Purple Windmills – The Participatory Future Of Commerce

April 9, 2011

2:55 pm

I overheard this colorfully memorable term: Purple Windmills, one recent afternoon while standing in line at one of the many Starbucks that line the famously tourist-filled South Street in Philadelphia. The couple to my rear in line were discussing something they had just listened to on NPR in the car moments before. It seems that the large blades on windmills, and the fact that they are painted white, attract bugs and in a short step up the evolutionary chain, birds and bats follow. These big white contraptions in the sky have been chopping up our flying friends at an alarming rate. Engineers working at length to diagnose the problem, to no avail, eventually turned to nature researchers who at a glance diagnosed the problem as the color white itself. It turns out that simply changing the color of the windmill blades from white to purple will eliminate a large percentage of the fatalities.

I was fascinated by this concept and after looking into it a bit, I was struck by what an apt metaphor this was for the way that solutions, be they products or services, are designed.

That is, they are typically designed in a bubble. In this particular case, a simple call to those with the knowledge to make a valued suggestion before deciding to color the blades white would have saved thousands of birds and surely millions of dollars.

What is it about we humans that make us think we know what is best for those we aim to serve and ultimately affect? How do we keep a straight face while we design things and perform functions supposedly with the best interest of a group of people in need, but without even consulting that group in any significant way?

Years ago one could argue that they were forced to work as isolated entities. Bringing people into the process was often cost prohibitive. Today, in the post-Internet age, consulting with people of all types through a myriad of mediums is no longer expensive. In most cases, there are no transactional costs at all. So, if we assume that no one will argue the virtues of consulting at some level with those who will buy and/or interact with your product or service, we need to look at changing the behavior. The way businesses, organizations and governments think about product and procedural design.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO recently published a book titled Change by Design in which he demonstrates how his agency works to bring design research into the process of all their developments. He references instances such as when he checked one of his designers into a hospital with a video camera strapped to him to document the patient process. When they reviewed the footage they found that most of the view from the patients perspective was of the ceiling. The patient was laying back in bed staring at nothing but faded tiles. This observation led to two of many changes IDEO made for this particular hospital including artistically designed ceilings and white boards for walls, where friends and family could leave notes behind when visiting. You can see Tim and the TED Conference talking about his book here.

A little more research revealed many first movers leveraging participation. Platforms where people are involved in the process of creation, adding value to the offering and the utility other people find in it. A few of many up-and-coming examples:

Mod Cloth
Mod Cloth sells indie, retro and vintage clothing from independent designers and artists to women all around the world. Bringing people into the fold to “be the buyer”, Mod Cloth promotes participation by asking customers and prospects to vote on which sample designs are created and made available for sale.

Billing itself as “Your Personal Factory”, Ponoko makes it easy to buy, sell and create custom products with little to no design skills necessary. Their platform hosts thousands of user generated product designs, ready to be customized and made into real things with the click of a mouse. Makers can make and market while buyers can participate along the process. All the way from the design to the delivery truck.

Disrupting the stodgy paper goods market dominated by the likes of Hallmark is Chirply.This platform allows designers to upload designs for different goods while others vote on what appears on the website for sale. The submitter is paid for their design if accepted and a small commission on each sale.

There are many more examples ranging from the collective creation of small ticket items like t-shirts all the way to more expensive products like jewelry and custom automobiles. The future of commerce is to be dominated by those who leverage peoples willingness to participate and thereby add value to their own experiences.

Guest writer Jason Lorimer is a fellow entrepreneur @CulturaHQ, advocating on behalf of those with the ambition to do more than just entertain ideas.  Jason and his team transform pre-Internet business models into post-Internet companies that scale.  When he is not working with partners to incubate their early stage ventures, he posts on his blog and loves kicking around ideas with other entrepreneurs from around the world.  When disconnected from the World Wide Web, Jason transforms into a music lover and amateur artist with several creative outlets including photography and painting.

Windmill image by Flickr member thedailyenglishshow.

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