Thursday, April 28, 2005


the trend that says that design is next big trend

I've just finished reading Daniel Pink's new book, A Whole New Mind, and find some striking similarities to other books proclaiming design is the next big thing. Pink got a bit of attention last year by proclaiming the MFA degree as the new MBA, a proclamation based on the supposedly earth shaking fact that UCLA rejects a higher percentage of MFA applicants than Harvard rejects MBA applicants. Pink has extended his MBAs are dinosaurs thesis into a book, which asserts that right-brained skills are now more valuable than left brained, analytical ones.

Pink repeats something I read from other writers, from Virginia Postrel, Bernard Schmitt, Tom Peters, and others: design is the next big thing. What amazes be his how these writers so often cite the same anecdotes. The typical one involves a running commentary how they went to the American discount chain Target, and are able to buy a brush "designed" by Michael Graves. From such an anecdotes, the conclusion is: people want style, and not boring stuff.

I am very interested in how users relate to issues such as style, and agree that design as styling is appearing in places not seen previously. But it is curious to observe that the trend watchers aren't designers themselves, and as a result, seem to miss some interesting dimensions. One thing unanswered is whether the growth in design is demand driven or supply driven. If it were demand driven, one might expect designers salaries to be rising a fast clip. But if you read the discussion lists at Core 77, it would seem that many designers don't feel they are over compensated by any means. Salaries can be low, especially when factoring in the long hours, and while many can make a decent living, only a handful are getting rich. Somehow I expect having an MBA is probably a more probable path to making a fortune.

I think the critical issue for designers is what leverage they can gain, which often is limited. Designers are a bit like athletes or actors: a few get all the recognition and money, and majority are anonymous, and can feel the constant threat of younger, cheaper competitors.

Two trends are happening. Some design is getting more democratic, especially digital design, so that the supply available always matches "demand". If you want to design a book, or make a movie, you can try to do it yourself, or ask a friend who has dabbled in it. Other design is becoming less democratic, for the simple reason that distribution channels are becoming more centralized. You may design a wonderful new toothbrush, but try to sell it. People shop at an increasingly limited range of outlets, despite the Internet. You want to change the world with your groovy toothbrush, you need to convince Target or Walmart/Asda, not a jury of the public. I find it ironic that if we live in a designer age, that even design boutiques now all seem to sell the same stuff. Go to the gift shop at MOMA or the Design Museum in London, or most any design boutique, and you will find the same stuff from Alessi and Iittala.

If design's rise were truly demand-driven, people would demand more variety, and designers could supply it. Instead, the supply side determines how much style is available. It isn't clear to me if Michael Graves brushes represent a trend, or just a fad.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


hard labor

I've been working hard, the past weeks, at an industrial design class. It seems everything I set about doing takes three times longer than I anticipate. Even after that, I feel unsatisfied with the results. The particular class I am taking is focusing on "abstract" design. Just the kind of design that leaves a user centered practitioner like me rudderless. I have no "best practice" to draw on.

Alas, a jolt of inspiration from one of my favorite designers, Enzo Mari. He notes: "Proper design, on the other hand, begins where there is no model to copy." That is just my problem -- I am frustrated when having no model to copy. But I think of Mari's designs, some of which I proudly own, and I know that despite their simplicity, he must of spent much time figuring how to make it just right, so that it looks effortless in hindsight.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


dealing with users' personalities

I am convinced emotional design will not develop far until it tackles the very slippery topic of personality. Personality, like its anthropological cousin culture, is one of those words that is so familiar to us in our daily speech but can be hard to pin down when speaking of it as an analytical concept. It is important because, as I mentioned in a previous post, one needs to distinguish what emotional needs of users are universal, and what needs might be specific to particular personality subgroups of users. Unfortunately, the academic literature that underpins the user centered design discipline has nothing to offer.

Patrick Jordan, a leading proponent of emotional design, acknowledged the problem several years ago: "How much work has human factors done on matching products to people's personalities, their emotional responses, their ideals? Very little!" It is true one sometimes finds references to personality in design, but bizarrely, those references talk about the personality of products, or websites, not the personality of people! I accept that people can project a personality on products, and it is interesting to see what they make of them, but I am more interested in the people themselves. Without knowing what makes their personalities, their responses seem rather random.

The other, very unsatisfactory response to the personality issue has been personas. People use personas in widely different ways: as a way to put a face on an explicit, normally functional, user goal (Alan Cooper's original concept), or as a way to create a fictitious "character" to represent a story one might tell about a user (cf. Lene Nielsen). Nielsen gets closer to the feeling of a user personality, but her approach is rhetorical rather than analytical. If personas try to capture the user's personality, it is based on assumptions, fictions, and co-mingling with other aspects of the user, such as their life history. Personas are muddy: one can't tell if a user who, say, lives alone is because of some random external circumstance, is an isolated choice, or because she has a general personality pattern of being avoidant.

So, how can design consider and accommodate the personality variation among users? I'm not remotely an expert on personality, but I do see some paths as dead ends. I don't like the pop psychology classifications like Myers-Briggs, which are based on conjecture and aren't robust. I'm wary of pychometrics (too clinical) and the whole "disorders" school of personality (too negative and limiting.) One approach I have found is the so-called "Five Factor" model looking at five personality dimensions: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN). OCEAN is designed to explain people in relationship to other people, not in relationship to objects, so some creative modification is needed. Still I can see applying some of these concepts to users. Users do vary considerably in their openness to experience (e.g., willingness to try new things), and their conscientiousness (e.g., doggedness to get something done.) Extroversion can affect the context of use of products and services. A user's agreeableness could affect the tone of feedback offered by a design, and will no doubt be more important as interactive design tries to become more user-specific in giving feedback. Neuroticism sounds negative, but it covers everyday things like what we find embarrassing, which varies widely among users.

Okay, I'm stretching my thinking here. Any feedback/ideas/criticisms?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


the calculus of burden shifting

Whose time is more valuable, yours or someone else's? That's the central question when it comes to shifting the burden from one party to another. The classic example is self service: companies get their customers to do some of the work themselves, such as filling in details, having them find information that might have otherwise been supplied by a salesperson, or making the user assemble an item that could have been assembled by the company. Now individuals are taking up the trend, making others deal with solving their problems.

Today I got an email from someone I've never met, asking me to help sort out her dislike of spam. Actually, it wasn't really a personal request, which I might be inclined to want to respond to. Instead, the email was automatically generated by a website, a proxy for this person. I had joined a list-serv, and had sent an email to the group. My new correspondent, who I do not know personnally, also belonged to the list-serv group. But she used a service called "," which prevents email from reaching her unless it is from a known party. I was an unknown party, so I get an email asking me to visit "" and enter a code to verify I'm not a spammer. It wasn't a very friendly welcome, being guilty of being a spammer until I prove otherwise.

Of course spam is nothing more than automatically generated unsolicited email, so I might be inclined to consider the "" message as spam myself. I visited the knowspam site, and entered the code. I was curious what was involved, and also wondered if I would always received "" spam each time I emailed the list if I didn't nip this problem now. It was annoying to have to interupt what I was doing (I was trying to read my inbox) to sort out someone else's preferences (I had to visit a website, read a page of instructions, and enter a code and submit it). What makes the receiver's time not wanting to sort through an inbox more valuable than the sender's time, especially when the reciever had choosen to sign up to receiving messages from a list-serv group?

Businesses that shift burdens to users generally offer some incentive, be it cheaper prices or added convenience, such as do it yourself because it is faster. Individuals that shift burdens can only rely on goodwill. If the relationship tie is weak, or the rationale not compelling, I can't see that asking strangers to give up their time to make your live easier is going to work.

Monday, April 18, 2005


design envy

There is little dispute around the globe about the importance of design, but much dispute about who does it well. The general pattern is that it is always done better in some country other than where one lives. New Zealand is in the grips of design fever following a conference last month on improving competitiveness through design. A favorite model for New Zealanders is Finland, which shares having a small population that somewhat off the beaten track. A leading Finnish design guru came to New Zealand and spoke about Finland's national design strategy. But to read that strategy, one senses a great deal of angst in Finland over how well they are doing (my opinion: they are doing fantastic). So Finland invites foreign speakers to tell them how they should do it. The Brits, no slouches at design, as the rest of Europe flocks to cool Britannia, eye the United States. The Department of Trade and Industry sends teams to unlock the mysteries of that great PR machine known as Ideo. At least the DTI study team reported back that fears of a design gap are exaggerated. And in the United States, Richard Florida, creator of the "creative class" concept, writes in the Harvard Business Review that the US is falling behind other countries in creativity, countries like, well, New Zealand. So far the US Government has failed to get alarmed, however.

My candidate for a model of design-done-right is the Netherlands. Yes the Netherlands has the notorious quirky design of Droog and Rem Koolhaas. And on a trip to Rotterdam last year I discovered that even McDonald's could be an amazing design object. But I am most impressed by the quality of their design research, which is ahead of everyone (the Finns do come in close second.) And this all happens without any grand initiatives, or breast beating about being behind other countries. Indeed, the Dutch scraped the government-funded Netherlands Design Institute several years ago, and seem no worse for that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


familiarity: design criterion or design variable?

The usability versus emotional engagement debate I been discussing recently in many ways mirrors some of the debates about globalization. I don't wish to debate whether globalization is a good or bad thing, as that is a very complex issue. But if one looks at the rhetoric of the debate, one sees some people complaining about everything becoming the same around the world. Sociologist George Ritzer has called this the McDonaldization of service. Other people, mostly business opinion leaders, argue that customers are demanding uniform levels of service quality, which is driving the use of standards across the world.

The two camps in globalization have radically different assessments about the intrinsic value of uniformity. The globalization debate reminds me of similar point made about interaction design. I saw somewhere article showing the home pages of several US financial institutions. The author pointed out how similar the pages looked, not just in layout, but imagery, showing very similar smiling faces neatly dressed.

For design, a key question raised by these debates is: should making a design seem familiar be a goal of the design, or should we question if the design needs to appear familiar to users? Is familiarity a goal of a design, or a variable? The traditional usability approach would be to focus on cognitive friction, and would argue that a design should appear familiar to users, so they don't need to learn something need, and can easily accomplish their tasks. Usability skeptics will argue that people want variety to make the experience emotionally richer.

What neither side considers explicitly is the temporal element: both the time the user has to do something (situation dependent), and their prior experiences. I'll illustrate this by returning to the globalization arena. When I first visit an unfamiliar country, I often find getting my first few meals very stressful. I am hungry, perhaps jet lagged, and don't know my way around yet. My stomach says "eat" but my brain is overwhelmed. I might walk in a restaurant and be totally confused. Is there a menu I can see, or do I need to read a blackboard, or even just know certain standard local dishes that aren't written down? Do I pay first, order at the counter and sit down, sit down to order, ask for a bill and pay at my table, or pay at the till/register after eating? At this point I'm not feeling adventurous, and may decide to eat at an more formulaic restaurant in the beginning. After I get my bearings more, and am not food and sleep deprived, I'll become more adventurous. I may learn to enjoy the local idiosyncrasies of food ordering, and take back found memories of how special the experience was. Alternatively, I may never quite "go local", and find service too slow or making menu choices too fussy. I won't want to burn time figuring out the Byzantine customs of local eating when there are exciting sites to see.

My need for variety is highly variable, and so conversely is my need for familiarity. Time related issues are one aspect affecting these needs, and there certainly other issues involved as well. People are probably more inclined to want to try variety following becoming familiar with how something works, but it is not automatic. Despite certain marketing rhetoric about fickle customers constantly seeking novelty, some people are happy to stick with old favorites. The challenge for emotional design is figure out what are more universal needs of people, instead of just personality differences.

Monday, April 11, 2005


strangling Voice over Internet

Telecommunications in New Zealand isn't generally known for leading the world in innovation, thanks to the near total monopoly enjoyed by the former state-owned telco, Telecom NZ. But last month veteran Silicon Valley pundit Robert Cringely reported a rumor that did put New Zealand at the the forefront. Writing about the threat of Voice over IP to telcos, he said:

And there are other dirty tricks available to broadband ISPs. Telecom New Zealand, for example, is reportedly planning to alter TCP packet interleaving to discourage VoIP. By bunching all voice packets in the first half of each second, half a second of dead air would be added to every conversation, changing latency in a way that would drive grandmothers everywhere back to their old phone companies. This is because phone conversations happen effectively in real time and so are very sensitive to problems of latency. Where one-way video and audio can use buffering to overcome almost any interleaving issue, it is a deal-breaker for voice.

Not to worry, I read in the newspaper today. The government is satisfied that no dirty tricks are in the offing. Rather than rely of government queries and company assurances, I'd rather see real competition in New Zealand. Korea's broadband revolution is the direct result of the kind of competition New Zealand sorely lacks.

Sunday, April 10, 2005


management is usability for organizations

I am constantly struck, both through direct experience and stories I hear from others, how poorly managed many firms involved in the usability business are. How ironic that firms that make it their business to get things right, have so much trouble doing it themselves. And very often, they aren't even aware how badly they are at managing themselves.

The raw ingredients of these firms is part of the problem. They are composed of people with backgrounds in design, programming, and academic research, all fields notorious for bad management, all fields which privilged ideas and things, rather than people. Another problem is how young many managers are: generally under 35, sometimes under 30. Managers are made, not born. It is the classic case of tacit knowledge, gained through experience and socialization. Unfortunately, not only have many managers in the field had little experience, what experience they have had has been at other disfunctional places, so the opportunities to see examples of good management have been few. Coming from university or hopping between new media firms doesn't prepare one to manage well.

But another problem is the false ideas people entertain about what management is. Some false ideas include:

The problem is basic: people running companies don't take responsibility for attending to people and processes as a activity deserving attention in their own right. It gets dismissed as an overhead activity, or as a low priority given the current workload, or worse still, not a management problem, since employees are expected to make things happen on their own. Because of this contempt, chaos rules, which is rationalized as being a reflection of market conditions or tough clients. Yet other professions, far more stressful, don't rely on "need it yesterday" or "just make it happen" to guide them. Imagine a usability manager trying to run an air traffic control tower.

What to do? Read Peter Drucker. Not just one book by him, but everything one can. If you do, you may find him old fashion, and wonder how discussions of corporate history can possibly apply to today's nanosecond business world. Stay with that tension. Drucker is old fashioned, talking about management responsibilities. What a brilliant antidote to the narcissistic sloganeering of Tom Peters.

Saturday, April 09, 2005


driving a computer

From today's New Zealand Herald, a review of the steering wheel of the new Citroen C4 . It has numerous controls on the steering column, including "multifunction display commands" that change what is displayed on a screen in the dash. The user gets to choose "escape" or "okay", or press "mode." There is even an icon of a computer mouse, in raised profile.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Codafile: IA for paper

I try to keep away from random bits paper as much as possible, but there is often no avoiding it. Often paper must be kept for legal reasons, and there is no easy way to revise or annotate PDFs, though someone has come out with a buggy software to do that on tablet PCs. I have been intrigued with a system developed known as Codafile, which is big in Australia and New Zealand. It allows one to scan the file labels through a color-coded system. They also produce an interesting range of folders to accommodate all kinds of print and other matter. Records management is a dreary topic, but it is nice to see it treated colorfully.

Friday, April 01, 2005


user motivation: an under-explored issue

A good example of how usability doesn't really consider the emotional life of users is the general lack of consideration the field gives to how motivated users are to do something. Here market research is way ahead of our thinking (!) The first question a market researcher will ask users is: "how important is it to you to be able to X?" Usability professionals often scoff at such questions as being unreliable: user opinion doesn't matter, user behavior does. We ask people how much they use the web or mobile phones, and for how long, but not how important doing something is. We focus on their ability to learn, and simply assume users are motivated, absent any impediments to learning. It is a simplistic assumption to make. And we flee the issue, thinking: it is marketing's job to "sell" the concept.

A quick web search reveals very little discussion of user motivation (as opposed to consumer motivation). While I don't pretend it was exhaustive, the quick tour revealed only a few items looking at how web logs may show user motivation if we can pinpoint when users give up. Unfortunately, the web log data often isn't good enough to tell us enough to make grand inferences. And even when we have such "hard data", we are still interpreting that data, making our own inferences. It's just our opinion of what why the user behaves the way he or she does. If we are dealing with opinions, why not get the users'?

Just how variable user motivation can be became evident to me today as I went to the optometrist. After 20+ years wearing eyeglasses (spectacles), I decided maybe it was time to try contact lenses. Wellington is a rainy place, and the wind makes umbrellas useless. I was tired of rain-spotted lenses dotting my views.

After nearly two hours at the optometrist, I gave up trying to learn to wear contacts. I cannot imagine of any mainstream consumer product, something used by millions of people, being more difficult to use than contacts. My frustration quelled my prior annoyance with my water-spotted spectacles. From a usability perspective, my inability to use contacts can be explained by a few factors: In have a mild prescription, meaning my lenses are especially floppy and therefore difficult to put in; I'm a male, and am not used to poking around my eyes unlike some women are who use makeup; I choose a cheap lens that was colorless, making it more difficult to place, especially for a beginner. Even so, I was told I shouldn't be discouraged, many people need a good week to get the hang of it. I felt like the user in the test lab: I'm not being tested, so I shouldn't worry if I can't do it.

But worry can be a reflection of motivation: worried users might in fact be motivated users. Indifferent users, after all, don't worry. It's curious we choose to ignore that data, even though it would be difficult to calibrate. It is almost embarrassing for us to encounter a worried user: it reflects poorly on us professionally. (Anger is an acceptable emotion, since it reflects poorly on the client and not us. Anger unfortunately doesn't tell us much about motivation.)

I'm not worried I can't learn to wear contacts, but I have learned today I can't be bothered. Part of me doesn't understand why anyone would spend much more money than eyeglasses for a product that tears easily, is easily misplaced, is difficult to put on and off, requires special care, and can cause damage if misused (such as when sleeping with daytime only versions.) Of course, many people swear by contact lenses. Some are more patient (and therefore more likely to learn), some are more dexterous. But some must be as frustrated as me, and but are still willing to learn to love wearing contacts. These people have a high motivation. Vanity can affect the perceived usability of a product. We need ways to calibrate such issues.

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