“Product” is the Wrong Framing

In Silicon Valley and many large enterprises, the default framing for thinking about customer-facing digital things is that they are “products.” I often meet peers who describe themselves as product designers. It’s not unusual to hear of teams working towards a minimum viable product. These things have product features that are defined by a product manager. When they launch, they’re said to be in production.

This framing of the object of our work as a product is not surprising. We have roots in industrial design and graphic design, two disciplines in which the central object of concern is most definitely a product. (If you’re designing a mass-produced chair, you can say you’re working on a product.) Products are what companies have traditionally produced.

“Product” is an appropriate framing for some classes of digital things — but not all. Android is not a product. iTunes is not a product. Facebook is not a product. Slack is not a product. Salesforce is not a product. Weibo is not a product. They are information environments that host ecosystems. They create contexts that alter the ways people understand the world, think, and act. They are platforms where first-, second-, and third-parties can build and host products of their own. The list of stakeholders is long and extends well beyond the confines of the organizations that “manage” these ecosystems.

The word “product” has connotations that are unhelpful in these cases. A product can be centrally controlled and managed. A product can be replicated. Calculating the ROI of a product is straightforward. Products are expected to change often and quickly lest they are​ overtaken in the market. The boundaries of products are clearly defined. None of these things are true of ecosystems.

Digital products aspire to become ecosystems. It may be more useful to think of the people who “manage” them not as managers but as stewards. “Stewardship” implies a bias towards resilience, sustainability, and holistic value generation that these systems should aspire to — especially as we move more of our social functions into them.