Digital Products II. Communication or Things?

In Products Reading Time: 3 minutes

This is the second part of a series about digital products, their similarities and differences to traditional communication media. Part One: Medium and Commodity.

Turn on the TV and you will find yourself immediately in the program. We dive into the sound and pictures of one giant, never-ending broadcast that has no beginning and no end. Compared to that, your smartphone is a very polite thing, its apps waiting below the glass surface for your initial touch.

Whatever follows: the designation »application« is already a hint to the fact that apps are not only about information or entertainment. They provide them as well, but a large quantity of apps are utilities in a strict sense, they are more or less »usable«. You may »do something« with them.

Open and Closed Products

Accordingly, we may divide apps into two major categories: open and closed products. The criteria for this distinction is purpose, the processing of time and the currency we use.

Nevermind interactivity, the user experience of closed digital products is quite similar to that of traditional media. Newspapers, books and the TV are closed systems just like social media, chat, messenger and game apps. I watch movies, look at vacation pictures of my friends, listen to music. The medium is the beginning and the end of our activity. We enter and stay in a realm of signs, find ourselves in texts, pictures and sounds—as long as we turn off or put aside our devices.

Open products, on the other hand, aim at the offside of communication. They put /things/ in motion: order food, book a holiday, call a cab, get the train, shopping. I »use« them to get at something beyond device and brain. Of course, they are communication, but only as a form of initiating a line of commands that ultimately trigger a non-communicative event.

Paying with Communication. Data, Time and Advertising

The distinction also defines how we pay for a digital product and how much time we spend with it. In closed products we pay with our attention and our behavior. Both are then being mixed to create a profile that is the target for tailored advertising.

Here, communication itself is the product. Social media environments try to lure us into their procedures, want to engage us to eventually become indispensable. Advertising is being woven into this fabric of communication, relying not only on data from within, but every bit of information they can gather from your browser or device.

Stay longer, see more ads, refine your profile, buy more—that is the sequence, at least in theory. Closed products are hungry for your time we give them. Every minute results in one more ad surface that finds our eyes.

It comes as no surprise that these apps are deliberately trying to trigger addiction. Inversely, everyone who is threatened by media addiction (i.e. everyone) is thankful for any mechanism that stops the flow: the chapter of a book, the space of cinema, ad breaks on the TV or a simple heart pasted on a direct message, to allow for a gentle conclusion of an online conversation.

Shut up and take my money

On the opposite, open products have clear-cut endings and beginnings, because of their well-defined purposes and outcomes. I want to accomplish something, therefore I open an app. When I’m done, I close it.

You pay with money. Either I have already bought the app or a subscription (weather, camera, games, fitness) or I am willing to use it in order to spend money. Money flows anyway, there is no need for ad-attention.

The corresponding UX design, aiming at efficiency, is supposed to take me to my goal fast and frictionless. The experience is successful and enjoyable by consuming only the appropriate amount of time for the task I want to accomplish.

A pragmatic distinction

Obviously, the distinction between open and closed products has its flaws. When shopping, you are always tempted to look at and buy other goods than the ones you were looking for. And who never got lost in the infinity of online reviews while searching for the perfect article, ending up in frustration, buying nothing or anything, just to get it over with?

At least you know how you pay. Time targets and currencies tell us about the monetization of a digital product and how they insert us into the economic circulation.

Aside from that, you might just observe your media behavior and the desires an app is trying to tap. The inverted question is: do I really need that?