Wednesday, June 29, 2005


jargon decipherment

We hear constantly that jargon is "bad" because outsiders don't understand it. But jargon is also good because it represents a highly developed and meaningful vocabulary among a social network.

I admit to feeling uncomfortable when hearing jargon I don't understand. I sometimes wonder, "Am I supposed to know what this means?" Sometimes I hang back and can figure it out, but other times I have to profess my ignorance. The interesting revelation comes when I discover whose jargon I am hearing. Is it industry-wide jargon, or particular to a company? I am perhaps less embarrassed by company-specific jargon, unless of course they have made a public virtue of their branded way of describing something.

Jargon is interesting because people often are not even aware they are saying something that might not be understood to outsiders. It represents the enormous power that context has on shaping behavior.

Sunday, June 26, 2005


simplicity and the simplistic

Simplicity is not a way of life, it is a sales benefit of Philips products. I find a heavy, "special advertising insert" from Philips in the New Yorker announcing their "Simplicity Advisory Board." Note to Philips: I volunteer to join the board, to give you a bit of contrarian perspective so your thinking doesn't become to simplistic.

Philips has explored the theme of "emotional design" as much as any company, so I find there current focus on simplicity hard to understand. Simplicity is the enemy of emotional design. Simplicity appeals to the rational and discrete, while complexity appeals to the subtle and nuanced.

As Robert Chia has noted:
While the traditional scientific mentality emphasizes the simplification of our experiences into manageable "principles", "axioms," etc., literature and the arts have persistently emphasized the task of complexifying our thinking processes and hence sensitizing us to the subtle nuances of contemporary modern life.
True, I want some things to be simple, things that annoy me, or tax my brain. But the sexy design stuff that Philips shows in their adverts -- no, give me richness, not straight-forwardness.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


overheard on the bus

A teenage girl, chatting on her mobile phone, tells her friend: "It's so easy to end up sending the TXT to the person you are talking about [in the TXT]. That person is on your mind when you are choosing the person to send the TXT to."

Friday, June 24, 2005


Seneca on ethnography

One of my favorite descriptions of ethnography is being a "professional stranger." Part of ethnography is looking at ordinary, everyday situations with fresh eyes, and paying attention to sometimes subtle things that escape notice or reflection during the hubbub of daily life.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca didn't know about ethnography of course, but I think he would have appreciated its approach. I have encountered clients who react to ethnographic findings with an attitude of, "Well, we know that already." Seneca would reply:
People say: "What good does it do to point out the obvious?" A great deal of good, since we sometimes know facts without paying attention to them.


plague, updated for the Internet age

Rats are always causing trouble for us humans. Now it seems they were responsible for Monday's national network outage in New Zealand.
NZ outage caused by rats

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Cashless and helpless

According to the accountancy KPMG, New Zealand is on its way to becoming a cashless society. They note that last year 741 million EFTPOS (debit card) transactions were conducted in New Zealand with a total value of $41.3 billion. "This represents a transaction being made by every man, woman and child in New Zealand once every two days."

That's wonderful, expect when things aren't working. On Monday, major parts of New Zealand experienced a network outage, which brought down the EFTPOS system with it. People used to carrying hardly any cash were stranded, as stores can to process debit payments manually. I had to teach a store clerk how to use an old style carbon receipt manual slide imprinter (I knew how it operated, though I don't know what the contraption is actually called.)

As comment on the crisis, the newspaper had a cartoon of a customer asking a sales clerk, "er, do you accept New Zealand currency?" The virtual economy has made tourists of us all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


how much do shareholders care about good design?

The top concern of CEOs today is "shareholder value", in other words, stock price. Shareholder value has become an increasing obsession over the past decade, to the point where it nearly squeezes out all other concerns. I am not alone in finding this development troubling, but that is the way things currently are.

The value of design research to corporate earnings would seem straightforward. Design research can boost sales by making products or services more attractive to customers, and can reduce costs by making products work better, so customer service costs are less. Design research, which includes needfinding, conceptual exploration, and usability, would seem to fit in well with key corporate concerns such as quality, customer service and innovation. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to isolate the contribution of these factors to quarterly profits -- the bellweather of stock price. It takes companies several quarters of sustained effort to build credibility with their products. But in the short term, they need to hit cost targets, which can fluctuate considerably (just think about energy prices), and met demand forecasts as well, which are subject to economic conditions and product and price competition from rivals. Even a company celebrated for its design like Apple can be punished in the stock market if they have to scale back expectations of sales. Sales can fall for many reasons unrelated to design, but if design is seen as an expense, it is a tempting cost-cutting target to boost short term profitability.

It may be that institutional investors, who could care less about design, hold the keys to how design research will develop within companies in the future. Design research needs to accommodate itself to the short-term trading mentality of institutional investors. The first need is not to get too big. Institutional investors, takeover artists and other financial hawks will never see design research as anything other than a cost. So design research needs to be kept nimble and stealthy to avoid attention from the balance sheet readers. Companies enjoying good times don't have to worry about outside interference, but every company sooner or later encounters a bumpy batch. When that happens, a big design staff will look costly.

The other need for design research is to deliver results quickly. Design cycles are collapsing, which is a good thing. The contribution of design research is more immediate than in the past, reflecting the rise of iterative prototyping in both digital and physical design. Design research can have an impact sooner, and doesn't need to rely on the "patience" of investors.

Some people may wonder if institutional investors can learn that design is good for business. I have my doubts. The UK Design Council last year published a report purporting to show that winning design awards was good for the share price of companies. While the report was interesting for recognizing the importance that stock prices have on design, the report did little to prove that design is good for share price. The only reasonable conclusion of the report is that financially successful companies tend to enter design competitions more often than unsuccessful ones. Companies are not successful because they win design awards, they are successful for a multitude of reasons, design being but one.

The irony is: the more successful design research becomes in helping companies deliver better products and services, the more humble it will need to become, because City bankers and Wall Street analysts, who think they know everything, will have to rethink how they look at balance sheets.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


am I jinxed?

I sometimes get irrational when upset, and believe the gods are cursing me. I try to install a simple piece of software, or simple peripheral, and things go haywire. I generally go through three stages of anguish: 1) did I do something wrong? I re-read instructions and wonder 2) did something else screw this up (the cat, which runs around the cables with indifference might be the culprit.) Finally my deductive mind just can't figure what is wrong. So I wonder if something is defective. In too many cases, the answer is a qualified yes.

I've spent the weekend installing bits and bobs and have encountered numerous problems. A free text database program called Sticky Brains doesn't like the "Tiger" OS on the Mac. My Belkin KVM switch erratically stops switching between the two computers it is connected to. A Java-based Oxford Chinese dictionary is disabling any Internet program on the PC. I learn its not me! User forums don't tell me how to fix these issues, but they give me comfort that others are having the same problems. Of course, they also contain the replies along the lines of "it's working fine for me." So some people are luckier than others after all.


experience and happenings

Many people want to label nearly everything users encounter as an "experience." We talk about the user's experience filling out a form, or the user's experience browsing a website. We talk about the customer's experience standing in a queue waiting to buy movie tickets.

But if you ask people what their experience was, they will often reply "I dunno, ah, normal I guess." There are at least two possible reactions to such answers. One is that asking such a question is not the right way to get at the user experience. One needs to probe the experience through other means, such as observation, to understand what the user is experiencing. Another reaction is to conclude the issue itself just isn't very interesting. The experience clearly didn't register with the user, so if they aren't worked up about it, then it must not be that important.

I think both reactions can be true, depending on circumstances. Users aren't always able to articulate things they feel viscerally, though these things do matter to them -- they do feel affected by them. But other times, I think user researchers project their concerns on the user. They think long and hard about a mundane issue, and see that something is unnecessarily complicated, long, or dull. But it doesn't follow that the user feels that way. They might not even be conscious of the inadequacy of what is presented to them.

Truth is, not everything a user does is an experience. People are often on autopilot, and don't reflect on what they have been doing. In the absence of self-conscious awareness (the event is too mundane or trivial to think about), users just do it, not think it. Saul Alinsky noted this phenomenon back in the 1960s, when he distinguished experiences from happenings. As he wrote in his classic, Rules for Radicals:

Most people go through life undergoing a series of happenings, which pass through their systems undigested. Happenings become experiences when they are digested, when they are reflected on, related to general patterns, and synthesized.

Unless people have cause to reflect on what they have been doing, their "experience" may be just a happening.

Friday, June 17, 2005


we are still slaves to the machine

If computers are getting more user-friendly, why do we spend what seems like ever increasing amounts of time pampering them? Unfortunately, networking is turning out to be a bottomless sinkhole of time and money.

The villain is security. I was recently in an American computer superstore, maybe the largest one I have been in. My geek side was happy to roam around. But the offerings were incredibly boring. Most of the aisles were taken up by boxes and boxes of software designed to offer virus protection, firewalls, privacy protection, crash recovery, and so on. Where was the software to make me more productive, or creative tools to make things? I had to hunt around to find a few dodgy, low cost products that looked like they would be frustrating to use.

I also recently bought a Mac (jury still out on it). I know there is supposed to be some cool software for Macs, but I was dismayed to find in the Apple Store more boxes of software offering disk maintenance tools and endless utilities. The impression given is that Macs are every bit as fiddly as PCs. The Apple Store mostly sold their own software, and then some third party software to keep it running.

Perhaps visiting shops is not the best indication of the state of affairs. Let's look at today's headlines. Adobe issues "patch" for Acrobat. Sun issues "patch" for Java. Analysts predict "migration pain" for Microsoft's Office 12. That's just today.

I'm not optimistic things will get better anytime. :-(

Thursday, June 16, 2005


user centered design: strategy or movement?

I suppose it is a testimony to the commercial success of user centered design (UCD) that more and more people are referring to it as "strategic." Strategy, of course, is one of those expensive sounding words favored by consultants. We are a long way from the days when UCD was the interest of commercially disinterested academics who had vaguely populist ideas about improving the lot of the common man.

I believe it is a good thing that people are making money out of UCD, since business is the major engine of change in much of society. So when I question whether UCD is "strategic," I am not questioning that it holds important, commercial value. Rather, I am questioning how UCD is introduced in business.

Strategy is based on a hierarchical view of business. Some grand thinker at the top develops a strategy, which the underlings duly implement. As UCD practitioners become interested in UCD as strategy, they excitedly imagine getting close to the source of power, where real things get done. The fantasy is that UCD gets a "seat" at the boardroom conference table. Maybe the corporation hires someone called a Chief experience Officer (CXO), though precisely what a CXO would do is not clear. Alternatively, UCD consultants would be invited in to meet with the CEO with the reverence granted to McKinsey partners. In either case, the strategy fantasy imagines the CEO will take a passionate interest in UCD, and it will be on the tops of people's minds throughout the organization.

I hate to prick a hole in this fantasy, because it would seem by so doing I felt UCD was not vital, or even important. UCD is vital, and I'd like very much to see all corporations embrace it rigorously. But expecting a corporate savior from on high may not be the most viable path. CEOs are extraordinarily busy people, who, if they are receptive to hearing other people's views, probably are made to feel guilty by nearly everyone, who say they don't give enough attention. (For example, Human Resources feels slighted when the CEO says people are the most important asset, but he spends all his time on investor relations). The "UCD as strategy" option expects the busiest person in the company to take a special interest in UCD. He will push it down the ranks, even though as corporations have flattened and federated, his power to directly tell people what to do is diminished.

The alternative vision of a User-centric corporation is to embed it at the grassroots. Defenders of the strategy approach will argue that a grassroots movement won't work. We have all heard tales of corporations that do not reward innovation that can't be measured by the beancounters or project managers. And we have heard tales of lone employees struggling to get anyone to take their UCD interest seriously. So we become cynical to the idea that big organizations can change themselves from the bottom up.

I don't want to discount the challenges that rank and file employees of large organizations face. But we also need to recognize that some big organizations do manage to adopt and embrace change from the bottom. That may happen less often than we would like, but it does happen, often without fanfare. How it happens is an object lesson in design itself.

If UCD is to really transform an organization, it needs to be embraced throughout it. One of the biggest blocks to change is the resistance that comes from being forced to accept someone else's ideas. That resistance can be even stiffer when employees, struggling to cope with numerous demands, are asked to get instantly interested in some alien concept, just because the CEO is pushing it this week.

I wish to commend a book by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising called Fearless Change: patterns for introducing new ideas. Manns is an organizational psychologist and Rising a software patterns writer. They have looked at how new concepts have been introduced and nurtured in different high tech organizations, and identified patterns where the behaviors have been successful taking hold. Patterns are a design concept, adopted by software developers, who extended the concept from Chris Alexander's ideas on physical architecture. Now Manns and Rising are applying patterns to people. Brilliant.

Many of the patterns are mundane, but important, such has hosting "brown bag" lunches on new topics of interests. They involve telling stories about small successes, that other people can relate to and learn from. They introduce change on a human scale, where you know other people who have benefited, and you can model your efforts after what they did.

I won't pretend this approach is fast or easy, but it does have more impact on the culture of an organization than the strategic approach. And it has the potential to outlast the CEO, who might be gone in six months.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


coffee and wifi

An interesting article in today's New York Times, Some Cafe Owners Pull the Plug on Lingering Wi-Fi Users . It seems that web surfing and coffee drinking are not natual combinations. Many people surf without any need to drink coffee continually.

Cafes are a rare example of a "third space" that people can go to work or socialize. I strongly believe we need to develop alternative third spaces, not just rely on cafes. I love my coffee in the morning, but I find it vile in the afternoon. I literally find the aroma of coffee noxious after smelling it too long, over an hour. And I hate the shrill sound of coffee grinders, and the banging of metal as baristas wack out the coffee grinds from the machine. Coffee-centric cafes are really not very pleasant places to spend long periods, which may be why Italians just down their coffee while standing, instead of nursing a boat-sized frothy sugar-ladened drink for an hour. French cafes aren't really about coffee, they are about sitting outside on the pavement, watching the world go by while enjoying drink or food. I can't see wifi in either a French or Italian cafe.

Someone needs to develop a lounge for doing work while mobile, that is more flexible and comfortable than the cubicles of the so-called "Internet cafe", and not so centered on dispensing drinks.

Monday, June 13, 2005


can we humanize air travel?

Like many (most?) people, I don't like air travel, but I generally tolerate it, assuming things are working according to plan. When things deviate from the plan, I get really bent out of shape because air travel is the most inflexible user system that most of us ever need to encounter in our lives. I imagine, in these days of patient advocacy, when visiting a hospital in an emergency, users possibly have more control and choice over what happens to them than dealing with an airline that is having a bad day.

This weekend I traveled from Honolulu to Wellington, via Auckland. It is supposed to be a 12 hour flight, including the Auckland transfer, but in my case ended up being 21 hours. Bad luck for me, but what interests me is why I was delayed. Air travel is a massive system that processes people as though they were inanimate data objects, queuing them up for a batch run at the convenience of the server. Like the old days of expensive mainframe data processing, airlines and airports deal with people on a schedule that mets their cost and time needs.

My journey started inauspiciously in Honolulu when I arrived to check in, to be told that my midnight flight would be delayed 3 hours because of fog. Honolulu was having fine weather, so I was a bit confused. The fog was in Auckland. I wondered if they were expecting fog in ten hours when we would be landing, an amazing feat of prognostication. Actually, the in-bound plane we were to use was delayed due to fog, so we have to wait for it. So, we have fine weather in Honolulu for take off, a fresh crew ready to go, and several hundred passengers waiting, just no plane. I fantasize why wouldn't Air New Zealand just call Hertz to rent a substitute?

At 3 am we take off. Some 9 hours later we are ready to land in Auckland. Our headsets are collected, and we circle the city. And circle. For half an hour. Now there is fog again in Auckland. Ironically, if we had left Honolulu on time, we could have beat the fog. We are running out of fuel, so we are being diverted to Wellington, my ultimate destination. The diversion will screw up many passengers' connections, but at least I'll soon be home, I imagine.

An hour later we are landing in Wellington. I can practically see my house from the plane window. As we land, I am told we can not dis-embark. We will refuel and return to Auckland as soon as fog permits. The official explanation is that Wellington isn't prepared for our arrival as an international flight, and doesn't have staff on hand to process us through immigration. There are other Auckland-bound planes similarly diverted, and a long queue for refueling. We sit on the ground in Wellington for 90 minutes, told not to leave our seats due to regulations about refueling with passengers on board. It felt like being a hostage in an airport hijacking episode.

Back to Auckland. I clear immigration, and attempt to secure a transfer flight to Wellington. Everything is booked, expect the next flight that will leave in a few minutes. To catch it, I must carry my luggage myself to the domestic terminal a kilometer away. I arrive breathless at the domestic terminal to learn that my flight has delayed, for an hour (it was ultimately 90 minutes). The weather is now fine, but...the weather is to blame. Air New Zealand is off schedule to the late departure of some flight sometime earlier that day, so everyone will be punished for the rest of the day. Unlike the US, where air traffic spikes often cause delays, in New Zealand the problem is simply the availability of planes and crews.

Air travel is about the system being ready for the passenger. It is an inflexible system, with no ability to accommodate even commonly occurring events such as fog (often a problem in New Zealand, though it is discussed as though it was a strange curiousity.) Unlike almost any other customer system, there is no slack in air travel. One thing screws up, and the problem amplifies throughout the system. I know that costs are a big issue for why there is no slack, but the system has hidden costs as well. Countless hours of passenger productivity and sanity are wasted due to the logic of the producer-centric system. Airlines respond by offering lounges and wider seats at a premium cost to cushion the unpleasantness, but they don't do much to make the overall system responsive to passenger needs, such as building in flexible staffing and equipment deployment. In New Zealand the concept of "on time" departure and arrival doesn't even exist. In the US, due to various oversight pressures on airlines, these numbers are at least published, though I suspect they can be fudged if you can blame air traffic for the delay.

Someday, many years from now, airlines and airports will stop being focused primarily on asset deployment. My optimism rests on a new concept called "lean consumption", which is a complement to currently dominant idea of "lean production." Lean consumption holds that customers, not just producers, want an efficient system. And air travel is about the least efficient system in existence from a customer perspective. So it is an ideal target to fix, if not an easy one.

Friday, June 03, 2005


the special as enemy of the good

Once upon a time, design aspired to be "good". The Museum of Modern Art in New York promoted examples of "good design." Good design was aspirational, but accessible. If only everyone adopted good designs, the world would be a better place. Much of the wonderful Scandinavian design produced in the 20th century embodied this philosophy. Good design was moral, and also good business. Develop a good design and watch your sales enjoy healthy returns for years to come.

We don't live in this innocent world any longer. Last night I heard a speech on 'cult' design by Thomas Gerlach, director of the German firm via4 and former frog design director. Gerlach pointed out how many beautiful prize-winning, media-celebrated designs have little market significance. What does it take to design a million-seller, or "affengeil"? Gerlach suggested the answer is to develop a design with "cult" potential. The ingredients of a cult object are the object, the target group, and a ritual around the object.

Gerlach pointed out, with some astonishment, how some products and services can become cult favorites when they seem quite strange to non-enthusiasts. Why do people spend money on Jamba ringtones, or hire boxer dogs to take to parties? Numerous products and services with cult followings seem to mock established notions of what is good design.

The market logic of cult design is easy to grasp. There are too many products, making the market noisy. To gain differentiation, one needs to develop a devoted base of enthusiasts. The way to do this is to offer something that appears special to some target group. Someone in the audience pointed out how many cult objects are often polarizing, evoking as much hate from detractors as love from followers. But even widely liked objects can seem special if they are exclusive enough (perhaps due to price) to seem special. If the price falls due to the pressure of competitive immitators, such as is happening with the iPod, the specialness starts to evaporate.

The problem with ordinary "good" design is that it doesn't offer a social identity. One can't make a hobby out of owning something that nearly everyone else owns. People seem to have a need for things they perceive as "special" so they can tell themselves they have made a choice of their own, instead of taking the bog-standard on offer. The special object or service allows them to form implicit or formal relationships with fellow travelers of the cult. Sometimes people derive status, but they may equally just want an interest that has a social aspect to it, for example, a collector's club or swap meet.

Have we given up on good design that is meant to appeal to everyone? Does everything need to be special? Is market differentiation a reflection of individual needs and aspirations, or does it shapes those needs?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


telic and paratelic design

The gulf between the goals of usability (just give me what I want, no more) and emotional design (this should be fun) can be understood through a concept known as "reversal theory". Developed by Michael Apter, the theory holds there are two modes in which we operate: telic, which concerns being future oriented and achieving goals, and paratelic, which concerns being in the "here and now." People switch between these modes, but our preferences in each mode are very different. Apter argues that in the telic mode, when people want to achieve goals, they want calm. If one offers something too exciting while people are focused on goals, they get overloaded. In the paratelic mode, people are bored when things are calm and serious. They aren't focused on achieving something, so they need distraction.

Usability is about the telic, emotional design is about the paratelic. What is simple and reassuring to some is dull and uninspiring to others. Different users may experience the same design as either exciting or anxiety producing -- based on their goals. If user doesn't care about winning a game, for example, the game is exciting. If he or she is dead serious about winning, it is anxiety producing.

If you are goal-focused, your ideal is to be relaxed, not but not apathetic. If you want to have fun, you want to be excited, not over-excited. There is a thin line between these states.

I think this idea has some fascinating implications. Potentially, fun might be demotivating for someone pursuing a serious goal. One might need to rethink notions that "learning should be fun" if you expect students to put in effort. The slacker student figures the only thing that matters is only the immediate experience of the moment; don't worry about getting it right or wrong -- homework isn't necessary. The serious student (think Lisa Simpson) might get stressed out by the fun.

On a website do you emphasize high returns on a mutual fund (paratelic) or explain prominently all the risks about past performance not being an indication of future performance (telic)? Some financial companies believe greed always prevails, but some people are stressed by appeals to greed. The question is my mind is: does the greedy person have serious goals and future-orientation, or is it just a game?

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