Next nature design thinking
Koert van Mensvoort has some interesting thoughts about the relationship between nature and technology that could reframe the way you think about design.
Last week I had the pleasure to attend a lecture by Koert van Mensvoort at Bureau Europa in Maastricht. Van Mensvoort is an engineer, artist, and philosopher and in his lecture, he launched some interesting ways of looking at the technological developments in the world around us. He runs a company called Next Nature and his central proposition is that technology and nature have more in common than we might think. He argues that technology is next nature: that we call something technology when it doesn’t work right yet and when a technology works right, we call it nature. Something like cooking food or writing was a technology once too, but we now think it’s natural. The same goes for the technology we are developing now: once it blends seamlessly into our lives, we are going to think of it as nature.
When I apply this way of thinking to interaction design, it offers an interesting view on our current state of web design and web technology: it’s technology because it’s still buggy and its natural tendency is towards seamless integration into our lives. So it’s only natural that it wants to become more mobile, simpler, easier to use, more responsive to and aware of our needs and disappear into the background of our lives. A bit like we can see in the movie Her.
Fake versus real
More interesting thoughts arise from comparing nature and technology. When you think about it for a moment, the idea of nature itself becomes relative. More and more what we call nature is actually a simulation of nature. An increasing number of cultivated areas are created to look like real nature. These places have trees and grass and some authentic-looking animals and are designed to look like they’re real, untouched, original nature. But it’s fake. It’s not a bad thing that we create and design parks, the bad thing is pretending to be nature, while it’s actually culture. What matters is the distinction between real and fake. Things can look like something, pretend to be something and even convince herds of people they are something when actually they’re not. This is not only true for fake nature, but also for something like coffee machines. When you compare a Senseo coffee machine to a “real” espresso machine (like my Rancilio), the Senseo looks a bit like a coffee machine, it produces something that looks a bit like coffee, masses of people mistake it for coffee, but it’s fake coffee when you compare it to the real thing. Making good, real coffee is hard. You have to select beans, preheat the machine, adjust the grind settings, grind the coffee for each cup you make, check the water temperature, air pressure and humidity level of your surroundings, insert the right amount of coffee, apply the right amount of pressure to compress the coffee, press the hot water through the coffee in the specially selected espresso cup and then clean the machine. The fake is a lot easier: turn on the machine, insert a pre-ground, pre-packaged, pre-weighed coffee pad and press the button. The real thing is a great experience, the fake is crap if you care about these things.
The same thinking exercise can be done for websites. When you define a real website as something that is designed to specifically meet the goals of your business and at the same time offer the best experience to your customers. If you consider that this among other things involves analyzing the business, coming up with a tailored information architecture, prototyping possible interaction models, crafting a content strategy, doing user research, considering performance issues, programming responsive behavior, connecting to back-office systems, thinking about conversion, creating hierarchy through information design and topping it off with original custom UI and visual design elements that tell the story of your company. That is almost as hard as crafting the perfect espresso. That is a real website. You can also install a free WordPress theme. That would be a fake website. It may look like a website, smell like a website but it is a fake website. But then again sometimes a Senseo coffee is good enough. And a badly crafted real espresso can be worse than a Senseo coffee.
Technological systems beyond control
A lot of products use nature to sell more stuff. When nature is used in advertising, only the positive sides of nature are used to generate warm feelings in potential customers. But nature also has a dark side. The big forces of nature are beyond our control and can destroy lives. And natural systems can be so complex and interrelated that a disturbance in one part can make the whole system unstable. Van Mensvoort explains that man-made systems can also acquire natural characteristics. Big man-made systems like the financial system are beyond our control and can yield similar destructive forces. Man created it, but it cannot be controlled by man. It can show unexpected behavior and we have to study it like a biologist to understand how the systems we ourselves designed work.
Interaction designers design systems
I could say that the same goes for the Internet. The Internet as a whole is a living organism, but also the small parts we design, the websites on it, are living systems beyond our control when we unleash them to the public (and our clients). When you read about the creation of web apps like Twitter you learn that the founders created a system without knowing what it actually is, what it could be or what effects it can have on the world. They created a system with certain rules and after that, it took on a life of its own that was unimaginable when it was created. Twitter developed further by studying how the organism evolved and how the users who populated it used it. They studied it like anthropologists would study an undiscovered tribe in the rainforest. A tribe, they themselves had created. Certain features like the hashtag were not designed by Twitter but sprung out of the system and how it was used.
Twitter is an extreme example, but any website design is the design of a system: a grid, a set of boundaries, a strategy and a couple of design elements. When the design is implemented the client and its customers start to use it comes to life. Maybe the users use it in a different way than you intended at first. Probably the client does things with it that you didn’t consider when you designed it. And then you study it, research it and fine-tune it. Websites are never finished, they organically evolve into better versions. It becomes a living organism that’s largely beyond your control. And that’s a good thing. Technology becomes nature, not nature-nature but next-nature.
In his TED talk Koen van Mensvoort covers similar topics as the ones he discussed in the lecture I visited last week.
Originally published on 21.02.2014 on Artscientist.nl