Designing for Obsolescence
Your washing machine has a secret.
Your favourite shoes have a secret.
Hell even your shampoo has a secret.
They won’t be around for ever. You may love them now but one day they will need replacing.
For some items (like your shampoo) this will just be a matter of recycling the packaging and buying it again.
But many things will be harder to replace, involving a few (often painful, boring) steps:
- The first stage is acceptance: the product needs replacing, however much you’ve been living with its faults/without
- You’ll need to reappraise your needs.
- Do the whole product selection dance of value v features.
- Then work out what to do with the old one, taking care to harm the planet as little as possible
If you’re lucky this will be easy. You still love those New Balance trainers, they still make them, and you can buy them direct.
But often it’s not that simple. Without warning your trusty Bosch washing machine just won’t work. You know (from bitter experience) that repairing it will be unfeasible, and the model you had doesn’t exist any more. From a cursory look at a retailer’s website washing machines have evolved since you last shopped for one.
You’re on your own, stuck with a big machine to get rid of, an expensive purchase decision to make, and that’s before you’ve got anywhere near the nightmare of fitting the darn thing.
Product obsolescence is something that brands have historically always avoided talking about. Customers were understandably furious with Apple for planned obsolescence and while they have introduced a trade in scheme, it hardly offsets the frustration of a product dying sooner than you had expected.
There’s a simple behavioural aspect to this. Just as we don’t like to think about pets dying, we have been trained to not think about the lifecycle of a product. We love it when it is new and shiny, value it when it endures, but would rather not have to deal with it when it is past it.
Planning for obsolescence
A small but growing group of brands take a completely different approach to obsolescence.
Gerrard Street headphones in the Netherlands take a completely different approach to customer need and product obsolescence. Their premium headphones come flat packed in the post. You assemble them at home, and any part of them develop a fault you can swap the faulty part for a new one. The proposition is about more than great modular design though — you lease the headphones rather than buy them. By doing so, Gerrard Street are demonstrating they are with you for the long haul, listening to your needs and keeping you in tunes for the duration, but also avoiding their products reaching landfill.
Babywear brand Vigga has a similar leasing approach. When you’re done with the (high quality, well priced) clothes you return them to be reused, repurposed or recycled: the circular economy comes to clothing (at last). The genius addition Vigga bring is an insurance element, protecting customers from mishaps. Vigga’s brand is about peace of mind for parents, so this insurance element is critical.
Meeting persistent customer needs is exhausting
The comparison of this kind of circular economy brand with their traditional category rivals is startling.
Where a traditional brand offers a product, these new brands — since they are built on having an enduring relationship — focus on services (in the case of Vigga multiple services).
A traditional brand is focused on acquisition, and makes allowances for returning customers, these brands are focused as much on retaining customers through great service. The relationship with the customer then is much closer and more direct.
The mindset too is different. Where a traditional technology hardware brand, or clothing brand will make it, ship it then forget about it, these brands act as custodians of the raw materials and manufactured product they have brought into the world.
So if the benefits of actively talking about obsolescence are so clear, why don’t more brands do it?
One answer is that the need isn’t felt keenly enough…yet. Customers are becoming more aware of the impact of their product choices, and so far this is influencing how products are packaged, and some manufacturing processes, but rarely the product itself.
Spokes are a good example. A great vertically integrated brand, with a strong approach to personalisation. Yet the product itself is still just that…a one-off product. Of course it is possible (even encouraged) to buy again/buy more, but the presence of a permanent discount code suggests that their focus is on acquisition, and there’s no way to recycle/reuse their trousers, even though they will obviously wear out in time.
That’s just the way it’s always been
Another root cause of the failure to address obsolescence is stagnation in eCommerce.
eCommerce sprang up quickly, prodded into life by Amazon, eBay and the like. Innovation has been slow in this space (and most of it pioneered by Amazon). Success for many brands is simply allowing customers to buy their existing products online, with the cost and complexity that comes with it. Reevaluating propositions to allow for product recycling/reuse is just too hard.
Technology too holds brands back. The CMO of a major UK retail brand told me recently that as much as they’d like to offer more closed loop services, their (top quadrant, massively expensive) eCommerce platform just isn’t set up to sell anything other than products.
Confronted with huge online competition, ever increasing digital cost of sale and restrictive technology it’s hardly any wonder that many brands just settle for ‘being online’ rather than thinking about how they could provide a distinctive and closed loop proposition.
Obsolescence design principles
What should consumer brands do to manage the obsolescence of their own products? I propose some simple initial design principles, based on best practice already out there:
- Close loops: like Gerrard Street, provide a reverse fulfilment path so that customers can return used products/parts/packaging to the manufacturer to manage responsibly
- Smooth the retention path: like Dollar Shave Club, make it as easy as possible for customers to repeat purchase, with as little effort & resources consumed as possible
- Provide transparency: tell customers what resources have gone into making products, and how long a product is likely to be viable for. Taking this forward brands could even proactively prompt the customer before this becomes a problem (I’m not aware of any brands doing this yet, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea!).
Shifting to this kind of systems design will take time, confidence and resources. Yet the alternative of continuing to ignore product obsolescence is rapidly feeling unsustainable, even negligent.
If you’ve got any examples of brands designing for obsolescence, or ideas on how to improve the design principles above I’d love to hear about them: @mindimp
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