It is the most intangible among a product’s features: it’s character. The authenticity it expresses in it’s appearance, behaviour and brand. Yet it lies at the heart of the product’s design and development process. And without a steadily beating heart, a product is very likely to lack soul as well.
Designers and developers need to define a product’s character in order to craft the product around that idea. But how to invent such a character? And how to describe and communicate it effectively and unambiguously? Questions I’ve been struggling with in developing Tamapotchi, the smart flower pot.
After the second version of the Tamapotchi prototype, I had a hard time choosing what the next iteration should be about. I had the micro-controller storing sensor readings and the app that would receive those values using a Bluetooth connection, after which the data was translated into a set of handsome charts. It worked. I succeeded in proving the concept. Technically. And the app didn’t look bad as well. I had even designed the pot’s physical shape. But somehow things didn’t add up.
It took me very long to realise this Tamapotchi prototype was lacking character. When I first invented Tamapotchi a little over a year ago, I set out to create a plant monitor based upon the Tamagotchi; it would make the plant into a character that would try to connect with you at an emotional level in order to receive good care. Then I wrote Tamapotchi in 25 user stories. And things started moving again.
I visited my friend Remko, a product designer, to try to come up with a shape for the Tamapotchi pot that would suit the character that I had started to describe in the user stories. We concluded that in order to give Tamapotchi a character, it should actually be a character. Tamapotchi is not a pot, but a creature that lives within a pot.
After one evening of discussing and sketching character ideas, we had a pretty good direction for Tamapotchi’s physical shape. Remko would translate our sketches into a 3-dimensional model and I set out to write a story about this character’s background and the product it would become. This is the story I wrote:
The story of Tamapotchi
The ancient Japanese religion Shinto instructs to live in harmony with the world surrounding us. The Shinto gods, called Kami, are present in every aspect of nature; in mountains, rivers, animals and… plants. Just look at their famous Zen gardens or the art of growing Bonsai trees, and you’ll see Japanese today still treat nature with deep respect.
In the western world many of us have lost that primal connection with nature and don’t know how to live in harmony with it. Nor do we care. Unless it comes to our own house. We all like to have beautiful and healthy plants at our homes. But since we don’t know how to care for them, they lose their showroom shine within weeks after purchase and most die within months.
This detachment from nature calls for a contemporary re-imagination of the Kami. After all, they’re supposed to be present in every plant, according to ancient Shinto. Tamapotchi takes the form of an earthworm that lives between the roots of potted plants. It helps to translate the needs of the plant to it’s owner, so he can take better care for it. Tamapotchi provides cues the modern-day man can understand, using a realtime dashboard, daily and weekly reports by mail and notifications when action is required.
But please beware, just like the Kami gods from ancient Shinto, Tamapotchi doesn’t like to be ignored… so just follow it’s lead and no harm will be done. To either plant or owner.
Together with the user stories and the sketches of the product’s physical shape, with this product story Tamapotchi now started to have the character and authenticity that I’ve had in mind from the start. Remko finished the 3-d model and we printed it at a 3-d print shop. And he had done an unbelievably good job: all parts fit perfectly. Tamapotchi feels rigid and looks refined. A true ninja worm.
To see and be able to hold a product that I have been working on for more than a year. Magic. It is not finished yet, but it is on track. The character is finally here.
Want to read more about Tamapotchi? Check out my other stories as well.