This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote over 20 years ago. "Productware" is now firmly established, and our attention has turned to identifying new trends that will shape building product marketing in the decades ahead. The future is hard to predict -- this article failed to foresee the internet, for example.

Building product manufacturers must be able to speak the language of the architectural community. With a majority of architectural firms now using computers for everything from code analysis to working drawings, many manufacturers are  rushing to learn the language of automation and its marketing dialect.

To date, the number of manufacturers using computers as a new sales communication medium is still relatively small. But as the computerized customer base reaches a critical density, more manufacturers are  realizing that the medium can be an effective method for reaching targeted markets.

I refer to computerized building product sales tools as "productware." The first productware to be developed has been electronic versions of existing guide specifications and product details. By eliminating the chore of inputting data, manufacturers are hoping their diskettes will find a way into an architect's, library of master specifications and standard details. It is fairly simple to translate a guide specification into the variety of word-processing systems most  commonly used by specifiers. But it remains an expensive proposition for manufacturers to create easy-to-use libraries of CAD details, especially since data cannot be moved directly between some of the most widely used CAD systems.

While diskettes with specifications and details can save an architect valuable time, a more significant use of the computers power lies in the development  proprietary product-selection databases, expert systems, and engineering programs. These programs typically present a user with a menu of product performance parameters. Based on the user's input, the computer then searches a database of the manufacturer's products and systems and offers recommendations about the most appropriate products to use. Some programs can then produce a custom specification or schedule. And if an architect needs assistance in evaluating alternatives, many programs also offer interactive product tutorials. Products for which this type of manufacturer produced software is available range from laminated glass and fire stopping to luminaries and ventilators.

When properly programmed, productware should do more than just sort data. It should help designers and specifiers become better decision makers. The rampant growth in building technologies and changes in product availability can contribute to decision-making anxiety. Productware can help relieve this syndrome by performing data-crunching tasks.

Producing and distributing productware on their own, manufacturers can also place proprietary information in one or more of the product-information systems now available or under development. 'The difference and buying space in a product information system is analogous to the difference between a manufacturer distributing product notebooks and going into Sweet's Catalog File. A product-information system offers features like indexing and expanded product search capabilities but requires the manufacturer to adhere to prescribed formats.

Until the nascent computerized product data systems become more widely subscribed to, they pose a difficult marketing dilemma for manufacturers. When will the time be right to buy "advertising" space in a computer database? Which of the emerging databases will survive the inevitable shakeout to become dominant in the market? Are databases in addition to, or replacements for, traditional product literature? How will the systems affect the role of the sales representatives?

Another preliminary marketing observation is that productware can be used very effectively in direct-mail advertising. Conventional direct mail brochures and letters can be easily overlooked, but few architects can resist the temptation to stick a new diskette into the computer to see what it can do.

One feature of the new product- information systems that has caught the attention of manufacturers is their ability to carry on two-way communications between suppliers and specifiers. Most of the systems under development have provisions to collect feedback about how often a manufacturer's products are called up from the database and on what projects they have been specified. Before these systems achieve widespread acceptance among architects, their publishers will have to assure users that sensitive project and client information will remain confidential. Also, users will want assurances that the systems' lead tracking will not bring an unwanted flood of calls from salesmen, Still, the benefits are significant: The on-line communications capabilities of some systems can be used for electronic order entry and have the potential for data sharing among designer, dealer, manufacturer, contractor, and facility manager.

If productware fulfills its promise of improved access to data, better communication and decision making, and increased efficiency, then architects stand to gain. Architects need to help manufacturers understand the impact computers are having on practices and encourage companies to develop the types of productware that will help us get full benefit from our computers and from their products.

Have a question you'd like us to answer?
Send an email to 

By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Progressive Architecture, ©1988