The phenomenon of unforeseen use cases

When there’s a new technology about in my sphere, I end up building demonstrations, proofs-of-concept and miniature laboratories to allow people to hands-on explore.

Oftentimes, people will interpret that the concept as they see it requires their input. Even more often, senior company types will think for a nanosecond and decide that a deterministic approach is the best way to nip all this potential in the bud, and to make concrete products, services or brands that can be written up in one-page bulletins.

I jump in at this point, and attempt to evangelise the phenomenon of unforeseen use cases, whereby the platform or toolset is designed, from the gound up, to be adaptable and flexible.

Probably speaking too quickly, and even too loudly, I posit that the unknown and unforeseen usages of a set of resources could be more valuable and more widely embraced than the straight-up-and-down description of This Is How It Works and the even more buttoned-down This Is All You Can Do With This.

James Yu at Shoutblog put forward a similar view:

Many companies have met this phenomenon of unforeseen use cases by leaving their system as open to expression as possible. One of the best examples is Flickr, which allows for many creative uses via tagging, albums, and an easy-to-use open API. They never stand in the way of creative uses of their site–in fact, it’s encouraged.

Social web applications should never restrict users to doing one thing one way. Freedom of expression is paramount, and organic growth rules supreme. Successful companies out their [sic] will know how to channel this to their advantage.

Perhaps “paramount” and “supreme” are a little emotionally-driven for me, but working within or around “the two-dot-oh” phenomenon requires organisations to recognise and embrace the remix culture.

At the beginning of the year, Yahoo! wrote up a fantastic piece: ostensibly on “Graded Browser Support”, it provided me material to remix Nate Koechley’s words into:

The concepts of graceful degradation and progressive enhancement are often applied to describe media support strategies. Indeed, they are closely related approaches to the engineering of “fault tolerance”.These two concepts influence decision-making about consumer support. Because they reflect different priorities, they frame the support discussion differently.

Graceful degradation prioritizes presentation, and permits less well-endowed networks or consumption methods to receive less (and give less to the user). Progressive enhancement puts content at the center, and allows most networks and boxes to receive more (and show more to the user).

While close in meaning, progressive enhancement is a healthier and more forward-looking approach. Progressive enhancement is a core concept of Graded Platform Support.

Thus for my new-media approaches, the clever balance amongst

[a]n appropriate support strategy allows every user to consume as much visual and interactive richness as their environment can support. This approach—commonly referred to as progressive enhancement — builds a rich experience on top of an accessible core, without compromising that core. [Koechley]


[…] what a lot of people don’t realize is that intended use cases in Web 2.0 may be flipped upside down by your users. In most cases, this is a good thing. [Yu]

will provide larger, higher-quality experiences for the entire spectrum of platform, not just the one-page-statement use cases.

2 thoughts on “The phenomenon of unforeseen use cases

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