IDEO and The Deep Dive

It’s been over 10 years since US TV show Nightline first aired an episode featuring the inner workings of a Palo Alto based design company called IDEO. The episode became an instantaneous hit, and it is often cited as one of the most requested videos (by viewers) which ABC has ever produced. IDEO was then a well known name within and indeed outside of the design community, but what was so special about this profile of the company?

Whilst the product design produced during the program was far from flawless, the program did allow outsiders a front-row seat into an exploratory process and a working environ a million miles from those of a traditional business.

It provided the viewer with a intimate view into the workings and structure (or non-structure) of a truly creative environment. It demonstrated how radical thinking coupled with an involved prototyping process can produce many ideas.

Despite many businesses and individuals having since watched the program, it would be fair to say that not many were able to replicate such a process successfully. This is in part because many businesses still presume they do not require this level of innovative thinking and secondly because they may not feel comfortable in allowing the seemingly chaotic process of design to occur within a company, and indeed lead a company strategy.

Granted it’s a fantastic showcase for IDEO and indeed parts of it may seem a little contrived or calculated but for a company to allow such an intimate glimpse into a creative process is rare. One which is not afraid to show all the ‘messy-stuff” – that is the mistakes, the stupid ideas, and the inherently fuzzy place from where a good idea is born and more importantly the manner in which it is allowed to breathe and grow.

For me this is one of the better demonstrations of what a user-centred design process is and nicely captures the imagination, empathy and effort that’s required to create such a design. For these very reasons ‘Deep Dive’ is always worth a viewing.

Reiterating the maxim that “It’s all about the journey, not the destination”.


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Great Design is Brave Design

As designers we endeavor to improve how things work, look and feel; this is achieved by examining how things are and imagining how they may be. It can be argued that all design is inherently concerned with change, which in turn is brought about by making decisions. Design activity involves the process of making many decisions, decisions on how things work, how things look and how things feel. Many factors contribute to this decision-making process and an ability to take onboard multiple considerations and possibilities is a essential skill for every designer. Every single decision a designer makes, however small, will have an impact on the resulting product or service. Therefore it can be said that every product we use, be it digital or physical, is the direct result of a set of decisions.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

When designing within familiar territory and established problem spaces, the decisions taken will be influenced by existing knowledge and previous experience – using known patterns to solve known problems. Designers can call on their experience and tacit knowledge to arrive at workable solutions to problems which are similar to those they’ve previously encountered. Many decisions will be made intuitively, almost subconsciously, with the designer instinctively knowing the correct choice to make as they overcome each small challenge. Familiar problems are, by and large, easier to solve.

However not all design problems are familiar and not all problems encountered can be easily solved. Sometimes a design problem requires a substantial shift in terms of how it is approached and the manner in which it is eventually solved. Inevitably such design problems require making the type of decisions not made before, requiring a leap of faith in the hope of arriving at an elegant, efficient and effective solution – this is brave design.

“Impressing is not just done by good design; it’s done by brave design.”
– Elliot Jay Stocks

Being Brave

Brave design decisions occur when designing products and services which aspire to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary, when we need to solve a problem in a innovative manner, or when we wish to differentiate a product from the crowd. Brave design decisions require a vision to see past the present, to imagine being further down the road and to envision what it’s like there. Brave design often involves taking risks, and taking risks sometimes result in failure, but fear of failure should never prevent one taking a brave design decision.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
- Samuel Beckett

Failing Faster to Succeed Sooner

Success is rarely achieved without first having failed, though this is easy to forget. When we study brilliant products and successful services we often fail to acknowledge that they must have taken brave decisions, often many – be it removing features, venturing into a competitive market or simply undertaking a project which others deemed impossible. Start-ups and small teams can take these brave design decisions more easily and should they fail to work, they can be speedily rectified with a hopefully quick recovery. Brave decisions occur more naturally within those informal, collaborative environments where the decision making process is nimble and democratic. Hence start-ups and small-teams can achieve high growth rates dues to taking greater risks. They are innately brave by design.

Inevitably as an organisation grows, more layers of management are added, this results in a slower decision making process and a predilection towards risk aversion. Typically the organisations start sprightly, energetic and agile – akin to a rivers youthful stage, empowered to make iterative design decisions on a whim, zig-zagging along and forging a determined course to market. However as the organisation grows and matures taking on the necessary layers of management, it adds strata of decision making which eventually slow it down, running deep and slow, taking a meandering course out to sea. Cautiousness personified, bravery diluted.

An over-reliance on justifying every minute design decision can result in a stunted, stagnant environment. Doug Bowman’s recent experience at Google nicely illustrates what can happen when quantitive data has too much influence over what should be a qualitative process. By designing-with-numbers you may arrive at a good design but rarely will you achieve a truly great design. To achieve great design product managers must trust their designers intuition and their ability to make the brave decisions.

Following Your Intuition

Design inspiration often begins with a simple hunch, an intuitive feeling that something could work, could be potentially great. Getting up and actually exploring the idea and attempting to create a product based on a hunch is courageous, requiring a creative environment, an appropriate skill-set and a deep set determination among other things. Making a start is the hard part, after that it’s a matter of making the right choices and sometimes taking the brave ones.

It could be said that there are two ways of advancing through design – incrementally or by disruptive breakthrough. User interviews and focus groups will generally provide the type of insight that produces incremental or evolutionary advancement.

However to create something truly innovative and game-changing you need to follow your intuition and make the brave decisions, and not rely on your users insights to determine your products strategy.

Below are four examples of what I would consider as brave design decisions which eventually proved to be great design decisions:

Twitter

Initially Twitter messages longer than 160 characters (the standars SMS carrier limit) were split into multiple texts and delivered in sequence. The team decided to place a limit on the number of characters that would go out via SMS for each post. They settled on 140, in order to leave room for the username. Many would argue that setting such a restriction on message length coupled with the omission of attachments or other enhancements was commercial suicide, however by employing these constraints they effectively created their own social communications powerhouse – with engineer Jack Dorsey remarking that

“One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.”
- Jack Dorsey

Dyson

James Dyson’s personal quest to design a revolutionary vacuum cleaner involved a long arduous process. He prototyped obsessively for over three years, varying certain aspects gradually until he arrived at the product he had envisioned. All this time he was sinking further into debt, the venture could have potentially ruined him but he soldiered on, learning from each of his failures – convinced he could get his design to work.

“I made 5127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative… We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually. To me, solving problems is a bit like a drug. You’re on it, and you can’t get off.”
– James Dyson

Ford Model T

When Henry Ford set out to design and popularize a revolutionary means of transport, he did so without even asking people what they wished for. When questioned about why he didn’t he replied -

“If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
– Henry Ford

Supporting the widely held belief that truly disruptive innovations rarely if ever come from asking customers what they want.

Nintendo

Knowing they could not compete directly with the raw computing power of the Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, Nintendo instead focused their efforts on the area which really matters – the user experience. The key innovation of the Wii is how it makes players feel while they play – happy, engaged and active. Proving beyond doubt that user’s emotions are not necessarily enhanced by improved specs and faster processors and that the best graphics don’t necessarily result in the best user experience. Releasing the Wii was a brave but undoubtedly a genius move by Nintendo, instead of fighting a battle they were doomed to lose they instead subverted the market dominance by Sony and Microsoft and focused on creating their own niche. The physical interaction involved in playing the Wii became the key differentiator for Nintendo ensuring it was a runaway success.



I decided not to include the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to brave, innovative design. Suffice to say that Apple have been pushing the boundaries of both interaction and industrial design for many years. All the while removing what they deem unnecessary be it interface features, disk-drives or usb ports from our computing devices, however the popularity of their products has never been greater.

This has all been achieved by a strong focus on creating great products coupled with a superior user experience – by taking the brave decisions. Admittedly even Apple gets it wrong sometimes, as has been proved recently, however you can be assured of one thing, they have learnt from their mistakes and will bounce back smarter, better and braver. I will leave the last words to one of the true design visionaries of the computing industry.

“Don’t ask users – they simply dont know what they want.”
– Steve Jobs

Remember. Be Brave.


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Bill Buxton on Natural User Interfaces

Bill Buxton is Principal Researcher with Microsoft Research, he is a noted expert within the HCI field and was a pioneer of multi-touch interfaces back in the seventies.

He has a 30 year involvement in research, design and commentary around human aspects of technology, and digital tools for creative endeavour, including music, film and industrial design, in particular. Prior to joining Microsoft, he was a researcher at Xerox PARC, a professor at the University of Toronto, and Chief Scientist of Alias Research and SGI Inc. – where 2003 he was co-recipient of an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement.


Get Microsoft Silverlight

Buxton works from the assumption that sketching is fundamental to all design activity, and explores what it means to sketch a variety of possible user experiences. His approach is aggressively low-tech and eclectic. He argues that although you can use software tools to create fully-realized interactive mockups, you generally shouldn’t. Those things aren’t sketches, they’re prototypes, and as such they eat up more time, effort, and money than is warranted in the early stages of design. What you want to do instead is produce sketches that are quick, cheap, and disposable.

“Now that we can do anything, what should we do?”

Bill Buxton

His book Sketching User Experiences – Getting the Design Right and the Right Design is an absolute must read for anyone working on software/hardware concerned with creating an engaging and usable experience. Last year he gave the first keynote presentation at MIX 09 conference.

Recently at CES, Microsoft spent time alot of time speaking about the ‘Natural User Interface’ or NUI, and how this gesture based, human oriented approach could represent one of the most significant changes to human-device interfaces since the mouse appeared next to computers in the early 1980s.

Touch, face, voice-recognition and movement sensors – all are part of an emerging field of computing often called natural user interface, or NUI. Interacting with technology in these humanistic ways is no longer limited to high-tech secret agents and Star Trek. Buxton says everyone can enjoy using technology in ways that are more adaptive to the person, location, task, social context and mood. Microsoft’s XBox technology ‘Project Natal’ incorporates face, voice, gesture, and object recognition technology to give users a variety of ways to interact with the console, all without needing a controller.

Larry Larsen’s lenghty (38 min. 42 sec) but fascinating interview with Buxton can be seen above in which he discusses his work with Microsoft on NUI technologies and the implications and impact such advances in human-machine interaction will have on our daily lives in the near future.

Further Reading.

Multi-Touch Systems that I Have Known and Loved
Natural User Interfaces: Voice, Touch and Beyond
Now, Electronics That Obey Hand Gesture


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Zoomable User Interfaces & Desert Fog

Zooming user interfaces or zoomable user interfaces (ZUI, pronounced zoo‐ee) are not exactly a new concept in the field of HCI/IXD. A ZUI could generally be defined as a graphical environment where users can change the scale of the viewed area in order to see more detail or less, and browse through different documents or objects. Despite all the work and research carried out in the space over the years the ZUI has had somewhat limited success. Indeed the finding of an effective and if you excuse the pun, scalable solution has proved somewhat elusive. That is not to say that ZUIs haven’t been effectively implemented in certain scenarios, indeed success stories such as Google Maps, Microsoft Labs Seadragon and Prezi have capitalised on the obvious benefits of effective applications of zoomable interfaces.

The term itself was coined by  one Franklin Servan‐Schreiber while working for the Sony Research Lab in partnership with Ben Bederson and Ken Perlin. One of the longest running efforts to create a ZUI has been the Pad++ project started by Ken Perlin, Jim Hollan, and Ben Bederson at New York University and continued at the University of New Mexico under Hollan’s direction. More recent ZUI efforts include Archy by the late Jef Raskin, and the simple ZUI of the Squeak Smalltalk programming environment and language. Bederson developed Jazz and later Piccolo at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is still actively being developed in Java and C#.

ZUIs use zooming as the main metaphor for browsing through hyperlinked information. Objects are presented within a zoomed page or canvas and can in turn be zoomed themselves to reveal further detail, allowing for recursive nesting and an arbitrary level of zoom.

A good introductory read is the late great Jef Raskins passage on ZoomWorld in his seminal HCI tome The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems, in which he discussed his idea of using the ZUI as a solution to the navigational dilemma for users. It’s also worth noting that he spent the latter stages of his career working on implementations of this new UI paradigm with his research team.

Dr Ben Shneiderman, another noted researcher in the HCI field made the following observation, which nicely encapsulates the lure of zoomable interfaces:

“Humans can recognize the spatial configuration of elements in a picture and notice relationships among elements quickly. This highly developed visual system means people can grasp the content of a picture much faster than they can scan and understand text. Interface designers can capitalize on this by shifting some of the cognitive load of information retrieval to the perceptual system. By appropriately coding properties by size, position, shape, and color, we can greatly reduce the need for explicit selection, sorting, and scanning operations.”

Ben Shneiderman UMBC

The potential benefits of ZUIs are well-documented and as previously mentioned recent applications such as PREZI and Microsofts DeepZoom technology have nicely demonstrated certain use cases in which ZUIs are a viable and cognitively acceptable model. However the shortcomings are also well-documented with the most commonly cited bête noire being a phenomena commonly referred to as ‘Desert Fog’. This occurs when a person becomes disorientated whilst using a zoomable interface and loses track of where they are, which could be confusing for the user, which likely leads to frustration and ultimately results in the abandonment of whatever task it was they were trying to carry out. The user no longer has any on-screen landmarks or cues upon which to work out where they are. Unquestionably, this is a worse situation than most everyday/orthodox interfaces where at the very least a user can often infer the context of their operations by looking at what is on screen. With the presence of ‘desert fog’ within ZUIs, there is nothing on screen to aid this inference, and so a user is left in a proverbial ‘no-mans land’. Wayfaring, assistive navigational maps and various other interface features have been employed in order to address this undesirable scenario albeit with somewhat varying degrees of success. Perhaps seeking a singular solution is the incorrect approach, with the ZUI conundrum proving it could be a case of ‘One Size Fits Some’.

Every now and then however a demonstration or an advancement in technology comes along which reignites the buzz for zoomable interfaces, yesterday I happened upon one of these demos which actually inspired me to write this little piece. At this years CESA Developers Conference in Japan Sony revealed an upcoming technology which will be available shortly as an SDK to developers for both the PS3 and the PSP. Sony have christened it High-Resolution Image Enlargement Technology, and despite the rather long-winded name it does not fail to impress. When I watched the demonstration video I was taken aback with the speed and ease at which the system was able to handle such resolution-intensive content.

The video below showcases a number of the demonstrations – the main demo appears to be a release calendar which inside each entry, contains high-resolution photos or a video of whatever is being released that particular day. Make sure you stick around for the mosquito – it’s quite impressive. This is a genuinely astounding piece of technology that could well enable some pretty cool software applications, however the real selling-point for me is that is will be available on widely used consumer products.

Perhaps the ‘desert fog’ may lift sooner than expected.


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Making Steve Jobs an Icon

To user interface & icon designers everywhere Susan Kare needs no introduction, it was she who designed the icons for the first Macintosh. Through her friend Andy Hertzfeld (a member of the original Mac team) she came to work at Apple after receiving a Ph.D. in fine art from New York University. In 1983 she joined the Macintosh software group and went on to create all of the original Mac’s icons and UI elements. From the ubiqutous trash bin, watch, pouring paint can and bomb icons to the portrait of a computer with a sly Mona Lisa smile, her work has graced desktops all across the world.

Which brings us to the story of the ‘The Steve Icon’; one day way back in February 1983 Susan Kare was busy creating icons for the Finder. Those were simple icons, only 32 by 32 black or white pixels or 1024 dots in total. It was said Kare would also draw lots of other images as well, for either practice or just for fun, usually reflecting her somewhat playful sense of humor. Then in the spur of the moment she took it upon herself to start drawing a portrait of Steve Jobs – no small task within such a tiny space, but somehow Susan succeeded in crafting an instantly recognizable likeness with a mischevious grin that captured a lot of Steve’s personality. It was reported that Jobs himself approved of the icon. Before long other members of the Mac team came to Susan requesting that they too be forever immortalised in 32 by 32 pixels – it became a Mac team status symbol to be iconified.

The Steve Icon

Kare left Apple around the same time as Jobs and went on to become the 10th employee at his new company NeXT – where she undertook the role of creative director. One of her first projects was to oversee the design of the NeXT logo for which she hired her idol the great Paul Rand. Nowadays as a freelance user interface graphic designer, she works for some of the biggest tech companies in the world including Electronic Arts, Facebook, IBM, Sony Pictures, Motorola and Microsoft. In recent interviews she has stated that over the past 10 years, she has drawn more than 2,000 icons.

No mean feat – even for the lady who had a hand in making Steve Jobs an icon, in both a metaphorical and a literal sense.


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