Monday, April 25, 2005

Partial Answer to a Good Question

A wise friend of mine asked me a couple weeks ago what I'm attempting to accomplish with this blog. My answer at the time was something to the affect of, "I'm trying to connect the various thoughts that pop into my head as I go about my day and ricochet around the Web."

Last week, I happened on Scott Berkun's truly amazing essay, Why smart people defend dumb ideas.

My preference when discussing an idea or determining an action almost always results at some point with a desire for me to let it ferment in my head for a bit. Then, at some strange moment, usually when I'm driving home upon my iPod's aural surf or enjoying how well my favorite baseball team is starting the season, the "answer" will hit me.

Now, I have few more thoughts about her question.

For 7 years now, I've been talking with and watching people use technology. For 12 years, I've been talking directly with customers or watching them interact with companies. The entire time, I've felt that the businesses have very strange ways of making decisions.

Back in 1999, I was asking around about why websites had interesting functionality or looked "cool," but you could basically forget being able to actually use it or find anything. Another swami pointed me in the direction of usability.

I found that interesting, and watching over 2 years of weekly user testing certainly helped my education along. I quickly discovered a major dissonance. The focus of usability tests (we were doing) was "does/doesn't the ui work," while the participants were revealing more interesting and far-reaching subtexts such as "Why would I want to do this?" or "I'd prefer to do this another way."

The funny thing was that, though they were generally on the same side, designers and usability folk were, at that point (and only slightly less so now) talking almost the same language, but with different accents or foci. At first, I tried to bridge that gap by working with the designers (through product managers) to set the stage for the context of a project and what ui issues might pop up in the project.

Shortly, the PMs started to come to me when the project started to discuss how their business problem might best be solved. This cemented my interest in the path which we've started down - finding a way to answer some of those issues to which the aforementioned users were alluding.

Now back to some of those "very strange ways of making decisions." Usually businesses are driven to action by:
  • some particular business driver (cut service costs, increase a particular transaction)
  • a desire to offer a new service
  • some competitor offered a feature, and we have to copy
  • some executive whim (said dumb idea) cascades down the org, most of which have little or no mechanism to diffuse or redirect the idea.
  • desperation
Lately, I'm struck that the design community might just be ready to help business rethink how they make decisions. That is an intensely interesting problem to me, and one that I'm convinced could entertain the lot of us for a very long time. Still, as with any new ideas (or new uses of old ideas, if you must), there's a lot of noise out there diverting the application of said solution and different possible threads.

Thus, I'd like to use this blog for:
  • Capturing interesting ideas that help connect what users need to the strategic directions of organizations
  • Connecting seemingly unrelated ideas to the above affect
  • Making a contribution to the larger context of our discussions about UX (or whatever we end up calling it), technologies, and the greater interaction environment.
Certainly, these items will continue to evolve. Just wanted to capture them now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Are We Satisfied With Our Self-satisfaction?

Thanks to Alex and Gene, sanity has a voice in the universe.

However fun it is to make pronouncements about user experience being dead* or ontologies being overrated, we should know better.

Isn't our entire purpose of being to bring context to different constituencies within relationships - not only to each other but to the data that is manipulated? Whether usability practice, interaction design approach, UCD methods, etc, we vie for a spot at the adult's table, and our pontification propensity subverts that desire.

I, and certainly not just me, have higher aspirations. If we play our cards right, we may just be part of the next leaders of our still-fledgling web channel. Take a lot of empathetic practice, use it not only in our outputs but as part of our "sales" processes, and watch the pure business types scramble to find their third dimension.

I'm going to have a blast and hope you will join me.

*Grrr. PMe just had to post now with a much more interesting perspective that I certainly agree with. Thanks, Peter.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Long Tail Wagging the Dog

So much to say, but other professional insanity restrains me. Take that as you will. To whet your whistle, an illustrative snippet of the long tail attempting to unleash it's authority.

Lost chanteuse Fiona Apple has a finished album, shelved since 2003, that Sony executives do not consider "commercial enough for release." The rumors around the recording and status of that album motivated long-time Apple fan Dave Muscato to start the Free Fiona campaign, including a website and a protest at Sony's offices in NYC.
(see the MTv News story, Jan 2005)

Now, by itself, you would think that this is a nice story of a fan trying to generate noise for a favorite artist no longer thought of by the fickle music-consuming public. However, some of the album is circulating on the Internet, and a Seattle station has played a few songs.

Support seems to be growing from the ground up, exemplifying a niche market trying to flex it's newfound power in mass media. Once these consumers realize that they have some sway, the (soon to be formerly-) dictatorial music executives will find their power slowly(?) usurped.*

Sony might go ahead and release this album online, say, and let her fans carry the torch for a while. Then they get to see how it does before doing a more expensive, marketing-driven release. Think of it as a Beta is the New Black for the media markets. When will consumer-facing businesses wake up and try to ride the wave rather than continue building dikes in rising seas?

*And there is the possibility that the change will not be so gentle. More on that later.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Wise Crowds

Victor mentions the 4 characteristics of "wise" crowds from James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.

It strikes me that, "wise" crowds, even if they are hierarchical, have effective information circulation amongst team members of all authority levels. Maybe "wise" refers to an enlightened ability to limit the amount of personal spin put on the information, or, instead, "filtering" information effectively no matter what direction it's headed.

This filtering sounds much like what IAs do.

I propose that information flow, in most organizations, acts much like an clogged artery - some of the passages are working just fine. As blocks forms and grows, the other parts of the system must work harder to pump the same amount of blood. Couple this with the crush of information that the modern workplace must synthesize with this interference, and the effectiveness of the entire system suffers, possibly with terrible consequences.

IA can help avoid both of these situations by providing some insight into where the blocks are forming, how to circumvent them, and lead the exercises that increase the vessels ability to pump the blood.

Better, Stronger, Faster.

Karl Fast suggests the book Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop. Can't wait to dig into complexity theory.