Around 86% of digital products fail in the marketplace, so how do you make sure yours is not one of them?

Like most product design companies, deep market intelligence, SWOT analyses, and business model canvas frameworks help us triangulate market position, but the pace layering framework offers a different perspective through which we can determine the long-term fragility of our products.

Until recently, pace layering has been largely used to diagnose how adaptable a society is to change. But, at PRPL, we use pace layering to diagnose companies, digital software products, and their underlying applications frameworks. Here’s a short primer on how you can use the pace layering framework for your business.

The Slow Pace of Fast Change

The concept of pace layering has a long and fascinating legacy in ecology, architecture, facilities management, and sociology (you can read a short history over on MIT’s Journal of Design and Science). The framework itself isn’t new, but it certainly isn’t very common outside of select academic circles.

In 1999, Stewart Brand (an American writer) and Brian Eno (a rock-and-roll legend) built a framework to explain why some civilizations throughout history are more adaptable to change than others. Societies aren’t guaranteed to survive (just take the Roman empire); however, the most resilient societies have a “strong but flexible structure which is built to absorb shocks and in fact incorporate them,” as Eno says.  

For Brand and Eno, society can be broken into six distinct layers that all move and change at different paces. The bottom layers move slow and methodical, whereas the top layers move quick and are non-linear. However, each layer works together to adapt to change in different ways.

  • Fashion / Art: Nonlinear practice of free experimentation and rapid iteration
  • Commerce: System of turning change into commodities and wealth distribution
  • Infrastructure: Essential systems like transportation, education, and power generation
  • Governance: Rule of law and social systems that advocate for legal rulings, like nonprofits
  • Culture: Ideological systems, like religion, ethics, and political belief systems
  • Nature: The Earth’s physical ecosystem

As Brand says, “Fast gets all our attention, but slow has all the power.” In a healthy, strong society, our ideological and legal systems change slower than the rate of commerce…hopefully. These slower layers help throttle the rate of change in a civilization over time so we maintain some sense of social consistency.

But, when slow layers move quickly, they can cause turmoil. Take the example of The 1906 San Francisco earthquake: a rapid change in nature sent a shockwave all the way up to commerce layer, destroying the city infrastructure, bankrupting businesses and households, and requiring governance to step in and subsidize the recovery.

And, of course, when slow layers, like governance or culture, grind to a halt, they hinder progress in society.

Pace Layering to Understand Your Industry

So, how do we use pace layering at PRPL in product design? One way is by understanding how each layer of society affects the industry we’re analyzing. Take self-driving cars as an example.  

At the commerce layer, Silicon Valley is moving fast to push self-driving technology to market. The infrastructure needed—roads, highways, stop signs, traffic signals—already exists for self-driving cars to operate.

However, at the cultural layer, what happens when a self-driving car chooses to avoid a car crash and swerves into a crowd? Ethicists dubbed this very problem the “trolley dilemma” during the 20th century, and, as the Smithsonian Magazine writes, we’re wrestling with it again, just, this time, with self-driving cars instead of trolleys.  

At the governance layer, do we assign the responsibility for a car crash to the driver or to the manufacturer? Is the insurer liable in the event of an equipment failure that’s outside of warranty? Until the governance and cultural layers can parse the legal and ethical responsibilities—and decide if we need additional transportation at the infrastructure layer—they will throttle the speed to market for more self-driving technology.

Pace Layering to Analyze Your Business

To get a high-level view of a company’s health, you can also adapt Brand’s framework and map out the unique pace layers of an individual business. If the slower layers of a company are changing quickly, it will create ripple effects across other layers—for both good and bad.

On the other hand, when faster layers move too slowly, the company may be in a period of stagnation, recovering from fast growth, or misaligned at the cultural level. Here’s how it works.

System innovation at a manufacturing firm

Recently, our strategists created a personalized pace layering framework for a manufacturing firm. Once we dug in, we broke their business down into seven distinct pace layers:

  • Design + Brand Aesthetic
  • Products + Services
  • Employees + Team Structures
  • Office Infrastructure
  • Leadership + Governance
  • Company Culture
  • Office Location

Right away, we saw the company was in the process of redefining it’s core values at the cultural level, which sent a shockwave up through the top layers of the business.

At the leadership layer, new policies and procedures were being rolled out, which affected employee happiness and turnover. Smartly, the HR director was also rearranging the floor plan to ensure it mirrored the values of open communication and collaboration. New values also meant a shift at the products and services layer—moving towards service packages and value-based pricing models—which also affected the design and visual aesthetic of the brand.

From one quick change at the company cultural layer, the brand was experiencing serious turmoil (both good and bad), and we knew that any work we provided would have to be sensitive to change management, productive disagreement about service-line offerings, and a shifting brand identity. Mapping out these layers and their corresponding pace of change gave us the insight we needed to set clear expectations for ourselves and our client.

Pace Layering for Your Product

At the product level, pace layering is a great way to map out the risk and reward of your application framework, as well as the environmental factors affecting your product in the marketplace, like data regulations and ever-evolving payment solutions. Which layer of your application you should invest time and energy into? Where will you see the most reward?

Gartner’s Pace Layering Application Strategy

In 2012, Gartner modified Brand’s concept of pace layering into a three-part application framework. Gartner’s adaptation is a great way to diagnose your own application architecture and figure out just how much tech debt you have accrued.

  • Systems of innovation
  • Systems of differentiation
  • Systems of record

For a business with both a brick-and-mortar and an e-commerce presence, for instance, an investment in a coupled CMS architecture as your system of record is a huge risk, as opposed to a content-as-a-service model (CaaS), which can seamlessly deliver brand content across multiple applications and platforms.

The Pace Layers of Product Strategy

Beyond just application frameworks, Brand’s traditional pace layering framework can also help analyze product/market fit, product roadmaps, and revenue projections.

During a recent engagement with a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company, we used a pace layering framework to map out smart investments in the product backlog and future service offerings.

At the application layer, the platform was built with Ember.js, which creates a great front-end experience. However, as an unintended side effect of using Ember.js, we weren’t able to create indexable page content to serve up in Google, which eliminated the possibility of search engine marketing (SEM). For PRPL, this meant that any product growth strategy we could create had to rule out content marketing. On top of that, the company faced retargeting limitations affected at the governance layer by global GDRP and ePrivacy regulations.

The company also wanted to take a very forward-thinking approach to their design aesthetic, which always excites our design team. However, planning a UX strategy for a transactional, industrial platform based on the pace layer of fashion instead of commerce can harm your user experience more than help, which isn’t a strong ROI for your spend. Instead, a more traditional front end allowed for easier advertising integration, which offset the added cost of retrofitting the platform for data privacy compliance.

Putting Pace Layering to Use

Pace layering isn’t your one-stop-shop for an analytic framework, but it’s a great qualitative compliment to other tools in your business and market analytic toolbox.

If you want to go down the rabbit hole a bit more, head over to Stewart Brand’s organization, The Long Now, and check out his great lecture with Stanford’s Paul Saffo on the history of pace layering.

And, if you want to see how pace layering can help your organization diagnose change, risk, and opportunity, give us a call—our strategists and analysts are always up for a rousing discussion on systems architecture and business strategy.

Want to build long-lasting products for your customers? We can help.