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.