The iPod and adaptive design

The iPod’s firmware upgrades indicate how we can now unlock new devices from within the existing, but what if adaptive design principles were pursued more thoroughly by Apple?

Dan Hill

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Ed. This piece was originally published on 23 November 2003.

For a while, I’d been meaning to write a piece about an aspect of the iPod design which, if not strictly adaptive, seemed to enable iterative design strategies around the functionality.

The ability to significantly extend the functionality of the product via firmware upgrades feels like it‘s increasingly possible to reveal new devices from within the existing device. It’s almost as if one simple firmware upgrade had me sensing that battery life had just increased, that there were additional functions, that I felt like I had a whole new iPod. The physical aspects of the product—control wheel, four navigation/select buttons, screen and a couple of ports—are abstract enough to enable improvements by simply remapping new elements of the software.

Assessing Stewart Brand’s original layer diagram from his book How Buildings Learn, via my reworked version for digitally-oriented user experience design (as part of this presentation) …

… this is like saying Apple are able to change the ‘space plan’, ‘stuff’, and even some of the ‘services’, without having to touch the ‘structure’, ‘skin’, or ‘site.

However, Adam Greenfield points to a more fundamental indication of exactly how the same company and same product breaks some fundamental adaptive design tenets. You can’t replace the battery easily. In fact, you might as well buy a new iPod. This is like saying that the ‘services’ (the equivalent of plumbing, wiring, power etc. in a building) is tied so closely to the ‘structure’, ‘skin’ and ‘site’, that you have to replace the lot. This is the same archictectural problem that Brand describes in service layers baked into buildings such as IM Pei’s MIT Media Lab building: “Getting new cabling through the interior concrete walls — a necessity in such a laboratory — requires bringing in jackhammers.”

Ed. Credit where it’s due department: I would later discover that Brand’s layers ideas are…

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Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Melbourne School of Design. Previously, Swedish gov, Arup, UCL IIPP, Fabrica, Helsinki Design Lab, BBC etc