UX Cambridge: Stuart Church, From Darwin to Design

Stuart Church is an animal behaviourist turned UX consultant. He tweets as @stuchurch.

  • Darwin’s idea of evolutionary natural selection was one of the most powerful ideas of all time; the idea is something that is useful to us as interaction designers. Animals optimise what they do in a competitive Darwinian world, in the same way we want to optimise websites.
  • Biomimicry: There are amazing examples of adaptations in the animal world that influence/inspire product design — sticky plant seeds became velcro; there are swimming costumes inspired by shark skin; turbines shapes like whale fins; and lizard feet with sticky pads inspired adhesives.
  • Evolution is “the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations” aka “The survival of the fittest”.
  • Biological vs cultural evolution: Genes vs Memes (memes are the cultural analogue of genes, ideas that develop and are passed on. Good ones spread; bad ones don’t.)
  • There are selection pressures on genes: Prey, Mating, Competition, the physical environment, Pathogens/disease, Predators — a massive amount of pressure on an organism to survive.
  • For memes there are also pressures: Motivation, social factors (religion being the biggest example), utility/function, meaning, etc.
  • Designs as memes: Designs are ideas that are culturally inherited. Good designs serve a purpose and persist. Poor designs are forgotten. The unit of selection is the idea rather than the design itself.
  • What can we learn about design and innovation from evolutionary systems?
  • Evolution is just one big massive A/B experiment (“The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles” — JBS Haldane).
  • Design and innovation as experimentation: The ‘Lean’ concept, treating designs as experiments, and iterating through the cycle of idea>build>measure>data>learn.
  • Failure is the norm. 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are extinct. 80-95% of new products fail in their first year.
  • Innovations are not that innovative: “new but similar” – not necessarily different and radical.
  • “The adjacent possible.” Most successful ideas and innovations tend not be that different from what already exists. (This is also why we’re not all wearing jetpacks or living under the sea.)
  • Mixing it up: “Optimal Outbreeding” is why some animals don’t mate with others extremely genetically dissimilar to themselves. Sex allows you to experiment and create new gene combinations but you don’t want to lose the good combinations you have. New innovations often come from mixing up ideas too.
  • Ethnographic researchers visited labs, and observed that many ideas were being generated when people came together to share ideas rather than when working alone.
  • Ideas can be ‘too innovative’ — look at the Apple Newton.
  • Evolution is not gradual. It is characterised by periods of relative calm, followed by bursts of speciation when there is opportunity. This is called “Punctuated equilibrium“. For example, look at tablet evolution, pre- and post-iPad.
  • Can innovation be too fast? RNA viruses mutate rapidly, but not so rapidly that they lose self-identity (error catastrophe.) Could our desire to innovate ultimately be harmful? Can users/consumers keep up with the pace of change (gadget fatigue)?
  • Geographical isolation. The act of forming different species (speciation) often occurs when a population is separated. In terms of design, this manifests itself as cultural differences.
  • Evolution and behaviour. Can also apply evolutionary thinking at the level of individual behaviour.
  • Optimality theory. Behaviours are subject to natural selection, so animals will tend to behave in ways that are close to optimal.
  • Relationships and cooperation – technology is making us much more social.
  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic game theory problem, with well-documented solutions. What does this mean for UX? Can relationships with businesses/brands learn from the prisoner’s dilemma? Initial courtship vs long relationship. Reward points as a long-term strategy (e.g. Tesco).
  • Signalling and status. Some animals signal their quality to potential mates through visual displays (e.g. peacocks). To be effective, these need to be ‘honest’ signals (i.e. costly to produce). They are effectively a handicap as they may reduce ability to carry out other tasks (e.g. flying, foraging, etc.) — “The Handicap Principle.” Are there equivalents in design?
  • Optimal foraging theory. Animals forage optimally (or nearly). Prey and patch choice can be predicted and tested experimentally. Works for human hunter-gatherers too.
  • Information foraging theory. Humans as “informavores”. Foraging theories can be applied to people searching for information (Exaptation). Key thing that has come out of this work is the concept of information ‘scent’ — trigger words and feeling confident you are on the right path. People behave in a very similar ways to animals.
  • Jakob Nielsen said: “The two main strategies are to make your content look like a nutritious meal and signal that it’s an easy catch. These strategies must be used in combination: users will leave if the content is good but hard to find, or if it’s easy to find but offers only empty calories.”
  • Final thoughts: There is a lot of insight about the broader context of what we do that can be got out of this. The idea that when we come up with designs that we are putting them into this psychological landscape, with selection pressures acting upon them, is a powerful one.

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