15 July 2012
You can do three things when you see a useful practice like hashtagging in the wild. You can pave the cowpaths by making it a feature in an existing product. You can build an entirely new product around it. But the third option is often the most appropriate: leave it alone and let people carry on doing what they want however it suits them.
When you formalise something you fossilise it too. When practices become features or products you reduce their ability to evolve further. Design can be seen as a process to discover just the right amount of structure to help people do things that would be difficult otherwise. Create too little structure and people have to work hard to create some for themselves. Create too much and you’re bogging people down with bureaucracy and processes that diminish the net value of the end result.
Too much structure can also be boring and stifling. Does every document need a title? Does every photo need a caption? Does every story need a beginning, a middle and an end? Does every blog need a header, a footer, a main content block and a sidebar? Designers love making features and products by generalising things. This works well enough most of the time. But I’d also love to see more free-form design: one-off static websites without a side-wide template; bespoke situated software for one person, place or time; idiosyncratic hacks that aren’t trying to be the next big thing but the current small thing. We can make space for a much more dynamic, creative and impermanent digital culture by getting out of the habit of turning everything into general-use software.
Embracing this kind of lightness is the hardest lesson for designers. We’re in the businesses of making things. But sometimes an activity is just an activity, a practice is just a practice. You can’t improve it by creating a structure for it, so learn to know when to leave it alone and walk on by. Sometimes the best design is no design at all. Some things just are what they are.
Adrian Short works to get people the information they need, when they need it, in a way that they can understand.