Physical vs. Virtual Products

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.

User Experience
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.

My next post will be about “Data-Driven Product Design”  - what does it mean and how to benefit from it?  Be notified about this upcoming post.

  • Moshe Nissan

    Hi Yariv, great article!

    I will add also “embedded” products (chips, micro-controllers..etc.) to the list of writing and software (Tools that expand the human mind).

    As you said, the internet of things and wearable computing will help us to discover a lot of data (facts) we never thought could be reached, this will accelerate the product development decision taking, (it will act as a design-brief – tool, that will tell you what product to develop, which software to create for helping the user to change its habits, or environment awareness) will be faster and more accurate. Just imagine using the internet of things, together with big data analysis to present to clients products, software or strategies that will help them to reach their desired goals.

    This probably will open new opportunities for Social studies where as opposed of STEM fields (science, Technology,Engineering, Mathematics) one question has more than only one answer:

    STEM: 1+5 = 6 …. it means there is only ONE right answer for ONE question.
    Social science: “How to reduce poverty in the “x” sector?”
    Answers: obviously.. more than ONE

    Another advantage of software products, is that they can help physical products to evolve and interact in an increasing way with the user, lets say a physical product supported by a software (sometimes creating also a service, from a product) for example Iphone and Itunes… any time you update your iphone you receive “new gadgetry” and the iphone is just the beginning of the real business …. the iTunes portal where you can buy music, books, tutorials..podcast or whatever…!

    Production: is cheaper to start and to close in case of failure a software (virtual product) you don’t need any expensive machinery, specialized technicians, or a big warehouse, electricity bill, complex infrastructure, etc.

    Last but not least, Virtual products allow the intellectual interchange between individuals, creating in a faster pace Innovation communities, that sooner or later will re-adapt and create synergies, in short economical benefit, once the business is running you can also send the production line (coding, scripting,etc) to any cheaper country (in seconds), i just think how the industrial manufacturing moved to china so fast, now i ask myself how much it will take for the “high tech manufacturing” to emigrate to china, India, Africa or any place that offers non-expensive coding?

    • Yariv Sade

      Moshe, thanks for sharing.
      I consider microprocessors as software.

  • Christian Theill

    dear Yariv,

    as always a great article, except the claim “There are only two types of tools that extend the human mind: writing and software”.

    I would include Verbal Communication and Recording:

    There is no written trace of Dante’s oeuvre but he is still enlightening the entire world with his Divina Commedia. Generations of (mostly analphabetic rural) people have conserved the treasure by verbal transmission. Same for Homer.

    Audio and video registrations contribute since more than one century to extend human minds enormously.


    • Yariv Sade

      Hi Christian,

      Thanks for your comment. I was considering whether to include the verbal communication as a tool or a product. As I see it, it is one of our body’s abilities and not a tool. For the video and audio recording, I agree, these are definitely mind extenuation tools.


  • designsymbiosis

    Thought provoking article…These distinctions you speak of between the physical and virtual are indeed very foggy at the moment.

    One of the many aspects of physical design is the constant decay of the product performance over time, thus the need for maintenance….no? This is especially true when making material choices in design. So, time is very much a dimension of physical product design…no?

    I agree with Christian Theill, that language is a tool/method of extending the human mind.

    Much like software stored on the hard drive or in the cloud, most product components are stored behind an enclosure that also hides them from view. The comprehensiveness you speak of is true for both physical and software products.

    One aspect not mentioned between the physical and the virtual is that of upgrading. Physical products typically leave upgrading to the end user to do on their own, with their own resources. Whereas software products in most cases can only be upgraded by the maker of the product. Yes, open source does allow for changing of the software product, but it must be codified and made official by the brand/maker/manufacturer in order to be released.

    • Yariv Sade

      Stephen, thank you for your wise comments.

      Yes, another major difference between physical and virtual products is the constant decay of physical products and the condition affects. What I meant by “do not change over time” was for the short term – while using the product.

      The same goes for “upgrading” – there is indeed a big difference between the two types of products in this regard.

      I consider comprehensiveness as the ability to comprehend only the things that are important for the user. As a driver, to comprehend a car doesn’t mean to see and understand how the engine works, but to comprehend how to use (drive) the car.


  • Kunal Drego

    I agree with stephen, The article is ambiguous. And if i dare say it, a bit one sided when it comes to softwares and their advantages.

  • Andrew Bowen

    This article seems to be deeply flawed and heavily biased in many ways.

    First, the claim that only two tools to extend the human mind being writing and software is grossly wrong. You forget to mention the most important tool, which is art. It is art that has allowed humans to depicting and communicate the very complex “physical” world around them starting in area like cave drawings. It is art that has lead to writing as we can see in early hieroglyphs, which has now lead to things like software. Art however is still the best communicator which is why “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Art able to communicate extremely complex ideas, emotions, and actions as well as cross all languages boundaries. All writing, including software, fall far short of this. Probably why things like instruction manuals are still being produced with artistic depictions or images explaining complicated tasks or human actions that would otherwise take novels of text in all languages to come even close to.

    Onto the article….

    User Experience:
    This part doesn’t begin to explain the emotional, cognitive, or physical experiences in products. What is explained here is merely the interactions between interfaces and not the actual user experience. Since physical products can rely on all the human sense plus emotion and cognition they are far more complex.

    In just looking just at interfaces though, by the very nature of physical products incorporating and housing interfaces makes interfaces only one small aspect of the greater product. Just as ergonomics is only one area of focus for physical products the same is with digital interfaces. Without the physical product neither would exist; however, physical products can and do exist without them ergonomics or interface and still create an experience.

    I would have to heavily disagree with this section. It doesn’t come close take into account the wide range of what structure can be.

    Digital products only exist within their digital structure and where there is only so many processes to create them. One could probably easily count the number of programs to which software is created with.

    Physical products however can be created and structured in an infinite number of ways. It would be almost impossible to count all the ways in which physical products are structured. Just compare the CAD models of cell phones to say baby strollers. But one would have to not only look at any programs and physics used but also intended manufacturing methods, assembly, hand craftsmanship, materials, processes, etc. There are in fact so many ways in which physical products can be structured and created that it requires individuals to specialize in particular areas hence why you have electronic designers, furniture designers, shoe designers, medical product designers, soft good designers. The list goes on. Each one could spend a lifetime learning all the ways the products in their area can be structured and built.

    Whereas designing the structure of digital products comes down to only a few type of people that can easily go from one digital product to another.

    This again is a very poor comparison. You are comparing the outward appearance of a physical product to the inner works of a software product. If you are to evenly compare the two then you need to look at the internals of both or just the outward appearance.

    Digital product’s internals is only that of software. Whereas physical product’s internals can be infinitely more complex using electronics, mechanics, hardware, and materials. Look at a car’s engine and internal workings to that of a cell phone, or commercial airliner to a piece of construction equipment. One can never truly comprehend all the complexities of these physical products by looking at them, it takes entire careers to just understand one of them. Where as software can be comprehended and dissected by even young children and self taught hackers.

    Yes, we all know the physical world has far more sense than looking and touching a screen.

    Again I think this part is incredibly off in detailing physical product development and their integration.

    Physical products take often an incredible amount of time and expense to develop and have to factor in many more areas of society, consumer behavior, marketing, art and design trends, engineering, prototyping, testing, manufacturing, supplies and sourcing, assembly lines, distribution, communication and product understanding, sales and distribution, packaging, shipping logistics, etc. If any one of these do not integrate the entire development can be wasted and fail in the market. Physical products are connected to far more things than just “power cords” and because of their extreme complexity it makes for many more problems and chances of failure in development.

    If you are speaking of just physical properties or parts they are comprised of then they are still far more complex. Physical products need to often integrate components from many other industries, working in harmony in fit, function, heat, pressure, tension, and stress. Even logistically organizing components together is a nightmare in itself and can completely jeopardize development and production.

    It is not “somehow” that physical products are more connected to the physical dimensions. They occupy the physical dimensions to which ‘we” exist. because of this all their properties will always be more widespread.

    As well, you are wrong in physical products not changing over time. Both physical products and software can change over time with help of humans by adjusting, re-configuring , or by use, but this takes human interaction.

    However, physical products are the only ones to change over time without human interaction, just look at the way they age or gain a patina. Take away the human interaction and upkeep and software would cease to exist while physical products will still be here decaying over time and growing old with their users.

    • Yariv Sade


      Thanks for your comments, this is definitely the longest and the most upset feedback I’ve received. Let me try to answer each of your points.

      You are right, art is definitely a mind extension tool. Thanks for pointing it and correcting me.

      User Experience: This part doesn’t try to explain the emotional, cognitive, or physical experiences in products. You don’t expect me to cover this domain in one paragraph, do you? *You can read a little more about this title in here –
      The idea behind this part was to point (mainly for software designers) that UX also exist for physical products, which I believe you agree.

      Structure: This part compare the operating options and usage scenarios between physical and virtual products – how many options a user can face when using a product. (It has nothing to do with the way the product was built). In that regard, software products are more complicated – have more layers and options. Compare a car to MS Outlook software, and count how many operating options each of them have.

      Comprehensiveness: Both, physical and software products have external and internal parts. I do not expect the user to comprehend the internal parts (the car’s engine or the software back-end code). In this part, I was talking only about the external parts – the ones the user should understand and use. Let’s take a microwave or a laundry machine as examples. These are physical products with embedded software (display). It is much (much) easier and faster for a user to comprehend the physical aspects (how to use) of the product compared to the software aspects.

      Integration: Product to product integrating is the subject of this part. All software products must integrate with other products (computer, operating system etc.). There is no “stand-alone” software. This is not the case for physical products; which can be stand-alone.

      To summarise, this post is a brief text pointing out the main differences between physical and software products. I wrote it to stimulate product designers and programmer to notice the other part of the industry. I believe it achieved its goal.

  • ozgur

    You are not compering one tree to another but actually a tree to its branches. Physical products are the stem of many add on features like software.

    • Yariv Sade

      Software cannot exist without hardware, of course not. It doesn’t mean that the software is a branch of the hardware. It is not. The hardware is just the carrier.

      A carrier is a “structure” that enables other things to exist without being a meaningful part of it or affecting its quality. Visual art cannot exist without a canvas, yet, the drawing is not a branch of the canvas. The canvas is just the carrier. On the other hand, a saxophone is not a carrier but a medium because it is an integral part of the music – the instruments affect the outcome.

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