Designing the future: why meanings are key to shaping markets

Eventually, wearable technology will expand beyond smart watches, says Julie Jenson Bennett

January has become synonymous with CES, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

This week will be full of product announcements, commentary, and critique of all the technology world plans to bring to us this year. The buttons are shiny, the spec sheets are tantalising, the acronyms fall thick and fast. CES is the ultimate celebration of technology for technology’s sake.

What isn’t so clear at the outset is what all of this technology will mean? How will people decide to make sense of it and incorporate it into their lives? What new expressions, identities, and experiences will we create with these tools?

When we ask these cultural questions, they are usually set aside as part of the realm of the 'soft and fluffy' rather than considered part of the core interests of science, technology and cold, hard cash.

But the business of meanings is as commercially relevant and cut-throat as it comes. The emotional, cultural and symbolic value of products creates their market value and drives consumer behaviour.

In his book Design Driven Innovation professor Roberto Verganti charts the meteoric rise of global brands such as Apple and Whole Foods based on simple shifts in meaning, versus innovating features and functionality.

Let’s take a simple example. Right in your fridge. Next to the gin.

Everybody loves Fever Tree’s premium tonics and mixers, and premium market cap. At first glance, the brand simply followed bigger trends for artisanal, natural, niche brands. Cool, but not that interesting.

But when you look closer, what Fever Tree actually did was change the meaning of the tonic, from neutral backdrop to active ingredient. Only then, with a new meaning, does a premium-priced mixer make sense.

In doing so, Fever Tree not only created an entirely new conversation that category incumbents like Schweppes are having to react to, it lifted the rising tide of the gin category alongside it. Meanings aren’t just micro tweaks, they’re macro forces as well.

But because meanings are socially and culturally constructed, people struggle to think of them as real. Luckily, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett sharply reminds us in her work How Emotions are Made, money is also a social construct, and it’s certainly real enough.

If your average executive is expected to manage a balance sheet, they should also be expected to manage their existing and potential cultural value from brands, products, technologies, channels and capabilities.

As part of our work 'meaning-centred design' work at Precipice, we monitor a number of categories to make sense of how culture is evolving to need new meanings. Seeing the world as it is, and how it could be different.

We’ve been looking at CES with a different lens, not what the technology does, but what might it mean. Here’s a few to watch out for in the coming year.

Kohler – the meaning of water

Kohler have always understood the power of design to make meanings and drive commercial value, and they’ve been a pioneer in using meanings as a strategic planning tool. Now they’re tackling the issue of how people’s experiences with smart technology change their expectations of the built environment.

At CES they’ve debuted KOHLER Konnect, a series of smart bathroom and kitchen products primed and ready for the call to action from Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple HomeKit. Kohler handle the ‘bathroom’, the likes of Google handle the ‘smart’.

Kohler isn’t looking to create gimmicky appeal. Instead, they’ve created seamless, beautifully-designed products which have the benefit of being voice-activated. No dongles to buy, no adapters, no switches. Just the luxury of knowing your bathroom will do what you ask it to do.

L’Oreal UV Sense

Say wearables, you think smart watch. And eventually we imagine the technology to be imbedded in our clothes and other accessories: think 'smart bra'. L’Oreal has opened up a new meaning of wearable, with the release of UV Sense, a UV monitoring device disguised as a nail decal. It monitors your sun exposure and reminds you to apply sunscreen through an app. Better skin health at your fingertips, from your fingertip.

Not only has UV Sense shifted our perception of what wearables can be, they’ve introduced the beauty industry as a player in the field moving forward. It makes sense. Consumer needs for self-tracking and self-optimisation have fuelled the health tech and fitness markets for a few years, but those same needs exist for beauty consumers too. Introducing a wearable at the boundary of healthcare and beauty paves the way for more beauty brands to do the same.

Tilt SpinTales – augmented reality textiles

Textile giant Welspun is one to watch, as they use new technology to change the meaning of everyday objects such as rugs and duvets. Their first product, Spin Tales, shifts the textile from cosy cocoon to animated dreamscape, and breaks the story from passive consumption on screen or page to physical play and exploration.

It’s early days for this entirely new category. In fact, there isn’t even a name for it yet. Is it a bedding, a toy, a book, a game? But we think it’s much more interesting to make smart textiles mean something new, versus simply embedding existing wearable concepts within the fabric.

Julie Jenson Bennett is CEO of Precipice Design

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