The Democracy of Systems Design

If Apple had the option, would they replace their store employees with programmable drones, flash-baked with spunk, knowledge, and an insatiable desire to help patrons find the ideal Apple product(s) for them?

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If Apple had the option, would they replace their store employees with programmable drones, flash-baked with spunk, knowledge, and an insatiable desire to help patrons find the ideal Apple product(s) for them? Perhaps they would succumb to the over-hyped controllability and precision afforded by robotic employees. Who could blame them? Designing a consistent user experience that hinges on human engagement can be a sticky business. Apple Store employees, like us, are flesh and blood people, with their own agendas, dreams, passions, and personal histories. Homogeneously trained, though they may be, each employee is an individual with the potential to bring as much uniqueness to the job as they wish. Loosely controllable, yet immensely valuable variables in a massive service web, these employees embody a notion I’d like to refer to as the democracy of systems design.

The idea that part of designing any successful system is to be able to let go of control and to truly embrace the power of the parts of a system that cannot be controlled – namely, the human and natural elements. To plan for collaborative shaping of systems by the people who use them, on a massive scale. So until we are all replaced with programmable drones, I propose that humans be considered as much a part of systems as online or physical touchpoints. And what better way to think about the influence of a group of people on an outcome than the democratic process?

A good democracy

Part of any good democracy is a leader who is willing to leave (at least some) major decisions up to the majority of their constituents. And even the decisions made quietly in a backroom somewhere often lead to unexpected and irrational human behavior. Presidents, CEOs, Prime Ministers, managers of fast food restaurants – all leaders in their own right; none, any more than the others, able to truly control the citizen experience within their dominion. Strive as they may for public safety, behavior change, “customer” satisfaction, there will always be uncontrollable and unexpected elements stitched into the patchwork fabric of the world. A good leader, therefore, can focus on establishing a framework within which their desired outcomes most naturally and most probably occur. A mayor cannot guarantee a 0% crime rate, for example, but he or she can facilitate the design of a better communication system for police officers and reward citizen policing with social incentives, thereby improving the chances of crime reduction.

Is it such a stretch to think of systems designers as such leaders – doing their part to build the infrastructure, dream up the various experiences associated with their products and offerings, but also embracing the unknowns involved with human employees and human users? For it is those unknowns where the democracy happens, and that can be magical. Allowing systems to grow and evolve as people use them in different ways is to allow the world around us to be crafted by those who use it the most. A constantly shifting democratic modeling of the systems that keep us fed, deliver our mail, and take out our trash, serves to improve those systems in ways that can be unimaginable to those who first created them. It is precisely the system designer’s inability to control every detailed experience within their service web that allows for it to grow and shift in mysterious and often beautiful ways.

The hacker, DIY communities know this inside and out. Constantly pushing the boundaries of design intentions, they jailbreak, reverse engineer, patch, and crowdsource their way to completely new applications. This is democratic re-shaping of products, services, and systems at it’s absolute (although often illegal) best. If you followed the drama that enveloped Microsoft’s X-Box Kinect, with it’s proprietary, locked-down systems that were eventually cracked open for all to use freely, you’ll know what I mean. Several very smart people around the world saw a potential in Microsoft’s new sensor-laden gaming platform, that the Redmond-based tech giant did not support (to put it mildly). Skipping ahead to the happily ever after part, the people won, Microsoft acquiesced and began developing public-facing API’s. In a show to cover up their initial (dare I say?) communistic control efforts, they claimed that it was their intention all along to open up their closed platform for hackers and developers to imagine future applications. Realizing only too late the inherent value in the democracy of systems design.

Perfection is unknowable

As we learned from the ending scene in Tron: Legacy the thing about perfection is that it’s unknowable, and it is often the imperfect bits that are the most interesting. While it probably doesn’t make much sense to try to convince designers to stop trying to make perfect things, perhaps they can be convinced of the perfection of the unknown, the magic of human and natural elements. As Jeffrey Zeldman puts it, “The architect creates planes and grids that facilitate the dynamic behavior of people. Having designed, the architect relinquishes control. Over time, the people who use the building bring out and add to the meaning of the architect’s design.” While we will always need the architects to design and build system frameworks, we should also embrace the democratic nature of human endeavors. More often, we ought to trust that our systems can ride safely without training wheels. That they can learn to fly, naturally, in the wild. And who knows what tricks they may develop on their own?!

This sort of thinking extends to things that are not yet systems but that may want to be. By that I am referring to “dumb” water bottles who want to communicate their owner’s hydration level back to them via sensor networks and web services. “Dumb” refrigerators who want to relay their contents to their owner before they open the door and suggest healthy meal combinations and recipes pulled from the internet. Imagine the possibilities if all of our “dumb” things had API’s, could have their software updated remotely and wirelessly, and above all – allowed themselves to mutate and evolve in step with the desires of their owners. Matt Jones, one of the thought leaders in this Internet of Things field, as it is known, arrives at several conclusions from Bruce Sterling’s seminal book on the subject, Shaping Things: “The network is as important to think about as the things. The flows and the nodes. The systems and the surface. The means and the ends.” Drawing from this, it feels as if things want to become services, to be the physical handles and textures on top of democratically designed service layers. Sterling calls these Spimes – “manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. Spimes begin and end as data. They are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn.” [Shaping Things, p.11] He goes on to say, “In an age of SPIMES, the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation. My consumption patterns are worth so much that they underwrite my acts of consumption.” [Shaping Things, p. 79]  Bingo. The beauty of spimes, and systems for that matter, lies in the ways in which people use them and how they learn and adapt to their shifting environment.

Image by: BERG Studio

Back to Microsoft and Apple again. It should be pointed out that a potential benefit to locking down key aspects of a system is a more consistent and controllable user experience. Microsoft spent a lot of time designing the ways in which users should interact with their Kinect system and so had no interest in letting people figure out other interactions that could muddy the waters. Apple is notoriously strict with apps that modify their software UIs, seeking to control the UX in as many ways as possible (the main exception, of course, being the human factors mentioned earlier). In many ways, both are wise for locking down their systems to provide only experiences that they consider ‘perfect.’ But as I’ve been arguing, and as Matt Jones references, perfection is not in seamlessness, rather in “beautiful seams.” As Jones explains, “This term was coined by the late Mark Weiser, a pioneer of ubiquitous computing and the Chief Technologist at what was at the time the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Instead of the discourse of smooth, distinction-obliterating, disempowering seamlessness which was then (and is, to a significant degree, still) dominant in discussions of ubiquitous information processing systems, Weiser wanted to offer users ways to reach into and configure the systems they encountered; ideally, such seams would afford moments of pleasure, revelation and beauty.”

By giving users the power to affect the systems they are a part of, designers and leaders allow for a more democratic, and I argue, interesting and potentially magical world of possibility. John Thackara, in his book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World explains it this way:

“…the challenges and opportunities that face us will not be solved by designers acting on our behalf. On the contrary: As we suffuse the world with complex technical systems – on top of the natural and social systems already here – old-style top-down, outside-in design simply won’t work. The days of the celebrity solo designer are over. Complex systems are shaped by all the people who use them, and in this new era of collaborative innovation, designers are having to evolve from being the individual authors of objects, or buildings, to being the facilitators of change among large groups of people.” [In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, p.7]

Let us not forget that with good leadership, guided stewardship, and a network of engaged users, systems can blossom and mutate, becoming unimaginably awesome.

Seth Snyder

Seth Snyder is an experience designer at Tellart in Providence, Rhode Island. He specializes in cross-disciplinary explorations through research, brainstorming, concept development, and interaction design. Prior to joining Tellart, Seth graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design's Industrial Design department. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Tellart.

3 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: » The Democracy of Systems Design Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive |

  2. Very good article Seth!
    Acting like a leader or a facilitator is the best way for designers, in the present scenerio.
    Give the best experience for the users, but let him choose to change if they want, this is a good way!

  3. Sherryl Goodman on

    Such good thoughts relevant to so many aspects of life, including personal/family life. parenting comes to mind, in particular. This was a pleasure to read.