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.

Customization gets celebrity endorsement

Maybe what the mass customization movement needs is more celebrity endorsements?  Golf has always been an example of an industry that is heavily driven by professional endorsements.    Golfers want to put like Tiger, drive the ball like John Daly, and win like Arnold Palmer.  And why wouldn’t they want to design their own golf clubs with an online product configurator like Phil Mickleson?

Golf club customization

“Golf is already the most personalized sport there is in terms of custom equipment options, and our new udesign by Callaway platform brings personalization to a new and exciting place,” Jeff Colton, SVP of Global Brand and Product at Callaway said. “The opportunity to design your very own driver in the colors of your favorite team, alma mater or whatever you happen to feel looks best has never been offered on a mass scale.”

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.

Mass customization is trending so hard right now

Emachineshop: democrotizing manufacturing

Recently an entrepreneur made a comment to us that made an impression: “Mass customization is trending so hard right now.”    Indeed, we’re seeing customization on the forefront of a paradigm shift in retailing.   So what, exactly is trending?

1) Manufacturing 

We’re seeing a shift towards small, agile manufacturing facilities that don’t carry any inventory.    The process of “user manufacturing” is becoming more prevalent as new companies like strive to “democratize manufacturing.”

Manufacturing is coming back to the US in a big way, and it’s cropping up in the form of micro-factories.  According to DIY blogger TJ McCue of Forbes Magazine “There are approximately 315,000 manufacturers in the USA. Over 30% of them are 1-4 person shops.”


2) Marketing

In terms of marketing, we’re seeing a shift toward highly visual, interactive, “curate your own” shopping experiences, rather than conventional search and browse shopping experiences.   This means we are seeing dramatic changes in the way people interact and shop for products.    More specifically, “pre-shopping” is driving shopping itself because it taps into the power of social interaction, ie social brand engagement.

Curation itself is a merchandising theme.   Some sites like are in the business of curating good design for their users, and other sites like Pinterest are in the business of providing easy to use, one-click curation experiences so that each user can play the role of curator.   Pinterest taps into Facebook actions which extends it’s utility to a truly social experience.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has said that any app is an order of magnitude more valuable when it’s social.  Curation and design-your-own are marketing themes that are primed for democracy and crowd-sourcing because they are “social by design.”

Jess Lee of Polyvore

3) Democritization

“Democrotization” is a fantastic made-up term which gets investors excited because it speaks to the rich potential of crowd-sourcing.  Many industries like fashion are being disrupted by web-based services that give individuals the power to design, influence, and sell their own products.  “Democrotizing fashion”.

Polyvore is a good example because they were one of the first companies to focus on enabling creativity among fashionistas.  “Polyvore’s mission is to democratize fashion, “To empower people on the street to think about their sense of style and share it with the world.” says Jess Lee, Polyvore’s vice president of product management.

The site bucks the age old trend of fashion driving the market. In Polyvore’s world, the market is driving fashion. In the past, Vogue has famously been considered a voice on high that says, “Here’s what we think fashion is.” But Polyvore’s user-generated content model is changing the status quo, abandoning the industry’s long-time queenly paradigm.”


Customization vs. product quality

In our recent research on consumer preferences in the context of product customization, we asked respondents to consider the product customization process.  We asked them “How important would the following factors be to you?”

(Red = very important. Blue = extremely important)


Quality is king.  Authenticity is a form of quality. Users are inspecting zoom images, researching where products are made, reading reviews, scrutinizing product specs and asking friends for their opinions.  Users want value above all else.

The importance of quality is worth mentioning because many companies that offer custom products tend to highlight customizability above all else.  Custom candy, for example, may NOT be inherently more valuable than standard candy.    It would be a mistake to assume that the ability to customize supersedes product quality.

Yes, customization adds value, and perhaps even merits a price premium, but customization in itself is not a fully baked value proposition.  The key learning here is that inviting users to “have it their way” means nothing unless the core product is desirable.   A custom fitted shirt, for example, lacks in quality if it shows up on your doorstep poorly constructed and made from cheap fabric.

Size / Fit

Far and away the biggest barrier to adoption of the online retailing market is “the fit problem.”   How can users match their body dimensions to custom products?   There is no clear answer, as this is still an unsolved problem.    Certainly, integrating a product configurator into the shopping flow is a good start, but the challenge is in making the fit process frictionless and 100% accurate.   There are millions to be saved in product returns.

Ease of use: check out process

Shoppers don’t tolerate awkward shopping cart check-out experiences anymore.   Brush up on techniques for converting shopping cart abandons.  Again, customization does not supersede the importance of the basics.  The basics include a smooth, fast checkout.

Here’s a great example of the impact of poor ecommerce design, Expedia removed one field from their registration process and increased sales by $12M.   Shoppers get frustrated easily, it’s important to streamline wherever you can to minimize the risk of abandons.

More on build-your-own experience, selection, and brand loyalty in a future post…

How important is guidance?

In our recent study on consumer preferences, respondents made it clear that guidance is critical in guiding them to make good decisions.

Simplicity vs complexity

Interestingly, age does differentiate users in terms of their tolerance for complexity.  But, “The customization paradox” applies to users of all ages.   Users are fickle.  They want complete control, but when you give them too much power, they get frustrated.   The key to mitigating “customization fatigue” is guidance.  Use templates with defaults, filter options, reduce steps, and show recommended combinations.    Make your design tool “customer proof.”   The trick is to give them power and to protect them from themselves at the same time.

Why do young users want more complexity? 

Most likely because younger generations are accustomed to digital control, and are therefore more inclined to control hard products as well.

Per Frank Piller, consumers are finally ready for customization:  “I believe it took 10 years of consumer education on the net so that MANY of them feel confident to not just shop standard products from a catalog, but also co-create. Also, today’s 25-35’s – a core group of people buying custom goods – are trained by the interactive solutions of social networking, but also co-creation in computer games. This generation is the natural shopper for custom goods – and getting old enough now to have the discretionary income to buy custom goods online.


Design constraints

The reality is that customers are customizing YOUR brand.  They are empowered to customize within the constraints that you define.  Customers are great editors, but are they talented designers / creators?   Most customers don’t want a blank canvas, they want to start with recommended (virtual) products and make adjustments to match their tastes.  This is guidance at its core.   It really depends who your customization customers are, but guidance is appreciated by advanced and novice product designers.   Creativity loves constraint.


Users want to see suggested designs, what other customers are designing, the last 5 products built, product of the week, etc.   Inspire them with creative suggestions rather than asking them to be creative in a vacuum.

From our research, here are a few verbatim suggestions on how product configurators can improve:

  • “More suggestions or creations by others.”
  • “Better to provide a big pool of ‘good designs’ as showcase and customers could use those or work from there.”
  • “I think it can be improved by providing pre-customized products with option to modify the product.”

Whitepaper 2011: What do consumers want from a product customizer?

What do shoppers want from an online customization experience?

Which product configurator features are most important?

  • Visualization
  • Intuitive design
  • Guidance / recommendations

Will shoppers still pay a premium price for customization?

Research objective:  To help the collective mass customization industry to build better customization experiences.

This is the second study we’ve launched on the topic of consumer preferences in the context of product customization.  See last year’s study.   This presentation was presented at the Mass Customization and Personalization, and co-creation 2011 conference, November, 2011.

Magento product configurator interest on the rise

Last week, eBay hosted the X.Commerce Innovate Developer Conference 2001.   “Powered by trusted, global leaders in the commerce space—eBay, PayPal, Magento, GSI Commerce, and other best-of-breed partners—X.commerce delivers tools developers need to build new and better end-to-end commerce solutions in a single, flexible, open environment.”

Since then, Treehouse Logic has seen a surge in interest in Magento-integrated product configurators.   Specifically, we’re seeing a lot of traffic originating from the Magento forums discussion on product configurator integration.  Certainly, Magento, along with new parent companies Ebay and PayPal, is making an aggressive move into mainstream ecommerce development.

One hot topic at the developer conference was a new partnership between Facebook and eBay. Facebook is taking on an increasingly important role in ecommerce as brands focus on creating inherently “shareable content.”

VP and General Manager of X.commerce Matthew Mengerink said  “What we’re encouraging developers to think about is to try out the more ‘pre-shopping’ social experience”, he said. Meaning that the process of joining friends at an online store, browsing, sharing, and chattering via enhanced social features is a way to encourage brand recognition, organic word-of-mouth familiarity with products — and is integral to making the online shopping experience more resemblant of offline shopping. And to grow online sales.”

Indeed, a product configurator (or product customizer) is becoming the backbone of many social commerce campaigns.  Shoppers can build their own product as part of the “pre-shopping” experience.  This notion of pre-shopping is super important.  It essentially introduces shoppers to your brand, allows them to gain confidence with your brand, and let’s your brand stand out in the crowd.

Review: Build-your-own Product Solutions for Merchants

Thanks to Website Magazine for this review of the Treehouse Logic product configurator platform.

A favorite web-surfing habit of mine has always been visiting sites that allow me to create my own product, such as a dream-carpersonalized jewelry or one-of-a-kind shoes

These types of sites that provide the “product configurator” feature give consumers the feeling of empowerment — like a child that has just gone to the local Build-A-Bear Workshop and made their very own, personalized and unique stuffed creation.

So why don’t more retailers offer this customizable feature? And more importantly, how can e-tailers provide this feature to their customers? Aside from getting this feature built custom, there are some options for integrating this feature into a site…

Treehouse Logic

This solution provides shoppers with the ability to customize and personalize products at fast speeds, without having to refresh the browser. This solution is easy to maintain and integrates with most of the popular e-commerce platforms.  Notable features include hover previews, recommendation and sharing options — through email, Facebook and Twitter. Check out this custom bag and custom children furniture site for examples of what Treehouse logic can do.

Design contests: Social media meets customization

Social marketing company and Rickshaw Bagworks recently released a new design contest that invites customers to enter a design-your-own messenger bag contest.

Specifically, each contestant customizes a messenger bag, then personalizes their contest entry page by uploading a picture and adding custom text.  Once the entry is ready for submission, the contestant encourages contacts in their social networks to vote for their entry.   The contest is open for 14 days and the submission with the most votes wins the bag they designed.   “Customize your dream #swagbag, add pictures and tell us why you should win the bag.”

The power of design contests

This contest is the first of it’s kind to successfully integrate three hot Internet trends:

  • Product customization – enabling the consumer to visually co-create their own version of a branded product
  • Personalization – allowing the user to add some personal flare to their creation
  • Social media marketing – encouraging sharing of a unique, branded creation

The result is an interactive, digital brand experience that is much more valuable than just browsing a standard online shopping page.

Gallery of entries

Social sharing is evolving – more than just “liking” a product

In the past year, the Facebook “like” button has transformed the Internet, with over 35 million people liking favorite products.    What will consumers share beyond their favorite standard products?  Adding a level of co-creation to social media marketing campaigns will increase the chances that consumers will want to share a product.

Beyond just “upload a photo and share to win,” this creative marketing campaign inspires consumers to boast about their specific rendition of a product.  Additionally, they are able to style and tailor their submission page without needing any technical skills, creating a unique curated page.   Sharing of user-generated content is infinitely more compelling than sharing static product content.

Share your creation on Facebook

A smooth end-to-end experience

An important part of the success of this marketing campaign is that the end-to-end contest entry submission flow be easy and well thought out.   From inviting contestants to get started to a follow-up email confirming the entry, the process is intuitive, short and easy.  User experience and professional polish are key.

Unfortunately, many online contests suffer from usability blockers like asking for private data, requiring a login for submission, or not creating an actionable and valuable customer experience.    The / Rickshaw Bags contest is easy and fast to enter, and the overall flow effectively communicates the tone of the Rickshaw brand.  Any customer ‘barriers to adoption’ have been omitted in order to attract the highest conversion rate possible.