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The true potential of mass customization has not yet been realized.

September 17, 2014

This morning I was listening to a piece on CBC Radio’s “The Current” about using charrettes to involve multiple stakeholders in the design process, and how this produces much better results for users than designers working in isolation. One of the guests, Bill Lennertz, is the Executive Director of The Charrette Institute and co-auther of The Charrette Handbook. He suggested thinking of the designer as a taxi driver. The customer/user tells the driver where they want to go, then he or she gets them there. The user knows what their needs are; the designer’s role is to apply their training and expertise to help articulate those needs, and develop the best solution.

A key element of mass customization is putting the design process in users’ hands, so they can create solutions that meet their own individual needs without incurring the expensive labour of designers and engineers. This automation of design tasks usually takes the form of a Configurator – a computer interface that captures and codifies all the expert’s knowledge, and provides the ability for users to specify what they want. Configurators and the charrette process both seek to empower end users by providing technical support, but most Configurators fall short because they only offer a tiny subset of solutions from the total spectrum of possibilities. It’s as if an architect offered the choice of 2, 5, and 9 story buildings, with either a party room or a pool (but not both), and assumed this would satisfy everyone’s needs.

In order for a Configurator – and mass customization in its entirety – to be truly successful, it must go beyond “choose one from Column A and one from Column B”, and instead allow the user to “design whatever they want”. The only way this can be achieved is to offer the complete spectrum of possible solutions within a defined realm, whether it be residential buildings, running shoes – or furniture. Of course, this is an enormous undertaking, and in many cases it’s simply not feasible, but technology and creativity are enabling more and more domains to embrace this capability. There’s probably already a sensible name for this scope of flexibility, but I like to call it “Everythingness”. I believe it’s the future of mass customization, and it’s what Massuni is creating.

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