FROM THE OBJECT TO THE ECOSYSTEM
November 15 2019
TRADITIONALLY, DESIGN IMPLIES MAKING “THINGS”
The design tradition of “making” has its roots in the craft
Making has been associated with “things” for a long time
THE DESIGN OF SOFTWARE INTERFACES
An initial challenge to the idea of “making things” comes along
with software interfaces between the ‘70s and the ‘80s
Interaction design produces “objects” that are not tangible
A SHIFT TOWARDS THE INTANGIBLE
Through the years, intangibles have become the norm
Design thinking and service design are an example of this shift,
ﬁelds of practice and research that approach organizational
processes and services via a design mindset
STILL MAKING “THINGS”
Regardless of (in)tangibility, all of these practices are still
“traditional design” in the sense that they focus on producing an
“object””: it might be a UI, a service, a process for managing
patients in a hospital, a chair. Still, it’s a clearly bounded “thing”
ECOSYSTEMS IMPLY A NEW FOCUS
The design process here gets centered on “an experience”
This shift brings in emergence, complexity, uncertainty,
and the necessity to move to a bird’s-eye, strategic view
It also brings whomever is having “an experience” center stage
WANT CLARITY OUT OF COMPLEXITY?
The name of the game then is information architecture
The ﬂows of information across an ecosystem constitute
its backbone and its second-order machine
HERE IS AN EXAMPLE
Uber is a service. Sure. But:
Uber is also a part of a larger ecosystem that is centered
on personal, individual transportation
To me, Uber is a piece of “going somewhere for some purpose”
THAT’S THE EXPERIENCE
Unless you are plain interested in just riding Uber cars, that is
(Hobbies are hobbies. Who am I to judge, right?)
NEITHER PRODUCT- NOR SERVICE-BOUNDED
The experience does not stop where “Uber the service” stops
Uber’s role also changes from completely marginal
to absolutely central depending on my own ongoing experience
THAT MEANS UBER DOES NOT OWN IT ALL
The experience itself is not owned nor it is fully managed or
controlled by any single company or organization
NEITHER DIGITAL NOR PHYSICAL, BUT BLENDED
The ecosystem is a blended actionable space that
straddles across digital and physical environments
It is also the place where an experience unfolds
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, “AN EXPERIENCE”?
Think “paying my taxes”. Or “going to the movies”. Or again
“having the hamster vaccinated”. These are experiences
The way they happen, actors will go through them moving freely
between locations, devices, products, and services
WAIT AGAIN, “ACTORS”?
Yes, actors. The people formerly known as the users.
An ecosystem is an actor-driven construct,
both in terms of its structure and its content
SO AN “ACTOR” GOES THROUGH “AN EXPERIENCE”
Yes, and the structure of relationships between
actors, tasks, touchpoints, seams, and channels in which this
experience takes place is the ecosystem
The actual path that an actor walks is one of the many
possible trajectories through that speciﬁc ecosystem
actors, agents within the ecosystem
ACTORS, TASKS, TOUCHPOINTS, SEAMS, AND CHANNELS?
These are the basic building blocks of any ecosystem
Their precise nature is speciﬁc to an ecosystem and is
deﬁned pragmatically based on context and goals
OK. ACTORS FIRST
We know actors very well. Human actors are the people
formerly known as the users (TPFKATU)
The name change underlines their agency: they are
the ones who effectively shape the ecosystem
Software agents are or can be actors as well, of course
VERY WELL. TASKS THEN
Tasks are all the activities actors perform in their pursue of a
desired future state: buying a ticket to go see a movie, for
example, or logging in to an online system to pay their taxes
Tasks are usually coupled with progression through touchpoints
Touchpoints are individual points-of-interaction that become
part of the ecosystem as actors connect them freely to move on
towards their desired future state
When buying that ticket to go see a movie, the touchpoint could
be a website or a kiosk or a person: we say touchpoints are
medium-speciﬁc (digital, physical, biological)
WAIT. IS MY PHONE A TOUCHPOINT THEN? OR THE APP?
Both. Working with ecosystems implies adopting an
architectural, systemic mindset and a zoom in/out approach
The phone level might be ok when investigating mail usage
patterns in the workplace, the app better for more speciﬁc cases
Granularity cannot be discussed or set in abstract, but has to
reﬂect the project’s needs and scope at that moment
FOLLOWING. CHANN ...
No, let’s examine seams ﬁrst. Seams are thresholds, connections
If you can move from touchpoint A to touchpoint X,
those two are permeable and share a seam
Seams allow information circulating in the ecosystem to ﬂow on
OK, SEAMS. NOW CHANN ...
Seams have a very interesting property: they allow the
experience to progress from touchpoint to touchpoint, but since
they convey information, which is medium-aspeciﬁc, they
actually can connect touchpoints residing in different channels
(it goes without saying that seams can connect touchpoints in
totally different locations, right? We’re talking semantics here)
DIFFER …? OK, CHANNELS. NOW.
Channels are a design construct. They do not really exist
The best way to imagine them is to think of individual
pipes carrying information around the ecosystem
Wherever you have a tap, you have a touchpoint
As much as taps live on pipes, touchpoints live on channels
It’s a metaphor, nothing more. Let’s rephrase
Channels are pervasive layers that carry information
around the ecosystem, like pipes carry water around
The way they are created is a design decision. They could
reﬂect the formal sectioning of an EA model, be the result of the
designers’ own biases and interpretation, or anything in between
CHANNELS CONTAIN INFORMATION. AND?
That’s the catch. Channels are containers for speciﬁc “types” of
information. These types can be compared to loose categories
For example, a going-to-the-movie ecosystem could have a
“movie-related” channel. In there you would ﬁnd IMDB, a kiosk
selling tickets, the website for the cinema, and staff
YES, BUT WHY ARE CHANNELS IMPORTANT?
Because we are working with information
and our goal is to support better experiences
If staff at the movie theater doesn’t know about tickets or a
kiosk malfunction (that is, they do not live on the same channel
and have no seams between them), we can be pretty sure that
lack of connection will result in a bad experience
UH. AND THE ECOSYSTEM?
The ecosystem is the product of the ontology, the conceptual
boundaries used to organize the experience itself
The ecosystem is a spatial structure in blended space, straddling
non-continuous digital and physical environments
Its boundaries are arbitrary and depend on goals and context
NON-LINEAR ECOSYSTEMS VS LINEAR EXPERIENCE
While the ecosystem itself is a non-linear network, actors
trying to achieve a future desired state consider themselves
moving along a personal, linear path of subsequent steps
Even more importantly, their experience is a linear narrative
A PATH THROUGH THE ECOSYSTEM
GREEN LINE: ACTOR’S PATH THROUGH AN ECOSYSTEM COMPRISING 3 DIFFERENT SYSTEMS
THE ECOSYSTEM’S BACKBONE IS INFORMATION
Actors constantly create, remediate, and use information
This information is transferred along the actor’s path and
through the ecosystem, increasing its complexity
Designing a successful cross-channel experience means
optimizing the information ﬂows and increasing resilience
OK, SO WHERE DO YOU START FROM?
Pragmatically, from the formulation of an individual,
organizational, or social need or pain
Conceptually, from an actor’s experience
WAIT A SECOND, THAT’S NOT AN ANSWER
It is. While a certain project will be initiated because of
a social, organizational, or individual need or pain, that need or
pain is not what generates the ecosystem
That need or pain is a problem space within an ecosystem
that is usually, at project start, largely unknown
HERE YOU GO AGAIN. NEEDS AND PAINS?
Yes. Needs or pains are usually the reason an investigation starts
Examples of organizational pain are “not intercepting the actor’s
path because they go to competitors”, “increase our paid-for vs
free customer ratio”, or “enter the online grocery market”
A social pain could be reduce traffic, or promote equality
NOT FOLLOWING. MAYBE AN EXAMPLE? PLEASE?
Sure. Suppose there is a ﬁctional University X whose
management wants to “improve their courses”
This need or desire to improve is the organizational pain
that serves as the catalyst for the design process
SO WE HAVE PA...
Before we get to that. I ﬁnd always extremely useful to have the
design team produce a rough sketch of the ecosystem as they
see it based on whatever information they possess
This is an iterative process whose primary goal is to provide a
canvas for further reﬂection and a way to make bias explicit
ALRIGHT. PAIN ...
… this can be the ugliest, most terrible sketch ever, or something
more reﬁned or structured, depending on resources
The important thing is that it gets to be constantly used and
revised, and made like a map / rich picture / system map
Pictures. Links. Not a list, nor a set of requirements
You were saying that pains are not solutions, right?
They aren’t. They are a problem space that requires investigation
But then, what about the actors and their experiences?
THEY WANT BETTER COURSES, NO?
We know what University X wants to do, and we could argue that
University X is an actor (or many different groups of actors), and
we’d be correct, but are they ostensibly the primary actors?
Are they the ones for whom we make better courses?
I GUESS NOT. I WOULD SAY STUDENTS
Correct again, at least in our example. In reality, even that would
have to be checked. It might be that a better course means a
course that can be approved by some certiﬁcation authority
Here, let’s say students. So, wouldn’t you agree that we ﬁrst of all
should know what a “better course” is to students?
SURE, BUT WHAT ABOUT TEACHERS, OR STAFF?
Pragmatism is the name of the game, as in all of design
If budget, time, or other constraints allow it, investigate them
If pockets are empty and results due yesterday, stick to the
primary group of actors. Remember there’s always more actors
WAIT. WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S ALWAYS MORE?
Given any system, its boundaries are arbitrarily
established based on the questions being asked
You cannot argue in abstract that the group “students’
partners” is to be included or excluded, for example
SO CONTEXT IS KING OF SOMETHING
Exactly. Ecosystems cannot be but contextual
It’s a rather effective approach, and one
that provides a very down-to-earth way to answer to the
eternal question of “where do I stop”: you stop where all
of your questions are being answered
OK. BACK ONE STEP. INVESTIGATE PRIMARY ACTORS
Using whatever tools or methods are appropriate, actors are
investigated to ﬁnd out what “a course” is to them
We want to know their goal and the path they travel
Usually, not only there are differences between actor groups, but
individual actors in the same group do not see eye to eye
YES, STUDENTS ARE INDIVIDUALS. BUT GOALS?
Students will tell you that a course for them is something they
want to pass because they need the credits, or that they want to
learn all of the knowledge, or that they hate school
These “goals” are important in connection with the path they
travel through the still unknown ecosystem we are exploring
THE PATH THEY TRAVEL?
At this stage, these different “goals” will probably
conﬁgure structurally different ecosystems
Even though the base elements might or might not be exactly
the same, their role, their relationships, and their weight in “the
experience” will be different from actor to actor
ANY WAY YOU CAN MAKE THIS A TAD CLEARER?
For a student who just wants to pass, additional non-compulsory
reading material or resources will have little importance
For an off-campus student, the teacher’s office might be useless
but a Facebook group or the course online platform essential
Goals and paths through the ecosystem are linked
SO, NOW PATHS AND MAPS?
Well yes, but there’s a few interesting things that have to
do with the primary elements and the nature of the ecosystem
itself I should probably mention before I forget
Do you mind if I ...
… NO, PLEASE, GO AHEAD
Thanks, much appreciated
First, I should stress how ecosystem are instantiated by actors
As such, they are transient, volatile structures more similar to a
theatrical performance or a ballet than to a building or a chair
ELEMENTS IN ECOSYSTEMS ARE POLYMORPHOUS
An individual element could represent either a touchpoint
or an actor, or both, depending on the ecosystem currently
being investigated and the current goals and intent
A typical example is provided by human actors, who very often
also act as touchpoints for other actors. Staff, for example
A TOUCHPOINT MAY BELONG TO MORE THAN ONE CHANNEL
Touchpoints in an ecosystem may belong to multiple channels
“Study group” could both be an element in a hypothetical “peer
conversations” channel and in a “lectures” channel, for example
When they do, they create seams that allow actors to move
across channels, which is a good thing
STUDY GROUP SLIDES BOOK CHAPTERS CLASS DELIVERY
CHANNEL: PEERS CONVERSATIONS
CHANNEL: COURSE INFORMATION
PIPES REPRESENT CHANNELS, BOXES REPRESENT TOUCHPOINTS, LINES REPRESENT SEAMS
GOTCHA. BUT WHY IS “LECTURES” A CHANNEL THERE?
Because actors have described “lectures” in such a way that they
match the description of a channel, that is, as a pervasive layer
that transmits information throughout the ecosystem
As such, this is a speciﬁc characteristic of this ecosystem and not
a general rule you can apply as-is everywhere
WHAT WOULD “LECTURES” “CONTAIN”, THEN?
In the example, it would be a blended channel where
medium-speciﬁc touchpoints coexist, allowing actors to move
between the physical and digital spaces of the ecosystem
It might contain for example video recordings of the lectures,
slides, notes and whatnot, but also the actual lecture moments
happening in a certain classroom at a certain time
GOOD SEAMS ARE NECESSARY
Seams are the thresholds between touchpoints and channels
While the “experience” needs to proceed unobstructed, this does
not mean seams should not be perceivable. There might be
situations where a “bump” is necessary. For example, warning
the actor she is leaving a “secure” channel for an “insecure” one
CHANNELS MIGHT HAVE STRUCTURED RELATIONSHIPS
Preliminary research seems to suggest that there might be
preferred paths between touchpoints and across channels, and
that some general rules might exist that allow to predict whether
a channel is either permeable or impermeable to another
channel depending on the touchpoints involved
GENERATIVE AND EXOGENIC
That’s two big words in a row. They mean that ecosystem
approaches are practices aimed at making things (generative)
whose value proposition for actors resides elsewhere, in
whatever desired ﬁnal state they are pursuing (exogenic).
Compare with crossmedia, which is descriptive and endogenic
OK, VERY INTERESTING. NOW REALLY, PATHS AND MAPS
Alright, alright. Here’s the emergent ecosystem map
from that course example, and then a more detailed
example dealing with “going to the movies”
“I wanted to go to the movies, so I checked IMDB,
I DM’ed a friend, no Netﬂix, tried to book dinner, skated all the
way to the theater, got tickets, enjoyed killer clowns”
Website Theater Kiosk Friend
Bus stop Bus stop Theater FriendHome
Home IMDB IMDB
Website Reddit App Theater BoothSchool Bike
WHAT ABOUT CHANNELS?
Here. This is the same ecosystem map with
two different channels highlighted, showing how a couple of
touchpoints are thoroughly disjointed from the ﬂow
(remember this is an example based on very little data)
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