In the mid 1990s, a file format for encoding audio called MP3 was made public.
Files encoded in the MP3 format spread on the internet, and the impact this moment had on how we now consume and share music was profound. The ability to digitise audio into small, easily-distributable files has opened up a wealth of opportunities for music portability, sharing, and sale.
The MP3 format fundamentally challenged our attitudes about quality and convenience. In an MP3 file, sound quality is sacrificed for file size (compression). The resulting file is more convenient (e.g. to share and download), but of poorer quality. Once we'd tasted this degree of convenience, we found we didn't actually need the quality as much as we'd thought.
The true impact of this revelation is only just beginning to ripple out into the fabric of our commercial structures.
The Quality vs Convenience Trade-off
It's interesting to see this same trade-off play out in other areas. Services such as Skype and Google+ also benefit from this trend—the convenience of making voice and video calls from a computer or smartphone (at a reduced cost) far outweighs the poor quality of the audio associated with these services.
Over time, the service itself doesn't particularly improve. Instead, our expectations come down to match our previous experience of the service. This is not the way industries are traditionally structured. Quality is meant to improve over time as the industry irons out its manufacturing processes and improves the materials.
We're now starting to see this same trade-off taking place in the area of product design and manufacturing. Convenience, in the form of downloadable designs and 3D printing, is in the very early stages of following this same trend. Simple objects (plates, mugs, jewellery) and more complex objects (like the parts for a machine gun) are already available for download.
Consumers are increasingly choosing convenience over quality, and wherever content can be digitised, a focus on radically improving convenience will win out over the reduction in quality.
The criticisms of the poor quality associated with 3D-printed objects, and proclamations asserting the importance of manufacturing quality to consumers are echoes of a music industry caught entirely on the back foot by MP3, downloadable files and peer-to-peer networks.
We will see an explosion of 3D printing. Print-on-demand in a showroom; printing in the home; single-use objects produced lacking the plasticity of takeaway plates, but as readily available. The technology will improve, and the quality and complexity of the printed objects will increase also, but the driver will be convenience and access.
And it is in these domains that the expertise of the UX Designer will come to the fore, crafting environments within which these everyday, physical objects can be found, reviewed, personalised, and purchased for printing at home.
Honey, Can You Print My Christmas Present?
There already exist online, public libraries of 3D objects that can be downloaded and printed on sub-$1,000 printers. But as with early, information-rich environments, findability, re-findability, sharing, and efficiency of navigation are critical concerns not yet addressed by these repositories. So again, the UX designer plays a crucial role. Convenience of access will soon give way to the frustration of poor navigability, eroding interest in one repository and sending customers to other, better-designed environments.
Unlike regular web- or mobile-based commerce environments, editable 3D objects pose unique challenges well worth the effort of exploring—whether your client's responsibility lie in product design, distribution (such as a retail outlet), transportation and logistics, or the transactional infrastructure.
The notion of "acceptable quality" has undergone a fundamental shift in the past 10 years. This same wave is about to ripple through all aspects of our lives and completely disrupt our concept of "finished".
And in doing so, the relationship of consumer to designer, manufacturer and distributor will be altered forever.