The Seduction of the Superficial in Digital Product Design

Digital product design discourse over the last few years has become literally superficial. Much (most?) of the attention has been on issues like ‘flat’ vs ‘skeuomorphic,’ the color scheme of iOS7, parallax scrolling, or underlining links. And not that these things aren’t important or worth discussing, but as someone who came up in design by way of usability and information architecture, I’ve been disappointed how the community has willfully neglected the deeper concerns of systems and structure in favor of the surface. I mean, how many pixels need to be spilled on iOS 7.1’s redesigned shift key?

I was talking with Jesse about this over lunch a bit back, specifically how his 5 planes are more important now than ever.

simpleplanes

 

There was a golden moment, in late 90s and early 2000s, where the deeper matters of strategy, scope, and structure seemed to get more play, with multiple books on information architecture, and online journals like Boxes and Arrows leading the design discussion.

Jesse, ever the wiser one, coached me to watch for my “Get off my lawn!” mindset, and through our discussion I realized something.

When digital design discourse emerged in the late 90s, our ability to interestingly design for “surface” was heavily compromised. We designed for 640 x 480 displays. Maybe 800 x 600. We worried about the Netscape Color Cube. We had laughable control over typography and layout.

Graphic designers often got frustrated with the Web, and did what they could to control the presentation, overly relying on images, and exploiting hacks with tables and invisible .GIFs. And schmucks like me, who had no real graphic design skill, would smugly tell them to “embrace the medium” and focus on the interesting hard problems of information architecture and interaction design.

We now live in a world where I have an 1136×640 display with 16 million colors in my pocket. And processor speeds that allow for startlingly smooth animations. The Surface now warrants critical examination and exploration. But the Surface isn’t merely superficial. The decades of insightful dialogue on matters of graphic and motion design can now be applied to digital products. The increased sophistication of the digital canvas has lead to limitless possibilities on the Surface, and a capable digital interface designer must understand not only color, composition, typography, and layout, but now must also be facile with motion and animation. That’s enough to keep anyone busy for their career.

It’s understandable that non-designers talking about design (as increasingly happens) focus on the superficial–it’s the easiest to discuss. However, we in the digital design community must not get so caught up in the seductive Surface that we neglect those lower layers. There are a number of reasons:

  • It is a disservice to younger designers, particularly the self-taught, as it encourages emphasis on style over substance
  • It plays into the still-prevailing attitude among business and technical types that designers don’t grok the deeper concerns in these complicated systems, and are best to bring in when it’s time to make something look good
  • As the services we design cross more devices and have more online and offline touch points, managing those deeper layers is increasingly important for success

I’ve realized I’m grateful for the passionate conversation around Surface–it means that people care and are engaged. Still, we must be vigilant in maintaining similar attention to those deeper layers, precisely because their abstraction makes them more challenging to discuss.

On the shortcomings of “Minimum Viable Product”

Christina Wodtke recently wrote “Getting the V Right”, addressing a common failing of Lean Startup practice — successfully establishing viability in your Minimum Viable Product (MVP). I commented there, but felt it worth expanding here.

The MVP Incantation

My frustration with MVP comes from its reckless use in product management. When launching a feature, I’d hear about “We just need to get our MVP out.” But never was there any attempt at determining viability. What product managers actually meant was, “next release,” but used “MVP” to suggest savvy and greater likelhood to succeed. Christina attempts to address this by coaching people on how to appropriately articulate viability, even resorting to the grade-school-essay canard of the dictionary definition. The problem is, most folks who are misusing MVP are already a lost cause — they’re cargo cultists hoping an incantation gets results, and no amount of guidance will change that core behavior.

Viability is unpredictable

MVP rests on an assumption that you can pre-assess something’s viability with reasonable confidence. However, viability can only be understood in retrospect — you can try to predict it, but really you won’t know until it’s out there. I suspect this is why so many people punt on defining it, in favor of “just get something out and see how people react.” But then this just turns into a resource-wasting exercise in throwing spaghetti, hoping that something sticks.

“MVP” doesn’t galvanize and inspire

However, even if we believe that MVP is an appropriate tool, the confusion in its use suggests a different issue — that while it’s proven catchy enough to spread, it’s nebulousness and abstractness limit its utility. Nebulousness leads to too much variance in how it can be interpreted, and abstractness means it doesn’t galvanize a product team. No one gets excited about launching an MVP. It lacks punch. I much prefer models such as Brandon Schauer’s Cake Model of Product Strategy or Spotify’s vehicular one:

These models communicate what’s most important — that at every stage, even the very first, you must deliver something that feels complete, and delivers useful functionality and/or delight. I’ve personally seen teams shift from MVP to “cupcake,” and, in doing so, shift focus on delivering some bare minimum to something that they can get enthused about.

Maybe we’ve been using the wrong kind of viable?

I teased about the dictionary definition, but there’s actually something in there that’s valuable that I’ve never heard discussed in the context of MVP:

(of a seed or spore) Able to germinate.

We’ve been so focused on economic viability, that we overlooked the origin of the word “viable”, rooted in the word “life.” The common thinking for MVP is “what is the least I can do to deliver a product that doesn’t fail”, but wouldn’t it be more interesting, and inspirational, if we thought, “what can I deliver that could take on a life of its own?”

Product strategy and design through the lens of purpose

Foursquare’s announcement that it’s “splitting” it’s app into two, one focused on local discovery, the other on social connections, resonates with thoughts I’ve been having on the role purpose plays in product design.
I first grappled with purpose almost ten years ago, when I interrogated the concept of document genres. Examples of document genres are textbooks, maps, guidebook, press release, menu, manual. People have a purpose in mind when consulting a map, reading a textbook, browsing a menu, referring to a manual, and these genres have evolved a set of physical traits (maps are big and fold up), information layout traits (textbooks have detailed tables of contents), and content traits in response to purpose.

Physical products have also evolved in similar ways. They have a job to perform, and their shape and ‘interface’ have evolved to serve that purpose. Just look in a toolbox or a kitchen drawer and that becomes evident.
Digital forms present a challenge, because these documents now reside within the same physical form. It requires writers and designers to be more explicit about the purpose to be served, because a keyboard and screen don’t provide the cues that physical documents do. And it’s those cues that our brain uses to predict utility — we’ve learned how to use maps, books, manuals through exposure, and we use new documents of the same genre, we can rely on our past experience. Digital documents require explicit visual cues and interfaces.
When I first explored this space, mobile was not a serious context. Most phones were feature phones, and ‘smart phones’ were Treos and Blackberrys.

In a post-IPhone world, where our devices are literally tabula rasas that are meant to wholly become the app that is launched, I find once again that purpose can be a helpful lens.

And that’s where Foursquare’s decision is interesting. I suspect that when people engage with an app, it is for a purpose. Emphasis on ‘a’. So folks would open Foursquare with that one purpose in mind, even though the app could deliver on two–local discovery and social connection. And given what we know about how people habituate to content genres and physical objects, they likely habituate to apps in a similar way–whatever was the purpose that was first served is the purpose people stick with. And as Foursquare developed an awesome local discovery capability, people who originally came in for the social aspect, or to learn about a place only after they checked in, didn’t realize that Foursquare could introduce them to new places. (We saw this at Groupon. Most folks continue to use the service in a lightweight browse and serendipity mode, though there are search and filtering capabilities that reward folks with something specific in mind.)

Foursquare’s bet to remake the app called ‘Foursquare’ into a direct competitor to Yelp, and to move the capabilities of ‘classic Foursquare’ to a new secondary app is a reflection of how a product design needs to be very clear about the purpose (SINGULAR) it serves.

And a potential takeaway is to recognize there are ‘app genres’ that are emerging to address users’ purposes. Local discovery would be a genre. Social connection would be a genre. News aggregator would be a genre. And if your trying to serve multiple purposes (Facebook Paper is both your social connection AND a news aggregator!) you introduce confusion, because people’s expectations, rooted in their genre experiences, are being confounded.

Questioning assumptions in a world with no pants

I just finished Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants, combination memoir and situational analysis of his year-plus working at Automattic, the company behind WordPress. It triggered a series of thoughts that I plan to write. This is the first.

Groupon, where I recently worked, has been labelled the fastest-growing company in history. In less than four years, it had 12,000 employees in 48 countries world wide. To manage that hyperinflation, the company adopted an hierarchical bureaucratic organizational model. For many, if not most, companies, such a model is seen as the default, as just how companies work.

However, corporate bureaucratic hierarchies were developed with specific purposes in mind, mostly around the development of railroads and mass manufacture. As such, they are products of 19th century Industrial Age contexts.

From my vantage point, the most important thing Matt Mullenweg and his team have done is question assumptions about not only how we work, but how we organize to do that work. And that begins with the recognition that the 21st century Connected Age is a much different context.

Automattic was born out of an open source project (WordPress) that had contributors worldwide. This lead to the company being a wholly remote/distributed organization. Most people work from home, and people work from all over the world.

However, remote work isn’t interesting in and of itself. You could be sitting in your pajamas, working from home, but still operate in a bureaucratic hierarchy with explicit guidelines about how to do your work.

At Automattic, remote work is the outcome of something even more revolutionary, which is the remarkable degree of autonomy granted team members. They choose not only where, but when and how they work. They figure out what they should work on. They set their own timelines.

Now, it’s not wholly emergent — Matt is still In Charge, and has authority to make certain things happen. But he seems to operate more as a benevolent dictator than a hard-charging CEO. And as the company grew, so did the realization they needed some organizational structure, so employees were grouped into a series of teams, each with a team leader.

It’s important to recognize, though, that even this structure emerged. It was not a top-down mandate, but a group realization. Most organizations don’t think hard their structure — they default to what has become a conventional assumption. What’s so liberating about Automattic is that, at every step of it’s evolution, it has been thoughtfully intentional about how the organization operates, recognizing that the company warrants the same type of design that their products do.

What’s also liberating is that such autonomy demonstrates a remarkable degree of trust in employees to do the right thing. Because, as I’ve recently learned, companies wield bureaucracy expressly because they do not trust their employees. Bureaucracy is seen as a safeguard to ensure nothing bad happens. But too often it simply leads to nothing happening at all.

(As I was drafting this, Scott made freely available Chapter 4, “Culture Always Wins”, which I believe to be the single most important chapter in the book. So go read it!)

The Challenge of Hiring Senior Design Leadership

Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a number of companies about design roles at director and executive levels. And maybe because such leadership is relatively new, I find most of them have been quite naive about such roles. Here’s how I put it in an email to a company I was engaging with (this was to lead a design team of about 25-30 folks):

Bringing on this kind of senior design role is hard, because there are a host of things to balance. You want someone who is:

  • a brilliant design visionary
  • a solid design practitioner (can role up sleeves and execute)
  • a strategic thinker (can help set direction for product/brand)
  • an inspiring leader (can keep the team engaged and hopeful)
  • a detail-oriented critic (can suggest ways to improve the team’s work)
  • a considerate manager (mindful of the professional needs of the team members)
  • a teacher of design methods and practices, and when to use them
  • a diplomat (can collaborate and communicate with product, engineering, brand marketing)
  • dogged recruiter with a nose for talent
  • an operator (working the organization and unblocking paths to success)

That’s a lot to ask for!

Of course, companies don’t want to have to choose — they want it all! But the reality is, even if someone can do all of these things, they aren’t going to, at least not with any regularity. There’s simply not enough time.

So, what most companies incline to hire in a senior design role is a Creative Director — someone who can deliver on vision, practice, and critique. Basically, a senior-er version of a great designer.

However, if what you want is someone to lead a design team, then such an approach would be a classic Peter Principle move. Because while it’s crucial that this person come from a design practice background (in order to understand the ins and outs of design work), the qualities that matter most — leader, manager, recruiter, and operator — are those that have nothing to do with design execution. Those other qualities, while definitely nice to have, are gravy, and will not be the core of this person’s role.

Something that seems to work well is to split ultimate design leadership across two roles, one more creative, the other more operational. Engineering orgs will have a CTO (super senior systems architect type) and VP of Engineering (responsible for engineering teams and their operation). Newspapers have an Editor-in-Chief and a Managing Editor. Design orgs could, and when they reach a certain size (greater than 30 or so), definitely should, have a VP of Design (the team leader I’ve described) and a Creative Director (or Chief Design Officer).

I’d love to hear of other leadership models for design that you’ve seen work well.

I’m about to be self-unemployed

I have given notice, and my last day at Groupon is April 18.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been leading the Design Union (what we call the global design team). When people ask me what I’m most proud of, it’s not the obvious things (like a sitewide redesign that immediately performed better than its predecessor, and was actually aesthetically pleasing), or our continued success with a leading commerce mobile app.

It’s that I took a group of 30 team members, who were a bit bedraggled and often underappreciated, and was able to grow it (to 60) and evolve it so that design is seen as an essential partner and collaborator throughout the company. And probably the most important thing I did was bring on a cadre of amazing design leaders, folks who have proven themselves through thick and thin in terms of delivering high quality design, coaching their teams to deliver beyond expectations, and do so with charm, grace, and good humor. Yes, I’m happy with the great stuff we’ve shipped; but I’m even happier to have shaped an organization that will continue to deliver great things, regardless of my presence. (And I’m bummed I won’t be working with these folks any more.)

As the title of this post suggests, I don’t know what’s next. And that’s a little scary — I haven’t not known what my next job is since before I joined Epinions in 1999. I’m sure it will be fine, and I’m looking forward to some opportunity for reflection and writing, for connection with people I haven’t seen or talked to in too long, and ultimately, for figuring out what’s next and best for me. (Oh, and maybe spiffing up this blog a bit.) If you have any ideas, don’t hesitate to reach out!

 

Information architecture reborn

The IA Summit has just finished. What I’m about to write might be ironic given my previous post. But what I’m walking away feeling is that information architecture is reborn.

7 years ago, I wrote how IA was not dead, but sleeping. There was a period in the field’s history that felt stagnant and disappointing. And I think it’s related to that last post, because IA allowed itself to fall under the “user experience” umbrella, and the Summit started to feel like any UX conference warmed over.

But starting last year, and coming on strong this year, there has been a new energy, born of an exchange of ideas that really only can be called “information architecture”. In particular, Track B this year was what I’ve been looking for from this event – deep, penetrating, talks that didn’t talk down to the audience, that interrogated the role, the practice, the meaning, and the relevance of information architecture. What the community is recognizing is there’s no need to make excuses, and in fact, the practice of information architecture is increasingly crucial and essential in addressing challenges we face as people, community, and society.

I look forward to seeing you in Minneapolis next year.

User experience has stunted information architecture

I came up through UX practice as an information architect and interaction designer. I was an avid reader of Peter and Lou’s “Web Architect” column, spoke at the first IA Summit, and was an early proponent of facets and tags in the broader UX community.

The UX community was essential for casting light on the importance of information architecture. It made clear how the organization, structure, relationships, and semantics around and in our information are key to delivering a successful user experience. There was a period, around 1999-2005 or so, where information architecture was a vibrant, dynamic, evolving field.

But there are only so many talks to give on facets, tags, and the like. And, over time, it feels like IA has been swallowed by UX (and seen in strange competition with interaction design).

IA had become less and less of my practice as Adaptive Path shifted towards strategic design consulting. And so I didn’t think about it too much.

Then I went in house. In particular, I joined Groupon. A month or so into the job, I became part of discussions to change evolve our site navigation. This excited me — I would get to flex some of those old analytical muscles that had atrophied over time.

As I dug into it, though, I felt a little like I was peeling an onion. Every layer presented new layers beneath. And I quickly left the realm of site navigation, and found myself engaging in conversations that went deep to the core of Groupon’s operations. Because, it turned out, our taxonomy influences everything we do — the deals we strive to get, the operations of our sales force, the presentation of our offers across devices and channels, heck, it even determines where some people sit.

And I realized this was bigger than I could tackle at the time, because I had (and still have) a design department to run.

And it also made me realize that IA had been stunted by its relationship with user experience. Because information architecture, when approached with the depth and rigor that is warranted, is a deeply seated operational and organizational function. The UX component of information architecture, how information is represented to end users, is important, but truly a tip of the iceberg. (And not just Peter Morville’s iceberg.) But in order to IA to have the impact it could (and should), IA needs to free itself from being seen under the umbrella of UX, and instead pursued as a distinct, and difficult, practice that’s not just about taxonomies and semantics, but the organizational, operational, and technological change to realize that.

Programming Conferences

This morning on Twitter, a conversation flared up around IA Summit 2014, because they received over 400 submissions for 50 spots, which means many many people, even those whose sessions were reviewed highly, were rejected. (I was rejected as well, but I half-assed my proposal.)

FOR STARTERS, let me say nothing but praise and thanks to Aaron Irizarry, Johanna Kollmann, and Abby Covert, the IA Summit chairs. They are friends and colleagues, and I know they are working tirelessly to do the best for the IA and UX communities.

OK, back to the conversation at hand. Jared Spool raised his concerns that with so many submissions for so few spots, there’s a lot of “wasted effort.” I share that concern (though I recognize my lackadaisical effort was not wasted), because a lot of people, and thus good people, likely feel burned by the work they put into a submission, and would be less inclined to submit in later years. So while this year’s summit benefits from being able to draw from such contribution, how will later summits fare?

Professional associations have it kind of tough. When I was at Adaptive Path, I programmed MX and UX Week events, all based on what I wanted to see (and suggestions from colleagues). Professional associations have a responsibility to their membership, and tend towards the “call for papers/proposals” process. The benefit of this is that you can get interesting new voices and ideas, and you give the membership a voice it might not otherwise have. The drawback is that your beholden to submissions, and it can make it hard to craft a compelling event.

Which events are better, invited/curated or submitted? They both can work, though, given that I’ve curated, I lean towards that style. I like it when there’s an editorial point of view that connects the presentations.

However, I’ve had transformative experiences at the IA Summit, and as a conference organizer, always sought out rising stars there. There’s a randomness/unexpectedness that often delivers crap, but can yield amazing stuff.

The IA Summit faces a challenge in terms of not discouraging great submissions because potential contributors feel the effort isn’t worth the likely rejection. One solution is to raise the bar on what it takes to submit, to weed out those (like me, this time around) who are half-assing it, and cluttering things up. Another might be to more aggressively ‘track’ submissions into categories, to make sure there’s a good spread of topics (and make clear to folks that we don’t need yet another submission on agile/lean UX).

Separately, I heard complaints about panels. There are always complaints about panels. Done wrong, panels are a lazy way to fill a conference slot. And many panels suck, because it’s simply 4-5 short presentations. However, I still have vivid memories of one of the IA Summit’s best sessions, a panel in 2003 on “Wayfinding and Navigation in digital spaces” which was legitimately mind-expanding. So, don’t count panels out. Just structure them so they’re stimulating.

Best Book I Read Last Year: COOL GRAY CITY OF LOVE

I don’t read nearly as many books as I used to. I chalk that up to parenthood, laziness (Google Reader Feedly is just so easy to browse through), and an Instapaper account overflowing with longreads.

Still, I try, and I was truly impressed with one book: Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love , an idiosyncratic history of San Francisco.

coolcitycrop.jpg

The author has done his research, and this could have been presented as a straightforward telling of facts and stories. Instead, he always finds a personal connection which provides a distinct lens through which to understand the city. Gary clearly loves San Francisco, warts and all, and his passion for the city is infectious.

As an easily distracted internet-addicted type, I also appreciate the book’s 49 chapters (either for the ’49ers’, or the 49 square miles of our 7×7 grid), some of which are as short as a couple pages, which allows for easy dipping into.

I don’t buy many books (I prefer the library), but this is one I gladly own.