We were relaxing after a dinner in a busy restaurant on the waterfront in Stockholm. We had been with the product designers all day, thrashing through the issues of the physical design of our new product. It was tough and we’d filled wipe boards, notebooks, cut stuff out and mocked up prototypes. We’d walked through user scenarios and talked about different personas. We’d discussed materials and components and littered the tables with samples of them. We’d talked ergonomics, about comfort, about how your hand met the product and what it would be like to use the product for hours on end.
The good Swedish food and beer were helping me relax, so the conversation finally moved away from the work of the day to our families and interests.
I asked one of the designers, a particular whizz at AutoCAD, what he did outside work.
“I design sex toys” he said with a completely straight face.
“Oh, errr, ahh” I stammered fighting the British schoolboy reaction to snigger, and tried to find an adult Swedish reaction to the statement, “how interesting, how did that come about?”
So he told us the story. He worked for a design consultancy who had always said that they would design any product except weapons. Wherever there was opportunity, they would take it, and if there was opportunity which manufacturers were missing, they would even invest in it themselves.
With some friends he had realised that all sex toys were pretty unpleasant. Pink and rubbery with weird protuberances, in a word: ugly. None of them appeared to have been designed by a good designer. You were not going to find any in a design museum, nor would a designer have been proud to put his name on one. So that was the opportunity – designer sex toys, ones that you would not be embarrassed to own and that maybe you’d even show your friends.
He went back to his employer and explained the idea. They thought about it. Then they thought about it some more. Then they decided that they would design anything except weapons … and sex toys. I guess there is a classification which would encompass them both, somewhere.
So he and his friends set up their own business and began to design beautiful objects which could also be used to enhance your sex life. Presumably they went through all the experimentation, testing and prototyping that we had been through that morning, but I didn’t ask him about that. Nor did we explore user scenarios or personas. I don’t know why.
They’ve now developed their range and become fashionable enough to be able to offer gold plated versions for £1000. That’s enough to wipe the schoolboy smirk off your face.
I now realise that lots of the companies I’ve worked with have an approach to selecting new products that constantly denies them opportunity. They select from what they are comfortable with and what they are used to. Which is a shame because that means they are not going to embrace opportunities to develop disruptive or truly innovative products, gold plated opportunities.