18 December 2006

Amber waves of brand?

If you string the last few topics I have written her together, you might be able to project where I am going. The larger the company is, the less nimble it will be. The more focused on command and control, of people, property and ideas… the more difficult the ship will be to steer. As start ups progress – and eventually see profits, they tend to not want that to change. Systems like TQM and Six Sigma are installed to moderate volatility. Finance and operations executive are easy to pick on because they seek this stability at nearly all cost. The largest of cost, is of course the ability to take advantage of opportunity. That requires change, exactly what all this stability is working to minimize.

My question today is… how can brand affect this syndrome of staleness and complacency in the maturing (read stagnating) corporation? Will we be seeing constant waves of corporations alternating between stability and revitalization? What can brand do for this effort to maximize the value? And lastly, is stability in conflict with agility?

Ownership of ideas…

It frustrates me to no end that the path of the small innovator is extremely dangerous. Idea vultures - attorneys in wait for an innovation to hit the tipping point, threaten entrepreneurialism. It is in large part why I have moved into the corporate sector. The cost of defending an idea in a US court is too high. Pending legislation may change this soon, but in the long run a different strategy will be needed.

Globalization will affect intellectual property rights well beyond the projections of current economists. Just as nationalism is stronger than democracy, the western worlds ability to enforce rights management will ultimately fail. It is a cultural notion that can be disrupted by counterfeiting technologies, and even the most scrutinizing of ethical consumer cannot be assured of buying the “real” thing.

So when the complete lack of “idea protection” is global, the power will be in the ability to make use of an idea faster, better and in the right location. This will require a constant and tireless effort. The arrogant and complacent will certainly not be able to compete.

It’s micro for now…

I have been thinking a lot about the future of large corporations lately. I think that in many industries, companies are just too large – think Airlines, Telephony, and Automobiles. The largest seam to struggle and the mid size find ways to thrive.

While re-reading “In the Bubble” by John Thackara I came across one of his more interesting observations. That organizations and companies are compelled to own stuff. Buildings, equipment, ideas, just to name a few. John contends that this ownership reduces a company’s ability to change and be nimble. I would concur in theory. Then I applied the same to my household. I feel compelled to have cars that are paid for (a dwindling asset), a house that is secure or maybe even paid for… and a load of recreational stuff at my disposal. I am especially materialistic about books. If I borrow one and end up liking it… I buy it.

All of this materialism is a feeble attempt to secure some sort of stable environment and lifestyle. I wonder, if I put my efforts into person agility and resourcefulness if I would not be better off?

The macro factor in US economics

It pains me to see the daily results of governmental mis-prioritization. The artificial robustness of the housing industry is coming soon to haunt us. Interest rates are too low. And, the continued efforts to keep fuel prices low (even by today’s standards) are costing us trillions. The gulf war, continued deficit growth and the zillion pound gorilla that we are lying next to with our debts to China. The sky is not falling… but something is in the way of a power shift is certainly looming.

11 December 2006

Disfunctionality is telephony’s forte

I understand that the long distance industry was the result of regulation. I also understand that the mobile phone companies are all renamed long distance companies. I also understand the problematic situation of a CEO when participating in an oligopoly. But it boggles my mind how this industry can consistently get it wrong.

Cingular might be the one possible exception… they tend to lead. Clearly, for consumers, the service must be nearly ubiquitous. And, we know by watching other industries that bigger is not necessarily better (airlines, autos, banking, etc).

It takes Sprint two years to catch on to the RAZR. Duh – people buy service based upon the hardware you offer. This industry is divided cleanly between fashion and function – with a light overlap (enter Venn diagram here).

Verizon takes the horrible software interface resident in most Motorola products and manages to replace it with one that is even worse.

And yet, this is the future of the internet, computing and information dissemination. And further… I keep working in that direction. I have found an industry with so much room for improvement it is hard to decide where to start.

05 December 2006

Of course culture matters…

I love reading Grant. McCracken’s blog, This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics [www.cultureby.co,]. Grant nearly always has an opinion, and a strong one at that, but more importantly he never hesitates to call out and discuss the elephant in the room. He recently posted number three of a series entitled, “Culture Matters.” In this episode Grant takes to task some of the most influential and powerful methodologies in marketing, branding and innovation published recently. He picks them apart mercilessly. I respect that. And I think all literary works should have such scrutiny applied.

But I think that Grant’s expectations are naiveté. All of the books or authors mentioned are presenting a perspective or a method of measuring. None are the absolute, take it to the grave, perfect process, or solutions. A very smart group of people I worked with in grad school helped me to break my bias and habit of developing process.

Now I think in terms of assembling tools and methods - and finding where the can best be of benefit. Each has strengths, each has weaknesses, and none are appropriate all of the time. There is no truth, just a lot places to view from.

27 November 2006

Thanks… and I miss you.

Having relocated to a major metropolitan area, we (myself and K, plus the cats) have few close friends with which to share our holidays right now. We are thankful to be in a growing prospering economy, an area with a lot of history (from an American perspective), plenty of places to see and things to do within a few hours drive, and a lot friends that miss us. We are very, very thankful to be here now.

But, we miss a lot as well. We miss our family and friends. The folks I could call at a moments notice and go on a long run or ride. Also, Sunday mornings in the woods with the boys. Huge campfires, Sunflower bike shop, margaritas at La Parilla, beers at Freestate, Yellow Sub, Papa Kenos, the world’s greatest dentist and optometrist, Kansas Basketball, and most of all my daughter Meg.

Contribute more value & use less [CMV&CL]

Look for a series of rants, criticisms and projections regarding our individual contributions to the planet, society and the human race. This will definitely include some thoughts on consuming and waste. Should be fun (for me at least.)

Web 2.o – what do it are?

I keep reading articles that attempt to sum the entirety of the whole 2.0 thing. I have a tendency to discount, if not disregard the seven-word summation… web 2.0, long tail, experience… you get the drift. Half of those I hear talk of 2.0 as the point at which the web delivered real interactive applications as opposed to corporate brochures and catalogs. Yet others see it more from an economics and commerce perspective. That being the second wave of added value and monetization of the internet. I think both are right, and both are wrong. It will likely prove to be the second of a series of overvalued and optimistic eras regarding the future worth of companies promising to deliver via the web.

22 November 2006

Belief, and the courage to speak up.

When I had the opportunity to lecture I stole a very compelling tool from my friend, and mentor Professor Richard Branham. Richard would frequently charge his students, and me, with one simple question, “What do you believe?” Richard’s point was that action, even wrong, is better than no action. Designers must think, and have convictions.

When I started my second design firm (d3), a groundbreaking effort that pioneered much of what is still being discovered about the web, interaction and design thinking. You won’t read about us like IDEO because we were in the agricultural Midwest, but our work and methods are something I am very proud of.

Our first “official” employee was a young man straight out of college named Tyler Galloway. Tyler worked tirelessly. He produced exceptional work and was always committed to whatever project he was handed… even when he had issues with the some of our clients. Tyler was more conscientious than most designers. Tyler knew what he believed and was not afraid to live, breathe and make personal sacrifices for those beliefs. Tyler eventually left the company because he felt that designing for some corporations was a compromising his beliefs. I admire that. Tyler and I continue to agree to disagree on the virtues of capitalism.

While as a young man I very much wanted to attend the Art Institute of Kansas City. I had aunts and uncles that studied there and it had its appeal. I later learned that, like most art institutes it was a place for rich spoiled kids to ‘not’ study, but attend a school. In ten plus years we never once interviewed a graduate of the art institute worth hiring. So when Tyler announced that he was going to teach there, I had my doubts. I new the school would benefit from Tyler, but worried for him.

What Tyler has done at that school is noting short of amazing. Sure, he teaches many of the expected courses like typography, web design, basic graphic design, but he is forging a new curriculum that only someone with his conviction and courage would pursue. He is teaching the altruistic and powerful potential of design beyond being the hired gun of a company. He is teaching of the political, social impact – and the responsibility one must take in even the smallest contribution to a questionable effort. In typical fashion Tyler credits someone else (Katherine McCoy) for allowing him to teach a class called “Visual Advocacy.” He is currently teaching a class called “persuasive ecology and design.” Tyler is talking about and teaching topics that designers typically do not. Tyler deserves credit and acknowledgment for his ground breaking and courageous approach. Tyler is a person that I greatly admire and seek to be more like.

You can find Tyler’s blog at www.thenewprogramme.net.

I greatly dislike web mail

In an effort to clean up my vocabulary and be more positive, I am attempting to avoid the use of the word “hate”. It is not working so well… but I keep trying. I am by nature a positive person, but there is much in this world that can be improved.

With the variety of email addresses – I suppose most of us now have – web mail becomes far from convenient. I love working with the Mac mail application. It is flexible as I want it and yet as simple as I at times want it. It just works so well for so many people with such a wide variety of needs.

My job now constrains the way I access my mail. I try and keep work mail, freelance mail, personal correspondence all in separate accounts neatly organized. But at work I am not able to mail out from the mail client. Firewalls and such… and I guess I am just too lazy to re configure the mail server settings to work there.

Enter the new client for mail at Mac.com. Thank you Apple. As gratuitous as this sounds my life is now back much closer to normal where email is concerned. Not an exact duplication of the mail application, it does any fan of 2.0 web aps proud. It is an excellent implementation of the interface and functionality. There are few minor things that can be improved – but I am one happy web mail camper at the moment.

22 October 2006

A third component

When marketers talk about a product or services they typically focus on features, benefits, or both. That is simply not enough. There is a follow up component that I call “outcomes.” Outcomes are what fall outside of benefits, as they most often are not directly promised or measured. Great customer service and superior experience are the most obvious outcomes. Providing subtle gratification for the customer is likely the most powerful one. This is where brand loyalty comes from. It is also where referrals and lifetime value comes from. The more subtle the better, this is simply a matter of congratulating the customer for appreciating the value you and your product provides. The job is NOT over when you the customer pays.

Opportunity lost at our National Parks

We visited the Shenandoah Valley National Park this weekend. What an awesome place to take in some fall foliage. Aside from an almost overwhelming display of color, what struck me most was the absolute waste of an opportunity. Standing in the lodge/giftshop/food-stop watching people look over the horrible merchandise, badly displayed made me want to scream. Granted I was here at a peak weekend, but still it was a giant opportunity missed.

Bad merchandise, poorly displayed, long lines and marginally competent service all add up to lost revenue. Now I am not suggesting that we whore out our National Park and create a Disneyland or Starbuck experience, but there were a lot of people there looking to spend money. Many suffered through he lines for marginal value, but most decided they could better sped their money elsewhere. The potential revenues from these near geographic monopolies could go towards further pars services. Get innovative or at least catch up! Put some design, business, operations and service skills to work and lower the taxpayer burden of these parks. We need to be proactive to insure their longevity.

Opportunity lost at our National Parks

We visited the Shenandoah Valley National Park this weekend. What an awesome place to take in some fall foliage. Aside from an almost overwhelming display of color, what struck me most was the absolute waste of an opportunity. Standing in the lodge/giftshop/food-stop watching people look over the horrible merchandise, badly displayed made me want to scream. Granted I was here at a peak weekend, but still it was a giant opportunity missed.

Bad merchandise, poorly displayed, long lines and marginally competent service all add up to lost revenue. Now I am not suggesting that we whore out our National Park and create a Disneyland or Starbuck experience, but there were a lot of people there looking to spend money. Many suffered through he lines for marginal value, but most decided they could better sped their money elsewhere. The potential revenues from these near geographic monopolies could go towards further pars services. Get innovative or at least catch up! Put some design, business, operations and service skills to work and lower the taxpayer burden of these parks. We need to be proactive to insure their longevity.

Today's definition

The recent shift in titling from the design group at the Royal College of Arts, from interaction design to “design interactions” has created some interesting discourse on definitions. The gist of which is, how we define “interaction design” or what exactly does it encompass?

My view is that interaction design is a much broader classification than that taught at Carnegie Mellon for example, where the HCI folks claim interaction with computers and the interaction folks claim the territory of human interaction (presumably through technology devices.)

From the outside these seem more territorial than professional.

In the situational context, of which all designers need be aware, there are users, interfaces (I use this term broadly as well), environments, action and/or goals, and there is that with which the user is to interact. Each of these has an influence. Each pair of these has interdependencies. These influences and interdependencies constitute a broader group of interactions, which must be considered, understood and designed for.

Interaction design is NOT exclusive to the web, computer applications or mobile devices. These are the areas that are currently exploiting a growing knowledge, study and discipline. The early interaction designers where architects, product designers, and interior designers who consider, in their work, the context. They are the pioneers of interaction. We should all broaden our minds a bit beyond our navels.

06 September 2006

After a 7 year nap…

I make a habit of reading the Wall Street Journal nearly every morning. And, almost every morning I read about some marketing exec or CEO making a grand announcement that the company is making a bold move into the future. They painted the picture of a vision that is optimistic, visionary and one that will bring grand ROI to the stockholders. Good Lord!

This morning’s headline was about Cisco. They have awoken from a deep slumber to determine that their technology could be marketable in the in home entertainment market. No kidding?

I am no rocket scientist, but I do recall some eight years ago, in a small company I built in Kansas… installing a Cisco router myself. Yes, I was head of the company and the IT guy as well as wearing many other hats. I was amazed at the elegance and cleverness of the installation and configuration process. The quality of the router was on par with what seemed a huge investment for our little company. I also remember thinking that these guys are going to be huge when high-speed networking merges with entertainment (music and video) in the home. Never really gave that much more thought until today.

My current employer is another example. Who was driving AOL for the last 10 years? The company was asleep while the market shifted. This, the company that invented chat, , that set the standard for online forums and made online advertisement tolerable. This company has done amazing things, yet is now a follower.

So what is my point? Companies that lose track of the market (what customers will want) and that do not aggressively invest in R&D are destined to fail – or at least fall into a long expensive slumber. How many times must we watch this corporate stupor unfold?

04 September 2006

Kill your babies, NOW!

We all get caught up in our own mini accomplishments… works or partial works that we obsess over and that meet and surpass what we had hoped to accomplish. If we are artist – that works out great. In fact is it one of the criteria. Egocentric creation is what separates artist from designers. It was a writer that first exposed me to the concept of “killing your babies,” those little very cool part that we create and can’t let go of.

A wordsmith may become infatuated with an elegant phrase, a musician with a riff, a designer with a graphic. We all do it. Something we create, that meets our sense of “wow,” within the process of a project, of which we cannot let go.

One of the best books I have read on writing is Howard S. Becker’s “Writing for Social Scientists.” He tells of a young graduate student that is trying so hard to write smart, that she looses track of the reader. This is the essence of user-centered work. Malcolm Gladwell is the master of converting complex issues into easy to understand works. He understands his subject matter, and the perspective of his reader. And he matches them simply and elegantly.

In my experience, young socially esteemed visual designers have the hardest time with this. They know not when to pick the right battle, and hang on to their pet “cool” for far to long, whether it fits with the project or satisfies the client’s objectives – they just will not let go. If you find your self stuck, designed into a corner. Try throwing out one of your favorite elements. It works wonders. It will help you to refocus on the true objective and move beyond your momentary obsession.

29 August 2006

A good start.

Dan Saffer has written a book that documents the current state of practice in interaction design. The title, “Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices” is perfectly appropriate. I had been looking forward to the publication of this book and had opportunity to meet Dan at his book signing during Adaptive Path’s recent conference in Washington, DC.

Dan is a bright guy, has some impressive work under his belt, and a great education, I only wish that he had revealed a little more of it in his book. Don’t get me wrong – this is a nice collection of tools and processes. Dan is even a pretty good writer, but this book will not challenge or expand the thinking of most interaction or experience designers.

The goals Dan states for his book are to, “make you understanding of interaction design richer, deeper and broader.” For a design school undergraduate, or for a manager or businessperson unfamiliar with this content it is excellent, and in fact would be an excellent text for IX 101, but the schooled designer will have to look a bit further.

Chapter six could have been left out as it contains an abbreviated primer on basic design. The section on research is good (I agree with Dan that Focus Groups are pretty much worthless) but the coverage on converting research into actions and decisions in the design process was very vague.

I appreciate very much the dialog and sidebars with many of the pioneers of our profession.

Like recent works by Daniel Pink and Seth Godin, this book will serve all designers well by educating non-designers about design thinking, the process and the basics of interaction. I have been waiting a while for a book like this, but much like Brenda Laurel’s “Design Research,” it left me wanting more… much more.

13 August 2006

A quick guide to readings

I have spent a great deal of time reading in the last few years. Much of it wasted. It occurs to me that there are some patterns observed that may be worth sharing. One of my personal life principles is “I can always make more money, but not more time to live.” Time is a much more precious commodity. And wasting time is the greatest of all wastes. So for what is it worth… this may be worth the time to read, and save you some time down the road. Then again, it may be a further waste of your remaining hours…

Academic papers and publications.
Often to esoteric or theoretical to be applied (the PhD dissertation that was the foundation of Google being a recent exception), these are generally too specific or too theoretical to be of much direct use to practitioners. What they do well though, is provide food for thought, seed for expansion, and often a vision for what will be possible or commonplace down the road. Mined well, this can be a great place to spend you time.

Books by academics.
Some of the more productive professors in a field are those actively engaged in the practice. My personal opinion is that too many professors are well removed from the real world. At the same time, too many practitioners are so “heads down” they are unaware of current research. If you are lucky enough to live near IIT, CMU and Stanford, you likely know one of these cross breads (most often a lecturer, guest or associate professor) such as Dan Saffer who have taught, researched, worked and also write. My hat is off to these obsessively driven industry leaders. This is often very valuable stuff.

Books about our profession but that do not target us.
This may seem curios, but many books about business, design, interaction and marketing are not targeting that market. Dan Pink and Seth Godin are good examples of such authors. There is very little for the savvy marketing professional to learn from a Seth Godin. He is speaking to the CEO or manager that has never taken a marketing class. Dan Pink, by his own admission is not an expert in design… but he does recognize its value. Dan is a great advocate of our profession and deserves much credit for helping to bring design thinking to the attention of the press and business.

Barely worth the coffee table…
I have several books that are titled very topical and mean well, but fall well short of being helpful. They are often full of images, few words and nary a point. Most of my examples have come from professionals at major firms and leverage that firm’s reputation. I won’t name names, but you know who you are.

“In my experience” books.
I have also wasted time reading books by practitioners that are neither writers, visionaries or provide much in the way of vision. I can only guess that the intended audience is the lost entrepreneur or manager browsing the business or web section at Borders. Usually these are cleverly and seductively titled. Read the first chapter or the introduction while still in the store, only then make your decision.

Case studies… war stories and the picture of success.
Often sold as recipe books or chronicles of greatness, these books are fun to read, can provide insight, but are also very dangerous. As much as I respect and admire Jim Collins, and enjoy reading his books, way to many interpret these chapters as solutions for their particular problem. The story told is one perspective, after the fact. Evidence is missing and it is generally not the precise same situation that you, as the reader are facing. Be ware of no evidentiary solutions.

Techie manuals
Often great for getting up to speed late, but fast… the useful shelf life of these books is often very short. Maybe that is why they are so expensive. I don’t need to be on the bleeding edge, so I usually buy them after the fact, on the sale table at a fraction of the retail price. Some of these, however can be great! A recent example is Dan Cederholm’s “Bulletproof Web Design.”

The outside visionaries
Very often, the problems we as designers, marketers and innovators are facing are not specific to us. There are other sources of information that can provide great insight. Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind. I read nearly everything he writes. Well researched, complex and very relevant material, explained in such a manor that it is easy to understand. I could only dream of obtaining this skill as I am not nearly as obsessive as Mr. Gladwell about writing. Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis are another example of a writing team that present topics well beyond a specific practice, but that have huge implication to what we do.

Understanding the nature of a particular bog is important. Mine for instance, started out as a venting mechanism while trying to figure out the relationship between my work and my graduate research. Later, it became a perfect positioning tool for the job hunt. Now, it is simply a nice form of expression that I enjoy assembling. If people read it great, if they don’t it is still fulfilling to me. Many blogs however are full of poorly researched advice (this one at times, I suppose as well) with a mission transparent to the reader. Some bloggers band together to optimize tagging and search optimization. This helps to raise their Digg ranking and eventually sell “the book.” Beware the huckster.

In summary
Three rules that may help in evaluating readings. First, be aware of what you know and where you are headed. Relevancy is critical. Second, try and understand the credibility and purpose of the author and the book. Third, know that there are very few new ideas… but many are repackaged, over and over. And fourth (OK, I lied) understand the Pareto Principle (also called the 80/20 rule or even as the “long tail”) as it applies to books. Most of the real content is presented in the first 2-4 chapters. The rest is reiteration and evidence. Often this is worth the effort, but there is no shame in abandoning a book prior to its finish and beyond its usefulness. Few authors (and no sane publisher) will allow the critical information be held until the final few chapters. Though summary chapters can be well worth the time.

04 August 2006

Design | Marketing | Advertising… is that it?

I was having a conversation this weekend with a friend and fellow professional, Scott Bower. Scott is an exceptionally bright person and a very talented interaction designer. He asked me if there was a book or place where he could research a user centric approach to marketing. It kind of stopped me cold.

Scott and I have had many long conversations about the divide in design schools between the “studio” or old school craft approach, and the more mature “design thinking” movement. We have also had in depth conversations about how the advertising agency model has long been broken. Hell, aside from that, they have been in five-year panic trying to figure out how to integrate interactive media. Most still see it as a department in the agency, or something they sub out to a specialty house.

Design has moved definitively towards user centric models, drawing on new forms of insight and market intelligence. Businesses such as Southwest Airlines and Proctor and Gamble are moving to customer centric models. But where is marketing? Are marketing professionals “getting it?” Did we not all read the “The Cluetrain Manifesto” like five years ago - and yet most marketing is still backwards facing. Still forcing industry jargon and internal formulated groupings of products and features into the market based on company agendas and available technology.

The customer is always right.
It seems a tired line from sales or customer service thinking of years ago. I don’t think managers that said it really meant it at a level beyond getting through the customer dissatisfaction of that particular moment.

The customer is always right.
In the beginning of the purchase process as people (not yet customers) are in the “problem recognition” phase they are only beginning to realize their needs. As they enter the “search for information” phase, they often find themselves making compromises based upon what is available. There is nearly always a gap – some level of disconnect between the customers needs and what is available. This is why some 80% of all products fail. Marketing needs to become customer facing. Allowing people to shop and buy in the same way the determine their needs will allow us as marketers to provide better information the those charged with developing new products. That is consumer faced marketing.

30 July 2006

Liz, Dan and Interaction Design

I just read Liz Danzico’s interview with Dan Saffer. I have a lot of respect for Dan and his work. We have had conversations on line, but I have never met Dan. Maybe I will be lucky enough to cross his path at a conference sometime soon.

I agree with Dan’s take on a lot of things, but there is one small item in this interview that I take exception with. Dan represents the ATM has having one of the most beneficial interfaces on the planet. I think the ATM interface, particularly if you include the versions at the grocery and department stores, as one of the largest opportunities for improvement in interface design.

The switching from hardware operators to software buttons… from the keypad to the right hand buttons… they confuse many users after some twenty years in existence. Every time I go to a new bank or make a purchase at a different store I have to relearn the rules. It is even to the point where most have to be prompted by the cashier or we find little notes on the control pad. It reminds me very much of my first computer – with documentation that said “press Enter” though the key was labeled “return.” How was I to know?

The convenience of remote banking transactions and 24/7 availability is awesome and has made bank transactions immeasurably more useful. But as an example of excellence in interaction… I hardly think so.

I am very much looking forward to reading Dan’s new book.

29 July 2006

The vision of the long tail

Book reviews are not the norm for me or for this blog, and you will not find this a comprehensive review of the book, but Chris Anderson was kind enough to extend a prerelease copy and it definitely struck a cord.

While Chris has termed a somewhat mundane and well-known phenomenon as the “Long Tail” (a variation of what has been taught in stats classes for years as the Pareto’s principle or the 80/20 rule in more laymen’s terms) he brings an evidentiary vision that has crucial implication to the digital world.

There have been many reviews that both rail on, and complement the book. I find it visionary and a must read for anyone in small business or in marketing.

Let me give you a quick example. I lived in Kansas for most my life. For some reason the laws in Kansas will not allow the ownership of more than one liquor store to a single person. This eliminates the chain stores very effectively. Score one for the entrepreneur. Further, only liquor stores can carry anything other than beer. This allows each storeowner to positions themselves and somewhat unique – or at least ale to accommodate the exact nature of their clientele. Just across the state line, this is not the case. The grocery stores and drug stores are all well stocked with wine, whiskeys and other so called “hard” liquors. Being a graduate student for the last few years I have developed an expertise in the under nine-dollar bottle of wine. In Missouri, I get a very limited choice – those titles that the chain store distribution channel deems worthy of the trouble of stocking. In Kansas, many liquor storeowners pride themselves on a unique and thoughtful selection of wines. This allows me to explore more than the mainstream.

I like a better selection. I like not being strictly in the mainstream. Sure, there are purchase decisions that I make with little thought and I tend to follow brands or even on brands (big fan of Target’s Archer Farms). Call me an elitist or a snob, but in some areas I like a broad selection that allows me to explore beyond the “short tail”. In my choice of music, movies, wine, beer, software and many other areas, I now have more choices. More are to come and I am ready!

28 June 2006

In the long run, stay in the moment

The fellows on the Red Green Show are fond of saying, “if you can’t be handsome, be handy.” I like endurance sports and have adopted a parallel slogan, “if you can’t go fast, go long.” And so, not being a gifted or svelte athlete I have chosen half and full ironman distance events. If you are not into sports… don’t abandon yet… read on.

I have been inconsistent and sidetracked in my training over the last few years, while doing some graduate work. I am trying, in the heat of the Midwest summer, to get back into shape. And I have developed a technique that helps me a lot. So I thought I might share it.

It borrows from Dave Scott’s “live in the moment” philosophy, but with a slight difference. For those of us that are not racing to win, we hit a point when it is about finishing. The key to finishing is to keep moving forward. Momentum is your friend. So as I run, I set visual goals a quarter, half or even a mile out. I also think about each and every step I take. I hold back just a bit, so that when I feel that step coming that makes me want to stop and walk, I have a reserve to draw from. This accomplishes tow things. First, that step that makes me want to walk just does not come as quickly, second… when it does, I have a plan. I put some extra energy into that single step and it gets me through to the next, which is always easier. Even better, I find that I reach mile middle milestones easier, feel great about it, and often don’t even walk at that point. The gratification of momentum and reaching my small little goal keeps me moving forward.

This wonderful thing about this mental game is that it has applications outside of sports. When you are attacking a wicked problem from within the cubicle, try applying this principle. If you’re a salesperson making call after call, days full of “no” or “I’ll think about it” break it down. Break it down to small steps. Work in the moment for small victories with an eye on middle milestones and the long-term finish. I swear it works.

27 June 2006

What kinds of compensation are acceptable!

A recent debate between Bruce Nussbaum and Michael Bierut regarding the approach and compensation for the design of IN, the new publication from Businessweek was an interesting exchange between old school ‘graphic arts’ thinking and a more aggressive business and marketing approach.

There are many types of compensation that we as designers, marketers, researchers, etc., can take from a project. Money - the check we cash is just one. Most all of us have produced pro bono work for a good cause. In that case the return was in our hearts. For other projects we may just want our name and reputation attached to it. I have taken on projects that in early development looked like they had much more potential than the client envisioned. In those cases we would often invest extra resources so that we might achieve some sort of break through. In this sort of case we shared the extra dividends with the client (whether they were aware of it or not.) The compensation can be a great case study, return business, a portfolio piece, or in rare cases pushing the envelope of our discipline.

What the AIGA needs (in my humble opinion) is a lesson in value. When designers work on a project and compete on price regularly, they certainly devalue the perceived worth of there offering. That, in fact, positions them in the market place. Truth be told, most customers assess the quality of your work based upon price. They often do not have the insight (how could they) to know what really went into the creation of a gem in your portfolio. Discounting a project to get a foot in the door is sometimes a prudent move that allows you to show what you can do, establish a relationship, and show the client what it is like to work with you (the good and the bad.) It also sets a dangerous precedent. But why should the designer not have the prerogative to take that chance?

Price is measured by calculating the difference in our cost and the optimal charge we might demand. When we discount our rate, we share some of the price of a project with the client. The resulting number is the value of the project – both to the designer and the client. This is, by the way, a standard lesson n any business school – often called the CVP triangle.

So my suggestion is that we as business people (yes designers, that is what we are) open up our minds and think in terms of value, both as we purchase services and as we perform them. Our take away from a project is much more complex, and much more rewarding than the money. In the case of the IN magazine… a publication that promises to promote the worth of design and innovation, you would have to be crazy not to jump at that opportunity. Whether for free, or with the additional investment of time… the PR value alone is worth more than the likely price of such a project.

23 June 2006

More evidence that advertising agencies don’t get it

This morning’s Wall Street Journal includes an article by David Kesmodel. It is yet another display that agencies do not have a clue what to do with the web. The great revelation here is that the scheduled time of a banner ad has significant impact on it influence. Wow… not exactly a revelation.

Advertising, and for that matter marketing is about context and permission. In the only Seth Godin book I recommend, “Permission Marketing”, he elaborates on this point quite well. [As with most of Seth’s writing, 90% of the message is covered in the first chapter or two.] Sending your marketing message when it is requested or desired will dramatically increase its effectiveness.

The advertising industry is hopelessly lost when it comes to the web. A few agencies (Crispin Porter, et al.) get it, but for the most part the industry is in a five-year spiral of panic that began with declining media revenues and culminates with a complete inability to integrate the new tools of the net into a holistic program that serves the clients best interest. Add to that what I see as an ethical issue – are you selling or advising? Doing both is problematic and short sited.

14 June 2006

Fuel, cars and where is my money sitting?

In my garage sits a very comfortable eight-year old German Sedan. The other vehicle, an American made SUV also spends less time on the road. As gas prices continue to rise, and I spend more of my working time in my home office I am guessing this trend will continue. My car is worth about 10% of the replacement purchase price. That amounts to several thousand dollars just sitting there and arguably not increasing my net worth. But if it were a newer car, I would have even more concern owning such an expensive dwindling asset given its limited use. It occurs to me that the rising gas prices will not only impact the type of car we buy, but how much we are willing to spend. Additionally, maybe I should think of it more in terms of an expense... and seek to have $0 in equity. Will I ever again want to fully payoff a car loan?

13 June 2006

MBA+Design - Brilliant, simply brilliant!

An MBA, along with an advanced design degree, it’s brilliant.

Those of you who know me will get that I am being a bit tongue in cheek here, having just spent three years obtaining an MBA and an MA in interaction design and design research. I am not brilliant, and did not have a grand vision of the next hot profession. I simply followed the path that made sense for me… I followed my personal vision. It happens that it coincides nicely with an emerging trend.

Talk at the IIT/ID strategy06 conference, the new publication by Business Week – IN, and the recent Email from IIT, all announcing the new combination MBA + Design degree is the topic of the day.

The vision and establishment of this program by Patrick Whitney may well be the legacy that punctuates the distinguished career of a design visionary. It is not that it is a revolutionary idea, but more that the timing is right and that IIT, and specifically Patrick, are capable of pulling it off. Patrick has long published counsel to designers regarding how to build skill sets that increase their value to business.

MIT and several other major universities have established relationships between the business and design school before. Even the University of Kansas is deep into the process of building a combination degree. But IIT has a unique reputation at the graduate level. For the motivated and insightful designer… this degree will easily pay for itself.

I am biased here. But, design thinking has much to offer the business world. And business acumen can lend tremendous clout to the designer. The toolbox of the educated design thinker is different from the typical MBA (who are graduating at an alarming rate, but not in the ridiculous numbers of design undergraduates.) As design thinkers we need to speak the language, learn the perspective, and work shoulder to shoulder at the executive level in order to chart our own path.

Side note: I have to commend Stanford for their recent announcement regarding their MBA program. Most programs are generalist degrees with a fairly rote schedule of core and elective courses. Stanford has opened their curriculum in order to create custom programs that take into account a student’s prior experience and future goals. This will not only be a differentiator for Stanford, but a real advantage for their students.

11 June 2006

A time of voice

I have never been a Bob Dylan fan. I have had very smart friends with great taste that revered the man, but for some reason I never really took the time to listen. This evening for completely random reasons I watched a two disc video chronicle of Dylan entitled “No Direction Home.” I am fascinated. The man at 20 years of age wrote such revealing and compelling words. Dylan’s true years of genius were relatively short lived. By his own admission, he has a much harder time writing material, much less material of social relevance.

I was raised deep in the art world, well, at least as close as you can come in the Midwest. I spent childhood afternoons in the basement of the Neslon Atkins Museum of Art. My grandmother worked there. Several of my aunts and uncles were schooled at the Kansas City Art Institute right across the street. Yet I never really understood art. I had nothing that I thought was relevant to say. Or maybe I was lacking confidence in my voice. That is primarily why I became a designer, because I had visual talent, but no real voice.

Some people are lucky enough (or some would say cursed) with a lifetime of voice. They live to reflect, project, comment and interpret. For me, it was in my thirties before I really felt like I either had something to say, or deserved to be heard. I am not sure if these are mutually exclusive. I now get it. I can contribute. I have the tools, the experience and the insight to be worthy of my voice. And, I am grateful that my voice was not in my twenties. I am grateful that I have a voice a bit later in life.

Many of my high school pals have peaked. They have had their day, made their money and are coasting. In a strange way I feel fortunate that I have my most productive years to look forward to.

05 June 2006

Way finding: “get (in and) out of Denver baby go, go”

For the last couple of weeks I have been taking a much-needed break in the front range mountains of Colorado. I love it here, hope to make this my home soon and have combined recreation with some prospecting and networking. Along the way I had the opportunity to be a frustrated “new user”, so I though it worth writing as that perspective is always relevant.

On a couple of occasions I drove to Denver International Airport to either pick up or drop someone off. In airport terminology these are referred to quite logically as “arrivals” and “departures”. Though I had been through this airport on a dozen or more connecting flights I had ever seen it from the outside.

Driving from west Denver it is simply a matter of following I-70 until you see the exit signs for the airport. And, as an added bonus, you can see the airport’s tent configuration from miles away. So what is the problem you might ask? Well, having never been to the airport before, I was prompted with some 7 potential exits miles before reaching the airport. At each one I wondered if I was passing “my” exit. At no time was short term or terminal parking even mention as an option. Not until I was 100 meters or so from the terminal itself did the first and only sign mention short-term parking. The signage never directed me the wrong way… nor did it ever confuse me… it just never gave me any reassurance that I was headed the right way. For at least 5 miles I found myself wondering if I should have already exited to reach the terminal.

Additionally, the signage on several occasions refers to the east and west terminals. In reality, they are two sides of one large terminal. Arriving on the wrong one seams of little consequence to some but not all travelers.

As I track back and think about the users that might have been identified by the airport signage authority (I am supposing there is one), there were likely four main groups of visitors aside from people that work there. 1) The layover passenger with no need for the directional signage. 2) The veteran user, who after a trip or two sharing my experience, or having taken direction from someone with more experience, has no problem navigating to the correct curb (more on this later). 3) The arrival passenger that is getting into his car (rented or otherwise). 4) The local departure passenger that will park in one of several long-term parking lost. And lastly there is me, the novice, dropping off or picking up a passenger for the first time. Granted, mine is likely the smaller of these groups, but new users are fundamental to any system. Getting me through my first experience with confidence and reassurance ought to be a priority - coming second only to satisfying existing customers.

As an aside, the trend appears to be that curb drop off and pick up is routine. I am accustomed to parking (short term) and accompanying my passenger into the airport. Even more traditional, is for me to great my guest at the gate when they arrive and come off the plane. In Denver, there is no short-term parking for arrivals. They are expected to find their bags and their way to the curb to be picked up. To me this seems a lot like pulling into the driveway and honking to pick up a date.

Directional signage is one of the best disciplines that graphic designers have available to them as a reference in architecting navigable web sites. The parallel of course is that while we don’t want to inundate the seasoned user with redundant or elementary instructions, there is a middle ground where both the new user and the experienced user can be addressed simultaneously. Maybe it was just a small thing, maybe it was just me, but I was certainly without reassurance until the last possible moment in my Denver Airport orientation.

03 June 2006

The CEO needs to do what?

Having spent the last three years thinking a lot about the roll of the designer in the tech business hierarchy, it was with great interest that I read Bruce Nussbaum’s recent article in Business Week. His primary point is that CEO’s need to not only embrace technology, but needs to use it. I could not agree more. But I think it is just a small portion of what a CEO needs in order to be effective.

There is a triangulation necessary to bring vision to a company (and that is the primary role of the CEO – for the moment, we’ll leave the day to day running of the company to the president). First, he CEO must be cognizant of the customer’s needs, second, gauge the temperate of the industry and third, monitor the effects of macroeconomics on the company’s future. These are massively complex insights, none of which can be effectively condensed to an executive brief. These understandings must be comprehensive.

Knowledge tends to lead to either one of two outcomes for an individual. Either it provides vision, or it provides capabilities. At the upper end of the corporate hierarchy, if all you gain is capabilities (tactical skills), you have likely reached your potential.

Nussbaum’s point is absolutely correct if either the industry demand is tech oriented, or if the audience for its offerings is technically savvy. Otherwise it is a secondary consideration at best. There are plenty of CEO roles that are well executed by dispatchers of email and search tasks.

A troubling side note to all of this is the notion that companies should be run by (fill in your profession here). In a dated post by Diego Rodriguez’ metacool, Diego states, “I’m an engineer by training, so I’m biased, but I’ve long believed that product companies are best run by engineers/people who grok stuff at a deep level.” I think we all have a bit of that bias whether we come from engineering, accounting, operations or design. Our skill set, our perspectives, our insights are the most important. We tend to passionately believe that what we do plays a critical role in the company. [By the way, I have somewhat recently been convinced that designers and engineers deal with fundamentally the same issues.]

As I progressed deeper and deeper into school, finally immerging with both my share of knowledge and baggage (or as Diego puts it “bias”) I realized that the outcomes of this knowledge, vision or capabilities, would only take me so far. By far the most important skill I could have in a corporation is the ability to work along side, manage and communicate with the other humans in the organization. Very little is accomplished in the modern world as a solo effort.

So what does this mean to the CEO? If you are in the tech industry, by all means be technically adept. If your customer’s technical demands or your industry is being driven by new technology, brush up – immerse yourself and know that technology. Otherwise, keep to the triangulation above and focus on your ability to manage and work with humans. The higher up in the organization you go, the more important those human interdependencies become. Knowing by doing is great, knowing by seeing down the road is even better.

28 May 2006

Direction, careers and the model

A couple of semesters ago a very smart professor and ground breaking market strategist put business in the most simple and focused terms I had heard. It resonated with me and it is on my mind most of the time I am working or thinking about work. It goes like this, “really know the market, develop a strong strategy, and then, because you have done that well, bet the ranch.” My guess is this seems a bit to cowboy or reckless for some. But I think it is dead on. Risk taking is critical, but only after the homework has been done.

As I am talking to prospective employers and various company executives, I have been working on to simply explain what I want to do. I think visually, so developing a mental model was a pretty obvious step. I have shown it here and after some brief explanation… would invite critic and comment.

Take a look:  Mark's Model3

The three spheres are those I am most interested in. And I will go through them one at a time. First is the Market Intelligence. This involves knowing the demand, supply, distribution channel (economics), understanding your customers through dialog and research, and of course every bit of information you can gather about competitors. Second is the marketing and brand positioning. Last is a systematic process for developing innovation in your offerings. At the core of this is the company’s strategy. Some add value (Apple), others radically out source cost (Wal-Mart), and yet other work hard to do both (the golden goose). My passion is in adding value.

Curiously, all three of these require and can radically benefit from design thinking. Design at the thing or product level, the process level and at structuring an organization.

So, that brings me to what I want to do in my life. I have spent most of my career in the marketing end of things. I get the branding, marketing of features, benefits and outcomes. Much of this is focused on user experience and specifically the web. At the moment, most of the consulting work I do (and dig the hell out of) is the Market Intelligence component. Matt Mayfield, of IIT/ID and Motorola introduced me to some of their methodologies in a very short telephone conversation and it has never left my though process. Thanks, Matt! Researching the competition, learning about customer’s needs, wants, and activity structures fascinates me. I have a passion for building and maintaining that knowledge base. That is the core where companies need to look for opportunity – whether it is the next step in technology or an un-serviced customer willing to buy. When I am researching, much of the tools, processes and data compellation is the same, whether that gets purposed for brand positioning, user experience planning for a web site, or uncovering opportunities does not seem to vary my degree of interest. I think part of that is that I love to learn.

Although I have not been in the employ of a large aggressive firm, the development of teams and processes for innovation is an as yet untapped passion. Sometime soon though… I will be there. I guess that would (along the lines of Chief Innovation Officer) be career stage 3. Putting all of that together into a cohesive strategy with optimal execution is what’s left. The ability to straddle reliability and validity (embraced by me and borrowed from Roger Martin of Rotman) is something important. I do not know if my aspiration of eventually being a CEO and directing a company to greatness is too grand, but dreams are supposed to be large. And mine is.

22 May 2006

Chicago, IIT/ID Strategy 06. – Day Two

Sorry for the delay… but it was graduation weekend and between that, project deadlines and being a bit travel worn, well, I just plain dropped the ball.

The first presentation I saw on Thursday was that of Ben Tsiang. And although he had a lot to say about business in China I felt like much of it was redundant from the number of international business classes I have taken. His take via SINA.com (his company) was however, a nice variation.

Later that morning Douglas Look gave us a quick look (sorry) of his work at IIT. When I say quick, I mean it… maybe 10 minutes. I look forward to downloading his presentation. I think some of the tools and matrix were interesting and I intend to study them with a bit more diligence.

The most intriguing presentation was that of Clement Mok. I have heard Clement talk quite a few times and have had some interesting debates with him – though always focused on design management and interaction. This talk was focused on Advertising Agencies. I have felt for 15 years that the Agency Model is broken. The first problem is that of consult vs. sales. I believe that it is very hard to do both and maintain integrity. But I also believe that every employee must understand and be sales oriented.

Clement has spent the last 9 months studying the prospects for agencies in interactive and Internet advertising. He is heading in the right direction. Two things struck me as absolutely crucial and quite accurate in my opinion. First, when advertising on the net, the medium is an extremely important component of the message. Second, most agencies are in panic mode, but they have been for the last five years. And, they are absolutely asking the wrong questions. There are so many assumptions being extended from old media to new media. This is the basic problem of heuristic work. Assumptions are made and not re-thought in the current context amid inevitable change. That is where the gold is… hard to find, but rich in opportunity.

Natalia Davis and Russell Redenbaugh gave an interesting presentation that focused on the financial aspect of design and innovation performance. This is an important topic for designers, and likely alludes to the groundwork for more overlap between business and design in IIT’s conference and academic agenda. Notice the current fad of combining MBA degrees with Design Degrees. IIT/ID and Kansas are doing this… and there is merit to the concept. But business programs have been partnering with other disciplines for quite a while. Back to the presentation… Natalie and Russell presented a beautiful concept together to sell their vision of the importance of shareholder value. It is a critical message for designers, but my guess is that this audience is very much focused on the user as the primary stakeholder. I am sure that it is quite effective for them in presenting their consulting services.

One great quote from Russell that demands mentioning, “good companies squander abundant resources and protect the scarce ones.” We designers should all have this tattooed somewhere as a constant reminder. And the accountants need to learn that to aggressively invest in R&D when times get tough is not only a valid but crucial strategy. A favorite professor of mine once said, “really know the market, develop a solid evidence based plan, and because you did those two things, bet the ranch.”

The last formal presentation of the day came from Jeremy Alexis and Cynthia Benjamin. Again, the theme of business and designer working together was covered. As an MBA with an MA in design, I needed no convincing. But the presentation was a great experience for those designers that silo themselves.

I rarely get anything out of roundtables – so I am going to blow that off completely.

Something happened and Bruce Nussbaum was unable to do the conference wrap up. Instead, Christopher Meyer stepped up and quickly gathered his notes and gave one of the most dynamic and compelling presentations of the conference. He spoke of design in terms of Context (the past), Merging (the present) and Emerging (the future). He talked briefly on Daniel Pink’s notion of design (MFA/MA) being the new MBA. He also spoke of the classic designer vs. businessperson dilemma that Roger Martin focused on the day prior. Chris’ take was basically that designer need to get over it. I could not agree more… working, and presenting at the executive level is something designer MUST learn to do.

Chris mentioned and interesting view of the value chain… reversing it so that it has more meaning. I am not sure I fully gather the implications in this moment, but I assure you I will be researching and postulating.

There was so much content in Meyer’s final wrap up that I could go on for days… but maybe it is best that I don’t. And maybe it is best if you just make sure to be there next year. I know that I will.

Note: I must recant something I wrote in my review of day one. I was a bit taken aback by Patrick Whitney’s shortness when we met. To be fair to Patrick, he is in high demand at this event and it was presumptuous to even think of demanding or deserving more of his time. An introduction was my goal, and that accomplished, we were and should have been done. Sorry Patrick!

18 May 2006

Chicago, IIT/ID Strategy 06. – Day One

As I found my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), I followed the trail of black… clothing that is. A dark and dreary day that would provide both hail, horizontal rain and eventually even some sunshine looked to be a typical design fest. I knew not a single person here. After checking in I had my share of coffee (intake seems to go up when I travel).

Opening remarks from Patrick Whitney – met him… a bit cold and had no difficulty letting me know when my time with him was up. It could have just been my lower Midwest sensibilities.

Someone, who’s name I could not hear spoke about the roll out the combination MBA and MA program coming to IIT. I had mentioned to Whitney that Kansas had just set up a similar program and he with distain asked, “a full MBA and MA?”

We then heard comments from Elizabeth Smith, curator of Museum of Contemporary Art. They are moving to exhibit more in design… and coming in the fall – “Massive Change – the future of design” by Bruce Mau. There is also something coming called a “Visionary program” that touches the topic of sustainability – this announcement was more than a little vague

Christopher Meyer was the first slated speaker and started out discussing the use of network connections to increase value. He talked a bit about Memes and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), how networks produce more networks causing the extremely rapid growth of the likes of Google – and how the network of network is expanding organically and rapidly. He mentioned a few noteworthy books that Intend to at least check out… Nexus, Linked, and Six Degrees. He then spoke of “Liquid state of networks that allow for rapid innovations.” Most of his talk was extremely reminiscent of Blur and It’s Alive, but hearing him speak added some real flavor and personality to the body of knowledge.

Meyer then mentioned a new project called futuremonitor.com that Intend to check out once back at home.

Rob Forbes then took the stage to discuss the history of his company. He talked at length about the reserve that went into creating the look and brand for hic company… building a perfect backdrop or container for the exquisite products he vends. He discussed briefly the design of his organization, but admitted that it was less than a thoroughly planned out process.

The most interesting concept that Forbes put forth was that of “acquiring and retaining the right customers.” This is an extremely powerful idea and one that I had never encapsulated so succinctly. That one will be noted and be used often. He also noted that only 2 of 10 products in his inventory would be sustained (he, insidently, did note give a metric for what constitutes sustained.

After a brief break we were treated to a very compelling talk by Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management. He articulately laid out his theory on the disconnect between designer and business person. Being a hybrid (MBA/designer) it made perfect sense to me, but was in such a clear context. It had never occurred to me so clearly. He spoke of the to test of what we consider worth using… that which is reliable, and that which is valid. Business people are risk averse and so choose the former. Designers, easily bored and often risk takers prefer the late. The two are never in sync, and Roger showed with two intersecting bell curves the dynamic of the problem. Few people set squarely in between and operate on each basis (reliable and valid) with equal influence. Roger says these are the people to peg as CEO’s. He sited the current CEO of Proctor and Gamble as a perfect example. Likewise, P&G is a case study in how to use design as a competitive advantage (in contrast to the design positioning model of Target.) There was much more great content from this talk… but I must move on.

Jeffery Li is Country President of Novartis China. His talk was short but he made some excellent points. Two were most compelling. The first, coming from Jeffery, was that the governments commitment to innovation has been titled as “imparative.” If only our own government would realize this and put resources behind it! The second came fro a question in the audience. He asked, “what is the approach of Novatis China for exporting some of the most innovative health treatment in the world (herbal, etc)?” Unfortunately the question was misunderstood then miss-interpreted and what we got was a rather corporate PR response with little substance.

The art of the possible… Scott Durschlag and Jim Wickes gave a very compelling history of the reformulation of Motorola Wireless that has taken place over the last several years, resulting in product successes such as the Razr and the Pebble. Design was a crucial portion of this process, but research and the resulting discovery of opportunities resulted in a cohesive process and strategy for Motorola’s real success. Clearly, they believe it is not about the object so much as the strategy that creates the elegant and powerful objects. While Scott focused on the larger picture and global trends (Macro-trends to use his terminology), Jim spoke to the more direct and tactical elements. He showed the product stratification plans and how common technologies where threaded throughout.

I was fortunate to participate in a round table discussion at lunch with Chris Conley (IIT and Gravity Tank) and a group of IIT students and alumni. The topic was a new program, their Masters of Design Management. A 9-month masters degree that had me very interested (like I need a third Masters.) I would encourage any current MBA or executive to consider extending their knowledge and management skills by taking a serious look at this program. Though design may appear to be a hot trend right now, innovation and the management of designers to achieve such will not be going away anytime soon.

After lunch we heard from Todd Tillemans of Unilever and Chris Conley. They sat and discussed their client/vendor relationship and how they worked together to not only research and design product, but how to investigate opportunities in lower end distribution channels (such as Dollar Stores) and the unique problems they experience. This was the first notion at the conference of Design Thinking going beyond object and product and being applied to processes and organization. While the dialog felt a bit rehearsed and staged, the content and subject matter was excellent. Also nicely done was the overhead presentation. While at times it distracted from the presentation, it was refreshingly fluid and was not constrained to the talking points. It told a visual story that paralleled the dialog.

The last formal event of the day was a dialog moderated by Patrick Whitney. Along with him were Bruce Nussbaum (technology writer and design advocate for Business Week), and Blaise Zerega of Condé Nast. Their good-natured rivalry made for a very entertaining conversation about design in the press, its status as a trend or fad, and the new upcoming publications from each group. Blaise (former managing editor of Wired) would not disclose the exact nature for their new business publication but described it as cutting edge and that it would definitely have design and innovation content. He positioned it in contrast to Wired, which he called more of a techno lifestyle magazine.

Bruce spoke about a the coming redesign of Business Week implying the motivation by nodding towards Blaise. The new publication will be entirely focused upon innovation and design and should be out as an accompanying piece with the June 9th issue of Business Week.

Buffet dinner and drinks were then the focus and much needed. More about day 2 to come….

15 May 2006

What I would be doing this week if…

Actually, it is in fact, exactly what I WILL be doing. I am attending the Strategy 06 conference in Chicago - most of you know that innovation is my passion and it will be the dominant topic for this event. The conference has been assembled by the folks at IIT’s Institute of Design so it will feature some of the great minds from both corporate and academic organizations that specialize in design and innovation.


From the web site, “The IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference is an international executive forum addressing how businesses can use design to explore emerging opportunities, solve complex problems, and achieve lasting strategic advantage.”

I am excited to go, Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I will get to visit face-to-face with old friends, and see the city in the springtime. Oh – and how could I forget my priorities! My mission – to network, meet, listen and learn!

I will do my best to chronicle in a timely fashion my experience at the conference here, but I offer no promises. My mission is a bit selfish, but given time, connectivity and energy, I will post everything I possibly can. Stay tuned!

Now… about that job?!?!

Having fulfilled my academic obligations (with the exception of the ceremonial component) it is time to seek gainful employment. At least that is what any parent would tell their graduate. And so I have set just such a course for myself.

Incidentally: having been an entrepreneur for many of my professional years, I have a growing list of business opportunities that I will gladly share for the price of dinner, lunch, or even a stimulating conversation. But the next phase of my career will be in the corporate sector.

Not being a traditional mid 20 year old graduate… I am a bit of an odd duck. As such, I did not participate in the traditional career fairs and cattle calls that frequent college campuses. I have substantially higher standards. I ask my self frequently, what does my ideal employer look or act like –I have found no easy answer, but here is what I do know:

I am looking for a company large enough to provide the sort of research and work group tools I have yet to be exposed to. I am looking for a company either smart enough or large enough to be nimble. I am looking for a company that is either in need of – or greatly value market intelligence and close communication with its customers. The company must also be in great need for – or have a passion for (or the variations of) the innovation process. I am looking for a company that has values, for its employers, for its customers, for sustainability, and contributing to live on this planet. Oh, and it would be great to locate near say… mountains… water… culture?

So what do I want to do? Manage or build teams. Teams that either investigate and builds scenario exploring innovative market opportunities, or teams developing those innovations. I have experience doing both, and am hoping that my three-year stint in academia does not cloud the perceived value of that experience. Stay tuned… I am sure that the process will reveal itself in some way here.

08 May 2006

Getting Noticed on the Net - shameless self promotion

There was once a time when companies would come to me and ask us to put their brochure online as a web page. Yep, those were the days… simple, full of anticipation and very exciting. But the world has certainly changed.

Our first question for clients was typically, “how do you propose that your prospects will find you?” Sure, you could send them but that is not nearly enough. We promoted direct mail and NPR. [it took us forever to get them to stop with the dub, dub, dub thing]

Search engines have been supplanted by blogs, RSS feeds, aggregators and now tagging. All of this is great. It saves time, lets the public (a loose sort of new democracy) choose what is most important or at least most interesting. Plato’s take on democracy (book VIII for those interested) got it right. Democracy is doomed to fail on two counts. First, do you really want to trust the future to the wisdom of the masses? Reducing things to an average is aiming a bit low in my opinion (I know I sound like a snob, I am OK with that). But my biggest concern is that of the loophole.

People are smart and ingenious when it comes to leveraging the details less thought out. We have already read about the legion of blog groupies enlisted to tag stories – so they rise to the top of Digg, TechMeme, and Del.icio.uc (I love these sites by the way and scan them daily.) Granted this is not the norm, but it does happen. What is worst is the cooperative bloggers who form packs, consciously mentioning their buddies on a regular basis with no real topical purpose. But then, finding loopholes and bending the rules is probably what humans do best.

I suppose maybe we should all enlist a small band of self/mutual promoters to enliven our readership. Personally, I use this forum to work out thoughts, write a little, vent some, and document what I was thinking back in 2006. I have no aspirations of fame, book tours and groupies. All I want is to make reasonable living, build teams that produce great work, and ride my bike without being hassled by the man.

25 April 2006

Resource allocation

As a businessperson and former business major, I often talk about the allocation of resources. I like the ideology that in a pure supply and demand economy, resources will find the best opportunities. I believe this. But, I do not believe we live in a world where the consumer (demand) and the supplier (supply) effectively meet to find equilibrium (optimal value or price). Unfortunately most of our distribution and delivery systems are convoluted. This allows opportunity for manipulation, and we have a harder time reaching that optimal cost, value, price point. Some markets (commodities, stocks, etc) do reach equilibrium very quickly, but the majority, healthcare for instance, does not.

So what constitutes a resource? I believe that it is a combination of elements that fall into these five categories: money, time, materials, energy and passion. Notice that energy and passion are separate… this is significant. A careful evaluation of the combination and proportions of these resources can tell you a lot about the motivations and goals of those investing.

Why is this important? The design, marketing and strategic efforts within an organization are highly dependent upon the allocation of resources. More does not always make for a better outcome. Many times it is the proportional composition of those resources that impacts the quality of solutions and the success of a project. I think that this is an important observation for the astute designer.

24 April 2006

Is my equity working?

I paid off my car this month. The irony of it being the last thirty days of my three-year adventure back to graduate school is not lost on me. I am stuck between the benefits of no longer having a car payment, and the silliness of having an equity stake in a dwindling asset. People have written books about what a poor investment vehicle the family home is. And, although a much smaller amount of money, my car is loosing value at a ridiculous rate. And yet it is still a relief that I own it.

But what does this have to do with design, innovation or business. Everyday business people make an investment in themselves, in process, in knowledge and in relationships. These – are true investments. These skills and experiences that some once said to me “they can never take away from you” are in fact enormous assets.

My three years in school has been both exhausting and exhilarating. I don’t think I had really taken stock in how much there is to know. Richard Saul Wurman talks about (Information Anxiety, 1989) the reconciliation we must have with the limits of time and our brains. That is it not important to know everything, but to know where to find out everything. Certainly he did not foresee the immediacy of google and wikipedia. There comes a point where skills, knowledge, experience and process will fail. At that point, progress will rely upon relationships – the dynamics of leadership, the challenges of motivation, inspiration, convictions and determination. And while I am determined to never let this learning process slow, I am looking forward to reaching that “point.”

18 April 2006

Indicators (more)...

While on the subject, one of my strongest held observations is that sales and marketing must be steered from two different minds. It is probably the first thing I look for when talking to a prospective client. Yes, even before measuring the scale of the company, its web site, competitors, or the color of the carpet. Is the head of marketing really the sales manager?

This may seem obvious to many, but sales is short term, very measurable and immediately accountable. Marketing is a relatively long-term project, with consistency and agility – and metrics are difficult (but not impossible). Unless you have employed Sybil as VP of Sales and Marketing, I can almost guarantee your group is struggling.

This does not mean that your VP of Sales cannot be well qualified as a marketer, or that your head of Marketing is a former sales person. In fact, cross-pollination is great, it leads to mutual respect and the kind of cooperative glove in hand relationship you want. There will likely always be a small speck of adversarial attitude between sales and marketing, but I think this can be healthy if kept in check and civil.

Brand as an option?

I have been working with corporate identity and branding for many years. Much of that time is as a consultant. In introductory meetings I am usually looking for indicators that I will not be wasting my time and a customer’s money. I love a challenge, but I am looking for the potential for an eventual win-win scenario. There are a couple of indicators that tell me a company is either a lost cause (no client potential) or are a perfect fit (great prospect as someone I can help). Some times, however, these two indicators are difficult to distinguish as lacking potential. Here they are:

Number 1) “Management doesn’t like it when we talk about brand.” Version 2 is “we really don’t believe in branding here.” Honestly, I have actually heard this from marketing professionals in publicly traded and fortune 500 companies on multiple occasions. Please listen carefully if you have said this yourself. You have a brand, but you are likely not remotely influencing it to your advantage. It does exist, unless you are invisible (you may in fact be hoping for this right now), so be conscious of it, measure it, and deal with it. Head in sand has never, nor will ever be a good strategy for branding?

Number 2) “Our brand is described in detail, right here in the manual.” Ok, this is important… your actual brand is not any book! It is probably not even a part of your vision. It is in your customer’s and your non-customer’s heads. And, you will have to work very hard, and very smart to shape that brand. If you have not measured your brand from a customer centric perspective, it will be very difficult to move it to a favorable position. You cannot will a brand favorable.

17 April 2006

Kevin Keller in Kansas

Few things are as compelling to me as brand and the branding process. For a handful of business students and their professors at Kansas University in Lawrence, Friday was a particularly inspiring day. Kevin Lane Keller, one of the foremost experts in brand strategy paid a visit and for a couple of hours shared his thoughts.

Dr. Keller drew from a series of recent publications, and a few not yet published. He told stories of consulting experiences, how companies have implemented his strategy, and explained the stories behind the ads that most of us only experience as consumers. Two striking observations come to mind in recalling his talk, both from the fast food industry.

First, he asked, "could you ask for a better competitor than Burger King?" I know it has been a few years since I understood what Burger King was trying to do with their brand or who their target market is. Is random chaos really a viable plan?

Next – he voiced an observation regarding Wendy’s. During Dave Thomas’ stint as the spokesperson for the company he was not exactly a spring chicken. But even had he been 18, did they not have a back up plan? It certainly does seem that Wendy’s has been a drift for quite some time.

While these observations are far from demonstrating the depth of the talk, they were certainly entertaining. Thanks Kevin, hope you come back to Kansas sometime soon.

12 April 2006

Economics, savings, taxation and trouble ahead

In a departure from this blog's main topics, I needed to get this off my chest...

Late last year I read a paper written by Kevin Lansing, Senior Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco regarding the negative implications of American’s savings and spending habits on the economy. I could not agree more with Mr. Lansing (admittedly lacking anything close to his credentials.) I, in fact am a prime example of poor spending and savings habits in my personal life. I will, however, take full advantage of a lack of gross earnings that result from being in graduate school for the last three years as my excuse.

Mr. Lansing makes some seriously credible recommendations in his reports that include a governmental shift away from an increasing federal deficit. I could not agree more. When did the Republican regime become the arbiters of non-tax and still spend?

His second recommendation is one of a shift in (I assume federal) taxation from earnings to spending. This would presumably increase our tendencies to spend and increase savings - though I am not convinced this is a logical decision but one of spontaneous emotional gratification needs. Most Americans tend to be lazy savers. The use of home equity and whole life insurance policies are about as far as most of us go. For the majority of us, neither of these even come close to providing an above average rate of return on investment, much less an optimal return - but they are easy no brainer lemming like efforts. With a shift in the housing economy that seems inevitable, returns in these investments will be reduced to that of the equity in your new car purchase. Like sand through your fingers, a dwindling asset.

After a bit of mulling over Mr. Lansing’s second recommendation, my biggest concerns are focused here - on the shift to a spending tax. I have this vision of a new more robust barter economy. Call it grey market or black market, the undocumented trade of goods and services will rise (minimally) in direct correlation to this taxation shift. Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with this, but given further thought as to the implications… it struck me as a very dangerous proposition. The revenue service is already looking to gain access to Pay Pal data. Imagine what they will need to track growing barter and trade trends.

I am still a proponent of a radically simplified taxations system (with apologies to all of my accountant friends). Maybe the flat escalating tax system is the way to go. The more you prosper, the more you contribute. I think I could be OK with that no matter how many millions I was earning. Is that the alarm clock I hear?

11 April 2006

Mac on windows, windows on Mac, blah blah

Yes, yes we are all very excited about being able to increase our available desk space and hardware hassles by booting windows on our Macs. Not having to buy another junky generic PC will be great. I now have an even more delightful doorstop. But enough! Specifically enough from you obnoxious windows pundits who seem to be smirking like cats from the tree.

Nobody, and I repeat, NOBODY, craves Windows running on their Mac. But nearly every Mac user has at least one application that they would like to run - that is not available to them. Yes, I know the gamers are all out in force, but I am talking about professionals at work, striving for more productivity. IT departments that have begrudgingly allowed the graphikers to connect to the network – or worse made them attempt graphic productivity with a windows machine now have a better conduit. But do not for one minute think you will convert any of us. We have experienced the superior solution and are not about to give it up.

Personally, I hope that Apple never makes the Mac OS available for generic intel boxes. What brings reliability to the Mac is a tightly controlled OS and manufacturing standards. A closed system that prevents unwanted incompatabilities. The plethora of poorly engineered hardware and unusable software installers, to say nothing of a green acres approach to user interface renders the windows platform nearly intolerable for those of us who know better.

I like my bliss (and can tolerate my own arrogance on this issue.) I like my Macs. And if every once in a while I have to reboot or hot swap to get the most current SPSS or some other non-Mac application, I will be a happy and very productive person.

PS – Dear SPSS, I really resent being several versions behind in capabilities, just because I prefer an elegant interface!

03 April 2006

Will designers determine the fate of design?

I think not. Granted I am in the Midwest and not San Francisco, New York or that great meca of design, Chicago, but I would estimate that 95% of the designers that I have known or worked with could not define ‘design thinking.’ In schools, in studios and in the minds of most design faculty, design is a trade and a craft. It is visual styling in the studio tradition – and a rote process of styling at that.

The business magazines, Daniel Pink and even Time Magazine have spouted about the virtue of design. They show design as a worthy discipline as yet untapped by most businesses. And for that I am very grateful. They hold up Apple Computer, Proctor and Gamble and others as companies with the vision to use design as an effective weapon in an increasingly competitive marketplace. True enough, these are examples of companies that have embraced the power of design and made a difference, either in process or in positioning. They have not only differentiated themselves in the press, business world and consumer mindset, but likely increased profitability as well.

Here is where the difficulty lies. Most designers I know (granted most are graphikers, web, print or both) are caught up in visual styling. They miss the structure and are only partly aware of how their process is different from that of marketers, accountants and others. Further, most designers (like myself for many years) utilize what Richard J. Borland and Fred Collopy (Managing as Designing, 2004) refer to as a decision attitude rather than a design attitude. They do not push to optimal or potentially risky solutions. They defer to safe and acceptable standards that meet expectations.

Most of the engineers and business professors I know are more attuned to design thinking than the designers that I know. Have you noticed how many MBA programs have formed alliances with university design departments in the last few years? Though it has been pointed out to me that ‘we do not own’ our process or the design domain, as designers we are in position to bring it to the executive level and optimize the obvious potential.

My real fear is not that designers will be left in the dust, or that we will lose credit, it is that design will be the latest amongst many business fads to follow TQM and Six Sigma. Those credible applications are so often reduced to weak applications or ‘programs’ that lack the systemic embrace that can render them so powerful. Using design to merely position (I did not say SuperTarget) will only lesson the long-term significance of design thinking in the business world.

The charge for the practicing studio or trade minded designer is this – get out of your staid process and grow. Learn to think and talk like business people. Go to conferences and read the published papers - even take classes or study at the graduate level. Understand how to talk the executive language. Apply research, metrics and statistics to your work. Spend time with people who are not designers within your organization. Be aggressive, be expansive and work cross culturally.

My hope is that we can keep design from becoming the latest business version of the atkins diet.

28 March 2006

Transient data opportunities

I watched a recent demonstration of how one might capture search engine data through an API and track that data over time. It occurred to those bright people that built this application, that a specific search, in a specific moment in time, is lost the moment you change url’s or complete another search. How does the number of hits 10 minutes ago, compared to say in the next hour compare? Now, ask yourself why?

This is transient data. Data lost unless someone tracks it and its variances.

Reading TechCrunch, Meme-orandum and other start-up Silicon Valley type sites has become a bit of a compulsion for me lately. As innovation is my passion, it seems reasonable. With the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurship in my own back yard I wonder if anyone is tracking the angel and VC investment in new companies over time.

So, here is the freebie of the day (likely worth what you pay for it)… start a database site that lists new company startups, tracks investments and profitability. Put a wiki front end on it and it becomes a self-promotion tool for startups and VC’s alike. Tracking the data over time would have value to anyone studying entrepreneurship.

If you fund the project with grant moneys, you could likely fulfill the grant with the transient data. If you run banner ads or search type ads to support the front end, you likely have something flip-able over time. Let me know how much my 15% ideation fee comes to in a few years will you?

Mid sourcing… a geographic alternative

Almost exactly three years ago I moved from the private sector of web site building to the academic side of the world. That move was not exclusive… but likely in the 80% range.

[ Indicator one ] About a month ago I had a chance to judge some low bandwidth web projects as part of an internal agency project. I was stunned. Granted this is one of the top three agencies in the Midwest with a large concentration in interactive, but the technical prowess, the agile-ness of development and the creative innovation was very impressive.

[ Indicator two ] A huge (by Midwest standards) breakaway agency here in the Midwest has transformed itself. When founded in the mid 90’s, it positioned itself as an interaction advertising and marketing expert… but was focused on the usual small national and large regional corporate and consumer accounts. 10 years later, having been absorbed by a very large international advertising cartel, it has become the go to source for interactive, for web development, and for innovation consulting for many, many large corporations.

[ Indicator three ] Given that I am soon to eject myself from academia and go find employment, I have been doing some earnings to cost-of-living analysis across geographic boundaries. Northern California and the great Northwest are extremely expensive places to live (duh!)

[ Conclusion ] Instead of sending programming and other tech services to India (quite unpopular here in the US) or wherever… send it to the Midwest. The Midwest is where many reasonable people with high acumen and great creativity come to raise their families… or buy an estate with their accrued home equity. By the work ethic… it is just as you would expect in an agrarian culture – very high.

16 March 2006


First let me say that I have the up most respect for many d.school instructors and especially those that blog. There are a lot of reasons to blog. Some broadcast information that they feel needs to be out there. Some blog to convince. Personally, I blog as a venting and a mechanism, a form of self-expression. My blog also serves as a chronicle of my thoughts and growth. Those thoughts are often wrong. Sometimes they are even posted, by me, with full knowledge that they may be wrong. I like dialog. I learn, grow and expand – from dialog. People, schools and companies also learn from dialog. I have no idea if what I have to say has much relevance… I don’t much believe in intellectual self-judgment. I am also not that concerned about who or how many read what is written here.

So what is my point? Recently, a leading blogger in the design space removed the ability for his readers to comment. I have no idea why – maybe it was a time issue. Not only is this unfortunate, it is irresponsible. If you put yourself out there, espousing ideas, opinions and news about a topic, you are essentially providing opinions to others, while fully engaged in self-promotion. When you close yourself off to productive discourse, and accept challenges to those ideas, you limit your own opportunity for growth as well as that of others. You do a disservice to your industry and your profession.

I preach to students (and I learned this from one of my professors – he knows who he is) to know what you believe and have the ability to communicate it. Have an opinion, even if it is wrong. Be willing to discuss it. Likelihood is that you will learn from the discussion.

I can divide the people I have met in my lifetime between those I want to spend time with and those I do not. Some are terminal learners – others are not. I have little tolerance for closed opinions and arrogance. You can most likely interpret the rest.

13 March 2006

I am finally coming around...

While reading yet another article about booting some variation of windows on an Intel Mac... I have decided it just does not matter. Well, except for the hardcore hardware nerds that is. Like anything else... pick walmart or target - choose whole foods or save mart, it is a matter for choice and style that does not limit what you do or what you purchase in the end.

The move of applications to the net will facilitate any hardware, any OS and certainly most any preference. Some of us who are accustom to a certain level of usability, user experience or even customer service will be willing to pay a little more... and enjoy the results. But just like Guy Kawasaki that who preached for years that you should buy a Lexus rather than a BMW so as to save several thousands of dollars... if you don't appreciate the difference, you should not pay the difference. Some want it and get it, some don't.

This is not a judgment... just an acknowledgment that we have varying needs and wants. Mass customization and further segmentation will assure that at some point we can all buy exactly what we want... change our minds, and repeat the purchase process.

As an added note: We had some serious storm this weekend here in the midwest. It knocked out all the power, and thus internet and all wireless routers in the neighborhood. I can't wait for WiMax or complete Satellite access to the net. Connectivity is sooo addictive!

05 March 2006

A visitor in my yard...

A few days agao, after a series of very windy days, I noticed a small black object in the grass. I was on my way out the driveway and paid it nearly 3 seconds of attention. Days later, I have looked, wondered and theorized. Finally, I walked over to look more closely.

I am surprised that is is still there. I find it curious. Am not complelled to make an effort to return it (though it most likely belongs to a neighborhood child). Further, I am not the compulsive surburnabite that expends huge allocations of time to keep my yard at 'better homes a garden' level.

Days later (this totals over a week) I have figured it out. This is son of wilson. Son of wilson is the prodogy (or possibly a friend) of Tom Hanks' comforting volley ball - or was is a soccer ball - companion? He (I presume it is a he) has come to me in order to provide fellowship and comfort while I hold up in this abode, mostly at this computer attempting to finish my thesis while also paying the rent. Long days and short nights lead to drawing the necessary conclusions, not matter how odd. Thank god I am not living on Wistaria lane.

01 March 2006

More whining… iPod style

A year and seven days ago I bought a one-gig iPod shuffle and loved it. I had resisted the temptation while at Macworld (site of the announcement) as I had just purchased my second model as a Christmas gift. Now having bought my fourth (also as a gift)… I am struggling with my shuffle. I took it to the San Francisco apple store a few in January and they found it to work just fine.

Two weeks later the store near (an hours drive makes this a relative measure) replaced it. Just this week, they again replaced. Each time I get three months of additional warrantee, which I very much appreciate. But the unit works less and less with each replacement model. This time it worked at the store. I brought it home, transferred my favorite selection of running music to it and went for a nice long run. It worked great! So I plugged it backing to the USB port to fully charge it and it has not worked since.

I followed all of the steps on the web site support page (very thorough I might add), yet I still have a non-working shuffle. So I suppose I will head back to the store, yet again.

The support (or commiseration) forums on apples web site have hundreds, if not thousands of similar stories. Most of these are from frustrated owners, just outside of the warrantee zone. So I should probably consider myself lucky. But the question comes to mind, with such (reportedly) small margins, and such extraordinary failure rate, how do they make money at this? Is it time to buy Apple stock on the short?

A spoiled audiophile wines

I like the sound from LP’s better than from CD’s, and I have a large square black block of amplifier in a prime position of my living room. Speakers pose as furniture and their placement takes president over chairs and the artwork on the walls. This, just to set the stage for the commentary that follows here.

I have been searching the web for any sort of technical discussion of file formats for iPod music storage and computer based music fidelity. Maybe I have not looked hard enough or in the right places, but I have found very little.

I do know that having ripped nearly my entire music library to hard drive in Apples Lossless Encoding or AIFF format. They are captured via the standard drive on my Dual G5. They are transmitted via the network to the wireless network to the nice stereo downstairs. And, the quality is sub par. I can only conclude that there is some degradation via compression somewhere along the way. I am not an electrical engineer, an audio engineer or a computer hardware or software engineer. In fact, I am not an engineer at all (be thankful of this – I am barely tolerable as it is.)

My grand plan to cash in all my old CD’s now lies in ruins. I can’t stand the degradation and I suppose I will spend sleepless hours on weekends looking for the solution. The Wall Street Journal today discusses the new notion that people are settling for lower quality sound. I’d like to ask them, “where have you been?” Have you ridden in an American car in the last 20 years, been to a TGIFridays, or nearly any church or public auditorium. Sound QUALITY has rarely been anything but a low priority.

The new announcement of Apple’s audio box thing (is it even stereo?) is a measured step to capture more of the available dollars spent in the living room. We all know folks that have spent hundred for a plastic BOSE box that sounds like a radio stuck in a desk drawer. Do not expect excellence from Apple at every step unless of course, you are noting their ability to generate hype.