September 2005  
Comic Books and Threaded Narratives

Unpacking from my move, I stumbled onto two boxes filled with the comic books I collected as a teenager from 1983-1986, a habit I got into thanks to walking past a comic book store on my way home from school. Naturally, over the course of the last couple of months I've had to re-read most of them. While some of them are pretty badly written, others bear a striking resemblance in quality and intricacy to the best of this era's TV shows: Lost, Battlestar Gallactica, Prison Break and even some less high-concept shows like Six Feet Under.

As Steven Johnson pointed out in his great book Everything Bad is Good for You, television shows have gotten considerably more complex over the last thirty years. A show like Starsky and Hutch (1970s) might have a single story arc; Hill Street Blues (1980s) might have four. But a show like Lost has around 20 plotlines happening at any given time, both macro- and micro-plots.

Pick up any of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne X-Men issues from roughly #130-#175 (mid 1970s-mid 80s) and you'll find a very similar thing happening, albeit with a lot more cues as to what is going on than you'll get in, say, Deadwood. At any given time, you've got a dozen or so plots going on, some of them stretching back years, some contained only in that issue. Some are as small (but important) as a personal relationship (love can have devastating consequences in comics), others as big as saving the universe. It's essentially a soap opera, albeit one populated with people possessing super powers.

While some shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer reportedly acknowledge their debt to comic books, my guess is it goes a lot deeper than that. My hunch is that a lot of the TV shows we're watching now are staffed by people who grew up reading comics and have simply imported that sensibility over to TV. Shows like Alias simply feel like a filmed comic book. And let's not forget that on Lost, Walt was reading a comic book with a polar bear in it before the plane crashed...

Originally posted on Friday, September 30, 2005 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


The Art and Science of Persona Photos

Robert Reimann, one of the people who literally wrote the book on personas, once mentioned that one of the most important elements of a persona is the photo of the person. My personal experience confirms this: I long remember the names and pictures of old personas long after I've forgotten other (probably more important) details about them.

A persona's picture gives a face--literally--to the data, and choosing the right one is a combination of science and art. The science first.

I'm probably giving away my greatest secret here: Yahoo Personals are the best place online to find pictures for your personas. Why? Because there is an extensive amount of criteria they have that you can search by, for one thing. Looking for a 40-year-old lesbian Native American woman near Cheyenne? No problem, here's about 20 of them, in a photo gallery for you to peruse. Another thing: people look their best in their photo personal ad, even if that best isn't all that great. There's a wide range of humanity to choose from.

The main difficulty in using Yahoo Personals is that you're never sure of the size of the photo that people have uploaded. It might look fine onscreen, but be too tiny for print use. I've spent a lot of time frustrated after having found the perfect photo for my persona only to find out it's too small or of too poor quality to use in print.

Also be sure to pick photos with a fairly neutral background and with no one else in the picture. In most cases, you want the focus of the photo to be mostly on the person's face.

The art of choosing a persona resides in how two things relate to the data: what s/he is wearing, and what his/her expression is. Clothes tell a lot about a person (or, more accurately, what perceivers assume about the person): what they value, their socio-economic status, career, and a host of other things. Expression conveys attitude. How does the person approach the world? Cautiously, joyfully, angrily (yes, there are some angry photos in the personals!), hopefully? With expression, you can capture how your persona is going to approach your product, and that expression may say more than everything else you've written on the page.

It helps if you believe it too. The picture has to look like someone you could have talked to (or did talk to, if you interviewed people remotely). If it doesn't seem like one of them, throw it out. There's plenty more where that came from.

One final note about persona pictures: don't get cute with them. The fastest way to have people dismiss your personas is to put in ridiculously beautiful/handsome people, people holding puppies, celebrities, you, your teammates, etc. It might be funny or clever for a moment, but that'll fade and your personas will have lost all their power to remind us that it's not about us, it's about them.

Originally posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2005 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


A Limit to RSS Attention

I'm finding myself having trouble keeping up with all the RSS feeds I have (109). Which isn't a huge number, but considering some of them are news feeds, popular, and group blogs like Boing Boing, it's ending up being about 300 entries a day to read. Even at only a minute an entry (and some take much longer to mull over), that's five hours of reading. Every day.

I don't know about you, but I don't have five hours a day to read and process 300 chunks of information. There needs to be a better way to manage and control RSS feeds. As Herb Simon told us back in the 1960s, there's no lack of information, just the human limitation to process it all.

Here's some things I'd like to see in an RSS reader:

  • the ability to widely vary the amount that a feed is accessed, anywhere from several times a day to once a month
  • the ability to designate something as a temporary feed with a limited shelf life, so that after a designated period of time, it vanishes from my list of feeds
  • the ability to determine which feeds will display as an "unread" feed in my dock (I wish I had this for email as well)

If anyone knows of a Mac feedreader that can do even some of these things, let me know.

Originally posted on Tuesday, September 27, 2005 | Link | Comments (2) | Trackback (0)


9/11: Year Four

If you've forgotten what that day was like, read the thread that was happening on Fark at the time. Chilling, even after the horror that was Hurricane Katrina. Osama bin Laden is still at large and three thousand people remain dead and unavenged. Remember.

My 9/11 Years One, Two, and Three Remembrances.

Originally posted on Sunday, September 11, 2005 | Link | Comments (1) | Trackback (0)


Service vs. Product Design

All the cool kids, when not talking about design thinking, are talking about service design these days. In case, like me, you're not one of the cool kids, service design is "the field concerned with the development of services to meet specific needs" (Shedroff) focusing on "customer experiences in industries such as retail, banking, transportation, healthcare, business-to-business enterprises, and education" (IDEO). John Thackara in his book In the Bubble makes the claim that we're moving away from designing things (products) and towards more services, more joint ownership of things. And certainly even traditional product companies like IDEO seem to be pushing service design hard.

Me, I like the idea of service design and, with some 70% of the US economy being driven by services, it's definitely needed. But I'm not quite ready to throw out product design yet. I agree that making less things, less useless things, is good for the environment and for our general mental health. But while I can strongly like a service (I heart Tivo), I don't think it's the same type of attachment that forms to a physical product. For one thing, services are intangible and apt to change. Services mutate, stagnate, and shift depending on the people supplying them. The experiences at McDonald's and Starbucks can vary wildly, and those are two very controlled service processes. My grandfather's lighter, meanwhile, will always (barring catastrophe) be the same. I own it, and there's a big difference between renting a house and owning one. If a service better than Tivo came along, well, I might change. But I won't trade in Wally's zippo for something better. I have an attachment to it. Even if my grandpa had used Tivo, it probably wouldn't stop me from changing to a new service if something awesome came along.

Another thing that seems to get overlooked in all the talk of service design is that most services are chock-full of products. Signage, physical devices, web sites, phone services, lighting, etc. are all part of a typical service ecology. Granted, there are fewer products made, but they are products nonetheless, and typically specialized products made specifically for that service.

It's bitchingly hard to split product design from service design, especially on the web. Most non-content websites provide services, delivered over the internet instead of in-person. Ebay, Google, Yahoo, online brokerages and banks, travel sites, etc. are all providing you a service, or are part of a larger service, as in the case of Netflix. Users don't own the website (obviously), they just use the service. Which, as I explained above with the zippo lighter vs. Tivo, makes most websites pretty vulnerable. If a search came along that was better than Google would you use it? Be honest. Which is one of the reasons why companies like Google and Yahoo give us stuff like toolbars. It's easier to switch services than to get rid of a thing, even a digital thing.

I also have to wonder if service design isn't really systems design in new clothes. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It means there's more focus on context, on the entire system of use. Nothing is created and maintained in a vacuum. People use products in an environment, as part of other, larger things (the system). All service design is, really, is designing this whole system of use. Most interaction and industrial designers (at least the good ones) do this already. So perhaps service design is defined mostly by the types of contexts its delivered in? If so, I hope we're not ghettoizing it; all design could be improved by the sorts of systems-thinking that service design is doing.

Originally posted on Friday, September 9, 2005 | Link | Comments (3) | Trackback (0)



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