The design of serendipity is not by chance

Aided by apps and served by services, we sometimes leave little up to chance. We seek out the specific. We cut out needless words. We know that less is more. And we’ve adopted technology to aid us. But we know that with this efficiency may come drawbacks: People may be less exposed to chance or less inclined to try new things; behavior may be planned such that there are no discoveries or surprises. Technology may be increasing the opportunity for specificity, but is it decreasing our chances for serendipity?

From serendip to the present

The term serendipity dates back 250 years to a somewhat storied beginning. Horace Walpole, English writer and politician, committed the word to paper in reference to a fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” In a 1754 letter, Wadpole coined the term when he described the three princes’ adventures near Serendip: “As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”.

Falling somewhere between accidental and sagacity, serendipity is synonymous with neither one nor the other, perhaps closest only to “chance encounters.” Chance encounters, by chance, are often present in discovery. Whether they’re attributed to Columbus’ discovery of America, Newton’s naming of gravity, or Nobel’s discovery of dynamite, in travel, medicine, science, technology, and inventions, serendipity is often cited as a key factor in the success of the new.

Chance leads to the possibility of new behaviors, new patterns, new ideas, and new structures. It allows people to change their behavior in response to context, in the moment, however fleeting. How might we help recapture serendipitous moments by helping coordinate chance? And what is the role of technology and interaction design? As the power that citizens have with their media grows, so must we grow opportunities for creative exploration, new ideas, and chance encounters.

By accident

Serendipity doesn’t simply mean surprise,” says Adam Greenfield, who curated a showcase of urbanist iPhone apps at the inaugural FutureEverything festival in May of this year. “Strictly speaking, the word means accidentally discovering something wonderful in the course of a search for something unrelated. The genuine occurrence of serendipity necessarily implies a very powerful order of richness and texture in the world and, to my mind anyway, when you experience it in cities it’s a clear indicator of a healthily functioning urban ecosystem.” He selected 11 apps from EveryBlock to Foursquare to Museum of the Phantom City that best represented serendipity in their intended use.

No product or service can be entirely serendipitous. Because we choose to use a product or service in the first place, we have made a choice, thus eliminating some part of the serendipitous equation. After all, as Louis Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind”. There cannot be Walpole’s intersection of sagacity and accident when choice is involved. There are, however, variations at play all the time. Smart services such as Dopplr, Foursquare, and EveryBlock have designed for chance encounters alongside of exact retrieval so users can have dual experiences. The designers have simply put forth opportunities for people to create their own pathways.

It is then up to us to find chance. And chances are, we will.

Article written as part of column for Interactions Magazine ©ACM. This is an abbreviated version of the work and my version of it. It is posted here with permission by ACM. Full version in issue: XVII.5 – September / October, 2010 » The design of serendipity is not by chance