Design It Like a Rollercoaster

As a result of explosive growth in the use of self-describing code and the increasingly sophisticated application of metadata, online content is getting smarter every day. As content gets smarter, controlling that content gets not only more difficult, but also less appropriate.

At the same time, social aspects of the Web are broadening our definition of content. Experiential content, in many cases, dominates more traditional information. When a user tweets and re-tweets, or adds their own rating to a movie’s overall rating, or updates their gaming high scores online, their interaction with data becomes more important than the data itself.

So with smarter content breaking free from its creators and colliding with other out-of-control content and with the importance of experiential aspects on the rise, the relevance and usefulness of old school, print-based elements like pages and linear text decreases sharply. If we can’t rely on our familiar Web design tools any longer, how will we design online products for the 21st century?

I think we’re going to see Web design that has more in common with theme parks than magazines. Theme park designers can spec out a rollercoaster’s rail and propulsion systems and they can determine how people will enter and exit rides, but they can’t design the feeling of wind on the rider’s face, or what that rider had for lunch, or what the rider did right before or will do right after their ride. The park visitor is a co-designer of their park experience.

We can do the same thing online by designing the elements of potential experiences without any illusions about controlling those experiences. When a user puts the elements together in a certain way, they get the experience we had in mind. But when they choose only some of the elements and then they combine them in ways we hadn’t intended, they can still have a satisfying (and in some cases exceptional) experience.

As an example, let’s say that we want to sell a self-encased Wollmner-Smithson Inversive Hydrator (with rotating actualizers in your choice of four colors). We might design a product description, some shopping cart interaction, supplemental inversive hydration video content, user reviews, and a list of movies that have featured Wollmner-Smithson Inversive Hydrators. It’s easy to imagine the experience of a user looking to purchase an inversive hydrator, but if I’m right about the increasing chaos of smarter online content, our users may be just as likely to be seeking a movie experience, an inversive hydrating educational experience, or an interior decorating experience (prominently featuring a beautiful chrome inversive hydrator). Assuming the business owner for our hydrators has figured out how to profit from those related experiences, our success will be based on the effectiveness of each element we design.

Staying true to its print foundations, the Web has been about designing a specific, intended experience. In the 21st century, I think it will more and more be about designing the elements of potential experiences (only some of which will be intended.)