Ecosystem Design

How It Helps Projects Thrive

Deanna Glaze

Go for a walk in the forest and, if you pay attention, you’ll realize you’re surrounded by a lot more than trees. There are insects, the soil, birds and the warmth of the sun’s rays.

The same is true if you go swimming in a natural lake or stream: you may be immersed in water, but you’re also in the midst of fish, plants and maybe a coral reef that are all co-existing together.

These are ecosystems, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit.”

One of the defining characteristics of an ecosystem is that each unit depends on each other in some way. In other words, a change in one organism could throw off the health of the ecological unit: if plant life dries up in a forest, there may be less for small animals to eat.

This framework for understanding the natural world has inspired what we call ecosystem design, which – when properly applied – can make a meaningful difference in the quality of the products and experiences businesses develop.

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What is ecosystem design?

Ecosystem design focuses on the interconnectedness of complex systems and services, considering how the functioning of each impacts a holistic experience. We also consider physical and digital channels, devices, and various touch points as part of our design ecosystem. 

Just like the ecosystems we inhabit in the natural world, it’s easy for companies to overlook or ignore some of the systems and elements an ecosystem surrounding a project contains. 

An organization might want to eliminate an outdated paper-based process, for instance. The natural next step might be to build an app. Even the best-designed app, however, will be just one part of that organization’s ecosystem. What if some of the people expected to use the app are differently abled? What if the process takes place in the field, such as a rural area with limited cell reception?

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Designing an ecosystem

Part of the problem in recognizing the full complexity of an ecosystem is the fact that you need to consider what you can’t see in the physical world with the naked eye (like wind), and what might only be detected through technology, such as how data moves. 

This requires careful discussion, planning, and often the expertise of an experienced third party. It’s a multidisciplinary approach that includes service design thinking (i.e., the service design blueprint), subject matter expertise in technology and systems, and user research. 

Once you have a good understanding of the user journey, environmental influences, and technological components needed for successful experiences, you can consider the ecological unit in which these experiences happen. 

Here are some things to consider as your organization thinks about designing with an ecosystem in mind: 

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1. Put your customers front and center

What do you know about them now? Leverage quantitative and qualitative research to better understand your customer’s goals, needs, and behaviors across different platforms and devices. We live in a world with a plethora of connected devices that are continually evolving and becoming more integrated into people’s lives.

Technologies like AR have allowed us to blur digital and physical worlds, for example, so that consumers could picture how a piece of furniture might look in their homes. But how might it affect the need to reconfigure the layout of a store, or the lightning that would harness the technology to its fullest potential?

The service design blueprint is an essential tool in designing an ecosystem; it will provide a detailed map of your user’s needs and behaviors along with all of the systems, processes, and touchpoints necessary to make them successful along their journey.

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2. Map out your ecosystem

With service design blueprint in hand, we now can determine the scale of our ecosystem. Identify all of the devices, platforms,  and touchpoints your users will encounter. It’s probably not difficult to think of an example of a fragmented experience. Think about the last time you got a  new device and tried connecting it to the internet. What happened when you then tried to pair the device to an app (or other bluetooth connection such as a car or watch)? What about when you tried to connect a third party service to the app? This is rarely a seamless journey, but it can be with ecosystem design.

A common tool for this exercise is a design ecosystem map:

Created by NNGroup
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Created by NNGroup

3. Cross-channel consistency

It’s vital to define a consistent design language (visual, tone, etc) and user experience across all defined devices, platforms, and touchpoints to ensure a painless and seamless experience for your customers. This is why you might see the same image of a trash can on laptops, mobile devices and within apps to indicate the place to send deleted photos and documents.

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4. Context is everything

All things are not equal. Consider the specific context in which your customer will be encountering each device or touchpoint. How might factors such as location, time of day, user goals and tasks impact their experience?

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5. Test it, iterate, and repeat

Test your ecosystem with real people to validate your decisions and identify any gaps in your ecosystem. Ecosystems, by nature, are not static. They change and evolve depending on many various factors so make sure to build in a process for continually testing and iterating to guarantee a successful experience for your customers.

Never underestimate the chain reaction that can occur when ecosystem design is neglected. You might design an app that not only doesn’t get widely used, but which puts more pressure on some other channel (like calls to your contact center), or drives customers to abandon your brand for a competitor. 

When you treat ecosystems as the living entities they are, on the other hand, you develop an ongoing practice of cultivating the conditions that help everyone within it to thrive. If you’d like to help understanding how to do that, and how to get the process started, connect with us to learn more about how Loft’s approach to ecosystem design can make a difference for you. 

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