I recently finished reading Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” in which he takes elements of biological adaptation and applies them to the generation of ideas. I was struck by his arguments about what fosters good ideas. I was also struck by how the user experience (UX) industry embraces and nurtures the very principles and processes that foster good ideas.
One principle Johnson introduces is that of the “adjacent possible,” which states that adaptation is incremental and builds upon itself. For example, the first single-celled organisms did not become jellyfish overnight. They had to take one small step at a time, with ever increasing complexity and cell specialization developing over millennia. Each small but possible development was immediately adjacent to the state of each cell. As Johnson explains, the adjacent possible is ever expanding, but constricted to just beyond the here and now.
You can see evidence of the adjacent possible in the most innovative user experiences, as well. For example, the Apple iPod didn’t come right after CDs. There were many steps between where innovators built upon an adjacent possibility, including the portable music players such as the Walkman and Discman, the ability to store and play music digitally – the first mp3 player was called the MPMan – and many iterations of mp3 players including the popular Rio PMP and the docking Intel Pocket Concert.
A second principle Johnson discusses is “exaptation,” which is the use of a structure or feature for a function other than that for which it was intended. For example, evolutionary biologists believe that bird feathers evolved for temperature regulation, but later were adapted and perfected for flight. The story of the printing press is similar. The screw press had been used since the first century AD to press grapes into wine and olives into oil. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he exapted the screw press design, which allowed direct pressure to be applied evenly on a flat plane.
You can also see this in the iPod. The innovative touch wheel came from the real-world mental model of a dial, but exapted the common laptop trackpad to create a new and very innovative touch dial.
As a UX practitioner, there are several lessons we can learn from the two principles above. First, to expand our own adjacent possibilities, we need exposure to new ideas, technologies and interaction models. The more information we have to draw upon, the more new possibilities we can create.
Second, a design solution that works, regardless of industry or application, is a solution worth remembering. This is particularly relevant for practitioners at UX agencies where there is exposure to many industries and disciplines.
This is good news for companies that hire a UX agency, as the same person working on your design or application will likely have worked with a variety of industry, client and project types and can draw upon and exapt relevant successes to your project. Additionally, design solutions that have been successful are shared among the UX agency, also expanding the practitioners’ adjacent possibilities.
Regardless of whether a UX practitioner works in-house or at an agency, Johnson’s book reminds us all that we must continue to evolve our skills, approaches and technology in order to build the best user experiences.