SignPosts Column in Innovation, the journal of the Industrial Designers Society of america

"Culture is really an agreement among people on how to work."

Richard Bravman

There is a simple truth about tenets and other tools that may seem obvious but is not: The principles have to be true to work.

The challenge is that teams are made of unique people with different views about the world. If people don’t buy in to the principles, the ethos, the rules, the mission or whatever your team decides to call them, then the discord becomes uncomfortable and friction can stand in the way of progress.

So why bother to point out such an apparent fact? Too often we see well-meaning and carefully crafted mission and value statements that are met with eye rolls. Those initiatives seem to share a simple oversight: The same amount of energy and creativity should go into agreement and alignment as the principles themselves. Such statements must also be allowed to embrace input, adapt and change, otherwise they become dogma, which creative critical minds delight in undermining.

Richard Bravman the great former CEO of Symbol Technologies said something which has stayed with me for a long time. In discussing a cultural program being launched in the company, he explained, "Culture is really an agreement among people on how to work."

If you rearrange that idea, tenets that describe how and why we work and that are true to the people who work together have the potential to become your culture. If it's your culture, then you have built something that is sure to last and to bring satisfaction and success to your work.

What I learned from Bravman, and have noticed whenever I forget, is when you take the time to make sure how your work rings true with the people you work with, the results, the journey and the relationships all turn out a lot brighter.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Winter 2013.

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The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart.

In 1940 author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts set off on an epic collecting expedition, which they documented in the book entitled the Sea of Cortez. Their log was an unlikely place to uncover a wonderful product review—of an outboard motor euphemistically referred to as the Hansen Sea-Cow—that bears many ironic truths about how the products we design to sell can deliver unintended experiences, and how an imaginative and creative writer can express qualities of experience design and theories on invention that no designer I know could muster:

We do not think that Mr. Hansen, inventor of the Sea-Cow, father of the outboard motor, knew what he was doing. We think the monster he created was as accidental and arbitrary as the beginning of any other life. Only one thing differentiates the Sea-Cow from the life that we know. Whereas the forms that are familiar to us are the results of billions of years of mutation and complication, life and intelligence emerged simultaneously in the Sea-Cow. It is more than a species. It is a whole new re-definition of life. We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:

  1. Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.

  2. It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion. It had always to be filled at the beginning of every trip.

  3. It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our minds, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion. Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement. This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false confidence in it.

  4. It had many cleavage points, and when attacked with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, Which also fall apart in simulated death when attacked with a screwdriver.

  5. It hated Tex, sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.

  6. It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, early morning, and evening, (d) in rain, dew, or fog, (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by—in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row—the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.

  7. It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.

After the spotlight fades, and despite our best efforts and intentions, our products develop relationships and deliver experiences that we often never see. I deeply appreciate the wit and wisdom in this passage. It left me with a flash of humility, both for the fate of our designs and the genius of good writing.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Fall 2013.

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Anyone with a basic knowledge of investing understands the concept of balancing risk in a portfolio. You want to put some money where there are safe and predictable returns, some in mixed funds and perhaps a bit in speculative growth stocks. You can go online and answer a few questions from your banker and readily get a measure of your risk tolerance—and based on that get guidance on building a portfolio.

A company can manage its product development in a similar way. A product portfolio should have a balance of mature profitable products as well as some that are breaking new ground and taking risks to uncover new markets and new customers. Consciously defining and tracking the right balance of innovation risk is a challenge. Companies may do it by tracking development spending across next-generation product evolution, innovative new features and new research into disruptive technologies or game-changing ideas.

It can also be managed by balancing people on a team and keeping the right number of risk-seeking innovators around to push into new spaces. These people—designers commonly among them—are generally the optimists and idealists who are fuelled by finding the next new thing and are never satisfied with how things are. If you think of them in terms of a risk index or scale, they are way off to the right: comfortable with uncertainty and often frustrated by conservatism.

So just as with our finances and product portfolios, there is a kind of risk portfolio of people as well: the risk takers balanced by those wired to seek more predictable, reliable outcomes.

At the team level, it is a source of fascination how decisions actually get made among this diverse mix of personalities. In product development research, we have all been on one side or the other of the debate between following intuition and listening to data. Smart people on opposing ends of the risk scale can easily poke holes in either of these approaches.

Considering this led me to the research of Tali Sharot whose work has uncovered what she calls an “optimism bias.” Her research reveals that we are wired hear data that point to a positive outcome for ourselves. In other words, we react more to new information that we perceive as good news rather than bad news. These findings seem to correlate with the idea of confirmation bias, which suggests that we tend to seek out evidence that supports our beliefs and to ignore or diminish the things that do not.

This all suggests that we are vulnerable when trying to accurately interpret design research involving innovation and risk options because we all have our own position on that scale. We will be more influenced by the research that reinforces our existing tendencies or beliefs.

But what if we first turn the research on ourselves? We may be able to identify our own risk biases before revealing the actual data and results. If we can identify our position on the risk scale and also identify the design option’s position on that scale, then we can predict what would be good news versus bad news and then correct against that before we interpret the results. This could help us to be more honest with ourselves and understand why we might be hoarding the data and anecdotes that support our position. We just may learn a bit about our counterparts and call them on their own biases as well.

Big decisions have to be made with sloppy information and all kinds of biases all the time, which can create a lot of dissonance on a team. Assuming, optimistically, that we all want to make good decisions that reflect the input we collect from our research, we should watch for the factors that appear to conspire against good decisions.

Trying to understand the risk we want to take, putting together the portfolio of people that reflect that risk, and then being aware of the biases we bring to the table seems like a way to get behind research and drive decisions we can believe in.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Summer 2013

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Several years ago I learned the inside world of retail customer intelligence and some of the many methods stores use to gather information from shoppers, how they use the data and, even more interesting, how they would like to use it. What started as a salesperson’s good practice of knowing the customers, what they like, their kids’ names and surprising anecdotes has turned into a marketing industry fueled by massive data warehouses and growing attempts to harvest as much information as possible. Marketers call this, almost euphemistically, customer relationship management, or CRM, and it has a huge impact on the design and user experience of many services and brands.

From a consumer standpoint, the visceral response to this attempt to have a “relationship” has been defensive: Don’t track me, respect my privacy, I have my rights, etc. But similar to family, friends, coworkers and enemies, we do form relationships with our brands. A great relationship affords all kinds of returns. Some brands we just love and they get the spoils of that relationship: our loyalty. Many, however, especially in retail, maintain a dull business-like association. And some of them we don’t really want to be friends with at all—but have felt forced to, proving that we have a price. If you have handed over a loyalty card at the grocery store, you’ve agreed to sell your shopping history, combined with some personal information, in exchange for a “member price.” How does that make you feel?

The days of these business-like relationships are approaching a big change. Consumers are starting to understand how smart software can be—and with that are developing a savvy set of expectations. They want real value for their data. They want to be known once again.

Unfortunately, most marketers can’t seem to use the knowledge and equipment they’ve been given to deliver the value that you would expect. In this case, the equipment is almost unlimited computing power, open channels of direct communication with consumers combined with masses of knowledge about consumer behavior. It should lead to a more bountiful relationship for all.

To leverage the abundance of data, here is a set of principles that is very achievable using contemporary computing power, data mining and communication tools. These should not be considered magical. In fact if you find them obvious, you are already expecting more of the software that pervades (or invades) our lives:

Adapt to my active behavior: I clicked on an ad or redeemed a coupon. Give me more. Propose other brands that yield that kind of saving profile. But please don't bury me in 10-cent coupons for the house-brand of soup that I have never bought and never will.

Adapt to my passive behavior: Have I ever redeemed one of those point-of-sale coupons that your grocery store dispenses? Do I ever open the emails you send? Figure that out and adapt.

Use the information you have: Don’t fill my inbox just because you have my email address. I took the time to open and consider this correspondence only to see that you are offering me a 20 percent discount to become a member when I already am one—thanks for nothing! Or worse, suggesting I buy a product that I already purchased from you.

Don't try to be smarter than you are: My favorite and frequent online retailer processed a burst of orders for My Little Pony characters in the 2011 holiday season. Despite my other activity throughout the year, my top recommendations for new purchases are still many variations of My Little Ponies! I can only conclude that my friend the e-tailer thinks I’m a part of a band of awkward rainbow-loving men nicknamed “Bronies” who share an infatuation with the pursuits of these inspired little pink creatures.

Use free and widely know information: Like the calendar and the weather. What do I do at this time each year that is unique (like buy little girl gifts at Christmas)? The Pony Castle (which I never bought) at the right time is a very valuable recommendation that I will thank you for.

Be a good listener: Instead of acting like a spy, act like you want a relationship. A good listener asks the right questions at the right time. But be careful, don’t ask me questions that you should already know the answer to. Do ask me about things I never do, like: “Hey, you never use those point-of-sale coupons; should I stop giving them to you? What would you like instead? Maybe a nutritional summary of everything you just bought? A comparison to how other people are shopping?”

The value of understanding consumers may not be measurable in short-term dollars and cents but will be over the life of a relationship filled with great experiences.

I will let you know if I don’t feel like talking.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Spring 2013.

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“Perhaps a first step, is in the simplification of life, in cutting out some of the distractions.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh on remaining balanced. Gift from the Sea, 1955

In a small brown and brittle second-hand paperback there is a small star scribbled in the margin beside that quote. It meant something to the person who put it there. Since that person meant something to me, I wonder what she was thinking, and what this meant to her? And why?

There are physical imprints on objects all around us that turn a simple object into a metaphysical experience. It has a value now that is not derived in a rational way. It becomes a treasure.

I noticed an ad for Bauman’s Rare Books that you can order special signed biographies of former presidents. My Life, signed by the hand of Bill Clinton, the autobiographer, is priced at $1,500. I’m sorry, but unless the president looked me in the eye, asked my name, signed it with a smelly sharpie and put it in my hand, it wouldn’t have anywhere near that value for me. The personal connection, memory or experience is where the value really gets imbued.

In a very different example of intangible value in analog objects, I have a few old lift tickets from significant ski days on the corkboard in my office: An opening day of November 11—my earliest so far! A closing day so warm no jacket was required. I still have vivid memories of the runs, the temperatures, the textures of the early- or late-season snow. Every time I look at them I am transported back to those days.

This same destination now has RFID tickets that I don’t even have to pull out of my pocket. Amazing—I can load it up online and walk onto the lift in a flash. A huge convenience. The problem is that I don’t have anything left to remember the days, and no token or souvenir to show off and retell the story.

I imagine that the magic and the memories are stored out of reach somewhere in the plastic encased chip. Just the same as if I had inherited an e-book instead of a well-used paperback from a parent: no marks, underlines, inscriptions or dog ears. I am so thankful that my mother inscribed every book and picture she gave me or my kids. Without knowing it, she turned a commodity into a priceless object each time.

Of course, I love my e-books and audiobooks, MP3s and digital photos, and I worry about what will replace the primitive but priceless marks we leave on their physical predecessors. I think about this when I look at a photo that has been liked, hearted or commented on online. The power of what is happening there is easy to miss, but it’s a great example that maybe this metaphysical effect can happen in the digital realm.

When the character Erica Albright in the movie The Social Network exclaimed, “The Internet's not written in pencil, Mark. It's written in ink.” I shuddered. But maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe we can figure out how to use some of that ink to imbue emotion and meaning into these intangible ones and zeros.

Give it a shot.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Winter 2012 - Yearbook of Design Excellence.

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“Collectively, all these people lend proof to my conjecture that we are far less smart individually than we are collectively. This sharing of knowledge and insight is fundamental to intellectual and cultural growth.” —Bill Buxton, from the acknowledgements in Sketching User Experiences.

It is a familiar practice for writers to recognize the contributions that helped them get their books onto the shelf and into your hands. If you are the type who appreciates knowing a little bit about the person behind the pen, the acknowledgements page gives you a peek into the personality of the author, how they perceive themselves, how they value the world and people around them, and even how they work. It can reveal fascinating details of the creative process, the development process and the roles within the publishing industry.

It is fun to imagine how that editor feels when the author—whose name is in lights—publicly claims that the book would not have been possible without the editor’s help, or that their writing is actually garbage without the editor’s input. Does that old friend, family member or random encounter glow upon hearing that they may have provided a key insight that made something magnificent happen?

I have always remembered David Bodanis’ acknowledgments in his book E=mc2. I love how he describes the constraints of having to center his life around the quirky interruptions of raising two kids and how that gave him an unexpected advantage. He described writing with his notes spread out on the floor of their room after they were asleep in their bunks: “A few times—the writing racing along; my coffee long since cold—I realized I’d gone the whole night through.” I remember the work a lot more knowing a bit about his personality and his method. I also admire him for being able to look at interruptions as creative opportunities and how he turned a massive task into a warm memory.

I have read of pets and parents and of places from diners to natural escapes. Each little thank you fills out the picture of how the creation was built and who played a part. Knowing these details can change the experience of consuming the end product. Feeling like you know the back story or the people brings you in closer.

Movies and films do a great job of calling out the intricate roles and contributions in the credits, even if they don’t get into the personal details and inspirations that we see in books.

We don’t do this in product design. Products usually don’t bear any trace of authorship, or acknowledgments. It’s impractical on most products, but we still don’t provide any other surface where the people and stories are shared. This comes to mind at a time when design awards are documented and celebrated and, even if brief, the people behind the products have a chance to be known. We take it pretty seriously, though, and default to telling the biography and birth story of the products—but not so much the tributes to the teams behind these achievements, let alone the unexpected inspirations or personal stories that fueled these creations.

It would be a great tradition to start. Imagine if all these great products in our lives came with easy access to this kind background. A sticker on the back, an insert in the box, a page on the website or a story on the blog. Maybe the experiences that are being created would be richer for it. Maybe students would gain hidden insights and inspiration into the designer’s alchemy of creating design that can change the world. To Bill Buxton’s point: It is certain that the more wisdom we share, the smarter we all will be.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Fall 2012 - Yearbook of Design Excellence

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If you have looked at anything related to social media in the last few years you will certainly be familiar with the tagging performed with the hash symbol or, as it now known, the #hashtag. I have been fascinated with this recently as the use of the hashtag has been morphing from utility to play and lately toward pure humor.

I learned from Wikipedia that hashtagging was used over 30 years ago as a way to label groups and comments in Internet Relay Chats. The Twitter community actually borrowed and mainstreamed the 30-year-old punctuation trick, which has taken off and appears in use across social media

As it grew in popularity, the hashtag started being used to create or track memes. When Twitter started reporting on trending topics, tweeters enjoyed jumping into the mix of topics, whether contrived or based on real subjects or events. #FML was always a fun one to peruse the hilariously unfortunate circumstances of people needing to share misfortune. #firstworldproblems is another that was a sort of ironic looking-glass container for self-aware tweeters to admit that their misfortune may be tainted with a high degree of fortune. Good fun.

What is most interesting is the latest change in the journey of the hashtag. The hashtag is now being used to capture phrases that do not appear to be intended to indicate a catch-all category or to either start or join a meme. Instead, the goal seems to be to capture a concept that is somehow bigger than the string of words—typed out in tradition form—could express. For example, I saw #401sucksintherain as a stand-alone observation of the traffic one day. Another was #donttellmyorthodontist in a riveting tweet from a teen who forgot to wear her retainer one night.

Is there a gestalt to these hashtags, or some greater meaning that is achieved with this inventive form of expression? When I ask, the question is usually confusing. But when I’ve probed, it turns out that the purpose is simply just to be funny.

So, the hashtag has become a form of expression! It appears to now be a domain-specific punctuation form that adds emphasis, irony, humor. It’s a hack on our punctuation and to our language.

Hacking punctuation is not really a new thing. Emoticons are perhaps the most familiar form of type hacking that turned our type into expression. Of course, some systems do us the “favor” of smartly correcting our emoticons into rendered happy faces that totally ditch the charm of the original. (The hack on that hack is to reverse your emoticon (: so the auto correct doesn’t catch you and help you try to emote while you write.) Notice the use of quotation marks around “favor”? It’s mainstream to hack the use of quotes to denote sarcasm.

Its stands to debate whether this redesign of written form is a good or a bad thing. I loved how Anne Trubek exclaimed in Wired magazine last February that “our obsession with proper spelling is a vestige of the Gutenberg era. Its tyme 2 let luce.” Controversy always follows progress, so we will have to wait and see. F. Scott Fitzgerald, taking offence to the liberal use of punctuation, once said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

Will the hashtag escape the bounds of social media and appear in general use? Should it? Maybe it’s just the next exclamation point? We just needed a new way to #laughatourownjokes.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Summer 2012

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New default settings

As an industrial designer I have spent most of my career thinking of form as physical shape, and how we perceive and react to it emotionally, aesthetically and psychologically.

Things have been changing recently, and some of the fundamentals we were taught have been challenged. We learned that there was a sort of divine communication between object and human that was encoded into our DNA, an unconscious perception forged from carrying spears or hanging from branches in our past. A one-inch-diameter cylinder was the purest way to communicate graspable; a 20-inch-high platform was an invitation to sit. We just know what a lever is and, therefore, what a switch should look like. There is some kind of primal encoding that we could intuitively draw on to create forms that communicated with users. This in turn would make our designs intuitive and therefore easy to use.

Then, one day, my five year old walked up to the TV eye-level to the logo at the bottom of the screen. Her shoulders sagged at the uninspiring grown-up content that was being broadcast. So she reached up, casually touched her index finger to the left side of the screen and irreverently swiped to the right to dismiss the show.

Convention would suggest that a knob should be turned or a button pressed to respond to her wish. In the absence of any other indication of what to do, her reflex was to swipe, not to go look for a button or the remote.

I contacted George Fitzmaurice, a pioneer of large-screen HCI and gestural user interfaces, and the current head of user interface research at Autodesk, to help me understand what was going on and what this meant to the next generation of user interfaces. I asked him if this was a blip, a special time or a natural pattern of evolution in the way we perceive objects and how to interact with them.

He shared these thoughts:

• The short answer is that you are seeing a natural pattern of evolution. Technology is finally catching up to research that was done many years ago

• Gestures have surged in popularity primarily on two fronts: “finger skating” on a input-display surface (like the Apple iPhone and iPad) and whole-body motion sensing (like the Microsoft Kinect).

• Our expectations evolve. We get a bit more demanding. We want to do more customized actions with less effort and don’t want to repeat ourselves. Could it be that we have a little bit of an interaction divas inside us?

So, what does this teach us about the use of design fundamentals versus breaking conventions? How important is designing to our intuition about how things work versus redesigning expectations, and risking upsetting the inner diva?

George explained:

• Design has to be grounded in something. Then you can tweak it. I don’t think we redesign our expectations, we evolve them. There is never a new system. It sounds harsh but it’s true. There are new elements to a system, but the majority of elements and concepts have been leveraged from the past and already learned by the user.

• In many ways, designers are flirting with the user. Designers wish their system to be a bit different than the rest of the pack: fun, visually appealing and a little bit of an enigma, but not too much.

How we learn all this is also a big deal. The manual is being replaced with new-media help on devices. Our expectations are also rewired by what we see on TV and in movies. Tom Cruise gesticulating in Minority Report or John King analyzing electoral maps is subtly teaching us new strategies to try. Savvy advertisers are also baking the instructions into TV commercials so we know what to do with our new purchases without even realizing we’ve been taught.

Finally, George reminded me not to forget about what is happening with natural language as input. It should be no problem for the little ones. They’re already giving their toys voices, so it will just be one less wonderful thing about childhood to unlearn!

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION. Spring 2012