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VI.6 Nov.-Dec. 1999
Page: 72
Digital Citation

Strategic outlook

John Thackara

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A growing number of companies face a dilemma: They know how to make amazing things technically, but are at a loss to understand what to make. Companies that became successful through technological leadership are among the most sensitive to this problem; they realize better than most that technological leadership is expensive to achieve and seldom lasts very long. Active experimenters in alternative ways to do business, such companies know from direct experience that in today's world something extra is needed to achieve sustainable competitive advantage.

That something is an understanding of the social contexts in which products and services are used, combined with expertise in turning this knowledge into new products and services. People are social, which is why social context is the key to successful innovation. There are huge opportunities for a company that finds new ways to improve communication and information exchange among people in their everyday lives. Easy to say, hard to do.

One such company is Polaroid. In the 1950s Polaroid's invention of instant photography was a classic example of technology-led success. Polaroid's offer was an instant hit with consumers. The distillation of what had previously been a complicated and time-consuming process into a one-step action delivered unique and immediate value to consumers. Instant photography seemed at the same time to be miraculous and ineffably modern—a potent combination of functional and cultural quality.

Today, Polaroid's original analog technology remains brilliant but exists in a market being transformed in every dimension by digital technology—or is it markets? Where Polaroid once sold instant cameras, it is hard pressed now to say whether it is in the film market, the camera market, the processing market, or the telecommunications market.

The probable answer—as for all communication industries—is a combination of them all. The dilemma for Polaroid is that images are now quite easy to take across a variety of platforms. One-step photography today is where competition begins, not where it ends. Polaroid has to find new ways to take, view, display, manipulate, exchange, or store images—as single actions, or as part of a seamless process. And those new ways must be valuable to users, otherwise they won't help the company stay in business.

To increase its understanding of the why as well as the how of consumer behavior with images, Polaroid teamed up with E-Lab, an experience research and design firm in Chicago. E-lab's task was to re-invent the experience of "instant" not just in a technical sense, but in the whole range of experiences people have when taking and using images.

"One-step photography today is where competition begins, not where it ends"

Figure. E-Lab's researchers plotted the different spaces and places in which we use, display or store images—from the refrigerator door to the shoe box under the stairs.

E-Lab's researchers observe people, identify patterns in behavior, and develop an understanding of why these patterns exist. They developed a model of the image process that identifies two phases: taking images and using them. Taking an image includes its composition, capture, framing or view, and printing. Using an image breaks down into display, manipulation, exchange, and storage.

E-Lab's research revealed a fundamental difference between the way an image takes material form as an object in our everyday lives, and its meaning as an image—what we expect from its content, based on prior practice and standards. For users, E-Lab discovered, the emotional content of an image is the best measure of its value. This emotional content has both spatial and temporal aspects. Looked at as a moment in time, an image may record a major milestone, a planned event, or a posed group as evidence of membership of a family or community. Images may also be used to build and maintain relationships—for example, by telling stories about incremental change in people through time, such as children growing older, or their first day at school. Also, images are used as a means of personal expression—we use them in a fun way, to express our personal values, or to be creative.

E-Lab also plotted the different spaces and places in which we use, display or store images—from the refrigerator door to the shoe box under the stairs. Recombining these spatial and temporal dimensions delivers a more rounded understanding of users' experience with images. E-Lab identified three modes of use. One is static, whereby images are stored long-term, possibly in inaccessible storage, but where they might still be rediscovered and then enjoy an afterlife. Another they called inactive—images in low-turnover displays or in short-to-long-term storage, such as an album that resides in a shared communal space but is seldom opened. Still another is dynamic—any situation in which the turnover of images is high and they are viewed frequently in democratic spaces.


By plotting these temporal, spatial and experiential coordinates, E-Lab created what John Cain, president of E-Lab, calls an "opportunity map" for Polaroid. By breaking down the photographic process into smaller, distinct moments or experiences, the map helps the company's marketing and product development teams search for ways to make each experience easier, or more meaningful. In the longer run, as these steps are integrated, Polaroid's aim is to offer a seamless and infinitely adaptive image service environment.

However, although social science can describe contexts of use with some insight, it does not create new products. It is one thing to understand users' experiences in different contexts, quite another to find ways to improve those experiences in a way that people will value and pay money for.


It is too early to tell how Polaroid will use this research to come up with new products and services, but the work with E-Lab moves well beyond conventional thinking on interaction design as exhibited in most other consumer electronic products and personal computers. It is also significant that in this project, know-how is given as much emphasis as know-what. The long-term benefit to Polaroid will be its increased capability to improve the rapid uptake of ideas.

There will be no instant solutions. For Polaroid, the shift in focus from technology alone to the changing social contexts in which images are taken and used is a big one. But tremendous opportunities are opening up for new forms of technologically enhanced communication within communities. If this new, knowledge-based approach succeeds it will mark a transformation of the way Polaroid does business.

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John Thackara is an expert on design, innovation, and new media, and director of the Netherlands Design Institute—a think-and-do tank in Amsterdam. He runs design and innovation scenarios for governments, cities, associations and companies.

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UF2Figure. E-Lab's researchers plotted the different spaces and places in which we use, display or store images—from the refrigerator door to the shoe box under the stairs.



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©1999 ACM  1072-5220/99/1100  $5.00

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