Product Design by Kafka and Beckett

My family moved into a new building a couple weeks ago. It’s fantastic. The main feature is an interior courtyard where all the kids in the building play. My two year old son loves it. 

Tonight, before it was time for all the mommies and daddies to call their kids in for dinner, the courtyard was in full swing. And then out came Kafka, a small super friendly, wiry mutt. Kafka loves tennis balls. He goes mental for tennis balls. If you throw a tennis ball, Kafka will become a furry bullet. Pure speed. He picks up the ball in stride and whoosh, he’s off to the races. 

My son thinks this is the funniest thing he’s ever seen in his life. He tears off after Kafka. All the kids do. The dog is like a speeding comet with a tail of giggling toddlers. It’s awesome.

One of the kids is a few years older, his name is Beckett. He’s a great kid. And today he had an idea that he thought would heighten the tennis ball experience. He added a piece of technology, a bike. He rode this bike into the scrum, picked up the tennis ball and put it in the bike’s basket. This should’ve been great - he could ride fast, torment the dog, and keep all the little kids in chase behind him. The bike was an advantage unique to Beckett, none of the other kids nor Kafka the dog could operate a bike. He was untouchable, Kafka would be chasing him. 

There was just one problem, as soon as the ball went into the basket and thus out of Kafka’s line of sight, the dog could care less. He just got bored and gave up. The kids, ecstatic about chasing Kafka, couldn’t be bothered with trying to catch Beckett.

As I watched Beckett and Kafka and all the little kids in the courtyard I realized, this is a design problem. If you want Kafka to chase the ball - something he LOVES to do - you have to show it to him. The clearer he can see it, the better. As soon as the ball leaves his sight, he’s done and so are his literal followers. 

I’m all for simplicity in digital design. I am a fan of editing and hiding whatever can be removed or hidden. But if you want someone to take an action, especially the action that will make them metaphorically run around the courtyard with such delight that every kid in the building chases after them, you can’t hide it. You can make it a game, you can throw it but you need to keep it clearly in view.

When we use digital tools, we are Kafka. You must show us the ball if you want us to run with it. It sounds simple but when there’s so much else to consider, like a shiny new bike with a basket, it’s easy to forget.

What does collective intelligence mean? It’s important to realize that intelligence is not just something that happens inside individual brains. It also arises with groups of individuals. In fact, I’d define collective intelligence as groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent. By that definition, of course, collective intelligence has been around for a very long time. Families, companies, countries, and armies: those are all examples of groups of people working together in ways that at least sometimes seem intelligent.

It’s also possible for groups of people to work together in ways that seem pretty stupid, and I think collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence…

What’s new, though, is a new kind of collective intelligence enabled by the Internet. Think of Google, for instance, where millions of people all over the world create web pages, and link those web pages to each other. Then all that knowledge is harvested by the Google technology so that when you type a question in the Google search bar the answers you get often seem amazingly intelligent, at least by some definition of the word “intelligence”….

Our future as a species may depend on our ability to use our global collective intelligence to make choices that are not just smart, but also wise.

Thomas W. Malone, director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, on humanity’s evolving ‘global brain.’ Also see Christof Koch on the evolution of the global übermind.

( It’s Okay To Be Smart)