Crowdsourced consumption and product development

We are all consumers. We choose what to consume. But we also choose how we consume it.

This may be completely different to how the inventor anticipated, or expected, usage. It is the law of unintended consequences.

Contrary actions may prevent a product or service succeeding. But equally, an innovative use that builds on the original concept can be game changing. As Cory Doctorow points out in the article, unintended consequences include such inventions as

Even in a planned economy, inventors can’t dictate how their product or service is used. The community decides. No matter how tightly controlled a campaign is, the product owner cannot dictate outputs.

Similarly, companies cannot dictate perceptions or experiences. Products facilitate actions, but the consumer decides what these actions are. Faris Yakob argues that “A brand is a collective perception in the minds of consumers” while Justin Porter says that “Designers do not create experiences, they create artifacts to experience”

The internet and social networks may enable individual customisation and organic social constructs but these aren’t new phenomena. The community has always had power.

To jump on the bandwagon, I’ll use Twitter as an example. Media coverage of Twitter concentrates on either celebrity uptake, or its position within breaking news stories. These are popular expressions of Twitter use, but were they anticipated?

One of Twitter‘s co-founders says that it was initially conceived as a text dispatch service. Did they foresee that Twitter could be used for, among other things

  • Microblogging
  • Socialising publicly
  • Socialising privately
  • Linking
  • Echoing
  • Syndicating
  • Following
  • Polling
  • Tracking
  • Searching
  • Reporting
  • Announcing
  • Promoting

I suspect that some of these actions would have been considered. But not all of them.

Friend or Follow is a simple tool that can highlight the different ways that people use Twitter. Promoters will have more followers, followers will be fans of more people, and socialisers will have a high proportion of friends. Each person will use Twitter in a slightly different way.

The Twitter founders accepted and embraced this. And took it a step further. Recognising that business development is constrained by their own imaginations (among more prosaic factors such as finance), they opened up their API to outside developers and effectively told them to “go wild”. Individual consumption is supplemented by devolved development.

These tools may have contributed to the growth in popularity as those not convinced by the core offering may be sold by a new application. Some of these – such as Summize – have even been incorporated into the core offering.

This movement takes the concept of community power to the next stage. Product development has joined consumption, perception and experience in being co-opted by the crowd.

But the consequences aren’t wholly positive. Twitter had to buy Summize. With a closed API, they could have introduced a search function organically with minimal cost. A multitude of functions could create a paradox of choice, or confuse the core offering (while perceptions are individual, a company needs a core offering as an anchor). Not to mention the Firefox levels of bloat that could ultimately occur.

By effectively trusting the masses to create Twitter apps, the company also leaves itself open to nefarious or incompatible activity. This could be fake services phishing passwords, or a service that – for example – could promote fascist behaviour.

This makes the path of product evolution far more unpredictable than within a tightly controlled environment such as Apple (though their iPhone apps store does partially relinquish this). How can Twitter remain confident in their product experience. Is some level of control necessary to ensure a coherent thrust, or can the community be relied upon to promote the positive innovations and marginalise the negative?

I don’t know the answer to this, but it also poses some questions regarding usability testing. Is the only way to facilitate this in real-time through public beta testing, rather than closed-shop research initiatives? A balance between organic, crowd-sourced improvement and publicly known missteps need to be found.

To conclude this wildly incoherent post, I remain fascinated by the ability to appropriate not only imagery but functionality. Whether Twitter, or the burgeoning RFID-enabled internet of things, it is an area producing a myriad of innovative activity.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/heyyu/

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