Tuesday, May 31, 2005


can users "love" something important?

Could it be that users don't want excitement for things they "need", they only want excitement for things they don't need? If so, what limits does that place on what kinds of things can be addressed by emotional design?

I've been revisiting Del Coates' excellent book, Watches tell more than time. Coates makes a distinction between "contrast" which is mostly important for essential information, and "novelty", which is mostly important for discretionary information. Novelty is about "elevated states of arousal that are aesthetically important." On this interesting insight, Coates adds little.

Novelty, and arousal, are clearly an important aspects of much emotional design. But if users feel these aspects are only appropriate for discretionary information, then emotional design might be relegated to the realm of the frivolous. Alternatively, a "exciting" treatment of a serious design object might be welcomed only when users are no longer excited.

Some of these implications sound like they fit, even though I also have some doubts. People often do feel a disconnect between their expectation that something needs to be understood, and seeing a novel treatment of it that appeals to their senses instead of their head. This may explain why drabness prevails in the corporate world -- novelty is bad for comprehension (small wonder Apple's candy-colored Macs never made it in the corporate world.)

Friday, May 27, 2005


a new taxonomy

Information architects revel in taxonomies. If you are an "IA", I have an idea for a new taxonomy that might be fun to see developed.

I've always been a fan of "interdisciplinary" thinking -- how ideas from one domain can be applied to another. What I would like is to be able to sort words by their domain of use. For example, what words are common to both the fields of architecture and ecology? One example would be niche. It would be interesting to have a capability to trace etymologically which field borrowed from the other. For example, give me sociological terms that have been adopted by the legal profession. Or give me botany terms that have be mainstreamed with a meaning more general than the original technical meaning.

People often borrow words from other fields, because they offer inspiration, or because it is the "best available" existing word to describe something new (this is especially true in some other languages such as Chinese). Common words, different meanings. It could be enlightening to see how these meanings morph, became bastardized, even how entire fields suffer misunderstanding by the public (evolution, for example).

This information exists in dictionaries today, but requires one to look on a word-by-word basis. The trick would be to liberate the information electronically, allow browsing and dynamic queries, but avoid the disappointment of "no hits" when one tries to find terms common to baseball and volcanology.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


the consequences of "mass creativity"

I've been pondering the meaning of a single paragraph. It appeared in an article called "Immaterial Design" in the Danish magazine Design Matters.
Futurologists have defined the emerging persona of the future -- creative man. What characterises these creative people is that they are involved in design their own lives -- they are innovative and creative individuals who prefer to modify their surroundings rather than adapt to them.
On one level, there is nothing extraordinary here. Homo faber has always been an identity of humankind. Man has competed with nature from the start of our species. And we have long had a creative tendency to alchemically change what we encounter. What stuck me is the suggestion that we are losing our capacity to adapt. The will to change things is powerful, but only part of what we need. Will must be balanced with adaptation. The discipline of biology increasingly informs other areas of life about the importance of adaptation. A business whose strategy was change everything, and never adapt, will surely run out of luck sooner or later.

I am a little alarmed at the notion being marketed, that people can, and should, get anything they want. Such notions as mass customization and markets of one can subtly influence one's perception of one's context. Design often feeds egocentricity, but it at best yields short term benefits. Longer term design needs to build on notions of "sense and respond". There are some good ideas in organizational psychology about "sensemaking" that provide inspiration here. Adaptation can be creative, it doesn't need to be reactive (i.e., put up or leave). What the author didn't acknowledge is that awareness and sensitivity are key elements of creativity -- they provide the basis for making creative choices. Unless these attributes develop on a mass scale, I not sure the "creative man" concept is going to happen.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


what's my market?

A few weeks late, but I have just learned about the launch of IBM's design consulting services unit (thanks Steve Portigal and Karl Long for the tip in their blogs).

Some are noting IBM's entry into experience design consulting, and service design. But a press release refers to a new field to me: something called "Business Performance Transformation Services" Please note the phrase should be capitalized. There doesn't seem to be a trademark on the phrase, so I expect we'll start seeing all kinds of people saying they are doing "BPTS." It would seem a happy marriage between design based on current, and forward-looking, user needs.

Personally, I've always had a foundness for IBM. They have always approached things methodically, tried to do the right thing (be a good corporate citizen, promote good design principles) and have avoided flash self-promotion. A good model for a client-centered business.

Monday, May 23, 2005


gaming is a tax on the mind

I've long been fascinated by, but skeptical of , computer gaming. Fascinated, because gaming promises so much: immersion, participation, engagement. Skeptical, because gaming seems to deliver so little in the way of social or mental stimulation.

I was interested to see an unusual display of self-reflection by the chief lobbyist of the US gaming industry, Call for radical rethink of games . He nearly admits what many of us think: that gamers are social bores. Gaming enthusiasts have too much time of their hands. There is nothing to discuss with others in a computer game: it is all reaction, no reflection.

What bugs me about gaming is what makes it compelling to its fans. Gaming is hegemonic: it demands your total attention, like a cult. You are wired to the box, thumbs and eyes nervous extensions of the game engine. Like most cults, computer games are fascinating only to the true believers. Outsiders only see the same nonsense repeated again and again.

Television has long been decried as the "idiot box", and in many cases it deserves such derision. But unlike computer gaming, TV doesn't demand much from you. Indeed, gamers boast that gaming is participatory, rather than passive like television. But if something is going to be stupid, I'd rather it be passive. Computer gaming offers a worse alternative: ritualized stupidity, encoding one's behavior. One can't look away from a game, or hit the mute button, and expect things to continue on. It demands complete, and uninterrupted attention.

By their nature, most games are meant to be frivolous. I believe mindless entertainment is in fact necessarily to mental health. But computer games take mindlessness to a new level. One can hold a conversation while playing cards, or daydream while doing a puzzle. Computer games, however, are simply Skinnerian conditioning. The mind is frozen out of the action.

It is sad that computer gaming has achieved so little worthwhile. With worthwhile content, it could have a powerful effect for good. Instead, it is just nonsense. I won't say it corrupts minds, but I will confidently say it does little to enrich them. Everything I have seen from the apologists computer gaming tends to compare gamers to people who are even sadder, socially and mentally. People genuinely want particiatory activities, but what they get is trigger-sensationalism instead. The much ballyhooed "participation" offered by gaming is a bit of a scam. People realize that pressing buttons does not mean that something significant is happening. Even "interactive" museum exhibits are starting to draw criticism for their shallow use of "participation" when little meaningful experience is offered.

The fundamental question is: how has computer gaming enriched individuals and society? What common values has it advanced? . The Games' lobbyist is right: it is time to rethink games.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


personality and situation in emotional design

At present the field of emotional design takes a simple view of the relationship between a design, and the emotions associated with the design. Most researchers start with the idea that objects will elicit certain emotions, and that these emotions are uniform from person to person. However, the research trying to demonstrate this relationship is not always clear-cut. I believe that some of the assumptions are flawed. People aren't uniform in how they react emotionally to an object. Moreover, individuals aren't even consistent themselves in their feelings.

Emotional design research would surely profit from looking that the explorations, and difficulties, of research done 30 or 40 years ago in the field known as environmental psychology. Environmental psychology looks at how people react to their environment. The field was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, then began to flounder. Since the main research was long before the Internet, it seems to escape attention from design researchers today.

What environmental psychologists wanted to understand is, why some people like the countryside, and other people like cities? Such questions are perhaps analogous to certain emotional design questions, such as: why some people like candy-colored objects while others prefer matt black ones? The question noted that people had preferences, but that they differed in these preferences.

One camp in environmental psychology wanted to explain preferences with reference to personality. Someone named McKechnie developed an environmental personality test, which rated one's need for privacy, desire to seek stimulation, and preference for pastoralism. Other people noted that people reacted differently to certain environmental factors such as noise, and that these differences might be based on personality.

While grouping people by preferences was a start, it still didn't provide conclusive answers to what different people wanted. It seems that people's preferences would change over time. This preference change is a bugaboo of personality assessment. Researchers and subjects alike want to believe personality is stable (one looks flaky otherwise.) But researchers started to wonder if preferences were at least partly situation-dependent. My preference for the countryside might rise if I've been city-bound too long, though I might generally not like country-living.

I think the findings of environmental psychology point to the need of emotional design to move away from an object-focused orientation. The formula "cool stuff = smiling people" is the logic of advertising, but isn't the reality of people. So let's not get carried away by the likely reaction to a Starck juicer. Only some people will like it, on some days.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


art as design research

I finished John Thackara's In the Bubble over the weekend. If you are familiar with the Doors conferences, you know Thackara is a fan of the role artists can play in redefining design. He notes in his book:
Too many design methods can indeed limit innovation. Someone also has to provide aesthetic stimulus -- to throw wild ideas into the ring -- to provoke fresh thinking. Social critics and artists are good candidates for this role. Avant-garde media artists, in particular, intervene on issues of networks, the body, identity, and collaboration. Many of their ideas are exciting and insightful in a way that methods-driven solutions are not.

What is exciting for one person is wacky to another. I found many of the examples of artist-lead research Thackara cited in his book a bit under-whelming -- such as tracing the motions of pigeons in St. Mark's Square in Venice -- even when I could see, with some self-generated imagination, that some meaningfully beneficial results might someday be realized. That is the issue with any research done out of pure curiosity instead of need: seeing the benefits can be difficult, unless one has an intrinsic interest in the subject of the research.

For art to be useful as design research, it needs to go beyond personal expression. It must enable reflection about something with which a wide range of people can identify with personally. What can lose me are the numerous projects in the "design noir" vain, or "provocations" that aren't meant to improve anything, merely call attention to something the designer believes is distressing.

Utimately the value of art as a design tool rests in what we can say we have learned from a project that we didn't know previously, and what that knowledge suggests we might do differently that can positively improve the experience of people. The value of art to design is not that it is novel, it is that it is useful. Art does not need to be useful, but if isn't, it shouldn't be called an exciting source of design research.

We should also remember that art can sometimes offer benefits to design without pretending to be research. I am fascinated how the hobby of origami has triggered many insights into how to design solar panels and collapsible containers.

Monday, May 16, 2005


norms and change

Culture is not often a topic explicitly discussed in user centered design, but it figures prominently in our craft. Contextual research is about probing and understanding user cultures. We operate on the assumption that a user centered design must adapt to an existing culture for it to be accepted.

Lately I've been exploring a bit how anthropologists who work in marketing relate to the concept of culture. It is very different than usability and HCI. One major difference is that marketing anthropologists don't treat culture as static and unchanging. Apparently, anthropology has undergone a shift in thinking in recent decades. Anthropologists are now more inclined to view culture as fluid. It is not just that dominant cultures displace smaller ones, but smaller ones can influence dominant ones, and both morph in the process. Some have called this creolization -- fusing norms of two cultures.

What this view suggests is that user centered design does not necessarily have to conform to a pre-established norm. Norms can change. Consider how easily people can learn software programs now compared with two decades ago. The software has certainly become easier (due to user demands), but the users generally have become more versed in the way of thinking of software programs as well. Customer education, over time, has played a role in reducing user friction.

Marketing is about changing norms of behavior. Starbucks convinced Americans to drink more coffee at a time when coffee consumption had fallen for two decades. The norm now redefined, people believe they wanted to drink more coffee anyway, and no coaxing was necessary. Such change happens all the time: men now apply skin cream to lessen facial wrinkles. User centered design can learn from such change.

I want to suggest that working with user needs, and changing norms of behavior, are not incompatible. Some usability critics have suggested that user-centered design is inherently conservative, unwilling to challenge users to change what they do, and there is some truth to that. Usability is conservative when it is overly literal. User centered design is not simply a case of taking what the user says, or even what the user does, as the basis of design decisions. One needs to explore the needs behind these things.

What does a user-centered program for changing user behavior look like? Some good examples come from social marketing. Researchers try to find messages that relate to the user's frame of reference, and use such messages to provoke new attitudes or beliefs that will change behavior. Even when one is trying to accomplish the same behavioral change, perhaps encourage immunizations, the messages will need to be different for each cultural group, people who share common attitudes, beliefs and other behaviors, that one wants to reach. It is about making a message intelligible and compelling, and reframing to the user how his or her self interests are best served.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


from products to services

Following on my recent posting about turning products into services, I have come across a good discussion of the issue by Tim Cooper and Sian Evans of the Centre for Sustainable Consumption, at Sheffield Hallam University. They see six areas of opportunity:
1 Design: From planned obsolescence to sustainable product design
2 After-sales support: From short term guarantee to comprehensive after-sales support
3 Form of contract: From ownership to eco-leasing
4 Mode of consumption: From individual consumption to collective consumption
5 Need: From dependence to reduced need
6 Sales revenue: From output maximisation to least cost supply

The paper contains a discussion of reasons for the increase in the consumption of products, though I think it over-emphasizes status reasons and doesn't consider fully more pragmatic ones. One shortcoming of green thinking, IMHO, is an over-emphasis on "lifestyle." People who currently choose to reduce consumption may do so as part of their lifestyle, as a statement of who they are and how they wish to be seen. But I don't know that that attitude will scale up. My feeling is that for complex reasons, the desire to make statements of social status, and susceptibility to social pressure, have been greatly reduced over the past three t0 four decades in affluent West. I therefore believe that cost and convenience need to be addressed foremost, with incentives devised to address any perceived inconvenience.

Even if I don't agree with every bit of emphasis, I believe the paper is important and deserves a wide reading.
Link: Products to Services (PDF)

Friday, May 13, 2005


traveling backward in time

At the moment I am learning my first "major" software package in perhaps five years. I am trying to learn the mechanical engineering program SolidWorks, which at least some people claim is the easiest to learn of the CAD programs. Perhaps relative to other CAD programs SolidWorks shines, but I am inclined to compare it to products from Microsoft, Adobe and Macromedia. My reactions are a classic case of how players in a different market can raise expectations. People want their to local government Website behave like Amazon, never mind the fact that would be comparing apples and oranges. I want CAD to be as simple as Word. Okay, that's not realistic, but I have become intolerant of some zany things software used to do, and SolidWorks does still.

Exploring SolidWorks has been frustrating, not because I have to learn new labels and new ways of thinking. What is frustrating is never being sure if what I want to do is legal, according to the hidden logic of the program. There are different modes (yuck) where one can do some things in one mode, switch modes, and have these options grayed out on the menu. But if you want to combine activities that involve different modes, you are out of luck.

Another thing is how the program communicates features instead of goals. A very brief online tutorial tells you some of the things you can do, but one is left wondering how to do many things not covered in the tutorial. What feature does one need? It isn't obvious to me. A lot of it involves hunting for some hack that works without giving an message saying it is illegal. Some illegal moves make sense (they violate physics), but others just seem like they product conflict in the code. The programmers decided it couldn't be done, at least they way they designed it.

My raw reactions show a disrespect for the SolidWorks' "model," which people pay thousands of dollars to learn on short courses. I find the SolidWorks documentation, printed and online, inadequate. Too much is undocumented, and not obvious. My expectations have moved on. I can remember going on multiday courses 15 years ago to learn word processing and spreadsheet programs. The idea seems absurd now. Several years back I went on a course to learn Photoshop. Now Adobe sells a discount Photoshop package that involves no training, and easy to use templates. You still need a book for some glitzier effects, but the bar has been lowered significantly.

I feel like I have traveled backward in time, when software was mysterious and cryptic. I'm not nostalgic.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


good neighbor design

Just because emotional design is intended to make the user feel good, doesn’t mean it is necessarily about entertainment. Design that reflects and enhances one’s values and sense of personal meaning will bring a sense of well-being. I would like to explore this idea through a design perspective I will call “good neighbor design”.

I suspect most people will agree that having good neighbors is important. People may differ on why it is important. And if you ask people in different cities if they have good relations with their neighbors, the responses will likely vary widely. In some Western countries there is a feeling that neighbourliness is in terminal decline. One sociologist referred to the phenomenon of “bowling alone” to capture the sense that social ties are weakening. Insofar as people feel socially isolated, there exists an opportunity for design to try to improve the social well-being of people, even if modestly.

Let’s say that designers decide that an emotional criterion of a design is that it reflects the user’s desire to be a good neighbor. Sounds nice, but how? One approach is to use techniques from phenomenology. The idea is to get a wide spectrum of people to tell stories about being, or having, a good neighbor. One would then distil these stories for their essence – common factors that arise from different kinds of stories told by different people. Without having done such research on neighborliness, I can only guess some of the themes that might emerge. Themes might include looking out for others, especially kids; lending a helping hand; taking action to prevent mutual problems from arising; and so on.

Once one has a set of design goals, one can explore possible ways to realize these goals. Note that the process starts with the needs of people. It is a very different process than trying to “sex-up” an object that one has already decided to design.

Out of generic design goals, one can explore concepts to reflect neighborliness. If the goal is to take action to prevent a mutual problem from arising, one can look at general occurrences of such problems: trees that might fall over, dogs that dig up other people’s gardens, rubbish bins that blow over on windy days. Perhaps there is a general solution (a sensor that alerts the user/owner perhaps, or the phone number of a service to ring if the owner is out of town), or maybe the problems need solving on product level basis.

The good neighbor example is way to solve a specific design problem, but it can yield wider emotional benefits. The user feels he or she has taken action to be a good neighbour, and other neighbours can appreciate the action taken. Small acts of altruism can build a climate of social reciprocity.

Monday, May 09, 2005


emotionally accessible

The New York Times reports today that the iPod has lost its trendiness, having become so ubiquitous that even the US President owns one (how uncool!). With that, the emotional capital of iPods is set to plummet. The anecdote has me thinking how much how ephemeral many examples of emotional design are. In the case of a trendy object, the emotional satisfaction is based on the need of the user to be a part of collective, but somewhat exclusive, trend.

The confusion between trendiness and emotional design has been at least partly spawned by Don Norman. Norman graces the cover of his latest book with a Philippe Starck juicer, and photos of other cult products such as the Mini Cooper appear throughout. I don't dispute that fetish design has a strong emotional component. But fetish design is a self-limiting strategy -- it doesn't scale, it doesn't last. By focusing on such examples, we loose site of the broader emotional needs of users.

Sometimes people set up an artificial conflict between design for delight, and design for use. The movement for Universal Design, design that works for people with disabilities, has begun to be criticized for being Puritanical and anti-fun. An article in the journal of the Danish Design Council last year was scathing about the perceived straitjacket of Universal Design. A remarkable commentary from a nation that has been historical leader in the field of inclusive design. What I find curious about arguments that inclusive design is moralistic not pleasurable, is the implied suggestion that people with disabilities don't have emotional needs, or perhaps have different emotional needs than the general population.

People often equate design with the visual, but doing so grossly limits the remit of design. Norman is certainly aware that design has non-visual elements, but he chooses to focus almost exclusively on visual ones when discussing emotional design. His opening motto, "attractive things work better", is squarely aimed at visual attractiveness. He talks about other "visceral" qualities in passing, but it is the eyes that dominate his understanding. Even his discussion of "reflective" design relies on how one interpreters visual elements.

When people equate emotional design with visual delight, and accessibility with visual impairment, a conflict would seem to exist. I know accessibility is far broader than visual impairment, but if we do look at people with visual impairments, does emotional design have anything to offer them? Of course it does, though one would need patience to find examples from Norman's writings.

All people have core emotional needs. Few psychotherapists will tell you that their clients complain about the lack of visual delight in their lives. Visual delight is marvelous, of course, for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy it. But core emotional issues are generally related to social relationships and life meaning. Design has impacts on both social relationships and life meaning. Designs are used as a communication medium and as a focus of social interaction. The designs people choose to use reflect their values, and sometimes shape those values by being tools to create. There is nothing inherently visual about these emotional aspects of design.

So I urge people to stop thinking about iconic design when thinking about emotional design. The wow factor doesn't last.

Friday, May 06, 2005


when things bite back

It's always ironic to encounter an example of a solution to a problem inhibiting other solutions to similar problems. Today's encounter is with my old friend pop-up blocking. Pop-up blocking is meant to prevent one's computer from being hijacked by a server. But it can halt all JavaScript, no matter how benign. I'm trying to insert my email address on a website using the common technique of using JavaScript to disguise the email address from robot harvesters. Works fine, unless Google tool bar has pop-up blocking active, then the email address doesn't display. My email address would be safe from spammer, but unseen by spam-wary users who use pop-up blocking.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


can services replace products?

A growing chorus of people are questioning how much "stuff" individuals need to own. Certainly environmentalists are a strong force on this discussion, but it is broader than that. The whole "simplicity" movement is partly a reaction to "excessive" materialism. Just like the admonition that a pet isn't just for Christmas, it requires attention year round, our inanimate objects also demand attention from us, even if we don't use them much. They need maintenance, cleaning, storage...

One response has been to promote the use of borrowing instead of owning. More generally, it is about making a service out of something that is presently sold as product. The idea echoes the old sales wisdom that people don't want to buy a drill, what they really want is a hole. Thackara notes that most drills are only used ten minutes -- the rest of the time they sit idle. (He doesn't mention that most consumer drills are only designed to handle a few continuous minutes of drilling, else the motor will burn out, but his point is still valid.) Why not just rent a drill, instead of buy one?

The idea is very appealing on a social level, and many people involved in the emerging field of service design are thinking of creative ways to make service an attractive option. IT might make the process easier to manage, by matching availability with need.

To reverse the pattern from product consumption to service consumption would be colossal. Even though services represent the majority of GDP, it has achieved that because the relative costs of products fallen so dramatically, a fact that makes product consumption that much more tempting. The historical momentum for more products is strong. As humans have learned to embed knowledge and functionality in objects, they have created an expanding array of products people have wanted. Books became a product substitute for storytellers. Vending machines replace merchants. ATMs replace bank tellers. Bread machines replace bakers. Where once people needed to use the services of a photocopy shop, now they can own their own personal photocopier. Sometimes product replaces service for cost reasons (ATMs), but other times (person photocopiers) it is perceived convenience, even when unit costs are higher.

Cost and convenience: they are the demons that must be addressed for services to replace products. User behavior, at this point in history, seems beholden to those factors.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


piecemeal design

So-called "piecemeal design" seems to be the dark underside of what a sunnier version would called "open source." Once, people believed in planning, enlightened heroic designers, and bold vision. Then the zietgeist changed: evolution, not planning, now rules. Economics, technology, and chaotic/biologically inspired behavior have transformed design from a premeditated act to a opportunistic experiment. And experiments can turn out badly.

John Thackara, in his absolutely brilliant book, In the Bubble, talks extensively about the unintended consequences that numerous micro-decisions can form in over time. Thackara is careful to distinguish his concern for the consequences of disfunctional behaviors, from a comdemnation of the actors involved. He rightfully notes, as very few commentors do, that it is not greed or stupidity that causes most disfunction, it is the embedded rules that shape human behaviors.

I'm only half way through the book, but I can say it is one of the most significant I have read in some time.

Unfortunately, it is easier to lament disfunctional design than to understand it. Thackara is very unique is being able to do this. Others only scream at problems. A recent editorial article in Metropolis, How Piecemeal Design Approaches Hurt Us, provides such an example. The author blasts the engineers of computers for making them run too hot. What idiots, she protests, don't they know how unpleasant hot computers are? I'm not an engineer, but I have known quite a few, and I'm fairly certain they are desparate to cool their computers. The saniety of the unhappy editorial writer is the least of their motivations. Hot computers are bad business: they cost more to run, and breakdown more quickly as well. Thackara notes how large multinationals are very sensitive to waste: it is a sign of inefficiency.

Before we dismiss piecemeal design as a cardinal sin, we need to consider its positive qualities as well. The entire open source movement is an example of piecemeal design. I feel it has yielded some amazing benefits, though I wouldn't be surprised if some downside of it is revealed in due time. Much innovation in history has been piecemeal, and there is often a mixed outcome involved. We have become more sophisticated at understanding the difficulty of controlling outcomes. But we haven't become more sophisticated at controlling them. Some very high level systems thinking is needed, and some common understandings and resolve.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


cultural differences in customer satisfaction

I read recently an intriguing suggestion that different nationalities express their level of satisfaction in different ways. Specifically, the widely used Likert scale (rate from 1 to 5 or whatever) yields different spreads of results, depending what country one administers the test in. Americans are supposed to be most comfortable giving extreme ratings (a lowly 1 or whopping 5), while more restrained Germans or Japanese tend to give ratings in the middle.

Is it true, I wondered? I thought, Amazon has sites in the US, Germany and Japan, perhaps I could compare product ratings among the countries. I know there exist so-called "Amazon hacks" that could derive such information in a scientific way, but I wanted just a peak, not to create a huge project of this. The trick, I figured, was to find some common item sold in the three markets, and compare the user ratings of them. Books and music were not candidates, since they would reflect too much cultural preference. Electronics seemed sensible, as they are not so culturally influenced. Yet attempts to find models of electronic products that were sold in all three markets became maddeningly frustrating. Seems the electronics manufacturers come up with minor variations in the product names for each market, and I'm not expert enough to know that the German model G345X is the same as the Japanese model G34.

I made a quick check of the iPod mini. It is a bad example, in that it generally elicits favorable opinions, rather than a range of opinions, both favorable and unfavorable. But as a popular product, at least there were a number of Amazon reviews on each of the three sites pertaining to the iPod mini.

My check partially, if tentatively, supported the assertion that Americans are inclined to express extremes on Likert scales. German and Japanese reviewers were fairly uniform in favorable praise, though some Japanese gave the iPod mini a mere 3 stars. Some Americans were happy to slam the iPod with one star only, even though the majority gave 5 star ratings. Amazon's US site has more iPod reviews than do the German and Japanese sites. So the possibility exists that the appearance of negative ratings by US reviewers simply reflect the presence of more reviews.

Monday, May 02, 2005


brands as information architecture

I don't think highly of branding in general. Too often it is an exercise in corporate narcissism: companies worrying about whether consumers perceive them as a friendly and happy brand, when consumers really could care less. Though I sometimes see usability practitioners talk about branding as part of the user experience, I have to disagree. Branding is about buying, not using. Brands are created by the same people who make adverts, and generally serve the same function, to build an impression in the customer's mind for the moment of purchase.

Buying decisions are important of course, and branding, if genuine, can help people make purchase decisions. Several years ago I saw a short film at the Victoria & Albert Museum's impressively researched exhibition on branding. Produced by an ad agency in the 1960s, the film show how confusing it would be if supermarket shelves had detergents in shapes and colors that didn't conform to customer stereotypes of what they should be. That is a useful role of branding, to help users sort through the masses of products easily, and see that a certain bottle looks more like kitchen cleaner than hand wash laundry detergent. In this role, brands can act as a proxy information architecture.

Given the potential of branding to help users make buying choices, it is odd that companies sometimes ignore useful opportunities to share brand information with their customers. The most salient example is the book industry. In the past decade or two, the publishing industry has consolidated in mega behemoths. A single publisher will have dozens of "imprints", some of them acquired, some of them intentionally developed by the publisher to address some reading niche. The imprints are brands that convey to readers information about the subject, intended audience, editorial perspective, and so on. I know I look for books from certain imprints, because I often find they cover subjects I enjoy, in a way I enjoy reading about them. For example, I know some imprints offer a more academic treatment of a topic, while others a more popular one.

A book's imprint offers useful information to clued-in readers. But publishers often hide this information. Consider the publishing giant John Wiley. They have many imprints that cover the same broad subject areas, say, business. The different between the imprints is sometimes hard to articulated succinctly, but once one gets familiar with titles from the different imprints, one will catch one quickly that a title from the Jossey-Bass imprint will be different from the Capstone imprint. The user's ability to make such distinctions without needing to articulate them conceptually is the very value of a brand, to consider brands soley from a user perspective. But if you visit John Wiley's Web site looking for titles from Wiley's Capstone imprint, to pick an arbitrary example, good luck. Wiley lump all their imprints together in a single database. True, some users will want to search by subject only, and don't care what the imprint is. But some people may be looking for titles from an imprint, and they can't do it. There is no reason Wiley can't do both.

Wiley adopts a distributor's perspective: we offer everything, whatever you need, we have it, somewhere. Wiley is hardly alone. One can encounter the same problems with Pearson or Prentice Hall. Amazon also is guilty. Search on the imprint name, and you may come up empty handed. Amazon may list the publisher not by the imprint name -- the brand that sticks in your mind -- but by the holding company's name. They are worse when it comes to small publishers. If you want something by "little tiny press ltd", Amazon may list the publisher as "XYZ Distributors." It is another example of information architecture reflecting a business's organization chart rather than the user's needs.

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