Posts tagged “design continuum”

Wherefore art thou, User?

Lately we’ve been hearing and responding to a lot of chatter in the only-boring-stodgy-Microsoft-types-do-research vein, with language that essentially boils all user research down to testing tools that hinder the creative design process (see Don Norman hates research, Michal Migurski comes out against it).

But user research, at least as we conceive and practice it, is a different animal altogether. Testing relies on existing objects or realities and measures response against them. User research for design and innovation observes, examines, imagines and inspires. Here are just a few things that good user research can do.

  • Broaden the scope. Instead of asking people what they think of these newfangled eBooks, we took a deeper look, to understand how reading is changing and what people value. This led to actionable, inspirational design insights such as, “Books are more than just pages with words and pictures; they are imbued with personal history, future aspirations, and signifiers of identity. And, “There are opportunities to enhance digital reading by replicating, referencing, and replacing social (and other) aspects of traditional book reading.” (Read about Portigal Consulting’s Reading Ahead project here)
  • Discover meaning. Design Continuum explored the car rental experience with a group of Harvard Business Students recently to discover opportunities for improvement and innovation along numerous touch-points throughout the journey, inspiring students to envision altogether new experiences beyond the typical drudgery of current practice. (Description of event on Design Continuum’s blog here)
  • Shift perspective. Wells Fargo engaged with a small number of customers to understand that consumers’ experiences and world views are fundamentally different from the internal company view. This shed a whole lot of light on how to improve communications and experiences across internal organizational silos. (Excerpt from a Forrester white paper on this project here)

Alex Faaborg of Firefox channeled Don Norman’s take on design approaches during a recent ZURBSoapbox event,

There are two distinct approaches to design. One focuses on user-research to find out what people need/want. This approach is exemplified by Microsoft and is used mostly to mitigate risk. The downside of this ‘user testing’ model is that users can lead you astray. For example, if you ask everyone what their favorite color is the average will be gray. The second tries to bring a specific vision to life and an impression of the user they want to have. This approach is exemplified by Apple and can result in huge success or failure.

Now, while Faaborg mostly touts the second more glorious path, he does acknowledge “If designers don’t know what they’re doing it could be a disaster.”

How will designers “know” what they’re doing? Or, in this heroic design model, is there room only for psychic, infallible, savant designers who do just somehow “know?” Where does this leave the consumer, or “user,” or, as they are also known, people?

We believe that including people in the process of designing products for people is a good idea, and serves to drive great design and business concept development rather than preventing it.

Designer Gods

Disclosure/disclaimer – I teach in the Industrial Design program at CCA, where Yves Behar is the co-chair.

This Wired article may not be the most egregious example, but it was the one that tipped things for me. It describes the work of fuseproject on the $100 laptop. But like many articles about fuseproject, and indeed many articles about design firms in general, it casts the firm as the manifestation of a single person’s talent, skllls, and vision. I don’t know how they work at fuseproject; I would imagine you’ve got to be pretty damn good to get a job there (given the reputation and output of the firm). This management of public image using Yves exclusively may be part of a deliberate attempt to build a brand around an individual, it may be ego, it may accurately represent how things work. I’m working hard not to make too many unfounded assumptions.

As soon as they accepted the challenge, Béhar and a handful of his 28 staffers began a stretch of late nights at the studio, sketching shapes on tracing paper. They reviewed 20 or 30 models that other designers had proposed at various points in the project. They gave special attention to Design Continuum’s original version, a boxy green laptop with a prominent power crank.

“There were too many parts flapping around, too many open places. It wasn’t realistic,” Béhar says. “It should be compact and sealed, like a suitcase. And it should really look and feel different. It shouldn’t look like something for business that’s been colored for kids.” (That’s more than an aesthetic concern: An unmistakable, childlike design will be the laptop’s only real defense against theft and resale.)

“My temptation as a designer was to explore a lot of options,” Béhar says. He looked into electronic ink displays, which run on very low power and could allow for smaller, lighter batteries. (The laptop must be light, since kids are meant to carry it everywhere.) He liked the idea of a soft keyboard, connected to the screen with something called a living hinge (think of the way a cap attaches to a shampoo bottle), which would be cheap and practically indestructible. But E Ink technology is not mature enough, and kids who have no desks at school would find a floppy hinge awkward to balance in their laps. Besides, the laptop was supposed to roll off an assembly line at Quanta, the world’s largest laptop manufacturer, by the end of 2006. He had to move quickly. “A lot of concept ideas I eliminated pretty early on,” Béhar says.

Figuring out how to protect everything from dust and moisture was harder. Béhar replaced the traditional keyboard on Design Continuum’s model with a sealed rubber one and built a sensor right into the palm rest to eliminate the seam between it and the trackpad found on a regular laptop. Other problems: The USB ports were exposed to the elements, and a pair of radio antennas had to stay outside the machine. (The Media Lab wanted the antennas to have a half-mile range for building a city- or village-wide mesh network, with each laptop acting as a node.) Solving one problem solved the other: Béhar turned the antennas into a pair of playful “ears”that swivel up for reception or down to cover the laptop’s naked ports.

“Everything on the laptop serves at least two purposes,” he says.

In March, Béhar’s team presented two models to the One Laptop per Child panel of researchers, engineers, and former Media Labbers. Members of the Design Continuum team also presented two versions. Only one design would survive to a final round of revisions. After Béhar showed off his work, he wandered out to the hall for a glass of water. Fifteen minutes later, he walked back into the room and was greeted with a round of applause.

At least there is an acknowledgement of this as a team effort in a couple of places. But the writer (and Yves himself) attributes decisions and actions to Behar alone.

Contrast this with a piece of Kevin Smith’s My Boring Ass Life

My apologies for the lack of updates, but we’ve been pretty fucking busy. Week 3 is wrapped, and tomorrow, we start our second to last week on the show. Both cast and crew continue to dazzle. I continue to dream about getting more sleep, as I spend all day on set, then lock myself in the editing room ’til usually two or three in the morning. I may be sleepy, but I’ve cut every frame of film we’ve shot already, resulting in one hour of the movie completely assembled. The simultaneous-to-shooting editorial has been tremendously helpful in allowing us to go back to scenes and shoot any missing pieces I didn’t know we’d need, or allow me to revisit scenes I feel need a bit more (or less) detail. If you’re ever gonna make a flick, cut it (yourself) while you’re shooting, kids; you won’t regret it.

We went an extra day last week, shooting on Saturday to get Lee on his “Earl”-free day. The Randal/Lance showdown is a real highlight of the flick, but the award for scene-of-the-week goes to Mewes. When you see the film, you’ll know what I mean.

If you’ve seen Smith interviewed (or giving those entertaining convention or college campus talks), he surprisingly uses “we” to refer to the filmmaking process. He will also use “I” regularly to talk about writing or other things he alone does, but he seems to have made a conscious choice to keep language collective and plural as much as possible.

It’s certainly apples and oranges and I think it’s too easy to draw ridiculously simplistic conclusions from the comparision here. I think the contrast is interesting, however, because it suggests that either way of presenting the creative head is not the only way it can or needs to be done.

[Additionally, I thought the Wired piece was blogworthy because it offers the rare-for-press snippy stuff that always goes around designer conferences around which firm screwed up this for that client and who came in and saved ’em. I always hear those stories but never see ’em in print.]

Get Out Of The Office

Refreshing piece in the NYT (since it omits the usual players and the jokes about anthropology) about the importance of getting out of the office and getting to where your customers are.

Once a year, though, he organizes a different kind of hunt – which he calls a “branch hunt.” In it, the entire organization turns its attention from the suite to the street – and, by scrutinizing the fine details of how banks interact with their customers, sees the market from a new perspective.

“The most thoughtful and articulate strategies tend to come from the big banks,” Mr. Brown explained. “But their actual results seldom bear that out. When you walk the streets and look at what’s happening, the gap between strategy and execution becomes obvious. We can’t just listen to what executives say. We have to see with our own eyes what customers are experiencing.”

The dress code for a branch hunt is casual, but the approach is rigorous. For its fourth annual hunt, Second Curve pinpointed the location of every branch of every bank on the East Side of Manhattan, from 25th to 86th Streets.

All the firm’s employees – the analysts, the compliance officer, the computer geek, the receptionist – divided into teams, were assigned specific avenues and streets and set out with digital cameras, audio recorders and four crisp $100 bills for each team. They spent time at the branches, chatted up bank employees, opened checking accounts with the company-issued cash, snapped photographs – not a popular practice with bank security – and captured the flesh-and-blood experience of being a customer.

After the hunt, the teams returned to headquarters and described what they saw, from stories about horrible or remarkable service, to reports on flat-screen televisions that were meant for customers’ viewing but were occasionally found in truly bizarre places where the public could not see them.


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