It's the Ecosystem, Stupid!

In the early 1900’s, manufacturing, agriculture, and services each made up about one third of the United States labor force. At that point, technology and mechanism reduced the number of farmers, and labor was diverted to manufacturing and services. This trend continued until the 1960’s when manufacturing began to decline, and the service workforce continued to grow even faster. The modern era of mass production forced product designers and engineers to design for repeatability and consistency. Products were designed to appeal to the largest demographic possible, as customization led to increased manufacturing costs.  Each product was designed to serve the same purpose and provide the same value to each customer.  Today, almost 80% of workers are employed in the “service” industry and the Newtonian cause and effect systems are no longer relevant in the information age. Successful companies and designers must now embrace complex relationships and channel Darwinism to create ecosystems in the ever more connected world.

The information age isn’t limited to the collection and analysis of information, the communication of information is just as important in a serviced based economy. The system in which a product belongs to reflects a complex biological system. Product ecosystems have always been present; designers just haven’t evaluated or taken advantage of them until recently. Businesses have traditionally evaluated their product’s success in an industry, but not an ecosystem. A 3rd grade textbook defines an ecosystem as “All of the nonliving and living things in a given area. Organisms are living things in an ecosystem.” The book provides the diagram below, while providing the important explanation: “Why does it matter? You are an organism. You live in a population with other organisms. You live in an ecosystem with other populations.”   Not too long ago, designers only considered the non-living parts of an ecosystem to define a product, this environmental predictability allowed for mass produced goods, and identical user experiences. The increased flow of information and the adaptability of software allows for parts of the ecosystem, and even products to become “alive.” Let’s rephrase that textbook in the context of product design:  Why does product design matter? A product is an organism. A product lives in a population with other products. A product lives an ecosystem with other populations, living and nonliving.

Designers must not only create products with the best DNA to give them the greatest chance of survival in ecosystems, they also play a role in designing the ecosystem. For example, products such as iPods and iPhones would not be as successful, if it was not for Apple’s influence over their 3rd party ecosystem of music and apps. Businesses must now consider the influence of their product in their ecosystem and vice versa. Product design is an art, which should very much mimic “life.”