We can design solutions to problems. But can we design meanings? Different meanings lead to different products, even if they have the same technology, or even the same capabilities.
In earlier times, a job was a means to earn, today it is a way to express yourself. The workplace culture (the ‘product’ in this case) has changed because of that. Employers now need to make sure employees are happy and growing, not just safe.
Candles were used for light, now they are used for scent and ambience. Their meaning has changed, and this change in meaning has led to change in product features.
Snapchat changed the meaning of photos – from a way to capture and share a moment, to a way to communicate better. Instagram changed the meaning of photos with its filters – from sharing objective reality to subjective emotion. I use instagram not to convey what I see (mountains, rivers, cityscapes), but what I feel (happiness when looking at breakfast).
I am not sure what we can do to design meanings, but what we should not do, is look at existing metrics. All metrics measure assumptions about the world. If you assume that people take photos to show off, to be liked, you will measure success using ‘likes’, and optimize for it. This will attract people who want to be liked using pictures, and it will make the cycle stronger. It will be hard to compete on ‘likes’ with the social network which is optimized for it. However, this will leave out the huge chunk of human experience which is not captured by this meaning.
But if you think about what does it mean to have a photo liked and shared, maybe you can see there are other meanings behind taking photos. You can share photos on many platforms – Pinterest, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat – but all of them mean different things. Photos on pinterest are optimized for designers and creatives – I don’t see family albums there. Photos on Twitter are about fun or news (mostly bad).
Most people create new products to fulfil existing meanings. As they limit to the realm of technology and capabilities, they remain trapped in the same meaning. They can innovate to become better within a given meaning, like having a faster car or processor and that is valuable, but still incremental.
To come up with something completely new, you have to innovate by changing the meaning of products, or more realistically, of finding out what are the human meanings which current products are not fulfilling, and then build those products.
Note: Ideas for this post are inspired from Overcrowded by Roberto Verganti, which of course, I recommend.