanding of the product/market fit. By testing products in the market at a small scale and

gathering data quickly, companies can make informed decisions about whether they should scale-up
manufacturing. If a company gets the signal that there’s strength to a product line, they can ramp up to
full-scale production rapidly.

Developing Infrastructure
The product landscape is changing as Fortune 500 companies begin placing their bets on emerging
technologies. At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Samsung announced its focus on the
IoT and the connected home. This might have seemed like a big bet for the tech giant. The bigger play,
however, might not be in the way Samsung changes people’s interactions with their home appliances,
entertainment, and living environments, but rather in how the company creates the infrastructure that
binds it all together.
The IoT itself still lacks a solid infrastructure, which might still be years from being developed.
“While the Internet itself is accessible, there remains a huge gap between the devices that we create
and getting to the Internet,” says Ben Salinas, a designer and engineer at emerging technology
consultancy, Involution Studios. “WiFi networks require a lot of power to connect to and are
inconsistent. They’re not universal. We see a lot of devices tethering to a phone to use that Internet
connection. That still has issues.”
Salinas continues, “If you’re one of these small companies that are building a product for less than a
few million dollars, you probably are playing with the frameworks that larger companies, like
Samsung, Apple, and Microsoft, have already created.”
When it comes to emerging technologies, for entrepreneurs and smaller companies, the opportunities
lie in bringing products to market quickly, even if you’re playing on someone else’s network or using
someone else’s infrastructure. For the larger companies, making that network, driving the standards,
and owning the ecosystem are the big plays in the long term.

Part 3. Product as Dialogue
We are approaching a moment when product lifecycle maturity does not preclude further innovation;
rather, it provides a platform for it. In the past, companies have dealt with mature product lines—
those with wide adoption but minimal growth—by adding more features and attempting to find new
uses and audiences to rejuvenate them. Of the many places in the product development and
manufacturing lifecycle that can be disrupted, this could be one of the most significant. Emerging
technologies, especially the bevy of connected machines promised by the IoT, offer an opportunity for
companies to not only regularly update, but also analyze usage data returning from these connected
machines—making mass customization on a user level possible. This data-driven interplay between
company and consumer, between user and designer, might begin to alter the product lifecycle to
resemble more of an ongoing flow.
If data flow goes both ways—a conversation between designer and user, rather than a speech—the
product represents a living relationship and is never fully completed. Rather than think about a
finished product, as designers we should also incorporate into our thinking how a company can be
hyper-responsive to users of its products.
Connected devices and the IoT offer great potential for creating ongoing dynamic interaction. For
example, consider a product such as a washing machine that can respond to energy cycles; variables,
such as the speed and pattern of agitation, and the amount and temperature of water can be customized
based on our personal usage patterns. Through this, the relationship that we have with our washing
machine changes, and the decisions that the designer and the manufacturer make about which wash
cycles to push to us become valuable touchpoints in an ongoing conversation.

A Tale from the Trenches: Making LEO, The Maker Prince
LEO, The Maker Prince is a book by Carla Diana (a Smart Design fellow and New York Times
contributor) that celebrates emerging technology, inspiring young designers with a creative message,
made possible by 3D printing.
LEO, a visitor from space who you can see in Figure 1-5, prints 3D models based on sketches that are
created by the book’s narrator. The imaginative tale can truly become real for readers, as designs of
the characters are available for them to 3D print, along with various accessories, from musical
instruments to a planter to a chess set.

Figure 1-5. LEO, The Maker Prince (Photo courtesy Carla Diana)

But where the book really shines, at least from a design standpoint, is as an example of a product as
dialogue. Readers share their works on the book’s website and Diana makes ongoing adjustments to
the designs based on input from them. So, the book in some sense, is always being updated, and Diana
is having a conversation with the book’s readers through the medium of a physical product.
One reason Diana created a children’s book about 3D printing was to put virtual objects such as those
in Figure 1-6 out in the world as an experiment to see who downloaded them, why they downloaded
them, and what they did with them. “That was a fascinating moment for me,” says Diana, “because I
felt like, ‘Wow, you could have never done this before.’”
“People commented to me about some of the prints. They said, ‘Oh, this particular part grows more
successfully for me standing upright.’ I worked as hard as I could to try to get the objects to print as
well as they would with a typical FDM at-home printer. That was a really interesting moment for me,
too, because I felt like, ‘Oh, I can try this and I can just change the file.’”

Figure 1-6. All of the characters from the book can be 3D printed. (Photo courtesy Carla Diana)

“I did that because I am envisioning this future where it comes to distribution: A designer,
manufacturer, entrepreneur no longer has to think about, ‘Okay, well how many parts of this do I have
to make and where does it get warehoused? Where does it get distributed and what retailers is it
going to? There’s that whole dream of the streamline distribution and I think it’s very realistic,” states
Diana enthusiastically.

A Tale from the Trenches: Understanding Consumer Decision Making
How does a company know when it’s time to place a bet on emerging technologies?
“I think disruption for disruption’s sake will never win,” says Ellen DiResta, a strategic design
advisor for companies like Sanofi and Becton Dickinson, and former Managing Director for
innovation consultancy Design Continuum.
DiResta goes on to say, “Every single client I have, I always love the moment when I say to them:
‘Nobody wants your products. No one wants to buy an extra thing. Nobody wants to think about your
stuff. The people who think the most about your products are you guys. That’s it. You have to give
them something. You have to enable them to do something. If you don’t know what that is, and you’re
busy just focused on your thing, you will miss the mark eventually.’”
The relationship between the designer and the user of products is becoming ever closer.

Understanding the intrinsic motivations of the population engaged with your company is paramount to
facilitating those relationships going forward. In many instances, companies base their product
portfolios and their future plans on emerging technologies and how they expect those technologies to
evolve. But the product-based relationship you have with your customers can be deeper and
potentially longer standing.
DiResta suggests that companies need to avoid being seduced by the functionality of a potentially
disruptive technology; instead, they need to ask, “How can these capabilities better enable our
customers?” At the same time, the product designer needs to understand the full extent of a
technology’s capabilities, because from this knowledge, she can help define the desired user
Companies can err by going too far in the opposite direction, as well—expecting consumers to tell
them what to do and what to design. When, in reality, the motivators driving a consumer’s choices
might be something that they’re not ever going to be aware of, let alone be something that they can

Decision Motivators
“When I worked with a housewares company, I was interviewing women at home who had kids in
school. One lived in a very depressed area and another person lived in Wellesley, Massachusetts,
which is very affluent,” DiResta elaborates.
“They had very similar values. Their choices were very different because their means and their
circumstances were very different. The woman in Wellesley sent her kids to public school, because
she grew up so privileged and isolated and segregated... She felt like she lived in a bubble. She
wanted her kids to have a chance to be more normal. Wanted and picked Wellesley and had a very,
very nice house—but by her background standards, very modest—because she wanted her kids to be
“The other woman home-schooled her kids, because she felt that the school in town was just bad. Her
house was not that great, but she said, “I can’t send my kids to this school and expect them to ever get
out of this town.”
DiResta continues, “So you would say they are very, very different. But the way they made decisions
and how they chose, if you reversed the two people, they would be making the same choices as each
other. The values that those products or services had to speak to had to be the same.”
The disruptive technologies that will be the most successful will enable people to do what they want
to do from the beginning—just in better ways that fit with their changing context. “That’s really what
Apple did,” DiResta says. “Nobody wants to interact with technology. Apple provided technology in
a way that you can work through technology to do the things you want to do.”

Part 4. Design for End-of-Life
Sooner or later, a product will reach the end of its useful life. As overall usage declines, a company
will gradually reduce support for it, and eventually “sunset,” or phase-out, that product.
If one of the natural outcomes of a Product Renaissance will be a great many new products imagined
and brought into the world, designers will increasingly need to be concerned about the entirety of the
product lifecycle including its decline, and perhaps most important, with what happens to the product
after people are no longer using it.
Although we as designers might not like to admit it, the fact is that design and pollution are inexorably
connected. The design activities in which we engage at the beginning of the product lifecycle
inevitably create positive or negative environmental outcomes at its end-of-life. To effect positive
outcomes, we can and should ask: “What are the considerations for sustainability and environmental
This is not a new idea in design; rather, it is one whose time has come. The Design for Environment
(DfE) program, put in place by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as far back
as 1992, includes as a part of its toolkit the lifecycle assessment (LCA), “a systems-based approach
to quantifying the human health and environmental impacts associated with a product’s life from
‘cradle to grave’.”
Today, using software tools such as thinkstep’s GaBi, designers can complete a product lifecycle
assessment to determine its carbon, water, and overall environmental footprint, along with resource
and energy efficiency for its manufacturing and usage.
We can select materials that are environmentally friendly early in the manufacturing process, because
recently there has been great innovation in materials such as biodegradable plastics.
From a recycling standpoint, the biggest opportunity might lie in Design for Disassembly (DfD),
making electronic products much easier to separate into their core components—from circuit boards
to metal and plastic parts—and sending each of these into their appropriate recycling streams.
Perhaps one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we will have printed circuit boards (PCBs)
designed for easy component removal, minimizing the need for desoldering and exposure to heavy
Design for Remanufacturing (DfR) is a similar strategy that strives to remove durable components of
a product at the end of its lifecyle, reprocess them, and use them once again in a newly created item.
Even though this kind of design for a product’s end-of-life—whether it be for disassembly and
recycling or remanufacturing—does take more effort, there is a tremendous opportunity here for
product designers to take responsibility for and control of the aspects of the product lifecycle that
were overlooked during previous eras. For both startups and large companies alike, this systemic
view of product design is worth remembering, when encountering the pressures to release something
quickly and just get a product on the shelf.

On-Demand Production

In the future, we can also consider that there might be no need to phase out products if manufacturing
can be generated on demand and the price for creating individual versions is low. Today the print-ondemand segment of the publishing industry ensures that books with an audience will never go out of
print. The digital files for any book can be stored in the cloud until a customer orders it, at which
point the book is printed, bound, and shipped. It’s not hard to imagine a similar scenario for more
complex products. There are already 3D printing platforms today, such as Shapeways, for creating
simple objects on demand. In a similar way, distributed manufacturing is becoming reality as
crowdsource services such as 3DHubs give makers access to an extensive local network of 3D
printers. We can imagine how distributed fabrication for business might be accomplished with such a
system: add together enough 3DHub providers in an area and you could quickly complete a modest
run, depending on the availability of the network.

In this evolving world of emerging technology and product creation, designers who can create objects
that are both compelling to the consumer and within the bounds of manufacturing capabilities will be
exceptionally valuable. Understanding your materials—what they can do and what they can tolerate—
is key, be they plastics and metals or pixels and code. With such an understanding, product designers
can offer their insight, not only to envision future products, but also to think about the process for
getting there.
How do we approach product design and the evolving product lifecycle?
Here, inspired by Dieter Rams, the influential industrial designer known worldwide for his landmark
product designs for Braun and Vitsoe, we’ll conclude with three principles for good product design
in this brave new world of emerging technologies:
Good product design serves as an enabler for people.
To make a product useful and understandable, our understanding of the user must be of primary
Good product design is innovative in process.
Drawing on new ideas for working together—from crowdsourcing to open source reference
designs—we can stand on the shoulders of others to create better products.
Good product design is environmentally friendly.
As we design, we must take into account end-of-life planning that enables disassembly, recycling,
and even remanufacturing.

Companies, Products, and Links
Throughout this report, we’ve discussed a variety of companies and products to illustrate important
concepts in and approaches to product design for emerging technologies. Table 1-1 lists these

companies and products, ordered alphabetically, along with relevant links to further information.
Table 1-1. List of companies discussed









Fusion 360

Autodesk, Inc.






GitHub, Inc.






MakerBot Industries, LLC



OnShape, Inc.


Roomba 880 iRobot Corporation



Shapeways, Inc.



Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. http://www.solidworks.com

Tessel 2

Technical Machine



Upverter, Inc.



For a fabulous overview and vision of this universe and the technical trends driving it, check out the report “Building a Solid World”
by O’Reilly editors Mike Loukides and Jon Bruner.


http://www.economist.com/node/21553017 (accessed April 20, 2015)


Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business and the global economy.

About the Author
Jonathan Follett is a principal at Involution Studios where he is a designer, business lead, and
internationally published author on the topics of user experience and information design.
His most recent book, Designing for Emerging Technologies: UX for Genomics, Robotics, and the
Internet of Things (O’Reilly) was published in December 2014. He is also a co-author of Beautiful
Data: The Stories Behind Elegant Data Solutions (O’Reilly). Over the past decade, Jon has written
for online and print publications including A List Apart and UX Matters.
Throughout his 15-year design career, Jon has contributed to beautiful, usable software for enterprise,
healthcare, and emerging technology clients, from the Fortune 500 to the market leaders of the future.
Jon is a classically trained pianist who dreams of one day having a family rock band with his two
sons. Find him on Twitter at @jonfollett.

The universe of possibilities presented by emerging technologies, from the IoT to robotics to additive
fabrication, is vast and intimidating but also inspiring. Product design is changing so quickly that
there can be no shame in admitting that even those of us closest to it can only guess where it’s going.
The designers, engineers, and product folks who were kind enough to talk with me and inform and
refine my thinking for this report include Drew Carlton, Carla Diana, Jeff Champagne, Ellen DiResta,
Craig Mauch, Jon McKay, Scott Miller, and Ben Salinas. I couldn’t have put this together without
As usual, the O’Reilly Media editorial team was fantastically supportive. Both Mary Treseler and
Angela Rufino have pushed me to articulate the promise I see in the design field of the twenty-first
I should say, as well, that my wife Jen tolerates my late night writing binges, of which she has
supported more than her fair share.
Let’s make something great.