Plasticity is a basic design principle to be taken into account if we want to create products and services more appreciated by users. Learn why.

A few months ago I began to study German. As I needed to memorize a lot of new words, I cut a sheet into small squares and I wrote a German word in each of them, with its translation on the back. However, there were too many words and it was too laborious. So, I decided to look for a flashcards app.

I found the application that best suited my needs. I practiced with it for a few days, but gradually I realized I would need more functions and the application couldn’t follow me. Finally, I went back to the pieces of paper.

Why a sheet ended up being more useful than a sophisticated app? Because, in that context, the sheet had a quality which was lacking in the app: plasticity.

Every day, people are faced with obstacles that they need to overcome to achieve their goals. To do this, they often resort to things specifically designed for that situation: an app, a ladder, a strategy…

However, it often happens that there is no “tool” specifically designed for that purpose. Other times, we cannot acquire it, it doesn’t suit for us or, simply, it’s inefficient.

In such cases, people seek another tool, designed to perform some other function, and they “adapt” it to their needs. They give it a new use. This adaptation may be more or less sophisticated (sometimes there’s no need), depending on the features of the tool and the skills of each user.

In design, plasticity describes the tendency of a product or service to adopt other uses than those for which it was originally designed.

An example of plasticity applied to product design is Kindle, a motion-sensing device created for the Xbox 360 video game console, which allows players to control the action onscreen by moving their bodies. However, Kinect has also enabled to create numerous applications for medical use, architecture, education…

In service design, we find a good example in the case of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, where the procedure developed by the pit of a Formula One racing team was used to improve the efficiency of the process of transferring a patient from the operating theatre to the recovery room (+).

While the design of a product or service may influence its tendency to adopt alternative uses, the skills of users make plasticity a dynamic value.

Some products or services, due to their design features (materials, degree of customization, code…) adapt to different uses even for low-skilled users. Other products and services, however, require specialized skills to be “adapted” to new uses.

That is why, in reality, the plasticity of a product or service describes a curve.

plasticity curve

What is the value of plasticity in design? The answer can be found in the examples of flashcards, Kindle and the F1 pit stop. Plasticity allows a product or service to broaden its utility, satisfying the needs of a larger number of users.