One-eyed kings: the masters of innovation

One sure way to spice up any conversation around design or innovation is to note that Apple have never invented any device.

While it may be met with some resistance, the fact remains that they didn’t invent the PC, nor the MP3 music player. They are not responsible for the tablet computer, the smartphone or indeed the smartwatch. For all of their (deserved) reputation as innovators, Apple have yet to debut any mass market device that didn’t exist previously.

Given that one of the greatest innovators of our age has achieved this position by essentially coming to the market second or third with their offerings, how have they managed to achieve such a lofty status?

“In the land of the blind the one–eyed man is king” – Desiderius Erasmus c.1500

Apple’s greatest asset by far has been their fieldwork; relentlessly studying how people behave, discovering what they need – and why. They then do one of two things: either a) successfully define a problem, and apply existing technology to solve it in a superior manner, or b) identify inherent problems within existing technologies and successfully solve those.

In doing so they stimulated latent consumer needs which then triggered demand for their product. This is Apple’s genius, and this is innovation.

The company’s rare failures tend to be situations where they tried to solve problems that didn’t yet exist. As an example, the Apple Newton message pad was a tablet by any other name but it came too soon to an unprepared market. In retrospect the consumer PC market itself hadn’t yet been properly established; the public hadn’t yet come to value personal computing of any kind let alone tablet computing. For a modern-day comparison, one has to wonder whether Apple’s reported removal of the headphone jack from the next generation of iPhones is straying into just this territory.

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door – attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, c. 1889

No matter what a business or product offers, someone else has either already tried it, or is currently doing it. To innovate, you need simply to do it better than those others. And by “better” read ‘in a more customer-centric fashion’. A surprising number of founders, businesses, organisations don’t appear to have grasped this. Investing heavily in what may be incremental improvements might not set the boardroom alight, but that’s where the gold is. As with design, innovation is a process not an event. A verb, not a noun.

Correctly defining the problem is more than half the battle in product development. Putting the customer at the centre of the solution is the rest. And to any cries of “but… what about marketing??” in response to that last point, let’s answer it with a look at the banking industry.

Banks are so far behind where they should be with their services it’s tempting to be embarrassed for them. Banks are prime examples of organisations that have tried to market their way out of problems that should have been answered by simply providing better services. This approach has led banks into the unenviable position of being some of the least customer-centric businesses in the world. Millions of RBS customers unable to withdraw money from cash machines for days on end would attest to that.

The financial sector is gradually waking up to the fact that design thinking can be applied to services every bit as much as products. Design thinking doesn’t need to be the territory of the ‘big thinker’ or genius designer. It belongs to everyone on a team – including designers.

Of course everyone wants to innovate. And innovation can be managed through a pragmatic process of observation, competitive benchmarking and incremental improvement. Just ask Apple.

This post first appeared on the FATHOM_ blog.

Formula doesn’t mean formulaic

One of the occasional criticisms hurled at user experience as a discipline is that it is simply a box–ticking accessibility exercise; that by engaging in solid research and analysis, somehow UX is the boring bitthat has to be done before real design gets a look in.

Related to this is another misconception that if a diligent user–centred design process is followed, somehow we will always end up with the same formula, the same outcome – the same design. This is part of the same myth which says that design is arrived at through inspiration alone; that ‘design’ is a noun rather than a verb; that we should ignore established best practice or patterns and instead search for true ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ (add your favourite devisive industry buzzword here).

The retort to this isn’t that UX design does not involve the use of formulae. The defence is that it is the very use of ‘formulae’ that ultimately leads to differentiation.

Some years ago I learned about a narrative pattern called the Hero’s Journey. American Academic Joseph Campbell wrote about it in his book ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’, the result of years of study of myths and legends from many different cultures from around the world. What he discovered was a set of common elements, a formula if you will. You can read more about it here.

Ever since Campbell put his findings in writing, a huge number of popular stories – be they in literature or cinema – have taken cues from the Hero’s Journey resulting in some of the most beautiful, most inspiring tales in popular culture. You need look no further than the original Star Wars (a story that wears Campbell’s influence on its sleeve) to see the template at work. The thing is, although you may be aware you are watching or reading something inspired by Campbell’s work, it doesn’t make it any less stirring or appealing.

It’s worth looking also at popular songwriting. I’m willing to bet that your favourite songs go something like verse–chorus–verse–chorus–middle 8–chorus. I’m also willing to bet that they are based around seven main chords, or variants thereof. And yet from this we get pretty much all modern popular music, and certainly some of the most emotionally resonant, moving songwriting the world has known. Even Lennon and McCartney knew the rules… albeit they stretched them more than most.

UX design is a similar: working within constraints, sometimes with familiar patterns, the unique aspects of the project – the client’s aspirations, the user needs, the business model – bring to the table elements which alter the chemistry of he process to create something if not unique, then truly effective – the most important benchmark of all.

Last year I worked on a support micro site for a minority community group. Conventional wisdom would have held that, as we were dealing with an already well–researched audience, user research would not yield too much in the way of insights. The client however was wise enough to seek validation of received wisdom and consented to a round of public workshops. One of the most valuable outcomes from these was a set of five distinct personas that the website needed to connect with and communicate to. The personas derived informed everything from navigation and wayfinding to site content and overall tone–of–voice, as well as providing themes for the associated promotional campaign.

As in music or storytelling, the basic building blocks may be limited but there are potentially infinite directions a project can take. And yes, as in those other examples, some results will be poor if a formula is relied on too heavily. What matters though is that the chosen outcome is an effective one, and one that connects with the right people.

In a changing world, where human factors consistently remain the most important elements in communication and interaction, a solid user–centred design process remains the best formula for achieving success with digital projects.

This post originally appeared on the Fathom_ blog

The Entropy of Intent

With the publication of his article ‘A Mathematical Theory of Information’ in 1948, a visionary mathematician and engineer named Claude Shannon all but established information theory, outlining in his paper the building blocks of digital communications.

His work introduced a contextual definition of ‘entropy’, addressing the reliability of data transfer, the conveyance of information from a source to a receiver. If ‘Shannon entropy’ was low, then the predictability of the information content was said to be high. Shannon has been credited with laying foundations that ultimately led to the creation of the world wide web itself.

The fundamental problem of communication,” Shannon put forward in his publication, “is that of reproducing at one point, either exactly or approximately, a message selected at another point. He was – and is – of course absolutely right.

However the specific challenge that Shannon was referring to was one of technology, and the need for purity of signal and removal of distortion caused by interference such as compression of data. The irony is that, in a web that is a legacy of the work of pioneers like Shannon, information entropy is less likely to be as a result of technological factors, and more a simple failing of human communication.

To put it more succinctly – it doesn’t matter how perfect data transfer is if the data itself is wrong.

In this post from last month, (echoing this piece from earlier in the year) Jeremy Keith opines that the web has drifted away from its original vision. It is lacking, states Keith, “because we shaped it that way, either through our own actions or inactions”.

A deterioration of vision or purpose due to human-related factors – the entropy of intent.

This same decay can manifest itself at a granular level in design and development projects; a deterioration of what was originally desired, intended or agreed, dissipated across meetings, through processes, sign-offs and the myriad communications that take place between various parties as a project progresses.

The idea of ‘entropy of intent’ is not referring to, for instance, constraints being applied to features or narrowing the scope of the project (both of which can actually be hugely positive moves). It may however manifest itself in other seemingly innocuous ways such as: poor copywriting; ineffective navigation and wayfinding; needless functionality. Anything in fact which distorts the communication of ideas and concepts between the source (the project team) to the receiver (end users).

Protecting intent doesn’t come under project management; it isn’t the client’s responsibility, nor specifically that of the design or development teams. Responsibility exists both within and outside the traditional project roles. More than anyone though, I believe it falls to the UX function to keep a project true to its original purpose, which will generally be  more all-embracing than the minutiae of conversions, KPIs and metrics.

Without question it takes a huge amount of effort to even articulate the central intent for a project never mind maintain focus on it. One key contribution that UX design can effectively make is firstly to identify and agree core guiding principles, and then to keep those principles in play right through to delivery. But it is a monumental challenge.

I’ve been involved in projects over the years where mere delivery was celebrated. Something that began with high aspirations and apparently clear goals became something to simply get finished and tick off a list. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault. What it means is that somewhere along the way the original vision for the project has become secondary to other priorities – sometimes this may be just getting it ‘out the door’.

Help is at hand, unsurprisingly from a fantastic and supportive UX and design community:

  • Any project comes with a brief, albeit one that might be vague or unfocused. Creating a vision though is just as important. This article from UX Magazine offers some excellent advice on creating an effective, singular vision
  • It may be the user’s intent, rather than the project’s, that requires clarification. UX Matters published The Importance of Knowing User Intent some time ago, documenting how this can be identified, which in turn can feed into the vision for the project as a whole
  • Dan Klyn has spoken on defining what “good” means on a project and outlined the use of Performance Continuums. I highly recommend his talk, which can be listened to on the UX Thursday website, with accompanying slides available on Slideshare

No project will ever embody perfection. But neither should every project fall prey to a lack of stamina or will to create something if not great, then truly effective for the organisation funding it and the people who will ultimately make use of it. Following the critical early stages of a project, when it is often easy to feel that the difficult decisions have been made and all the big battles already won, the war of attrition against entropy is only beginning.

In (further) praise of personas

I felt this piece from UX Matters – Are Personas Still Relevant to UX Strategy? – and the string of great comments that follow it warranted a post here, based on personal experience forged in rigidly commercial environments.

To my mind, personas introduce a much needed human aspect into what can otherwise be a soulless, technical process that leads to an anodyne web site, app or web strategy. Rarely is the case for designing for people put as strongly as during a persona building exercise.

Personas also help to communicate strategy to otherwise sceptical stakeholders. When they are executed correctly, they ring true. They transform the “users” we so often refer to in design industry-speak into the clients and customers that your client recognises; they will know these people.

When it comes to crucial decisions of prioritisation, creating a hierarchy of needs for functionality can be greatly assisted by basing these decisions on the most important customers as a first step, rather than working with an exhaustive list of features or content.

The final, crowning glory of personas is their potential to bestow a lasting legacy. Beyond the life of an interface project, the organisation – your client – now has a valuable insight of their public. They will not be marketing personas (a very different proposition) and done badly, they are nothing but caricatures. But they can provide an enduring reference point for future communications. They inform your client about the people they currently, or aspire to connect with and how they prefer to interact. Above all they can imbue an organisation with the capacity for empathy.

Done right, you will change you client’s perspective for the better, giving them wisdom that they simply did not have before. They will know it and will thank you for it.

UX & The Weight of Expectation

I’ve been thinking increasingly about the importance of user expectations in planing an effective user experience.

The greatest asset we have in going to meet the challenge of the user’s mental model is simply knowing it exists in the first place. A huge part of user research concerns itself with the needs of the user, but it’s important not to let this spill over into a hapless quest for what the user wants.

Don’t Give Me What I Want

User requirements are one of the basic tenets of user experience design. We know however that if the user got everything they wanted then we would almost certainly have a very messy interface to contend with, one overflowing with superfluous functionality and options. In short, what the user wants is often at odds with that they truly need.

This points to a very particular approach to user research.

In my own experience when the opportunity exists to talk to users in person the line of questioning should monitor the distinction between wants and needs very carefully. When talking through a particular system with a user group, the type of question I try to avoid is “what do you want to see on this page?”.

Love Me, Love My User

A quick aside here – people are amazing. Watching them in action on a website or an application is possibly the single greatest education a UI designer can have. They won’t always do what you expect them to do or what you want them to do. They will however do what they feel they need to do in order to achieve a goal. And that, of course, can be endlessly frustrating for designers.

In research as in life, framing a question can be as important as the question itself.

An open question such as “what would you like to see on this page?” (as a crude example) will garner very different responses from “what would you expect to see on the next page?”. The former can lead to some serous flights of fancy, where the entire web as we know it has to be re-engineered to match the heady goals set for what the site has to provide. Expectations are so much more important than perceived need.

Let Me Down Easy

When engaging with stakeholders, the same types of enquiry can help to keep a sense of promise to a minimum. “What do you want…” infers a degree of promise about what will be delivered. So much of stakeholder engagement is about inclusivity, giving people a platform to make contributions to a process that values their input. To over-promise in these situations is to mislead participants as to what will be done with their feedback. “What do you expect?” carries with it less of an overt sense of promise, and more one of discussion.

What’s New, Pussycat?

And what, you may ask, of innovation? If we only deliver in line with expectations, how does anything new enter the mix? Clearly, delivering “to expectations” is a lowly objective for any project. However, delivering what users expect is an imperative. The point is that we are not constantly seeking to reimagine the web. The time for reinventing conventions is gone. Lord knows we saw enough “innovative” – some might say wacky – attempts at elements such as navigation systems pre-2002. We have been left with a web that, generally speaking, conforms. And there is no shame in that. Most of our consumer products do the same; even the iPod delivered innovation in a very familiar package, building on the form factor that products such as the Walkman had created. Everyday innovation almost always arrives in tandem with the familiar. And delivering based on expectations does not preclude the element of delight.

Conclusion

Users do not like the unanticipated, but they will react positively to a system that simplifies a task. Strive for innovation of course, but be careful how you define it. And make no mistake – managing expectations is possibly the single biggest task faced by UX practitioners. As techniques such as responsive design gain traction, the issue of expectations grows ever more complex. In user research, assume nothing… and expect the unexpected.