Because the Valley doesn’t understand, um, people.

Umair asks, “Why is the Valley Afraid of MySpace?”

And the answer is simple: because “the Valley” doesn’t understand people. They barely understand products. They understand engineering and technology.

It’s actually very much related to another post of Umair’s, where he writes,

the very definition of the term innovation is shifting to a class of players who are clearly much hungrier – like Ideo, Cheskin, Doblin, etc – and are busy redefining innovation on their own terms, as a design-driven discipline?

I would argue that those firms aren’t as “design-driven” as they are “research-driven”, and that the reason that such firms are embodying current concepts of innovation is because they endeavor to…. understand people.

In this service design world, it’s not about the products, the artifacts, the things that are made. Understanding engineering and technology does not put you ahead of the game.

In this world, it’s about grappling with the remarkable complexity and messiness of interactions, relationships, and flow between people, as mediated by these tools.

This is *exactly* what Lane is trying to get at in his new line of business at Adaptive Path. An attempt to help “the Valley” appreciate that the most important thing a business has is not its technology, but is customers, and understanding those customers is paramount.

And if they don’t, then, also in the words of Umair, they’ll get Ninged or Flocked.

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Wherein I Don’t Attempt To Win Any Friends

NextD, the journal for “ReRethinking Design,” just posted a conversation between me and one of its principals, GK Van Patter.

Starting off fairly tame, it becomes a no-holds-barred discourse on design, designers, design thinking, anthropology, voice advocacy, and, of course, turkey dinners.

I don’t mean to discourage you, but it’s long. The conversation came out to 30 pages of documents in Word. Around 15,000 words.

I also savored every minute of the discussion. I admire GK for his willingness to confront — being an active participant (as opposed to a softball-lobbing interviewer) leads to a much more engaging, if at times uncomfortable, discussion.

And it really helped me think deeply and thoroughly about how I approach issues of design, and designers.

It definitely won’t win me any new friends. But I hope it serves GK’s desired purpose to contribute to the activities of sense-making that design practitioners must engage in during this liminal moment.

Following are some key passages from me to give a flavor of what’s being discussed:

I have no interest in learning something “properly.” Doing so suggests aligning your epistemology, your worldview, with a particular frame of thought. I feared that doing so would close me off to other perspectives. I work best when drawing from a variety of intellectual sources.


Now, to actually answer your last question, let me recant what I wrote earlier and say, yes, I do think we’re in the design business. In many fundamental ways we don’t behave like any other company in the design business, but at the end of the day, we seek to design solutions to address our clients’ challenges, or to teach others methods for solving those challenges themselves.


It’s worth noting that not one of the founders of Adaptive Path had formal training in design. Our backgrounds range from history to journalism to anthropology to film. But before starting the company we had all engaged in design practices at a variety of companies. We had all realized that design was a tool for solving the problems we were facing, and we taught ourselves what we needed to know to succeed.


…And this dovetails into what is probably the most important factor, which is the oh-my-god overwhelming complexity that our products and services must grapple with, whether the complexity is in the product itself, or in how it integrates with other aspects of a person’s life. And current design practice and education is simply not equipped to deal with this. Frankly, I’m not aware of any formal training that can handle this. We continue to navigate uncharted waters, and, really, that’s what I’ve been getting at all along. That’s what makes all this “possible,” as you said. What we’re (all) attempting to do is still so new, so nascent, that no one can claim any ownership of it.


The democratization of anthropology can only be a good thing. I decided not to pursue anthropology seriously because anthropological practice, as I observed it in school, meant producing material for other anthropologists. There was little interest in engaging the public, or in engaging other disciplines. (Quick! Name a famous cultural anthropologist other than Margaret Mead.) I think the democratization of anthropology will have numerous benefits. It will breathe fresh air into what can be a staid and conservative discipline. It can provide those practicing anthropology a more practical outlet. It can introduce new methods into anthropological practice. It will engage more non-anthropologists with anthropological thought.


There is a difference between engaging in a few methods from a field, and being a full-fledged member of that field. I conduct field research and a kind of rapid ethnography, but I am not an anthropologist. I try to appreciate the financial ramifications of the work I do, but I am not a business analyst. I conduct surveys, but I’m not a market researcher.

I do all of these things to support what I consider my work, which is design. And I am willing to call, market, and perform services as a designer.


…Design is much more a body of practice than it is knowledge, and as such, it lacks the depth of a field like anthropology. I mean, compare the number of Ph.D. programs in design and anthropology. Unlike anthropology, design is not a research discipline. I also don’t think design is nuanced the way anthropology is. By nuanced, I mean that in anthropology there are many different shades and perspectives that revolve around a central core. The distinct sub-fields of cultural anthropology -medical anthropology, applied anthropology, visual anthropology, folklore – all draw from a core appreciation of “anthropology.” Whereas, I think our discussion has demonstrated there’s nothing nearly as coherent in the field of design. Interaction design, industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, environmental design, architecture, etc., etc. are not tied together by a recognized core. Instead, each is learned and practiced pretty much distinct from the others, and often are set in competition to one another.


I, and my colleagues at Adaptive Path, are relentlessly focused on providing the best user experiences. We try not to be beholden to any particular approach, dogma, or school of thought. We pick and choose from a variety of approaches to solve problems. Often it means borrowing from our design toolkit, but other times it means utilizing “business thinking” – measurement and analysis obviously have their place. Or it might mean borrowing from “engineering thinking” – obsession with the material nature of the problem.

Each of these forms of thinking have characteristics which, depending on contexts, can be helpful or hindering. What I was trying to do in that post is show that the design approach is not an absolute good, and it shouldn’t be adopted unquestioningly.


Designers have spent a long time focusing on the wrong thing, or, perhaps more fairly, on the inconsequential thing. My post on the Dark Side of Design Thinking, and my other criticisms of designers are to shine a light on the behaviors and expressions of designers that have lead to their marginalization.

You would be right in saying my empathy is not with designers. I think that’s a very limited expression of empathy. My empathy, my voice advocacy, is with all those who want to Do Right and are struggling against external forces. Whether it’s Do Right By Themselves or Do Right By Their Organization or Do Right By Their Customers/Clients/Users/Constituents.

I work as a designer and I engage with the design community because I see design as a powerful tool for Doing Right.


Ever since I’ve worked closely with designers, I’ve witnessed their self-proclaimed victimization. In my experience, designers are victims not of the actions of others, but of themselves. They have let others come and define their roles for them, dutifully accepting requirements, iterating on whims, and then bitching about it over beers after work.

I argue that designers need to stand up and define their own work. Make their voices heard throughout the product development processes. Demonstrate that their contributions go deeper than form, to the core of the product (and business) itself. To be willing to be held accountable for their work – to accept the risk and reward given their non-designer colleagues, to be lauded for their successes and chastised for their failures. When that happens, we’ll see designers sitting in their rightful place alongside other leaders of business, society, academia, politics, appropriately influencing matters across a range of concerns.

It’s my blog, and I’ll bitch if I want to.

Would you follow this man’s lead?

Being a Warrior fan is a remarkably trying experience. One thing that I don’t understand is why the fans and the media aren’t calling for Coach Montgomery to be fired. I just watched an ESPN bit on Byron Scott and the great work he’s done with a young Hornets team, a team that not only is raw, but physically displaced, a team likely to go to the playoffs this year.

And here we have the Warriors, also a young team, but with, frankly, an amazing roster of young talent, and they should at least be playoff contenders with that talent, but they often can’t pull it together for a win. And with a young team like that, they need a strong, guiding, driving, inspiration coach. And instead they have Milquetoast Montgomery who at every game appears nonplussed. And who, for reasons I don’t understand, is avoiding the media and fan glare (who are much quicker to, say, blame Baron Davis for his hotdogging, or Mike Dunleavy for his effort).

Fire that man. Get a real coach. Win some games.

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Design of Service

Yesterday, in between job-oriented chats with CMU design students, I attended a session that Shelley Evenson gave on service design.

Shelley herself made clear that there’s not yet a single definition of service design. Dan wrote about this a year and a half ago, and his take is pretty much the same as mine:

Service design, in contrast, has multiple touchpoints (environments, processes, people) and is about these touchpoints interacting with users over time. Users can be exposed to multiple experiences via repeated exposure to the service, and it requires multiple stakeholders to make a service come alive, usually through complex choreography. Moreover, there are multiple pathways through a service; it’s usually bigger than any one pathway, so you can’t design the service in a controlling way.

During Shelley’s talk, I realized that I had, in part, been practicing service design, though not calling it that. And then I realized when you utilize exploratory research methods (ethnography, contextual inquiry, and the like), you pretty much end up with a service design mindset, because you inevitably recognize that it’s not about any one thing or product, but how a host of interactions contribute to a larger experience. It ties directly to a post I wrote about dining with anthropologists, and how they are wedded to particular domains.

Anyway, I think Shelley is onto something with her pursuit of service design, and I look forward to the work of her and her students help bring some shape to this idea.

Speaking of which — I really dug meeting the CMU students. Such a bright and engaged bunch of folks!

Samsung – Talking Design isn’t Doing Design

Luke comments on Samsung’s Design Vision, which spurs me to rant. Because Samsung has gotten a lot of press lately about how they’ve embraced design.

Yet, if my experience with the P777 is any indicator, all those designers in their employ aren’t doing squat. Investing in design, talking up design, even engaging in thoughtful design processes isn’t enough if the end result is poor.

I don’t see Samsung’s “design vision.” I see “design as PR.”

“Elite Design Agencies” and “Web 2.0”

A few weeks ago (I’ve been behind in my feedreading), Niti posted an email she got that from Douglass Turner, where he marvels at how the “elite design agencies” don’t seem to get “Internet 2.0.” Take a moment to read it, and her responses.

Okay. You back? So, I feel obliged to join this discussion, because it revealed to me a lack of awareness of some of the basic issues. The primary fallacy that Niti makes is to equate “blogging” with “Web 2.0.” The second fallacy is to state that it’s okay for design agencies to remain ignorant of such Web 2.0 things, because it’s only for the online engagements. If design agencies behaved that way, they’d be doing their clients a huge disservice.

Douglass was right to wonder, “How can companies so talented in other domains so completely miss the fundamental transformative and disruptive power of Internet 2.0?” A blog or a podcast does not Web 2.0 make. Web 2.0 is fundamentally about relinquishing control, putting creative power in the hands of your users, and developing systems that benefit from such communal use. Such concepts are anathema to the thought, philosophy, and practice of “elite design agencies.”

Such design agencies, and the folks that work there, tend to believe their role is to *control* the user’s experience. They have no greater fear than other, non-designers, contributing to the design of the product. I don’t mean “user-centered” design here — the elite agencies have by and large come around to that. I mean, going many steps further, placing the control of the product in the hands and minds of the users.

The people and firms that Niti lists as “Web 2.0” designers don’t ring true to me. Pretty much the only one that I buy is the Management Innovation Group (and that’s because I know them, and I know they get it, and they publish stuff like this).

I don’t know what “Interface Innovation” is, but Web 2.0 has actually very little to do with interface, and everything to do with the systems underlying them, and how best to take advantage of those systems.

Niti then makes the claim that it isn’t a problem if these design agencies don’t embrace these tenets because they are “creating customer experiences and enabling users around products and processes that reach far beyond the web.” This doesn’t make sense to me, because there’s hardly a business on earth for whom their online strategy isn’t a key component. Because, and this is the thing a lot of people still don’t get, “Web 2.0” isn’t about the web. The web is where it most obviously plays out, but web 2.0 is about relinquishing control, embracing openness and transparency, demonstrating actual authenticity, and empowering your customers to create, and leveraging that creativity to make better experiences for everyone. As the LEGO Mindstorms article in Wired discussed, this isn’t simply about web sites — it’s about introducing new paradigms to improve businesses’ chance of success.

In short, I agree with Douglass that it’s something of a travesty that “elite design agencies” remain so ignorant of the social, cultural, economic, and business shifts at play that they aren’t engaging with what is *really* happening when we say “web 2.0.”

Ticket Purchased – Heading to the IA Summit

In the interest of managing some of the outstanding details of my life, I’ve also booked my ticket to Vancouver for the IA Summit.

Year in and year out, the IA Summit is my favorite conference. The content is consistently good and the people are great. This is the one event that all other obligations must be planned around.

This year I’m honored to be giving the closing plenary. Honored, and terrified. And hopeful.

Here’s my cheeky bio for the conference:

At the first IA Summit, in 2000, Peter Merholz was nearly booed off the stage for suggesting librarians were responsible for the tyranny of hierarchy demonstrated on most websites. He has attended every summit since, unexpectedly becoming an evangelist of information science thinking to the broader community.

In 2002, Peter publicly lambasted the announcement of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture. Three years later, he became president of the rechristened IA Institute, which reminds him of the Vulcan proverb, “Only Nixon could go to China.”

Professionally, Peter is the director of practice development at Adaptive Path.

See you in Vancouver!

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Tickets purchased: Heading to SxSW!

For the first time since 2002, I will be attending the South by Southwest Interactive conference (as I like to think of it: the best web conference with the worst web site!).

I am moderating a panel on Sunday morning, currently titled What’s Hot in Web Applications. It currently features folks from three companies–Meebo, Zimbra, and YackPack (when I mentioned this to my girlfriend, she thought I suffered glossolalia.) Unlike Jeff’s similarly-themed “Designing the Next Generation of Web Apps”, I’m focusing on companies that are still pre-acquired and mighty small. I’ve also decided to take a focus on communication/collaboration, which each of my panelist products displays. I’ve also also decided to focus on the whole business — so expect discussions of product design, technology development, and business strategy.

I’m on the lookout for one more product/company, and ideas are welcome. Preferably: companies not in the Bay Area.

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It doesn’t take much

Bradley Horowitz, whom I admire for being a staunch Alameda advocate, inaugurates his blog with a post on Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers, which includes the thesis, “we don’t need to convert 100% of the audience into “active” participants to have a thriving product that benefits tens of millions of users.”

I’ve spent the last 30 minutes trying to find any writing of mine that echoed this, because when I worked at Epinions, I realized this. When Epinions launched, we were hell-bent on getting *every* user to write reviews. Over time we realized that a) that would never happen and b) it wasn’t necessary. We ballparked it at about 5% of our audience wrote reviews, and that was fine. It seems that I never wrote about it, though. Anyway, it seems as if that pattern continues to play out, as Bradley’s post suggests.