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The (Anti)Social Net by Elizabeth Churchill

. wandereye

I am a sucker for people who cite Durkheim, Barnes, et al. They seem to have deep knowledge of this stuff we call "social networking":

"social network" was coined in the 1950s by John Barnes, a British anthropologist, inspired by the work of Elizabeth Bott and her kinship studies... These early social network researchers were primarily and fundamentally concerned with people and the social management of relationships and connections... these pioneers were not satisfied with the elegance of the model alone. They understood there was something to be said for looking at people as people, not simply as gates or nodes or conduits to other people.

I fall victim to stuff like DIGG Labs and other forms of visualizing affinities. Working with Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer at Incontext showed me deeper ways of visualization AFTER primary and immersive observations of human beings in context. It seems they are very much aware of the inversion of how we tend to go about conceptualizing "social experiences" on the internet. Churchill continues:

they were interested in understanding people, and less invested in the belief they could engineer behavior

While working for Incontext, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that it is nearly impossible to change human behavior, especially through a graphical user interface, no matter how novel the approach is. The reason for this, especially in business, is due to the "affinities" in place within large and small organizations that create patterns and processes resulting in "social norms". To disrupt these things is to welcome chaos and welcome failure. Churchill writes:

human beings take a while to develop social norms that enable and preserve their social connections; having a sudden disruption issued from afar and rippled through the system in a flash can be seriously damaging and can take time to repair.

One of the fundamental practices outlined in the book "Rapid Contextual Design" and core to the process Incontext offers is the idea of "affinity mapping". This is not a simple "mind map" of relationships. This is a very complex construction of data synthesis which leads to explicit understanding of the processes, the norms, the motivations, the intents of the people who create a structure.

it is necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object.

When she speaks of the "object" I think of "artifacts" and the mental models we use to define requirements, to benchmark progress or return on investment. Through total immersion within the contexts of people's lives, one gains a thorough and unique understanding of situations and emotional states that influence behavior and inform design decisions. The opposite of this is:

the way of thinking that lead to these errors, were ones that privileged simplified ideas and simplistic business imperatives over any concern for or understanding of human social engagement. 

When tasked with thinking about "social shopping" for example, it is an imperative to think about the wider picture of life, how technology currently fits into people's daily existence as opposed to the all-to-familiar "wouldn't it be awesome if?"

a "social" steeped in a deeper understanding of what the technology is and how it fits into people's everyday lives... there needs to be a concomitant shift in the way in which design decisions are elaborated and business decisions are made.

This is where heated debates about primary and secondary research (their value therein), HCI vs. human-centered come into play. Human beings inherently need and crave structure. Without it, we tend to go nuts. But rigorously applied arbitrary structure is a form of annoyance, if not oppression. Secondary research abstraction of individuals into quantifiable targets and segments is only as valuable as the insights primary research can supply to validate assumptions. If there is a disconnect between the two, you often witness stuff that, in a nutshell, is "irrelevant". Again, you can only work with an existing behavior and structure and it is very hard to change either. Regardless, most of us have no business from an ethics standpoint or professional/academic background standpoint evaluating and synthesizing these kinds of "data" streams. Churchill writes:

Geeks, computer scientists, and mathematicians who love networks are not good people to assess your social-networking products.

Why? Because we operate simultaneously in user and evaluator mode. John Dewey, in his "Critique of Abstraction: The Intellectual Life as a Tool," makes the distinction between primary and secondary experience. Primary experience is a subjective relationship to external objects that are sensory—emotive, psychological, physical—but not reflected upon. They are experienced... Secondary experience is a rational process in every sense possible.

Churchill continues, articulating what many of us feel but are unable to, citing Jonathan Grudin's 1994 paper "Groupware and Social Dynamics":

Social networking sites have focused on networks and individuals. When it comes to interacting and having relationships, people don't think in terms of the sum total of connections and inter-connections they have, they think of the individuals they know and the groups they belong to. People and groups are different from nodes and networks. 
Thus, humans are dynamic, contextually tied to their identities within the moments they find themselves in. There is no rigid or deterministic or predictable structure, a "bucket" we can fit into. I guess in that sense we're finding that static concepts like targets and segments need to be much more flexible or dynamic. Which has lead us to the age of systems and platforms and software as a responsive service.

I whole-heartily thank and admire this Elizabeth Churchill (dinner on me if you're in Chicago ever).

A Response to Norman & Nielson (Interactions Magazine, October 2010)

. wandereye

Gestural Interfaces: A Step Backward in Usability
by Donald Norman and Jakob Nielson

I find the article I just read in Interactions Magazine offensive, if not an example of the ignorance that has held interactive multimedia back for at least 15 or more years:

in the rush to develop gestural (or "natural") interfaces, well-tested and understood standards of interaction design were being overthrown.

If either of the writers would get out of their one-way mirrored focus group "labs" and actually do primary ethnographic observation, much less embrace the revolutions that are happening technology-and-business-wise in the real world (like "Design Thinking"), they would realize that the desktop metaphor is a dead horse we are forced to beat with a mouse and keyboard, that they are antiquated examples of completely non-sustainable and non-scalable interaction "modalities". I can't tell you how much of my design career has been spent working on seemingly "radical" concepts that were shelved in favor of that all-to-familiar personally subjective knee-jerk reaction to something outside the boxes of limited thinking and fear of the new or unprecidented. See the RAZR for example or the iPhone, the cell phone in general, the automobile ("faster horse" would have come out of "HCI" research methods like articulated survey responses and focus groups).

Throughout my career, I had the privilage of working on things that were deemed "too advanced" for the general public (because there were no precidents in the market) and killed before they saw the light of day. I quickly learned that the best reaction from the "stakeholders" when innovating was "WTF!?" because I knew it was something that took these people well outside their comfort zones. Those companies have gone into some seriously painful times as I type this, realizing (too late) that they should have taken some chances in the market and listened to the people with their ears to the ground, who live, breathe and eat design thinking on a 24/7 basis; much less the "end-users" who would have to incorporate these technologies, services, and products into their daily routines. 

But the place for such experimentation is in the lab. After all, most new ideas fail, and the more radically they depart from previous best prectices, the more likely they are to fail.

This "HCI" stuff Norman/Nielson cite as gospel is a true example of analytical thinking, data-based engineering, testing that quantifies then qualifies ignorance and limited thinking done in the "lab" as opposed to contextually in the field through "validation." Again, we are not in the age of "technological evolution" but "technological revolution". They are bloody and leave in their wake the obsolete thinkings of "leaders" who hold humanity back in favor of their personal need for predictability and structure. Again, having worked from many perspectives in the design industry, from products to services to education, I cringe when someone comes into a meeting where innovation is supposed to take place citing some Nielson/Norman study about how this "button" should be "here" because "x% of users"... Discussions killed in this way ruin human potential. The "lab" is for "rats". The "lab" should be our world of experience. Hence, life is the lab. Humans are not rats when it comes to how we live and interact with each other and the world around us.

Most progress is made through small and sustained incremental steps.

Since when has any "game changing" innovation been made through "sustained and incremental steps"? Inventions? The iPad? I guess you could say they were incremental in the sense that they have been held back since long before the Xerox Parc days by people who were too scared to take a chance, to fail. Hence the design thinking tact: fail often and fail early. And learn. Or keep it all in the "lab" and release tiny portions of brilliance in favor of maintaining some safe growth position in the books and charts. Meanwhile, short-stick the user, the customer, the human being and ruin growth potential for your organization (differentiation, advantage, unique or core selling point offerings, marketing 101, competition, value to the humans who honor you with their consumption and use of your production...).

The truth is that we actually have more evidence through seeing these "radical new" products come to market (I mean, seriously! In 1997 ubiquity was around the corner and we're still not there yet) now after being locked up in the "lab" for far too long. I can see the safe thinking they employ and profess being useful in high liability contexts like healthcare or voting, where risk to a human is high. But social networking? Gaming? Entertainment? Shopping? Anyone who has lived in Asia or Southeast Asia, travelled to Europe, has seen the future (or the now) that America seems to have ignored for decades.

Why is 3D movie making the "cool thing" again? Why do Hollywood movies seem to be bland, to be safe, to suck? Why do they remake remakes and churn artistically devoid fodder? Um... Let me take a guess: they're based on demographically targeted planning algorythms as opposed to real thinking about empathic connection with real human beings who have emotions and feel through primary experience. Like the book "The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage" by Roger Marin said: "It's like driving forward while looking in your rear view mirror." It's not wrong to look (glance from time to time) in the rear view mirror—one benefits from a 360º view of the situation while driving. But it is wrong to look solely in the rear-view mirror while driving forward, while ignoring the left and right, up and down, for example. And some cars don't have rear view mirrors anymore (like the "image map" quip they inserted to sound like industry old-hats). Some cars can park themselves now. Some can even drive themselves now. How do those offerings and behaviors make the existing principals and standards completely obsolete?

These "funamental principles of interaction design" are pitfalls 9 out of 10 times (I've studied this through living through it). Ignore them or question them religiously and think about context over prescription. More antiquated thinking:

Discoverability: All operations can be dicovered by systematic exploration of menus.

Scalability: The operation should work on all screen sizes, small and large.

Have they read "Mobile Web Design" by Cameron Moll? Have they studied the "experts" in other fields who think about the role context plays in interaction, who study humans as humans and not "nodes" (see Elizabeth Churchill's article "The (Anti)Social Net" in the same publication)? "Menus"? One size fits all? Hence my problem with "HCI" as a relevant approach in this age. It has a place, don't get me wrong (i.e. Engineering, backend, technology; not primary research and not innovation)...

These people remind me of some of the organizations I have worked with and for in the past who laughed hysterically at some ideas or predictions of the future I live with now: like a phone that feels more like playing a game than a tool, like gestures and mind control over pointing devices and some metaphor some nerd applied to something so infinitely free no one can define it: human interaction and rapport. 

Stop being safe. Stop listening to these "statistics" and "fundamental principles" and consider the sources, intent and agendas from which they come. They are based on visions of objects much closer than they appear in the rear view mirror, based on older ways of looking at the world that don't really apply anymore. They are like the slow drivers in the left lane. You want to honk at them and wonder how they are still allowed to drive on your road. Then you pass them and realize they are simply oblivious and/or old, drunk, dumb, incompetent, angry... And you fogive them, pass them and breathe a sigh of relief you are no longer at their mercy in terms of time abuse. Explore, inquire, absorb, apply and be human. We're imperfect and standards seldom apply when consciousness is involved.

A bit about customer feedback

. Mark G

Recently. I’ve been reading through a lot of customer feedback for a project I’m working on. Naturally, not all of it is positive – which is actually helpful, because I can’t figure out how to improve the experience if I don’t know what’s wrong with it. But what I find interesting is that every now and then, I see a comment suggesting that Sears should fire their webmaster - implying a single person who is in complete control of the entire website - and hire a high school or college student to make a better site.

I have to say that at first blush, this idea seems ludicrous to me. I don’t think I could pick a single person who would actually qualify as our “webmaster”, considering how many people actually work on it. The website was built by over a hundred product managers, IAs, designers, coders, and engineers, and maintained by an army of taxonomists and merchants, not to mention the management to make sure the whole organization doesn’t just implode under its own weight. I don’t know any single person out there who is capable of handling all that! I also find it just as unrealistic, if not even more so, that a student could effectively create a site to handle all the complexities of e-commerce at such a large scale as Sears needs it. Most of my coworkers bring years of industry experience doing exactly that; many (myself included) also have a graduate education directly related to their job. I’ve known many incredibly bright students, and I also recognize that sometimes what you need is a perspective outside of the industry, but at the same time I know I’ve personally benefited enormously from having had the opportunity to practice my learnings both in higher education and in industry.

So how do I handle comments like these? It’d be easy to just write them off and say that these customers don’t know what they’re talking about if they think that our website could possibly be built by just one person. But I try to look past that. In fact, I think it actually helps me recognize who I’m designing for. I try to know as much as I can about the nitty-gritty details of what goes on to keep Sears.com up and running and keep customers happy, but most of our customers don’t. And you know what? They don’t have to, and they shouldn’t have to. So even if these comments don’t accurately represent the structure of our organization, they are still from real people with real, honest complaints about the experience we’ve delivered. Trying to brush their feedback off with a defense like “You don’t know anything about our business, we have so much going on that you couldn’t know about” is just an excuse that doesn’t help them. It’s our duty to address their feedback as best we can - even if they see us as just one superhuman!


The Best Places to Work

. Iga

Today AdAge published their top 30 list of Best places to Work in Marketing and Media in 2010. The list celebrates the 30 employers in the marketing, media and advertising industry that have created environments in which people love to work and contribute their best ideas.

These companies simultaneously nurture employees, clients and their communities with things like diversity programs, family-friendly benefits, education reimbursement and workspaces designed to stimulate creativity.

Unfortunately, we are not on the list, and none of the distinguished companies is even from Chicago. But with all the changes that are taking place within UX Sears I believe that we could have a shot for the next year. Just a few tweaks here and there, like the workspace design and implementation of the flexible working arrangements, and other improvements we can not only boost our results, revenue but also make the employees feel proud of the work they’re doing. We are really not that far off, and do offer all the things that employees value the most, we just need to take it to the next level.

Hail Halo for Men Chicago (Social Networking Best in Class)

. wandereye

I'll start with a shameless plug: my friend Deanna is the best stylist in the city. You can see my review on Yelp. I wouldn't normally have taken the time to do this if she wasn't my friend in addition to the fact that Halo for Men openly promotes their rewards points system for doing so in ways that I can understand. If I "check in", if I post a review on Yelp, if I sign up to be a part of their Facebook page, if I twitter about my experience, I get points. When I rack up 450 points, I get a free haircut, a free hand wax (which I decline, yuck!) and a free scalp massage. For posting a review on Yelp, for example, I got 150 points. Sign up for their Facebook page and you get another 150 points. That's 300 right there! 450 points is worth around or more than $50 of personal beauty care and worth many referrals and awareness in channels for them (can you say "free advertising and PR" any louder? Can you say "return and repeat and adopted customer" any louder?). 

When you visit their salons in person or walk by them, adjacent to their logo and signage are the Facebook and Twitter logos, Yelp and other social streams through which to find, get information, and participate in your own "brand butlering". Before they jumped on the "bandwagon", they had a website that answered to the real needs of someone interested in getting a haircut via a "book online" feature that would offer opt-ins for notifications and calendar synchronization after a one-time registration (along with the option to do it as a "guest", complete with SMS and email notifications, as well as a way to have them actually call you to remind you beforehand). The receptionist is actively involved in "triggering" and "informing" their customers to participate in social networks and very clearly lets a customer know that participation produces award points towards free stuff or discounts. The incentives are endless - refer friends and get points, share your stuff with Halo for Men and get points... Not only can you go to their website to get information but you may see them syndicated in other places while doing other things in the periphery. 

I think I may be getting points for posting this blog. If I don't, I have a strange feeling I could simply mention it and get points. Or at least a mention and a link somewhere, which provides me with as much "social capital" as them because I look like a hip and stylish metrosexual who patronizes "hot" establishments in the name of great style. So if you go to Halo for Men (men only, sorry ladies - this is chock full of pool tables, beer, sports, and video games, comfortable leather recliners, very friendly and stylish hostesses, the ability to have your eyebrows and nose hairs trimmed...) please mention Mike sent you. For your mentioning of my name, I get points. For showing up for your first appointment, you'll get points. Virtually anything you "give" them gets you points, including giving them your birthday. Everyone gets points and everyone is happy in the end. 

The only place I don't see awareness of these social channels and incentives is on their website itself. There is a "press" section, and I like the way they show the sources as opposed to a dense table of article threads or links as an entry point, but there is no mention or linking to their Yelp reviews, Facebook or Twitter updates, FourSquare or Groupon or any of the other places they have strategically partnered with. It's hard to account for everything when the ecosystem is so diverse and extensive. However, missing the most simple of inclusions (like their own site) is something to learn from. 

Some people may say that it is somewhat unethical to "trigger" a review when clearly the motivation is payment (points) but, other than getting the haircut experience of the century from my old friend Deanna, what incentives would I have to take my time to write a review, friend them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter? They never told me the review had to be positive. In fact, I was told to be honest because they need honest feedback. In this case my rewards are points and the warm fuzzy that comes from promoting a good friend towards her success in a service industry. Hair care is a referral business offering an experience good or service and is perfect for this kind of "social networking" as more and more people use reviews and ratings and other websites when they are researching considerations for providers of a need. By leveraging this insight, Halo for Men responds to and facilitates active streams of "social activity". And I would venture to guess that asking the owner of the salons about the "success" of this effort would produce a response like "invaluable to the growth and retention of customers for our business." 

What I learned:

If you offer "points" let me know clearly what their value is towards tangible products or services.

Provide me a clear understanding of how many points each action I could take will net me.

On the Halo for Men side, have a system or platform that will "know" when a customer posts a review, friends Halo for Men on Facebook. They require me to send them a "reminder email" to let them know I posted a review on Yelp for example. From this email, they can assign points to my account.

Again, please book an appointment with Deanna K at the Wicker Park Chicago Halo for Men and tell her or the receptionist that Mike sent you. If you read this post, send them an email telling them this post made you want to check them out. I can't give you some of my points as a gift but can assure you the experience of getting your hair done by Deanna will be a worthwhile expenditure; not to mention a really fun time.

a puppy and a baby

. Warren

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Enter contest by: 10/5/10. To enter and for Official Rules, visit billionpoints.com. Official rules:

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How to design anything

. Iga

Today a couple of quotes and paraphrases from an article I read in August issue of Wired, titled “The Master Planner”, an interview with a really smart guy, University of North Carolina computer scientist, and author of a few books -the latest one “The Design of Design” - Fred Brooks. His insights are known as Brook’s law.

His first insight: “You can’t accelerate a nine-month pregnancy by hiring nine pregnant women for a month. Likewise, you can’t always speed up a [...] project by adding more (people); beyond a certain point, doing so increases delays.”

When Brooks was asked about design process, he stressed out that a great design comes from great designers, not necessarily from processes. He then continued by saying that a key component of the design process is for an organization (or designers) to identify the ‘scarcest resource’ and optimize for it. It doesn’t always mean that the scarcest resource is money. In Formula 1, for example (and this is not the example he used, but this one speaks to me better), the money is there but the scarcest resource is weight. The constructors must build the most aerodynamically efficient, technologically genius car, but they must build it as light as possible, and distribute that weight evenly across the car to ensure the right balance. The drivers even cannot wear a wrist watch on a race day, because that adds extra weight that will cost them fractions of a second (the difference that separates the fastest car and the following 10 drivers on the grid is usually less that a second per lap). It’s hard to think that way of an e-commerce site, at first, but it is a foundation for achieving great design.

Brooks also cites that a good method of design is to begin with a vision of what you want to accomplish and then proceed to one by one remove the obstacles that prevent you from achieving that vision. It is far more successful to start with a vision rather than a list of features (I think it’s how Jobs/Ives designed iPhone – slick and beautiful, while the other phone manufacturers were in a feature war with each other. I can see the feature war with the top e-commerce sites right now, including ours, but none of them is offering the customer the big vision that can grab their imagination (hearts, and wallets) and make them follow).

Brooks is also a big seeker of knowledgeable criticism – without implying that it is mandatory for people to always play it nice regardless of what their expertise and experience tells them is the right thing to do. In other words, we need to be open minded and welcome different points of view, even when sometimes they are in direct opposition to ours.