product development posts

Persistence of Vision May 12th, 2010

I was walking to dinner with a client in Chicago and saw this choice piece of graffiti. I immediately imagined using the image for an end slide in a presentation – “Problem Solved.” Very nice.

It wasn’t until after I had posted the shot on Facebook and seen it uploaded that I realized what it actually said. Which means that I saw the graffiti, composed the shot, took several alternate shots, and processed it in Photoshop, all the while seeing what my mind had interpolated rather than what was actually written there.

We’ve had numerous experiences of clients joining us in the field and saying – after we’ve interviewed someone who was either using or enthusiastic about their products – “She’s not our customer,” because the person didn’t fit their organization’s idea of who their customers are. We’ve also heard, “We already fixed that problem,” even after seeing clearly that the solution was unknown to the end user and the problem was still a problem.

It can be very hard to see something as it is if you come to it with a strongly ingrained idea of what you think it is.

But there is a reality – customers, environments, markets – whether you are seeing it or not. If you’re developing and selling products and services, you’re far better off working from an understanding of what’s actually there, rather than what you think is there.

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Grassroots product development November 11th, 2009

In our blog’s grand tradition of posts about bathrooms and toilets, here’s a bit of local small-scale innovation, spied at a neighborhood coffee shop.

p knot 3 (Custom)
The explanatory sign in the bathroom

p knot 2 (Custom)
The product in use

p knot 1 (Custom)
Get yours here!

Related posts:
Steve investigates the bathroom for Core77
Fair warning
The toilet flusher that comes with a memo
Semiotics of toilet signs
Explaining your product puts you ahead of the pack

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Reading Ahead: Design Challenge Winners November 2nd, 2009
Part 22 of 24 in the series Reading Ahead

Reading ahead logo with space above

Our work is about understanding and acting, so our engagements typically include workshops where we facilitate client teams in using our research findings to generate concepts and start prioritizing ideas for further development.

For our self-funded Reading Ahead project, we had no client, so we took this action step by partnering with Industrial Design Supersite Core77 to put our research findings out to the global design community as the basis for a 1-Hour Design Challenge.

We worked with the Core77 team to review all the contest submissions received over the last month, and today are pleased to announce the contest winners.



(via Core77)

The latest 1 Hour Design Challenge, The Future of Digital Reading was based on Portigal Consulting’s Reading Ahead initiative-recent research around books, reading, behavior, and technology. There was great interest in this competition-it’s a hot topic these days of course, with introductions of new e-readers and a constant stream of “end-of-print” articles-and we had tremendous participation from design schools, individuals, and professional design firms.

The research provided for this design challenge was infused with stories about real people, so entries that referenced people and their habits were the most successful. Indeed, entries that embraced story-telling as a way to get their concepts across were much more compelling than those which simply presented a comprehensive list of features. (Yes, we get that the future is OLED displays!) It was daunting to see the number of submissions that were essentially a Kindle with feature statements that did away with the acknowledged limitations, so entries that ran the other way had a good chance of standing out. Still, there was great design thinking here, and a ton of design innovation here, and we were thrilled to see people (and teams) digging deep into the research and trying to refract it through the lens of artifact and experience.

This 1 Hour Design Challenge was a tough one to jury, but here (in suspenseful order…the Winner’s at the end) are the judges’ selections and comments. Congratulations to the Winner and Notables, and thanks to everyone who participated! Portigal Consulting and Core77 will each be donating $300, in the name of the prize winner, to 826 Valencia (a nonprofit that helps kids with expository and creative writing, and San Francisco’s only independent pirate supply store). 826 Valencia will put together a celebratory gift bag (i.e., pirate booty!) to honor the winner.

And now for the results:

Notable: The PaperBack
Design: Stephanie Aaron, Kristin Grafe & Eric St. Onge (SVA MFA in Interaction Design, Class of 2011)
1hdc-1

The PaperBack provided several nice design solutions in one package. We were charmed with the notion of displaying the cover of the book on the back side of the device for others to see (of course, we’d expect a “hide cover” option in the preferences!), and the flip-the-book-over action to turn the page is something we liked from a couple of the entries. The user’s ability to customize the form factor to modify the book-from paperback to novel-was a great start, but we felt that it perhaps didn’t go far enough. Maybe combining this with the next Notable entry, “The Page,” would make for the killer concept.


Notable: The Page: Adaptive Delivery Device
Design: Manny Darden, Jae Yeop Kim & Scott Liao (Graduate Candidates, Media Design Program, Art Center College of Design)
1hdc-2

It was irresistible to conflate “The PaperBack” device above with this concept, taking the form factor all the way to a newspaper-scale object. And self-supporting no less! The Page embraces some of the graphic conventions we’ve grown to love (in this case The New York Times) but then brings some live navigation and hand gestures into the mix. The photographs make for a compelling presentation, and again, made us dream about a device that folds all the way from a paperback out to a newspaper. Utopian? You bet.


Notable: Gutenberg
Design: Cameron Nielsen
1hdc-3
Cameron’s Gutenberg Local/Global Bookmaker considered a novel solution (pun intended): at-home book-making. Companies like Blurb have sprung up to address this as a service, but could print-on-demand happen in the home? We have the technology to print paper, but we don’t have the ability to make actual books. Provocative, with a sweet rendering, this entry made us think about revisiting a low-tech artifact rather than running immediately to an e-reader device.


Notable: Flipit
Design: Jdouble
1hdc-4

While the thrust of Jdouble’s flipit is (gulp) a Kindle with a different (and better UI), the brilliant innovation was the Tamagotchi-like feature: As the user reads more, the device gives positive feedback (in this case, a facial expression). The design research identified how social the act of reading can truly be, so it was a nice touch that the designer considered how the device itself could participate in the social behavior (a theory that is well supported by the work by Nass and Reeves at Stanford).


Notable: Booklight
Design: Kicker Studios
1hdc-5

Kicker’s Booklight rethinks where the digital data is. The classic solution for an e-book is that the data resides inside the device and comes to us up through a screen. The Booklight form factor, in contrast, is an embodiment of their rethinking: the content is projected down onto any blank book, decoupling the content from the presentation of the content. The Booklight lets the user select the size, heft, and feel of the surface they want to read on, giving back the tactility of the bound book many have grown to love. We were also amused to note that Kicker, known for phrases like “Tap is the New Click,” didn’t fall into the touchscreen swipe-to-turn-the-page interaction ubiquitous in the other submissions. Such restraint!


Notable: Mocks
Design: Stacey Greenebaum
1hdc-6

Stacey Greenebaum’s Mocks doesn’t try to solve everything; it takes one piece of the ecosystem and offers a provocative solution. People need to display their identity through their books, but as books move from atoms to bits, why not have a product that simply displays book titles in the home? The question of whether those titles represent actual or aspirational reading strips the identity issue down to its core: in that social moment at least, it’s not about the content.


WINNER: SuperFlyer 5000
Design: Hot Studio

Hot-Studio-superflyer-1

And, we have a winner! Hot Studio and Friends, with their concept for shared living room reading, takes the grand prize. There was a serious case of kitchen-sinkism on this (massive entry), but perhaps this was understandable given the large team they convened for the effort. While life in the living room is increasingly fragmented across devices, and media content keeps upping the hyper in order to grab some fraction of our attention span, Hot has a big idea a la Slow Food: bringing reading back into the media room so people can spend time together…with books. This concept reconsiders the entire reading gesture, going from hand-held/one foot away, to hands-free/10 feet away. Research participants told us that they saw books as a respite from their over-connected, screen-based lifestyles; here’s an application of those digital technologies that has the potential to engage people with reading in a new way.

The team also deserves special mention for the quality of their effort. They illustrate their solutions in a variety of ways, showing the power of quick-and-dirty paper and Photoshop prototyping.

1hdc-7

In bringing people together to create and inspire each other, they’ve generated a best-in-class artifact that reveals great process, uses scenarios based on research participants, and a demonstration of how humor can help sell an idea. Hot Studio modeled how it really should be done. Kudos!

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Transformers June 26th, 2009

Most companies would like their products and services to be something consumers have a relationship with; more than just a consumable good. Emotional relationships between people and things are one of the holy grails of product development.

Yet, in our research, we hear over and over from people that they simply don’t think this way about many of the products in their lives (particularly electronic goods).

Cars, however, are different. Cars get discussed fondly, wistfully, and passionately. They get named. They have histories.

As testament to cars’ tremendous resonance, look at the popularity of the Fast and Furious movies. And of the new Transformers film, which features vehicles as both heroes and villains, and which just bagged the highest weekday opening gross in movie history–despite being described (before the opening) by many in the media as a bad movie.

A number of factors about cars–perhaps the way they contribute to our personal histories, the level of complexity that lends them “personality,” the patina they acquire over time–transform them for many of us from mere objects into relationship material.

camaro-t_shirt
Camaro t-shirt, official licensed GM product, bought for $7.50 at Crossroads Trading used clothes

But products that are more towards the consumable end of the spectrum can also evoke emotions and create a sense of relationship. I think about Topps Bazooka bubble gum from my childhood–one of the most literally consumable products–and how evocative it remains, many years after I’ve ceased being a “user.”

bazooka-gum
Topps Bazooka Gum, photo by Sarah Lillian on Flickr

What’s it like for you? What are the ingredients that differentiate between just using something, and having a richer type of experience?

Related posts:

Object Love, Object Lust…
Packaging Surprise
Rage With The Machine
Miata Farewell

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Building on what isn’t there May 7th, 2009

curved-shelf1
Sketch for curved shelf ©2007 Dan Soltzberg

There’s a testament to the power of openness as a spur to creative participation nestled in Scott Brown’s piece on early fan fiction in this month’s Wired.

Brown writes about the works Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more avid readers created around his Sherlock Holmes novels, and how what were really continuity errors provided these folks with points of entry:

Sir Arthur, God bless him, didn’t write with an eye to what today’s nerd would call “continuity.” Crafting Holmes stories bored him, and he frequently lost track of details like the exact location of Watson’s Afghan war wound (was it the shoulder or the leg?) and the precise status of Mrs. Watson. But Sir Arthur’s table scraps, his inconsistencies and random allusions, made for a fan feast. From a throwaway line-a hilariously oblique reference such as “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”-scores of amateur yarns have been spun.

Conan Doyle’s omissions and errors left space for others to contribute. Less-than-fully-speced inputs–raw sketches, concept directions, overarching themes–can often leave more space for creative participation than a finely honed departure point.

Of course it depends on where in a development process one is and what the objectives are. (Sing, “a time to diverge, a time to converge” to the tune of The Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn”).

In semi-related news, San Francisco IxDA will be exploring the use of prototypes at their May 26th event.

Related Posts:
Giving Away Time, and Moving with a Magic Thing (Quickies)
Human Behavior
Trying to find out things we didn’t even know to ask about

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ChittahChattah Quickies February 14th, 2009
  • LinkedIn has a mascot? – From 2007, here's the LinkedIn Wizard.
  • Rob Walker on the origins of Twitter's Fail Whale (the indicator that the service is down). – "As with many Web-popularity stories, there’s a lot of flukiness to Fail Whale’s rise." Groan! Can anyone explain LinkedIn's completely off-brand Wizard?
  • How Google Decides to Pull the Plug (with a perspective on product development and innovation) – For many ideas, Google’s first and most important audience is its employees, and it typically tries products internally before releasing them. Google and other technology companies refer to this as “eating your own dog food.” Through such “dog-fooding,” Google learned that the early version of its calendar program was fine for parents tracking children’s soccer games, but not robust enough to meet a corporate user’s need to book rooms, reserve equipment and delegate scheduling.

    Equally important is listening to users. Most products have an official blog to explain changes, and customers are encouraged to share their thoughts.

    Google’s willingness to take risks offers a lesson to other companies about the nature of innovation, said Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?” “Perfection closes off the process,” Mr. Jarvis said. “It makes you deaf. Google purposefully puts out imperfect and unfinished products and says: ‘Help us finish them. What do you think of them?’ ”

  • 15 Companies That Might Not Survive 2009 – Including Rite-Aid, Chrysler, Dollar-Thrifty, Sbarro, Six Flags, Krispy Kreme and Blockbuster
  • Blackwater Changes Its Name to Xe, chooses to spend more time with its family – Blackwater Worldwide is abandoning the brand name that has been tarnished by its work in Iraq, settling on Xe (pronounced zee) as the new name for its family of two dozen businesses. Blackwater Lodge and Training Center, the subsidiary that conducts much of the company’s overseas operations and domestic training, has been renamed U.S. Training Center Inc., Blackwater’s president, Gary Jackson, said in a memo to employees that the new name reflected the company’s shift away from providing private security. He has said the company is going to focus on training.
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Human Behavior September 29th, 2008

I was in Chicago last weekend for IIT Institute of Design’s excellent Design Research Conference, and spent a day walking around the city. (I’m happy to say I can now use the term ‘Miesian’ with authority.)

I ended the day in Millennium Park eating a hot dog and looking at Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture.

the-bean.jpg

Actually, to say I was looking at the sculpture sells the experience short. I’d seen the giant silver bean from a distance earlier that day, but once I was next to it, the combination of scale, surface treatment, and form made it such an unusual and compelling object that I couldn’t help but start interacting with it. Chicago writer Lynn Becker’s article on Millennium Park sculpture-as-architecture delves further into the interactivity of Cloud Gate.

After a few trips around and under the sculpture, I decided to sit back and watch how other people were responding to it.

I saw people

  • photograph it
  • photograph themselves with it
  • photograph others with it
  • have strangers photograph them with it
  • use it as a mirror and check their makeup, hair
  • clean it and (while being photographed) lick it
  • fit their bodies into the smallest possible space created by the sculpture’s curves
  • smear their fingerprints along the mirrored surface (this seemed like a form of graffiti, a recording of presence)
  • pretend to be holding the sculpture up
  • use it to hold them up
  • pose suggestively on all fours next to it
  • talk about having come there other times
  • lie on the ground in poses to create specific tableaux in the funhouse mirror-like underside

licking-the-bean.jpg

It was fascinating to see how people reacted to having this functionless object placed in their midst. It struck me as a form of spatial/environmental prototyping, and I’m sure that noticing and examining what people do and what their patterns of motion around this object are and synthesizing that data could produce insights to inform many types of design.

In our research work, we periodically use objects to elicit responses from people to new concepts. Sometimes these artifacts take the form of storyboards, sometimes models, and sometimes we’ll just put something in a person’s hands to give them a starting point, something to react to. One time, I handed a person we were interviewing a CD box set that was on his coffee table, and he proceeded to talk us through a whole design for the product idea we were discussing. “It’d be smaller than this, I think the corners should be rounded, maybe this part could come off . . .”

We’ve been collaborating lately with a couple of our clients on the creation of storyboards and models for this purpose. It’s been interesting figuring out in each case the right balance of detail and abstraction; how to give people enough cues to get the basic concepts, while leaving them enough space to think about how they would like to see those concepts refined.

Of course, what gets created depends on where our client is in the development process and what we want to learn from the people we’re talking to, but I think that what I saw at Cloud Gate is a good model for what one hopes an artifact will spark in a research participant: the urge to experiment, to hypothesize, to test, to interact, to play, to see what’s possible.

holding-up-the-bean.jpg

Related posts:
On using objects for generative research

On noticing
On prototyping and fidelity

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InnovateWithKraft.com June 4th, 2006

InnovateWithKraft, as they are now taking ideas from anyone who’s got one to send in

Kraft is accepting ideas under this policy for new products, packaging, and business processes/systems only. We are most interested in ideas that are more than a concept, in particular new products & packages that are ready to be brought to market (or can be brought to market quickly).
Although we very much appreciate: recipes, entertainment ideas, ideas for line extensions for existing Kraft products or packages, ideas for advertising/promotions and the like, such ideas fall outside the scope of this policy–and thus will not be reviewed by our Innovations Team or considered for compensation.

There is more information about how it works (IP and compensation) in their PDF submission packet. You’ll notice the contact info for the SVP of Open Innovation. I’d link to Friday’s WSJ article that brought this initiative to my attention, but of course the WSJ online content is mostly pay-only, so I can’t link to it. Instead, you may want to read this anlysis of Kraft’s efforts by Frank Piller, presumably a specialist in Open Innovation (admittedly a new term to me – can’t we just call it Innovation 2.0?).

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FreshMeat #5: Cleaning Up On Aisle 5 September 4th, 2001

========================================================
FreshMeat #5 from Steve Portigal

               (__)                     
               (oo) Fresh                  
                \\/  Meat

FreshMeat has the power to charm and seduce. Surrender!
========================================================
The process of getting a good idea shelved can be tricky
========================================================

Have you seen that commercial for new “Special K Red
Berries?” It shows a woman shopping in the produce section
of a grocery store, walking from pear to papaya, picking up
the fruit gently, sniffing it reflectively, and placing it
in her bag. Beyond the pomegranates, she encounters the
new cereal product from Kellogg’s. Okay, we get the point.
The cereal is so fruity and so fresh that it belongs in
with the real fruit.

I guess this ad made me think of something lurking behind
the main story – the way that advertisers have started to
use the hidden parts of product development in their ads,
perhaps to better bring the viewer into the commercial.
For example, videogame companies, Rolaids, Levi’s, and
Kellogg’s have developed commercials that borrow from or
parody user testing and ethnography.

In this case, the development work being (inadvertently?)
spoofed is the placing of a product into retail. This is a
significant barrier to innovation. If Kellogg’s really
wanted to get their new cereal in the produce aisle, they
couldn’t possibly do so. Retailers tightly control what
type of products go in what aisle, as well as what brands
go where. Deals are struck, money is exchanged, products
hit the shelves. Promotions, discounts for consumers,
discounts for the retailer, special end-cap (the end of the
aisle) displays are all part of the negotiation. Even the
stocking and maintenance of the display (and special
hardware such as refrigeration units) may be part of the
deal.

This is neither entirely good nor entirely bad. Retailers
need to provide a coherent and consistent environment for
their shoppers. But today’s retail completely puts the
lie to the “better mousetrap” approach to product
development.

Many manufacturers regard this problem as hopeless, and
throw up their hands in frustration. Getting the product
in the store in a way that the store can sell it is most
certainly a problem. Manufacturers who have taken on this
challenge have often found themselves embraced by their
channel – the realization that their common goal is about
placing stuff in the customer’s hands can alleviate some
(not all!) of the contentiousness that may exist in those
relationships.

The NYT just did a story about consolidation in the
grocery industry and in the broker industry (firms that
work for food producers to handle much of the negotiation
around placement). The article is here/

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