Product life : designing for longer lifespans

Park, Miles Barwick (2009) Product life : designing for longer lifespans. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This Doctoral research investigates the role and potential of industrial design to confront product obsolescence in the consumer electronics sector. It investigates how design strategies can be developed to prolong the lifespans of products so to mitigate environmental impacts and contribute towards sustainable consumption. The predominant response by industry and policy makers to environmental problems associated with consumer electronics has been through improved energy efficiency and, more recently, strategies to manage end-of-life waste. However, the volume and speed in which consumer electronics are produced, consumed and made obsolete remains unprecedented. Such circumstances can easily override and negate the effectiveness of efficiency and waste management responses. Moreover, as the lifespan for many of these products, notably personal computers and mobile phones gets shorter many consumer electronics products are still in functional order when disposed of. Product design, technological change, expanding digital infrastructure, replacement verses repair costs, the migration of electronics into new product sectors, in addition to our seemingly insatiable appetite for new and novel goods all contribute to reducing product lifespans. This research investigates design strategies to prolong product lifespans. By investigating existing product features, user behaviours and societal factors lifespans strategies that can prolong product are identified. Three particular design strategies have been developed to explore this proposition - Piggybacking, Reassignment and Scripting. Piggybacking specifically addresses products that are vulnerable to obsolescence from step changes in technology, such as the migration to digital technologies; while a Reassignment strategy is appropriate for products that susceptible to rapid technological change. On the other hand, Scripting is a framework strategy that can guide user behaviour to circumvent premature obsolescence by designing in 'scripts' within the product. These three strategies offer a new direction and opportunity for product innovation to tackle obsolescence in technological product sectors. It is argued throughout this research that design practice can occur both formally and informally. Designers often establish the circumstances within a product that can lead to obsolescence, while it is the user who often determines actual product life. However, if a product can be adaptable for changing circumstances it is better able to avoid obsolescence. Industrial designers can enable user-adaptation of products through the design of open products. An open product delegates a role of design to the user thereby enabling a product to be adaptable to changing circumstances, prolonging its lifespan. This research contributes new knowledge about product lifespans and design practice. It demonstrates the importance of user behaviour in determining product life by documenting many informal examples of prolonged product life. It applies new design strategies that can lead to new design innovation.

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