Archive for April 2008

Real innovators fail, more.

April 29, 2008

I follow the Freakonomics blog in the New York Times online – one of the few that i do follow anymore. (Blogs have become so abundant worldwide that any opinion or commentary is cheap and available. In such an infoloaded ecology, only the relevant, compelling, and well-written rise above the noise. Relevancy and context rule.)

So I’m fascinated by the shifting trends in economics leading to ecological thinkers such as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner opening up the discourse into areas that would be risk the “credibility” of more mainstream economists. Freakonomics recently held a Quorum of several collaborating authors (Ashish Arora, John Seely Brown, Seth Godin, Bill Hildebolt, Daphne Kwon, and Mark Turrell) to dialogue on Measuring Innovation.  Several of these are truly worth the read, but you’ll have to scroll – a lot. Freakonomics does not break out sections into new posts. (An innovation I would propose is arbitrary links you can add to perma-link to a section in a public medium. ) So, go to Kwon and Hildebolt:

While we track traditional industry metrics such as number of reviews, breadth of catalog, and quality of information, we’ve added new metrics that help define the goals of consumer word-of-mouth. Defining these new benchmarks helps us select new risk-taking projects that can speed us along our path to success.

How can our experience measuring innovation in the moment (rather than just looking backwards) be generalized for other entrepreneurs and managers?

We’re going to go on record and say that it is all about looking for and then celebrating the unique “failure metrics” in your business:

They list 3 measures of organizational failure, which correspond to an innovative culture. These are all small-scale failures, not the cover-up, highly-leveraged kind that bring down the product line. Consider:

1) The rate of failure. More small failures are better.

2) Failing along the right path. Embracing failure, however, brings you dangerously close to failure’s more deadly cousin, flailing.

3) The source of failures. Another measure we use to determine if our company is embracing failures is whether new strategic ideas are coming from all levels of the company.

And of course, the comments are always telling, worth a final scroll down for a scan.

End of Design (as we know it)

April 18, 2008

So suggests Phillippe Starck, as reported by Allison Arieff in the NYT. Maybe this is a good thing to acknowledge – Design “as we know it” is what we would call Design 1.0. Making things cool and beautiful for consumers to buy and cherish. The design revolution of late capitalism has been largely consumer status-based, in my opinion, and is not reflective of a new American aestheticism. Design “Within Reach” epitomizes this for me – it is certainly not within the reach of an average consumer, yet, so the function of  design” remains that of strangemaking (as van Patter likes to call it). Selling distinction and uniquenesses.

In the future, promises Starck, “there will be no more designers.” And by extension, no more stuff! Now, that’s a surefire way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. (Will Starck now join the Designers Accord?) As is Starck’s prediction that the designer of the future is “a personal coach, the gym trainer, the diet consultant.” So not only will we consume less stuff (because no one is designing it), we’ll consume less food, too. Brilliant!

Design 2.0 is the most recent shift – to what we see as intentional, designed improvements, often cleanly functional and usable, that facilitate performance in life and work. Everything from Oxo kitchen tools, Aeron chairs, BWM cockpit displays, the best websites. The 2.0 trend has been with us since Tom Peters’ missives of the mid-90’s, and Don Norman’s popular books of the same time – which called attention to the qualities of the designed environment in everyday life, and the value of improving products and services to satisfy users and customers. While Design 2.0 overlaps the consumer-oriented design of 1.0, Design 2.0 serves the balance of function and usability, and less about the artifact as fetish object.

These waves of design practice and object, all called Design of course, strike me as explained by McLuhan’s media theories. As we culturally and cognitively saturate a media type, a new one grows up around it and subsumes it to accommodate the higher bandwidth necessary to manage the ever-increasing complexity. McLuhan’s Tetrad concept shows how a technology trend obsolesces and replaces the one before it, but then becomes “retrieved” later as a re-envisioned or even mythological expression. The Tetrad shows up in  the inquiry into Design by asking:

  • What does any (artifact or system) enlarge or enhance?
  • What does it erode or obsolesce?
  • What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced?
  • What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential?

Design 1.0 is replaceable by Art and personal craftsmanship, which is a retrieval of pre-Design 1.0 culture. Having artists in my families (mother Betsy and wife Patricia), I’m surrounded by the personal design of unique artifacts, and designed objects are selected sparingly in our homes. We have no desire for Design 1.0, except for certain “mythological” artifacts.  Design 2.0 becomes invisible after a good run of experience with it.  We expect all websites to be as usable as Amazon.com, and MP3 players to be as cool as the iPod. It is the baseline. Design 3.0 runs ahead of us … and is that which is transforming the object of designing.

But not the practice, just yet. Design 3.0 is best considered a verb, and is not a new field of design. More a different way of being about design, which leads thinking, which then leads practice. Keep checking back, this is likely to change.

Google Plays Doctor

April 17, 2008

And Microsoft also wants your health records as well. The New York Times reports on the NEJM article warning about the entrants of mega-players GOOG and MSFT as purveyors of your private healthcare information. These are not altruistic enterprises – they have to turn a profit on this somehow. So it does make one wonder about their product strategy – will Google flash consumer health ads at you while you review your meds and shots? Will Microsoft create a new Health Passport ID to qualify your access to your medical records on their servers? So, who will the early adopters be?

There are so many questions –  Have you actually tried to locate and consolidate your medical records? Unless you’re a veteran and on VistA, have you noticed they are paper? So, will Google scan them for you as well?  What happens to your records if you leave the country or die? What if laws change and you don’t know about it? Can your doctor get to your online records, and will they have to have a separate ID for all their patients?  Why can’t people just put all their records on a flash drive, that gets updated at the doctor’s office, and then keep it physically with them – and a backup on the laptop? What’s the real value-add of the big players here?

The NEJM authors consider the trend toward personal health records a positive development for personal responsibility for healthcare:

Despite their warnings, Dr. Mandl and Dr. Kohane are enthusiastic about the potential benefits of Web-based personal health records, including a patient population of better-informed, more personally responsible health consumers.

“In very short order, a few large companies could hold larger patient databases than any clinical research center anywhere,” Dr. Mandl said in an interview.

But the authors see a need for safeguards, suggesting a mixture of federal regulation — perhaps extending HIPAA to online patient record hosts — contract relationships, certification standards and consumer education programs.

Today you’ll see almost 200K Google hits on “personal health record.” The growth in this “space” in one year has been truly amazing. Remember that Microsoft bought Medstory a year ago, (and there’s been no news from them since). However, if the US had a national healthcare system (or even statewide systems), a feature of patient and cost management would be your access to personal versions of electronic health records, such as those available on the aforementioned VistA system. Your tax dollars already built VistA and it is a public domain application. Veterans already have personal eHealth records through My Health eVet (such a bad brand name, but you get the idea). In this area, government and veterans are at the leading edge, and not consumers.

Information services providers might consider the “records aftermarket,” rather than records access –  helping consumers make sense of their health records. The medical records themselves are used as intra-practice documentation, and are not easily readable by patients or family members. Perhaps this is the direction the big players want to go, but there’s a lot of gray area in the reading and interpretation of medical tests, procedure, physician orders and notes, etc.  Doing this well is an editorial process – currently services such as Medstory do a good job getting you to qualified information, but the level of difficulty of interpretation and sensemaking remains daunting.

Failure is a Matter of Timing

April 4, 2008

On Boxes and Arrows, Part II of We Tried to Warn You! is now up, with several great comments that are worth the visit. Boxes and Arrows is a truly beautiful and readable online publication, one that I recommend as an example of how to do things right. One of the core points in Part II is the notion that we don’t see organizational failures coming because of the long lead times between early (and detectable) signals of trouble and the ultimate re-orgs or product portfolio changes that occur. By the time managers act on the larger failure, so many contributing events will have occurred that most observers will be unable to connect the dots. A section early in the article that explains this follows:

A major difference in the current discussion is that organizational failure as defined here does not bring down the firm itself, at least not directly, as a risky strategy might. But it often leads to complete reorganization of divisions and large projects, which should be recognized as a significant failure at the organizational level.

One reason we are unlikely to assess the organization as having failed is the temporal difference between failure triggers and the shared experience of observable events. Any product failure will affect the organization, but some failures are truly organizational. They may be more difficult to observe.

If a prototype design fails quickly (within a single usability test period), and a project starts and fails within 6 months, and a product takes perhaps a year to determine its failure – what about an organization? We should expect a much longer cycle from originating failure event to general acknowledgment of failure, perhaps 2-5 years.

I’m also hearing personally from a few design/researchers from different design agencies in North America about a different type of org failure – that of following economics and not vision. During the last downturn I noticed that agencies reached a peak of bad performance right before the dot.bomb, mainly due to taking on too much work and pushing rag-tag designer teams beyond their performance limits.

This time around there’s a similar sense of cashing-in, and with the dependency many large agencies have on retail, financials, and adevrtising I think we’ll see the same business cycle. Thinking and feeling practitioners also see that there are times (like this) that the organization’s goals, style, and climate are unlikely to improve in the near term. The designers are the talent, the transformers, not the account managers, and they can always find a better home. Many organizations are not worth waiting out through the next macro or micro failure cycle. Now may be the time to pre-empt the inevitable and follow your own vision.