The design process we are learning at the Austin Center for Design (you might have heard of it) begins with research. In order to negotiate a wicked problem, we must first gain insights by rigorously researching the problem space or ecosystem in which a disruptive or helpful product or service could exist. In order to gain those insights, designers problem seek and co-create them alongside users.
The readings for Jon Freach’s Service Design class brought to light another reason we do this research stuff: if products and services are no longer stand alone entities, but instead players in a larger ecology that both begins and ends with people, successful design cannot occur without understanding of behavior.
According to Thinking in Systems: The Basics, the authors pose three elements to a traditional system: elements, interconnectedness and purpose. The systems he gives as examples (a university, the digestive system, a football team) are clear in their construction and functionality, and mirror the way a traditional business might run. There is a product, people purchase, more product is made, and business grows. It’s mechanistic, simple and emblematic of the industrial era. The argument is that “a system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitutions of its elements – as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact”. As we move from this to an industrial to a service based economy, the basic definition and configuration of systems have morphed from mechanical to biological. Let’s think about this one.
A $400 ipod is nothing but a slab of metal without the iTunes store and all of the ways of populating music into it. Without understanding how people organize, purchase and store music and designing a system that upholds those patterns, the product would fall flat.
There is a new root structure of this contemporary biological system. Where as in a mechanical system, it’s easy to identify the elements, interconnectedness and purpose, in a biological system, the guiding force is a design language. Design languages, according to John Rheinfrank and Shelley Evenson, are “often used unconsciously, arising out of the natural activity of creation and interaction with created things. Yet, when consciously understood, developed and applied, design languages can build on and improve this natural activity, and can result in dramatically better interactions, environments, and things of all kinds.”
The design language has the potential to solidify a product or service ecosystem and give it structure in the same way that traditional inputs, flows, stocks, and outputs solidify a traditional system. The only way to develop a working design language is to know the user.