Over the last two weeks, we have been preparing and testing experience prototypes, exploring how we might best represent our ideas during the final Thesis events – which include both a performance/showcase format and an interactive demo day with industry partners.
In many ways, this has been rough, but feel I actually feel pretty good. It has been a very quick restart since the beginning of the semester, given my pivot away from speculative design/artistic practice as a context for my Thesis work (although it remains the inspiration) and more towards a business and systems design format that seeks to solve more specific problems. However, while I am starting from scratch in many ways, this is work that I know how to do, and already I feel more confident and clear about what deliverables I can have ready for different audiences and competitions by certain dates, and which might be more appropriate after we can test a real MVP with appropriate audiences and look for funding.
Getting Ready for The Science Fair
This week we did another type of ‘user-test’ as part of an all department ‘science fair’, where we had to set up a trade-show like a booth with our prototype, information about our project, and any tools/props necessary to give a short and convincing pitch for our idea.
This event was a great place to test out the new name for our platform, Unum (thanks Mom for the Latin/Greek etymology suggestions!!!) and for us to really think about the best way to talk to different audiences about our product.
To facilitate this, we created a new brief/one-pager that attempts to more clearly and concisely communicate the key points of our project to a range of audiences and stakeholders. (the win-win-win document)
I also created a short presentation or pitch-deck to guide my discussion with visitors to the booth. Though I didn’t actually use it during the science fair, as it didn’t feel appropriate for the more intimate one-on-one conversations with visitors, writing the deck really helped me to organize my thoughts around the remaining work that needs to be accomplished by my final format review coming up in a few weeks, and also for the end of year events and other avenues to which we want to apply. I decided to adopt a business pitch style for the presentation and reviewed notes and classes I both took and taught during my career in entrepreneurship education and mentorship. Finally, I found a great format that I felt best represented what we had now, although a couple of more specific slides (financing, investment) will need to be filled in down the road.
This presentation will be curated over the next few weeks and act as the deck for my final format review coming up in March.
Metaphors & Cookies
Finally, I decided to do a fun little exercise to help metaphorically connect how our platform works and is really a unique way of thinking about selling designed products and furniture. I have always tried to explain the idea of “Classes” in coding to students I mentor through the metaphor of a cookie cutter. The class itself is the cookie cutter, and the instances of the class created are the cookies.
For Christmas this year, my Mother finally got me the famous family “Cookie Gun” which comes out every Christmas and helps us make hundreds of cookies in a couple of hours. This cookie gun consists of a bunch of flat metal disks with holes punched in them, which create the design of the cookie. There is also the cookie gun, which is a hollow tube with a plunger inside it. You put the dough in the tube, press the trigger, and the plunger pushes forward, squirting the dough through the holes of the disk you chose for the front.
This actually reminded me a lot of how our idea works. If you consider the fact that the metal disk pattern is designed by someone, it is in some sense, their design, then our company is in the business of selling access to those disks, and making sure the designer is paid everytime they are used. A designer would upload the design (for their cookie disk) to our website, and we would help connect the design with the appropriate maker (the gun) and will create the item in a somewhat custom fashion (the decorations and sprinkles for the cookie that is produced). So our company, our platform licenses the use of a particular disc, one time, to make one cookie. That disk is combined with the capital (the cookie gun machine) and materials (dough) from our maker, and one licensed cookie is created that the user can somewhat customize. I know, not a perfect metaphor, but it also let me bring in a bunch of cookies to share with everyone who was starving after working all day, and I was able to rack up lots of visitors. 😉
Feedback from the Science Fair
We got some excellent feedback from the science fair, this time more so from other professors and more related to our business and systems design models. This was actually a huge help since we have been really trying to focus on defining the exact problem we are trying to solve and how our solution, using a blockchain to track ownership of physical copies of digital ideas, is unique from other similar decentralized manufacturing models that we have started to go find in our research.
- Look at how Amazon started up. They created a new market from scratch as e-commerce became more popular, pushing the boundaries of what experts thought people would buy online. You are trying to do something similar, introducing a new way of buying/selling. There may be precedents here for how they built a new market in terms of u/x and branding that introduced customers to doing business this way.
- Also look at how Amazon curates content. Channels, independent sellers. See what people in your target market are buying on Amazon. What furniture and home goods? Can you find their market data? See their annual report?
- Think a lot more about your branding. People will either come to your platform because they love the service and/or the design aesthetic you promote through the designers you feature. Look at Design within Reach. yes it’s expensive, but through building and positioning their brand in the right way, they have been able to use their cultural cachet to bring more well-known designers on board.
- What is your aesthetic? You need to think about what types of products can be curated into styles and design sensibilities and how often you need to renew your stock so things stay exciting. Monthly, seasonally?
- H&M is an interesting precedent. They are fast fashion that takes up and coming, trendy styles from the runway to the rack in weeks. They always have trend watchers ready to shoot them a new style to reproduce and get in stores asap. This is their unique power. Getting stock refreshed with the latest look so quickly.
- How many designers will you need to have so you always have something new? What is the rate of change you will need upon launching and moving forward so people will keep coming back?
- How much time should designers spend making the designs? Are there minor services you can use to help them do this? Tools on the site? Help pricing?
- Where/how could you get the word out super cheaply to customers, designers, makers?
- What makes your product unique in itself? Is it cheaper? Is it cooler? Would Zaha Hadid use it?
- You need to be more clear about how owning a license or pattern is different than owning just an object. Talk more about the lifetime ownership aspect, that is a key difference that drives people rethinking value and products.
Recent Work & Reflections
So… we have lots balls in the air right now and so many channels we could go into that it feels a bit overwhelming. Furniture, jewelry, home goods, knick knacks, smart products, eco-friendly products etc. etc.
We need to finish up our divergent thinking, the what-if, excited, big-idea cloud of possibilities, tangents, and relationships that define systems-level design and start focusing on converging our passions, talents, and goals into a specific a narrow definition. Not necessarily an end point to our thinking, rather a place to get started, to launch. Everything else can come later.
I was given the advice this Fall to start with the interaction, make it seamless, unique, and natural, then worry about how the other pieces will fall into place. I think our first prototype was really an attempt to test an assumption we had in this regard. Would people want to do this, buy a license for an idea a designer made and have it made by someone else or even themselves in the future? Did this help them reimagine the value of products and ideas? Did it help them feel intrinsically how decentralized and distributed manufacturing models founded on emerging technologies could open up new social and economic models? But most importantly, did it help people start to realize a new story about what other people, what communities have the potential to do when they can form new relationships impossible or disenfranchised in the past?
The answer to these questions was a pretty firm Yes. People did understand what we were doing, people liked it, wanted to participate, and if they were a little shaky about how the blockchain played into it, without a metaphor and explanation of how it might work, then that was okay, a good place to start improving from.
Tomorrow Audrey and I will get together and bring our individual research goals for the last week to the table to get a better picture of our market, our product, our unique value add and the stakeholders we need to keep meeting with to test the assumptions we have made.
On my end, this included researching the ‘makers movement’ from a historical and academic point of view, trying to understand the evolution of the trend and some of the drivers behind it from a systems-level socio-economic perspective. I want to curate language and copy for our website and materials in the appropriate way and tie our product into the larger ecosystem of competing forces and ideologies that have shaped it. In short, I want to understand what stories people have been telling, how they might relate to a larger cultural story, and how our product evolves that story and writes new chapters.
I have also been doing ‘more practical’ market research, seeking to understand what our target audience is, what market segments they fall into, what amount of disposable income they have, what they typically spend that income on (in terms of home furnishings/furniture/design products/art) and what their pain points, goals, and needs are during these purchasing patterns. I have also been writing up extensive interview questions that have arisen during our planning, with the goal of using them to structure a rapid barrage of conversations over the next few weeks with makers and designers. Audrey has already begun the interviews with several students and staff in product design and making at the New School. I will now be reaching out to local maker centers in the greater NY area that we can go visit and talk to.
Finally, I have been researching blockchain companies and technology, trying to understand what innovations have been made that are the closest to our proposed system, and what resources and test-cases I could use to illustrate the point in a prototype or theoretically based white paper about how our unique platform would work.
On the other side, Audrey has been researching the product and design elements, looking into different types of product and furniture designs, specifically those that require few fixtures (screws, bolts etc.) and some of the aesthetics we can work to curate as a result. Her interviews with product designers and makers over the last week have done much to inform our trajectory, our shift in target designer audience (to up and coming/student from professional/high-end) and what type of product we might want to look into and what materials and styles we might use. In addition, she is working on our branding and aesthetics as a company, trying to understand how can have a niche, a unique style that curates our designs into something people can understand and want to buy.
Right now, I think the next few weeks, through Thesis presentations in mid-March, will see us starting to really hone in on the following points:
- What is the exact problem we are trying to solve for different stakeholders (makers, customers, designers)?
- How can we look at the business models of our closest competitors (mostly in the open making movement) and figure out which parts work for us, which parts don’t and how our idea is different. This will help us to better articulate our unique value add using the blockchain. How our solution is different than the rest (and better?)
- What are the questions that need to be answered and materials created for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and how can we align our progress with meeting those goals by the end of March?
- What deliverables do we want to have for finals presentations and exhibition day?
- Right now we are leaning towards a look-book of a Spring collection of designs, physical products we have produced as a result of this, and a demo of how the blockchain component might work (and if not a demo, at least a white paper).
- Also, what is the final writing deliverable going to be? A business plan? A white paper? A larger academic/design inquiry into the convergence of the maker’s movement/digital fabrication and the emerging blockchain as the potential new framework for the decentralization of related systems?
I have a couple of nagging concerns about the project that I also want to answer as soon as possible, some more philosophical and most operations related.
- How does our idea, our systems complement or defeat the idea of open-source and open making? I love the idea of open-source things and ideas as an ideology for our generation, the open sharing of knowledge and material. However, right now there is no way for content creators to be truly credited and recognized. How can we find a happy medium between copyrights, patents, licensing (that I kind of hate) and a fully open-source model where everything is available completely free?
- Would an organization like Creative Commons see what we are doing as anti-open-source? Or is there a way we can somehow pull out the ideology of open-source and transform it into something a bit new? (e.g. Could we still allow for remixes of design ideas in future iterations, but use the blockchain to at least credit the authorship, and at most actually pay a small percentage to the original creator of the idea? – See Primavera Philippi’s Plantoids project as a sort of artistic representation of how this could work).
- We have so many individual components that would need to come together for this to work perfectly in its full inception:
- A web platform that has portals for designers, makers, and customers to have a clean user experience interacting with our products
- A theoretical and thought-out but untested blockchain ecosystem that could support this
- Relationships with individual designers and makers to get them onboard to work with us
- Curation, branding, and marketing around our platform to get people to actually try it and build excitement
- A collaborative hiring/investment model that opens the door for cooperative business models that makers can buy into down the road
- Given all these moving pieces, what order should we test and implement them in? What do we need for a minimally viable prototype of how the idea would work? If we did get some money to do this, can we launch specific parts of it if the others are unfinished? Mostly, can we launch the platform before the full blockchain integration is built, should it prove difficult to test out given the relatively new technology and limited resources in trying innovative use-cases??
My final thought to close this out is actually about the blockchain and the maker’s movement. I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what the value-add is for the blockchain to be included. I know deep down it can really open up such amazing possibilities for this to work, but if not ‘licensing’ what else could it bring to the table? Is there a way for the blockchain to either just record authorship (and maintain free open-source downloads) as well as a paid license to reproduce the work? I think there is something here around the idea of “I made this thing, I want to be recognized” coming from the older days of artists marks on furniture and designs. I am wondering if, perhaps not now but later, the blockchain is just really used to track the authorship of the original idea, as a link to a more open-source license, that isn’t predicated on making sure people get paid, but more so that they are recognized for their creative effort. In my readings on the maker’s movement, it seems like there is a real desire here.
I also wonder if, in a perfect world, this could help get people to maker centers and actually making. I think everyone is a maker deep down, they just need the resources and confidence to try something. Can we harness this energy in future models, or even in our original model, and allow for people to actually learn to make the design with the making center? To cut-out and see how the design files work? Maybe it would cost more money, but I think people might really want to do this and would really benefit from the experience of co-creating their own product at the maker center, with the maker, learning how easy it can really be to use some of these tools, if you just have a reason to do so and someone to show you.
At the end of the day, I think this whole thing is starting to come down to community. How can we create new communities of customers, makers, and designers where those roles start to blur, and how can the blockchain, given its unique architecture, help us to make these new relationships real and strong?
I recently read a great article where they said that the blockchain isn’t about “trustless” exchange, it is actually about who you trust more, your elected community or a centralized authority. I’ll take my community any day.
- What did your feedback shown you?
- How are you moving your project forward? Any surprises?
- What are the immediate things you need to focus on?
- What are nagging concerns?