28 September 2012


Not sure if you've noticed, but weather dot com has released a new version of their app that is spectacular. They've stopped trying to shoe horn features in. They've stopped trying to be something they're not. And they've got some first rate engineering.

The new app has just the right amount of information. It's organization and information hierarchy are excellent. And, the app is very fast.

Kudos for the focus and the restraint.

07 August 2012

a focus group of one.

Not to long ago I had a dVP of engineering tell me, “you can’t tell me I don’t understand the customer or the customer experience”. I didn’t laugh, but chuckled a bit inside. He then told me that user experience design is part of engineering. I kept a straight face (I think).

Alan Cooper described this phenomena years ago in, “the inmates are running the asylum”. Alan, a developer by trade took a lot of flak for the book, but in the end, adhering to some basic principles implied within the text has proven  advantageous time and time again to those armed with the insights.

Engineers are typically much smarter and more technically adept than the mainstream audience targeted by consumer products. It’s nearly impossible to unlearn that expertise. It’s also really difficult to empathize in an abstract fashion. Even seasoned user researchers are reticent to prescribe general user guidelines across platforms and products. They continue to uncover important cultural and behavioral hurdles for design consideration.

One of the first rules of user experience or interaction design is to NOT design for ones self. Yes, I know there are a handful of successful products who’s inventor claims they designed for themselves and it ‘just took off’. These are the exceptions. There is also a movement within interaction design described as ‘genius design’ driven. This is, in theory, where the designer has so much domain knowledge that they know what customers need before the customer does. I’d contend that the customer is feeling the pain or wishing for the ability well before the designer is.... they just don’t articulate it in our forums. Genius design is effective in highly specialized and technical fields, but is not the norm.

The upshot here is the empathy towards users and customers is not a afterthought or of minimal effort. Real expertise is needed in gaining insights and in the synthesizing of those insights into actions and design direction. There is a growing knowledge base of process and practice that should be implemented... at least if you want to improve actual results in usage.

06 August 2012

more thoughts on judgement.

Not everyone needs to be a leader, and there can be great comfort in being a follower. In fact, fast follower is a very under utilized strategy in the market today. The fast follower strategy allows you to closely monitor the market leaders, capitalize on their R&D investments, and stay or catch up. But like many strategies and tactics embraced by mbas, it’s often not thoughtful. The fast follower strategy is not the same as parroting.  It is not a blind outsourcing of critical thinking or judgement.
It takes a great deal of time and energy to observe, research and understand what another company is doing. So often the critical information behind an action is camouflaged from outsiders for obvious reasons. The tendency to read a book such as ‘Good to Great’  (a really good read btw) and apply remedies as recipes can be catastrophic. Any grafted solution must be verified and measured against your specific situation. In so many cases the differences are large enough to render the recipe nearly irrelevant. One of my favorite professors used to classify these as ‘type 3 errors’... solving the wrong problem.
The other critical element in these endeavors, is the removal of concern for one’s reputation and public image. I’ve had the opportunity to watch this in action recently in very high profile arenas. The presumption that because you are in charge, you are the smartest (whatever that means to you) person in the room only adds to potential errors. If you truly do hire people smarter than you, then you should put trust in that investment. As a leader, you certainly need to own the judgement. But that doesn’t mean that the research and consideration prior to ‘the decision’ should be your’s alone. 
Years ago I had the opportunity to spend quality time with a very smart man. Barnett Helzberg took over a family retail business in the midwest and grew it into a giant. I learned a tremendous amount in the days I spent with Mr. Helzberg, but the most powerful concept I came away with was his pension for being the ‘dumbest guy in the room’. Mr. Helzberg hired smart people and he trained them well. He aligned them with his core approach to business and delivering value. He put his confidence in them and empowered them. Hiring ‘people smarter than me’ wasn’t just a managerial posture for him. 
Bold decisions and market leading actions are not without risk. Thoughtful and strong follow-through is a critical component of successful judgement, but I think the mistake I see most often in business is the result of arrogance and ego driven decisions.

05 June 2012

the nature of transactions and facebook

Does the world need yet anther diatribe regarding the Facebook IPO debacle? Probably not, but here I go anyway. Facebook's IPO failed because of greed and a fundamental misunderstanding about transactions.

My transactional understandings are rooted in a simple concept in sales in called "win win". A transaction should be equitable to all involved. And, in any successful transaction all parties need to come away with something of worth. Inherent in any transaction is what we call a 'deal', or the worth of engaging in the transaction. For the moment we'll refer to this worth as 'profit'. I'm likely stretching your understanding of 'profit', but bare with me. 

Profit is that range between the most you might give up under any circumstances, and the least possible. HIgh service, reputation, warranty, etc… these are all part of the inherent 'profit'. If Seller A the only one offering a 'thing' for sale, they might be tempted to charge the highest price known for that 'thing'. This would be Seller A not sharing profit. You, the purchaser, are not likely to favor this arrangement and will be less than willing to come back and repeat it, unless you have no other choice. For the retailer, discounts and coupons, are first a way to garner your attention, but secondarily (and very importantly) they are a way to show you that they are willing to share the profit with you. Their first goal is to get the sale. The second goal is that you remember them favorably towards the next transaction. Pretty simple right?

As an interesting point of reference, a transaction in which part A holds all of the cards, and extracts ALL of the profit would most likely be a singular transaction with little or no chance of a voluntary follow up transaction. A mugging would be a good example of this type of transaction.

Back to Facebook. The investment bankers, lawyers, and executives in charge of the Facebook IPO failed to make an accurate assessment of worth, and/or, got greedy. Offering stock at the apex of success does not offer investors the opportunity share in much, if any, of the profit. Short term gain is why many people invest in IPO's. For Facebook shareholders, there is none. The only difference between Facebook and digg.com right now is public access towards ownership of a dwindling asset. 

01 March 2012

the melee and confusion over 'responsive'

So… the hot thing in the web the last few months is a book called ‘responsive web design’. It’s a good book, very tactical, applicable in may instances. So why do I bring this up? Because like many things, it is getting distorted, misinterpreted and in some ways both under and over acknowledged.

The over arching goal of all IA, IxDA’s, UXA’s etc is to match the experience we help to create with the context of use and to some extent the expectations of the user. Back before there was something called interaction design, I used to hire industrial designers. Not because I was doing industrial design, but because they, more than any other school of design understood context. And in the 15 years that I’ve been working in this space, it’s been an constant effort to be more contextually aware.

Responsive design is not a thing. It’s not really even a set of tools or methods. It’s simply a book title. It is a book about trying to embrace context across the many devices that now have access to the web.

At the executive level there is always a danger of over simplification. New executives often use catch phrases as levers to promise progress… SEO, agile, and user centric are recent examples of this. I doubt many at the VP level of fortune 500 companies have taken time (or should) to read the book. So logically, the have an abridged definition. That definition is often optimistic as user experience folks struggle to achieve in alignment with product or engineering regarding their user experience aspirations.

So when you’re talking upwards in your company about ‘responsive’, what do you think they hear? More often than not, the key words heard will be ‘more efficient’, they’ll also hear ‘one-size-fits-all”, they hear ‘cheaper’. The responsive book is not targeting and should not be targeting any of those. All of that work is about making the experience better. Our customers rarely need mobile tools while setting at their desk. And they likely don’t need every feature on their handset.

Here are four simple constructs for developing web experiences for a range of devices and context.

~ Design to scale for multiple screen sizes. (yep, pretty obvious)

~ Consider the interaction differences between key/mouse, and touch devices.

~ Prioritize based upon the context of use.

~ Include or exclude functionality thoughtfully across devices anticipating the context of use.

There is not a lot of magic or need for ‘special sauce’ in the mobile space these days. A good, well educated user experience architect (UXA) will have deep understanding for context of use and will take care to thoughtfully investigate, empathize and consider these uses in the design. This is what good interaction design is.