A side effect of the digital revolution has been the closing of the perceived gap between product thinking and communications thinking. Not always with desirable results.
Watching these worlds collide has long been a fascination for me, as they are such distinctly different approaches, require such different skills and temperament and are typical bought by distinct clients.
Yet, they have much in common too.
Whilst the staff are rarely transferable between the disciplines, they are very much the same breed: recognisable by their dress, their attitude, their enthusiasm, their intelligence and creativity. And the technical tools and techniques used are often similar too: creative briefs, Photoshop, brainstorms and so on.
Many other worlds use these tools and techniques. You might find PostIt notes and Adobe in packaging, PR, management consulting and other parts of the professional services world, but you’re unlikely to find an agency that does Packaging, Consulting and PR products. Or, at least, one that does it well.
One reason why we see so many try to combine the art of the digital communicator and the art of the digital product developer could be that a single company that could do both could create, launch and grow digital products without need for external support. That’s a powerful dream. Although I don’t know how often it has been fulfilled in reality.
By treating these two disciplines as if they should be accomplished in a single place, do we run the risk of losing the best of each, and the opportunity to properly assess how elements of each would enrich the other.
Let’s look at the two things and see what, if anything they can contribute to the other.
And this is the hard bit. How do we capture the heart of each discipline succinctly, without jargon, and in a way that practitioners can both agree with for themselves and understand for the other.
Skill One: experience of the thing
Product designers (and that’s a pretty broad church) are responsible for developing the thing itself. The more obvious (if not easy) part of this is in developing things that the end consumer will love, that they will find intuitive, rewarding and so on; a thing that users will continue to want to use. In this case the user’s relationship to the thing is more or less obvious. The user experiences it directly. Of course, that doesn’t mean that each user has the sample experience, even if they all see the same thing. Experience depends on the user’s skill, the user’s context, the task the user is trying to achieve. As Lou Carbone puts it, the experience is not related to what the user thinks of the thing, but rather, how the user feels about themselves once they’ve interacted with the thing.
The science of trying to design for users despite their differing skills, context and so on, is quite well developed using research to understand and group people, using tools like user journeys and personas to codify them. Whether it’s a bottle opener or an app, we also need to push product developers to consider the aesthetic as much as the function of the product. The impact on the user can be equally impacted by emotional triggers in the product, not just how successfully it can be used to achieve a task.
Meaning is – of course – socially constructed. And so understanding how objects will be interpreted and understood, should understand this social context, norms, reference points etc. I’m sure owning the first gas lamps was a sign of being cutting edge. Now it would be a statement about being traditional. How do we compare the effect of owning and iPhone in New Jersey with owning one in Shanghai, and so on. When done well, a measure of this social context of use, and of understand the meaning derived from objects, is included in the definition of user experience.
Skill Two: communication of the thing
Modern communications skills are no less important or complex than the skills required to design a product in the first place.
By definition, this is not a design of a product which is directly experienced.
At the heart of it, the communicator is trying to precondition the audience to have a different reaction to the product (or service) and is doing so in the absence of a direct experience of the product. In fact, it is odd for communications about the thing and the thing itself to be present at the same time (think of those awful brand posters in Barclays branches or adverts for Rank Screen Advertising).
How can external stimuli change how we react to stimuli, real or imagined? Fundementally, it must help the receiver to create links amongst their understandings of meaning. It is a process which results in new associations. What is it that makes Prada posh or Pepsi-max precocious. These are truths which have been created by marketing.
In order to do this, a communications designer must have some grip on the inexact art of stimulus and response. Why is it inexact? Because meaning is ever mutating and audiences are not amorphous. If I talk about ‘pretty little colleens’, it is a phrase which some will recognise exactly (it has been a lyric in a pop song), others will recognise generically (Colleen taken as stereotypically Irish name), and others (those called Colleen) will identify with specifically. Your distance from the various references will impact on the extent to which you understand it at all.
So to a real degree, the communications planner must understand how embedded and related these social norms are and construct their message to match this.
So arguably meaning/context is even more important for communications than it is for product.
At the same time, the communicator is most often working to do a lot in a very short time frame, whether the turn of a page, or the 10 watched seconds of a 30 second TV commercial. This has led to lots of techniques focussed on gaining maximum traction with minimal transaction: big ideas, single minded proposition, visual identities and so on.
In contrast, product designers are often working to reduce the amount of time consumers spend with their offspring and making each moment delightful and uninterruptive.
I think all of us who have seen the inner workings of the development of a truly phenomenal advertising campaign, are in awe of the planners and creatives who can translate such a disparate context in such a challenge medium into so much meaning. Guiness’ surfer, VCCP’s years of work for O2, the great Levi’s ads.
But why would the people that do one of these things be good at the other, and for what reason (other than commercial) would you want both under the same roof?
What I’ve seen is people from each discipline trying their hand at the other. This has rarely ended well. And, worse, I’ve seen managers from one discipline try and manage the other, but without changing their approach. This never works, except in the pitch room where all is roses, and the only possible impact of crushing together ying and yang, of fusing these atoms, is a joyful integration and 5% off the cheque.
I’ll wait for a braver clever agency person to show me the way. Perhaps even in the comments. Go on, you know you want to.