My girlfriend mentioned to me yesterday that the manager at a restaurant she and her coworkers had gone to for lunch had asked her to order her meal via an app.
Beaming, he went on to inform her that their team was “embracing this whole technology thing,” and that all she had to do to order her food was download the app and select the items she wanted. And if she wanted the waiter to come by for any reason, she could make that happen via the app too.
My girlfriend asked the owner if she had to use it — He was taken aback.
“Well, no…” he replied.
The table breathed a sigh of relief.
There’s this funny thing we do, us humans. We continuously invent and discover new tools and techniques, and when we do, we work tirelessly to design systems that can put them to good use transforming our world for the better. And a lot of the time, we succeed. But then something funny starts to happen.
As we see these new tools over and over again at the heart of the ideas that change the world, we start to believe the tools themselves — not the well-designed systems in which they operate — are responsible for such success.
Take airplanes as an example. The things are fast — damn fast. But rewind a hundred years or so to the time they were invented, and their speed didn’t matter much, because without any infrastructure, they were more or less useless. It wasn’t until we incorporated airplanes into a well-oiled system of airports, runways, air traffic controllers, universal standards, schedules and time tables and so on and so forth that airplanes actually became useful as a transportation device. And yet, sometimes we ignore all that.
In 2011, when the 405 freeway here in Los Angeles was shut down for several hours as part of a construction project, Jet Blue decided to offer flights from Burbank to Long Beach as a solution to the traffic. Their logic: airplanes are fast.
When the flight was announced, a group of bicyclists noticed that in order to fly the 38 miles from Burbank to Long Beach, passengers would also have to travel to the airport, arrive at least one hour early, take-off, land, and deplane on the other side. They therefor wagered they could bike the distance in less time than it would take for the plane passengers to complete the journey — and they turned out to be right. Sure, the actual time in motion was much shorter for the plane. But that didn’t matter, because the system made no sense. Jet Blue put way too much focus on the airplane itself and none on the context in which it operates. Because of that, the cyclists won.
I call this phenomenon “system blindness.” At root, it’s the inability or refusal to treat all problems as design problems.
System blindness has been around for a long time. If you keep your eyes peeled, you can see it in everything; food, architecture, fashion. When you walk into The Coffee Bean and they’ve added fancy third-wave cappuccinos to their menu in an attempt to capture the hipster demographic, despite the fact that the rest of their menu and branding remains unchanged, that is system blindness. When cities build parks and plazas that end up completely void of people, or when they put benches and sitting areas in places no one would ever want to sit, that is system blindness.
System blind decisions produce terrible outcomes: failed companies, wasted dollars, etc. But every now and again, it’s worse than that.
Last month, Joe Gebbia announced via a great article on Medium that his company, Airbnb, had launched a design studio called Samara in order to explore new attitudes towards sharing and trust. After reading it, I was inspired to write this article as a sort of extension of that idea. Joe’s angle is that Samara is the answer to the societal problems created by previous generations:
After World War II, communities and the trust they fostered began to erode in the United States. We moved away from dense city centers to fenced in suburban lots separated by broad highways. It’s a picture of modern loneliness: “low population density and the loss of natural social gatherings on the porch, the street, or the corner drugstore made sharing experiences and insulating problems more difficult.”
Post WWII urban development was the result of system blindness at its most ruthless. In the 50s, we invented the “freeway,” and though freeways do make good sense within a well-designed system, the fact that they were new and exciting made them the go-to item in every planner’s tool belt. They popped up everywhere. Too much traffic in your neighborhood? Build a freeway. Takes too long to get from one freeway to another? Build a freeway. Too much traffic on the freeway? Build a freeway. No one stopped to look at how the freeways were actually performing as part of the overall system. And the reality is, they weren’t.
No one considered that regular street networks might be better at flowing traffic than freeways are. No one did the cost benefit analysis on whether the impact of the freeway on a neighborhood was worth it. No one noticed that building more freeways without excellent strategy usually makes traffic even worse, not better.
It’s awesome that Airbnb has recognized the negative effect that the decisions of the last century have had on community, and I’m excited that they’re trying to use technology to remedy it. But even beyond that, what’s really commendable is the fact that their solution is not simply another tech product, but rather, a design studio that informs what those tech products should be. This is crucial, because as we learned from the freeways, tools without systems don’t solve problems — and sometimes they hurt more than they help.
The owner of the restaurant I mentioned at the beginning of this article, for example, was so system blind that he didn’t even realize that his “solution,” an app that lets you interact with his restaurant from your phone, had actually made the situation worse, not better. He had created a tool that, in addition to requiring a data plan, awkward time spent downloading an app, and effort committed to figuring out the UI, also managed to strip from the experience the main thing people go to restaurants for in the first place: human interaction. Last time I checked, human interaction (at least the kind that happens at restaurants) wasn’t a problem.
These types of tech transgressions are increasing in number. The prevalence of apps and websites as solutions has led some people to think that making a digital version something is the same thing as making it better, and as a result, more and more solutions are simply real life, mapped out digitally, with no consideration toward how such digitization affects the end user or even what problem is being solved.
There’s no way we can know the lasting effects that today’s technology is going to have on future generations. Freeways were new technology when they were invented, and they had the negative impact that they did because no one stopped to consider that new technology, outside the proper system, has just as much potential to make things worse as it does to make them better. It follows that some of the new technology being created today will probably wreak similar havoc. My stomach churned the other day when a friend told me that during an email conversation about a job, his potential employer had passed him off to a bot that could, “answer any questions he may have.” Not a big problem now, but it’s not hard to visualize the dystopia 15 years from now where everyone is forced to talk to everyone else’s bots to get anything done.
Good design is the answer to system blindness. It’s about taking the time to ask yourself, before you ever begin, what problem you’re trying to solve, and why you’re trying to solve it. It’s about using data and research to validate assumptions, and it’s about being comfortable with the fact that the best solution might not look anything like the solution you wanted to build.
So thanks Airbnb for leading tech in the right direction. And a big thanks to everyone else out there who has made it their mission to create things that genuinely make the world better — not just different.