by Michele Tepper
It s a key truth about design: the questions you ask limit the answers you can come up with. If I m working on an MP3 player, the question can it help me find a good slice of pizza? isn t likely to be one that I think about — any more than I d consider playing music on my oven. But usually the questions that don t get asked are subtler ones. What underlying problems that the consumer faces will this product solve? Are there new problems it will create? Good design is as much about asking the right questions as it is about beautiful forms. It s about expecting your users to pose new questions about whatever you create, and making it easy for users to answer those questions themselves.
Think about the mountain bike. As Eric von Hippel points out in his book Democratizing Innovation, this multi-billion dollar market grew out of a small community of young bikers who wanted to ride off-road. Their bicycles couldn t handle the terrain, though, so they ended up having to hack together bikes they called clunkers out of the materials at hand. It took another decade for mountain bikes to reach the mass market in 1982, and even today, the (ahem) cycle of user innovation and new products continues as extreme-sports riders use their bikes in more and more complicated stunts and jumps. The riders ask new questions of their bikes — and sometimes parlay their answers into second careers as bicycle designers.
Software has an advantage over physical products here — if there are issues you missed in the initial design process, you can put out an updated version. Smart web service developers have started releasing their products with open APIs (application program interfaces, the building blocks of software applications) or even just simple embeddable components. These tools let their customers use their services in all the ways they want to — sometimes in ways that no amount of user research could have come up with in advance. Who could have guessed that someone would want to use Yahoo! Maps to create a pirate map? And would anyone but the person who did it want to put the time into creating it?
What would the equivalent be for users who wanted to customize their gadgets? Manufacturers could start by looking at the video game industry. Special controls for particular games, whether a fishing pole for the full Bass Landing experience or a dance pad for for Dance Dance Revolution fans, allow for a fully immersive game experience the likes of which couldn t be accomplished with just a standard controller. Third-party accessories for the iPod have come close to this level of customization, allowing the user to adapt the player into a recording device, integrate it into their ski jacket, or use their bag as a boombox. But Apple hasn t been particularly friendly to these third-party developers — the new generation of iPods made many accessories instantly obsolete by changing the headphone jack, and Apple is reportedly seeking a 10% royalty from device manufacturers to ensure that their accessories will continue to be forward-compatible with future iPod models.
A different sort of device manufacturer could take the opposite route, and open their gadget up to add-ons, accessories, and interoperability with devices that haven t even been created yet. The rise of custom fabrication tools such as eMachineShop, not to mention the personal fabricators being dreamed up by MIT s Center for Bits and Atoms, could be a tremendous opportunity for this hypothetical manufacturer. Along with the software development kit for their open API, they could offer a product development kit — specs for developing tools and add-ons to work with their device. Giving home tinkerers the same access to tools that weekend codemonkeys have long had would lead to some ridiculous devices getting built, of course: the product equivalents of all the obscure-obsession sites on the Web. But it would also lead to the creation of accessories that no one who built the original device could have known would be so useful, because they wouldn t have thought to consider them. After all, who could have known that some 1,500 New Yorkers would want
piPod to help them find a good local pizza joint?
Custom hardware tinkering isn t for everyone, of course, anymore than most people want to hand-code their own blogs or write video-game levels. Eric von Hippel calls these tinkerers lead users — people like the would-be mountain bikers who have needs that aren t met by the product on the market and who have the motivation to do the work to create the precise thing they want. But lead users creations can be important for the users who follow them, in the same way that plug-ins get added to new releases of Movable Type, or Counter-Strike began as an amateur mod for Half-Life — just ask anyone who s ridden a mountain bike lately
Thomas Pynchon, offering advice to aspiring writers, said that as a corollary to writing about what we know maybe we should be getting familiar with our ignorance. Pynchon s advice resonates not just for writers but for thinkers and creators of all sorts. Getting familiar with our ignorance as product designers should mean, among other things, that we accept that our creations will wind up as the answers to questions that haven t been formulated yet, and that we find ways to let users write what they know on our creations as well.
Michele Tepper is a senior design analyst at frog design.
The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.