Saturday, April 7, 2012

Affection! Affection! Affection!

Let's get touchy-feely for a second, let's talk about emotions, feelings, and affection.
Yes let's bring all those "soft topics" that seem to be superficial, peripheral, and irrelevant in technical and business atmospheres.

Emotionally Attached. Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

What did it happen to the Product Manager/Designer behind this blog? Did he go through an emotional breakdown? Is he considering a career change towards soul counseling? Did he forget about his technical background based on hard sciences? Too much TV talk shows?
Not really, I am using exaggeration as vehicle to spark a somehow controversial discussion. When we talk about high-tech products we usually talk about electronics, software, engineering, business, and rational design; in such frame of thought, talking about emotional concerns seems too soft, too out of range, especially for my friends the engineers (which I happen to be one of them as well, or used to be, or I am still are, or... I don't know any more...).

So, Yes, let's talk about those personal and emotional aspects of software and hardware products that due to its scarce presence in product strategy sessions seem to be a taboo in corporate environments.
Am I proposing then dragging all our mostly left-brain engineering teams into a touchy-feely group session that reassembles more a psychological intervention than a technical meeting? mmm... may be not.
Realistically our friends in engineering may only want to hear a summary of the decisions out of this type of discussions, and only when they want to know more about the Whys behind some product roadmap directions. Perhaps the same applies to our suit and tie friends in the business side of the organization. Without going to any extreme, what I will propose, is to consider talking more about often underestimated consumer emotional factors as part of the product design and development process.

Okay, What kind of softy stuff do I want to talk about after all? simple, all those things that make us connect with products in a more human, emotional, or even unconscious way, I want to give some air to all those aspects of a product design that are not a central concept in many of the rational techniques used daily in product conception, development, and management.

I am not saying that nobody talks about the emotional relationships between products and costumers, there are entire books and seminars about this topic, the subject represents a whole professional career for many, and disciplines like marketing, sociology, industrial design, graphic design, advertisement, and others give a lot of attention to the point. Ironically, this is not a central topic in the the process and methodologies used in the high-tech industry when it comes to product strategy and development; even more, it is surprisingly high the number of real life cases in which this type of considerations are not even touched.

And why is this ironic? because every one of us is involved in this emotional interaction with products daily, perhaps sometimes without noticing it, even those who work on product development and do not pay attention to these factors in their own every day jobs.

To picture what I am talking about, let's take for instance a writing/editing software products; there are thousands of word processors, text editors, and similar programs out there, however each one of us seem to have our own taste for word processors or text editors, and moreover, some times this preferences are argued during passionate discussions among users of different competing products.

You may say: A Word Processor? What in the world could create less emotional connection between a user and product than such unsexy piece of software? Well, the answers could be: A novel, a poem, or the code of the next big app, perhaps a collection of family cooking recipes.

Okay, your next logical question would be: What did the designers of the word processor really do to create that emotional connection? Here is the answer: Since the beginning of the product consumption cycle the user already has some sort of emotional relationship with the domain field that the product fulfills (not yet with the product itself), in this case of our sample user (the writer), he has an emotional link with Poetry.

From that point on, several simple functional details are there in the software that make our poet to be productive and happy with the tool. Perhaps those details start with things like the colors, design, and fonts of the buttons and icons in the editor's Graphical User Interface (GUI); which may have aesthetics  that resonate well with someone spending hours in front of the computer playing with words, or may be, after pressing each button or menu in the GUI she feels that the vendor invested quite some time getting those features right thinking on someone like her in mind. As a result she feels appreciated by the software creators and empowered to succeed with her tool, she finds each editing tool in the places she may guess or expect them, and she masters the software quickly because the features were meticulously thought to be consumed intuitively by a writer.

As our poet uses the tool, each GUI interaction leads her to another rewarding result, creating a cascade of small positive experiences, she then can move forward easily focusing on her work, and not thinking on how to use each gadget in the editor. Each of those small positive interactions during her writing are constantly generating pleasant memories associated with her poems.
Most likely, she will proudly recommend, upgrade, or buy that product or others from the same software company behind her new beloved tool. She will perceive the tool as loyal and useful companion for her work.

Can you imagine the same type of overall positive product experience in a user that builds up frustration in each unsuccessful or unpleasant interaction in the word processor? I personally cannot.

This example unfolds how good functional design is a good starting point; thanks to carefully designed features, users can cumulatively build a baggage of personal feelings and positive connections with the product. Those good feelings combined with how the product empowers or rewards users creates a unique link of affection between product and consumer, that goes beyond effective functionality.

There are millions of other examples: musicians and their preferred instruments, construction workers and their favorite tools in their toolboxes, riders and their motorcycles, and perhaps many of us with our cars or some special clothes.
Retrospectively I can recall several products that left an emotional mark on me: My first bicycle (versatile and agile, made me a Centaurus on wheels during my early childhood), My second home computer (Yes, my forever remembered Sinclair ZX Spectrum, perhaps the true beginning of my story), my Walkman (younger people may not know what I am talking about, but do not worry, it was a kind of iPod of the previous century, but with bunch of moving mechanical parts, powered by tiny hamsters WALKing their micro hamster wheels in order to make spin a gear in a "cassette", french word for interchangeable flat music-boxes inserted inside the "iPod", this flat music-boxes were like downloads that you can touch, containing inside a long flat serpentine with deposits of metal particles; which were collected one by one by a tiny wizard called Magneto, who converted them into beautiful songs, all that marvel thanks to the WALK-MAN's inventor, an old Japanese craftsMAN who his dad used to affectionately call "Sony").

Cassette Tape. Courtesy of

Additional memories may be related to, for instance, some of my early cars (some of them pure German lines, others Italian classic charm); or my first smart phone (the world in my hand), and many others...

If we know that evocative connection between consumers and products is a critical success factor for products, Why does the traditional product conception methodologies focus first on the technical and functional aspects of the them? No question that functionality and technology are key, however, isn't time for us to put the emotional considerations in foreground during the product design process? I say that time to time our design process should start with three priorities in mind: Affection, Affection, and Affection!

By the way, What were the products in YOUR life that created an emotional connection with you..?

Thanks for reading!

Stay up to date on this and related topics by following me on twitter: @Juan_Noceda