Sunday, August 12, 2012

5 Reasons Why Augmented Reality is the Future of Social

Social media is getting stale. While its true that Facebook, Twitter, and the also-rans keep us increasingly interconnected, they all follow the same paradigm and the novelty has worn off. The problem is that they provide a user experience that, while constantly connected and updating, is strangely disconnected from how we interact with the real world. The idea of scrolling through a chronological list of pictures and status updates representing real-world activity of our friends while we stare at a monitor or mobile device is frankly disjointed from reality and due for disruption. A more suitable approach would be an environment that is more naturally mapped to the real world and our experience in it. In other words, social media's probable disruption (or evolution) might very well be a collision with augmented reality (AR), a technology paradigm is that is specifically designed for seamless integration of the virtual and natural. If you're not convinced, here are a handful of specific reasons why AR may be the future of social media…

(Quick note #1: If you cringe at the idea of Facebook status messages popping up on your nerdy AR glasses while you're trying to walk down the street, don't worry, because I do too. That's not what this post is about. There are better design solutions, but that's a topic for another time.)

1. AR provides better context 
While today's social tools provide content in a flat list, tomorrow's augmented reality tools will take that list and disperse it across the real world. This will mean that pictures will be discoverable where they were taken and messages will appear with those that sent them or aligned with their subject. The result will be a bridged gap between today's isolated virtual world of social networking and the current physical world. The significance is that context enables completely new meaning and significance. Viewing a friend's photos of their trip to the Italian coast while you sit in your cubicle at work is fine, but discovering those photos while you walk the trails of Cinque Terre would be wild. 

2. AR is immediate 
The level of immediacy of Facebook and Twitter today depend upon how often you reach into your pocket and pull out your mobile device. With AR, the information is simply presented in real time. You can look across your college campus, city block, or office building and literally see the conversation taking place. The experience of sitting in a stadium or walking through a park will completely change as you see friend's messages simply appear as they are shared. 

3. AR enhances your memory
The way that AR would present information would be much closer to how we function naturally in the real world already. As you run into old friends or visit places you've been before, you likely recall the memories associated with them. Memory is contextual and spatial like this - it's distributed throughout the world, full of personal triggers that cue up times from the past. For instance, you may not remember the huge pickup football game you played at the park behind the school until you actually pass by the park behind the school. Of course, our memories are completely flawed, forgetting details or associating events with wrong times or places. AR will facilitate and enhance this natural behavior by automatically distributing cues to information and memories throughout the world. 

4. AR draws from the memories of others
In the early days of Facebook, the immediate present is all that mattered. Anything older was dumped into photo albums or buried behind page links. As the archive built up, so did the need for a better historical view - enter Facebook Timeline. As we continue to provide social content, our collective archives will not only grow in size but quality as well, containing as much high definition video and imagery as Likes and status updates. This rich collective archive of memories will become increasingly interesting, especially as the novelty of mundane status updates wears off (e.g. "I have a cold today…cough cough"). The social AR tool will ditch the idea of burying memories in the timelines of your friends' pages and instead bring the past forward into your current world. Ideas, thoughts, and memories will be scattered about, thus enhancing your present by drawing from the the past others. 

(Quick note #2: As this collective archive builds, expect the emergence of tools (both AR and non-AR) that will help us make better use of if, such as storytelling tools that weave experiences across people, communities, and events or visualization tools that enhance the understanding of the aggregate.)

5. AR encourages real-world social behavior 
The irony of today's social tools is that they promote anti-social behavior. The more we use them, we're interacting more in the virtual world and less in the actual world. AR encourages much different and integrated behavior. By integrating the virtual and the physical, today's walls break down and we're left with an enhanced version of real-world interaction. In the long term, this is better for us on the whole, encourages a world of real human interaction that is simply enhanced by technology, which is the way it is supposed to be. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

11 Design Principles For Augmented Reality

Google officially revealed its "Glass" project to the world at their developer's conference this past week. Glass is a wearable computing product that intends to liberate people from their smartphone and other device obsessions by interacting with digital information through a pair of Google-enabled glasses. Their demo focused on the ability to capture and broadcast what's being seen through the glasses, which is a slight departure from past Glass concept work that showed a more traditional augmented reality display (think: navigation and messages projected on your glasses). No matter the direction that Google eventually goes, wearable computing and augmented reality are clearly back on the public stage. 

Like Google, I've also gone the way of augmented reality. I recently joined the Creative team at APX Labs, an MIT Media Lab sponsor that produces advanced technology solutions in the public and private sector. A/R and wearable computing is a space that APX has established itself in and I hope to make a significant impact in creating a meaningful product experience around it. So, like any disciplined designer, I've created a set of augmented reality design principles to be used for a solid foundation. I've included those principles here and hope you gain value from them if you're working with A/R technologies. 

I'm always open to collaborating or getting feedback, so contact me at if you're interested. I'm located in the Cambridge Innovation Center as of July 5. 

1. Improve reality, don't just add to it  
No one uses a system because of what it does. They use it because of what it does for them. If someone is going to use an augmented reality system, it must be obvious that it will improve their understanding, their ability to complete a task, or their overall enjoyment in the world. All the bells and whistles of technology are pointless if the personal benefit is not clear. A little trick for getting this right is to simply ask "what am I augmenting?". If you're not directly enhancing memory, perception, or another critical human attribute, then you may be headed down the wrong path. 

2. Be clear and simple 
An effective user interface clearly conveys what you are looking at, what you can do, and how to get back to where you were. Failing to deliver on any of these promises will only lead to feeling of frustration or confusion. You must accept the fact that people will not use your product if it is frustrating, no matter what its technical capabilities and specifications are. Simplicity must be a dominant priority.

3. Be predictable  
More than just simplicity, interfaces must also be highly predictable. What this means is that the interface gives users confidence of what will happen when they interact with it. Achieving this goal requires the consistent adherence to simple yet scalable rules and patterns throughout the interface. Use consistent strategies for organizing, aligning, and ordering interface elements. The end result is a system that is quicker to learn, easier to master, and results in less mistakes. 

4. Protect the field of view at all costs 
Augmented reality systems deal with sacred ground: a person's field of view. Anything that we add to the interface must provide significant benefit to offset the cost of the space that it is taking up. Unlike a standard mobile or web interface where excess clutter can sometimes be ignored, we run the risk of unnecessarily obscuring the line of sight of a user. For this reason, we must maintain strict discipline in avoiding excessive graphics in the field of view of the user. This requires the keen understanding of the priorities of our users, and more importantly, the discipline to remove or demote what is not. 

5. Be natural 
There are de facto standards and common patterns for interacting with objects in this world, whether they are natural or man-made. These standards drive our expectations and give us a foundation for interacting with new objects. Understand the patterns and carefully select the ones that best map to the expectations or mental models of your users. This is particularly critical with augmented reality systems that are introducing completely new paradigms while existing in the context of the natural world. With these systems, the understanding of and adherence to natural human gestures will be critical. 

6. Be invisible 
An effective augmented reality interface should appear to integrate naturally over the reality that it is displayed upon. Doing so will make the interface simply an enhancement upon the real world, instead of an artificial layer. It should be almost invisible. This is a difficult challenge but it requires an understanding of minimization of design elements, usage of proper visual perspective, and perhaps new visual techniques for mapping digital imagery onto the real world. For this reason, static interface elements (i.e. those that are in a fixed position in the user's field of view) should be minimized as they enforce the presence of an artificial layer in front of the user's face. 

7. Speak clearly 
Nothing is more confusing to a user than the failure to understand what is happening with a system that they are interacting with. A lack of feedback related to status, progress, or an error will only lead to frustrated users. Provide simple feedback, either in graphical or textual form (or both), that clearly conveys what has happened or what needs to be done. Remember that users are not engineers, so accurate technical description is less important than describing the simple "bottom line" implications of the status. 

8. Think about the big picture
Most cutting-edge user interface demonstrations provide excessive emphasis on what makes the interface unique and fail to demonstrate how their system integrates into the life of the user. They show off flashy headsets, glasses, and gloves without demonstrating how the user will transition into and out of these peripheral interfaces. Without design of these transitions, these products will never amount to anything more than cool demos. Avoid this trap by thinking holistically your system. In other words, design the ecosystem that surrounds you product and the chances for adoption will dramatically increase. Think through the workflows that will likely occur across interface menus and features and ensure that they are as efficient as possible. More on this topic here.

9. Don't waste color 
Colors in an interface can convey a great deal of meaning. They can highlight, draw attention to an alert, or convey that a feature is disabled. Used correctly, colors can make an interface more effective in its ability to help users complete their task. Conversely, over-abundance of color throughout the interface will only lead to confusion or obscurity of built-in meanings of colors. Sparse usage of color is particularly important in an augmented reality system where the field of view is saturated with an abundance of ever-changing colors. Use color only to draw the attention of the user, not to satisfy a pleasing color palette. 

10. Be social 
Today's technologies are increasingly focused in connecting people, and augmented reality should be no exception. Seek out opportunities to integrate communication, collaboration, and information sharing directly into the product experience. This approach will result in a more valued and seamless user experience and also open up the door for increased user adoption through network effects. 

11. Be flexible
With screen space at a premium, creators of augmented reality systems run the risk of providing an overwhelming product every experience. Forget trying to please everyone. Provide only the core features that you know are critical to the user base, and then enable an appropriate level of flexibility on top of it. Everyone will end up satisfied with their own tailored experience. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Death of the Digital Document

Question: What does docx stand for?

Answer: I have no idea. I figure that “doc” is short for “document” and I can only assume that the “x” is for “extra”, as in “extra meaningless letters tacked on to my file name for no particular reason that a normal person would actually care about.”

Someday sooner than you think, people are going to laugh at the idea that we used to type strings of letters at the end of document names. I’m not sure why Windows even puts these things into the names of files, let alone allowing you to edit them by default when you’re changing a file name. By building this behavior in, it’s sending the message that “you probably want to change the file extension when you change the name”.  I don’t think I’ve done this more than a couple times in 12 years of professional work. Looking past the extensions, consider how we manage document names. We append endless methods for differentiation, including version numbers, dates, authors, or foolish notes like “latest” or “new” (only to then create a updated version). I’m confident this idea is going away very soon.

Digital documents like those described above are products of an old era. The analogy of individual paper documents filed in paper folders just isn’t necessary anymore. We spend endless hours composing messages and creating graphics that may never be seen or used again outside of their original document. In these documents, we often make points that others have already made and waste time building graphics when others have done it better. Most importantly, potentially meaningful ideas sit dormant, preventing us from making the critical connections that are essential for new idea development. So what’s the better model? Shared documents like Google Docs or Open Office? That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still just an improved version of an old model.

When everything becomes interconnected, the concept of isolated documents fades away. What takes its place is something more dynamic and evolutionary. Hundreds of millions of us are constantly immersed in a paradigm where pages subscribe to other pages, where views are managed for others to see in real-time as they are updated. It’s an interconnected, user-customized experience and it makes sense. If it didn’t make sense, hundreds of millions of us wouldn’t rely on Facebook for managing our social interactions, look to Twitter for managing our news and happenings, and Pinterest wouldn’t be one of the hottest apps on the market.

This model of dynamic pages and subscriptions has emerged naturally in a human environment where people are free to take technology in any direction they choose. College students, mid-career engineers, and grandmothers all quickly grasp this same model. Sure, some people are more inclined to share personal information than others using the tools, but isn’t that just normal human nature to have varying levels of privacy concerns?

One benefit of this approach is value of controlling your own “broadcast” out to the world. Much has been said about the importance that people feel from sharing their thoughts (or party pictures) with the world. People act as mini-celebrities in a tiny world of followers, curating interesting quotes and movie clips for their adoring fans to enjoy. What is more egotistical than a constant live personal broadcast to the world?

Meanwhile, the consumer is equally enthralled. In today’s environment, where we’re completed flooded with a constant stream of information, nothing is better than a tailored news feed of relevant information. We rely on our friends to curate the world for us, assuming that our trust in them with translate into trust in their interests. It’s a mutually beneficial experience between producer and consumer, or curator and observer.

One reason this model has emerged is that it’s simple. People are selfish and lazy (no offense, people). It’s how we’ve survived. Look out for yourself, find the easiest way to do things, and you’ll sustain. Sure, the 220 people I follow on Twitter are going to miss some stuff that I might want to know about, but I’m willing to take that chance consider that seeking my own information from the raw, disorganized web would be a full-time job.

So this brings us to the office – isn’t it just a matter of time before this new model spills over into the working world? Why are we still creating and sharing isolated files? I’ve worked in a handful of companies over the past 12 years, and everyone of them rely on the constant building and sharing of digital documents (primarily Microsoft Office). Think of the amount of time spent searching for documents, getting lost in file structures, recreating PowerPoint slides, emailing documents, requesting others to email documents, managing file versions, and other “mechanical-digital” tasks.

Let’s shift to a better model. Let’s develop better means to communicate. Let’s stop wasting time on these redundant and time-consuming activities. Better yet, let’s stop recreating each other’s work and instead evolve from it. If I have a message to convey in a presentation slide, why can’t I search for that message and get results from other slides that have been shared by my co-workers, friends, or business leaders? A quick search on a “new slide” page could reveal the most popular, highest rated, or most relevant slides based not only on my search query but my role and context as well. After all, if others have communicated the message better than me, shouldn’t I save everyone’s time and frustration and just point to their slide and give them credit?

When it comes time for me to give my presentation, the referenced slide appears right in context, and full credit is given to the source. After all, if the CEO of my company or a designer at a local startup have made the point better than me, why should I put in more effort to deliver less to my audience? We can provide better solutions that lead to better results with less effort. This combination usually wins out, doesn’t it?

Consider if the “news feed” concept from Facebook or Twitter were introduced to your workplace. People could subscribe to each other, specific activities, or deliverables. Files aren’t being passed around, but information is instead organized by interconnected pages and dynamic clusters. Worried about version management? Simply roll back the timeline to access old work. Worried about overwhelming people with adding more streaming information? The feed would be completely customizable. This model could make the current email paradigm seem overly forceful and annoying. Think about it, which of these options sound more appealing to you?
  1.  I decide the types of things that I receive
  2. I would like others to decide for me

Of course, I realize the flaw in this model as you simply can’t choose to not receive assignment from your boss, but would people actually make this choice? Shouldn’t we be trusted to subscribe the right sources of information and also provide meaningful information to those subscribing to us?
Of course, this writing isn’t about bashing email. It’s about pushing our expectations forward. It’s about rethinking how we think about information and knowledge working. In an interconnected world where we all use a dynamic, subscription-based, user-defined model for sharing social information, isn’t it only a matter of time before do the same for our more serious pursuits? I do, and I think it will change sooner than expected.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

3 Lessons for Designing iPad Apps (When Your Engineers are Overseas)

I recently completed the user experience design of an educational iPad app for Appluza, a mobile app development firm started by a few friends and classmates in the MIT System Design & Management program. The app, entitled ZooType, provides toddlers with an interactive learning experience as they develop skills in letter recognition, typing, and spelling. The project required that I design the entire user experience for the game, from the user workflows and menu structure, to interaction design and interface design, through character development, animation, and even audio recordings! This was an excellent opportunity to "own" the entire design process - something that was challenging but absolutely rewarding. Of course, it wasn't all on easy street as our dedicated development team was outsourced and located in India and I managed them for the final stages of the project as well. The following is a set of five lessons that I pass on from my experience designing ZooType.

1. Lock Down the Structure Earlier Than Normal
I personally like to learn by doing, so I want to explore as many concepts as possible during the design process to seek out the right one. This may drive engineers crazy at times, and I realize this, but the right answer is often impossible to arrive upon without first trudging through a sea of wrong ones. I've been fortunate enough to establish good working relationships with engineers over the years so we're clear on how long I can experiment before locking in on a final product. However, this approach is significantly more difficult when outsourcing to engineers who you don't share a personal history and familiarity with.

Constant changes will quickly lead to frustration from the hardworking engineers on your project, especially when the time differences between US and Asia result in entire days of development lost because of design iterations. My advice is to define and lock down the prominent user workflows, screen architecture, and core functionalities before beginning the development process and only deviate from it when completely necessary. Set expectations with engineers that some secondary screens and additional functionality may be added, but only when necessary and not a major impediment to the development process.

On ZooType, we had a detailed set of storyboards that included specific (and minimal) functionality and detailed interaction design. Having a structured and defined focal point reduced the early stage deviation which is common in software development.

2. Set Expectations About Design Exploration

I believe that User Experience Design requires a great deal of experimentation as a right or wrong design decision is often not clear until it has been sketched, prototyped, implemented, or shared.

In the case of ZooType, we weren't quite sure exactly how the characters should interact with the toddler and this required significant design experimentation. For example, we had to determine how each letter should be introduced, whether it should be spoken first and then shown (or vice versa), and how the app should react when the right or wrong answer is given. This took many tries before getting it right.

We could have made decisions such as this before beginning the development of the application and it would have resulted in an adequate design. I firmly believe, however, that these types of decisions need to be pushed off until the designers and developers could work together to reach the choices that are both technical feasible and still highly engaging to the user. Because of this necessary iteration, I highly recommend setting expectations with your development team from the beginning that design-related decisions may take occur throughout the process. Because of the locked-in structure recommended in the previous tip, there should be some slack for this.

3. Be a Storyteller, Not a Painter
I think the most difficult challenge I faced was communicating to the engineers how I wanted the characters to come alive and interact. I've worked with international teams extensively in the past but it was on more functional projects, such as the development of financial services web applications. For  more creative projects, particularly with characters, it is much more challenging to convey qualitative aspects, like the way in which you want the character to "feel" to the toddler. Had I been able to work face-to-face with these guys, this would have been fine. However, oceans, time zones, and Skype can create some pretty significant barriers.

Attempt #1... My first attempt was to create a series of frames for each character in the game, about 30 each. Early frames conveyed positive expressions and the second half contained neutral or sad ones (used when the toddler gives a wrong answer). I then provided the engineers with audio and the art and gave instructions to randomly cycle through art frames for a character for the duration of a clip. The result? A complete disaster! I had no idea what speed the characters would move at, and the result was a bouncy, jerky mess where characters moved way too much and the voices weren't even closely aligned.

Attempt #2.. With the threat of terrible animation looming (I used to animate professionally so this really bothered me), I created a detailed phoneme (i.e. mouth shapes that map to sounds) chart for each character and painstakingly built an art-to-audio spreadsheet of instructions for each of the four main characters. The instructions would tell the engineers where, when, and how long to display each art object, thus minimizing any variation that could occur.

This second attempt was much closer to the right choice, but it wasn't the only solution.. and this is where my recommendation for storytelling comes in! Since I wasn't able to do the animation myself, I decided the next best thing would be to show how I think the animation should appear. Giving qualitative commands like "make him less bouncy" over Skype would never work and likely need to frustration on both sides and lost work hours. Static screenshots also fall short when trying to convey something more kinetic, like the movement of characters or the interaction of users. Instead, I continually created short movies to communicate how I wanted the character to move. It was a good deal of extra work up front, but it ensured that my message was clear and my words would not be misinterpreted. At the end of the day, I'm not completely satisfied with the animation and art-to-audio mapping, but I think it was as good as expected considering the nature in which it was developed.

Early concept animation of Ronzi the Bear (Pre-Audio)

Mid-stage concept animation of Ronzi the Bear (with audio)

I have additional takeaways from this project, but I wanted to focus on these three as they clearly are the most significant. To wrap up: lock down structure early, explore design until late, and never "tell" when you can "show". If you would like to see the final product, please check out ZooType in the iPad app store. I would love to get your feedback on the end results of this rewarding effort.

Product page is here:

If you don't have an iPad, here's a video of the app...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Designing User Experiences for Complex Systems

Note: The following is an excerpt from my Master’s thesis entitled “User Experience Design of Complex Systems”. This is the final section of the research which provides a framework for designing user experiences for complex systems. I hope that references to earlier sections in the thesis do not cause confusion in any way. Please contact me if you would like to see the entire thesis.

The previous chapter of this research presented a range of findings regarding the deployment of design strategies within organizations with particular focus on the design of complex systems. This chapter will attempt to translate those findings into a set of actionable principles for designing and developing complex systems that optimize user experience. This “system experience design” methodology will span the product lifecycle from initial research through final implementation. The intent of this methodology is to help practitioners conduct effective research, conceive creative “system” ideas, and effectively translate those ideas into a cohesive vision.  Ultimately, systems created through this method should provide high quality and innovative user experiences and be highly desirable by customers.

However, this effort may also require specific methods for managing the complexities that are associated with systems design. This approach borrows specific methods from the disciplines of Systems Thinking, Design Thinking, User Experience Design, and User-Centered Design. The intent of the approach is to provide a practitioner with tools and techniques to balance the broad nature system design with detailed aspects of product interface design. Adherence to these principles will also help practitioners balance the strategic, technical, and design-oriented aspect of a systems project from foundational research through final implementation. As learned in this research, the individual steps of a design process are not as critical as the nature in which that process comes together as whole, so it is essential to keep a broad view.

Finally, an ideal system experience design process will meet the following objectives:
1.      Be focused on the intent of the customer
2.      Translate customer insights into technical requirements
3.      Promote holistic “systems thinking”
4.      Promote exploratory thinking and resulting innovations
5.      Balance customer desirability, technical feasibility, and financial viability
6.      Produce understandable design artifacts to serve as common points-of-reference
  1. Enable the explicit communication of intent, assumptions and expectations
  2. Identify and resolve gaps, redundancies, and inconsistencies across the system experience
  3. Identify paths to opportunities for innovative solutions

Process Walkthrough
The following is a useful set of principles to guide you through the experience design of complex systems.

Stage 1: Situate
A compelling design for a future system experience must be built upon a rich understanding of existing situation. This includes the current conditions of the market, capabilities of relevant technologies, and expectations of prospective users. As noted throughout this research, a balanced foundation of insights from these perspectives is critical to market success.

Unlike technology and market research, the process of understanding prospective users is much less a science than an art. From personal experience, I believe this aspect of research is most effective when researchers demonstrate the following behaviors:

  1. Empathetic Observation: The capturing of user insights can be a challenging and misleading process. One way to avoid this common trap is through ethnographic research, which is the practice of immersing oneself in the environment of a target user for an extended period of time. This allows the researcher to gather interesting insights that may not have been articulated by anyone in a user survey or interview. Just as important is the ability for a researcher to establish a level of empathy for the observed. By experiencing a prospective user’s frustrations and intentions, the researcher establishes an emotion tie to solving the problem. This can be an incredibly motivational force during the process of designing and realizing solutions.

  1. Principle Development: Research of design-oriented organizations such as Apple and Frog Design revealed the reliance on enduring design principles. This type of principle development is made possible through the sustained observation of the preferences and behavioral patterns of prospective users. When a new project arises, the organization is able to draw from existing principles that have endured over time and overlay them with new insights that are particular to the specific opportunity.

  1. Pattern Recognition: One of the challenges of the Situate process is the attempt to understand which observations are meaningful and which are random. Researchers must look beyond current actions and comments to extract behavioral patterns and expectations that may carry through to future conditions. For this reason, the ability to quickly and accurately recognize meaningful patterns of behavior and thinking in a user environment is critical for success.

The desired output of the Situate stage is a foundation of principles and insights on which the creative process will be begin. Examples of user-related insights may include the expected priorities of users, the likely “mental model” of which they will be basing decisions, and the behavioral patterns that they will likely exhibit in future conditions. This process of extracting enduring patterns is a challenging one as it will be easy to fall into the trap of simply taking direction from prospective users. Instead, the system designer must “read between the lines” of user feedback and behaviors to extract latent needs and unarticulated expectations. One method for gathering such insights is to conduct extensive ethnographic research, which is the process of unobtrusively immersing oneself in the environment of the user to “live in their shoes” for a period of time. This type of empathetic observation allows the researcher to fully understand the conditions of the prospective user. This process reveals significantly more insights than those that are lost in strictly verbal interactions. Ethnographic methods should not be relegated simply to the responsibility of designers. As noted in the interviews with Sean Carney, those of other disciplines should be involved in the process as well. Engineers, for example, significantly benefit from first-hand observations of the people that will be interacting with the technologies they develop.

An effective method for communicating user-related insights and design principles is the development of user personas. This is the process of developing notional profiles for the distinct user types that may interact with a system. In the marketing domain, this method is particularly focused on market segmentation and demographics. However, this level of specificity is not necessary for user experience design. Instead, user experience personas focus on behavioral patterns, preferences, and principles. The benefit of these personas is that they allow the designer to organize and communicate design principles in the most tangible way: by linking them to an actual individual human’s experience. In the face of system complexity, user personas provide a simple and understandable point-of-reference of which all disciplines can center around. In this sense, user personas are a powerful means of cross-disciplinary communication and coordination. 

Stage 2: Conceive
The second recommended stage of System Experience Design is to conceive the system. It is during this stage that system designers will utilize the principles and insights from the previous stage to envision a solution that will provide a more desirable experience that is both technically feasible and economically advantageous. This stage should be divided into the following three steps:

·         Step 1: Determine Intent
The first step of the Conceive stage is to determine the intent of the system. What this requires is a determination of the ideal system from the perspective of expected users. Specifically, the system designer must determine what the system will do for the user, how it will address their environment, and what their conditions will be like as a result. By taking a user-driven approach, the system designer is forced to think holistically about the user’s entire interaction with the system. This is in contrast to a technology-driven system design approach, which may lead individual components being designed in isolation.

The resulting output of this step is a set of “intent statements” that convey the most desirable system from the perspective of the user. These statements are best communicated with the grammatical structure of “To [verb]”, such as “To improve the sharing of contextually-relevant photographs with friends” (which is your intention) or “To share contextually-relevant photographs with friends” (which is the user’s intention). Either one of this approaches is acceptable. It is only recommended that the system designer be consistent in which approach is utilized. These short statements will be extended in the steps that follow with technical solutions. However, this initial statement is critical because it establishes the intention of the system and ensures that all technical decisions are ground in user-centered rationale. In addition to the specific “To” statements, it is recommended that system experience designers develop a single “To” statement that summarizes the whole intent of the system as well. This structure for articulating intent was adapted from the System Architecture framework of Professor Edward Crawley, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT.

One may find it peculiar that an innovation-centered process such as this does not contain a stage dedicated to ideation. The reason for this is that it is expected that a wide range of creative ideas be evoked and explored throughout the entire process. For example, in this particular step, the system designer should develop and consider an extensive range of user intentions to address. The designer should then carefully select the sub-set of intentions that are yet to be effectively addressed by market. The rationale behind integrating ideation into every step of the process is that a high quality product experience requires an entire range of great ideas disseminated throughout. These “smaller” ideas may be the targeting of hidden customer needs, novel methods of product interaction, or the development of original supporting services. 

·         Step 2: Identify Satisfying Conditions
It is during this second step of the Conceive stage that the system designer must begin to explore possible system conditions that would address the intentions identified in the first step. Ideation during this process requires a great deal of cross-disciplinary exploration, as new “system ideas” will likely rely upon a combination of insights from a range of domains. One could think of this step as a form of “targeted brainstorming” where those of all disciplines explore the various ways in which desired intentions could be met. For example, meeting the intention to “share contextually-relevant photographs” might be addressed with strategies that involve sending, projecting, or printing images. It is important that specific technical or financial constraints do not interfere during this stage. Development of innovative systems requires that seemingly ideal and potentially disruptive ideas be explored during, despite the fact that they may seam technically infeasible or financially improbable at first. This process must embrace the reality that great ideas result from the exploration and advancement of existing, lesser, or failing, ideas.

The output of this state is an articulated set of conditions that serve as the strategy for the technical solution that will be determined the steps that follow. The format for this articulation is a “By” statement, which will be associated with each “To” statement from the preceding step. In effect, this “By” statement will bridge the gap between user insights and technical solutions. To continue with the photography innovation example, a “To-By” statement may read, “To share contextually-relevant photographs with friends by direct and immediate transfer based upon proximity and authorization”. The challenge presented by this intent may open up opportunities for innovations in wireless communication, hardware design, or business strategy.

·         Step 3: Envision Solution
It is during this step that the form of the system begins to develop. Using the intentions and strategies formulated during the previous steps, the designer must conceive the components, services, and additional elements that will converge to create a desirable system. In order achieve this goal the designer should utilize the previously developed “To-By” statements as structure. This structure should provide the necessary creative tension to instigate ideas that draw from the insights developed during the Situate phase. This is actually the critical aspect of this process that enables innovative ideas. By determining intent, but not specific solutions, the earlier steps have simultaneously provided direction and flexibility. This is a powerful combination when utilized properly. 

Note that during this step, the designer should be utilizing the “To-By” statements as a composite and not as isolated requirements. This will allow for better system design and improved opportunities for achieving the competitive advantages that well-designed systems provide. A holistic approach will also increase the likelihood that the user’s experience with the system is cohesive and consistent. Another advantage of a systems-based approach at this stage is the likelihood for maximizing and controlling the positive emergent properties of the system.

The format of this step is the “Using” statement to be appended to the previously developed “To-By” statements. This allows the designer to determine the solution that will provide the conditions that will address the intent of the user. Completing this statement will create a direct relationship between proposed user intentions and specific technical solutions. To continue with the photography example, the “To-By-Using” statement may read: “To share contextually-relevant photographs with friends by direct and immediate transfer based upon proximity and authorization using a multi-touch camera interface, wireless technologies, and authentication based upon social networking services”. This singular statement demonstrates an example of a technology solution can be tightly bonded to a user-centered purpose. 

Stage 4: Graphical Depiction
As noted throughout this research, a good process should produce understandable design artifacts to serve as a common ground between disciplines. The value of design artifacts is their ability to reduce ambiguity and confusion by providing a common visual language. This value is particularly important in the design of a system user experience where system ambiguity and domain-specific jargon can lead to frustrating or non-existent interactions. In a systems context, the goal of these visualizations is to help facilitate coordination across those involved in developing the system and to help maintain a singular holistic viewpoint.

These visualizations are also critical in establishing and maintaining a vision for the final end-state for the system. In this sense, they serve as prototypes to be constantly evolved during the system design process. This is particularly critical in long-term, complex systems projects where simple visualizations can provide much-needed clarity and focus. Beyond internal consensus, they can also be used to communicate ideas with intended users or demonstrate a vision to a client or customer.
For this method, it is recommended that the system designer draw from the “To-By-Using” statements developed into the previous stage to create the following two design artifacts:
1.      System Experience Visualization: This visualization is an attempt to capture the entire system experience in a single diagram. It should cover the full scope of the system experience, including all people, places, objects, and interfaces. Unlike a purely technical system diagram, such as software architecture diagram, this visualization should primarily focus on the user’s activities and interactions within the system. For that reason, it is not necessary to delve into the specifics of technologies at the high-level visualization. An example where System Experience Visualizations would be highly valuable would be the development of a system of convergent hardware and software products within an organization. In this case, a system-level visualization will help the various product owners to understand the context of their solution within the “big picture” of the user’s environment. This approach reveals gaps, inconsistencies, or redundancies in the user’s experience across the various products. More importantly, it facilitates critical holistic thinking by keeping the focus on the singular viewpoint of the user. The purpose of System Experience Visualizations is vastly different than a technical system visualization that is primarily concerned with the functional or formal interfaces between components.

2.      System Experience Storyboards: While the high-level visualization maintains the holistic viewpoint, System Experience Storyboards are focused on the specific interactions of the user.  The idea is that the viewer gains a rich understanding of the system experience by observing a broad system view in conjunction with visualizations of the specific activities that weave through it. The expected output is a series of annotated graphical depictions of the specific activities of a prospective within the system environment, including interactions within component interfaces. Storyboards should be developed for all essential user types and activities and address all of the intentions outlined in the “To-By-Using” statements. The purpose of the storyboard is to ensure that a user’s singular experience across the components of a system is seamless and consistent. In other words, it should not feel like a collection of components instead like single cohesive system. It is during the development of storyboards that the system experience designer will begin explore the specific interactions that each user will have with each interface. It is necessarily to continuing refer to and evolve the System Experience Visualization as the storyboards are developed. This ensures a consistency between the broad and detailed views.

The recommendation of the previously described visualizations is not intended to restrict the system experience designer from developing additional visualizations. Instead, the designer should explore any opportunities to graphically depict the experience that an individual will have while interacting with the system. For example, I have developed interactive animations in the past for a system that featured highly dynamic, non-linear interactions. In addition, the system experience designer may want to include the detailed design of specific user interfaces. It is highly beneficial, but not required, to have the same individual “owning” the system experience as well as the specific component interface designs.