Marketing, Product Design Blog

Product design when ownership is no longer a priority.

We have recently been helping one of our international clients on an interesting project, to help them understand the future of rental within their particular market sector. This has made me think about the decision-making process leading to why we as consumers choose to buy or rent certain products that we use.

I’m sure that many of you will have noticed, and in some cases experienced the growth in mainstream rental services. Spotify, Netflix, AirB&B, Zipcar are a few of the success stories that have made a huge impact in our daily lives over a short space of time.

For many, this transition began with our acceptance of renting music. The convenience of unlimited, universal access for an affordable monthly fee, has for many of us outweighed the attachment and pleasure that we used to gain from buying and owning a physical CD or vinyl.

Unlimited choice, rapid technological developments and instant access to anything we want, when we want it, is changing our attitudes towards product ownership and longevity.

This is especially true in the mobile phone sector which encourages continuous upgrading, well before a product has reached its physical end of service. We now wrestle with our consciences as to whether we really need the latest and greatest smartphone and in the process commit our perfectly usable old model to a dusty drawer.

Younger consumers are sometimes accused of being the “throw-away” generation and for fueling this trend. There is a perception that practical skills have been lost along the way too with little or no desire to service or make do and mend. This may be true in part, but hasn’t it been forced upon us, with most products no longer designed to be repaired by anyone other than a specially trained professional and because they are all too soon superseded?


Which products do we still buy that can last a lifetime?

In short, not many. In my working life as a Product Designer specialising in consumer products, I have had very few opportunities to design products that are intended to be cherished and used for a long time. Of course it helps if they don’t rely on an operating system or contain any electronics! I have been fortunate to design a range of products for a UK based premium male grooming company (Bolin Webb) which falls into this category. Here, a good deal of emphasis is placed on attributes such as tactility and balance in the hand, along with coated finishes that express a timeless, premium aesthetic.

So many objects or devices that we routinely use have now become technology products. A great example is the watch, a product that used to command real value and be passed down through generations. Todays smartwatches have hardware and software that literally expires over time… How many people were convinced to part with $17,000 on a Series 2 / 18-karat gold Apple watch whose technology limits its shelf life and with exactly the same functionality as the more mainstream $300 version? How many of these are still in use today now that the Series 5 is available?

This same trend applies to larger, higher investment products such as cars. Hybrid and electric cars are driving petrol models off our roads. Will consumers have the same insatiable appetite to upgrade due to increased range, greater automation levels and improved safety? How sustainable is the electric car market really going to be?

The idea of swapping to the latest model, especially among Millennials who prefer not to own at all, but instead to rent these higher investment products, will surely have an impact on this.

It’s interesting to consider the reasons that influence consumer decisions to buy/own or rent.


Why do people buy?

  • The joy of choosing: The experience of researching and selecting for some provides greater pleasure than actually owning and using a product.
  • Emotional attachment: We feel this with some products. For me, part of the joy of owning a product is choosing the right one. It has to be well considered, do a better job than other available devices and offer value along with a sense of character that I am proud to own.
  • Financial decision: I’m going to get a lot of use out of it so it will be cheaper to buy it in the long run. The more I use my camera, the more value I extract form it. Plus I can always sell the item if I need to.
  • Convenience: I will always have the product handy for when I need to use it. More than that, it’s the one that I chose and I know how to use it.
  • Quality and personalisation: Rental products don’t always meet my lifestyle or functionality needs.
    Availability: Many products aren’t available to rent.


Why do people rent?

  • Disposable income: Avoids the outlay of purchasing expensive products outright.
  • Underuse: Any product that is not going to be used regularly enough to justify owning it.
  • Storage space: This is increasingly the case with owning cars in urban areas. Millennials also often live a more transient lifestyle. They move around more frequently and do not want to be burdened with possessions that need to be moved from one place to another.
  • Stress-free: Renting avoids the hassle or cost of maintaining products.
  • Flexibility: Renting on your terms, only when and where you need something. For example: hiring a bike at a Bikepark saves transporting it with the added benefit that you’re not responsible for servicing it.
  • Freedom: To try new things, such as staying in different homes and locations, testing new car models, wearing a new outfit to every occasion.
  • Shared economy: There is a perception that renting can help towards saving our planet. The idea of sharing assets like cars so that they can be more fully utilised is especially appealing to millennials.
  • Positive experiences: For some people, the experience of renting a product or service is mostly a positive one. They appreciate the professional advice that they receive from service providers and may also enjoy leaving a review for others.


In summary.

Increasingly, everyday products are becoming technology products. Technology is developing at an exponential rate and so unfortunately is the rate of consumption. The mindset of consumers has shifted; we no longer expect or necessarily even want a product to last a lifetime.

This combined with the fact that a younger population does not have the disposable income to buy aspirational products that they desire, or have the space to own, maintain and store them, is leading us towards a “Rentership Society.”

Having everything immediately is becoming the norm, increasingly achievable through the plethora of app based services.

Is this a positive step forward and how will it affect our attitude to product longevity?

Maybe and hopefully? Rented products should in theory be utilised to greater levels during their working lifetime and therefore hopefully help to reduce carbon footprints and landfill. This of course relies on service providers maintaining rental products to keep them in good working order so that they can continue to earn revenue.

In our profession, naturally we love to design new and useful products, but as a consequence of rapid technological evolution, they inevitably become unused, unloved and obsolete. We therefore have a challenge on our hands – perhaps more of a duty – to ensure that we take greater strides to influence change in the way products are designed.

We must consider the full product life cycle, to create possibilities which extend the duration of a products’ service, perhaps also fulfilling the possible needs of multiple users. Whether it’s a set of skis or an outfit for a special occasion, renting satisfies the need to have what we want, when we want it, whilst at the same time increases a product’s useful reach, life and potential. If we believe this is a positive step towards sustainability, how can we influence and assist more businesses and consumers to move to a rental model?