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|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.
1. (of a building, room, or other place) lacking character and individuality
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.
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.