Beyond products and services to platforms

Some of the heat has gone out of the service/product design debate in the last year or two. Where once there was product design or service design, more junk or all talk, there’s now a healthier balance, with design agencies increasingly involved in both disciplines. This makes a lot of sense. Mobile has become a multi-purpose physical interface, democratising the product space through software, whilst increasing the importance of service because second (and third) screens make the cloud essential. At the same time, 3d printing, Arduino, Kickstarter and Alibaba are reducing the cost of customised physical product where a flat screen is unsatisfying. It’s become harder and harder to differentiate between products and services.

Whilst it’s easy to get hung up on definitions of either product or service, the key point to remember is that value ultimately comes from sustaining relationships with customers. Service Dominant Logic attempts to build on this by arguing that everything is a service, something the customer applies to a job they need doing. There’s something of a land grab about this perspective however. Turning objects (products) into services may work semantically, but it doesn’t help much with understanding what is happening in any given interaction. Sometimes customers just use products to do their own thing, even when there’s no more involvement from the producer. And often those interactions are incredibly culturally productive. People really love products. I think a working definition of service has to involve an element of interaction between the producer and the user, whilst product has to involve some kind of object (not necessarily physical though). We need to introduce something else to understand what we are building when we bring products and services together to create relationships with customers. Something relational, like brand, but more functional. For better or worse, I’ve been using “platform” to describe this idea.

What does platform entail that product, service or brand doesn’t, other than avoiding messy semantics? For a start, it can be a lot more ambiguous. Dave Winer called a platform “a blueprint for the evolution of a popular software interface or specification”. If you think of the sum total of the history of a technology or operation, the people and objects involved, it’s direction of travel and the set of underlying ideas, that’s the platform. It’s something customers want to be involved with, even though they may reject particular products or services. It may have a brand, but it’s also ideas, prescriptions, software, hardware. It has more affordances than a brand. It’s something more like a movement. The ambiguity in this scenario allows the relationship to continue even when the products or services change. Platform-thinking is a way of describing the development of an entire eco-system.

Focusing on relationship can pay healthy dividends. KT (formerly Korea Telecom) say they’ve reduced mobile subscriber churn by 13% by introducing cloud-based storage and computing services. Cloud sits at the heart of many such efforts because it’s the interconnecting tissue that allows us to knit products and services together - creating platforms. In a way, it allows us to forget about products and services, because the relationship is sustained through the data in the cloud. Connected Futures recently completed a (confidential) research & strategy project where deep cultural change is a necessary part of successful implementation. Whilst building products and services is the way that change is enacted on a practical, day-to-day level, what will ultimately allow our client to sustain long-term change is the development of a platform: a movement that is the embodiment of all the new ideas, products & services, something that can sustain a relationship whilst everything changes around it.