Tuesday, March 24, 2009

All Hail the Enchantress of Numbers

An Ode to Women in Technology

This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, in honor of women excelling in technology.

Quick. Who was the first computer programmer?


The answer: Ada Lovelace

She wrote the first "program" for Charles Babbage's analytical engine. Babbage conceived the idea only to perform calculations, but Lovelace saw beyond that purpose to the possibility that that first "computer" could calculate Bernoulli numbers.*

My decade-plus in the technology world has showered me with blessings. One of these is the women that have guided and inspired me. Here are a few that I want to thank profusely for their guidance, support, and inspiration:

Michelle opened the door.

Lisa illuminates just how big the world can be.

Liz inspires with her burning intelligence and amazing poise.

Cyd shows how art, spiritual, and professional life coexist.

Christina creates new worlds with her ability to reinvent herself.

Kit helps me see the practical path and how to plot my own.

Stephanie embodies true wisdom, creativity, and focus.

And, last, but not least, thanks to Mom for being completely open. Without her example, no doubt that it would be far more difficult to recognize the amazing women that surround me.

At the IA Summit this past week in Memphis, it was brought to our attention that the UX community is blessed to have so many women that actively lead our practice. I thank my lucky stars every day.

*The analytical engine was never built, but let's not blame Lovelace for the failure of the men around her.

Photo credit: Thanks to kpwerker for her great Flickr photo.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Down On The Farm

In his 2007 TED talk, Michael Pollan discusses the arc that has taken him from his garden to his truly illuminatory set of books (from Botany of Desire to In Defense of Food) and what he has learned about our relationship with nature and our food.

Why is this here?

It reflects where we go wrong in designing our organizations. We attempt set up a system where we take people and insert them into a machine that is designed to bend their will to a strategy. There are capital inputs, information, and time. The people and technology output goods and/or services, receive the revenue, pay the bills, and take care of the customers.

This sounds great, until in practice you realize that the strategy decided on by the executive leadership loses it's effectiveness at the front lines, except for rare cases. (Southwest Airlines comes to mind here.)

Check out this key point from Pollan:
[Another TED talk on ethanol] helped me understand industrial agriculture, which of course is a Cartesian system. It's based on this idea of that we bend other species to our will, and that we are in charge, and that we create these factories, and we have these technological inputs and we get the food out of it or the fuel or whatever we want.

[tells an amazing story about the Salatin PolyFace permaculture farm] This is a different way to think about nature. And a way to get away from zero sum notion, from the Cartesian idea that nature's winning, or we're winning.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Next Dilemma, TED, March 2007
What Salatin does is create a situation where his animals and the grass that they graze on maximize their "desires" and, in turn, produce a truly incredible bounty of food with respect to the amount of land and the investment put into it.

The cows are not slammed into a barn, given a bunch of corn (which is not good for them), shot up with antibiotics, and fattened until they are "market-ready." Rather, they are moved from small plot to small plot, grazing on brand new delicious grass that they is there desired delicacy.

Chickens then follow them into that same plot a few days later, feed on their delicacy (fat maggots), and they defecate as they scatter the cow manure across the lot - which acts as fertilizer for the grass.

Amazingly, the grass itself contributes to this cycle. It was tall, just before the cows enter the plot. After they leave, it sheds much of it's root system (due to the root-shoot ratio). Fungi, worms, and the like digest the dead roots into new soil.

Just a few weeks later, the grass is again luxurious and tall, ready for the next cycle.

Businessfolk would do well to take a close look at these methods. We can continue to scale our organizations based on executive strategy, adding more capital and more people to execute the decisions of the central structure.

The problem with that approach is that the changing relationship of the organization to its capital and the importance of engaging your employees and customers at a more basic level (similar to meeting the desires of the cows, grass, and chickens) are changing.

My gut tells me that the answer lies in creating organizations that satisfy all the parts like Salatin's farm does. You might think of the executives as the farmer, the cows and chickens as the employees, and the grass (and animal feed) as the capital inputs. The customers are the same ones who want a Polyface chicken so badly that they drive out to the farm to pick it up. (To read more about the farm, check out the excerpt from The Omnivore's Dilemma on Mother Jones.)

Why should we care about this?

Well, as a designer, I've run into too many situations where organization were ill-suited to ingesting and assimilating what the customers and employees really need to be fully engaged. This is not a knock on any executive, manager, or employee. Rather, it's just the truth of how the information flows and responsibility distributed in most organizations today.

Through methods like mental models, we can get into the thought processes of all involved and figure out where disconnects or misunderstandings lie. I am building a practice around these models and how they can align an organization's resources and people in way most effective for both the company and the customers.

I hope you'll come back at some point as I explore these and similar issues in ways that show why such a practice is necessary and how it can be carried out.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Possible, But Terrifying

Jeremiah Owyang, indomitable social media analyst, absolutely nails why large organizations will find it very, very difficult to allow the level of transparency and real interaction necessary to evolve their businesses (both strategy and operations) as the face of market and internal communications continues to evolve. He distinguishes three "impossible" conversations: asking for feedback, saying positive things about [their] competitors, and admitting [they] were wrong.

Asking for feedback is fine, but most organizations are not at all set up to actually listen, ingest the feedback, and decide whether or how to address the issue. Employees are at the breaking point already. "Productivity" in most organizations means employees are left with precious little time to adjust to new ideas unless they come from management or from within carefully managed feedback channels. Some employees may be able to get ahead or ignore some of their work and find ways to try new things. These mavericks should be rewarded.

Social technologies (wikis, blogs, social networks) can help, but unless they are used in concert, it's difficult to use them effectively. Imagine a symphony without a conductor where the musicians are all playing different music at the same time or, in well-run organizations, the same music to different rhythms.

Experience allows me to understand why saying positive things about [their] competitors is so difficult, but I wish there was a way to show the larger organizational consciousness why this fear is more destructive than anything. Companies use ideas from their competitors all the time, so not giving deserved kudos is paramount to denigrating many of that company's own ideas. Market results display an organization's effectiveness, so stop being afraid to show some appreciation of those with whom you share industry space.

Jeremiah makes this excellent point:
Customers aren’t stupid. In fact, they know who your competition is, and they talk amongst each other.

Most companies are not actually part of the conversation, but mostly adjacent to it. In that position, they will miss some critical piece of intelligence.

Right now, the status quo might be holding, but the effort required to use the same channels for marketing, customer service, and institutional knowledge is growing. Sooner or later, this self-imposed ignorance will come back to haunt them.

Admitting [they] were wrong is difficult for everyone at turns, yet most individuals let their guards down at some point. Yes, organizations have to worry about legal culpability, but in the end they MUST learn to understand that, if they are up front and act quickly when mistakes occur, the likelihood that customers will be furious enough to sue is greatly reduced. And, if they do, then the problem hasn't been resolved.

None of these conversations are easy, nor are large organizations the only holdouts. Even individuals and small companies screw them up all the time. However, the pressures to really listen and speak honestly are becoming ever more critical to connect people both inside and outside of the organization.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

I Think, Therefore What?

Here are two sentences that capture where I am at the moment:
[O]rganizations have simply lost a sense of what it actually means to be creative. For some reason, thinking and speaking are accepted as more important work than thinking and making.
Chris Conley of Gravity Tank, in discussion with Adaptive Path's Henning Fischer

Does this apply only to organizations? Looking at the amazing people that surround us, I'm struck by how much effort the design community expends in talking, blogging, and documenting every little thought and experience we have. I'm just as guilty as anyone else,* maybe more so as the things going on around us tend to set me thinking and thinking and thinking...

In the end, we are going to see some great transformations of work and life experience in the next several years. Gravity Tank is only one example of smart people having an impact far beyond the website.

Right now, I'm dedicating myself to the making part for a while and looking forward to sharing what happens to my thinking and speaking as a result. That dedication has taken the form of joining CloudRaker, an amazing design and development agency in Montreal.

Creative potential exists everywhere -- in every person, and as such in every organization -- but the current environment inhibits our ability to tease it into action. I will come out of this new experience not only re-grounded in making that happen, but also hope to do so in French. Here goes nothing!

Happy holidays to everyone.

* Yes, I know, not talking here, mostly in person. Maybe I should at least be typing. Stay tuned...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Not Getting Ahead Of Ourselves

Recently on the excellent bplusd blog, Jess interviews Brandon Schauer of Adaptive Path about designers' desire to contribute to the strategic discussion with business folks.

I really like this statement, as it reflects a trend that I'm seeing (and may be guilty of myself):
I think it gets reinforced by some people in the design community who make the leap from the fact that "I identify as a designer, and therefore I am a design thinker, and I can make these great strategic contributions if they’d only let me."

There’s this note of almost entitlement that has crept into the design community. That’s something I’m particularly cautious about because I think that most designers aren’t design thinkers yet because they don’t have the concrete fluency with business, and many visual designers don’t face the same constraints on actual usage that an interaction designer or industrial designer face.

As designers, we get used to exploring possibilities and finding creative solutions, but we don't necessarily ever pay the price or see the real impact of what we create.

I'm troubled by that note of entitlement, particularly from people who have added business vocabulary to their repertoire, expecting that to be enough. It's not enough. We must also take the time to truly understand what it means to make business decisions and deal every single day with the repercussions.*

There is a reason that most business conversations include a healthy dose of reality checking, namely that in business, you make a decision, see how it worked, and make another. Designers can help widen the considered field of these decisions, but we must also be willing to see the constraints and know where to push the envelope.

In some ways, the relationship between design and business is the same as that between design and technology. Design creates something; technology builds it.

These relationships work far better when there is some involvement of the builders during design (and vice versa) along with feedback once the building is complete and the result out in the ether.
This conversation is why you often hear about "accountability" in post-mortems on software projects. (In fact, I should probably label that arrow as such. Let's imagine it for a moment.)

So back to business and design. How do they relate to the design/build discussion? Well, instead of just being told what to design:

Designers want input into the possible solutions to a problem.

We need to learn to talk to each other better to make this work.

At the IIT Strategy Conference (link from bplusd), Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, gave a great talk about the approaches based on validity (design) versus reliability (business). He covers both what both designers and businesspeople can do to smooth communication and, therefore, benefit from a better working relationship.

Schauer illustrates just how that might work with this anecdote from a recent project:
We helped identify key metrics that people actually cared about that the web and the interactive marketing group could actually impact, and how can we calculate the impact that a potential project could have on those numbers. Suddenly, they are having this financial dialog, when before they were just talking about personas or user flows and things like that. So that really changed their relationship with the rest of the organization by being able to think through and articulate things in a way that was valued.
Don't you want to have that same relationship with your colleagues, regardless of your perspective? We would all benefit from it.

Check out the full interview, which includes many ways designers can get smarter about business.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

No Dearth of Words

Hello, all!

Though quiet the blog front be for me, the words flow ever more. Trust that, when I've something to say, it will appear in this exact space. If you catch me in person, I'll talk your ear off, to be sure.

Portland was lovely, thank you very much. WebVisions plays mellower than the IA Summit, which I appreciated with my need to keep my mind on my presentation and enjoy my Portland friends.

Jeremiah Owyang of Web-strategist.com and Podtech caught me in the hallway at the Portland Convention Center to ask me a few questions about how corporate managers can understand and leverage IAs in their work.

Dissecting Big and Little IA on the fly was not an easy feat, but I enjoyed the conversation and the challenge. Thanks, Jeremiah!

Also, Jaman continues to sprout happily. Over the last couple releases, we've made huge upgrades to the software, website, and the movie catalog. For those foreign film fans out there, look for many familiar classic and provocative movies coming online shortly. For more about Jaman and what we're attempting, see me blab further about Jaman on Lunchmeet.

Also, Boxes & Arrows hums along quite well. I generally act behind the curtain there, but plan on occasion to emerge with an article or two over the next few months.

So, that's my story for now. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you're up to.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Tour '07 Continues In Portland Next Month

Hey all,

Back in minor self-promotion mode, I'll be speaking at WebVisions in Portland, May 3-4 on the how technology allows (or makes!) us step out of our comfort zone to follow our ideas into new places, connect with people with whom we can make them happen, and find real innovation in spite of the cynicism and inertia of entrenched institutions.

I got the idea for this talk after seeing many friends going into business for themselves, hearing folks speak of such paths at the IA Summit, including Joshua Prince-Ramus amazing architecture projects. At WebVisions, I'll zoom out to explore what this might mean not only for Web professionals, but for the petri dishes of change (buzzword: innovation) in many facets of our lives.

This is a conference that I've heard good things about previously, but this will be my first time attending. The lineup is an incredible mix of designers, coders, entrepreneurs, and strategists (too many to detail here). One talk I'll be watching closely is David Pescovitz' (of BoingBoing fame) thought about how info overload will be conquered. That intrigues me to no end.

If you're going to be in Portland for WV, let me know!