When my (now) wife and I graduated from college, we somehow managed to end up with a bunch of bowls and plates from our dining hall. We used to get food and eat in my room, and so they started to accumulate. We kept six of each. They were made by Homer Laughlin.
23 years later, they are still here. We still eat off of those plates and bowls almost every day. We have gotten new plates and bowls over the years — some at our wedding, some we bought at a local Japanese market. But when I was putting away dishes today, I realized we still had the full set from Homer Laughlin, and only two bowls and one plate from the Japanese set. Everything else broke at some point over time.
There aren’t that many things from 23 years ago still in use every day in my life.
So this got me thinking about durability. If you are designing for use in a college dining hall, durability is probably something you overindex on. If you are designing to be sold in a fancy department store, maybe you focus on the look and feel over durability?
When we design software, do we design for durability? In general I don’t think so. We expect technology to change, systems to get faster, design tastes to shift, so our code is expected to be updated. Some services update daily.
But that isn’t necessarily true in terms of the network and ecosystem many services are based on. Those are designed to be durable. When you make a connection, you hope that connection lasts year over year over year even if the software around it changes. And the experience too. So durability isn’t as much on the product itself as the network and ecosystem.
While I didn’t have Facebook or Twitter in college (yes I am older), I have been using both for the past 13–14 years every single day. Even though the products have changed significantly, the networks have been surprisingly durable. While I get a new iPhone every other year or so, my Apple account, my apps, my Apple ID, and my phone number start to feel quite durable and enduring. My relationship with my bank and other financial products is another thing that should be this durable — though it is easier than ever to switch and move things and I have done this.
For most things I use every day — shoes, toothbrushes, clothes, even cars have all worn out faster than those Homer Laughlin plates. (I am probably jinxing myself writing this and will break one soon enough with my clumsiness.)
But it’s interesting to reflect on how to design things to be built to last. And what things in life we touch that truly have been designed with that in mind.
And sometimes it is ok to design something to be ephemeral and occupy a short space in our lives. Especially experiences. But that should be intentional. I am now kinda disappointed at most of the plates and other dishware that hasn’t lasted now like Homer Laughlin.