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8th November 2019

Beauty or Functionality in product development - Which is more important?

Beauty or technical functionality – which is more important? I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought over the last few weeks and I think the answer is, it depends.  Let me explain…

Niche markets

In niche markets where there is little competition then the choice is driven mainly by technical functionality and cost to achieve a solution.  A product must do what the customer needs, or something close to it. If it’s at a price point that means the benefits of the product exceeds its costs then product beauty or aesthetics aren’t a key factor in the purchase decision. This is likely to be the case more for business to business (B2B) products than consumer products.

Business to Business products

Over time niche markets, especially where there is one main player with a barely acceptable or mediocre product, begin to become competitive.  This competition can drive innovation in several ways. It may identify and address shortcomings in the original solution. Then, add features and functionality to improve the product’s performance.  Alternatively, there may be cost savings identified that allows a new entrant into the market to sustainably undercut the established market leader.

The driver for change here is differentiation and so, of course, an option for product differentiation is in its aesthetics. Through clever product design, the look and feel of the product can be altered to improve the perception of quality. For instance, make the product look smaller, sleeker and generally more expensive and aspirational.  This is important as product orders are still placed by people with opinions and desires.  If price and functionality are equal then the more professional, or aesthetically pleasing product will win. Similarly to the Intergalactic Space Travel with a towel.

Towel assumptions

To quote the genius Douglas Adams from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – “a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of other hiking essentials. For example, a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost”.

If a product looks like care has been taken over the enclosure and packaging design, then the same must surely be true of the technology and its implementation.  The device in the better box must perform the best!  This may or may not be true but the psychological impact of the enclosure and its ergonomics has a big impact.

User Interfaces

User interfaces straddle both technical functionality and beauty camps and add a third dimension, that of usability. The technology for user interfaces could range from a simple LED and buzzer, through a touchscreen interface to Augmented or Virtual reality.

Regardless of technology the amount of thought and care that goes into the user interface is vital. In a B2B environment having a poorly thought out interface can damage the reputation of the product and lead to high customer support call rates.

B2C (business to consumer) products are likely to be a partly aspirational or status purchase, in which case ugly products aren’t all that desirable.

For B2C products, poor user interfaces can mean that a technical working product isn’t able to be set up or used by an average user, this can result in a high product returns rate.  I’ve heard of some WiFi products that had over a 30% return rate because users couldn’t enter their home network SSID and password correctly. The impact of user interfaces isn’t to be taken lightly.

Some markets, such as the mobile phone industry, have reached the point where aesthetically the products are excellent.  Only small tweaks are being made to a fairly established form factor as technology increments allow. Recently folding screens, bezel-less designs and reductions in device thickness. In these markets then technology improvements are used for differentiation.

Technology Comparison Tables

In mature markets, there is an expectation that the next generation product brings performance updates.  Again using the mobile phone as an example there are regular improvements in camera performance, storage capacities, screen size, screen resolution and more. Unless there is a leap forward in internet connectivity these are incremental updates that in themselves aren’t compelling. Without a number of small steps forward, however, the major manufacturers risk being left behind. Technology comparison tables are used to demonstrate how each device performs against its nearest competitors. Of course, these can be biased depending upon who is publishing the tables.

Implementation

The choice of technology is only part of the problem.  Its implementation is fundamental.  Excellent technology poorly implemented with bugs, overheating and reliability issues quickly detract from the technical headlines of the product.

Technical functionality is like Herzberg’s hygiene factors for motivation. When the functionality works correctly the technology isn’t considered.  When problems arise the product perception quickly drops to that of junk status no matter how pretty the product may be.

Summary

There are no clear-cut answers to the “Beauty or functionality” (aesthetics or technology) question.  In niche markets with no competition technology and cost win. Later, as competition increases, then differentiation becomes important. Technology improvements offer early wins, later as the market matures and there is less opportunity for technological improvements aesthetics can take over in importance.  This may also be due to there being more money available for investment in design and injection mould tooling.

For mass-market B2C products, the aesthetics are vital as indicators of status and as differentiators between competitors. Despite all the work that goes into getting a product to work the buyer usually only sees the packaging and the plastics, especially for B2C retail.

Whatever technology is implemented within the product it must work to ensure the product doesn’t quickly get returned to the vendor or put in the bin (the WEEE bin of course).

If you have any questions about which path to take when developing your product, give us a call. We’d be happy to discuss the comparison of beauty and technical functionality for your product.