Arriving at joy in product design

For those of us in a profession where upon completion of whatever endeavor the outcome is something that is delivered, received and enjoyed--it's actual a rarity that delight and joy is baked in from the start. Whether this might be a digital deliverable or a thing matters little. And the means by which this is done might be by engineered beauty, or via wonderful theatrics and suspense, some perfected blend of form and function.

Those of us that dream, construct and deliver physical goods struggle with the concept of minimum viable product. As the barriers to making hardware become easier and less costly year over year, more creators are coming into the scene bringing in agile development skills. For all that I've seen this is an amazing thing. But sometimes I worry: what of beauty, what of joy and what of delight? Whenever I see an agile roadmap, or a minimum viable product description, it evokes sometimes a delicateness like a bird without skin and features, or a spareness of function from being cut down to the core, and sometimes a focus so tight it resembles brutalist architecture. Since software engineers have the luxury of doing continuous release, the bird can be skinned, the core can be fleshed out and paint can be applied to the architecture. But when it comes to hardware design and development, even experts can be at a loss for doing MVP.

The best hardware products seem to have a three-way trajectory that eventually meets in the middle: 1) an MVP that stacks mostly all the fixable elements that could be corrected while the ship is launched (firmware, protocol, drivers, cloud, application, and so on) 2) a nonminimalist first generation hardware platform that is allowed to take certain risks, make possible some growth headroom that if the features don't fly, can be easily nipped and tucked a half generation later and 3) an user experience driven team that worries about the out-of-the-box experience, and whether there is enough joy and other more complex emotions being constructed in at all the different layers of the product.

The big phrase of the day is intellectual honesty -- which in the product world means creating a cohesive product that communicates a honest description or feeling of itself. For example, a flyswatter with a laser scope would feel fake, a computer with the term turbo on it feels ignorant, a mercedes-benz under $10,000 feels wrong. Any of these these if they existed would feel dishonest. This is why skeuomorphism has been ripped out of iOS 7 and why Apple's mobile devices feel like a more collected product line now. The point being that even the very best of us can't always get it right, and if the design falls short early on, the perceived correct vision might not be easily pulled together cohesively again. Unlike software, if experiential corners are cut early, it may never be fixable again in a way that feels correct to the users. Therefore it's incumbent upon us to consider or have somebody worrying constantly what users might be feeling at the different levels of use and how to actively cultivate for the desired emotions.

So for all of us who are opening presents today, keep your inner observer present and drink deep from the experiential well as the gift wrap is torn, the box is admired, and opened, and the bits and pieces are strewn about, apps installed, toys played with and consider how any or all of this might have been designed to play out. For certain of these items, you'll feel joy, and the best of these items, there is also a complex histogram of emotions evoked on purpose. Consider that there are many web sites doing hardware teardowns but few out there doing this exact sort of emotional analytics. The best thing you can do is to take note, don't let the moment be lost and understand as best you can how to replicate and improve upon it.