Better Than New

Designing for Experiences That Change by morepete
June 28, 2007, 2:20 pm
Filed under: Roadmap

Have you got 10 minutes? Good. Because there’s an excellent debate rolling right now in the world of design and innovation. First, be sure to read the paper my Jump colleague Conrad Wai and I presented at the Persuasive Technology conference at Stanford in April. Then, check out Adam Greenfield’s comprehensive and fairly wonderful exploration of the pitfalls of so-called experience design. I’ll do my best to sum up, but it’s really just best if you read the whole thing. I think we’re reaching a very interesting point in the discourse. It’s cool. I’ll wait.

Done? Good. Because I buy into a ton of what Adam has to say, and I also see a lot that isn’t on the money. Specifically, his piece is extraordinarily focused on the current execution of a few high-profile experience design projects, including the Nike+iPod Sport Kit, the subject of the paper Conrad and I wrote.

Admittedly, the current functionality of the system is quite basic and focuses on a specific kind of runner: The sorts of adrenaline hounds who are Nike’s core customers, as well as their employees. The Nike+ kit is also officially constrained to a small set of Nike shoes (though it can function strapped onto anything, even bare feet), and it is comprehensively constrained to just the iPod nano, despite pin compatibility with both full-size iPods and the nano-preceding iPod mini. Greenfield slams the device for all this. And he’s right – the Nike+, right now, doesn’t do everything that it can:

– What about users, and uses, of the system outside the envelope imagined by its designers? Nike+ feels unnecessarily over-optimized for a single kind of runner, and a single kind of run. (Heathcote nails it: “I can see the persona on the flipchart now,” and anyone who’s worked in the field for more than about ten minutes knows precisely what he’s talking about.)

There’s nothing in the system’s technical capabilities that prevents it being of utility to walkers, for example. They may not necessarily be as sexysweaty as the users featured on the Nike+ site, but would surely appreciate being able to take advantage of its pedometer and calorie-tracking features. Why exclude them, literally by design?

Here’s where Greenfield and I diverge. You design to exclude them, because you’re launching a new technology that people are unlikely to understand right off the bat. As a result, you choose to make a device that appears limited but has greater capabilities that unfold over time, both through user discovery and also by pushing out software and content updates. If you launch a radically new idea into the market in full bloom, with all of the parts and pieces advanced as far as you can possibly take them, a lot of bad things happen (Just ask Xerox PARC about the Alta development process):

  • Your sales price will be too high
  • Your development process will take too long
  • Your capabilities will be so robust that you’ll freak out the early adopters you need to reach in order to reach a mainstream audience
  • A competitor will eat your lunch

Basically, you get screwed. And so companies compensate for this problem by very gradually introducing the pieces of the ultimate system they envision, road-mapping their offerings to help people change their behavior while also learning more about how successful the solution is.

And that often means starting with a surprisingly cheap piece of the solution. Take the iPod+iTunes ecosystem, for example. It did not arise in its current form over night. First, Apple rolled out iTunes as a music management program (one they bought and redesigned, at that) for Mac users in January 2001. It was totally free. Mac users moved their mp3 libraries to iTunes (or created them for the first time, if they hadn’t gotten on th etrain already) over the next few months as Apple emphasized CD burning.

Wait, what? Seriously. Apple introduced iTunes as a better way to burn CDs. The iPod didn’t come out until October, 2001. So for 9 months, we Mac users thoughts, “Why did Apple release such an uncapable mp3 library? I mean, it’s fine, but I can’t play movies in it, and it doesn’t hook up to mp3 players directly. They could have easily added those features!”

And then, of course, Apple played the big card. But the iPod, again, had big problems off the bat. It was too expensive, it relied on music ripped from CDs to get legit content (instead of stuff from file-sharing), and it could pretty much only play music, which lots of other products did. Why not make it a video player or a PDA? Why make it Mac only? The product could grow much faster if it were on Windows, too!

And so Apple brought out the iPod for Windows. And then they introduced the iTunes store. And then finally, in 2005, Apple rolls out a video iPod, rolling in a feature people had been seeking for years. And it arrived in a beautifully seamed environment, to borrow a reference from Greenfield.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the iPod+iTunes ecosystem. What matters is that Apple perfectly set themselves to get their products adopted rapidly by a wide number of people. Most importantly, they let obvious, desired features, show up later on. But they made their first features really easy to understand rather than doing everything they possibly could.

So in that way, maybe Nike+iPod is more like iPod+iTunes than we think it is. It’s set up for runners, a limited set of shoes and the iPod nano right now. All Nike shoes will work with it soon, and software and content updates could make the Nike+ work on any iPod and measure virtually any kind of mobile exercise the second it gets released. If Nike finds out that walking is what Nike+ folks are interested in, they can send out the walking updater and walking coach motivators.

Nike’s Explore group is very sophisticated in how they launch innovations, so I would be shocked to learn they haven’t thought about this stuff in this way – especially since they’re working with Apple, a company that has rewritten the book on product road-mapping in the last decade.

And it’s for this reason that we can’t get caught up in the limitations of a first edition of a platform – quite often, it’s something of a Trojan Horse, just waiting to show what it can do. Smart designers hold a lot back and focus on driving adoption and then figure out how to expand its capabilities. That’s a launch that will grow for years to come – just ask Facebook.

I’m not totally sold on how I feel about this yet, but I don’t think it can be ignored. Thoughts, anyone?


Sideways Innovation is Abundant – And Unsexy by morepete
June 25, 2007, 11:39 pm
Filed under: Context for Innovation

When people think about innovation, they tend to take a very technology-centered view of the world. If an idea could have been executed 50 years ago, it just isn’t innovative, so far as most of the population is concerned.

Even otherwise rational companies who should just be creating new ways to grow often find themselves caught up in such hype: “This one product will save the company – and its specs are really large numbers!”

But as Jess McMullin notes, a lot of the time, innovation looks much more humble – it can mean taking a good idea from one context and putting it in another one. He calls it Sideways Innovation: Finding a new use for an existing idea in a new market. And he’s worried that not enough companies try it. I disagree. Plenty of people do Sideways Innovation – but it doesn’t sound as sexy as designing something from scratch, so we don’t hear about it as much.

Great examples of this phenomenon are all around us. The pair of Shure headphones in my ears right now are based off of professional in-ear stage monitors. The great Crest SpinBrush in my bathroom was developed using the same technology as the CapToys SpinPop way back in the day. The entire Starbucks empire sprang from the introduction of centuries-old Italian coffee culture to the United States.  I would argue, in fact, that Sideways Innovation is incredibly abundant in the business world, but it doesn’t make for great stories in the press most of the time.

After all, the SpinBrush has been a tremendous success for P&G, as has the Swiffer, another product the company found elsewhere in the world (in this case Japan), but the acquisition, launch and iteration of existing products doesn’t sell magazines or get design consultancies work. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard experienced designers tell me that IDEO came up with the Swiffer. They didn’t. Continuum did. And even then, it was an adaptation of an existing product P&G bought the rights to. The consultancies have done great work extending that product line, but the essential insight began overseas.

But none of this fits the story about innovation that Americans want to hear or that the media wants to tell. Too often, we expect innovation to be about Americans inventing things and being smart. It’s a story that makes a rough economic period tolerable.

What we know down deep is that innovation is a global concern, and what really matters is sustainable growth, not wacky inventions. But until the American public is ready for a serious business story, the press is going to delight us with novelty, even if other methods for creating new ways to grow work better in certain contexts for certain companies.

Image via Spinbrush

NBC Claims Video Piracy Hurts Corn Growers. Um…No. by morepete
June 25, 2007, 11:12 am
Filed under: Failure to Innovate, Innovation Humor

By Pete Mortensen

The entertainment industry’s continual inability to grapple with the realities of a world where legal and illegal digital downloads are a click away has reached an appalling new low. NBC filed a brief with the FCC that claims digital piracy not only hurts the entertainment industry, it HURTS AMERICAN GROWERS OF CORN.

“Because of our nation’s interlocking economy, two-thirds of the lost earnings and lost jobs are in industries other than motion picture production. For example, in the absence of movie piracy, video retailers would sell and rent more titles. Movie theatres would sell more tickets and popcorn. Corn growers would earn greater profits and buy more farm equipment.”

Ahem. No, I’m not making this up. I would dismiss it as pure marketing spin if it weren’t so outright insulting to the people who buy movies, music and TV content. As Art Brodsky, the writer who brought the absurd claim to the world’s attention notes, corn growers are doing reall, really well right now.

According to the June 20 Wall Street Journal, corn sold at $3.83 per bushel this morning, up from $2.08 a year ago. Corn futures are even higher — $4.03 for the December crop. And don’t worry about the popcorn guys. According to the Popcorn Board, Americans consume 17 billion quarts of popcorn each year. Of that total, 70 percent of popcorn is eaten at home, and the remaining 30 percent is divided up among all the other places – movie theatres and sports stadiums, among other venues.

Guess what you can do while watching tons of ill-gotten movies and TV shows at home? Eat a bunch of microwave popcorn. And that’s maybe the most shocking thing about this baldly facetious filing: The entertainment companies don’t actually have a natural ally in the snack-food industry. The snack makers don’t care where you got your entertainment – they just care that you want to munch their treats while you watch.

And here’s the thing: If the entertainment companies had spent a tenth as much time figuring out what people really need from their entertainment as these companies and associations have spent in demonizing the pirates and launching lawsuits against little kids, any one of them could be light years more successful in the digital era than they are now.

But don’t believe me if you don’t want to – I might just have it in for the corn industry.

Via Engadget.

Pushing the Boundaries of Design – Back to Where We Came From by menteral
June 20, 2007, 10:32 am
Filed under: Context for Innovation

Pushing BoundariesBy Adam Menter

BusinessWeek’s recent article about Pushing the Boundaries of Design made some timely and interesting points about how the best designers are pulling inspiration from diverse sources. Whether or not this is revolutionary depends on where you stand. Coming from the siloed world of business, it’s game changing. Coming from the eyes of a toddler, it’s old news.

Children are learning machines. In their attempt to understand the world they’ve just entered, they soak up and assimilate information from everywhere and everything. There is no such thing as a “lateral connection” for them because the world has not been bucketed yet – either by school disciplines or societal norms. When a child uses an ordinary object in unintended ways – such as the article’s example of using metal pie tins as Frisbees– it is not a revolution. It makes perfect sense. For my girlfriend’s brother, it was his parent’s old ’45 records that he learned to fling and toss about (much to the chagrin of his parents).

What’s great about BusinessWeek’s point is that looking for these lateral connections has the power to bring us back to our humanity. It gives us the freedom and permission to explore and learn – as we are hard-wired to do. There is an element of play to this, and that’s what makes it fun. But to use any ensuing insights and ideas effectively in design and business, at some point there is an element of implementation and focus that gives form to some really cool stuff. And that’s what makes it inspiring.

Grant-makers are Listening to the Voice of the Customer in Tibet by menteral
June 20, 2007, 10:28 am
Filed under: Social Change

Tibet PhotoBy Adam Menter

I recently read an article on that tells the story of a foreign teacher named Kevin Stuart in rural Tibetan China who is using English language education as a means to empower local students to write grant proposals and improve the situation in their communities. Having traveled to similar areas of the developing world and seen first-hand how aid is often distributed by foreign foundations and NGOs, it was great to read about an initiative like this.

Too many foundations, as well-meaning as they are, use what I would call a “push” strategy. Using only the most basic and cursory methods for understanding what – if anything – is ailing a given community, they force-feed people ready-made solutions that were devised using their pre-existing cultural frame. These over-assumed solutions often aren’t appropriate for the situation or the local culture – and aid dollars are not used to maximum affect. By teaching these students English, and connecting them to grant-making institutions, what Mr. Stuart is doing is giving these communities a stronger voice. Quite literally in this case. This voice can both articulate needs and suggest solutions – allowing grant-making agencies to “pull” more effective from the communities whose needs they are trying to meet.

Businesses can fall into the same trap – introducing products with an incomplete working understanding of customers’ real needs. Even when great social research and market studies have been done, it is tempting for companies to over-assume the solution and push products into the marketplace. While these solutions may make sense from the company’s cultural frame, and in relation to existing product offerings, they can miss the really big opportunities – even if they do meet some success in the market. Sometimes the misleading puzzle piece is how and when new products are devised and tested. Long-term, exploratory ethnographic research is a much more powerful tool than targeted, closed-ended, focus groups – even if it is more blunt and requires more synthesis.

As our globalized, networked, transparent, and open-source world continues to evolve, the companies that have the strongest connection and most constructive relationships with their customers are going to thrive. Open-sourced innovation and co-development are buzzwords that businesses are just starting to understand and use effectively. It will be a better world – both for businesses and for people – once it’s really figured out.

As far as Mr. Stuart’s community in Tibet goes – I am heartened but not completely sold. In some respects, his initiative is just another hoop that local communities have to go through to get hand-outs. And does teaching English really strengthen communities and promote cultural diversity? Many of the examples given in the article – creating a digital archive of traditional, constructing pigsties, and introducing running water – seem like the same old host of ad projects. I’ll start getting really excited when more grant makers learn to speak Tibetan and live in the communities they mean to help.

The Downside of Prototypes by morepete
June 19, 2007, 2:03 pm
Filed under: Context for Innovation

By Pete Mortensen

Jess McMullin of bplusd dropped a couple of bombs this morning in a post that searches for reasons why the word design means styling to such a large percentage of the population. For anyone in this business who wants to see design mean a lot more to people, this post is essential reading.

Core to the argument Jess puts out is the notion of Prototype theory, which states that each word has a representation that is most often conjured when someone hears the term:

Prototype theory suggests that some members of a category are more representative of the category than others – when you think of a bird, you’re far more likely to conjure an image of a robin or a seagull than a cassowary. When people think of design, they are far more likely to think of surface elements like color and styling rather than deeper characteristics like function, problem solving, or problem definition. We literally judge books by their covers, at least at first. The same holds true for cell phones, toys, cars, websites, and other designed objects.

This is an interesting notion. Jess adds on to say that it could be about market forces, and that the more strategic a particular kind of design work, the less common it is. Which is largely true. There really aren’t that many people who provide the same services that Jump does, to be quite honest, while tons and tons of very good firms do industrial design.

On the other hand, I think this is also very much about confidentiality. The color or finish of a product is always front and center. People understand that it has been designed, and that process is typically fairly public — car companies love to show the pictures of the animal or other metaphor that inspired a design, for example. But the more strategic a design workstream is, the more likely that it is rich with proprietary intellectual capital, and that’s stuff almost no one feels comfortable sharing. Consequently, design strategy work, which already sounds too abstract for words, is not as able to back up its vision of the world with lots and lots of concrete case studies, which are necessary to share something so different from the mental prototype of design.

Very compelling stuff all around, Jess. We’ve missed your voice.

Being “Market-Driven” Means Being Needs-Driven by morepete
June 19, 2007, 10:22 am
Filed under: Context for Innovation, New Needs

By Pete Mortensen

Always entertaining and provocative, Seth Godin has attempted to categorize the prime motivators of, well, every company in the world. It’s a fun list, with lots of humor (especially about the Troll Driven or Paycheck Driven companies), but it misses a pretty key point.

In Seth’s hierarchy, JetBlue sits at the pinnacle, representing a Market-Driven Company, one that creates “what the market wants.” This incredibly rare category is clearly the ideal. But doing “what the market wants” is not what’s going on here.

JetBlue has tremendous empathy for travelers, and it creates incredibly compelling solutions to meet their needs. People might want a cool TV screen in the back of their chair and a handful of snacks nearby. But they need to travel at a low price and to find ways to entertain themselves during a flight. And yes, that does correspond to what the market “wants.”

But market demand is the expression of a shared human need that few marketers are meeting. The reward to anyone who identifies a big, unmet need is tremendous. Interestingly enough, Godin’s “Founder-Driven” category often fits this rubric as well, largely because Richard Branson is himself brilliant at identifying needs.

The greater challenge for both of these companies is figuring out how to maintain the empathy that has brought them this far. And that will take the creation of a systemic approach to needs identification across the company and functions. But if anyone can do it, they can.

Image via MSNBC