Position Diagram 3: Harmonious Design

In our theory class, this week’s diagrams had to be presented in class with no talking or setup. The artifacts had to stand on their own. Therefore, I’ll present mine the same way here:

The overload strategy and killing ideas

One of the strategies behind the curriculum at AC4D is to assign more work than is probably accomplishable at any given time. As a class, we’ve discussed what we learn from this. Several theories were floated, and most were confirmed by faculty.

1) Overload makes sure that there are no gaps in creating, delivering, and generally processing information being taught to us. This creates momentum whose inertia needs to carry us through our quarterly breaks and beyond the end of the program. The ultimate goal being that we get used to this level of activity such that it becomes difficult not to be creating or synthesizing most of the time.

Let me know if you're feeling overworked.

2) While we do need to be thoughtful and intentful in our work, the nature of our work provides plenty of opportunities to get stuck, staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering where to start. Or inversely, overprocessing too many ideas without creating necessary artifacts to show how we got from point A to point B. In the avalanche of work, we must at a certain point get out of our own heads and commit to paper (or whiteboard or the digital tool du jour).

3) In addition to learning to manage time better, we become better prioritizers, deciding what is most important to accomplish each week, what “falls to the floor,” and what still gets done, but at lesser quality and fidelity than we prefer.

4) There is special value in the work we decide to get done, but wherein we sacrifice quality. When we do lackluster work, we are guaranteed to get that feedback in critique or in a gradesheet. Sometimes, we know exactly what that feedback will be. In this case, our excuse of lack of time does not matter; the result is all that matters. Other times, the criticism we get is over unexpected areas, and we learn that, if we are going to cut corners for the sake of shipping, we need to repriortize which details to focus on, and which to skip. Either way, each time we learn to become less attached to our ideas and our work. And this is a critical point: I’ve watched many startups become fixated on one idea, and when they refuse to let go of it, they fail.

Just this week, I took the time on a project I was struggling with to get feedback from several peers and faculty. One faculty member said that the idea was obvious, and that if I was going to continue with it, I’d have to dig deeper. I’m not sure I agreed with the obivousness of it, given other’s reactions, but I did understand the need for continued refinement. But it just wouldn’t gel no matter where I took it.

So I killed that idea. It was hard and a little scary, as I had put a lot of effort into it, and I had no idea what I would do instead with a rapidly approaching deadline. But the writing was on the wall: I couldn’t make it work. I started over. And even though the idea was gone, I now had a few more techniques for bringing together disparate ideas, diagramming them, and generating new work from scratch. It was a little bit easier than the previous effort, it took less time, and most importantly, I was left with a concept that did hold together, made sense, and had more depth to it.

Like many things, getting good at something requires doing it again and again: killing an idea and starting over is no exception. Given the pace of AC4D, I expect plenty of chances to practice!

Radical Innovation

In the last three Design, Society and the Public Sector classes, we covered several perspectives on ethnographic techniques, the difference between designing for and designing with, as well as frameworks for conducting research and discussing research methods. One reading was a controversial article from Don Norman (whose Design of Everyday Things was my first introduction to design).  He argues that truly radical or revolutionary innovation only occurs via technologists, and ethnographics is not relevant to this type of innovation. I thought this stood in stark contrast to an article by William Gaver et al about using cultural probes as a research technique to provoke startling insights. In this second visual diagram, I summarize these arguments and draw a conclusion about how haphazard revolution innovation may or may not be.

(The image is a little too wide for the blog format, so if the resized text is too small, you can get a full-size image here.)

Talking to Strangers

This pleasant chap pictured here has it easy when he cold calls—who’d turn down coffee or a quick lunch with him? For me though, it’s a little more nerve racking. The question that resonates for me is, “What do I have to offer that people would want to meet with me sight unseen?” Cold-calling isn’t my favorite thing when it’s sales or job related, but what if you don’t even have that as a conversation starter, and you’re calling out of the blue… just because?

I’ve come to understand that time is valuable. My business partner could spend all week in meetings with people who want to grab coffee. But ultimately she has to be a little choosy, otherwise nothing else would get done. Plus, she’d be way too over-caffinated. Naturally then I’m worried about taking someone else’s time without at least a specific agenda in mind with some thought to what’s in it for them. (Well, that and getting rejected with a flat out “no.”) So contacting someone just to get acquainted or shoot the shit feels a bit demanding and out of my comfort zone. If we were introduced or had a few mutual friends in common, that might take a bit of the edge off. But this was about making myself stretch, so I found a few things that helped:

1 – A little flattery: I wound up contacting one person mostly based on the fact that I loved his company’s brand and identity. I had no compunctions about mentioning that in my introduction email. But I think this only works well if one is coming from a genuine place of respect. So flattery needs to include…

2 – A little homework: For everyone I contacted, I did a little bit of research, like reading a few blog posts, Twitter feeds, and seeing if there were any articles they had written or were about them. This is great because it helps with the introduction. “I’m writing you because you said _______ about _______ in _______ and I thought that was interesting because  ________.” For one person I reached out to, I mentioned how I liked that their company provided training programs that helped support a community I was part of. Research also helps if you’re worried about the conversation stalling or getting awkward. Have a few things ready in your back pocket to reboot the conversation if necessary.

3 – A little honesty: I work in a small company where we often work remotely, and sometimes I feel I work in a vacuum. I mentioned this in my introductions and just put it out there that I was looking to find more kindred spirits. I think people got that, and I think most of us are always interested in meeting new people with a few things in common. Not only that but:

4 – A little learning: By asking for advice and mentorship, you send a message that what the other person thinks is important. It also makes it easier to keep a conversation going because you don’t have to ask much other that “how” and “why” questions. Our experience with contextual inquiry definitely helped me here.

Over the past week, I called and emailed six people that I really wanted to meet. I only got a couple of responses, but I knew a few were unlikely going into it (and I’m going to hold out hope that they’re busy right now and might still come through). And if not, oh well—if rejection was a concern for me going into this, it’s not anymore. The two meetings that did come through were great: we had lots to talk about, and they felt like balanced conversations. I learned a few things too, and I expect to meet these people again in the future.

All in all, not as difficult as I thought. I still feel the need to do the prep work before calling or emailing, but after that it’s been smooth sailing. I could definitely do more of this. Now if only the anteater would call back….

Expand Your Digital Presence

When we talk about our digital presence, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and personal web pages are natural starting points. All these options excel in how general purpose they are. The sky is the limit for how you want to balance your personal or professional personas. But I’d like to bring up a few other options that are scoped a little more tightly, but have great potential to improve your professional reputation as a designer. I’ll briefly describe how these work and they value they have.

1 – Stack Exchange (nee Stack Overflow) and Quora: These are both question and answer sites where individuals “upvote” what they think are best answers. Quora focuses on all industries with an eye to bigger picture questions and you can follow particular topics. Stack Exchange sites allow people to mark one answer as “best” or that it solved their problem, so it’s more tactically focused. Stack Overflow started out as a programming Q&A site, but has since spawned a network of sites including UX and IX design. By providing quality answers, on either network, to other people’s questions, you can build your reputation as a knowledgeable and helpful person who works to improve design by taking the time to give back to the community.

2 – Github is widely known among software developers because it helps them manage their code, collaborate with other developers, and track issues. What makes it so powerful is that developers can share their code publicly and allow anyone to contribute. As a coder looking for a job, many employers want to see that you contribute to projects and use Github as a way to see your own code. As a designer, potential employers are probably not looking for your work on Github, but your professional reputation could greatly be improved if you were willing to share common libraries, tools, or design patters you’ve developed: for example, icon sets, Omnigraffle stencils or Illustrator symbols, or maybe Photoshop templates. If you do code, make that available. The designers at Twitter and at Zurb have both shared their HTML/CSS frameworks on Github, and they have much more momentum now that the community is involved in building them. To put it another way: give away a few quality, useful tools for free to win friends and influence people.

3 – Dribbble and Behance: If you are a visual designer or interface designer, Dribbble and Behance are portfolio sharing sites. To oversimplify it, consider it Instagram or Pinterest where you post galleries of your work. It’s a great way to put yourself out there and get feedback. If you are applying for jobs in interface or visual design, these sites give you quick ways to share your portfolio with potential employers. Even if you don’t join them, these are great sites to peruse if you are looking for inspiration.

4 – AngelList: Ever thought about having your own startup? Maybe you made a ton of money and are looking to invest. Or you’re looking to work for some of the latest startups. AngelList is a great place to establish a profile for any of these scenarios. It’s a great way for investors, entrepreneurs, and other talented people to meet. As an entrepreneur, you can spread the word about your latest startup and list your previous ones. For investors, you can peruse new startups raising money, and try your hand at picking the next Instagram. Or you can list yourself under talent to connect with and find employment at new startups.

BONUS – SoundCloud: The intended purpose for this site is to allow musicians and producers to share their work. The coolest function of SoundCloud, though, is that comments are tied to the audio timeline. This makes it a great tool for several collaborators to annotate discussions at specific points in a recording. You can view the comments both in a standard list or as popups during audio playback. Although you probably want to keep interviews private, it’s a great way for you and several designers to record a discussion about issues in design and share your insights to the world.

When you think of sharing and social networks, consider that most web-based tools these days have a social component that you can use to expand your digital presence. If you’ve found great utility from a network not listed here, please share it in the comments!

Weapons of Mass Production (Position Diagram 1)

As several classmates and I worked through the concepts and opinions of the authors we’d been reading for the last two weeks, I had a flash of insight: mass produced goods as the aliens in Space Invaders.

Edward Bernays maintained that shaping public opinion is like mass production but for ideas instead of objects. Maurizo Vitta considers objects types of communication vehicles. Mass production of objects and things is a mass distribution of ideas.

Vitta says that in an age of mass production, the object-use is subsumed by our psychological projection on it. Individuals lose their identity under this mass of goods.

Victor Papanek was a design educator concerned that students were not properly prepared to become designers in an age which requires new and radical designs. He considered conformity a major blocker of creativity, and that conformity was a result of mass media.

Richard Buchanan advocates design as a “liberal art of technological culture.” Design innovates by connecting and acting as a glue between subject matter. He argues that “to possess the liberal art” is “to be human, and to be free.”

Allan Chochinov of Core77 wrote a manifesto for sustainable design. His main points included stop making crap, and make it reusable and recyclable. Do no harm.

I couldn’t agree more. Coming from a software and start up background, I see a major trend where software is becoming a commodity. Modern languages are much easier to understand and write code in. Hosting is dirt cheap, if not free. Outsourcing development is inexpensive. Software stores are filling up with crap like hundreds of weather, to-do, and calendar apps. More than ever design is critical to the future of software and software’s place in making our lives better.

A Snapshot of Desire

I finally checked out Pinterest based on all the hubbub I keep hearing about. I thought it could be an excellent tool for finding and tracking some inspiring designs. And I’ve seen some very clever things on there, and I’ve seen some very sexy products and UIs. But I can’t really say I’ve seen much where I’ve thought, “wow, the world would be a better place because of this.”

An astute Twitter comment described Pinterest as a sign of the US economy. Instead of buying something, you can just “Pin It.” You have it virtually; that’s close enough. In Maurizio Vitta’s “The Meaning of Design,” he discusses how in a highly consumptive society, the function of mass produced objects can be subsumed by their symbolic meanings. If we use objects to communicate about ourselves, Pinterest short circuits this process: the object does not even have to be purchased, owned or even exist—we just show the image of it!

Pinterest seems in some ways to be a virtual hope chest. A way collection of things people want to own, places they want to visit, food they’d like to eat, people they wish they were, lifestyles they wish they lived. Pinterest is the potential energy to buying’s kinetic energy. This is not to say there aren’t more redeeming parts of Pinterest. There are quite a few craft projects, and I am all for people making things rather than buying them, but go check out the front page of Pinterest at any given time and you will see a snapshot largely of desire, not action.

However, as a designer looking for inspiration on Pinterest, it feels shallow. There are so many sleek and sexy interfaces, but so many are expressed in yet another weather app for your phone. There’s clever packaging design, but it will still end up in a landfill. I’ve yet to run across an idea that’s given me a whole new perspective or looks like it could truly make the world a better place.

But I’ll give it time. I’m new to Pinterest, and Pinterest is fairly new itself. I think it takes time for social networks to mature and for people to find out how to use them most effectively. Twitter and Facebook have, in the past, been slammed for being narcissistic, but I believe that we continue to see more people express a wider range of emotional content on them as they become more integrated with daily life. Pinterest could get there, but its users have to move beyond want and desire. Inspirational and humor pictures and quotes are frequent posts, but Pinterest will need to find a place for sadness, tragedy, anger, and passion. Perhaps then we will start to see “pins” addressing real solutions to difficult problems posted as well.

Disagree? I want to be proven wrong: post your most interesting Pinterest follows and boards in the comments. You can also follow me on Pinterest.

Design Literacy

Over the past year, there’s been a lot of talk about how everyone should learn to program. I’ve heard some good arguments either way. As a lifelong programmer, I’m all for this. But programming is making, and if you want to achieve specific results or outcomes, basic design thinking can go a long way, and I’d love to see a similar push for democratization of literacy in design thinking. There are two recent examples where I think a little more design literacy could have helped.

Lesson 1: design is not about pretty or shitty. Despite its brevity, this Venture Beat article (“Screw Design and Get Data“) can’t seem to make up its mind about the definition of design. Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger network, is not saying design is unimportant. His point is that for their customer and business needs, they prioritize data collection and analysis over the aesthetic appeal of the site. As a data-driven company, you can be sure that if they identify a page component is leading to bounces (exits from the site), they will make modifications to change that behavior. That’s design, and Huh says as much:

“When making design changes, Huh said, Cheezburger looks at four things: desired outcome (business outcomes, not warm and fuzzies), intended user, data on the existing condition, and data on the new condition when the company retests for validity.”

This is not too dissimilar from the process of design thinking which includes extensive research, testing, implementation and iteration using lessons learned from each step.

In closing, the author paraphrases Huh with “you don’t need great design to have a successful design.” My takeaway is not “screw design,” but rather you don’t need beautiful aesthetics to have a successful product. Design is the process by which you determine what successful is and how to achieve it. Obviously Huh gets this, but he and the author’s expression of design in this context is muddied.

Lesson 2: ignore design thinking at your own peril. As we build products, objects, applications or services, we constantly make decisions, and we bear responsibility for the consequences and impacts of them. Dalton Caldwell is hoping that his new service, App.net, will become an alternative to Twitter as users and developers become discontent with increasingly restrictive Twitter policies. In order to avoid repeating Twitter’s mistakes, Caldwell felt is was important for people to pay for the service, rather than be beholden to advertisers. So in addition to designing APIs, documentation, and the other parts of the new platform, he had to design a business model that would help pay for it. He used a Kickstarter type of model where users paid $50/year in advance, and developers paid $100/year in advance.

Caldwell has documented how he arrived at those price tiers (See the FAQ section on this page), but some are wondering if that pricing is creating a “gated community” or “country club” of mostly white, male and technically privileged users. The debate centers around whether the current demographic of App.net is a reflection of early adopters and societal disparity in general, or if the structure itself is creating this. Jamelle Bouie sums it up nicely:

“In a world of huge racial and class disparities, ostensibly neutral procedures and parameters can yield non-neutral results…. App.net wasn’t envisioned as a service of mostly white, mostly male, and mostly affluent people, but the conditions of its creation have created exactly that.”

I agree that App.net wasn’t envisioned as a country club, but I would also argue that the if you are creating a social network, you must consider the type of community you are trying to build. App.net is very early stage, and is very much a prototype, so in that sense, they have time to adjust and learn from this feedback—which is very much part of the design process. Sadly, some initial reactions are to take this as criticism of intent rather than early warning signals to recheck design assumptions.

By bringing design thinking into the creation process, we can move beyond thinking of design as a concept about visual appeal, but rather as a process, not an end result. Additionally, this understanding could help communities talk more constructively about the consequences of decisions and then move to mitigate them, rather than argue over their intentions.

Any easy way you can do this right now is to start getting more feedback. Try to remember what seemed like an innocuous decision you recently made in creating something (a product, document, service, object, etc). Then think of someone who uses or is affected by your creation. Tell them what the options were and how you arrived at your decision. Ask them how that affected them. Would they have made the same decision, or picked something you didn’t even consider?

This is a great start to get beyond the preconception of design as the end result, but as a process to help you achieve desirable outcomes and avoid unintended consequences.

Make a mark

Every day I write code. The products I work on will eventually, hopefully be seen by lots of people. Often, I’ll keep code in a repository where my co-workers or possible anyone can see it. And I don’t think anything of this, but ask me to blog and that just seems crazy. Post my thoughts for anyone and everyone to see? That Google will remember forever? Yikes.

I think everyone in our class will find some way in which they’re challenged like this. Draw on a whiteboard in front of a room full of people? Interview strangers? Write code? Build a business plan? Network? Usually it’s getting started that’s the hard part. And Jon’s advice is, you just have to dive right in. Make a mark. Put the first word on the page. And you just have to trust that it gets easier with practice.

When learning a new programming language, you will almost always start by writing a “Hello, world” program. All it does is print “Hello, world” on the screen. You don’t learn much about the programming language itself when you do this. That’s not the point. The point is to dive in and start dispelling the fears you have.

So here I am, looking forward to a year of practicing new skills. Hello, world!