How Products Learn

I recently read the book “How Buildings Learn“. I find the comparison between buildings and products interesting.

Stewart Brand, the author, talks about the disadvantages of building with a a plan that covers every little details and leaves no room to improve:

“The common attribute of vernacular remodeling (and construction) is that it is done without plans. You proceed by improving on what already exists, following wherever usage demands”.

Similarly, when building products without any flexibility to change or improve, it’s very hard to adjust later on based on how people use the product in real life, which is kind of a prediction:

“Where a plan is `based on prediction, a strategy is designed to encompass unforeseeably changing conditions. A good strategy ensures that, no matter what happens, you always have maneuvering room.”

And if the use in real life is a bit different than what you had in mind when creating the complete product with the perfect plan – it’s much harder to change direction, because the product is already “done” and you invested so much time and effort into it. Therefore, you should always keep an open mind and make sure the product is flexible enough:

“Future preservation” means that the building is not only built to last, but it remains always capable of offering new options for its use. Freedom to adjust and even to change direction entirely is preserved.

And the key here is to decide what not to decide. It’s OK to not decide on every little detail. It’s OK to leave room for unknowns. It’s OK to be flexible enough and change plans accordingly with how real life looks like, very similar to buildings:

Taking a strategic approach to a building may mean postponing many design decisions and leaving them to the eventual users of the building.”

A product is never done, and we should not plan for a “done” product. It’s changing all the time, based on how people use it, or what people need. It has an adapted state to fit the users real life needs, as they are changing over time.

“An adapted state is not an end state. A successful building has to be periodically challenged and refreshed, it it will turn into a beautiful corpse.”