Your Product Needs a Soul

The marketplace is crowded with products with no soul. I've always wondered who creates the masses of these terrible products and why they don't they fix them: startups that run for months or years with horrible user experience.

It just seems that with a little bit of effort it could've been much better. In today's world, you actually might need that extra effort.

In Ancient Japan, katanas were regarded as having a soul. The forging of blades was a long and complex art and each family had its own method. The actual creation of the sword was something of a religious ceremony. It was said that a sword would contain the personality of the smith who forged it. Even with its limited use in actual warfare, the katana was the most valuable possession of a samurai, the customer.

soulless |ˈsōlˌlis|
1. (of a building, room, or other place) lacking character and individuality
In mass markets, the soul part has traditionally been dealt with through branding and marketing. With a great logo, clever copy and a bit of celebrity bang we can dress up frogs to be princesses. This might work in the world of controlled and limited distribution channels, but not in the vastness of the Internet. This might work with sodas and cereals, but not with functional tools like swords and software.

Think about the products you use today. What do you like the most? Do you feel something using them? Do you actually compare features or just choose what feels right? Compare Powerpoint and Keynote. What is your level of frustation when using them? The way Chrome is more opinionated than Firefox. With Chrome you don't expect to find the whole kitchen sink, but speed and simplicity.

Having a soul doesn't mean that there is only one right answer, but for a soul, one needs to be true to self, and not get distracted by competitors. It means you have something to be proud of.

No Words

In Zen, one of the basic tenets is that there is no way to characterize what Zen is. No matter how hard you try to enclose Zen in a verbal space, it spills over. No words can capture the truth.

The same goes for products and product specs. You cannot trust them to do your job. As a product visionary, trying to describe the product on a piece of paper with paragraphs and bullet points is like trying to paint the Sistine Chapel with a whiteboard marker. You just cannot transpose your vivid vision into mere words, and even if you could, the person (or persons), reading them would again understand them differently, changing the truth.

To battle this we have agile iterations, wireframes and what have you, but the problem is that the vision is multidimensional and it cannot be transferred directly from mind to mind. As a product visionary, you must engage in doing.


In movie business, the directors are highly respected even they don't actually participate any making activity, only directing. So it appears decision making itself can be an art form, but for a great movie, for a great soul, you need great taste.

Paul Graham talks about taste in his essay Taste for Makers:

... If taste is just personal preference, then everyone's is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that's it.

As in any job, as you continue to design things, you'll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you'll know you're getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can't be wrong.

In making products, taste is not a matter of opinion, but an actual sense of sophistication that a person has. People who make new things need to practice taste and recognize beauty when they see it. Schools or education have very little to teach in the area of taste, you need to get involved in making something real.

In his Macworld speech The Auteur Theory of Design (I highly recommend you to watch it), John Gruber underpins taste to be even more the liability of the person in charge:

The quality of any collaborative creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in charge.

Without taste, products turn out soulless and inferior to the actual talent that built the product. This is why taste is so important and for the person in charge, it's crucial.


Like katana, every product should have a soul. In some markets, or with some products, you can get away with not having it, but it's still worth seeking: for both you and the customer. Probably many of your customers don't care if your product has a soul. They care whether it solves their problem or meets their need, and how well. To fulfill this task the best you can, you should thrive for a soul.

For the soul, you need a person with a great taste to be the living and breathing aspect of the product. The one forging the blades. The person who thinks about the in and outs of the product and the business. The person that gets furious about a complicated registration form, plain colors, subtle hiccups, how settings are layed out, bad customer service and every other big or small detail out there.

It doesn't mean seeking perfection, but seeking what fits with the soul. This person may envision the product in a way that it enables him or her to make decisions intuitively, and with the utmost taste - this can lead to something great.

blog comments powered by Disqus
holster February 12, 2010

Had to double-read to confirm that no iProduct was mentioned :-)

Steve, February 12, 2010

You're absolutely right about this! One of the early Macs are still wanted so badly is because they had "souls". They didn't feel like mindless machines, they felt like they had their own little personalities. Without that, I doubt that Apple would still be around today.

Nikolay Petrov, February 12, 2010

You've made me think and:
1. The techniques which are used are developed for centuries. That said once the technique is developed it does not change much. We are still young.
2. More importantly - the katana is single purpose tool. If we have to make a parallel to our world it should be roughly equivalent to a single-purpose computer. But of course the computers are not used in this way.
3. The katana is also a physical entity. In the sense you can use and abuse it in a number of foreseeable ways bound by it physical appearance and laws. On the other hand the software is not bound by any laws - everything is possible and more importantly the users are abusing it in unimaginable ways.

That said I generally agree with you - it takes passionate people to produce things, which light passion in others.

Have passion, make great products, enjoy. That is the plan :)

Google and Social: Like Nerds at the Dance – GigaOM, February 12, 2010

[...] Maybe in the case of Buzz, Google let good become the enemy of great. Or maybe what the company really needs is a soul. [...]

suman karthik, February 13, 2010

Just an unbelievably great post. Loved it.

Tuomas Toivonen February 13, 2010

Thanks, Karri, for a nice post. Pretty much comes down to having passion and pride about the product - and not just *doing* the product, but in a way *being* the product.

You should expand this into a series of essays on Zen and the Art of Startup Development, or something.

Weekend Entrepreneurial Reading – Valentine’s Day Edition, February 13, 2010

[...] Your Product Needs a Soul – ArcticStartup [...]

Karri Saarinen, February 14, 2010

Thanks for the encouragement Tuomas! Yeah, I might continue this theme.

@Nikolay, good points:
1. Yeah, software is young.

2. It's true that the katana is a single purpose tool. It's a specific culturally defined product, that belongs to swords sub-category and weapons (or melee weapons) category. Just as with computers and software, you might have the whole arsenal of weapons to choose from.

For a layperson sword like katana might seem a quite simple product. It's sharp, you can cut, slash and thrust things with it. For a fencer there are more important characteristics like balance and weight. In addition to previous ones, a seasoned warrior might prefer some specific sharpness, elasticity and even the inviduality made by a specific swordsmith. As in software, we all might be more or less seasoned warriors, in the sense that we use them as tools for their real purpose, and appreciate or get frustrated by the characteristics.

3. True, in this way the katana and software doesn't compare. The way that software isn't bound by any physical laws might generally be to root cause of many of our problems with software design today, like feature bloat and high cognitive friction interaction. It would be impossible to add some options or settings panel to a katana, like "Would you like this sword to be 30 or 73 cm?"

Flow » Blog Archive » Daily Digest for February 14th - The zeitgeist daily, February 14, 2010

[...] Shared Your Product Needs a Soul. [...]

Your Product Needs a Soul / Karri Saarinen, February 20, 2010

[...] was orginally posted to ArcticStartup on February 12, [...]

Mikko Paltamaa March 04, 2010

This was a very good post. Thank you Karri!

The things you write about are something that I have unconsciously known, but never thought too much. The products with a soul are certainly the ones that you remember using and associate with a pleasure afterwards.

One thing that is way too often missing in web/software development is the craftmanship and pride on the quality of your work. As a usability expert most of my time is spent pointing out trivial problems that anyone with two eyes and some commitment could spot and fix.

But how could we improve thit situation? How can you teach people taking pride of their work?

Having a strong and committed leader surely helps, but it's not the way the mentioned Japanese craftsmen work. And if no one is following, even the most committed leader will get very frustrated and lose her motivation.

One reason is probably that the developers seldom see any of the users of their products and can't thus feel empathy for them. And in those rare cases when they get feedback, it's mostly negative (like bug reports).

Maybe developers would take more pride on the quality of their work if they had more contact with the customers and users of their products?

Karri Saarinen, March 04, 2010

Thanks Mikko.

I think pride in organizations is both an intropersonal and a cultural thing.

It's cultural in a way of the broken window theory. If you let your organization continue having even few broken windows, you will continue having more. If no-one fixes simple things like an icon aligned a bit off, misspelled text or some quirk in the interaction, people start caring less and less even about bigger things.

On a personal level I think pride comes from appreciation of the things you make. If you really appreciate software, web sites, art, tea, wine, food, you will always try to further your education, taste and be curious about everything in regard of that. It doesn't necessary mean becoming a snob, but rather developing a sense of what's great and but still be able to enjoy simple things.

If directors and generally the leadership in the organization doesn't have taste or the appreciation to the actual products, but treat them as some inventory to sell or way of making money, why would you think that people making those products would want to care about their jobs more than just a way of making money? Altough I think that people making things take pride in their work(but usually only your own work or type of work), but it's really hard if no-one appreciates that. Someone, preferrably everyone, need to appreciate the end product and each others work, not just their own work.

I really think that taste or appreciation is more valuable for an organization the higher it exist in it, because also the leverage of a person's actions increases.

I didn't mention Apple before because I think it's rather self-evident. Steve Jobs may be naturally very talented and smart person, but I believe it's more important that he also really appreciates the products that Apple make. He wants those products for himself, and not because the board, some consultants or marketing research might suggest doing them. He has the taste and the talent to know what's great, and the will not to compromise. Also being the CEO, he sets the culture and the bar for the whole company. I don't see Kallasvuo hacking away with the N900, be really excited about upcoming mobile phone or generally even using a smartphone for anything else than receiving calls.

Interaction with customers is also helpful. I think everyone likes seeing people enjoy using something what they have made, but if people don't like it, it might just discourage you. This discourage can turn in to deny or anger, that "customers are just stupid". Like in any feedback or criticism, you need to know when criticism is justified and when it's not, and the only way to know that is to know yourself and trust your abilities. So you cannot rely only on what your customers think, because they really might be wrong, have different agendas, or generally just less talented in that matter than you.

I don't think that every company could or should be run like Apple, but if you want great products, that appreciation for the art has to exist somewhere, preferably everywhere. That appreciation is a self-enforcing force, but good leadership can play a big role there.

Startups have limited resources, so they need to make sacrifices, but like 37signals suggest: "Make half-products, not half-assed products". So even you have limited resources you don't need to let go of your pride.

Mikko Paltamaa March 10, 2010

You know what you are talking about. I couldn't agree more.

Bringing those things into practice may not be simple, but I as an entrepreneur I see that as one of my main missions.

Karri Saarinen, March 10, 2010

Thanks for commenting. I haven't though about this that much before you asked.

There was a great comment about Steve Jobs in todays Wired story about touchscreens:
“For a good touchscreen, you need someone who is a generalist who can ask more than whether the software is complete and whether the hardware is complete,” says Verplaetse. “Steve Jobs is an example of someone who probably asks, “Does this feel right?” when he’s looking at a new product.”