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Product language in electronic media design

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue December, December 1 - December 31, 2001 | BY Steffen Klein 

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Communication follows function: How products communicate to users and why designers should care.


Communication follows function: How products communicate to users and why designers should care.



Signs and services

Design (1) is a popular topic these days. In recent years, the value of design has been repeatedly recognized, particularly by authors with an economic perspective. Articles about design are found in management journals as well as in coffee table books. There are a number of reasons for this increased attention: economic success by way of the "traditional" industrial paradigm -- i.e., development and production of tangible products -- has become a complex task, especially in industrial and post-industrial lands. The high cost of infrastructure and labor has to be compensated by premium retail prices. Then again, the use of standardized parts and components and the rapid dissemination of technological knowledge diminish many competitive advantages in terms of technical quality and functional features. Since the customer is not willing to pay a higher price unless he or she is able to recognize any significant benefit, little or no technical differentiation opens the way to sheer price competition. This competition makes it even more difficult to obtain an appropriate return on the large investments needed for in-house research and proprietary technical developments -- thus leading to a vicious circle of product strategy.

Given this dilemma, many companies look to design as a way out. Where technical differentiation is no longer feasible, differentiation by design seems to be an appropriate alternative for distinguishing one company's product from that of potential competitors. This assumption is based on a notion of design that extends well beyond the mere technical development of products, that is, beyond the engineering aspect. Design, in contrast, is usually associated with a more human-centered approach: a holistic understanding of the product that includes its semantic qualities and symbolic values. In regard to economic aspects, these symbolic qualities seem to be directly related to the potential value added, since they add a competitive differentiator. Hence any additional effort in design will usually justify the desired price premium. Indeed, quite a number of recent economic success stories are based on this correlation (2).

In design theory, it is also widely accepted that design is not (or not solely) oriented by functional (i.e., technical) requirements. In the first place, design is concerned with the actual use of products -- tangible products as well as processes, services, software, etc. -- by individual human beings and society in general, and by requirements resulting from this use. Product usage, on the other hand, is not merely a matter of manual operation (the domain of human factors); it also includes attribution of meaning. Thus requirements relevant for design pertain not only to the physical body, but also to the mind and to how people make sense of a certain product. This is particularly important in a social context, where the success of all kinds of activities is based on mutual coordination of ideas and expectations -- that is, on communication.

While the prominence of product design within the development process is growing, products themselves are rapidly changing. Again, the search for new differentiators to escape tough competition is one of the main drives behind this transformation. In order to open new business opportunities, and to increase customer loyalty through regular customer contacts, firms supplement products with services. Some of those services simply help to support the operation or maintain the normal function of a particular product. (Examples include help-desks and service contracts.) Other services -- e.g., telematic applications for commercial vehicles -- add new functions or extend the product's existing functions. Yet not only products, but also traditional services are changing. For instance, within the finance industry online applications have radically changed the way that customers interact with their banks.

What most of these services have in common is that they would not be possible without the rapid progress in computer systems and electronic media. Electronic media provide the necessary technical network between different devices and a service provider, or between the customer and the company. Computer systems can store and process the huge amount of data entailed by the up-scaling of the service industry. Neither intelligent routing systems, nor location-based information services, nor the huge interest of private customers in the stock market would have been possible without the advent of electronic media. Nevertheless, the term services is slightly ambiguous in regard to electronic media. Quite often these services do not work in a way similar to traditional services, such as barbers or real estate brokers. To the contrary, they merely offer self-service with little or no human staff to satisfy customer needs. Therefore media-based services -- or eServices -- should be seen as a new class of products. And this new class of product gives rise to new challenges for design.

Although designers consider the conception of services as part of their job -- service design has already evolved into a discipline in its own right (3) -- it has not always been clear what exactly their contribution to the development of services is. Addressing the customer's needs while developing structures that provide the foundation for a profitable business is a reasonable goal, but it is not necessarily a design task. Other disciplines -- namely service engineering, which is primarily oriented towards business science -- not only have similar goals, but also dispose of a substantial inventory of well-established tools and methods to be applied to the systematic development process within the service area. On the other hand, the strong orientation towards human requirements beyond the functionality that design is known for (i.e. the symbolic and emotional aspects of a product) has been neglected in the design of service products. The attribution of meaning, such as personal identification and social distinction, has been seen as merely a matter for tangible products, but not as a possible differentiator for the intangible products of the service industry. In particular, electronic media -- the principal access point of eServices -- have been considered functional tools rather than objects of emotional affection (4). There are a number of reasons why this perspective falls short.

First of all, the limited perspective concerning the product's sheer functional aspects makes it difficult for media-based services to be integrated into the branding strategies of their respective products. (They might even damage the existing brand of the core product.) Secondly, though supplementary services might be sufficient differentiators for a while, they quickly develop into standard components. In other words, services alone do not differentiate; they themselves have to be differentiated. Analogous to traditional products, technical quality and functionality offer only limited opportunities for this necessary differentiation. Amazon -- practically a synonym for Internet bookstores -- provides a good example of how difficult it is to build a competing brand based on a similar service. Thirdly, the evolution of human social structures has been accompanied by the symbolic use of artifacts as a significant means of social communication; product-based communication constitutes various social processes. There is no reason why these existing demands and expectations regarding our artifacts should vanish simply because the types of artifacts are changing. In short, the emotional and symbolic qualities of electronically mediated services -- that is, the online applications that essentially represent them -- have to be addressed by design in its quality as an important aspect of human experience and a potential decisive factor in choosing one particular service over another. Since semantic functions are an established topic in design theory, the relevant approaches have to be revised and applied to the new objects of design.

Communication and meaning

In the discipline of design, theories such as product language (5) have been formulated to describe in detail the relationship between product characteristics and how the user perceives them. Despite those concepts, the discussion surrounding product language and the semiotic processes pertaining to products is by no means over. There have been a number of objections to fundamental assumptions of product language and similar approaches, which are primarily based on concepts of epistemological constructivism and sociological systems science, respectively. Authors such as Krippendorf (6) and Jonas (7), though disagreeing in their conceptions of design, reject the idea that meaning can be embodied in the form of a product and thereby conveyed to the user or customer.

Constructivism argues that perception is not the perception of the qualities of a given physical world, but the perception of the internal states of the observer himself, i.e., the patterns that the nervous system produces in reaction to the given environment. External events do in fact trigger these reactions, but they cannot instruct the system how to react. Sensual stimuli are not simply forwarded to the brain but are processed in combination with various internal stimuli. The system detects those (and only those) stimuli it is able to process and reacts in a way that is determined solely by the system structure -- a principle that in the literature is termed self-reference. In this respect, meaning does not reflect the external environment or represent any entity existing in the universe. Meaning is based on bodily experience and personal interpretation, including, of course, various social and biological predispositions. Meaning is part of the observer's individual reality construction that is limited to his or her mind. Hence it can never be conveyed to any other person. According to this assumption, neither can signs -- and for that matter the product form, its shape, or any other formal characteristic -- refer to any external domain of meaning, nor do they convey meaning from a sender to a receiver.

This premise seems to contradict day-to-day human experience. Obviously we do communicate by means of signs, and we do understand various kinds of signs that people use to convey a message. If meaning cannot be conveyed, what does understanding "mean," and how can we successfully communicate? The model that constructivist theories offer describes communication not in terms of successfully transferred meaning, but as a process of the mutual orientation and coordination of expectations regarding the communicant's behavior. Those expectations come to bear on all kinds of direct responses, such as verbal expressions, gestures, etc., but also include observation and interpretation of long-term results. Any observation that complies with these expectations is considered to be an indication of correct understanding and triggers a subsequent response. Acts of communication are thus linked to further actions, and thus constantly keep the process of communication alive. In this model, the notion of shared meaning is not needed. Not only is it contradictory to the epistemological assumptions, it is simply irrelevant since the success of communication is measured by compliance to the pertinent expectations -- rather than conformity of thoughts -- and is manifested in the continuation of the process.

However, with no common ground of shared meaning, it seems unlikely that successful communication ever occurs (although such success cannot be totally excluded). Media play an important role in reducing this apparent unlikelihood. In his theory of social systems, Luhmann (8) defines media as an outcome of a long-term evolutionary process. In reference to specific types of the unlikelihood of communication, different types of media have evolved. At first communication is unlikely because it is unlikely that communication ever reaches its addressee. Distributing information in time and space, media helps to solve this problem. In the past, the notion of media was pretty much focused on this particular aspect of media, as well as to the technical difficulties related to the manipulation and transmission of signals. However, for communication to succeed, it is essential that a message not only reach its addressee, but that the message is recognized as an element of communication. Only after certain actions, sounds, or graphical figurations can be readily identified as purposeful utterances, their usage as signs can be recognized and distinguished from other events with no communicative relevance. The function of language -- the second type of media Luhmann describes -- is to enable this identification of utterances by defining fields of actions that are exclusively used for communication. Again, any ostensive correspondence of meaning is not established by elements of a language itself, but is part of the constructed reality of the communicants, based on the correspondence of expectations and actual experiences.

Products and language

The occurrences contributing to the process of communication are not limited to explicit utterances, such as verbal expressions or visual signs. Any behavior that is not fully determined by external constraints is open to a distinction of utterance and information, i.e., understanding. This is also true of the selection of products and the choice of product-related behavior. Neither the choice of a particular product nor its usage is strictly determined by any given circumstance. This freedom of choice entails a compulsion toward active selection. And those selections are open to interpretation in terms of communication: The selection of a product is understood as a statement; that is, the act of selection (the utterance) is distinguished from a unit of information pertinent to this choice. The selection might not even be meant as a statement. The very assumption of such a motive (and, of course, the possible reactions to clear up the misconception) constitutes a process of communication (9). Based on these ideas, products can be seen as signs, not for embodying meaning, but for tagging product-related behavior -- product selection and product usage -- as part of the communication process. Consequently, they are used as a language; that is, they are media. If product selection and product-related behavior are seen as an utterance, products also conserve those utterances, separate them from the actor, and distribute them in time and space. In other words, they also act as distribution media.

This concept of communication and media also leads to a different understanding of product language. Product language can no longer be seen as a language of products, i.e., information that comes from the product and is conveyed through its formal properties. Product language means the utilization of products as an element of communication, that is to say, products are language. While traditional approaches pertaining to the semantics of products are primarily interested in the correlation of form and meaning, from a constructivist viewpoint, this conception is misleading. Since meaning only exists in the individual mind and is by no means accessible from the outside, the correlation between form and meaning cannot be accessible either. Form, or any other product property, as part of the physical environment, and meaning, understood as individual sense-making, are located in separate systems -- the physical world and the mind -- and cannot cross their respective borders. It is merely a coincidence of events -- product-related properties and events attributed to persons -- which can be observed. Correlation can be conjectured, yet it continues to be the construction of the particular observer. Only the observer makes sense of these coincidences, based on his or her perceptions and social and cultural biases.

Once the correlation of form and meaning has to be renounced as the foundation of product language, the symbolic qualities of a product, together with the designer's potentiality of supporting this quality, have to be described in other terms. Two concepts in particular might provide a sound basis for this description: difference and coherence. Difference refers to the perceivable properties of a product: the design. Bateson (10) defines information as a difference that makes a difference. Hence, perceivable difference is the necessary precondition for making product-related behavior -- the selection of one product and its particular usage -- informative. Perceivable difference enables an observer to distinguish one option from another, thereby making sense of his or her distinction. Likewise, it is only through this distinction that products gain communicative significance. By constructing product properties that make one product distinguishable from another, the designer adds another expression to the language of products. However, he/she has no influence at all on how this expression will be used and what meaning will be associated with it.

Coherence, on the other hand, refers to the process of sense-making and communication -- perception. For a customer, a product has to be part of a coherent reality construction in order for him or her to perceive it as a meaningful object. This applies to its functional properties as well as to its formal qualities, a certain style of interaction, a problem that is solved -- or rather addressed -- by the product, and so on. To make sense of a product, a user has to be able to integrate it into his or her individual model of the world. Any particular meaning that the designer had in mind is irrelevant for this process, since the user does not select the product for the meaning it already has, but for the meaning he/she is able to assign to it. Similarly, a user's action only makes sense in the context of communication if it is coherent with social patterns of product-related behavior, either corresponding to them or questioning them. The constitution of social and (sub-) cultural systems is based on the selection of events -- and for that matter, on products -- as elements of communication. Coherent patterns of choice and usage, among others, make up the specific structure that accounts for this selection. Again, coherence does not require compliance with a suggested meaning, but merely a fit to the existing structures of a social context.

Semantic expressions in electronic media

If the notion of product language changes, as described above, then there must be consequences for the design of electronic media and media-based services also. To begin with, it becomes evident that, to the same extent that products are media in a context of social communication, every kind of product design is media design in the first place. It is the awareness of the fact that products are part of the social communication -- by being part of the language -- which constitutes the specific domain of design and distinguishes design from engineering. This basic orientation remains true regardless of the specific object of design. It applies to product design as well as to the design of electronic media and media-based services.

At the same time, understanding this orientation helps in identifying the goals of media design: In respect to the individual consumer, media design should provide opportunities for personal identification and social distinction. Media design does this by offering distinct realizations of a product idea -- different enough to be integrated into the various conceptions of reality. In respect to society as a whole, media design should allow for product-based communication in a world of changing products. Even though many -- yet definitely not all -- products may turn into software, or be extended by intangible services, their usage as an important part of our language should not vanish with the physical product. The intention behind media design is to interpret the medium not as a neutral transmitter, but as a product in its own right, with all the chances and challenges of product differentiation known from other products. Hence, the designer has to identify potential differentiators and explore possible instantiations of a concept.

This certainly includes what is called screen design -- the definition of layout, color, typeface, and so on. Without a doubt, these are important properties for any software interface. Yet the common ability to distinguish subtle graphical variations is surprisingly limited. Many of those differences would just not make a difference to the user. Leaving aside the missing distinctiveness -- which is somehow compensated by public instances of discernment, such as the well-known annual design competitions -- graphic design in principle constitutes only a small portion of the possible differentiations. Although those differentiators are already at hand -- since they are well known from print media -- they are not characteristic of electronic media.

Electronic media, in the sense referred to here, are foremost interactive media. Since the content, from electronic catalogs and magazines to interfaces of electronic services, is changing, this particular characteristic becomes increasingly significant. That is not to say that design has neglected the quality of interaction. On the contrary, interactions have been acknowledged as a core concern of media design -- which is why media design is often identified with interaction design. Similarly, the quality of interaction is a commonly accepted criterion in the evaluation of design approaches. Interaction quality, however, is usually understood as a vertical differentiation, i.e., a value on a one-dimensional scale in which the rating is done in compliance with absolute values such as intuitive usage, learnability, adequacy regarding a certain task, and the like. This perspective is based on the traditional paradigm of usability; and though often termed as human-centered; it is far too purpose-oriented to meet all human demands. It limits objects as mere means to a particular end -- a concept that has already been overcome in product design. Instead, interaction quality should also be seen as a way of horizontal differentiation: an opportunity to create distinct styles of interaction, based on distinct preconditions and preferences, and open to individual attribution of meaning and social significance.

Means of differentiation, which take on symbolic significance, go even beyond direct product properties, such as form and interaction. They can already be found at the level of product definition. It is a common understanding in design methodology that the process of design cannot properly be described as problem solving. It rather interprets a given situation in the form of a problem that the designer is able to solve (11). The definition of a design problem is design itself. It is part of a model of the world that is constructed either by the designer or by his/her client. Neither does the problem lie with the physical world, nor is it the only way to interpret a certain situation; it is a selection of one option from among others. If this is true for the process of design, it is also true for the process of consumption. The selection of a product, therefore, is at the same time the selection of a certain model of the world. It does not have to be similar to the model of the designer -- the intended meaning -- but it has to be coherent with the customer's conception of reality as a whole. The decision to apply electronic media to a certain task is already a difference that can trigger understanding, as it can be distinguished from information -- e.g., a basic trust in modern technology. Yet it is not the only design decision. Neither the technology nor the way it is used is determined by the problem itself. Therefore, each of these decisions is open to design, and open to a pertinent interpretation -- that is, communication.

The apprehension, or the prejudice, that the role of electronic media should be limited to purposive functions seems to be groundless, in light of the above-mentioned variety of differentiators. Since all the properties that constitute the sign character of a product likewise exist in electronic media, the role of such products as an important part of social communication will endure. Consequently, each decision in favor of a particular media offering, a specific interaction structure, or a certain way of having a service carried out might be interpreted not only in terms of a means to an end, but also as a statement. Surely each reasonable statement needs a sufficient "vocabulary," a set of expressions that can be easily distinguished from each other. This is exactly what the designer has to provide. As a greater variety of media-based products evolves, and the more the designer learns to discover all the possible variations of these products, the more the scope of choice becomes evident; and at the same, time the communicative relevance of each of these choices. Today our interaction with those choices is rather unpracticed, and our experience with this part of the language is limited -- both for the design of the products and for their utilization as signs. For the customer, the missing ability will come as media-based products increase. However, design can actively support this unfolding by developing a rich environment of intangible artifacts. In doing so, it will provide the necessary foundation for shared experiences from which communication can evolve.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Lydia Wimmer and Christian Debus for their valuable comments on earlier versions of the text. Also many thanks to Elvira Nadin for editing the English version of this text.


Notes and references

1. I refer to design in the sense of "artistic" design such as industrial design or graphic design in contrast to engineering design.

2. A number of examples are given in A. Buck, Dominanz der Oberfläche. Betrachtungen zu einer neuen Bedeutsamkeit der Gegenstände [Dominance of the surface: considerations regarding the new significance of things]. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag form, 1998.

3. See the special issue of Design Management Journal, Design in Service Industries: Managing the Evidence of Intangible Products, Vol. 3, No. 3, Winter, 1992.

4. Cf. Buck, Op. cit., pp. 13, 104.

5. HfG Offenbach (Ed.) Grundlagen einer Theorie der Produktsprache. [Foundations of a theory of product language] Vol. 1­3, Offenbach: Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach am Main, 1983­1987.

6. K. Krippendorff, When I see a Chair ­ must I see a sign of it? formdiskurs ­ Journal of Design and Theory. No. 5, 2/1998, pp. 98­107.

7. W. Jonas, Design as Problem Solving? Or: Here is the Solution ­ What was the Problem? Design Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1993, pp. 157­170.

8. N. Luhmann, Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt am Main, 1984, p. 216ff. [Published as Social Systems, Stanford, CA: University Press, 1995].

9. For Luhmann, even misunderstanding is considered successful communication in that it still keeps the process of communication active.

10. G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Ballantine, 1972.

11. For an introduction, see e.g., N. Cross, Developments in Design Methodology. Chichester: Wiley 1984.

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