Chris Butterworth
Strategist, Designer, Developer

Digital Entropy

The internet is over 30 years old and the use of it continues to grow with calls recently in the UK to label a broadband connection at home as a utility not a service - something that a few years ago would have been unfathomable.

During this time, hundreds if not thousands of online businesses have come and gone. Whether product lead, service lead or user lead, these businesses failed for one reason or another.

Entropy is the notion that everything will steadily decline into nothing, businesses and digital services included. To make things easier, I'm going to label these as services to avoid confusion. With these services not being physical living creatures that actually decay or age, the cause of their entropy is external.

As a simple example, consider a real estate website (I've built a few in my time) that lists properties and collects data. Most of these websites use external services and interact with them through an API, where we request information and pass credentials to prove we're allowed to do this and voila, we have data. No API is ever permanent and as such there's time and energy needed for the upkeep of this service. Whether a security flaw has caused the API to be updated or migrating over to a new faster and smoother technology stack; calls to an API will start to break and if the service needs to continue, then the calls need to be updated. The server the website sits on, this is physical hardware (virtualised or otherwise) that needs to run and again can be susceptible to security flaws, migration and updates and eventually it too will fail. The only way around this is to be truly fluid in the way you maintain any service - constantly being on the look out for the next best thing with utilising data, keeping the experience stable, secure and performant but a fine line needs to be drawn; spending too much on this can be detrimental and there's the point where there's no return and entropy will start to take hold. Knowing when this decline starts is important and it gives you chance to change or tie up loose ends - for the most part this decline starts, not due to technology but, due to humanity and our constant strive for better.

Because of this tenuous human connection, relationships to a consumer or user can be victims of entropy too.

Products and services have 3 main stages – on-boarding, active usage and off-boarding.

Think off the life-cycle of owning a car - you purchase it fulfilling the on-boarding process, you drive it fulfilling its usage then you can sell, trade or scrap it fulfilling the off-boarding. Most digital services don't fulfil this until the business running it is closing down the service - whether the business is going under or not, think Vine closing or Google closing Google+ - the rest of the time as consumers we simply forgot about all those free services that we've subscribed to and will probably leave the information there forever or until the business closes when users may get an email stating this to an "oh yeah" moment from the consumer.

There are a few occasions where users will manually close their account, those where terms have changed and a user can no longer agree to them (although this is only when a user only actually reads them) or has found a direct replacement, although most of the time we sign up for new services without cancelling the first. Making the right to be forgotten impossible when we forget what we've signed up to.

This could be used as an opportunity to re-engage with your users, if a user hasn't interacted with your product or service for a while speak to them; entice them to either engage more or go through on off-boarding process which can then help you learn more about how your service has been used, why the user hasn't interacted and also remove records and files from storage. This will also have an impact on both running costs and performance, lower storage costs and smaller number of records in a database makes it quicker to index and search through.

Unfortunately, we cannot escape entropy; it's inevitable for us all, the only thing we can do is make the most of it. Go and build these temporary services, even if they are helpful or bring forward any other positive emotion only for a minute they are worth it by making the world a better place just for a short period of time and can have a lasting effect a long time after it's gone. Don't hold back and go make an impact, I know I will.