Curating Evolution


Consider the meanings of words. Since language was
invented hundreds of millennia ago, the meanings of words have
continuously evolved. Importantly, this collective evolution has been
achieved, not through premeditated coordination, but rather through
exploration and convergence in use. It is a buzzing, booming cauldron of
meanings, yielding effective, drifting, locally-coherent yet globally
disparate support for human linguistic engagement.

Then, in the sixteenth century, printing made
reading and writing far more common. As a result, there was great concern
among the well-educated that language would devolve in the hands of
masses. The keepers of language invented the dictionary to maintain
coherence in word meaning. The Johnsons and Websters positioned themselves
as the arbiters, indeed the designers, of the meanings of words. However,
the actual meaning of words continued to evolve in everyday use largely as
they had before widespread literacy and dictionaries.

Later, in the nineteenth century, some dictionary
writers recognized this inherent tension between meaning based in
definition and meaning based in use. In what may be thought of as a
user-centered move, word meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
were explicitly grounded in actual usage. Readers were invited to submit
quotations of words from written works; that is, words as they were
actually being used. The OED compilers organized these quotations to
reflect the evolving meanings of words. The language rolled on, with the
dictionary tracking its evolution, contributing to the self-awareness and
coherence of language users without presuming to exercise control.

Now, in the twenty-first century, we have the
ability to harvest an instant history of how a word has been used from
Google Books. We also have the crowd sourced Wiktionary, a “collaborative
project to produce a free-content multilingual dictionary. … You can
edit it.” The users of language—the speakers, readers, and writers—are
also its legitimate and authoritative documenters, the dictionary

What has happened to the language arbiters, the
keepers of the flame of language? They continue to play two important
roles. They curate the process, writing, editing, and critiquing the use
of language. And they provide the infrastructure for widespread use and
participation in online language resources.

Thus, over time, we’ve come full-circle in
determining the meanings of words. Since prehistory, the evolution of the
meanings of words was the province of every speaker. Relatively recently,
it became the province of a specialized few, then the contributions of
many organized by the few, and now again the province of us all. Further,
because contributing to a dictionary these days requires skills and access
that are widely available, there are a growing number of participants. We
can all play, and have our own dictionaries if we want them.

Our point? We want to argue that all areas of
design are likely to follow a similar path and reach the same end. These
changes are already underway in most areas, particularly those that are
based on computation. And we want to argue that there is a very important
role in these ever-more-user-produced systems for those with a gift for
order, good design, and usability.

Evolvable Systems—The Only Kind

Historically, like language, all areas of human
practice were directly shaped by the needs of practitioners. Accounting,
message addressing and delivery, the management of employees, and so forth
were managed through a locally idiosyncratic but mostly conventional set
of practices that evolved as they were used and adapted to circumstances.

As aspects of these processes were increasingly
supported by computers, this changed. The computer tools of the later
twentieth century were very rigid (except under the hands of the few who
could write code). Applications for accounting, mail, human resources, and
so forth, had to be spec’d, designed, built, and deployed by specialized
groups. These applications could only handle very limited complexity and
nuance and were difficult to modify once created. However, the practices
that these rigid tools supported were no different from language: their
usage was embedded in life, and life went on—changing and demanding
response. Despite whether dictionaries evolve, language use evolves.
Despite whether computer-based products evolve, the life and practices
they support evolve. In the face of new needs and applications that are
misaligned with those needs, users muddle through by inventing
work-arounds. Even if the technical systems can’t, or won’t, change, the
socio-technical systems (technical systems in use by people) evolve and

In response to this continuing pressure,
tool-builders are beginning to make the same moves that the
dictionary-builders made. They are opening tool-creation to the
participation of users, either by incorporating suggestions on design or
by making tools malleable in the hands of everyone. Releasing control even
more, tool-creation practices are being moved from protected private
centers into the public domain. Even the goal is changing: products are
designed to branch into a host of variants, based on plug-ins and add-ons,
generating a braided stream of interdependent pieces in endless
configurations. There was only one Multics; there are many Linux’s. And
every service is different in each installation.

Many years ago, one of us (Henderson) evolved a
design tool (Trillium) for UI designers at Xerox. Designs were created by
“wiring together” interactional widgets (we called them
items, and each item had an itemtype). Initially, we thought
that we could find a collection of itemtypes that would work for everyone
(at least those making copier interfaces), and then we would use them as
the Xerox design language. A central learning was that one language does
not fit all. Each product line—indeed each product—tended to have variants
on the itemtypes. Our response was to let go of the itemtype definitions,
open them up to everyone, particularly the designers. We evolved Trillium
to support users in creating itemtypes. Trillium’s user support for this
was far from perfect and provided only fairly simple constructions, but it
worked well enough. The resulting languages of design used by different
groups could then evolve, and branch, and (through sharing) merge.

The Trillium creators, almost from the beginning,
delegated creation of the design language to the community of practice of
Xerox UI designers and supported them through language design tools.
Furthermore, we organized and managed the essential context of user
design: a community-wide conversation about the use of Trillium, the
design of UIs, and the design of design languages. That context must
enable participants to become aware of the conversation; find out who else
is “there,” determine what the discussion is about, why it is being held
and to what end; determine how the discussion is being shared, both with
those there and those not; enter, be present, and withdraw in
socially-appropriate ways; present themselves and negotiate their
self-presentation; develop standing and relations (e.g., trust,
friendship) with others; and all the other nuanced interplay of
multi-perspective, inter-personal interaction. We shaped and maintained
this context through the practices of using mailing lists and file
systems, coordinating community-wide gatherings, and introducing and
nurturing video-based distance collaboration.

Trillium was an early example of this pattern of
community-wide evolution of local configurations, but since the broad
adoption of the internet there are many more. Version Management Systems
have rapidly evolved to support diverse local configurations while still
enabling consistency and sharing. Wikipedia has evolved a rich set of
practices to generate an excellent encyclopedia from the “drive by”
contributions of a huge community. A wide range of peer production
projects have benefited from substantial user participation while
improving both their design quality and their scope.

Drive the Bus or Get Run Over

We have a long way to go on all these fronts, but
the direction is clear. Our working – and playing – environments are
evolving, multi-perspective, negotiated. To stay relevant, our system
designs have to become more evolutionary, multi-perspective, negotiated.
Every deployment will be different.

This is not new. Traditionally, we have made our
rigid tools as broad and flexible as possible, and hoped that would do. We
have recognized that we cannot keep up with all the needs of all our users
all the time. We have implicitly relied on users to adapt the tools to
their circumstances. And they have.

However, now it is time to recognize that we need
to support those users in all that adopting and specializing and aligning
and working-around. We cannot anticipate it, so we must help them do it

This affects the design of the tools, but more
importantly it affects how we support the use of those tools. If
work-arounds are part of users’ practice, we must support work-arounds. If
modifying the tools is part of their practice, we must support
modification. In short, the environment of use must be seen as
encompassing all the work of evolution. Instead of thinking of our design
work as ending when use begins, we must support evolution of our designs
in the midst of use.

Getting this right will be a huge competitive
advantage. It recognizes the realities of disparate, negotiated practice.
Rather than denying them, it takes advantage of them. Most powerfully, it
extends the work of designing to all the users. What a design workforce!
Real experts! And it can lower the bar for some designs out of the gate:
just start them so that they are good enough for a big enough community,
and then join with that community in building both the products and the
community. Tomorrow is built on today. Perpetual bootstrap.

Curating Evolution

Inevitably, users, driven by their own local needs,
will tend to evolve their tools in ways that conflict with the needs of
others. Indeed, they may not even know of those others or their needs. The
tools are likely to evolve in diverse, even incompatible directions. As a
group, users may ride off at high speed in all directions.

The role of design is to accelerate evolution. When
evolution is in all directions, the role of design is to accelerate the
practices of coordinating those directions, bringing coherence where

However, here again we must resist the temptation
to take matters into our own hands. If coherence is needed, then it is
needed by the users, so help them to create it. They will be better than
we at determining where coherence is necessary. Let them negotiate it out,
suiting the solutions to the circumstances at hand.

Let achieving coherence be part of the work. As the
work evolves, ways of achieving coherence will also evolve. Because design
accelerates evolution, we—as designers anticipating this buzzing-booming
cauldron of evolution—should be supporting the designing, by everyone, of
tools to achieve coherence.

Making It Happen

All very well, but in practice what will this take?
A few thoughts:

  • Bring users into the design process: That’s
    a no-brainer, because that was the forcing function in the first place.
    Engaging the user may seem straightforward; letting them share or own
    control may be harder.
  • Give everyone a place at the table: As we
    look around organizations, we find that the design activity is not easy to
    get our hands on. It is diffused through groups and documents. It is off
    the radar as a thing of interest. So first, we often need a table—a
    recognition that the design is evolving and that the evolutionary practice
    itself needs care. And then everyone needs to have a place at that table.
    Often, we leave out more than the users—we leave out support, or
    documentation, or marketing, or sales, or even corporate management.
  • The focal point of evolution is actual use:
    The design table must extend to the point of use. The user must be able to
    shout out when it hurts, or delights, or when they have a better idea! And
    all of those at the table, including other users, must be able to hear and
  • Agreement is highly overrated; disagreement
    is the place that progress is made: Diversity is great. Encourage
    conflict. Don’t necessarily seek solutions that make everyone happy.
    Perhaps many interacting solutions are needed. Complete consistency is
    dangerous; after all, the world is changing and therefore inconsistent
    with what it was yesterday. Coherence is better—just enough alignment for
    the purposes at hand, and no more.
  • Trouble is your friend: Trouble is the
    world’s way of calling your attention to what you have to know. It may not
    be that the product has difficulties, it may be the alignment of that
    product with the world. Your support folk are the most important part of
    your program. They must be the best listeners on your team. Keep them very
    close to the table.
  • Let language drift: The practice that
    people are engaged in is evolving. Therefore the language a community uses
    for talking about practice must be evolvable. Let users reflect this in
    your (their!) tools. Use language as an evolvable tool for thought.
  • Embrace ambiguity: Ambiguity provides for
    saying things well enough to get on with the job. Ambiguity is the oil of
    thought. Ensure that oiling is part of your DNA.
  • Let context frame content: In
    conversations, people exchange content. However, the context in which that
    exchange takes place is equally, often more, important. Curating the
    context is more important and harder than curating content. However, same
    tune again, getting started is often not so hard at all. Then it is just a
    small matter of enabling everyone to evolve the context along with the
  • Acknowledge values: Curating is all about
    values. Curating evolution goes beyond competitive advantage; it will
    honor such conversational values as pride of creation, sense of belonging,
    having voice, openness to diversity, sense of control, openness to change,
    and responsiveness to a range of contexts.


Curating evolution is not an easy job. There are
strong forces arrayed against it. All those who feel more secure with
consistency (engineers, programmers, designers, managers) are likely to be
appalled by the prospect of a loosely-coupled evolving design process.

Yet change will out. We argue that curating
evolution is much better than trying to deny it or stamp it out. And in
the end, a lot more fun.

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