Life and Death in the Product Food Chain
Even thought most designers never get the chance to study economics explicitly, it's easy to get the sense that it is a science which borrowed insight from Biology. Supply and demand economics brings mental images of deer numbers dwindling in harsh winters, and thriving in balmy summers. Companies talking about synergies really refer to a jargonified version of oak galls and wasps or clownfish and aneamonies. Companies even gain monickers like "Top Dog" and Leader of the Pack" based on their performance.
So, it should be a small leap of comprehension to think about a kind of "apex predator" in the market; Like a mountain lion, who has no competition to copy, or predator to avoid, these companies, and their products have a cascading effect through all levels of production. Often, they may even influence the market in far-reaching ways that even they don't expect.
For a better understanding of this apex predator idea, take a look at this incredible story from the New York Times. According to the most recent surveys of biodiversity at Yellowstone National Park, in recent years the growth of trees that love the marshy water's edge -- willow, poplar, and alder -- have experienced explosive growth. This alone isn't out of the ordinary, but the cause of it is: Wolves. Scientists monitoring Yellowstone since the re-introduction of the grey wolf 10 years ago have seen sweeping changes in nearly every ecosystem, from mice to moose. Wolves, directly, or indirectly, are part of so many food chains within the park, that their sudden appearance has caused a complete upheaval of the... well, marketplace.
Companies like Apple, who is so universally looked to, copied, emulated, borrowed, and co-opted by other companies, have a similar sort of effect on the market. How many other companies went multi-candycolored after the introduction of the iMac?
With the introduction of the iPod, we say designers moving to white polycarbonate and metal accents. Similarly, automotive and train designers at the beginning of the 1950s brought on the age of streamlining with their swooping curves that were too catchy not to be put on everything from toasters to chairs.
Or, consider the impact that TiVo has had on the television and movie marketplace. In the last few months, The Tonight Show, 60 Minutes and others experimented with new advertising formats involving single sponsors running longer, harder to skip ads. Other companies are moving away from television altogether, in favor of product placement opportunities in movies, and forced-play commercials on rental DVDs. The future of the advertising/content balance is anything but decided, as new technologies like vlogs, podcasting, satellite radio, and the new video iPod continue to create new wrinkles in the marketplace.
Rather than disrupt a previous market assumption, a product can also alter it's economic food chain by introducing a new food source into the environment. Like Yellowstone's wolves have left carcasses of elk for raptors, foxes, and coyote to pick on, some products open up new feeding opportunities with novel functionality. Take, for example, Napster's "product". Unassuming at first, "file sharing" has turned into one of the biggest business drivers of the last 10 years. Legal or not, without the introduction of easily downloadable content to fuel them, the rapid growth of mp3 players, portable video players, and even media center PCs would have been a non-story. It will be exciting to see how new food sources like H.324, and dual layer DVD storage will effect future products.
In some cases, a product's influence has extended well past its own food chain, and into those which at first glance it has absolutely no relation to. The relationship between elk and wolves is easy to grasp. Wolves and willows is a bit more obscure. But Viagra, rhinoceros, and tigers...too weird! Weird, yes, but apparently true. Researchers have, in a few different studies, found that sales of Viagra in New York and East Asia are having dramatic effects on the demand for traditional aphrodisiacs in those countries. Those pills have traditionally been made from rhino horns, tiger genitals, and various endangered antlers, shells, bones, or fins. Now that there is a real working pill in town, nobody wants to mess with a potentially illegal (and probably ineffective) traditional remedy. The effects of a well-placed predator in a marketplace can be incredible.
Next time you're looking to make an impact in the marketplace, maybe it's a good idea to think of yourself as designing a predator, rather than designing a toaster. Your solution may extend further than you think.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team