Posts tagged “failure”

The Future of the Book, you say? [2013 edition]

Reading ahead
In 2010, we conducted a public-facing study about the future of books and reading, called Reading Ahead. We raised many fascinating questions including the design implications for the digital book experience: which elements of the traditional experience should move forward and which should be left behind.

Looking at the issue a few years later is the New York Times, with Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind

Some functions of physical books that seem to have no digital place are nevertheless being retained. An author’s autograph on a cherished title looked as if it would become a relic. But Apple just applied for a patent to embed autographs in electronic titles. Publishers still commission covers for e-books even though their function — to catch the roving eye in a crowded store — no longer exists.

What makes all this activity particularly striking is what is not happening. Some features may be getting a second life online, but efforts to reimagine the core experience of the book have stumbled. Dozens of publishing start-ups tried harnessing social reading apps or multimedia, but few caught on.

Much of the design innovation at the moment, Mr. Brantley believes, is not coming from publishers, who must still wrestle with delivering both digital and physical books. Instead it is being developed by a tech community that “doesn’t think about stories as the end product. Instead, they think about storytelling platforms that will enable new forms of both authoring and reading.”

Dan’s War Story: Shanghai Surprise

Dan Szuc (writing on behalf of the whole Apogee team, including Jo and Hok) relates a familiar experience about equipment failure, highlighting the importance of improvisational problem solving and supportive team dynamics.

We were on on the train in Shanghai on our way to visit a person in their home as part of a research project. Doing random checks of all equipment becomes second nature, ensuring that you have backups of backups, cables work correctly, sound is being recorded correctly and video is working well.

We all have specific roles on home visits where. Hok and I capture both the interview and surrounds on film using Flip cameras, Jo is responsible for speaking with the person we are visiting to ensure that they are comfortable and Hok also is our guy for ensuring all the equipment is technically working well (and if something is not working well he usually knows how to fix it).

So back to the train ride in Shanghai…the three of us were together, testing the recorder, cable and microphone. We realized on conducting a few test recordings that there were clear breaks in the recording when playing it back. We realized this was caused during the previous interview as we needed to go through a security scanner at a train station with the participant (as part of the journey we were filming). The cable connecting the recorder and the bag were stretched going through security unnecessarily, possibly causing damage to the wires.

We tested various places where we thought the sound might be breaking up – the connectors, the microphone and the cable itself. We wanted to get this right because the microphone clips onto the person we are interviewing and ensures that we have clear audio (in addition to the audio that’s captured on the video using the Flip cameras). We did not have time to go to an electronics store to get new equipment and were relieved that the audio recorder itself was working well and could serve as a (non-ideal) backup microphone.

Together, we needed to come up with a plan to ensure that we could capture the same level and quality of audio as in the other people’s stories captured to date in Shanghai. Consistent film quality is an important part of the storytelling. We tried a few configurations using the cables, rubber bands and microphone. We eventually worked out a way to place the microphone close enough to the participants chin so that the audio would come through clearly, and discarded what we had determined was the faulty cable.

On reflection, it taught us all the importance of team work, thinking quickly about solutions, not blaming when things sometimes go wrong, trying out various configurations whilst on the move and planning ahead to have some other cables/equipment available if there are failures. Not everything goes according to plan in field research, but having a calm head and a team who works together makes for a nicer working environment and a huge difference in the overall results. Happy researchers equals happy participants equals nice stories equals lots to learn from.

Observation and empathy

Here’s another proof point for the power of video in user research. Check out this very simple observational video.

If you didn’t watch it, it shows person after person stumbling on poorly designed stairs.

I don’t know about you but I felt increasingly emotional the more I watched this. A bubbling outrage and a sense that something so obviously needs to be done about this. Of course, this is a simple problem, which makes the failure to act even more aggravating.

The goal of user research isn’t always to uncover people’s fail states with the team’s existing products, but when it is, tools like video are impactful on rational and emotional levels.

Update: according to this Tweet, the stairway is now closed.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] A Quandary for Swatch – It’s Too Popular [NYTimes.com] – [They are also looking to stop being the parts supplier to all of their rivals] Swatch, the world’s largest watchmaker, is rushing to add factory capacity so that it can make enough watches to meet demand. It wants to add as many as 2,000 employees this year ­ about 1,500 of them at home in Switzerland. But it is struggling to find enough qualified people. “Managing our stock is at the moment not an issue for us because demand is so big that we unfortunately don’t even have the time to build up any stock”… Swatch’s production and hiring problems reflect the overall health of a sector that has rebounded from the world financial crisis. Demand for watches has soared in Asia ­ a region that accounted for more than half of Swiss watch exports last year ­ with makers of mechanical watches capturing an increasingly large slice of the market. Exports of mechanical timepieces rose 32 percent in unit terms last year, compared with an 18 percent increase for less expensive quartz watches.
  • [from steve_portigal] Remembering the XFL, a 1-and-done league in 2001 [SFGate] – [Lessons from a failed attempt to innovate against an established competitor] While some ideas (trash-talking announcers, no penalties for roughness) didn't work, McMahon was a visionary in how he let fans inside the game. Players and coaches were miked up during games, and cameras were allowed into the locker room and behind the scenes. The XFL used the Skycam, the camera held up by wires over the field, and the NFL adopted that almost immediately. McMahon also did away with extra-point kicks, fair catches and coin tosses. At the start of the game, a player from each team would line up at the 30-yard-line and race to the ball at the 50 and fight for it in a "scramble." However, a member of the Orlando Rage separated his shoulder in a scramble the first week…In the end the XFL was caught in the middle. The football product on the field wasn't good enough to lure NFL fans, and there wasn't enough of the "personality-driven stories or crazy characters" to attract wrestling fans.

You’re Soaking In It

From the unpublished archives, services offered in 2009 at the Vida Spa at Vancouver’s Sutton Place Hotel. It’s worth nothing that they no longer offer this particular package! Has the commercialized bromance already expired?

'Bro-mance' your man with Beer Therapy

The Beer Therapy Treatments at Vida are designed to naturally calm and detoxify the skin. Launched in June 1, 2009, Men who enjoy beer therapy treatments at Vida will unwind with a cold Organic beer in one of Vida Spa’s signature relaxation lounges. With their beer, they enjoy Vida organic nut mix (ok not beer nuts but much healthier) and men’s’ magazines such as men’s health, automobiles, economist, and more! Next, he will enjoy one of two Beer Therapy Treatments.

Beer Soaked Hot Towel Compress Facial

Vida Estheticians perform a deep cleanse, exfoliation, extraction, mask and massage. Beer Soaked Hot Towels are wrapped barber style and using press and release movements, products are removed while facial muscle tension is eased. His skin is left soft, calm and vibrant. 60 min / $115

Deep Tissue Massage with Beer Soaked Compress

Vida Therapist begins with deep Swedish massage movements, followed by localized beer soaked hot towel compresses to relax and detoxify the muscle further. 60 min / $120

Cupcake Take: Steve


Broken fridge, San Diego, July 2010

Imagine running a commercial kitchen that produces your flagship product. What do you do when a key piece of equipment breaks? While there was probably some freaking out, this gourmet cupcake shop found a necessarily-small-business solution: move everything to a new refrigerator, in this case, the beverage cooler right inside the front door. Doing this effectively brought the backstage into the frontstage. Not only is there transparency here about their process of making cupcakes (as Julie describes here), they are also transparent about their challenges in running a small business. While companies like Google can get away with the Beta label currying forgiveness for the not-ready-for-prime-time-but-we’ll-use-it-anyway-for-free line of products, we probably wouldn’t be charmed by a sticky note on a broken server that contains our data. Some things are mission critical, but having to reach around some eggs to get my can of Mountain Dew isn’t one of them. It’s kinda fun and surprising to see the backstage appear frontstage (see the kitchen design at In-N-Out Burger) and charming that this business could take what was nominally a failure and create a gentle celebration around it.

Also see: Vodafone celebrates construction around their retail outlets here and a far less celebratory sign from the same store here.

Photographer Michael Schmidt on Failure


Photographer Michael Schmidt, from the exhibit Grey as Colour
at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.

I once described myself as a dead-end photographer, meaning that I always wander into a dead end and find no way out. I then accept this condition and at some point I am back out. This means that failure is an integral part of my work process.

Leading with Error Recovery


JetBlue counter, Sea-Tac airport

This sign directs JetBlue customers to a counter based on their specific situation. The first item listed is Kiosk “Oops” Messages. JetBlue is bold enough to acknowledge that things aren’t always going to work perfectly and they’ve made the path to error recovery prominent. This is good customer service, and it’s good design: allow for – and acknowledge that you are allowing for – failures, and reframe them positively.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • The Ruins of Fordlândia – Henry Ford's miniature America in the jungle attracted a slew of workers. Local laborers were offered a wage of thirty-seven cents a day to work on the fields of Fordlândia, which was about double the normal rate for that line of work. But Ford's effort to transplant America– what he called "the healthy lifestyle"– was not limited to American buildings, but also included mandatory "American" lifestyle and values. The plantation's cafeterias were self-serve, which was not the local custom, and they provided only American fare such as hamburgers. Workers had to live in American-style houses, and they were each assigned a number which they had to wear on a badge– the cost of which was deducted from their first paycheck. Brazilian laborers were also required to attend squeaky-clean American festivities on weekends, such as poetry readings, square-dancing, and English-language sing-alongs.
  • Fordlandia: The Failure Of Ford's Jungle Utopia – Henry Ford tries to build a Midwestern American company town in Amazonian Brazil – for the rubber, even though you can't grow plantation rubber in the Amazon. Absolute epic failure results: they were unprepared both industrially and culturally. "But the more it failed, the more Ford justified the project in idealistic terms. "It increasingly was justified as a work of civilization, or as a sociological experiment," Grandin says. One newspaper article even reported that Ford's intent wasn't just to cultivate rubber, but to cultivate workers and human beings."
  • Report Non-Humans – Marketing for upcoming sci-fi flick District 9. See my interactions column "Interacting with Advertising" for more discussion on the "tricks" of hiding advertising in the aesthetics of real informational signage. Is it okay here because we're in on the joke?

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Mark Menjivar's You Are What You Eat – Set of naturalistic images of inside of refrigerators, with brief profile of the owner. Beautifully done.
  • Rollasole – after-dancing semisposable shoe vending – Fact 1: The best nightclubs are notoriously located at either the top or the bottom of a massive flight of stairs.
    Fact 2: The best nightclub shoes are painful, precarious and perilously pointy.
    But fear not, for we at Rollasole have appeared like Prince Charmings (sic) to gently escort you down the stairs, across the kerb and into the back of your carriage – all without falling on your face.
    When you're all danced out, just slip one of our vending machines a fiver and it'll sort you out with a pair of roly poly pumps and a shiny new bag to shove your slingbacks in.

    (via Springwise)

  • Legendary McDonald's failure in the UK – McPloughman – Although vegetarian burgers have failed in the U.S. McDonald's, one of McDonald's most spectacular production failures happened in Britain. This failure can be seen not only as a failure to understand the desires of its primary market, largely for burgers and fries, but also as a lack of understanding of a food product that is tied to British identity. In 1994 McDonald's test marketed the "McPloughman" in Britain. A "ploughman's lunch" is a very traditional British lunch that consists of bread, cheese (British, of course, usually cheddar) and a pickle (also cured in the British style). An attempt to tie the America-based company to such a traditional British product was a "McFlop." The company admitted that the British counter crew were embarrassed both by the concept and by the name itself.

    [Thanks to Stokes Jones for the tip to this one]

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Report: Real-world police forensics don't resemble 'CSI' – Even before the popularity of shows like CSI, there was presumably a cultural belief in the "science" behind these techniques. But the report finds that:
    – Fingerprint science "does not guarantee that two analysts following it will obtain the same results."
    – Shoeprint and tire-print matching methods lack statistical backing, making it "impossible to assess."
    – Hair analyses show "no scientific support for the use of hair comparisons for individualization in the absence of (DNA)."
    – Bullet match reviews show "scientific knowledge base for tool mark and firearms analysis is fairly limited."
    – Bite-mark matches display "no scientific studies to support (their) assessment, and no large population studies have been conducted."
  • NJOY electronic cigarette – Looks like a real cigarette, complete with glowing tip on inhale, and exhaled vapor that resembles smoke. Gives an inhaled nicotine experience, while messaging to the rest of the world that you are really smoking a real lit cigarette. Paging Erving Goffman?

    Someone was using one a party last week; someone else got out their simulated Zippo lighter (an iPhone app) and lit it for them.

Could Driveway be the new boo.com?

Driveway is brand new online file sharing service. But Driveway was an online file storage service that shut down in 2000.

75e49a11.jpg
Driveway, 2000

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Driveway, 2007

Driveway’s original heights and crash weren’t as spectacular (except perhaps to the players involved) as other web 1.0 flameouts (ahem, learning experiences), so it’s reappearance (owned by an entirely new company) won’t be as buzz-worthy as the Second Coming of Boo but I still thought it was worth a mention.

Perhaps we’re in for a wave of remakes in the dot-com space. WebVan 2.0, anyone?

Dan and Steve write: We express ourselves

ey07.jpg
Cool artwork at 111 Minna makes for an exciting backdrop for presentations

Steve and I recently attended an event hosted by Microsoft, called Express Yourself. It was a party/networking gathering focused around a “design contest” in which four prominent Bay Area software design firms presented the work they had done to “solve a real-world design problem” that Microsoft had posed a few days beforehand. As they promoted it:

Are you a User Experience Rockstar? Are you a Master UI Coder? Do you know how to work together? Want to network, drink and learn with 100 of your finest peers in San Francisco?

Please join Microsoft and four leading software design firms in the Bay Area as they compete head to head to solve a real-world design problem… Contestants will receive their design problem three days ahead, and the day of the party will compete to finish and present their solutions using Microsoft’s new Silverlight technology and Expression Suite of design tools. Attendees watch the solutions come to life, comment and party until the awards ceremony.

To begin with, it was a great party–a beautiful venue in downtown San Francisco, open bar, excellent food. Balancing a Martini glass in one hand and a half-spherical bowl of Pho and chopsticks in the other, I contemplated the usability of flatware.

The design problem Microsoft had posed to the firms was to create a “safe” social networking environment for a teenage girl. Microsoft had supplied the firms with personas representing the girl, her mother, and her “quasi-bad-ass” friend.

Update: the contest’s problem statement, rules, and evaluation criteria are now posted here.

The presentations all shared what seemed to us (and to many of the people in the audience around us, judging by an almost non-stop flow of derisive commentary) as a common and almost complete lack of thought or even lay-knowledge about the culture of users for whom this environment was being designed.

Update: details (including screenshots) of the different submissions, and the winner are posted on organizer Will Tschumy’s blog (7/2/07 and 7/3/07).

This apparent lack of consideration for the consumer/end user’s culture and needs/wants stirred a reaction and raised some questions for us.

Dan: None of these (contest entries) look like they’re for teenagers. I mean, it seems so obvious to me that the place you would start would be figuring out what the person you’re designing this thing for would find exciting.

Steve: The most exciting moment (leading to spontaneous applause) was for a interface widget that created this very Web2.0 mosaic of media, kind of like a tag cloud of images and movies. Completely unusable since you couldn’t see what was in the teeny pictures, and very adult in its visual. The audience applauded for something they would like.

In the presentations, I really wanted to see one of the teams consider a definition of what it meant to be safe. That is a very loaded word and it needed to be unpacked. Until you know what safe is, you can’t design for it.

Dan: If I was a kid, the last thing I would want would be any kind of web thing that my parents were involved in.

Steve: If any of these designs get published, I’d like to see someone compare them with Imbee, an actual site that that just launched, aiming to address this same need. Will those appeal to teens? Have they found a way to navigate the tension between “safe” and “parental involvement”?

I’m not being a research snob here. I understand the timeline didn’t support the teams doing their own research. But Microsoft supplied personas. Aren’t personas proxies for research? Or, are they, (as I’ve said before) simply user-centered bullshit. For all the power they are supposed to have with design teams to keep them focused on designing for the user, they didn’t help at all in this case.

Dan: People have all these tools, but they have no idea what needs to be built.

Steve: And maybe the focus of the event was purely on the building. But then Microsoft should have framed it differently. Distributing personas and judging solutions would suggest that it was about building the right thing. But Microsoft’s tool is to help you build better; perhaps their assumption was that the designers would bring the process and MSFT would bring the tool?

Dan: I wonder what Microsoft wanted to find out from doing this, and whether they found it out?

Steve: That’s a good question. I assume they were doing it more as a way to create a splash and be seen as a real player in the design community.

Dan: Then they should have done a challenge that was geared to the strength of the people they had competing. Plus, this was about using their software, right? So why focus on research results as the way to get people into the task? I think they went too far towards the front end of the “project.” They should have given more of a creative brief, and let people go at it.

To me, this whole thing really shows how a lot of people still don’t acknowledge (or don’t fully get) how much work has to be done to actually turn research into design decisions. I think this bodes really well for the work we do.

Steve: I’m relieved you think that. I felt the opposite, actually. I felt depressed about the opportunities for our approach. It’s kind of depressing that in 2007 the “top” software design firms are so locked into distinguishing themselves with shiny shiny and no thinky thinky. [Assuming these were in fact the top players in their firms and not the B Ark].

If making use of real tangible understandings of real users isn’t even on the table for a lot of these folks, then where do we find people to play with? To inform or collaborate with? Maybe that’s not even the point though. Maybe those designers should be working for us rather than the frequent reversal.

Dan: I totally agree-the needs and desires determine what will really work for people and be successful. Then the design should be executed within those constraints. Context, not content, is king, right?

Safeway Update

A quick update on the lame hand-wipe station at Safeway (blogged earlier here) – an unattractive display that cleans hands (not cart handles), and doesn’t really address the perceived problem.

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It’s been shoved further against the wall, the container for the wipes is sitting open, and is empty.

Add neglect to the problem, I guess.

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