Option-full technology

Posted: June 8, 2006 at 10:40 pm in people

This post was sparked by Jofish posting about some of the material he’s preparing for his A-exams. In particular, he’s researching the process of evaluating and measuring qualitative experiences. Examples he used to illustrate difficult-to-measure phenomena included MySpace and texting, where users are not necessarily using these technologies in any way that was originally anticipated by their developers, but have created their own ways of using the technology to serve their needs.

I think this is a really important concept. Creating technology that can be used in unforeseen ways is a design goal that I value highly because it creates the possibility of your technology going beyond yourself. If I design some software, and I make it so that it can only be used in the way I intend it to be used, then the software is limited to what I can imagine. If I make it open-ended such that the users can modify it to fit their needs, then the “design” of the software is expanded to include the ideas of anybody using the software. It means my users can be smart, so I don’t have to be.

It also means the technology can be adapted to uses that were not even envisioned at design time. This is the point of the famous Stupid Network paper by David Isenberg. He contrasts the phone system (which has insanely complicated computing switches to determine how to connect up lines, which prevents it from handling anything not in its design spec) to the Internet (which just requires packets to be passed from point A to point B, and doesn’t care what’s in the packets). By now, it’s clear how the simple TCP/IP protocol of the Internet can be adapted to uses as varied as the human mind can imagine. Meanwhile, the phone system is limited by the constraints built into its original design.

As usual, I’m biased by my personal experience on this topic. One of my crowning achievements at Signature was writing a simple sequencing program that let scientists and engineers re-arrange steps in their experiments any way they wanted to. The “real” software engineers at the company interviewed the scientists before starting their design and asked them what they would need to do, and then enforced those decisions in code. Guess which software got used more?

Hence I am a believer in the design philosophy of creating options, taking advantage of the intelligence and creativity of the people using your design. I think this is one of the reasons I’m a big fan of rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping incorporates feedback into the whole design process so that you can take advantage of the expertise of your users. By starting off with simple building block components and then seeing what your users do with them, you can often save yourself tons of time that would have been wasted on designing the wrong solution. It’s like the story of the campus designer who laid down grass, waited to see where the dirt paths developed, and then paved the dirt paths. If designers pay attention to what their users are trying to do, they can often create solutions that are similarly “obvious”.

I’ve made the connection between rapid prototyping and life before, but I think it makes even more sense in this context of leveraging other people. Somewhat ironically, the older I get, the more benefit I get from interacting with people, because I am getting better at relating their experience to mine. You would think it should work the other way around, that I would gain the most from other people when I was young and inexperienced, but I was not then in a position to understand the wisdom they were trying to impart. I’m still not as good about paying attention to other people as I would like to be, but I like the idea of relating it to rapid prototyping and feedback and the design philosophy of leaving options open.

There is, of course, a downside to designing for openness and options. It’s often harder, because more ways for people to use the design means more ways in which things can go wrong. Also, a pathological devotion to keeping options open can lead to ineffectual dithering, because every decision means closing off some options. Sometimes you just have to go with the gut, and see what happens.

Man, as usual, my thoughts are all over the place. I either need to write more often so that each entry can be more tightly focused, or learn to edit. Or just inflict my incoherence on all y’all. Hrm.

P.S. Off to Boston in the morning for the big party. Yay!

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