Wednesday, May 25, 2011

5 Ways That Design Helps Manage Uncertainty

I recently took a course at MIT called "Real Options for Innovation" based upon Real Options Theory. If you're not familiar, the basic concept is about creating overall value in a project by designing built-in flexibilities or "options" that can be executed based on particular events, success, or lack thereof. The premise is that overall value of the project is improved by minimizing potential downsides. What I found most interesting about the concept is that it relies on one fundamental truth that is often overlooked in business: that the future is completely uncertain, and planning for uncertainties is a far better approach over time than planning for a singular forecast. Think of it like insurance. You likely spend hundreds per month on unused coverage, but after an accident, fire, or broken arm over the course of a few years, you'll be glad that you spent the money that you did.

Given my experience designing products, I couldn't help but notice the parallels between Real Options theory and what I think is a good design approach. Both have a certain level of "strategic humility" -  admitting that the future is a complete unknown and that uncertainty should be accepted and embraced. Like Real Options, a good design process produces artifacts that help a design team understand an uncertain environment or market, thus reducing potential risks of delivering unwanted products or services. Note that I'm referring to a "design-centric" approach, and not necessarily an approach for designing aesthetically-pleasing products (although I would argue the latter should come from the former). This method is generally known as "Design Thinking" and has grown in popularity in recent years thanks to the highly innovative strategic design consultant, IDEO. I highly recommend Tim Brown's "Change by Design: How Design Thinking Changing Organizations and Inspired Innovation" for more information on this topic.

The following are my quick thoughts on some of the most prominent uncertainties in a product development process and the ways that a design approach can help manage them. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, just some of my favorites from my own experience.  

Uncertainty 1: Ideation ("What do we do next?")
Most product or service producing organizations spend a great deal of time planning ahead for what's next. It could be a completely new product, an updated version of an existing product, or even just a new market for a product that's been around a while. But how do we best determine what that next product should be? It's been well established that asking potential users what they want will only lead to incremental (i.e. boring) improvements. People point to Apple saying that they don't need to talk to users at all, and it's some internal "magic" that makes them great. That's all well and good, but it doesn't help much when you're tasked by your manager to plan the next version of your flagship product.

This is the point where design helps de-mystify the ideation process. I've been in countless user interviews over the past decade, and I can honestly say there's no greater waste of time for the designer or the potential user to sit there face-to-face and ask "what do you want"? Instead, translate your undeveloped ideas and untested hypotheses into "visual ideas". These may be concept sketches of potential products, diagrams of new user experiences, or even just a drawing to attempt to represent the user's mental model. Note that these DO NOT require even the slightest bit of artistic ability. In fact, rough and sketchy is often better as it conveys a sense of early-stage flexibility. The point is that the sketches provide a common frame of reference or "anchor" for the conversation with your user. They can force the participant to think in new ways, or even just to tell you that your thinking is completely wrong. In fact, going in with an "incorrect" diagram or sketch is completely fine if it allows the person to point out what they don't want - this can be just as helpful. Finally, an perhaps most importantly, graphics provide a common language that everyone can understand, it breaks down the barriers between technical jargon and non-technical speech, and it reduces the ambiguity that can come from speech-based language interpretation.

Uncertainty 2: Product Vision ("Are we all on the same page?"
Once the idea for the next product or iteration has been determined, a development team can just start crafting a requirements document and project plan, correct? Not exactly.

Even the most clear product ideas have some level of ambiguity at this early stage. While some objectives or expectations may be in place, the expected output is often undefined. Let me first say that this is a great thing - projects should not only allow but promote exploration and iteration. However, the problem is that individuals on a team often have their own personal vision of the expected output of the project. This problem is then compounded by the fact that those individual visions are often clearly defined in the minds of those folks. The reason for this is that vision for products are often communicated in words, which is highly vulnerable to conflicting interpretations (e.g. "Version 1.2 is going to be net-centric and integrated!") What results from this approach is a situation where project members work on diverging or conflicting paths without realizing that they don't share the same viewpoint of a final end state. Team members debate endlessly over detailed technical decisions, not realizing that the source of their disagreement is not on the decision itself but the fact that they have conflicting views of a desired end state.

Project managers attempt to establish consensus with daily check-in's, agile development processes, and related practices. However, in my opinion, these approaches always fall short of optimal without a visual or design-centric approach.First and foremost, a design-based approach clarifies vision and establishes consensus. This is what is so powerful about the Design Thinking approach. I cannot recommend enough the act of visualizing a project's vision before any  engineering or "production" related work even begins. Again, this doesn't require a lick of design skills. Instead, all that is needed is a series of wireframe sketches or diagrams of the expected product, underlying architecture, expected workflow or user experience, and supporting services. On top of that, build one simple visual depiction of the system you're building (e.g. people, products, services, technologies) of which team members can point to and say "we're building that". If you have the ability, try creating a rough 30-60 second video or animation of your vision for the product or service you want to create. You may be surprised how much internal clarity this provides.

Uncertainty 3: Requirements ("What should it do?")
Now that the product vision is clear, it's time to determine requirements. Personally, I prefer a completely experience-driven approach, although I know it can drive engineers crazy (so tread lightly here). My favorite approach for this is to simply get in front of a whiteboard and walk through the expected experience of using your product or service. Stay within the bounds of reality, but ignore detailed technical constraints at this point, as they may unnecessarily block a path to a good idea. In other words, exploring bad or impossible ideas often leads to good ideas.

As the team visually draws out the expected user experience, a great deal of clarity is often formed. It is here that a sense of a "system" is developed, which is far more effective than building a fragmented list of requirements. In fact, by going with a requirements-driven process, you're more likely to result in features that only add to the user experience and not improve it. I don't think I would want to pay the production cost to have those built.

With this visual, systems-based, experience-driven approach, the requirements become a byproduct of the user experience, as opposed to the driving factor. What results is a more holistic, efficient set of requirements. In fact, many great ideas for services or features are often prompted by this process as unexpected paths or relationships are often revealed.

Uncertainty 4: Market Demand ("Will people want it?")
Once the product and all its bells and whistles are imagined, there's still one question to answer before production begins: "Will people want it?". Of course, this is a slightly different question than "will people buy it?", but this is a design blog and not a marketing blog, so I won't get into the process of determining viable pricing points, etc. This point here is to use design to test the waters in the outside world. Internal consensus has been developed, but how do you know that your assumptions and expectations are accurate without talking to people outside your organization? This is where a great prototype or concept animation can be incredibly valuable. Have someone review your storyboard and see how they would react. Perhaps you've developed a perfectly thought out idea based on incorrect assumptions.

Be careful here not to overreact to people's opinions. As mentioned earlier, it's difficult for people to think beyond incremental improvements in their daily lives. As a result, they may react to your idea as being "strange" or "crazy". That said, pay close attention to the types of responses you get, the emotions it evokes in people (e.g. boredom, excitement), and the "between the lines" messages you might receive.

Uncertainty 5: User Experience ("Will people enjoy using it?")
Tim Brown strongly conveys the importance of being "fast to failure".  This means that the goal of a product or service-producing organization should be to develop a prototype of their system as quickly as possible to figure out whether or not it's worth producing. This is most commonly done to rule out bad ideas. As mentioned in the introduction, this design process is really about strategic humility, and this is never more true than in these later stages. I strongly suggest that you not be overly confident in your ideas or your designs, as they are likely wrong..or more accurately, not as good as they could be. What you should have confidence in is your ability to get them right. This shift in mindset is critical for the "fast to failure" approach and will allow you to learn from and improve upon the flaws in your product.

Perhaps the most important lesson of addressing this uncertainty is the incredible return on investment that can come from fixing usability-related issues at an early stage. The cost of fixing a flaw in the design may seem signficant, but it's nothing compared to the compounding effects that will come from releasing a difficult-to-use product or. poorly designed service. For more on this topic of the ROI of User Experience, check out Dr. Susan Weinschenk's video presentation:  

I hope this overview of designing for uncertainty has been helpful to you. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Visual Representation of Ideation as a System

If you have been reading my (rare) blog posts over the past couple months, you have been aware of my ongoing work to attempt to visualize the concept of ideation as a system. I have been doing with work in support of MIT's Center for Media Dynamics alongside fellow classmate and SDM'er, Matt Harper. (Matt's blog can be found here: Our final submission is contained below, complete with a link to our latest animation. Please provide feedback if you have ideas for improvement. Thanks!

The goal of this project was to develop a visual representation of “ideation” – the creation of
ideas. We achieved this by representing ideation as an evolving system of interconnected,
hierarchically structured elements.

To represent the system visually we developed a metaphor which structures the ideation
process in three tiers. The first tier represents the environment in which the idea creator
generates the idea, and includes the resources, ideas, experiences and knowledge that exist
in that environment. The second tier represents the idea creator, who absorbs, filters and
recombines those environmental elements. Finally, the third tier represents the idea itself, made
of elements from the environment and constructed in response to the creator’s intent. Each tier
filters and passes information to adjacent tiers in the system.

The visual metaphor provides a comprehensible view of ideation as a system, and shows
how ideas emerge from elements both internal and external to the idea creator. Finally, this
visualization allows a viewer to simply understand how the creation of new ideas depends on
ideas that already exist, and how cultural, technological and economic factors can have an
impact on how this system behaves.

The development of new ideas is traditionally viewed as an unpredictable and ambiguous
process best left to creative people and brainstorming sessions. Yet, history has shown us that
ideas do not arise as haphazardly as one may think. In fact, the most well-known ideas often
emerge, adapt, and evolve in predictable patterns. More specifically, the majority of “new” ideas
are not new at all, but simply existing concepts that are re-purposed, evolved, or merged to
create some new instance of the existing idea. As these ideas come together, they collectively
behave in a Darwinian manner, slowly evolving, branching, and discarding as necessary with
each innovation. Ideas can be as grand or as simple as one would like, from Einstein’s Theory
of Relativity down to a home-owner’s clever fix for a creaky floorboard.

Specific Aims
Our intention was to improve the viewer’s understanding of the formation ideas by presenting a
novel visual metaphor that evokes both insight and clarity.

Development of the Ideation visualization was a highly iterative process. It required the
development and exploration of a great range of visual metaphors. We developed a series of
hand-drawn sketches, with each iteration incorporating a peer review process for validation and
ideas for improvement. This highly experimental process took us through the design metaphors
of blueprints, DNA strands, musical notation, nested spheres, and finally, a multi-tiered structure
with strands of information being filtered between tiers.

Over time, the form of our final output evolved from a series of static representations. We
realized that a dynamic treatment would be required to fully illustrate the cause-and-effect
relationships that define the creation of a new idea. What was a static representation of the

Ideation system turned into a dynamic, narrated, animated story. We produced this output
through a series of a hand-drawn sketches that were digitally photographed, imported onto a
computer, then cleaned and rendered in Adobe Photoshop. From there, the rendered images
were transferred into Adobe Flash, where they were brought to life through placement on an
animated timeline.

The animation had two main sections. The first presents a personal narrative of a particular idea
being created, dependent on the knowledge that the creator has within their environment. The
second part of the narration introduces and describes the tiered model itself, and discusses the
factors and dynamics which can affect how and when an idea comes into being. Both sections
are both narrated and animated, with the verbal and visual components reinforcing one another.
This adherence to the principles of visual storytelling yields a compelling, cohesive result.

Final peer reviews of this approach have been positive. We believe that the success of our
approach lies in the combination of the different elements that were combined to yield the final
work. First, the combination of both visual and audible information allows the greatest possible
bandwidth for the communication of information, with the two elements at times reinforcing one
another, and at other times providing different but complementary information.

Second, the graphical elements used to visualize this system – the ontology developed – is
again a combination of several different types of entities. Where the representation of hierarchy
was required, we divided elements from one another and arranged them in a way that showed
their hierarchical relation. This was used in particular in the separation of the environment –
creator – idea structure, which showed hierarchy both by nesting concentric circles and by
arranging layers vertically. Conversely, where appropriate we combined concepts into a single
visual element; an example here is how the elements of an idea are shown as lines within a
layer, while the passing of those ideas between layers is represented by the same line element.
This technique – of adding complexity where needed but keeping other elements as simple as
possible – increased the comprehensibility of the model overall.

Finally, the approach of incorporating a story within a descriptive narrative seemed to resonate
particularly strongly with individuals who have reviewed the work. The system this work
describes is quite complex, but describing that system in the context of a simple, relatable story
makes the system much less complicated for the viewer to understand.

Future Areas
Future work will expand on the existing animation to discuss how the mechanics within each
layer can be made more effective. In particular, we will look at the cultural aspects of idea
creation, and consider both how the culture within a society (the human environment), and the
cultural context within which an individual works, can contribute to generating more great ideas.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Increasing Importance of Product Experience

Most people don’t think about the complexity of their mobile phones. After all, it may just be a phone like any other, allowing you to make calls, check your email on the train, and perhaps even play a game or find the nearest coffee shop. If you have the right model, your phone might even allow you to shoot high-definition video or actually see the person you’re talking to on the other end. Designed right, and this device is like "magic", effortlessly bringing you closer to your friends and loved ones and seamlessly delivering you all the world’s wealth of entertainment and knowledge. Designed poorly, and the phone becomes a point of annoyance, frustrating you on a daily basis as you struggle to check emails or find the Talk button. Surely you have experienced both ends of this spectrum and may even appreciate the value of a well-designed product experience. As technology continues to advance, and manufacturers integrate more and more features into our phones, the importance of getting that product experience will heighten to critical proportions.

Of course, increasing complexity of consumer products is not only true in the mobile phone market. Nearly all consumer technologies are advancing in complexity at an ever-increasing rate, escalating in capabilities and advancing by exponential factors of performance. Heightening the complexity, consumer electronics are also converging and colliding through networked capabilities and services. Gone are the days of single-function, isolated products. In order to be successful, today’s product producing firm must develop offerings that seamlessly integrate within a large network of other products of services, provide all the features and performance that are expected, and present it all in an elegant package that masks all of the complexity behind it.

Clearly, today’s consumer electronics and digital services market has matured beyond static functionality and performance and has become a more dynamic “experience-based” market. One needs to look no further than market leader Apple for evidence of that. Consider a consumer product firm that intends to compete with a new tablet computer. If they simply provide expected functionality and performance at a competitive price, then their product will not stand out amongst the competition. Even if the product delivers with exceptional performance measures, which would be expensive to the firm, this competitive edge will likely not last long. In order to truly differentiate their product, the firm must provide an innovative and cohesive “tablet computing experience” that encapsulates its performance and functionality while masking its complexity. This is a challenge endeavor as the experience quality of the tablet depends not only on the design and quality of the physical object and its interface, but the experience the user has utilizing the network services and interacting with the digital applications and content that it provides. Clearly, many of these impacting factors within the product’s system are not in control of the product firm, but failure to recognize, understand, and manage these forces is a recipe for failure.

This approach to differentiation through experience design may sound rather difficult or esoteric, but the benefits of competing on experience can be significant and enduring. In fact, recent examples show how optimizing for experience and not on capabilities can actually lead to creation of radically innovative products or better yet, creation of new markets. 

So what is this vague concept of “product experience”? As mentioned earlier, it is greater than the product’s capabilities and aesthetic appearance. Instead, product experience is what emerges when that product is encountered and perceived by a user. The product’s form and function play vital roles in the product experience, as do the user’s expectations, emotions, and overall psychological state when they interact with that product. The significance in regards to our discussion of the emerging importance of product experience is that it now takes more than technical acumen and manufacturing capabilities to develop superior products. Instead, the development of great products will require a multi-disciplinary approach that holistically addresses technology, business strategy, and user psychology, understanding the principles of each discipline and the results of their convergence.  

If the benefits of great product design are so significant, why are there still so many poorly designed or overly complex products on the market? Do companies simply not realize the vital role it can play in a sustainable business strategy? Or, do they realize its benefits but it’s just too difficult to commit to the long-view in the face of a fast-moving competitive market? Even with good intentions, does it just break down due to the nature of organizations, such as departments with varying perspectives and priorities each degrading the user experience? Finally, is it possible that it just comes down to need for great designers? From personal experience, I think most companies fail to understand the second-order benefits that come from a strong design strategy and process. Beautifully-designed products with perfect usability are great, and I do believe they enable long-term brand loyalty, but the real hidden benefits of design may come from the clarity and agility that a well-implemented design-process can provide. What do you think? Would love to get more input on the matter...