Adaptive Path Update – Workshops in Minneapolis and D.C

Time for some company plugging. And stuff I’m really excited about.

We’ve recently announced two workshops.

July 19-20, Minneapolis – Beyond Usability: Designing the Complete User Experience

This is our classic two-day workshop, in which we’ll walk you through a complete design process, from business requirements gathering through user research, information architecture, and prototyping. This workshop will have a lot of new material, reflecting what we’ve learned in four years of project work. New material includes:

  • making business cases for design
  • content strategy and presentation
  • designing for Ajax
  • and more! (of course… there’s always “and more!”)

Use promotional code FOPM (Friend of Peter Merholz) and get 15% off the registration price. And that registration price is only $995 until June 20th!

August 22-25, Washington, D.C. – User Experience Week

Hooboy, are we excited about this. This will easily be our best User Experience Week yet. It will feature 100% new material, and it’s targeted at more advanced practitioners and managers. We’re taking this opportunity to be forward-thinking yet practical.

Each day has a theme that we will explore in depth.

Day 1 – The Whole New Internet
Inspired by Janice’s essay, we’re devoting a day to the user experience of new Web technologies and approaches. From Ajax to folksonomies to mass amateurization, we’ll talk about what implications The Whole New Internet has on design and business.

Day 2 – Content and Information Architecture
Here we roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty with that most overlooked aspect of interaction design — content. This is a day that I put together, reflecting my interests in content strategy, content genre, and content effectiveness. I’m most excited about the joint case study we’re doing with Wells Fargo. We’ll talk about the work Adaptive Path did to establish a content strategy for, and the work they’ve done since to establish an understanding of content effectiveness.

Day 3 – New User Research Methods
Really, we’ve got to get beyond lab user testing. In this day, we’ll talk about a variety of better ways to understand your users, methods and approaches that are truly germane to developing for interactive networked media. The heart of the day will be two case studies, one with the National Gallery of Art, and another with Princess Cruises, where we’ll talk about how these research methods are leading to significant evolution within these organizations.

And also, we’ll have Special Guest Star Jared Spool. I’ve been delighted at the profound, and common-sense challenging findings coming out of UIE — they’re easily doing the best web-related research out there.

Day 4 – Web 2010
So where do we go from here? Our last day will tie together all the discussions, and provide a vision for the web as it moves forward. We’ll have Special Guest Star Marc Rettig talk to us about the amazing work he did with Carnegie Mellon’s library, combining offline and online design to provide for a complete experience.

Again, as with the workshop above, use promotional code FOPM for a 15% discount.

I hope to see you in Minneapolis or D.C.!

The Dark Side of Design Thinking

While there is much good in design thinking, I think we have to not get carried away about designers’ power. In my experience, I’ve seen many negative qualities of design thinking, qualities that have proven a detriment on projects and to the profession as a whole.

Overbearing control
Dirk Knemeyer exposes the dark essence of design thinking when stating, in the comments section of an article he wrote, “we need to begin controlling the environments that our work is being experienced in.”

Long ago, designers attempted to “control” the Web by determining, with pixel precision, presentation, leading to massive .GIFs and JPGs with excessive download times. The designer believed that HE knew how things should look, and did everything in his power to make it happen. And while that was going on, sites exhibiting what would be concerned poor design (Yahoo, Amazon, eBay) took over — because such overbearing control is not only unwarranted, but is detrimental to quality experiences.

Designers often hate the idea that their designs most live on in the hands of the users. They obsess over every detail as they plot a world of what should be. Stewart Brand wrote a whole book with this as its theme — How Buildings Learn deals a lot with overbearing signature architects and their determination of what the experience should be, and the struggle of the people in those buildings to adapt the experience to their actual needs.

This leads me to another negative aspect of design thinking…

Arrogance/condescension towards users
While designers have been attempting to corner the market on empathy, the truth is that that shift is a remarkably recent one. When I began working with design firms (with Studio Archetype, in 1996), designers never attempted to appreciate the user perspective and provide the appropriate service. They instead designed what THEY liked, and assumed that users would appreciate their brilliance.

Oftentimes, the user, with their idiosyncratic needs and wants, is seen as an obstacle by the designer seeking truth and beauty. Or that the user isn’t clever enough to understand what they want, so they should shut up and appreciate what the designer, the expert, is giving them.

Sadly, user-centered designers are perhaps only marginally better about this. While at least they are attempting to understand and assist the user in their goals, they often do so from a similarly arrogant, and expert perch. I wrote about this in my post “Pity the Poor User,” which reviews a book that calls into question the view of users as victims of their own circumstances, in need of saving by the brilliant user-centered designer.

Weakness for styling
Designers like the shiny-shiny. That’s often why they got into design.

Look at any interactive design annual, anything judged by a panel of designers, and you will see a stupefying weakness for styling. It doesn’t matter that after using any of the winners for 2 minutes, you’re pretty much done (if you could figure out how to use it in the first place).

Until designers fully, truly, and deeply realize that style, while necessary, is perhaps the least important aspect of successful interactive design, “design thinking” will be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

This is hardly complete (I hope others will add more in the comments). And, to be upfront, I suffer from every one of these in one way or another. The point is to have that self-awareness in order to appreciate when the bad habits are kicking in, and deal with them head on.

Go Spurs Go!

(Though I tend to agree with my dad on his assessment of team fans. But, then, I don’t root for the Spurs year in and year out. I root for teams whose play I like to watch. This year, that’s been the Spurs and the Pistons. The Suns, and Mavs might be flashy, the Heat have The Flash, but for me, I love b-ball fundamentals. Passing, picking, gliding. I love it when a team moves around with out the ball, like tumblers in a lock, and then, when the players are set appropriately, the catch opens, and the ball makes its way into the basket.

Also, I, like many others, adore Ginobili.)

Death Throes of a Business Model

If the announcement today that Snapfish will be dramatically lowering prices on prints isn’t a harbinger of a business model’s doom, I don’t know what is.

Snapfish, Ofoto, and Shutterfly have been playing a sucker’s game, trying to generate revenue from prints of digital images. The not-so-secret secret — most people don’t want prints of most images. But they were so locked into a model of “paper”, of “rolls of film,” — it’s getting about as antiquated as typewriter ribbons.

On a sales call with a potential client, I tried to impress upon her the need to fundamentally reconsider how her company approaches what they do, and I used the analogy of Snapfish/Ofoto/Shutterfly and Flickr. The former were stuck in pre-Web, pre-networked-world ways of thinking about people, things, and relationships. The latter is built, ground-up, *of* the Web, and recognizes that the “value-add” (as business types like to call) lies not in the production of things (which inevitably get commoditized and provide negligible margins), but in the provision of services that provide an experience you simply can’t get anywhere else.

IDSC Followup Thought – Bringing the Disciplines Together

One topic among the many discussions going on at IDSC was the degree to which business types should know design. Do we want the business types to be designing? If not, just how far along that path should they go? The flip side came up, too — just how much “business” stuff should designers be doing, be aware of?

And, we didn’t even mention other people who should be involved, most obviously the technologists/engineers.

For me, I have no interest in seeing business people become designers, designers become business people, engineers become designers, etc. etc. BUT, obviously, all these groups need to meaningfully interact, they do need to work together, and they need to understand the value that each brings to the table.

I identified three key points at which all these disciplines should be working together, side-by-side.

Developing Intent
This is the outset of any project or process. WHY are you engaging in this project. What is hoped to be achieved? What hypotheses are you bringing? How will you go about challenging them. It’s crucial that all voices are brought to bear here. Bad things happen when one group (usually a “business owner” or “product manager” or some such) defines everything for the rest of the organization. All parties have something to contribute here, and this is most definitely one place where no one group has more to offer than any other

I suspect this is pretty obvious. Nothing shocking there. Get the team together at the start. Great. But then what? Typically, either disciplines go off and do their own thing and come back together, or there’s a series of handoffs as the project moves from one group to another.

This is where the two other key points come in.

Observational research (aka “ethnography”)
As Harry Max put it in a talk he gave at the IA Summit Redux, there is only one thing that every business needs – customers. And this means that everyone in that business should be interested in and concerned with those customers.

This is all about empathy, people. And everyone in the organization should be encouraged to be as empathetic with their customers as possible.

The one key place where this appreciation can happen is through observing and interviewing customers. This should not be the purview of some small group in the organization. There’s no reason that everyone can’t engage in this practice. Yes, it might take some practice to learn appropriate ways to observe and interview, but, really, this isn’t a highly specialized skill to only be practiced by vaunted experts. Everyone is better off when everyone observes and listens to customers. It’s essential for getting everyone to recognize what is going on with the customers, what’s working and not working for them, and to really feel what it is like to be a customer.

(I’d also like to note that, contrary to some recent “design thinking” hagiography, that empathy and ethnography are NOT elements of design thinking. In fact, when I first started working with designers, they proved to be among the least interested in truly engaging with customers. And if designers try to claim ethnography, they will be doing it, and their colleagues, a disservice.)

I don’t think that everyone needs to be involved in all forms of customer research. Surveys, market analysis, user testing, trends, etc. etc., can be performed by specialists. But I do think watching and talking to customers is something everyone should do.

Generate Insights from models
This is the one that’s probably the least obvious, but I think potentially quite powerful. After the customer research has been gathered (and not just ethnographic research, but all the awareness that has been built up around the customer), it should all be laid out in front of the entire team. And the entire team should be involved in figuring out what all that research means, what models can be developed to tease out patterns and stories, and what the implications are on the project.

Insights can and should come from anywhere on the team — in fact, this is one of those situations where the more perspectives there are, the better. This is brainstorming. This is generative. This should be about coming up with ideas. This won’t be untethered brainstorming or blue-sky — the customer research should provide a foundation, and a boundary, that insures relevancy. But, again, this shouldn’t be “owned” by any one group. This should be a joining of hands, as the team understands the implications of the research, and agrees upon the most appropriate direction for the project to take.

It is at this point, with a fair amount of shared, common understanding about the problem to be solved, that people can once again firmly put on their discipline cap and focus on execution. The idea being, since the strategy and direction is shared, the disciplines, even as they do their own thing, or working toward a common goal.

Enforced Contraception is Not a Good Thing

Yesterday, I found myself in attendance at the tail end of a workshop on scenario planning. And a gentleman was presenting a two-by-two, with the x-axis being about degrees of community, and the y access about degrees of innovation. And the upper right quadrant, with high innovation and deep community, was labelled “Brave New World.”

Brave New World is a dystopic novel by Aldous Huxley, and not really something you want to set out as a goal, or a marker of a desirable future.

One of the worst offenders of the Glorious use of “Brave New World” is, not surprisingly, Wired. A list of google results on “brave new world” constrained to reveals a number of misuses (Brave New World of Web Services, Brave New World of Myst). Though, not surprisingly, considering the schizophrenia that is Wired’s editorial vision, there are a number of appropriate phrases (“brave new world of government intrusion”).

Anyway, I’m calling this out because the misuse of Brave New World has always been a personal bugbear. It’s a brilliant phrase, when used appropriately (i.e., IRONICALLY). It loses its heart when simply slapped on as a label for “forward thinking.”

Thoughts on the Institute of Design Strategy Conference

In the past, I’ve written up my thoughts on the Institute of Design events:

About, With, and For 2003: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

HITS 2003: Parts 1, 2, 3, Parting Thought

Last week I attended their Strategy Conference, which is the successor to HITS. My notes aren’t as extensive as in conferences past — the presentations were more Big Idea talks that weren’t conducive to note-taking, and, as per usual, much of the best stuff happens in the hallways when you’re not jotting things down. Also, I’m getting lazier in my later years. That said, I’ll do my best to capture what it meant to me.

Design Thinking: What’s That Mean?
The phrase most on the rise is “design thinking.” Any number of presenters mentioned it, usually in reference to how business needs more “design thinking” in order to stay competitive in this modern world (in the face of globalization, commodification, complexity, etc. etc.)

In the past, I wrote my concerns with this phrase, and this conference brought those to the fore. It was never defined, and it was used in such a way as to suggest that “design thinking” is a magic pixie dust that you can sprinkle on businesses and it will lead to success.

In hallway discussions on this matter, we were able to bring some shape to the term. The consensus matched closely to Dan Saffer’s definition, with a particular emphasis on seeking options/alternatives, prototyping, and emotion. (I think Dan’s overstepping with including customers/users and wicked problems — those are issues that many folks who aren’t designers address.)

I think the Design Community needs to be very careful about the use of this phrase. If used too broadly, it will be rendered meaningless. If oversold, the backlash will be painful. Let’s be open, honest, forthright, and humble in our discussion of what we bring to the table. As another presenter said (on a different topic) — Underpromise and Overdeliver.

Innovation Fetishization, Still in Full Force
In 2003, I criticized HITS’ obsession with innovation, and the same can be said about the IDSC. Presentations suggest that designers have some inside track on innovation. They also often suggest that the sole purpose of design is innovation.

Products are Commodities — Services and Building Relationships Are Where the Value Is
This theme isn’t a huge surprise, but it came up quite a bit. Especially considering outsourcing, and the copyability of products, the real competitive differentiator will be the services offered around the products. Think iTunes. Think TiVo (which, while having difficulty in uptake, has remarkable loyalty after the fact). Or think about how, once a bank gets you to use online banking, your degree of lock-in has gone up something like 4x or 5x.

Kevin Fong, a VC at Mayfield, had a whole presentation that seemed to be based on this idea. He said one thing that I felt worth quoting: “Anything that does not have a service associated with it, will.”

And Larry Keeley, of Doblin, gave pretty much the same talk he gave at HITS, where he discussed the 10 different types of innovations that companies can make, and stressed that, in Doblin’s research, the least valuable type is “product performance.”

Attention from the Business Pubs
Two presentations came from journalists: Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek and John Byrne of Fast Company. BusinessWeek’s “The Power of Design” cover story was considered a bellwether by this community. Fast Company gave everyone a copy of their June 2005 issue, which is cover-to-cover about design.

While it’s nice to see discussions of “experience,” and “design,” and even “usability” make it into the business press, it often feels like they miss the boat. For one thing, they still focus on product design way too much. I’m guessing they do so because it’s tangible, but, really, product design is, like, maybe 5% of all the design that happens in the world. And they tend to focus on issues of aesthetics and styling over function and use.

The NextD folks are sharp.
As per usual with conferences, most of the best stuff comes in hallway/interstitial discussions, and some of the best discussions I had were with GK and Elizabeth from NextD. They made a lot of sense about recognizing the boundaries of design (and putting reasonable limits on the idea of “design thinking”), how design can meaningfully interact and integrate with other fields, how designers have to be careful about patting themselves on the back too hard, and just, in all, providing some refreshingly clear-eyed thought on the topics of the day. They may be doing more than any other publication to meaningfully situate design.

AIGA pointing in the right direction?
A long time ago, I was quite involved with the AIGA’s Advance for Design, and its product, Experience Design group. It seemed the single best place to address the emerging discipline that I found myself a part of.

After a few years, though, Experience Design stalled, and I grew impatient, and started a company, and stepped away from the AIGA. And the AIGA seemed to be having difficulty moving forward, considering its large membership wedded to “traditional” design.

At IDSC, I ran into Ric Grefe, AIGA’s Executive Director, who suggested that the AIGA is finally truly turning the boat, and moving toward a more integrated and complex design future, even if that means losing some of its legacy membership.

And the fact that the AIGA has taken over the Aspen Design Conference demonstrates a true commitment toward “big D” design. We’ll see where it all leads, but it looks like AIGA is worth paying attention to again.

Why no blogging?
It strikes me as odd that, of all the conferences I go to, this one has almost no coverage in the blogosphere. I don’t quite know what to make of that.

One Way To Enjoy The Da Vinci Code

Stacy and I decided to no longer be the two remaining people in America who hadn’t read The Da Vinci Code. For our midwest road trip, we loaded up the iPod mini with the audiobook version, our companion between cities.

The book, to put it simply, is a hoot. And I don’t mean that in a good way. It’s easily the most clumsily written narrative I’ve worked through in a long time. While Brown clearly has a facility for clever tricks and puzzles, the man cannot write character or dialog to save himself. We gave up counting how many times a character would say, “What in the hell…?!” or “What the devil…?!”

Sharing the audiobook afforded us a Mystery Science Theater 3000-like experience. While the outrageous plot points received scorn, the bulk of our wrath was directed to narrator Paul Michael’s performance of the characters. If you’ve read the book, you know you’ve got Americans, French, Spanish, and the British… And Mr. Michael ends up playing all of these comically broadly, with accents that only Dick van Dyke could love.

I don’t think I could have handled actually reading the book (well, not without skipping large swaths), but I was surprised how much fun sharing the audiobook could be. What perhaps surprised us most is that, over the course of the week, we didn’t finish the damn thing. The unabridged version runs 16 hours (!). It took the full four hours on the plane ride home to finally top it off.

This morning I stumbled across the Wikipedia’s entry on the book. It does an admirable job of providing context, explaining some of Brown’s in-jokes, and debunking the premise upon which the book stands.