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Limit Their Tools, But Not Their Agency: Letting Customers Build Their Own Experience

by Kirsten Jerch , 04.10.2012

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

Irreducible complexity. In the realm of the natural sciences, the concept is largely considered junk science. But theology aside, it provides a useful metaphor for the, ahem, Higgs Boson of user-centered design (with apologies for the analogy.)”

I’ve been noticing something about the big-chain lunch options in the Chicago loop, near our Chicago UX labs. Chipotle. Wow Bao. Protein Bar. Fast food has gone modular, by which I mean these national fast food chains have figured out how to boil down their offerings to a select array of basic items (black beans, tortillas, shredded lettuce, quinoa, spiced stews, salsa, chopped tofu) which they serve up in any number of customizable combinations, and thus can meet the needs of most of the people most of the time. It’s a genius approach, because the combinations provide the psychological benefit of maximization without the paralysis of choice. It’s great for business too because it necessarily simplifies and limits the raw materials; no need to manage and curate a complex product line, instead the “product” becomes all about creative service provision.


UX researchers at Froyo on State Street, “testing” user experiences related to Chicago’s foodie scene.

Hence the idea of irreducible complexity: In a world where most of our devices are multi-functional, it seems to me that designers in all kinds of domains are attempting to zone in on whatever that basic service component is—that which embodies the essence of the functionality of interest, and can be endlessly and creatively “customized” for almost any end user.

The more I look, the more I see:  Build-A-Bear. IKEA. Pinterest. Arduino. These irresistible carpet tile things. The App Store. The Paper Source. Flipboard. Each is a narrowly defined functional area with an apparently endless supply of choices. The whole point is mass personalization. The perception of total autonomy within very proscribed limits makes these strategies appealing; the simplicity of decision-making makes them user-friendly. A cynic might find irony in the production of autonomous pathways to counterbalance an increasingly homogenous human experience. But for today let’s just say that the modular experience is quickly becoming the table trope for all kinds of interactions, from media consumption to healthcare.

For instance, many have praised Apple for creating an “ownership experience” rather than developing products based on the premise that people want to buy stuff. This also helps to explain why modular experiences are so important: modularity provides a level of ownership and specification for the user which in turn becomes part of the brand experience. In communications theory, it is said that the medium is the message. Perhaps in UX, we might say that the service is the product.


From vanilla to chocolate to strawberry, each Froyo customer can select from an array of choices for a truly personalized experience.

What is the modular epicenter of the design challenge you are working on?  Do you think good UX is increasingly trending toward mass personalization?