Is this a product or an experience?

August 12, 2008 — 16 Comments

I got a great present from my wife the other day. It was a set of Bodum coffee cups. They are the double walled ones with a vacuum in between. Like a vacuum flask, they keep hot liquids hotter for longer and cold liquids colder. The revelation for me was how much better my morning latté now is. The old experience was a great first taste, where the coffee was at the right temperature, and then a steadily degraded experience with each subsequent sip. If I was particularly engaged in what I was reading the coffee would be cold by the time I got to the last few mouthfuls. With the new cup every sip is as good as the last and I catch myself savoring a mouthful of great coffee many more times a day. So the question I asked myself is whether the new cup is a great product or a great experience.

This may seem like an academic question but I don’t think so. When I received the gift I have to say that my first, fortunately silent, response was that we didn’t really need any more cups. We have drawers full of them. It felt like one of those unnecessary gifts that you feel guilty about and feel vaguely resentful for having received. I am pretty sure that if I had seen the cups in a store it would not have occurred to me to buy them. As a product they would not have been interesting or appealing but as part of my coffee drinking experience they are fantastic. This speaks to how physical artifacts are marketed and designed. I don’t know how successful these cups are in terms of sales but I suspect that they are not blockbuster sellers. I have a feeling that they are marketed and bought as products not as components of a great experience. In my opinion, the only products that deserve to succeed are ones that are key components of a valuable experience. If they are not designed to achieve that they will be irrelevant. If they are not marketed as an experience then consumers will miss their value and categorize them with every other product that has the same physical characteristics. Manufacturers must see themselves as experience curators not product makers. This is something I am reminded of every time I take a sip of coffee.

Tim Brown


16 responses to Is this a product or an experience?

  1. Scott @ IDEO Boston August 19, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    I think the cup is still a product, you said it yourself: “as ‘part’ of my coffee drinking experience they are fantastic.” But your question highlights that good products are those designed to be valuable / additive / integrated / optimal “components of a great experience”. That is something design thinking tends to do, look at the whole experience and how an innovation contributes to it, in focusing on the user who doesn’t just experience a cup, but rather the deliciously tasty and warm liquid inside it.

  2. Jane Fulton Suri August 19, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Lucky for you—apparently your wife can tell the difference!

  3. You are right Scott that the cup is still a product but I think what I was trying to get at was whether Bodum should market it as a product or as an experience and whether the design could have expressed the experience in a clearer way. Again, this may be an esoteric argument but I have a feeling that they are missing a trick somewhere when such a patently great experience is going unnoticed.

  4. Jesse Silver @ IDEO Palo Alto August 21, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Ah, this is a tricky one to me; because the experience that this coffee cup affords you is to enjoy your coffee for a longer period, giving you more of the coffee experience, the cup needs to become a “non-object.” it’s entire purpose is to literally showcase the beverage placed inside. It’s clear, which is a good thing, but it’s relevance to your overall experience may have been TOO understated for you to make that initial purchase decision yourself. So the question then becomes how best to showcase that potential experience such that you may desire the object, while simultaneously allowing the cup itself to best support the coffee. Your wife bought them so they’re doing something right, no? 😉

  5. She is just a lot smarter than I am :)

  6. Very interesting discussion and quite tricky too as Jesse mentioned. This is something just clicked to me while going through the article…Product and Experience do transform in to each other every now and then, based on the way the user / consumer drives the scenario or vice versa. The moment a product smells / reflects its experience the user gets much more connected to it, with the magnitude of attachment related to how pleasing the experience is. I really like the thought of delivering experience than products. What I feel is that the future is in products projecting their experience in themselves. In fact the recent developments in the use of media for better creative expression, I believe hints the same.

  7. Tim, good points, but those handles are hell to hold with a full cup and/or sweaty fingers, thus detracting substantially from what really is a “rationalized” experience based on an engineered product feature, i.e. most non-technical people will hardly “experience the experience” or care that much about the double walls.

    Also, me and a few other fellows rushing at breakneck speed through life in the morning are eagerly awaiting a coffee cup that actually quickly COOLS down the piping hot coffee a little so we can drink the damned thing faster without burning our innards or blowing on the surface for interminable minutes. Now THAT would be an experience for me!

  8. Beyond the debate of ‘product v. experience’, I find the topic of how to market the Bodum cups to be vexing. Namely, is it difficult to market a product as an experience to people who are unfamiliar with the product? An advertisement referring to the cups as ‘earth-shattering’ or ‘transformational’ could easily be viewed as inauthentic, or simply cheesy, by an unaware audience (anachronisms aside, imagine a group of Pompeii excavators unearthing a cup of coffee in a Bodum cup, at perfect temperature). A marketing tact copying either an Apple or Dyson model could be viewed as trite.Or, from a product-perspective, can you market a product to establish a sales base, and subsequently alter to market experience, and not alienate initial purchasers?

    Ultimately the question is, ‘Can you successfully straddle product/experience and achieve marketing success in both?’

  9. Back to the original question: In a perfect world — for Bodum, anyway — it’s both. The product, ideally, provides a better experience; by doing so, it becomes an integral part of that experience.

    Given that coffee drinkers, generally speaking, are so into the experience of drinking coffee (the same goes for tea drinkers, hot-cocoa drinkers and hot-cider drinkers, of course), Bodum should be marketing these cups by marketing the experience the cups provide — and how much better the cups themselves make that experience.

  10. The challenge I see in trying to fulfill on the promise of ‘experience design’ is achieving influence over a bunch of related disciplines that have traditionally lived in silos… from product design to package design, quality assurance to online and offline marketing, advertising to customer service and beyond. Will a holistic, experience-driven approach provide clients with a significant advantage in the marketplace? I’d bet the house on it! But getting clients to bet on it… aye, there’s the rub…

  11. As great as it sounds to market products as experience-enhancers, it seems like an almost too “honest” approach. Personally I see the trend in advertising being an ideological approach, in the sense that the product being sold is no longer the product itself but rather what the product stands for. Easy example: Apple doesn’t sell computers; it sells cool, avant-garde, creativity, graphics/media-savvy and all the other traits that a good majority of Apple purchases would like to buy into. The ads are not demonstrations of how well the computer runs or a list of its great specs, it’s two people—one hipster and one square.

    Also, I don’t think people imagine products like cups to be things “experienced” but rather things “used,” which may or may not help that marketing angle.

  12. Yes, it is an experience from my point of view, the thing is that it may not be marketed as an experience but as a new, attractive shape, and practical cup. Just the surface of the experience.

    I’m on a research project for one of my classes of the interaction design master in PolyU about creating value in the coffee industry. I’m industrial designer, and colombian, so I would like to explore the social aspects of the “coffee experience” and how can it be improved by design. I would like to know your point of view.

    As an example: Coffee is originally from the turkish region.
    The major producer of coffee in bulk is Brazil .
    The best coffee comes from Colombia.
    And thanks to Italy, coffee is known all over the world because of the development of the expresso machine, the cappuccino maker and the caffe store, main elements of the 20 century coffee experience.

    How can the coffee experience be enriched in the 21 century context?

    Omar Ramirez

  13. I see what sls has written above.’What I feel is that the future is in products projecting their experience in themselves’.which sounds sensible.
    The challenge is in designing to have the experience intented and conveying it to the user at the same time.As tim said the cup provides a good experience,but fail to convey it at its first look.Question also is how hard is the ideal scenario hard to attain.

  14. A little late to the party on this…but nevertheless: I would say the coffee cup itself is a product but I would suggest that at the very least, the designers of the cup used experiential design thinking (whether they knew it or not) in coming up with this successful improvement on the experience. Perhaps of a mild dose of robust ethnography or simply good intuition – maybe somewhere in between.

  15. Hi Tim! I just want to ask you today, after some good years (during which I hope you drank coffee from this cup): is it still an experience? I have not tried this cup yet – even if I know your blog post for 4 years. For me this post creates an experience already! I think that awareness is important; looking at things, and knowing how to look at them keeps the experience with this product alive. Today I am ready to buy the cup and I wanted to know how your experience evolved over time.
    Thank you!

  16. Experience is a virtual product just like a gestalt; we often compare ‘evil designs’ vs ‘good designs. The cup in this case ‘dissolves’ to become part of the experience and thus cannot be evaluated in isolation.

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