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This article was published on September 22, 2021

Sex toy design has a lot to teach big tech

But, of course, it'll never listen

Sex toy design has a lot to teach big tech
Callum Booth
Story by

Callum Booth

Editor of Plugged by TNW

Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He w Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He writes about gear, gadgets, and apps — with a particular focus on Apple — and also makes the occasional odd video. Basically, he's halfway between an abrasive gadget nerd and thinky art boy.

Design, at its heart, should be about making things better. Whether aesthetically or experientially, the craft should operate as a seamless bridge between a product’s function and the person operating it.

The thing is, I’m just not sure that’s the case any longer.

Over the past few years, it seems that design has become less user focused, concentrating far more on keeping us addicted and hooked, rather than actually improving our lives.

I wanted to find out if this was true, or if I’m spouting nonsense. To dig deeper, I spoke with Ti Chang, the VP of Design at Crave, a luxury sex toy company. I mean, what could be better than talking with someone who makes a product that’s so utterly committed to user experience?

I put the question straight to Chang: does she think design is less user focused?

“It’s not that simple,” she told me. Instead, Chang thinks the industry has shifted and now it’s focused more on user experience.

The difference is designers create a type of experience and incentivize certain types of behavior.

Take social media apps for instance. Here, the focus is on making the experience addictive, rather than the user’s wellbeing. And is indicative of the shift that has undertaken big tech design.

Two ears and one mouth

I asked Chang how design can evolve beyond creating addictive products. Her answer was simple: listen.

Chang believes many companies approach a product with the “assumption they know what users want.” In other words, they hear what they want to hear — without ever really listening.

But, Chang continued, listening is unimportant if you aren’t asking the right questions. And part of that is making sure you’re putting your product in front of enough people, something she told me Crave does by placing its devices in the hands of thousands as part of a rigorous testing process.

ti chang vp design crave
Credit: Ti Chang
Here’s Ti Chang in person. Well, not actually in person, but a photograph of her.

Beyond listening, Chang expanded upon what big tech design can learn from sex toy makers. She said one of the key elements is respecting that people’s experiences vary wildly. Designers need to jettison the idea that just because something works for them, it’ll work for everyone.

This simply isn’t the case. All experiences are “equally right,” she told me.

Ultimately, Chang believes designers get too focused on the user themselves and don’t listen to what they’re actually saying. Someone can have the same ethnicity, culture, and education, yet have completely different views and lifestyles.

And it all comes back to listening.

Unfortunately, if big tech is listening, it’s definitely not taking what users are saying into account. Many of the problems we’re facing today could be counterbalanced with design that placed the best interests of those using the product at its heart. And what better place is there to learn that than from designers in the sex toy industry?

I doubt that’s gonna happen though — there’s more money in keeping us addicted.

Update: Ti Chang is speaking at TNW Conference 2021 on September 30th and October 1st. There she’ll be joined by 150 other amazing experts who will share their latest insights from the world of business and tech.

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