Commercial Experiments: A design approach

Mariëlle Coppes & Kevin Andersen –

We propose a design process, which combines experimenting and releasing commercial products, by relating literature and lectures on strategic aspects to our own visions on design, through an analysis of BERG’s Little Printer.

Reading the whole page will give you a full impression on what we have been working on for the last two weeks, but if you prefer you can jump straight to:

  1. What is this? (If you don’t know why you are here)
  2. CASE: How a Little Printer was born (Analysis of BERG’s Little Printer and their design process)
  3. Our vision and identity
  4. Our process
  5. Interviews (Meet the designers)

In advance, thank you for your time, and we would love to hear back from you if you have any questions, comments or thoughts.

Best Regards,
Mariëlle Coppes and Kevin N. Andersen

1. What is this?

For the last two weeks we have been attending a module on Strategic Value of Design. The aim of the course is to give us an insight into how companies create innovation through generating new meaning in products, and how this process is driven by research and participating in the community, also known as the design discourse, rather than the common misconception that radical innovation happens as a result of an epiphany in the shower or during quick brainstorms.

Through Design-Driven Innovation, a book by Roberto Verganti, we have learned about how innovation occurs from a point of view that can be seen as criticizing the user-centered approach that we, as Industrial Design students at TU/e, are encouraged to work by.

Our final deliverable for the course is to create a website, the one you are looking at right now, where we present our position developed during the last two weeks.

2. CASE: How a Little Printer was born

“What happens when stuff is not conceived of as tools, but as participants in our own lives?”. That question, asked by London-based design consultancy BERG, was the starting point of a five year process leading up to the product that we have chosen to focus on for our presentation: Little Printer. [1]

Little Printer, a small internet-connected printer, lives in your home, bringing you news, puzzles, and messages from friends. Using your smartphone, you set up publications, which Little Printer gathers together to create a timely, beautiful mini-newspaper. At the moment, available publications include: Partworks, Nike running coach, Birthdays, Daily Puzzles, Headlines, To-Do list, Foursquare. All personalized by you, it becomes “your very own morning or evening newspaper”. [2]

The story

This section on the research process of BERG is based on a number of web-based articles gathered from design blogs as well as BERGs company website.

Little Printer is the result from a five year research process, comprising of conversations and experiments.

2006: CEO Matt Webb publishes a blog post describing these conversations about what would happen when products are not just tools, but actually become participants in our lives. As an example, he explains the idea of the printer becoming a social letterbox, by making it accessible to family and close friends through the internet. He imagines these people using it to send him photos, newspaper clippings, sketches, and articles, and even being able to subscribe to magazines, that would print themselves. As he puts it: “an image landing in a folder does not mirror its social importance to me”. That kind of printers, says Webb, would no longer be a printer, but a social letterbox, and the social interactions around it will not only change its meaning, but also its form. [1]

2009: Tom Taylor, a friend of BERG, makes the Microprinter. It’s an experiment, Taylor says, in physical activity streams and notification, using a repurposed receipt printer connected to the web. He describes using it for reminders and an overview of his day, but being limited to text only. [3]

Jun 2011: BERG proposes the idea of ‘Rethinking the receipt’, by turning receipts into so-called paper apps. Why shouldn’t receipts be a way of connecting to customers, in a whimsical way? BERG asks. The idea is to exploit the information that the shops has, to add more meaning to the receipt, thus forming a closer relationship to its customers. [4]

Nov 2011: A few months after rethinking the receipt, Little Printer was announced. Rather than being a gadget conceived in the morning shower or during a quick brainstorm, Little Printer is the result of a long process involving internal research as well as participating in the design discourse. A combination of initial thoughts of products becoming participants in our lives, with internet-connected thermal printers, and the alluring graphic design of their receipt concept, Little Printer is an example of the design-driven innovation fueled by research, that Verganti proposes. [7]

Process Analysis

What we find interesting in the way BERG works is that they research through design. But rather than choosing between releasing a commercial product with defined meaning, or experimenting with probes, we see Little Printer as a combination: a commercial probe which has yet to have it’s meaning defined, because it can be interpreted in several ways.
Designing this kind of research product serves two purposes. For the users, it means that by creating their own interpretation of the product, they are more engaged in the use of the product and making sense of it. [6] As Sengers and Gaver point out in their article on staying open to interpretation; by clearly specifying usability, while leaving interpretation of use open, users become more engaged. In the case of Little Printer, operating the product is clearly defined. But the role it plays in your life, what you do with your prints, and the content you choose to put on them, is defined by you.

The second advantage of working this way is that we see a greater satisfaction for the designer. Working on commercial design tends to be constrained by a pre-defined meaning, and leaves no room for exploration of that meaning once ‘the meaning’ is defined. Conceptual designs do not enter the everyday context of people; making it useless (literally: it is not ‘used’) as a product. Combining the two, however, you get a process that enables the designer to do research while designing, and getting something back, while proposing a product to society. By applying this approach BERG is participating in what Verganti describes as the design discourse: the network of cultural and technological knowledge. [5]

Case reflections

Responsibility & Sustainability

As designers we make things that shape the world. How people use everyday objects tells us much about what goes on in a society. This raises a question of responsibility. Does a designer carry the responsibility for a design, or even more, the responsibility for potential misuse of a design? One could rightfully argue that if you would design a gun you are also responsible for the violent way in which the gun will be used. The gun is an extreme example, but what if a design has a clear intent to make a positive contribution, yet it is used in a way that the designer could not have foreseen?

For example, one might have expected the increasing digitalization of information to lead to a decrease in paper use. Research indicates, however, that “the introduction of e-mail into an organization caused, on average, a 40% increase in paper consumption” [7]. The question of responsibility becomes even more difficult as the use of a design becomes more ambiguous, e.g. when a product is meant as a question rather than an answer.  It might leave you thinking that if you want to make the world a better place, you better not design anything at all. This of course can not be the case; a society without design or innovation simply couldn’t exist.

We say yes, designers should accept the responsibility of products and their use. A designer should consider potential misuse that a design could facilitate, because all design is inherently ethical [8]. If the designer’s intent is not harmful though, carefully considering the information presently available, he should act in the way he thinks is best. This is a subjective matter, and it always will be, which makes it all the more important for designers to concretize what ‘a happy life’, ’empowering people’, and ‘making the world a better place’ means.

Using paper, Little Printer could be perceived as going against the contemporary paradigm that design should be sustainable. What we are questioning, however, is whether the idea of sustainability is necessarily based on data or facts, i.e. what is true, rather on the selective perception of what is real to people. In his book Future Files, Richard Watson talks about how this perception of sustainability will lead to irrational behavior:

“In the future shoppers will be swayed by various green and ethical issues, some of which will be serious while others will just be plain silly. For example, there will be a crusade against retailers that sell lettuce on the basis that growing lettuces uses too much water; and a campaign to stop eating foreign food on the basis of its carbon footprint.” [9, pg. 203]

The very tangible material consumption of paper in Little Printer can make it seem ‘wasteful’ (although the amount of paper it consumes is relatively small), and cause people to have a negative attitude towards it, because they might not understand the value, or meaning, of the product, and thus the value it creates for them. Verganti recognizes that the public might not know how to make sense of radical innovations, and talks about preparing the ground before presenting groundbreaking products [5]. You could say that is exactly what BERG did by communicating bits and pieces of their process to the public on blogs and in interviews. It does remain a challenge, however, to assure that people see the value in your product when they have to weigh it against the sustainability of it.

So we agree with Verganti that simply putting radical designs into the world might not work and need strategic planning and preparation. If people don’t know how to make grounded judgments on sustainability and value, designers should. Designers should take the responsibility for their designs. And if the potential expected value of a design in terms of meaning will be big, (and the material use limited), innovation can only happen if we pursue the exploration of such new meanings.

We live in a material world and the designs we create consist of materials as well. If we want, for example, to makes digital information tangible, we have to accept that the consequence is consumption of material. It might be then, that people will not want digital information to be tangible, but as designers we have to act on what we believe will add value to people’s lives, rather than giving in to trends and public opinion. In the end though, the ones who decide whether our designs live or die are the people. If we do not dare to use materials, we better not design at all.

Future & Trends

Radical innovation is a risky business, because if designers don’t even know exactly what a design will mean in people’s everyday life, then how can they assure it will be successful?

Watson talks about future trends in media being ‘physicalization’ and ‘personalization’ [9], both embodied in Little Printer. Embodying these trends might be an indication of the hypothetical success of the product. But Watson also mentions the trend of sustainability, and the use of paper might, as mentioned earlier, be perceived as an unsustainable one. So the question is to what extent will these external factors influence how consumers will perceive Little Printer?

The answer is that we don’t know, and according to Sarasvathy, we can’t. This is one of the elements of the ‘effectual problem space’, called ‘isotropy’: “Isotropy refers to the fact that in decisions and actions involving uncertain future consequences it is not always clear ex ante which pieces of information are worth paying attention to and which not.” [10] The two other elements are ‘Knightian uncertainty’ and ‘goal ambiguity’; we can’t predict the future and goals are not clear on forehand. So when we try to design products that create new meanings, those meanings only become clear when consumers start using the product in unique ways, so there are no clear goals to what this meaning should be.

We can compare such an effectual approach to a causal one, where causal logic says “To the extent that we can predict the future, we can control it”, whereas effectual logic says “To the extent that we can control the future, we can predict it.” A result of applying an effectual approach is that one will look for opportunities that unfold along the way, rather than defining clear goals on forehand. For example your target consumer could be a flexible concept that might change upon who will be buying your product, but then a critical question could be, who will? This flexibility does not match traditional concepts of marketing and user-centeredness well. We elaborate on this mismatch in a later section on ‘Risks and guidelines’.

The process we propose is more of an effectual approach. We do have a clear direction of where we want to go, but the way we get there and how the end result will look like might be flexible. We build our own future by being sensitive to opportunities along the way.

Perhaps not every part of the design is defined, but it does not have to be. What we take from Sarasvathy’s Effectual approach is that designers can take leading roles in the development of a product even after it has entered the market, by being sensitive to meanings that are created along the way.

3. Our vision and identity

In this section we present our vision for design, the process that we work by, let you get to know us as a team, and as individuals.

We do not represent the omnipotent designers, often portrayed in the media as demigods [11]. We understand our role as designers in a greater context of a design discourse, comprising of producers of cultural and technological knowledge – We are humble, but not modest. Within a company, we understand our value as pragmatic visionaries.
What separates us from stakeholders, and makes us a significant asset within a company, is that our design spaces expands further than what is in people’s world.
We consider the constraints of finances, deadlines, technical limitations and marketers. Our broad knowledge connects different fields in a synergistic way; we communicate well with people from different backgrounds and using their expertise to inform our design process. But we also question everything we’re told, everything we see, everything that is, because we inherently refuse to limit ourselves by how we are told that things have to be. That’s what makes us able to come up with new ways of doing things.
As Industrial Designers from TU/e we are trained to develop a personal vision for our products and identity as designers. And because our visions form the basis of everything we do, we are passionate about everything that we do.
Our craftsmanship is envisioning and analyzing the design space, and moving rapidly between these activities and actually making and evaluating ideas, through experiments and prototypes. We don’t know everything, but we know where to go to learn anything.
In our quest for meaningful design, we work with finding opportunities rather than solving problems, which not only gives us a greater purpose and sense of fulfillment, but also a competitive edge compared to traditional industrial designers. We share this with BERG, who also, rather than looking for a problem to solve, went through a process of envisioning new forms of communication and roles for products in our home.

4. Our process

What Verganti proposes is that you use the research developed through participating in the design discourse to generate a proposed meaning, which then goes into development, finally resulting in a product. Verganti depicts the creation of meaning as something well researched and carefully planned by interpreters and the industry. In this vision, users are to be lead by the designs created, because users are not able to know what they want or need until they see it. Putting it crudely, Verganti basically dictates meaning to his users, who only serve a role late in the design process in for example assuring usability. The user is not involved in creating the meaning of the product.
In a lecture from two former design managers at Philips, a similar process was described, however, the product would either be a non-commercial probe used to conduct experiments with, or a commercially available product. In their process the probes function as an exploration of meaning. The design is more open to interpretation, however, never enters the living rooms of everyday people and thus will never be truly understood for what it is.
We propose a design process which results in a product that acts as a probe while being commercially available. That way, we do have a proposed meaning that is embodied in our design but we don’t expect interpretation to stop there. Instead of starting with an idea of how the world should be or what a design should mean to users, we wonder how our vision of meaning could change and contribute to people’s lives. Our process is defined by asking questions and the exploration of meaning, and the most important point of our process is that the exploration does not end in the lab.

This process differs from the Verganti/Philips approach in that the product does not have to be either a probe or a commercial product – we can combine the two. In the Little Printer case, while some things are determined, such as the products form, the content remains open.
BERG is releasing a design that asks its users what role it should play in their lives, how they want to use it. Cooperating with their partners they are able to offer different kinds of content, but because of the design of the product, they can always change everything, even the smiling face, by exploiting that the product is always connected to the cloud.

By actively probing products immersed in the context, the designer, and thereby the discourse, gains knowledge about the use of the product that could not be obtained through lab tests; knowledge which can be used to enhance the product or product-line. The value for designers is that they get to research and understand their users and products while the products are on the market, rather than doing either an experiment or a commercial product. With this process, the designer is giving the user more freedom to express himself and to interpret the design, while the user offers the designer knowledge and insight.

The difference in our proposal might not be radical, but there is a difference in the approach to the design of the product, because the design should embrace openness and interpretation. The biggest difference between the process we propose is that the openness to exploration of new meaning by users and the openness of a design to support this exploration. This difference implies that if you are not going to act upon the new created meanings; both processes are basically the same. So the matter of action is crucial.

Risks and guidelines

The strongest part of this product, designing for openness, might also be its greatest weakness. As is often stated in design; if you are designing for everyone, you are designing for no one. But we want to be clear, that designing for openness should be very specific.

Our recommendation is to keep the number of ambiguities within a product to a minimum, so that they can be controlled.  Otherwise you might risk not just confusing your users, but ultimately yourself, in that you don’t know what things to adjust within the product.

In the case of the Little Printer, One could say that the system behind the product, BERG Cloud, is a great source of information in how the design is used, and this is true. The content in itself, however, won’t be sufficient for understanding ‘why questions’ and what it means to people, for example, where people take their paper with, and how they use it. So then, are you going to involve users to get to this understanding or are you going to assume? Either way, the process doesn’t stop after the release of the product; it is the mere beginning.

Since we have yet to find examples of this kind of process, it implies that new methods for evaluating products, and analyzing and understanding the new meanings generated by users, are necessary. In applying this process, it is important to ask yourself how you are going to know what these meanings are, and if you do, how you are going to act upon this knowledge.

It might be interesting to look at methodologies used in a Living Lab approach. This approach is different from the process we propose; the Living Lab approach experiments with prototypes in stead of commercial products and is user-driven [12]. We do share however that the both of us are experimenting in a real-life context. Therefore we might be able to learn from their experience.

5. Closing interviews


LINK: Mariëlle’s blog

Q: What is the value to you of open-ended design?

A: Human behavior fascinates me — people’s motives, quirky habits and all the things that differentiate us and bind us. I seek to discover, analyze and understand behavior and use these insights to explore how to design for many but still be able to give people the sense of uniqueness they are longing for.

For example, in my project ‘design for the periphery’, I designed a new way of journaling that enables you to reflect upon everyday life by capturing any moment you want. By wearing a camera necklace a user is able to take snap shots during the day without interrupting activities by taking a picture. The everyday moments which normally would not have been captured can be stored in a digital diary.

What is interesting about this design, is that it is basically a tool that is open to be used in any way. There are some boundaries in functionality, but different people will use it in different ways and I can imagine it being a platform for the exploration of different uses and meanings.

Q: What is your challenge as a designer?

A: We live in a world of paradoxes. As life becomes more digitalized, virtual and people more connected; the more distant people become, and the more they will crave emotional intimacy and human interaction. I want to bring joy, hope and meaning to the ones craving for it. I am excited about what new technologies will bring us in an ever changing world and want to use technologic development to design for the better, using my little circle of influence.

Little Printer is an interesting example of how to make something like social media that is remote and literally ungraspable into something physical and personal. This change in medium will change what the same information means to people.

Nobody can predict how Little Printer will change the way people will interact or perceive meaning, yet the design is a first step into exploring this.

Q: What does your approach mean for the way you work?

A: Playfulness and creativity to me are an essential part of the design process, but also a view on life that I would like to share with the people I design for. I want to empower them with my designs.

My final bachelor project ‘Free to play’ was on inviting playful behavior in public spaces through the design of interactive tiles that reacted on people’s input by vibration and surround sound.

As a designer I envision scenario’s that I believe are more interesting than the ones we see around us in the world we live in. I believe I have a powerful ability to not only envision, but to act upon such visions and pro-actively shape the world around me into something better. I also want to give users an actively role in shaping the world into something more beautiful together with me.

Q: In collaborating, how do you combine your personalities as designers?

In my quest for playfulness I get excited easily over little quirky things. Kevin helps me to keep my two feet on the ground by making sure we don’t lose track of our long term vision.

We learn from each other through our differences, and ultimately it makes our process more rich and our results more interesting.


LINK: Kevin’s portfolio

Q: How does designing for multiple meanings work in practice?

A: I think that open-ended product — or tools versus solutions, as I usually distinguish them, are incredibly important. People are missing the great experiences of being immersed in crafts and activities where they don’t just use a product – they actually express themselves with it. That’s also, in my opinion, how we design a dynamic product and a user experience evolving over time, rather than static ones.

Last year, for the project Active Learning, I developed a tool for children to learn geometry in school, using their bodies. What was so interesting about it was that the product, just an elastic and a couple of plastic balls that you could attach to the rope, allowed for very creative ways of expressing geometric shapes.

I had intended it for shapes we know from our mathbooks, such as squares and triangles, and the children I gave it too started with those as well, but what was amazing was to see how, within half an hour, they started using it to make hearts and houses, trying to express themselves through the product.

They were able to give the product a new meaning because the open design allowed them to. I very deliberately did not sketch scenarios, but rather worked with very simple, yet expressive interactions with a minimum of interface between the user and the product.

Q: So what do you want to contribute with?

A: I really believe in socially inclusive design. Coming back to the Active Learning project, the whole project started from the idea that the teaching in public school should embrace more children than the ones who can sit still and keep quiet. The whole idea behind my product, was to design for children who think through their body, rather than books and words. But rather than developing a product for ADHD children, it was important to me that this product to make it interesting for all the children in the classroom so that the other children would see that you are not necessarily stupid, just because you dont learn best from reading books.

Q: In collaborating, how do you combine your personalities as designers?

A: Where Mariëlle focuses more on designing for open interpretation in the products, my passion is especially in asking the big questions behind the product, like BERG did in asking what happens when stuff becomes participants in our lives.

While we share the same vision for design and way of working on a general level, there are definitely differences. Mariëlle has a much more playful attitude which really shows in her visual expression, and the projects she’s passionate about. But actually, while our ideas of what creates value for people are different, what motivates us — and I actually think that makes our ideas better in the end — is that we are obsessed with fusing our values into the same product.

Because of our different foci, we are continuously forced to not only convince our stakeholders, but also each other, which I believe our work benefits from in the end.


[5] Verganti, R., ‘Design-driven innovation: Changing the rules of competition by radically innovating what things mean’, Harvard Business Press, Boston, 2009
[6] Sengers, P., Gaver, B., ‘Staying open to interpretation: Engaging multiple meanings in design and evaluation’, DIS 2006, June 26-28
[7] Sellen, A.J., Harper, R.H.R., ‘The myth of the paperless office’, Cambridge, MA:MIT Press
[8] Lloyd, P., ‘Ethical imagination and design’, Design Studies Vol 30 No.2 March 2009
[9] Watson, R., ‘Future files: A brief history of the next 50 years’, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London, 2010
[10] Sarasvathy, S., ‘Effectuation: Elements of entrepreneurial enterprise’, Edward Elgar Publishing Inc, 2008
[11] Lloyd, P., Snelders, D., ‘What was Philippe Starck thinking of’, Design Studies Vol 24 No. 3 May 2003
[12] Bergvall-Kåreborn, B., Holst, M., Ståhlbröst, A., ‘Concept design with a living lab approach’, Proceedings of the 42nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences – 2009

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