Democrotizing design-your-own tools

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Innovation often focuses on improving usability in order to access a broader audience.  Photography is a good example.  You can buy a powerful, complicated SLR camera and take a photography course, or you can buy a point-and-shoot camera and get started right away.  Further, you can upload any basic image from your phone to Instagram and add a filter without having to know anything technical about film processing.

The Internet economy has always been focused on improving usability and empowering the masses.   Successful Internet companies provide self-service tools that allow non-technical users to engage with their products and services.  eBay, for example, empowers anyone to become an online merchant, SurveyMonkey empowers anyone to write and deploy their own web survey, and WordPress empowers anyone to become a blog publisher.   The theme is “no programming skills required.”

Any product or service that can be templatized or configured via an admin panel will be.   We’ve written previously about such trends as “democratizing fashion” and the proliferation of product configurators (customization) and online design tools (personalization).   Here are a few examples of the next frontier of the digital do-it-yourself movement.

Design your own video game

In the education space there are many self-service training tools like CodeAcademy, Treehouse (no relation),, and Khan Academy that give aspiring web developers the tools to learn new skills.    Along these same lines, Game-o-matic allows aspiring game developers (or aspiring computer science students) learn the basics of object relationships through an interactive video game development platform.   The interface is drag-and-drop intensive with no exposure to the game code itself.

Design your own toy

Cubify lets anyone design their own toy.  The 3D product configurator allows a user to make functional and color selections.    According to Cathy Lewis, Vice President Global Marketing, 3D Systems,  “Cubify Bugdroids underscores 3D Systems commitment to democratize creativity.”  Indeed the online product customization tool enables anyone to play the part of an industrial designer.  The experience is limited and guided, of course, minimizing the risk of user error.  “Creativity loves constraint.”


Similar to the maker’s movement transforming the US economy, we’re seeing an increased interest in “pride of authorship.”

As we’ve often written on this blog, there is a fine line between designing and shopping.  Designing used to mean manual aesthetic creation by trained professionals, while shopping used to mean selecting and buying mass produced products off the shelf.    Now we’re seeing the worlds of product design, product selection, product customization and crowd-sourcing merge together as the Internet continues to produce innovative, browser-based, do-it-yourself, design / shopping tools for the masses.

So you want to sell custom products? (Part 2)

Here at Treehouse Logic we talk to a lot of start-ups about launching new, design-your-own business models.   This post is second in a series of tips for new entrepreneurs entering the mass customization space.   Here is the first post.

Remember the product configurator is a sales tool

Limit the amount of control your configurator offers.  Your customers wouldn’t want to walk into your retail store and be handed scissors and raw material, would they? Yes, they want to be involved in the design process, so give them control, but insist that options and combinations they select have been pre-approved by you.   Customers depend on your expertise to design, build, and deliver the product.

Don’t ask your customers to make difficult design decisions.    The backlash of control is frustration.  Customers who ask for power will in fact abandon the process if they feel like they are asked to do too much work or make tough style decisions.

Keep in mind that the risk is not necessarily in a long purchasing process, but in creating a difficult purchasing process.  The same customer who abandons your website after trying to design a custom dress shirt for 40 minutes will happily spend 4 hours pinning images on Pinterest.   Why? Pinterest is easy, intuitive, social, fun, visual, and low risk.   Configuring a dress shirt is loaded with risk.


Many new build-your-own companies get distracted by new web technology and sexy visualization gimmicks.   Customers don’t need a space-age hologram of your product; they just need an accurate, elegant picture of the customized product to help increase their confidence.    Remember, you’re not in the technology business, you’re in the customer satisfaction business.   Simplicity is key to sales.

Avoid self-measurement

Online apparel retailers have the highest return rate in eCommerce. On average, 1-in-4 garments bought online are returned to the retailers. The return rate is higher – over 40% – for fitted and more expensive fashions. Most of the returns are due to bad fit.”

Anytime you are asking customers to step away from the computer to find a measuring tape and measure themselves you are losing a big chunk of your audience.    There is too much risk of error.

No one has cracked “the fit problem,” but many are struggling with the measure-yourself-at-home approach.

Custom by design

Many companies fail at custom products because it contradicts their core culture.    Company’s like Levi’s could not simply bolt-on customization to their mass production business.  Build your culture and business model around customization from the ground up.     Just like many new business models are re-defining themselves as “social by design,” (like Spotify for music, or the Washington Post for newspapers) build up your company to be “custom by design” at it’s very core.

Customization video round up

Here are a few videos from various corners of the customization and fashion technology markets.

3D customization in Spain

This fashion design tool requires a “unity web player plug-in.”   Huh?  Otherwise, a great demonstration of life-like online shopping (ie augmented reality) via a ‘virtual try it on’ approach.

Mass customization of housing

Really slick video graphics to demonstrate modeling user-specific products based on defined parameters (ie a product configurator).  Very space age and academic.

Upcload takes on “the fit problem.”

Here’s a pretty slick demo on how shoppers can easily match their body dimensions to garment sizes online.  The goal is to achieve the Holy Grail of online apparel retailing; ensuring the perfect fit over the Internet.  Of course it will only solve the problem if the platform is widely adopted by brands.  In the context of mass customization, you can imagine how a shopper would design-their-own product by specify functions, styles and colors, then submit their body dimensions with a quick “Upload ID” submission.

Custom Week 2011

Today marks the christening of the first annual CustomWeek, featuring over 40 participating customization companies.   Custom Week is a week-long promotion of the online product customization market.  Visitors to the CustomWeek site can enter the sweepstakes for a grand prize worth $2,500, as well as take advantage of exclusive promotions from participating vendors.

Why Custom Week?

Custom Week celebrates a renaissance in craftsmanship, bespoke businesses, and made-to-order business models.   But, build-to-order businesses have always existed.  What’s new and exciting is the ability for these businesses to allow their customers to visually interact with their product via the Internet.  A new generation of customization companies are launching online shops with visually rich product configurators that allow customers to design, build, and share their own personal masterpieces.

Customer demand for custom and personalized products has surged, and the cost of technologies that enable visual product configuration has rapidly declined.   In economic terms, demand is increasing as price decreases, opening up a much broader audience of customers who can enjoy the benefits of custom products.

Why custom?

Custom has historically meant special, difficult to manufacture, and premium.  No longer.  Shoppers expect to visit online shops that includes tools that allow them to choose any size, fit, and color combination.  By building each order on-demand, customization is, effect, the future of both manufacturing and online shopping.  Shopping custom, essentially, is the process of selecting, designing, and personalizing products so that they match the specific demands of each customer.

A myriad of product categories

Here is a list of participating vendors.  It’s amazing how diverse product customization has become.

  • Zyrra – Women’s bras
  • Zazzle – Personalization marketplace
  • YouBar – Nutrition Bars
  • Vastrm – Polo shirts
  • Thread Tradition – Dress Shirts
  • Snaptotes – Photo Bags
  • Slantshack Jerky – Beef Jerky
  • Shoes of Prey – Shoes
  • ShelfWire – Shelving
  • Riveli bookshelves – Bookshelves
  • Origaudio – Personalized speakers
  • MyMixedNuts         – Trailmixes
  • Munich My Way – Shoes
  • Modify Watches – watches
  • Mel Boteri – handbags
  • Made Tailor Custom – Men’s Dress Shirts
  • Logosportswear – Logo shirts
  • LaudiVidni – Handbags
  • indiDenim – Jeans
  • GhostNest – Personalized cabinet knobs
  • Gemvara – Jewelry
  • Gemkitty – Jewelry
  • Frecklebox – Kid’s toys and books
  • Fashion Playtes – Teen Fashion
  • Evlove – Lingerie
  • Elemental Threads – Handbags
  • Element Bars – Nutrition bars
  • ECreamery- Ice cream
  • Design A Tea – Tea
  • Delusha – Fashion accessories
  • – Custom products portal
  • Create-A-Mattress – Mattresses
  • Coco Myles – Dresses
  • Chocri         – Chocolate
  • Charmed by Ingrid Anne – Charm necklaces
  • Caseable – Laptop Cases
  • Canvas Lifestyle – Print canvas images
  • Bluewardrobe – Men’s Dress Shirts
  • Blank Label – Men’s Dress Shirts
  • 121 time – Watches
  • [Me] & Goji – Cereal

How will 3D printing shape history?

From the Economist: “The industrial revolution of the late 18th century made possible the mass production of goods, thereby creating economies of scale which changed the economy—and society—in ways that nobody could have imagined at the time. Now a new manufacturing technology has emerged which does the opposite. Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.”

Are 3D printers going to disrupt mass production models and streamline the protyping process?  And, will they find mass market potential much like the paper printer before them?

Makerbot is betting they will.  Makerbot sells 3D printers that start at just $1299.   As prices decrease, could Makerbot put a 3D printer in every household, just like Bill Gates and Microsoft put a PC in every household?

The allure of 3D printing is that lower-cost machines democratize manufacturing, ie give a larger market of makers access to expensive machinery.   Surely the power of the crowd will lead to some inspiring businesses and products.  But, time will tell what economic value is created by the distribution of these manufacturing machines.


Perhaps 3D printing’s purpose will be to enable self-expression?  3D printing service iMaterialise aspires to “empower designers to create designs that enrich their life and to share their sense of beauty with the people around them, by adding unique touches to their environment, by creating a truly personal gift for the ones they love, by taking the opportunity to crystallize ideas they can truly be proud of.”

The Long Tail


Fundamentally, 3D printing serves the Long Tail, ie serves more variety at smaller volumes, enabling

  • Smaller volume batches of productions
  • The manufacturability of products that previously could not be manufactured
  • Highly configurable products, ie customized products

The opportunity for 3D printing, in summary, is to run smaller batches, with less of a need for standardization, ie economies of scale.   Indeed our dependence on the value of scale (namely cost and accessibility) could finally be breaking.

What is 3D printing’s “killer app?”

Shapeways is like an eBay for 3D printing, it is an online portal offering thousands of varieties of trinkets, napkin rings, puzzles, and jewelry.   Like Ponoko and Zazzle, Shapeways suffers from a disproportionate supply of virtual products to real demand.  Sure, you can make “anything,” but how many items have saleable potential?   Portals powered by a network of micro-designers can drive infinite growth of product ideas.  Zazzle, for example, offers for 41 billion virtual SKUs, but what percentage of these products are actually selling?

eBay and Pez dispensers

Like eBay with Pez dispensers, 3D printing needs an anecdotal use case that represents the potential of the makers market.   eBay started as a collectibles market place, ie an online flea market, but found a larger market by expanding across categories and providing a valuable network of buyers and sellers.   Time will tell what markets 3D printing will serve and what products will be associated with innovative 3D printing techniques.

3 new design tools for mass customization

In Forrester’s recent research study, “Mass customization is finally the future of products,” author JP Gownder points to digital technologies as the catalyst that will drive consumer adoption of customized products.

“As they have done across consumer markets, digital technologies are the disruptors. Current and emerging digital technologies are turbo-charging mass customization, breathing new life into the product strategy.”

Specifically, Mr. Gownder points to interactive shopping tools as the main instigator.

“Tomorrow’s customer-facing technologies will be revolutionary. Technologies empowering customers to design their own products will become richer and more plentiful. For example, Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect shows the pathway towards the ultra-configurator: a device that can measure the contours of your body and allow you to use gestural inputs to design products.  (I draw pin-stripes on a suit I’m co-designing; I size the steering wheel of a car I’m customizing; etc.) The richer the configuration experience, the more appealing mass customized products will become – and these experiences will indeed be much richer.”


Following the theme of advancing consumer-facing technologies, here are 3 new interactive design tools that may represent a new generation of interactive shopping experiences.    Visual product configurators typically guide users through a modular customization process.  These free-hand design tools differ from configurators in that they literally invite the user to draw their own version of a product from scratch.


SketchChair is an open-source software tool that allows anyone to easily design and build their own digitally fabricated furniture.    The user designs their chair, tests it, then exports the design to an online community of designs.   The design can then be fabricated through Ponoko’s network of garage fabricators, and delivered to the customer.  Is this the future of IKEA-like furniture shopping?

D.Dress by Continuum – “computational coutre”


Another Kickstarter project is Continuum.  Users simply draw a little black dress on a virtual mannequin right in a web browser session.   After you are finished designing, you can cut away extra fabric.  The experience is like drafting a dress on a sketchpad, but with the ability to click “add to cart” and buy it.

From Fastcodesign, “Continuum is a promising example of how technology can personalize — and democratize– fashion. “With clothing, there has always been the problem of sizing,” Huang tells us. “It is not just measurements, but that women are taller or shorter, curvier or more boyish. In an ideal world, you would have your clothes made to fit you, instead of figuring out how you fit into clothes.” That, of course, has been the province of the rich more or less since, well, forever. But with 3-D printing, laser-cutting, and apps like Huang’s, things are starting to change. As Huang tells it: “Now it is becoming easier to integrate [customization] into a scalable production system.”

Design for download

From Droog’s site, Design for Download is “the first platform for downloadable design, which will feature curated and open content, easy-to-use parametric design tools and a network of local low- and high-tech manufacturers. The platform will not only include products, but also architecture, home accessories, fashion, food, wearables, inventions and more.”

Design for Download

“Taking design to the digital realm opens many possibilities. Not only does it have consequence on transport and storage efficiencies, it also calls for new design approaches, innovative digital design tools and online shopping experiences, and innovative business models for all actors along the distribution chain,” says co-founder and director of Droog, Renny Ramakers. “With the opening up of the design industry to consumers now empowered with easy-to access and low-cost design and production tools, the role of curation becomes ever more important.”

How to buy custom clothes online

I recently bought some custom clothing from Indicustom.   Indi offers both custom dress shirts and custom jeans.  Here are some notes on the purchasing experience, from a customer perspective.


Much more interesting than basic online shopping, visually customizing clothes is fun.  It’s easy to experiment with different style and color combinations.  That said, it’s critical to have a fast and visual website that can keep up with the speed of the curious shopper.   The visual configuration process replicates the offline shopping experience much better than searching through an online store catalog.

Measuring yourself

The biggest barrier to buying custom fit clothes online is the task of measuring yourself.  First, you need a tailor’s tape measure, then you need to be sure you are measuring correctly.   Then you need to correctly enter all the measurements into web forms.  The stakes are high.  If you are off by an inch or two, the garment won’t fit and will need to be returned.   The lack of ability to try on the garment causes more anxiety as you complete more and more steps in the shopping flow.

Too many choices

Customization is fun but after a few steps it starts to feel like a chore.  More complex questions like “what size hem do you want?” could be avoided all together.  For many advanced questions, defaults to “the standard” are good enough.   For the majority of shoppers, asking too many detailed questions makes the fun start to feel like work.

Customer service


When doubts do arise, it’s important to have an easy way to contact the vendor directly.     Chatting with customer service can lift your confidence level enough to want to commit to a purchase.    This is also true throughout out the purchase cycle; pre-sales and post-sales.   If the first purchasing experience goes smoothly, you could win a customer for life.

Style decisions

Another challenge in shopping for clothes is making style decisions.   As a neo-fashionable male, I could not have completed the purchase without the help of friends and family who are more fashionable.  One tip I heard from my personal fashion support team was “dark jeans look too girly for men’s jeans.”   And, for women’s jeans, “baggy is fine, skinny is fine, but in between is not OK.”   I would have never known these things if I didn’t have my own fashionista team by my side at the computer.  The product configurator itself needs to include style tips and guidance, so the customizing process feels like a dialogue with a personal shopper.   Don’t let the shopper feel like they are designing alone.

Order….and wait

Custom jeans from Indicustom take 4 weeks to arrive.   This lead-time makes sense considering each pair of jeans is built to order in Asia, but 4 weeks feel like an eternity compared to picking up a pair of jeans at the local Gap.

Easy to return

One of the two garments I ordered didn’t fit, mostly due to a measuring interpretation on my end.   A “Zappo’s-like” return policy is a nice touch, but I can’t help thinking that the self-measuring and ordering process should be more foolproof so that neither the customer nor the vendor need to deal with a return.   Protect the customer from himself.

Overall, I’m very happy with my Indicustom clothes.  They are, after all, exactly what I wanted.  And, I do feel extra satisfaction from the “I designed it myself” effect.