There’s a classic  product design exercise called “Design the Box” in which a product’s packaging is conceptualized first, before the product itself is designed. The idea is to view the product from the consumer’s point of view as they are thinking about buying it, to think about who the customer is, what is important to them, what will make them desire the product, and what makes the product different from the others on the shelf.
This thinking is nothing new. It’s called merchandising. Merchandising is the strategy and implementation of how a product is displayed in stores, how it shows up in photography, how it is described on a web site. It’s a consciousness of — and responsibility for — the final step in the product supply chain.
Merchandising is critical to traditional product design and marketing. But in the world of interactive product design, the word merchandising is rarely even uttered. How did we get here?
Henry Dreyfuss, the great mid-20th century industrial designer (and, in many design historians’ minds, the father of ergonomics and user-centered design) was a great champion of product merchandising. To Dreyfuss, merchandising is one of a designer’s fundamental responsibilities and core skills, right up there with things like usability, style, and business and technology constraints. Merchandising, traditionally, is the aspect of a product’s design that makes it desirable before the consumer owns the product — even before they’ve seen any advertising or heard any facts about the product.
It’s important to note that merchandising has two very different aspects. The first is showroom-centered, where a store displays the products it is selling in compelling ways. Think of a retail store’s window displays, the tables with featured products, the blouse-wearing mannequins. This form of merchandising is generally managed by the retailer themselves. In the interactive world, the analogy would be the design of an e-commerce experience: The products that are featured on a home page, the personalized recommendations for users, the ability to zoom in on an item, or to view other users’ ratings.
The second form of merchandising is centered around the product itself, and is controlled by the product’s manufacturer, developer, and designer. This ranges from the design and appearance of the product itself to the product’s packaging and display.
In consumer product design, merchandising is alive and well. Physical objects are designed to allow shoppers to imagine carrying them in their pockets and installing them in their kitchens.
In interactive design, I’m not so sure this is the case. That’s actually the subject of my upcoming talks. For now, I want to focus on the difference between merchandising via packaging versus merchandising via the product itself.
Obviously I agree that merchandising is a critical part of design. I question, however, the idea of worrying about it too early in a design process, because when you do so you are engaging more in a marketing exercise than a product design exercise.
The real power of merchandising is its ability to make a given product look better and more desirable than it actually is. Great merchandising, however, can exaggerate features, hide flaws, promise miracles. It’s certainly a great idea to show your product in the best possible light, and I’d argue that there’s always a measure of deception inherent in product marketing (will the latest web To-Do list really make your life easier?), but I think that the deceptive component of marketing and merchandising cannot be the first step in a design process because it prevents us from focusing on the user experience. Which is critical because, in today’s market, the actual user experience itself (not the promised UX given in the showroom, in the ads, and on the box) is likely to be the most important factor in ongoing user satisfaction.
So how useful can the traditional attitude towards merchandising work, then, in a marketplace where the customer and corporation have so many more touchpoints than just the showroom floor? Today’s consumer is more focused on the user experience than ever, and has more ways of evaluating that experience than ever before. Word of mouth, online reviews, test-drive videos and unboxing photos, and free beta products allow consumers to get past the bullet points and sunbursts.
The “design the box” exercise can be a powerful tool for generating ideas and for getting into the mind of the consumer. It is also, I fear, a trap insofar as it refocuses the designer from user experience to salesmanship.
The classic video seen here, “What if Microsoft designed the iPod box” is a great illustration of this. The video imagines Microsoft’s marketing department slapping bullet points, stickers, and exaggerations onto the iPod’s classic minimalist box. Imagine a product designed with this methodology and you can. (I’ve not used a Zune, but I suspect its simple design would have been a very hard sell at Microsoft if it were designed before the iPod redefined the market for everyone else).
Designing the box was once a great product strategy idea in an economy where a clear line could be drawn between the pre-sale consumer and the post-sale consumer. If a product’s cool features couldn’t be explained to consumers in a box on a shelf, they might as well not exist.
But now, with Web 2.0 products and services, that that line between pre- and post-sale is blurred or even completely lost. Now I think we should focus on designing the product as if the box — illustrations, bullet points, specs, everything — was an inherent amd permanent part of the product, not an entirely separate entity.
 As far as I can recall, “design the box” has been an industrial design school exercise for ages, but like many compelling ideas the concept has many parents. Jess McMullen credits Joel Spolsky, who in fact learned it from Jim Highsmith, who claims it was invented by Bill Shackelford.