The Paradox of Ecosystems & Fruit Flies?

by June 6, 2006

At the Design 2.0 event in San Francisco today (full write-up coming soon), a number of unique perspectives converged to illuminate an interesting (though perhaps positive) tension present in common applications of Design Thinking.

Diego Rodriguez (IDEO & Metacool) described the need for designers to account for the ecosystem that shapes user experience. In his first example he highlighted the Monterrey aquarium jellyfish tank and explained that the more designers think about the ecosystem (the glass and lighting of the tank, the viewing area around it, the process of entering the aquarium entrance, dining, etc.) the better fit the experience they design will be.

Further in his talk, Diego explained that design is about “doing things” and product designers should focus on creating fruit flies that can quickly evolve vs. developing elephants that have a 23-month gestation period. Putting something into the World quickly to learn from it is often more insightful than tackling the full scope of a product solution.

Robyn Waters (formerly Target, now RW Trend) discussed the importance of connecting opposites including left and right brain thinking, and measurement and intuition. She emphasized embracing paradox to drive innovation.

Peter Rojas (Engadget) discussed the power of open systems but noted that Apple’s lead in the digital music market was primarily due to their control of the complete user experience: computer hardware and software, DRM, device hardware and software, and distribution. Their integrated product ecosystem ensured a great user experience that other, more disjointed offerings currently could not match.

During Q&A, Steve Portigal (Portigal Consulting) referenced Edward Tenner’s thesis on the effects of unintended consequences that altered existing ecosystems or created new ones in just about every major industry.

In my personal convergence of these points, I unearthed an interesting tension. Two of the distinguishing characteristics commonly associated with design thinking are holitisc, abductive (the logic of what might be) reasoning and rapid prototyping. But these two approaches are potentially at odds with each other.

Abductive thinking requires a focus on the big picture: how things could fit together into a cohesive strategy. Here problems are re-framed not just solved and small needs (I want to add this feature) can quickly become big goals (you are addressing the wrong set of customers with your product roadmap and marketing). This is the ecosystem.

Rapid prototyping, on the other hand, emphasizes quick actions and a process of learning by doing. This is the “build to think” model represented by the fruit fly in Deigo’s example.

Now let’s look at the iPod example. If Apple didn’t have a complete ecosystem strategy… If they didn’t take a holisitc abductive approach to re-framing the problem, they could be in the same place as Rhapsody or Napster: with a music download site but without an integrated ecosystem that enables great user experience. Or in the same place as Creative: with a player but without a music site.

If Apple released the iPod into the world quickly to learn from its successes and failures without their ecosystem strategy (iTunes, DRM, etc.) to shape its course, could that have led to the unintended consequences that Steve referenced? Would it have been a big setback for the partnerships, manufacturing, distribution and more that Apple had to invest in their vision if the first iteration of the iPod was a misstep?

With this example, it seems to me that there’s almost a paradox between rapid iterative product releases and abductive reasoning. But to Robyn’s point above -where opposites converge, interesting things happen!

The way I personally rationalize it is: thinking by doing should be grounded/driven by a vision of the end state. That end state is often a big abductive idea.