Challenging Precedence as Artificial Constraints

Yesterday, I gave a talk in France about social entrepreneurship, urging people to consider starting their own company and leaving behind the corporate machine. I realize the laws governing entrepreneurship differ greatly in various countries. It may be tremendously difficult in Europe to, say, declare bankruptcy after a failed startup attempt, and dissolving a company may be next to impossible. I was expecting to hear questions about this from the crowd, and to be frank, I don’t have a great answer to how to mitigate this (except to urge local governments to establish laws that are more agreeable to entrepreneurial endeavors). Most of the questions I received weren’t about that, though. They weren’t about the legal and structural aspects of company creation: they were about the emotional and attitudinal parts. How do you deal with a country where, to paraphrase one of the questions, people aren’t encultured to challenge norms, take initiative, and utilize creative approaches to problem solving?

I don’t think that’s unique to countries in Europe. I actually think this is the largest opportunity for entrepreneurial training: giving students the permission to do things they are already allowed to do, but making that permission explicit and constantly reinforcing a drive towards creativity and away from consumption. This is related to passion and motivation: it’s about learning a way of thinking that encourages self-directed action as provocation, and fostering a culture of curiosity.

By and large, this is a learned attitude. There’s probably a genetic disposition towards action, but I simply can’t believe that curiosity is some sort of Boolean, where you either have it or you don’t. And no matter what your genetic starting point, the increasing scientific evidence towards the plasticity of the brain and our ability to constantly gain knowledge implies that you have the ability to change your initial disposition. Cognitive development doesn’t stop; while the cliff of learning may be longer as you grow older, I feel that most of the length of that cliff is artificial and not chemical. And in the context of entrepreneurship, a lot of the issues faced are those of proactivity.

I remember a conversation with a student who was learning about public assistance programs for food (“food stamps”). I suggested that one of these assistance programs might be integrated into his product so people could leverage it as a form of payment during the online checkout program. He told me that, as far as he knew, it didn’t work like that; you had to present the assistance card in person to pay for things. As we discussed and debated the feasibility of this based on our assumptions about how the program worked, it became clear that neither of us had enough data to determine if it could really work, and so I asked him a leading question: how could you find out, and what would be a course of action to make it work? I thought the answer was simple: call the government and ask. To him, this was crazy. Who would he call? How would he get their number? Is it OK to call them? What if they wanted to know more about his product? They wouldn’t change their policies for him, would they? You don’t just call the government, do you? It’s just not done like that, is it?

There was a basic assumption of how things are done, both on a detail and a broad level. On a detail level, he assumed that the program was set in stone, and that precedence indicated resolve. We hadn’t seen any online payment system that uses public assistance as a checkout mechanism, and he just assumed it couldn’t be done for a considered reason.

On a broader level, there was an ingrained hesitation to challenge existing policies, procedures, and norms, and this hesitation blocked curiosity. Things are the way they are for a good reason, and so a solution to a problem should recognize this precedence as logical and appropriate. His frame, like that of so many other people in the world, was one of acceptance rather than skepticism. This wasn’t a logical or conscious or rational assessment; it was his default stance, based on the way he was brought up, on the way he was taught to interact with the world around him.

The more I encounter and consider the way systems work in our world, the more I realize that these systems, in fact, aren’t the way they are for any good reason, and that these systems are malleable. The constraints of a wicked problem are fuzzy, blurry, and often, completely arbitrary. If you start with the assumption that things can’t be done and that the world is the way it is for good reason, you view opportunity and options through an extremely narrow lens. Your set of options at any moment are limited to things that have established precedence. But if you start with the assumptions that anything can be done, particularly when it comes to non-scientific actions, and that historic precedent doesn’t determine future action, your set of options is nearly limitless.

This speaks to one of the biggest breakdowns in how we educate kids in the US. It illustrates why eighteen years of learning a shallow version of science and math force rigidity in thinking that doesn’t play well with the process of design. As STEM is commonly taught, constraints are fixed. When you solve a logic proof, or solve for x, or cause a chemical reaction to occur, you are taught that constraints are fixed and can’t be changed. If A, than B; if B, than C. What about D? Who decided A was there? What if A is A prime? Can I substitute things for the letters? What is logic, anyways? Where did it come from? Who decided how it works? Who set the rules? These questions aren’t encouraged or considered, and probably for good reason: I’m not sure the teacher could answer them. And so we learn that, when you encounter a logic proof, you can’t change the assumptions, they are fixed. Rules are rules; things are the way they are. I don’t particularly think this is true even in the natural sciences, but I’m absolutely sure it’s not true in the artificial. We make culture, and so we can change it. But there’s no delineation in education made between the natural world and the created world; there’s no education given to our relationship with the created world.

That relationship should be one of empowerment. The constraints in a problem of design are completely artificial, and our starting stance towards the artificial should be curiosity and skepticism, not passivity and conformity. This is why entrepreneurship and design are such good partners. Both view the world as rich with opportunity, and as a medium of change.

Raw conference notes: Nicolas Leduc, WIF (Interactive Design International Festival)

Raw conference notes: Nicolas Leduc, WIF (Interactive Design International Festival)

What to do in a time of crisis

We are an agency of 20 employees based on Paris; we work for a large industrial countries, EDF for example. We work on different professional issues, and we work on critical interfaces, professional based interfaces. We have a cluster for transports, and signals; this is our core business. We now work on signals like what you have in Paris, the biggest transport hub. It’s being renovated. I joined Attoma last year and I am the senior UX designer, and my background is in information architecture. I’m used to structuring information, and that’s how I joined the  company, and my title changed over the years. My new title mirrors the moment at which we stand today. I was a “roadmaster”, and I became an information architect and designer, and today I’m a ux designer. We can observe the trend of customer design, so this mirrors the context of our jobs and our profession.

I would like to talk about customers; which crisis are we talking about? Energy, financial, ecology. Our customers, we can see that there are major trends coming. Companies are more and more mature about the value that comes about through design. We understand that managers and board of directors think of hiring designers in small teams, and they want these competencies sin the companies. This is a major trend we are observing today, and we support the teams. It’s hard for these teams to be recognized internally. Companies have vaguely understood “what is design”, but what we do with that remains to be seen. I talk about the black sheep and doubtful guest; he goes to see people, sleeps in their chimneys, and destroys their books. He’s in people’s homes, and no one has invited him, and he stays for a long time.

That’s the kind of character we are talking about; how do you talk to this character? This is what we observe. As an agency, companies want to use the competencies of design, but what is design/ in a large company today, design is the added value.

Secondly, I would like to talk about another issue, the complexities that companies have to face, massive complexities. It’s especially an organizational complexity. Today, companies have issues to get the structured, to be consistent in their strategies. It’s a really complicated issue with 20,000 employees in the company. People tend to have no vision of their own structure, they don’t’ understand how the strategies are implemented or decided, and so the teams we work with have to act in different directions; they have contradictory priorities. This happens quite often. And they have a strong pressure to identify new markets. As designers, corporate or external, we all have to face this huge complexities of organizations. In an agency, or in a company, understanding how companies work is hard. It’s once you understand how companies work that you can identify different levels and deliver the highest possible added value.

Our environment is digital, and it generates a lot of complexity. I have a few examples to illustrate the complexity. This is a C-17, freight plane. We had to add seven tons of added weight, so it can fly without any persons in it; we wanted it to take off, but it wouldn’t take off. When we talk about the military, they are supposed to be well organized; they have huge resources, and they have internal designers. But today, when you design this kind of transport device, it’s complicated; you have to add weight or change the software. You have to add ballasts. Then, consider the F-22 american planes, which have a problem with oxygen. It’s a common system that works on other planes, but not on the bombaries; they can’t take off. The pilots had to speak on TV to explain why it doesn’t work. They have 4 million lines of codes in these planes. Despite the brains of the engineers, there’s such a density of code, it’s so much complexity, you have a hard time identifying the problem. The future military plane will have 20 million lines of code, and the complexity of this kind of plane is that we wonder if we can really create it. This is a good example of always believing in technology. We can solve any problem with technology. But the problems are so complex that you don’t have any solution.

Yesterday, we talked about artificial intelligence as something that would come in the new future. AI and IT were born at the same time. I don’t know if you heard or read this article, from Forbes and the New York Times; it’s about Target. It’s an American retailer, and they sent vouchers to a young woman to get free baby clothes, and the father went to see the manager. He asked “why did you send these to my daughter, she’s not pregnant?” And the manager apologized, and he called a week later and the father said to him, I’m sorry, there were things happening in my home and I didn’t know about it. Target had hired a statistics expert for this very specific market. Out consumption habits are very organized; there’s only a few times in your life where you might change your habits – like when you have a child. You might shop in new shops. And the marketing people asked the expert to provide some drivers about this, and he analyzed the data, and he understood that out of 20 products, he could identify probability of when women would become pregnant. The young woman received the vouchers automatically, and it was inline with the system, and the system worked well, and today, our technological environment indicates that it works: AI works, we have the tools for it. What can customers do with it?

What is interesting is to say, the turing test: indeed, if a robot is steered by a human being, you think the robot is a human being. When the machine does it by itself, the results are a disaster. The customer will say, the machine talked to me – it’s a cold being that knows everything about me. It’s scary, because our patterns and behaviors can be analyzed. This is scary. And so they included random advertisements inside of the vouchers, in order to hide the machine idea.

Today, as an agency, we have this wonderful technology; what do we do with it? There are major issues related to predictability, forecasting. Many questions can be raised.

We understand that customers have internal issues with their environments, and we understand that markets are changing. We have huge events that might impact the entire market, all of the markets. So it’s high time we face these major changes.

So I don’t know if you heard of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and the black swan; it’s quite interesting to have this relationship between the black swan and its symbolism. What it says about unpredictability; for those of you who don’t know this story, up until the 13th century, we were damn sure that the swans were white. Suddenly, we discovered Australia, and we found black swans. And so this really questioned the entire idea of observation-based science; suddenly, you see things you can’t predict. It’s a huge metaphor. It’s about, the sub-title, is “when the impossible things actually happen” – things you didn’t predict. When I was at university, I had a geography teacher and he really liked the weather forcast. So we were talking about storms, and there’s alignment problems; it’s hard to predict storms, because you have to have different parameters, and when they are aligned, you have the storm. Black swan is the same idea.

As an example of the black swan, here’s an idea that you are very familiar with. iPhone is a black swan story, because you have an impressive alignment of parameters, it’s all very much aligned, and it’s a black swan for the market. It was launched in 2007, at the end of the year, and only really worked in 2008, and it’s 9% of all sales in 2011. But it captured 75% of the value of the market; all the manufacturers of telephones were all dismissed in the next years. This is something very striking, very important, that meant all stakeholders in the market changed and changed how they think. What do you do in a time of crisis? They also captured 40% of the general turnover of the market.

In order to explain how to react to this, here’s a small video. Ballmer, “I like our strategy, I like it a lot.” The idea is not to despise Microsoft; it’s to see their reaction. The market would not believe in iPhone. Ballmer isn’t dependent on the market, he’s saying it’s too expensive, and it’s for business people, and they need keyboards. They say, we are confident in our strategy. This is what we should understand: he has a strategic answer, but now we know, he wasn’t right.

But it’s interesting to see how they reacted after that, because they were really confident in 2007, and in 2009 they radically changed their strategy. They went out of their classical code base, and now they have an interface called Metro. It includes desktop, mobile, tablet. This is the goal, at least.

We are interested in, what did they do to implement this new strategy and interface? They hired a graphic designer. They hired someone who was well known, recognized in his job. He was mostly doing print design, print and media design. He would know very well the visual side of the job, and understand the brand strategy. He’s in charge of the brand. He decided on the first elements, providing the visual framework of the product. Also, the framework in terms of language, the sounds, and anything dealing with interaction. He started this project, and Remi yesterday was talking about the basic principles of the brand. Genuine, spirited, supportive, balanced. As a designer, if we do this work, this is the base we have, an agency of well defined principles. They are identical; you won’t have a brand that says, I want to be ugly, and non practical. It’s always like this, fine. How do you express it? That’s where the designer comes in, to implement this, you need to talk to developers, and you need to include marketing, strategy, business units, producers, and it’s interesting to see the strategic reaction: to hire a designer, very early.

The next question – is it going to work? They have a very strong vision here. It’s hard to handle this, but there’s a key that aligns it. The vision is cascaded down, like Apple, to the shop floors. And the more the strategy is consistent, you have to have this consistency in the products. This is an opinion: you need to work on this alignment., and in that case, you can tackle issues of organizational complexity. You can align the different people involved and in the case, you can deliver added value.

So, talking about value, this is quite important for us. Design is about expressing a vision; we aren’t, in the case of an agency, with the vision – I want to make a transition about not being a part of companies, just making your own business; I agree with that, because we have all the tools to implement the vision, and the best way to implement a vision is to implement your own vision. However, when we are unfortunate enough to work for a large company, you don’t implement your own vision, but instead, your customers vision. Usually, the vision you have to deal with are not very comprehensive; you have to trigger or provoke things to have this alignment. But we do have a lot of tools to make sure this vision becomes material, expressed materially. Usually these visions are expressed by a few words. We have to make them tangible, things about our own organizations. Ways of doing things.

The next questions for us in an agency, or in a team, is what is the added value for me to create this design? We have this huge Apple example, but what else? And how do we measure if it worked? We can look at and formulate this in another way; the price that a company paid to a design agency should create value. When we deliver something, and in between the time we deliver it and the time it hits the market, a lot of time has passed. It takes a long time to measure impact. What we found is that people from marketing departments, technical managers, business managers, who are able to structure a vision, will usually change their positions within the company. We’ve seen that among different customers, this is about the visibility of the company. You have a small design team, using only a few people in the team, and if supported or not by management is not as important as to say “does it have internal visibility” – do people know what they do?

It’s not obvious; organizations are so complex, you can’t know what everyone else is doing. If you want to have a successful innovation approach and strategy, if you want a tangible strategy, this does create visibility inside of a company. We understand that designers have different position in companies, and we can assess this concretely. We can look at the hierarchy of the company, we can see ourselves move up in the hierarchy after doing our work.

The fact that we connect different people within the company is important. We have people in the company, dealing with cables, people around the same table with other people and they understand the vision, and understand that it’s aligned with products, customers, production issues, and so-on – it creates quality, nobody would sign a paper at the end of the meeting saying “yes, I didn’t understand what my colleague is doing or does.” This is a good qualitative criteria assessment. My work was used as a link, and we come back tot his problem of in-house champions. It’s hard to get marketing and business units interacting; the marketing department has a commercially oriented focus, while the people in the business units have developers, they do what they want and take ten years to do a project and have no idea what they are doing.

It’s hard to ensure an interaction. The design approach helps bring the teams together and work together. And so we talk about commercial success of the company; it’s long-term goals.

Once we’ve said this, we have several tools and we know what to do exactly. We can crystalize this vision that we’ve spoken about, as designers, companies, agencies, each company has its logic: we kind of tend to be concentrated. The value that’s being provided is linked to the tool that we use. If I take the example of a software manufacturer, he will always think that it’s the number of lines of code, or the number of hours spent by the developer provides added value, but this is rarely the case. The time spent on a process does not mean you are delivering more value. We have to keep this in mind – we have to be careful, and remember that just because we spent more time doesn’t mean we provide more value.

We’ve seen that, even though we spent a lot of time, it’s an extremely well designed object; the frame is just a frame for the client, and it’s nothing more. He doesn’t give much attention to it. Probably he could look in the database and everything, but developers say that we really need to be focused, and keep in mind that just because you spend time on the software doesn’t mean you are providing added value. You could be working on projects for 7 months and not have the appropriate tools and people. The value might still not be delivered.

Remy talked yesterday about keyboards that don’t work – I have a keyboard like that. It’s a very good keyboard, actually – it’s the dream board. Everything was pre-designed to type, so you have the keys vertically arranged, it’s more ergonomic; the most commonly used keys are in the middle – its practical – and the order of the alphabet is dependent on the language. It’s brilliant. But this is meaningless, because getting used to this is very hard. To learn this in six months is pointless. It’s the dream for a geek, people looking to optimize, but not for the layman. He talked about usage. I keep this in the office, and we tend to focus on objects that are a roaring success in terms of success , but they have no meaning from a users perspective. This is a risk that you always encounter.

So there are certain risks, and we still have to use a few tools. What are the tools that work today? I was just saying that our jobs have changed, and even the way we work is changing. We have certain stakes regarding the way we work today. In terms of business lines, black swan lasted for a very short time. You need three years to set up a project; the logistics, three years flies by. So we have a problem of time. Everything is so fast, we aren’t understanding everything. The key is to have shortcuts. I don’t know if you are doing the ux club in paris, but there was a conference on remote users, and what’s interesting is: they don’t do reports, no one is going to read a fifty page report. The solution is to have remote user tests with the client, and that’s an extremely good way to resolve problems related to time.  You have to align quickly, bringing together the decision makers. The designer will identify the problems, and supervise the problems.

We always need to actually wonder: are we talking about value or not? So we need ot set up priorities, and there must be value delivered to the client. There’s no way to read the report. They can see things directly and it saves a lot of time. We provide service design, and this helps you align. This is the key to our success. This is how we go about it.

As a source of inspiration, it’s a book of Richard Scarry. What do people do all day? It’s a children’s book that explains how a post office works. It’s strong in understanding the stakeholders. It’s meaningful. The question is on aligning: aligning the stakeholders, the problems; we talk about the end user, and we talk about how the service is provided. We need to ensure that each project is well positioned. We are in sprint mode; we don’t do work upstream. We aren’t forgetting it; we don’t have the time. We’re skimming the steps, the upstream. We have to ask the right questions, and represent the stakes visually. We can see here that, if we show this to a client, the client is just asking for the tip of the iceberg. We have to work on everything below the iceberg, too. We need design tools to help us work throughout the process.

Another state is mapping. How can we ensure we’re keeping with the timelines? The roles of the stakeholders? The expected results? We talked about alignment, and business unit alignment.

More generally, we observe that companies, at least the various takeholders of companies, are not aware of what others are doing, and they don’t know what processes are being implemented. Most are verbalized. There’s no written protocol, even sophisticated processes; everything is an aural tradition. Even for engineers and developers, it’s spoken. Engineers are strong in processes, but it’s the same in marketing; it’s tradition and its verbal. It’s mostly information that keeps companies running. We have all of these pieces of information floating around, and we have to capture them from everywhere. It’s about crystalizing it in concrete form, a written form. It’s complicated. In an ideal world, the client can communicate the vision. In reality, this never happens.

All service design is role play. Empathy is of the essence when it comes to design, because it means you understand the needs of the end user, and you realize what are the stakes and the values. And it’s also empathy for other players. If the developer has to walk a mile in the shoes of a marketing manager, he will understand what’s involved. They will rally around a common goal. It could be a logo, an interface, anything. It’s a functional approach. We aren’t talking about cumbersome processes, but flexible methodologies.

Once this is achieved, we can model user scenarios. We can model scenarios of end users, the entire problem of stakeholders when you design a service or an object; the developer is also a system user. Once you’ve mapped out the role play, you can do the scenarios very easily. There are so many ways to have an insight of the users. You can go out in the field, and its intuitive knowledge. There is knowledge in companies, knowledge of their clients. Once you can give them the tools to crystalize it in writing, things get a lot easier. A simple tool – a whiteboard. To model the user’s trajectory. It’s the same logic that’s behind all of this: working together and putting everything in writing.

So you can work on several levels. It’s four words for the brand, high abstraction level. It requires a lot of work. A concept model works on the same principle. It can provide very powerful and good results. It’s all about rallying around a common goal.

On more concrete terms, we can talk of more designed objects. Here are a few examples. The alignment diagrams, and they speak for themselves. We have a lot of problems involved in modeling and visualizing. You need to understand immediately. That’s what a good diagram does; they should have a quick understanding of what we’re talking about. We have to ensure that we can identify the value, and allocate resources. The modeling should make this work concrete and tangible.

You talked about frames, and we were designing wireframes. But the value was expressed, the client came to know that there was a lot of value in the object, even though no personal value for him. When were talking about internal promotion, and giving him the tools to make a presentation, it addresses this question of providing value to the job and to the object. There are risks involved, too much information; perhaps you don’t understand the problem. You have a graph, and category two is complexity modeling, and we have some work done in processing this. One is more readable, but the other is not. That means the objects are very well, but we can’t understand anything – the complexity has been modeled, but it’s still incomprehensible.

A high level service blueprint formalizes, to a greater extend; the various players are linked to one another, and we aren’t disassociating the various players. We’re aligning them.

A very detailed blueprint, you can see the relationship between the actors, and the mapping is in phase between what happens in the company and the end users problem, and the idea is to ensure that the value levers are highlighted. The needs of the user are highlighted. Probably identify the problems, and review your organization, in order to optimize it, and leverage the value provided to the client. It’s a complex service blueprint; it’s complex diagrams. When you proceed to such complexity, they become unreadable. That doesn’t mean they aren’t unuseful; they just aren’t readable. These documents are for decision makers who don’t have time to study the diagram, and so you have to call the decision maker half an hour before the meeting, provide a simple version of the diagram.

And so the interface becomes a point of contact with the users involved, with stakeholders, with the end users. If Microsoft decides to change their interface, all Microsoft interfaces will be outdated. People will be in tight spots if they sell these interfaces. This is the portal to the strategy. So the question is, what is functional branding? It catalyzes the issues; the development issues. And this becomes increasingly complicated, because it’s not a question of user experience; it’s a question of brand. So the question is, how can we try to negotiate the problems of brand in the interface? Sometimes, it’s about laying things, and it’s not obvious to people. It helps them get an enhanced visibility. How can you tell the marketing team that the user interface is not where we put the logo? If you put the logo in the gui, the users are confused. This is the kind of request we get, the object communicates the brand; the interface has to be invisible and light. And so such objects align the stakeholders. If these new features won’t be of use it would be a question to carry out mapping. The visual part could be here, and the developing part could be here, and people speak the same language. So you can also fragment and relax the entire load; they want us to have an interface, and all of this, it’s not formulated, and so you need to reposition the artifacts. Be careful of the brand, the major stake is in the interaction. Will it work well? Do the people understand?

The brand isn’t the most important thing. But we are in a visual society and this is what the end user will see, and so we need to relax and be consistent. Prototyping, another example: this is time saving, this is about designing something that doesn’t yet exist, and it’s for research. It’s what we did for a client, when exploring, prototyping can be a good approach. If you have a prototype, you avoid the specification unit of 150 pages, no one reads that. But the production is different than the prototype, even though it’s tempting to make them the same. We have a problem because now a prototype is very close to the final product, this is what the iphone methodology is about. The prototype could be duplicated, so many millions of copies – it’s the final product, and not a prototype. Complexity is totally different, tactics.

Raw conference notes: Dominique Sciamma, WIF (Interactive Design International Festival)

* Raw conference notes

Against Digital Intoxication

I would like to have a small test. Who is over 30? 40? 50?

I belong to the last category, and I’m lucky, because for those of us over 50, I’m lucky to experience this digital revolution. I’m 57, and I was using perforated cards as a child, and times have changed, and I saw the advent of the first micro computers in 1970s, and I used them. I manufactured them, and designed them. I think that people who have had this opportunity, the chance to be part of the digital revolution have a viewpoint on what’s happened and what will happen, and that’s rather unique.

Those of you between 20 and 25, comparing the past and present and the future is not the same thing. For those of us who have lived through the digital revolution, I would like to talk against the intoxication, I’ve given this name to give the disorder to the digital field, which actually is on the right track, but with a chance that it might slide away. Perhaps a chance it will come out with the wrong results.

So let me take you back in time to the industrial revolution. This characterized the era of enlightenment, machines,  producing what we wanted. Good points, because these produced objects and services. We couldn’t fill up the stock, because in consumer society, there was more demand than supply. The process was mastered and now we produce things, and now the manufacturers have to buy back their products because they are unable to sell the inventory. We consume what we produce, but not all.

The industrial revolution that started, something happened in the middle of the 20th century. The advent of information technology, which has an impact on the destiny of the world. With the democratization of the pc, the vision, and the strategy of a company called IBM invented and did a major favor to humanity by not knowing what they were doing. They produced a machine they thought had no future, and Bill Gates with MS Dos, has a monopoly of the market. They designed a machine, and never thought they would have competition from IBM.

When they made the mistake, it’s given rise to the pc market. There’s a category of things called “users”, which appears in the 1980s. When I started working as an IT manager, I was perforating punch cards, working on teletypes. My background was in paper. The computer was designed by IT specialists, and were used by specialists in banks and insurance companies. The language, only they understood it. The notion of user didn’t even exist. With the advent of PC, there was a new category of people. Users. People with no skills, but the desire to learn, to own this tool. This gave rise to the concept of users.

Now if you put all of this in the current context, it’s exactly what has happened with objects. Open machines, low tech technologies; no methodology, no process – this is the same thing. The position of the user. There’s the invention of mobile technology in the middle of the 80s, and this is our present, and this is tomorrow, where everything is tomorrow. Adam Greenfield illustrated it, the world of multi-media. Smart cards all over the place, and sensors everywhere. This is the world of the future, the day to day that is promised to us in the future. This is what the future holds in story.

So, I’ve just taken you through the industrial revolution to the explosion of technology and how our lives have been digitalized and there are people behind this. Amateurs, people who are wondering about their future. How do you envision it? As a continuum? 19th century illustration of a gladiator – it’s not outdated. Or is it a major breakthrough? There is an intellectual laziness that has set in. I think it’s a continuum.

When I talk of laziness, I mean it in the continuity – we want to go faster, things should be more interesting, more user friendly. We have a new paradigm to resolve. The same one, in fact, arose when we started inventing writing. It’s the way we position ourselves, and our social position; my own existence in respect to myself. I’m saying that, given what has happened over the years of my career, I think that we are continuing to use and practice dangerous practices. I don’t know if it’s kind of school that likes to do paintings with human excrement or duck excrement (?!); it’s a battle of the sexes; it doesn’t have a lot of importance, but all of the sudden, the world is digitalized, and we can reproduce everything, so what do we have to reproduce?

Why digital intoxication?

Everything has been disoriented. We’ve lost our bearings; not us, but the entire ecosystem that’s around. The financial aspect involved, the financial players, and the media – the reporters, who talk about this, you’ve read articles written by a journalist who talks rubbish on what you specialize in. Media continues to provide easy thought and easy articles on the subjects. All of this, in fact, leads us to question our own position  -where are we going, where are we heading? Where is our home? Our home is the future, and we need to find a way there.

The first aspect of digital intoxication is the content. We’re obsessed with it. We think there must be content with digital technology; it’s impossible to conceive of it without content.

The second form of this intoxication is screens. Ask a telecom operator to conceive of the future. They will put screens everywhere. In each of the rooms, in the toilets, the ceilings, windows, doors, even on glasses. Everything will have screens. Even in my pockets. Screens are an integral part of the digital offer.

The third form is connection, the capacity for objects to communicate, as if this characteristic actually gives them wonderful virtues. Connected objects are good, and so we try to connect objects, for the past hundred years. And we don’t really feel like we’ve entered a new era. We’re obsessed with it.

The next is digital. It’s the idea that the true horizon of digital technology is behind the screen, the ultimate promise is outside our body. It’s a prison. Beyond there is another body. I can do what I want, I’m a millionaire, out there. It’s the “virtual world”. The promise of Christianity, in fact – out there, once you are dead, and rid of your body, you will reap the fruit of your sufferings and known what an eternal life is.

This is a primitive idea. It’s the matrix, polarized.

And the last, the interface. Interface is the point with which we are obsessed the most. What is a digital object, a digital service? It’s something that will help us access content through screens. And through connection. And we’d be dealing with the virtual world, so; a digital experience is something that we are working with an interface. It’s not true, I totally disagree. Of course, I’m not saying interfaces aren’t important, but you really cannot sum up digital technology to interfaces. It doesn’t work that way.

These are the five aspects of digital technology that must be fought.

All of this opportunity, of what we’ve always been doing; we always harbor the idea that human beings tend to take control of their environment. And I can control the environment within which I live. I can invent a tool, and have theories. Links between events, the emblematic output of the tool, just to reach a goal.

The tools control us, this is true of digital technology. The interface is still a tool, and so we are still subject to cause and effect. This is a game of trying to control causality. An interface, just a lever, nothing else. There are tools, and the tool is enslaved; it’s in my hands, and I control it. And I control it through an event change of causality.

I think we need to disrupt all of this and break through it. We can say that something else will emerge. The 21st century will be the century of artificial intelligence; it’s the same thing, and went through lots of successes and failures. Through digitalization of the world, we can see a huge potential for it to develop, a huge bird, a huge eagle.

Disruption with materiality; I talk about materiality. Experiences would happen, but what’s fantastic about technology, is that it can be integrated with different objects, moments, and in that case, you can put bodies back into movements. My body is a receptacle of these interactions. A digital experience, confronted with a physical; no hindrances. This is what we do today through interfaces.

These devices interact with one another; I’m not saying they are interconnected, but they interact with one another. I send you digital information, because we share a network that’s in front; it’s like the bees. These objects, since they interact, they are a society. Literally, they have social relationships and do things together. There are a huge number of them, too – just like ants. Social animals, and thanks to their huge numbers, they can find the shortest way without any computer. They can do that.

In our school, we call these robjets – robot objects, and living objects, or living things. Why have we invented a word? Because of what I just told you. They see the world, analyze the world, and make decisions based on the world. The things I’m talking about are all robots. One way of talking about the job of designers is to talk about shapes and functions. This will disappear.

The shapes and forms of objects, are totally meaningless. But their behaviors are really powerful. Designing things, it’s not things any more: it’s behaviors. It’s a major change in the way we think about our job. What does it mean to have a family of objects, a candle holder will talk to a teapot and so forth? It’s not a metaphor. This is going to happen. What does it mean to design behaviors? Interactivity disappears. Interactivity doesn’t encompass everything that’s happening. The robot will do what it wants, because it’s autonomous.

So what should we do next?

I think there are huge works to be done, to question pedagogical approaches, and we need to jump over – to make a big leap – over our industrial era, towards something different.

Raw conference notes: Yves Rinato, WIF (Interactive Design International Festival)

* Conference notes

I will talk about, before starting, I would like to show you the field within which I’m working. It’s a subject that kept me rather busy, because when I’m asked a question, it’s of a general nature, the question between interaction and interface. I will try and show you the difference between the two, that would be the subject of my talk. Interactive design works on man-machine interfaces. My company, intactile design; man machine interface is an outdated term. We adopt this term because the industrialized world has put us under this category. My company is 10 years old, and in 2007, we were here in Limoges to present to you a prototype. I would like to introduce this topic: air traffic control. We don’t only work in this field; we work with various business interfaces, that are used in various fields such as air traffic control, and so this is an old control station dating to the 1980s. You can see something here, which is the radar, several radar screens, and other types of screens, you can see the telephones, frequency, push buttons, again all of this dates to the 1980s. Here we are in a military air control center, and it’s pretty much the same thing. Digital radar, and you can see the design vocab that’s extremely dated. This is a civilian air control center, and taking a closer look, you can see red telephones, again, the interfaces are going to become increasingly sophisticated, but we have some kind of outdated aspects.

The Project ASTER marks a complete breakthrough. In 2006, when this was designed, the idea was to focus on research. This refuted traditional IT technology, because traditional IT technology is a type of restricted IT. This is autistic in its approach, and it’s really not suited for air control. As you can see, you have individuals monitoring air control, and they work in a room, so when you have such a constructed device in front of you, it really doesn’t work. The optimal level of security cannot be ensured. The radar is digital, but most air traffic control is done in paper. The orders, the clearance. The major principle, the interface at the time, was pretty much the same.

We simulate the working way of people, it’s all vocal commands, like in radio. We have a system that provides information, but we don’t have the direct control interfaces.

You can see in this interface, it’s easy because you have blue and brown interface. The blue is the interface for radio air control stations, while the brown is the interface for one person preparing the ground work for the other. People change positions, and air controller is in position for thirty minutes. They work in shifts, in order to relieve the stress levels. The idea of this work is to have two aspects of it. The first is where everyone is working together. For designers, there was a question that was raised: what is anticipation? How can you have enough information so that the controller can have a clear view of what’s going to happen in fifteen minutes time? The timeline was brought down to eight minutes to see what the air traffic would look like, if there’s not enough traffic, several sectors can be brought together to give the sufficient workload. During the day, where there’s heavier traffic, we need to try to reduce the planes per sector.

So in this video, you can see; on the top you have conventional radar. Below is the device, each strip is a plane, and this is a simulation of the work that’s done on paper. The controller is preparing the flights, aligning them, putting them in red or green categories, depending on where the plane comes from. You can see the philosophy upon which the interface is based. If there is a vertical flight, there is an indication of level change given by the controller. Each time it’s horizontal, that’s the speed that is given. Vertical for the flight level, horizontal for the speed. This proposal was not accepted because it was very simple, the gesture – the idea is to protocol, we need a protocol. We had to think of adjustments where there was unexpected events. The officer is writing the various ways to communicate together. We are exchanging information, and you have heavy duty modes and light duty modes as well.

What you see is the radar vertical image. This is the helicopter view, and this is cross-section view. This device is used for incoming flight control, so flights that are going to land; the incoming flight. This is a normal transfer, you take the label and hand it off to your colleague. With the entire protocol. This is what we call the stack opening; it’s a simplistic way of showing a stack. There’s another way of handing off, a pick and drop, take the plane and put it on another screen. It’s an intrusive gesture. You can write on the artifact, from one controller to the other.

This is a prototype that was made in a year, developed and tested by air controllers. Forty people worked on this for six months to prove and validate the concepts, and here’s the story of this interface. At a given moment, we had to really imagine all of the different users in the field of air control. We also had to understand and translate the jobs of other people, and translate them into the signs, the signs on the images. This represents two weeks of work, and was a thesis that was conducted on visualization of different signs, and the person studied for three years on this. They criticized the labels, and I told the person that the criticism is important, but we could have used more time to work on the details. We gathered a lot of experiences. And still we have a lot of things to improve on this interface. I wanted you to see it, the objects that we work on today.

Let me come back to the topic. I’ll still tackle the issue of interface. When we design in our team, we don’t think about interactions. We want to think about what makes an interface. What’s important in our work; when you are interested in what makes an interface, you need to speak of affordance. It’s a major problem for us as designers. The word affordance, let me give you a few examples that I use to explain interfaces and take a distance from the examples.

To me, what makes an interface, in order to talk about other scientists, we had to take a distance from the word affordance that Gibson defined. He is an ethologist, he works on inferant languages, animal languages, and other code that you may have in human beings that aren’t in cultures. A way a man may chat up a woman, there are signs that you find in the entire world. There are signs that you use to talk to a person, you feel touched. There are languages that aren’t related to cultures. When he talks about affordance, he talks about the capacity of an object to suggest its soul and uses. It goes even further than this; objects tend to speak to us regardless of our culture, and he takes the example of a window. According to where the handle is, you will want to either push or draw the window, whichever the signs written next to it. Cognitive scientists say that environments will influence behaviors. When we hear this as designers, we try to take ownership. We want our objects to speak for themselves, and we want to create affordances. This isn’t possible, because it is linked to the idea of creation. You cannot design an  affordance, it either works or it doesn’t work. It can work with everyone but not in the same way. It’s a dynamic concept, some people are more sensitive to one thing or another. You might say it creates affordance for such an such population.

This is a very simple example. I should not need to speak; when I log in to Mac OS X, the screen shakes if I get the password wrong. The behavior suggests what is happening. Some people are not convinced here. What happened? Some people may know already. You enter your password, and the idea is that you made a mistake. And because you see the animation, the shaking, very quickly, you understand that the message is you made a mistake. If I see another object, with the same behavior, I will understand what it means, naturally. This is affordance, this is what it’s about. With IT, this tiny animation, this is the base or ground of other innovations with Philippe Starcke. The first time I worked on an interface of a camcorder, those animations helped to follow the arrows, and those things helped me, they all started with this experience.

With apple, we understand that they work a lot on the interface. The want the interface to be intuitive. What you just saw is a real good example of what we could call affordance. As a designer, I don’t think we work in that field. We will actually take a step forward and I think we designers, we play in another field. Now before I continue and dwell upon the difference between affordance and what makes an interface, I would like to come back to one thing, which seems stupid but isn’t in the end. We have our own language, our own ways of seeing, and our relationships with the objects with which we work, influenced by history.

When we talk about interface, interactions, graphic user interface, for all of these words, we’ll always define a field and be part ad parcel of a story. Interaction came afterwards. In the year 2000, when I started my business, I had an interface, a human, and a machine. That’s kind of silly.

I had this representation in my mind about how things would work. A button, you want to push a button. The button will lead to something, the machine will do something and I’ll have a representation. An interface is to show the relationship between symbolic actions and the imagination send by machine. But this all falls apart just with this pacman story.

I would design video games, and my daughter would play with pacman. She was seven or eight. And she played, and made a mistake, and she cried. When you see pacman moving, it reminds you of connections, old memories. Maybe you don’t know who pacman was. I talked to my colleague about this, and there was something happening behind this. My colleague talked to me, with a sketch here. It will be a bit more complex, but she said, it’s much more complicated than what you think. These are frequent examples in video games. What happens in video games, is that the user gets into the representation that’s presented. We all have a buddy, and we’ll see a representation, an avatar. And you represent the gesture and the avatar does something. That representation sends me another representation, and my imagination will react and turn in a circle. A certain belief comes, I’ll get over-involved in the representation, because of my involvement in the circle that everything works. The interface works when all of this is intertwined. This is rather simple, but we can go even further. There were studies done with wii devices, and other devices, and sometimes it goes beyond this. You might have an object and a person’s body, an imagination. One attached to the body, and one with the object and its representation. It’s as if there was a melting of body and machine. It’s all interconnected, and sometimes you even forget that you have an object in your hand, and you may throw the controller.

This is what happens with interfaces.

Let me come back to previous experiences. In air traffic control, this is quite obvious. I used to have a lot of problems with my students, when you talk about IT, you always have to use your own experience. When I type on a keyboard, or use a mouse, it’s the same – air traffic controller – it doesn’t all need direct action. I don’t fly the plane. It’s information that goes through a channel, you talk to the pilot, you have a special gesture for that. Air traffic control, the more work – the more they write down. And they write down things they can’t re-read, but when it’s written, it’s said to the planes. Why talk about such a specific profession?

In the past, they would not trust the image on the radar. They would take a piece of paper and write comments of what they would see, they would want people to check to see if the plane is really in the place it’s supposed to be. The representation is about what you see on the screen.

That’s why when people ask me about interactions, the notion of interaction refers to something that is more technical. For me, an interface is much broader than screen representations. The way we work, with people, with a screen, using a mouse, it’s interfaces. There are multiple interfaces. As soon as you design something, you realize that the action will be relegated to a keyboard or a mouse, and you learn quickly that there’s a hierarchy – layers – of an interface. Users, while using their interfaces, should accumulate knowledge. When you look at conventional interfaces, there’s a specific relationship with the mouse. You could say the same thing about cars. You control them so much that you forget about their complexities, and you forget that they are interfaces. The real purpose of the interface is to disappear.

Here’s the idea of this interface. We call this sophisticated. Why is this sophisticated?

We can imagine several involvement or action modes in the interface. You can have interfaces that work for beginners, and others that work for all kinds of other users. Apple doesn’t provide a lot of literature with their interfaces, but they work – they add things little or little. When you listen to a piece of music, a song; when you touch the device here, it speeds up. For people listening to podcasts, when they want to go back, the tiny little cursor lets you go back to listen to every word. But some people don’t know it exists, and then they find it, and there are hints that you can tell where you can go under. Let me show it to you again. This is what I call a sophisticated gesture. This is the same gesture, the same length – the further I go from the bar, the tinier the range of scrolling.

Let me show you another; this is a hidden gesture. Four years it took to discover this; it’s a simple idea. You write in caps – caps lock – you double tap on the button.

For me, a very long time in IT, you just try to define one way to use a machine. Reality is different. For the air traffic controller, we designed tens of tens of interfaces, and we tried to imagine how each could be designed in a different way. When you don’t know something, you might want magic – magic interfaces. But imagine different ways to use the device. Start imagining, one part of the interface is left to the imagination of the users. When people are skilled about it, we have designed an object, and we left a whole space of freedom for the users and for a while we just used it for what it is. But then you come to a place where users are experts, and they use them in a different way than who we have designed them. This is what makes an interface.

I would like to work on emergency anesthetic tools, tools that can measure vital body functions, except that people who are near the machine need to interpret the results. The information provided is quite standard and you have to be a specialist to interpret the data and take action. You have doctors, nurses, and we could think of interfaces to intervene and interpret the data for you. It’s not about simplifying; it’s all about – you need to have, when you work experts, you need to have, if you actually remove their expertise, they are no longer experts. So it’s not about removing the complexity. It’s about helping the expert go a step further to have access to other complex issues, rebuild his expertise, so he can use tools that are not complex but are sophisticated. These can help facilitate a few things and can bring in some new complexity, that will add value to his expertise.

This is my conclusion; since 1986, this is something I share. You have machines behind traditional objects, and you have designers behind the machines.

* q&a

When we talk of affordance, and the cognitive science, the concept of affordance is something we gradually build from a cultural perspective. We are trying to have a conversation where digital culture is gaining ground. When we talk of – do it yourself activities – it’s really not interesting, drilling a hole in the wall, for someone used to a computer is used to a different way of working. This digital culture will give us a wealth of information. We have this experience of drag and drop – you drag an object and drop it. It’s not an easy gesture, and if these surfaces are really wide, it’s really hard to do these gesture with the hand. It’s not an easy task, and you often need another gesture in order to do the same thing. And so interfaces will be increasingly complex, and so this notion of how to have intuitive interfaces while the objects are increasingly complex, the idea is to have an appropriate vocabulary. I know there are specialists in the room – we realized that the notion of affordance or intuitive interfaces has a lot of stumbling blocks. There was an example, the mouse, the idea of having an interface that is relative. We realized that one of the impeding blocks with the keyboard mouse is that you are doing the gesture repeatedly, it’s an easy gesture, you just need to know it by heart.

In a tactile interface, you can have a dictionary, or even a vocabulary that is extremely rich compared to the keyboard mouse interface. We’ve gone a long way. The idea is that when people use an interface the traces of the interface appears to a lesser extent. This will eventually disappear. People who were trained in 48 hours on this technology, it’s important for their expertise to ensure that the interfaces don’t appear any longer.

This is the broad definition I had to say. When you design an object, it’s a cultural phenomenon. An affordance is not cultural, it’s something different.

When the design lays out objects for communication, it’s a cultural gesture. It’s construction of signs, and it’s completely different than the idea of affordance, and this is something that will be built up with data in time. I don’t think a designer can solve this problem by identifying any particular gesture. The solution would simply not work.


Understanding And Infusing Product Character Through Stance

There’s a strange and highly subjective quality to digital products, one that floats between brand and utility. It’s the idea of stance: the attitude the product takes, the personality it has. Stance is manufactured and designed, and from a particular product stance flows features, functions, language, imagery, and other formal design qualities. Stance is similar to, but different from, market fit, usability, or usefulness.  Stance can be applied purposefully, or haphazardly; it can evolve from an existing brand language, or it can be created from scratch. Product stance can evolve from an understanding of users, from understanding of market, or from the attitude and approach of an individual designer.

First, Identify the aspirational emotional traits you would like your product to present to the world. There are lots of ways to identify these traits, and how you go about identifying them will depend heavily on the style and culture of your product team. Is this a team that embraces an analytical, engineering approach to design? Is this a team that looks to the market for guidance? Is this a team of one – you – where your vision is driving product development? Or, do you have an existing brand that comes loaded with existing attitude? The culture of your product team will indicate the spark of stance: it explains how to start.


If you work for a large, well established company… … your brand language already exists… … and this existing brand language will directly lead you to the aspirational emotional traits.
If you work in an engineering culture… … the team will expect and respect an analytical approach to process… … and you will need to rationalize the aspirational emotional traits you select  based on data
If you work in a marketing-driven culture… … the team will look to the competition and overall market landscape… … and you will need to visualize opportunistic whitespace as a way to justify the aspirational emotional traits you select
If you work in a tiny team… … you’ll have a lot of freedom to make decisions on your own… … and so you’ll need to have a strong opinion about the type of emotion you want your product to exude


I’ve found that identifying four or five extremely specific traits works well, and the more specific they are (and the more of them you have), the more useful they will be.

Consider an easy set of examples: compare the aspirational emotional traits for a Lexus and a Mini Cooper. Lexus is a luxury brand, but “luxury” only gets us to a vague emotional feeling. Consider that the Lexus wants to be luxurious, sensual, coy, aloof, elegant, smooth, romantic, and slightly out of reach. The Mini Cooper, by comparison, exhibits childlike wonder, carelessness, and lightness; it wants to be spirited, light-hearted, playful, and free.

Next, use the aspirational emotional traits to establish emotional requirements. Like functional requirements, these describe aspects of the product or service that will be built, and like functional requirements, you can test to see if these requirements have been fulfilled after a product is complete. These emotional requirements take the form of sentences of fact – “Our product will” – and you can introduce these requirements into the same story, point, or defect tracking systems you already use. The difference between these emotional requirements and functional requirements, however, is that emotional requirements are omnipresent. They exist across every use case, in every facet of the product, and dictate, describe, and artificially contain every other product, quality, usability, marketing, and design decision that follow. Simply, they trump everything. Mike Kruzeniski has described these as the “soul” of a product – no matter what gets cut due to timing, budget, or market constraints, these things cannot be eliminated, or you have no product.

Here are some examples of emotional requirements that might follow from the traits described for Lexus, above:

Our product will always be revered in a crowd.

Our product will be highly tactile, almost erotic.

Our product will always tempt users to do slightly illogical things.

Our product will always let users feel in control, but will always actually be controlling the users.

These statements act as if the product was a person: they create a sense of identity for an inanimate object. They become the structure of personality.

Then, use the emotional requirements as a set of constraints to determine product features, pricing decisions, content strategy, launch priorities, and so on.

These requirements become the way you argue for and select product features. Should the product come in high-saturation, day-glow colors, or – given the above requirements – would a more sensual, rich, subdued color palette make more sense? Should the speedometer stop at a standard setting, or should it go up to 220mph? Should the sun-roof be an option, or should it come standard?

Additionally, the requirements become ways you argue for and select product interactions. Touch-screens don’t seem appropriate in the vehicle described above, but subtle dimpling, extremely detailed textures, and smooth transitions with recessed details make sense.

These emotional requirements become the arbiter of arguments, the way product teams move forward. The product comes alive, because it now has personality: it is no longer inanimate, and it has opinions about how it should be shaped and formed. Major inconsistencies act as they would in a human: they seem surprising and difficult to rationalize.

A strong product stance capitalizes on two of the most important qualities of product development: framing and play. A frame is an active perspective about a situation, person, or product. We frame experiences all the time. This is how we get through life – by actively considering what’s happening in front of us, and implicitly applying our own lens or filter on top of a given situation. Framing is a part of being human, and while there’s a constant demand in western civilization to “be objective”, objectivity is probably an unattainable goal, at least in the midst experiencing something.  Play is the idea of exploration for exploration-sake: examining and considering different results, simply to see what happens. When you consider framing and play together in the context of product development, you arrive at a place of opportunity – opportunity to reframe a situation from a new perspective, just to see what happens. And when you assign that new frame to your product, you implore it to act in a consistent manner, as a form of personality. If the personality has consistency, and the emotional richness of the stance seems credible, the user will experience a rich interaction with your product. And if the user experiences a product stance with resonance, the aspirational emotional traits will be transferred to the user. A playful, provocative, unexpected frame will resonate with a user who wishes to be playful, provocative, and unexpected; or, a user will become playful, provocative, and unexpected by using the product with this stance.

I selected a non-digital product – a vehicle – for an example on purpose; the aesthetics of a car are obvious, and so the personality decisions are overt, amplified, and obvious. A digital product is much more subtle, and the opportunities for this stance to have a lasting and deep impact are much greater.

Consider these examples.

Several years ago, Burger King teamed up with Crispen Porter to create the “Whopper Sacrifice”: a campaign that asked users of facebook to sacrifice their friends in exchange for free hamburgers. If you sacrificed a friend – say, Joe – the message would show up on your facebook wall: you thought a free hamburger was worth more than your friendship with Joe. As much as Whopper Sacrifice was a product, the product exhibited a highly irreverent product stance. And that irreverence was transferred to the hundreds of thousands of users who elected to sacrifice friends for burgers.

When Clippy would dumbly ask you, over and over, if you were writing a letter, it was exhibiting emotional traits that most people find abusive in real people. Its repetitive, dumb, questions, and its  poorly animated qualities were familiar human signals of a person most of us wouldn’t want to spend time with, much less become.

When you use MailChimp – a tool used to send mass mail to a mailing list, the product acts as a playful friend. Consider that, when you elect to preview your mail, if you stretch the screen too large, the robot’s arms fall off.

Tumblr doesn’t allow comments from people that you don’t know. And when you ask the design team at tumblr why that is, they describe a response based on aspirational emotional qualities: comments on the internet are poisonous and seem to entice vitriolic response. Tumblr is about sharing things in a positive environment. Open comments don’t fit with the aspirations of the product. The people that use Tumblr aren’t looking for deep, meaningful rhetorical debates; they are looking to delight in sharing.

Sometimes, you see misaligned glimpses of these aspirational product traits through product features and functions that don’t reflect the whole, the gestalt of the personality. error pages commonly have a sense of attitude, even for the most benign product; my experience tells me this is a product team begging to introduce life into their tools, at the expense of a larger conservative or analytical culture. I collect these, here are a few:



I don’t collect these just because I think they’re fun. They actually indicate a strong desire by product teams to infuse more character, more personality, and more soul into the things they make, and an increased prevalence of this type of attitude would indicate a sea-change in product development. As innovation is one way of avoiding the trap of “commodity hell”, to quote Jeff Immelt, so too is product stance. I don’t think stance can be faked or copied, because it’s largely institutional and organizational. It’s in subtleties like language choice, and it manifests (or doesn’t) in consistent ways over time, building a larger personality for a product and, ultimately, a brand. I don’t see stance coming through rapid development practices, from the grip it and rip it of agile, or from the “throw it to the market as fast as possible” of lean. Stance takes time, and care, and is probably at odds with approaches that emphasize time to market and the overzealous optimization of SEO or A/B testing. Stance is a designerly way of thinking about products.



Advertising Is The Problem

When the Cluetrain Manifesto was first published in 1999, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read. It was a call for companies to stop treating people like mindless, consumptive creatures, and to engage in conversations with people and a larger market; it influenced a number of things I’ve written about brand and experience. Perhaps the most important point was hidden in their 95 Theses, as point #74:

We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.

Many of us are, indeed, immune to it. We’re so far past watching live television that there’s no need to mute the ads anymore; we’ve never clicked on a Google ad, except by mistake; and we’ve installed a barrage of extensions in chrome to make sure we never see a single banner ad.

Yet thirteen years after the Cluetrain Manifesto, advertising still fuels nearly all of the mass media in the country, and some of our most beloved platforms are giant advertising engines in poor disguise. How is it that Google can be worth so much? Why the crazy valuation on Facebook?

When you buy stock in Google or Facebook, you’re investing in an unprecedented, massive advertising infrastructure.

When you search for graphic design degree online, you see ads for the Art Institute. If you are the type of person that clicks on a Google ad, you are also probably the type of person that’s never bought Google ads through Adwords. “Graphic design degree online” is selling for $23.00 a click. You can click on the ten links presented and generate $230 in revenue for Google in a blink of an eye. The way the internet works becomes a little clearer. When you consider that over 12 million websites use Google analytics (and over 57% of the top 10,000 most popular sites use it), the idea of a “rich profile of user behavior” becomes a little clearer. When you consider that Google’s reading the email of more than 350 million people, things become a whole lot clearer. We forget, sometimes, that Google owns Youtube and Doubleclick. Maybe we never knew that Google bought Zagat. We probably never even heard of Admeld, Adscape, Punchd, Sparkbuy, or the Zave Networks, but they own all of them, too – all extensions for couponing, advertising, daily deals, price comparisons, and loyalty programs.

I think that the emperor wears no clothes. I think that online advertising, broadly speaking, doesn’t work. Advertisers are slowly starting to pull their facebook ads because they aren’t working. And while it’s hard to escape Google’s massive footprint, people are increasingly looking for alternatives to Gmail. I’ve seen an increase in the number of stories of people unplugging from everything Google. And when a Google engineer recently quit, he described the change he’d seen in the organization: “The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”

But I don’t think any of these rejections of the Goog matters. Because when Google’s advertising revenue goes down, and they stop hitting their revenue targets, they’ll play the corporate game of reorgs and layoffs. I’ve seen the future, and it’s awful. It’s The Shallows: In the future, you’ll only see the things that are most likely to get you to buy. Everywhere. All the time. It’s an internet of consumption, based on an algorithmic profile of everything you’ve done, and it’s constantly selling, selling, selling. It’s pervading into real life, through targeted and adaptable advertising on digital billboards, physical computing, mobility solutions, kiosks, digital product placement, taxi flat screens, in-flight entertainment, and on, and on. There’s no conversation. It’s not engaging. It’s consumptive. It’s mindless. And it’s happening all around us.

Advertising is not a legitimate business model, although it may be a financially lucrative one. My suggestion to those engaged in these activities: grow some ethics, and start building the world around you that you would actually want to live in.

Five Year Plans and Exit Strategies

Some of my students had a chat with a prospective investor regarding seed capital, and the conversation turned to five year plans and exit strategies. They had neither. I realize it’s mildly heretical, but I don’t think either are valuable tools for social entrepreneurs. Here’s why.

A five-year plan is an artifact of large-scale “traditional” venture capital, and is – at least for the recipient of the venture money – a completely arbitrary time horizon. For the VC, however, it’s a critical length of time. Rob Day, of Black Coral Capital, explains the mechanics of how this works in a great post (forgive the long excerpt, but it really nails it):

The time from initial investment to exit typically has to be 5-7 years at MOST — preferably much less. Factor into the equation that an exit is most likely only going to come once a company has significant and growing revenues, and not when the technology is simply brought to market, and very quickly the VC’s decision-making starts to be clear… the reason for the 10 year fixed life of VC funds is not only because of the LPs’ needs for liquidity, but also because of the time value of money.  Discount rates (not that they’re often used in the industry, but still…) are really high for venture capital investments.  That reflects the high risks associated with launching any new business, along with the high expected returns of the asset class… a VC who knows that the technology in question should work (there’s rarely any “science risk” associated with an internet startup, after all, just market and execution risks) expects to achieve a minimum 40% IRR at least 35% of the time. What I just explained is where the oft-mentioned “5x” (or in other words, “we look for investment opportunities that we think will at least grow to 5x our initial investment”) comes from in venture capital. Because if you return at least 40% IRR over 5 years on a million dollars, you’ve turned it into $5+mm.  If you do that with the kinds of success rates Fred Wilson talks about (let’s say 35% 5x investments, 35% 1x investments, and 30% wipeouts, to vastly oversimplify), you will have returned 17% per annum, not including the management fees, etc.

This speaks to the unique perspective of both parties in the venture equation. Say you are a startup looking for money. Your focus is, predictably, on yourselves and your prospective investor:

But their focus is on their LP’s (limited partners – the people that put the money into the fund in the first place), and on maximizing their return:

And, their focus is on hedging their risk across a number of investments:

The “five year plan” theoretically gives them a view into your likelihood of returning the magic 5x return. But while you’ll write your five year plan from the small, focused perspective of your own company, it will be considered by the funder in the context of all of their other investments.

The (until recently – .pdf link) unspoken joke is that the VC typically doesn’t actually generate the return they expect for their LPs, and I’ll argue it’s because predicting market dynamics five years out is, on a broad level, easy enough to prove useless, and on a detail level, impossible.

Consider that five years ago (May 2007):

  • The billion dollar company Instagram didn’t exist, and wouldn’t exist for three more years
  • George Bush was still president
  • The “global financial crisis” was just beginning
  • iPhone 4 hadn’t been released yet
  • Justin Bieber hadn’t been discovered yet

Back in 2001, I worked at a company that was first called allmystuff, and later reinvented as Contextual. The company raised about 11M from Dell Ventures, TL Ventures, Austin Ventures and AV Labs. The money was raised in October, 2000, and the board voted to close the company in March, 2002. The five year plan didn’t include two planes crashing into buildings in New York.

I’m not arguing that “black swan” events should preclude entrepreneurs from trying to plan and strategize. I’m arguing that, for a brand new business, any quantitative metrics tied to activities outside of a four-month window are completely made up, and I think most people know that. But we go through the process of the five-year plan because the VC asks for it, because they’ve always asked for it, and maybe, because it makes them feel like they are Doing A Good Job.

Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures has said “Start-ups should be hunch-driven early on and data-driven as they scale.” I completely agree, and at a stage where an entrepreneur is asking for seed money, scale should be about the furthest thing from their mind. The five year road map is a distraction, and when someone asks for one, it should remind you of their intent: 5x, five year return, and a broad focus across their portfolio. You’ll be but one drop in a much larger bucket.

The other side of the coin is the “exit”. An exit implies a large liquidity event: an IPO or an acquisition. It’s how the funders get their money out. An “exit strategy” is the plan for the monumental event that will occur in approximately five years. For design-led social entrepreneurism, the idea of an exit reinforces the problems of design tourism: that you’ll fly into a problem situation, move some post-its around, and solve homelessness. But as I’ve written about before, wicked problems demand a long-term focus and an emphasis on depth. The entire idea of a timeline, as rational as it may be for things like budgeting and resourcing, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Instead of pursuing an exit, I encourage my students to pursue a stay-the-course attitude. It requires dedication and patience, and that’s intimidating and scary. But I just don’t see society making progress on these large, consequential issues in short bursts.

Stop worrying about exiting and planning a five year strategy. Start focusing on impact, today.


The Impact of Rowena Reed Kostellow

Culture comes from a number of forces intertwining; these include technological advancement, politics, mass media, and design – and design education. One of the most interesting, yet subtle, historic paths of influence in design can be traced to a single person: Rowena Reed Kostellow. She was the Chair of the Industrial Design department at Pratt after helping to create the first ID program at Carnegie Mellon (then Carnegie Tech), and she was the driving force behind the study of form. This program taught: Rectilinear volumes, Curvilinear volumes, Rectilinear and Curvilinear, Composition of Fragments, Planar Construction, Lines in Space, Construction, Convexity, Concavity, Abstract Analysis, and Space Design.

She taught these skills to designers like Jay Doblin, who went on to teach at IIT and then form Doblin Group; Marc Harrison, who pioneered Universal Design and taught at RISD; Craig Vogel, who taught Carnegie Mellon (and who is now the director of the Center for Design Research and Innovation at DAAP in Cincinnati); and Read Viemeister, who founded the Department of Industrial Design at the Dayton Art Institute.

That’s an interesting history lesson, but for me, it becomes more interesting when you consider that:

  • Jay Doblin taught Jim Hennessey (who co-authored a number of books with Victor Papanek) and then went on to work with and influence Larry Keeley
  • Marc Harrison taught for thirty years at RISD
  • Craig Vogel taught at CMU for fourteen years. He was one of my professors, and also taught, among others, April Starr (now teaching at IIT), Justin Maguire (ECD at frog), Dino Sanchez (ACD at frog), Katie Minardo Scott (Director, MAYA), Justin Petro (President, Thinktiv), and Chris Kasabach (Director, Thomas J. Watson Foundation).
  • Read Viemeister’s son Tucker founded Smart Design, opened frog’s New York office, and acted as EVP of Razorfish.

In a way, Reed’s form program has become so engrained in the fabric of professional designers that you can trace her influence now to each Foundations program in the country, at schools like SCAD, RISD, Art Center, Pratt, CMU, DAAP, and more. Consider the output of each designer, trained in a particular theory and approach, and then play out how that influence is embedded in the products, systems, services they design. And – most importantly – think of how that philosophy or influence is embedded in the design pedagogy of design education, once these designers go on to teach others. I can trace my curriculum at Austin Center for Design directly to the influences of four people, all of whom were teaching at Carnegie Mellon at the same time. Richard Buchanan, now at Case, taught the underlying theory for the way I think of design: as a form of rhetoric, and as a temperament of technology. Herb Simon heavily influenced the way I consider problem solving and computing. Bonnie John stressed the humanization of engineering culture, and Craig Vogel taught an appreciation of form, culture, and the lasting cultural impact of mass production.

I find the spheres of influence in design education fascinating, mostly because I realize the tremendous power of design in shaping the world around us. That really means that a single designer carries a tremendous amount of responsibility, and that means that design educators had better do a damn good job.

Read more about Rowena Reed Kostellow in this great retrospective from Tucker.

Art, Design, and Science Funding

Yesterday, I tweeted:

Did you know that in 2012, the NSF budget was $7,000,000,000 while the NEA budget was $146,000,000? Yay, arts.

One of the responses I received was:

“And… one cures cancer & powers future, the other cures aesthetic doldrums. Both important, but matters of degree…

I thought I would respond why that rubs me the wrong way, in more than 140 characters. I’m going on the general assumption that government funding of research is a good idea; if you disagree, this probably isn’t going to be very relevant to you.

First, the discussion is confused, because there is no outlay of money for design; we have no National Endowment for Design, and so design activities are grouped within both the NEA and the NSF (and, broadly speaking, other agencies, too.) The NSF used to fund a program called CreativeIT, which has offered multi-million dollar grants to some compelling programs like “Co-evolution of Designers and Critics for Fast Exploratory Form-Finding” and “Personalized Tools to Enhance Musical Creativity”. The funding has been archived, and there’s no similar replacement. They had a single grant awarded through their archived and ironically named “Science of Design” program, and they continue to fund designerly  research through the Engineering Design and Innovation program which is quite purposefully not called the Engineering, Design, and Innovation program. The NEA offers a variety of grants to the fine arts, the applied arts, craft-based design, and so on; while they fund programs focused on innovation, there is no explicit grant or section for grantees.

So, simply comparing the budgets of the two organizations is probably not a completely fair assessment, because it leaves out these cross-overs; however, suffice it to say that the arts are poorly funded, and design is poorly funded, and the two are conflated.

Returning to the idea that science plays a “more important role” than either art, design, or innovation, I’ll argue that popular culture is demanding a more and more fundamental understanding of creativity and the managing of complexity, yet we still have only a rudimentary understanding of how creativity works (and I don’t mean on a neurological level, only: I mean on a comprehensive level). In May of 2010, IBM conducted a survey with 1500 CEOs in 60 countries: “’Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes – and facing a new normal that is distinctly different – it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future,’ said Frank Kern, senior vice president, IBM Global Business Services ‘But step back and think about it, and this is entirely consistent with the other top finding in our Study – that the biggest challenge facing enterprises from here on will be the accelerating complexity and the velocity of a world that is operating as a massively interconnected system.'”

Over the last ten years – as the problems of society and culture grow increasingly complex and multifaceted – there has been an increased popular, professional, and academic shift towards including creativity and design theory and method in traditionally engineering or technology-led solution areas. In popular media, Authors Dan Pink and Sir Ken Robinson have called for the entire re-arrangement of education focused not only on STEM, but also in design and art. Dan Pink has called the master of fine arts – the MFA – the “new M.B.A”, while Sir Ken Robinson describes that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy.” Academic research has identified powerful relationships between creativity and knowledge production through sensemaking, and there is increasing evidence that inference-based design synthesis is the foundation of innovation.

We’ve claimed that creativity is a fundamental and critical skill for the next generation, but we largely don’t understand how it works, why it works, how to foster it, how to teach it, and how to leverage it. That type of knowledge is pure knowledge: it’s knowledge that’s suitable for funding from the government. And I’ll argue that if your goal is a cure for cancer, it’s more important to fund knowledge of design and creativity than science, because it’s going to be an “out of the box”, “innovative”, “creative”, “alternative”, “unexpected”, “unpredictable”, “surprising” solution that ultimately provides that cure. I’m not arguing that designers will solve cancer. I’m arguing that the knowledge designers use – knowledge about process, making, flexibility, inference, systems, and empathy – should be the same knowledge everyone else uses, too. A STEM focus for research drives a STEM focus for education, and it leads to the overly rationalized western world we now experience. This is the reason we end up with the “worst teacher in New York” having some of the best students in the city, why airplanes are uncomfortable, why – ironically – the NSF has so much more funding than the NEA. We perpetuate the idea that we can “science” our way out of problems that are of our own making. Science is a study of natural phenomenon. Airplanes, funding, teaching, and – arguably – cancer – are of our own making. They aren’t natural; they are artificial. It’s going to take a different approach to fix them, and that approach has to include the ingredients of design. And it’s going to take a concerted level of support from the government, through funding, where the history and precedent of public outcry for this type of support has already been clear.

In retrospect, this is all a strawman. I don’t want less funding for Science. I want more funding for Science, Art, and Design. These things are too important to keep missing on.

TURTLE,GREEN,RAW: Depending on External Data Feeds

I’m working on a project that involves nutritional data, and was happy to stumble upon the USDA’s database of Every Food Known to Man. The database has more information than one could possibly wish for, including the amount of Retinol and Ash in common foods. And then, at the bottom of the list, is a record for TURTLE,GREEN,RAW. Which, for those who are curious, has 19.8 grams of protein per 100 grams of… turtle, green, raw.

There are probably a few good reasons why that, along with other gems (like PECTIN,LIQUID; SQUIRREL,GROUND,MEAT (ALASKA NATIVE); and BEAR,POLAR,MEAT,RAW (ALASKA NATIVE)) ended up in the data source. I’m more interested in what happens to the various products we build when we all rely on the same data feed, APIs, and links between services.

Here are just a few places you can go to find out the nutritional data in TURTLE,GREEN,RAW – 25,900 results, all referencing the same data set. Programmable Web doesn’t list it as a source, but does list some other places that are using the same data set and charging for access to it. There’s both a nice sense of collaboration, as we reference open-source data provided by our government, and also a strange feeling of the blind leading the blind. We’re all in it together, building structure after structure upon the same foundation. Who checked the foundation to make sure it’s solid?

We can probably pretend, for a minute, that the data coming from the USDA is accurate (although I’m aware that, even with the rigorous scientific standards in place, various lobbying factions have likely influenced the methods used to identify the ash content in an ounce of turtle). A larger concern I have is regarding the lack of skepticism we have, both as designers and consumers, about how individual products and services are using data to shape and shift behavior. I bought Jess a fitbit for her birthday. A saga for a different time is how the device has broken three different times in three different ways; my point now is that I find it both troubling and also extremely predictable that this made it into a shipping product:

I’m most intrigued by how things like this happen in the first place. Did a nutritionist go to Indonesia, have a delicious meal of turtle with a side of tater tots, and then decide it needed to be nutritionally analyzed? Did the Polar Bear Company of Greenland lobby to get their meat added to our database? I asked the USDA, and got a response from Dr. Exler, a nutritionist. He explained that “The entry for Turtle, green, raw was in the 1963 edition of Agriculture Handbook 8, Composition of Food: raw, processed, prepared.  We retained it for our current database, but have not gotten any new data to update the item.”


A good fiction typically tells a story of the world in a way that we can relate to, but that has twists and turns that are surprising, challenging, or emotional. Part of a good design fiction is that it’s a believable story about our future uses of technology. And so I’ll tell you a quick story of a future where, each time you eat a meal, your phone keeps track of it automatically. It knows what you ate, where you ate it, how much you had, and it compares it to nutritional data to build a model of your health. And then, when you are at the gym, it organizes a workout tuned just for you, to track to your goals, based on your diet. It’s called iHealth, and it’s simply amazing: everyone has one. And over time, slowly but surely, everyone keeps getting fatter. Because the data’s wrong. Some people question it, because they pay attention to their body. Most don’t, because they just trust that it works, and because most people don’t really question anything. And because it has such wide adoption – it is, after all, an Apple product – slowly, we all become obese.

That’s extreme and an obvious ending – like the hero getting the girl – so I suppose I could do better. We’re at a place where photographs aren’t real, manufacturing is digital, and everything is digitally connected to everything else. And so, we all fail by the weakest link. What happens when my friend shares a popular 3D model of a chair with me, and so I print it on my fancy new printer, and – because it’s TURTLE,GREEN,RAW – it’s not structurally sound? What about when I see a stock photo in a news piece about a famous politician and it’s TURTLE,GREEN,RAW – an entirely digital creation of something that didn’t happen, that’s been perpetuated without question? It’s our modern day equivalent of war of the worlds: our inability to know what’s real, based on layers of technology that we don’t understand or question.

When the world is physical, and something is strange – say, a story about a guy who woke up in a bathtub missing a kidney – my ability to spread the strangeness is fairly linear, and so both exists slowly and changes slowly. I might tell 10 people about the Niemen Marcus recipe in my whole life, and I certainly wouldn’t build a business on top of it.

But when the world is digital, I can spread strangeness easily. What’s more, I can do it without knowing, and I can build an entire business or product on top of peculiarities that are invisible. We aren’t that far away from open-source software for your car, and at one of my previous jobs, I watched a car company drive a car around a parking lot with the driver in the back seat, using an iPad. What strangeness will be perpetuated in the OS of these vehicles? We’re still living with design decisions made by Bill Gates and Ivan Sutherland, and these were purposeful decisions. What about the subtleties of the digital medium that have crept in by mistake, or on a whim, or even as a joke, and then embedded in the systems we use and rely on?