Does Disruption Work?
Everybody loves a good disruption, don’t they? Especially if it disrupts the competition’s business rather than your own. But wait a minute – have a look at the world around you to arrive at an entirely different story about disruption. What you will see is this: Most people hate disruption if they can’t control it; they hate to be at the receiving end of sudden, decisive changes without prior warning or an opportunity to adapt. Listening to what ‘normal’ people (and also many sysadmins!) say about disruption, you will find out that a majority of them has very much had their fill of all these disruptive developments in the last twenty years or so. ‘Naysayers, complainers!’ you might say. Unfortunately, these naysayers and complainers are your audience – your customers: the people you want to sell all your disruptions to. So let’s reconsider disruptions: In the best of worlds, what will your favorite disruptions do to people?
Design is not about polishing apples
There is a curious tension between the love of the few, and the hate of the many, for disruption. Consider this: In Germany, a whopping 23% of potential internet users care so little about the net that they don’t even seek to gain access to it. What is more, you would be quite mistaken to think all the others are happy campers in Digitaland. In fact, many of the people inhabiting this new world built by the experts lead a digital slum life. They don’t like to be here. They are confused and afraid. When there’s a problem, they tend to flail their arms. These are the people who couldn’t care less for another wave of disruptions because they haven’t even processed the one which got them here. If you see creativity as intelligence having fun, the intelligence of these people is mostly taking place somewhere else. Because they aren't having fun here, like, at all.
What went wrong? Just recently I went to visit the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, in southwest Germany. Vitra designs mainly furniture – chairs, to be precise – so beside their ever-changing displays of various design things, they proudly show off specimens of the high quality chairs they've been doing over the years. Among them is the Heart Cone Chair, originally proposed by Verner Panton in 1959.
I didn't like it. It had that overwrought look that ambitious (post-)modernism tended to fall for in the years following the end of WWII. Since I am very much a fan of usability, I was deeply skeptical about forcing someone to sit on a heart shape. It just didn't make sense to me.
And then I took a seat. I could instantly feel a smile appearing on my face. Rarely had I sat on a chair more accommodating to my body and posture. Actually, it felt like it had been designed just for me personally. I wanted to take a book out (or my iPad) and read. It was playful, yes, but it was also immensely useable.
How does this little story relate to disruptions? Obviously the Heart Cone Chair is a perfect example for a job well done, but what exactly had been the job? From the viewpoint of disruptology it had been Panton's job to make people comfortable in the world they were about to enter in 1959. The design of this chair tells you something like this: ‘Postmodernism is ok! Plastics, computers, going to space and the like are ok! They could even be fun! Take a seat: We'll be in this together.’ Even in 2015, this comforting message could still be heard – which says a lot about the ingenuity of Verner Panton’s design.
So why are there so very few Heart Cone Chair equivalents in the interconnected world which we are about to enter? Why do many people feel so ill at ease here – even if they won’t always admit to it?
I think I can answer this question about our digital world on the basis of my Heart Cone Chair experience, and I’ll answer it by offering a new definition of what I think ‘design’ is:
Good design is the language of a transition well managed.
The disruptologists amongst you might wonder: How, then, can we design our disruptions so that people can enjoy them?
Striving for invisibility
Technology has always been networked. With regard to disruption this spells major trouble: disruption and networks make for uneasy bedfellows.
Infrastructure networks are invisible for two reasons: they are too big to be seen, and most of the time they just work. They are only ever glaringly visible when they have been disrupted the wrong way. There are many different ways for large-scale infrastructure to be disrupted catastrophically, and we have seen some examples recently.
Even more disruptions will be coming our way as Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) are here to stay. We haven’t even scratched the surface: Quantum computing might be needed to manage it all. Implemented in earnest, big data could create the space for the mother of all disruptions. The technological challenges will be absolutely enormous, and integration proper will only begin once the bulk of the technology is able to function.
Once IoT works, you will have to deal with people: their fears and expectations, their brilliance and their shortcomings, their plans and intentions. Only after the expertshave made their infrastructural creations elegantly invisible, they will have to make parts of them visible again to ensure and demonstrate their usability. Which means: all that stuff humming along in the background has to be good for something the users really, genuinely, deeply care about. Sure, they can be made to use it all, but if they don’t enjoy it, the whole construct will never live up to its full potential. And what a giant waste that would be!
In other words, the real, positive disruption lies in both integration and evolution, and it will take an unprecedented amount of thought about design, language and culture to make it work. How will you invite people to the future?