Product chemistry


We typically buy something because it’s beautiful or useful, but sometimes something purely amusing can beguile us into a purchase. We buy emotionally and later defend our purchase logically.

In product development, utility is the driving force. More so than appearance. Definitely more so than novelty. That’s not to say that appearance and novelty don’t influence our decision — they definitely can. People even buy just beauty or novelty.

Some buying examples. CDs or DVDs. Music and film are beautiful — entertaining is a variation on aesthetic pleasure. What about paint? We don’t buy paint for the living room if we think it’s horrible. We buy a colour that we think is beautiful. If you have a toddler who’s a budding graffiti artist then paint that’s easily washable adds significant utility. And food? Well, nothing is more useful.

When we spend our money, we seek to gain some practical advantage or some aesthetic gratification. Ideally, we get both. We buy blinds or curtains to maintain privacy while we focus on their colour and style. We buy furniture to sit in and we test it for comfort. Among the equally comfortable, we choose the most attractive. We buy a blue car because we like blue. We buy the brand of car we deem to be safe, reliable, and filled with the features we think are valuable.

If utility and beauty are the reasons we buy things then innovation has to be responsive to at least one or the other. It must present either a new form of beauty or a notable advance in utility.

Announcing significant product innovation through stunning design is really hard to beat. When people see unique design they’re prepared to accept the idea that it’s part of an innovative product and make the leap. Apple has repeatedly created innovations topped with trend-setting product design. Look at the disruption they’ve caused.

What about novelty factor?

Novelty has a “wow” factor to it. If something is described as “cool” it’s probably a novelty rather than an innovation. Cool is often clever but rarely useful. We’re attracted to what’s “cool” and will tell our friends about it, but when push comes to shove, not many of us will part with cash to buy it. Excepting the infamous early adopters of course. They have loads of cool gadgets but their lack of usefulness is demonstrated by the fact they lie unused and out of sight in a drawer or cupboard.

Novelty on its own is like appearance — a short-term play.

There is devilish allure in “the shiny”. That said, I think products should be aesthetically pleasing. But, design on its own—just to make something pretty or prettier—involves a lot of activity that, when you’re eventually done, leaves you in the same place you started from. It’s positive mutation rather than innovation.

When we buy products based on their novelty value — like Pet Rocks — and then, one day we decide they have zero utility, we usually do not buy more. Eventually the market for such products dries up.

Atari’s Star Wars arcade game

Atari’s Star Wars arcade game

Novelty grabs attention. But novelty decays. No matter how great something is, it eventually loses its appeal.

If you’re old enough to remember — the novelty of Atari’s 1983 Star Wars arcade game sucked you in and got you playing. Sure — it’s shit by today’s standards. But, boy! In it’s day… Built on cool new technologies, it had high resolution 3D colour graphics, digitised speech from the film’s characters, and, almost unheard of at the time, it was tied in with the Star Wars film.

After a while though, despite the gameplay being as rock solid as ever , the wow fizzled. The magic was gone. You’d probably still play it if it was free. (As an aside, old arcade games and their novelty take an interesting turn when they become vintage collectables. Their original novelty, mixed with rarity, takes on a new meaning when nostalgia is added.)

Central to the iCandy ad was the iMac’s unique design

Central to the iCandy ad was the iMac’s unique design

Apple’s approach to product design and development intentionally fuses beauty and utility, and they’ve successfully maintained an element of novelty too. Look at the first iMacs to hit the market. Sure, that colourful iMac was a bit Marmite. But, when the novelty wears off, their products remain actively used because of their utility.

In terms of meaningful impact — that is, making someone’s “life” easier or simpler — only useful change is really innovation. But, a careful chemical mix of beauty, utility and novelty pack a more powerful punch for our products.

Novelty grabs attention.

Attraction to beauty holds attention—for a while.

But, what ultimately keeps a product in use is its net utility — given the task the user is performing, the product leaves the user with a strong sense of having gained time, or money, or productivity.