March 5, 2009

Architecture and User Experience (Part 6: An Ecology of Use)

Over the past several months I’ve proposed Architecture differs from design in its strategic and political positioning. In the last article, I suggested User Experience Architecture is at its best when it forces the business to question its assumptions about its market, its offerings, the technologies it depends on, and ultimately its vision.  Do all businesses benefit equally from a User Experience Architecture? When is the time, effort and cost valuable, and when is it unnecessary? Hasn’t business done just fine for the past several thousands of years without a need for a User Experience Architecture? Why now?

Consider more innocent times, just a half century ago. Imagine yourself the proud owner of a small manufacturing company, and you are interested in increasing the distribution of your product, a simple drinking glass. You’ve made reasonable investments in the machinery, labor and distribution channel to get your products onto store shelves.  You made the decision to manufacture tumblers rather than stemware and you have picked a specific market segment: packaged sets of everyday glassware.

There is no apparent need for a user experience architect to shape the end user’s experience of drinking from one of these glasses. Everyone (over the age of 3) knows how to drink from a glass. What value could this role play in increasing the marketability or take-up of the product?

It’s a matter of familiarity

Some problems are just so small they don’t warrant participation by “specialists” such as user experience architects. In this hypothetical example, much of the user experience architecture is a shared understanding of the “ecology” around the purchase, ownership and use of a simple drinking glass. The user experience of drinking from a vessel has been established for several millenia; changing the   material to glass doesn’t require a reconsideration of the experience. It requires a prudent evaluation of the market, business model and risk.

It’s a matter of technology

Let’s move the example into a hypothetical future: in the early 21st century, you are the proud inheritor of your grandfather’s tumbler manufacturing company, and you are faced with a radically changed experience around the simple tumbler. You have seen recent publications of technology that, once embedded in ordinary glass, allow the tumbler to sense the liquids it contains and communicate with its user. What experiences of the past 5000 years will inform your decisions, as a manufacturer, regarding the products you need to market? How does this shift in technology shift the experience of use of the erstwhile simple drinking glass?

The risks associated this sort of change to a drinking glass are far different from the risks associated with changing the type of glass you might manufacture, say changing from a tumbler to stemware.  In deciding to manufacture a different type of glassware, you only need to establish the market, cost point, investment in molds and so forth - all fairly well understood. The decision to move a product line into a different market can be calculated to reduce risk. With the introduction of embedded “intelligence,” the manufacturer must evaluate the risk of entering a completely uncharted ecology.

It’s a matter of context

When I use this example at social occasions to help explain what I do for a living, one of the first questions to come up is: What is the utility of such a technology? What value could it possibly add to the current experience (ecology) of drinking from a tumbler? Almost all radical breaks in technology inspire that question. What possible utility could a phonograph record have? What possible utility could an internal combustion engine add to a carriage? What possible utility could a telephone bring to the average household?

The answer to utility starts with a slight modification to the question: To whom would such a shift in technology be considered a benefit? Under what circumstances would such a product prove useful? Who would pay for a drinking glass with this capability and why? Historically these questions have fallen to the market researchers. In technology and engineering driven companies, there are specialists who continually scan the changing ecologies of technologies to determine how near term shifts external to the company might be combined to create new offerings, solve known problems and inject existing products with new life. Historically these specialists are on the lookout for trends, new product introductions, research reports from university labs and other indicators that can be profitably combined with their company’s current technologies.  In general, these are people trained in technology with a strong bent towards marketing, or vice versa. With the introduction of semi-autonomous objects, objects that respond and participate in a dialog with their user, and technologies that are as much about connecting people to other people as they are about making people more productive, the familiar rules for evaluating technology shifts may no longer apply. 

Embedding intelligence is as profound a change to a product’s ecology as mass production was during the industrial revoloution. When a product’s material or its design fundamentally changes its context of use, past is no longer a good predictor of future. The question is not one of differentiating from the competition—Moore’s law guarantees ambient intelligence is an emerging commodity. Nor is it a question of designing a clever interface when there are no examples or precedents to copy (hint: there’s always some kind of precedent to copy, it just might not be where you’d expect it). At one level, it’s the same old question of identifying where to place one’s bets on investment and market segmentation. The problem is, if we don’t recognize the landscape, all bets are off. If we can’t appreciate the new context of use, we can’t really understand why people would value the new product enough to make a business case for it.

It’s a matter of ecology

User Experience Architecture is a process of identifying, describing and ultimately designing the ecology of use for a product or service. This rather sketchy definition allows for some major interpretation. What constitutes an ecology? Where does the ecology of use end and other experiences come in? How do we know we’re done? What does it mean to “design an ecology of use?”

One of the beauties of being involved in an emergent field such as User Experience Architecture, is we’re allowed to say “I don’t know” to many of those questions. One of the reasons companies are not jumping to hire User Experience Architects is that we don’t have very good answers to these questions.

I start my answers with a map. If I can provide a bird’s eye view of the territory, I can at least provide a common basis for discussion about what is worth exploring and what is not.

Consider the following diagram, a User Lifecycle, as one form of map.

The individual circles represent stages along a continuum of use. Several variants of this cycle have been around for years, used by marketing departments to identify and improve sales and customer satisfaction among other applications. The stages can be of greater or lesser importance to a company.

The LifeCycle map provides a conversation starter: in which stage are we performing best? In which stage are we not engaging our users very well? Where can technology assist us in improving our users’ experience with our products and services, and in which stage should it be applied? What can we change in our delivery that is not technology dependent? What form of engagement should we pursue that best matches our core competencies and brand promise? Are there ways to leverage interactions in one stage with potential interactions in other stages to reduce costs and increase lifecycle branding opportunities?

For some companies, there may be more stages; for others, the stages may differ significantly.


For any individual company, the importance of one or more stages may differ dramatically from others as reflected here in the relative sizes of each stage. For a design effort to approach User Experience Architecture, the effort must account for each of these stages.


For any non-trivial experience, the architecture must account for a variety of individuals and their specific contexts of use.

For different personas, the journey through the stages may differ. Consider the two hypothetical personas described by the paths overlaid on the LifeCycle stages.

Accounting for the differences between two personas’ journeys reveals opportunities for design of the overall experience of use.

        Lifecycle path contrasting personas

Additional ornamentation of a lifecycle map reveals other design opportunities. Embellishing the map with a sample of the “touchpoints” users might have with your offering begins to reveal the complexity of the design problem. I’ve provided a handful of possible touchpoints common to each stage, but there are easily dozens of others. Note also, some touchpoints occur in several stages, providing further design input.

      Lifecycle path with touchpoints

Imagine for a moment presenting this map to your manager and suggesting your responsibilities include accounting for all of these touchpoints. Would you see shock, horror and incredulity? Or would your manager smile, give you an encouraging pat on the shoulder and ask what resources you need to get your job done?

Companies truly working with products as simple as the hypothetical water tumbler, in which the ecology of use is well understood and doesn’t need to be revisited, will likely consider the Lifecycle map an unnecessary complexity. In companies creating things for known ecologies, the business has likely determined which stage is profitable and which is not. They may even employ specialists to monitor and manage each of the stages. But even within these companies the Lifecycle map is a useful prop, if for nothing else then to discuss the intended user experience.

Perhaps the target for design is limited to one or two stages or maybe design is focused on a set of touchpoints comprising a channel. The Lifecycle map may help reveal interactions among the stages and touchpoints and prompt conversations that would be difficult to have otherwise. In other situations in these companies, problems with current offerings might be revealed through mapping actual use onto the presumed desired use stages and touchpoints.

But for companies working in new ecologies, the Lifecycle map is essential. Consider the intelligent drinking glass and the questions it raised regarding utility. Which user learns about this glass? How do they learn about it? How does that initial exposure contribute not just to their purchase, but to their eventual use of the glass? When and how do they first see it used, or try it themselves? How do they purchase it? What does the out of box experience do to contribute to its continued use? What sorts of touchpoints become important and in which stages?

These questions could be asked even of the simple drinking glass, but they become crucial to the success of the enhanced, intelligent glass. Many of the advantages of embedding intelligence in everyday things only become apparent when the context of use moves beyond the historical unintelligent form. To put it simply: if people simply use the new glassware as they have used drinking glasses in the past, the new technology has done nothing to differentiate the experience and there will be no perceived benefit.

It’s a matter of “knowing” in the context of disruptive technology

User Experience Architecture is a comprehensive vision of the ecology of use for a business’ products and services. Although especially compelling as a roadmap into the future, it can also be an effective “as-built” to assist a business seeking to increase its top-line growth. I have used the “intelligent drinking glass” as an illustrative example of a disruptive technology and its impact on an otherwise well-understood business. Looked through the lens of disruption, the intelligent drinking glass is no different from any of the recent technology disruptions we’ve witnessed in the last 20 or even 200 years.

Edison imagined a profitable business case to support an entertainment industry based on mass produced cylinders, but he hedged his bets by creating recordable cylinders for business dictation. Was Edison a User Experience Architect? From the little I’ve read about his process and his approach to invention, I’d say not. Edison had a magnificent imagination and a huge penchant for experimentation, but I’ve never read anything discussing his explorations of the user side of his inventions. I’d like to hear from anyone who knows more on the topic.

It’s safe to say, Edison couldn’t imagine the ecology of the current recording industry, with pre-recorded music, its production, distribution and sale.  So too, we are unlikely to accurately imagine ecology encompassing an intelligent water tumbler, but I believe our attempt to sketch a User Experience Architecture for the intelligent water tumbler would go a long way to determining its technical feasibility and business viability.

Establishing a User Experience Architecture is a crucial way in which business can reduce risks while increasing opportunities from emerging ecologies of use. Traditional risk reduction strategies relying on familiar tools and experiences serve us well in familiar eco-systems. If we have the luxury of time, we can carefully feel our way through new territory and learn by trial and error. But when the new context is so different from what we know, when we are pushed to conquer new ground before we have fully comprehended it, we may find ourselves blinded to the new ecology’s risks and opportunities by the very tools and experiences we’ve depended on.The pioneering explorer with a keen eye, a light touch, and a reliance on the immutable things that make us human will likely make greater progress than the individual who applies the familiar but potentially blinding frameworks suited to a different context.

Flipping this last idea around, we build User Experience Architectures by exploring new ecologies of use. One of the most powerful tools for exploring new environments is the simple act of observation—a technique long familiar to user experience professionals.

In the next installment I describe the benefits of immersive observation as the foundation for a User Experience Architecture.


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