Is the future of information design DIY?

Joe Lamantia has posted some interesting ideas on the future of information architecture and design.  I really wish I could hear this presentation so that I could understand all the nuances.  I believe the key assumption is that as information becomes more modular, consumable, connectable, and mixable, people will start to build their own information experiences from available components.  Therefore information architects and designers should think about designing frameworks and environments that enable this.

The Web is shifting to a DIY [Do It Yourself] model of user experience creation, one where people assemble individual combinations of content gathered form elsewhere for expressive, functional, and (many) other purposes. The rapid growth of widgets, the resurgence of enterprise portals, the spread of identity platforms from social network destinations to blogging services, and the rapid increase in the number of public APIs syndicating functionality and data, are all examples of the DIY shift.

I think this assumption that people will want a DIY web experience can be debated.  Surely, there are some alpha-geeks that are extremely comfortable building and using technology to suit their specific needs.  By virtue of reading this post, you are likely one of these.  I would argue that most people — your grandma, your mailman, your barber — don’t want to spend the time tailoring environments to fit every need, and don’t care enough about information tech to do so.  Most people employ a satisficing strategy, where they go with a solution that’s good enough, rather than going after an optimal design solution. Some examples:

  • Take hodrod, customized cars in the 50s/60s.  A few people became expert at building sweet hotrod cars.  They wanted to find the right carborator to fit the engine that they custom built.  And a lot of people envied those souped up cars.  But most people just got in their regular old car and went about their business.
  • A few people will build their own computer to get the exact configuration they want to maximize performance.  A far greater number of people will go to their local big box store, or Dell, even Apple, and select one of the preconfigured systems that meets most of their needs.
  • In the early to mid 90’s, dial-up internet service providers provided people with internet access (you remember when you finally got to 56kbps, don’t you?).  AOL came along, and sent you a disk with a simple install process.  Millions of people joined AOL, even though you had to use their browser, and could only access services they allowed.
  • A few people will host their own blog, photo gallery, etc.  And as Joe suggests, syndication feeds, web services, and widgets are making it easier to mix and mash functionality to make your own site.  But a lot of people are getting a lot of value out of Facebook, MySpace.  Sure, you could build your own site, but Facebook and MySpace hits a lot of the functionality that you want most often.

Satisficing means that people don’t typically search or work exaustively to find the best solution.  Instead they have some criteria for ‘good enough, ‘ and go with the first solution that meets that criteria.  Its why you don’t look through all 1.6M search results Google gives to you; its why you don’t compare results between Google, Ask, Yahoo, Live, and every other search engine out there.

Now, one might argue that Gen Y and neomillenials (people born after 1980, often called digital natives) are more active participants in social media, and are more likely to want to create content.  And a few of those natives will likely create a cool framework or mashup that allows his peers to connect in ways we haven’t thought of yet.  But based on my limited experience working with these digital natives (3 years in grad school, some mentoring, some TAing an intro programming course), most in this age group almost take the presence and abundance of technology tools for granted.  I don’t believe they want to build or tailor an experience; they expect the experience to be there, or will come along soon, and don’t care to expend the time/energy to create it.

Given that, I think the future is bright for excellent designers, user experience researchers, ethnographers to understand the wants, needs, and environments that people consume information products, and design solutions that meet those needs.  Yes, we need good frameworks to enable more powerful, effective, and efficient information products.  But people want, and will continue to want, excellent experiences given to them, rather than taking the time and effort to develop their own.

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