Platforms and Environments

Last week I had an interesting conversation with a product management researcher. I told him why I think “product” is the wrong framing for many digital things and we discussed the concept of information environments. He asked a good question: Why call them environments instead of platforms? After all, “platform” is a well-understood concept in the context of UX design.

While the two terms share a similar intent (getting designers and stakeholders to think more systemically about the work to be done), there is an important difference between them: “platform” implies a technology-centric view of the system while “environment” implies a people-centric view. A platform is something you build upon. An environment is where you have experiences. This is a key distinction as we move to make user-centered design more systemically aware.

I realize the word “environment” brings with it connotations that may court controversy. This is not unintentional. We exist within environments. They host our activities. Our long-term survival hinges on the viability of our environments. It behooves us to develop an attitude of responsible stewardship towards them — whether they are made of stuff or of information.