The construction of an idea

One day a small itch visits you, a feeling, a hunch of something that could be changed. You start exploring what it might be, how big it is, what is part of it, what doesn’t fit, which edges are too far to see. Slowly the hunch starts to transform into an idea. First it’s very rough, its contours merely visible, then, after you beat, torture, inquire and polish it, it starts to unveil some of its potential beauty. It’s translated into another language, documented, sketched and presented. You invite people from all of the world to test and try the idea, to punch it, to build upon it, to take it for a walk or for a wild bus ride down the country side. Slowly the idea starts to alter reality, in corridors whispers can be heard, folded notes pass from hand to hand, it gains momentum, it shows up in books and presentations, children shout its name and grown ups discuss it over coffee. It starts to change the world, cathedrals and shopping centres are erected in its name, magazines and tv hosts spew it out in an endless sea of words, images and objects. For the idea this is the sign that it has to move on, it has done its duty and is free to float again, above the roofs and squares of the old city it flies until it has found yet another sleepless night.

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 help the villagers to rise up

We are moving from representing ourselves online to being online. The expression of our online identity is no longer what we’ve accomplished in the past, but what we are doing in the now. Just like us, brands can no longer work on their heritage, but are challenged to actively engage in the now.

Something that has been distorted by the thick clouds of mass media, became clear once more: a brand is only a group of people working together with a common interest. In that way it comes as no surprise that brands become more like individuals. The lack of two-way communication allowed brands to act like aristocrats directing the world from within their invincible castles. These days however the villagers found ways to unite against the aristocrats, making it impossible for anyone to hide and deny responsibility behind the anonymous face of a brand. In a way it can be seen as a step backwards in time to an older model where people bought their products from local craftsmen with whom they had a personal relationship.

Top-down, directed and centralized communication is being replaced by a bricolage of presences that are dynamically generated by the multi-directional and decentralised interactions of the crowd. The brand identity is the result of this complex interaction, and it’s defined every day anew by experience. This connected and shared experience is made out of a multitude of conversations, faces, comments, quotes and images that float around the brand (but no longer controlled by it) and they define a fluid and ever changing identity.

The reason that the top-down brand strategy became obsolete so fast is that it turned out to be even less useful than pre-social media. The consumers got together faster than their rulers could divide them. More and more we will see it happening that a group of people who all have a strong personal brand come together to form supergroups. A famous example of course is CSNY, but you can see it happen in every industry. Brands should avoid being an abstract entity, and start to make clever use of the strengths of the group of people they represent. Only by putting individuals in the foreground will there be enough trust generated to truly engage.

Social media is a toolset that allows the villagers to unite themselves. The old aristocrats are still welcome among them nevertheless, but only on the condition that they leave their shield and sword at home.

Design of Flow

There are a few topics, that I want to write about the next times, I’ve already mentioned them in my previous post, but I’ll define them once more.

  • Goal based design
  • Flow design
  • Emotional / experience design
  • Play and fun as a way to achieve goals

They are all part of the same process, and describe our relation with technology, we create and use technology, not because we are such fan of technology an-sich, but because we want to get something done.

It’s important not to confuse goals with tasks, as Norman points out, tasks change with every update of technology, I used to write a letter with a pen, than I switched to typewriter, than I used Word to write it, and now I’m even using WordPress to express myself. So the technology, and tasks have changed pretty dramatically over the last decades. The goals however -to bring an idea across- is already the same for millennia. So by looking at how to get the most done, we shouldn’t focus on how to preform a certain task as optimal as possible. Instead we should ask ourselves (as creators and users of technology) how we can achieve a certain goal as easy and good as possible. (There are some nice books about order versus chaos, and how much wasted time there is spent on creating order in systems that function as well with a little mess)

Constructing Flow
A flow is a certain series of sub-task that together will form a finished task. Flow is where man and machine meet for the first time, the person want to achieve a certain goal and is using certain technology to reach that goal. (Or the other way around, certain technology can facilitate certain goals but needs users to achieve those). Flow is also the name of a state of being.

Most of us have experienced a mental/emotional state where all of our attention (or energy) is totally focused on an activity. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) named this state “flow,” based on how participants in his studies described the experience. (source)

To facilitate a flow therefore, a website should focus on delivering only those tools the user needs on that particular moment. You can already see the problem here, how does a website (that is most likely been build to support multiply goals by users with different flows) facilitate a user with the the flow that will work best on that moment. There are a few known solutions already, but all seem to have their down sides. To name a few:

  • A user can hide the non necessary tools (as WordPress does)
  • Depending on a predefined kind of user the interface will have certain features (Photoshop and Dreamweaver for example)
  • The Interface can learn from your actions (text input on the iPhone in theory) and MS Office 2003 (?)
  • Facebook and Linkedin (at least in the past) have a you are now on 30% do something to go to 40%

As you can see from the last example, both designer of the flow and user of the flow run in the same problems. The designer does not know what each specific user want to do at each moment, and can’t therefore not optimize that particular flow. And the other way, the user might know what to achieve but will not no what the most efficient way is to achieve the goal. From the list above, hide and move at own choice and being encouraged to explore the rest of possibilities seem to be the best solutions, since they don’t force the user to make decisions / or make decisions for the user without informing. Enable and encourage to play seems like the best solution. (And also why an undo function is so important (2)

Emotional design II

First lets find a place for emotional design, as far as I consider, we should keep it as far from the new age crap as possible, but we should acknowledge that we are humans, and we use a lot of emotional power to make decisions and not only rational constructed thoughts. Because the decisions made are not rational or well thought out, they are however real and can also be tested, just not as easy as just asking the question. Another point where we should keep design away from is being purely business (money?) driven, as a designer I would state ‘create great products that users love, and the money will come’. A good example where money focus will lead us appeared in an article on UxMatters. this article mentoined emotional design as a selling’ point beyond user experience design itself (or maybe not beyond, but as an important part of). The post is both worrisome as fascinating

By leveraging the science of persuasion in new and insightful ways and designing specifically to optimize the elements of persuasion, emotion, and trust, we can systematically influence customers’ online behaviour. (source)

Not only becomes a website a place where people can get a happy experience, you might also get the feeling that people are subconsciously forced to inhale whatever business has cooked up for them. It has quite an unethical feel surrounding it, than again, if it makes the people happy, why not. As appears in the comments, the blog post turns out to be one large commercial for a user experience company. Though, it touches some interesting points, where usability is not enough to create a good site.

Emotional feedback

The last point in this post (that is already all over the place) is the point Norman makes about how people are extremely well equipped for social interaction -and his chapter about how robots should have emotions- made me wonder how we could apply those ideas to web interfaces. The idea that interfaces can be more than just stating facts is slowly becoming common ground. Flickr keeps us learning different languages to say hello in, Wakoopa allows you to reach all kinds of awesome levels, and also the 404 messages of many website have become opportunities to engage people.

To end this rambling, here are some nice slideshows:

Planning design ahead

One of the questions that has kept me awake last weeks is ‘how can you create design visions?’ , how can you set a direction of the path the design is taking. How can you set goals for design five years ahead. For business planning these questions are still tough but they’ve got a history of business planning of several centuries to get inspiration from, and they have the numbers, so their goals are more easy to measure. For example: By the end of the year we want to have ten mayor clients and a turn over of one million, check at the end of the year, 9 clients, nine hundred thousand turnover, almost there only ten percent off.

Measuring user experience
Design is measurable in goals of clicks, visits and conversion, but does this equal user experience too? If your conversion goes up by 10 %, does that mean the user experience went up by 10% too? One way of approaching this problem is by measurement, although not as easy as financial goals, there are several methods available to measure user experience, and get their experience expressed in numbers (for example see here: Measuring Usability and a paper about Single Usability Metric or Usability Benchmarking or the work of Nigel Bevan and this great thread) This might solve the problem of measuring how usable your product is, and might even being capable of measuring some emotional states. And therefore you could start expressing statements, as our overall user experience is now 7.1 by the end of the year I want it up to 8.0. For those who love numbers this is a wonderful method, is does not really solve the problems of design visions though. As Donald Norman states in his book, ‘as easy it is to create usable products, it can be pretty hard to create useful products. For usable most times applying the rule ‘simple is better’ will the job, and eventually you will end up producing hammers and nails.

Future visions
An other popular but more expensive way is the future visions that Microsoft and IBM for example push out every year