Saturday, March 30, 2013

Marking the Shift: Making Things People Want, Not Making People Want Things

I'm one of those slightly twisted persons who think about the things behind other things, like thinking about how people think about change. That's handy for design territory, of course, but more than utility, there's something about it that leads my mind off into the fields, wandering blissfully. Fortunately, there's always plenty of raw material and I get to indulge in this often. One thing that fascinates me is how people try to frame or explain what they see as new or different, ascribing characteristics that fit their take on or help their resistance to it. But what I really enjoy is the grappling with the change and the meaning and impact of and reasons for the change in an honest, open way, acknowledging discomfort, unwieldiness, and the unknown. Most of us are not confident about that sort of struggle, so we avoid it, despite the richness of life it contains and the resilience it teaches us.

Three recent articles, and a talk and meet-up with one of the authors, spoke to me about change in the air that I've also been noticing. Two of them are connected, but have different focal points that make one stronger than the other relative to the change they discuss. The other is a wonderful example of the struggle that should be part of big changes. I'll highlight these and offer a few of my thoughts about them.

The context is the shift from how we design to make products and services more attractive to people to designing products and services that people want and need. Though we've talked about people-centered design for years, the practice of the former is still company-centered in reality.

John Maeda highlights this in a piece that I missed somehow when it came out last fall. He wrote to ask If Design's No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is?, stating along the way that "what people are looking for now is a way to reconnect with their values: to ground how they can, will, and should live in the world."

This is an important statement about a vital idea and one we designers would do well to keep forefront at all times. But I find John's framing a bit off, because I think people always are, and always have been trying to connect to what they value. So, his assertion is perfectly valid, except the word "now" is a bit of a red herring. Thinking about the right thing, but with a bent toward feeling like it's new when it isn't.

What really seems to be happening is that we are becoming more acutely aware of the subtle business-centrism we've maintained even as we designed under the proclamation that "People are what matters!" There's a tremendous difference between making people want products and making products that people want. It's not that what people truly want has changed, it's that we're finally realizing we're not helping them get it.

Of course it's true that many people got caught up in what they were being offered and lured into, but mainly by empty promises falsely representing greater or deeper meaning. We are starting to understand that we can help them see their way beyond that because the human passion for true meaning and beauty are ancient and ageless. So when John writes, "Art speaks to us as humans, not as “human capital.” Art shows us that human beings still matter in a world where money talks the loudest, where computers know everything about us, and where robots fabricate our next meal and also our ride there," he is tapping into something that goes much further back than the Occupy movement and the appearance of MakerFaire.

I do think he very correctly pulls us into the effort to focus more clearly on things of value, even charging it with a sense of responsibility. It is important for all of us to ask "how do we have more of these successes? ... Just how do we make – not just find – the next generation of artists who will propel us and reveal the way forward?"

Jim Jacoby might answer that they are not for us to find, but for us to realize that we are them. We can become those artists, both of product and people, as we make and teach.

In Dissing Disintermediation, Jim argues that "we need to rebalance ourselves in the context of layered systems. and the american (sic) differentiation in global markets can be the celebration of craftsmen once again...they should be meaningfully designing at multiple layers in a complex system. and we should be actively involved in the dialectic with them." A conversation has begun that does something else I'm very fond of, that shows how together the single and the multiple, the simple and complex are bound in a real way to move and shape the world around us. The systems that exist and are constantly in motion can be realized, engaged, and consciously and conscientiously reshaped. Part of the change is in the widespread realization that what is really going on around us is bigger, more connected, and more subject to our influence than we have been aware of.

Understanding and practicing good design gave us an entry into both the realization and the opportunity to act on it. The past 20 - 30 years of tremendous growth in the craft and its role in business is an important change, one that has taken a great deal of fight and perseverance. But point of the current shift is that we are only part way down the path of learning how to design and how to use it truly well.

Bruce Nussbaum reinforces that in his article, So You’ve Discovered the Importance of Good Design. Don’t Make These Mistakes, the goal of which appears to be to shake up the comfort levels, laurel-resting, status quo-maintaining we might be doing now that design is seen as a factor in recent successes. He accuses the design practice, and businesses embracing it, of tying themselves to a past we need to move beyond. The push is to acknowledge that enabling and engaging with meaning and value is not just about incorporating about designers and design practices into business. I agree, but this is something that mature designers working at deeper and broader levels have known. Case in point, he hammers on the practice of user experience design as coming from "a design culture...where passive consumers “experience” something provided by someone else." The front line of designers know that experience is emergent and collaborative and we designers simply try to optimize the chance of conditions in which good things happen.

Bruce underscores our need to go deeper on growing "creative intelligence," similar to emotional and intellectual intelligences, "to move away from the outdated relics of design and towards creative competence." Personally, the three are one to me. The idea of divided or compartmentalized intelligences, a la right / left brain, no longer seems helpful, and is possibly stigmatizing and constraining.

I recently had the privilege of listening to Bruce speak and chatting with him afterward. It was a great treat and the depth and color he gave to the topic was enlightening, powerful, and motivating. He's a very gracious conversationalist, too. I am in agreement with his mission of growing creative abilities, especially in high-functioning groups, I simply think it is the next part of a journey, not a replacement for something that was necessarily faulty or mistaken.

It's an amazing and wonderful path we're on. I get the sense that the social, economic, and technological changes underway are leading to another societal shift and am very hopeful that we can do well with it. We designers and makers have big charges, responsibilities to make good and make well.

With that, I'll close with another quote from Jim: "so, get back to work, but think about what you're building… what you’re doing… that you’re not a hacker, or info-worker, writer, designer, or programmer but a ‘maker.’ you're a craftsman in your own right. the dialectic you can create between yourself and the world around you is the craft you are charged with every day. you exist in the context of a layer in this system ... now it’s simply a matter of becoming conscious to it.

we’re waking up to the creation of the world around us."


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Initial Musings on Data, Evidence, Knowing, and Understanding

Back in January, my wife and I were driving back from an evening event. Heading down the highway to home, she let out a gasp, "Look at all the apples!" Thousands of apples were strewn along the shoulder over about a quarter of a mile. Amazingly, the roadway was free of them and their potentially slick mess. As we passed them by I couldn't help but wonder how they'd gotten there and who was going to clean them up. We remarked on the oddity for a few minutes, but soon arrived home and got distracted by other things.

This story returned to my mind recently as I was thinking about the difference between evidence and data. Shortly, the ideas of knowing and understanding started poking in from the sides and I figured I had something to write down.

Big Data is all the rage right now and I agree that it's fascinating to explore the ways we can visualize and interact with unbelievable amounts of information. This trend is also shining new light on quantitative analysis and data-driven decision-making. Some of what I see and hear, near me and generally, is concerning, though, as a highly empathetic people-focused designer. Before I say why, I want to make clear that I love examining and playing with data. Having lots of strong data is the kind of aid we only dreamt of as recently as 7 years ago. Making this information visible and accessible is a huge boon to our craft. But it bears wielding thoughtfully and keep in mind some critical considerations.

First, there's a difference between data and evidence. Consider the apples. The only thing I knew after driving past them was that they were there and there were a lot of them. What didn't I know? How they got there. Were people involved? Who? Was it an accident or on purpose? Did the apples come from a truck? Did the driver know what happened? ...You get the idea. I couldn't have decided anything from the data except that apples were on the road and I needed to be careful. The data gave me no evidence of source or cause. Some other sensory element would be needed, like fruit cargo boxes or a truck with a blowout. I should point out here, though, that sometimes data tells us something useful that we weren't looking for. Evidence tells us that probably something specific happened, but then we find data that helps us see how. However, sometimes the data simply seems to be interesting, but, as in an example from the video above using "I just landed in..." tweets to understand people movements, we can link the merely novel to the useful, such as looking for ways that diseases spread through transience. But most of the time something more is needed, something to point in a direction of being able to tell what happened, which leads me to...

...the second point, that evidence is a precursor to the more important stages of knowing and understanding. When the degree of certainty rises due to stronger links between data and evidence, we can begin to know what happened or is happening. Once we begin to know that evidence, traces of people and events, means something, that in turn begins to point to characteristics surrounding the something such as intent and method. Then we can get glimpses of why and start to truly understand what led to the production of the data, which in turn can inform effective decision-making toward useful solutions. Data itself cannot really ever tell us why something happened. It needs additional contextual information accompanying it, sometimes a great amount of it. Proceeding without the contextual information can be very risky, even dangerous.

That's because these elements: data, evidence, knowing, and understanding, all work together, like a formula. Though we almost always have varying amounts of each and rarely know when we have sufficient, let alone all, that we need to have in order to confidently move in a certain direction, we have to strive to have as much of each as possible. Perhaps the elements work best in ratio to each other. Lesser amounts of one or more should maybe make us less certain. It's like exploring when a sense or two is malfunctioning or missing. We will be missing input that could be crucial to the best outcome.

Also, within that formula, in a mixture of knowing and understanding, there's the quasi-independent substance of empathy. It doesn't need much, or any, data to be activated. Which is interesting, because often when big data is touted as a salvation tool, empathy is often left out of the discussion. It might be that data vs. empathy is the new design vs. code. Like the old fight though, the new one is a false argument. Both are needed: empathy can tell us when our data might be skewed, myopic, or incomplete. Data can provide empathy with certainty. Empathy is almost always an invaluable asset and can often be a failsafe against disastrous action.

So, where am I going with all this? Basically to this point: Big Data is a great tool. Like we always seem to do with great tools, though, we are tempted to weight it with too much potential too early. What we really ought to do is learn how to use it well before we declare what it's really capable of. Let's learn what it will and won't do through wise and iterative experiments, ones in which we acknowledge the context, evidence, knowing, and understanding that are or aren't there. Ones that include empathy for the people represented by the data. Most of all, don't throw away other tools in the toolkit just to make room for this one. Not everything is a nail for the Big Data hammer to pound on.

I'll have more to say on this later.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Built-in Risk: Are Useful, Usable, and Desirable Maybes or Mandates?

The often quoted 'Useful, Usable, Desirable' mantra is not new but is still a powerful truth to design products by. There are many facets that make a good customer experience good, but aiming for these three will almost always get you close. All too frequently, I'm confronted by products that didn't do it right.

After running into the latest one today, I thought about what an increasing risk it is for companies to not try to incorporate all three into what they are selling. While a few companies these days let things out the door only hitting one of the marks, many more try harder but still seem like Meatloaf must have been part of their decision-making process. Enabling two out of the three may seem like a worthwhile effort, but it's becoming more and more risky, and it's pretty easy to see why. This simple set of combinations shows what I mean:

Useful +Usable +Desirable = The People you're after will probably want it, use it, and love it.

-Useful +Usable +Desirable = People might try it and will probably find it easy to use, but (risk) they get distracted or bored, forget about it quickly, and move on to something else. Lots of shallow games and social apps fall into this area.

Useful -Usable +Desirable = People are drawn to the intent because they see it filling a need, even to the point that they are willing to be somewhat frustrated when using it. But (risk) as soon as a competitor helps them do this more easily, they'll be gone.

Useful +Usable -Desirable = People get a need met in an easy to use fashion, but engagement is low and no real emotional connection is made. (risk) When a competitor makes this enjoyable, people will switch easily.

So where does the experience your products provide land? Are you busy selling, or busy explaining why people should look beyond shortcomings? Do people want, use, and love what you make? Take a hard look now, because this might be your only chance to do something before someone else does.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Melancholia and Music That Leaves Marks (1303)

I am a melancholic. I came to grips with it years ago, and my wife sort of mostly has, as well. I'm not sure my children, though they're teens, fully realize it, but I suppose they will sooner or later. Fortunately I have plenty of parts of life that balance this out, too, so getting too far down in the hole hasn't been a problem in a long time.

Recently on NPR I heard an interview with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Crowell talked about "engag(ing) melancholy as if it were a kind of revelry." I can very much relate to that. Melancholy for me is often a rich and textured feeling that brings on a sense of life that few other emotions match.

My taste in art, especially music, certainly reflects this trait. Moody, cinematic songs that explore the unintended fate-changing twists and turns of life, so often accompanied by regret, sadness, mystery, and pain, are the ones that draw me in, the ones that leave marks on me and my heart.

A while back I shared a particularly meaningful cut, and tonight I wanted to post another. This one was written by someone not old enough to have built up what he sings of, yet somehow he manages to capture the essence of how 40, 60, or 80 years of life can haunt us.

"I could use another twenty years to fix the last fifteen, but it never seems to work to my advantage."

Here's to a richness in life, even if it's weary and worn.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How To Know You Need Time Management Help

I mostly hate this topic. Really. I just feel like somehow I should be able to fit everything in whenever and however. But this past December, after a crazy year moving halfway across the country and getting used to a new and very different role at work, I had achieved a high degree of mismanagement of tasks and email at work. I hated that even more. I knew I needed to make some changes, and so I did. Two months later I've settled into a groove. I'm at work inbox <5, tasks are disappearing off my list, and projects show clear progress toward deliverables.

In thinking about getting this far and the steps I took to achieve this, it struck me that maybe it might be more interesting to put together a list of reasons I knew it needed to happen. Who needs another 'this is how you do it' list? So, in the spirit of admitting you have a problem, here are seven ways you can tell that you need to make some time management changes.

1) You can't remember the last time you said 'no' to something that was important to someone else.

2) Your mobile loses charge from email updates, not texts or calls.

3) You have hours and hours of articles, videos, or podcasts that 'you'll get to.'

4) Each week, hours seem to disappear without evidence that anything productive happened during them.

5) Co-workers bypass email to get you in person for trivial matters.

6) You say more than once a month that all the meetings you attend are what keeps you from getting things done.

7) You are convinced that checking email more often will enable you to catch up.

Bonus) When you look at Facebook or Twitter, you can actually remember what was in the feed last time you looked.

There probably are more, but those seem to cover what I, and people I know, have shown as symptoms.

If any of those ring true for you, take action now. Trust me that you'll soon feel less stressed and more accomplished. As to how, there are many techniques and practices that work for people. Ask around to people you work with who you know are effective with their time. Or adopt one of the popular techniques. Or go eclectic like I did and build your own method. The goal is the important thing, the exact path less so.

Good luck!

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Story Tells Itself

Those who know me well in the design world know that I generally despise Top 10 lists or other magic recipe approaches to just about anything, especially good design. But sometimes lists can be good (almost everything has its place).

Emma Coates from Pixar tweeted some really great principles and questions about storytelling that the folks over at Aerogramme Writer's Studio collected into a nice little list. Not all of these are originally from Pixar, but they are all terrific to keep in mind for story.

The reason I'm posting them though is that many are universally good for creative endeavors of all sorts. My two primary creative exercises are design and music, and yet many of these "rules" resonate with me. In particular, I've grown very fond of espousing 11 and 12, especially when you want to get somewhere that is unique or innovative.

But really, often, most anything that we create involves story, so this post is not just about extracting what seems to apply. When someone hears a song, views a painting, or interacts with a digital application, there's a narrative, a happening or doing that is unfolding. The stories our creation will take part in can help inform, guide, and clarify what we are doing. So view this list as helpful when making anything that people interact with. If these strike a chord for you, print them out and refer to them often during your creative efforts.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Two Ideas for IxDA's Interaction14

At a few different points during Interaction13, I felt that designerly feeling that something could be done better. Now, sometimes when I have that feeling, it's only about preference, or mood, or some other temporal issue. But I pay a little attention and see where the feeling takes my thoughts and if they go somewhere productive, then I pay a lot of attention.

One of the times was an easy target, and one that others saw improvement possibilities for, as well. So, while I love the idea behind The Great UX Debate, the execution leaves much to be desired. First and foremost, it's lacking actual debate. Debate needs to involve opposing positions, strong argument, and even judgment about who wins and loses. What happened in The Great UX Debate of 2013 was more like a really boring salon in which only a few people who didn't really disagree got to talk and the rest of us politely pretended to listen. Snore. We should do better.

To that point, my first idea is easy: Have a real debate! Or even series of them. We have plenty of controversial material: changing behavior, influencing for revenue or choice, to Adobe or not to Adobe, etc. And we certainly have opinionated people to spare. So, give them time, space, rules, judges, and topics. In fact, on the last night of Interaction13, some of us did just that. In a little dive bar on King, we did a topic brainstorm, picked sides and judges, and let it rip on whether designers should know how to code, among other resolutions. And, to underscore this point even more, someone in New York had a similar idea and started the Designers Debate Club! (They need to drop the apostrophe, so I did)

We can do this! Let's have truly Great UX Debates in Amsterdam!

By the way, I really want to go to Amsterdam!

The other idea sprang not so much from a misguided use of a concept, but more the unease I felt watching talks that were not what they could have been. I mean this in a couple of ways. 1) Some topics felt small and shallow by themselves because they were about aspects of things, not the things themselves. 2) Similarly, other talks seemed incomplete; about a part of a whole, not the whole. Yet several times these talks came in loosely associated clumps. They were on the same track or even back-to-back, though clearly not directly tied together in any purposeful sense.

So the idea flashed through. What if conference organizers detected those binding elements earlier before the conference for a couple of hands-ful of potential speakers and had them work together? Imagine getting three people with mildly interesting insights that would make an okay 10 minute presentation to work together to more deeply and broadly address an important area resulting in a killer 30 or 45 minute session? To me, the value for the audience and the speakers would be exponentially better. Harder to pull off? Sure. Much bigger payoff? Absolutely! And a great result is much more certain. Aren't we pushing collaborative design for just such reasons? Multiple perspectives brought together for a solution subjected to iterative improvement raises the possibility of success every time.

So there you go. I offer these because the past several years have brought constant wishes for doing conferences a different way. I want to be more excited and fulfilled by conferences. I want Interaction to be a continuously trailblazing conference. We know that we should be leading the exploration. Yes, a mixture of in-depth and lightning sessions is interesting, but we can go further. I offer these because we should be better.

Let's do it!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Short Thoughts on Interaction13

Had the privilege of attending Interaction13 in Toronto at the end of January. I love the IxDA and so I really enjoy getting to make it to the annual conference. And in general I love Canada, too, so it was fun to be back to both after a long while gone.

Of course I saw a number of design friends and made some new ones. I enjoyed some great food (poutine!) and had a truly wonderful Manhattan at the Cocktail Bar. Besides connecting and enjoyment, however, I was there to learn. So here are some brief snippets that stuck, in no particular order.

Designing for the world around us means more than just the next digital interaction. Design for interactions between people and for people. Sometimes use digital technology.

Lean UX Design is here and needs to be examined closely to see how it might benefit your practice in part or whole.

We can always get closer to the people we design for.

We should also probably get closer to the making of what we design, whether that's code, fabric, etc.

There are so many of us now. And still not enough. Training and mentoring are still big needs!

Interaction designers are in a great position conceptually to influence business and organizational thinking. Step into the fray. Know what you're talking about, and get ready to take some shots, but get in there. The world needs our perspective.

The Torontonian design outfit Normative rocks. "Strategy is an integrated set of choices that results in a unique position with lasting advantages." Intent planning is a favorite new strategy framework.

Strategy as Integration: Snowmobile = An outboard motor driving a tank on skis steered by a bike.

A good workshop should make you feel humble and empowered at the same time.

There are elements of being human we should think about more. Rhythm, flow, tension, inattention. They are already part of interaction, but we haven't been using them consciously much.

Data visualization is a huge interaction design opportunity (and yes, a huge opportunity for so much else, too). But we're still very focused on the amount of continuous information and the coolness of the visuals. We need to see how people can really use this and design for meaning. Analysis done by statisticians result in actuarials. We need synthesis over probability-based classification.

Education is another area that is in desperate need of interaction design thinking. As a society, we have mistaken review and regurgitation for education. It's time for engagement. 6 hat and 6 boxes can help.

Sound design is beginning to be recognized for its importance in interaction. Finally.

The interaction design students in the competition are doing amazing work in really interesting areas. We have more awesomeness ahead of us.

'Designing to maximize positive capability' is a powerful idea. Much better than 'behavior change'.

Happy to see more mention of system design and concepts. This is a really important skills growth area for us. Donella Meadows - "Leverage Points".

The Designing Everything but the Food talk showed a powerful example of rhythm and flow being used well in interaction & design. One idea from it was that phrasing goals as "how might we...?" is a great way to approach collaborative design.

I'll close this with the idea that increasing and tightening authentic human connections through social interactions could be one of the great achievements of our young field. Albert Shum (a fellow Microsoft employee) told us that connecting to make us all better is what we should strive for. I agree.