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.

Continue reading On horses, technology and the monster of innovation

Social networks are changing the game

The social networks of today aren’t what they used to be. Facebook, LinkedIn and other large survivors have evolved from a simple collection of personal data (like the the files they keep about you at the CIA) to something that has no ‘old’ media comparison any more. How did we end up there, what are the social, commercial and technological changes that brought us this far and what is the effect of commercial questions on the way we can express ourselves on these social networks? These are the questions that I will try to answer in this post.

The possibility of always being online together with the large amount of the population who has broadband has turned out to be a fertile soil for social networks. In their short history they quickly rose up from static biographical pages to an oversized ticker-tape ticking away the lives of everyone you’ve ever known. Also in other areas change did roar, the move from communicating by email and forums to blogging, twittering and status updates and eventually the ‘like’ button changed the landscape again. This social-technological change combined with a change of expectations of privacy and the way we interact with technology is the backdrop for this story.

What does this mean for social networks?

First: Different people
The amount of people online has reached new heights and is slowly approaching the line where everyone who could possibly be online will have internet access. Not only are there more people, but they are also more tech-savvy, better able to deal with new challenges and less afraid to use their credit card. In short: everyone is here, they know how it works and they are not afraid to pay.

Second: A continual search for new money
Deep changes have taken place on the commercial side of social networks. Not only is there more money flowing from investors and consumers into the web, expectations have also risen to new heights, competition has brought the fee for most services down to zero, and banner blindness and internet smartness have made it harder to shake money out of visitors. I’ll highlight three money-making methods that still play a role in the design of social networks.

make_money

  • Banner advertisement (such as payment for clicks, views and sales)
  • Information harvesting (these  annoying long sign up forms you have to wrestle through, or the bright yellow boxes that tell you your profile is only 40% done)
  • Engagement enhancement (creating brand awareness, and help to find community leaders to use them to get the first two methods done more effectively)

Third: New technology and new design challenges
From a technological point the internet of today is hardly recognisable for that of 1999. “Always on” has become the default, both with the ongoing penetration of broadband, the possibilities of wi-fi and the completion of the 3G network. Computers have become faster and even do their job when sized back to phone-size. Also the software made great leaps forward, browsers became ubiquitous, ajax technology gave way to a whole new thinking about web ‘pages’, and the open-source nature of the internet allowed for high pick-up speed of innovative ideas. Social network builders have to live up to these challenges and, in the end, make a profit. They’ve figured out a couple of solutions to come to there.

  • More content in total and less content per page allows for as many banners as possible.
  • Increase the amount of places where users can leave information behind, more information is better targeted banners.
  • More engagement and activity, brings up the amount of page views, possibly the amount of clicks, and teachthe system more about its users.

Fourth: How a different design forces/allows for a different identity presentation
From how you look to what you do, where Myspace and Friendster are still based around the profile, your virtual representation in cyberspace, Facebook managed -with the help of Twitter and Friendfeed- to move beyond the profile and beyond the wall to something like the live-feed, your own micro-news CNN news-ticker. We have to understand that this is different from chatting and forum posts; these still have an internal structure, even a topic. The Facebook newsfeed is coming closer to Google Epic than Google ever came.

identity_online

  • Presentation model: based on the assumption that more pages will allow for more advertisements space, and that showing more banners would be the solution, websites catered for having as many pages as possible.
  • Interaction model: By putting more focus on creating activity, the role of social network changes too. Where in the myspace era designing a fancy style for your profile was enough, at Facebook your profile is of little matter, what counts is what you do, to exist you have to constantly feed the network, and what you feed it defines how you the world sees you.

design and emotions

In this article I want to discuss the relation between emotion and design, but first let me say why I think that we are having this discussions at this very moment (and not a decade ago (or next decade)) I see five reasons.

  • Interaction design is more than graphic design on a screen or industrial design in a browser
  • Enlightenment, modernism and the questioning  of man being rational
  • The rise of neurological research, and the continues psychological and sociological experiments
  • The availability of a massive amount of behavioural data
  • Internet companies have found themselves in a saturated market with highly competitive products

I believe this is the right moment  to connect emotions with design research. Let me first go over the word “emotional” (again) in our language emotional is often used as the opposite of rational, when you are ‘all emotional’ you are not acting rational, and even worse both also carry a value connotation, to be emotional is bad, to be rational is good. I (and many with me) think this is a strong oversimplification that will not help us any further. Emotion is in accepting that in order to make a decision we  take much more into account than only  ‘is this cheaper or will this last longer’. As Malcolm Gladwell tried to explain in his book Blink or Weinschenk in her book Neuro Web Design there is a lot of thinking going on beyond closed doors.

The estimate from neuroscientist is that our five senses are taking in 11 million pieces of information every second. And how many of those are we processing consciously? A mere 40! (Weinschenk)

Is it pure magic what happens with the other 10 million inputs? Luckily we can already say quite a lot about the way those other inputs are processed, they are (mostly) in-line with our needs (A theory on needs was developed by Maslow, the so called hierarchy of need) I don’t want to go in this too deep, but I hope you agree that there is an awful lot to take into consideration when making a decision. This taking into consideration is what I for the lack of a better therm will call ’emotional’ decision making.

Interaction design
Interaction design (or user-experience design, information design, webdesign, etc) although there isn’t makes one thing pretty clear, designing for digital interfaces is not the same as just applying old design knowledge (architecture, graphic design, industrial design) to a new medium. We need the old knowledge, but it’s not enough, we have a new thing to learn about what happens when time, humans and mediated social action meet on a screen, magic happens. To know more about this magical field many people have turned to fields originally hardly associated with design such as psychology and sociology, as I shall try to make clear in this article, it was about time.

Enlightenment and modernism
Now let’s move back a bit in history -and make some terrible generalisations- and try explain why in the first place we have to defend emotional design over rational design. In the period of enlightenment the idea man could get out of the darkness and get on the path of progress if only we would be rational came to the surface . If we would follow our mind and with the help of technology we could work towards a better future for all mankind, we could put ourselves on a infinitive track of progress. In the 20th these ideas shaped thinking about design and architecture the idea of modernism rose on the horizon. If only we would remove every non-essential part, all the clutter, all the fluff, than at the heart we would reach a perfect blend of man and technology the essence, buildings would be white and shiny, products would be simple and clean and font-faces would be simple yet beautiful. Even the short rise (and fall) of post-modern design could not stop it, post-modernism gave us a change though to question our believes, maybe there would be more in life than this.  Now with the knowledge that there is more to progress than just simply removing everything that was not necessary to the job. Emotions came back to the table.

Psychological research
A lot has happened since Sigmond Freud uncovered the subconscious, experiment after experiment prove that humans are not as rational as we think. Research keeps on proving that people are influenced by reciprocity, commitment consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity (for a short introduction on these: Neuro Web Design) So although people are not rational, the factors that influence their behaviour are known and can be studied. This of-course with the hope that we will come to a rational way of understanding irrationality.

Data crunching
Now we have stated that although humans don’t behave as rational as expected, patterns in their behaviour can still be found, it is time to move on to the rise of the internet companies. Because any action that happens on a network can be registrated by that network, there is a massive amount of data available on internet usage. Data in itself is not really meaningful, just a long strings of zeros and ones. Meaning only appears after we work with this data and turn it into information. The quality of this information both depends on the kind of data, the quantity and most important the questions you try to answer with this data. If you start mixing psychological insights with quantitative data, interesting patterns start to emerge. You could for example base authority on the amounts of links that any web page gets, or you could use data clustering to create statements as ‘people who bought this also bought’. Or use it to answer if a border should be 5 or 6 pixels. Important to remember is that data is only useful when you ask the right questions.

So now we have the right mindset that by doing research we can improve the workings of technology, we have the psychological models to know where we have to look for answers and we have the data to give us the answers. Now the only thing we need is a financial stimulus to actually start working.

Web companies face a saturated. mature market
To be a successful company in the online sphere is at least as hard as to be successful in any market, there is no easy money any more. Although it might be easier than ever to start an online service and to have visitors coming your way, this is true for everyone. Thanks to the growing awareness of good usability practices most new web applications are now usable, this however is also true for the competition. To make the most out of their visitors companies have to make each visitor count. The psychological lessons about humans emotional behaviour are therefore really valuable, design that anticipates human emotional behaviour can make a visible difference in the amount of people that will actually use a website. By applying this knowledge we can move on from ‘is the user’s task doable’ to ‘does the user want to do the task’

progress

So there we have it, the mindset, the questions, the answers and the money. This is why we will hear a lot more about psychology, sociology and emotions in the design world the coming decade.

more to read:

Donald Norman’s Design and Emotion
Predictably Irrational

The amazing slide shows by Joshua Porter
Pieter Desmet research emotions method

Design for the difficult

This is my tiny wrap up of uxcamplondon talk that I held at the Ebay Headquarters down in Richmond. My talk had the  inspiring title “designing for the difficult – because some things just aren’t simple”. Before I had my talk I had only a vague understanding of the concept. But I think I understand it a bit better now, so i decided to give you a rough outline of the concept.

The problem
The problem is quite clear, many applications (be it software such as word, excel, be it web-apps such as Ebay or Facebook) are quite well designed to get beginners up to steam, and also have some advanced features for the top of the end users. How someone goes from beginner to advanced users is still an hardly explored terrain, leading to many people stuck in the middle. To use a graph to explain the problem: If a new product arrives on the market some people will quickly ‘get it’ and become an advanced user, most people will slowly grown in to the functionality they need and become moderate users, and also a fairly large chunk will never grow out of the beginner state and or give up, or only use the very basic of functionality of the software. The challenge therefore is: how can we get as many users from beginners to moderate and from moderate to advanced in a way is most natural to the user.

Old answer – the manuals
Rtfm Write lengthy manuals, hundreds of frequently asked questions, and many pages on help. Although this is not a bad thing to do, it’s also not the best for two reasons:

  • Users don’t read for various reasons, but mainly because reading requires true effort
  • Developers and designers don’t like to write manuals (no statistics for this claim, so I’m happy to be proven wrong)

So the reading coin doesn’t work out for two reasons, no-one likes to read and no-one (almost no-one) loves to write help texts, faq and manuals when they know they won’t be read.

Old answer – the course, seminar, workshop
Sent the users of your software so lengthy and expensive help courses, where they will burn away their valuable hours and burn away valuable company’s cash. Although this method works, it comes with the down down sides, that it requires even more effort than reading and most times courses are more expensive than the software itself.

New Answers
I believe there are better methods to educate the user and there are several fields of which ux-designers can borrow inspiration and information.

  • Game design – is already working for decades on how to get users through their levels with giving them the right challenges at the right time.
  • Marketing – also has a long track record in how to get users to do something /anything
  • Education – Just as the classic examples of the book and the classroom, there should be a lot of information there on how to motivate people to learn new tasks.

Together with the fields above there are also two scientific areas that give a lot of ‘new’ answers: sociology and psychology both studying human behaviours and trying to come up more answers on how to keep the change > effect train running. Recently this whole field has got an incredible boost by both the further development of neuro research and the incredible rise of data mining

To me it seems no more than logic that ux field should learn as much as they can from those three fields of work, two fields of science and two incredible methods. Luckily this is already happening, but as far as I can see not in a very structured way.

To give you some links to sources where you can read more on this subject:
Books:

Articles

Examples
I’ve gathered quite a series of examples, but at the moment I feel it’s to early yet to state that it is anything beyond incidental anecdotes, but for those interested; have a look at my presentation:

Social Networks, who are they

Lately I’ve spent some time in trying to map the ‘true essence’ of social networks, as always with true essence they refuse to be mapped. Here is my attempt though

There are (should be) three mayor components in any social network

  • Users – this might be members, visitors, creators, editors, (who knows even spambots), someone needs to be willing to do something though.
  • Actions – having user is not enough, a social network should also enable these users to do things, to alter the status quo, to change reality.
  • Objects – last there need to be things that user can preform actions on -to be visible in a digital world you will need to create, alter, reflect on media objects
  • Time

In other words we could state the goal of a social network is to ‘enable people to perform actions that will change what was there previously’

If you would be willing to follow my thoughts this would mean something for many of the current social networks out there, because it is NOT (only) about publishing (blogging, writing, uploading photos, uploading films) it’s fine if you want to focus on that, but don’t call yourself a social network. It is also NOT (only) about activity, displaying activity (twitter, friendfeed, facebook wall anyone. It is (here it comes) about the following three things:

Social networks should enable users to prepare, act, reflect:

Enable a user to see what is going on:

  • Enable a user to see what is going on (activity feed) (real time)
  • Enable a user to create, reply, act, do, take the action (publishing)
  • Enable a user to know what effect this action had

To enable this, social networks should rebrand themselves as social collaboration tools and focus on

  • Providing quick insights on what is going on
  • Making actions disturbingly easy
  • Provide an easy way to know what happened after you acted

You now might want to read more at Boxes and Arrows and read about Google Wave

And more important pleaes leave me your thoughts on what you think are important actors when we think about social networks