July 2007  
Pushing the RSS Reset Button

I made a mistake today, an undoable one. I accidentally marked every single RSS feed I had as read. Some 700+ unread posts on the 130+ feeds I read.

Needless to say, I survived. Once I got over the "D'oh!" feeling, it was actually pleasant, a weight off my shoulders. I can actually tell at a glance what is new.

I need to do this more often.

Originally posted on Friday, July 27, 2007 | Link | Comments (2) | Trackback (0)


Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I don't usually review non-design books here--unless of course, I can somehow relate them to design. But I won't do that to Book 7 of the Harry Potter series. And No Spoilers for those who are still reading or will wait to see the movies.

I finished the book in about 13 hours of solid reading--about 20 hours after I bought it. I seldom have such a pop-culture moment--probably not since the Star Wars Episode I (ugh) premiere or the Survivor Season 1 finale have I gotten so wound up about an event like this. It's doubly odd since I was a late-comer to the Harry Potter train. It was really my wife and kid reading them over the last year that dragged me kicking and screaming into the books and movies. About two years ago, I had even written part of a blog post called "Put down your Harry Potter and pick up His Dark Materials instead" but I never published it. Instead, I slowly got sucked in, and here we are.

One of the marks of a good author is this: can they make you care about inanimate objects in their books? There is a horrible scene in one of the later Patrick O'Brien books when the ship's crew has to get rid of these two particular brass cannons, tossing them overboard, that had been a part of the series for years/books. It was devastating to me. I had many of the same type of moments while reading the last Harry Potter book. J.K. Rowling is no stylist like O'Brien, but she is just as good of a storyteller, if not better.

It's the craft behind the books that is so good, and it is particularly obvious in Deathly Hallows, as the pieces of previous books, some stretching back to the first books of the series, fit together like some massive table-sized puzzle, made up of smaller puzzled. Reading Deathly Hallows, I found myself saying, "Oh, that's why that happened" or "that's what was going on there" more than once. It's really a masterful bit of plotting, and it is something the likes of which I have never seen before, except perhaps in massive comic book arcs like the Dark Phoenix Saga of my youth. One only needs to compare the heavy-handed plotting of, say, the Star Wars movies or even (blasphemy!) The Lord of the Rings, to see the achievement here.

So goodbye, Harry. I can't wait to read you again, some 20 or 30 years from now, with my grandchildren. Or perhaps, even just by myself.

Originally posted on Sunday, July 22, 2007 | Link | Comments (2) | Trackback (0)


Design Lessons from Kathy Griffin

The Mrs. and I are fans of Kathy Griffin's Bravo TV series My Life on D-List. Partially because my old friend Dennis Hensley appeared on the show in season one (although mysteriously, never since. Is he not one of her "best gays" anymore?)

In any case, watching her prepare and perform her live shows has some interesting process lessons for designers.

  • Know the audience. aka Know the user. Every time Kathy bombs at a gig, it is usually because the audience isn't who she expected them to be. In order to that you need to...
  • Do some research. When Kathy performed in a prison recently, she went there early to meet some of her audience and figure out what their lives were like and she could tailor the jokes appropriately. The lesson for designers is pretty obvious: find out the context and the users.
  • Prototype. When she is in "research mode," Kathy often tests out jokes with the people she meets. She sees how far she can push them and what they are going to laugh at. A small test of a concept goes a long way.
  • Use their language. When she performed at the prison, Kathy learned some of the prison lingo from the convicts, then used them in jokes, especially in her first jokes. They got big laughs and it immediately broke the ice with the audience. She spoke their language and established empathy and showed understanding right from the start. We should do the same: speak the language of our audiences, be they users, marketing, engineering, or business owners.
  • Keep a notebook. Kathy has a spiral-bound notebook she carries around with her and is even onstage with her often. It contains notes and ideas for jokes (I'm guessing) so she can change her show on the fly if necessary. It also (I'm guessing) is where she takes notes on her "culture research" which is really the subject matter from which she spins her shows. Designers (me included) would do well to keep a physical notebook for inspiration and memory refreshers.
  • Tell stories. Kathy onstage is mostly a storyteller, doing long bits on her encounters with celebrities. She does it in a very self-effacing way that puts the audience there in the story with her. Designers too need stories, about the product and about the process they went through to create the
  • Tell the truth. What's funny about Kathy's schtick is that she is often (as cliche as it is) saying the things you might think, but never say out loud. She can be merciless with some of the celebrities she skews, but it works because her observations (and impressions) are so dead-on. Designers should be so fearless in telling truth to power ("This new product idea isn't very good.")

I'm now able to write off my Tivo as a business expense.

Originally posted on Thursday, July 12, 2007 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


Learning Interaction Design from Las Vegas Podcast

The podcast for my 2007 SXSW talk is now available. Here is my SXSW 2007 presentation slides (6mb pdf) if you want to follow along. It was also reviewed by The Guardian.

Even better: I don't sound like an idiot and people laughed at the jokes.

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Review: Dreaming in Code

Anyone who has ever worked on a large software project that has gone seriously awry and is behind schedule will do as I did: wince their way through Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code. Dreaming in Code is an account of the three years (and counting) spent designing and developing Chandler, a Personal Information Management (PIM) system, led by Mitch Kapor, the creator of Lotus 1-2-3 and the author of the seminal Software Design Manifesto, which should be required reading for all interaction designers. [Full disclosure: Mitch is a client and my experience working with him and his team was nothing like the quagmire detailed in DIC. It was challenging but fun, and Mitch is a visionary guy, able to leap between big picture and tiny details. Always have clients who are smarter than you.]

Chandler itself is a visionary idea, one that is similar to MayaViz's CoMotion software in that it treats all bits of data (addresses, calendar entries, email, etc.) as fluid objects that can change and be used in different forms. Building that idea turns out to be a massive problem, as is detailed (sometimes in almost too much detail) in DIC. Readers who don't have any programming background will likely find themselves occasionally glossing over some of the technical discussions and details, but as an introduction to what it takes to create a piece of software and as a primer on software history and methodologies, DIC is really top-notch. Very readable and it untangles subjects like programming methodologies more clearly than anything else I've ever read on the matter.

If you've never done a project like Chandler, this book is a window into what it can be like, although, as the book points out, every project is different. The Chandler team inadvertently makes a series of painfully bad errors in process, starting with the two years they spend without a solid design to work from, then their choice of a programming language none of the developers was an expert in, and even (as it turns out) in the choice of medium (desktop vs. online application). Then, as the slog continues, through its alpha releases, you are left just shaking your head: first in exasperation, then sadness, then resignation. It's a wonder that any big software project gets done.

There's some great pieces of wisdom tucked into this book as well. One in particular, to explain the slow start of the project, notes that it is always easier to make tools (and tools for the tools) than it is to make the product itself. Something that designers with our love of models also need to beware of.


Originally posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2007 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


Service Design Idea: AirMags

Lots of people buy magazines to read on airplanes. I know I do. How many of those just get tossed once the plane ride is over? Tens of thousands, no doubt.

How about a service where, for the price of one magazine, you could share magazines between airports and flights?

Here's how it would work: A kiosk at your airport has a bunch of magazines, just like at a newsstand. (Granted, it might not have the vast selection of the newsstand, but all popular titles would be represented.) You show your AirMag card and you "check out" a certain number of magazines like it was a lending library. Then you take them and read them on the plane. After departing the plane, you simply drop them into a receptacle located in the airport, probably in multiple places but definitely in baggage. The magazines get put back into the kiosk where others can then check them out. All for about $5/month, the price of about one magazine.

The airport newsstands would holler bloody murder, but this would be an awesome service, don't you think?

Originally posted on Saturday, July 7, 2007 | Link | Comments (7) | Trackback (0)


No Design Thinking, Just Wrong Thinking

I'm a latecomer to the cult of James Dyson. I've certainly heard of him, of course, but other than knowing he invented those cool vacuum cleaners, I didn't know all that much about him. I just read a BusinessWeek article on his latest invention, the Dyson Airblade, which doesn't cut people, as the comicbook-style name suggests, but rather is a super new air drier for hands in public restrooms. (Watch him demo it.) Not only is he a famous industrial designer, he's also staring a design school. But you probably already knew this. I'm slow sometimes.

What caught my eye in the BW article, however, was his focus on both the details of design and on what he calls "wrong thinking."

Dyson earns respect as a designer for

his willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of bringing a product to market. "He's different from other inventors," says Glenn Weston-Murphy, a lecturer at Yale University's Faculty of Engineering. "A lot of people have great ideas, but they have no clue how to turn them into products. James takes it to the level where it's commercial and productive."

In other words, he's a working designer, not just a design thinker. It took him 15 years and 5000 prototypes, according to a Fast Company profile, to bring his vacuum to life. Dyson once said, "Enjoy failure and learn from it. You can never learn from success.”

The second thing that caught my eye was his adherence to what he calls "wrong thinking."

True to his contrarian nature, Dyson looks for solutions where competitors see no promise. "We call what we do wrong thinking," he says. His engineers and designers are encouraged to try ideas that most people would consider crazy. The clear plastic dust collector in the cyclonic vacuum is one example. Market researchers warned Dyson that consumers didn't want to see dirt and pet hair collecting. As it turns out, a lot of people find the sight of their household detritus to be strangely compelling.

This wrong thinking extends back to the products he chooses to design, that is, back to design strategy. The vacuum basically sat untouched for decades before Dyson decided to redesign it. "I like frustration. I like seeing things in everyday life that don't work very well and try to make them better," he says in this article. Who thinks of hand driers as being worthy of design attention? Yet they work terribly, don't they? I know I'm constantly wiping my hand on my pants rather than use one. Or even after using one, because they simply don't work all that well. And, as it turns out, they are energy hogs and germ-spreaders as well.

Dyson cites as one of his heroes the visionary Buckminster Fuller and it's easy to see the connection. I think I now have another hero myself.

Originally posted on Sunday, July 1, 2007 | Link | Comments (3) | Trackback (1)



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