Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Something something systems thinking, part 2 [post 10/100]

Last week I opened the topic of the growing challenge for designers. I’d like to get a bit deeper into that now. Hank commented on that post and he and I had a conversation on the topic a few months ago over a pint. The example I used at the time was a set of interconnected mobile services, but you could easily substitute any piece of software that had to enable a complex set of interactions. Here we go.

Years ago, I led a strategic design project for a certain large mobile phone manufacturer. The brief was to work out what to do with their existing suite of core services (photo gallery, messaging, etc.): how to differentiate, and what to do with the new technology infrastructure that was about to be available to them through a partial merger/acquisition. This new tech would make it possible to move laterally across different apps, which opened up a lot of possibilities. Since I’m not able to share the visuals from then (because NDA), I’ll try to explain my pitch in words alone.

What is a smartphone, to the average person? It’s a repository for a big chunk of what’s important to them. It’s got people in it, and places they’ve been and want to go, and photos of the people in the places, and messages and comments from the people, sometimes about the photos and/or the places. All of these things are inter-related in most people’s minds. For example, let’s say I’m looking at a picture of my friend Susan* from that night we were out last month. I might think to myself, where were we again? And then it would be great if I could go directly to the listing for the place where we were…

…and then I might think, oh yeah, I love that place. I wonder why I don’t go there more often – actually when was the last time I was there?

…and I could see the last time I was there, and who I was there with…

…and from there I could link to the photos from that night, or to the contact cards for those people…

…and from there I could invite them all out to meet at that place tomorrow night…

The message here is that the way we humans think is not siloed. When I want to know how to get somewhere, I look at a map. I don’t want one map for when I’m walking and another map for when I’m taking the bus – I want to be able to switch between options in one place. But this is not how most software is designed and developed. And it’s not what that client chose to go with, either. They chose to remain in their siloed mode of product and service development, largely because changing direction would have required a change in the way they approached the whole process.

The kind of design I’m advocating is extremely object-oriented and modular, where the user creates their own path as they go. This is enabled through a series of entry points catering to whatever mental model the person begins in (map, photo gallery, address book, etc.), combined with a coherent and (wherever possible) consistent set of microinteractions that work on any object.

The thing about this kind of design is that it’s difficult. It takes time. It’s abstract to think through, and it’s hard to get right. And if you don’t get it right, people get lost. This is why a lot of products get designed based on limited user journeys – it makes it easier to ensure that there’s at least one way of executing a given task.

Hank and I spent some time in the pub that day trying to think of examples of software/systems that did this – designing for freedom, designing for chaos – well. Some games do, as he says in his comment. Also Unix, but that’s not exactly a consumer-friendly example. The truth is, there’s not a lot of design examples out there that allow the kind of freedom that I think we’re going to need in order to make wearables and connected objects really work. I’m up for making some, though. Who’s with me?

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent guilty