Archive for March 2007

A Tail of Two Cities

March 30, 2007

I’ve just returned from 2 conferences back-t0-back (I don’t recommend it), and the difference between the two venues is almost unthinkable. First Bowling Green, Ohio for the Nexus for Change – followed immediately by the Information Architecture Summit in Las Vegas. Even though the 2 conferences also hosted two very different crowds, one other colleague attended both, Keith Instone.  The mega-hotels of Vegas were all 95% sold out, yet I didn’t see anything there for me to do. Bowling Green is one of those old Midwest small towns built around a state school, removed from the hustle of real life so that students can learn in relative isolation. As far as cultural experience, Vegas is the main trend, BG is way out in the tail.

Neither of these uniquely American extremes of place offered any cultural interest or hope for future renewal. Both were depressing, in very different ways. But the conferences were excellent – and similar in a couple of ways. They were smaller, people knew one another very well from prior experience, and the conferences revealed a common experience. Leaders in both fields live in the question of what it means to develop a practice in their fields. These fields are in no way settled.

At Nexus, change and organizational facilitation. At IA, where the field of Information Architecture is going and whether we are developing a substantive practice. Both embrace a strong ethic of collaboration with clients and the whole team, but both are also service-oriented, and not strongly research oriented. I may find it harder to collaborate with practitioners from both fields than I would from a research-focused conference. In the research world, there’s intent to discover something new and share what’s emergent. Practitioners are more entrepreneurial, implying acertain sense of competition for clients and talent.

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Nielsen’s Hot Top-10 list

March 20, 2007

Nielsen posts another Top-10, hitting the mark on designing for business needs and e-Commerce sites. This time, a neat summary of the Top 10 High ROI priorities for website redesign. 10 High-Profit Redesign Priorities

“I often write about the top mistakes in Web design, but what are the top things you can do to make more money? Following here are 10 Internet tactics with a particularly high return on investment (ROI).”

These include:

1. Email Newsletters
2. Informative Product Pages
3. High-Quality Photography
4. Product Differentiation and Comparisons
5. Support for Reordering

6. Simplified Text
7. Catering to Seniors
8. Gift-Giving Support

9. Search
10. User Testing

Of these, I’ve bolded the ones that I’ve seen the most need for in professional services domains. Factors like high-quality photography should be a given for a professionally-designed site. And User Testing is a Nielsen high-profit item, not a website high-profit factor. More correctly, usability testing is HOW you identify the highest return values for your product, but it is not a factor of the site itself, for example, like a good search interface.

What else would I add from my research? As I started making these up, I realized I’ve also found 10 for certain that return high value. These are more for professional services or B2B, but I think most apply in all cases, such as consumer sites or corporate presence.

1. Findability. Google SEO so that your site is in the top 5 hits.

2. Clearly-defined landing pages from within the site so that search links have a perfect path to decision-making

3. Clustered or categorized search results, designed to the user need – so that WHEN your users try to search inside the site they have a good chance locating their target.

4. Clearly defined navigation (and 7 or fewer tabs) that keeps users within your site long enough to buy or do something.

5. Obvious search box location, and good indexing of keywords behind the content.

6. Useful alternative choices – if the user finds nothing on the landing page, they may find something in a Gallery column.

7. Simple ads – If you gotta have them, ixnay on the distracting flashy bits. It pushes people away from the page.

8. A common-sense Contact Us. Just a page with the facts: Email, Phone, Address, hours available, a map. All on one page.

9. Simple Checkout, simple terms of purchase. Nielsen taught us this one a long time ago!

10. Easy URL. OK, maybe not a high ROI, but a basic point. Your domain name should be easy to say and remember.

Take a look at your sites – which work better for you, Jakob’s or mine?

The Purpose of Purpose

March 13, 2007

Harvard Business School professor Jim Heskett asks: Is There Too Little “Know Why” in Business? In a commentary-inquiry piece on the HBS Working Knowledge site, a dialogue asks how purpose is recognized and leveraged as a motivator in business. Heskett questions whether executives really know understand the impact of leading by purpose, and notes the paucity of examples of large companies that truly lead by purpose, such as the perennial reference to Anita Roddick and The Body Shop.

Two recent books offer views of the roles of managers and leaders. The first, Know-How, by Ram Charan, sets forth eight behaviors exhibited by managers who get things done. The second, Purpose, by Nikos Mourkogiannis, could really have been titled “Know Why.” It describes four kinds of purpose, “starting points” that govern what great companies do and how they do it. Each of these purposes represents a kind of “holy grail” as opposed to goals (often merely financial), missions or visions, or even a set of values. As Mourkogiannis puts it, “Let others play with ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ and ‘management.’ Purpose is the game of champions.”

According to this theory, truly transformational purpose can be found in: (1) discovery, the challenge of adventure and innovation characterized by dot-com entrepreneurs willing to work 24/7 in search of the new or unknown, (2) excellence, in which high standards are not compromised for short-term performance (as with Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett), (3) altruism, where the primary purpose is to serve (customers, employees, etc.) first and assume that profit will follow (as at Nordstrom), and (4) heroism, typically involving grand plans to change entire industries or even the way we live (Bill Gates and Microsoft).

The argument is that only one of these purposes, if pursued rigorously and successfully, is required for greatness. Putting mere goals, such as primarily making money, before purpose gets us an Enron or a Worldcom. The pity, according to Mourkogiannis, is that true purpose could have enabled these organizations to make even greater “real” profits than those they reported.

How often do we re-envision purpose in our own organizations? If purpose is discussed, is it tossed off as “selling widgets” or “making money.” Do we have the courage of our vision to elevate ourselves and our organizations beyond the economic and the instrumental? Should organizations even have a noble purpose?

I would add to these books Noble Purpose: Igniting Extraordinary Passion for Life and Work by my friend Barry Heermann, whose program by the same name has spread widely, using a dialogic approach to self-discovery. Noble Purpose does for individuals what Barry’s original Team Spirit program does for teams – generating deep commitment to the higher purposes underlying our work and commitments.

When I advise on visioning sessions, the big idea I insist upon is that a vision extends beyond our ability to accomplish, that a true vision is something that encompasses a lifetime or more, its the horizon of our highest intention that pushes us beyond what we believe possible. Vision and purpose are very closely related – purpose is intention and direction, but is not accomplished (as is a mission, or a mission statement). My vision is to create humane futures by revealing and exchanging shared wisdom. While UX research projects and dialogic design may not accomplish this vision, I can intend that wisdom is exchanged and aims toward a more humane future possibility. This is the purpose of purpose – to energize intention and surface the passion that connects everything a person does and stands for.

What is dialogic design anyway?

March 10, 2007

Are you guys just making this up? Weren’t you just calling it Structured Design Process a month ago? Wasn’t it Interactive Management for 20 years? (No, Yes, Yes …)

Today’s discussion on Blogora with Surinder Batra on IM and KM raised the realization that many of us are viewing phenomena of collective intelligence from the perspective of different practices, and we’re not using a “lingua franca of the same realm.”

Dialogic Design as Organizational KM

Both IM and Nonaka’s theory of the knowledge creation cycle rely on several stages of interaction to transform the functions of knowledge, from the personal and tacit to the shared and organizationally accessible.

Perhaps the most significant barrier to organizational KM is the inability to coordinate the transformation of knowledge “on demand,” for the emergent needs of the business. It would appear the SDD process creates a new type of knowledge cycle, a collaborative model, which functions as such (using Nonaka’s language):

C- Combination: Originates with the explicit knowledge of multiple individuals responses to trigger question.

I – Internalization: An emerging pattern of new knowledge is realized in the dialogue.

E – Externalization: These emergent, evolutionary patterns are disclosed and patterned using ISM.

I also suggest there is no set cycle, as implied by SECI. Knowledge processes are never that neat and tidy in reality, but the SDD process establishes a cyclic moving from individual knowledge, to group patterning, to individual learning, to group learning, to group understanding.]

S – Socialization: But not Nonaka’s Tacit-Tacit version. Here I suggest socialization means a totally synthesized explicit-tacit exchange within the organization, based on the shared experience and evolutionary learning of the SDD sessions, as well as the interpretations emerging from the tangible artifacts (Influence Map, reports) of the engagement.

We are using new language, intentionally – a vocabulary for business process design based on bottom-up socialization, as an alternative to the received notion of “strategic alignment.” The notion of alignment is maladaptive because it encourages executives to micro-manage processes under the assumption that alignment to strategy is an achievable state, or that it is even desirable (in the predetermined way they would execute alignment). Instead, managers should construct a collective, adaptive strategy (using SDD if possible). They should lead by embodying and celebrating the new values associated with the strategic intent, since values are the slowest functions to change in an organization, and are best demonstrated by leadership modeling. People closest to the processes are best suited to adapt practices to the changing direction/intent.

We are also adopting the generic, non-Warfieldian term dialogic design and the process of Structured Dialogic Design (SDD) in the research. Here’s why:

1. We need a generic term that describes a class of collective knowledge generation processes enabled by democratic dialogue. One that encompasses IM, SDP, and even Dialogue Mapping. That term is dialogic design.

2. When we publish peer-reviewed research, we will not be treated seriously if we are seen as advocates of a certain style of practice. I have received comments to this effect in reviews. Interactive Management is more like a brand name, and SDP is a confusing name to everyone in the IT world who know s of “structured design.”

3. We can improve the practice and generalize from first principles better if we distance ourselves from the “terms of engagement.” SDD is a type of dialogic design, as is IM.

Media Ecology: Emergence, Second Life, Real Life

March 7, 2007

A second post on the Toronto Media Ecology dialogue. Starting from a prompt question (something like): How does emergence arise in design ecologies (see prior post below) when we are intending creative innovation?

Optimal solutions to complex design or problem situations often arise (emerge) from the improvised mix of pre-existing features and relationships in a well-diversified design ecology, analogous to a biologically-diverse ecosystem. Of course, as human agents we can accelerate the rate of evolutionary innovation when we have some control over the resources and number and type of relationships in the ecosystem. In other words, just like an enriched home environment (with toys, books, friends, intellectual conversation) helps children learn and develop, an enriched design ecology fosters innovative outcomes that we desire.

At this point inthe conversation, the turn toward general systems theory spurred a round of attaching people’s favorite theorists to the story. Buckley’s work in social systems theory, Giddens structuration, I would have tossed Banathy and Buck Fuller into the mix if we had time to go on and on. I don’t know Buckley, so if someone can comment on why we should find his out of print and >$150 used books, let me know. We did not divert into “more moderner” sociological systems theories, but instead ranged into …

  • Autonomy and agency in computer-generated worlds. And whether the advancement of AI theory toward emergent behavior in intelligent networks purchased inroads toward understanding the emergence of mind in the human neural-brain-body system.
  • But beyond empirical observations that meet an operational definition of agency, we continue to explore the issues of intentionality, desire, awareness and meaning. (Since this is my blog, I can refer to a tongue-in-cheek critique on the think:lab blog of Hawkins’ On Intelligence raising the same points, if anyone wants to drift even farther afield.)
  • And then, finally returning to implications of brain research/cog neuroscience to emergent intelligence in social networking and new media.

Such as Second Life. Which disclosed a values rift between camps of media theorists. With the “Ricardian” camp finding SK a valid arena for exploring emergence in (perhaps) genuine social relationships through avatars (implying people have no incentives to be inauthentic). And in fact that this may lead to a new form of cybercitizenship. Rebutted by the social meaning camp (me and Philomena), with several arguments addressing the meaning of citizenship and the use of new media technology as tools for improving the social world of real people, especially those disenfranchised by society and (of course) technology. (Which drew the image of “what would it do to create virtual favelas in Second Life to mimic real world situations which we must deal with as actual citizens of the world?)

People showed up and left during my 90 minutes there, changing the dynamics and topics, but the emergence of an autonomous dialogic/hermeneutic circle kept the entire conversation smoothly an eerily continuous. On further reflection, a cyclic dynamic was that of reflexive reflection – not just reflection on questions to explore further into dialogue, but actually mirror-imaging the reflective conversation, to invert the points people raised (emergence-holism, cybercitizen-citizen via cyber) to test the directionality of relationship.

So, when is the next session of the Media Ecology Cafe?

Dialogue on design ecologies

March 3, 2007

How rare an event to walk unexpectedly into Socratic dialogue, in process. Friday’s Media Ecology workshop at U of T, hosted by Mogens Olesen and Bob Logan, was found in Bob’s office, where he and about 7 others were in process already, and after us, 2 more walking in, into an intimately cramped space. The tight office required everyone to lean in, make contact, and attend closely. In future sessions, I would recommend alternating these informal dialogues between larger and smaller rooms to encourage the interaction that results from people having to sit on tables or stand by the door. It lends urgency and a conspiratorial air to the proceedings. Proceedings which ranged quite widely – And if you weren’t there, my reporting from notes may not make sense as a narrative flow, as it was an open dialogue. I’ve tried to capture the spirit of the dialogue here, but there may be insufficient background – that could take all day to do, if it were possible. From walking in, to ending 90 minutes later, the conversation opened a lot of topics and generated a lot more questions for later.

  • Design ecologyWhat and where are design ecologies? This was the subject of Bob’s recent seminar with Greg Van Alstyne at OCAD, as well as a paper accepted for Artifact. Questions: How do we accelerate design (of systems, products, artifacts) using an ecological approach to innovation? By ecological, we mean taking into account the structure, activity, and interactions of all meaningful participants in the environment affecting the designed system. As with studying an ecosystem, how do we observe an innovation environment to identify the elements of a “design ecology”? How do we find, study, or measure the tools, practices, social systems, and economies for innovation?
  • And ecological design – was contrasted with design ecology, since this is a well-known approach to user interface design. (Not the designing of biological ecosystems), but interface design to fit people’s work practices, as a way of understanding people’s work as an ecological system.

This led to the question of emergence in a design ecology, which relates to Bob Logan’s recent work. He states the queston to which this is the answer is:

What are the environment, elements, influences and mechanisms that give rise to new innovative products, services, systems and processes through emergent design?”

In “giving rise to” we find ideas, artifacts, or concepts emerging from the interaction of actors in the ecology, not planned or specified design functions. Emergence is described as a bottom-up creation of novelty from the ecology, as found in nature – as opposed to the top-down construction by “designers.” In this sense, an ecology is usually thought of as the ongoing fictions and interactions of people and their skills within a self-organizing environment – people and their cultures, activities, tools, processes and methods, materials, prior works, economic relationships, etc.

Without linking to all the examples, there are many uses of the term “ecology” that are consistent with socially generated, self-organized systems: industrial, organizational, service, knowledge, information – have all been defined with ecological approaches. (And there even seems to be an interdisciplinary Master’s program at TU Delft dealing with these questions in industrial ecology.)

Where design is usually considered an activity within one of these ecologies, the difference here is in the recognition that “innovation” or novelty in design “happens” as a product or outcome of interaction in a dynamic ecological system. Yes, people intend to design in an ecological system. But when you turn the designerly model upside down, looking for emergence of something greater than the sum of its designed parts, you also see they (we are all) just catalysts to processes that are already ongoing within an ecological system.

And a good question of how emergence differs from holism – in both descriptions, the resulting state cannot be explained by reductionist analysis of the constituent parts. In both there is something bigger, better, more energy available than if adding the contributing parts. This was a branching conversation that turned toward the notion that emergence is related to the novelty of innovation – like a biological system that adapts to its conditions and environment, it adapts in ways we could not design to if we wanted.  A holistic system is more related to the ecology – the whole totality of the system from which novelty (design) emerges. An emergent design cannot be neatly explained by its parts, but it emerges from an ecosystem and is a reflection of it as well.

Then we verged into how emergent systems arise in the technosphere, and so on. I will add more in a second post rather than burdening it all in this one, (as I futilely tried before.)

Dialogue as unmediated design

March 1, 2007

Or at least, less-mediated design. A goal and an inherent value of participatory design is that of engaging users directly in a design processes, to minimize the translation of features by designers. The goal of direct participation is not to reduce the cycle time incurred between cycles of user-centered design, prototyping, and user assessment, although that happens. The goal is to maximize user ownership of the design for their own work practices, and to minimize the influence designers have in articulating the significant features in the application space. Participatory design has a values orientation that respects the intelligence and autonomy of participants in their own work practices.

Dialogic design also aims to minimize designer mediation, even if through a facilitated process. By enabling participation of all stakeholders in a design dialogue – aspires to immediacy. The principle of requisite autonomy is honored in all SDD sessions, which requires the autonomy and authenticity of all individual stakeholders to be preserved. Nobody can alter a contribution made by a participants in structured dialogue.

Dialogue happens with a committed group of people, during a particular time only, with all the raw materials generated by the participants themselves. While the classic writers on dialogue include philosophers Habermas, Gadamer, (and the later interpreter Kogler), and thinkers such as Bohm and Krishnamurti. But why not also be inspired by un-mediation writers and artists such as:

  • Joseph Beuys, and his expression of direct democracy and non-mediated direct engagement of social sculpture.
  • Guy Debord, situationist and confronter of the phenomenon of spectacle
  • And a little more recently by Hakim Bey’s Immediatism (1994), also available in its anarchic entirety on the web. (You can see the revival of this meme in full sway in our household, in the recent blog by my partner (and wife) Patricia on Slow Learning)

So given that Structured Dialogic Design is mediated by facilitation, structure, and software – what does disintermediation mean and demand of our interaction? SDD is not Open Space – it is highly intentional, disciplined approach to dialogue, designed to generate results. But then, Beuys intended democracy, and Bey confronts the directness and meaning of media we employ to live lives of full participation and F2F intimacy. These same values are held sacred in SDD. To the degree our structure is transparent to participants, allowing them to focus on meaning in their committed contexts, then we have reduced the distance between people and their ownership of authentic dialogue.

To the extent our design is direct – or experienced as direct by participants, then we are eclipsing the role of “designer” with a process that achieves designed outcomes and true consensus for acting on the design.