How To Design For The Sharing Economy

How To Design For The Sharing Economy



The definition of ownership is changing. We are becoming less interested in owning products and accumulating wealth through long-term purchases. Instead, we crave experiences, seeking out things without much of a financial or time investment, and have a newfound appreciation of bargains and second-hand possessions (a song about thrifting is leading the Billboard charts as I am writing this). We increasingly consume products and services through renting, sharing, and purchasing subscriptions. Being “socially connected” is no longer just about having a lot of people to share your news with; these days, it’s about having a lot of people to share your stuff with–either for free or at a fraction of the market fee. It’s about collaborative consumption.

Last month, The Economist proclaimed that while “on-demand” consumption is still being defined, the fact that it is attracting the “big boys” like manufacturers, regulators, and insurance providers in search of a model that works for them means that it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Collaborative consumption is growing from a trend for the young and urban to a viable alternative for everyone. From renting a movie online (e.g., Netflix) to renting a stranger’s couch (e.g., Couchsurfing), the economy of sharing changes the way we behave, consume, seek new options, and commit to decisions. The phenomenon is not just about getting access to new cars and the latest movies; it’s also about creating a new type of peer-to-peer commerce, making meaningful connections, and establishing a sense of trust among those involved.

The new sharing economy presents unlimited opportunities for us as consumers to reinvent our spending habits. It also poses a number of big challenges for businesses, as it confronts the traditional notion of creating consumer demand for purchases. Businesses will need to reconsider their distribution models that encourage shared ownership, as well as product lines that support multi-user product life cycles.

If collaborative consumption is the commerce of 21st century, how do we support it with 21st-century design catered to the community rather than to individuals?

Most current designs are geared toward individual users and don’t seem to change much for multi-user experiences. Similarly, today’s collaborative consumption model is mostly about how the products are shared, not about how they are designed. How do we bring the two together? Here are a few principles to keep in mind as we navigate the new challenge of collaborative consumption as both consumers and business architects.


That is, which products and services are best suited for collaborative consumption and which are better to be left as to the conventional marketplace? For example, it may seem that size matters; the smaller the product is, the easier it could be passed on to another user. Dig deeper and it’s not true if you consider, for example, shared car services such as Zipcar and Car2Go. Similarly, one may say that digital products are easier to share than physical goods. Again, this doesn’t seem to be the case, with many examples of neighborhood sharing and renting of everything from electrical drills to furniture.


How do we design for recurring customization of a product so that subsequent owners can make the product feel like their own and remove the traces of previous ownership? Software customization is relatively easy: Wipe it out, and it’s ready. How about customization of hardware, beyond changing covers and decals? If a new owner wants to change a particular module or add a peripheral, keeping the otherwise working product, how do we support it? Once again, cars give many examples of re-use and re-customization. But digital products still operate in the throw-away mode once an owner discards a product. There isn’t a sustainable model in place for recycling mobile phones or any other kind of electronics in the same way there is for paper and plastic products.] This makes them much less sustainable than they could have been otherwise.


We tend to look after products we own to prolong their life. When products change hands often, wear-and-tear is a big issue. What are the materials that will make products look new longer? What are the techniques for easy refresh, so that a product is more appealing to new users? How should design of a product change to accommodate new maintenance models? Also, if shared products will tend to live longer, how do we design for easy upgrades of hardware parts?


The previous challenges relate to sequential collaborative consumption where products are passed on from one user to another. However, collaborative consumption also stimulates concurrent usage among different users, such as when multiple users interact with a multitouch surface or similar interfaces. These interactions can also be parallel multitasking, in which multiple users interact with the same device doing different tasks. Consider, for example, a case where one user works on a PC directly while another accesses the machine remotely. Simultasking will reqire a lot of design innovation in order to tackle these collective experiences.


Collaborative consumption creates a new system of credit, for both online and in-person sharing. Online interactions are particularly prone to questions about trust: How can you trust a vendor who isn’t completely traceable. Any bank that lends you money has access to your credit score. By contrast, you need to earn the same kind of trust from each and every online community; your LinkedIn reputation means nothing to Ebay. This ought to change very soon. If we want to support collaborative consumption, UX professionals have a huge role to play in figuring out trust verification and the very nature of online verification.

We may not have all the answers yet on how to design for collaborative consumption, but its potential as a key ingredient in a green economy is clear. The practice supports social sustainability by creating communities of people who want to share what they own and by encouraging trust among those involved. It also supports environmental sustainability by enabling products to live longer, reusing parts and materials, and reducing electronic waste. Now, we just have to figure out how to make it appealing to everyone.

[IMAGE: Sharing via Shutterstock]

Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design (Illustration)


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