Growing rather than planning solutions
Starting in the kitchen
An example of a bottom up strategy that occurs by accident rather than design does not have the same credibility as one that is carried out by deliberate intent. We shall see a real life, intentional, bottom up strategy in the next chapter, but, before going there, we had best take an intermediate step and create an artificial scenario that highlights the main features contained in a bottom up strategy. We'll do this by taking a look at a hypothetical Industrial Age structure that is normally designed top down and perversely approach the design using a bottom up strategy.
The building of a private house provides a good example of a top down, Industrial Age design process. Before plans are made or the building work started, the design of an individual house is given much thought. The client discusses with the architect their preferences and special requirements. Together, the architect and the client go through many design possibilities. This might involve making numerous sketches; looking at photographs and drawings of other houses.
After lengthy discussions and considerations, the architect will draw up detailed plans. These may be modified several times by the client before final approval. Once the plans are finalised, the architect will order all the necessary building materials and arrange for suitable contractors to carry out the construction. This is the classic procedure of a top down, structured design strategy.
In sharp contrast to this, a bottom up design strategy wouldn't start with any plans at all. It would assume that the client would be the only one who could judge how best to build the house. The client would be given all the initiatives and made to push the building through at every stage. The architect would take a back seat, providing expert services only when they are needed by the client. As unlikely as this situation may seem, it is the optimum strategy for designing e-business and e-commerce solutions. It is about letting the customers or the clients design the products for themselves and the experts being on hand to help them get what they want.
In the real world of house building, such a way of way of working wouldn't be efficient or practical. The last thing a firm of architects would want is for clients to be around at the building stage, telling them what to do and changing things around all the time. So, to use a house building metaphor to explain bottom up design, it is necessary to step outside of reality for a while and just imagine a world where practical considerations do not matter. Such a way of thinking is constantly necessary for making the conceptual jump from Industrial Age to Information Age thinking.
The hypothetical bottom up, house building process may start with the potential house owner selecting a building plot and appointing a firm of architects. Onto this plot the architect would build a front door and construct a temporary structure to be used as a bedroom so that the client can move onto the site straight away. The equivalent, for a Web site construction as part of an e-commerce solution, would be to put up a temporary home page.
Next, the client might decide on a size and a position on the plot for a kitchen. This may be a logical starting point as eating is going to be essential whatever kind of house is being built. The client would then instruct the architect to arrange for the kitchen to be built while she - we'll assume it's a female client - organised for the various kitchen equipment and other kitchen items to be brought in.
The key point here with this strategy is that at this stage the kitchen is physically built without having any definite ideas about how the rest of the house might be designed or constructed. The client moves in and starts to use the kitchen.
Individual items in the kitchen wouldn't be left to the architect. The client would want to hand pick those herself from different speciality suppliers. All the various electrical equipment she'd use in the kitchen would also be chosen without reference to the architect: just plug-in modules that are obtained from the most appropriate sources.
In this isolated kitchen, the client starts her cooking and as different needs and ideas arise she adds to the kitchen: decorations; micro-wave oven; sinks; refrigerators and various other types of kitchen equipment and utilities. She might add tables and chairs and other furniture, install lighting, plumbing and electricity (yes these will come after the physical construction in this way of doing things). If the kitchen starts to feel cramped, no problem: just move the walls back to make the kitchen larger. Ceiling too low? Increase the height of the walls. Cooker doesn't match the refrigerator and the washing machine? Change it. Need an extra sink? Move everything else along and put another sink in. The client doesn't compromise the way she works in order to adapt to a pre-planned kitchen: she makes the kitchen adapt to suit her
Before moving on to other rooms in the house, the client would want to make sure everything in the kitchen works satisfactorily. She'd make sure there were enough plugs and sockets; sort out all the plumbing, etc. In this way the client could complete this segment of the house so that she'd be free to think about the rest.
This strategy is equivalent to isolating a few of the Christmas tree lights to get a small group working before moving on to check out the others. A whole string of Christmas tree lights with several faulty bulbs would be impossible to get right, but, by starting at one end with a few, getting those working first before adding another small group of lights to test, makes the problem solvable. It is also the equivalent of the viewers designing the painting. The architect may be quite an expert at house design, but, that isn't relevant because the house has to be built for the client's convenience and comfort, not as a theoretical product created in the mind of the architect.
We might consider at this juncture the question of who is the designer of this hypothetical house. Is it the client or the architect? Who are the craft workers? Who are the instigators? Who is the decision maker?
The roles are not clear cut. The client seems to make most of the decisions, but, there will have to be other decisions made that the client hasn't the technical expertise to make. It seems that the client is making all the initiatives but where do the ideas come from? Most likely many of them will come from the architect. Who does the actual building work? It won't be either the client or the architect, it will be given out to various contractors and subcontractors who will be under the direction of the architect.
It can be seen that the design and building work is being carried out simultaneously; all within an environment of constant interaction and communication. In the world of real bricks and mortar this would be chaotic, but, the equivalent situation in the environment of the Internet can be co-ordinated quite easily and efficiently within a suitable communication framework and strategy.
This is the way bottom up design works. It may seem inefficient in the world of bricks and mortar, but, it is the only way to go with e-business or e-commerce projects where a plan may contain too many different ways for the system as a whole to go wrong or under perform.
Having got the kitchen sorted out to her satisfaction, the client could then start to think about the kind of dining room she would like to be serving into. Now in this imaginary world of house building, there is no overall plan so she can look at the design of the dining room quite separately from the kitchen. There is no reason then why she shouldn't have a different architect for this part of the house. Maybe she chose the first firm of architects because kitchen design was their speciality. Why not choose another architect for the dining room: one that specialises in dining rooms?
With no overall plan, it will be the client herself who'll be the judge of how well all the rooms work together so it isn't necessary to have everything under the control of a single architect. Spreading the designs of different rooms over a number of architects also makes her less vulnerable to any single specialist. She'll not know how good an architect is until after the house is finished, so, like the newsagent and the investment manager she will be far safer to spread the risk over several architects.
Using another specialist architect then, the client would have a dining room built onto the kitchen, fitted out with suitable décor and furnishings. She'd then invite people around for dinner. She'd see how it went with her kitchen and, if necessary, make improvements or adjustments to one or other of the rooms. She'd discuss with her guests how well they liked the décor, the furniture and the way the kitchen works. This may lead to further changes or improvements that she could pass on to the appropriate architect.
She could even get the architects into a joint conversation with her. They'd not be in competition because they'd know each other was a specialist in a different area. Maybe she'd invite them both round together to have dinner with her, her family and guests. Who knows what fresh ideas they might bounce around together?
After being satisfied that the kitchen and dining room were working out, the client could then think about the lounge. She might want to use it for entertaining her guests after a meal and also for relaxing in the evening to watch television with her family. She'd then engage a new architect whose speciality was lounge design to build her a lounge. When this was finished to her personal satisfaction she'd then invite her dinner guests into the lounge after the meal. She'd see how this worked out, taking her guests comments into consideration to make any necessary changes or alterations. More comfortable chairs? A larger room? A fireplace? More heating? No problem, just inform the lounge architect to make the changes according to the needs as they are revealed.
She'd then spend some time in the lounge with her family. She'd see how this worked out, listening to their suggestions and arranging for the suggested alterations. She'd invite in more guests. If the changes made by the family didn't work so well with a room full of guests, no problem, she'd just build another lounge that was more suited for social entertaining. If two groups cannot be satisfied in the same room, why compromise? Build two, then both groups can be optimally catered for.
The bedroom? Perhaps the lady and her husband couldn't agree on design and decor. That's okay, they'd each have a separate architect and build two. They could then try out each of their separate designs and pick the one they both agreed was the best. The children's playroom? So many possible alternatives and the lady has no idea which is best. The solution? Get half a dozen architects to each build different playrooms and let the children decide by seeing which playroom they spent the most time in.
All different kinds of needs would come into her mind as she created her house. It would grow in an unpredictable way. If it started to feel awkward or messy, she could just scrap parts of the construction and remake them; if necessary, she could scrap a whole room and bring in another architect to make another. In this way, the design would evolve into her perfect house. It would evolve out of her having ideas; using many different specialists; satisfying needs and necessities; trying things out to see if they worked as expected and seeing if they worked well together. Unlike a house designed in the conventional way, she does not have to adapt to a fina
Let the imagination stretch a little further. Imagine that instead of doors she could install the kind of transporters used in the Star-Trek science fiction television program that can send people instantly through space to a new location. Why would she then need to have all the rooms in the house on the same plot? Why not have the kitchen looking out onto a white sandy beach with palm trees? The bedroom situated on a mountainside with panoramic views? Why not have a reception room situated near a main road with ample parking that would made it easy for guests to visit? With travel only a transporter click away, the rooms in the house could be spread all over the planet.
All these things are possible in an imaginary world of house building, but, they are also possible in the communication environment of the Internet. Expensive? Inefficient procedure? Well, it's not expensive if it leads to a flexible e-commerce system that sees you a leader in the field. And, it could turn out to be a far less expensive solution than a top down structured plan that leaves you trailing the field with the business performing poorly on the Internet.
Now, let's once again consider those design roles again. Who now is the decision maker? Is it the client, or, the clients guests and family members. Is the role shared with one architect or with many? How many people are involved as instigators? How many different types of craft workers are involved? This surely would be a nightmare situation in the real bricks and mortar world , but, all connected through a suitable communication network they could interact together to gradually shape the ideal structure.
As bizarre as this building scenario seems, it is exactly the way many e-business and e-commerce solutions will have to be constructed in the Information Age. Experts and specialists cannot make full and complete plans for whole systems without quite considerable risk. Fast changing technology and increasingly sophisticated business and marketing strategies will make conventional Industrial Age type planning too prone to error and misjudgement. Above all, the clients, customers and users will be take a major part in the design process.