Sunday, March 22, 2009

Data, Art, Design, and a big ID/IxD Success Story

Three events occurred, or were publicized, in the past few days that merit posting here and considering all together. First, an apparently widely-respected visual designer left Google using some strong language about his frustration regarding the design mentality there. I'll let you read his words to get your own impression rather than commenting directly.

You back? Ok.

To paraphrase somewhat, he tells a fresh tale of the decades-old battle of design based on data versus what some like to call "art". We in the Voice Interaction realm have had the same challenges and have often said in our little world that VUI Design is a "science and art". And while I have even held forth on that, I have been uncomfortable for the past few years with that way of characterizing it. One reason is that many of our language structure and wording decisions are actually based on researched and published linguistic and thought paradigms, similar to visual design choices about layout and color. Secondly, designing well is often an exercise in doing so within limitations and with compromises instead of letting one's expressionistic soul run free (That's a great thing for your painting or weekend band. Not usually so good for the business needs of your employer.).

Which leads me to the second event. OK/Cancel is a comic and blog by a couple of guys who took a hiatus from the end of 2007 to now and returned strongly with a great strip and good commentary on the ex-Googler and the data/art debate that fits nicely with my comments above and the article I wrote with Roberto Pieraccini linked to above. This is an area we in speech and all designers need to reflect on in order to truly begin the maturation of our practices, processes, and reputation.

Doing so will, I believe, lead to more of the third event. Thursday's NY Times ran this article in the Inside Technology section, A Tiny Camcorder Has a Big Payday. Pure Digital Technologies, the maker of the very popular Flip camcorder (audio warning) was purchased for $590 million by Cisco (About a 2.5-3x valuation as near as I can tell). To me, this is a triumph of good design. Cisco decided that a profitable company focused on simple, good products could add to Cisco's bottom line for years to come. While their decision was most certainly not all about good design, the philosophy of Pure Digital mostly is. This should serve as reinforcement and encouragement to all designers that combining customer focus, good design principles and practices with persistence and reading the market in-between the lines can and does work because success is success.

Good Design in 2009.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Head and heart: Thoughts on what goes into creation

I intentionally mostly stay away from writing about the theoretical and philosophical. Primarily that's due to feeling not qualified enough and desirous of avoiding "religious" arguments. But, I find my mind returning to this topic for no other reason than I like it and it is meaningful to me. So out it spills.

As a practitioner and appreciator of multiple creative arts, I know that a critical element of most artifacts I see as having some kind of value exist at an intersection of the technical and the passionate. In other words, there is a substantial measure of beauty present because the artist has appreciable mastery of both the execution of and the expression within their medium. In other, other words, they can make their instrument do well what they want and show well what they feel.

For further explication I contrast that not with the complete lack of those two, though certainly creations exist that are empty of both. Those are mostly cases of instances that someone should be doing something else. Or, more graciously, they are instances that I have no capacity to appreciate. Rather, it is sadder to me when there is no intersection because the creation is missing one or the other. When the artist is focused solely on the technical execution (listen to how fast I play this complicated musical structure) or the passionate expression (listen to my messy inarticulate anger). The former is cold, the latter a tantrum.

As you appreciate someone's creation, whether a painting, poem, piece of music, film, interface, product, I encourage you to look for these two elements and how they intersect and interact. They certainly will not always be, and do not need to be at all, or maybe should rarely be, in balance. But I have found that both are necessary. And as I create, I try be sure I am practicing both. There is far more satisfaction, I think, in executing expression as well as possible.


Note: Thanks to @semanticwill for adding to his blog roll. He is an excellent designer (fans of, among others, have him to thank) and thinker. Visitors from there, welcome and thank you! Haven't heard of him? Go see:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Shiny Plastic != Good Design

A colleague of mine kindly informed me that the audio quality of my mobile isn't that great and sometimes hurts my ability to effectively contribute on conference calls. So, I've been looking back into the wired age for that tool called the office landline. Who knows where it will lead?

Turns out Verizon offers "the Home Phone Reinvented." How lucky for me. Looks a bit pricey for a reinvention ($199), but hey, look at these features!

The circles with the plus signs on this "Design" screen show "reinvented" features such as VOLUME CONTROL! SPEAKERPHONE! CORDLESS HANDSET! and ELEGANT DESIGN! And personally, I can say that nothing says elegance like black fingerprint capturing plastic! Oh, and it has that current king of features: the TOUCHSCREEN!! How did we ever use phones before that?!?!

Now, not being one to be taken in by so much marketing sweet talk and high prices, I decided to burn a few fossils and head to my nearest Verizon store to experience the hype first hand. Plus it was a nice day to have the windows down. They had a phone, I mean Hub, all set up, but strangely minus the handset. But, no matter, there is really only one thing to report. On top of the joke of advertising decades-old features as reinvention, the touchscreen = suck.

Layouts changed illogically. Navigation across the top, bottom, and side was very confusing. Poor use of space all over. But here is the kicker about the actual "touch" part. Just one example. And I mean, come on, the iPhone as been out over a year-and-a-half. So, look:

See the slider in the middle? Yes, the one cutting the "h" of "Lunch" in half. First, it's not that wide; less than half my finger width. Second, I had to HIT, PRESS, AND DRAG the blankety blank thing like it was warped AC slider from a 1973 something or other! And I mean HIT! Kinda painfully! And sometimes I wouldn't hit it just quite right, though, and my finger would slide down uselessly. What a joke. If you're going to use a slider, at least do it well! And is the slider the best method? Why not swipe from, I mean, be inspired by Apple and use the natural motion of "rolling" the list up or down?

Ugh. It's not like these things are secret. You know, I have mostly liked being a Verizon customer. But this was just sad. And the Hub really could have been a kick-ass product, I think. A nice intersection of VoIP and mobile. But, once again, we have a clear example of what is wrong in so many of today's products.

I suppose I'll be looking at other solutions for my home office phone.

Still hoping 2009 can be the year of Good Design.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More Bad Design is Immoraller

Persistent Bad Design is Immoral

My son loves hockey and I promised him a Dallas Stars game for his birthday. Last Saturday we heard about a game on Sunday afternoon that sounded perfect vs. the Penguins. No Sidney Crosby, but no matter. We decided to go.

So, Sunday morning comes and we do our usual leisurely family sleeping late thing. Around 11:30 I figure I'll just double-check the ticket situation. What with our economy and the Stars inconsistent season, I didn't figure on trouble. But the drive is fairly far, so no point in wasting gas if there's a sell-out.

So, I go online, as I mostly do, and look for tickets. Arriving at a list of upcoming games, today's entry says not "Buy now" but "Call (214)..." Huh. Okay. I call. During the time-wasting automation, I hear the warning "Within 3 hours of game time, tickets cannot be purchased online or over the phone." Uh oh.

But I stay on the line as if I want to buy and eventually reach a agent. I tell her I am interested in today's game and know I can't buy tickets through her or the website, but could she please tell me if tickets are available.




You mean I have to drive an hour to the arena, park, and actually go up to the box office to find out?

Yes sir.

Can I even call the box office?

No sir.




I cannot believe this. In the day and age of JIT, RFID, the internet, and in the name of all that is good, WHAT THE HELL?

Ahem,, just in case you didn't catch all that, here's a haiku:


So, all the fan-oriented geniuses at the NHL, Dallas Stars, and can't figure out a way to design a service reinforced by a real-time INVENTORY system? Surely that is not the case. They've heard of the these new-fangled computin' devices and their bases of data, right? I mean, this is it, right? Getting people to games is the BIG IDEA. RIGHT?

Yet, here I was. Risk the drive? Disappoint my son if we hear about tickets later? I didn't mind so much that I couldn't buy. I didn't want to pay service fees (No fee refunds for cancellations!) anyway. But just the simple courtesy of "Yes, driving an hour will not be fruitless" or "No, try again for another game" would be fantastic!

I did decide to drive, after all. I had already postponed this twice and wanted to come through even if the customer service attitudes displayed obviously didn't truly care if I would be successful. And guess what? Tickets! Lots of tickets! Oh, and a special for really good seats at a lower price! Two things I would have been thrilled to hear if the service had actually been designed for my son and me, hockey fans, to enjoy every part of the experience.

Listen NHL, Dallas Stars, and You know it's all about us, right? If we don't feel you wanting us in the arena or in front of the TV, we might not show up as much. Oh, sure, I could have bought my tickets ahead of time. Well, no. We didn't hear about the game much in advance, plus, I had no way of knowing without calling (since the website was useless). Remember, your rules are yours, not mine.

There's really no excuse for this. The NHL has rebounded well, lucky for them, from the horrible lockout season. They should be looking for ways to cement loyalties, not anger their fans. Improve the fan experience. Serve better. We're not butts in seats. We're people trying to enjoy what you provide. Make it better net to net.

Persistent Bad Design is Immoral.

Make 2009 the Year of Good Design.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

When Search is Not

Been thinking about an idea for a while about how search (for knowledge large and small), the huge, fantastic journey enabled by encyclopedias and changed forever by the world wide web, is changing still. I am sure I am not unique in this, but I honestly haven't looked much into what others might be saying. But posting a few thoughts here might spur some research later.

Maybe I have an unusual or even incomplete sort of definition of search, but I think capital "S" Search for "Where is Coraline showing?" or "What's the average weight of the adult male Asian elephant?" or "What books have been written about the declining use of steam engines?" is different from wanting to know my bank balance or ordering a taxi. Some of my thought over the past six months has gone into ideas about connecting people directly to information or physical products. That is, getting them what they want without needing to them needing to know how to access and use an intermediary to get to their desire. I see signs of this change happening. I think mobile apps like ShopSavvy are in the neighborhood. And it turns out the Google has been embedding some of this sort of thing into their Search portal. The NY Times' David Pogue describes it as SECRETS OF THE SEARCH BOX in which "Certain kinds of information, however, get special treatment." (Cue trippy music and Leonard Nimoy)

Yes, in both these cases, there is still an intermediary, but both show at least one interesting new characteristic. ShopSavvy operates on your personal mobile device, using something that has become fairly ubiquitous, the camera function. So, it's not fully a special addition. It is more a new use of something many people are already familiar with. Then you add in the personalization touches such as wish lists and the new use turns nearly into something indispensable. The Google example shows a shift, to me, in the perception of the idea of search. "If I can ask big questions using this, can I also ask the not-so-big or not-so-general questions?" Questions that don't need to be retrieved from among billions of facts and aggregated into a list to sift through.

I have played with some design sketches involving mobile devices that take a request along those two lines of repurposing the familiar and and delivers the person very directly to a result. No need to know what application to open, no need to know which mode, to remember passwords, to type in financial info, etc. And the interactions are kicked off with easy, unconstrained, sort-of-but-not-really-search type specifications of desire, such as "order my coffee". And I think mobile is very much driving this. Mobile interaction is becoming its own thing and people do and will want to have very different experiences being mobile than they do anchored to a laptop or desktop. These experiences will need to be at once lighter and more powerful, which in part means the role and presence of intermediating technology must decrease.

Big "S" Search will always be used and important. Specialized applications that must be accessed/installed and learned will be around for quite a bit longer. But in between these two is emerging a new area of access and interaction that will be easier, more powerful, and much richer for people. Not sure what to call it yet or exactly how it will manifest, but it will be very, very cool to be part of.

Make 2009 the Year of Good Design.