The definition of ownership is changing. We are becoming less interested in owning products and accumulating wealth through long-term purchases. Instead, we crave experiences, seek trying out things without much of a financial or time investment, and don’t look down on bargains and second-hand possessions (a song about thrifting is leading the Billboard charts as I am writing this). We increasingly consume products and services through renting, sharing, and purchasing subscriptions. Being ‘socially connected’ is no longer just about having a lot of people to share your news with. These days, it’s about having a lot of people to share your stuff with. Even better, use theirs for free or at a fraction of its original cost. It’s about collaborative consumption.

“Today’s smart choice: Don’t own, share.” (TIME Magazine, March 2011)

The Economist proclaimed earlier in the year that while ‘on-demand’ consumption is still being defined, the fact that it is attracting the ‘big boys’ like manufacturers, regulators and insurance providers in search of a model that works for them means that it is here to stay. Collaborative consumption is growing from a trend for the young and urban, to a viable alternative for everyone. From renting a movie online (e.g., Netflix) to renting a stranger’s couch (e.g., Couchsurfing), the economy of sharing changes the way we behave, consume, seek new options, and commit to decisions. Collaborative consumption is not just about getting access to new cars and the latest movies; it’s also about creating a new type of peer-to-peer commerce, making meaningful connections, and establishing a sense of trust among those involved.

Collaborative consumption presents unlimited opportunities for us as consumers to reinvent our spending habits. Why would you not do it, if it may help you gain extra income, save on items you only need temporarily, and make new connections with people you are sharing with? It also poses a number of big challenges for businesses, as it confronts the traditional notion of creating consumer demand for purchases. Businesses will need to reconsider their distribution models that encourage shared ownership, as well as product lines that support multi-user product life cycles.

If collaborative consumption is the commerce of 21st century, how do we support it with 21stcentury design catered to the community rather than individuals? 

Most current designs are geared toward individual users and don’t seem to change much for multi-user experiences. Similarly, collaborative consumption of today is mostly about how the products are shared, not about how they are designed. How do we bring the two together? Here are the top design challenges for collaborative consumption.

  • Identify the right match. That is, which products and services are best suited for collaborative consumption and which are better to be left as-is? What are product attributes that will stimulate uptake of a collaborative consumption model? For example, it may seem that size matters; the smaller the product is, the easier it could be passed on to another user. Dig deeper and it’s not true, if you consider shared car services, such as Zipcar and Car2Go. Similarly, one may say that digital products are easier to share than physical goods. Again, this doesn’t seem to be the case with many examples of neighborhood sharing and renting of everything from electrical drills to furniture.
  • Allow for repeat customization. How do we design for recurring customization of a product, so that subsequent owners can make the product feel their own and remove the traces of previous ownership? Software customization seems to be easier: wipe it out, and it’s ready. How about customization of hardware, beyond changing covers and decals? If a new owner wants to change a particular module or add a peripheral, keeping the otherwise working product, how do we support it? Once again, cars give many examples of re-use and re-customization. Digital products still operate in the throw-away mode once an owner discards a product. This makes them much less sustainable than they could have been otherwise
  • Re-think lifecycle and maintenance. We tend to look after products we own to prolong their life. When products change hands often, wear-and-tear is a big issue. What are the materials that will make products look new longer? What are the techniques for easy refresh, so that a product is more appealing to new users? How should design of a product change to accommodate new maintenance models? Also, if shared products will tend to live longer, how do we design for easy upgrades of hardware parts?
  • Address multi-user scenarios. The previous challenges relate to sequential collaborative consumption where products are passed on from one user to another. However, collaborative consumption also stimulates concurrent usage and multi-user scenarios. These can involve multiple users simultaneously doing the same task, such as when interacting with a multi-touch Surface table, Touchwall or similar interfaces. These can also be parallel multi-tasking when multiple users interact with the same device doing different tasks. For example, consider a case where one user works on a PC directly, while another accesses it remotely at the same time. Simultasking or multi-tasking, a lot of design innovation will be required to tackle collective experiences.
  • Understand that reputation is the new currency. Collaborating consumption creates a new system of credit, for both online and in-person sharing. Online interactions are particularly prone to trust issues; you don’t know the person and you often cannot trace who they are. Any bank that lends you money has access to a single credit score of yours. In contrast, you need to earn trust from scratch in every online community; your LinkedIn reputation means nothing to Ebay. This ought to change very soon, if we want to support collaborative consumption, and UX professionals have a huge role to play in figuring out trust verification and the very nature of online trust.

Designing for collaborative consumption is a perfect example of what we at Artefact call 21st Century Design. It supports social sustainability by creating communities of people who want to share what they own and encouraging trust among those involved. It also supports environmental sustainability by enabling products to live longer, reusing parts and materials, and reducing electronic waste. We may not have all the answers yet on how to design for collaborative consumption, but we are working on them.