What do you see as the best examples of mass customisation currently available?
It’s not one that gets mentioned very often, but I find the Build-A-Bear concept really interesting. It seems to understand the target market very well, and offers the right degree of customisation, what I mean is the level of complexity is just right for the target audience. The experience of using the website is entirely consistent with the company’s overall branding, which in many other examples isn’t the case. Also the fact that there are both web-based and physical stores. It starts me wondering whether one day you’ll be able to visit an Apple store and design and make your own iPod right there.
Another example I really like is MySpace, which isn’t often though of as an example of mass customisation. But actually it offers a platform for people to design their own sites, so I think there’s a lot to learn from the way it’s used. People aren’t designing pages based on what a mass audience will like, it’s for a very limited audience – the user and their friends. When graphic designers or usability experts look at MySpace they recoil in horror! And it’s true, most of the pages are terrible. But as far as the user is concerned it’s perfect, they couldn’t care less what the “experts” think. That kind of “punk” attitude of just going out and doing it appeals to me a lot.
How important is the retention of brand integrity in the equation of product aesthetics if consumers have the power to fundamentally alter a products design? ie. when does a customised nokia phone cease to be a nokia??
It’s a really important question, and I think there are two ways that brands can go. As I said, when consumers gain control of the means of production, they will start to do these things, design and customise and alter a product’s appearance, whether designers and brands like it or not. So one option is for brands to try and stamp it out, by making it harder to do those things, and by enforcing copyright etc in the courts. But my feeling is that option is doomed to fail – when people can distribute CAD files as easily as MP3 files, for free, brands will find themselves in the same situation as record companies. And we know that DRM and threatening P2P hosts has had no effect on file sharing. So the other option is to find a business model which embraces it.
One way is similar to the NikeID model: build a “platform” then make it easy for people to design a unique product but use restrictions to ensure brand integrity remains. Depending on which shoe you choose to customise, Nike restrict the colour options such that it’s harder to make a “mistake”, and harder to compromise the brand’s integrity. Another model is to open things up, allow people to do what they want, but make it clear the brand bears no responsibility for the outcome. This is similar to computer games companies releasing software developer’s kits, which make it easy to mod the game, but with the result that some mods are rubbish, some don’t work, some infringe other company’s copyright, and some are really good. I’m sure there are other ways to do it also, and different companies will take different approaches. But we should probably understand that modern-day branding is a result of mass manufacture and mass consumerism (one of my favourite quotes is that cowboys invented branding because all their cows looked the same). We shouldn’t expect the same rules to apply when it’s possible to make products in extremely low volumes, even one-offs.
Final part of interview with Matt Sinclair of We Don’t Do Retro up next.