I’ve been thinking a lot about control and design.
People who design experiences often believe that in order to succeed they must exert complete control. And while in extremely rare instances they might be afforded the opportunity to dictate an entire environment (say, in a casino, or a theme park), when designing for the real world, for the ebb and flow of actual lives, such control is impossible. Often, the designer’s response is to exert as much control as possible on their portion of this world. (Jeff found out this sad fact when reviewing submissions to an interactive design competition.) In fact, the best thing a designer can do is dictate *as little as possible.* Because the point isn’t to control, it’s to connect–to weave your offering into the complexity of people’s life experiences, to allow them to figure out how to make sense of your offering within their world.
Photo by Yogi from Flickr
In my head, I’ve been calling this “designing for the sandbox.” This acknowledges a space for content, tools, and people to interact and create their own meaningful experience. This is not a monolithic creation, that dictates how the content, tools, and people best interact. This is instead reminiscent of David Weinberger’s phrase “small pieces loosely joined” — things that connect, but aren’t bolted onto one another.
The example I’ve been thinking of compares Ofoto with Flickr. Ofoto wants nothing more than to exert control. Hell, if I post photos to Ofoto, and want you to see them, you have to register to do so. Flickr wants nothing more to do than provide a space for interaction. Post your photos. Others can see them, no hassles. Connect photos with tags, groups, sets. Connect with people. Flickr has simply provided us a database of photos, people, and tags, with some ways to loosely join them, and let us go to town.
They’ve also provided an API that lets others dig deep into what Flickr has to offer. This leads to brilliant interfaces like Mappr. Or, in a more mundane, yet more impactful, note, the Flickr uploader plug-in for iPhoto. Before I used that plug-in, uploading photos was enough of a pain that I never got close to the max of the free account. Once I started using it, uploading became so easy that I needed an upgrade to Pro in order to use it how I wanted it.
So some passionate guy creates a free plug-in utilizing Flickr’s openness, and Flickr gets my money. *That*’s the beauty of the sandbox. You encourage others to improve it, and you still get the fee. And people love you for it. Meanwhile, the other photo sites devolve into price wars, desperate for your business.
Del.icio.us, Backpack, Upcoming, and others are designing for the sandbox. Hell, Google is designing for the sandbox. Here’s their API. Maybe you’d like to put some of their ads on your site? Go ahead. Or use their maps to view rentals on Craigslist? Sure, why not.
Thinking about this, I would say that, while people have done a lot to compare Yahoo and Google of late, this is a key point of distinction. Google designs for the sandbox. Yahoo tries to control the playground (am I overextending the metaphor?). Yahoo is still about drawing you in, and not letting you go. Google has always been willing to let you go, ever since they bucked the then-predominant search engine trend of “stickiness”. Maybe Flickr will help the rest of Yahoo get the sandbox religion.
I wonder about how my clients could design for the sandbox. Is there a sandbox for Silicon Valley enterprise IT companies? Could Oracle have a sandbox? Sun? Can you conduct marketing in a sandbox? Is that what the Cluetrain guys were talking about?
And finally, I think about, how do we design for the sandbox? What are the guides? Is there a Tao of the Sandbox? My sandbox will look different than yours. Amazon.com was an early sandbox designer — customer comments, wishlists, friends, etc. Barnes and Noble made feeble attempts at maintaining feature parity, but it was clear their heart wasn’t in it. Could B&N be a sandbox company? How would B&N’s sandbox differ from Amazon’s? How could they relinquish control in a way that felt true to their approach to business?
Anyway, some things I’ve been thinking about.