On externalities of good UX design and some brands saved by the web

Good UX design may be bad for you and the web, disastrous for some traditional companies, might save some others.

An externality in economics is a negative or positive effect of actions of one party to the other party that didn’t choose to be a subject of it. For instance, manufacturers can cause the pollution to their local community (negative externality), but can bring an educated and satisfied workforce to the community, as well (positive externality). The same goes for the effect of UX design. 

The evermore increasing convenience may not always be without other unwanted consequences. A facile externality is an idea that claims friction in the processes is central to the progress. As The Economist observes, central to the idea is the notion that too much convenience can lead to bad side effects and results for the users, and for the society in general. For instance, paying with a credit card results in spending more money than paying with cash, or having an option to buy a product with a single click – the ultimate feat of UX design – may lead to impulse buying – something you don’t need.

It’s a matter of either finding the balance between two concepts or  deciding which one is appropriate in each case.  Streamlined processes enable the user less hassle and offers instant gratification, but can lead to a “value erosion.”  Some economists even argue that in the long run this may eliminate the ‘persistent need,’ that is the force that keeps the economies going. On the other hand, there is a so-called “Ikea effect,” meaning we have more appreciation for the product into which we have to invest our time and labour.

It’s not only the case of behavioural psychology, but the business model as well. Ikea — by getting its users to assemble the flat packed furniture —  transfers the cost of labor of one part of its production process (the assembly) to the users, and at the same time reduces the cost of shipping the flat pack instead of full volume furniture. The value saved, in this case is transferred to the pockets of the customers, in the form of lower price, taking it from the local manufacturers, logistic companies, and infrastructure who would get the difference in the case of the usual production process.  

Saved by the web

The development of digital technology and the web has given a boost to “non-digital” and more “traditional” companies as well. On the other side of the spectrum of the furniture industry from Ikea is Vitsœ. A Danish-named, British-owned company, has sold the same German designed products since the 1960s. Their products are prohibitively expensive, and their design and quality of manufacture make them last for generations. They follow their designer’s Dieter Rams’ motto “Weniger aber Besser,”

[Own] less, but better [stuff].

They encourage their customers to repair their products rather to buy new ones. In a Monocle 24 interview the owner and managing director Mark Adams said the web gave a second life to their very analog products and business model. Thanks to the web, Vitsœ now reaches a wider audience, and their niche market of demanding and well-off customers got substantially bigger by a web-enabled global reach.  

There is a number of other traditional brands that took the chance to grow their businesses substantially by re-building their brands on the web and increasing their niche market sizes. Two of them are British apparel maker Sunspel and classic shoemaker Grenson, who took the opportunity and reinvented their classic brands, reinvigorated their customer base, and set-up their business models in the online/offline space.

Additionally, there are numerous new brands that built completely new business models by integrating craftsmanship and production methods from traditional industries with web technology and reach. One of them, a custom footwear service Undandy, lets users design their shoes online, and has traditional craftsmen make them. By cutting a number of middlemen between the producer and customer, the quality of handmade shoes has become more affordable.

VITSŒ DIRECTOR MARK ADAMS: “The Internet allows us to manufacture very high quality, in the UK, sell around the world, at a price that is quite a bit cheaper than the equivalent competition by the major brands. That is because in 2013 we were 100% direct to all of our customers worldwide, and it’s the internet that allows us to do that. It’s the internet that we use to bring us as close to our customer in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, as in Southwest London.”



Matevž Medja is a co-founder of the award-winning design agency Gigodesign, with more than 25 years of experience in building interdisciplinary teams on complex projects. He believes the world is already too full of products nobody needs and brands nobody believes in. He’d like to help develop new ones properly. Read more.