Friday, December 23, 2011

'Tis Better to Critique Than Create

It kills me to write that title. I pride myself on being a creator first, and a critiquer second, and never critiquing something without offering solutions. However, I'm also aware of how easy and natural it is to critique.Any blog, website, or newspaper is filled with opinions, both professional and unprofessional (hello, blog comments!) about what's wrong with everything. On the other side, it's much harder to create. Many people are not able or willing to create something new, but they know how to meticulously analyze what's been created. Is this a lack of creativity, a subconscious avoidance of critique, or some other social factor? No matter the cause, the reality surely exists. Anyone in a design profession, particularly those with clients, understand the annoying reality of "the rock game". This situation is the endless "fun" that results from a client or manager who is does not know what they want, but knows exactly what they don't want, especially when they see what you've created. The result is a back-and-forth of design iterations where each "rock" you bring back is met with a response of "not that rock, bring me another rock". 

Anyway, this is nothing new to anyone, but I'm wondering how to put this phenomenon to more useful purposes. I've been designing beer labels lately for my own brews as well as those for friends involved in home brewing. It's a nice way to de-stress for an hour after a long workday or hours of thesis work. What I've learned from designing these labels is that my best designs come from utilizing the ease of critiquing verse the slow process of creating. What I do is essentially a design version of a brainstorm, just quickly playing around with concepts and giving very little planning to the process. The logic is that it's easier to recognize what you want when you can see what you don't want. In this sense, you're learning about your design and constantly tweaking the course, which I personally think is far more effectively than planning up front and executing in a straight path. I suppose this is a surrender to the fact that design iterations are inevitable, so you might as well use them to your advantage. Is what I'm doing just rapid iteration that every decent designer does? Sure - I'm just pointing it out that the power and ease of critiquing can be leveraged to speed up the creation process. 

Here are a few iterations of Christmas beer label I created for a friend of mine, in addition to a few other designs that I created for my own brews and brewpub concepts. For a point of reference, I probably created 24-30 unique Elfin Good Christmas concepts in under an hour. I hope this concept helps you in your creative pursuits. Happy Holidays! 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Digital Life of Reily

The wave of the sustaining digital life is swiftly approaching. With Facebook’s upcoming release of their “Timeline” tool (, everyone will soon be shifting their focus from the meaningless last minute to the meaningful last decade. “Big Picture” thinking is hardly in lock-step with an online culture that is generally more interested in speed and convenience. Nevertheless, Maslow will proud that many of us will likely evolve from “Love/Belonging” (e.g. making Facebook friends) to “Esteem” (e.g. winning at Facebook games) and now to Self-Actualization (e.g. building a Facebook Timeline). 

Will it take off? I fully expect that in some way, shape, or form, the idea of a digital profile to represent your life experience is to here to stay. I have to admit, I like Facebook’s concept video and I won't be surprised if they have success with this, provided they’re out front and learning from the behaviors of their users (which they traditionally don’t). In the meantime, however, I expect to hear plenty about Facebook’s confusing privacy settings and tricky “opt-out” policies and you know someone is going to miss out on their precious dream job due to pictures that were taken with after a beirut tournament 12 years earlier in college. 

Clive Thompson just wrote about this same trend in the most recent Wired Magazine with a piece on “Memory Engineering” (
He primarily focuses on a Foursquare plug-in called 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo ( that “finds your check-ins from precisely one year earlier and emails you a summary”. Programmer Jonathan Wegener is working from good insight when he says “there are so many trails we leave through the world,” Wegener says. “I wanted to make them interesting to you again.” I hate to pick on ideas, but this feels like it’s not stepping the right direction towards more meaningful digital longview. 

I like the idea of the fun of memories from the past popping up, but Foursquare check-ins that arrive every morning pointing back exactly 365 days? Why am I living vicariously through myself from a year ago? I imagine that only 1 out of 100 days messages might be slightly interesting (e.g. “what a great day. Can’t believe that was a year ago”), but if the event was that big of a deal, it shouldn’t shock you that it was a year ago. In other words, there’s no concept of surprise or discovery, and you’re really not building a sustained narration because you’re just getting check-ins from the ghost of Foursquare past. Now, if they add some randomization and customization, then we might be talking… I might like a weekly email that tells me other things I’ve done over the past few years during this week, including places I went, pictures I took, and people I spent time with. It’s worth noting that Thompson also mentions other apps for tracking personal experiences, such as Memolane and Patchlife.

Admittedly, I may sound a bit bitter, and I probably am. Some of us have been talking about a likely shift towards a sustaining digital timeline for probably two years now. Unfortunately, the closest thing I have to proof is a moleskin page or two from 2009 and a Google Document from “76 days ago” with notes about an app that will “capture a timeline of events; share and follow timelines”. Now, we’re watching the wave take shape without a board to paddle on. Yet, such is life in the fast moving digital age. Fortunately, we have been tossing around one other idea that complements this whole movement, but I think we might let it pass and go find a new wave. I’m sure I’ll get reminded of this one in a year anyway. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Interview with Juhan Sonin, Creative Director at Involution Studios

On August 19, 2011, I had the opportunity to sit down with Juhan Sonin, Creative Director at Involution Studios (, to discuss the state of design within organizations and what designers could do to have more influence. The following is an overview of that conversation.

Sonin and I began our discussion by postulating why more companies have not been successful in their pursuit of creating better products. His view is that just like any other discipline, there is a range of talent, skill, and knowledge in the field. He explained that “the best managers, designers, and engineers understand the 3-legged stool”, referring to the multi-disciplinary aspects of product development. In his view, the failure to address the business, design, or technology-related aspects of product or service opportunity will only lead to inferior outcomes. He points to the success of Apple as an example of achieving this balance, explaining how Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive are each “design, engineering, and business-minded”.    

On the topic of designers having more impact within organizations, Sonin believes the biggest factor is the ability to communicate design. He says, “Most designers aren’t good enough at pitching their own work”. He states that we as designers are delusional if we believe we can be successful in organizations “without being able to design our own stories”. “Otherwise”, he says, “What are we doing in design”? Sonin goes into greater detail about his definition of design communication, explaining how we must not only be able to explain design but be about to translate it into business and technical terms as well.
In response to the notion that design decisions are difficult to defend because of their qualitative or subjective nature, Sonin took the counterpoint. “Most designers don’t how the science of design” he explains. “There is both qualitative and quantitative data.” In his viewpoint, it is no more or less opinionated than the discipline of engineering. So how do we fix this problem of the non-influential designer? Sonin points to design education, pointing out the current gaps and explaining that designers should be challenged to learn more. “Designers should have engineering knowledge. They need to understand how to make things, not just design in a vacuum.”

As a successful designer himself, Juhan Sonin doesn’t see too much of a challenge in creating new products. However, what companies struggle with, he explains, is when you have an entrenched product. “It’s year six. What do you do next? How do you shift? This is where products become obsolete.” He explains the financial and emotional challenge of this endeavor. Sonin points to the struggles of Eastman Kodak as an example. From his perspective, Kodak’s poor leadership, lack of future vision, and weak design communication led to their downfall. “The refused to turn the ship”, explains Sonin. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Emergent Nature of Design

Go into any Best Buy or any other consumer electronics store and you’ll undoubtedly see a vast array of products that are barely distinguishable from each other. They may identical features, utilize the same technology, have the same performance measures, and even be offered at similar prices. Yet, you make a decision. You’re able to make a decision from a seemingly homogenous set of choices because products simply aren’t the sum of their parts and features. You may favor specific features (e.g. touch-screen), performance measures (e.g. storage), or even be set on price, but these are simply your priority and not your sole reason for purchasing. What I’m getting at is that a product is a composite that is greater than the sum, and it’s this composite that you’re buying. I think this is what separates Apple from the “non-Apples”, which seems like everyone else recently. Apple clearly gets the concept of creating a product composite that people instantly get what it is and what it does for them. It’s based on true empathetic understanding of their customer base, which, unlike pretty white boxes, is truly the foundation of the user experience design.

So what is design? For this discussion, let’s say it’s the difference between the sum of the engineering and the resulting product.  Admittedly, there are thousand holes in this overly simplistic formula, yet there is some value in using this as a mental model and I’ll explain why. Consider two products that are comparable on features, parts, and performance. Yet, they are not equal. They are not equal because the emergent property of design must be accounted for when considering the whole product. (Note: By “design”, I’m referring to the whole product experience and not just the aesthetic aspect of it) For example, one could compare any iPhone with any Blackberry to see that Apple created a much greater product by maximizing on design and not on more measurable factors, which are fairly similar. Yet, if this is so obvious, why can’t companies get it right? Why are so many companies failing to create compelling product experiences when they know it’s good for business?

One aspect that makes this so challenging is the straightforward and simple nature of measurable criteria such as features and performance. In fast-paced, competitive business markets such as the automotive, electronics, or software industries, it’s much safer to make investments on tangible measures. They’re easy to add, compare, increase, and compete upon (“Faster than the competition!”). They also make it easier to make decisions upon, helping determine what next year’s model or version will feature (“Now with 20% more stuff!”). Unfortunately, it doesn’t take an MBA to know that this type of arms race never ends well for anyone involved. In the process of trying to “out-measure” each other, the market is always cannibalized. It’s ongoing science fair where the gym is always destroyed by the competing volcanoes of baking soda.

Now let’s consider design again - It’s the art class down the hall from the science fair with the crazy kids that nobody gets. And unlike science, it’s just so hard to measure. Paint and canvas are relatively cheap, but they can come together to produce a priceless masterpiece. In fact, art is all about emergence. It’s not focused on aesthetics as much as it is focused on the emotions it evokes in its observers, which is really the essence of product experience design. Sure, Apple’s products look beautiful, but that’s a deceiving veil. I believe this is what many organizations misunderstand. They think that they can engineer a product and then “throw in some design”, but this is completely wrong. When done correctly, products are a fusion of design and engineering, of art and science. Think of an Aston Martin or latest Apple product and tell me where design ends and engineering begins. As I mentioned earlier, people buy composite products, not a collection of pieces and parts where design has been slapped on. 

Now here’s the fun part: design is cheap. At least, great design is not necessarily more expensive than bad design. What’s the significance of that fact? If products are a composite of measurable engineering and emergent design, organizations would be best served by maximizing on design emergence while minimizing the engineering without lessoning the value of the whole. Quite simply, organizations need to understand the emergent property of design and strategic advantage of getting it right. They need to accept a little art at the science fair.  

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview with Mark Rolston (Chief Creative Officer) and Theo Forbath (VP of Innovation Strategy) of frog

On August 3, 2011, I had the great pleasure to hold a conversation with two of the premier experts on innovation and design at frog, the renowned and celebrated global innovation firm (

I owe a great deal of appreciation to Mark Rolston (Chief Creative Officer) and Theo Forbath (VP of Innovation Strategy) for taking the time to share insights with me that will provide ongoing value to my work for years to come.  The following is a summary of that conversation.   

Balancing Science and Art
Early on in our discussion, I approached the topic of the product development process in an attempt to identify the elusive patterns of behavior that lead successful or failing products. Rolston rightfully prevented us from going down this path, pointing out that the individual steps within a process are not where problems occur. Instead, what matters is how the entire process comes together as a whole. Rolston continues by instructing that in design, “form is held together by negative space”. In the practice of product development, “process is the positive space, and the connections are the negative space”. 

This might sound highly abstract or theoretical to some, but this way of thinking is in lockstep with the study of systems. The discussion of positive and negative space evokes the importance of balancing the science and art of experience design. The process of scientifically breaking down a design into individual technical requirements to “check all the right boxes” can cause one to lose site of the outcome that it creates when it comes together as a whole. At risk of digressing, I believe this also describes the misguided attempts of the business community to formalize the Design Thinking process. Once you add repeatable structure, you degrade the resourceful and imaginative nature that can make it so valuable. By over-emphasizing the science, you sacrifice the art, and it’s the art that provides the real value.

Theo Forbath, frog’s VP of Innovation Strategy, reiterates the importance of holistic thinking by explaining that the companies that fail are the ones that fail to “bring it all together”.  frog achieves their balance between art and science by conducting deep qualitative and quantitative research in the early phases of an engagement. Their qualitative research is often done in the form of ethnography, led by famed ethnographer Jan Chipchase. Forbath explains that frog follows this up with thorough quantitative analysis to provide their clients with “left and right brain insights”.

The Mick Jagger Phenomenon
In discussing what it takes to create truly great experience design, Mark Rolston, describes the concept of “The Mick Jagger Phenomenon”. The lead singer of the Rolling Stones is not the most talented in the world, nor the best song writer or best-looking, “yet the way they put the package together is highly authentic, completely aligned, and pure in its plan. It’s an authentic expression of what they want to be”.  The leading creative mind at a world-leading design firm is not going to use the same terminology of the systems domain, but his viewpoint is completely aligned. Essentially, what he’s discussing is emergence – the ideas that the manifestation of a system is greater than the sum of its components.

In Mark Rolston’s view, Apple has dominated their market, much like the Stones did, by creating an authentic and consistent expression of what they wanted to create. This authenticity drives customer loyalty to the point where customers will forgive the occasional flaw or missing feature. This customer forgiveness is an extremely powerful attribute in a hyper-competitive technology market. This concept authenticity is clearly the differentiator. Those that fail create products that “check all the right boxes, yet the complete expression is just not right”.

On Complexity
“Technologies have become vastly more complex”, explains Mark Rolston. He describes the vast array of decisions that need to be made during today’s design and development process, such as hiring engineers, and buying hardware, code, and packaging. “So much engineering has to happen before an experience comes to market. We have an illusion that we come out of research with a pure idea and engineering is merely the means to getting it out.” As he neatly and accurately sums it up, “we’re not making toasters anymore!” If this trend is to continue, it is clear that designers will need to sharpen their skills for understanding complexity and the dynamics of a technology system.

Rolston asserts that this complexity often exceeds an organization’s readiness to manage it, leading to situations where they compartmentalize duties but “lack clear perspective on the whole”.  He recommends instituting organizational restructuring and process improvements over time. However, there are also near-term measures to address this complexity problem. “The immediate fix is to better embrace the tangible artifacts inherit in the process”.  Removing abstractions, he explains, is part of removing complexity.

On Direction
I have long believed that many designs fail not due to a poor idea, but the inability to maintain the intent of that idea throughout the design and development process.  I was glad to hear that Mark Rolston recognizes this dilemma as well and seeks a better solution. “It’s true that Steve Jobs, as well as any number of auteur movie directors, create the impression that a single dictator-creator can shepherd a project through. However, finding such genius is elusive. We need a better answer.”

To offer some hope, Rolston informed me “carrying the idea does not require a person owning it”. He feels it is a significant improvement, “but many organizations cannot do it. They can’t afford it or they politically aren’t willing to.” Rolston advised that in the absence of powerful leaders, “high-fidelity artifacts (progressive working examples of the product) are the next best thing. They don’t lie (at least very well) and they help an organization rally behind the goal.”

As an example, it was noted by Rolston that concept animations are “priceless” towards carrying intent as they “create connective tissue” across the process stages. Rolston and Forbath agreed that the key to such high-fidelity artifacts is achieving a balance between inspiration and feasibility. If it’s too safe, it will get a “so what, we can do this today” reaction, but too far out towards science fiction and it becomes too hard to connect.

The Importance of Softer Clay
For an innovation firm like frog, the client forging ahead to a solution is one of their greatest challenges. Often, it was explained to me, clients will come with a solution in mind but they haven’t done the proper research. The example they give is that of a consumer technology client asking them to design a tablet computer without considering the public’s opinion of their ability to create one. This uninformed approach can lead to failure, at worst, and at best, mediocrity.

They address this challenge of clients jumping ahead to solutions by working with them to “delay as long as possible the fixing of plans in the course of a project”.  It is this mindset they refer to as “pushing determinism forward”. By taking this approach, an organization allows itself to learn along the way, discovering new opportunities as the problem and potential solution space is better understood. By increasing understanding of the problem and maintaining flexibility in the solution, you have a vastly greater chance of “authentically mapping your solution the problem that you’ve discovered” in Rolston’s opinion.

Another critical threat to creating innovative products is the urgency of market competition. Rolston believes that focusing on competition leads to organizations only looking a quarter ahead at a time and creating products “out of the chute”. frog is trying to “unhinge this chute-like process” and get people to “be comfortable engaging a project with an undefined outcome”.  In their words, “the fidelity of the problem must be concrete for the sake of the financial and organizational investment, but the form of the imagined outcome should not.” This approach allows organizations to understand a problem and determine their direction, and then allow plenty of time to “push and pull” to meet their objective. Put succinctly, organizations need “softer clay”.

While discussing innovation and foresight, Rolston describes HP with admiration and some constructive criticism. “HP is a great computer company. Computing is a fundamental driver is the last 20 years and next 100 years. It drives who people are and how they’ll behave. HP is one of the biggest and most successful companies in this field, and yet, they can’t think ahead or think aggressively.” He continues by explaining that HP “passively looks at what the market wants tomorrow”, focusing only on short-term innovation and not further out.  He advises that it’s not the market that HP should be looking at, but instead shift focus to the people.  After all, “markets are made serving the wants and needs of the people”.

So how does an organization look past next quarter? Theo Forbath’s viewpoint is that qualitative research is the remedy to this myopic, market-driven thinking. One of the primary distinctions between Apple versus HP is their willingness to look at core human behavior, according to Rolston. HP simply “look to their analysts”, but they need to look “past the next quarter” for greater success. Forbath and Rolston agreed that specific roles really are not important (e.g. Designer, Technologist, Futurist, etc.), just that there are individuals looking far ahead into the future. 

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Interview with Jerome Nadel, CXO at Option NV

As part of my thesis research, I recently had the great pleasure of remotely sitting down with Jerome Nadel, the Chief Experience Officer at Option Wireless Technology ( Mr. Nadel also happens to be my former boss and mentor at Human Factors International, so he was more than willing to discuss what it takes to create truly great user experience design. Excerpts from this discussion are as follows.

On Ideation
According to Nadel, organizations can innovate in a variety of ways. The first comes from simple “readiness” and being positioned to discover new insights and generate ideas at any time. The second is more proactive and seeks discovery through research, such as the practice of ethnographic methods or traditional market analysis. Finally, there is perhaps the most effective form of innovation, which is “aggregative innovation”, seeking opportunities to connect products and services that already exist within an organization or market.

On Innovation
For Nadel, the real key for organizational innovation may be in the seeking of “discontinuity”. By discovering and capitalizing on disconnects between market expectations and offerings, organizations can create completely unexpected yet welcomed systems of value. Apple, for instance, has done this masterfully over recent years with their suite of media devices and digital services.

These devices did not stem from problems, so to speak, but from opportunities that were created by technology markets that did not quite align with the intentions of its customers.  Beyond isolated devices, however, the smart organization creates a system around the solution to that discontinuity. In other words, it’s not the iPod that enabled people to build, manage, and enjoy their digital music library, it was the system created by the integration of the iPod device, the well-designed digital interface, and the easy access to the iTunes music library.

On Design
Nadel discussed the trends of design and how “the new design is service design”. This is a subtle yet powerful shift from physical and isolated aesthetic design to a more dynamic and human-centric service design. However, one must not confuse this viewpoint as a comparison between the physical product and the digital service. In Nadel’s view, “the device is the service, and it’s the service that people care about”.

On the Economic Benefit of Eco-systemic Thinking 
Nadel explains that the real competitive edge is in “eco-systemic thinking”. The key is to look beyond isolated products to look holistically at all the connections with complementary products and supporting services. By doing so, an organization can create real value for their customers.

Organizations benefit tremendously from this systemic approach for a variety of reasons.  The primary one is due to the profit margins that an organization can make on selling services compared to selling isolated products. According to Nadel, “smart companies get recurring revenue and as a result, better margins”. Consider Apple as an example, an organization which makes tremendous revenue on sales of its iPhones and iPad, but margins are thin when compared to sales of mobile applications and digital media. In Nadel’s words, “value equals margin”, which in turn, creates a “fiscal aspect for innovation”.

Quite frankly, the key point of this systemic approach from a standpoint of business strategy is that “you can’t make money just selling little pieces”. An organization must think systemically and not in isolation. As one can see from the Apple case, they have been able to capture value through their patterns of systems thinking, creating ecosystems of services around integrated devices. In Nadel’s view, Apple has been “remarkably holistic”.  

Success in systemic thinking should really come from the top in Nadel’s view. The key is “strong leadership with a eco-systemic view that is thinking in a connected way”. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

5 Ways That Design Helps Manage Uncertainty

I recently took a course at MIT called "Real Options for Innovation" based upon Real Options Theory. If you're not familiar, the basic concept is about creating overall value in a project by designing built-in flexibilities or "options" that can be executed based on particular events, success, or lack thereof. The premise is that overall value of the project is improved by minimizing potential downsides. What I found most interesting about the concept is that it relies on one fundamental truth that is often overlooked in business: that the future is completely uncertain, and planning for uncertainties is a far better approach over time than planning for a singular forecast. Think of it like insurance. You likely spend hundreds per month on unused coverage, but after an accident, fire, or broken arm over the course of a few years, you'll be glad that you spent the money that you did.

Given my experience designing products, I couldn't help but notice the parallels between Real Options theory and what I think is a good design approach. Both have a certain level of "strategic humility" -  admitting that the future is a complete unknown and that uncertainty should be accepted and embraced. Like Real Options, a good design process produces artifacts that help a design team understand an uncertain environment or market, thus reducing potential risks of delivering unwanted products or services. Note that I'm referring to a "design-centric" approach, and not necessarily an approach for designing aesthetically-pleasing products (although I would argue the latter should come from the former). This method is generally known as "Design Thinking" and has grown in popularity in recent years thanks to the highly innovative strategic design consultant, IDEO. I highly recommend Tim Brown's "Change by Design: How Design Thinking Changing Organizations and Inspired Innovation" for more information on this topic.

The following are my quick thoughts on some of the most prominent uncertainties in a product development process and the ways that a design approach can help manage them. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, just some of my favorites from my own experience.  

Uncertainty 1: Ideation ("What do we do next?")
Most product or service producing organizations spend a great deal of time planning ahead for what's next. It could be a completely new product, an updated version of an existing product, or even just a new market for a product that's been around a while. But how do we best determine what that next product should be? It's been well established that asking potential users what they want will only lead to incremental (i.e. boring) improvements. People point to Apple saying that they don't need to talk to users at all, and it's some internal "magic" that makes them great. That's all well and good, but it doesn't help much when you're tasked by your manager to plan the next version of your flagship product.

This is the point where design helps de-mystify the ideation process. I've been in countless user interviews over the past decade, and I can honestly say there's no greater waste of time for the designer or the potential user to sit there face-to-face and ask "what do you want"? Instead, translate your undeveloped ideas and untested hypotheses into "visual ideas". These may be concept sketches of potential products, diagrams of new user experiences, or even just a drawing to attempt to represent the user's mental model. Note that these DO NOT require even the slightest bit of artistic ability. In fact, rough and sketchy is often better as it conveys a sense of early-stage flexibility. The point is that the sketches provide a common frame of reference or "anchor" for the conversation with your user. They can force the participant to think in new ways, or even just to tell you that your thinking is completely wrong. In fact, going in with an "incorrect" diagram or sketch is completely fine if it allows the person to point out what they don't want - this can be just as helpful. Finally, an perhaps most importantly, graphics provide a common language that everyone can understand, it breaks down the barriers between technical jargon and non-technical speech, and it reduces the ambiguity that can come from speech-based language interpretation.

Uncertainty 2: Product Vision ("Are we all on the same page?"
Once the idea for the next product or iteration has been determined, a development team can just start crafting a requirements document and project plan, correct? Not exactly.

Even the most clear product ideas have some level of ambiguity at this early stage. While some objectives or expectations may be in place, the expected output is often undefined. Let me first say that this is a great thing - projects should not only allow but promote exploration and iteration. However, the problem is that individuals on a team often have their own personal vision of the expected output of the project. This problem is then compounded by the fact that those individual visions are often clearly defined in the minds of those folks. The reason for this is that vision for products are often communicated in words, which is highly vulnerable to conflicting interpretations (e.g. "Version 1.2 is going to be net-centric and integrated!") What results from this approach is a situation where project members work on diverging or conflicting paths without realizing that they don't share the same viewpoint of a final end state. Team members debate endlessly over detailed technical decisions, not realizing that the source of their disagreement is not on the decision itself but the fact that they have conflicting views of a desired end state.

Project managers attempt to establish consensus with daily check-in's, agile development processes, and related practices. However, in my opinion, these approaches always fall short of optimal without a visual or design-centric approach.First and foremost, a design-based approach clarifies vision and establishes consensus. This is what is so powerful about the Design Thinking approach. I cannot recommend enough the act of visualizing a project's vision before any  engineering or "production" related work even begins. Again, this doesn't require a lick of design skills. Instead, all that is needed is a series of wireframe sketches or diagrams of the expected product, underlying architecture, expected workflow or user experience, and supporting services. On top of that, build one simple visual depiction of the system you're building (e.g. people, products, services, technologies) of which team members can point to and say "we're building that". If you have the ability, try creating a rough 30-60 second video or animation of your vision for the product or service you want to create. You may be surprised how much internal clarity this provides.

Uncertainty 3: Requirements ("What should it do?")
Now that the product vision is clear, it's time to determine requirements. Personally, I prefer a completely experience-driven approach, although I know it can drive engineers crazy (so tread lightly here). My favorite approach for this is to simply get in front of a whiteboard and walk through the expected experience of using your product or service. Stay within the bounds of reality, but ignore detailed technical constraints at this point, as they may unnecessarily block a path to a good idea. In other words, exploring bad or impossible ideas often leads to good ideas.

As the team visually draws out the expected user experience, a great deal of clarity is often formed. It is here that a sense of a "system" is developed, which is far more effective than building a fragmented list of requirements. In fact, by going with a requirements-driven process, you're more likely to result in features that only add to the user experience and not improve it. I don't think I would want to pay the production cost to have those built.

With this visual, systems-based, experience-driven approach, the requirements become a byproduct of the user experience, as opposed to the driving factor. What results is a more holistic, efficient set of requirements. In fact, many great ideas for services or features are often prompted by this process as unexpected paths or relationships are often revealed.

Uncertainty 4: Market Demand ("Will people want it?")
Once the product and all its bells and whistles are imagined, there's still one question to answer before production begins: "Will people want it?". Of course, this is a slightly different question than "will people buy it?", but this is a design blog and not a marketing blog, so I won't get into the process of determining viable pricing points, etc. This point here is to use design to test the waters in the outside world. Internal consensus has been developed, but how do you know that your assumptions and expectations are accurate without talking to people outside your organization? This is where a great prototype or concept animation can be incredibly valuable. Have someone review your storyboard and see how they would react. Perhaps you've developed a perfectly thought out idea based on incorrect assumptions.

Be careful here not to overreact to people's opinions. As mentioned earlier, it's difficult for people to think beyond incremental improvements in their daily lives. As a result, they may react to your idea as being "strange" or "crazy". That said, pay close attention to the types of responses you get, the emotions it evokes in people (e.g. boredom, excitement), and the "between the lines" messages you might receive.

Uncertainty 5: User Experience ("Will people enjoy using it?")
Tim Brown strongly conveys the importance of being "fast to failure".  This means that the goal of a product or service-producing organization should be to develop a prototype of their system as quickly as possible to figure out whether or not it's worth producing. This is most commonly done to rule out bad ideas. As mentioned in the introduction, this design process is really about strategic humility, and this is never more true than in these later stages. I strongly suggest that you not be overly confident in your ideas or your designs, as they are likely wrong..or more accurately, not as good as they could be. What you should have confidence in is your ability to get them right. This shift in mindset is critical for the "fast to failure" approach and will allow you to learn from and improve upon the flaws in your product.

Perhaps the most important lesson of addressing this uncertainty is the incredible return on investment that can come from fixing usability-related issues at an early stage. The cost of fixing a flaw in the design may seem signficant, but it's nothing compared to the compounding effects that will come from releasing a difficult-to-use product or. poorly designed service. For more on this topic of the ROI of User Experience, check out Dr. Susan Weinschenk's video presentation:  

I hope this overview of designing for uncertainty has been helpful to you. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Visual Representation of Ideation as a System

If you have been reading my (rare) blog posts over the past couple months, you have been aware of my ongoing work to attempt to visualize the concept of ideation as a system. I have been doing with work in support of MIT's Center for Media Dynamics alongside fellow classmate and SDM'er, Matt Harper. (Matt's blog can be found here: Our final submission is contained below, complete with a link to our latest animation. Please provide feedback if you have ideas for improvement. Thanks!

The goal of this project was to develop a visual representation of “ideation” – the creation of
ideas. We achieved this by representing ideation as an evolving system of interconnected,
hierarchically structured elements.

To represent the system visually we developed a metaphor which structures the ideation
process in three tiers. The first tier represents the environment in which the idea creator
generates the idea, and includes the resources, ideas, experiences and knowledge that exist
in that environment. The second tier represents the idea creator, who absorbs, filters and
recombines those environmental elements. Finally, the third tier represents the idea itself, made
of elements from the environment and constructed in response to the creator’s intent. Each tier
filters and passes information to adjacent tiers in the system.

The visual metaphor provides a comprehensible view of ideation as a system, and shows
how ideas emerge from elements both internal and external to the idea creator. Finally, this
visualization allows a viewer to simply understand how the creation of new ideas depends on
ideas that already exist, and how cultural, technological and economic factors can have an
impact on how this system behaves.

The development of new ideas is traditionally viewed as an unpredictable and ambiguous
process best left to creative people and brainstorming sessions. Yet, history has shown us that
ideas do not arise as haphazardly as one may think. In fact, the most well-known ideas often
emerge, adapt, and evolve in predictable patterns. More specifically, the majority of “new” ideas
are not new at all, but simply existing concepts that are re-purposed, evolved, or merged to
create some new instance of the existing idea. As these ideas come together, they collectively
behave in a Darwinian manner, slowly evolving, branching, and discarding as necessary with
each innovation. Ideas can be as grand or as simple as one would like, from Einstein’s Theory
of Relativity down to a home-owner’s clever fix for a creaky floorboard.

Specific Aims
Our intention was to improve the viewer’s understanding of the formation ideas by presenting a
novel visual metaphor that evokes both insight and clarity.

Development of the Ideation visualization was a highly iterative process. It required the
development and exploration of a great range of visual metaphors. We developed a series of
hand-drawn sketches, with each iteration incorporating a peer review process for validation and
ideas for improvement. This highly experimental process took us through the design metaphors
of blueprints, DNA strands, musical notation, nested spheres, and finally, a multi-tiered structure
with strands of information being filtered between tiers.

Over time, the form of our final output evolved from a series of static representations. We
realized that a dynamic treatment would be required to fully illustrate the cause-and-effect
relationships that define the creation of a new idea. What was a static representation of the

Ideation system turned into a dynamic, narrated, animated story. We produced this output
through a series of a hand-drawn sketches that were digitally photographed, imported onto a
computer, then cleaned and rendered in Adobe Photoshop. From there, the rendered images
were transferred into Adobe Flash, where they were brought to life through placement on an
animated timeline.

The animation had two main sections. The first presents a personal narrative of a particular idea
being created, dependent on the knowledge that the creator has within their environment. The
second part of the narration introduces and describes the tiered model itself, and discusses the
factors and dynamics which can affect how and when an idea comes into being. Both sections
are both narrated and animated, with the verbal and visual components reinforcing one another.
This adherence to the principles of visual storytelling yields a compelling, cohesive result.

Final peer reviews of this approach have been positive. We believe that the success of our
approach lies in the combination of the different elements that were combined to yield the final
work. First, the combination of both visual and audible information allows the greatest possible
bandwidth for the communication of information, with the two elements at times reinforcing one
another, and at other times providing different but complementary information.

Second, the graphical elements used to visualize this system – the ontology developed – is
again a combination of several different types of entities. Where the representation of hierarchy
was required, we divided elements from one another and arranged them in a way that showed
their hierarchical relation. This was used in particular in the separation of the environment –
creator – idea structure, which showed hierarchy both by nesting concentric circles and by
arranging layers vertically. Conversely, where appropriate we combined concepts into a single
visual element; an example here is how the elements of an idea are shown as lines within a
layer, while the passing of those ideas between layers is represented by the same line element.
This technique – of adding complexity where needed but keeping other elements as simple as
possible – increased the comprehensibility of the model overall.

Finally, the approach of incorporating a story within a descriptive narrative seemed to resonate
particularly strongly with individuals who have reviewed the work. The system this work
describes is quite complex, but describing that system in the context of a simple, relatable story
makes the system much less complicated for the viewer to understand.

Future Areas
Future work will expand on the existing animation to discuss how the mechanics within each
layer can be made more effective. In particular, we will look at the cultural aspects of idea
creation, and consider both how the culture within a society (the human environment), and the
cultural context within which an individual works, can contribute to generating more great ideas.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Increasing Importance of Product Experience

Most people don’t think about the complexity of their mobile phones. After all, it may just be a phone like any other, allowing you to make calls, check your email on the train, and perhaps even play a game or find the nearest coffee shop. If you have the right model, your phone might even allow you to shoot high-definition video or actually see the person you’re talking to on the other end. Designed right, and this device is like "magic", effortlessly bringing you closer to your friends and loved ones and seamlessly delivering you all the world’s wealth of entertainment and knowledge. Designed poorly, and the phone becomes a point of annoyance, frustrating you on a daily basis as you struggle to check emails or find the Talk button. Surely you have experienced both ends of this spectrum and may even appreciate the value of a well-designed product experience. As technology continues to advance, and manufacturers integrate more and more features into our phones, the importance of getting that product experience will heighten to critical proportions.

Of course, increasing complexity of consumer products is not only true in the mobile phone market. Nearly all consumer technologies are advancing in complexity at an ever-increasing rate, escalating in capabilities and advancing by exponential factors of performance. Heightening the complexity, consumer electronics are also converging and colliding through networked capabilities and services. Gone are the days of single-function, isolated products. In order to be successful, today’s product producing firm must develop offerings that seamlessly integrate within a large network of other products of services, provide all the features and performance that are expected, and present it all in an elegant package that masks all of the complexity behind it.

Clearly, today’s consumer electronics and digital services market has matured beyond static functionality and performance and has become a more dynamic “experience-based” market. One needs to look no further than market leader Apple for evidence of that. Consider a consumer product firm that intends to compete with a new tablet computer. If they simply provide expected functionality and performance at a competitive price, then their product will not stand out amongst the competition. Even if the product delivers with exceptional performance measures, which would be expensive to the firm, this competitive edge will likely not last long. In order to truly differentiate their product, the firm must provide an innovative and cohesive “tablet computing experience” that encapsulates its performance and functionality while masking its complexity. This is a challenge endeavor as the experience quality of the tablet depends not only on the design and quality of the physical object and its interface, but the experience the user has utilizing the network services and interacting with the digital applications and content that it provides. Clearly, many of these impacting factors within the product’s system are not in control of the product firm, but failure to recognize, understand, and manage these forces is a recipe for failure.

This approach to differentiation through experience design may sound rather difficult or esoteric, but the benefits of competing on experience can be significant and enduring. In fact, recent examples show how optimizing for experience and not on capabilities can actually lead to creation of radically innovative products or better yet, creation of new markets. 

So what is this vague concept of “product experience”? As mentioned earlier, it is greater than the product’s capabilities and aesthetic appearance. Instead, product experience is what emerges when that product is encountered and perceived by a user. The product’s form and function play vital roles in the product experience, as do the user’s expectations, emotions, and overall psychological state when they interact with that product. The significance in regards to our discussion of the emerging importance of product experience is that it now takes more than technical acumen and manufacturing capabilities to develop superior products. Instead, the development of great products will require a multi-disciplinary approach that holistically addresses technology, business strategy, and user psychology, understanding the principles of each discipline and the results of their convergence.  

If the benefits of great product design are so significant, why are there still so many poorly designed or overly complex products on the market? Do companies simply not realize the vital role it can play in a sustainable business strategy? Or, do they realize its benefits but it’s just too difficult to commit to the long-view in the face of a fast-moving competitive market? Even with good intentions, does it just break down due to the nature of organizations, such as departments with varying perspectives and priorities each degrading the user experience? Finally, is it possible that it just comes down to need for great designers? From personal experience, I think most companies fail to understand the second-order benefits that come from a strong design strategy and process. Beautifully-designed products with perfect usability are great, and I do believe they enable long-term brand loyalty, but the real hidden benefits of design may come from the clarity and agility that a well-implemented design-process can provide. What do you think? Would love to get more input on the matter... 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Applying Gestural Interfaces to Command-and-Control

Last fall, I was fortunate enough to be tasked with a fascinating challenge by the US Army's Command-and-Control Directorate (C2D). Along with Martina Balestra, a co-worker at MITRE and fellow Human Factors Engineer, I had the opportunity to explore the possible application of gesture-based interface technologies to command-and-control (C2) workflows and environments. The work that we produced, entitled "Applying Gestural Interfaces to Command-and-Control (C2)" was subsequently submitted and accepted to be presented at HCI International 2011 in Orlando, Florida this July. Since public release was required for this work to be presented, I now have the ability to share it. 

The following is a short abstract of the paper in addition to some concept sketches developed as part of the project. Please contact me if you're interested in hearing more about our process! I'm proud of this work as it was one of the most rewarding challenges of my professional career. 

Abstract (Approved for Public Release: 10-3988. Distribution Unlimited)

This whitepaper examines the applicability of gesture-based user interfaces in notional Command-and-Control (C2) environments of the United States Army. It was authored by a team of Human Factors Engineers at The MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit research and development organization funded by the United States Government. Since MITRE resides in a not-for-profit advisory position to their federal sponsors, the research team was able to take an unbiased perspective driven solely by identified issues, the search for improved workflows, and practical opportunities for technology development. The goal of the effort was to inform the US Army community so that it can make responsible, needs-driven decisions regarding gestural interface technologies, and avoid the potential pitfalls that may arise from technology-centered or profit-driven decisions.

The problems focused upon by this research primarily revolved around the collaborative human workflows that occur within Command-and-Control environments. Specifically, the effort targeted US Army-based C2 environments, such as a notional fixed command center, a mobile command center, and the environment of the dismounted soldier in the battlefield. The primary issue is that the currently-implemented technologies, while independently sufficient, present constraints when distributed personnel are collaborating across them. The research team addressed this cross-platform issue by adhering to a Systems Engineering framework that required a holistic approach to the “system” of distributed C2 personnel and their technologies. The goal for the final output was to demonstrate how these technologies may come together as a system to support a more efficient, dynamic, and effective operational workflow than today’s reality.

After carefully examining the field of current and emerging gestural interface technologies, and mapping them against available HCI-related research findings, the team concluded that US Army personnel may indeed benefit from effectively and appropriately implemented technologies from this domain. At a high level, gestural technologies offer C2 personnel an ability to conduct more efficient and collaborative workflows across distributed environments. The exact details of these workflows, including the key users, actions, and technology paradigms, are outlined in the content of the whitepaper. In an effort to be as prescriptive as possible, the research team decided that it would be valuable to include a sizable section within the whitepaper dedicated to instructing the user on how to implement gestural technologies for C2 application. In this section, they outline the key design patterns to selecting proper solutions and developing effective interaction design frameworks. The nature of this instructional portion ranges from high-level design principles and best practices down to detailed visual demonstrations of recommended gestures. 

(Approved for Public Release: 10-3988. Distribution Unlimited)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ideation-to-Innovation: An Evolving Storyboard

As I've continued my examination of the ideation process this semester, I have become increasingly convinced of the benefit of graphical depictions of complex systems such as this. My most recent work has been done in collaboration with Matt Harper, an MIT System Design & Management fellow who is equally as interested in the product design/innovation process. The following is our in-progress storyboard for our course in System Visualization. The final output will be a more polished and animated version, similar to the RSA Animation series. This is very much a draft so please fire away with ideas for improvement. 

The Story
Here you are, taking your daily two mile walk from work to the train station. Today’s like any other day…  that is until a cool wind picks up and a dark sky forms over your head and it begins to rain…really rain. Of course, you forgot your umbrella and are not even wearing a decent raincoat. You continue to walk, thinking about your lousy, soaked situation

Then, it dawns on you What if there was an application for your phone that monitored the weather, recognized that you were walking, identified your contacts that were driving nearby, and notified them of your situation.

Your kind friends could excitedly rush to your rescue with one lucky companion getting the honor of scooping you up in their warm, day, coffee-ready sedan.  Like that, an idea is formed. Nothing real or tangible was actually created of course, but a notion of a possibility was conceived. 

Circumstances Cause Intent
So where did that idea come from? It certainly didn’t fall from the sky with the rain…or did it?  The unexpected rain combined with your lack of umbrella created a circumstance that served as a catalyst for an idea to be formed. You came up with the idea because you wanted to reduce your discomfort in the environment. You wouldn’t have come up with that idea if you strolling comfortably on a sunny day.  

Without that circumstance, problem, or challenge, that creative spark may never had existed! That may sound foolish when you consider the “pick your friend up” mobile application, but what if the idea had a much more profound contribution, say to a cure for cancer or source of sustainable energy. The beauty is not in the idea itself, but in the concept that the challenge presented by the environment triggered your problem-solving creativity to produce something novel. Circumstances create intent to form ideas. 

Intent Relies on Readiness

Of course, the formation of the idea is not even possible without some form of readiness on the part of idea’s creator. It took you having at least some knowledge of the possibilities of today’s mobile phones. And of course, it took an understanding of the generally accepted ways that we help each other, and how giving a ride to a friend in the rain is a perfectly reasonable gesture. Whatever ideas you come up with are going to be products of your knowledge and experiences. In a sense, the ideas are novel combinations of everything you know, filtered in order to achieve a specific intent.

Readiness Relies on Environment
So the idea has been conceived based upon novel combinations of the information in your head. But where did that knowledge come from? From your environment of course… the experiences you’ve had, the people you’ve known, the books you’ve read, the institutions you’ve attended, and the culture you’ve lived in all play a part in forming your knowledge base and values.
This concept becomes even more powerful when you consider the effect of many people working together to form an idea. After all, if ideas are simply novel combinations, simply adding people will greatly increase the chances of great ideas, right? Well not exactly, but we’ll address that in a minute.

Stepping Back: Ideation as a System
Stepping back from the simple mechanics of a single idea, one could see that this ideation environment is really a system. Each component plays a critical role within it, feeding into each other and contributing to the ever-changing form and overall value of the system. Ideas are how we evolve ourselves and our environment.

Not surprisingly, the Ideation System mimics many of the patterns we see in nature. Ideas, much like seeds, play a fundamental role in the evolution of a society. Ideas are constantly forming and germinating in the environment… some catch on and grow, while others fail to catch on. Much like seeds, an environment needs to foster a high quantity of ideas in order to flourish and evolve.

Much like sunlight and rain for seeds, ideas require proper conditions from which to form… and once they do form, they need the cultivation of a supporting environment and culture in which to grow.  

The Tiers of Innovation
Of course, this process of filtering from environment to a ready idea creator to the idea itself is not as simple or mechanical as this model presents it. Culture plays a critical role… the promotion of education, the exploration of new ideas, the questioning of old ones… all require the proper cultural environment. A culture of learning, communication, and experimentation are all fundamental to the formation and realization of great ideas. Let’s take a closer look to see how that culture influences innovation…

Consider an environment where there is a strong culture of communication, idea exploration, experimentation, and acceptance of failure. The environment is dynamic and rich with cross-pollination. People learn from institutions and organizations, develop new theories and innovative thoughts, and in turn, contribute back into society.

In a very evolutionary way, organizations and individuals evolve through the discovery and advancement of knowledge. They are constantly consuming and organizing their new information to fit their values and mental models of the world.  Advancement of organizations and individuals is often done through the production of ideas, pulling knowledge and capabilities from the environment in novel or unexpected ways to address emerging circumstances

This may appear all too chaotic and random, and to some extent it is. There is a great deal of forces at play within an open society, from the free sharing of ideas from people to the deliberate intent of organizations and institutions. If one were to examine the flow of information and ideas in a society, they could look at it from a range of perspectives, from cultural influence to structured regulatory effects

Taking this approach may allow one to even examine the story behind an idea, as it travels from the foundational knowledge and capabilities from the environment that made it possible to the individual or organization that consumed that information to the final idea that was conceived and then added back into the system for potential growth.

Interested in seeing how the project turned out? here it is..