Let’s Put the Cat Back in the Bag

First, go read Microsoft Software Will Let Times Readers Download Paper over on The New York Times site.

Then, after wiping your eyes of the tears inspired by laughing at such foolishness, come back here.

That article demonstrates so much of what is wrong with Big Media, and illuminates some idiocy on Microsoft’s part as well.

As I mentioned in my last post, big media is quite anxious about what digitization and networked distribution is happening to their industry. Media companies pretty much have three options:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Resist change
  3. Embrace change and see where it takes them

This article demonstrates that, at least in part, The New York Times is resisting change. My jaw first dropped when reading this passage: “The software would allow The Times to replicate its look — fonts, typeface and layout — more closely than its Web site now does.”

Apart from a few designers, no one cares about The Times’ “look”. This is an explicit attempt to reclaim control over what has already been lost. I wager that any attempt to preserve the look online will lead to a loss of value — however many people utilize a service will not be made up for in the costs of developing it.

Continuing on in the article, you come across this gem: “Mr. Sulzberger said the software combined the portability of the print paper with the immediacy of the Internet. Readers can in effect turn the page electronically. There is also a gauge that tells them how much of the paper they have read and how much more is left.”

Mr. Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times, clearly has no idea what the immediacy of the Internet really means. This passage looks at immediacy from strictly a publisher’s point of view — getting stuff out there faster. Immediacy of the internet from a user’s point of view means something very different — quickly getting to the thing I want. And the more the online experience replicates the offline experience, the harder such user-oriented immediacy becomes. Because user-oriented immediacy is about the atomization of a newspaper into its constituent articles, for ease of linking.

In the following paragraph, the design director comments “You can page through the entire paper in a natural and intuitive way.” Which is essentially his way of saying, “I, the designer, can control your experience with our content.” The readers will fight such attempts at control. They want to read news their way.

“Natural and intuitive” is also code for, “how we did it in the prior technological stage,” and if such thinking were valid, you’d be steering your car with reins, and your cell phone wouldn’t have storage for phone numbers, because it’s more “natural and intuitive” to punch in the number from memory. Hell, your cell phone would probably have a rotary dial.

What Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Gates don’t seem to understand, or, at least, are not acknowledging, is that it’s not about “newspapers” on the Internet. It’s about news. They’re stuck in this mindset that readers want to casually flip through an entire newspaper. In a world mediated by Google and the blogosphere, that is becoming less and less the point. I read so many articles from so many different sources that most of the time I can’t remember “where” I read something (apart from, “inside my feed reader”). (A recent example was the article that ripped apart Intel’s Viiv initiative; I was talking to a friend about it, and couldn’t for the life of me remember where I had read it, apart from “somewhere on the Web”. He reminded me that it was at the Washington Post.)

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Media – Wide-eyed and Anxious

One of the benefits of working at a services firm such as Adaptive Path is that you really get to have your fingers on the pulse of what is happening in business. For the first few years after starting our company in 2001, many of our projects were marketing-communication sites (i.e., brochureware), because even in a down economy, marketers have money.

That’s changed recently. We’re getting called by more product managers — companies in an upmarket seem keen on investing in new product capabilities.

A new trend has really made itself apparent. This morning I had a conversation with a representative from a public broadcasting station. Discussions with people working for media outlets are becoming common occurrences at Adaptive Path. And what’s clear is that The Media is made very anxious by the current media landscape.

Over the last month or so, we’ve received RFPs or other leads from: a national news channel; a national news magazine; a regional newspaper with national aspirations; and this public broadcasting station.

Each of them has had essentially the same question: What do we do? Many have realized all the opportunity they can with business as usual. And they’re seeing that users are linking in (through search results, through blogs) to single articles and bouncing out. And that they are increasingly using intermediaries such as blogs and feed readers. And that community and social media sites (like Wikipedia or Youtube) are starting to eat their lunch. Oh, and that Craigslist is taking away a key source of revenue.

I don’t have any glib answers. From what I can tell, the smart approaches for each of these companies has been different, depending on that organization. The only thing that does make sense is that these media companies have to be *of the Web*, not on the Web. (Okay, maybe one glib answer.) They have to embrace the principles of the sandbox, of web 2.0, of transparency and openness, of remixability and co-creation. But they are individually going to have to figure out what such principles mean for them.

I think it’s an exciting time to be in media. But that’s probably because I’m not in media.

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Communicating Concepts Through Comics

Today I attended Kevin Cheng and Jane Jao’s “Communicating Concepts Through Comics” presentation. Download the slides [5MB PDF] in order to follow along with my notes…

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“What is community?”
– On a project, they wanted to add community to local service
– Unfortunately, different people had different ideas of community — some thought message boards, some thought recommendations, etc.
– Marketing had a different idea from design had a different idea from management had a different idea from engineering

Well, what are the tools we have to communicate these concepts?
– Personas – tells you user’s needs and desires, but doesn’t communicate concepts
– Use cases – too much detail, too highly defined
– Wireframes – details the nuances of the interface, but doesn’t communicate philosophy

Skills and resources
– video, animation, interactive prototype — effective but take a lot of skills/resources
– scripts, personas, use cases — fewer skills/resources, but subject to interpretation

They then show a scenario of use depicted in comics
(my thought: what’s the difference between this and a story board or a scenario?)

There’s a flash tool, Tarquin, that allows you to drop comics boxes into flash and it creates a little interactive comic.

They “user tested” the comics
– Asked users about four different attributes
– what was appealing? (fun, interesting)
– useful (you would actually use)
– complicated (maybe useful, but tedious and time consuming)
– confusing (ambiguous, etc.)
– Helped refine the story
– Different colors to highlight the different attributes
– Important to get the users marking up comics on paper

We do an exercise
– draw the person next to you
– draw the smiley face

Question: Who is an artist?
– From the book, “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”
– the author asked kids, “Who here is an artist?”
– kindergarten – everyone an artist;
– with each subsequent grade it drops dramatically, until very very few consider themselves artists…

Comics used to communicate concepts:
– Cathy comic explaining where you can buy stamps…
– Storyboards from film…
– Apple had illustrated stories…

Five qualities
– Communication
– can be more powerful than words
– kind of a “universal” language
– Imagination
– smiley face – could represent anyone
– short black-haired person – could be many people
– understanding comics — amplification through simplification… different levels of abstraction
– the more abstract, the more open to interpretation
– when making comics for local, made the mistake of including big screenshots in the comic
– the problem was, people focused on the UI
– so, they abstracted out a bit, showing just bits of the screen
– and then abstracted it further… show just the UI elements that gives context (like the radio buttons or little link list)
– we’re NOT talking about illustrated stories… the text is used as a crutch (apple photo example)
– Expression
– “i’m sorry”, “thank you” – pretty basic, straightforward
– mapped to different facial expressions changes the meaning
– Motion
– conveying time, how it’s elapsed, etc.
– Iteration
– You want to be able to change ideas quickly and get to the point of knowing what you want to build

You can draw comics.
– Don’t get worked up about artistic ability.
– Use cheat sheet’s like Kevin’s set of facial expressions.
– Focus on the user, product, context, not the UI.
– Or use photos and trace them.
– Or use Yahoo!’s avatars. (avatars.yahoo.com)
– Storyboard Artist and Comic Life software for Mac OS X.

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At the end of the session, I asked a question:
You originally said that you used comics to get a shared sense of the idea “community,” because different stakeholders had different interpretation. However, you also mentioned that comics are powerful for leaving room for interpretation. How do those square?

My paraphrase of Jane and Kevin’s answer:
Comics are great for solicitating feedback on concepts. To present many ideas and get responses.

If you want to explain a concrete direction, use a short video.

When is it appropriate to appropriate?

In keeping with my suggestion that it is the university of Web 2.0, students at the information school at Berkeley recently had a lunch time discussion on designing for appropriation. The notes from the discussion are available, and make for a worthwhile read.

The discussion was spurred by a question aired at the DUX2005 conference: “How can I design for user experience if once I put my products out into the world, they pretty much ‘die.’ They are no longer mine and they are being used in ways that I never intended.”

It is exactly such egocentricity and small-mindedness that upsets me about designers. Oh, boo-hoo, users aren’t respecting your brilliant vision for their experience!

Anyway, the discussion at the iSchool took a different tack, exploring the opportunities afforded by appropriation. (It also lead to my most favorite recent turn of phrase, “Is it appropriate to appropriate?”)

This subject has been dear to me for a long time. At South by Southwest 1999 (my first), I participated on a panel called “Interface Design as Social Architecture,” and spent my time focusing on unintended uses. The grandest being that “hypertext” was invented to augment intelligence, the web created to facilitate physics knowledge sharing, but when placed in the hands of users, it quickly became out shopping and porn.

I also discussed the subversive appropriations, such as using Amazon’s customer comments section to discuss the literary merits of The Family Circus.

When taking Nancy van House’s IS 212 course, Information in Society, I learned of “SCOT”, the Social Construction of Technology, which deals explicitly with how individuals and groups make technologies their own. Appropriation goes back a long way.

All this was reminiscent of Anne Galloway’s “Design for Hackability” panel at DIS2004.

Anyway, stick with the notes through the end, where methods for designing for appropriation are discussed. That whole post is filled with good, though-provoking stuff.

Going Back To South Park, Gonna Have Myself A Time

The SF Chronicle published a story on the San Francisco neighborhood called South Park, prominently featuring Adaptive Path and many of our friends.

When Adaptive Path moved to the neighborhood in October 2004, I intended to write about it. It sat in my “drafts” folder since then, but the Chron’s piece is encouraging me to get some thoughts down.


Adaptive Path, October 2004

The move in 2004 was a return to South Park for me. You couldn’t work in the web industry in the second half of the 90s and not find yourself there at least some of the time. While my first job back in San Francisco was way over on 7th and Townsend (to those not familiar with SF: that’s a joke — it’s about 5 blocks away, though they *are* big blocks), I hung out with friends from Wired, Vivid, Organic. My next job was with Phoenix-Pop, a web design and development agency headquartered at 512 Second Street.

This was my first official “South Park” job. David Siegel’s Studio Verso was on the first floor. Method started on the 3rd floor (if memory serves). I didn’t stay long at Pop, but as an independent, I worked with both Organic and Hotwired, so returned to South Park frequently.

In 2000, South Park was a great strange place. On a sunny day, the entire park would be covered at lunch with eaters. Only two years later, it resembled a ghost town. I’m still annoyed by the unrepentant greed that lead to close Ristorante Ecco, a delightful Italian restaurant with rapacious landlords. The restaurant was priced out of the space, the economy collapsed, and the building remained empty for about 2 years. Fucking idiots.

When thinking about my return in 2004, I remembered that I had actually worked near South Park before the whole multimedia gulch boom. In the summer of 1991, I had a summer internship at Redgate Communications, a communications firm started by Ted Leonsis (who later became a mucky-muck at AOL). Redgate’s San Francisco office was in the China Basin Building:

I hated that job. It was where I learned just how reprehensible public relations was. I also learned that I could sneak up to the roof and witness amazing views of San Francisco all around. Those views would be gone now, largely obscured by the condos and apartment buildings that now run along King Street, where there used to be a chunk of freeway with a parking lot beneath.

Anyway, Adaptive Path has been in South Park for over a year and a half. In that time, we’ve seen parking prices nearly double. We’ve seen the lines at the burrito place snake down the street. We’ve seen many of our friends’ businesses move into the neighborhood. It’s an exciting and uncertain time (exciting, probably, because it is uncertain).

The park itself is still a jewel. I have trouble thinking of places I’d rather dine on a nice day. Watching the dogs play. Running into friends. It’s remarkable how it’s held on through thick and thin.


Peter in South Park, Photo by Brian Oberkirch

Design Meme: Artifacts from the Future

Over the past month or so, I’ve noticed a thread of discussion in the design community on the value and power of crafting artifacts from the future.

It first came up on a project at Adaptive Path. We’re working with a Big Media client, and encountered difficulty communicating our design vision. The client has offices bedecked with posters touting a variety of successes. A team member proposed a working session with the client to design a poster declaring this project’s success. This activity succeeded wildly, with the client passionately embracing the project vision.

Later, I attended Jess McMullin’s presentation at the IA Summit, which was about designers creating shared references with stakeholders in an effort to communicate the idea. One tool he uses is “Design the Box” — even if the project doesn’t involve a packaged good, pretend that at the end it goes in a box on a retail shelf. What does the box look like? (One hopes, not like this…)

Victor has a series of posts on what he terms “tangible futures,” and how they can communicate to business leaders. I take issue with the over-broad nature of Victor’s exemplars (and the rhetorical gambit of associating with such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci), but, fundamentally, it addresses the same basic point.

And then last night a few Adaptive Path folks went to see a talk at SFMOMA featuring partners from Pentagram. According to a report on one of our internal mailing lists, Michael Bierut explained some of their design process for developing the identity for Ted, United’s low-cost carrier, and how they mocked up fake articles from the Wall Street Journal as a way to communicate a potential future.

Given all this speculative thinking, perhaps it’s no surprise that the person who is perhaps the best design writer at this time is better known as a science fiction author.

What does it say…

that none of my contemporaries all over the internet pointed me to William Safire’s interview of Jesse Sheidlower, wherein the origin of the words “weblog” and “blog” are discussed, and that it took an email from my dad to alert me to it.

Click that link, and head to 36:40. [UPDATE: It seems that they allow access to the full show only on the day following broadcast. You can now only see a three minute preview of the show, or pay $0.99 for the full show.]