If you’ve ever gone online to purchase a customizable product, whether it was a t-shirt on zazzle.com or threadless.com, an iPhone case on skinnit.com, a pair of sneakers on NikeID, or a made to order shirt on Blank Label, then you’ve already encountered what we in the business of customization call a configurator. A configurator is most commonly described as a software tool that enables the user to configure and visualize a customizable product prior to its manufacture. In other words, it is what you see on your computer screen when you’re choosing colors, or sizes, or components for a product that you’ve selected from the website for customization.
Now, that is certainly part of the definition. Viewed more comprehensively, a configurator can also be seen as a software tool that bridges the entire supply chain from pre-order to manufacturing and fulfillment. For once the user tailors a product to his or her specifications, the configurator is able to forward the supplier the information needed to produce the item, and the orders department the information needed to process payment and shipment when the time comes.
Graphically, configurators take many different forms, each one being designed to suit the product being customized as well as the graphic identity of the site on which it resides. The options offered, the steps taken to create the configurable product, the detailed information about the product (eg., cost, dimensions), and the ancillary features available (eg., social sharing, saving the design to a user account) will also vary from one configurator to the next. Their underlying functionality and purpose, however, remain consistent.
The number of configurators in active use continues to grow. Earlier this year (2013) a Vienna firm specializing in configurators released a report in which they identify a list of about 900 existing configurators, of which nearly half have been released since 2007. That’s a lot of configurators.
So we’re thinking of making our own modest contribution to the literature of configurators by classifying them based on common operating characteristics. Perhaps out of this exercise some further insights into the evolving field of customization may be discovered, in which case we will certainly seek to claim full credit.
Group One: Selective Configurators
A large, if not the largest, group of configurators in operation allows the customer to select features for their product from a list or group of available options presented onscreen. The housewares guru Jonathan Adler employs a selective configurator for people wanting to purchase from his line of customizable pillows, throws and rugs. First, the customer selects which of the products in the collection is to be customized. The next step is to pick from among a group of patterns that can be applied to the piece. Once that is done, the customer picks colors from a palette to be applied to the various parts of the pattern. Following that, the customer must choose from a set of available sizes, and then finally, in some cases, a choice of fabric.
Throughout the entire process the customer can see a visual representation of the product alongside the selection menu, starting with an abstract, blank canvas. As each selection is made by the customer the product image is updated with the appropriate information. Users can change selections at any time in the process. At the conclusion the customer can save, share, print and/or purchase the item as designed.
Group Two: Combinatory Configurators
Most products customized through selective configurators are pre-determined in their essential form prior to customization; it is only their applied attributes (color, pattern, etc.) which are selected by the customer. This is not the case for products customized by means of combinatory configurators. Here products are built up by joining smaller, individual units to create a larger whole, thereby determining the product’s ultimate form.
The European storage unit company Montana features a combinatory configurator in which the user drags and drops storage modules into a main composing window, where he or she can then position the pieces relative to each other as desired. A similar system is available for the DLP Cubit and Cubitec modular storage product, originally designed in the 1970s. Theoretically there is no limit to the possible size or arrangement of the units with these two products; by contrast, products customized through selection tend to remain within their prescribed three-dimensional envelope.
Group Three: Personalization Configurators
With the first two types of configurators the options and forms available to the customer are prescribed by the seller, even if the final form of the configured product is determined by the user. Personalization configurators inject a new element into the constellation of customizable products: namely, user-provided content. This typically takes the form of either images uploaded by the customer, or textual customization, meaning words and phrases chosen by the customer. In both cases the content is then applied to the product – which is otherwise pre-designed – through printed means. In some cases the content can be individually formatted, sized and positioned by the customer prior to finalizing the design; in others it is more constrained by the product template. Jones Soda custom bottle labels offer both forms of personalized content.
Group Four: Hybrid Configurators
Many configurators are, in fact, combinations of the types outlined above. Naturally we call them hybrid configurators, because they are hybrids.
Consider the configurator created for the Stitch Modular Rug. First a customer selects a color from the available palette, and then clicks on an individual module within the schematic drawing of a field of modules to render that module in the chosen hue. He or she then repeats the process for as many modules and in whatever arrangement as desired. Colors can be mixed and changed, modules removed and added back by continuing to click on the schematic or palette. Insofar as colors are chosen by the customer, this can be grouped as a selective configurator; to the extent that by rendering adjacent modules the customer is effectively combining individual units, this configurator comes under the combinatory heading.
Similarly, the customized jewelry offered by gemvara.com incorporates both selective configuration (choice of metals, stones, etc.) and personalization (monograms and inscriptions).
Configurators are an essential tool in the field of mass customization, vital to its success and so should be understood and collaboratively developed to the fullest extent possible. As with any designed software product, some configurators are better designed, more effective and more enjoyable to use than others. With the observations and examples gathered here, we have perhaps taken one more step towards the goal of making them even better in the future.