UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 185 May 24, 2007

Abundance and UX

I spent some time this weekend listening and thinking about Chris Anderson’s talk from PopTech! . Chris is looking to move beyond the Long Tail and is focusing on the notion of what happens when you look at the world through a lens of abundance rather than the classic Adam Smith economic model of scarcity.

He explains that Alan Kay creates the GUI because he imagines a world where computing power is abundant rather than scarce. In a world where computing power is viewed as scarce you don’t create things like icons, because it requires too much of the processor’s scarce resources.

What happens when you look at the world through a lens of abundance?

I propose that the best user experiences sit on top of an infrastructure layer of abundance. This generation of growth in the digital channel is directly attributable to abundance. Abundance means things get cheap because they are plentiful. Cheap servers, cheap software, cheap bandwidth all set the stage for great UX.

User Experience and abundance are like chocolate and peanut butter. In a world of abundance we are forced to solve problems for users. How do I make an abundant world useful and useable? Amazon’s “people who bought this” only occurs because of abundance. If there were only 100 products for sale, you just don’t need features like that.

In fact, abundance on its own would be difficult to get value out of without user experience design. What good is having access to 9 million songs, if you can’t find what you want?

I like Chris’ view on abundance, I am interested to see where he goes with this. Until then, I will continue to look at the world as abundant rather than scarce.

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65
74

We still live on a finite planet.

Perhaps my thoughts don't apply quite as well to the computer industry... but then again, we are using more power on this planet that we ought to be and computers run on power. We do not, and never will, have an infinite amount of power.

Nothing is infinite.

If we have a population of people thinking that everything is abundant and they can use as much of it as they want, then they will eventually exhaust their resources and look like Chaco Canyon...

If you take everything, there is nothing left.

67
73

Totally agree with your concept. If amazon did not have all those shoppers most of their widgets will be pretty much useless.
-faraz from blu ray ripper

66
63

Great talk indeed, it’s about time people can choose what they consume and experience. As digital technology spreads around the world, designer will have to make sure people are able to easily use these new tools/products, and like you said “abundance on its own would be difficult to get value out of without user experience design”.

55
66

Disclaimer: I haven’t yet checked out the link to Chris Anderson’s talk.

I have often heard UX spoken of as related to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and I think the premise is the same as being discussed here. There are first the basic needs that need to be met, and as we achieve those, we can start working on personal satisfaction and growth. That’s the level where self-actualization and optimizing the user experience can really come into play. As you say, when you are dealing with scarcity, you will take what you can get. When you are at higher level, the focus has to shift.

79
65

At the base of Chris’ argument is a flawed logic. The assumption that all things are free and that “waste is good” is an extension of contemporary capitalism. These things are, in fact, not free. Even simple things like transistors require resources to produce, and once produced have an impact on other systems. While immersing ourselves in the “digital realm” we fail to consider the far-reaching implications of our rampant desire to “progress” by means of “waste”. Even a simple transistor adds to environmental load of our planet. How convenient is it that “waste” is good when we unload the burden of dealing with that waste on those who are less fortunate than us.

In Chris’ talk he states that “air” is free. This statement seems to be true in isolation – we all breathe the air around us. However, let us consider the logic behind this statement while looking at a larger scale. On a community level the quality of air has an impact on things like real estate value. A residential dwelling that is close to pollution producing industries has less value to average individual. We can see this effect magnified when we look at a larger scale. Consider the current situation with India, significant portions of the country have become a dumping ground for garbage produced in the east (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/click_online/4341494.stm). Ironically, much of this waste is comprised of technological gadgets – computers, cell phones, etc.. These areas are uninhabitable largely due to environmental issues, with the poor having no choice but to dig through our waste to try and survive.

In the West, it is convenient to point at things like the air and water as being free. However, the fact of the matter is these two components of our system are immensely valuable. Any logical model that does not incorporate an understanding that both resources are finite fails to recognize what is required to sustain our species. Simply put, we can’t survive without air or water.

Refusing to consider the implication of “waste” has led us to where we are now. Standing on the summit of a peak economy with no way to go but down.

74
70

Daniel Barber is dead on. What percentage of the design world do you think even realizes, let alone cares, that ever-increasing physical and environmental scarcity will inevitably encroach upon the digital realm? Abundance in information in our privileged world is currently made possible only through 1) the exploitation of labor overseas (even if you only buy products made 100% in the G8+5, our governments and fellow consumers sure don’t) and 2) the exploitation of natural resources (how did they come to be, the chair you’re sitting on, the roof over your head?).

Even if we completely ignore that our overconsumption is leading to problems of catastrophic proportions, it is impossible to deny that our way of life cannot be sustained over time—not to mention that it’s unfair to the majority (and growing) of non-privileged individuals with whom we share this space.

If you’re the kind of person who thinks we won’t have problems sustaining enough food surplus, water surplus, clean air surplus, oil surplus, and rare metals surplus to continue building gadgets, you’re not alone. Everyone has more or less been sticking their heads in the sand since the beginning of consciousness, notwithstanding the ostrich approach requires ever-increasing amounts of vigilance nowadays.

If you’re the kind of person who assumes that the problem will go away because enough other people will find (technological) solutions to cure our behavioral ills, you’re really not alone. There was a recent article about how (as a rough illustration) 99% of design resources are poured into products which only 1% of the people can afford.

Good design and user experience are even more important in a world of scarcity. It’s vital that we make products worth making, worth using, and that’ll be respected—otherwise we are wasting everyone’s time. Furthermore, to argue that software is far removed from scarcity such that wasted CPU cycles have a negligible effect on our resources is a dangerous source of ignorance.

Design must occur with a fundamental awareness of a world of extreme scarcity. Even if we live in an era of information abundance, it comes at a high cost. We are just beginning to learn how to reduce the cost of our way of living, while trying to continue living in the same way—and design can help with that, but only from designers willing to extricate their heads out of the 20th century.

70
70

I just wanted to wade in here. I think you are raising some very valid points.

But can you use this idea of abundance to solve some of the issues you raise? For example, let’s say I run a data center. I am trying to preserve the scarce resource of power. If I view the problem as a problem of scarcity then I will look to installing lower power servers. Replace the gas or electric powered HVAC with a geo-thermal based system. All admirable and effective solutions.

But if I think, what do I have that is abundant in a 140 000 sq ft data center? My roof is space is pretty abundant, why don’t I put solar panels on this abundant space?

Of course, this is a simplistic example. But I am trying to show that viewing the world through a lens of abundance can uncover solutions to the kind of issues you raise.

I do agree that Chris discounts that there is almost no cost to putting things online. But I think he stretches a point to make a point.

I do want to take specific exception to one point eric makes…

“It’s vital that we make products worth making, worth using, and that’ll be respected—otherwise we are wasting everyone’s time.”

In theory, yes this is true. But it is impossible to accurately predict which products will be respected before wasting resources to make the product. If you have a method to accurately predict the success of a product before it is made, I think there are some companies that would like to speak to you.

Isn’t the beauty of an abundant world the fact that even the most traditionally underserved niches can have their needs met? One person’s wasted time is another’s precious moment.

I am not arguing that we can’t be more efficient or sustainable but I challenge you to solve some of these issues with a view of abundance. You might come to some surprising conclusions.

69
78

Jon, I agree pretty much entirely, but with caveats. The ideas you’ve presented such as installing low-power consumption units and solar panels are good thinking. However, I’d like to reiterate that I take issue not with the having of abundance per se, but rather with the assumption that abundance is natural, fair, expected, deserved, and will always be present. In short, it is vital we recognize that abundance is an immense luxury, and should not be squandered.

Regarding your point on predicting the success of products before they are made, I think you have slightly misunderstood. I am not saying we must be able to anticipate with certainty whether products are worthwhile making, before we have a chance to tell. But you would probably agree that not all potential products on the drawing board deserve to be there. There is currently scant room for conversation about how useful a product might be compared to how wasteful it would be. I am merely proposing that such a conversation be a necessary one.

We are living amid the greatest market failure in history: the failure to account for environmental (and social, but that catches up to us less quickly) externalities. The sooner we can understand that the free market can only be sustainable if we start explicitly assigning value to the goods we treasure most—clean air, clean water, trees, ocean life, etc.—as well as price tags to our waste—garbage, pollutants, greenhouse gases, etc.—the better prepared we will be for when even our abundant luxuries are no longer so easy at hand.

68
57

Eric,

This conversation is fantastic and I can add little to it except to ask, “Who would decide which products are not worthwhile?” There are many examples of products intended to serve a single purpose that spawned new and different products and/or ideas. I’m not prepared to limit the creative process by assuming that I, or any other individual or group, could regulate what products are not worthwhile. Who decides the wastefulness vs. the usefulness of a product if not the free market?? How does governance of this not become creative censorship? The comment that one “would probably agree that not all potential products on the drawing board deserve to be there” implies a tacit agreement among everyone about what those products are. Achieving this agreement should not be assumed as a given.

72
77

One major factor in the user experience work I do every day is the abundance of information.

70
68

Jenny,

Your question is an important one but seems to harbor at least one critical assumption: that the worth of a product is determined primarily by its market value. Perhaps in a truly free market, this would be okay, and by “truly free” all I mean is a market that is not grossly ignorant of environmental and social externalities. But we don’t have a free market—here’s an example:

Table P is made from old-growth Indonesian trees and sells for $100.
Table Q is made from bamboo from California and sells for $200.

In this clear-cut (!) but perfectly realistic example, we witness horrendous accounting practices. When “P” tables are manufactured, who is paying for the trashed 10,000-year-old forests, for the loss of ecosystems, for the potential scientific discoveries thrown away, for the extra pollution emitted as a result of long distance shipment? No one. If they did, though, “P” tables would cost far more than “Q” tables. The costs that aren’t factored into the equation do not disappear; they are merely reshelved for later when we are spending trillions trying to re-absorb all that carbon-dioxide we’ve spewed.

Those who believe the environment isn’t worth preserving for its own sake can still appreciate that the economic requirements for cures are phenomenally more taxing than the requirements for preventions. But “can still appreciate” does not lead to change because the deficiency of our markets today lies precisely with their inherently reactive nature.

By the time the forests are depleted, or oil runs away, to the point where “P” tables are costing 50%, 100%, 150% more to manufacture and ship, we have serious problems. The response “Ah, that’s the free market at work, responding to supply constraints!” is patently ludicrous because the market simply has miniscule ability to anticipate supply constraints—at least certainly not enough to prevent disaster, let alone encourage real solutions amply prior.

So to return to your question, “shouldn’t the free market decide what products are worthwhile”, I say no. The free market is simply not a sufficient tool for judging. But I have not been advocating for any sort of regulatory body to determine what products should and should not be made, and certainly I don’t wish to hamper creativity. Simply put, it is in our power as designers to be aware (and spread awareness) of another yardstick by which to measure what we create.

Even without concerns of failures of our market, two people, now, in this thread, have seemed to defend (even if just a little bit) the following faulty logic: “We have no idea how successful a product will be before we try it out, therefore every product deserves a chance.” While, sure, smashing hits can occur unexpectedly, our capacity for judgment is hardly as limited as the reasoning would suggest.

63
67

Jenny,

Your question is an important one but seems to harbor at least one critical assumption: that the worth of a product is determined primarily by its market value. Perhaps in a truly free market, this would be okay, and by “truly free” all I mean is a market that is not grossly ignorant of environmental and social externalities. But we don’t have a free market—here’s an example:

Table P is made from old-growth Indonesian trees and sells for $100.
Table Q is made from bamboo from California and sells for $200.

In this clear-cut (!) but perfectly realistic example, we witness horrendous accounting practices. When “P” tables are manufactured, who is paying for the trashed 10,000-year-old forests, for the loss of ecosystems, for the potential scientific discoveries thrown away, for the extra pollution emitted as a result of long distance shipment? No one. If they did, though, “P” tables would cost far more than “Q” tables. The costs that aren’t factored into the equation do not disappear; they are merely reshelved for later when we are spending trillions trying to re-absorb all that carbon-dioxide we’ve spewed.

Those who believe the environment isn’t worth preserving for its own sake can still appreciate that the economic requirements for cures are phenomenally more taxing than the requirements for preventions. But “can still appreciate” does not lead to change because the deficiency of our markets today lies precisely with their inherently reactive nature.

By the time the forests are depleted, or oil runs away, to the point where “P” tables are costing 50%, 100%, 150% more to manufacture and ship, we have serious problems. The response “Ah, that’s the free market at work, responding to supply constraints!” is patently ludicrous because the market simply has miniscule ability to anticipate supply constraints—at least certainly not enough to prevent disaster, let alone encourage real solutions amply prior.

So to return to your question, “shouldn’t the free market decide what products are worthwhile”, I say no. The free market is simply not a sufficient tool for judging. But I have not been advocating for any sort of regulatory body to determine what products should and should not be made, and certainly I don’t wish to hamper creativity. Simply put, it is in our power as designers to be aware (and spread awareness) of another yardstick by which to measure what we create.

Even without concerns of failures of our market, two people, now, in this thread, have seemed to defend (even if just a little bit) the following faulty logic: “We have no idea how successful a product will be before we try it out, therefore every product deserves a chance.” While, sure, smashing hits can occur unexpectedly, our capacity for judgment is hardly as limited as the reasoning would suggest.

69
70

One major factor in the user experience work I do every day is the abundance of information.

73
70

Eric,

This conversation is fantastic and I can add little to it except to ask, “Who would decide which products are not worthwhile?” There are many examples of products intended to serve a single purpose that spawned new and different products and/or ideas. I’m not prepared to limit the creative process by assuming that I, or any other individual or group, could regulate what products are not worthwhile. Who decides the wastefulness vs. the usefulness of a product if not the free market?? How does governance of this not become creative censorship? The comment that one “would probably agree that not all potential products on the drawing board deserve to be there” implies a tacit agreement among everyone about what those products are. Achieving this agreement should not be assumed as a given.

66
60

Jon, I agree pretty much entirely, but with caveats. The ideas you’ve presented such as installing low-power consumption units and solar panels are good thinking. However, I’d like to reiterate that I take issue not with the having of abundance per se, but rather with the assumption that abundance is natural, fair, expected, deserved, and will always be present. In short, it is vital we recognize that abundance is an immense luxury, and should not be squandered.

Regarding your point on predicting the success of products before they are made, I think you have slightly misunderstood. I am not saying we must be able to anticipate with certainty whether products are worthwhile making, before we have a chance to tell. But you would probably agree that not all potential products on the drawing board deserve to be there. There is currently scant room for conversation about how useful a product might be compared to how wasteful it would be. I am merely proposing that such a conversation be a necessary one.

We are living amid the greatest market failure in history: the failure to account for environmental (and social, but that catches up to us less quickly) externalities. The sooner we can understand that the free market can only be sustainable if we start explicitly assigning value to the goods we treasure most—clean air, clean water, trees, ocean life, etc.—as well as price tags to our waste—garbage, pollutants, greenhouse gases, etc.—the better prepared we will be for when even our abundant luxuries are no longer so easy at hand.

61
65

I just wanted to wade in here. I think you are raising some very valid points.

But can you use this idea of abundance to solve some of the issues you raise? For example, let’s say I run a data center. I am trying to preserve the scarce resource of power. If I view the problem as a problem of scarcity then I will look to installing lower power servers. Replace the gas or electric powered HVAC with a geo-thermal based system. All admirable and effective solutions.

But if I think, what do I have that is abundant in a 140 000 sq ft data center? My roof is space is pretty abundant, why don’t I put solar panels on this abundant space?

Of course, this is a simplistic example. But I am trying to show that viewing the world through a lens of abundance can uncover solutions to the kind of issues you raise.

I do agree that Chris discounts that there is almost no cost to putting things online. But I think he stretches a point to make a point.

I do want to take specific exception to one point eric makes…

“It’s vital that we make products worth making, worth using, and that’ll be respected—otherwise we are wasting everyone’s time.”

In theory, yes this is true. But it is impossible to accurately predict which products will be respected before wasting resources to make the product. If you have a method to accurately predict the success of a product before it is made, I think there are some companies that would like to speak to you.

Isn’t the beauty of an abundant world the fact that even the most traditionally underserved niches can have their needs met? One person’s wasted time is another’s precious moment.

I am not arguing that we can’t be more efficient or sustainable but I challenge you to solve some of these issues with a view of abundance. You might come to some surprising conclusions.

65
71

Daniel Barber is dead on. What percentage of the design world do you think even realizes, let alone cares, that ever-increasing physical and environmental scarcity will inevitably encroach upon the digital realm? Abundance in information in our privileged world is currently made possible only through 1) the exploitation of labor overseas (even if you only buy products made 100% in the G8+5, our governments and fellow consumers sure don’t) and 2) the exploitation of natural resources (how did they come to be, the chair you’re sitting on, the roof over your head?).

Even if we completely ignore that our overconsumption is leading to problems of catastrophic proportions, it is impossible to deny that our way of life cannot be sustained over time—not to mention that it’s unfair to the majority (and growing) of non-privileged individuals with whom we share this space.

If you’re the kind of person who thinks we won’t have problems sustaining enough food surplus, water surplus, clean air surplus, oil surplus, and rare metals surplus to continue building gadgets, you’re not alone. Everyone has more or less been sticking their heads in the sand since the beginning of consciousness, notwithstanding the ostrich approach requires ever-increasing amounts of vigilance nowadays.

If you’re the kind of person who assumes that the problem will go away because enough other people will find (technological) solutions to cure our behavioral ills, you’re really not alone. There was a recent article about how (as a rough illustration) 99% of design resources are poured into products which only 1% of the people can afford.

Good design and user experience are even more important in a world of scarcity. It’s vital that we make products worth making, worth using, and that’ll be respected—otherwise we are wasting everyone’s time. Furthermore, to argue that software is far removed from scarcity such that wasted CPU cycles have a negligible effect on our resources is a dangerous source of ignorance.

Design must occur with a fundamental awareness of a world of extreme scarcity. Even if we live in an era of information abundance, it comes at a high cost. We are just beginning to learn how to reduce the cost of our way of living, while trying to continue living in the same way—and design can help with that, but only from designers willing to extricate their heads out of the 20th century.

55
78

At the base of Chris’ argument is a flawed logic. The assumption that all things are free and that “waste is good” is an extension of contemporary capitalism. These things are, in fact, not free. Even simple things like transistors require resources to produce, and once produced have an impact on other systems. While immersing ourselves in the “digital realm” we fail to consider the far-reaching implications of our rampant desire to “progress” by means of “waste”. Even a simple transistor adds to environmental load of our planet. How convenient is it that “waste” is good when we unload the burden of dealing with that waste on those who are less fortunate than us.

In Chris’ talk he states that “air” is free. This statement seems to be true in isolation – we all breathe the air around us. However, let us consider the logic behind this statement while looking at a larger scale. On a community level the quality of air has an impact on things like real estate value. A residential dwelling that is close to pollution producing industries has less value to average individual. We can see this effect magnified when we look at a larger scale. Consider the current situation with India, significant portions of the country have become a dumping ground for garbage produced in the east (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/click_online/4341494.stm). Ironically, much of this waste is comprised of technological gadgets – computers, cell phones, etc.. These areas are uninhabitable largely due to environmental issues, with the poor having no choice but to dig through our waste to try and survive.

In the West, it is convenient to point at things like the air and water as being free. However, the fact of the matter is these two components of our system are immensely valuable. Any logical model that does not incorporate an understanding that both resources are finite fails to recognize what is required to sustain our species. Simply put, we can’t survive without air or water.

Refusing to consider the implication of “waste” has led us to where we are now. Standing on the summit of a peak economy with no way to go but down.

68
67

Disclaimer: I haven’t yet checked out the link to Chris Anderson’s talk.

I have often heard UX spoken of as related to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and I think the premise is the same as being discussed here. There are first the basic needs that need to be met, and as we achieve those, we can start working on personal satisfaction and growth. That’s the level where self-actualization and optimizing the user experience can really come into play. As you say, when you are dealing with scarcity, you will take what you can get. When you are at higher level, the focus has to shift.

72
78

Great talk indeed, it’s about time people can choose what they consume and experience. As digital technology spreads around the world, designer will have to make sure people are able to easily use these new tools/products, and like you said “abundance on its own would be difficult to get value out of without user experience design”.