PoetPainter - Thoughts
Thursday September 12, 2013 / 4 Comments

From Paths to Sandboxes

I’ve been a long time fan of the Montessori approach to education, but it was only recently that I read The Montessori Method. Contrary to popular teacher methods that focus on shaping the path of a student’s learning (consider that most school systems force students down the same learning path), Maria Montessori focused on creating a learning environment that encourages exploration and discovery. To this day, Montessori classrooms around the world encourage independent learning and nurture natural curiosity, which leads to lifelong learners. But, this is not without design and intent. Learning isn’t left to chance, it is designed. Or, as Maria Montessori wrote:

…we have prepared the environment and the materials

It’s this design of environments and the objects (or “materials”) within them that I’m curious about.

What Pinterest, Twitter, and Minecraft have in common

I’m working on a new talk, tentatively titled “From Paths to Sandboxes.” I hope to share the journey I’ve been on, from trying to shape and influence a user’s path, to creating engaging environments where people may determine how and under what circumstances to best engage with a system.

Pinterest, Minecraft, and Twitter logos

The catalyst for this thinking was another talk I gave, deconstructing why systems such as Twitter, Pinterest, and MineCraft are so maddenlingly addictive. Indeed, there are a number of psychological nudges used in these environemnts (here’s my answer to why Pinterest is so Maddeningly addictive). But, put side by side, I saw two common themes:

  1. These are platforms. You can make of it what you want. There is no prescribed way to use the system. Having been an early user of each of these systems, they all shared a common “Huh, why would I do that?” problem. It wasn’t until an early set of users started demonstrating how and what you could do in these environments, and why it might be valuable, that other people “got it.” Which leads to my second observation…
  2. These are social spaces, in which people learn from each other how to use the system. Many of the psychological nudges that follow stem from observing others. While MineCraft is a place for exploration and self-expression (perhaps survival!), it’s watching others that inspires new ideas and creates personal challenges. The hashtag in twitter was an emergent element. It wasn’t until I saw my wife pinning decorating ideas that I saw Pinterest as a visual bookmarking system. These are all examples of “Positive Mimicry,” whereby we learn by modeling our behavior after others.

Sandbox Games

In the gaming world, these are called “sandbox” games, games that “have an open gameplay structure that allows you to ‘play’ in the world and choose to participate in the story at your own pace” [Wikipedia]. With Minecraft, there is no leaderboard, no mission, no points, no badges, no clear objective to the game—none of the usual trappings associated with most games. But, this is the strength of this style game: players make of it what they will. You can play the game to create interesting homes, search for rare minerals, survive threats from creatures, help other players, hurt other players… All players are provided an environment, objects, and rules around what can and cannot be done, but you make of it what you want. All of this was carefully designed to encourage possibilities; contrast that with the typical game that moves you through a series of ever-increasing challenges, each one having you converge upon the same solution.

Possibility Engines versus Exhaustibles

This distinction between games that diverge into possibilities vs games that converge around a common end goal first caught my attention in a talk by Sebastian Deterding. He briefly contrasted “generative” games (also described as “possibility engines”) against “exhaustibles… systems with uses so clearly delimited, they are rapidly exhausted.” Deterding referred to the ancient game of Go as an open, generative game with “a huge possibility space of moves and countermoves and repercussions.” With just a few simple rules there is a near infinite number of possibilities! Contrast that with games like Halo or Candy Crush, which have clear paths and end points. These are fun for a time, until we either master them or lose interest. This latter style of game moves you through an ever increasing series of pre-scripted, linear challenges. Indeed, generative games also have ever-increasing challenges, but they are self-imposed. As you desire to get better at something, you create new challenges for yourself. And this leads to my problem with the gamified apps I’ve seen—they’re based solely on one style of gameplay, the incentives-based, rewards-based, leveling-up, “skinner box” variety of games. Note, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If your desired outcome is a prescribed one (increasing registration, training scenarios), a rewards based model could work, though it’s not without it’s share of challenges and is often effective as a novelty.

But what about this other kind of game? This more playful, less directed, form of play? Incentives seem good for training scenarios, but not for habit formation or discovery. Who is designing the playful environments that enable people to create, surprise, and delight others? Where are the environments that people learn from, not because of a scripted series of instructional steps, but through playful discovery, experimentation, and feedback loops? I think systems such as twitter or Pinterest, while not characterized as games per se, might qualify as this kind of playful sandbox environment, or the “possibility engine” described by Deterding.


While I’m not designing full out sandbox games, this thinking has already influenced my design work, in at least two ways:

1. Designing Features (or why not to)

In my own work, I’ve noticed a transformation from designing scripted paths to designing systems through which people can accomplish a variety of things, in their own way. Indeed, this latter form of design is much more difficult, and harder to discuss. We tend think about features and functionality that address particular usage scenarios:
“As a user I need a way to flag interesting tweets for reviewing later…”
“As a user I need a way to give kudos to people for sharing something interesting….”
“As a user I need a way save positive tweets for later use as testimonials…”
Twitter hasn’t specifically built functionality for these use cases, but they do offer the ability to star a tweet. What is starring even for? Twitter doesn’t specify how or why you might want to star something, and indeed there are at least 5, if not more, ways that people have decided to use this functionality. But, that’s the point—it’s precisely this kind of simplicity and ambiguity that allows people to use starring in the way that is useful for them personally. It’s a piece of functionality for which there is no specified usage, though it will satisfy any number of user stories. Designing in a way that says “you can use x to do what you’re asking for” is very different from building out the requested (single purpose) functionality. It’s easy to react to new feature requests. It’s much harder to practice restraint, listen to dozens or thousands of requests, and respond with a thoughtful addition to your software that could be used to satisfy most people. However, if we design in this more thoughtful way, we end up with systems that scale, are easier to maintain (no forked versions for specific customers), and accommodate many more users.

2. Designing Behavior.

Moving from “paths” to “sandboxes” may sound contrary to much of what I wrote about in Seductive Interaction Design. Perhaps. But, I don’t think I’m renouncing any of the persuasive design themes that I opened in that book. Rather, this thinking builds upon and refines that thinking. Take, for example, the familiar “elephant, rider, path” analogy. While “shaping the path” can certainly be an effective means of influencing behavior, I find myself thinking about the difference between short paths and long paths. Nudging someone to complete a sale or fill out a registration page is different from a scripted workflow consisting of many steps.

In the past, I might have designed the “perfect” series of events, anticipating every possible course of action—a long path with many forks and roads laid out before the user. This sounds like hubris on my part, as the designer, but it’s not without some justification. My thinking was influenced by the pseudo AI described by Will Wright, analogous to building a set of dominoes, the sequence of which can vary widely, so long as the links or endpoints match up. My lesson learned from these experiments was a simple reminder that users like to be in control. No matter how much we try to anticipate every course of action and create the perfect journey, people don’t go about doing things in the same way! From these projects, I’ve learned to design in a much more open and flexible way. A specific example: I avoid designing “steps” of any sort. Even the simple process of writing this post in an editor that then publishes these words to the page is too much for me—I’d prefer direct manipulation of the words, as you’ll see them. And don’t even get me started on wizards…

Handing over control

In the end, this is about control–handing over control to your users, without any prescribed outcomes. Which is scary, if you have defined business goals (“increase x by…”). But, what are the outcomes of this approach? More engagement and use? People who love your service, for what it helps them do? (Versus what it does for you). A more active and enlightened society? If we really step back and look at the outcomes of a group of people playing and learning together, this might be the most valuable thing we can build for a society. In many ways, the internet and all the good that is has enabled might fit this description of a “sandbox” game. And it’s not like we’ve giving up complete control—it’s now about directing, by way of setting the conditions and defined boundaries. What happens inside those boundaries is where we can all be surprised, delighted, and amazed.

Where next?

So there you go. This is what I’m thinking more and more about everyday: the open environment, the boundaries of that open environment, and the objects placed within that environment. How do we create engagement by designing sandboxes, rather than paths?

Obviously, these musings are still in the early, formative stages, I’ll debut this as a talk in October, at The University of Waterloo’s Gamification 2013 conference. And as of this writing, I feel as if I have all the pieces gathered (much of what I’ve shared here) but have yet to arrange them in such a way as to have meaning or singular focus, beyond the broad theme of “sandbox applications.” That said, I’m always blown away by the feedback shared with me when I share exploratory thoughts such as this. So, From Paths to Sandboxes, what are your thoughts?

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Tuesday June 23, 2009 / 3 Comments

My Thoughts on the New Whitehouse.gov Site

Last month, I was interviewed by Jon Ward of the Washington Times for an article about the new Whitehouse.gov Web site. The article, published this morning, speculates that “information is harder to find on the Obama Web site than it was on the site created and run by the Bush administration.” Since the views represented in the article do not necessarily reflect my own, I thought it might be best to share my personal thoughts on the redesigned Whitehouse.gov site:

General impressions:
I remember visiting the Whitehouse.gov site prior to and immediately after President Obama’s inauguration. What first struck me about the new Whitehouse.gov site was the dramatic full-width carousel or messaging area. Whereas the previous site felt more like a news site with lots of useful information spread throughout, this administration’s version of Whitehouse.gov has more in common with product or service sites— there’s a clear central message being communicated. This design choice is consistent with the current administration, as President Obama has tried to remain firmly focused on a core set of issues. (If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you know how important I feel it is for leaders to cast a clear and compelling vision.)

Social Media
The second thing that really stood out was how the site — and this administration — is embracing social media tools like YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter. I remember hearing about how Obama would be using YouTube for his Weekly Addresses, a break with the traditional “radio” address. Moving to a video format demonstrates an awareness of how more people are communicating and sharing information. But, aside from just participating in these existing platforms, I’ve been more excited by the various areas created to facilitate a dialogue between individuals, neighborhoods and our nation’s leadership. From “crowdsourcing” topics to be addressed to making financial decisions transparent and accessible— it’s obvious that conversation and participation are a priority.

Visual Design
Beyond the structure and content changes, I’m impressed by the overall aesthetic. Whereas previous versions of Whitehouse.gov felt a bit stale and older, the new site manages to feel fresh and contemporary while retaining a sense of heritage. I appreciate subtle gestures like the textured backgrounds and attention to typography. I think the bold use of blue does a lot to create a modern feel, but then all the little accents, soft shading and nods to architectural details keep the pages distinctive and appropriate to the function of the site.

I can’t say I ever frequented previous versions of Whitehouse.gov. That’s been different since this administration took office. Given the regularly updated blogs and video content, I feel a lot more connected to what’s going on in the Whitehouse. And the fact that this less “formal” content is integrated into the site (versus being buried behind a “blog” tab) creates a sense of… intimacy? I feel more connected to the conversations, issues and personalities in Washington, more so than ever before. Just look at the site navigation— “Contact Us” is part of the main navigation! With that said, I have read some articles indicating content (press briefings and presidential remarks) is missing from the site or not current— that concerns me. But the fact that we as a people, organized together online, can identify these gaps is a testament to new levels of accountability that elected officials and businesses now face.

Site Structure
Concerning main navigation, I also find the structure of the site to be intuitive. Moving from left to right you have

  • content that changes frequently (“The Briefing Room” and “Issues”),
  • …followed by information about our current administration (“Our Administration”),
  • …which leaves the historical content that rarely changes (“About the White House” and “Our Government”).

I can stay current with the most recent events or zero in on a specific topic I care about— this structure seems natural and supports different ways people might interact with information.

Finding Information
While the new site makes it easy to browse through recent content by either the issue or media type, finding an older press release on a specific topic is best accomplished using the search tool.

To test out the previous and new versions of the site, I performed a few searches. Both versions face the same universal search problem— how do you best help people sift through thousands of documents? “Paging” results is a pretty common solution for dealing with too much content, though probably not so useful for finding a specific video or executive order. That said, the newer version of search results is better in several respects:

  1. The “narrow results by:” sidebar allows you to quickly filter a long list of search results by specific categories.
  2. Search results are much easier to visually scan, and
  3. The “view all results on one page” feature is really useful for people who want to search within a page (with a browser search, for example).

(As a point of comparison, here is the same search on the previous version of the site. )

Also, Whitehouse.gov content hosted on external sites (such as video content on YouTube) is very well organized into different groups, making it very easy to browse through videos. And, in the case of YouTube, as the ability to search spoken words within videos becomes common, it’ll be much easier to find specific video content. This is another advantage to embracing social media— we can all benefit from the advances of those external sites who are financially motivated to improve their different technologies. One feature missing from the current site (that existed in the previous version) is the ability to browse news by date (my thoughts on this below).

I also performed a few different searches using the Whitehouse.gov search and Google site search— I didn’t find any discrepancies.

Concerning browsing behaviors, while the main “Issues” pages are obviously edited content, I feel much more comfortable with the newest versions of these pages. On the new site, the writing within the Issues area is much more terse and to the point. Comments are written like a progress report: a list of short, bulleted accomplishments, with— and this is important— links to supporting events or comments. Contrast this with lengthy fact sheets from the previous site, which often felt more like press releases and photo opps. And on the old site, where there were specific accomplishments called out, there were rarely any links to supporting information. It’s also worth noting that within the issues area, the new site surfaces related content in a sidebar area. This is useful for browsing content related to that specific issue.

Contrary to what the Washington Times article suggests, I do not believe the new Whitehouse.gov site has traded substance for style.

  1. Style is important, not just for making a good overall impression but for also communicating information. The new Whitehouse.gov site does a much better job at communicating information.
  2. Decentralizing content and making it sharable beyond the Whitehouse.gov domain not only demonstrates community participation but actually increases accountability and accessibility, and introduces a certain vulnerability to those external systems.
  3. While organizing content by date is currently absent from the site, there are much better ways of finding information that have been introduced or improved (see above).
  4. And what about not organizing content by date? From the article:

The biggest difference is that the Bush Web site archived all its information by year, month and day, with a sidebar menu that allowed a user to view virtually all the information from, for example, a day in 2002 — speech transcripts along with video and audio of the speech, press releases, official statements, nominations, letters to Congress, executive orders — with three clicks of the mouse.

This suggests that organizing news by chronology is a better (“three clicks!”) way to sort information. I beg to differ. Who can tell me the year/month/week that Bush stood on that carrier and declared “Mission Accomplished” with regards to Iraq? Unless it’s a significant event, or happened at or around the same time as a significant personal event, we aren’t going to think about information in terms of time stamps. Keyword searches and topical filters are going to be much more effective ways to sift through a high volume of information. “With three clicks of the mouse” assumes a user know the exact date, which is rarely the case!

There you go. My 2¢ on the Whitehouse.gov site. Is it an improvement over the previous version? I think so. Can the site be better? Of course. Is is as good as promised by Obama— the popular opinion is not yet. But, as anyone who designs Web sites and applications knows, a site is never done— only launched and then improved with time and usage.

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Monday April 27, 2009 / 5 Comments

Advice to A New Manager

A good friend of mine recently stepped into an art director role and asked me for any advice I might have. I started to respond via email, but figured other people might find this useful. So, here you go!

  1. Listen
    While you’ll have a strong urge to come in and “prove” you are a capable leader (usually through top-down, heavy handed actions), spending the first few weeks quietly listening, learning and observing will make you a far better leader in the long run. This is a new environment, with different members, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Make this about them— you want to learn everything you can about your team, the company, their clients, and their history.
  2. Meet each person
    People are not all the same. You need to get to know each team member as an individual. You need to learn what each person’s strengths and weaknesses are. This is especially important with creative groups, where skills and talent can vary greatly, and where individuals hate being slotted neatly into (and rarely fit) a predefined role or job description. Most importantly, you need to learn what makes each person tick—why are they here, and not elsewhere. Fear? Satisfaction? To work with other team members? Convenience? Specific clients? It’s critical that you understand what motivates each team member to do their best. Tapping into these personal motivations will be the most effective way to accomplish your goals as a manager.
  3. Cast a vision
    This is the tough one— your team (and depending on the size of the organization, your company) needs to have a clear and compelling sense of purpose. Call it vision, mission, mantra, strategic intent, purpose—whatever! Like the “put a man on the moon” mantra, you need to uncover the shared sense of purpose that unites everyone. Expect this to take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. It took me 5 months to figure this out at Viewzi.
  4. Connect the group vision to personal motivations
    Perhaps farther down the road, the key to growing an excited, intrinsically motivated team to is to help your team members connect their personal goals and motivations to the larger group vision. If there isn’t a good fit, then maybe this isn’t the right place for that person. While this is a tough bridge to cross, it’s usually best for the company and individual— it’s critical that people be where they are happy, growing, and excited about the work they are doing.
  5. Understand peers and bosses, politics
    As much as you want to focus on you and your team, it’s equally important to understand the culture (and politics) inside the organization you’re working at. If you succeed in truly creating a team culture, you—as a leader—will be looked at to pave the way and clear the road of barriers that would prevent the team from kicking a**. Your job will become less focused on the team and more externally focused on efforts that support the team— managing bad clients, navigating thorny political issues, etc. It’s important that you understand how to do such things.
  6. Guide, don’t do
    As a manager, you need to learn to work through people. You cannot do their work for them. I’ll say that again: You cannot do your teams work for them. This is especially challenging if you are really good at what you do (and I know you are a perfectionist!). You will face a crossroad when you must choose: you can do people’s work for them, or figure out how to help them to do better work. The latter road is the much more difficult path, especially when you really want to just jump in and show them how it’s done, but this is your chosen path as a manager— to help those around you rise up and exceed your expectations. They’ll never do that if you’re doing their job for them. While challenging, this is the path that doesn’t lead you to dead ends, late nights, and burnout. What’s best, one day you’ll discover that you’ve surrounded yourself with people who can do what you used to do better than you ever could have dreamed. This is nirvana for managers.
  7. Make the subjective objective
    So how do you get people to be better? Frame the problem to be solved. Establishing objective criteria for evaluation is critical to offering valid feedback. It should never be “because my boss doesn’t like it.” It should be “my boss helped me understand why it might not work, or how it could work better.” Whether you’re discussing a Web site or an ad campaign, clients pay you and your company to create these things in order to accomplish clear objectives. As a manager, making these business and design objectives clear to your team is key. Is this more or less usable? Will this increase conversion? How does this fit with our target market? At the end of the day, while expression and art are certainly a part of what we do, we are designers. And Design is concerned with accomplishing a particular purpose. It is these purposes against which we should evaluate our design decisions— not our personal opinions.
  8. Meddle when necessary, but be clear about it
    Okay, not everything will be cut and dry. Sometimes you’ll have an idea you want to see given form. Or maybe someone is just not moving past the concept they’re stuck on. In these cases (and do keep them rare), it’s ok to cross the line— just be clear about it: “I’m meddling now.” However, even in these cases where you’re demonstrating how you would solve the problem, the goal is not that this employee would emulate your solution; no, you should want this different perspective to challenge them, inspire them, and provide them with a fresh way to look at the problem that will inspire their own, original solution. You’re jumpstarting their stalled engine, not programming the GPS (and if they do solve it in your way, they’ve made that choice as designers).
  9. Designate clear owners…
    Resist the urge to be hands on, if that’s not your role as a director. A sense of ownership is critically important among creative professionals, regardless of talent level. It’s important to be clear about who owns what or who has the final say. Everyone should have some project or some piece of the project they can point to and say “I made this.” Whatever “this” is, be clear about it, and then help them hit a home run with whatever it is they own. This means understanding their unique solution to the problem and either nurturing this idea to be stellar, or helping them understand where the idea is lacking. In an environment with lots of small projects, it’s easier to parcel out the projects to individual owners. However, if there is only one or two project that everyone is working on, ownership can be a bit trickier…
  10. …but also prioritize group collaboration
    While a sense of individual ownership is important, it’s often not that cut and dry. And some of your best ideas won’t come from any one individual. Pixar has assembled a stellar team of animators and engineers. They have a great practice of daily peer review sessions, where whoever attends provides feedback on work done the previous day. Programs like these encourage everyone to participate and feel that sense of ownership on a larger project. More importantly, these conversations quickly educate less mature team members on what constitutes a “good” solution. I’ve also found that almost all projects go through divergent and convergent phases; a phase for when you’re generating ideas and a phase for when you’re refining a selected idea. The nature of collaboration changes with these phases. I set aside ownership during the divergent phase, allowing everyone a chance to generate new ideas. Out of this process will generally come a few ideas worth pursuing. I believe it’s very important to let the originators of an idea (who are often the champions for that idea) see it through to completion. It’s at this point that I can say “you own this” and the team will help you make the best of a concept that everyone agreed was worth pursuing.
  11. Don’t feel threatened by stellar employees
    Don’t be afraid of people knowing or being better at something than you are. Expect this—and be excited by it— it means your overall team, including you, has that much more to offer. You have your own strengths and weaknesses. And there’s far too much out there to know everything. Let your team and peers complement you where you are weak. And let them step up to the plate in these cases, either joining you in meetings or taking your place. Don’t ever feel threatened by a really strong team member— rather, count this as a blessing and do everything you can to keep this an environment they want to remain in.
  12. Let individuals represent their own work
    This one can be risky, but hear me out. If someone has done great work, make sure they get the credit for it. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see bad managers take their employees good work and represent it as their own. Or worse, credit the employee but present the ideas themselves and butcher the presentation. Let the idea owners present their work. And if they’re not so good at representing ideas yet, help them out. Being able to represent, explain and defend your ideas is a basic communication skill that everyone at all levels needs to learn at some point. Have reservations about doing this? A good friend (and mentor to me) repeatedly said his job was to work himself out of his current position. Help people on your team do those things that would groom them for your position.
  13. And a few random comments…
    Most of what I’ve written assumes a fairly talented team. I personally favor the small, flat teams made up of mid-to-senior level folks. In these situations, your job as a manager is much easier. (It’s more like a group organizer than anything else.) However, your situation may involve many more levels and titles, and may include interns and junior level folks. I wouldn’t make exception to anything I’ve advised above. But, the projects people get to work on should be appropriate to their capabilities (and fit with their interest and talents). This means people who do great work with what is given to them will in effect earn the right to do more interesting work. And this has nothing to do with tenure or titles, but rather prior accomplishments.

In the end, the goal of all of these practices is to establish trust. If your team trusts you, well… things are so much easier! They’ll listen to feedback with an open mind. They’ll take you seriously. And on those occasions when the work is not so desirable (which will be more than you’d like), they’ll be more agreeable to continue doing their best work— knowing that you’re looking out for them. You want a team that trusts you, and knows that you are personally invested in their individual growth, wherever that growth may take them.

I could write a bit more about mentoring programs or some of the specific things I’ve tried over the years, but I’ll stop here. I feel this is a pretty good general list of principles that I try to practice. That said, I will point you to three additional sources of great management advice:

  1. 10 Tips to Manage a Creative Environment — I first heard this at SxSW. As Sarah B. Nelson and Bryan Mason went through each of the ten tips, I found myself nodding my head vigorously to each one. You can check out their slides here (note: you really need to hear the accompanying audio for some of their points to make sense).
  2. One thing I haven’t mentioned here are individual personality differences and how to account for those. For example, most people I’ve worked with enjoy representing their own work. However, for some individuals, this would freak them out. At Adptive Path’s MX 2008, Margaret Gould Stewart, User Experience Manager at Google, shared some practical tools for custom-tailoring your management style for different personalities . She’s put together a set of attribute cards you can use to help understand individual work styles your team members will have. This fun little exercise will help you understand what each member of your team needs from you as their manager.
  3. I just came across this post over at randsinrepose.com . It’s a good complement to the advice that I’ve given here as it focuses more on what being a manager will mean for you.

I hope you find some of this helpful. Best of luck in your new position!

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Monday December 8, 2008 / 2 Comments

Whose Idea Is It?

One of my passions is managing high-performance, collaborative teams. Accordingly, I like to note the subtleties that distinguish one team from another and affect overall success. Here’s an observation I made recently.

In collaborative environments, there’s a huge difference between saying “John’s idea” and “the idea John suggested.” A small semantic difference, perhaps. But consider the object of each phrase. And the effect.

Image explaining how our language can create adversarial or collaborative environments

“John’s idea”
In the first phrase, the object is the person. It is their idea. Their comment. Their opinion. Put this in context of an open and contentious dialogue about, say… how to implement a product feature. In this scenario, you are pitting people against each other. It is my idea against his idea. Someone wins. Someone loses. Moreover, even casual feedback and comments become associated with a person, who eventually has to defend what was merely a contribution thrown into the mix.

This is a destructive way to manage team dynamics. Not only does it create adversarial conditions, it frustrates coming to agreement on great ideas that are actually a fusion of contributions from several people. Instead of ‘this great idea we came up with’ you end up with ‘my idea with some of his thrown in’ is the idea that won.

Let’s contrast the first scenario with this second one…

“The idea John suggested”
In this scenario, the object is clearly the idea. Authorship is secondary, and only as a label. In fact, in these situations it good to get to a description of this idea that separates it from the contributor. What you end up with here is a gathering of people, all contributing and ‘playing’ with an idea— the thing being discussed. Think of this as the stewed pot that everyone is gathering around. What are people focused on? Not each other. The focus is on the thing being formed. And, if someone introduces a great idea (or a bad one), it’s more detached from the person.

Moreover, because the focus isn’t on individuals, but on the merits of the idea, people do feel more at ease to both contribute and comment on the ‘thing’ everyone is discussing. You get more ideas, because people feel at ease throwing in things that they would keep to themselves if their identity was tied to the merits of the idea. And it’s far easier for others to criticize an idea when it isn’t so inextricably linked to a person. End result? More conversation, for starters. And when you reach the ‘end result’, it was a collaborative effort. No one won or lost. And everyone (who participated) gets credit. They were part of a team.

One lingering question…
Does John ever get credit and recognition for his great idea?
Of course. If the great idea that saves the day can be traced back to an individual (and it’s not the result of a group effort), isn’t it obvious who came up the idea? They know it. You know it as their manager. And so does everyone else. But it’s not during a session that’s supposed to produce great ideas that you should recognize individual contributors. Or call out bad contributors. No. Save performance feedback for later. Use these collaborative sessions to produce ideas. And to create the best conditions for generating good ideas.

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Monday February 18, 2008 / 1 Comments

The Super Bowl and Information Design?

Like a few other people I know, I watched the Super Bowl yesterday two weeks ago. Unlike a few other people (okay, everyone), what intrigued me most was not the game (nor the commercials, this year), but the game’s ‘ScoreBar’. Yes, this:

Photo of TV Screen during Super Bowl XLII

A little background:
So that you know where I’m coming from: I am not a red-blooded, meat-eating, football-watching American. I do tune in once a year for the Super Bowl, but more for the commercials and the halftime show. And because I feel it’s my duty as a citizen of this fine country. Lest I be lynched, my attitude (and aptitude) has changed over time, as I’m starting to appreciate football—just a little. In fact, this year, I was the first one to call my dad to discuss the New England Giants upstart (he was surprised by my call, to say the least). So football, not my thing. One of the things I do get excited by is good information design. And I was fascinated by the latest incarnation of the ScoreBar (anyone know what this is really called?).

What’s the big deal? the ScoreBar contains all the vitals we need to stay in the know. So what? Here’s what I saw:

Efficient delivery of information
For starters, did you notice the persistence of the information. In years past, we’ve frequently seen information appear (and disappear) at random times. So, someone passing through the room might have no idea what the latest score is. Or, if the game is not in play, who’s got the ball, how much time is remaining on the clock, and so on. Typically, there’s only so much real estate you should allocate for this information, and with team logos and such, it’s easy to see why this information has been served up in a revolving fashion. Not so with this year’s Super Bowl. Everything you need to know (stats wise) is always displayed, in a compact fashion that doesn’t distract from the game.

Photos of TV Screens from various Super Bowl games, contrasting real estate devoted to game information

One clean bar. All the information you need.

Clear information hierarchy
One of things that drives me nuts is when there is no thought put into a navigation schema or things are thrown up with no reason. Not so here. There is a clear time-based sequential hierarchy:

graphic showing information hierarchy of ScoreBar

The ‘hierarchy’:

  • the NFL on Fox logo is seasonal
  • the teams playing each other (and the score) are for the duration of this game
  • time remaining in this quarter lets you know where we’re at within this game
  • these are followed by different kinds of real-time information, most often being the current down/yards to go but also including time-sensitive information such as time outs remaining, touchdown, or flag
  • ...and there is the Super Bowl 42 identification

Two quick comments:
First, the Super Bowl identification should technically follow the NFL Fox logo, but that would result in a visually unbalance presentation, which gets into visual considerations. Positioning this on the far right balances things out aesthetically, and allows the vital information to be centered on the screen.

Image showing how most important information is centered within the ScoreBar

Second, this design favors the utilitarian communication of information over unnecessary graphics or visually interesting layouts. Contrast this clean, ordered layout with versions from previous years (or other countries):

'ScoreBar' from previous Super Bowl game

'ScoreBar' from previous Super Bowl game

'ScoreBar' from previous Super Bowl game

Subtle visual indicators:
You know at all times who has the ball. The indicator? A simple bar above the team with the ball:
image showing how current offensive team is visually indicated in the ScoreBar

Though not as iconic as the familiar football icon, this is just as effective at conveying this information. And more efficient.

Context aware:
In the UX world, we put far too much of a premium on consistent (read: immutable) interfaces. In contrast, I’m intrigued by things like adaptive, conversational interfaces or rhetorical navigation, things that change in the moment. Those thoughts apply in this situation, to the presence of the ScoreBar— it’s only there during normal game play, when it’s needed.
image showing how ScoreBar goes away when it is not relevant

During instant replays or quick interviews, it disappears.

There’s a clear pattern to when it is present and when it is not. Again, contrast that with previous years when you might have to wait on some random interval to see the information that should be displayed at all times.

Context dependent information
Real time information is incredibly context dependent: seconds left before play, down/yards, number of time outs, flag, and so on.
image showing how far right information adjusts based on real-time contextual data

The interesting thing to note here is that this kind of real-time information is relevant for a moment, and then updated with new information. You don’t need to see multiple pieces of real-time information at the same time. This follows the time-based hierarchy I described above.

Color is used to communicate
image showing how background color changes for more important information
And if all that wasn’t enough, notice the nice change in background color to signify critical events:

Obvious (or understood) information is removed
With information design, what’s not there is as important as what is there. Too many projects suffer from multiple stakeholders who all believe their bit of the world needs to be represented, in the manner they would like. Notice here that someone (effectively) convinced the teams marketing departments to not only drop the team logo, but also abbreviate the team names. This removes the gratuitous (logos) and removes the obvious — complete spelling of the team names. From a ‘user’ perspective, it can be reasonably assumed that most folks will know the names of the two teams playing each other.

Visual design is aesthetically pleasing
The ScoreBar is not unattractive. There’s some subtle gloss on the bar. Some light 3-D effects. But subtle visual treatments. I mention this only because there is a perception that good information design comes at the expense of being visual interesting—that information design is boring. Perhaps, perhaps not. Whether or not an unnecessary, gratuitous use of graphics can, at the expense of communicating information, actually create an overall greater experience— I’ll save topic for another day. I just wanted to comment on the fact that bar is nicely designed, graphically.

So what?
talk bubble, stating:

The truth is, really effective design should leave people wondering what the big deal is. Here’s the irony, clients expect things that cost lots of money and take lots of time to seem like they did. To look complex or shiny. But the really great designs, the ones that break through and solve the real problems, will often be the most underwhelming. If there are lots of fancy bells and whistles and animations, be very concerned. That’s probably novelty. Not good design. Look at the iPod, basic box, right? However, the simplest designs are often the most difficult to design. How many sites get the basic things wrong? I love this quote from John Maeda.

To make what appears to be less can sometimes be more work

To truly appreciate the elegance of this bar (and why I spent far too long writing this post), you’d have to contrast it with the last 40+ years, where we’ve had everything from random displays of information to gratuitous visual noise that began to look like an all day news broadcast, complete with scrolling marquis and unnecessary logos.

I think someone got it right this year.

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Thursday October 11, 2007

On Historicity, Club Penguin Coins, and the Nature of Experiences

People buy experiences, not things. And experiences are shaped, directly or indirectly by a variety of factors.

This was a central idea from my Classifying Experiences model— that our ‘perceptions’ (rational or not) about a ‘thing’ strongly influence the story we choose to create. I use the word “thing” carefully, since for many people thing equals product, which is rarely the case: people purchase experiences, not things. “Thing,” as I use it, can be a product (iPod) as much as a service (NetFlix) or an experience (Build-a-Bear-Workshop), though even these distinctions seem arbitrary when you consider what people actually buy.

Leisure Travel vs…?
My colleague and mentor Rob Moore got me thinking about this a while back when he suggested that someone spending $2,500 on a leisure vacation might be not deciding between two destinations (the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands), but whether to take a vacation at all, or spend that money on a new flat screen TV. A simple enough concept, but one that is pretty radical to people selling travel (or electronics), as it questions—fundamentally— the ‘thing’ being sold. Does that company sell sunny beaches and winter wonderlands. Or is it happiness, relaxation, and escape that is being sold? This is a subtle but critical difference in focus, as it redefines competition in terms of the ‘experiences’ people are willing to pay for.

Dev Padnaik from Jump Associates presents a similar concept in his paper System Logics: Organizing Your Offerings to Solve People’s Big Needs . He describes a hierarchy of customer needs, the highest of which are ‘common needs’, with common needs being defined as “the most fundamental and universal of all [needs].” These include such things as “the need to socialize, the need to be loved, the need to feel comfortable.”

In design research, we use a tool called ‘Ladders of Abstraction’ (similar to 5 Whys) to peel back the layers and arrive at these ‘common needs’ or motivations— pleasure, fear, whatever they might be. By understanding the motivations governing a person’s actions, we can design for ever better experiences.

Here’s where it gets interesting. (Bear with me as I get a wee bit philosophical!)

Star Wars
I’m a big Star Wars fan. And I have my share of action figures and other miscellany. But what is this, really? From an objective point of view, these 3 and 3/4” figures are nothing more than painted plastic. The meaning comes from the ‘story’ I (and many others) associate with these figures. This story can be the one from the movies, or it can be a story about limited access and collectibility. Could someone really charge $7 for a figure with no such story to back it up?

Vintage Star Wars figures

These plastic objects have value because of something I (and others) project upon them. My ‘satisfaction’ then is not so much in the object itself but in my perceptions of the object. Perception is reality.

So then, why am I getting hung up over spending real money for virtual objects? Read on…

Club Penguin

My 7-year-olds’ latest obsession is… Club Penguin. Think of this as World of Warcraft or Second Life for young children. A giant online world with over 1 million other ‘kids-as-penguin avatars’ doing penguin things.
Club Penguin Icon
Playing the game is free. And you can easily ‘earn’ penguin coins through various games and activities. But if you want to spend these virtual coins on something cool — like a tux for your penguin, or a flat screen TV for your igloo, you have to subscribe to Club Penguin. And to subscribe, you have to pay real money.

Real money for what… pixels? This was my initial thinking.

But what is it we actually buy for our children? Is it an object, or joy? (However temporary!) Even more ‘permanent’ things like action figures get tossed away, donated, or shelved. In a sense, they are just as virtual or temporal as a virtual purchase.

Ownership is of value only where it’s part of the story (as with collecting). But in many cases, what’s being purchased is the effect of ownership— a perception, meaning, or story— and not an actual ‘thing’. In this sense, how different then are virtual purchases and ‘real’ purchases if what is really being bought and sold is something reflective— an emotional response.

And here’s my final thought on this matter, one that I think about from time to time. Years ago, I read Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle. As with many of Dick’s stories, he explores themes of ‘authenticity’ and what makes something ‘real’. This forms the central theme of Bladerunner (aka Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?): what makes someone human?

vintage lighter

In this fascinating alternative history, Dick explores authenticity and value with antiquities. One of the characters, Robert Childan ‘discovers that many of his antiques are fakes and becomes paranoid that his entire stock consists of counterfeits. In this case the “counterfeiting” is so good that it calls into question the meaning of “real”. For instance a counterfeit Colt .44 is indistinguishable from a genuine antique by all except an expert.’ (description from Wikipedia)

And elsewhere, perhaps more directly, Dick comments on this theme:

“This whole damn historicity business is nonsense… I’ll prove it.” Getting up, he hurried into his study, returned at once with two cigarette lighters which he set down on the coffee table. “Look at these. Look the same, don’t they? Well listen. On has historicity in it.” He grinned at her. “Pick them up. Go ahead. One’s worth, oh, maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collectors’ market.”
the girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them.
“Don’t you feel it?” he kidded her. “The historicity?”
She said, “What is ‘historicity’?”
“When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?” He nudged her. “You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
“Gee,” the girl said, awed. “Is that really true? That he had one of these on him that day?”
“Sure. And I know which it is. You see my point. It’s all a big racket; they’re playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like Meusse-Argonne, and it’s the same as if it hadn’t, unless you know. It’s in here.” He tapped his head. “In the mind, not the gun…”
“...I don’t believe either of those two lighters belonged to franklin Roosevelt,” the girl said.
Wyndham-Matson giggled. “That’s my point!”

And my point is…?
So, what makes something valuable? Is it reality or perception? And what can this teach us about product / service / experience design?

In my User Experience Hierarchy of Needs model, ‘meaning’ is the highest level. But I’m quick to caution that meaning is personal and subjective— we can design for meaning, but we can’t manufacture meaning. Neither can we manufacture experiences.

But can we design for experiences? If we rise above the obvious and and focus on ‘experiences’, how much better could our design and business decisions be? Businesses talk a lot about customer focus, but most have little more than a superficial understanding of what customers really want, need, or desire. At best, most companies give customers exactly what they ask for, which creates a whole different set of problems.

It’s this kind of thinking— ‘what is the experience we want to provide?’— that produces something like the iPod. The ‘experience’ being sold is one of simplicity, elegance, belonging, safety, cleanliness… Yes, I said cleanliness. To provide an ‘easy’ experience required more than making a better mp3 player. Apple had to create an entire ecosystem— not only the iPod, but also iTunes and the iTunes store which aligned the record companies and has made Apple the 3rd largest reseller of music, behind Best Buy and Amazon (This ‘business design’ is something I’ll be speaking about further at the upcoming Design Thinking 2007 event.— more on that soon).

So, why do people use/purchase/recommend your product or service? If you scratch the surface of what you’re working on, you’ll find some interesting motivations floating below the surface. It is precisely these common needs or motivations that we should be designing from and for. It’s this level of understanding that will draw people to the ‘thing’ you are selling—whether they’re aware of it or not.

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Wednesday August 30, 2006

Is this Information Architecture?

Could “Information Architecture” go in the blanks below?

Leave off the second sentence, and Information Architecture might fit nicely into the blanks. But, this is actually from an intro to Cognitive Psychology text (fill in the blanks with ‘Cognitive Psychology’).

What struck me just how similar this might appear, at first glance, to some other descriptions of Information Architecture:

“The art and science of structuring, organizing and labeling information to help people find and manage information.” -Louis Rosenfeld

Or this more ‘expansive’ view of Information Architecture from Peter Merholz

”...we are providing an architecture—a space, a platform through which and upon which people move, contribute, and change.” (where “architecture” can apply to all shared information environments—not just virtual spaces)

I think the key distinction here is the focus on the environment (virtual or otherwise) versus a focus on the person. But even this distinction is one I see shifting over time, as the field of Information Architecture matures and best practices and conventions leave us with less to discover about the environments we are designing. While mental models and personas are certainly part of the IA toolbox, I believe that more of these types of tools—psychological tools that focus on cognition, emotion, social interactions, etc. — will work their way into everyday practice for information architects.

Which makes me wonder… Are we backing into an established profession (Cognitive Psychology), by way of a more marketable niche profession (Information Architecture)?

Currently, I spend a good deal of time fixing rather obvious UI errors, recommending best practices to common challenges, creating consistent labeling and understandable language, determining and describing task flows—mostly explicit things that can be documented or referenced elsewhere. But, when most systems work reasonably well and follow established UI conventions, what then will make one system work better than another? I think it is at this point that understanding—and designing for—the variety of human nuances (especially emotional ones) will be a critical differentiator in product applications. And it is at this point that that the distinction between Information Architecture and Cognitive Psychology gets really blurry…

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Saturday July 1, 2006

What Does Web2.0 Have to Do With Enterprise Software Applications?

This question came up around the office, and, since no one bothers to read anything I send out (O’Reilly’s original post? This pretty picture from Adaptive Path?), I felt compelled to come up with an answer on the spot…

First off, Web2.0 is NOT about AJAX or any specific technology, at least not directly. It’s about…

  • Better interactive experiences. Google maps has been a success precisely because it works in a way that is more natural to people. Tagging? Much easier than classification (at least for filing things away). Inline editing—”you mean I can edit what I see!” The list goes on…
  • The whole ‘social’ thing. I can easily share photos, bookmarks, ideas, and more with the world, or just my circle—and by the way, my circle just expanded to include people around the globe!
  • Reusable content. On my time, on my terms. Yes, I’m referring to RSS, microformats, blogs, etc.
  • Sharing code (and ideas). Why should we spend our time rebuilding what’s already built—let’s move onto the exciting stuff, the stuff that companies will never think of, get around to, or care to build. Let’s innovate! (Mashups and open APIs). And let’s work together.
  • The “niche stiff” that no one would ever have the financial interest to pursue, through traditional channels anyway (Yes, I’m referring to the ‘Long Tail’).

Hmm. Let’s look at this another way:
  • Applications that are easier to use
  • Tools that foster collaboration and knowledge sharing
  • Empowering people to be more effective at what they’re doing
  • Reducing development time
  • Freeing up developers to invest in technologies that differentiate and create value
  • Communicating in a trustworthy way with your customers
  • Creating new markets
  • Co-creating value with your customers
What does any of this have to do with the Enterprise? ;-)

Yes, Web 2.0 it is a buzzword. No, it isn’t a ‘new’ thing, necessarily.

There. I wrote an entry about Web2.0. But seriously, there are better posts on this topic.

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Thursday May 11, 2006 / 1 Comments

Simple Doesn’t (Necessarily) Mean Less Features

I’ve been listening to a lot of Jason Fried lately, and he has a lot of good things to say about web app design. But while “less features” are often mentioned in the same breath as “simple,” I’m not sure this is valid. There’s a correlation between less features and simple, but the causation isn’t that straightforward.

Thought 1: Less features do not automatically equal a simpler app
Don’t get me wrong, less features can go a long way in making an app simpler to use.

Less features CAN make something simpler. This is by and large true—less options, less choice, simpler to use. But I stress the CAN part… Sure, ask a shoddy programmer to remove features, and the UI will probably benefit. But, there’s a lot more going on than the decision to add or slash a feature. Compare any number of to do lists—they all essentially offer the same feature set, but some are easier to work with than others. Why? Rhythm, contrast, narration, behaviors, beauty, etc. Less features + good design + good copy + contextual behaviors + (you get the idea)… makes something simpler. Simpler apps aren’t simpler just because they have less features.

Thought 2: Removing features is not a prerequisite for creating a simpler app.
Can you keep features—loads of them—and still pull off a really simple app? To me, this is the holy grail of web and software applications. Basecamp is great for now, if only because complex was so bad. But, as Jason himself says, the pendulum will swing back—and that’s when it gets really interesting. People will be accustomed to tools that are really simple to work with, but they’ll want more features, without sacrificing ease of use. Sure, some trade-offs will need to be made in some instances—I look at that as a design centered view (vs. a customer driven view) where decisions are made in the best interest of the people using the system—“do I cram everything in there that everyone wants, or do I help people out by deciding what is needed and what stays out?” But for the features that are added or remain, it’s going to take some skilled UI designers to tame that level of complexity…

Where is this all going?
So, these are some of the (random) thoughts I’m having…

  • As simple apps mature how will they add in more features (notice I didn’t say get more complex)?
  • How long will it take for established (and overly complex!) Enterprise apps simplify the user interface (and manage to weave in some new Web2.0 ideas)? Microsoft is doing this with Office 12, but this isn’t happening (at least not quickly enough) across the board…


  • As programming gets easier, where anyone with a computer can write an app that solves their needs, will we see more and more situated software? (versus the “one – or a few – apps to rule them all”)

Curious times ahead…

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Tuesday April 18, 2006

A Concept Model for Discussing Meetings?

Okay, so here’s an odd thing I’d like to share.

Last week at work, we were having a discussion around “How to Improve our Quarterly Partner Meetings” (yes, the same meeting mentioned in a previous post). While the initial discussion was quite fruitful, it was also all over the map. That being said, several key conversation points did rise to the top, such as…

“What topics should be presented (or not presented)?”

“What kinds of activities could we have?”

“Where else could we meet?”

and so on…

Under normal circumstances, I might be content to list these out as discussion points to structure the next conversation, when more people are involved. But, the relationships between these topics areas merited more than a simple list. That and I’m naturally a visual thinker… And a bit obsessive.

Combine all that and you get a basic concept model for discussing meetings. Or at least a meeting that exhibits the characteristics of the meeting in question.

I haven’t really ‘tested this with anything other than our quarterly partner meetings (which are off-site, have multiple speakers, activities, etc.). But… let me know if this could be useful anywhere else.

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“Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent — not with how things are but with how they might be — in short, with design.”
— Herbert Simon