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The soul of a product

I ended up reading this great article about the design behind Ice Cream Sandwich over the weekend, and the one word that stayed with me was "soul."

More specifically the idea of attempting to define the "soul" of product, and how that had informed some of their design choices. The more I thought about it, the more I realized just how much finding, defining and then communicating the "soul" of your product can help you ship considerably better products.

Why?

Product managers and designers try to build products by thinking about the user:
  • what users really need
  • how they'll think 
  • and then how those needs can be best served by the product's design.
Putting the user first is the right thing to do, but  thinking about the point of view of the product - i.e. its soul - can help you do last bullet significantly better.

Its the "soul" (or personality, if you prefer) of the product that decides if you decide go with a fail whale or just put up a standard 404 page and call it a day.

But where does that soul come from? And how does it manifest itself?

In a smaller company, or even if its a larger company but with a particularly opinionated and empowered design leader, the personality that the product is imbued with often comes from that person (occasionally persons.)

The product finds its "soul" in the sensibilities of individuals. In a larger company, or with an established product, this is harder to do and often the lack of a strong point of view means designs follow templates, the easiest path gets taken, there's a hotch-potch of ideas, and originality is missing because its hard and its risky. 'Standard' is hard to get wrong and is harder to fault.

Hence:

The importance of defining the soul. Just as a mission statement provides a shortcut to individuals to help them make decisions consistent with the long-term goal of a team or a company, defining the soul of the product and communicating it helps people make product and design decisions that helps give the product a point of view and that serves users better.

I haven't really thought about it in this way until the last week, but I went through the mental exercise of defining the soul of the last few things I'd worked on and realized it would have helped us ship a better product each time; in some case significantly so - and we'd have had a lot more fun doing it.

I still need to think about the best way to communicate this to others (without sounding like an idiot), but I'm now looking forward to thinking about that. :-)

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