City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

My write-up of last October's DTI-funded mission to the US is posted below. It's from the official full report, 'Innovation through people-centred design'. This, with all the other excellent chapters from my colleagues on the mission, is available in PDF format at the Global Watch website (you have to register – free – after finding 'Innovation through people-centred design'). The report covers everything from a round-up of people-centred design (PCD) techniques through to the relationships between PCD and brand integration, research and organisational change. Go read it, to see below in context, but also because there's some good stuff in the other chapters.

My chapter is a reflection on my own personal 'mission': attempting to assess whether the companies we encountered – Volvo, BMW, Intel, IBM, Jump, IDEO, Adaptive Path, Microsoft, Nike etc. – were engaging with some of the principles around adaptive design, and to discuss the relationship between adaptive design, people-centred design, social software and design research. It covers some similar ground to the talk I gave at Design Engaged (transcript of that, soon), though from a different angle for a different audience. Please bear that different context in mind when reading.

As ever, I'd be interested in your thoughts. Here goes:

Chapter 7: Adaptation, Personalisation and 'Self-Centred' Design

7.1 Introduction

With the increasing acceptance of user centred design (UCD) practice within industry, some practitioners are beginning to question its limitations. These criticisms include a suspected inability to scale to large-scale, complex, multi-faceted situations (e.g. the BBC's various Internet-based products, or Microsoft Windows). There is also a high degree of successful innovation in the social software space online, from products born of little or no formal UCD processes. Looking forward, it's essential that UK industry is informed by critiques of UCD process as well as advocating wholesale acceptance of its core principles.

7.2 An amateurisation of design – social software

Adaptive Path's Jeff Veen explained the importance of examining/taking seriously developments in social software. Social software can be loosely defined as highly personal social interaction via software products, generally Internet-based, such as message boards or instant messaging, but often making use of 'network effects' based on aggregating behavioural patterns (ie social networking, music taste-sharing, photo-sharing, link-sharing etc). Veen described this practice as an 'amateurisation' of design, and pointed to several examples, including the increasingly popular photo-sharing service, Flickr, and the intriguing social bookmarking application, Delicious.

These products are often built rapidly, deployed and iterated on the web, by designers and programmers who are immersed in a community for which they know how to build. They are highly situated responses, based around open standards and intense, distanced collaboration, with constant observation, public critique and speedy iteration in situ. They may develop useful, personally meaningful solutions, but employ very little user-centred design process – what could be called 'self-centred design'. Problems emerge with scaling and quality of design but there can be little doubt they are products characterised by innovation, meaning and usefulness. Problems also emerge for the practice of design itself, namely, what is the role of the designer in this space? Veen argued that there is certainly a translation role necessary to take these products and extend and communicate beyond the 'early adopter' market for whom they currently (largely) cater.

However, apart from Veen's discussion, there was little discernible evidence that these techniques of situated (Shirky 2004), or adaptive (Moran 2002), or self-centred, or amateurised design were really being explored by many of the firms we encountered.

7.3 Amateurisation means speed

There is no evidence that the developments in amateurisation are informed by formal ethnographic user research, and may be self limiting as a result. However, the pace and form of development in this area was such that Veen suggested these inhibitions may be outweighed by the benefits. For example, the lead times on research at FXPal and release cycles at Microsoft were often months if not years. Compare the pace of development achieved by a team working on Flickr. Flickr can be released, modified and re-released in situ in a matter of weeks, enabling instant iteration. The product develops from within. Similarly, 37Signals, creators of the popular web-based project management software Basecamp, have written about deliberately not scaling development teams in order to retain speed and flexibility.

7.4 Adaptive design

In the field of informational product design, there has been much recent focus on social software, as well as ubiquitous or pervasive computing, and mobile data products (see Dourish 2001). All these advances relate to potentially new markets and applications, and are increasingly highly personal:

  • in the case of the cellphone, virtually worn on the body
  • in the case of ubicomp, an always connected life, from RFID tags in their shopping through to 'home media hubs'
  • in the case of social software, it's about representation of self across multiple facets of your life (conversation, diaries, photo and music collections etc)

All these spaces feel quite different to designing a generic cooking utensil for mass market or building Microsoft Word. Although there was no discussion around these implications at our various encounters in the USA, it could be argued that, in this social software context, 'user agency' is more relevant than it's ever been; that the user's ability to mould these software spaces in their distinct image may necessitate a whole new kind of practice. A participant in these kinds of markets and spaces will feel the need to adapt a product to their own image, their own needs, far more so than previous software products, which have generally been based on efficiency obtained through generality and economies of scale (arguably hence the effective but generalising tools of personas and scenarios.)

In the mision seminar in San Francisco, Sara Beckmann (Hass School of Business), Janice Becker (Adaptive Path), Dev Patnaik (Jump Associates), Aaron Marcus and others contributed to a debate around attempts to measure the intangibles of meaning, delight and other such highly personal responses, in order to extrapolate some metrics for ROI around UCD, generally with little agreement on a valid approach. Perhaps an alternative approach would be to enable users to create their own returns on their own investment in the design of the product?

At SIG-CHI's Designing Interactive Systems conference in 2002 in the UK, IBM's Tom Moran presented the concept of 'adaptive design'. He described the limitations inherent with the practice of 'professional design': it can't predict usefulness; it can't truly advocate the users, despite UCD; it's an inward-looking community, sometimes culpable of giving in to the 'pull' of overdesigning. In what he described as 'generic design' – where 'everyone designs' – designing is a type of cognitive activity, an approach (as opposed to, say, diagnosis or clearer decision making) where design problems are ill-defined and ill-structured. Designing here is specifying, stealing (or rather, reusing domain knowledge!), collaboration, negotiation and user participation. There were some echoes here during the San Francisco seminar. The points made by Jeff Veen indicated that the role of the professional designer might now include the following functions:

  • Translating product design for nondesigners
  • Being transparent in one's practice rather than obscuring the process of design
  • Leaving products open for others to complete
  • Nurturing well-designed solutions from people, rather than attempting to complete generalised products

7.5 Adaptation and new markets

On the mission, we encountered a fair amount of talk about new markets beyond early adopters, of more meaningful socially oriented or highly personal design solutions, and of working with cultural difference. However, we found occasional evidence of particularly new techniques such as those discussed above.

There was some sense that UCD techniques might not scale, and that getting ethnographic research would always prove difficult. For instance, Microsoft were aware that they'd ideally deploy far more ethnographers than even they could – joking that the ideal would be one per user! This is obviously not tenable, but there didn't seem to be extensive consideration that enabling the user to be their own observer and 'product-shaper' was a potential alternative solution. Few of the companies seemed to consider stepping back, stimulating or nurturing the creation of products rather than creating products themselves. So there was little real evidence of adaptive design techniques, but there was some evidence of a broad scale, if scattered, movement in that direction.

Drawing on the mission visits, we can identify a continuum in the products themselves, from basic personalisation through to adaptation. And in the practice of design, there was evidence of a continuum from increasingly involving users in the design process through to amateurisation of design, which was nurtured through a transparency of practice. In terms of the product continuum, Nike have enabled users to personalise their trainers, creating designs and patterns within a tightly bounded shoe design. There was an understanding that 80% of their products are not used in the context Nike intended, or designed for, ie their shoes are designed as high-performance footwear for sports and yet they're not used for this. (Nike gave the example of a businesswoman wearing trainers with her suit, heading to work.) This appropriation of their products had led Nike to create a new division – 'Active Life' – focusing on products for this market, and to consider the role of observing this 'creative misuse' of their product design. It remains to be seen how Nike reconcile 'creative misuse' upon the platform of their branded shoes and apparel.

DTI product continuum diagram

At the other end of the product continuum is social software. Veen specifically discussed the role that Adaptive Path had played in the redesign of the Blogger software. Adaptive Path took a relatively successful but admittedly unfriendly piece of blogging software and, using a well-worn 'self-centred design' technique of putting it live and observing users run all over it, they discovered where to focus their design efforts. Their technique involved linking it from the Google homepage. Blogger's redesign was about extending it to a new market, beyond the early adopters who could forgive the geeky toolkit. Adaptive Path created an interface and system for Blogger which didn't necessarily extend its functionality, but did extend the type of users who could use it. The role of the professional designers at Adaptive Path became translating the language of design for these new users. Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger, said:

"Our goal for this redesign was to enable people who had never even heard of a blog to be publishing their own blog in less than five minutes."

These could certainly be seen as adaptive design techniques, or enabling self-centred design. What's interesting is the relationship between the PCD techniques that Adaptive Path will have deployed and the rapid prototyping style common in the blog world. This overlapping of techniques, and of deploying 'professional design to enable amateur design', will be returned to in conclusion, but this was by far the clearest example of adaptive design uncovered on the mission.

DTI practice continuum diagram

7.6 Evolving adaptive design principles

The University of California computer scientist Paul Dourish spoke compellingly of studying existing patterns of user agency in informational products, particularly of the 'embodied interactions' in ubicomp – and of communicating the principles of computer science outside of that discipline. Additionally, Phil Van Allen (Art Center College of Design, Pasadena) refuted the 'experience design' theory which has been prevalent over the last few years in informational product design (Shedroff 2001). He suggested that designing an experience left little 'productive interaction' for the user; that the designer as author attempting to define the experience meant that 'consumption was the goal' rather than interaction design, which was about 'creating meaning' and allowing 'the audience to produce' (more). In a similar way, Nirmal Sethia (Cal State Poly, Pomona) stressed 'valuescentred design'. His example of working with poverty in India, looking at Hewlett-Packard's efforts to take digital cameras there, indicated a focus on adaptive design. HP's strategy had to take on the implicitly adaptive approach to technology that the rural poor in India had. Their business model had to switch to renting the camera (with solar panel power) rather than purchasing. Sethia spoke of mobile phone transmitters run from motorbike engines relying on the fact that twenty people in the village would know how to maintain the motorbike engine. The advantage of focusing on 'the poor', other than it being a potential market of 1 billion or so, was as a source of innovation, particularly regarding sustainability, which has some overlap with adaptive design (see also Prahalad 2004).

Overall on the mission we discovered some evidence of high degrees of participation being espoused by several companies. Most companies present at our seminar in San Francisco discussed how central the user was to the design process, as in classic UCD methodology (cf Smart Design, IDEO, Adaptive Path, Aaron Marcus Associates, Swim, IIT etc). SonicRim went further, discussing techniques of participatory design and co-creation – providing design strategy and consulting services for companies based around highly involved workshops with consumers – 'exploring collective creativity' – whilst also providing anthropology and other user research services.

7.7 Encouraging clients to become designers

We also saw evidence of a shift in several design firms towards consultancy around design of strategy, and incorporating design processes into client companies. For instance, IDEO had developed their IDEO-U Innovation Workshops 'because our clients asked us to teach them aspects of our innovation process and methods'. These workshops provide clients with a basic toolkit of design and innovation techniques.

When discussing their intervention into healthcare markets in the USA, IDEO suggested that their approach involved enabling nurses to become 'junior designers', unlocking their 'latent ideas'. IDEO's technique of 'teaching 'em how to fish rather than selling them a fish' can also be seen on this continuum of design practice towards enabling adaptive or self-centred design. There is a question mark as to whether this reduces the market for professional design – if companies can increasingly do it for themselves – or simply displaces it. Cheskin's interventions suggested similar sentiments about introducing design as practice into companies at a senior management level.

7.8 Transparency and nurturing design

In terms of stimulating a market in ways which would seem counter-intuitive from a traditional business perspective, but would seem to be aligned in terms of adaptive design, there are two further interesting types of activity: at Volvo and Microsoft, and also at Intel. Volvo's work in designing safety features ensures that any innovations in that field are effectively 'open sourced' and shared with the industry twelve months after Volvo deploys them. This is a tangential connection to an adaptive or self-centred design process, where it could be argued that the designer's responsibility is to communicate and share thinking as much as enact it.

At Microsoft, we saw some evidence of transparency in the design process, via their anthropologists deploying the latest blogging and photo-gallery software to share research results (see Chapter 4). This was only within the company at this stage – issues of personal privacy apply in terms of sharing ethnographic data. However, elsewhere at Microsoft, developers have been blogging about their work to the development community at large.

Intel's approach, as a chipmaker whose products are embedded in the majority of the world's PCs, is to do R&D on behalf of the industry as a whole. They perform ethnographic research-led design processes to uncover new product ideas, which are often left to the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) – such as Dell, Sony etc – to exploit. This, on the basis that if they all feature Intel chips, increasing total market value is as important as increasing market share – 'If the tide goes up, all boats rise'. Herman D'Hooge described this as 'giving them Lego bricks'. At a highly 'macro' level, this could be seen as a nurturing, supporting form of design communication – enabling others to design and build products, based on your lead. Note that the objective here isn't altruism but business, despite it seemingly involving 'giving design away'.

7.9 Conclusion

Whilst it was possible to see some truly inspiring design work at these companies, only a few were investigating the possibility of these alternative movements in adaptive design to counter the potential limitations of UCD (scale, user agency, pace of development etc). But a handful of products and processes are beginning to suggest the possibilities of harnessing an ethnographically-informed people-centred process to the rapid prototyping and high innovation of the 'self-centred' or 'amateurised' design world in order to create products which enable adaptive design. The difference in pace between these two techniques will require careful integration. Ethnographic research is deliberately slow-moving and thorough; self-centred design practice is inherently rapid and iterative.

Interestingly, these processes were more commonly accepted amongst small companies and academics rather than the larger companies. It may be the circuit of information and discourse is currently 'below the radar' of the larger design practices. The language of design itself – always in flux – may need addressing as a result of this challenge to design practice. The role of the designer also shifts towards building products which people can adapt and shape to their own purpose; becoming experts in translation and teaching the practice of design to non-(professional)-designers.

However, our challenge seems clear: can we link grounded ethnographic research to the freer self-centred design techniques to effectively take adaptive design products beyond the early adopter market?

DTI design process diagram

7.10 Recommendations

  • UK companies should observe and learn from this emerging practice of 'self-centred design' and use it as a rapid prototyping methodology in order to enrich and inform the results from lengthier research-led design.
  • UK design practice – incorporating education, trade bodies, media and industry – should identify product areas most suitable for pursuing adaptive design techniques – focusing on social software or social computing, ubiquitous or pervasive computing, and mobile data products – and engage in initiatives which produce pragmatic, transferable research.
  • UK design education should critique and evaluate the principles of adaptive design, in order to feed them into design-related training and design discourse.


1 & 2 'Beyond Human-Centred Design' panel at DIS2004 and 'Designing for Hackability' panel at DIS2004
3 Flickr;; See also Audioscrobbler,,, Steam), for example.
4 Clay Shirky on Situated Software, 2004
5 Tom Moran on Adaptive Design, 2002
6 Flickr, and the pace of development process
7 Basecamp
8 37Signals/Basecamp, and not scaling development teams
9 'Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction', Paul Dourish, MIT Press 2001
10 Adaptive Path, and the Blogger redesign
11 'Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction', Paul Dourish, MIT Press 2001.
12 'Experience Design', Nathan Shedroff, New Riders 2001.
13 and
14 'The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits', C K Prahalad, Financial Times Prentice Hall 2004.
16 IDEO on their health care example
17 Microsoft's Channel9 developer blogs


One response to “Essays: Adaptation, Personalisation and ‘Self-Centred’ Design”

  1. Seb Schmoller Avatar

    You might find some things of use in this report for JISC about Personalisation in presentation services
    Seb Schmoller


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: