09 December 2008

Choosing discovery over comfort.

In a recent conversation with someone I admire greatly, I heard them say, “I don’t like surprises.” I was a bit taken aback and this statement has lingered in my head ever since. Reliability, replication and process are comfortable, and at the core of so much of commerce. Much of what we have is due to humans perfecting rote process. Six Sigma is considered the ultimate study and practice in refining such things.

I sometimes feel the Doctor Jekyl and Mr. Hyde pull when this topic comes up. Because of my business background I recognize the benefits of replication, and yet I also see where it fails miserably. Having spent the majority of my career managing the design process as an entrepreneur, I know about the revenue implications and the importance of risk mitigation and reliable outcomes. Clients rarely hire designers with break through, cutting edge outcomes in mind. They are looking for sure footed measures to accomplish good results. The business side of me pulls towards reliable process, while the designer inside me pushes towards discovery hoping for greatness.

For a long time I have been on record as promoting toolsets over process for designers. Yes, there is a certain amount of process that is always necessary. And, yes, it makes sense to routinize reporting and tracking. But assembly line process for problem solving will return ordinary solutions. So I would posit that when you see a process heavy design group, the expectations for greatness are likely fairly low.

All systems are geared towards economizing and optimizing (if you hear MBA types saying maximize, you might help them understand this is rarely possible, almost never desirable, and likely a misunderstanding of the word… please point them towards a dictionary). These systems focus on managing variants and invarients. Unfortunately, what is often overlooked are the benefits of variation. Whether you call them ‘happy accidents’ or ‘unexpected outcomes’, you will find that most scientific and philosophical breakthroughs lacked ordinary methods or factory like process. Those same variants that many work so hard to control… are from where greatness comes. It may be just the smallest glimmer of hope, but I think you have to give people a chance to break through, to make a difference, and the opportunity to achieve greatness. Just the opportunity for discovery is ultimately more gratifying than comfort.

21 November 2008

Managing dynamics

There are basically two kinds of car races that make any sense, drag racing and track racing. Drag racing is obviously going full out for a very short period of time. Track racing is about endurance. Certainly overall speed is important, but managing the variance – knowing when to go fast and when to conserve is crucial. This is basically the construct behind the ‘tortoise and the hair’ story we have all heard as a child.

If you have ever played in a music group with others, you understand the importance of dynamics. If the trumpet players play full out for the entire song, it is likely that we will never enjoy the soft sweet tones of the flutes and piccolo’s.

These same principals are important with managing people, works loads and even users and customers. Pushing your staff full out or for constant long hours does not work. The ramifications of applying short-term tactics over the long haul are well documented, and frankly obvious. Burn out and attrition are certainly the most common of inevitable outcomes.

For customers it is slightly different… well actually not so much. They just leave or ignore you. If everything you take to them is an, ‘unbelievable incredible deal of a lifetime’, your message will fade (ok, this time think ‘the boy who cried wolf’). If every offer is accompanied by flashing neon and police emergency lights… then the intensity of those are soon rendered ineffective.

The basic principle of managing dynamics seems so obvious. It causes me pause when I see it ignored.

18 November 2008

Comfort in numbers

The quest amongst those who can afford them is about gathering metrics. In a risk adverse culture, metrics are like a warm blanket. They are comforting when you are working alone, and if things get rough you can pull them over your head and hide from the truth… or the scary monsters.

In scrutinizing the use of metrics I often wonder, is the goal to make the decision process simpler and less risky, or to make a better decision. In that spirit I would offer a couple of suggestions.

The terms research and metrics would seem to be hand and glove. Research is an annoyingly costly and time intense process to find out what you already know, right? But I digress and that would not really be my main point. Outcomes from research can only be useful as guidance. To expect research, whether it is the building of personae (qualitative), or the use of A/B testing (quantitative), to solve the problem is a bit naiveté. In the end a person must do the analysis and a person must make a judgment (more on this in a second). The research is just one component of due diligence and along with other work sets the stage for resolve - it must not and cannot make the decisions for you.

In a hierarchal culture we are often saddled with solving problems that as assigned to us. As those problems are given to us to solve or resolve, it’s worth bearing in mind that the consequences of our decisions may not fit the situation. A critical component of problem solving is asking the right question. Is it appropriate to question the validity of the problem you have been asked to solve… well, yes - if only to set appropriate expectations for your own impact. Will your answer improve the situation? It might, but only, if the right questions are being asked.

Lastly, judgment is much more that choosing between what’s behind curtain number one or the box that Carol is showing us. Judgment requires due diligence, it requires answering the right question, but also requires looking into the future, selling the decision, and most important – follow through. The relief you feel when you finally make that all-important decision is often accompanied by anxiety and second-guessing. The best cure for those troubling side effects is to carefully guide your decision into reality by managing a solid plan.

04 November 2008

The power of peripheral attention

In an old episode of the television show “Friends”, Jon Lovitz guest stars as a food critic. On the way over he gets stoned. Cannabis (I am told) has a tendency to increase focus to a near exclusive state. John’s character hears the word tartlet. He repeats, “tartlets, tartlets, tartlets… the word has lost all meaning.”

A couple of months after my daughter was born I was reading a book at a friends house. I wish I could remember and quote it precisely, but it basically said, “children are born the most aware beings on our planet, and we systematically take that away with them by teaching focus”.

The point of this writing is not to take issue with the power of focus, but to point out that it is not the only answer.

I was reading about Eric Johnson’s (virtuoso guitar player) lifelong quest for tone perfection. He mentioned that sometimes in order to get great tone, you have to stop thinking about tone. He has spent years practicing this. He is still learning.

For many years, I have managed the design process. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been eyeball deep in a project… wading in the muck of options and castaways only to find the perfect solution. As a design crew we would then assemble the client into a meeting room, make our dramatic and passionate presentation, and proclaim that “this, my dear client… is THE answer to your problem”. And, in that 18 minute build up… a 12 second unveiling… and the ensuing 17 minute discussion expect them to come to the same affirming conclusion that took our team 7 weeks.

So the client stares at the work… and then stares at it some more… looks us up and down and then stares back at the work. The pressure builds until they mutter, “umm, I’m not sure’. And we designers are astonished. How could they not see the brilliance?

At this moment, focus is not your friend. After repeating this scenario a couple dozen times I finally figured out why it does not work. The client must often, just like us, live with the solution for a bit.

And so here is the simple recipe. Next time you are struggling to make a decision, stop staring. Hang those three logo options, or variations of your web site, or anything else for that matter, in an area you work or live and go about your business. Give it 48 hours. I can almost guarantee you will come to an easy resolve.

So stop staring at the problem you are trying to solve. Live it. Be around it. Be part of it. Let your peripheral attention work for you.

18 September 2008

Define the damn thing… redux

Discussions boards and group lists are wonderful tools for a profession. These virtual mechanisms for community lash together individuals without the barriers of geography, time zones and vertical markets. They also chronicle to some extent the cycles of conversation.

As I write this the ebb of discussion regarding defining Information Architecture seems to be subsiding (or maybe taking a breather). In the Information Architecture Institute’s list serve. But, not without the expected backlash from those uber productive goal oriented folks in the community.

These discussions, and their continual reoccurrence, are an indication of a healthy, growing and changing profession. This is exactly what many profession are lacking for, and frankly, would give their eyeteeth to have (my grandfather’s expression).

Introspection, redefinition, evaluation, forecasting and trajectory setting are all part of being a vital organization in a changing world. The problem to many within the IA community is the heads down end product orientation. Our vocation is obsessed with physical deliverables. Those deliverables tell the skeptical that we actually did work, they indicate some value, and they also milepost the billing cycle. But there is so much more value here.

You see, I believe that the process has outcomes beyond a final agreed upon official rubber stamped definition that we can parade around to the business world we serve. It is about growth, understanding and community building. It is about bringing young practitioners into the fold and having them be part of the conversation. It is about subtle iterative adjustments to our collective self image and value. Much like that design project you worked on where everyone collaborated, learned, and performed well… only to have it scrapped at the last minute… its not all about the deliverable. See… the conversation… that’s the thing.

05 August 2008

Lesson on value from television

Admittedly I have never been much of a fan of television. Me sitting in front of the TV for more than an hour on any given day is a rarity (unless we are talking about Kansas basketball). So this whole argument may be biased… but her she goes…

As I tune in to evening prime time (is that redundant?) television I am struck by the prevalence of amateur hour. Televisions shows that highlight talent, drama and the shortcomings of those non-professional… maybe paid individuals of dubious talent. You might think that I am being harsh, but I grew up in the golden age of television. And, as a result I have expectations. I want quality and I want professionals.

At the same time, I love local stuff. Just not on television. Local theatre, local live music, local crafts festivals, local galleries… I love it. The same goes with bars, restaurants and lodging. I will take a gamble on an east side southwest grill everyday of the safety and consistency of a Bob Evans or even a Bonefish.

But what does this have to do with television programming. Well, it seems to me that the networks are following blindly, the popularity of cable shows born of economic. They were cheap to produce… they caught on… and the networks grabbed the idea. By this time some have probably even been badly managed or gone over-the-budget-top… but that’s really beside the point.

There is a huge difference between delivering a thrifty product with real value, and a cheap product. But I don’t know that most in commerce discern the difference. And I am fairly sure the majority of the buying public does not think too much about that (b-school) comparison.

In this age of dualistic black and white thinking… there is a surplus of quality at uber premium pricing… and a whole lot that is cheap. Does that mean the new disruptive market opportunity is in value? I certainly hope so.

13 June 2008

Design – it must involve exploration

James Lowgren is one of my favorite thinkers when the topic turns to design and design thinking. He has a new column that frames design in this way:

(/from james)

~ Design work is about exploring possible futures, starting from a situation at hand.

~ It intends to change the situation for the better by developing and deploying some sort of product or service, i.e., the concrete outcome of the design process.

~ It considers instrumental and technical as well as aesthetic and ethical qualities throughout the design process.

~ Design work involves developing an understanding of the task – the "problem", or the goal of the design work – in parallel with an understanding of the space of possible solutions.

~ Finally, it entails thinking by sketching, building models, and expressing potential ideas in other tangible forms.

(/end from james)

By no means is this a comprehensive definition, but I doubt it is intended as such. One of the important take aways from this is that design requires… let me say that again, requires exploration. A be line to the obvious solution is almost never the best approach. All of us, typically when we are young and intimidated by the pressures of get it done soon, rather than get it done well, have committed this cardinal sin of design. Many non-designers don’t get this, and it is important that we help them to understand the importance of exploration.


28 May 2008

How important is empathy?

Lots of great innovations have happened with out it. Obviously, technology drives innovation right? Not so much. In an industry that few would call immerging, high tech or even innovation, A.G. Lafley of Proctor and Gamble goes to great length in his recent book to describe the virtues of field research and empathy. He constructs his arguments under a very appealing umbrella focused on driving revenue and profit growth, something that ought to get the attention of every executive no matter how mature their industry.

In the 40’s a innovation was derived from basic radio technology that allowed the musical notes from guitars to be electronically reproduced and amplified. The goal was to increase the volume so that the musician could engage a larger audience. The result was something completely different.

Neither Leo Fender nor Seth Lover were musicians. Leo was primarily responsible for the acceptance of electric guitars as a successful technology. Leo was a military trained radio repairman that recognized and opportunity and stretched his knowledge of technology into innovation. Seth, also military trained, took things a step further when he designed the Humbucker pickup that most all Gibson guitars sported. Many historians will tell you that the combination of Seth’s Humbucker and the high output Marshall amplifier created a magical combination of tone and energy that was largely responsible for the late 60’s and early 70’s explosion of guitar oriented rock and roll. Yes, more important than Clapton, Beck or even Hendrix’ genius in shaping the music. They could not have done what they did without that specific technology.

But curiously, both companies have had multiple encounters with corporate death since those pioneering days. The electrical guitar has largely stayed the same since the early fifties. Almost every guitar built today is based upon a half dozen designs developed by either Fender or Gibson in the fifties. Gibson has nearly gone under a couple of times. New ownership groups have had to reinvent the company and they still struggled in a thriving, growing market. Fender nearly collapsed in the 70’s when they were acquired by CBS. Their products were awful. Both companies had plenty of technology, cost management, good business strategies, state of the art manufacturing and huge product demand. Both companies ended up making huge and completely unintentional contributions to an emerging after-market product industry and aided many new competitors. How did this happen? These companies invented and dominated the industry.

Simple. They fell out of touch with the musicians. They fell out of touch with their customers. They let accountants and engineers and MBA’s run the company into the ground. They were not in touch with guitar players. They could not get a handle on what was coming around the bend. And they did not invest in research or empathy.

So how did P&G out pace their competitors? They invested in ethnography. They invested in and leveraged design. They put designers in key management roles (CEO and CMO for instance). And, designers want to know how the product is used, how it works and how it doesn’t work. It seems so simple in hindsight doesn’t it? Embrace and leverage design, be in touch with the customer.

16 May 2008

How can business benefit from design? (2 of many)

The topic is going to turn to (design) process for the moment. I have on occasion expressed my disdain for rote process. You know, that stuff commonly associated with Henry Ford, TQM and Six Sigma. Design, plain and simple, does not work the same way as manufacturing. That is because design is about solving problems. And nearly every problem is slightly different. So it begs the question, how do we get reliably great results from design, if we don’t standardize the process? The answer is, we do this by assembling a structure. Let’s take a look at a simple step-by-step method that works really really well.

Step One. Establish the criteria by which the designer will work and the work will be judged. Artist thrive when given the freedom to create whatever their hearts desire. Not so much with the design process. Yes, artist and designers both draw, but that is about where the similarity ends. Expression of self take a much more subtle form for designers. Designers embrace the notion of having criteria to which they can design.

So how do you express this criteria? Simple, build a problem statement (sometimes called a situation statement), state your goals, objectives, policies (if you must), and constraints. We won’t labor on the specifics of these now, but suffice to say this takes some practice.

Step Two. Let the designer(s) work. I will save detailing the ‘magic’ of this (it is decidedly not magic btw) for another day.

Step Three. Evaluate the design against the criteria. How simple could this be? Talk through the weaknesses and strengths of each solution. Personally I think formal grading systems are a little stuffy, but for a tough crowd they can be helpful.

Step Four. Eliminate the lesser solutions and promote the best ones. You might even have a winner here. If you do, ask yourself, will this work? Is it great? Can we do better? If the answer t any of these is no, then it might be time to revisit your criteria. This is not the time to recommend a horizontal layout, or your favorite color blue. And ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ statements are only worthwhile if they include part of the criteria. If the design satisfies the criteria, and still does not work, you need to rework the criteria, plain and simple.

Here is a huge tip… it helps tremendously to (and some would say ONLY works) if the same people holding final approval were included in the criteria process. If they understand the logic of this structure, and they subscribe to the process, the design team will be confident and things should go well. If you cannot get final approvers to review and bless the constraints, and they still want the final vote, then I suggest mutiny, a new job, or heavy drinking. Seriously, passionately caring about your work in this situation will be a constant frustration if not a living hell. You will be working with the roulette wheel of project success.

If you adopt these four steps and discipline yourself the majority of your frustration with design and design process will go away.

14 May 2008

How can business benefit from design? (1 of many)

While many designers have a process, most have a philosophy or structure. Good designers often refine a process and use it over and over to produce reliable and competent results. Great designers think in terms of structure and a vast set of tools from which to draw. One of the most important concepts for the designer is that of divergence and convergence. Early in the design stage we must broaden our thoughts and think beyond the obvious. This is often poorly characterized as ‘outside of the box’ thinking. So often we face problems seemingly without the time or resources to appropriately analyze before we synthesize. We take a straight-line approach to a quick, known, and comfortable solution, but that is short sited. The more important the problem, the more we should consider stepping back and challenging assumptions. Working divergently will have us exploring things that at the time seem less than relevant, but very often open the door for exceptional solutions.

Bill Buxton (author, designer, business guy at microsoft) talks at length about the importance of sketching. It is absolutely crucial in the divergent stages of design that ideas are not yet formalized. One way to accomplish this is to stay away from the computer. Here, white boards, pencil and paper, and even sticky notes are your best weapons. These tools allow designers to convey important visual and functional concepts without being bothered by details - details that not only get in the way, but will narrow focus and restrict thinking. This is extraordinarily important for non-designers to understand.

When Pixar released ‘The Incredibles’ they packaged with it a second DVD disc. On that disk is a wonderful 30 minute video with great insight into the behind-the-scenes goings on. One of the most important take aways from this short story is learning what to look at. If you are working with designers it pays to understand the process and to be able ferret out the significant portion of the rough sketch or mocks. A good design presenter will often explain this upfront, but don’t count on it. If you have any question regarding what you are suppose to be looking at or paying attention to, just ask. Most designers will be delighted that you did.

Many project managers are quick to reduce design's chaotic wondering, but time should always be taken when the stakes are high. Delivering the solution on time is surely an important part of the job, but delivering a great solution is also. Great designers and design managers are cognizant of delivery schedules and exactly when enough explorations are, in fact, enough. Many designers will attempt to reopen (work divergently) an issue late in the game. This can be problematic for delivery. It's often a tough call, but it is where experience and discipline pay off.

In the convergent stages the entire atmosphere of the working environment changes. Schedules rule, pressure builds and the stress of delivery should be evident. But for most designers and especially the non-designers it can be a welcome change to the free flowing, and sometimes random wondering of early explorations. You will often hear, “now we are making some progress” or similar statements from management. That’s when you know that all this fuzzy design thinking is starting to turn into relevant results that they appreciate. This can seem like one of those few times when the business folks and the design folks are working stride for stride.

30 April 2008

Design thinking and design discourse

A couple of interesting conversations about Design Thinking are currently ongoing. The first, is a rather provocative article in ID magazine by Rick Poyner. ID magazine has traditionally been a reputable showcase for all things industrial design. Rick quotes people that I know out of context and twists the conversation into a self-serving self-promotion. But, the result is some good passionate discourse on the topic.

The second, is a Bruce Nussbaum blog post on that same article on the BusinessWeek site.

These may in fact help to frame design thinking for you, as this blog will be breaking out useful chunks of that knowledgebase in the coming weeks.

29 April 2008

Design and business… coming soon…

In the coming days you will find some commentary that is directed towards business people regarding design. I don’t have to pontificate too much about the benefits of design as an asset to business, there are plenty of very credible folks like Roger Martin, A.G Lafley, and Bruce Nussbaum already leading this charge. But I will likely call out some specific items that can help business.

Within the design community there is tension. Mention the term ‘design thinking’ and you will likely start interactions just short of a rumble. If you don’t know, ‘design thinking’ is the application of design methods, philosophies, and process to areas outside of design. Think about Agile development. On of the defining characteristics is rapid prototyping and iterative process, trial and error, if you will. Designers have been doing this forever. Frankly, most everyone does, well except for those diehards blinded by rigid waterfall or rational unified process. Fear of failure is a horrible thing in a place where progress and doing things better is important. Designers have little fear. They understand you have to fail to learn and they except iteration as a viable method.

Designers are cognizant of the benefits, the marginal return and competitive advantages they can bring to the table. They see Apple, at one point Motorola, Target, and others winning in the market place because they understand how to optimize the power in design. And, they want a seat at the table. They want to be involved earlier because the earlier they get to work, the better work they can accomplish. Designers want a say in the decision process. And they have earned it as a profession.

The problem is… not many business people understand how to use design to their advantage. Hell, most business people don’t really know what design is. When I was in business school, many a professor where dumb struck that I was a designer studying business. “They really have nothing to do with each other do they?”

Just a few years later, many of the important (and top rated) business schools in the country not only embrace design, but are racing to build collaborate programs with design departments. The MBA with an MA in design is becoming more commonplace (if only I had thought of that).

So back to that tension… many designers who misunderstand design thinking, believe that business want to make design decisions without being designers. Designers also don’t understand why they aren’t respected.

It is worth stating that defining design is an ongoing problem. The term is at once to vague, and very often to narrowly defined. Definitions vary, but one thing is for sure, if you think that design is merely moving visual elements around on the page – you don’t get it. Design is shaping how a web site should function. My definition even includes the early stages of the biz dev function… how will we design this product offering? Business models can be designed and re-designed. Process and procedures… also designed.

So look for more here in the coming days and weeks. I will try and bite off smaller chunks, be more focused and wander less. The upshot here will not be so much to evangelize, but to show how to embrace design as a strategic and competitive weapon.

23 April 2008

Group think: where is your voice?

When I went back to graduate school, one of the things that most impressed me about my mentor (and the chair of my committee) was how much he emphasized that design students learn to have an opinion. He was often asking (at the top of his lungs), “what do YOU believe?”

This is not so much about ego, or the importance of the “you” portion. It is about having a perspective, the courage, and the respect to state that perspective. Those two principles of courage and respect are important to anyone that is on ‘the team.’

The importance of courage is that you are actually earning your keep. In today’s corporation, if you are paid to merely execute someone else’s marching orders you are generally failing to adequately contribute. Group think, or aggregate decisions kill companies quicker than either the economy or the competition. Be good at what you do - do the research and come with your assessment strong.

Further, display respect towards your peers and team members to offer that opinion. Waiting to hear the room and then weighting your perspective towards a safe and adjusted perspective does that team a disservice. You are paid to be good and bring it all to the table. Don’t be meek.

23 March 2008

Hey CBS, just how lame are you? Nevermind.

So, I am sitting on the couch watching basketball. It is the third day of the first weekend of March Madness. The phone rings and it is a friend of mine on the other end. No “hello”, “How’s it going”, or “you watching the game”… just the truth, “CBS has their head up their a$$”.

In their infinite wisdom, at that moment, the networks have decided to show half times at various arenas and a few highlight clips. Mean while, there is that one game in process but why in the world would the East Coast want to watch the number one seed in the Midwest. It is not irrelevant, but also not crucial that you understand that is MY team. My friend is right, neither the network nor the NCAA has a grasp on their audience.

Adding to the bad attitude stew that is brewing in my head, I now must grab my shoes and coat and drive to the only local sports bar. This bar is a teenage strip mall cavern that does not serve a single acceptable beer. Sports without a good beer is just, well, sports.

If you ever wanted proof that the networks are wondering lost, you can find it this weekend in the CBS broadcast of NCAA men’s basketball.

There are (at least) two types of fans that this network is ignoring.

First, most of us did not go to Brown and upon graduation buy a little place on Slater Avenue. Most of us have moved away from our alma mater (wait, does Brown even have a basketball team?). And, by the way, it would be cool if we could see our team play an entire game. The regional broadcast of games based upon rank and metro area TV markets is sooo not customer centric.

Second, IMHO, this is the greatest sporting event in the world. Many of us, favorite teams aside, are fans of the event. And we would like to watch the event… the whole event. People take vacations days to watch this first weekend where sixty-four teams so of which we’ve never heard of compete. Let us see the ‘whole’ tournament.

Plain and simple, this event is too large for a single channel. And, it is to important for one that has their head, well, you know.

15 March 2008

What I learned from Bill Buxton

I have never met the man, heard him talk in person or even attended a one of his many speaking events (that I know of) – though we have worked in the same industry and the same market.

Oddly, I read his book for all of the intangibles not noted in the title, namely his sense of where business and design overlap and influence each other.

Even more oddly, I avoided reading the book because of its title. The word sketch was an indicator of something aside my interests. Curiously, his take on sketching was a powerful take away, where all of the other stuff seemed common sense based on my years of experience.

I have learned the lesson of sketch many times in my career. At several intervals, while short on time, running out of budget, or overly confident… I have jumped to the computer to execute a design I was certain I had worked out. Always to frustration and sometimes failure. It is even a syndrome to which I frequently talk to young designers and students. Always sketch your ideas first. But for some reason I was never able to fully articulate why. Bill takes care to explain the malleable and unfinished qualities of a sketch that hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. That lack of finality has great value. It lets designers and others have a glimpse into your idea, and yet interpret those ‘yet to be determined’ attributes. It allows people to feel free to input, add to the idea, and take it in new directions. The lack of detail and finality actually serve the designer to great benefit.

I now read pretty much everything he writes as it comes along. I look forward to hearing him speak sometime very soon.

08 March 2008

Work ethics – the 80-hour week.

There has been an interesting conversation of late regarding work ethics. The discussion began as a post by Jason Calacanis, viciously attacked by multiple bloggers, and defended Saturday by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington. Specifically, what defines a work commitment? Is it by time spent - the number of hours at the office?

It has me thinking about how I spend time.

My father once told me, "if I could not do my job in 40 - 50 hours a week, then I was probably doing it wrong." I think he was right.

As a boss (in a start-up) I was a staunch advocate for having a life. I think we constantly draw on our outside lives during work ours for inspiration and for energy and motivation. I encourage employees to not only have a life and enjoy it, but to guard against the 80+ hour design workweek standard.

In the four years since leaving my company, I split time my time between various consulting projects and a full time graduate class and research schedule. I was doing just what I advised against… working well over 80, often over 100 hours a week.

I am now gainfully employed in the corporate sector. But if I think about my weekly routine, I am easily an 80-hour a week professional. But I think there is a difference. I spent a tremendous amount of time reading about design or business, writing about design and business, and discussing design and business. While I do lots of stuff, what I do for a living is such a huge component of my life I not only don’t mind… I love it. I keep my ‘productive’ time – that which is focused on projects for my employer, to under 50 hours a week. The rest is fun, and a great investment in my profession and my career. Does my employer benefit from that extra time spent? Absolutely. But I would be doing this stuff regardless.

For me, slightly separating my job (that 40 or so hour a week thing) and my profession (where I generate passion and a sense of accomplishment) helps. One generates the needed income. The other generates a tremendous amount of energy and momentum.

I think that passion and professional commitment are the gages that Calacanis and Arrington should really be thinking in terms of. Are those start-up employees working as a labor of love and passion? Are they committed to doing better than the best job they can? Or, are they putting in the time and logging the hours and counting the paychecks. If the later is true, then maybe they should be working in a lame corporation or better yet get a government job. Entrepreneurs, like charities and political movements, need passion and commitment from their work force... ‘cause the cause is the thing.

Dual spheres of influence

I wear a couple of hats when I am at work. The first hat, the one I am paid to wear, focuses primarily on how best to guide our portals towards the user’s needs. I am very comfortable playing that role. I regularly fight for the user experience above all else. But that is not my sole perspective.

When philosophers discuss things they often refer to spheres of ethics. A sphere of ethics is the range for that particular set of ethics. Most of us maintain multiple spheres. We have the set of ethics we use to live our own lives by. Likely there is a slightly different (and maybe multiple) sphere that we use to determine who we hang with, who we spend time with, and who are our closest of friends. You may have yet another sphere for your community, which you would likely vote with. It would drive what you feel is acceptable in your neighborhood and what is not. You may not feel that it is ethical to drive a Hummer day to day, but that may not mean you feel strong enough to try and keep them out of the neighborhood.

While I advocate for the user, that advocacy has a business rational. The user is critical to success. If we don’t pay attention to them, the rest of the what we do is just building a house of cards. I get the bigger picture, and frankly prefer to wear that hat… that larger sphere of user advocacy. I even find that my determination and a sometimes single-mindedness towards considering the user comes and goes. But that usually depends on who else is in the room. Often the user is well taken care of and I fall back to my better balance business hat. Other times I cannot. I think I have a stretchy user sphere.

26 February 2008

Is Genius the point? A call for more design research.

Participating in a recent online discussion, a group of interaction practitioners were discussing the need to clarify or define three approaches to design. The approaches being discusses were User Centered Design (UCD), Activity Centered Design, and Genius design, a relatively new term coined by Dan Saffer in his book “Designing for Interaction”.

While I understand the urge to define and relate these as three different approaches, the discussion was ill fated from the beginning because the premise behind this effort was wrong.

The UCD movement is a reaction to a long history of products and services development from a technology or business perspective. Designing a product to be profitable, or designing a product to implement available technologies is an ill-fated pursuit. Neither considers the need for the product. Obviously, if there is not a need, and the technology has little utility, there will be no users. Likewise, if the customer is not engaged, there will be no profit. Focusing on the user is simply due diligence. Customers (or users) have grown sophisticated. They will seek the product that has the most value. That value is determined by a number of factors, but at the top of that list are: ease of use, ability to accomplish goals, and availability in context. Users will find the product that best matches their needs.

Stemming from research in Eastern Europe, Activity Theory has been utilized in forming the ACD approach to product development. The theory is that if you understand the activities (or tasks) can be subdivided into actions and operations. I for one subscribe to activity theory as a valuable analysis tool. It can also serve as a guide for synthesis. This makes it a promising design tool. The disconnect in many conversations surrounding ACD is that you cannot fully understand activity of the user in context, without the study of the user. It is for that reason that ACD should be considered a sub group of UCD. Use of activity theory without some research or insight into the user is the same as Genius design with the addition of an explicit process.

This brings us to Genius design. While I share many a practitioner’s discomfort with the name, it has gained some traction within the interaction design community. In my experience, egocentric or designer centric, would seem more apt names.

Here is how Dan Saffer describes Genius Design, “Genius design relies almost solely on the wisdom and experience of the designer to make the right decisions. Designers use their best judgment as to what users want and then design based on that judgment.”

Genius Design implies that the designer has all the knowledge (of the user) required to move forward and design the appropriate solution. In reality, this is rarely the case. More often, the designer has little regard, time, or budget for actually conducting research into the needs, goals and context of use. I understand that in many situations there is not the budget to do research. That there is not the time for research is simply a case of poor planning. Executives, project managers and product managers are simply putting a gun to the designer’s head in an effort to push forward. Long term goals and planning, the vision to anticipate market reaction and opportunities, are the domain and responsibility of those leading product development. There is no excuse for putting the design and development team in this situation. First to market is rarely a formula for success. Best to market has a significantly better chance.

James Leftwich, CXO for SeeqPod, is a seasoned designer and a passionate contributor to the interactive design community. James takes great exceptions to my ego-centric term as being “charged and offensive”. From a recent post by James, “I take exception only with unhelpful and inadequately descriptive labels such as ‘genius design’ and ‘ego-centric.’ And I favor the term Rapid Expert Design (ERD)”. He is not wrong about those terms being charged. And while my intent is not to offend, I find it as poor management direction to advise designers to skip research and follow only their own sense of what is needed. This level of self-direction and over confidence is pure arrogance. Designers absolutely need to bring leadership and vision to product design. But they must consider the user in doing so.

There are certainly cases when the designer’s process may not require research and those typically fall into one of two categories. In some cases the designer is the primary and targeted user. While this is rare, it certainly happens. In other cases the designer may have deep domain experience. Hopefully, this expertise was gained with some level of market immersion and exposure to the user in context.

During the hundred years history of the design profession, only in the last decade or so has there been a real understanding of the benefits of user centered design research. I get the path of least resistance, and the urge of designers to ‘get to work’, but we know that research can greatly assure the success of the solution. We have a professional obligation to direct the design process in a way that promises to optimize the opportunity. Designers need to educate clients and team members of the benefits of not only User Centered design, but of research to assure accuracy of that design. We need to push back with scheduling and budgets that allow us to do our best work. And, we need to stop letting poor planning and short budgets compromise our work.

09 February 2008

Charles Owen and design thinking

Unless you have been under a rock lately you know that the collaboration between IIT/ID and the Rotman school of business has created a dynamic and ground breaking partnership that has aggressively advanced the worth and recognition of what we do as designers. In the latest issues of the Rotman magazine (Winter 2008) Charles writes a thoughtful piece and uses design thinking as the construct for processes and methods differentiating professional design work from the greater world-view of design.

One of the important facets of this piece is how Charles posits design thinking in contrast and as a complement to all things scientific. He goes on to call out the significant traits that make designers not only different but valuable. What I appreciate about how Charles has outlined these traits is how they cross the different design industries – an important perspective in consideration given our silo-ing of specific practices.

This article, along with Chris Connely’s Leveraging Design’s Core Competencies are must reads for anyone looking to hire designers to make a difference.

The entire issue (as usual) is really great stuff. If you are a design manager, this magazine is a must read.


08 February 2008

Everyone wants to find the next iPod…

…but few will do what it takes. Though not simple, the formula is straight forward. Put the user first, implement design as a strategy, and take some risk (say it with me… risk/fail/learn – repeat until you reach success).

Re-reading Roger Martin’s Designing in Hostile Territory, I was struck by the irony of a reliability focused culture seeking leadership. Business schools teach, and most of business operates under the premise that proof or evidence are the only tools by which to make decisions. In practical terms, if you cannot show metrics that assure success, then your idea is likely rejected.

So how do you measure the likely success of innovation or original ideas? Is a leadership role gained without risk? In his book Sketching User Experiences, Bill Buxton has a great quote… well he actually calls it his rule: “In the long term, safe is far more dangerous than risk.” As a long time entrepreneur I am, of course, more comfortable managing risk than most MBA types. I am hardly reckless, but I understand the benefits of pushing the envelope at times in order to gain. I think I have been living by Bill’s rule for quite a while. I think it is time to start quoting him… liberally.

06 February 2008

more about posers in techville

A cautionary note: this is a guest column penned by my alter ego.

So the lemming talk in techville for as long as I can remember (that should give you a good indication of my age) is social-community-personalization. Yeah... yawn. Yes, facebook is the great playground for those at an age where they need to learn to socialize or cannibalize with low risk (through the net). And yes, many a garage band have found an eager if not paying audience on myspace. Oh – and do not forget the underemployed or aspirationals that flock to linkedin (note: I am not entirely immune to any of these).

The big question seems to be, have we reached the potential of the social web. The answer is a resounding no. We have just seen the early and immature blossoming of a yet to be truly optimized feature. Much like your car’s GPS, which is only awaiting the resolve to bandwidth and mobile carrier silos challenges, to become a simple web map tool, social aps will not reach their true potential until they appropriately purposed. Uhhh what?

If you look at the history of technological innovations, a great many cool and expensive toys flounder in the marketplace as stand alone products until they become accepted and expected and role up into the larger product as a feature. And so it will be with social media. There are two reasons outside of the teenage training ground that have realistic applications for true social media. Those are commerce and uhm, commerce.

The voice of the satisfied or unsatisfied customer that shopped just prior to you is a huge help in resolving the cognizant dissonance you are experiencing with purchasing your new gas-guzzler – even though it is a hybrid. We feel, for some reason, more apt to trust the last idiot than we do the company working to increase our bloated debt (pardon the cynicism… I am on a role).

The other place that social media will continue to grow is towards fanaticism. Bodie Miller’s new site, despite the need for some any design talent, is an example of how to create excitement and commerce across an activity. When we share interests, we are much more likely to participate. When we are encourages and excited about our chared interest we are much more likley to purchase.

It would seem that the hardest task for those living in techville is to thoughtfully purpose technology. The lemmings of course, will continue to run around spouting the buzzword or the day, while others will actually be working to apply the technologies in ways that make sense.

14 January 2008

Patent reform… but the right reform, PLEASE!

I have been on record for a few years saying that the current patent process, and in fact the entire intellectual property protection system is skewed and completely unfair. Beyond the fairness, it is structured in such away that we (consumers, business people, etc.) do not maximize the economic value of innovation.

Flat out… meaningful innovation, the kind that changes the game, generates new jobs, adds significant value, and super charges the economy does not come from the corporate world. It comes from entrepreneurs. It comes from Steve and Steve, Bill and Dave, Larry and Sergey… in the garage… making history. These are the folks that need protection. These are the folks that did NOT have a million dollars in the bank and a building full of lawyers, yet this is what it takes to protect the little guy’s idea.

In this past Sunday's New York Times, John Markoff writes an oped piece that bypasses the crucial issues and focuses on all the wrong issues regarding coming legislative changes. This conversation, and the coming legislation, should not be about big business vs. small start-ups. It should not be democrats vs. republicans… it should be about cultivating a fertile economy for new ideas, prosperity, jobs and innovation encouragement.

The current state of intellectual property protection for entrepreneurs is so hostile that scores of smart people with good ideas (this blogger included) have put those ideas on the shelf and are taking respite in corporations, academia or semi retirement waiting for a time when their bright new idea won’t get cannibalized by the patent trolls or squashed by the corporate giants.

11 January 2008

The utility of iTunes

I have often written about measuring utility. In fact I still stand by my claim that the perfect product is one that provide utility while not requiring a change in behavior. Being able to measure the behavioral change hurdle and utility are vital towards increasing the rate of diffusion. Increasing the success of new product innovation will be a powerful tool towards reduction of waste and insuring a more robust economy.

The announcement of DRM free songs from becoming available on Amazon is an opportunity to measure the utility of the iTunes comprehensive music delivery system. Many industry experts point to iTunes as the key to the iPods domination of portable music players. While the system is proprietary, it is open to the extent that most users need. Amazon does on have the same sort of convenient, comprehensive delivery system, and this will be a great opportunity to measure it’s worth.

Similarly, any manufacturer that currently distributes through Wallmart and Target can gauge the utility of design. Utilizing online sale numbers we can extrapolate just how much it is worth to the average consumer to go across the street to Target and buy a much better looking toilet bowl brush (possibly even designed by Phillip Stark) for a measly dollar more. Sure, some folks don’t know they can do that, but that’s easy enough to isolate with a simple survey.

The road to accurately measuring utility and translating that measure to customer value is becoming pretty simple. Measuring the resistance to change (of behavior) is a more complex problem. Behaviorist… where are you?