What is Digital Product in 2019?

Rob Boyett
Mar 8, 2019 · 4 min read
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Image credit: Contains an image from the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi directed by Godfrey Reggio

Digital Product had a shocking year in 2018. Shady ‘growth at all cost’ practices came to a head. Huge revelations around the abuse of personal data.

Much of the product design industry seems to be midway through an existential crisis as we entered 2019. A good place to start picking through this is to get right back to the foundation: how do we (the designers) define what a Digital Product should be?

There are very few examples of clear definitions floating around the internet. The most digestible one I could find is Jules Ehrhardt’s, WTF is ‘Digital Product’? 2016 (Read here)

A Digital Product is a software enabled product or service that offers some form of utility to a human being.

Jules’ two liner is appealing in its simplicity, and on the face of it works. But, with what we now know in 2019, does this truly express the full nature of the digital product, its complex relationship with the customer?

A digital product is many things with multiple masters

In practice, the customer’s exposure is a much more entangled relationship to track. Living in a soup of marketing message and utility, and it’s not always easy to separate them out.

This hasn’t been the case for physical products. If we had a similar conversation 50 years ago it would be a simple topic. It is obvious that a billboard and a chair have a clear difference: you look at the first and soak in a ‘free’ message, the second is purchased and used — sat on in the most part. The billboard may have been used to sell you the chair. But chairs haven’t pointed you to an interesting billboard to check out. It’s true that there are cases that physical products are hijacked to become marketing platforms, plastered with a logo and given away for example, but the line is clear: utility and marketing can be separated easily.

Another dynamic at play that is unique to digital products is how our new style of ownership works. Historically, I owned a product. Could be for life or it could be for a duration.

Today, we see a very stark contrast to what’s come before. Under the surface, digital products are many things with multiple masters, each with the ability to change the product after the point of sale — a Swiss Army knife of marketing, utility and behaviour harvesting. As a customer, it is easy to misinterpret intent in any given situation. Not only as we first engage, but also along the journey of using a product. Am I being sold to, or am I using a service, is my behaviour being tracked and run through an algorithm to predict how I might act? Often, this seems skewed towards all of them at the same time. The relationship can and does change with exposure to the product, emphasis shifting between utility and marketing and back in the blink of an eye.

We need to acknowledge the relationship

With all our new 2019 ‘woke’ understanding of this space, does Jules’ definition still hold up? A great deal of the value of the definition comes from what is not included. The simplicity makes it usable. One thing I would change straight out is to underline the word utility. In this single word we make a commitment to true human problem solving, transparency and valuing the end customer.

A Digital Product is a software enabled product or service that offers some form of utility to a human being.

I also feel we need to address the nature of an ongoing relationship with the customer, make a commitment as the designers to what kind of relationship this should be striving toward. Aspirational and with a gravity that can tussle with business metrics and win out for customers.

A Digital Product has a mutually beneficial relationship with its customers. The benefits being drawn are transparent to both parties.

Dieter Rams can bring some gravity to this, his rightly venerated Ten Principles for Good Design from the 1970s succinctly states ‘Good design is honest’, for me that holds fast across time and into this new expression of product design.

So my updated definition for 2019:

A Digital Product is a software enabled product or service that offers some form of utility to a human being.

A Digital Product has a mutually beneficial relationship with its customers. The benefits being drawn are transparent to both parties.

How’s this sitting for people? Do you have challenges to the thinking?

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