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Monday, February 16, 2004

Adaptive Worlds
John Rheinfrank, a self-described "trickster," was our guest during design seminar last week, and his topic was adaptive worlds and how to design for them.

John defines a world as a meaningful cluster of activities and objects that form around extended groups of people and that contain multiple, meaningful living structures. Worlds are full of static objects that force us to adapt to them or that we adapt for use. But surrounding the world of static objects are adaptive worlds that contain things that learn, react, respond, do meaningful things, and understand context. They respond to humans by changing shape (ie their form and content) depending on the context of use. We co-create adaptive worlds with these sorts of tools.

In these co-constructed adaptive worlds, people and objects adapt and respond to each other. There is flow (in the Csikszentmihalyi sense), state changes depending on context, and mutual sensing and responding. We co-evolve as dynamic living structures, able to coordinate complex activities, and affect powerful transformations.

Design has slowly moved from user-centered (not for use or meaning) to activity-centered (task-oriented) to ability-centered (both the users' abilities and the product's abilities). "User-Centered" is no longer adequate, because the purpose of objects and systems isn't only to serve the user. The term (and way of designing) doesn't provide for unconceivable, unknown needs. It is about using products in particular ways. Designers need to understand that once a product is launched, users will use them in unexpected ways for unexpected purposes. And as these adaptive tools are launched, more and more the products we design will be out of our control. (Obviously, the ethical implications of this are many.)

So how do you design for adaptive use? In general, you have to build for autonomy, yet retain control over some of the parts. Designers will need to understand the deep structure of their products, but allow the surface structure to be adaptable and responsive. Some guidelines (from a user's viewpoint):

  • Let me do. Make sure the activity is of real value. Let my actions and changes in the resulting array feel as though they have been designed for me personally.
  • Orient me. Give me a journey I can take. Don't steer, just give me a map to help me visualize what I want to accomplish and plan where I want to go.
  • Let me win. Reward me when I accomplish something.
  • Push me. Help me learn. Help me reveal my potential, don't let me get by. Combine doing with understanding. Skill me.
  • Sense and respond. Personalize it for me. Let me feel the artifact is alive. Make its operation transparent like a window.
  • Connect me. Help me make connections with the subject matter or across destinations with other people.
  • Immerse me. Plunge me into the experience. I can't tell the difference between me and it, it is so much a part of me.

A successful design will be one where the experience of using it fits. By engaging users in co-discovery and co-creation of these adaptive worlds, we'll transform their work, their business, their community, and their lives.

posted at 08:47 AM in big ideas, special guest stars, techniques | comments (0) | trackback (0)


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