Archive for the ‘Business design’ category

Opportunity Overload

August 26, 2008

Information overload has been with us since the dawn of electronic media. According to McLuhan’s theories (and Robert Logan’s recent enhancements to media theory), when we humans overextend a communications channel, we create a new one.  We create one commensurate with the increased volume and complexity of content that our culture generates. When we overwhelmed the capacity of radio and television (and print), the Internet emerged to expand our ability to communicate, globally.

So each new media “channel” expands our scope and matches the developing complexity of communication. As we adapt and learn the new media channel, our cognitive capacity – trained as it was from prior media eras – experience cognitive infoload.

As the online experience consumes more of our attention and with it our time, all of us notice the acceleration of overload. And with very little guidance from research, we are left with a range of practical time-management options from the Pickle Jar to scheduling your email. But none of these address the fact of information overload, which threatens to significantly diminish the value of the web and email. As demonstrated by the situation of too many choices.

Jared Spool once posted (and podcasted) an interview with Barry Schwartz where they discuss his book and the line of research into “choice overload,” which starts off with the Iyengar and Leeper Jam Study:

“… that showed when you present 30 flavors of jam at a gourmet food store, you get more interest but less purchasing than when you only show six flavors of jam. All of a sudden, it became an issue, or at least a possibility, that adding options could actually decrease the likelihood that people would actually choose any of them. More and more, because of that study, people have actually tried to study it in the wild, in the field, by getting companies to vary the variety that they offer and tracking both purchasing and also satisfaction. So that’s starting to happen, but there are not very many papers that are actually published on that. This whole line of work is only about five years old.”

There may be a common phenomenon underlying choice and information overload. Neither of these surfeits of stuff are problematic unless we’re interested, unless there’s an opportunity. Since information is neutral until deemed interesting, information overload is not problematic until we admit ever-larger boundaries of interest and attention. When we overwhelm short term memory and task attention, we’re forced to stop and change the focus of attention. The same with choice – I don’t care whether there are 5 jams or 30 unless I really want jam. Otherwise, like the overload of celebrity stories in the public media, the overload is easy to ignore.

Once we evaluate email and user experience with the concept of opportunity overload, the angle of insight shifts from technology itself to the idea of value. While 90% or more of all my email I could ignore, I also have extraordinary opportunities presented by way of this communication channel. Not only most of my consulting projects, but collaborations, new tools, great ideas to work with, answers to questions I did not think to pose. Its opportunity “push,” with the Web as opportunity “pull,” a nightmare of opportunity overwhelm if you let it.

As a research issue this interests me as it entails hermeneutics (individually and not externally interpreted) and economics (as in the cost/value of opportunity). We attend to the extent we are emotionally engaged with the perceived value of the opportunity represented by a choice (a product or a message in an email). But attention is only the intial draw. There are significant cognitive requirements demanded in processing the value (what is this worth to me? How cool is that?) and choice (Which one do I want, or is it worth my time to evaluate further?).

To finally make a decision may require additional learning (which one really is better? do I know enough to choose this opportunity? What are the costs in time and lost business/opportunity?). It may require communication (who should I ask about this? Wouldn’t Nick want to know about this?) Next thing we know, the day is gone!

So nobody except Miles the Marketer seems to be onto opportunity overload. (And Miles means to make you money, and I don’t, so go there if you want marketing opportunities!)

Valuing tech vs. valuing learning

August 19, 2008

When will the computer finally recede into the ubiquitous background as promised by Don Norman a decade ago? Instead, educational reform is grasping at technology as the innovation, bringing technology front and center, as you have pointed out here. But how do we expect students even younger than yours Sam, such as inner city high school students, to switch to an online pedagogy and self-educate with discipline?

It is the individual that chooses to self-educate – the tech are tools, not the stuff of learning itself. I’m not as sanguine about the role of interactive tech per se in the classroom, even though two heavy hitters in innovation (Clay Christensen) and organizational learning (John Seely Brown, blogged here) have recently weighed in with tech-oriented reform promises.

Christensen says “For virtual learning to have this transformative impact, however, it must be implemented in the correct way. The theory of disruptive innovation shows us a way forward.”

A disruptive innovation transforms an industry not by competing against the existing paradigm and serving existing customers, but by targeting those who have no other option and are not being served — people we call non-consumers.

Little by little, disruptive innovations predictably improve. At some point, they become good enough to handle more complicated problems — and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The key is that instead of simply cramming computers in the back of classrooms as a tool of instruction as we have done in the past, we need to allow computer-based learning to take root in places where the alternative to computer-based learning is no learning at all. Only then will computer-based learning have a true impact in transforming education.

There are a few problems with Clay’s innovation theory as applied to education. I am a big fan of Innovator’s Dilemma, and have written up RPV as serious business theory in “real” articles, not blogs. But my issue with disruptive innovation in education – is that the problem is NOT with students, or school systems as such. It is socio-economic, cultural, and systemic – a complex system, not a market of users or consumers. Disrutpive innovation owes something to the concept of early adopters predicting the trend. But in education, the early adopters are the self-educators who workaround the system. We can pick up and use anything, but that doesn’t mean other students should use the tech tools I did to self-educate. Example: Long before the Internets, after exhausting the simple lessons in 5th grade, I would ask to leave the class and sit in the hallway and read the Britannicas.

And which students get to fail while the system tries to “go disruptive” and falls even further behind in the tyranny of state school district measures? A couple of years worth of classes before they get it right? Christensen’s innovation theory says large incumbent firms are literally unable to innovate in this way. But has he ever seen charter schools in real “urban” districts? These attempts at innovation lead to outsourcing (like to Sylvan), which does no good, and leaves “no learning behind” for others to bring forward as an innovation.

Take a look at Dayton, Ohio. Patricia started one of the Gates schools (she’s not teaching there or anywhere in a system anymore). The program was primarily problem-based, no issue with that. But self-motivated, self-direct learning kids excel at this already, regardless of technology.  The charter schools in Dayton are (not to put too fine a point on it) total failures. The Gates program? Mixed – the self-motivated always do well, the others make teachers do twice the work they normally do, which is already a lot more than you can imagine.  “It won’t change until society values education” Patricia says “It’s so much government cheese.”

Designing design in non-design organizations

June 3, 2008

Should designers embed with their clients?

Designers have tied themselves closely to their clients since the early days of the Vatican. In design consulting, you must understand your clients’ business to advise effectively. So we have to work closely with clients to understand their users/customers.

We’ve done this since 2001 as a boutique research/design consulting firm, and have noticed that smaller consulting firms have always done this. Its the larger firms likeIDEO that have to formalize a process for customer intimacy – but when you’re already close to your client, you nurture them in many ways outside of the contractual relationship.

The evolving processes of “Design 3.0” have now also turned this imperative toward the organization itself – organizational processes are becoming “designable options.”  In ever more projects, we are advising user experience processes, consulting on overall product design and branding, conducting holistic UX research (end to end), and advising on organizational design and new practices.

Rather than merely extending an organization’s UX capacity, we are designing that capacity, more management consulting than “design delivery.” I stay close to long term clients and often work as an extended capacity for their internal UX organization. Redesign has partnered with organizations that have no formal UX group, and we’ve developed a model for just-in-time education of product managers, prototypers, and the closest equivalent to UX in a company. We call this process socialization, which looks like collaborative consulting in practice. This approach also lets a smaller consulting firm like Redesign consult strategically through process change and adapting the new UX processes closely to their strategic intent and product portfolio.

A problem with larger design agencies is they cannot afford to seat their better designers or advisors with clients in a mentoring capacity, and their rate structure won’t easily allow them to give up the time. If we all did a better job of educating the client while working on projects, this would not seem a novel idea but instead a standard practice. We also need to realize that better transition planning (the deliverables handoff from design to development) will reduce the need for mitigating turmoil in the client’s implementation of our design plans.

Adobe’s CTO on UX Design

May 29, 2008

Knowledge@Wharton recently interviewed Kevin Lynch, Adobe’s AIR apparent CTO, elevated to CTO earlier this year to make Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) the next disruptive tech platform. What’s in the secret sauce? Lots of UX, since that’s the first thing Lynch mentions at kickoff time:

Knowledge@Wharton: You were recently given the title of Chief Technology Officer at Adobe. How is that different from your previous role as Chief Software Architect?

Lynch: I’ll be involved more with Adobe overall in terms of our technology direction and the problems we are trying to solve; working across the different business units at Adobe. To some degree, I was already doing this in my previous role with the platform technology [unit at Adobe] because it touches so many of the other things that we do. This is formalizing that more.

In terms of my day-to-day activities, I’m continuing to work with the platform [group] and I’ll also be working with our design group called 😄 — Experience Design — to pull together our Experience Design and our platform efforts. They are obviously somewhat related — you can see a lot of great design in the Flex framework and in the applications we produce — but there’s more opportunity to build usability and best practices into our frameworks that we are learning from the 😄 group.

Lynch notes three disruptive technologies they are focused on – web applications, mobile computing, the ecosystems of social networks (and integration with directory management). But you knew that already.  But it is a good sign they are starting to lionize The Experience Design, even if they are overdoing it a bit on their promo pages. (I mean, do you ever see cool B&W shots of the software engineers that build the stuff? No, just designers, or now, as so many titles read, ‘experience designers”. Yes, but, do they know Human Factors?)

Adobe is still about tools for hot geeks, and not so much end user applications. But I have to admit, they finally took a big leap forward with the latest Reader, which was improved when some UX researchers noticed that people often select text, and right away, making that the default interaction mode when launching a PDF document.

Making a Difference by Design

May 3, 2008

Like the onerously overused “innovation,” transformation may be getting a bad rap. Both are broad, overstated terms that mean very different things to people, depending on background, experience, industry. Both must be defined in their contexts of use before we can have any serious discussion. The wide range of meanings and uses of transformation should give us pause before going too far with the term in mixed company. But transformation (as in organizational) has been merging closer to design (as in envisioned, creative, structured changemaking and sensemaking).

Time magazine may have just eased our quandary by making Humantific, and its transformation practice, a sort-of household term. People may know what we mean now.  In Different by Design, Time reports on New York’s Humantific, and the West Coast’s IDEO and Jump Associates. While we’ve seen tons of press on IDEO in recent years, the 3 paragraph exposure of Humantific (with a nice shot of GK and Elizabeth) was refreshing. The brief piece keeps it light, there was nothing mentioned about their practice areas or methods (Strategic Co-creation, Visual Sensemaking, Complexity Navigation, Innovation research).

Also see:

NextD.org (Transforming that Sustainability Thing)

Jump Associates

IDEO Transformation by Design

The Hub

Designs of the Time

No post would be complete without advocating my perspective on transformation. in a paper presented at the 2007 INCOSE Symposium I suggested:

The general thrust of transformation efforts aims toward significant organizational changes that institutionalize desired behaviors necessary for long-term business success. While some management thinkers may place the responsibility solely on management to accomplish transformation, in our view successful transformation depends on the collaboration of all stakeholders in the enterprise, at a minimum by adopting the new practices as full participants. This view is supported by Kotter (1995), whose findings show transformation efforts fail to the extent that organizational communication and collaboration fails.

Indeed, that seems to be a suitably complex, interesting design problem.

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.

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.