Designed to Evolve

Everyone loves a good come back, right? Well not me. I was the guy who rooted for the overlord, not the underdog. Drago should have beat Rockie. Apple should have been crushed by Microsoft in the 90s. Michael Vick should have stayed incarcerated. Zombies should just stay dead.

See, I’m not that impressed by comebacks because, by necessity, they require that first, there was fairly spectacular failure leading to a situation even requiring a comeback. I’m all for being open to failure – I think it’s the best way to learn – however, a comeback indicates that you hit rock bottom, which requires a lot more than just simple failure. Why should I be impressed by someone or something that loses everything?

I’m impressed by things that can stand the test of time. Granted nothing is perfect, but the longer something is able to stay relevant and intact, the more we should celebrate its creators. It used to be that to build a long-standing product, you simply had to make high quality goods that fit a consumer need and didn’t fall apart after 10 uses (the phrase, “they don’t build ‘em like they used to” comes to mind). However, in our hyperactive, ADHD infused, grass-is-always-greener culture, our expectations have become so unrealistically high that static products have little to no chance of standing the test of time.

So how can designers adapt to this warp-speed world of unattainable expectations? How can one create a product in a world where it will be near-obsolete the day it is released? The trick is, modern products can’t be static. Modern products need to evolve and much like Darwinian theory, it is the strongest and those best able to adapt that will survive.

Our generation by no means has a patent on the concept of evolving products. Concepts like versioning, service platforms and modularity have been around for decades and have guided the hands of product designers.

The oldest trick in the software book, versioning is the assignment of unique version numbers to evolving states of code. However, this concept indicates a much larger mental state for both developer and consumer: the product is never finished. Yes, there are milestones for major releases (1.0, 2.0 and so on), however, no matter how you feel about the software at the time, there is a chance that the subsequent iteration could be a drastic improvement, change certain troubling features or make the program more useful to your day-to-day. Couple this with the past decade of connectivity and even major releases can be riddled with bugs only to be patched soon after by an x.1 version. Many developers have begun a trend of releasing living beta versions of software to indicate that it is an ongoing, evolving experiment.

Software has the benefit of minimal cost to update and adapt, making it the perfect medium for versioning. However, other forms are beginning to pick up on this evolutionary trend: the iPhone 5, Tron 2.0, the Trek 1.5 road bike, food 2.0… the list goes on. While this current misuse of product versioning may be little more than catchy marketing, the emergence of maker culture and decreasing cost of home manufacturing is making it possible for hardware developers to release product “patches” – new designs for flawed components, alternate hacks to product parts and mods to electronics to improve their operation. Try to imagine what the 2.0 version of your car looks like.

Product as a Service
Once again most notably used in the software world, this approach dates back to the early 1960s, well before the dawn of the personal computer. In a time when only a handful of mainframes existed in the world, most companies could not afford to have their own and instead used terminals to access centrally hosted business applications through time-sharing of data centers. 40 years later, this trend would re-emerge under the term Software as a Service (SaaS), as a way to save on capital costs of servers hosting large ERP systems (think Salesforce or Google Docs).

The concept works outside of the software world as well. My earliest memory of this format was signing up to Columbia House music and receiving some terrible CD-of-the-month after forgetting to return their order card. However, subscription mail-order services are still alive and well (e.g.: Birtchbox, $1 Shave Club, Frank & Oak). In addition, shared asset services like Zipcar (Autoshare, Car2Go, etc.) or citibike (bixibike, hubway, etc.) are growing in popularity as people enjoy the freedom of not having to deal with the maintenance of the things they use.

Championed by Henry Ford at the dawn of the 20th century, the concepts of interchangeable parts, assembly line manufacturing and mass production began a new era of product design and development. Now, broken components didn’t spell the end of a product entirely, but simply a quick fix for an interchangeable piece. What’s more, the standardization of part specifications such as what IBM did with the PC in the mid-80s, allowed for the democratization of component design, leading to an infinite number of computer combinations and a constantly upgradeable product format.

Software has traditionally played in the modularity space as well, however, few digital platforms have benefited from the concept as much as the smartphone. The emergence of app stores has changed the mobile phone from a static communication device into a constantly evolving digital platform for innovation. No longer are phone adoption cycles dictated by new hardware features, but instead by their inability to run the latest and greatest apps.

Modern hardware design is giving way to modularity as well. As consumers hack and craft their own projects together, kit-based platforms such as littleBits, Arduino, Sifeo and (the grandfather of them all) lego have become the gadgetry of choice. For these products to stay relevant, one must simply buy an expansion set and a whole new world of possibilities is unveiled. Throw in a dose of online community interaction and these product evolutions no longer follow a linear path but instead diverge into an infinite number of directions for any taste and preference