Manual for a stranger world

We’ve become too practical
I’m a big fan of agile, prototyping and lean. I think a hands-on, iterative and getting-things-done process is great. But we’ve lost something. The obsession with making things real limits the scope of the things we can make real. It limits us to what is possible within the constraints of our current understanding. Companies due to their nature, are obsessed with tangible details and their delivery focused operations keep us on the path of incremental innovation. We get what we optimised for, an endless series of extrapolations: faster, lighter, bigger, cheaper. All very useful, but what about a different world? A space far beyond the horizon of the next sprint, the next launch, the next round of funding? A world of dreams, of ideas, a stranger world?

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Exploring eternal questions through interaction design

This is a write-up of a talk I gave at Geeky

Thanks to a side project on  time mapping I became interested in the design implications of a set of questions that are collectively known as the eternal questions.

1. What are eternal questions?
Eternal questions are concerned with meaning. They arise from people’s experiences with the world, and have no definitive answer. Famous questions are: what is the meaning of life? What is a good life? What makes a good person? What is beauty? What is love?

Although they cannot be answered definitively, this doesn’t mean that they cannot be productively discussed. Through the centuries countless people have come up with answers. Some believed they answered a question once and for all, others were more modest and saw their answer only as one of many possibilities.

Many of us are familiar with Douglas Adams’ answer from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: “42″, the answer to life, the universe and everything. But there are many others:

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Inspired by the simple and colourful life of Tahiti, Paul Gauguin wondered: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And came up with a surprisingly colourful answer.

In what turned out to be his final work, Dostoevsky created The Brothers Karamazov  a story about  three brothers and a father with very different ideas about what makes a good life.

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Rem Koolhaas – designing the design process

Prize-winner and starchitect-in-denial, Rem Koolhaas and his studio OMA have created a method and practice that is uniquely capable of dealing with an ever more complex world. Interested in what this could mean for digital designers I started digging into their design process, in this article I’ll discuss my findings.

When asked once what his goal with his practice was, Koolhaas answered: “to keep thinking about what architecture could be. What I could be.”¹  And it is this ‘could be’ that plays a defining role in Koolhaas’ career.

0. Introduction
Rem Koolhaas studied scriptwriting and architecture and is heading OMA/AMO, an office he co-founded in 1975. You might know him from his books Delirious New York or S, M, L, XL and his practice from the CCTV HQ, Casa da Música in Porto or the Central Library in Seattle.

It is not easy to define Koolhaas. Although his buildings can be found all over the world, it’s hard to recognise a typical Koolhaas building by visual appearance alone. To define Koolhaas you have to move to his realm, leave the world of bricks and steel, and enter the world of images, models and processes, a world of ideas. Not what is, but what could be.

His buildings and his books do, however, have something that makes them recognisable as a product from OMA. A product that is very much influenced by the process of creation, a bottom up, labour-intensive, research-lead way of questioning everything. His products are assemblies, where Koolhaas refuses to give any easy answers, and instead reveals a selection of evidence and demands from spectators to form their own interpretations.

OMA Idea Machine

Koolhaas’s greatest achievement is therefore not a building or book, but a system that is capable of harvesting, questioning and producing ideas. What Koolhaas has built is a very large version of himself, a system that, through a method of researching and building, is capable of reliably creating beautiful and intelligent ideas on how the world could be. In this article I want to discuss the system that Koolhaas has built to get in that position and how he manages to remain at the forefront.

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5 simple steps towards a UX portfolio

Here are some ideas about what I’ve learned about making a UX portfolio so far.

1. Know yourself
Every successful pitch starts with good self-knowledge. What is it that you want to achieve by making your portfolio, what should be the idea that you want to install in the mind of the viewer? Why are you applying for this particular job at this particular company? Do you know the direction in which you would like to develop? What makes you so much better than all the other candidates? Those questions should be answered in your portfolio. A portfolio is not meant to be a perfect reflection of your past career, it’s a sales tool that you use to steer your future. Therefore it’s perfectly fine to put a spotlight on those projects that you are proud off, and to show off your skills in the areas you’d like to develop yourself in.

2. Know your audience
It’s hard to decide what you should do if you don’t know your audience. Every hiring manager and every job is slightly different and this should be reflected in your portfolio. Try to gain as much information as possible about the (kind of) person and the company you are addressing. Are you being hired as the only person or will you be part of a large design department? Will the hiring person view your portfolio on the road on her iPhone or look at it at her 30” iMac? Or is she more likely to print it at the very last minute so she can look at it whilst walking to the interview room? The answers to these questions will define the kind of information, the amount of pages and the size of pages (A4, A3, 1980*1200, etc) that will best fit your audience.

3. Tell a story
Make sure you take the lead. Based on your goal (get the job) and your audience (the hiring manager) you can create a visual narrative supported by text. Roughly your portfolio could be structured like this:

  1. Top-level view. Show that you understand UX design: show user research, idea generation, idea implementation and testing.
  2. Zoom-in. Build up trust by demonstrating that you are an experienced professional: show the different design phases of several projects, make sure you mention the goal of the project, your role and the outcome.
  3. Team-player. Gain some browny points by demonstrating your obsession with UX: were you involved in organising an event? Did you write an interesting blog post? Or did you give a presentation? This is your chance to show it.

Through text and visuals you can make clear that they simply have no other option than to invite you for an interview.

4. Sweat the details
Think once more about your goal and your audience and make sure they align. Crop your images so only the essential is shown. Remove words until only the necessary are left. Tune your case studies. Maybe you can use a quote from a happy client. Perhaps you can illustrate your statement about card-sorting and workshops with some photos. Have a look at some great portfolios out there and try to find their nifty little details; speech-bubbles, consistent heading or using an interesting font. And finally put your contact details on the first and the last page.

5. Test and iterate
Print your portfolio, show it to a friend, show it to a mentor, look at it on your mum’s old laptop. Does it stand all these tests? Read through your text, ask a friend to read through the text, make sure there are no spelling errors, no page errors and no wrong images.

6. Learn from others
Here’s a collection of discussions, blogposts and portfolios from around the web. It’s always good to know what the competition is doing.

How to make a good portfolio:

Examples of UX portfolios:

Quality and craftsmanship

Many business gurus state that quality is created by keeping the amount of products that work according to specification up. Others argue that it is not about the lack of errors, but about fulfilling customer expectations. On the surface defining quality seems easy: it is that which is good. But soon we discover that it is not only what is good, it is what stands out. A Casio watch compared to one that came for free with washing powder might seem as a product of incredible quality, but compare a Rolex with a Casio and it suddenly becomes a cheaply produced mass consumption product. Of course the value of the materials used to produce a Rolex is higher, but there is more to it than only time and money. What I want to discuss is the quality of products, in both its physical and psychological manifestations.

When we judge the quality of a product we judge it by the total experience. That is: the actual properties of the product plus the experience we have with these properties. Because the experience depends not only on the product but also on its surroundings —other products available, emotional attachment— the perceived value of a product varies from place to place and from person to person. This split between the actual product quality and perceived quality leads to a situation where it becomes possible to increase the perceived value, without actually increasing the actual product’s quality. To stay competitive many companies choose to increase their experienced quality through large advertisement campaigns that enable the price of the product to go up. It can create a situation where expensive products become expensive, not because they are good, but because the marketing campaign needs to be paid for. I would argue that there is a better way: increase the perceived quality through actually increasing the quality. This is the age-old path of the craftsman.

Quality is realised through the interaction between the physical and the psychological world. Take a bottle of wine for example. The house wine sold in a local supermarket supplies the alcohol that will get your body in a more relaxed state. Nevertheless it is no match for the experience of drinking a French wine imported by a French friend whom you met years ago during your stay in Paris. They might do their physical job equally well, but the psychological impact is of a different magnitude. You can engage with the story, you feel the care, passion and dedication of both the friend and the château in every sip you take. Besides the insurance that only the best ingredients are used, you also want to be engagement with the story and the care of the craftsman who created the product.

In a competitive market the producers of products need to keep on innovating and increase their quality to remain competitive. In the category of computers it becomes quite clear that what was known as the best of the best five years ago is no longer relevant today. But what if innovation is no longer possible? If you are the producer of a famous quality whisky with roots going back for centuries, coming up with a new improved flavour might not be the successful path to follow. Instead what you can do is focus your attention on perceived quality. You can tell the consumers through advertisement campaigns about your unique values, your incredible ingredients, your centuries of tradition; all these stories increase the experience of the first sip.

The problem here is that the quality of the product remains the same. None of the hard working labourers in the distillery will get an extra penny for the improved experience, since what they are doing remains what they’ve been doing for centuries. Or even more in the case of mineral water, where the labour involved consists mainly of bottling the water that was already there. What goes for both mineral water and whisky is that the price that we pay to purchase these products is mainly used to pay for the advertisement that seduced us to buy these products in the first place.

I think this is wrong. We should not waste the sparse resources of this world on advertisement that informs us that we should really buy products of good quality by craftsmen who care. It does not benefit the hard work of the craftsman and it creates the risk of make-belief. Thanks to the power of branding and advertisement we might consider to buy products —for example clothes— that are of a higher price and lower quality than those we could have bought if we weren’t persuaded by the power of marketing.

The money could better be spent on making people aware of the advantages of purchasing products that are created by people who truly care about creating great products. People who not only perform their job, but master it, not because there is a demand for quality, but because pushing quality beyond the ordinary creates a sense of meaningful being for the craftsman. Passion, dedication, care and hard work create an environment where magic can happen. When the reason for making good products goes beyond the wish of keeping clients and reputation, there is a new space where good can become great. L’art pour l’art, craftsmanship for craftsmanship’s sake.

On horses, technology and the monster of innovation

Long ago when I was still young, I believed in a world where the future would lead us upwards, technology would bring us prosperous times and digital enlightenment would come to earth. Virtual worlds would open their doors and for the first time humankind would be connected and world peace was on the brink.

Later on I discovered that I was haunted by a mix of two ideas, first that in the future things would be better and second that through taking risks and hard work one would always become successful. And as far as I’m aware, I’m not alone. If we no longer believed that buying new and better products would lead to happier lives, if progress could no longer be linked to faster computers, and if a seventy hour work week no longer represented the road to success, the Western world would go downwards fast. Lucky for us most people do buy into the idea that technological progress is essential for the progress of us as a species, and that progress is good beyond questioning. Thanks to this unquestioned faith we now sit behind our glowing screens, drinking fake Italian roast fresh from the machine, burning through our lives for a better tomorrow.

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