Last night’s BayCHI panel on the role of design and designers in systems with emergent behavior proved lively, fun, and informative. Tim, Larry, and Joy were great contributors. We touched on a lot in the 90 minutes we had, but even so, I realized we could have spoken for an entire day and not exhausted the subject.
We’re designing tools and rules
Tim used the phrase “tools and rules” to describe what it is that we’re designing when we’re working on systems with emergent behavior. This can be a challenge for designers, particularly those who are trained in the design of form, of artifacts.
As part of this, what we’re designing are containers, vessels for our users to fill with their stuff–the “content,” their commentary, their metadata. We then design other containers for the system to fill with stuff it’s figured out through algorithms — whether products that people have bought, or photos that might be interesting.
There are no good user research methods of emergent behavior
The standard tools that a user researcher has tend to focus on an individual’s interaction with the system. Or, if we do engage with groups, we’re limited to the scope of groups we can interact with. So, how can user research inform the design of systems with emergent behavior? We need new methods and approaches that allow us to work with a crowd.
What do we deliver in a world of ever-evolving designs?
An attendee commented on how many contemporary systems seem to live in perpetual beta, that they continually release new features, functionality, and interface designs, and, well, what do we do about that? I think this is a non-issue for in-house designers — folks that are there everyday and can evolve their solutions bit-by-bit.
But it’s a HUGE challenge for design consultancies (like, say, Adaptive Path). We deliver a system at what is essentially a moment in time in the life of an organization, and, if this is a system predicated on emergent behavior, from that moment of delivery that system is moving away from our delivery. What is the value of a design consultancy in this situation? I think this is one of the reasons that Adaptive Path has pulled pretty strongly in an “experience strategy” direction. While the details of execution are likely to change with some rapidity, the overarching vision that guides the system has greater permanence, and if we deliver at that level, we can deliver longer-lasting value. We can help provide a strategy from which this system can evolve.
Embrace the chaos
Joy, who had the most experience designing interactive systems (in fact, she might have more experience than the rest of the panel combined), has, particularly in her work with Yahoo, come to terms with the realization that you cannot predict response, that there are limits to the utility of user research, and really, what’s often best is just to throw stuff out there and see what people make of it.
I might be a little less cavalier. I’m surprised that most companies don’t take the Amazon.com approach of testing designs with small percentages of the users and gauging behavior before unleashing it on the world at large. Separately, but as importantly, I’m shocked that more companies haven’t followed in Amazon’s stead when it comes to truly capitalizing on emergent behavior, on having that inform algorithms that drive a user’s experience.
Timing is a lot of the thing
Maybe not everything, but boy is timing important. I introduced myself by saying that I worked on a project that involved user-generated content, involved user-submitted ratings, allowed for social networks through trusted friends, provided content based on algorithms informed by your behavior, and even allowed you to place site content on your own blog (kind of like how Youtube allows you to embed video on your blog). And that site was Epinions, which I worked on 7 years ago. And while still around, it hasn’t had anywhere near the success of some of the more recent systems. And I wondered, was Epinions too soon? Was the market just not ready for it?
I think it’s obvious that Youtube is in large part successful because of timing: broadband deployment at such a level that video on the Web is feasible, not a burden; “community” features like comments, tagging, favoriting, etc. are increasingly familiar to web users; the rise of MySpace and people outfitting their homepage with various sorts of multimedia bling.
So what is the role of the designer?
In systems with emergent behavior, I see designers primarily serving the role of facilitator and enabler. Designers can provide immense value by capturing an experience strategy, a statement of the design purpose of the system, for what reason(s) it exists for those who use it. And then doing everything they can to provide an experience that lets the people using the system to do everything THEY can to have an experience meaningful to them.