28 July 2010

How relevant is the big stage?

Unless you are very early in your career, or intend to live your live in the cocoon of large corporations, the prudent strategy is to adopt a different criterion. For the majority of customers and users, large corporations are losing relevancy. The corporate culture is one of 'play to not lose' and risk mitigation, rather than innovation. You must have this sort of experience on your resume, but it can be a negative factor in building a significant body of work, particularly as a designer. The first rule to know is that you should look for a great boss... rather than a great job title or description. The second is to determine whether the role provides one of the following: the ability to do great work... and the room to do work that matters. If you can get both, you are doing really well... for most of you, just getting in a position for one of those will be difficult. Have high standards for these criteria and don't let go of them. The opportunities are out there.

14 May 2010

You’ve been tagged

So you're driving south on the Edens parkway and it occurs to you that there might be an event in downtown Chicago. You know, the kind of event that has a definite start, a hard stop, and fills parking lots. You wonder… “how is the traffic and do I need an alternate route?” You grab your iPhone and pull up Google maps and turn on the ‘show traffic’ function. You’ve just become a sensor. You are reading your own data and so are all the other iPhone Google maps users.

In a recent New York Times article entitled, “The Data-driven Life”, Gary Wolf chronicles examples of individuals using a closed loop feedback system (often their phone) and some basic hypothosis and A/B test strategies to uncover cause and effect in their daily lives. From the benefit of herbal remedies to the impact of sleep habits to asking, “why do I run faster on the weekend?” What this fine article does not do is address the aggregate data gathering that is ongoing using those same tools. It is a data gathering process that you only sort of opt into. The upside is that it could present a fantastic data set for uncovering social behavior that helps us better understand ourselves. The only real question is who owns the data, and who benefits from its analysis.

So next time you head out the door and pop you cell phone in your pocket… think about what you will be doing for the next few hours. And, imagine that little tag that surrounds the ankle of the pigeon pestering you for food scraps in the park. You have one too.

12 April 2010

Beyond the research…

You’ll find my take on research pretty simple. We, as designers, don’t do or have enough of it. All you need to do is look at the percentage of products that fail miserably in the marketplace. Successful products (those that are profitable for over three years) are less that 10% of those introduced. In any sport that is miserable.

We should stop doing (that type of) research when conditions are stable (not changing) and we find no new information.

So, what else is there?

The answer is always the same - know more about your customers. Spend five years working the store floor. Spend months in observation labs watching usability studies. Immerse yourself in a tradeshow for three consecutive days. Build data driven personas. All of these add to your base of information. Reading, of all things, a book on running I came across an interesting approach.

In Southern Africa, live a small tribe of bushman called the Kalahari. They have an interesting approach. It goes something like this (my online reference points inline).

“Even after you learn to read the dirt (site metrics and analytics), you ain’t learned nothing. The next level is tracking without tracks, a higher level of reasoning known in the lit as ‘speculative hunting.’ The only way to pull it off… …was to project yourself out of the present and into the future, transporting yourself into the mind of the animal you’re tracking.”

This is at the core of what persona building is really all about. It’s similar to method acting. If you can lose a little of yourself in the process of putting yourself in the heads of customers… you will gain some insight. This is far different that introspection or “designing for oneself.” But again, all of this must be data driven.

“Visualization… empathy… abstract thinking and forward projection… When you track, you’re creating casual connections in your mind, because you didn’t actually see what the animal did… …with speculative hunting, early human hunters had gone beyond connecting the dots, they were connecting the dots that existed only in their minds”

You will find, when reading from the library of design, and in particular interaction design, references to “genius design”. This term, coined by Dan Saffer, is not really about a designer who is a genius. What I think Dan means is that the designer has become so intimate with the nature of the customer/user, that they can get inside that role and design for them fluently. It’s an interesting place to be. I have only known a couple of designers who could really pull this off in my career. It takes extreme dedication and a skill set that I almost think you have to be born with. It’s a state we should all aspire to, and a competence we should never assume we have.

NOTE: In no way am I trying to imply that we are hunting those we design for. We are only interested in anticipating their shopping and lifestyle needs so that we can serve them better.

Reference: Born to Run, Christopher McDougall