Designing for Second-Order Effects

The things we build are rarely as simple as they seem.

This is true of their engineering, but it’s also true of their design. Our work doesn’t stop at the edge of the screen, and the services, websites, and apps that we design are less about the products themselves and more about the interactions they foster. Design can modify existing behaviors and create new ones, sometimes transforming our entire society in the process.

This is rarely intentional or predictable. Eight years ago, who would’ve guessed that Twitter — just a microblogging platform — could facilitate uprisings in the Middle East and civil rights movements in the United States? Or that Facebook — just a social network for college students — could change the way people relate to one another worldwide? Even their creators were in the dark. Such is the power of second-order effects.

What are second-order effects? Put simply:

This cascade of effects-becoming-causes-producing-effects, like dominoes falling in quick succession, can result in the most minuscule decisions becoming amplified to surprising magnitude.

When the App isn’t the App

In his seminal essay series Breaking Smart, author Venkatesh Rao describes the enormity of Uber’s second-order effects:

As the ridesharing sector took root and grew in city after city, second-order effects began to kick in. The increased convenience enables many more urban dwellers to adopt carless lifestyles. Increasing supply lowers costs, and increases accessibility for people previously limited to inconvenient public transportation. And as the idea of the carless lifestyle began to spread, urban planners began to realize that century-old trends like suburbanization, driven in part by car ownership, could no longer be taken for granted.

The ridesharing future we are seeing emerge now is even more dramatic: the higher utilization of cars leads to lower demand for cars, and frees up resources for other kinds of consumption. Individual lifestyle costs are being lowered and insurance models are being reimagined. The future of road networks must now be reconsidered in light of greener and more efficient use of both vehicles and roads.

Meanwhile, the emerging software infrastructure created by ridesharing is starting to have a cascading impact on businesses, such as delivery services, that rely on urban transportation and logistics systems. And finally, by proving many key component technologies, the rideshare industry is paving the way for the next major development: driverless cars.

Not bad for a service that, just a few years ago, seemed like a minor enhancement to the taxi industry.

Uber itself is a simple concept, but its true significance has little to do with the app itself. The really transformative side of Uber happens outside of the screen, in the behaviors it facilitates and the lifestyle it enables. Though Uber-the-app is an important piece of the puzzle, thanks to second-order effects, Uber-the-service is a much larger thing.

Embracing the Boondoggles

As a species, we are phenomenally bad at predicting second-order effects, to the result that we often miss the true potential impact of the things we’ve invented.

The most influential technologies have consistently been written off as mere boondoggles. To paraphrase a well-known adage: A transformative technology is first ignored, then it’s ridiculed, then it’s fought, then it becomes a part of life. We can’t remember how we ever lived without it.

Newsweek, in a now-legendary article from 1995 entitled Why the Web Won’t be Nirvana, published the following:

Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic. Baloney.

Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.

Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month?

This is nothing new. In 1946, an executive at 20th Century Fox said the following: “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

The ancient Greeks invented the steam engine, and even had a working prototype of it. Since they couldn’t think of any applications besides mere entertainment, however, it took until the Industrial Revolution before it changed the world.

Similarly, on the invention of the wheel in Mesoamerica, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says:

We keep being reminded that the Mesoamericans did not invent the wheel. They did. They had wheels. But the wheels were on small toys for children. It was just like the story of the suitcase: the Mayans and Zapotecs did not make the leap to the application. They used vast quantities of human labor, corn maize, and lactic acid to move gigantic slabs of stone in the flat spaces ideal for pushcarts and chariots where they built their pyramids. They even rolled them on logs of wood. Meanwhile, their small children were rolling their toys on the stucco floors.

For most of its life, Facebook was written off as being a guaranteed failure — just a blip in the history of similar social networking sites. Instead, it is used by a billion people daily and is remaking our understanding of friendship in its own image.

Tinder is basically a picture rating service with a messaging component, and yet it has transformed (commoditized?) sex and dating among its users, with effects that have started to bleed into the rest of society.

Twitter is incredibly simple — just a publication service for short-form public messages. And yet, despite being oft-ridiculed as pointless and vain, it’s been the organizing force behind such social movements as the Arab Spring, Great Ape-Snake War, and Black Lives Matter.

Tinkering and Engineering

Largely, the most influential inventions in history were the result of tinkering and accidental discovery; with few exceptions, great achievements aren’t the result of a rigorous engineering process trying to solve a particular problem, but rather a side-effect of somebody messing around. (The most notable exception being the atomic bomb, which was both hugely influential and the result of concerted laboratory work in a specific direction).

Many of the apps that grace our homescreens are just side-projects that got big — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest among them. The apps with the greatest second-order effects seem to be the ones that started unintentionally, with perhaps Uber as the exception.

My theory, completely unsubstantiated, is that products that start their life as a side-project — let’s call them “tinkered” projects — are open to a wider range of second-order effects than products that have been well-engineered from the outset. Rigorous engineering requires a fleshed-out roadmap, making those projects less receptive to organic growth. As second-order effects start to emerge, tinkered projects have the freedom to change direction and pursue those effects in ways that engineered projects do not.

Designing for Second-Order Effects

I’ll get this out of the way quickly: is it even possible to design for second-order effects? Probably not. They’re too far-ranging, too unpredictable, to be designed intentionally. While they may be baked into the things we build already, we likely won’t notice until they emerge organically for us to know how they’ll play out.

Remember, Twitter shipped without central features like hashtags or @ mentions — those were adopted by the community spontaneously, and then built into the service itself. Hashtags became a central component to the rise of Twitter as an activist platform, all because its stewards were flexible enough to see the benefits of standardizing an unanticipated use of the service.

So where does this leave us? While we lack the foresight to design for second-order effects directly, we can remain flexible enough to accommodate them once they present themselves. By watching how people use our work, we can “pave the cowpaths” later on.

One resource for embracing this unpredictability comes from an unlikely source — the United States Department of Defense. In a paper published by the Joint Information Operations Center, they outline a framework for thinking about second-order effects. You can read it here.

Perhaps this is an unsatisfying conclusion for a promising subject. Such is the nature of unpredictable effects — if there were a playbook for understanding them, they wouldn’t be unpredictable.

This essay owes a lot to Breaking Smartan essay series that should be required reading for anyone active in the world of design or engineering. A great deal is also owed to Antifragile, a daunting but worthwhile read from statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

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