MX San Francisco – Early price ends Sunday

Our MX San Francisco conference (April 20-22) is shaping up to be the best one yet. The conference page doesn’t have the latest-latest, but the program at this point is (with additional speakers to be identified):

“Process Reboot” led by Kim Lenox.

Day One
[+] Keynote: Chip Heath, co-author of “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” and Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University
[+] Cordell Ratzlaff, Cisco’s new Director of User Experience
[+] Secil Watson, Senior Vice President Internet Channel Strategy, Wells Fargo
[+] Peter Coughlan, lead of IDEO’s Transformation Practice

Day Two
[+] Keynote: Chip Conley, Founder and CEO, Joie de Vivre Hospitality operating California’s largest chain of boutique hotel experiences
[+] Stephen Anderson, Artist and Illustrator who has been an official Star Wars artist
[+] Rachel Hinman, Design Strategist and mobile experience expert, Adaptive Path
[+] Ryan Armbruster, Chief Experience Officer for a radiation oncology practice
[+] Ryan Freitas, Experience Design Director, Adaptive Path
[+] Matt Jones, Founder, Dopplr
[+] Scott Hirsch, Founder, Management Innovation Group

The early price of $1295 ends February 3. The conference’s full price is $1595. Sign up with the promotional code FOPM (Friend of Peter Merholz) and get 15% off. I hope to see you there!

Personas 99% Bad?

Over the last few days, I’ve taken part in (and facilitated parts of) an intense workshop meant to define the user experience of a new product. In the room we had representatives from pretty much the entire team — software engineers, hardware engineers, industrial designers, interaction designers, marketing, brand, and even the CEO.

At the end of the first day, we found ourselves a little unmoored — even though we had talked about our presumed users (this project is to launch a brand new product into the market, so there are no existing users), the discussion was nebulous. We needed an anchor.

So on the morning of the second day we dove into a discussion of personas — those archetypal users of the product. We had three personas (Casey, Jessica, and Eric), and we talked about (and occasionally argued about) them for quite a while, until we arrived at a shared understanding of who they are, and what they would get out of the product.

This discussion proved enormously valuable — it lead to some coherence around who the product was for, and it helped focus our discussion of desired experiences, and, in turn, functional requirements. We referred to these personas for the remainder of the workshop, and they came in handy for resolving conversations that got stuck in “Well, I think…”

So, I was a bit surprised last night to read Steve Portigal’s article in the latest Interactions magazine, “Persona Non Grata.” (The first element of surprise was how it had the exact same title as Dan’s Adaptive Path essay from over two years ago). What most surprised me was the vitriol Steve cast at the practice of persona development — he essentially derides it as a waste of time, an exercise that purports to build empathy but in reality distances us from our users.

The thing is, when you read the article, it becomes clear that Steve is talking not about personas, but poorly conceived personas. Like any tool, personas can be wielded effectively or not. Steve is right in that the bulk of personas out there don’t serve their desired purpose, because they get too cutesy with alliterative names, or label people as types as opposed to individuals, or become cliched. But that’s not the fault of personas, that’s the fault of bad personas.

In our practice, we haven’t seen a tool for building empathy as effective as a well-constructed persona. We’ve used it numerous times to great success.

My frustration with the article is two-fold. First, because so many personas are bad doesn’t mean that we should throw out the practice. That’s like saying we should stop making movies because most movies suck. Steve commits Jakob’s Fallacy, perhaps most famous in his “Flash 99% bad“, wherein you dismiss a whole category of activity because the bulk of its practice is poor.

Second, no constructive alternative is presented. Steve could have taken two paths — either delineate what it takes to create a truly productive persona, or present other tools that successfully accomplish the objectives that personas fail to meet. However, he does neither, so at the end of the article, you’re simply left wondering, “Well, if personas suck, how do I make sense of my user research? How do I build empathy across a product team?”

MX 2008 – Managing Experience Conference Shaping Up to be the Best One Yet

Adaptive Path’s MX San Francisco 2008 is shaping up to be a major event for managers, directors, and VPs of user experience design. Taking place April 20-22, the program is devoted to defining the emerging discipline of creative leadership, and we’ve already lined up an amazing set of presenters, with more to come.

The contributor that probably most excites me is Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, a chain of boutique hotels in California. I blogged about Chip a couple years ago because I was so impressed with an interview he’d had with the SF Chronicle. Chip is not only a great experience designer — his hotels are some of the most fun and funky around — but he’s a thoughtful manager who recognizes that the key element to a great experience is happy happy employees.

And hey, why settle with only one Chip? We’ll also have Chip Heath, co-author (with his brother Dan) of Made To Stick, an excellent text on what it takes to craft and present ideas that resonate with their intended audience. Communication of concepts is a big challenge for experience designers (we can get caught up in our own abstractions). I first heard Chip in this interview with Moira Gunn, and am thrilled his joining us.

We’ve also got Peter Coughlan from IDEO, Cordell Ratzlaff (formerly Frog and Apple, now at Cisco), Ryan Armbruster (formerly Mayo Clinic, not at a healthcare startup), Secil Watson (VP of customer experience at Wells Fargo), with more speakers to be announced.

As with prior MX events, MX San Francisco is devoted to figuring out what it takes not just to create great experiences, but get them out in the world for people to enjoy. Those past MXs have been some of the best events we’ve put on at Adaptive Path, and I have little doubt that this one will surpass it. (And I haven’t even mentioned the venue, the delightful Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill. This means we’re taking advantage of the Top of the Mark, perhaps San Francisco’s premier penthouse bar, and the Tonga Room, a famed tiki hideout in the Fairmont across the street, for evening fun!)

The current registration price is $1295 (through February 3). If you register with promotional code FOPM (friend of Peter Merholz, as you all are!), you’ll get 15% off that price.

The economy – is it *really* that bad?

Something I’ve been having to wonder about is the economy. The news is filled with talks of impending recessions, and discussions that it’s too late to do much about it.

However, my business, Adaptive Path, and all similar businesses of which I’m aware, are overwhelmed by work opportunities. We’re all turning down leads left and right (and, believe me, we’re grateful for the situation we’re finding ourselves in).

The thing that confuses me is that consultancies such as Adaptive Path tend to be the first hit by any economic downturns — when companies feel the pinch, external spending is often one of the first things to go. Creative services firms of all types were hammered by the last bust, and definitely started feeling it before the rest of the economy. But we seem to be weathering this uncertainty remarkably well.

What’s going on here?

The Info-Slit Will Not Die

Way back in 1997 or so, web designers explored the possibilities that frames gave for cutting up portions of the screen. One of the unfortunate results of these explorations was the info-slit, a little window for scrolling text, usually four lines high. Info-slits are a pain in the ass to use, as they often deliver a full page of content four lines at a time.

Well, it’s now 2008, and people who should know better continue to use the info-slit. The culprit this time is Flash, and designers who want everything to fit on a single screen. Perhaps the most shameful example I’ve seen of late comes from Organic, an interactive marketing agency that really really should know better (info-slit highlighted in red rectangle):

Organic Slit

And architecture firms are notorious disasters when it comes to web presences, and Morphosis is no exception:

Morphosis Slit

Dear designers: STOP TRYING TO CONTROL EVERY DAMN THING. It just don’t work on the Web.


I’ve had a meme stuck in my head since pretty much the first time I heard it (or was it read it?). Michael Pollan sums up his latest book, In Defense of Food, with these 7 words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

As that phrase lodged itself into my brain, I’ve been in awe of the power of it as a crafted meme. I mean, it has actually had an effect on what I’m eating, particularly at lunch time. Shit, I willingly had a tofu dish for lunch today, and I’m pretty certain that phrase played a part. I may be suggestible, but I also think Pollan has done an excellent job crafting a statement that is simple, precise, and meaningful.

Hertzberg on Mormonism

Now, it’s no secret I’m not a fan of any religion (born and raised atheist, and somewhat dogmatic about it.) Given Mitt Romney’s candidacy, Mormonism has come under greater scrutiny. Now, Mormonism doesn’t strike me as any more or less wacko as any other religion, except for one thing… it’s recency. Older religions have the mists of time to help relegate their stories into myths, and, often parables. Mormonism is a modern faith whose foundations are just too easy to call into question. Here’s what Hendrik Hertzberg wrote about the faith in the latest New Yorker:

And the dogmas of Mitt Romney’s sect are breathtaking. They include these: that in 1827 a young man named Joseph Smith dug up a set of golden plates covered with indecipherable writing; that, with the help of a pair of magic spectacles, he “translated” the plates from an otherwise unknown language (Reformed Egyptian) into an Olde English that reads like an unfunny parody of the King James Bible; that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri; that American Indians descend from Hebrew immigrants; that Jesus reappeared in pre-Columbian America and converted so many people that the result was a series of archeologically unconfirmable wars in which millions died; that while polygamy had divine approval for most of the nineteenth century, God changed his mind in 1890, just in time for Utah to be allowed into the Union; and that God waited until 1978 to reveal that it was O.K. for blacks to be fully paid-up members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The South Park cartoon with the Mormon family that moved to town said many similar things, though funnier.

Comics that move

This morning I read the AV Club’s interview with comics artist Daniel Clowes (perhaps my favorite comics artist of all time, see this Google link for prior mentions.) He states, about comics: “But it’s not an operatic medium. I hear other people talk about being moved to tears by comics. I can’t imagine that.”

And had I read the interview yesterday morning, I would have agreed. Peculiarly enough, though, I cried (well, maybe weeped) myself to sleep last night finishing the graphic novel Laika, about the cosmonaut pooch that became the first mammal to orbit the planet. At times heartbreaking and other times uplifting, it’s remarkably well-told, with deceptive simplicity masking complex emotions. As you read toward the inexorable end, you can’t help but feel for the poor pooch, particularly the unfortunate circumstances surrounding her voyage (rushed to launch for the sake of propaganda, interfering with any scientific benefit).

One of the better reviews of the book I found makes a connection that I also felt, with the film My Life As A Dog, which was my favorite movie for quite a while. In it, the protagonist thinks of Laika as he considers his own situation (sent to live with relatives because his mom is deathly ill).

In 2007 my comics consumption pretty much receded to Hellboy and B.P.R.D.. Trips to the comics store were disheartening, because indie comics (or, at least, non-superhero comics) have become dominated by nihilism of three stripes: guns-and-blood detective stories; dystopic science fiction; zombies zombies zombies. Everything is dark, gruesome (literally), and meant to appeal to masculine ids in their late teens and early 20s. I suppose it’s the evolution for those who grew up with superhero fare, but I find that when I’m staring at the covers of these things at the local comics shop, I just feel sad for all the pathetic men for whom this crap stokes their fantasies. I’m all for juvenilia (did I mention I enjoy Hellboy and B.P.R.D., which are, when they’re at their best, adventure stories of the simplest kind?), but this morose fuck-the-world shit is just so…. lame.

The one bright spot at the end of 2007 was The Umbrella Academy, which captures the whimsy and humor I admire in Mignola-era Hellboy, but definitely with a distinctive personality all its own.