The Camera Design Space That's Left

As a former product line manager and product designer, I think in something that's often called design space. That's a fancy way of saying "segmentation" and product position within those segments. 

If you simply design the same thing over and over again where there's lots of overlap, you can essentially create too many models for the limited customer base. General Motors was notorious for this in the 80's and 90's with their huge swath of "brands" that often had basically the same auto lineup clad in slightly different metal. 

Sad to say, sophisticated cameras are getting that way.

Even not counting the hold-over, previous generation bodies that clutter the dealers' shelves, Canon has SL1, T5i, T6i, T7i, 70D, 77D, 80D, 6D, 7D, 5D (three models), and 1Dx, while Nikon wants us to believe that they need a D3400, D5600, D7200, D500, D610, D750, D810/D810A, and D5 in their DSLR lineup. Add in the two EOS M models, and Canon's at 14 current ILC cameras, and Nikon is at 9. 

In a growing market, it makes sense to proliferate models at small, incremental price points. Being able to point to something at US$500, 600, 700, 800, 900, 1000, 1500, 2000, etc., means that you you have upsells and downsells so that you can capture every last customer, no matter how much money they have in their pocket (read: remaining credit card limit).  

But in a declining market, you'd better have a fully rationalized product line or else you're going to be committing too much R&D spending to too few purchasers. 

Let's talk about those purchasers for a moment. They fall into a few broad categories:

  • A. Buyer of state of the art. Doesn't tend to be truly loyal, this customer seeks out every last nuance they can find either to (1) distinguish their work (e.g. pros) or (2) to brag about. This is actually a relatively small but influential group, and you'd better be designing for #1 because #2 is extremely fickle and prone to just go elsewhere when anything new appears. 
  • B. The committed upgrader. This customer bought into a system at some point, built a small (or perhaps large) set of lenses and accessories, and likes upgrading their base component (camera body) every once in a while to stay current and relevant. These folk don't tend to buy every cycle. If I had to guess from limited survey data, I'd put the median update purchase at every 2 to 2.5 cycles, the average slightly higher. Moreover, the upgrade purchasing cycle length is increasing, mostly due to people having highly competent, mature products already. A few features, pixels, frame rates, or other additions/changes aren't as tempting any more.
  • C. The newcomer. The average age of the two above categories has been fairly high and is trending much higher these days. They got hooked into serious photography gear in the film SLR era and thus, by definition, are at least 30 years of age, typically much more. The reasons those folk all moved from simple cameras to more complex ones are all still present—generally wanting the best possible system to preserve their most treasured memories—so we still see younger folk kicking the tires, and at about the same points in their life cycles (e.g. getting married, having first child, etc.). But this group also tends to have a competent smartphone and is sharing images via the Internet, so the old film-era workflows look antiquated to them. 
  • D. The follower. Things go through fads and cycles. If a product or product category catches on, there's always a group that decides they need to be part of it. This group has no real reason to purchase the product, but eventually feels they have to in order to be one of the crowd. We had a few cycles of this in the film era, and we had another one in the digital era, which now seems to be over. However, there are "small followings," too. The current trend towards buying a Fujifilm GFX or Hasselblad 1XD is a combination of a very few #1's in the very first group I described being followed by some #2's and now sucking in a few extra followers, as well. 

In order of leaving the dealership, D's disappear first, A's go last. We're currently down to mostly A's and B's driving the ILC market, with fewer C's kicking tires now. Cameras aren't hot and faddish products any more, so the D's have moved on. Oooo, does that new smartphone have two sensors and lenses? ;~)

So first things first. Which of the groups are you in? 

For my work I'm an A#1 , while more casually I also have a couple of products in my gear closet where I'm really just a B upgrader. 

I'm going to use the Nikon lineup here for a product line analysis since I'm most familiar with it, but the same applies to any of the camera systems (e.g. Canon EF/EF-S/EF-M, Fujifilm X, m4/3, Sony E/FE). 

So what does the A user want from Nikon?

First, they're probably using a D500, D750, D810, or D5. What we really want are probably a D500s, a D850h/D850x, and a D5s/D5x. The first one (D500s) is the low-cost option, with a compromise at sensor. But why the pairings on the last two? Because we want the same controls and layout of our cameras, and sometimes we need cameras designed more optimally for one job, sometimes more optimally for another. Nikon got this right the first time around: high ISO/high speed is a useful tool, while high quality/high pixels is a different useful tool. Gee, wouldn't it be great if we could just have a D850 and D5 body and two different sensor modules we could plug into them? That would solve the five-body problem and make it three ;~). 

What will the A user get from Nikon?

No update on the D500 until at least 2018, a late 2017 or early 2018 update of the D810, and a 2018 D5s update. That's probably enough to hold serve, but no more. 

The B user is more complicated because Nikon iterated 8 basic models, so there's an expectation of 8 different iterations. I don't think the declining market can provide that many iteration points, frankly. Too much R&D and retooling work for fewer and fewer upgraders each cycle.

So far, the B user has gotten the full upgrade cycle from Nikon. D3000, D3100, D3200, D3300, D3400, and D5000, D5100, D5200, D5300, D5500. D5600, and so on. 

What will the B user get from Nikon in the future?

Slower iterations, best case. You can already see the steam coming off the iteration cycles from Nikon. For quite a while, the low-end consumer camera was an every-year update with substantive differences. Now, it's stretched out much further, and with fewer differences. 

I'd argue that we should have the D3xxx/D5xxx combine, the D7xxx/D500 combine, the D610/D750 combine, and just have fewer models. You point the lower end owner up one step in the product line, basically. Maybe you give them some sort of incentive to trade up to grease the works. Coupled with this, you have to be a little more aggressive with pricing lest you price the lower-end upgraders out of the market. So take 10% off the D5xxx, D750, and D500 prices going forward, or offer a D3xxx, D6xx, or D300 upgrader some sort of extra incentive.

So what has the C user gotten from Nikon?

Nothing since the D50 in DX, nothing since the D6xx in FX. Even the lens frenzy—especially the 18-xx DX lens merry-go-round—has died down. It appears that Nikon no longer thinks there is a customer they could get that they don't already have by just targeting some new products in the gaps, below, or above current models (those of you who just coughed "mirrorless" into your hands, please wait for me to get there...). 

What will the C user get from Nikon in the future?

Mirrorless DX is my guess. But frankly, that's too late and not targeted right in my book (again, please wait for me to get there). 

Finally, the D user: this isn't something you tend to specifically target, they just come along because you got things right for one or more of the other user categories and created a viral hit. The D500 has had a little bit of that going for it, as I clearly see people buying it for something that they see others had success with, particularly the D500 and 200-500mm f/5.6 combo for wildlife. That's turned faddish for Nikon, enough so that they actually made a product kit out of it (Product 13518).

Prior to that, the D800 was the fad camera, as for some reason quite a few amateurs shooting JPEGs decided that they needed a 36mp camera because it was "so great." 

I don't think you plan for D users, but are grateful when you get them. But I will say this: it's easier to get them if you do something extraordinary or out of the mainstream. Fujifilm figured that out with the X100, for instance. They've parlayed that whole initial small-scale fad into a full line of products that still are trending faddish. 

So, let me back into things for that C user a different way? What's really missing in the camera market that they really want? Two things: (1) smartphone-like image sharing; and (2) simplicity. 

Here's my proposal: we need the smartphone-era equivalent of the Pentax Spotmatic. Solid, reliable, basic, easily learned, extendible, and leads to a bigger system once you're hooked. This is the design space that has been mostly unexplored, though I would tend to say that the Canon EOS M5 comes awful close in a lot of ways. It's a design space that doesn't require extending or reinventing feature sets. 

Somehow I thought that Nikon was headed that direction with the Nikon 1. But boy did they mess up a few things with that product. The simplicity was faux, the price was golden, and it simply wasn't in the smartphone era at all, despite having what could have been Internet trendy things like Motion Snapshot. 

Moreover, you really want your low-end ILC be the gateway drug to the high-end stuff. The Nikon 1 failed to be as extendible as we wanted it to be, especially given that Nikon decided it couldn't play with any of the big-boy toys except lenses, and then only using the center focus sensor. 

It's highly likely that Nikon will opt for a new mirrorless endeavor soon, and it's most likely to be DX. That's (APS-C mirrorless) already a space with a lot of competitors: Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Samsung (in and out), Sigma, Sony. It will be quite a challenge for Nikon to enter that market and do well in it. 

Yet consider the Spotmatic-for-the-modern-era notion. Let's put that into play with a Nikon mirrorless design:

  • DX sensor mirrorless system and all that implies, but keep it as small as possible (ala Canon EOS M, Sony E). 
  • Front/Rear Command dials (one for shutter, one for aperture, and labeled as such; no fancy control overloads or reprogramming!).
  • Mode dial.
  • ISO and WB buttons (work with dials, the only overload I allow).
  • Touchscreen controls for all playback options (no Playback menu): swipes, delete, send to.
  • Super simplified Photo Shooting menu (one page, touch enabled).
  • Super simplified Movie Shooting menu (one page, touch enabled).
  • Super simplified Setup menu (one page, touch enabled).
  • Minimal other buttons/controls. 
  • Solid new user price (e.g. not US$1000, but more like US$600). 
  • What accessories it does use are shared with the DSLRs, and if it isn't exactly the DX lens mount, then an adapter to the F-mount that enables all Nikkor lenses to be used.
  • Lenses? Six: 16-50mm kit, 50-135mm kit, 16mm, 24mm, 35mm, 60mm f/2 primes.

About that Send-to thing: that's where the SnapBridge aspect of the camera has to be fixed and made to work. From the camera end. Nikon had this more correct with the D7200 and WU Wi-Fi combo. A bit more work to extend the abilities of that approach, a stable connection, and we're there. 

Now here's the interesting thing: I asked you to identify if you're an A, B, C, or D customer, and I'll bet most of you said A or B. None of you said C and I just defined a product for that C crowd. But you want it, don't you? ;~) 

That's what design space thinking is all about. Trying to find the unoccupied product definition that should be made, but isn't. Nothing about what I defined here is in conflict with A and B products. Indeed, if you want time-lapse or multi-exposure or any of the other sophisticated features we've gotten over the years, you'd have to buy an A or B product to supplement this Spotmatic type product. Yet, it almost immediately set off a wave of D-type desirability in the A and B crowd. 

What that tells me is that the products have gotten too complex. That the real design work needs to go towards simplification and careful feature/control choices, coupled with some work on the living-with-smartphones world we're in. 

Finally, a comment you might not expect: Nikon does this kind of thinking. The Nikon 1 came of trying to think through design space and find something that didn't exist but should, for example. Nikon just got too many of the elements wrong, probably because they were still trying to protect the adjacent camera groups (Coolpix and D3xxx/D5xxx) at the same time. As Nikon has now seen, those adjacent camera groups were their weakest ones, and didn't need protecting, they needed replacing. 

I talked with one of the Nikon 1 designers not too long ago. I think he understood what the Nikon 1 needed to be and could be, but I got the impression that his design space was limited by decisions being made by management that put the Nikon 1 in a fairly narrow box. Coupled with the initial pricing and marketing mistakes, that constrictive space pretty much doomed the Nikon 1. 

We're all waiting for Nikon's next non-B move in cameras. I would argue that there are spaces—multiple spaces; I've only defined one—where Nikon could put a product that would strongly resonate with the market and give them a product that attracts the A#2 and D crowd. The question is whether Nikon will manage to fight through their complicated consensus management system and find the right product(s) space(s). 

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

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