12 November 2007

How the DJ’s let us down.

This weekend I read a BusinessWeek article concerning the delivery of music and video from the interweb. There was a great quote from NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker. Apparently he told an audience at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications that, "We know that Apple has destroyed the music business, in terms of pricing, and if we don't take control they'll do the same thing on the video side." I almost fell out of my chair laughing. The music industry is its own worst enemy.

First, the reason we all listened to the radio was to hear music. As DJ’s developed a higher profile, we grew to trust them and their guidance in music. But then things changes. Corporate radio took over and the DJ’s no longer choose the songs. The music became more mainstream. In the 80’s and 90’s the complaints about bad radio paralleled the homogenization of the airwaves. The stations and sounded the same as they seemed to play the same twenty songs over and over.

So what do people do? They find new methods and new experts to guide their musical interests. They sample on iTunes for instance and then program their own virtual radio stations. They use web sites like Pandora that help them find “more like this.”

What’s next? Information portals that are driven by advertisers are next. As ad dollars shrink, the portals will become more and more desperate. Soon they will all let the advertisers drive the content. See the problem? As the credibility of the content goes, so does the consumer. The future of portals is already weakening. Those who do not place the user experience in the forefront of their efforts will find that in the end users draw ad dollars… not the other way around.

31 October 2007

Pen Spinning help needed

Not wanting to be a one-trick-pony, I have decided I need to add at least one more skill to my repertoire of already impressive abilities. I have chosen pen spinning. Here is my thinking, not only do I need something for social situations... you know, the tiny canned display of dazzle that I can pull out in dull moments to amaze my friends and on-lookers (either female and/or cool people), but I also need a source of corporate distraction. I need a small politically correct activity that I can perform in meetings and boardrooms while my adversaries and enemies are presenting either damaging reports or presentations that need undermining. This of course, is just on small building block in my overall plan for corporate ascension and power acquisition. If you have the skills and the patience I need you and your skills - this will be way better than the old tap dance, back flip or even brake dancing!

27 October 2007

A process can be a problem (sic)

I’ve written often of my disdain for rigid process – I particularly think that a branded or institutionalized process is a poor approach. Those that stand to benefit most from a highly defined, differentiated and branded process are those that intend to write the books, offer the workshops and then the consulting that always seems to follow. A process is rarely the solution for correcting poor results.

Certainly and currently, Agile is amongst the most annoying and of these recent process trends. Side bar: I have also had my fill of the consultancy branded user centered design process as well. It is not that I have anything against user centered design – in fact I am a fan and practitioner. I don’t even have a problem with many of the various brands of Agile other than it once again puts the inmates squarely in charge of the asylum. My problem is with establishing or standardizing process itself.

If the problem in your organization is wildly varying results, in other words, you get stellar output one day and the next is just awful - then normalizing and standardizing the process may help in the short run. If the problem is that your current system never provides the desired results, then you likely need different people or different tools.

The thing about normalization and standardization is that they generally only reduce variability. They rarely address or raise overall success issues. With a standard process you will typically get standard results. That’s great for an assembly line, a factory or any other repetitive deliverable. But if your task is problem solving… if you are designing or creating, then you will likely solving the wrong problem with a non varying process.

Structures, clear goals, accurate problem definition, and a range of tools are better answers for most designers and developers. So often with each phase of a complex project, we are bounding into the unknown. The process must match the problem, the culture and the team. These are rarely the same for designs each and every time.

I would like to propose a new approach to design and development. I would like to call it SIC. Yes, it is a SIC approach. A SIC approach would require that multiple phases of the project be accomplished SIMULTANEOUSLY. And, that the project progress in, of course, ITERATIONS. And lastly, that we all work… wait for it… COLABORATIVELY. Will you be able to mindlessly step through this like a recipe? Doubtful. You will most certainly need to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your team members so that you can assemble the best team for the project. Oh – and add in some due diligence, research, hard work and what is that old clique… thinking outside of the box?

Missing in action

Sorry for the lack of output here. The summer break became an extended bit of laziness (can I blame this on the fact that Kansas can suddenly play football?). Do not think for one minute that I have lacked for something to say. I've just been spouting elsewhere. More to come...

15 August 2007

I am a designer and you are not!

It started as a question in my mind. If you are throwing people into two buckets, designer and non designer, what is the criteria? Some 70 messages, 8 days and a few scoldings by notable authors later, there was still not an answer. Worse yet, those most upset by my assertion that everyone is a designer could not bring themselves to commit to answering that simple question. What makes you a designer and others not?

I am a relatively simple and grounded person. I was not born into aristocracy, I did no go to an elite school and I have as yet, not had a book signing. But I have been a successful designer, hired scores of designers, assembled some very successful design teams and founded a groundbreaking and successful design firm. Many of my clients have said very nice things about my design work. Surely I am qualified to know what makes a person a designer. I do not, but I know a designer when I see one.

Training, experience, title, attitude, image, vision, or the responsibility that comes with all that is being a designer implies. Is this the formula?

Tolerance is something I like to think I have in abundance, though my daughter would likely beg to differ. But when it comes to self-proclaimed design gods, and all of the arrogance, attitude, elitism and snobbery that they can muster, I must confess I fall shy of a reasonable attitude. Why? Because design is not fashion, art or style. It is not hocus pocus or a magic formula. It is not, ‘if you can’t figure it out, then you just don’t get it” stuff.

Good design… and especially great design should be judged by fulfilling objectives set forth prior to designing. That’s right, design is solving a predefined problem. It can be visual, organizational, functional or many other things but its success is defined by its goals and objectives – explicit or implicit.

So a more tactical call for this discussion is embodied by the group who’s forum this discussion occurred. Like most associations or professional groups, it is charged, in part with advancing the profession (I assume in the eyes of those who enlist designers, for the sake of larger fees).

In my experience, external forces are largely ineffective at enforcing respect. Surely the attorney’s Bar Association, the Doctors’ AMA, and other groups have their share of swagger. But I dare say that few peoples lives are on the line when a designer or design firm is chosen. Respect is gained in a couple of ways, intimidation (that would be where the boss says that Cindy will make all of the design decisions, and through performance. The later is when by doing good, you continue to be entrusted to do more good. While I make light of the former, there is a version that is very rational. It is perfectly reasonable to delcare roles and responsibilities for a project, prior to its start.

I believe, not unlike the association I referred to earlier does, that design is a powerful tool and a profession that is undervalued and under respected in the business world. I also believe that all designers owe it to themselves, if not their profession to work hard to raise that level of respect and professionalism. But doing so through snobbery and elitism is beneath me, and I would like to think most credible design talent. There is no magic to great design. Hard work, experience and careful insight all contribute to great design. There is rarely a short cut to great work, or respect.

05 June 2007

Of men desperately mishandling mice

The press is again abuzz with news and expectations surrounding the release of Apple’s new iPhone. Reading a user experience discussion board I came across an astute observation that the iPhone was in such stark contrast to everything else about the cell phone industry. Apple’s iPhone is all about the user’s experience – anticipating the needs and multi-tasking wants of the consumer. Meanwhile – the cell phone industry barely notices such issues and is awash in complaints regarding reception, customer service, billing practices and other customer touchpoints.

I am reminded of Lennie Small the Steinbeck character in “Of Mice and Men”. If you recall Lennie tries so hard to keep his mouse… that his very effort was the mouse’s demise. The cell phone carriers in the US, much like long distance before it, work so hard to control, that there is barely enough attention or energy left to focus on the real value generator – the real potential barrier to switching – treating customers well. Back in the day - I often wondered if that very control hastened the rate of commoditization and along the way created so much of the ill will and low brand loyalty in that industry.

In business school we are all taught to optimize profit. And considerable amount of time is spent learning methods to accomplish just that. The phrase, “like printing money” is often used to describe a business that is immensely profitable. The digital world, with duplication and distribution costs at nearly zero – is the ultimate platform for optimizing monetization – even better than “printing” money. Of course the downside is that duplication has now been democratized. Nearly everybody can and will read-write-repeat. DRM has failed to eliminate shrinkage to this point and global cultural values regarding intellectual ownership will only increase “the problem.”

Clearly in the thirty or so years that we have been converting our products to the digital format we have learned to monetize some of them, but we have not learned to elegantly optimize them for sustainability. Maybe we should stop worrying about starving and herding customers, and figure out how to make more appetizing meals matched to their needs and wants. Maybe I will get in line at the Apple store early.

28 May 2007

Book Review: Thoughts on Interaction Design

After having the book on my desk for a few months, I just finished Jon Kolko’s, Thoughts on Interaction Design and really enjoyed it.

I first encountered Jon on a discussion board. His posit that an interaction designer’s job is to change behavior irked me. I spend a lot of time encouraging designers to evaluate behavior and build interactions that accommodate them. As a product strategy, the best diffusion situation you could ask for is a product that adds value while NOT changing behavior. After hearing Jon’s side, I think he is a bit idealistic. Few designers ever have the chance to change behavior, much less hold the requisite skill.

That being said, Jon presents many viewpoints with solid research and experience. What I like most about this book is that Jon takes on subjects that are too mundane, too esoteric or too difficult. I found a lot of similarities between his topics and those that tend to consume my idle time. Topics, mind you that I rarely find discussed. Jon touches on process, management and tactical implementation such as fieldwork and politics.

Jon is a good solid writer, but not a great one - partly due to the complexity of his subject matter. He supplements his own material with several articles by other professionals in the design field. This makes for a nice cadence and breaks the reading up nicely. I particularly enjoyed the final chapter in the book, a chapter entitled, “Getting design done” by Ellen Beldner. Ellen is a designer at Google and does not mince works. She has a straightforward style, does not hold back and yet I had no choice but to smile in empathy at multiple points in the read.

This book is an important step for the continued dialog in interaction design.

23 May 2007

The power of context in interaction

The business publications are still quite enamored with design in spite of what Bruce Nussbaum says… and the obsession will only continue to grow. So let me set the stage. In the minds of many, interaction and context (if they have heard of it) are the domain of designers working on web sites, web 2.0, and software applications. Experience is this fuzzy feel good thing that most businesses don’t really get (even thought they go on and on about it.) But everyone else that call themselves a designer… they just make stuff the way they know it should be.

About the time that applications find their place on mobile – and I mean in a workable and successful way – business will start to get it. They will see why their desktop aps do not work on a portable hand held device. They will get that the application is all about context and how the use interacts with it. It has little to do with features and capabilities - it has everything to do with leadership and flexibility.

Interaction (or experience) design is bursting from the seams of its genesis. Traditional definitions such as human factors, human computer interface, and information architecture no longer hold. Hr professionals and recruiters have no idea what to call us, what makes us qualified, and how to match us with a reasonable ob title. That is cool!

SIG-CHI, UPA, the ISDA, and AIGA are all fighting for a piece of the turf… but I would not bet on any of these groups. Even the IAI and IxDA are not looking likely to hold the ownership. The problem is that what currently separates IxD (interaction) designers form other designers is not the medium they work in. It is the added value of considering context, interactions and the user. I hope that every design out there is soon calling themselves and interaction designer whether they are working on a web site or a T-shirt graphic. Context and interaction should be ubiquitous concerns.

22 May 2007

Memes, lemmings and the next big wave

When Richard Saul Wurman coined the phrase, “information anxiety”, I would guess he really had no idea how extreme it would become. The rush for success and the fever of money have put many of my friends into an overdrive state that simply cannot be sustained.

The outcome of this overwhelming access to information and the time it requires can suck the life out of a person – and a company. Balance is lost and we tire… it becomes so easy to follow in areas we deem less critical. So comes the one, big, giant wave. You know, that single provider that seems to take control. It just becomes easier to buy the iPod, drink Starbuck’s, wear Prada, and read TechCrunch. Rather than find a specialty search engine, we’ll all just use Google. From the undercurrent of cool and hip, to the real insiders, and then of course blogs and even the dinosaur press – we are all seeded with the early memes that aspire to become the singular choice.

Does it make sense to sit back and watch this from outside of Silicon Valley? Can an objective perspective be had, while immersed or drowning in the currents… mush less participating in the froth? Maybe if I dive below I can spot the undertow and the next potential hit? The longer I stay there…

30 April 2007

Context beyond interaction

Any interaction designer worth their crust understands the important of context. An analysis of the situation, goals and identifying the user helps greatly in managing an interaction that is optimal.

Architects (as in building, not information) were early experts in context, but that seems so obvious. Most would not think of using residential materials or configurations for an office building or retail location. It just does not make sense. This sensitivity has been lost a bit.

Graphic designers need to understand context as well. Marketing materials must be crafted to work the sales process. They must be specific to the situation and audience. To many designers a brochure is just a brochure. Should the brand or company identity reflect the company and its mission, or should it specifically appeal to the clients and partners? The answer of course, is yes. Context needs to be talked about more by all designers.

27 April 2007

The bigger picture

2006 seemed to be the year that a wide screen (950 or so pixels) has become near standard. In the high tech internet world of our nations capital, it would seem that we would be delivering content at the current spec.

The common argument is that a portion of our viewers, consumers, users, whatever you would like to call them, do not or can not set their displays to this size. And so, we should not present content that forces them so scroll. First, scrolling is really not, or ever has been an issue if the content is worthy of consuming. Second, if the consumer’s equipment is not up to the task, I dare say they are soon to upgrade. Lastly, can we not show a tiny bit of leadership and seek to accommodate the majority, while not being entirely insensitive to those lagging a bit behind?

I think the real reason is a campus with half a dozen buildings, several conference rooms on each of multiple floors, and yet not a single projection unit accommodates a size larger than 800 x 600. It could never be presented for umpteen executive approvals. Time to upgrade?

20 April 2007

Sustainability and the elephant

There is a growing outcry, gaining momentum, and plenty of press regarding sustainability in design. I can’t give you a single reason why that movement should not move forward full steam ahead. I am a total fan and advocate. But there is an elephant in the room.

The American – OK the world economy, and subsequent prosperity is predicated on the very waste built into our current products and services that this effort seeks to eliminate. Say for instance you develop a longer lasting battery and they now last twice as long. What is the economic impact? Suppose we develop cars and slow the need to purchase and own the newest model. Suppose the developers in the US stop building the 25-year T111 plywood palaces and instead build houses that last for 50 or 100 years. The economic impact of all of this would be enormous.

So, you make the product longer lasting, more efficient and smarter… and the economy suffers. How do we counter act that? Innovation and design is an obvious resource to tap. But it is a double-edged sword. As design gets smarter and innovation increases, so does the value of that product or service. But at the same time, that innovation and design is (hopefully) a marked improvement that displaces and renders obsolete, the preceding product. Entrepreneurialism has been the primary source of job creation in the last 100 years. But again, the same issue arrives. Many of the new companies and jobs end up replacing a great number of those previously in place. There is usually a net sum gain… but it is certainly not pure solution.

If consumers and companies switched their thinking to a value economics we might be better prepared for the inevitable economic impact coming. Consumers tend towards purchasing the cheapest product that will do the job right now. Can we shift to a longer-term approach that reduces the liquidity of our pocketbooks? Companies tend to charge as much as is possible in the short run, knowing that if their product finds the tipping point it will most likely become a commodity. The result being a price based market and impossibly decreasing margins. That is some prize for success.

Hold on folks, the ride will likely get bumpy. We absolutely need to decrease the waste inherent in our lifestyle choices, but the trade offs will be huge. The change difficult and painfull. This may be the ultimate wicked problem.

17 April 2007

Will the right voices speak up for design?

I love Bruce Nussbaum. He’s not always right, but he is a constant advocate for design. The problem is, he seems terribly bias. Having Bruce as our high visibility spokesperson is about like Apple’s having Walter Mossberg. Whether he actually is bias or not, is of little consequence… his rare criticism and constant enthusiasm render him dismissible. As for the next most visible mouthpiece Tom Peters, I am not sure who really listens to him but he seems to me to be riding the next fashion wave of business speak and oh by the way, is somehow on the right track.

So who should be speaking out about the benefits of design thinking in the business world? Two types of people should. First, high profile, highly regarded designers that can speak the language of business should take every opportunity available. Stop booking speaking engagements at design conferences where you are3 speaking to the choir and speak in business forums. The other are spokespeople we need are the business leaders benefiting from design thinking. There has to be more than just P&G folks to talk about this.

13 April 2007

How do you interview for challenge and innovation?

Market demand for designers and managers that understand experience, interaction and usability is at an all time high. Fortune 500 companies in even desirable locations are having difficulty hiring talent. UI designers on average demand a 10-25% premium over visual designers. Over and over at SxSW I heard people say the “if you are a UI or Ux designer, and not passionate about what you are doing, there is no reason to stay.” But conversely it is hard to leave, and hard to know where to go.

Corporate managers and recruiters are not stupid, just ill-informed. Do not let the fact that they do not know what skills to ask for, and how to determine if you have them, fool you. They get it,they know what you want. You want to be paid, well, and most likely you are looking for a challenge. You want to be passionate about your work. They will work hard to promise all of this and more.

The reality is that very few companies really do innovative work. And unless you are a well-published or noted superstar, it will be a while before you are assigned such a project. Few companies are leaders and so most are followers. The standard follower strategy is to capitalize on the leaders R&D efforts and reduce the cost of keeping pace. The theoretical intent is to garner resources for a time when you can afford R&D and leapfrog the leaders. More likely, that optimized margin will instead go to the executives and shareholders – because that is where the power is. Pardon my cynicism... but that really is where it will go.

So how do you know from within the job interview if you will be challenged? I am not sure you can. Knowing a trusted insider can help. But it is fairly likely that within a few months you will be looking again, maybe moving. Can you say contractor?

24 March 2007

Pattern Libraries - all things in moderation.

The obvious trend for the alert web site designer is the emergence of pattern libraries obscuring the use of style guides and design standards. The common thinking that these libraries help the designer to solve problems better - instead of setting rule is absolutely spot on. This is systems thinking and guidelines heading in a more intelligent direction. But here is the rub. As many businesses are obsessed with cost control and reducing variables, these libraries will become a stock catalog of interactions. This is unavoidable... must we, as designers, must not let it reduce risk, experimentation and the expansion of new thoughts regarding interactions. It would be easy to get lazy... there is still a long ways to go.

23 March 2007

Mobile context

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to get that when you move web services to Mobile, you have the opportunity to tune that service to mobile context. But how you do that does require some work. Motorola for instance has been doing mobile contextual research for years. As a proactive research initiative, few technologies are more effective than situational studies.

Matt Mayhew's group of cross discipline investigators in Chicago has been deep working this way for a while. How I would love to have access to that insight, but they are wisely, not likely to publish it. Unfortunately, great work on the front end doesn't always translate into great products. In a large corporate structure, traditional business thinking still allows too much opportunity to kill great ideas.

The big downside here is that Motorola seems to be held back by a waterfall process and miles of bureaucracy. The lack of innovation in the days since the RAZR's introduction make me wonder how committed to new process and innovation the company really is. All that we have seen recently are degradations of the RAZR's form factor - that frankly pale in comparison.

Pick your target... please!

Everyday I am amazed at the angst in business. It is prevalent in so many of the companies I talk to. Business leaders are so afraid to lose the current marketshare they have that they can not embrace one critical strategy for success. In order to get the customers/clients that you really want, you must loosen your grip on those that don't quite fit. Set them free and the right ones will come.

For God's sake please pick a target market. When asked who is the primary customer, "everyone" is not an acceptable answer. Yet executives continue to repeat it. Countless case studies show the benefit of owning a market segement... and then replicating that system in another, and another. Do your homework, have a solid plan, don't try to be all things to all people.

Is Chicago the center of American Design Thinking?

Likely so. While the AIGA will want to tell you that it is New York, design has rapidly moved beyond fashion. The folks steering d.school at Stanford have some pretty high aspirations and they will likely get there, but boatloads of money and bunch of PhD's don't necessarily make you great. Carnagie Mellon is absolutely a player. But when it comes to pushing the envelope of design and design's practical applications - IIT/ID is at the forefront. This is not to say it is the best design school, that is a personal decision for each and every design student. But I think critical to what ID brings us is their lack of an undergraduate program. They have picked a specific area/market and doing extraordinary things. Last May's Strategy conference was possibly the best assemblies I have attended (and some say it was a down year). If you have not been to on, I highly recommend it.

21 March 2007

The follower's dilemma

Working in a large corporations absolutely waters down your apparent effect on success. Yes, I can be a team player. Yes, I can be patient enough to manage the slow moving sloth like change, but can I exist for long in a company that is comfortable being the follower?

The standard text book strategy for market followers is: optimize the market leaders R&D investments through imitation, reduce overhead to increase margin, and hopefully you will gain enough market share that you can become a leader and then invest in R&D of your own. Hmmmm. I get this. And a dozen or so years ago this worked quite well in many situations.

There are several problems here. First, market leadership can be defined in by more than the single dimension of gross income. Product leadership and brand perception are two important categories that this strategy somewhat ignore. In fact there are plenty of examples that might imply those later measures have more long term significance than the current market share as measured by dollars.

On large question that looms for me is, how do you continue to motivate and attract top tier talent, when the follower's strategy appears to be here for the long term? I have to think that money is only a portion of the incentive picture here.

20 March 2007

Independent photography in stock

To say I was disappointed last summer when Getty purchased iStockPhoto is a huge understatement. Getty owns nearly all of the stock photohouses and monopolies, frankly, are not good for anyone. So when I came across Lucky Oliver I was more than just a little happy. An independent stock house with a similar transaction model to iStockPhoto.

Lucky Oliver, or [ www.luckyoliver.com ] has a nice filtering system. When a search is executed, along with a bunch of images, you get a list of search terms pulled from the image library you are looking at. You can selectively turn any or all of these term on or off to narrow or broaden your search. This simple and elegant system works great. Additionally, you can click any of the terms directly and begin a new search.

So I find myself wondering... wondering if stock photography is the new yellow pages. Here is what I mean... if you and five of your other photographer freinds start a web stock house... say by chipping in 20 or 30 decent images each. Then you each contact say... 10 art directors and designers... you quickly have some traction. The each designer tells five others... well I'm sure you get it. Before long... we have a bunch of stock houses available on the net and Getty is no longer the only game around. Or, Getty buys all of us out and we can all retire. Either way... life is better.

19 March 2007


Nobody likes change... but too bad. It happens. I tried the new format - and I did not like it. I have gone back to a fairly plane design. Why? I am a designer... I should, after all design my blog right? Not so much. I obviously do not write this blog for money (note: no ads for google). I write to clear my head, share my thoughts and sometimes to vent. If anyone reads it great... if not, I am OK with that as well. But the point of this blog is not as a stepping stone to an online magazine or anything else. The point of this blog is pure and simple - words that express thoughts. It is a simple discipline and in this incarnation, I am not resorting to "cool, or to "images" or anything else. You get words. And if I can not communicate my ideas in this simple forum - then I will fail. And so it goes...

12 March 2007

SxSW - a conflicting experience

So - I was asked to speak at this year's SxSW conference. I had always wanted to go, the topic was right and so I jumped in with both feet. I recently wondered if I made the right move, or if I should have gone to the AI Summit. I would choose Austin over Vegas any day. But when it came down to it - making a passionate plee for more user research and better research methodologies was the only logical choice.

And now that I am here - I (think) I made the best choice. As a presenter, I may have a chance to help, to influence and to teach. Ego and accolades aside... I think we accomplished that.

But a trip to a national conference includes some expectation (I am all about manageing and setting these accurately). in my mind, you don't travel a thousand plus miles and spend thousand of dollars (especially when it is someone elses) just for validation. I came here to learn and to hear new ideas. Day three and I am still waiting. I have resorted to setting in some sessions about mobile. Mobile is an area that I have been researching, but have yet to actively touch. Finally, I am coming away from an hour of listening with more than I sat down with.

At this point, what I know about SxSW, is that it is a younger and less experienced crown. It is a nice mix of entrepreneurs, designers and techies. The real opportunities here are to be heard, for netwrking, for face-to-face conversations with normally dispersed talent, and of course for the scene that defines Austin. Live music, parties and warm weather in early spring - not that there is anything wrong with that... more to come.

19 February 2007

Beyond agile – where is the next manifesto?

I have been on a quest to research how our design and development team can be more responsive to the marketplace and change. This has lead me to Agile. Specifically, I have been monitoring and participating in an online forums with Agile as the topic. It is as strange a culture as any I have encountered.

The founders of this “Agile Manifesto” still cling to its genesis – now some ten years old. They also seem to get to decide what is agile – as well as what is “Agile”. It is rare to find such a pristine example of arrogance and self-rightousness.

I read an Agile expert’s criticism of design for being “trial and error”, while that seems to be the exact premis underlying everything Agile – try it quick and see if it works.

Apparently, there is nothing better or beyond Agile. This behavior is slightly reminiscent of oh say – the dinosaurs. I however, am not part of the club, so I cannot possibly understand.

For the record, there is plenty about Agile that I like. I like the idea of being more agile and I plan to continue to use many facets of the methodology. There is some really good stuff here. But not being a rote process guy, I do not buy it lock, stock and barrel.

Agile shows only a token look at the potential and power of design and design thinking. I think that is because designers do this better, and these developers need to run this show.

Additionally, I think the state of design (user) research is embryonic. We do not execute research nearly well enough… yet. I do look forward to a time when we have more if it figured out and can then, and only then, start abbreviating and condensing our processes.

I am not likely making agile friends here, but this has got to move forward – with, or without the dinosaurs. Maybe it could be the nimble manifesto. I think it should stay a lower case n.

20 January 2007

Request for proposals (RFP's)

Greg Storey at airbag shared a couple of great examples. The real tragedy of RFP's is that they are all too common. I made a decision years ago to never, ever respond to these and I will tell you exactly why.

There are only three reasons to send out an RFP.

1) The company or person has no idea what they need and are looking for you to tell them. Lame.

2) They already have a firm in mind, but don't trust the bid so they would like you to spend a bunch of your time to help determine if it is a fare price. Totally lame.

3) They are going to make a decision based on price. Inexcusably lame.

Is there really any reason to respond to these?

…of metrics for design and innovation. A fool's errand.

“The purpose of business is to create a customer.”
~ Peter Drucker

A business invests in only two things, marketing and innovation. Every other expenditure is a cost – the price of being in business. Marketing and innovation are the two areas where a business has an opportunity to reap extraordinary rate of return. Metrics are absolutely necessary and typically well established for costs such as accounting, finance, operations, customer service and manufacturing. But metrics, as we know of them now, have no place in measuring the success of design and innovation.

Bill Breen’s recent column[1] in the February issue of Fast Company discusses the thinking behind Chuck Jones’ efforts to install a metric system to gauge the success of innovation at Whirlpool. I suppose it varies from company to company, but I think the notion of metrics specific to innovation is a fool’s errand. It represents the business world’s efforts to conform design thinking to the ideals of command and control management and the language of business. The true measure of innovation is success in the marketplace. Granted, there are a lot of steps along a process that can sour a potentially stellar product, and metrics are perfectly appropriate for many of those steps. (full paper)

12 January 2007

Building a killer team for innovation part (7 of 6)

Firing. One last thing to add, don’t be afraid to fire a team member if it is not working. It is nearly always the best thing for them, you and the team. Typically the team knows well before you that this should and will be relieved when it is finally done. Setting employees free when they are incompatible is often the push they need to re-evaluate, find their true calling and move forward. It is a terribly difficult thing to do, but it is much easier than loosing clients, your best employees or ultimately laying god people off. Be definitive and do it quickly.

Spend most of your time with and for your best designers. Like focusing on your strengths, focusing on designers with the most talent and have the most potential, it is how you should best spend you resources. If you do this effectively, you will in fact loose more designer than if you coddle the low performers. But you team will ascend to greater heights and you will attract more talented people and higher quality clients. Set that bar high

Building a killer team for innovation part (6 of 6)

One more thing. Make your company, team or division attractive to talent. You do not have to be the constant self-promoter (hmmm, IDEO comes to mind here with more books and case studies than any of us will likely ever read.) But, showing off your best work, having a great website, and promoting your talented designers in the next phase of their careers are all effective measures. When talking to prospective talent be honest and set realistic expectations. I see many large firms in a constant hire mode. Most often this is a result of an inability to keep talent, not the exponential growth they claim.

11 January 2007

Building a killer team for innovation part (5 of 6)

The work. Just as your company receives multiple forms of currency in exchange for your work, so do your employees. You want the people on your team to have a career plan. If they are not thinking strategically about their careers, they are likely not thinking strategically about their design work. Don’t count on them working for you forever. If you manage to keep a stellar team in tact, great – but it is rare and hard to do in this age of the “free agent nation.” Allow designers to build their portfolios. Personally, it is the last criteria I consider in hiring, but it is an important take away from any job. If an employee finds a better opportunity, let them go with your blessing. Your job as team leader is to make the job exciting, challenging and worth staying for. I have never resented an employee for accepting a better opportunity, more difficult challenge, or higher pay off – and I would not work for some one who would resent me for the same.

10 January 2007

Building a killer team for innovation part (4 of 6)

Clients. Most every designer I have worked with wants to be in the meetings with clients. Every designer should have the tools necessary to do exactly that. Unfortunately many designers do not. A designer must embrace the client’s goals as criteria of the project, not a problem to work around. We are not artist and our vision as designers should always consider, if not come second to that of the client.

Designers must also be able to communicate their ideas. Presentation skill is critical. The designer must be able to communicate ideas to business people. Further, designers need to learn business speak. They do not have to be MBA’s, but they do need to command the respect of business people and I cannot stress enough the importance of speaking their language. This is a major omission of nearly every undergraduate design program in America.

Lastly, while designers must be passionate about their work, they must be able to separate themselves emotionally from their work – for a couple of reasons. First, a designer has to be able to “kill their babies”. We all get obsessed with a cool solution. Our obsessions can become a huge hurdle in moving forward to a better solution. When you come across an epiphany mark it and work through it. You will be surprised at how great the next idea or five may be. Another problem with our “babies” is that in critical evaluation they are not so much aligned with the client’s goals as they are with our own. Secondly, a good client will ruthlessly challenge you ideas and supporting rational. This can crush an emotionally attached designer. I have even encountered clients that do not want the designer n the presentation for just this reason.

I don't get the whole "anti" thing

I know that Apple fanatics can get a bit wearing. I also get that if you don't appreciate the "added" value of what Macs and iPods offer, you won't buy one. Similarly, if you don't get why people buy porsches - stick with the mustang. But where does the anti apple thing come from? I have been reading a lot iPhone reviews today and I see a lot of self proclaimed "anti-apple" people commenting. Why be anti anything? I think this is mental poison. We should all find more issues to advocate - am I anti-anti?

Yeah its a phone, but its not a phone

By now I don't even need to tell you what product I am referring to. The hype machine is in full-scale tidal wave mode and you have heard. I even heard the local evening news offering a "sneak preview" a full day after the product announcement (local news is such crap). But back to the point - this is not a phone. Apple could not call this a tablet, a pda or a pocket mac because the press would treat these as limited markets blah blah blah. Besides, Steve has eschewed these products in the past - not that he doesn’t have a history of contradictory statements, its just not the best marketing approach. Hyping this as a phone (a trojan horse in my opinion) is brilliant. The numbers are the sort that Wall Street loves, (note the stock rise of 6 bucks in a single day) and everybody is interested in a cool new phone.

Personally, I can't wait to get one. My current laptop is exactly three years old and just out of warrantee. This product promises to do everything my laptop needs to do and fits in my product. My current life allows me to sit at my desk when I need a mouse or a large display... and so be it. I am on the list. The only downside will be after 2-3 months of ownership and they announce the newer model that I REALLY want with even cooler new features.

08 January 2007

Building a killer team for innovation part (3 of 6)

Workplace. I do not think that the specifics of the environment are terribly important. My personal preference is for warehouse space over cubicles… but it is just not that important. The right tools to do the job (hardware and software) are about not letting process get in the way. Yes they can help position you in front of clients but that is not about team management. I will say that a great chair is worth a lot in terms of endurance. Speaking of endurance… let go of that monster volume work ethic. Establish a maximum number of hours that you allow the team in the office. Why? Because burnout is a huge problem with self motivated people. Further, designers and innovators need a life. I don’t mean they appreciate a life, I mean they absolutely have to have a life. It is an essential source of inspiration, motivation and insight. Without a life a designer is crippled.

Make it business like, but make it fun. Give your people enough responsibility that they are challenged. Good people will not stay for long at a job they have already mastered. Don’t push innovation, make room for it. Many ideas that immediately seam worthless to me, or that I do not like, turn out to be pretty good. The resistance is often a result of challenging our preconceived notions. This is a good thing… don’t waste it.

Lastly, assign (or let them choose) each team member an area of expertise. Let them become the “go to” person regarding a particular discipline, tool or process. I like the notion that designers are “T shaped” people (borrowed from IDEO, Cooper?). Help them to deepen their vertical specialty.

06 January 2007

A very basic observation regarding opportunity

It has always felt to me that whether looking for a job or scouting clients you have a choice. Find those in tune with what you do well and compete. Or find those that are not and educate. Neither is an easy course.

The chart was obviously inspired by the sharp observations at www.indexed.blogspot.com

Building a killer team for innovation part (2 of 6)

Hiring. I have found that hiring smart people is particularly beneficial. I have found that hiring good people is even more effective. I try to live my life by surrounding myself with people that I admire and want to be more like. It has served me well. Friendships that I put effort into are with people who reflect these attributes. The hiring process can benefit from the exact same criteria. Hire people you like to spend time with. Hire quality people with ethics and values that the entire team share. This absolutely does not mean that you consider political views or spiritual orientations. In fact, if you can not tolerate people on your team that do not share your specific views in that regard you are destined to fail as a manager.

Hire a mix of people who think about design and produce design. Design thinking is extremely powerful. Design as a craft is necessary, but a room full of design craftspeople is not a formula for success. If I thought it would be effective I would repeat this paragraph 12 times. It is that important to designers to THINK more than they DO.

Manage rules and projects… not people. And that last thing I spend time doing is supervising. If a team member requires management pressure to get the job done they should be set free. Management is about providing leadership and vision… not enforcement. A good manager mitigates enforcement through quality hiring.

Building a killer team for innovation (part 1 of 6)

You. One of the first couple of things you hear or read from management pundits is to hire people smarter than you, the other is to locate where there is a wealth of talent. Those are worthy ideas, but not always possible. The number one criteria in building a killer design team, is that you qualify as a potential member of the team. If you are in charge only because your dad owns the company… then you will struggle assembling a crack team. If you have no skill or experience in working on a great team… you probably won’t be able to build and lead a great team. If you lack moral fiber or leadership but have a big bank account, hire someone to build and run your team and stay out of the way. We could call this the Al Davis syndrome… but then, the NFL Raiders have had their moments inspite of Al.

To build and lead a team, you have to be “the guy” that you would hire. Sometimes it is hard to find people smarter than you, and sometimes it is hard to find talent outside of the “creative culture zones”, but there is in fact extraordinary talent everywhere. You can find it in the Midwest… deep in the mountains, in the desert and in Fort Wayne and Wichita. I know from experience. You just have to look a bit harder.