Thursday, July 29, 2004
The Effect of Personality on Design
I'm fascinated by the Myers-Briggs personality test and the resulting personality types. Perhaps it's my fondness for patterns. Perhaps it's my own personality type: INTJ aka The Mastermind (although I'm only marginally I and T). Whatever it is, I enjoy thinking about them and figuring out where people lie on their spectrums.
When you find out your personality type, it's also supposed to suggest what careers you might enjoy. I, for example, might enjoy being a dentist, military leader, or judge. Ummm...oook. Supposedly, the "ideal" personality types for a designer are Inventors (ENTP) and Architects (INTP), although this chart puts designers in with us Masterminds.
Now, I've been around quite a few designers, and although I'm sure we all share some personality traits in common (I'd imagine that an N (for iNtuitive) is pretty essential), there's a pretty broad range of personality types. What's interesting to ponder is how those personalities affect the products we create. Give two designers the same problem and you'll likely get (at least) two different solutions. How much of those solutions are derived from our personalities, which shape how we view and interact with the world? Are the products of a designer who's more F (Feeling) more emotional than those of one who is more T (Thinking)? Are designers who perceive (P) able to come up with a broader set of solutions than those who judge (J)? Looking at, say, Michael Graves' products for Target, I'd guess he was an ENFP. But is that his personality, or the personality (ethos) of the products themselves? Or is it some of both? Confusing the matter further are the brand "personalities" of the companies we work for. If Graves had designed his line for, say, Neiman Marcus, I imagine they would be quite different. But would they retain some of his character, his personality?
I would think it difficult (and probably not desirable) to divorce a designer's personality from the things she makes. (Although unfortunately not impossible: this is one of the issues with designing by committee.) And just as there are few "correct" solutions in design, there probably isn't a "correct" personality type for designers. What's more important is that whatever the personality, that some of it make its way into our products. Some trace, some veneer of our humanity as designers needs to come through lest the products we make become alien to us--a real possibility in this age of smart machines and digital forms. Even though we may use everything from computers to factories to manufacture our designs, they are still our designs, made by humans. The trick is to keep some of what is human throughout the design process: to retain some life, some personality, be it E or I, N or S, T or F, P or J, in the things we create.
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
This Design's Not for You
I drive a Honda Element. Whether or not you like its boxy appearance (although compared to the Scion xB, it is positively stylized), it is well-designed, with lots of unique features for its passengers--aka, its users. For example, the sun visors have extenders that slide out and slip behind the rear-view mirror for some pretty complete sun blocking. The air vents rotate and angle for some superior air "aiming." The radio/CD player is set up high on the dashboard so you don't have to look down to see it. The team that put it together definitely had the users in mind when creating it. The original marketing mentioned how they'd taken prototypes to the beach to test them out with users.
The thing is: I'm not the target user. The car was designed for active 20-year-old college students who like to camp, surf, have tailgate parties and sex in their vehicles (the Element seats fold down into a bed). Nowhere in the original brochure was a picture of a 30-something designer who hasn't camped in 10 years and whose surfing is limited to the web. Not to mention no pictures of his three-year-old daughter who logs plenty of Element time, being carted to and from pre-school, playgrounds, and summer camp.
It wasn't meant for me, so some features are moderately useless. The sunroof is over the back seat so that you can stand up and change clothes after surfing, for example. Never once have I pealed off a wetsuit while standing up in the back of my car. It's only use is that my daughter likes to look up at the stars and rain from her carseat.
But a weird thing happened with the Element: the target audience wasn't buying it. In a New York Times article, a spokesman for Honda admitted that the average age for Element buyers is 40. And all of a sudden, in this year's advertising, there's decidedly some older-looking folks. Interesting. It's yet another case of the street finding its own uses for things. That plastic floor that's so good for surfers' sandy feet is also good for toddler spills. Folding up the rear seats to fit mountain bikes in is also pretty helpful for trips to IKEA too.
The question that arises is: how can you design for this? Is it possible to design things flexible enough so that they aren't just for their specific tasks, but can also be platforms for other user groups you haven't even thought of to make their own use out of them? The iPod is another excellent example of this: designed for playing music, used for hundreds of other things. My friend Brian Haven did some thinking about this in his master's thesis essay, Designing for Participation and I'm sure I'll get an earful next week at the DIS panel on Designing for Hackability.
Granted, just about anything can be used for a purpose it wasn't designed for. Lethal Weapon 2 taught us a nail gun could be used for killing bad guys. And who hasn't used a screwdriver to pop the cap off a beer bottle? But neither tool was designed to be adapted; they just were out of necessilty.
I'm going to take a stab in the dark here and suggest that in order for something to be creatively misused (or used by a group outside of the target audience), the designers need to have an awareness that the product can be adapted for many different things, most of which they don't know, and (somehow) design for that. Provide built-in tools to build things, but not the things themselves. Build for future extensions that are unclear and ill-defined. Trust that at some point, someone will define them. Embrace uncertainty.
This is a tough thing to do as a designer: relinquish some control to users. This is also going to be a tough sell to corporations: "Why do we need a USB port?" "Because it'll make it extensible." "For what?" "Ummm, I'm not sure yet." "And this is going to cost us how much extra?" But in the long run, it's smart business to do this. Look at Ebay and how it's both a service and a platform that other businesses have built off of.
The time is fast approaching when we'll have several generations of people who have grown up with digital devices (if it isn't already here already). A lot of these people won't simply accept the products that are handed to them blindly; they'll want to participate in their adaptation, customization and even in their creation. Brace yourselves for impact.
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
A Definition of Interaction Design
Last month, I started a discussion on the interaction designers list that continued on and on and on. Until it became another discussion about the definition of interaction design. I thought since it was forbidden to discuss it there, I would put down my thoughts here in a coherent manner and offer up my definition of interaction design.
Interaction design is the art of facilitating or instigating interactions between humans (or their agents), mediated by products. By interactions, I mostly mean communication, either one-on-one (a telephone call), one-to-many (blogs), or many-to-many (the stock market). The products an interaction designer creates can be digital or analog, physical or incorporeal or some combination thereof.
Interaction design is concerned with the behavior of products, with how products work. A lot of an interaction designer's time will be spent defining these behaviors, but the designer should never forget that the goal is to facilitate interactions between humans. To me, it's not about interaction with a product (that's industrial design) or interaction with a computer (that's human-computer interaction). It's about making connections between people.
Since behaviors and mediums are always changing, the discipline of IxD shouldn't align itself to any of these in particular. The rise of digital devices and the internet created a greater need for the discipline and many, many new opportunities for interaction designers. But it isn't the only place for our talents; analog situations can use our talents too, to create things like work flows and systems of use. As the internet and digital devices become more and more ubiquitous, interaction design will be involved in nearly every aspect of our lives.
Focusing on the behavior of products as our reason for being, is, to me, missing the forest for the trees. Perhaps I'm an idealist, but I certainly hope interaction design is more than just optimizing machine behaviors. To me, it's about a lot more than that. It's making things pleasurable to use, affecting emotions. It's about asking not only how should this work, but why : Should this be done at all? Will it affect people's lives in a positive way?
When we get right down to it, and past the nearly-automatic response of "meeting user goals," the larger, big-picture goal of interaction design should be to create things that make people's lives better, that make us all more connected to each other.
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Putting Interactivity into RSS
Like other news and blog junkies, I was interested to hear that Apple is building a RSS reader into its new OS, Tiger. It looks pretty nice: like a cleaner, more integrated version of my friend Rob Adams' Newsable project (which of course he's already noticed). I'm not sure if it'll be enough for me to switch from my current newsreader, NetNewsWire, but we'll see.
But what the Safari RSS reader (and indeed, every RSS reader) does is strip away the interactivity of blogs. In an ideal state, blogs should used to be for discussion--a means of exchanging ideas between writers and readers. A blogger posts, readers respond, and a community is formed. With RSS feeds, this doesn't happen as often. There's a disconnect. I seldom visit websites to read comments anymore, and the comments on my blog dropped like a stone after I started having an RSS feed. And especially when I added a full-entry feed. Now, weeks go by when the only comments I get are ads for v|@.gr@ and online casinos.
With a RSS reader, you can keep track of many more sites than you otherwise could. As of today, I have 57 feeds coming into mine, and I've been told I'm a piker compared to some who have hundreds. But the trade-off is that you aren't as invested in each of the feeds. Worse, it takes considerable effort to actually visit the feeder site to comment on an entry. Or to see if others have commented. As they currently work, RSS readers, and indeed the whole RSS system itself, widens the gap between writer and readers, between post and response.
RSS isn't designed for interactivity; it's designed to display text and images in an agnostic, Simple way. You can, of course (although not easily), embed a link to your comments in your RSS feed, or have a separate feed for your comments (an asinine solution, IMHO). This still breaks up the dialogue that should naturally occur. Imagine if we were having a face-to-face conversation and I said, "I think so-and-so is a moron" but you couldn't respond until you'd gone into another room and changed clothes. That's what the current solutions are like.
The problem is that RSS feeds are usually generated right after posts are published (ie before anyone can comment on them). Thus, naturally, there can be no indication that a post has generated discussion because there isn't any yet.
Either RSS, the RSS generator, or the RSS readers (ideally some combination of all three) need to be smarter. The RSS generator has to generate the feed several times a day and include comments (or some indicator that there are comments) into the same feed. The RSS feed itself should also contain either an email address of the poster or a link to a comments form that RSS readers should be able to use so that people have a means of responding to a post either via email or through a comment form inside the RSS reader. It should be easy to talk back without switching to another program. In a sense, it should be more like email.
Doing this would bring interactivity and dialog back to blogs and news. And isn't that the promise of the web, that we become more connected to each other?
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
The Value of a Design Process
I've been thinking a lot about design methodologies and processes lately. Over the years, I've been involved in either creating or implementing a design process at no less than four different companies, so I'm getting pretty good at it. Designing a process is fairly easy; implementing it is what's hard. But why is one necessary in the first place?
A lot of designers are enthralled by process and are constantly seeking out new techniques. Others just seem to make it up as they go along. I try to be in the middle, following process more often than not, but allowing for flights of fancy that can take me in interesting directions (sorry project managers). But I feel like it's those side trips that give the product something extra. They are where I earn my money, why people would hire me, because they (I) bring something more to the table than just following a methodology like I was using a recipe to make a pot roast. No one hires anyone for process: they hire people for results.
Process isn't the end-all and be-all of design. I've been on projects where the process was well-followed and the result was a lifeless turd. Conversely, I've seen the process ignored and trampled on and brilliance emerges. But the power of process is that it gives you something to do when you get stuck. Which, if you are me, happens frequently during the course of a project. You've observed people: now what? You've got your personas: now what? You have a disjointed series of tasks: now what? If you can't make intuitive leaps to solutions, you can take the steps of the process as it moves along.
Henry Miller had some great advice on writing that equally applies to design: "When you can't create, you can work." That's what a process gives you: things to work on until you can create.
So really, there's no reason at all to have a methodology if you are a genius. You simply create. For those of us less gifted (and I suppose Miller was one such), we sometimes have to take it step by step, working.
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