User Experience of Ecosystems

Ecosystems: Past, Present, and…

The rise of Apple’s iPod inspired the use of the word “ecosystem” in the computer industry–at the time, primarily referring to the pairing of software and hardware that was iTunes and the iPod, respectively. The use of the word, bringing with it its ecologically-based notion of complex and critical interdependence–was intended to suggest a system that should be considered together as a whole, each part contributing to the success of the rest.

Today, “ecosystem” in the computer and consumer electronics world refers to much more–smartphones, tablets, computers, accessories, computer operating systems, mobile operating systems, application stores for each of those, even developers of the software for any of those, cloud services, and web sites. Most of what is written about these things focuses on a particular piece–reviews of smartphones, tablets, computers, operating systems; the time has come to consider the next level and to actively create a vision of what that future ecosystem should look like.

User-Focused Ecosystems: Personal Digital Infrastructures (PDIs)

I believe that ecosystems should be considered in terms of user experience and actively designed as a whole to be user-focused; sure, the user experience of any particular smartphone or tablet is important, but, in a world in which each individual is potentially the owner of an increasing number of increasingly capable, networked devices, the important questions should turn from those like "how well does this device work" or "how well do these devices work together" to those like "how well can this ecosystem serve its owner in an elegantly concerted way?"

Our separate devices, software, services, data, and content should not only work together, they should work together to support their user–a sort of personal digital infrastructure (PDI) that would be an intelligent substrate enabling effortless access to all of the things we need and want in our ecosystem and seamless interoperability within it.

The user experience challenge is how to ensure that a user’s ecosystem enables to spend their time on their activities and tasks rather than wrestling with the technologies and tools they use to get those done.

PDI Features

There’s much more to be considered here, but I’ll start a sketch of that PDI with a list of features–but for the ecosystem, not of any individual hardware or software context.

These are some of the features that such ecosystems should have to be more user-focused than todays examples:

  • Intelligently provide access to personal or work documents, media, information, etc. from any capable and authorized devices in the user’s stable. An intelligent personal cloud that can provide ready access to the things that you need wherever and whenever you need them.
    • Apple’s iCloud, Microsoft’s Live Mesh and Skydrive, and Dropbox all have elements of this, but they all have a ways to go.
  • Behaviorally, object singularity across devices and personal systems where appropriate: documents, media, notifications, cloud services, OS configurations and preferences, application configurations and preferences, saved game status, etc. This hinges on the ecosystem either central storage or automatic, effortless, and fast-enough-to-be-perceived-to-be-immediate syncing of all relevant objects.
    • On notifications, consider whether you would rather be notified just once about an incoming email via whatever device or software context you’re using and then dismiss it that once, or once on each of your phone, tablet, computer, or miscellaneous web browser.
  • Continuous client capabilities across devices as appropriate–i.e., the ability to maintain task state, history, and progress.
  • Ability to work with and integrate disparate vendors’ services and products, yet keep them separate.
    • Ability to synchronize data between sources or not according to intelligent defaults and user preference and the ability to work with existing systems and repositories rather than force migrations to a single-vendor ecosystem.

These features are glimpses into parts of what I hope will come as ecosystems develop further.

PDI Design Guidelines

But spot solutions and lists of functionality are often unwieldy. Being design-minded, I prefer larger pictures and guidelines by which to discover and situate them.

So, I propose a set of guidelines for ecosystems as we advance them:

  • Actions on any one device have system-visible, system-wide results.
  • The ecosystem should enable synergistic effects rather than just additive ones as more devices are added.
  • Support potentially simultaneous, interleaved, or synergistic usage of multiple devices.
  • Maximize task time; minimize, if not eliminate, tool time.
  • Use intelligent behavioral defaults, but ensure that they are override-able via appropriate settings options.

Looking to the Horizon

These features and guidelines are signposts, sketching out what I hope will be on the road ahead. In later posts, I’ll expand on these and others.


About Edwin Li, IxD

Interaction designer on a Job Quest. Gadget and connected device fantasist. Sci Fi/Fantasy fan. West Coast Swing dancer, competitor, instructor.
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