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24th May 2023

Why longevity over immediate gratification is the key to sustainable product design

The value of long-term thinking

Cover instant gratification
Cursor Curated Issue 16
Jen Harrison

If you enjoy the odd tipple, you’ll be familiar with the feeling you get when you crack open a beer or sip a cocktail. Happy, refreshed, uninhibited – instant gratification thanks to the rewarding, short-term effects of alcohol.

But what about the long term? Headaches, dehydration and likely regret – something we don’t think about because we’re too caught up in the here and now. So how does this spill over into the digital realm? Are we risking customer service and sustainability in a bid to scale quickly?

The dilemma of immediacy and delayed gratification

We’ve only got to look at ChatGPT and Bard to see the immense hurry to get digital products launched first. Add this to a post-pandemic world – which saw one of the biggest accelerations of digital pivoting in history – and we have some very demanding customers.

This quest for competitive advantage often means we sacrifice user-centric design. Indeed, Google Bard has already come under fire for basic errors and mixed messaging, proving that instant gratification doesn’t always equal satisfaction.

Why delayed gratification can support sustainable product design

New market trends or fads can strike panic in the heart of developers – often rushing to get out a complete overhaul or a new product. But the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

Rather than falling for the hype, we need to treat user experience as a quality discipline, making small, incremental design changes with a continuous improvement mindset. Customers don’t like change, and making subtle amendments that improve the user experience will be far better received.

Incremental improvements

On top of this, we can spread developmental costs and present a real return on investment. It’s tempting to succumb to the pressures of stakeholder influencers, market competition and tight deadlines – but what about the long-term effects?

Digital product development in the age of immediacy

To better understand the risks of focusing solely on quick solutions, we need to look at the digital product lifecycle. Broadly speaking, product lifecycles follow four key steps:

  1. Introduction
  2. Growth
  3. Maturity
  4. Decline

Introducing the product is vital as we need to communicate the benefits of something that consumers may not understand. Strong marketing is a must. But to stay mature and avoid decline, we also need to make constant change – rather than one huge overhaul.

Toyota is a great example of this, focusing on lots of little improvements with a kaizen approach. But we can also learn from the failures, such as Google Glass.

In 2013, the digital behemoth was eager to enter the wearable tech market and launched Google Glass. It was soon met with criticism over its limited functionality and privacy concerns, showing that developers had overlooked the basics. In other cases, large tech companies have let their users down and continued to do so – as evidenced by documented cases of Instagram’s impact on teenage girls’ mental health.

The sustainable development of digital products lies in a slow, considered process with user experience at the heart.

The value of sustainability and long-term thinking

It’s time to go back to basics with product design. Continuous improvement comes from evolving with customer needs and aspirations. So, we take a modular and iterative design approach.

The team at McKinsey ran a study into the effects of short-term thinking back in 2018. They discovered that the nimblest companies were able to use Venture Capital money to invest in long-term capabilities, thus protecting their future.

Leveraging data-driven insights

Digital sustainability comes from future-proofing our products. We can do this by listening to customer feedback and using these insights in our product development. Not only can a future-proofing mindset meet customer needs; it can also:

  • Reduce waste – focusing on sustainable production methods
  • Improve scalability – building the foundations for growth of users or functions
  • Foster resilience – preparing for changing market conditions or force majeure events.
Where collaborative partnerships help

We are only as good as the teams we have around us. Yes, we can build apps to go remote when a global pandemic hits, but with a diverse stakeholder team, we can go even further.

Getting all stakeholders on board provides well-rounded perspectives on a product. With input from designers, developers, users and more, we can make sure these products solve all problems – and crucially, stay relevant.


The environmental and social impact of imbalanced digital products

We talk about sustainability from a product lifecycle perspective. But there’s also a very real environmental impact to sustainable product design.

Let’s start with the digital carbon footprint. Global email usage generates as much CO2 as an extra 7 million cars on the road – so imagine how damaging short-term digital products can be. While we’re all moving away from single-use plastics, what about digital?

These products have significant energy demands and can be wasteful if they’re used once – for example, creating an app for an annual event. Recycling the same product year after year can reduce resource dependency and lower our carbon footprint.

The social impact

We also need to consider the social impacts of short-term digital product development. Short-lived products may widen the ‘digital divide’, meaning underprivileged users may not have access to essential services. Taking a desktop app onto mobile-only may alienate some users, for example.

On a larger scale, we have seen socio-political impacts such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook’s short-term focus on user engagement came at the expense of privacy safeguarding and resulted in legal action.

As developers, we have a responsibility to make sure our products are accessible, diverse and relevant in the long term.

The takeaways

In a fast-paced digital world where viral content is hailed king, we often overlook the long-term effects. Loyal customers are looking for products with the path of least resistance. They don’t want radical change but instead, continuous improvements that make their lives easier.

We’ve seen time and again what can happen when we chase market fads. Instead, we should promote collaborative, long-term thinking with users at the heart. No hangovers required.

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