Physical products are an inseparable part of human history. From ancient tool makers to modern mass manufacturers, physical products were always intended to extend and improve the human body, giving us the ability to do things better, faster, stronger, easier, etc., in a way we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
There are only two types of tools that extend the human mind: writing and software. The invention of writing enabled, for the first time in history, humans to keep thoughts, ideas, and information external to the human brain. That was a major step in our evolution. The software took these capabilities a few steps further by enabling a much more powerful tool to store and use data and make calculations.
Physical products and software products are very different from each other. One has a body and it follows the rules of physics, while the other has no body and is based on logic. For many years, these two types of products lived in separate worlds. Today, the borders between them are fading. The Internet, the Internet Of Things (IOT), Wearable Computing, and the low cost of microprocessors allow for more and more physical products to also become software products.
In this article, I’ll describe some of these main product aspects and discuss the differences between physical products and software products.
The terms user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) are associated with software products. Physical products are considered (by mistake) as having only “ergonomics.” For both software and physical products, the UX & UI are crucial and should be an important aspect of product design.
In most cases, a software product’s structure is much more complicated than a physical product’s structure. Normally, there are many more operating options and usage scenarios in software products. Software products are built using a high level hierarchy whereas physical products are flat or only have a low level hierarchy.
It is much easier to comprehend a physical product compared to a software product. You can see the entire physical product at once and understand how it’s built. That’s not the case for software products. You cannot see the entire product at once. In order to comprehend a software product, you have to go through its structure and see it piece by piece.
Software products live on screens. User interaction with software products is done with two senses only: sight and hearing. This is why software product design only considers these two dominant senses. This is not the case for physical products—touch and smell can add a lot of information and enrich the user experience. The product’s weight, temperature, texture, tactile feedback, and smell are all important aspects of a physical product design.
Software products are never standalone; they are created by using a certain programming language. They run on certain devices, with certain screen sizes and certain operating systems. Physical products, on the other hand, can be standalone—not connected to anything—or have very simple connections (like electric power). In this matter, software products are much more complicated to develop. The product development process has to take into consideration all the “other things” as far as parameters and limitations.
Production is very different for physical products and software products. For physical products, production means converting the design to a mass production by creating a production line and production means (like molds). A lot of work and obstacles stand between a physical product’s final design and a ready-to-use product. For modern (cloud) software products, “production” means maintaining the system, enabling users to log in and use the product.
“Bugs” in software products, or a “failure” in physical products, are problems in the product design (or manufacturing, for physical products)—something that doesn’t work as it should. Due the more complex structure of software products, it is much harder to find bugs compared to physical product’s failures. On the other hand, in most cases, it is easier and cheaper to fix software bugs compared to technical failures. Bugs in software are more acceptable than technical failures.
We live in a four dimensional space-time world built on three physical dimensions and one time dimension. Somehow, physical products are more connected to the three physical dimensions, and software products are more connected to the time dimension. Another way to describe it: physical products do not change in time and software products do not change in space.
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