We live in a world defined by increasing time pressure and more and more things competing for our attention. In such a frenetic world, it is understandable that we place more value on the quality of our experience. We want to make the most of the time we have.
Experience design has emerged in part as a response to this growing need we all have. It is no longer enough to design products and services so that they have aesthetic appeal and perform well. We demand a more satisfying broader experience when interacting with these products and services so that we more effectively pull out the true potential of these products and services.
The next wave
But this is just the beginning. We are on the cusp of another major shift in the focus of experience design, one that moves far beyond the impact of individual products and services. What if, instead of pulling out the full potential of our products and services, we focused instead on pulling out the full potential of ourselves? What if we could apply the tools and principles of experience design to help each of us to more effectively drive more rapid waves of learning and performance improvement by working together? What if those experiences were not only helpful to us, but also provided a deeply engaging and pleasurable experience? What if these experiences became deeper and more powerful as more and more participants engaged with us? What would those experiences look like?
What benefits would accrue to those who could offer such experiences? They would surely attract sustained attention and interaction with more people. These experiences would likely earn a degree of trust and loyalty from participants that would far exceed more narrowly entertaining or useful experiences. The providers of these experiences would likely enjoy significant and sustained benefits in the intensifying competition for attention.
From diminishing returns to increasing returns
What is the full potential here? By taking experience design to the next level, we may for the first time have the opportunity to shift diminishing returns performance curves into increasing returns performance curves.
What does this mean? Think of the well-known experience curve, developed and popularized by Boston Consulting Group. Over the years, they have demonstrated that it applies to an awesome array of industries, ranging from semiconductors to Japanese beer and toilet paper. It is a remarkably accurate description of operating performance improvement in many industries. But it is a diminishing returns curve – the more experience an industry accumulates, the longer and harder people have to work to get the next increment of performance improvement. Perhaps this helps to explain the increasing stress most of us are experiencing.
What if there were an alternative? What if we could turn this diminishing returns curve on its side and unleash an increasing returns curve, one where the more people who join in, the faster everyone would learn? What would that require?
Well, for one thing, it would require a major shift in our beliefs and practices – a key dimension of what we call the Big Shift – and a corresponding shift in design focus.
Shifting from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows
To begin with, we would need to shift our beliefs about what is required to create economic value. Our large companies were built on the belief that the source of economic value resided in knowledge stocks – creating proprietary knowledge, aggressively protecting that knowledge from access by anyone else and then as efficiently as possible, extracting economic value from that knowledge and delivering it to the marketplace for as long as possible. As we plunge into an era when knowledge stocks depreciate in value at an accelerating rate, we need to shift our focus to knowledge flows. Increasingly, the source of economic value resides in effective participation in a larger, richer and more diverse set of knowledge flows to refresh knowledge stocks at an accelerating rate. (See The Power of Pull for a more detailed discussion of this shift.)
The design challenge becomes how to design experiences that maximize flow. In this context, the constructal design theories of Adrian Bejan and Sylvie Lorente may be particularly relevant. They have build a design perspective based on a “constructal law” that they have observed in action across physical, biological and social systems. In order to survive, all of these systems must evolve to provide greater and greater access to the currents that flow through it. Whether we are talking about river basins, trees, lung design or our cities, it turns out they all obey this constructal law. The systems that survive and thrive are those that evolve most rapidly and effectively to enhance flows.
These constructal design theories have profound implications. Designing for flows becomes the core of system design. The emphasis also shifts from design of static systems to design of evolving systems. Rather than optimizing for the present, the challenge becomes designing in ways that accelerate evolution.
What would it mean to design the systems we live and work in to continually evolve our ability to experience more and more flow, especially the flow of people and ideas? Aerotropolis, an intriguing new book by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, suggests that increasingly our cities will be designed around massive airport facilities that help to maximize the flow of people from city to city and reduce the risk of cities turning inward as they grow in scale.
Shifting from push to pull
There’s a second shift that will shape this next wave of experience design. We are moving from a world of push to a world of pull, another theme developed more fully in The Power of Pull. In thinking about the implications for experience design, it is important to differentiate three levels of pull:
- Access – seeking out and connecting with people and resources when and where needed – think of Google and other search engines
- Attract – shaping serendipity to increase the quantity and quality of unexpected encounters, drawing people and resources to you that you were not even aware existed but that turn out to be extraordinarily relevant and helpful. In this context, what are serendipity rich experience designs?
- Achieve – pulling out of each of us and out of our institutions our full potential - how would we design experiences that enhance this?
Across all three levels of pull, the key question is how to design scalable pull experiences - not just experiences with a few close friends or co-workers, but with a growing number of participants on a global scale.
I confess that I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t think anyone does at this point. I am hoping to intrigue and tease enough of you with the opportunity that you will come up with the answers to these questions.
While I don’t have the answers, I can frame some of the questions that need to be answered. In particular, I want to highlight two dimensions of the challenge – platforms and pathways
- What are platform designs that would accelerate scalable peer to peer learning?
- How can we design pathways that will help us get pragmatically from a world of push to a world of scalable peer to peer learning?
Platform design – the first design challenge
We all know that teams become incredibly rich environments for accelerated peer to peer learning and there has been some attention to how to more effectively design team environment. This is particularly important because the most valuable knowledge flows involve tacit knowledge. Yet, tacit knowledge does not really flow – it is, in the words of my colleague, John Seely Brown, remarkably sticky. However, tacit knowledge can be accessed in the context of deep trust based relationships that often emerge in team settings.
But here’s the challenge – teams don’t scale. So, how do we embed teams in increasingly rich platforms that will scale by encouraging the formation of more and more teams. How do we then motivate and help these teams to connect with and learn from each other? What would these platforms look like?
For inspiration, we might look at some unlikely places
- World of Warcraft – this online gaming environment now engages 12 million participants. Most of these participants are organized into high performing teams (known as guilds), yet the participants stay richly connected with others outside their teams through rich networks of discussion forums, video repositories and social relationships that transcend individual teams
- Extreme sports like big wave surfing –These sports are characterized by intense engagement with local physical environments – for example, specific surf breaks are where big wave surfing practices evolve. While these physical environments serve as gathering spots for a limited number of practitioners, scalability of learning is achieved through rich virtual networks that help participants to learn from each other, regardless of where they are physically. Again, broader learning platforms leverage discussion forums, video repositories and extended social networks to create global reach.
Designing pragmatic pathways – the second design challenge
Scalable platforms are the ultimate goal, but the key is how to start small, designing relatively narrow experiences that can scale over time to include much richer and much broader interactions. I have written a lot about the SAP Developer Network (SDN) as an interesting platform for scalable peer to peer learning. Equally important are the lessons for designing a pathway that is pragmatic and provides short-term value while also building the foundations for much more powerful long-term learning and performance improvement.
Follow a trajectory. First, the SDN started relatively modestly as an online environment focusing on simple problem solving transactions – software developers could post a coding problem they were wrestling with and see if anyone else had encountered a similar problem and had a possible solution to offer. On both sides limited investment of time and effort was required but positive reinforcement was quickly achieved. As problem-solvers started to build reputation, others with similar interests in the SDN began to seek them out and the discussions that ensued started to build sustaining, trust-based relationships. Ultimately, these trust-based relationships led to the formation of global teams of software developers seeking to develop entirely new applications. This trajectory – from narrow transactions to reputation and relationships and ultimately to sustained, long-term performance improvement initiatives – defines a pathway that many collaborative learning platforms have traveled.
Iterate rapidly. Second, the SDN started with a relatively modest platform with limited functionality and evolved through rapid iteration of design, based on careful observation of how participants used the platform and where the opportunities for enhancement seemed most promising.
Stay on the edge. Third, the SDN started on the edge of a very large enterprise, initially focusing on reaching out to and connecting third party software developers operating in SAP’s channel partners and customers. Over time, it pulled in more and more of SAP’s own developers and employees. The early introduction of new experience platforms often works best on the edge of larger institutions where practices, processes and policies are less well defined and there is more motivation to experiment with new approaches.
Focus on performance improvement. Fourth, the pathway pursued by SDN was carefully shaped by explicit performance metrics. This enabled the designers to regularly assess their progress and learn from the experiences they had created. The key questions here are: what are people trying to get better at? How would one measure this in terms of performance improvement as a proxy for learning? What would be leading indicators to determine whether this performance improvement is likely to materialize?
The bottom line
If we get these platforms and pathways right, we have a significant opportunity ahead. But it isn’t just an opportunity – it is an imperative. We live in a world of mounting economic pressure – pressure that our current institutions are simply not prepared to address. This is graphically confirmed by the sustained deterioration in return on assets that all public companies in the US have experienced since 1965. We are running faster and faster but, unlike the Red Queen, we are not simply staying in the same place – we are falling farther and farther behind. In the face of this increasing economic pressure, we simply don’t have a choice. The experience designers who master the techniques required to address this growing challenge will be richly rewarded.
But I want to end by focusing on the real opportunity. I began this post by suggesting the opportunity to unleash increasing returns. When we take on this design challenge and crack the very difficult problems it raises for designers, we will find ourselves on the edge of a whole new wave of design activity.
As we begin to see the potential, we might be motivated to take on an even greater challenge. Rather than focusing on sustainability, we might pursue “thrivability” as described by my friend Jean Russell – how do we generate more and more sustainable prosperity from the limited natural resources that our planet has been endowed with? It’s not just our business that depends on this; it is our planet.
(This posting is an adaptation of a talk that I gave at the MX Conference hosted by Adaptive Path in San Francisco on March 6-7, 2011)