Should we stop designing for purpose and use?

This sentiment from Lebbeus Woods, on the meaning and purpose of architecture really resonates with me when it comes to thinking about technology. He’s talking about how people should adapt to space, rather then space be totally pre-conceived with use and purpose in mind. I think the same can be true with technology.


“One of my earliest statements about the meaning and purpose of architecture was: “We should make our buildings first, then learn how to live in them.” Born into a world we did not create, this is always the task facing us: to adapt ourselves to the world as we find it, or the world to us.

Why should we find only architecture limited to some assigned purpose? Why should architecture limit its potential to create space to satisfying the demands for the already known, for some normal ‘program of use’? Architecture should be freed to follow its own rules and ways to its own spatial, and spiritual, conclusions. Architecture should awaken in us new understandings and knowledge, and inspire us to embrace previously unimagined experiences. It should demand from us a level of invention of our own lives at least equal to the level of invention that brought it into being.”

We tend to think that the correct process for the design of software and hardware experiences is with a specific use or situation in mind, with a pre-imagined scenario of how people will interact with a “thing”. But many of the technology tools and objects that we use every day didn’t come with those pre-conceptions in mind. They may have come with SOME pre-conceptions, but invariably they didn’t match the real way in which the technology has ultimately come into everyday use.

SMS (texting) is a classic example, as it was designed as a general broadcast technology rather than for one-to-one communication:

‘According to Cor Stutterheim from CMG, “It started as a message service, allowing operators to inform all their own customers about things such as problems with the network. When we created SMS (Short Messaging Service) it was not really meant to communicate from consumer to consumer and certainly not meant to become the main channel which the younger generation would use to communicate with each other,” added Stutterheim.’

I’d argue that the Internet is shifting our design processes from those with purpose and use in mind, to those that are open and free for interpretation. We’re presented daily with a stream of services that we don’t quite know what to do with, at the outset. Use becomes emergent.

Flickr emerged like this – initially intended as the photo repository for a massively multiplayer online game, it’s value as the public repository for the Internet’s photos (which is what you could argue it is becoming) is unexpected. It’s value comes through the choice to make photos visible publicly by default, rather than private, going against the grain of many other photo sharing sites. Public photos create their own value, as a source for shared experiences, shared themes and the collaborative documentation of the world at large.

Services like Twitter and Facebook are in the middle of the throes of this process, where patterns and etiquette of use are still being developed, much like e-mail in its early years, and even the core purpose of the services has still to emerge.

It’s cheap to try this process online – fairly straightforward for an individual or small group to knock together the notions of a site, and put it out there in the public domain to see what sticks. I wonder what the equivalent is for hardware? Maybe we’re already seeing purposeless hardware happen through sites like Make, which put out recipes for hardware that invites reinterpretation, and new, componentised hardware sensors and devices, that allow us to interpret use for ourselves.

SenseCam on the BBC