By Denny Royal
September 7, 2016
Nature has a lot to teach us about well-adapted and responsive designs.
Siamese fighting fish probably aren’t the first thing most people think of when considering how to design a better service or digital product.
However, like a good service or product, these freshwater fish are well adapted to thrive within a specific set of environmental conditions. In Biomimicry, we study functional adaptations of organisms, such as fighting fish, to inform design choices for achieving similar functions in the things we create.
So what might we learn from these unique fish? Perhaps a thing or two about signaling.
Effective signaling is important to the design of intuitive user interactions. Yet, signaling is often overlooked in the design process. Fighting fish, like many other species, are masters at signaling. The male vibrates its long flowing fins to signal danger to its offspring. Similarly, other types of fish use vibration to synchronize their movements when swimming together in schools.
Insight into vibration signaling methods is just a single example of the biological intelligence available through the practice of biomimicry (and something that could be useful for mobile apps that employ vibration).
There’s a treasure trove of ideas to be discovered in nature and translated into valuable and applicable design lessons for innovation. Here we’ll look at just three.
Life’s Big Lessons
In addition to studying specific functional adaptations, biomimicry also observes deep patterns that occur throughout nature and to which all organisms are subject. We refer to these patterns as Life’s Principles, and they serve as aspirational lessons for biomimetic designers.
There are 26 Life’s Principles in all, but let’s look at just three that are particularly useful when thinking about designing for user interactions.
1. Be Locally Attuned and Responsive
Being locally attuned and responsive is one of six primary Life’s Principles under which the others are categorized. This principle is of primary importance, because it’s how an organism fits into and integrates with it surrounding environment.
For instance, think about how an Arctic Fox changes the color and thickness of its coat with the seasons. White and thick in snowy winter months. Tan and thin for summer on the tundra. The fox’s coat is attuned and responsive to the environment.
The design lesson for products and services is that they, too, should be attuned and responsive. How do they fit into the user’s context? How do they respond to different pressures and requirements?
If your product or service isn’t attuned and responsive, it’s likely to cause friction for the user, which isn’t good.
2. Use Feedback Loops
Using feedback loops is a sub-principle, or strategy, for being locally attuned and responsive.
Feedback loops are cyclical information flows that allow organisms to properly modify their reactions to environmental situations and stimuli. In the context of products and services, good feedback loops are critically important for helping users understand where they are in a system, what has happened, and what will happen next.
An example of a well-designed feedback loop is the flashing lights or honk that occurs when you hit the lock button on your car keychain. The signal lets you know that, yes, the car is now locked. Without that signal there would be uncertainty and friction.
In nature we can find hundreds of unique strategies and mechanism for sending and receiving signals in feedback loops.
Returning to the Arctic Fox again, we can see how it uses a feedback loop to locate prey under the snow. The fox has an adaptation of short, but very wide, forward-facing ears. This orientation, combined with an extremely heightened sense of hearing, allows the fox to listen for prey moving deep under the snow.
As the fox adjusts its position, it continues to stop and listen, triangulating the prey’s exact location. Then it leaps into the air and pounces through the deep snow to capture the prey without ever having seen it. Using a feedback loop of movement and sound is the difference between a meal and starvation on the tundra.
3. Leverage Cyclic Processes
The third Life’s Principle we want to look at when designing for interactions is also categorized under “being locally attuned and responsive.”
It’s the practice of taking advantage of repetitive phenomena, a.k.a. “leveraging cyclic processes.”
Cyclic processes can be as simple as the diurnal cycle (the 24 hour rotation of the earth), or things that are less absolute in their timing, such as the need for living things to acquire nutrients. Many plants spread their seeds by supplying nutrients to fill the cyclical needs of hungry animals.
We can look back to the Arctic Fox for another example. It takes advantage of cyclical snows to camouflage itself (for hunting and against predation) with thick, white fur. This adaptation gives the fox a distinct advantage in a very harsh environment.
Product and service interactions typically occur in cycles, too. They could be long cycles with months between interactions. Or short cycles with interactions happening many times every day. Taking advantage of these cycles and considering the time spans is important to getting the interaction right.
The designers of the Waze app leveraged daily commute cycles to make their app more valuable. The app learns a user’s typical commute schedule and routes, and then it pushes notifications in advance to alert the user to allow for certain drive times. That’s smart design.
The examples here show how we can follow broad biomimetic principles to generate more thoughtful designs and better user experiences. But it’s important to note that these principles are just a starting point when considering the benefits of biomimicry for innovation.
For every Life’s Principle, there’s a virtually limitless number of biological examples from which we can draw inspiration for designing forms, processes and even entire systems. That’s why observing nature’s lessons and combining the disciplines of biomimicry and human-centered design can lead to highly successful, sustainable, and resilient products and services.
To learn more about the intersection of biomimicry and human-centered design contact us.