Specialization: No one can be an expert in everything

Last week I examined how the average consumer’s disinterest in the inner workings of their smart phone is in part due to vast difference between their conceptual model (often called a mental model) for how to work their phone functions and what they would find if they performed an autopsy of the same device. In Universal Principles of Design, the mental model is broken out into two distinct types, the interaction model and the system model. (1) The average customer is only familiar with the interaction model which allows them to successfully operate their device. Designers create an interaction models based on a “fiction” that simplifies all the complexity of the system model and to avoid customer confusion. (2) Part of this fiction can be seen in the icons which allow the customer to access separate applications. For example, one icon places a call while another streams video from an entertainment company. These appear, from the outside, to be separate and distinct, but if they were to be accurately mapped to the system model, it would be clear that they utilize many of the same components, despite performing very different functions. Good design blackboxes technology, resulting in customers who don’t question the makeup of their devices. Specialists, then, would be needed for any breakdown in functionality. However, when technology is as complicated as a smartphone, more than one specialist may be needed, because within the smart phone an entire ecosystem of technology resides.

Smart phones rely on the principles of modularity. Modularity can be defined as the act of breaking up complex technologies into “functional clusters of similarity in systems and then transforming the clusters into independent self-contained…modules.” (3) In short, a complex system can be broken up into modules, each of which could be the focus of a different specialist or team, and as long as modules are able to interact with the other modules in the system, through their interfaces and in line with the established interaction protocols, there is no need for anyone to specialize in everything. There is some argument that not only can communication between specialists teams be limited, it in fact should be limited. (4) Again, functionality is increased if the complexity is hidden and the whole system works harmoniously. In the case of the smart phone, most modules are not even made by the same company.

Modularity is at it’s heart, the division of labor, and with it comes basic economics. If specialization in one component of a technology is achievable, and if there is an established market for that component, such as is found in the smart phone, market forces will take over and industries will grow out of the design and manufacture of those components. It’s cheaper and more cost effective to specialize. The blackboxing of technology, already encouraged by the very design principles of modularity, then becomes enhanced as companies work to maintain competitive advantage through controlling public information about their technology products. While disinterest and confusion contribute to the way consumers view their technologies, design principles and market forces make it difficult for even those with a keen interest to dive into the web of interconnected modules needed to create a smart phone. While they might have a simplified understanding of what role in the system each module plays, the system model of the module might be alien to them.

(1) William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Revised. (Beverly: Rockport Publishers, 2010), 130.
(2) Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2010), 35.
(3) William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Revised. (Beverly: Rockport Publishers, 2010), 135.
(4) Richard N. Langlois, “Modularity in Technology and Organization,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 49, no. 1 (2002), 22.