A cautionary tale for designing useful things

Want to design a useful product or service? This story features gods and monsters, but don't let the mystical stuff fool you; it boils down to simple advice that applies to almost any industry.

Jim Loter, the Director of Digital Engagement for Seattle, gave a talk about "smart cities" yesterday: using apps and connected devices to improve public programs (energy, transportation, etc).

A book analogy in Loter's talk resonated with me. He said that in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, astronomers try to create a perfect city. They model it on their vision of the heavens rather than the wants & needs of residents.

The resulting city (Perinthia) is uninhabitable to everyone except “monsters”:

“Perinthia's astronomers are faced with a difficult choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations are wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters.”

Perinthia serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to design useful things. Whether you're designing a municipal program or a paid service, it's essential to collect & curate customer feedback from the get-go. Otherwise, Loter pointed out, you may end up with a "city of monsters" dilemma.

Further reading

I am not affiliated with The City of Seattle. The opinions in this post are purely personal.