Archive for December 2007

Socializing Knowledge Practices

December 17, 2007

Yes, this was really about Innovation at first. But like authors that avoid the use of the verb “to be,” I am attempting to write about systematic product and systems design without using the “I” word. I’d like to write about creating a “Culture of Innovation,” but I agree with Peter Merholz and others who suggest the term is overused. (Especially in UX.) But innovation is not going away, so let’s find ways to make it work.

What concerns me about contemporary organizations is the extent to which top office-holders push the idea of I without understanding how I really happens. How does I really happen, and how is it diminished? Most of us in the design professions readily respond by insisting that creative, divergent thinking must always be pushed to the lowest level of management where the action happens. Design or UX management, who are ultimately responsible for designing new artifacts for competitive advantage. But how do we resolve the subsidiarity of designing with the strategic imperatives of product portfolio management, or revenue responsibility for the next year? Where do the trade-off decisions affecting what we call “innovation” really happen?

What I call socialization comes from empirical observations that people who take ownership of their processes in organizations establish the practices best suited to their products and strategy. It applies to design, product management, user experience, and strategy – all knowledge practices.

HBR’s Working Knowledge posts a special discussion on What Is Management’s Role in Innovation? 76 comments (none of them mine, because I blog instead) show a huge degree of “spreadthink,” the opposite of groupthink, with comments all over the map. A closer look shows the same age-old controversy in organizational management and advising which is (always) of two positions: Management’s role is A) Significant, and the Executives better Get It, or B) They’re in the Way, and those close to the customer/problem should innovate.

Of course, it depends on the organization and their type of innovation problem. Even readers of HBR (OK, online) are revealing their spreadthink about the very definition of innovation. Again, two extremes often show up: Innovation = Creativity/ Invention, or Innovation = business process. Answer = both and neither.

But this article follows another relevant piece that complements the discussion. The larger issue of effective leadership in complex organizational settings (typified by product development and innovation) is showing up. In An Inside Job: Best Practices from Within, December’s Strategy+Business tells us “the best solutions to an organization’s problems may be found among its members.” The article reports on the Pittsburgh VA Hospitals’ use of the Positive Deviance knowledge acquisition process (which they term a strategy, perhaps a knowledge startegy), to locate wisdom about infectious disease prevention and mitigation from practitioners within the institution. Positive Deviance is a kind of lead user approach for identifying practices at the fringes that might be developed and deployed institutionally. (One would hope infection management practices would not be THAT deviant in a hospital!) But this article, and the HBR online, both present innovations emerging from ground level practices that become institutionalized through recognition of value and managerial deployment.

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Should UX designers advise on revenue models?

December 7, 2007

Following up on “The Affordable Content Ecosystem.” There are huge opportunities for macro-design that should not be let go without a fight. Essentially, Jaron Lanier’s argument leads to the consideration that our “free web” has become a “free market web” that works for big guys, the content providers, but not for little guys, the artists and inventors. It was not designed that way, it is ecological, as my friend Tarver in Toronto says, “Things are the way they are because they got that way.” Media companies have the footprint to carve our niches in the content ecosystem. As individuals we do not. But as design thinkers, maybe we do, in the form of influencing service design, and something we might call “design for a monetary interaction system.”

Ten years ago J Nielsen predicted and advocated for micropayments, and we all know that did not happen. Perhaps the idea was insufficiently designed and tested. The ecosystem was never seeded with a workable model that could be evaluated over uses and iterated over time. Radiohead’s recent foray into a pay-what-you-can model with In Rainbows showed mixed success – the sheer level of music that “wanted to be free” was overwhelming, and they wound down the experiment. Few bands are as rich as Radiohead, so its unlikely that model will be tried again. However, the mere existence of a micropayment model would make it possible for artists and media companies to try out a wide range of incremental or micro-payment methods. But no large organization wants to be first to break their current business model, even if they barely work in the new era.

Designing a content ecosystem is not like a complex engineering project. It is more like a community agriculture project, requiring numerous patches of cultivation that are tended over seasons and nurtured against the elements and pollutants. As designers, many of us are beholden to the business models of our clients, and we are implicitly – or explicitly – engaged in helping them maximize the impact of their current business model with design thinking. Even if we have evidence that it doesn’t work well. But we somehow believe we can design “experiences” but not “revenue models.” Would it not create a significantly different brand interaction if we considered the revenue system part of the design ecology? How can user experience design influence the reasoning around the value propositions for monetizing content providers?

And, does Facebook Track you in your Sleep?

December 5, 2007

Following up from the discussion about Facebook’s Beacon, Corrente’s on the case with a quickie analysis of those Terms that I mentioned below.  I was afraid my friends’ relationships with Facebook could not end well –

I bet the social network analysts handling domestic surveillance are really enthusiastic about this! AP:

Facebook has confirmed findings of a CA security researcher that the social-networking site’s Beacon ad service is more intrusive and stealthy than previously acknowledged, an admission that contradicts statements made previously by Facebook executives and representatives.

Stefan Berteau, senior research engineer at CA’s Threat Research Group, wrote in a note about Beacon’s until-then unknown ability to monitor logged-off users’ activities and send the data back to Facebook.

Users aren’t informed that data on their activities at these sites is flowing back to Facebook, nor given the option to block that information from being transmitted, according to Berteau.

So what do ethical designers take away from this “user experience?”

As Facebook scales up, can it handle identity conflict?

December 1, 2007

The killer business notion behind Facebook, MySpace, and other massively scaled social networking services is based on the assumption that millions of users make for a better experience. That may be true for business, but its arguable on behalf of the users themselves. The Times reports the failure of Beacon, its perverse “collaborative consumption” push service that reveals your buying habits to your friends.

York University’s Sam Ladner posts an insightful interpretation of the roots of this failure as a conflict of identities, the clash of fronts. She cites fellow Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of the front, the individual’s persona expressed in the presentation of self in everyday life. Goffman posits a front stage, back stage, and – he suggests we like to think – a core self. These get mixed together in Facebook, resulting in embarrassing relationship management issues as cited by the Times article. Samantha says designers should pay attention to these issues:

Facebook has done the same thing by forcing its users to expose their selves to different fronts simultaneously. It is embarrassing, even shameful.

What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon

  • Discover your users’ fronts: If you are designing a product or a virtual place, ask your potential users what they consider the character of this “place” to be. Is is a formal place? Is it a casual atmosphere? What kinds of “props” are expected here? What would be an embarrassing topic of conversation or incident?
  • Design using the theatre metaphor: Make the product consistent with that place, as if you were writing a play. Ensure that what you design is part of a script that users understand or expect.
  • Pay attention to embarrassment: If your users mention shame or embarrassment in any way, gently press them about it. Discover the character of the “collision of fronts” that is the source of that embarrassment, and, above all, avoid forcing users to feel embarrassment.

Sam’s brief take is a wonderfuly concise, cogent piece of design analysis and a lovely application of classical, cultural theory. It stands up. And it inspired me to post as well, something I’ve been sitting on. When I read about Facebook’s very public debacles, my smarty-pants “core self” snickers knowingly at my avoidance  of Facebook altogether. Like Sam’s analysis suggests, I have many fronts to juggle, and across multiple communities. But for me there’s an overriding issue that also has a theoretical basis.

There’s no activity system in the Facebook ecology for me. There’s nothing for me to DO there. At least with LinkedIn (as Avi responding to Sam;s post also says) there’s a proscribed purpose, a well-defined kind of resume-exchanging business-oriented community. An activity theory perspective shows LinkedIn as a complete system: It mediates my interaction with many others toward business-oriented objectives, following a certain rule base, community values, and fits within an organizational schema of sorts. Faceboo, for me, is a random system that would be useful for invitations, spying on my friends, and keeping up with social drama. But as someone with a life to live, I don’t have that extra time to devote to maintaining such a profile.

“Keeping up with classmates” was its original purpose, and then it grew. It seems to me more feature and tech-driven, making a cool testbed for new ideas. But ultimately a waste of time for someone like me to actually invest in and use with intention.

I’m an established researcher and business person, anyone who wants to find me can without Facebook. My everyday lifeworld social networks are rich, diverse, and within my capacity to be with. When a surprise encounter mixes up my social fronts in the real world, as happens often, I can press my social skills into service and enjoy the impudence of, say, my art world friends bumping into my clients at a club. But in Facebook, the activity is based on exchanging information without your control. I can do without that mashup, and I can do without their ambiguous Terms of Service.

So, there may not be a core self, as the Goffman exchange suggests. Our identities are largely socially-constructed, and therefore remain vulnerable, can be socially deconstructed, in unexpected conflicts. But as a word to designers, what is the core activity system in Facebook? Is it too large to contain a well-defined activity and purpose anymore? I prefer and recommend the creation of activity ecologies using DIY, invitational social networks such as Ning, CrowdVine, GoingOn, or wikis such as Wetpaint. Everyone knows what to do, and why you’re there. And Google’s OpenSocial has only just started to diffuse – I think the purposeful community is the more inviting future of social networking.