Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Putting the Boat in the Water

I must admit I've not been able to pay attention here this week for several reasons. The best is that I am trying to get design out loud up and running again, involving starting work with my first client (Hooray!!), putting out the messages of availability and services (hint, hint!), working out details with partners in the venture (more on that later), and revamping my CV/portfolio site. I've also been working on a book review that I'm hoping will be finally accepted and published on-line soon. More on that as soon as I know.

I'm very grateful for this opportunity, but as many entrepreneurs will tell you, my stomach is in knots for parts of every day and bank accounts that would have seemed very comfortable two months ago now look frighteningly small.

But, this is a chance, and I just know I'd regret not trying. And I'm getting wonderful encouragement from my wife, kids, friends, family, and colleagues. Even from potential clients. Now to get the green river flowing. It's time to ride the current.

P.S. About the last post, I was really sad to see no commentary. I know some of you read it, and I got a couple of comments in other venues, but, still, c'mon... Gimme something here! ;)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Doing the Right Thing - Beyond Ethics in Design

I have just read the legendary Henry Dreyfuss’s Designing for People and am enjoying having my eyes opened further in so many ways. It’s really amazing that of the struggles we have in design, so many were already encountered and thought about and we’ve just managed to ignore resources like this until recently. At least on a broad scale. But maybe that’s another post. One of the things impacting me greatly right now is the professional ethic Dreyfuss recounts working by, including flatly refusing work.

I also recently watched Changeling and was equally struck by the fantastic amount and depth of corruption and disrespect for people displayed by the Los Angeles police department of the time. (Historical accounts of the same events appear to indicate that the movie did not exaggerate much.) I imagine a persistent and unchecked growth throughout the organization that perhaps could have been halted early by clear-sighted and disciplined intervention.

Thirdly, I came across this post from last year on UXmatters regarding the issue of whether our customers trust us and how little we directly address that question. Think about that. Do we even stop to think about whether the people at the company paying us trust us? Think about the ramifications of both “no” and “yes”.

These things, along with some of the causes of our economic crisis, caused me to think about how we as people and designers do or don’t keep ourselves on the straight and narrow and thoughtfully demonstrate our trustworthiness. And while I could discuss oaths and codes of ethics used in other disciplines, I really am wondering what we designers can and will do in this regard. Certainly we care very much about this, right? Our focus is to produce effective experiences that benefit both organization and individual. Yet there are, of course, opportunities for a designer to act unethically or even criminally, whether by fraud, negligence, incompetence, or harm. I doubt much of that happens now, but there is sure to be greater opportunity for temptation as our profession grows beyond a relative handful of idealistic practitioners.

As a loose, non-regulated community made up of individuals and small groups, can we prevent succumbing to temptation? If so, how? Dreyfuss had his rule of “inside out” design and a high ethical standard, but he evidently self-enforced both. We have our mission statements, peer reviews, etc., but these are generally quality-oriented and some things are only part of processes. AIGA has had some discussion of the topic, but even there it is acknowledged that “just having…a statement that we may agree with is not enough.

How do we prevent ethics problems before they need to be detected and acted on, especially when we don’t even have enforcement ability? Lawyers can be sanctioned and disbarred, but not only is the design community unlikely to be desirous of or successful at finding a similar construct, I’m asking my questions in hope that we can go beyond that and find something more far-reaching, immediate, and preventative. Some means of openness embedded in all design processes that keep us in line and from taking the easy way out.

The times we are in tell us clearly that the best and brightest can be blinded by and blind to their own selfishness. And that this selfishness and self-centeredness hurts us all, including many who have no power in the hurtful situations. How can we prevent the worst in our designer selves? Not in shackling, designers-are-five-year-olds ways, but with mechanisms that make us go beyond just doing it for the money. I think there are multiple facets to the sense of doing the right thing in design and engendering the trust of our customers, such as:
- Committing to a standard of excellence in our service and product.
- Advocating for the best blend of designs that are good for people and business.
- Lobbying for the right technologies to be used.
- Being willing to draw lines when high standards cannot be met.

Is this possible? What are other considerations, other components? Can we find or create such mechanisms beyond merely agreeing to a code of ethics?

What will we do as a community to make sure we do the right thing?

I have ideas, but I’d like to hear from you while I work on them.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Designing for Success - A New Start (again)

This week I stepped out of the airplane again, into the rushing wind hurtling towards earth - beauty, thrill, opportunity, independence, and complete dependence. After three years working with great people on cool stuff, I’ve decided to play on the bigger field, becoming my own boss again, and have left SpeechCycle. I love design and helping people with design and design strategy and I want to do that for a larger group of customers across a larger set of domains.

Of course, this seems like a crazy time to jump when people are losing jobs and homes and all, but I was really inspired by some of the people I met at the IxDA conference and the itch has gotten worse. In addition, I've been shown several times recently that some of the most successful companies of this century and last were started during downturns. And even more specifically, one of the most successful designers in American history, Henry Dreyfuss, started his practice in 1929. As he put it,
“When business reached bottom, companies began to undercut each other. At the same time, alert manufacturers came to the realization that the answer to their problem lay in making their product work better, more convenient to the consumer, and better-looking.”

I believe right now there are significant opportunities for companies to make the same sort of investments that improve the customer experience and the bottom line at the same time.

I can help make you successful and profitable by making your customers enjoy your services and products more.

I am offering design services in the areas of voice, mobile, and web/desktop applications. Specifically, I can help with design strategy, requirements, prototyping, and of course complete designs and documentation for them.

In addition, for companies looking at how their speech application is performing or thinking about starting a speech recognition project, I can help navigate the waters of performance evaluation and improvement as well as knowing whether a speech IVR vendor is providing the right solution.

To get started, I will consult and contract under design out loud. At some point, there will be a separate web site for that. For now, you can read about my abilities and background on my CV/résumé site,

I look forward to getting to know many more of you. And of course, I welcome the chance to contribute to projects you are involved in or can recommend me to. Please get in touch via phillip (at) phillipwhunter (dot) com.

As always, your comments are welcomed.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

IxDA'09 To Go: 60-ish days out, what’s sticking?

I never really got around to posting my final review thoughts of IxDA09, but now that it’s been about 2 months since, I thought maybe I’d share some things that have stuck with me. (If you want to see conference reviews, mine here, others here).

A) I still have a lot of gratitude to have found so many like-minded (design- and other-wise) individuals. It helped me know I am on the right path and to be stronger in the fight that still goes on for good design. It also lit a flame, still burning, to help build the design community further (labels be damned). I also really enjoyed meeting the "names" in our field.

2) Being there solidified the quest I’ve been on to learn more about other areas of experience design. I’ve even thought about going for an advanced degree, which I swore I’d never do. It also helped to know that others also feel like they are constantly learning in this field, even if I think they must be light years beyond me. There is just too much happening too fast for it to matter what you've mastered today. Cover your basics, such as empathy and willingness to experiment, then buckle-in and get ready for the ride.

Blue) Regarding the fight for good design, the conference made me more passionate about calling out bad design when I encounter it. If you’ve read other posts here, you’ve seen that. Added to what I was already thinking about, speakers covered designing for sustainability and behavior change and design-focused business leadership. All things we need to have informing our approaches, decisions, paths, and conversations with clients.

Delta) It was really exciting to hear and see emerging design tools and interaction mediums. NUI & gestural interfaces, mobile, MS Surface, Axure, Catalyst (someday soon we hope), etc., along with continuing extensions of browser-type experiences with Silverlight and Flex. I am very much a n00b with much of it, but as I wrote above, I’m learning as fast as I can.

Things are starting to happen with IxDA-DFW (again), so I look forward to some company in keeping these takeaways alive and well. Please reach out to me if you want to connect on these kinds of topics or hear more about them. Comment or find me on Twitter over there ==>.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I don't think I said what you think I said - Interviews and "Natural Language"

"Hi, I've just got a few questions." Not everyone likes it, but I will admit I do. I like to get interviewed. I like to be asked questions. I like to feel like someone cares about my answers, relative truth aside. I like to think the thoughts and words will make their way into a tight, punchy piece that makes a reader or a thousand think a different thought or care more. But, I know enough from a media course and life to know better than to expect much of that.

Now, this week, I received several mentions in a Speech Technology magazine article and I'm glad. It's a bit ironic, given news I'll get to in another post, but I'm enjoying it. At the risk of not getting interviewed in the future, I do need, though, to straighten out a tiny thing or two.

So, if you're not a speech geek, or wanna-be speech geek, skip to the next post, otherwise, a couple of discussion points:

First, the article is a great intro to current thinking about the use of open-prompting (soliciting content constrained by context, not wording). I favor this approach when it makes sense and can be delivered properly. In general, my thoughts are represented well. But, to get to the point, I didn't actually assert "that callers shouldn’t be exposed to a hierarchy of more than five categories." I do think menus structured like that can be problematic and are frequently done poorly, but research (Hura & McKienzie) and deployments (McKienzie, Levine) have shown that the right combination of wording and delivery can allow menus to be fairly lengthy and still be effective. I agree with those findings.

Moving on, the article discusses the idea that a high-frequency example is very important, which is correct. However, open-prompts should almost never start with "How may I help you?" Not only is there a register problem, but putting the call to action before giving the caller space to respond is generally a recipe for disaster, despite enabling barge-in.

Next, "performance anxiety," my (unattributed) quote, is not a technical term. Funny? Yes. Not technical.

Then, the sentence reading "Users are given the option of accessing them by saying something like What are some choices?" really should read "Callers can be given the option to access them by suggesting they say something like "Give me some choices." The difference appears subtle, but trust me, it's important. Control and certainty are increased by this very much directive statement, whereas the other feels too much like browsing.

Lastly, I need to put a finer point on "it’s important to design the back-off menu open-ended like the first prompt." Actually, the true matter is to allow not a full range of open responses, but to look for responses in tuning data for the menu and adding to the grammar utterances that are clearly a response to the open prompt but not in-grammar for the menu. For example, a caller saying "my internet account" to a menu asking them to specify whether their call is about their bill, an order, tech support, or an appointment. And of course adding logic to handle such utterances. Doing this will be effective and caller-pleasing without the trouble of a parallel SLM grammar.

So, these are not slams, but rather just trying to make sure that the right information is out there. The article is, I think and hope, a good discussion starter. Including the last few paragraphs, which are sort of not-directly-on-topic, but are vitally important nonetheless.

Please add your take on the article here. If you want to know more about the concepts presented there or here, or you want to interview me ;), please let me know: phillip at phillipwhunter dot com.


UPDATE: Eric Barkin responded very graciously to my post on his SpeechTech blog page. I appreciate his comments and especially agree with the points about the need for a larger design improvement discussion.

Friday, April 3, 2009

WTF? Public Behavior, Infernal Machines, and Voice Interaction/Interface Design

Recently one of the semi-annually popular questions in the voice interface world floated out of its storage closet and back into the email list shared by many speech designers: “What should our applications do when cursing by a caller is detected?” I thought about not responding this time, but realized that we hadn’t really publicly hashed out the argument for not doing anything too special. Plus, we always joke about having an app say something like “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” which has been said enough to worry me that maybe someone will take it seriously. So, I responded that trying to be sure of what sub-context is meant by the caller is very difficult and many times the use of vulgarity is in fact not a sign of trouble or frustration. It is more effective to focus our efforts on creating effective and pleasant interactions for the vast majority of callers who are not swearing out of frustration or at all. That’s what I posted to the list.

The response to that was the equivalent of crickets and instead other respondents focused, as before, on maybe doing this or that, all essentially variations on the theme of giving negative reinforcement to the caller or even punishing them, such as going silent for a while or transferring them to a low-priority wait queue. My thought on that is, as a colleague suggested, let’s figure out how to make mallets bop the caller on the head every time they swear.

The bottom line is that designs must accommodate and respond accommodatingly to a wide variety of social behaviors, some of which will differ greatly from the company’s and designer’s point of views and cultural biases. While an organization might understandably choose to have a strict policy regarding how their customers are allowed to treat employees, it is ridiculous to think of requiring similar behavior standards for actions around or even toward inanimate software. It is not wise or even practical to try to enforce ambiguous, dynamic, class- and culture-based behavior norms on people who are not asking for it and are often already upset or stressed by a situation they perceive as been caused by the company. Make no mistake, designers are in the behavior modification business. However, that is true only as far as required to achieve the person’s desired goal within the allowances of the company.

Be nice to the people using your application, but don’t get bothered if they aren’t nice back. Don’t try to change behavior that is not directly relevant to their success. Focus on getting to success.