From a business perspective, investing in design used to be justified by guaranteeing an attractive looking product that would seduce people into buying it. Design was seen as a way to attract attention that led to sales. A lot of money was spent on advertising, with big glossy images that show off the design of a new product and generate excitement and desire. The idea that one should fill their lives with beautiful products that displayed one’s values was a long-standing and successful strategy behind consumerism.

The ability of a beautiful looking product to sell itself is being worn away.

Now it’s not that simple. First, the format our products take is going through a widespread transformation. Take the video camera for example, starting out in the 60’s with the super 8 this product evolved into the VHS Camera in the 80’s, the camcorder in the 90’s and finally the digital handycam in the early 2000’s. During this time the video camera went through a now familiar process of miniaturization common to almost all consumer electronics, until finally it disappeared completely.

The home video camera is no longer a product at all, instead it’s function has been absorbed into a computer we call the smartphone. This has happened to many products as digital technology has integrated and optimized them to fit in a single Swiss-Army knife like device.

Camera Evolution Sec

Secondly the ability of a beautiful looking product to sell itself is being worn away. As design trickles down to low segment products it has lost its association with the premium and high quality products it used to have. Design was once considered a luxury in the product development process and therefore reserved for flagship and high end products, that way consumers knew if a product had a nice design it was bound to be good quality as well.

… just because a product looks nice doesn’t mean it’s made well.

Many decades later it’s hard to find a product that hasn’t been touched by a designer. The effect is that cheap products may now look just as appealing as the expensive ones. This naturally creates some dissatisfaction among consumers as they learn that: just because a product looks nice doesn’t mean it’s made well.

Add this to the increasingly complex array of features offered by new digital products and it’s easy to see that making a purchase decision is a daunting task for many consumers. I believe this is why we see so many product review sites and videos on the internet. We now rely on others to explain and compare products for us. Whether published by professionals or other private people these reviews are by in large thorough, honest and well informed, at least in comparison to the in-store salesmen we’re used to.

The reviews look at many aspects of a product including aesthetics, durability and usability; they often go into a lot of detail and will explain the pros and cons of each, ending up with a recommendation for best product. This is new and I think significant for design as it gives potential customers an easy to access and much deeper insight into both the physical and lifestyle implications of a product. These reviews often allow them a realistic impression of what it’s like to own a product, instead of only the hype and seduction of advertising.

… the widespread introduction of online reviews is setting a new standard for product design.

So what does this mean for design? It means that in order to be successful we have to go well beyond just making an attractive looking product. We have to design quality products that offer consumers something of real value, because if we don’t our shortcomings will be exposed on the internet for anyone who is watching to see. In effect the widespread introduction of online reviews is setting a new standard for product design.

This is also contributing to the decline in customer loyalty as consumers are no longer limited to relying on local stores and brand promises to guide their purchase, they simply buy the best-reviewed products. Some companies have understood this shift and are working hard to understand their customers and design products that focus on their needs and concerns. Designers too are shifting their attention, spending more time in customer research and using that as a driver for new product ideas. The highly regarded Apple products are relatively unimaginative from a styling perspective but rather owe their success to their ability to understand customers and reflect their needs in products with an exceptional level of consistency and attention to detail.

Today, the quality of the total user experience is the new measure of design. Beautiful aesthetics are expected, as is ease of use, product performance, thoughtful details, and evidence (customer support, out-of-box experience, etc.) that the company cares about the user themselves. The 21st century consumer demands that companies deliver on every level. The companies that integrate design into everything they do will lead their industries.

Ashley Legg is a Senior Designer in Industrial Design at Essential.

Essential Design is a leading Innovation Strategy & Design consultancy. We work across the healthcare, consumer, and commercial industries, helping our clients conceive and drive to market comprehensive digital, physical, and service experiences.