"Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix. You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden to sedulously avoid it, it is not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control. Which has led you, inexorably, here." -- The Architect, The Matrix Triliogy

Yes, The Matrix Reloaded was indeed a horrible movie with little to no redeeming value. One of the few interesting spots was the curious dialogue between Neo and the architect to answer Neo's question "Why am I here?" 

Embracing The Loss

The Architect's response, quoted above, is an offshoot of a lesser-known mathematical proof; Godol's Theorem. Godol's theorem basically states that there is no perfect system. All systems, in our universe, have unavoidable "loss" within them and any attempts to avoid them will, at best, only reveal or lead to another area of imperfection.

It is with this knowledge in mind that I have decided to start using a new paradigm of language in reference to conceiving of, designing and implementing technology based solutions for businesses and people. Most especially with social intranets and other social experiences, I am dropping the metaphors of construction, blueprints, phases and other idioms typically linked to civil engineering and the design of physical buildings in favor of organic metaphors like gardening, evolution and waves.

I had begun down this path of thinking as I headed out to Jive World and found resonance when one of the speakers from PwC (Price Waterhouse Coopers) in his talk "From the Cathedral to the Bazaar" mentioned that they made a very conscious decision to not talk in terms of stages or phases, but rather to talk in terms of waves -- because waves from the sea never stop.

Ghosts in the Machine

When I first became fascinated with user experience, the thing that was compelling to me was the promise of how wireframes and visual comprehensives could, from the perspective of the user, conceivably remove all ambiguity in how the system should behave. This promise, if delivered, could remove so many countless hours and arguments from the design and implementation arcs of a project that, to me, it was the only rational choice for an approach to interface design.

After a few years, industry belief in the panacea waned for a few reasons:

  • The lack of ability to integrate content into wireframes
  • The immense amount of effort that went into annotating explicit functional behavior for all eventualities
  • The complete refusal of business partners to embrace accountability to read annotations

These flaws do not indicate that the design artifacts are in need of improvement or that a new set of artifacts needs to be invented. What has caused this whole approach to go "pear-shaped" in the interactive industry is assumptions, the mental models of the process and the overall approach leading into experience design activities.

We Are Architects, But We Are Not Making Buildings

Imagine yourself sitting across a table from an architect who is designing a house or an office building. He or she shows you a set of artifacts including elevation diagrams, blueprints and an artist's rendering of what the building will look like when it is completed. In this scenario, do you see the diagrams and renderings as guideposts for a planned expedition or absolute plans that have yet to be realized?

Applying this model to experience design and development is naive. While pursuit of excellence is admirable and required for greatness, pursuit of perfection is not only a fools errand (as Godol has proven), but also hinders the possibility of greatness. This is because greatness does not arrive in one fell swoop. Greatness is a process of evolution. Rather than design for rigidity and unchanging specifications, we should be conceiving and designing for an evolutionary and unending pursuit of greatness.

Now imagine yourself sitting across a table from a landscape architect who is designing a backyard or a park. He or she shows you a set of artifacts including planting diagrams and an artist's rendering of the landscape. Note the differences in this scenario:

  • There is not even an idea of "when it is completed" in the above scenario, because an organic landscape is never actually complete. Organic, living things are never complete. It is their in-completeness that in-part defines them.
  • The diagrams and renderings are clearly known to be possible guideposts rather than absolute plans. Even paintings of actual landscapes that already exist are just snapshots and not meant to match the actual environment beyond a moment in time. Seasons change. Plants grow. The environment evolves.

Social Experiences Are Organic

The greek philosopher Heraclitus said: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." This quote is in reference to the one constant in the universe; Change. Planning social experiences around a rigid organizing theme, like an intranet organized by the company organizational structure, is a recipe for a stale experience that does not engage end-users and ultimately dissatisfies business customers.

Let's start a new conversation with our business partners, where the experience we are building is not akin to a building made of steel, plastic and glass. Let us start anew on creating an experience where change and evolution is part of the concept itself. Let's create a social experience as lush as a botanical garden.

Editor's Note: Also from Stephen, check out: Why New-Channel Efforts on Collaboration, Innovation and Social Fail