I was at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. If you’ve never been, let me quickly describe it. Major manufactures and suppliers (Sony, Samsung, Nokia, Intel) as well as hundreds of companies you’ve never heard of, fill up several enormous buildings with row and row after row of booths and displays hawking their wares. Some of these booths are enormous, million-dollar affairs, while some are, well, just a table with stuff on it. It’s overwhelming, disorienting, and hard to remember one product from another.
And yet, some devices certainly are memorable. How is this, and why?
In order to create a product that stands out, you have to think strategically about it. If you design the same device that is already on the market, you create no value for your organization and no reason for a consumer to buy it instead of another device. To paraphrase strategy guru Michael Porter, your device has to be different than your competitors either by performing different functions, or by functioning differently. By doing so, you make it hard to replicate, and thus you have a strategic advantage.
A differentiator is a characteristic that, all other characteristics being equal, would cause a user to choose one device over another. Here are the major possible differentiators a device could have:
- Price. The device is the least expensive one on the market. It has the lowest price point in its category.
- Form. The device looks different than its competitors (more stylish, slimmer, colorful, different materials, etc.).
- Brand. The device has the advantage of a known organization “endorsing” it.
- Quality. The device is well made and durable.
- Technology. The device has the fastest/most powerful/most efficient/novel technology available.
- Functionality. The device does different things than other devices.
- Behavior. The device operates in a manner that others do not.
- Data and Content. The device has data and/or content that no one else has, either through self-generation or via third-parties.
- Community. The device has a strong user base that is difficult to acquire.
- Ecosystem. The device is tightly tied into an ecosystem of other products and services.
I’ve ranked these in order from easiest to replicate or do better, down to those that are very challenging to outdo. The more differentiators a device has near the end of the list, the vastly more difficult it will be for competitors to recreate and catch up. If we take the iPhone, for example, which had many of these differentiators (form, brand, quality, functionality, technology, behavior, ecosystem), some analysts believed it would take Nokia seven years to come up with a similar offering. And even though some of the differentiators (form, quality, functionality, and technology) have been replicated since its launch, and other similar phones might have other differentiators (namely price), the iPhone is still a distinct product because of the other differentiators it still maintains (brand, behavior, and ecosystem).
Differentiators feed into the value proposition for users. “If I use Device X, I will get Y as a result,” with Y being the product differentiators (although users certainly don’t think of them as such). In the past, Y was either usually price or quality, but increasingly the other differentiators play a role as well. Some of these differentiators, of course, can usually only be obtained over time, such as brand and community, but many can be built into the device, via hardware (form, quality, technology) or software (functionality, behavior).
A word of caution here: a shallow differentiator can be just bad design: making the device different for the sake of having a differentiator, not for the purpose of making it better. Worse is adding a feature to have a differentiator, even though it doesn’t support the overall goals of the product concept. This just leads to a confused product. “Our music player has calendaring functionality.” Don’t add a differentiator just because you can, but because it makes sense to do so. It won’t add value and can damage the product and your brand.
There is, however, the “feature paradox” that James Surowiecki points out in a New Yorker article:
[A]lthough consumers find overloaded gadgets unmanageable, they also find them attractive. It turns out that when we look at a new product in a store we tend to think that the more features there are, the better. It’s only once we get the product home and try to use it that we realize the virtues of simplicity.
Companies like features too, for the simple reason that they are considerably easier to sell. They fit neatly into product comparison charts, and it is easy to see how your device (seemingly) matches up against another. But as pointed out above, technology and functionality (the differentiators that usually comprise “features”) will be replicated. Behavior, Data and Content, Community, and Ecosystem are much trickier (although not impossible) to recreate. Paying attention to how features are embodied in the device will make more of a difference in the long-term (and often in the short-term as well) than the fact that there simply are certain features.
It is this How where design really plays its role. How does the user get from feature to feature? How do you access the feature, and how does the device respond once the feature is engaged? How can we encourage a community of use, or create the ecosystem this device lives in?
All of these differentiators, these Hows, should add up to the “of course” moment. Of course it works like that. How else would it work? That’s when you know you’ve gotten the right combination of differentiators to create a high-value product that will be memorable at next year’s CES.