When defining and characterizing a product in a product design process, there are two different types of product’s attributes that have to be considered – the Hard-Attributes and the Soft-Attributes. These two attributes are radically different in nature. Not distinguishing between them and treating them evenly is a common mistake. This article describes the differences between these two types of attributes and explains how to properly manage each of them.
What is the difference between hard and soft attributes of a product?
Hard-Attributes are objective and measurable, and have to do principally with the functioning and performance of a product; for example, strength, speed, weight, and price. They are mainly the purview of engineers.
In contrast, Soft-Attributes are subjective and emotional. They are described using words like attractive, young; sporty, pleasant, and feminine, and cannot be quantified or measured by objective means. For the most part, these attributes have to do with the character of the product and its user-experience. Soft-Attributes are mainly the purview of industrial designers.
Let’s look, for example, at an electric kettle for home usage. The product’s main Hard-Attributes are more or less obvious – the performance, weight, cost, and main features are all relatively easy to define, as well as to measure and test. Defining the kettle’s Soft-Attributes is a different story – how are its appearance and character defined? Does it need to be robust or feminine? Elegant or “young”? Let’s say that we’ve reached the conclusion that an elegant look is the most appropriate. How do we transform elegant into form, material, and color? Are silver curved lines more elegant than red straight lines? Are delicate details more elegant than “heavy” details?
For the Hard-Attributes, the product characterization and the product design relationships are direct and clear. If the product is not strong enough, we should use stronger materials or make a stronger design. If a product is too heavy, we have to reduce materials or components, or use lighter materials.
The Soft-Attributes, however, are much more complicated to manage because there is no direct connection between the “problem” and the solution. There are no “rules” of how to make more elegant kettle or a stronger feminine look.
The Hard-Attributes are objective – they are above time, place, culture, and personal opinion. The Soft-Attributes are exactly the opposite – they are subjective and very much depend on time, place, culture, and personal opinion. Therefore, these two types of attributes should be managed using totally different methods and with totally different tools.
The differences between the two types of product’s attributes
How do you manage a product’s hard and soft attributes in a product design process?
- Make sure to distinguish between and to separate the two types of attributes.
- The Hard-Attributes have a Natural-Scientific nature; use Natural-Scientific methods and tools to manage and measure them.
- The Soft-Attributes have Social-Scientific nature; use Social-Scientific methods and tools to manage and measure them. (I’ll go into such methods details in one of my next posts.)
- Soft-Attributes are much vaguer and difficult to manage, yet, they are crucial to the product’s success. Don’t rely on solely free intuition for making Soft-Attributes decisions.
- In most consumer products, the Soft-Attributes become the product’s character and its compelling selling points, so consider them accordingly.
- Yet, the best Soft-Attributes cannot cover poor Hard-Attributes performances, which are the basics of a product.
Hard-Attributes define the product’s “infrastructure” – abilities, performances, and reliability. The Soft-Attributes define the product’s front – user-experience, character, and look & feel. The balance between the two can be different in different products, but any good product must consider them both in totally separate and different manners.