In the past year I’ve had the opportunity to revisit many of the products that were popular during my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s. Context: I was contributing to William Lidwell and Gerry Mancsa’s forthcoming book, Deconstructing Product Design.
Deconstructing Product Design analyzes the design elements of 100 famous and infamous products from the last century, ranging from the mundane (Dixon Ticonderoga Pencil) to the luxurious (Chanel No. 5 Flacon) and the high-tech (Apple’s iPhone). It includes comments from experts in graphic design, design history, industrial design, architecture, interaction design, human factors (including myself), and other specialized areas.
As I revisited decades-old experiences I had with products like the Polaroid Instant Camera and the Sony Walkman, I was struck by a realization. These seminal products provided technology that enabled sharing pictures, music, and ideas–in other words, social media. Like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and other relatively recent Web 2.0 applications, these pre-digital products also enabled real-time (or near real-time) distribution and sharing of individual experiences.
Sharing and “Tagging” Photos: The Polaroid Instant Camera
My father, an amateur photographer, owned numerous high-end contemporary and antique cameras. But he still saw the value in purchasing a Polaroid SX-70. Unlike predecessor “instant” cameras, the Polaroid was a true SLR, and the film development process was not only quick but automatic. This, in conjunction with the suspense of watching the transition from green blobs to colorful images, made it ideal for kids to use.
The ability to take pictures and then quickly see the results increased the informality around photography that we take for granted with digital cameras and camera phones today. Rather than waiting days or weeks to finish the film roll and drop it off for processing–and then await the opening of the photos (incidentally, a suspenseful ritual that has been lost)–Polaroid photographers could share photos almost instantly. The casual nature of this photography led to photographing multiple takes, or images of the same event to get slightly different perspectives, and to creating copies for people who shared in the moment.
Portable Devices: The Collapsed Polaroid
This share-ability characteristic alone is noteworthy, but it was the thoughtful design features of the entire system that really fostered interpersonal communication. For example, the picture format included a sizable tab for holding the film, but which also served as a “white space” that was typically used to write brief descriptive or entertaining notes about the photo. And the camera was not just portable, but collapsible. In fact, the collapsed SX-70 (above) looks strikingly similar to a modern smart phone; the viewfinder housing resembles a belt-clip.
Sharing Music and Playlists: The Sony Walkman
It may seem strange to discuss the Sony Walkman as an example of how technology connects people. After all, it’s the grandfatherly symbol of escapist entertainment that separates the listener from the outside world and from other people. But that didn’t seem to be the intent in the original model, with two headphone jacks for shared listening experiences and a muting function to allow conversation. Similarly, Andreas Pavel, who invented the Walkman’s predecessor, the Stereobelt, saw his invention as a “means to multiply the aesthetic potential of any situation,” rather than as something that divides the listener from reality.
If anything, it’s the more recent developments of digital rights management that have made iPods and other Walkman descendants into more solitary devices. The power of the Walkman and its competitors was the medium–the audio cassette, which empowered anyone to create their own music mixes (aka playlists) from their collection of records, tapes, and eventually CDs. The Walkman then became the medium for tape-sharing musical preferences and discoveries. And again, a small amount of white space allowed for descriptive tagging, decoration, or at least identification.
In retrospect, there were three key characteristics that made these products into social media tools–their relative speed, their support for personalizing content, and perhaps most importantly, their portability. Coincidentally, we have seen a similar pattern in Web 2.0 Web sites and applications–the initial emphasis is on personalization and convenience, but then the value expands out to portability via iPhone applications and the like. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Rob Tannen is an expert in designing products, interfaces and systems that accommodate the complexities of human behavior and capabilities. He has researched cockpit interfaces for U.S. Air Force, designed trading floor order systems for the New York Stock Exchange, and created touch screen applications for consumer appliances. Rob is Director of User Research and Interaction Design at the product development firm Bresslergroup. He also has a PhD in human factors and is a Certified Professional Ergonomist .