Does Your Product Have Soul?

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Does your product have soul? Michael Shrivathsan asks this question, and we take it in a slightly different direction.

Design is Soul

Michael uses an interview with Steve Jobs to build a strong argument for the criticality of design. Along the way, he quotes Steve as saying that “design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation…” It is a great argument for the importance of design. And the Apple imagery Michael invokes drives home the power of design. We agree with that. We just don’t think design is soul.

Intent is Soul

Michael quotes Socrates too, as saying that the soul is “the essence of a person, being that which decides how we behave.” We’re more aligned with Socrates than Steve on this one.

Products are created to achieve goals – to solve problems or exploit opportunities. That is the essence of the product.

The soul of a product is the goal it was designed to achieve.

Lack of Intent

Many products lose sight of their goals over time. They add too many features and they fail to prioritize. They lose sight of their users and thereby lose sight of the market. They try and solve too many problems, taking on too many goals. This scattered “emphasis” dilutes the essence of the product, and weakens its soul.

Soulful Products

  • The Compact Disc / Player. A record that doesn’t wear out. Old folks like me will have at least one record or cassette that they bought more than once because they wore out the first copies. Young folks may be surprised to know that records lost fidelity over time, as the needle scratched away the dynamic range of the surface of the record; and cassette tapes, while magnetic, were analog, and they stretched over time. Especially the first and last tracks on the cassette. There’s an essence to the compact disc. You can listen to your favorite album continuously, indefinitely, without a loss of fidelity. In the 90’s, this was a huge deal.
  • Anti-Lock Breaks. Make a car stop in the shortest possible distance, regardless of road conditions. Another huge deal. Wouldn’t surprise me if anti-lock breaks save as many lives as seat belts. Of course, there’s no way to gather the stats.
  • The microwave oven. Cook stuff as fast as possible. After WW2 radar technicians discovered the physical damage caused by their units (birds would get cooked in flight), Amana researched and invented the Radarange.
  • The cell phone, email, web browser, typewriter, air conditioning, PVRs. All products with a clear essence…

…At least initially.

Today, these products are ubiquitous, and have become “product categories” – their essence was so powerful, they had so much soul that more and more products are created in each category.

Sole or Soul?

We can also see how things have gone awry, as products have diluted their own meaning over time – combining features “because you can”, for example. Some products don’t lose sight of their visions. 37signals does a great job of staying focused on the goal of the product. To “do more things”, they create more products – not more menu items and tabs in an existing product. Gmail is a great email client. Not so good at contact management or calendaring, but also not diluted by those things. Google has a calendar now, and I hope will have a contact management solution soon. But Gmail has soul. Lotus Notes lost their way.

What matters is what your product is supposed to do. Are all the features in support of your goals? Your user’s goals?

Or are the extra features diluting the essence of your product? Dilutive features may be exec “pet projects”, or loud-customer-requests, or cowboy-capabilities (added by someone who thought it would be cool).


Design is important, but the soul of a product is its essence – its goal.

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