Beautiful Monsters: Check your assumptions at the door

Every product, service, or business model is defined in large measure by what designers take for granted. These assumptions can be held so deeply as to be invisible to the designers themselves. And yet their acknowledgment, and negotiation, are key to industrial evolution, profit, and harmonious relationships to various ecosystems.

In the early days, for instance, you could assume that those with access to computers were backed by organizations willing to invest the funds necessary to acquire or build the complex infrastructure required by computational behemoths. But with the advent of microprocessors and other such developments, that all changed. Now the intrusion of computers into every corner of our lives is nearly complete, with 11 percent of the people recently polled saying they’d like their email deliver directly into their brains in the ultimate post-media consumer fad.It used to be you could take for granted that people had the motivation and ability to employ Boolean logic to their advantage. You used to be able depend on your users. There was a time when they were qualified to use software. They had seemingly endless patience with text strings dozens of characters in length, and they didn’t mind waiting til morning for the computer to process their command batches. But with the advent of graphical user interfaces, the de-professionalization of computing tasks, and other developments, this no longer holds true.

Now anyone and his cat can make use of computers.

Storage capacity was once scarce and expensive. You designed interactions which, by default, forced users to explicitly save data, to remind them of the precious nature of memory. This is no longer true. (Though the news has escaped the designers of some applications, including that of the one I’m using to compose these words.)

Once computers began arriving in offices and homes, the only folks who went online were researchers, hippies, and hackers. But not anymore. When designing products and services, you can safely assume that almost everyone worth reaching is online. And that nearly everything worth doing—including but not limited to the removal of your gallbladder—is possible, if not preferable, when done over the Internet.

Bandwidth? Please… it’s delivered by the bushel nowadays.

A profitable business model? I can spend all day snarfing my neighbor’s wireless connection to read a novel-in-progress in Chinese, talk to my Latvian developers, listen to music being played right now in a bar in Nigeria, and find a date for Friday night, all without paying a cent to a soul.

Over the years, we have watched one assumption after another fall like fruit from trees, planting the next crop of opportunities. In retrospect, it’s easy to believe limitations existed only to egg on our ingenuity. Nearly anything seems possible now.

But wait a minute. What are we not seeing?

What about the supply chain?

Sunday’s New York Times reports that higher energy costs are altering the balance of global trade by shortening supply chains and requiring designers, planners. and executives to rethink how they put stuff together and sell it. Then there’s server farms, which are not only more expensive to operate these days, but are subject to shortages that can bring down networks. (Interestingly, Microsoft has come to recognize that plain old analog human behavior is the biggest barrier to energy conservation at data centers.)

Think you work in a clean industry? Think again. Interaction designers live in and create worlds of abstractions. But if you looked at the supply chain of our industry you will see a tremendous drawdown of resources, while from the effluent pipe of you will see tremendous fouling of natural and social ecosystems.

Nicholas Carr calculates that a Second Life avatar consumes as much energy as a Brazilian.

It’s been said that while necessity is the mother of invention, poverty is the father. With energy in short supply—or, put another way, when energy use impoverishes your planet—how do you apply your ingenuity? Designers identify relevant tensions, then find ways to resolve them. The tensions with which we play include those between space and the stuff that occupies it.

Between stillness and motion.

Between effectiveness and efficiency.

Between thought and feeling.

Between options and actions.

Between certainty and doubt.

Between power and pleasure.

Between profit and sustainability

As interaction designers, we get to work in the warm and loamy convergence of vision, technical capacity, access to resources, and human desire. At this confluence of forces, we can amplify intelligence and divert bad decisions and feed our co-dependent ecologies. So, then, how do you design stuff that delivers more power to people while using less power to deliver it, use it, and retire it?

How to design a data back-up scheme for a cloud computing service that is reliable and unobtrusive… but which does not require computers to stay awake all night long for a 5-minute process?

How about a calendaring system that reduces the likelihood of meetings, thus saving on travel while increasing productivity?

Can you design an automated drafting system that’s powerful enough to build the tallest skyscraper, and which provides on-the-fly recommendations that boost energy efficiency?

Or come up with social networking solutions that simultaneously encourage collaboration, decrease real estate costs, and increase energy efficiency?

Or, how about thinking small: when you design a website registration form, do you offer that check-box which makes it easy to opt out of paper mailings?

Or smaller still: how about bringing the bad news to executives when your research shows that the potential user population doesn’t want what’s being offered… before it gets built and shipped.

After all, preventing the launch of a lousy product is a manifold gift to mankind.

If the first principle of Ecosystem-Centered Design is to put your own house in order, the second is to check your assumptions.

Don’t ass(u)me!

My point is simple: why not ask ourselves, and those around us, whether what we are working on is worthy of the valuable attention, the creative activity, and the deadly carbon burned to make it, sell it, use it, and landfill it?

David Fore

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