Curation and the fallacy of control

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A few weeks ago I heard myself say, "we want users to feel like they control the experience" then caught myself at the implication of the thought. Are we misleading people into feeling like they have more power than they do? As user experience designers, whose side are we on? Digital, experience and product design all pay lip service to a user's control of the experience, but how much of that is an illusion?

Certainly control is very much in the minds of brands, manufacturers and consumers. (Last) Sunday's New York Times featured an article discussing one model of control, curation, as the new "in-word" or concept-du-jour. The term, which has been floating around in design circles for some time (and judging by its mainstreaming in the NY Times, has now probably jumped the shark) is used to describe the themed aggregation or "juxtaposition" of existing media into something new and unique. There's nothing new about the term, which originates in academia and museums, or the phenomenon it discusses; but its underlying concept is relevant to much of what designers do.

An environment that makes curation palatable is one in which a battle for control is taking place between consumers and the products they use. Brands have been walking a tightrope for a long time; give away too much and you lose control of your offering, don't give anything away and users won't find a hook or an opportunity to exert their own control and personalize or identify with your product. The music industry is case-in-point: they've tried to have it both ways and have alienated musicians as well as listeners.

The story behind Betty Crocker's original cake mix offers a good brand-centric counterpoint to the music industry debacle. Initial testing following the product launch revealed that users were disappointed by the experience of mixing powder and water together to produce a cake. In essence, users felt they had no control over the formulation, no sense of cooking. The addition of an egg to the mix as an extra, non-functional step, provided a greater sense of control, or curation, of the experience and the Betty Crocker product became a classic. Once the music industry finds that metaphorical egg to place in their mix they'll placate many listeners. Until then they'll continue to anger both sides.

In our more sophisticated, brand-aware world we've broken this collaboration down into discrete areas. Now designers have to be aware of the difference between customization (making the thing your own) and personalization (adding a few features that make it feel like you own it). Both provide a sense of control, but do it in different ways. For many brands customization is a scary proposition because it creates the potential for consumers to change the core formulation of the offering itself. Personalization on the other hand is great for brands, but sometimes frustrating for users. The illusion of control is easier to see, the limitations exposed.

The unfortunate reality is that the balance for control usually falls on the side of companies over users. Though it's not clear how much most people really care about that. Apple is famous for its tight control over everything from product to experience, and people still love the brand, often for that very reason. And for most people ease-of-use trumps control. So control becomes a fallacy, an illusion that we prop up in the hopes that people wield it. In a perfect world everyone would clamor for complete control of their experiences, but that's not likely to happen. Instead they clamor for the illusion of control, the sense that, if they wanted to, they could make something their own.

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