Innovation and Uncertainty

January 8th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

“If a project is truly innovative, you cannot possibly know its exact cost and exact schedule at the beginning…And if you do know the exact cost and the exact schedule, chances are that the technology is obsolete.”

I dug up this old clip I had in Evernote today…and it’s a blockbuster. It’s from the obituary of Joseph Gavin who died in November, 2010. He managed the 7,500-member team that made the Eagle, the lunar module that landed on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.

The obituary went on to say:

Preparations for the moon landing were inherently uncertain. Imagined possibilities included a layer of dust more than 30 feet thick, a slippery surface like ice, and potholes.

“So we developed a computer program, based on tests of a quarter-scale model of the lunar module, and we ran the program through some 400 different landing conditions,” Mr. Gavin said in an interview with Technology Review, published by M.I.T., in 1994.

From an original estimate of $350 million, the module’s cost rose to $1.5 billion.

That’s a big change in cost…and a fixed scope: Get a man to the moon and bring him back. And it went through because of unshakable motivation. I hope that we can still find that kind of motivation today, without war or national pride as the sole drivers! Read the whole obituary here.

Technology is changing faster than us.

January 4th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I just watched a very good talk from Paul Adams on Social Circles and Influence…it’s from *last year’s* UX week…but I’m clearly just catching up now. If you don’t have the time to read his book, take a gander at the video. If you can’t spare 45 minutes, fast forward to about 40 minutes in for a summary slide (captured below). It won’t have the same impact, but it’s handy!

Photo Jan 04, 8 34 29 PM

Some great points I’d like to highlight:

The people connecting groups are not special. Yeah…sad, but true. But not in a bad way. More like, we’re all special. Each of us is at the center of a web of groups. There are people in those groups who are close to us, and those not so close to us…and each of them is at the center of their own web of connections. It seems obvious, but it bears repeating.Photo Jan 04, 8 31 59 PM

He goes on to say that the “tipping point” view of influence is not right (pictured above the web diagram). Firstly, influencers can’t influence people who aren’t influencable.  Some people have a high threshold of influence. See below for another hilariously obvious but essential diagram.Photo Jan 04, 8 30 04 PM

The web of connections is the key to influence…we are much, much more likely to take the advice of our close friends over the advice of celebrities. He goes on to point out that Facebook average interactions are surprisingly low…4 people Photo Jan 04, 8 34 01 PMinteracted within a week. Average group sizes of 8. These numbers are amazingly close to numbers arrived at via theories and studies of human interactions. The average number of friends, for example, is 130-170…which is basically Dunbar’s Number. 

Paul also points out that we share feelings, not facts. It’s a great point and he shows it with a chart of what articles people view versus what they share. We read the news about Libya, but we share gossip, intrigue and helpful articles.Photo Jan 04, 8 33 30 PM

So his final conclusion is that social needs to be baked into experiences, not bolted on. It’s the difference between having a “share” button at the bottom of an item, versus knowing where in the concert hall your friends are sitting. Which really motivates you to buy a ticket? In the end, this is about selling things, true. But it is wrapped up in a larger mission to build business around people. He points out several times that technology is changing a lot faster than people. We *have* to interact with more that 150 people regularly…and technology can help us cope with the limits of our memory and experience. There is too much information to sort through, and unless we work intelligently with the limits of our own intelligence, we’re bound to be overwhelmed.

Myanmar is a Broken Business

December 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Obama-mania!I recently spent a month in Myanmar, a country that is struggling towards democracy and openness. I saw an enthusiastic people, thrilled to see westerners take an interest in their country (I witnessed a solid bout of Obama-mania!) and to enter the world stage. The Myanmar people I spoke with were excited for the future, but worried, too…with many roads open to them now, would the country take the right ones?

There are three main avenues that I think Myanmar should invest in, all of which are deeply broken or nonexistent: digital infrastructure, design infrastructure, and collaborative wealth building. Digital infrastructure will support connections among the people at large. Design infrastructure should help cultivate the Myanmar creative class, and collaborative wealth building will ensure that there are strong connections between the creative class and the larger populace.

One Yangon native, Ozz, who recently moved back to Myanmar restart his family’s construction business, said that just a few years ago, government censorship of the Internet was so harsh, that it would take up to three days for his emails to be received…worse than a letter! He simply stopped using the internet to communicate. The internet had lost his trust. My own experience was of agonizingly slow connections and sparse wifi. To help their growing economy, Myanmar should emulate cities like Bangkok and New York, and provide free wifi. The populace already has a surprising number of phones and tablets that are Internet ready. The urge to connect will move to overpower the mistrust that many have for the government…once it is in place, people will use the network without hesitation. Insuring both ubiquity and speed will have a powerful force on Myanmar commerce and lifestyle in the most cost-effective way I can imagine – more than building roads or subways. It would have a second benefit – burnishing the Myanmar brand. It would mean that the government isn’t afraid of freedom, and would distance their image from their totalitarian past. A challenge to this effort is the irregularity of the power supply in much of Myanmar. Waiting for a perfect power supply would be a mistake; people want to be connected now.

The TCDCIn Bangkok, the prime minister has funded the Thailand Creative and Design Center (TCDC) where people can learn about materials, culture, the history of design, and consult with designers on product concepts. The space is dramatic and full of digital access and provides a space for creatives of all types to interact and exchange ideas. I met a photographer from Italy and a Thai designer who studied at my grad school in Brooklyn within 30 minutes of arriving. Creating digital avenues is essential, but creating physical spaces where the populace can learn about design and technology, and where the creative class can share their knowledge with each other and the larger community is essential. Over 1.5 million people visited the TCDC in 2011, an impressive impact. An MCDC in Myanmar’s capital would be an amazing step towards creating growth.

As the country develops and money continues streaming in from tourists dollars and outside investment, how can they make sure that the whole country benefits? In speaking with Zaw, a Myanmar native…who spends half of his time in Astoria, queens, and who just opened a restaurant in Bagan, sharing the wealth is not a Burmese cultural value right now. He decided that the service fee his restaurant charges will be shared by his employees, as a reward for their participation in the success of the restaurant…a very straightforward western concept. His business partners see the service charge monies pile up, and ask: why can’t they just pay the employees a flat rate, and pocket the profits? On the flip side, some natives tend to work as hard as is necessary, and no more – as there has never been much reward in that. How can we get a people to connect to capitalism and collaboration at the same time? A Myanmar-catered crowd funding system, combining kickstarter with a kiva-like system, with investment return. Allowing people to take small investments and see growth in return would be an extraordinary step to creating a capitalistic sprit, while fostering a collaborative value system and a goal of shared wealth.

Myanmar is growing fast…they are planning to build 10 cement plants in the next 2 years, to support the immense pent-up demand for growth in the country. With some of these efforts, my hope is that Myanmar can grow, not just in wealth, but shared prosperity.

Bamboo into chopsticks

November 28th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

This was a few weeks back, in rural Vietnam… we stopped of on the side of the road to see a small…factory? Shop? Workshop? I'm not really sure what to call an open-air, low-tech, high skill locale like this…but I am thinking that refinery is close to the right word- they are taking raw materials and refining them into a usable form. They leave as “ingots” if you will…still not finished, but in a more usable form.



It's amazing to see how such a simple object marshalls so much materials, skill and time.


Technology ecosystems

October 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink


I've been biking through Vietnam for about a week now, winding through backroads and the deep countryside. Being in a place that's more raw, where technology doesn't have such a grip on nature, I can see the sheen that our technological-social systems really are.

We stopped off at a bamboo chopstick “factory” a few days back. They take raw bamboo and chop it into equal lengths, split it down the middle and rip cut it into round strips. They strips are packed up and sent off to be shaped, steamed cleaned and packaged.

Everyone in Asia uses chopsticks every day. The usage of disposable chopsticks is staggering to imagine. Lucky that bamboo grows so fast! I'm quite sure that when chopsticks were “invented” no one imagined that these sorts of factories would spring up to meet demand for more and more disposable implements. The system that exists now grew organically. How would we design it now if we were given the chance? And how would we get people to change?

Today on one of our long bus rides connecting long bike rides, I was reading this article in the New York Times about technology diffusion.

It's really worth a read. So many unconscious choices have been made in the past about the way to do business, about how to make and distribute products, about what is acceptable and unacceptable. In the early 20th century, a majority of cars were electric and leased for short periods of use. Basically electric zip cars. A bad bit of financial dealings soured the leading company, leaving gas vehicles to leap forward. It may take ZipCar a generation to change expectations about what car ownership can mean.

Here in the developing world there is so much opportunity to make things anew, instead of aping systems of manufacturing and distribution that have had zero intentionality.

If you haven't seen the behavior grid from BJ Fogg, take a look below…I think path behaviors, and wholesale changes of those paths, are the hardest. But it seems worthwhile to create opportunities for change. If all the motorbikes in Hanoi were electric, the city would be transformed!



Measuring Well-Being

August 13th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I just saw this bubble up on twitter! If you want to know more about how to dig into more intangible emotions and human physiological states, take a read through Measuring Well-being. It’s a free PDF download and has some helpful tricks and guideposts.

according to their site, the handbook provides:

  • Tools for thinking about well-being and its measurement. These will help to ensure that when you measure people’s well-being, you do so from an informed position. Part I of this handbook is Understanding Well-being.
  • Part II describes our recommended practical tools for measuring well-being: this will help you to get measuring!

Transactive memory

August 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I was reading this op-ed in the NYTimes and came upon a new phrase (well, new in 1985) for an idea that has settled into my mind for some time now: Transactive Memory.

…when there’s a smartphone or iPad in reach, I know everything the Internet knows. Or at least, that’s how it feels.

This curious feeling of knowing has settled over most of us. In a group, someone always seems to be “checking” something in the conversation, piping up with handy facts culled from a rapid consultation with the Great and Powerful Man Behind the Curtain. I’ve attended more than one nerdy party where everyone had a link open and we were all talking about things we didn’t know until we were prompted by our conversation to look them up.

It’s the mind of mine that’s in the cloud, that I can share with other people…that I know more than is in my “meat brain”. Search is how we solve for this now – text or voice – when I decide there is a specific piece of information I want from the world. But I must *know* what I don’t know, in some sense. Predictive Transactive memory would be quite another thing. Then, we get into the idea of the Butlerization of technology – someone who is on hand, who may know what I need to know, before I know I need it.

That was a mouthful.

Brainstorming: Workshopping ideas is Parallel Computing

March 29th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Last night my former creative director at Kaleidoscope and I did a 1.5 hour session with some Interaction Design undergrad students at Parsons. Teaching a group in so short a time how to have more and better ideas faster was a solid constraint – but as we all know, good contraints make good design. Knowing we had 15 students, we devised the following plan – we would make groups of three , each of which would round-robin-workshop one set of ideas for each member, for twenty minutes. In an hour we would be done!

Brainstorming, like any other game, requires good rules for a good game. And knowing that there is plenty of research out there on groupthink, I always like to include a short sprint of personal, quiet thinking that we base the ideation sessions on.

The Plan.

Step 1: Students take 5 minutes to write down 3 ideas that they wanted to try and tackle for their final project.

Step 2: Their group helps them, for 5 more minutes, turn each idea into a problem statement. “How might we______?”

Step 3: Each problem statement gets 3 minutes of group ideation – all three people trying to come up with ideas to help resolve, improve or remove the problem.

Here’s what we got:

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Here is a little trick I learned from doing this session a few times at the Brooklyn Brainery: We have people tell stories about plane travel and then extract user needs that we’re going to solve for. One gentleman recounted a time when he was a boy and woke up to find he had drooled all over his neighbor. He was horrified, of course.

If you’re solving for the problem of falling asleep and drooling on the person next to you in a plane there are four main ways:

1. Make a drool catcher – no drool spreads!

2. Make an anti-drool pill – no drool happens!

3. Get all the drooling people together….at least no one else is bothered!

4. Make Drool Cool.

This is a really important ideation tool. In the 3-minute sprints, I asked students to examine their problems, and try to solve them from all of these different angles.

At the end of the session, we asked students to tell the group about one idea they liked and thought they could move forward with…everyone left with a packet of ideas to work with to develop their final project.


IA Summit Takeaways

March 29th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink


My first IA summit was an excellent and super-over-full experience.

Trying to parse it out is challenging…taking the time off to GET the information is hard enough…then taking time to make the the information USEFUL is the real challenge. As Karl Fast said in his talk about information overload:

"data is cheap. Understanding is expensive"

So there’s that. Here’s the Data:

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Two main themes were the importance of  content strategy and mapping experiences.

I went to a workshop by Kristina Halvorson and a talk by Karen McGrane both of which showed me just how much care and attention have to go into Content Management Systems and the types of data that have, do and will exist on a site. These two presentations have already allowed me to start to ask the right questions for an important internal project. So #winning on that.

One of the weirdest talks was by Andrea Resmini on "groundhogs in the Source Code". His talk along with Peter Stahl’s talk on Rhythm and Flow (and Dana Chisnell’s talk about How to Measure it) helped to begin to define one of the biggest problems we face in Interaction Design:

Place is where we pause

Space is where we move.

Andrea Resmini

We define our interfaces with key frames and wires, but the flowering of the interface, it’s organic movements, it’s rythmn and flow are much harder to document and describe. Did you see the Mad Men Premiere on Sunday? They’re pitching a commercial with storyboards – one person narrates and the other person hums background music. Lo-fi, hilarious, but also effective. But hard to email to the developers in Prague. So Protocasting came up as a great way to communicate these more intangible elements – take a video of yourself walking through the wires, adding the intangibles.

Two talks that really, really should be read together are Johanna Kollmann’s talk about Multi-channel UX and  Chris Risdon’s talk about Mapping the Experience. Oh, and Ben Reason’s Slides from the opening keynote relate to this, too. Mapping the user flow helps stitch our static wires into a flowing story. Without Story, you don’t have much, really.

Johanna asked the right questions and provided some great frameworks for analyzing systems. Chris gave some great case studies and tools.

Johanna gave us the concept of the Rich Picture – something we all do, but great to see it defined and it’s origins described…She also brought the Business Model Canvas into the dialog…which is great.


Two great slides from Chris’ talk is his summary of Touchpoint interactions and a thorough user journey map.


Some talks were just about doing our jobs better, with other people.

Discussing Design: The Art of Critique by the amazing Aaron Irizarry and Adam Connor was such a one. It was just about best practices when it comes to giving, asking and receiving critique. Something we do all the time.design_cards

Leadership Skills: Managing Difficult Situations on Design Projects by Dan Brown was another. It began to parse out the different patterns we can use to various challenging situations, through the lens of our own traits and habits.He made these awesome cards that help you practice improv-ing through mock challenging situations. It’s great storytelling practice.


Another great talk, well delivered, was Josh Clark’s 7 Myths of Mobile Context.

11% of adults may NEVER see your site on the web – they only use mobile. So that’s a thing. Ebay sells a ton of cars on mobile. People are buying cars, on their phones, on the toilet. Also:

“an app isn’t a strategy. It’s an app.”

Yeah. That.

I think Jamie Monberg’s talk left me with some interesting notes.

Our brains are 2 million years old. We’re not the only tool-using animals out there. And we NEED to transact, physically, emotionally and financially with others. Technology is just a tool that helps us do that. It can be hard to use or easy to use, satisfying or frustrating. That is entirely up to us.

Eating Breakfast with Three Arms should be enough.

March 15th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

What would it be like to eat breakfast with three arms? Could you hold your phone while cutting up your french toast? That would be pretty awesome.

Maybe you could feed your baby and yourself at the same time. That could make the day a bit better, for sure.

What about four arms? Well…that could just be mind blowing!

But…Where do we stop?

Yesterday, in a call with a client, we were discussing a set of features that would enhance the main flow of their product experience…by allowing users to track and follow items of interest. I had fallen into a rabbit hole and so had the client – the features were becoming a sub-application on the site. It was a slippery slope, a distraction from the main flow… Would users even notice, let alone use the new features? Would they miss features that we *hadn’t* put in, that have never EVER even existed? In short, if we gave them *just* a three-armed breakfast, would they hate us for not giving them four?

So it comes down to fighting featuritis in a non-existent product. Fred Wilson talked about this yesterday:

It turns out, like most success stories, the answer was simplifying the service. Taking features out. Reducing the value proposition to a clear and simple use case. This was not done in a vacuum. This was done by releasing a less than perfect product to the market, finding a few customers who wanted a less than perfect product, and then listening carefully to those customers to get to the ideal product.

In other words, stay at the happy user peak:6a00d83451b44369e200e54f5e894a8833-800wi.jpg

look…it’s an ugly diagram, to be sure….but let’s overlook that, shall we?

Circulating Fred Wilson’s article in my office, one response was:

Harder when the client isn’t a startup.

Just sayin’.

which is why I always quote my old professor Bruce Hannah:

Mock it up before you Fock it up.

Co-creation with users, low and mid-fidelity prototypes, deep ethnography and iterative engagements with users and your prototypes can help mitigate the risk of a launch…but it can also be a double-edged sword, enabling feature creep.

So in the end…it’s up to us all to decide if three arms for breakfast is enough.

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