Archive for July, 2011

Innovation Suffocation

Image credit: Matthew Wynn

This morning I read an interesting article by Scott Anthony called “How Iteration-itis Kills Good Ideas” in which the author details an experience he had at a company whose system and culture were accidentally stifling creativity.

“We never see any good ideas,” lamented a senior executive. “People bring us ideas. But they just don’t have any . . . magic.”

At first, I found the comment surprising. I had just begun to get to know the company, and it seemed to me to be brimming with innovation energy, particularly among young employees who would regularly throw out creative “What if’s” during casual conversations.

A month later, it was clear that the problem — as is almost always the case — wasn’t a lack of raw ideas. Instead, there was a problem with the process that an idea generator had to go through before they stood in front of senior leadership. The company, it turned out, had a deep case of iteration-itis.

As the article goes on, the author makes a rather unintuitive point – the more an idea is presented for feedback and revised, the further it distances itself from the original stroke of creative genius. As E.B. White once said, “analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” I believe the same principle can apply to creativity and innovation; while constructive feedback can be valuable, too much of it can water down and ultimately kill an idea.

What is your view on the role of feedback in idea generation? What techniques do you use to encourage creativity and innovation? Share with us in the comments below.

How Iteration-itis Kills Good Ideas by Scott Anthony – Harvard Business Review
Lightbulb! by Matthew Wynn

Practicing Critique: Insights from the Big (D)esign Conference

Big Design Conference Geek Cowboy Boot

“Critique is a life skill, not a design skill,” Adam Connor asserted in his presentation “Discussing Design: The Art of Critique” at the Big (D)esign Conference. His session as well as the critique activities in Dana Chisnell and Jonathan Knoll’s workshop “Design and Critique for Challenging Problems” made me realize how misunderstood and unpracticed this skill often is. Both sessions made the point that critique is about communication. Chisnell and Knoll emphasized that critique is about asking questions, not offering suggestions. The questions should probe whether a design meets the goals for the design and why certain decisions were made. Connor stated that the “best critiques are discussions” involving the designer as well as the people invited to provide the critique.

They also pointed out that critique is not the same thing as criticism.  Read the rest of this post »

Spaghetti Sauce and Design for the End User

A friend of mine recently showed me an excellent TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of BlinkOutliers and Tipping Point. The insights in his books have always been entertaining and he has a great way of bringing data to life. In the video below, he recounts the story of a friend who, in his work as a psycho-physicist, uncovers what Gladwell believes is the most important modern innovation in food.

As Gladwell notes in his presentation, our society is currently going through “the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability.” What does this mean? We are beginning to focus more on context than absolutes; understanding the experience of the end user is becoming as important as simply creating the product. In encouraging his clients to embrace variety and personalization rather than uniformity, Howard Moskowitz touched upon a principle that extends far beyond the world of food – create with others in mind. Whether you are a chef, an artist or a software developer, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Getting the right information on your web site

Just recently came across this comic and had to laugh. University web sites are notorious for not providing key information for their primary users. What’s on your home page, and is it the most relevant information for your audience or is it what your business wants to place there?

Posted in News

How to Build a Tire Swing – A Case for Agile Development

According to the Project Management Institute, in 2007 61% of all “IT” projects failed or were halted before completion. In 2008, more than 75% of all projects exceeded budgets by 30%. All too frequently, IT projects fail to meet customer or user expectations. There are many risks inherent with creation in an enterprise IT environment: that the client is not sure what they want, that requirements were not properly documented, that change-orders were requested, that desired functionality was not possible or simply that the budget was not sufficient.

How software development can go awry

Rather than accepting these risks as part of the cost of software delivery, the Agile methodology seeks to tackle those risks head-on with an approach of iteration, review, user acceptance testing and, most importantly, communication.

In some cases the customer may know what they want but not what they need. As Henry Ford said, “if I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” The difference between what a customer wants and what they need may be substantially different and likely carries a substantially different cost as well.

In “Waterfall” practices, developers and consultants obtain all the documentation up front, because they want to make sure that the project is built just the way the customer want it. Why does this not work every time? They discussed how they wanted it done, they laid out plans; why is it taking so long?

Read the rest of this post »

Transforming User Experience

Big Design Conference Geek Cowboy Boot

I attended the Big (D)esign Conference last week, and as with UPA 2011, I was inspired and challenged by the opening keynote, Transformational Space: The Power of Place. Gwen Harmon, Director of Governmental and Community Affairs for the National Civil Rights Museum, (NCRM) talked about the museum and plans for renovation to create a greater impact on visitors. She talked about four elements of transformational design:

  • Emotional design
  • Profound effect
  • Visceral connection
  • Resonance

Although the initial discussion of transformation focused on the changes planned for the museum, she also discussed the desired transformation that visitors to the museum would experience. She noted that individual transformation was unique to each person and the result of not only the experience offered by the museum, but by each person’s frame of reference, personal interpretation of the information, and their culture and background.

This idea brought to mind recent conversation threads on whether we can design UX or can only design for UX. The first of these threads for me came from my colleague Sam Elliott, who asked me which I believed. The inspiration for the question was Dmitry Dragilev’s post “User Experience Cannot Be Designed.” After reading this post, I searched a bit more and found Helge Fredheim’s thoughtful article “Why User Experience Cannot Be Designed” that explores the psychology behind this assertion and the challenges of reaching diverse people who have unique perspectives and backgrounds and who exist in constantly changing contexts. Read the rest of this post »

Breaking Bias

Think Outside the Box

Image credit: freeflyer09

We are so often asked to “think outside of the box” that the phrase has almost reached a cliché status. What does it really mean, and how can you train yourself to do it?

The first step in changing your perception is to acknowledge your background and biases. Consider the following excerpts taken from Horace Miner’s 1956 Body Ritual among the Nacirema, which describes a North American tribe.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.

The medicine men have an imposing temple, or ‘latipso’, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies involve […] a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress.

Now that you’ve read about the strange culture of the Nacirema, try spelling Nacirema and latipso(h) backwards. What do you find?

Did you immediately pick up on the connection or did you view this tribe as something out of National Geogrpahic? When I first encountered the way that doctors’ visits, prescriptions and hospitals could be viewed by an outsider, it made me second-guess what point of view I take for granted. This exercise is intended to call attention to the reader’s inherent biases which can jumpstart your mind into thinking outside the box.

Check out the full article at the link below. Have you seen or worked with the Nacirema exercise before? Do you have an example of a time when you’ve been jolted out of your point of view? If so, share with us in the comments below.

Horace Miner’s Body Ritual Among the Nacirema
Think Outside the Box by freeflyer09

A Checklist for Great Call-to-Action Buttons

Tom Ross at wrote a great article about what makes a great call-to-action button on a website. As we all know, encouraging visitors to take the action we want them to take is vital to increasing conversions (leads/sales) and ultimately turning your site into a revenue driver for the business.

I took Ross’s suggestions and my own experience and made a checklist for creating great call-to-action buttons. Follow these steps and you’re likely to see your conversion rate of visitor to lead/sale increase on your site.

  1. Make it large.
  2. Use clean, bold, large font
  3. Position your primary call-to-action above the fold of your site’s average visitor’s screen resolution.
  4. Make it a different color than the rest of the site. Often times, red, orange and yellow help make your call-to-action stand out.
  5. Try highlights, drop-shadows or other elements that will make it stand out on the page.
  6. Design the button similarly to a real-life push-able button. Give it depth.
  7. Use active verbs that will tell the visitor exactly what they’re going to get when they click, such as “Apply Now”, “Contact Us”, “Get a Free Quote”
  8. Include words that speak to the value proposition if possible, without making it too long. For instance, “free” — if your site offers anything for free, include that in the call to action. Or if you offer a trial period, use an action verb such as “Try.”
  9. Try graphical elements that indicate forward movement, such as a “>” symbol after the text, or shape the right side of the button like the right-facing bracket.
  10. Typically, people have become used to buttons that are shaped in a horizontal fashion. The eye is not used to seeing a square or perfectly round button, so try rectangles with rounded corners.

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Posted in Creative, design, UX

Go to the Gemba

In the film “Up in the Air,” Ryan Bingham makes his living traveling to clients and laying off their employees with his own special charm (he is played by George Clooney, after all). His upstart colleague, Natalie, proposes a new method via videoconferencing. But before the new system can go into place, their boss convinces Ryan to take Natalie on the road with him so she can see first-hand how it’s done and maybe learn a thing or two to make her proposal even more effective. He likes Natalie’s idea, but first he needs her to go see things for herself. By seeing for herself – no spoilers here – everyone learns a lot and we have the ingredients for a pretty good movie.

By making this road trip, Natalie is going to the gemba.  The gemba is a Japanese term meaning “the real place,” and is a basic concept in the modern quality and product innovation movement.  The gemba is the place where the actual product is used by actual people solving actual problems. It is where value is created, where the rubber meets the road, and where chickens come home to roost. This is an important place because this is the place where problems and opportunities are visible, and we can better understand how our products can better help our customers.

The gemba, as a business concept, took hold in manufacturing.  Read the rest of this post »

JQuery Carousels That Give Pause

Isn’t it an annoyance viewing a rotating carousel of a homepage that won’t stop rotating? You’re in the middle of reading some ad or introduction to a feature article, about to click the Read More button and it changes. Then you have to navigate back if there is navigation or wait until it cycles around again.

A best practice of mine is to always put a pause command on the animation AND its navigation on a mouse over. This allows the user to stop, take a moment, read and evaluate the content for as long as it takes without feeling rushed. Especially with more visually presented content that may require a bit more time to digest, this practice is particularly important.

Using JQuery, this pause is very easy to accomplish.