Product ecology as a design framework

Recently, in my daily data farming, I ran across several sources mentioning the notion of "product ecology". It generally refers to how (interaction) design broaden its focus from systems targeted on one person to more socially or culturally situated products. Among the sources about this, Jodi Forlizzi's work struck me as very relevant. In this article in the International Journal of Design, she focuses on the interesting notion of "product ecology" and how it can be employed as a theoretical design framework:

"In the Product Ecology, the product is the central unit of analysis. (...) The functional, aesthetic, symbolic, emotional and social dimensions of a product, combined with other units of analysis, or factors, in the ecology, help to describe how people make social relationships with products. These include the product; the surrounding products and other systems of products; the people who use it, and their attitudes, disposition, roles, and relationships; the physical structure, norms and routines of the place the product is used; and the social and cultural contexts of the people who use the product and possibly even the people who make the product. "

(image taken from Forlizzi's paper)

But how does that help designers? Forlizzi highlights few key ideas about the assumptions of the Product Ecology framework[I recommend reading the whole paper here]:

"First, each product has its own ecology, resulting in subjective and individual experience in using the same product. (...) Second, the factors in the Product Ecology are dynamic, and interconnected in several ways. (...) Third, changes in product use cause changes in other factors of the Product Ecology.(...) When a product no longer plays a key role, it is marked by events such as people changing roles, or going in and out of the ecology; (...) Fourth, the Product Ecology can be delimited by a group of people in close proximity, or a group that is spread out over a great distance. (...) Factors in the Product Ecology can be examined in isolation or in combination at the level of a single product, to understand what particular product features will inspire social use, or at the system level, to understand how a particular product will have an impact on a system of products retained for similar functional, aesthetic, symbolic, social and emotional factors. Similarly, behavior of individuals or groups using products can be studied."

So, to some extent, the "product ecology" can be employed to study variety of products/services. An interesting example of such use can be found in this article (from CSCW 2006) about how robotic products become social products. The paper basically shows how different people within a houselhold formed different social relationships with Roomba vacuum (and not with the more classic vacuum). The classic vacuum, in this ethnographic study, affected significant change in the families, while the stick vacuum did not: people cleaned more often, more members of the family participated and there were more prone to make social attribution to the roomba. The author then draws some design implications concerning the importance of social attribution: "when simple social attributes are part of the design of robotic products and systems, people may adopt them more readily and find them less stigmatizing". Why do I blog this? find interesting this notion of product ecology and how to apply it in UX research. Some ideas/methodology to dig up for current projects about gaming platforms (Nintendo DS and Wii), as well as the perception of the devices and services in families.