Ingi Brown, Ph.D. student at CGS Management Center-Mines ParisTech, recently defended his thesis on ‘use-generative products’: products that engage and encourage a broad exploration of their uses. Accordingly, Ingi proposed a new model of goods as design spaces.
Following is a sum-up of his presentation, and three Q&A with him.
How disjunction unleashes creativity
Ingi first differentiates two traditional models of products : on the one hand products with a well-defined functional scope, such as the swiss army knife that addresses an algebra of different known use-case scenarios, and on the other hand products that are designed by the end user. Such ‘lead-user’ design approaches, rely on highly-skilled users that enhance an unfinished good or an ‘open-ended’ product, for example in extreme sports (kite-surfing, mountain biking…).
Ingi proposes to consider an intermediary model where products are neither designed for one particular use-case, neither rely on highly competent users, but invite all the users to develop creative projects (for example products such as Raspberry Pi, services such as Twitter…)
In that case, what is the role does the product play in the exploration of uses ? Ingi elaborates his theory using the concepts of Conjunction and Disjunction. While conjonctive products offers well defined actions and value systems, disjunctive goods tend to give pending attributes and unexpected properties. The disjunctive power of some objects shape new relationships between actions and properties. One example of a disjunctive product is the Missing Object by Konstantin Grcic: it’s an object with a strong physical presence, while at the same time being absent (missing), anyone can visualize it clearly, but its purpose (use) remains mysterious!
Creative empowerment lies in the separation between actions and properties: this empty space is a sandbox for design, a blank sheet, where the user can bring both new actions and properties. A model of products as design spaces of uses.
Managing creative collaboration
Once settled a space for users to express their creativity, what is the role can the firm have in managing this design space?
Ingi studied a series of disjunctive products, having generated various creative spans:
A food product misunderstood by customers: a liquid chocolate designed to be used as a chocolate fondue ; it was used as a spread. The question became: shall we bring the product to conjonctive status, or leverage disjunction, and nurture collective design?
Apple design platform for iPhone and iPad apps: with these new devices, Apple brought a complete new system of value, offering new actions possibilities (camera, gyroscope, accelerometer …) decoupled from display results. Depending on the app, the use of gyroscope turns in a different result. Apps contribute to expand the system which offers new classes of actions: ‘There is an app for that’. Apple presents a toolkit transferring strict design guidelines to third party developers. Apple runs a platform, the App Store, to showcase and distribute external apps, which requires formal approval. It is “structured empowerment”.
An academic community with mediators between the firm and users;
Space natively conceived for diversion: Fab Labs, Hackerspaces…
Levers for creativity
Following this presentation, I had a few questions. Unfortunately thesis presentations are not interactive, so I couldn’t not raise them. But Ingi gently accepted to address the questions afterwards.
With disjunction, Ingi crakes the formula for products generating creative usages. 3 comments came to mind to foster the community contribution:
1. Rewards and Motivation: Once the disjunctive space is settled, what about economic and statutory rewards? How weighs the fact that an app can be commercialized? What about recognition, the proudness of seeing his app on top of daily download, the search for elegant design? ‘New viewpoints, a sense of efficacy through autonomy, a sense of community and fun, open and constructive atmosphere’ can be conveyed through the collaborative platform; how does it count?
Ingi: “This has been – and still is – a debate in the academic community. Depending on the perspective, it can range from sociologists that will explain that users develop new uses, create diverse projects and sometimes develop unintended uses as a mean of social appropriation of technology, all the way to pure economic reasons such as users developing a new iOS app to try to make some money from it. It can be a way for them to make the object personal by using it in a very personal way. It also contributes to the development of the user himself, as you pointed out: the pride of seeing the final creation, the app on the top downloads, etc. Obviously fun comes also into the process. But I think there is probably something interesting to be analyzed from the hacker culture and that is the search of elegance. Hackers will develop surprising new uses from existing technology in a search for the most elegant way to do it, especially in code. We are all poets of uses trying to surprise ourselves and others by using the mundane objects in new ways.”
2. Community Management: what is the best way to manage external community? Apple store and Android store have set two very different toolkits and guidelines, Android being much more flexible than Apple. How can we link their management rules with the performance of their space? What about open source management techniques(‘community as a metaphor, collective identity of community members, modularisation and distribution of work, “soft” governance, community leadership, peer control, knowledge transfer, core team of active developers’)?
Ingi: “As you point out, there are many models being explored, from open-innovation, open-source models to very closed, very controlled models. But I do not believe the openness of the product is the right trigger : some closed projects have been very successful in generating new uses (iPhone/iPad), and many open-source projects are often simple alternatives to known products: they are developed with a very specific use in mind; I think we have yet to see many more kind of models that will be explored. One result that emerges from my research is that managing an external community of users-designers has to rely on some kind of third-party actors that have high technical- and use- competences. In a sense those third-party actors I studied in the Ph.D. look a lot like community managers except that they were hired based on their excellent technical knowledge of the products that were developed by the company, not on their knowledge of social networking tools.”
3. API ‘design thinking’: letting others develop on top of your product leads naturally to designing API: what is the best way to set an API up so as to transfer comprehensive and explicit knowledge to the developer community? How to design ‘ex-ante’ a platfom that will ‘ex-post’ unleash creativity, and authorize ‘function creep’? What are the different graduation of openness to provide? The role of the designer or innovation manager is enhanced by creating platforms and toolkit that will help others to design. How to handle two-sides design successfully, product design and API design? Is the collaborative platform the main delivery, and the product just an example of what can be build with the platform? Is there an ‘API design thinking’ way?
Ingi: “API’s offer a set of possible actions to it’s users. However what I show through this research is that offering a set of possible actions – however good they are – is not enough to stimulate the development of new uses. If that is the case, it is up to the user to develop the system of value associated to the actions offered by the API. A firm that want’s to develop a good API should not only work on the interface but try to organize the values associated with each function of the API. Give not one but multiple use-case scenarios associated. Show the potential, try to learn from current projects how they are pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of the API. Today with open-data the problem is even worse : not only is there no value system associated to the data offered by governments, but even the actions that are possible with the data remain mysterious. This is why today, many institutions are looking for profiles of data scientists that not only know a set of skills associated to actions (manipulating data) but also are able to design an interpretation for them (value system).”