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Change as a feature: designing for consumers in a state of permanent crisis

The "adaptive," the "elastic mind," or the "opposable mind" -- business or consumer, and whatever the name, the concept is the same: the rise of new digital technologies has turned us into skilled micro-managers of constant change.


Can you call a concept a cultural phenomenon if different people conceive of it at the same time? Within the past few months, three publications have come to similar conclusions. The digital media agency Avenue A | Razorfish released a study called "Fast Forward: Designing for Constant Change." It consists of thirteen essays as well as research exploring how consumers' digital media habits are changing, and how this affects the design of user experiences and brands. The key take-away is: Today's online users are forced to adjust to constant change in increasingly volatile rich media environments, and they are increasingly good at it.

Around the same time, the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced an exhibit called "Design and the Elastic Mind," which will open in February, 2008. While the Avenue A | Razorfish study provides actionable advice for marketers, the MOMA exhibit examines the philosophical implications for designers:

"In the past few decades, individuals have experienced dramatic changes in some of the most established dimensions of human life: time, space, matter, and individuality. Working across several time zones, traveling with relative ease between satellite maps and nano-scale images, gleefully drowning in information, acting fast in order to preserve some slow downtime, people cope daily with dozens of changes in scale. Minds adapt and acquire enough elasticity to be able to synthesize such abundance. One of design's most fundamental tasks is to stand between revolutions and life, and to help people deal with change."

And lastly, in a similar vein, Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management and father of the concept of "integrative thinking," elaborates on "The Opposable Mind" in a book published earlier this year. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that one sign of a "first-rate intelligence" is the ability "to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Accordingly, Martin argues, a sure sign of first-rate business intelligence is the ability to recognize two diametrically opposing ideas and meld them into a new model that is superior to either. Martin says that designers often engage in abductive reasoning: they imagine what might be and act on that insight -- even though they can't prove it.

The "adaptive," the "elastic mind," or the "opposable mind" -- business or consumer, and whatever the name, the concept is the same: the rise of new digital technologies has turned us into skilled micro-managers of constant change, in all aspects of our lives. Uncertainty has become our routine as we live in a state of permanent crisis, in a multi-task, muti-tab, multi-media, multi-window world where each new online event requires a new and different reaction. Sometimes we flee but mostly we adapt, bridge, and synthesize. We have become adept at adapting. We switch back and forth from from macro to micro, zoom in and zoom out, face-to-face and space-to-space, at the same time but at different paces, shifting time and shifting places. We possess what drummers show when they perform two distinct rhythms in their hands and feet -- excellent coordination. Seamless is our modus operandi.

As micro-managers of constant change, we stretch our minds' boundaries and sometimes over-reach; we combine the long and the short form, the philosophical and the mundane, the narrative and the 140-word Tweet. We understand that the "map is outgrowing the territory," as Bruce Sterling puts it. We can think meta while in beta, and we understand that every idea immediately transcends itself into something bigger, something universal that it is meta-tagged before it is even final.

What does all that mean for product designers, not only in the digital realm? Acknowledge that consumers are smarter than you. Hence, design for input, and do not just satisfy the user preferences. Understand change as a feature. Design a highly modifiable and personalizable experience that is adaptive to change, but build in enough flexibility for the users to adapt the experience itself to changing conditions. Make your products adapt, bridge, and synthesize, as your users do. Give them features that literally scale. Equip them with "peripheral vision" -- the ability to see things outside of the usual spectrum, not front and center but right, left, and in the back. And if all that isn't enough: Allow the user to customize, mash up, and ultimately re-design the product or service beyond its original purpose.

Examples? Netscape, Flash, JavaScript, TCP/IP, IM, and a host of other products in the digital realm have all moved far beyond what they started out as. The iPod enabled podcasts, Google Earth triggered hundreds of mash-ups, Google's Open Social and Open Mobile inititiaves will further spur third-party innovation resulting in myriad new applications that will change the orignal services. And then there is of course Facebook, which from a social network evolved into an operating sytem, a content distribution platform, a whole new micro-economy -- or all of that together. The product is the system and the system is change.