Demolition Lessons in Product Design

Sushrut Munje shares on Frankaffe, how Jake Gyllenhaal's character in Demolition the movie carries invaluable lessons in product design and product development.

My fascination for drama and movies that almost seem erratic is on the rise. When conversations set the tone, when there are hidden laughs with depths to explore and metaphors a plenty left open to interpretation – yes, that’s the kind of movies I like, and experiences, and people who offer those.

Demolition is fascinating – for it begs you to rip it apart and asks you to put it together again, because though you might not understand it, you love it. The actors do their job well, and only your imagination might want you to hold it up to a yardstick. Demolition is an experience as you go through Jake Gyllenhaal’s struggle coping with his wife’s death and everything that comes with it. What is a relationship but memories that are shared? Of what use is a sock drawer of a dead person?

Design for Emotion

The beauty of human life is the sheer consistency of experiences, because the pattern ends up becoming obvious. Damaged attracts the Damaged, and unless we heal the issue we are grappling with, it underlines every problem we face. One shade of Demolition makes us realize that a product makes no sense unless you associate a memory or a feeling with it. And we can apply that lesson while designing products. You call it ‘anthropomorphism’.

Your customers would prefer the product you have built not only for its functional design, but for the way it makes them feel. That can be achieved through engineering a seamless experience, through interactive service that wraps around it or through marketing communication. Emotion and Likeability is at the dominant top of the pyramid, and function only forms the essential foundation.

If it is broken, take it apart

Jake, our protagonist in Demolition, did not quite pay attention to a lot of things. ‘Things’ did not bother him as much as they should have. Right from a creaking stall door, to his marriage. As a result, since he did not know what is broken, he never felt the need to fix it. Jake ought to have paid attention to detail.

Not paying enough heed to little things is a mistake no product manager can afford. A washroom can work just fine with all its pots and washbasins and perfect tiles. But if it has a creaking door, why tolerate it? If a doorknob works perfectly fine, but resists the act of turning it round, ought that not to be fixed on priority? A double door refrigerator might look magnificent in a gleaming white kitchen, but what is the point of its opulent existence if it leaks?

It is crucial to not tolerate a loophole, which has the potential to be a crack in the dam. Take things apart to understand what is really wrong with what you have built. Take apart teams. Take apart the entire plan. Look into every minute detail and nip the issue in the bud. It might take time, might result in lost tempers and momentary disillusionment. But in the end, it would be worth it. Empires have been built on solid roads, not hollow ambitions. Conglomerates are built on hefty balance sheets and profits, not borrowed money and ever growing debts.

Take it apart, only to put it back together again

Jake took apart his refrigerator, his coffee machine, his sock drawer, and his whole house. He ripped apart his marriage, or rather the home that stood as its symbol. Only to realize that physical forms and rich toys meant nothing to the love he had shared with his wife. The Lladró showpiece in the living room was nothing compared to his wife’s love for the beach – and the merry-go-round. Material comforts meant nothing compared to her touch, and whispered sweet nothings.

Jake took time to understand what really stood for their marriage, what defined their love, how he had perceived it for so long, in what form. Jake ripped himself apart in every way possible only to come back as one again, tying all the loose pieces together, this time – complete and at peace.

Your customers are going to use what you build. They are going to touch it, feel it, going to add a bit of their own to it. Your product is going to be their Horcrux, they are going to love it, cry into it, going to make love on it or around it. It is going to be their intimate possession – because they are going to use it when they are alone. They are not talking to you when they use it; they see themselves and think only about themselves when they live your product. Build, with that depth in mind. Build, as a customer, for your customers. Put together everything you have taken apart to repair that one flaw. Offer a crystal clear experience which does its job.

Take a step back. Observe. Accept.

It is incredible the way we occupy our own time, not leaving our mind in peace, always thinking about one thing or the other. Being productive is one thing, and being lost in the rush is another. What we lose when we are running is perspective, which is needed when you are building. You ought to be able to step out, go back, and just observe. Reflect on what is being constructed. Is it really the way you had planned it to be? Do the plans have the change? Were there mistaken assumptions?  Do you have the courage to take everything apart again, and rebuild? It’s not just you, you know, there are people slogging day in and day out to build something that will have to be broken down because you made a calculation error in your air conditioned room. Do you have the courage?

Acceptance of who you are and what you believe in is the first step of self-realization. We struggle with social validation all our lives. We doubt our every step, look around for approval, and seek to fit in. The funny part is – we continue trying to fit in with people who are actually looking back at you to fit themselves in! The term ‘social norm’ is a joke, simply a presumption.

It is sunny tonight. Trust yourself to validate.

It is okay to do things you have not done till now. It is okay to dance, to work your backside off, to fall in love and to walk up to a pretty stranger. It is okay to feel the sun on the darkest of nights. It is okay to take everything apart, no matter how old, and rebuild. A smile and an honest moment is all it takes to bring people together. And every moment matters.

Do NOT take a half-baked product to our customers. They won’t know what to do with it. Since your lack of confidence is making you take an incomplete thing to the market, the critical feedback would beat you down further. Put something together, something that only you know how to undo. When customers do not see how to undo something, they presume it is a real thing, and engage with it giving it the seriousness it deserves. That would give you a better research experience, a valuable testing experience and a feedback loop that makes sense.

Keep the emotions high and build a smile for the humans. Everyone knows what to do with one.

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