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Life's Handbooks debuts on Sears.com

. Pat Doran, UX Sears

Sear is delighted to announce the launch of Life's Handbooks on Sears.com.

Life's Handbooks blends services, products, articles and Q&A for life's major events. Whether you're moving, heading to college, getting married, having a baby, or already raising one - Life's Handbooks is here to help.

Check it out at handbooks.sears.com

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Empathy Drives Technology Innovation

. PeteW

Joe McCarthy's recent blog posting reviews two new books on the impact of technology on society:

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle, and Reality is Broken: How Games Can Make Us Better and How They Are Changing the World, by Jane McGonigal.

Joe writes: Alone Together expresses concern that our increasing focus on virtual interactions is draining, depleting and distracting us from our real-world interactions, whereas Reality is Broken espouses the belief that the time we spend playing online games can renew and revitalize us and perhaps even lead us to redirect our energies toward solving real world problems.

I usually try to wave the Switzerland flag when it comes to technology--neutral to the utopian/dystopian spins that media tends to make. It's people that make technology --things-- serve particular intentions, or, as William Gibson so aptly put it back in the 90's "The street finds its own uses for things."

That said, what I think is still sorely lacking are technologies that actually connect people in meaningful and lasting ways: things (products, services, applications) that truly serve as a bridge or scaffolding that connect relationships between people.

I think that's definitely coming...but right now it feels like a big grab for time and attention with just enough convenience thrown in to make people want to spend a little time with something. Not because these offerings are compelling or meaningful, but rather because they're somewhat unique and tend to suck less than most. When convenience is the driving force for technology, it's simply a race toward commoditization. When the next shiny object comes along, people simply move on to the next "great" thing.

It doesn't have to be that way. In most cases, it shouldn't be that way. Innovation isn't simply about convenience* --it's about creating meaningful experiences.

This vision of technology innovation isn't even about technology in and of itself. It's about using technology to enable deeper relationships between people-- and this idea's certainly not new. It's been around since Vannevar Bush published As We May Think in the Atlantic back in 1945. Many attribute it to inspiring the creation of the internet. However, it's more than just a technology. He described a (mechanical) system that would connect one user to another person's life--all their notes, ideas, creations, everything they've shared with others--such that you could truly know what that person was like. Though he didn't describe it this way, he was envisioning an empathy machine.

I believe the core of his proposal is that this system ought to be purpose-driven. That connecting people through machines over time and space serves two human-centered purposes: to affect the person who creates with this technology and to affect the person who consumes with this technology.

Ultimately, this interpretation of purpose-driven technology leads us to consider the role designers of products and services have. When we design we affect the way people think about and relate to one another through invention. Inventions, including the design of products and services, are really arguments for how we ought to live our lives.

McCarthy indicates Sherry Turkle writes:

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about our intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time ... Sociable robots and online life both suggest the possibility of relationships the way we want them ... But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections.

McCarthy continues: As technology increasingly co-inhabits more of our physical spaces - and inhabits increasingly human-like or animal-like robots in our midsts - we need to develop a more disciplined approach in balancing our online and offline interactions. During her January 17, 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert, Turkle summed this up by saying "we have to put technology in its place".

As a designer, putting technology in its place starts with defining the purpose for which a technology should serve. The focus for technology innovation isn't a destination nor a new way to repackage convenience. Technology innovation is connecting people to the people, places and things that give their life meaning, help them achieve goals (i.e. they're transformative in nature) and provide an experience people consider priceless.

At Sears Holdings, we're defining new roles that retail may play in the lives of people. At UX Sears, we're defining systems of networked touchpoints that address and connect with the lives of people in deeper and sustainably disruptive* ways. What's next? In short, it's time to hit the streets, understand people in a fundamentally different ways than we have in the past, and reframe the relationships we have with customers and with employees.

Sound interesting? Like the idea of defining new experiences? If you think you've got what it takes, let us know: www.searsholdings.com

* Just in case you're thinking disruptive technologies (via Clayton Christensen), is all about cheaper tech solutions that disrupt established players, think again. Christensen's argument is about finding and designing for the "jobs" that people unknowingly "hire" technologies to do for them: Functional Jobs. Emotional Jobs. Social Jobs. Want to know more? Email me at peter.wendel@searshc.com

How to be 'The Worst'

. Casey Rathunde

There's a tacit understanding with a panel title like "Worst Website Ever: 2 Stupid 2 Fail" that the content is designed to draw a laugh. Yes, the visual gags are there, and yes, the slightly-naughty puns were in force as well, but the actual content of the presentations (faux pitches for truly terrible ideas) revealed a lot about the things that are funny because they are so terribly true. Here are a few lessons that I was able to glean from the panel, and what they mean in a practical way.

Lesson #1: A pale copy is a bad place to start from.

Lots of the presentations presented ideas that relied on the humor of "almost, but not quite." Versions of popular (young-skewing) internet communities aimed at the over-40 crowd, transparent riffs on popular sites that offered no value over the original site, and blatant rip offs all drew big laughs from the crowd. The internet is full of just such clones, and they're always slightly missing the point. While you can often come up with some great ideas by thinking about what other people are doing, the angle always needs to be, "What aren't they doing?" not just an attempt to make something different enough that it won't cause a lawsuit. Some of the funniest fake pitches of the panel were obvious riffs that aimed to do less than the original (such as "Faceoffbook" for fans of the movie FaceOff, and Petflix).

Lesson #2: Your fax machine does not need an "App Store."

Really - it doesn't. It might seem obvious, but by the same token, who isn't trying to jump on the "App Store" bandwagon these days? I think the greater lesson to be learned from this point is that mindless bandwagon jumping leads to creating things that there is no demand for. Just like a fax machine doesn't need its own port of "Angry Birds," not every website needs a comments section or its own check-in system. People who are always looking to make the "next big thing" work for them are often missing the ways in which not every solution fits every problem. While each new craze might be worth consideration and exploration, it's perfectly acceptable for the conclusions drawn to end with, "We don't actually need this."

Lesson #3: You're not going to successfully use every technology.

One of the presentations didn't actually have much in the way of a proposed idea, instead, it relied on the joke that the website was so 'technologically advanced' that it used every technology. It even used "all of the clouds," and just about every possible API that is currently in vogue. I think we've all seen some variation of this site. There are so many social icons squashed together that you can't tell the difference between the little bird-shaped blob that you think is Twitter-blue from the tiny square that you think might lead to Facebook. You're not really sure if you're about to leave a comment with Disqus, send a Tweet, or post to your Facebook wall, and even if you could figure it out, you're probably not interested in sharing the content by that point. The page aggregates tweets, shows you the weather in Bangladesh, and lets you map things on google while you browse headlines. There's so much on the page that you reflexively lunge for the close button because you're afraid you might have a seizure.

Just because an API exists, doesn't mean you should use it on every page. Data is cool, but relevant data is even cooler, and when you don't bury the good stuff, your page gets a lot more interesting. I'm an API dork - I love to see them mashed up and filtered in brilliant ways. True story: after the worst website panel, I shook the hand of the guy who created WaitingForBieber.com. (I plan to retell this story to everyone who will listen for the next three months, so consider yourself warned.) The reason I love this site is that it uses the Twitter API in a way that is so bizarrely specific that it draws a cohesive (and terrifying) picture without any sort of long-form explanation. As best I can tell, the page is returning tweets sent to Bieber's username, and scanning the text of the response for the word "follow," so that it only returns the tweets asking Bieber to follow the user back. That's all the page does: display a constant stream of tweets, asking Justin Bieber for a "follow" on Twitter.

Now that we've established the concept, lets quickly ruin it with complications: imagine if it also pulled in headlines containing the terms "Bieber" and "Twitter." Imagine page real estate depleted by an option to share those tweets on facebook. Imagine a comments section where users could leave their opinion on tweets and rank their favorite. Imagine a series of music charts and store widgets so that users could see how Bieber is currently selling. Quickly, the idea becomes polluted and the page loses the laser-focus that made the joke funny in the first place. None of these things immediately sound like bad ideas, but compare the value added by the additional data to the value lost by distracting from the site's real purpose. There's a lot of cool, easily integrated stuff on the internet these days, but just like we don't always need to be jumping on the shiniest bandwagon, we also don't need to dilute every idea with 'value-adds' that act as distractions.

The panel definitely gave me a lot to think about (and when I'm not so exhausted and overwhelmed with information, I'll probably think of more things I gleaned from it), but most of all, it was amazing to me how not implausible most of the ideas were. Many of them didn't seem all that far off from sites that have actually been built, and I think that fact really speaks to how the best humor is close to the truth. (For the record, the "winner" of the contest was the "App Store" for the Fax Machine. The runner-up was a site for outsourced, webcam babysitting.)

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SXSW Quick Hits

. Casey Rathunde

So far, I've been trying to write blog posts that "hang together," but part of the fun of SXSW is the way that you're constantly bombarded with amazing and interesting details and experiences. In the interest of sharing as many different angles on the event as possible about the event, I'm abandoning that format today in favor of sharing some shorter notes I've collected over the past few days.

  • You have probably never seen as many smartphones, tablets, and laptops in your life as I've seen at SXSW. You have definitely never seen people so incapable of putting them away (she says, as she blogs from her smartphone). It's a little bit disturbing, actually. Mobile platforms are definitely the "now," but I'm not really sure that they're also the "future." There has to be tech fatigue at some point.
  • Everything here is covered in QR codes. Everything. Most of them seem to rely on the hope that people will be inherently intrigued by the presence of a scannable code, and they'll check it out on the strength of that curiosity. When everything is covered in codes, that's a pretty bad assumption. I was highly intrigued by the idea of a QR coded cupcake, but not so much that I didn't stuff the entire thing in my mouth without scanning it. (A friend did try to scan the code, but apparently edible ink doesn't hold up well enough for it to register). The only code I've actually scanned was on a sticker that I liked the design of, and the only reason I scanned it was to verify that it didn't point to anything I found objectionable. QR codes are cool technology, but I'm not sure people have quite figured out what to do with them.
  • I have never stood in so many lines in my life.
  • My favorite one-line gem of the week: "If you think you can multitask well, your work should be judged by somebody only doing one thing at a time."
  • At an event like this, it's worth seeing some of the "web personalities" speak, even if you don't immediately see the connection between their work and yours. After seeing Mathew Inman ("The Oatmeal") and Felicia Day speak, I've realized that these people are successful at what they do because they are passionate about their work. There is definitely something to be learned from their process, even if your projects are very different.
  • I am obsessed with the brilliance of the cheese-wedge-shaped restaurant in the convention center that only serves grilled cheese, large grilled cheese, and tomato soup. They're making great use of a concept that so many people are trying to advocate for in other spheres: do one thing really, really well. Grilled cheese as inspiration for a web development philosophy? Why not?
  • No, really - I have never, ever stood in so many lines. I am trying to learn patience along with all of the cool tech inspiration I'm getting, but it's not easy. I mention this fact because I'm trying to convince myself that no experience is wasted time; maybe if I commit the idea to "paper," the concept will sink in a little bit.
  • The most important thing I've learned about the emerging web technologies (HTML5 and CSS3, to name two of the biggest ones), is that it's not yet time to jump in with both feet. The specs haven't been finished yet, and they're still moving targets. Experimenting with the technology will be fun, but it's not time to start large projects that rely on the bleeding edge features.
Tomorrow was going to be more of a "wrap-up" post, but after catching the encore presentation of "Worst Website Ever," I'm definitely going to write about that tomorrow, once I've had a chance to let it marinate. As much as the panel was presented as humor, it also might have been the most inspiring and insightful panel I saw. (So there's your preview for tomorrow!)

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Sears, Wellness, and Communities...what if?

. PeteW

I caught wind of an interesting Award and idea competition being sponsored by Philips. It's called the Livable Cities Award.

It's an effort aimed at improving the health and well being people living in cities. Individuals, communities, (non-government) organizations, and businesses were asked for ideas on simple solutions to improve people's health and well being in a city. One overall winning idea from any of the three submission categories will receive a grant of €75,000, while the two additional ideas will receive grants of €25,000.

Hmmm. If I'm not mistaken, Sears is the largest retailer in the U.S. for health and fitness equipment like treadmills. Health and wellness are particular areas that are growing in importance and impact as people move from being passive consumers of healthcare to proactive "prosumers" who are seeking ways to prevent health problems or change their behavior to regain control in their lives.

Witness the popularity of TV like 'The Biggest Loser' and even the Friday fitness gatherings at State Street here at UX Sears. One of the most critical factors that "The Biggest Loser" and much research for healthcare behavior shows is that healthcare and wellness is social. Who you hang out with and what they eat and do impacts what you eat and do. If you want to affect an individual, focus on their family. If you want to affect a city, focus on communities.

In fact, Mayo clinic is focused on just that. In Austin, MN, Mayo is designing the concept of 'medical home' so that all pieces of a community services and offerings can be used together to improve the overall health and well being. This is a three year experiment to see if a community based 'medical home' model can be piloted and proven out as a sustainable way to design healthcare. Hmmm...

What if a retailer played a role in helping people make better healthcare decisions? Could a retailer help connect people to their healthcare providers, and value chain partners, to help people (as consumers and patients) to better manage their health?

Since we have Kmart pharmacy, MyGofer delivery, mobile apps, fitness products, products that can track personal health and behavior (activity, distance, speed, etc.), wouldn't a retailer who could help a person connect these into an integrated wellness model be in a real position to actually change behavior? If a retailer could shift from tasks (refill prescriptions, track orders, etc.) to goals (help people remember to take their medication or take it properly, help people to share their exercise results with their support group...) that could change the game. And if that retailer was connected to local merchants and service providers such that they could tailor their offerings around the unique needs of individuals and communities, that retailer could create meaningful and memorable experiences through connecting people across groups (families, communities, providers/partners) to share and achieve goals not otherwise possible.

The HTML5 Conundrum

. Casey Rathunde

Apparently, HTML5 hasn't "launched" yet.

You might remember a few months ago when the Arcade Fire released an interactive multimedia experience called "The Wilderness Downtown." The conversation about the piece was two-fold: the general public enjoyed the content, while the tech-savvy community was abuzz with the fact that the project had been built in HTML5.

(But the spec isn't finished, guys. It's not "ready.")

I spent this morning's first session at a panel on how to build cross-platform applications using HTML5. Using technologies that we traditionally consider as web-only, it's now possible to build applications that can be quickly and cheaply ported to both mobile and desktop platforms as applications that leverage the native features of the OS.  As a developer, this is exciting stuff, and it has made me want to rush home and start immediately tinkering with some of the tools suggested by the presenter.

(But HTML5 isn't "done," so. . .)

Okay - continuing the joke is a fairly silly conceit, but I think the point is clear: the genie is out of the bottle. In my second panel this morning, a couple of the people involved in creating the HTML5 spec discussed some of the political wars being waged behind the scenes during the development process. Concerns about accessibility, digital rights management, and artifacts of previous specs are all part of the set of issues that are delaying the official "blessing" of the W3C's definition of HTML5.  On one hand, it's hard to hear the arguments and not consider them to be valid and important concerns, but at the same time, how much longer can the spec be delayed before these discussions are made moot by the fact that an unfinished spec has already become the de facto standard? 

If the issues are debated for much longer, the ship will have already set sail (if it hasn't already).  One of the panelists said a scary thing while describing the concept of web-sockets (a powerful HTML5 feature that allows for what is essentially bi-directional http). Currently, that portion of the spec is in version 5. The panelist stated that developing for the version 1 spec of a year ago would've been like creating "another ie6.". If that analogy doesn't strike fear in the hearts of developers, I'm not really sure what does. The web-socket spec isn't even expected to be stable until version 6. HTML5 is already being used, but segments of it are still half-baked and flawed, and there is a very real danger of creating another "box-model" problem, where different browsers and mobile platforms interpret the spec in different ways, or render content in ways based on previous, unfinished versions of the specification.

I think the community has learned from their past mistakes. The hundreds of people involved in developing the HTML5 spec come from all areas of the development community, and all of them have an interest in not replicating the cross-browser mistakes we have already suffered through. Still, all of this careful planning can't fully account for the fact that people are excited about this technology, and they are rushing to use it, regardless of its preliminary nature.  There are already enough examples of its use that I was able to attend a panel debating HTML5 as a flash-killer.

One of my favorite parts of SXSW has been the way it sparks these intensely geeky conversations, centered around the kind of minutiae that aren't often discussed in such detail. To some extent, talking about the politics of a web spec could be seen as debating an already dead-issue, or posing a purely rhetorical question. At the same time, in talking about the process, we can anticipate where the points of friction are likely to arise, and hopefully outmaneuver some of the pitfalls. I know that if I start experimenting with HTML5 in the near future, I'll be conscientious of web-sockets and other new features of the spec, and I will also be wary of suggesting any radical shifts in technology until I feel confident that we're building on a stable foundation. Yes, the new spec is extremely exciting, but it's probably worth using a little caution until it's a little less raw.

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Behind the Curtain

. Casey Rathunde

After my first full day at SXSW, I feel very much like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz,' experiencing that famous moment when Toto pulls open the curtain hiding the man behind the machinery. Of course, if you're familiar with the film, the metaphor has two layers to it. We usually associate "pulling back the curtain" with a positive experience that satisfies our curiosity, however, let's not forget that the original allusion also carries with it a sense of betrayal. We want our "wizards" to be great and powerful, and finding out that they're only human can be disappointing. At the same time, this realization can also be freeing because it reminds us that the "correct" answers have not yet been settled upon, and that even the "experts" are often engaging in the same learning processes as the rest of us.

Running with the positive sense of the metaphor, I've peeked behind some amazing curtains today. At the morning's first panel, I was able to learn about the processes and logic behind the testing and development model behind "New" Twitter. As someone who watched the launch unfold (and personally adopted, abandoned, revisited, and finally embraced the changes), it was fascinating to hear about the way the new model of interaction was actually chosen. As a developer, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but until the presenter pointed it out, I hadn't thought about the fact that New Twitter's interaction model "breaks" our fundamental understanding of how the web works. Links open panels, not pages; layers and drawers present content, rather than page-turns refreshing information. Nothing does what you expect it to, and yet the final product works in a way that perfectly suits the data being presented. Still, after watching my timeline almost unanimously resist the changes, I have to think that the counter-intuitive behavior of the page contributed to the initial venom that the change inspired.

Do I agree with the choices? Yes, adamantly. No, vehemently. I can't commit to an answer. If I look at the question as a developer, then I can't quite stomach completely disregarding the value in respecting the system - links should behave as links. If I look at the choice with my anthropologist's hat on, then I suppose my answer boils down to the fact that all culture changes over time. As much as we like to place conventions and standards on a pedestal, they can become shackles if we allow them to become larger and more important than their practical purposes require. Links should behave like links when it helps our users; links should not behave like links simply because "that is how it is done."

When Twitter made the choice to break this model, it was done deliberately, and it was done because they saw a need to do things differently. I can't speak to it in any broad, official capacity, but based on my personal network, I think that after the initial shock wore off, people warmed up to the changes, and ultimately, the gamble was successful.

Another good example of having the curtains pulled back on a process that is usually opaque comes from listening to a panel on CSS3, given by people involved in developing the specifications. CSS3 will offer a whole new set of possibilities for web design, while simultaneously creating a whole new set of pitfalls, browser clashes, and headaches of backwards compatibility. While listening to the panel, I realized two things: that everyone there understood the problems, and that none of them necessarily had the answers. I feel okay about that fact, especially because I now know that the people developing the spec work with and for a variety of browsers, and that they're all going through this process collaboratively. No one browser is claiming to have the one unique solution, and hopefully this will make the transition to CSS3 run more smoothly than previous iterations have.

A lot of what I'm hearing at SXSW consists of some variation on, "This is really cool, and this is what we think it means, but we're not entirely sure just yet." The best panelists have been the people with interesting questions, rather than interesting answers. In a sense, these people are drawing back their own curtains. Not only do they make themselves transparent and honest by doing so, but they're allowing the conversation to flow in both directions. Twitter is learning from its users and developing new features based on what they perceive to be user needs. CSS3 is being defined by people who use and develop the web, and who are working together to make something that they hope will satisfy everyone. Even the man behind a popular zombie website spoke today about the value of letting your community shape your content, and of abandoning your own ideas when you perceive that they have become out of sync with the needs of your users.

So maybe it's best that we don't keep hoping that Oz begins and ends with the great and powerful facade. As it turned out for Dorothy, the man behind the curtain was much more accessible and helpful in the end. I believe the same premise holds true for our technological gurus, and that perhaps the reason I've yet to hear anyone claim that this isn't a messy, collaborative process might be the fact that those people have failed to thrive the way their more flexible contemporaries have.

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Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era by Zbigniew Brzezinski (QUOTES)

. wandereye

As I begin the arduous task of reading this seminal and somewhat dated forward-thinking piece of conspiracy theory, new world order literature, some great thinking around the challenges we are facing through rapid disruptive change and design thinking have emerged:

The post-industrial society is beginning a "Technetronic" society: a society that is shaped culturally, psychologically, socially, and economically by the impact of technology and electronics—particularly in the area of computers and communications. The industrial process is no longer the principle determinant of social change, altering the mores, the social structure, and the values of society. In the industrial society technical knowledge was applied primarily to one specific end: the acceleration and improvement of production techniques. Social consequences were a later by-product of this paramount concern. In the Technetronic society scientific and technical knowledge, in addition to enhancing production capabilities, quickly spills over to affect almost all aspects of life directly. Accordingly, both the growing capacity for the instant calculation of the most complex interactions and the increasing availability of biochemical means of human control augment the potential scope of consciously chosen direction, and thereby also the pressures to direct, to choose, and to change.

Reliance on these new techniques for calculation and communication enhances the social importance of human intelligence and the immediate relevance of learning.

In an industrial society the mode of production shifts from agriculture to industry, with the use of human and animal muscle supplanted by machine operation. In the Technetronic society industrial employment yields to services, with automation and cybernetics replacing operation of machines by individuals.

Scientific and technogical development is a dynamic process. It depends in the first instance on the resources committed to it, the personnel available for it, the educational base that supports it, and—last but not least—the freedom of scientific innovation.

What man thinks is closely related to what man experiences. The relationship between the two is not causal but interacting: experience affects thought, and thought conditions the interpretation of experience.

The construct triumph of ignorance extracts its own tribute in the form of unstable and reactive policies, the substitution of slogans for thought, the rigid adherence to generalized formulas made in another age and in response to circumstances that are different in essence from our own, even if superficially similar. 
— Zbigniew Brzezinski

Thoughts About "Lean UX: Getting Out Of The Deliverables Business"

. wandereye

What’s missing from this article is what “user experience” is and what a “user experience” person does? Even asking a “user experience architect” or a “user experience designer” will lead you to a bunch of answers, some stating that they are actually “information architects”… Having been at this for a while, seeing this title appear around 2000, and coming from a “human-centered” design program, my views on the matter probably venture into the “extreme” or “dogmatic” category, if not wholly untraditional. The basis of (good) “user experience” (in my humble soft-spoke opinion) is inquiry into what the actual “user’s experience” is. The tools that a user experience “architect” or “designer” have at their disposal are employed towards learning about stuff like “context” and “content” and “end use goals”. I’ve found in my work that focusing on the humans that both make and use a product leads to great insights into the design process in and of itself.

Much too often the trouble with user experience is not the types of deliverables or the tools or methods but where and when and how user experience is employed in the process. There is a huge misconception in the industry, highlighted by this article (“and its siblings, interaction design, UI design, et al”), that user experience “evolves” from UI design etc. Strategy is a large part of user experience. Systems and framework design are key to user experience at a high level. Many of the “user experience architects” I worked and work with have never done UI design but are experts in stuff like sociology or cognitive psychology or electrical engineering…

Much of the time, user experience is “guided” by (being political here) by people who seldom, if ever, think about the user (i.e. customer), are reacting to directives within an organization or business sources from a myriad of origins, usually at the top of a power structure… Much of the user experience I see employed at the “wireframe” level is simply an extension of “product requirements documentation”, a functional map or visualization of interface patterns sourced from existing libraries to meet a set of business goals and a tight deadline constrained by the limitations of legacy backends and scaleless middlewear and/or lack of comfort with new interaction patterns and content management systems/understanding of the importance of metadata on the web.

Wireframes, in the age of “dynamic media”, are self-defeating… they are static and two-dimensional representations of “states” based on the assumptions of the “modes” a user/customer is in. Rarely do user experience people spend time doing primary or contextual field research, if not self-exploration and observation to understand behavior within context or life outside the seven degree peripheral field focus (a monitor, a cell phone screen, an iPad). It’s ironic to note this when most value comes from truly understanding design contexts and the users who employ designed stuff to get stuff done or have experiences with.

“What’s most important to recognize here is that Lean UX is focused strictly on the design phase of the software development process. Whatever your organization’s chosen methodology (waterfall, Agile, etc.), these concepts can be applied to your design tasks.”

Focusing on the design phase gets you farther from the source of why you’re doing the design in the first place. Why not start by focusing on the user needs and the contexts of those needs? Design solves problems. If you don’t know the nature of the problems, employing a solution to the unknown is a crap shoot. User research includes internal and external users. I hear all the time blabber about “agile” and “process” but the truth and reality in the industry is that the process and structures are the most inflexible parts of the experience of designing for a user when they should be the most flexible parts.

Concluding, some of the best “user experience” deliverables I have seen have been ways of changing how people look at or approach a design process in and of itself. Not adapting to meet some mis or un-informed version of what “role” a user experience person plays in an assembly line called “agile”.

This reminds me of a recent facebook thread I had with some admired colleagues about the state of UX:

Joseph Dombroski: Every day, I'm feeling more like you did back in 2007. Living in the future is difficult, Michael. I'm starting to understand exactly why.

Michael David Simborg: You lived in this world with me and together we tired to change it. Sad thing is that the future I was living in was really the past that wasn't catching up to the now, which felt like the future to various people who, unfortunately, lacked the ability to absorb and apply or even self-reflect.

John William Ostler: this is the conversation I've been waiting for.

Joseph Dombroski: In other words, I'm delusional. Great.

Joseph Dombroski: On re-reading your reply with "the future" as a euphemism, I don't feel as bad about myself. In my original message, I was giving you a compliment and giving myself a warning. In any event, it was subtle.

Michael David Simborg: We're BOTH delusional in the sense that we listen to the rhetoric and think it's not laden with parenthesis. I've been finding great value in tuning into them more than the talk, which is expensive.

Joseph Dombroski: I keep re-reading your original reply, and it's perfect. It's got a nice rhythm, diction, even the Freudian slip was a nice touch ('tired' = 'tried').

Michael David Simborg: It is tiring but remember this (I am projecting): confusion is the first step towards revelation. It's when I reach the peaks of frustration that the breakthroughs come. Maybe this is the next level.

Areos Ledesma: Not sure how much the price of admission was but like John said... this could be epic.

Michael David Simborg: http://uxmag.com/short-news/an-animated-tribute-to-ux-design

John William Ostler: Your problem isn't the envelop. Your problem is the way you market it. The architect used the miniature. The executive used the keynote. What will the UX professional use? The wireframe? Try again.

Joseph Dombroski: Here it comes again, John's condescension: "You know what you neeeeeed..." Wireframes, like most of agency life, are symptoms of bureaucracy and incompetence. I resent the notion that I am a UX designer. I am not. It is a mask I wear while rent-seeking, just like an investment banker, a TSA employee, a priest, or an SEO charlatan. The problem isn't that UX is ridiculous and unethical—it's that we're all smart enough to know it. Are you familiar with Plato's Allegory of the Cave? Michael and I are like the philosopher kings who have abdicated their mantles, who return almost willingly and almost quietly to gaze again at the shadows on the wall. But hope comes yet: I am bored, restless again. I wonder what's going on outside the cave, my workplace, my Crate & Barrel catalogue apartment. I tire easily of living in a Magnus-Mills-like Scheme for Full Employment. I am Joseph's complete lack of surprise. I am wasting my life, and I know it. What greater luxury could exist? What a performance!

Joseph Dombroski: In any event, you all know my original post was not directly related to UX and certainly not related to **, right? I was speaking more generally about Michael's amazing ability to synthesize huge amounts of information from web sites, magazines, conversations, daily observations, etc. into a vision of the adjacent possible, the near future. I beguile myself by thinking I have stumbled upon a similar sense of things.

Michael David Simborg: Thanks Joseph! Coming from you... But that's the point about the Cave - UX is INQUIRY and the artifacts like wireframes (suck ass) are a capitulation for validation and accreditation. User experience is an already obsolete industry when it is defined because you can't limit the human experience and experience is dynamic, drawing from everything experienced. Hence UX is a PROCESS that is part of an overall endeavor and not limited to web design (which is a walking dead industry)... Its been an inherent wnt vital practice in stuff lile industrial design or medicine or photography... Anyone with a brain or who has been at this since the web hit mainstream knows that it's future is very different than it's inception. To survive you have to have the ability to learn, absorb and apply, to be present. Otherwise you postpone inevitable extinction via obsolescence. Nathan shedroff opened the door with his book experience design which was radical to common practice in the sense that it spoke to a need for empathy. Richard Saul wurman coined information architects... Responding for a need to simplify complexity in an overwhelming world of increased access to information in new formats and contexts and channels... But in J's line... UX is like going to whole foods - it's expensive but it serves the narcissistic and self-righteous need for self validation of appearing like someone who cares about anything beyond your own personal agendas...

What the Cowboy Cab guy (re)taught me about branding

. Pete

I hate the rain.

I mean, I'm all for renewing of the earth, circle of life, blah blah blah. I'm also all about sharing that intimate time when you and someone you care for listen to the raging thunderstorm outside... the rain hitting the roof, the thunder in the distance, and then the window-shaking detonation that reminds you that Nature isn't screwing around.

Hated it in the military, hated it on hikes when I lived in Hawaii, and particularly hate it when it's 33F here in Chicago and I have to walk to work from the train in a downpour. I know "hate" is a strong word, and maybe I really don't know what true hate is, but yea. Hate being in the rain. So I babied up and caught a cab outside the Metra station. Hey, it's like 4 whole blocks. Did I mention it was raining?

Anyway, I stepped out o the rain and into a nightclub on wheels.

I'm not kidding. 0635, and suddenly my world was hanging disco balls, a flashing blacklight, garland streaming everywhere, bright flyers. Welcome to Sid Bennett's Happy Ride. "I'm a nightclub on wheels, man!" he exclaims, as I snap an iPhone pic.

In their excellent book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tell us that for something to stick in your mind, to warrant sharing and recall and action, it needs to be one ( or more ) of these four things:

- Funny
- Novel
- Genuinely useful
- Sexy

Sid's cab experience was 3 out of the 4... and if I swung that way, maybe it'd be 4. He was sporting a cowboy hat, and oozed confident calm.

I stepped out of the cab ( after my amazing 4 block ride ) and into the Argo Tea that occupies the street-level space in the building I work in, and proceed to have the following conversation with the barista:

"Heya, morning," I say.
"Morning, how are you?"
"I'm great... I just had the craziest cab ride. A dude in a cowboy hat, who's cab is all done up inside like a nightclub. Really made my morning."
"NO WAY! I've been in that SAME cab! so have some of my friends. We call him every time we go out..."

...and so on.

In Chicago, tea shop baristas are not known for their predilection for cabs to get from point A to B, and probably by extension neither are their friends. The fact that the first person I spoke with about my unique experience claimed to have had one herself, and so had many of her we-don't-usually-take-cabs-but-hey-it-was-a-nightclub-on-wheels friends had as well, was amazing.

Sid Bennet has taken probably less than a $30 investment and made apparently a cast-iron brand for himself in a city as large as Chicago. Impacted so many of us that the person serving up my iced ginger peach tea at 630am had heard of him and reached out for his services.

How's your branding going? How much do you spend? How many people turn aside from others who do the same boring thing you do and choose -you- ?

Just curious.

Happy Ride Co.
Sidney Bennett, President.
for a cab in Chicago, call 312-613-4812

He's a nightclub on wheels, man.

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The Private as Public, Intentionality, and Designing the Future

. PeteW

What the… Oh, man! I feel like I just became my dad. And anybody who’s a parent who feels that way usually doesn’t like what they’re feeling the moment this happens. For me, the moment was grounding my 14 year old daughter from Facebook for a time. She just got an account this past November, guidelines and expectations were set, and things were going find until Jr high social life drama (inevitably) ensues. Ah, Facebook--where else would a 14 year old go to share their most personal thoughts and feelings? Only, it’s just not a great idea to use a public forum as your private diary that’s open and available for the world to read (and scrape data from, and data mine, etc. etc.)

What just happened? A bad decision by my daughter? Epic fail by her parents?

Well, I got curious and started looking around at what’s going on with the habits and practices of different people who use social media like Facebook and I found some interesting things that are not only relevant for me, but also relevant to anyone who’s involved with technology, business, or even being a kid or a parent. So, just to put everyone in the same frame of mind: What would you do if someone you’re very close to decided to start sharing detailed, personal aspects of their life in a public place?

According to many recent studies and papers your reaction depends greatly on how you grew up with technology. Gen X (and older), who grew up without cell phones, internet, and social media finds the idea of sharing their private life publicly online as something they have difficulty with (and Boomers perhaps even more so).

Now, to a Gen Y person, sharing your private life in this way is a perfectly acceptable and comfortable way to share who they are. The fact that most of their private life is available for public consumption is fine. Don’t take my word for it— hear it from Gen Y people themselves.

It’s not just a simple age difference though—the evidence points to a nuanced relationship between people, their use of technology, and how they control the technology along with the control of the information they share using technology. For instance, one story in the San Francisco Examiner did an expose on a 28 year old woman who was one of the first Web cam girls on the internet. She would share details of her life online with total strangers everyday. What do you suppose her attitude was when she found out that her phone records were potentially being screened by the NSA?

"Yet when the 28-year-old San Francisco resident learned last week, along with millions of Americans, that the National Security Agency had collected the telephone records of unsuspecting citizens, it crossed Gira's privacy line.

Although atypical in her choices of hobby and profession, Gira is typical of many in her generation when it comes to privacy concerns. On the one hand, she and millions of citizens under 30 are actively engaging in online exhibitionism without fear of consequences. On the other hand, they seem more concerned than their parents about government eavesdropping in the name of U.S. security.

According to a national Pew Research Center Poll conducted in January, 56 percent of 18- to-29-year-olds surveyed said the government's policy of eavesdropping on suspected terrorists' phone calls and e-mails before obtaining court permission was generally wrong, while 53 percent of those 50 to 64 years old said it was the right thing to do. (Source: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/20/GENY.TMP&ao=all#ixzz1GAuUSR26 )"

So, there’s a built-in comfort level for sharing with people who’ve grown up on the Web. Further, there’s a potentially heightened sense concern over privacy—once it’s realized that organizations have potentially more control of their personal data than he/she does as the owner and author of one’s personal data. The point here is twofold: it matters how much control people have over their data and it matters whether or not people know what is being done to control their data.

Now then, couple this with a recent NY Times article The Footprints of Web Feet, highlighting a new trend of social Web offerings that are launching soon which all focus on making private browsing history public.

The history of the idea stems from a desire between two friends to keep in closer contact with one another. "Then at one point we just said to each other, 'What if we could just show each other what we're reading and watching and shopping for?' "

Of course something that might be applicable and appropriate to share between two friends quickly begs the privacy / control question if you apply this to sharing everything with everyone. Naturally, there are filters being put into place by the various offerings. Dscover.me has a 'white list' to share only a list of approved sites. Sitesimon is going to use a blacklist (don't share only these sites) based on the argument that discoveries are serendipitous. Sharing only from a whitelist misses opportunities that are new and in-the-moment.

From my point of view, both of these approaches miss the mark. Sharing isn't a blacklist or whitelist approach--it's tied to the context and affinities that are dynamic (i.e. relationships change according to the context in which we are engaged with in the moment). At a broad level, there are simply things that would make sense to share to some of my friends or colleagues and there are others that fit other friends or colleagues. In fact, many of the people, places, and products I encounter online would be odd or innappropriate to share with just everyone I know (or am friend with). A snarky political commentary might not be appropriate for my work friends. Likewise, a geeky new research paper on ethnomethodologies of elderly people that are new to using mobile technology to improve their wellness wouldn't be the highlight of the day for my wife and our friends.

Further, at a deeper level, the dynamics of what happens frequently shift in time. The meaning of a single thing--a book, a news story, a meme on the Web--mean different things to different people at different points in time. Egypt's Mubarak saw terrorists trying to overthrow the regime, while much of the rest of the world saw revolutionaries.

Control must be given to what, how, when, and with whom sharing takes place. Further, sharing needs to be considerate of context and shifts in meaning over time for different audiences. (A problem/opportunity that those who manage social media are dealing with now.)

Beyond the design of controls that can flow with the dynamics of people and their dynamic networks of people, this NY Times piece also raises a larger question:

Mina Tsay, a communications professor at Boston University who studies the psychological and social effects of media, said that in her studies of Facebook she found that frequent users saw the world as significantly more public than less-frequent users did — a source of misunderstanding familiar to many social media users.

Privacy notwithstanding, Dr. Tsay said social media’s evolution might create more-passive consumers of information: people too reliant on others to decide what’s interesting, stylish or valuable.

“In some ways, this might produce a society in which we end up conforming to buying the same products, seeing the same information, going on the same trip, depending on the same sources,” she said.

The argument countering this dystopian worldview is that technology which enables this kind of sharing may actually serve a useful purpose by making people more self-aware for how they behave online.

Adam Liebsohn, Voyurl founder, puts it this way: "If we're not following you, no matter what, somebody else is," he said. "The difference in this scenario is, we show it back to you. It's holding up a mirror to a reflection that I don't think people knew they had."

Well, not so fast. Extreme views make for great press, but the evidence suggests the issues at stake here are simply more than either a utopian or dystopian worldview can address. As was the case with my daughter and the findings from Gen Y behavioral trends, the true nature of the situation can’t be so easily dismissed with a simple black or white argument.

First of all, the key to judging the true value of any of the new offerings that help people share their public life lies in the purpose and intent of the offering. Just because we can do something (let people share all their private online behaviors in a public way) doesn't mean we should. As much as many social media and news offerings tend to place the user/viewer’s right to know on a pillar above all else, I’m reminded of a concept Tony Golsby-Smith once shared with me during a lecture---we also have a right not to know something. That is, when almost every conceivable media outlet is saturating all available communication channels with a single message (say, the personal and intimate details Charlie Sheen’s life, for instance), then I ought to still retain a right to control and filter this information or ignore it all together in lieu of matters that may be much more relevant to me.

Do I really want to hear more versions of Charlie Sheen’s Tiger Blood, Winning, and Trolls or would I rather ignore this and see why the Wisconsin state GOP decided to swiftly end collective bargaining rights for public servants without debate? Further, if I happened to live next to Charlie Sheen I have as much of a right not to know the personal and intimate details of a neighbor.

Let’s shift the focus now—form personal details of someone else, to personal data about you. The use and sharing of such personal information can serve either positive / altruistic needs (behavior change to achieve a goal or change an unhealthy lifestyle or habit) or serve questionable purposes (using data to reinforce unhealthy behaviors and promote narratives and values for short-term economic gain to the detriment of a person). Sharing is a form of reciprocity—-real reciprocity requires two-way streams of value.

It's our responsibility as people who create new experiences (and their foundational systems, value streams, and incentives) to define value that's sustainable, shared, and transparent. I'm not just talking Web or e-commerce here (those are the proverbial tip of the iceberg), bur rather I'm talking to all those who hold the keys for new business, government, and technology innovation.

At Sears Holdings, I'm part of a Digital Innovation Group that works up, down, and across organizations to define the future of retail. We not only define new experiences, but we drive intentionality through dialogues with leadership about the potential impact new opportunities have. We're creating the future of retail and role retail has, and will have, in the lives of people.

If this sounds interesting, stay tuned--we're just beginning. If this sounds like something you'd like to be part of, contact us www.searsholdings.com

Happy At Work?

. andrew

Came across this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eq81wx6aPbA, via Facebook about happiness at work. For us here at Sears it is annual review cycle time. It's a time that brings angst for many, frustration for others and pure happiness for some. We all come to work, it's called work for a reason, usually not associated with happiness. This TEDx talk in Copenhagen pushes the idea that happy employees are more productive employees in every aspect, it's called Arbejdsglaede (Happiness at Work). Seems pretty straightforward, a real simple idea, but a really really difficult goal to achieve. Alexander Kjerulf says it's not about salary, bonuses, perks or other financial rewards. It's about making work fun, enjoyable, and relationships. I think that last one is the key here, the relationships you have with your co-workers. Appreciation, respect and humor for me are the keys to happiness at work. At uxSears we have grown very quickly, 200% growth in our department's staff in under two years. Wicked fast growth, we have had some stumbles, but we all push really hard and making sure everyone is happy. I know, the first thought that comes to mind for sears is not necessarily Arbejdsglaede, but we actually have adhoc teams that focus on developing events to make work, seem less like work and more like fun. We have movie night, chili cook-offs, Indian Dancing lessons, massages and more. We also encourage creative exploration and have an open slot for anyone to present ideas in our weekly design discussions. We are doing a ton of hiring right now and have open positions in just about every discipline, UX, Visual Design, Copywriting, Front End Development, Mobile Design & Dev, Project Management and super smart DVP's of creative. So give us a ring and come and have Arbejdsglaede with uxSears.

UX Sears meets SHC's new CEO

. PeteW

Last Friday, the update to our chairman, Edward S. Lampert, included an introduction to the new CEO, Lou D’Ambrosio, and an opportunity to introduce him to some of the new work UX Sears is engaged in.

Among the projects reviewed by Mr. D’Ambrosio was the new UX framework and concept design for Profile. Our lead UXA, Eldridge Doubleday, presented and had a chance to answer questions and from Mr. D’Ambrosio.

The experience was memorable in two ways. First, Mr. D’Ambrosio liked the direction of Profile and its foundational strategy as visualized by the Profile UX framework. It’s always great to get buy-in from leadership. However, it’s the second reason for why this was a memorable experience that stands out: Mr. D’Ambrosio understands and is passionate about products that are driven by behavioral research and data.

Mr. D’Ambrosio inquired about how this concept was created and about how we knew whether the design will work with customers. Eldridge addressed taxonomy and card sorting studies done to create the structure of the new design. He also explained rapid iterative usability studies drove design concepts and shaped the interaction by engaging customers early in the design process.

Mr. Mr. D’Ambrosio responded with much positive regard for usability and customer research that can impact design decisions early. He told stories about his technology roots and use of customer research and usability as being vital tools to make decisions with.

Why is this significant? It’s significant because it was a shift in the dialogue between OBU and SHC leadership. That is, with customer behavior at the center of the conversation, the nature of the opportunities we engage in can be seen in a new light: people centered relationships instead of product centered relationships.

SHC has always been focused on the customer. However, there are many ways to be “customer focused.” An organization can be customer focused by marketing to the customer, making sure there are many quality products and services available to choose from at a price that’s competitive and delivered in fast and convenient ways. Getting the right products to the right customer at the right time in the right way. This is, in many ways, the story of retail.

An organization can also be customer focused by understanding the customer as a person first and foremost--that their life as a customer is part of a larger journey and their life, including their shopping, is shaped by contextual and situational needs that affect behavior (what people do), emotions (what people feel), and how they share their experience with others. Being customer focused, then, means the relationship starts with the customer, and takes shape over time as the customer’s journey isn’t linear, but rather a series of cycles, driven by situational moments experienced over time. Helping people get to the products and services they need that fit the situations they have in the places and spaces they spend time with. This is the story of the future of retail. What does this mean for future dialogue and UX? A few possibilities: • it calls upon role of UX to affect design beyond features and functionality • thinking beyond features means understanding customer behavior • understanding customer behavior requires spending time with customers • designing with the customer is as important as designing for the customer

At the end of the day, the potential value UX generates by designing with customers and engaging in customer research before, during, and after design is exponentially higher for the customer and for the business: • It’s a direct path to focus resources on what matters most to customers (lifting C-SAT, customer engagement, conversion, trust, and the like). • It’s the surest path to finding opportunities for innovation that would otherwise be invisible to us.

To me, what this brief conversation with our new CEO signals is nothing short of the best new opportunity to realize the potential for UX and design led innovation since I’ve been with Sears Holdings.

Welcome to 2011—the year we change the relationship with our customers.