Design’s cultural impact

There seems to be a bit of a furor over Jon Kolko’s piece in Johnny Holland: Our misguided focus on brand and user experience.

Personally, I didn’t take offense to the apparent slight against UX practitioners’ “focus on a prescriptive customer experience” – his description didn’t match my experience of the subject, so I assumed he wasn’t talking about me ;)

While the piece does take some twist and turns, what I heard was more of a sustainability message than anything else. Jon says:

We are, quite literally, building the culture around us; arguably, our effect is larger and more immediate than even policy decisions of our government. We are responsible for both the positive and negative repercussions of our design decisions, and these decisions have monumental repercussions.

Thinking about the cultural impacts of what we create immediately widens the frame and presents questions and dilemmas that perhaps aren’t getting enough attention – certainly not in the designs that I see in daily life, be they products, services or systems.

He extends this thought further:

For most designers, this responsibility is hidden by the celebratory claims of designing experiences. This claim almost abdicates the long-term responsibility, as “an experience” has an end, at which time the designers’ role seemingly ends. The work is meaningful only on an immediate level of craft and creation, and while designers often take pride in a product once it has launched, they do not frequently make the connection between their creations and the culture that surrounds them.

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I don’t think it’s too much to extend this statement to encompass the environmental impact of our work – not only as a longer-term/bigger impact but also as a shaper of culture (climate change and the shift towards a sustainable economy will play a significant role in shaping culture in the coming years, as it has already begun to show).

Behavioural change is also critical to a sustainable future, as are more sustainably produced, used and re-used products and services – all aspects of design that seem to still be sadly lacking.

To me this connects to the themes in the Usability in a sustainable future talk I did at World Usability Day last month – so perhaps I’m reading into things?

In any case, I do hope that this core message of cultural impact and behaviour change is not lost in the concerns about Jon’s specific framing of UX…

Update 07 Dec 2009: Steve Baty pointed to a great response by Brian Phipps to Jon’s article:

… a brand must make the customer “better off” than if the customer purchased a mere commodity. Otherwise, what good is the brand? What value does it deliver? “Better off” means that the customer is further empowered, able to be more proactive, and further advanced along his/her desired path via the brand.

Business 2.0

Why Apple’s success doesn’t discount the value of social engagement

Over the past few months I’ve heard “Apple doesn’t engage users in their design process” expressed as a reason for not engaging users for their organisation. The argument goes that Apple creates great products, they’re a market leader in the music and mobile phone markets, and the Mac OS X is much better to use than Windows. So if they don’t do user engagement, why should we?

You are not Apple

I’m being deliberately provocative with this sub-title, but allow me to illustrate my point by asking a few questions:

  • Does your organisation spend USD$1.1 billion per year on research & development?
  • Does your organisation have a design-thinking CEO like Steve Jobs or a Senior Vice President of Design of the calibre of Jonathan Ive?
  • Does your organisation have a cadre of top-notch user interface/interaction/visual designers and engineers at its disposal to develop, test and evolve new, innovative designs?
  • Do you have a strong base of innovative, design-oriented third-party developers coming up with clever ideas that you can learn from? (remember that the core of iTunes and CoverFlow were both acquired by Apple, and many other successful ideas in Apple products were first implemented by third-party developers.)
  • Do you have a strong brand, built through the early years of computing and backed by a passionate fan base who buy into your vision and are willing to forgive you your mistakes (if not actively defend them)?

If you answered “yes” to most of the above, can I come and work for you? ;) If, however, you answered “no” to most of those questions (and I suspect that would be a majority of us) then I would advise caution when considering the way Apple “does design” in the context of your business.

Put bluntly, Apple is an outlier – the success the company enjoys is not something that can be easily replicated. For the rest of us, who don’t have those resources at their disposal, user engagement is a great way to achieve our goals. In fact, somewhat ironically, user engagement can help us to be more like Apple.

Could Apple benefit from engagement?

There’s an underlying assumption here, that I think is useful to express – the assumption that Apple couldn’t benefit from greater social engagement in their design process. For those of us who aren’t part of the religion, I think it’s clear that there are many issues in Apple’s products, from the iPhone, iTunes, MobileMe and Mac OS X that a more engaging approach might help resolve.

Let’s also not forget that significant portions of Mac OS X are open source – the Safari browser being the most prominent – an active developer community of course being an aspect of social engagement, albeit a less visible one.

Learnings from Apple’s approach

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from Apple’s design success. None of these are new, of course, but worth restating in the context of this post.

Cultivate a passionate user base: Apple have cultivated a fervent customer base who are passionate evangelists about the brand and its products. This has been the case since the very early days of Apple, and seems largely attributable to Steve Jobs’ leadership. However, there are many more examples of passionate users that are borne out of social engagement practices. Flickr is just one such example. Campaign Monitor is another.

Focus on doing a smaller set of things really well: Apple have done this over and over again – simplifying their products and cutting through with great design. The early Macs were the first example of this, and the iPod is a more recent example. For the products that have found traction Apple have then been able to expand and extend that base into new product lines with great success. They’ve had less success with the AppleTV – so not everything is a success – perhaps with further user engagement they would be able respond with a product that is better received in the market? User experience tools such as personas can play a useful role here, as can engaging our users; find out what’s important to them (through engagement) and focus our energy there.

Design for yourself: This is related to the previous point, though not always possible (depending on the organisation/product). Apple started by designing and delivering the computer they wanted. They designed for themselves. Consumer-targeted products like the iPod are also something that you could effectively design for yourself. It’s important, however, to be careful when applying this principle as it’s easy to get tunnel vision and not realise that our designs are missing the mark with the people we’re serving. User engagement techniques can help ensure the great ideas in our head are great outside of our head too!

Listen to users: While Apple don’t seem to engage customers as a direct part of their design process, they do obviously listen to them – learning from what people are saying and applying their R&D and design might to develop creative responses to customer needs, with great success.

“Real artists ship”: this is a quote attributed to Steve Jobs in reference to the practicalities of design – that while you can spend all the time you want getting something perfect, in the end you’ve got to get product to market. I think this is similar in spirit to the principles of agile management practice – deliver working product as early as possible and iterate to improve and enhance over time. I’m sure Apple do this internally with new products, but they also do it across product versions/releases: the first versions of the iPod and iPhone had a bare minimum amount of functionality, but they shipped, learnt from the experience, iterated with a better product released next time.

There are probably other points that could be made – feel free to fill in any gaps in the comments :)

Update: Oliver has put up two additional points in the comments worth noting here relating to the investment in design (over months and across multiple approaches) and prototyping.

Be tactical

I’m not suggesting that organisations should defer to users for all design decisions (although Google arguably does a pretty good job with this approach). I think it’s our job as designers to take the various inputs we have and synthesise those into a coherent and rewarding response. The importance of social engagement is that it provides a valuable input that helps us to think from our stakeholders’ perspective when responding creatively to their needs.

With this in mind it’s important to be tactical in where and how you employ social engagement practices, which I see as including user testing and other user experience tools. But used wisely these tools can help us to be more “Apple-like” and to carve our own successful path in the marketplace.

Business 2.0, Social media & networking, Sustainability, Work

What’s next?

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about “what’s next” for Zumio. Since Zumio’s inception about 18 months ago I’ve had the opportunity to work a bunch of great people on challenging and diverse projects. While I’ve enjoyed the chance to stretch myself in a variety of capacities, a few focal points of interest have emerged that I want to explore more actively.

I’ve found that when I’ve been engaged on a “social media” project, I’ve wanted to bring elements of User Experience into play. When I’ve been working on wireframes, I look to understand the social impacts of the interfaces we’re designing.

In all of this my aim has been to get a deeper understanding of the business and community priorities driving the work we do and looking for opportunities to create win-win solutions – ones where interactions provide value for both my client(s) and the communities they are participating within.

I’ve been searching for a good description for this. To me it’s a deeper engagement than just “social media” – I’ve been invited to participate in a couple of projects that could be best described as “buzz generation” campaigns and recognised that this is not what Zumio does. When I talk about “bottom-line” benefits, they are usually not directly “selling” or “marketing” oriented, in the traditional sense. It’s also not “service design” – though I love the term and think we need more of it.

When I work with an organisation my approach to their “business” (I use “business” in the broad sense of the term – e.g. the business and “bottom-line” of a non-profit organisation is achieving policy or advocacy outomes) borrows elements of User Experience (using tools such as personas and user stories, brand development techniques etc.), but it’s not just about building a tool or delivering a service – my interest is in understanding how these tools can facilitate deeper business change that can generate greater value by embracing the spirit and principles behind “Web 2.0”, rather than just using them to create a great deliverable.

When I heard James Dellow from Headshift talk at Public Sphere recently he used the term “social business design” (a reflection of both Headshift’s and their parent, Dachis Group’s focus), which really resonated with me at the time.

Having since done a series of internal workshops to refine my thinking around Zumio with my friends and colleagues Penny Hagen and Rod Smith, and having read further about what is conceived as “social business design”, I have come to realise that this where my strengths and interests lay. It is the thread that weaves through my seemingly diverse experience, clients and projects that I have undertaken over the past 10 years.

Gaining an understanding of this has been a real “light bulb” moment for me (albeit one that has taken months to formulate) – helping me to understand what it is I actually do. I’m looking forward to developing these ideas further, especially when focused on creating a more sustainable future, both environmentally and socially. I think these two society-changing ideas – social business design and sustainability – will play increasingly important roles into the future.

P.S. you may have noticed some changes on the site recently – this is a reflection of this change in focus. While not 100% right (I wonder if these things ever are?), I certainly think the site better reflects this focus and better represents the services Zumio offers. Any feedback you have would be most welcome.