Review: The Evolution of Useful Things
Henry Petroski's The Evolution of Useful Things is ostensibly about how things like paperclips and zippers came into being. And, sure, that stuff is in the book. But what is most interesting (for me and probably for other designers as well) is his debunking of the design dictum "Form Follows Function," replacing it instead with "Form Follows Failure."
Petroski looks at the diversity of objects (131 knives in the Montgomery Ward catalog, say) and asks, Why? "What underlying idea governs how a particular product looks?" he asks.
All designed objects, Petroski asserts, leave room for improvement. Nothing is perfect. Even things that have been "perfected" over a millennia such as tables and chairs can be improved upon. It is the one common feature among made objects, and
"it is exactly this feature that drives the evolution of things, for the coincidence of a perceived problem with an imagined solution enables a design change."
What form the solution takes can vary widely, given the same basic problem. Petroksi offers up the example of the fork and chopsticks as an example. Both designed for manipulating food from a hot pot (which would burn and dirty the fingers) to the mouth, but two very different design solutions. Form does not follow function. Instead, "the form of one thing follows the failure of another thing to function as we would like."
This isn't to say that some designs aren't better than others. Certain attributes (like the appearance of a chess piece or the tines of a fork) become fixed over time because they are more perfect than any solution found thus far. New designs (or "inventions" as Petroski calls them) arise out of "the crowded past of reality" only if they better address the perceived need better than what is currently available, often following the correction of failure after failure, sometimes for centuries. "Looking forward is indeed the essence of design, but artifacts take their form over the course of long, rough, and frequently precarious roads," Petroksi writes.
Form (at least expected form) also follows, to an extent, fashion. "Fashion more than function is without question what determins so many of the contemporary forms around us," Petroksi claims, adding a warning, "A myopic obsession with fashion...can lead to premature extinction...if it does not anticipate failure in the broadest sense, including the failure to be fashionable tomorrow."
As a plumber's son (and grandson and great-grandson), I was particularly taken with the chapters on specialized tools, which goes into detail about why, for instance, there are dozens of types of hammers. There's also an interesting discussion about the social life of tools, how it is more socially-advantageous to be able to handle silverware well than it is to wield a hammer well.
Petroski also notes that design solutions can also give rise to new problems. fast-food packaging, for instance, while excellent for solving the immediate problems of making and consuming the food rapidly, are a tremendous litter problem. Petroski admonishes designers to "look beyond immediate use. Each artifact introduced into the universe of people and things alters the behavior of both."
UX Week 2006: Mobile Experience Design Notes
Anita Wilhem, Caterpillar Mobile
When we normally think of mobile design, we typically think of phones. And the market is huge! But there are other devices. Most of those devices do single things: tell time, listen to music, etc. Mobile phones, however, are now doing many things.
We have these devices everywhere this us. They are very personal. We don't typically share phones. They are intimate.
Hardware interaction modalities: phone, keyboard, stereo, tv, camera...why do we still think of this as a phone?? Manufacturers think of these different modalities very differently.
Single-task objects will never go away, but we're also bringing with us the multi-task phones with us all the time.
Changing metaphors: buttons used to be physical, then it became a soft button on a web interface. But what's the button on an iPod? Arrows become the button.
Designing for mobile devices is not just designing for a smaller screen! We can't just design things smaller. Mobile devices are smaller and change context and stay with people. People have limited attention, constant interruptions, physical and social obstacles. We have to deliver relevant bits of content.
Monetizing: traditional advertising (even ad words) on phone is intrusive. It needs to be extremely relevant for it not to be annoying. Less about accessibility, more about relevance.
Sociality: Intimacy and Co-Presence
As I change context, might encounter other technology and engage with other phones, devices, fixtures, but it is still my private device. No one else really looks at my screen.
Highlight common, essential elements that make interaction possible from many platforms.
UX Week 2006: Cross-Cultural Research Notes
Don't get bogged down in jargon-laden discussions about names for user research!
What Steve means:
Judgement: You go into environments that aren't your own and its very easy to have a judging reaction. Allow yourself to have a judgmental reaction, but don't act on it. Note it as data.
What happens when we leave our culture? Tips and Tricks.
Logistics and Location
Interviewing in Another Culture
There is an interesting tension between that fact that people are the same where ever you go, but also completely different. Looking outside ourselves is a provocative way to learn about ourselves.| Link | Comments (0)
UX Week 2006: Facilitating Collaboration Notes
Ryan Freitas, Adaptive Path
Isn't it enough to set up basecamp? Nope, coordination isn't collaboration. Collaboration is about fostering ideas, intentions, and interests.
What we actually use to collaborate: email, secret IM name, mobile number, del.icio.us tags, blog, bloglines OPML, IM status, flicker, twttr.
All of these are about attenuation, status, and communication. All are from implicit and explicit. "Governance Architecture": a system for using simple tools that are better than monolithic solutions. A toolbox: each one is used for a particular task. An agreed-on framework.
Overcoming: out of the office, slow decision-making, email overload, "where'd we put that?", lack of alignment. Don't repeat efforts or have miscommunication--coming out of left field. Attending to others' thoughts, what I'm thinking about right now.
What's wrong with email-based collaboration? We're trying to do too much with a platform that is already overlaoded. Can't use a highly structured platform to capture highly unstructured activities.
Moving past the "Swiss Army Knife" of top-down solutions. Lightweight tools, not NO tools. If you avoid tools all together, there's no record of the conversation.
Need tools that facilitate distributed and autonomous collaboration. Lots of tools are available, but you need to experiment and play with them to evaluate them. Evaluate for appropriateness (does it work in this situation), commonality (is it something we can all access--can't be lightweight if its hard to set up), centralization (do we need all the features of this thing?), portability (can I get things in and out of it? control of the things you created), uptake (how quickly can we all share and use this?).
Styles of Collaborative Tools
Wikis can break the bottleneck of information. Centralized place for information that can replace intranets. Let people use it in the manner they see fit. Adoption shouldn't be a goal in and of itself.| Link | Comments (0)
UX Week 2006: Jeff Veen Keynote Notes
The ideas behind Web 2.0 are very powerful. It's unfortunate that it's getting mixed up with hype and raising VC money.
How boom and bust cycles happen: In the 17th century in the Netherlands, an innovation happened: shipping runs brought tulips from Turkey. Soon, a run happened on tulips and eventually, a bust as well. The steam engine did the same thing: a tech innovation, a boom, a bust, a correction, and then sustained growth.
We've been through this once on the web. And we're going to see this again. It's a cycle. What can we learn and take with us through the cycle?
Putting the Elements of User Experience to use in Web 2.0:
Think of your users as peers. Hopefully we're away from the idea of corporations as machines that spew out messages. Instead, it should be a conversation.
Internal capabilities are an issue here. Is there enough internal competencies to create and support an Ajax interface?
We need to rethink feedback: how do we show changes to the page?
All the old problems still exist. But with new platforms, we're able to solve them in different ways and with participation from the audience. Using simpler solutions and reduced scope to solve problems. APIs allow for participation.
UX Week 2006: Architecting Government Websites for UX Notes
Leo Mullen, Natalie Buda, Cindy Blue of NavigationArts
Social and economic value of getting UX right is getting more profound every day. It's priceless.
Optimization through centers of excellence: strategy, research, IA, UXD, technical implementation.
Companies thinking about the web has changed radically over the last 10 years. Now there is the recognition that the web has become the software platform of choice. Almost all big companies are investing heavily in the web. If the web is down, their business is down.
What have we learned with companies that can be applied to government? User experience really matters. Begin with the users, don't put it at the end of the line. UX is critical to building trust in any branded entity.
How can we take the best practices of the for-profit world to the government world? US Governemnt will spend $64 billion on IT. Much of the money is aimed at government simpler and more accessible, especially in self-service environments. Get info from the government or supply it to the government.
Why is it so difficult to create the types of experiences that users now expect? The experience still lags! Most people have elevated expectations as to what the web can do., because they interact with some of the best sites on the web. Those sites have relentlessly honed their sites. Powerful web economics have forced the web into this. In the government world, it doesn't work like this, although the same people are served by this.
Many organizations fail to deploy good UX because of internal team organization--too many owners (sales, customer service, marketing, IT, etc.) each with a different goals and issues. There is fractured ownership.
The larger the scale and scope of a web effort, the more likely it is to fail: "boiling the ocean." Web needs more tactical approach: iterate, test, launch. Iterate, test launch. You can only address one or two things at a time. Conflicting priorities are the problem. Took the top 50 priorities for a site, then threw out the bottom 47!
Many organizations do not align their sites with the needs and goals of their users. Don't deploy an inward-facing site. Users don't care about how you structure your business. Invest time and energy in understanding your users.
Most users want to spend as little time on your web environment as possible! Need to simplify and shorten interactions.
Half a trillion dollars has been investing in IT in the US. Vast majority have no good user experience at all. Now there are more links into these legacy systems and users keep bumping into them. Huge defection rates, huge abandonments. Web Translation Layers: allows people to interact with those systems without users having to know about it.
Common Themes with Government Clients
Government websites have to be accountable to many diverse audiences and comply with federal regulations. Need to understand what are the common goals of the users? Use current web standards to display different versions for different audiences.
Goverment agencies are held to fiscal years. Structure your projects to deliver at the end of the fiscal year.
Strong political hierarchies with independent divisions. Education, advisory boards, and group meetings are a must.
Political priorities. Websites can be affected by election cycles. Focus on the long-term goals.
Amount of information. Thousands or millions of pages possible. Need to establish a scalable system.
Need to establish policies and procedures that preserve the user-centric nature of the site.
Secure ownership by high-ranking official.
UX Week 2006: Creative Production Notes
Chris Conley, Gravity Tank, IIT Professor
We've lost the art of how to work together. We've lost this in a profound sense, especially to organizations. We need a new way of working: creative production.
Peter Drucker: "Profit is only a measure of marketing and innovation." Marketing is about identifying opportunity. Innovation is designing and launching it. The best products such as the iPod are a combination of both. It recognized a market opportunity and designs it well.
Our organizations are made up of amazing talent. One of the main problems is how we organize that talent. To maintain what exists is fine (80%). For the other 20%, siloed organizations work horribly.
How do we really work today? EEEMP: Email, Email, Email, Meetings, and Presentations
Story is central. What things are about resonate with people. Story is a device to move people. All products should have stories. Not a narrative that people watch, but interfaces that people interact with.
There should be a Producer and a Creative Director on all teams. Classic opposite sides of the spectrum. Idea of an ensemble--experts coming together creates something amazing. Working on all aspects at once, within and without of the product. Never sure where you are going to innovate.
Work low-fidelity to high-fidelity.
Don't give a powerpoint--give a pitch. Bring emotion into it.
Use dailies. Review work and critique it every day. Create an environment that allows critique. Make meetings into activities. Open up meetings. Don't worry about the meeting going "in the wrong direction." The talent in the room will affect the outcome!
Is the thing that is embodied close to what you want it to be? Critiques need to come from a base of respect.
Push beyond "the edge" (what people are comfortable with) to make the team better.| Link | Comments (0)
UX Week 2006: Interface Culture 10 Years Later Notes
What Steven got right
What Steven missed
Things Steven half understood, but now are better understood
The Hive Mind
The blog is the most personal form of mass communication ever invented.
The Long Tail/Triumph of the Niche
The most filtered AND the least filtered conversations. On one hand, there is conversation, on the other spam.
Interfaces are different than other mediums. Television is inflexible, vs. the web. You Tube vs. HDTV. The web is a shape-shifting form of media. Great possibility for innovation and exploration. Everything is up for grabs. We can see this in the evolution of metaphors about the internet: library, highway, series of tubes, a city.
Design for Serendipity
Design for Clusters
Design for Visible Trails/Adaptive Paths
Design for Connection to Real Cities
Interfaces are central to all the things we're talking about. Mainstream culture now accepts that Google and such are changing society. Innovations all happen with interfaces. It's not just bloggers, but those who create the software for blogging. People who create the things that allow the open medium of the internet to happen have a great role to play in society.| Link | Comments (0)
UX Week 2006: JJG Keynote Notes
As a field, we are starting to understand the scope that designed experiences have on individuals, organizations, and the world. Designed experiences have become part of our daily lives. Designed experiences are the lens through with we experience our relationship with the world. Are we moving closer to our best selves or away?
In the past, we've turned to scribes to make the complexity of the world to make it simple. Today we have information architects to do that. We've also turned to shamans to guide us through our daily tasks. Today we have our own incantations of our own: zoom, fit in window. Our incantations are written by interaction designers
We're talking about structure for people's daily lives. The work we do defines the way people live in and understand the way they do. This isn't new; not part of the world of technology. It's deep and special.| Link | Comments (0)
What I've Learned in Four Years of Blogging
This month marks four years I've been blogging. Here's what I've learned about doing it.
First off, the first two years of this blog were terrible. Like many people, I started under the stupid assumption that people cared what I thought about things like politics, pop culture, and world events. They don't. My traffic numbers prove it. Sure, the odd post here and there is still about those things, but I was posting daily my feeble, half-baked rants about the Bush administration and the lead-up to the war in Iraq. That is, I had the same opinions as roughly 48% of the US and no substantial difference in my thoughts. My posts could have been written by any one of tens of thousands of people.
There were some posts that I did in a more personal voice, like my 9/11 Year Two entry, that I felt good about and pointed the way for how I should have been--and everyone should be--blogging: to share things that only the blogger can: thoughts, information, details that are either unique to the blogger or else told in a unique way. No One Cares What You Had for Lunch unless you are a food critic. The best blogs are those that contain focused information on topics of interest that you won't find elsewhere, told in a singular voice.
And that, along with remembering to post semi-regularly, is what I've learned.
Oh, and spell check.
Notes on Designing for Participation
I participated on a panel at Webvisions about encouraging companies to engage customers online. I wanted to put down what I said in a coherent manner for those who weren't there.
First off, there is a tendency to think that participation means either blogging or forums, that these are the only ways to create "community." Hogwash. As Ross Mayfield's great diagram The Power Law of Participation notes, there are lots of different ways for users to engage with a company online: everything from simply reading (yes, that's participation--more in a moment), to contributing content.
From a design perspective, different types of users will display different types of participation behavior on your site. Some are going to just read it, some will comment, some will be heavy contributors. You can (partially) find out what participation methods your users will be interested in via user research. Asking them or (better yet) observing their behavior will give you clues as to how they might participate. And then, you can design tools for that type of participation.
For example, let's say you find a majority of your users aren't going to do much besides read your site and perhaps subscribe to its blog--a likely scenario. Simply by doing what they would do anyway, users can contribute to "Most Popular Pages" or "Most Read Articles" on your site. This of course means more work for the company, to set up this sort of system, but the end result is a site where even reading makes a difference to it. It builds community. In a sense, it allows customers (users) to hack (personalize) the product (the organization).
The purpose of building in participation channels is illustrated in Jean Burgess' adaptation of the Power Law graph: at a low level, it can cause customers to talk about the company. At it's highest level, a customer can actually change the company, and that's a pretty thrilling (and terrifying) notion. Participation removes the barrier between customers and employees.
One other idea that came to me during the panel discussion: A concern of many companies about having more participation with their customers online is the time and human resources it takes to monitor and manage those efforts. One way to help ameliorate this concern is to give the tools of moderation over to the users themselves, such as Wikipedia and Slashdot and (to a lesser extent) Digg and Amazon have done. Users will police themselves, given these tools. It's definitely something companies should explore.