Thursday, November 20, 2014

Research, redesign and parallel universes

The popular belief that a product must be thought of from the ground up while being conceptualized is absolutely correct. Popular belief often begs to be corrected, but in the aforementioned case, the practice that has come to be exercised over the years is fairly appropriate.

Usually, of course.

Such a practice, or any popular practice for that matter, becomes widely accepted over long term use, reuse, getting broken and shattered to pieces, and then getting taped up and glued together before being reused. Again.
Any thing that a person makes goes through multiple iterations of improvement upon improvement, evolution, to the point of quasi-saturation – a point where a product appears to lie in a popularly accepted status quo.

But that has hardly ever been the case.

Products change – inch by inch, or even at a molecular level, at varying speeds; from weeks to months to years to generations and further lapses of time. But they don't change because they're getting old, wrinkly and need medication. They change because we make them change. We shave off what we don't need, and do what was previously difficult or impossible to do so that we can consistently arrive at a better solution. Every iteration that was the best at its time gets succeeded by something even better.

All of this happens so naturally that we often find ourselves asking why we couldn't have thought of something so simple earlier.

But we couldn't have. In such a seemingly natural evolution, products follow a path of tackling a need or a problem that can be alleviated. We use the best resources available to us at the time and attempt to balance ease of development and its economic worth.

Consider, however, that all of these decisions and the evolution a product underwent happened only in one universe – the one that you're reading this in. Perhaps, in another parallel universe, maybe we approached the same product differently. We attempted to tackle the need and diminish the problem using an entirely different set of resources.
In that universe, the product would evolve differently, too.

Even though popular belief agrees to thinking of a product concept from the ground up, we often limit ourselves to thinking of current solutions when attempting to redesign something.

While that's somewhat of a good practice – it does let us explore what options we already have; helps us avoid re-inventing the wheel – it also tends to put us inside a box. The same materials. The same UI grids. The same patterns.

When the objective is to redesign the wheel, I believe it is more important to understand why the wheel exists as it does today. What made it evolve to what it has come to? What? Do we really want to put air inside the thing? Have you seen the roads? Oh man, that turn on exit 51 has some of the worst potholes in the history of forever.

So when you're thinking from the ground up, dig a little deeper and go a little under-ground. When you're redesigning, in the words of Mr. Einstein, be "passionately curious."