Subject to Change

creating products and services for an uncertain world

This book is about design theory for the digital age, and aspires to be read alongside Viktor Papanek’s Design for the Real Word and Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things or his ‘revised’ views in Emotional Design. It’s written by four guys from Jesse James Garrett’s company, Adaptive Path, and draws heavily on their work in what they call ‘experience design’. They are challenging conventional wisdoms of commercial practice in the light of the new digital possibilities. For instance, piling more and more features into a product may not be a good thing – as users of VCR machines will confirm. Neither will building a novelty if nobody has a use for it – as the Segway proved. Subject to Change proposes radical alternatives.

They suggest that designers must learn to empathise with the people whose interests they wish to serve. They should forget about consumers and learn to embrace the fact that the Customer is King. Their arguments stray into fields of business management, economics, and sales strategies – but they come back in the end to what these factors mean for design.

If there is a hidden sub-title to this work it’s “What is experience design?” – because the main thrust of their arguments is that whilst many companies have learned how to deliver a product, few of them have realised the importance of offering a rich and gratifying experience for their customers.

If there is a weakness, it’s a slightly Utopian notion that large businesses would allow experience design solutions policy to reach down to lower levels of company employees. It might be true that a postman or a sales clerk could offer a valuable suggestion for improving customer satisfaction – but can you imagine the directors of Royal Mail, British Gas, or – come to think of it – the government paying any attention? But of course, they would argue that this is the whole point of what they’re saying. It’s a shift in culture that’s required.

They are (quite rightly) great believers in the advantages of prototyping. James Dyson created more than 5,000 versions of his bagless vacuum cleaner before he came up with the definitive model. In fact they miss the opportunity to stress the huge advantages of prototyping in the digital world. A web site can be updated or remodeled unlike physical products such as cars or refrigerators, at virtually zero cost in no time at all by re-jigging a style sheet (CSS) or a content management system (CMS).

They are also advocates of ‘losing control’ – that is, giving customers (and even your competitors) access to tools to create their own experiences. The Internet world is littered with examples of companies who have made millions by giving away their product [Google, Linux, Mozilla]. It seems counter-intuitive, but that’s the way digital commerce works.

To conservatives, many of these ideas will seem quite impractical; but to anybody with even half a foot in the contemporary world of digital technology, they will seem like roadmaps to a New Future, employing methods which you might already be using – such as ‘managing with less’.

The latter part of the book becomes quite inspirational as they spell out their concept of ‘The Agile Manifesto’. This is a method of design and product development which does almost the exact opposite of conventional notions (which they call the ‘Waterfall Approach’). The only problem was that this section doesn’t carry any references to secondary sources – so it’s not possible to follow up their suggestions with any further reading.

Individuals and interactionsnotprocesses and tools
Working softwarenotcomprehensive documentation
Customer collaborationnotcontract negotiation
Responding to changenotfollowing a plan

The authors all work for the same firm (Adaptive Path) and there’s quite a lot of unashamed trumpet-blowing about their success which has drawn down severe criticism from some reviewers. But if you can stomach this (or ignore it) the book offers some useful pointers in the world of design theory and the New eCommerce.

© Roy Johnson 2008

Peter Merholz et al, Subject to Change, Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2008, pp.178, ISBN: 0596516835

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