What products can learn from architecture

And why you shouldn’t let them turn into the Nakagin Capsule Tower

Photography — “1972”, Noritaka Minami

A regular Saturday. Drinking coffee at Toby’s and reading the paper that was waiting in the morning in front of our door. The New York Times Magazine is featuring a piece about making murica great again — on the cover. I’m almost hesitant to flip through it. At least Travel is going to be Trump-free, I think to myself.

And then an interesting photo captures my attention. One of those graphical, pattern infused, and definitely sci-fi scenes that immediately remind me to of brutalist architecture — embraced by Kubrick and seen every time anyone visits Belgrade.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

The article is about the 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, a grandiose dwelling by Kisho Kurokawa, the founder of Japanese movement called Metabolism — that tried to reflect living organisms in the buildings that surround us.

As is often the case, the article, the topic and the words are merely vehicles for a personal message. It’s a way for Sam Kriss, the author, to convey his heart broken experiences and compare the decay of the building to the one he experienced in life.

In this post, however, I am using them to compare two different, yet interestingly overlapping topics: digital properties and physical ones. Web pages and skyscrapers. Apps and houses. Ads and cabins. You get it.

It’s a metaphor I’ve given to my clients over the last 15 years so many times — aiding them in understand what is often a complex and unknown topic of building digital products.

Imagine building a family home.

The task can obviously be interpreted, designed, and executed in an unlimited number of ways — the same way a website is never just a website.

This part of the article struck me the most:

Rearranging the capsules turned out to be much more expensive than originally anticipated and very rarely happened. The promise that they could be upgraded or replaced over time was never fulfilled; the original and occasionally very shoddy materials are still in place. — NYT

I couldn’t help but reading these words as if a website was the subject at hand, and now a building. For instance, a website that the team was building for a year and a half — trying to solve for every possible future (un)common scenario, allow flexibility to changes in content presentation and all with a customized content management system that will give the much needed power to the editors.

Of course, barely 20% got used.

The rest keeps collecting dust, and after some time starts rotting and influencing the (good) parts that were actually useful. In the ideation and scoping, there were hopes infused by the client, embraced by the editors and the production team. There were promises of a better future, a better (content) self.

For me, this is a memory of how digital properties were built in the past. It’s a memory of the waterfall process that didn’t include the lean culture — the iteration and rapid prototyping that are the pillars of how we design and build today.

As the author states, pop culture tends to be fond of ruins, but architecture failures don’t get the same treatment. Digital failures follow that. They stop being used, first by the creators and then by the public. They fall out of our radars until a few years later they get demolished to make way for a new, flashy, and definitely future-proof website.

Yo — designers!
Stop building Nakagin Capsule Towers.

This article is part of The Black Edition — a personal newsletter on digital products, digital wins & fails and of course. UX rants included.