Saturday, August 30, 2008

On innovation, appropriateness, intervention design, logic, research, the experience ecosystem, marketing, sustainability, wicked problems, and more

Jon Kolko and I -- Co-Editors-in-Chief of interactions magazine -- end each issue of the magazine with a "cafe" conversation on topics of relevance to the magazine's content. Jon always kicks off these conversations in a provocative but insightful way.

Here are the openings of, and pointers to, our first five "interactions cafe"s:

On Innovation, Appropriateness, Intervention Design, ... (January+February 2008)

Jon: I’m concerned with the overabundance of the word “innovation” in our professional discipline. At CONNECTING ‘07, the theme was neither subtle nor convincing: nearly every speaker talked about innovation (some better than others), yet no one over the course of four days managed to define the term. Apparently, if a business isn’t focused entirely on innovation right now, their business is completely ruined and they won’t be around in a hundred years.

But I’ve recently done a mental inventory of the products, software and services that I use and that I cherish. The items I hold dear to my heart are either one-offs (craft oriented and thus not in the realm of the innovation discussion) or refined and subtle: they are appropriate more than they are innovative. As we see a trend in society towards “slow” design [clearly juxtaposed with fast food culture], the bloat of features and functionality that seem to go hand in hand with being new and different seem dramatically misplaced.

On top of this, the majority of the companies that are clamoring for increased innovation haven’t proven that they can solve the older problem of quality: I don’t need more ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ features in Windows; I just need the bloody thing to work without crashing.

You do a lot of coaching and teaching companies to be more innovative. Why don’t you get them to be more appropriate, or refined, or polished, instead?

Richard: Actually, my coaching and teaching focus on moving “user experience” into a position of greater corporate attention and influence — on helping to enable companies to do the kinds of things Secil Watson describes in her article in our first issue of interactions. Roger Martin referred to this as “intervention design” in his conference plenary on “Design Thinking: The Next Competitive Advantage,” and I’m sure we’ll offer (more) articles on this in future issues.

Sometimes such interventions mean helping companies organize and do things in such a way that more appropriate, refined, or polished user experiences will result. But they do sometimes mean helping companies do things so that they can be more innovative. However, innovation can be an important part of making user experiences more appropriate, refined, or polished. I think Hugh Dubberly’s model of innovation in our first issue captures that.

Hugh’s model also addresses the insight required of all of this, stating that “immersion within the context is almost always essential” to achieve such insight. I often coach and advise companies on how to achieve such immersion effectively, and the article by Stefana Broadbent and Valerie Bauwens contributes guidance as well. That article also reveals ethnographic research findings that advise against certain types of innovation since they are likely to yield user experiences that are inappropriate.

Clearly, ethnographic research...

(continue reading "On Innovation, Appropriateness, Intervention Design, ...")

On Logic, Research, Design Synthesis, ... (March+April 2008)

Jon: A core theme of this issue of interactions has been the relationship between Interaction Design and education: how to teach it, how to learn it, and how to live it. As a Designer, I’m obviously biased towards Design Education, as I see Design as a core tenant of life (consider it akin to reading and writing: design has often been characterized as “dreaming” or “problem solving”, both of which I consider underpinnings of human life). At the same time, I see the value in logic and pragmatism, and I’m often challenged professionally to “prove it” or “back it up with a sound, logical argument”. Do you think future generations of professionals in the interaction world will have to walk the line between Art (emotion) and Science (logic), or will Design with a capital D finally have its time to shine?

Richard: Can design truly shine without addressing both emotion and logic? Was a need to walk the line between art and science responsible for all the messes described in the first section of this issue (entitled "The Mess We've Gotten Ourselves Into"), or is the culprit better described as an improper balance?

Roger Martin, whom we referenced in our first “interactions cafe” discussion, has written about how the predominant thinking in business — analytical thinking — is hostile to design, and how that needs to change. But he doesn’t argue that analytical thinking has no place.

Perhaps you can’t “prove it.” Perhaps you shouldn’t be expected to “prove it.” But is it wrong to expect you to develop and use and provide rationale that can be subjected to some form of critique throughout and after the design process?

Is Tracy Fullerton wrong in teaching and emphasizing the importance of playtesting in her Interactive Entertainment program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts? Was Mark Baskinger wrong to observe the elderly and kids in his inclusive design projects? Doesn’t such research contribute to a kind of “logical argument” that is essential?

Jon: I wonder if the word “rationale” should even be part of the designer’s language. ...

(continue reading "On Logic, Research, Design Synthesis, ...")

On the Experience Ecosystem, Drama, Choreography, ... (May+June 2008)

Jon: This issue clearly demonstrates a shift in thinking for practicing designers. Creators of physical, digital, and systematic products are moving away from the development of single, static things and are now considering the larger ecosystem of the experience in which these things are used. This experience lifecycle has even touched on children’s toys, as described by Allison Druin; it is no longer enough to offer products with a narrow focus. Instead, practitioners must “design” the physical artifact, the digital artifact, the system of integration, the unboxing experience and must even consider the urban fabric and culture in which the design is used.

It seems like few, if any, large corporations are organized in a way that supports this tremendous undertaking; the actual experience offering from these corporations is so watered down by the time it makes it to market that all indications of cohesion are lost.

Richard: Years ago I had the good fortune of working at Studio Archetype and Viant, where the focus was on helping clients figure out what to do as much as designing how to do something. Indeed, the Studio’s founder, Clement Mok, wrote a book entitled "Designing Business" back then, and Viant’s primary focus was on developing digital business strategy.

So, the approach to user research that I developed for both companies somewhat naturally looked at the larger ecosystem of the user experience, since that increased our contribution to figuring out what a business should do and facilitated designers’ contribution to the same.

Companies that involve user experience research and design in their business in such ways have a better chance of effectively considering and addressing that bigger picture. Secil Watson wrote of taking such an approach at Wells Fargo in our January+February 2008 issue. But it is hard to pull that off.

You attended Interaction 08 in...

(continue reading "On the Experience Ecosystem, Drama, Choreography, ...")

On Marketing, Sustainability, Pessimism, ... (July+August 2008)

Jon: I’m tired of advertising, and to be completely frank, I’m tired of marketing. The entire infrastructure for corporate marketing has arisen from a desire to convince the public that they need more, faster, better, now. We keep talking about sustainability, but we - and I include myself in this, as I work at a consultancy that makes *things* - keep producing more stuff, and keep thinking about ways to sell versions two and three and four of the stuff to people that don’t really need it in the first place.

What are we doing?

Richard: Change of such great magnitude doesn’t happen overnight. Some of the marketing you are tired of — that which describes what companies are doing to address sustainability — might suggest otherwise, but…

Of course, making “things” won’t go away, but the nature of those things can promote sustainability, as reflected in our cover story. And the way the consultancy you work at responds to clients who want you to make things for them can increase sustainability, as reflected in the Designers Accord described in our May+June issue; indeed, I think you can be proud that that accord was born where you work — frog design.

The Designers Accord is a very important effort, and I...

(continue reading "On Marketing, Sustainability, Pessimism, ...")

On Addressing Wicked Problems... (September+October 2008)

Jon: A lot of the discourse that surrounds interaction design speaks to the large, cultural change it can afford. When I used to teach, my students would become enamored with the possibilities of design, and would make grandiose, and unintentionally trivializing statements like "World hunger? It's just a design problem; we could solve it, if only we had the right model..." This issue of interactions presents a number of these types of problems: homelessness, sustainability, and memory impairment. Do you feel that we actually can solve these wicked, cultural problems through design?

Richard: Design can play an important role. As we suggest in our introduction to this issue design is changing in ways that should increase the role it can play. And increased adoption of "design thinking" by others -- as we've referenced in previous interactions cafes -- will help as well.

But let's take care to not treat design as if it were a religion or a savior. Agile development methodologies, with more than a few fanatical followers, are, in some cases, justifiably decried as little more than an excuse to not document code. The OLPC hasn't had, and is unlikely to have, much of an impact on children's education in developing nations.

Jon: The two examples you give share an interesting commonality. ...

(continue reading "On Addressing Wicked Problems...")

Coming in the November+December 2008 issue: On Mobile Communication, Cultural Norms, ...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Eliminating noise and confusion

With lots to do -- often much too much to do and not always what would be most beneficial for them to do (as referenced in prior blog entries, including "Realities, dilemmas, framings, ..."), user experience personnel aren't always able to do their best work, which can make them and those with or for whom they are doing the work less than fully satisfied. Past blog entries have referred to some of the ways of dealing with this; recent blog entry suggestions include saying "no," improving soft skills, and offloading certain types or parts of the work to others.

But there are additional possibilities.

One of them -- which can come in all sorts of variations -- was described by Craig Peters during the User Experience Managers and Executives Speak course I offered this past spring. Craig founded and oversees the work at Awasu Design and was co-founder of Bolt | Peters.

Craig has discovered that even some of the best user experience organizations and personnel, and the organizations and personnel with or for whom they work, are continually experiencing a considerable amount of noise and confusion, which gets in the way of doing the best or most appropriate work.

User experience personnel have long expressed frustration with others' lack of understanding of and appreciation for them and their work, (potential) users, and/or the impact user experience can have on business success. This has prompted many to develop materials to be used as part of ongoing "evangelizing" efforts.

However, such efforts, while important, are usually not all that is needed. Noise and confusion often persist, in part because there are additional sources of noise and confusion, many of which are experienced by user experience personnel themselves.

Among these additional sources of noise and confusion:
  • an inadequate understanding of the organizations for or with which you do your work;
  • an inadequate understanding of the organization you are in;
  • an inadequate understanding of the processes used by the organizations for or with which you do your work;
  • lack of certainty regarding who is responsible for what;
  • and lack of certainty regarding how to negotiate with and explain the work you'll be doing to those for or with whom you'll be working.
As explained by Craig, such noise and confusion leads to all sorts of problems, including:
  • others' inconsistent experiences of user experience personnel and their work from project to project;
  • work activity selections that are not the best for the situation;
  • things falling through the cracks;
  • scheduling and timing difficulties;
  • unwanted creeping project scope;
  • management needing to step in much too frequently to solve problems;
  • designs that are not as good as they could be;
  • and missed opportunities to do work that is particularly needed or particularly strategic.
All of these kinds of problems hinder critical working relationships and leave personnel feeling overwhelmed and unhappy.

Craig described the process followed to discover the nature and characteristics of such problems and to design their solutions in work done for Wells Fargo. And he described the nature of part of the solution developed for and with Wells Fargo personnel. At Wells Fargo, the core of the solution was a Customer Experience Lead program, complete with a guide and a collection of materials and tools to be used by whomever plays the role of Customer Experience Lead on a project. (Those materials and tools included organizational explanations, forms for a customer experience brief, numerous checklists, and numerous one-page explanations of customer experience work activities.) Additionally, a new stage was added to their user-centered design process, training was developed for Customer Experience Leads, and various personnel were designated owners of different components of the program, providing a mechanism for making improvements to the program going forward.

The program developed for Wells Fargo is receiving rave reviews. Wells Fargo's Secil Watson, SVP of Channel Strategy -- the organization which includes the Customer Experience group -- even recommended Craig and this type of work during her presentation at MX (Managing Experience) 2008.

What I think makes this kind of effort especially valuable is that it puts organizations in a much stronger position to address many other critical issues (see past blog entries for discussions of many examples of these) that the noise and confusion can cloud. And if done correctly, the process for identifying the nature and characteristics of such noise and confusion will begin to reveal the nature and characteristics of other critical issues, providing guidance for subsequent improvement efforts.

It is important to emphasize that the program developed for Wells Fargo will not be the solution for noise and confusion experienced elsewhere, whether involving an "internal" organization (akin to the organization in Wells Fargo) or an "external" agency. Certain components might be similar, but the program developed for Wells Fargo is working because it fits the way things work at Wells Fargo and addresses their specific needs. Things work very differently in different companies.

It is also important to emphasize the high quality of the customer experience (and related) personnel at Wells Fargo. For example, I've referenced and quoted Secil Watson repeatedly in this blog (see, for example, "Breaking silos"), and I invited her to write an article for my first issue of interactions magazine as Co-Editor-in-Chief (which she did -- see "The Business of Customer Experience: Lessons Learned at Wells Fargo"), because I think so highly of her approach. I've also referenced the excellent work done by other Wells Fargo management personnel in this blog (see, for example, "Developing user-centered tools for strategic business planning"). Highly capable and successful personnel are not immune from such noise and confusion or from the benefits of outside assistance regarding it or other important issues. And they recognize that.

Craig and I are now teaming up to offer such assistance. Give us a holler to learn more.