Could you name the 50 most influential gadgets of all time? With so much great stuff in the world, it’s hard to narrow them down—but TIME did just that in 2016 with a roundup of “the gear you can’t live without.” The group ranges from Sony’s Walkman to Fitbit, which—along with the other 48—were products revered around the world.
With this in mind, I wanted to explore what makes a cool product. InVision’s VP of Design Aarron Walter touched on the topic in a GrowthHackers AMA—so it seems I’m not the only one interested in designs that stick.
Do specific principles contribute to creating a cool product?
To start the discussion, one user asked if specific frameworks or principles contribute to design being perceived as “cool” beyond individual opinions. The short answer and the one Walter gave? “Absolutely … but the formula for making cool products is complex.
First, there’s the challenge of understanding what this even means. Modern usage of the word isn’t what it once was, according to scientists cited in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
After speaking with the researchers who used skin conductance tests to measure personality traits, Cain learned that low-reactive extroverts sweat less. “This is where our notion of being socially “cool” comes from,” she writes. “The lower-reactive you are, the cooler your skin, the cooler you are.”
Ironically, it’s a compliment to be both “hot” and “cool,” especially if those traits describe a product. Walter also notes that social, cultural, and evolutionary forces affect how people respond to something. This could explain why the visual profile plays into our perception.
A red Ferrari catches our attention because the color is rare in nature, and is used as a signal to direct our gaze to danger (a poison arrow frog) or pleasure (a sweet strawberry). A Ferrari embodies both of those things—danger and pleasure.
Blending senses with emotions
Designing products to ignite strong emotions is one way to make them memorable. In advertising, emotions inform many strategic initiatives depending on which of the 6 universal feelings a team is trying to evoke.
This is also the basis of storytelling as a business tactic. Taking customers through an emotional journey allows them to connect with and remember a product or brand without explicitly selling to them.
But what about products that aren’t as well-known and captivating as a luxury sports car?
Today, many of the products we interact with are digital. They’re apps or software services that replace traditional experiences like going to the bank to deposit a check. In the case of these products—the kind you can’t necessarily hold in your hands—how does design impact the cool factor?
According to Walter, that all comes down to digital products that are functional, reliable, usable—and to be outstanding—pleasurable.
How to design products that go beyond the basics
To make this possible, he suggests translating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs into a modern version that reflects user needs. That transformation looks like this:
Fusing these qualities into your products will help make them cool—but that shouldn’t be the only goal. Focus less on being cool and more on “what can bring joy to your customers’ lives.”“Balance design and engineering to produce a balanced product.”
In the world of product design, balance is also key. “A product that delivers maximum cool and minimum practicality is destined to perform poorly,” Walter says. Examples of products like these he cites are:
- Apple G4 Cube
- Nest Protect
Alternatively, products that deliver on function but miss usability and coolness will also struggle, like the Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife Giant.
Key “cool” qualities exist, but there are exceptions
However, there are a few exceptions. It wasn’t on the TIME list of influential gadgets, but Yeti coolers have still achieved a great it-factor. I’ll second Walter’s opinion that these clunky cubes of plastic don’t look cool, but they do “bring tremendous joy to people by keeping food and beverages at the perfect temp for an insanely long time.”
And when it comes to establishing a foothold in people’s lives and making stories attainable, Yeti’s accomplished what every product designer dreams of.
“Their stickers are plastered on thousands of cars because their products do something astounding.”