Digital Black Swans
“Expect the unexpected.” That phrase is thrown around as if it weren’t a total contradiction. The fact is that try as we might, unforeseen events are, well, unforeseen. So, how can you prepare for something you can’t prepare for? What happens after an out-of-the-blue paradigm shift? How can you strategize for a digital Black Swan?
Recognizing a Black Swan
Hop in the Way Back Machine and head to anywhere in Europe between 200 BC and 1696 AD. Based on everything anyone in Europe knows at the time, there are no black swans. There is so much evidence that swans are always and only white, in fact, that it seems absurd to consider even the existence of a black swan. That is, until black swans are discovered in Western Australia in 1697 and suddenly bam! our notion of what a swan is — of what a swan could be — is overturned in an instant.
A good example of a Black Swan in the digital world is the iPhone. Released in June 2007 (only eight years ago!), the iPhone was entirely new. It wasn’t a cell phone, but it kinda was. It wasn’t a Palm Pilot-type device, but it kinda was. It wasn’t a computer, but it kinda was. The iPhone was something entirely its own and by the end of that decade, it had completely altered the way we look at the digital world. And, importantly for the theory of black swans, in hindsight the iPhone seems like an obvious development. We’d been talking about handhelds for decades; maybe we should have seen it coming, but we didn’t. It was a Black Swan.
Digitizing Black Swans
A “Black Swan” or “Black Swan event” in statistics describes an exceptionally rare or unlikely event, that has a major impact on how we interact with or think about the world, and in hindsight feels like we should have seen it coming. With a little bit of liberal paraphrasing we can adapt Black Swan thinking for the digital world.
The digital world is driven by available technology and uses of that technology, and there are four big ways Tech and Use can unfold.
(a) Known Uses of Known Tech. This is about maintenance, making sure people can still do what they expect to be able to do with the thing they’re using. Important for your long-term strategy, but not such a big deal for growth.
(b) Known Uses for Unknown Tech. This is for the engineers; we’re always going to take pictures, but maybe in the future we’ll do it in 3D from a specially designed wig? It’s fun to think about, but not really in our digital content wheelhouse.
(c) Unknown Uses for Unknown Tech. This is the Digital Black Swan: Marconi’s radio, Pong, the iPhone. There’s nothing we can do about Digital Black Swans, by definition they are unpredictable, but we can be prepared for them. And we do that by living in…
(d) Unknown Uses for Known Tech. This is our zone; this is where digital strategy comes alive. Take phones, for example; it’s a pretty safe bet that in 2002, someone on a phone (the tech) was talking to someone in a different location (the use). Suddenly, when we realized we could use our cell phones to take pictures or listen to music, we moved into brand new territory. The technology was familiar, but now we had a different way of using it. It’s in this zone that we can rethink digital strategy in order to prepare for the inevitable Black Swan.
Turning Black Swans White
You can’t prepare for a specific Black Swan, but you can be prepared for a paradigm shift in general by focusing on the smaller changes that happen every day. By keeping an eye on the novel ways people are using your stuff (your app, your content, your product, your whatever), you can begin to develop an idea of the robustness of what you’re putting into the world. In the everyday, well-understood, perfect conditions of UX testing and discovery work, things will probably work as well as they’re supposed to. But what happens under more extreme conditions? That’s where you can find the cracks that will become liabilities after the inevitable Black Swan event. And once you see the cracks, reconsider the bigger picture; instead of glueing the pieces back together, maybe you can make a mosaic — and maybe you can turn a Black Swan white.