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Monday, 31 May, 2010

Bridging the Intangible - Tangible gap

Often when asked what one does as a designer, the answer seems to be that designers understand user requirements and convert it into design. I have myself replied the same all these years. The counter argument I get is that many other disciplines do the same, so why the need for a designer. Thinking about this led me to a more indepth thought about what designers do (or are supposed to do).

I think the main task of a designer is to understand human emotions, feelings and thought (all intangibles) and convert them into a design output (tangible). This is what the designer is uniquely trained to do.

Many other disciplines are trained to understand data, organize and interpret into information, and then construct a solution. However, the uniqueness of the designer lies in going beyond mere information, understand the human intangibles behind that and then construct a tangible design that caters to those intangibles.

A design that engages the user, arouses curiosity, increases ease, and many a times provides a novel experience is what the designer's goal should be. That, I feel, is the purpose of the designer.

Monday, 16 March, 2009

You want your product to succeed? Tell the user what it is, clearly.


Successful products have many notable attributes. One, however, is most significant - the ability to clearly say to the user what it is.

A productivity tool needs to be recognizable as one. A social networking site has to say that it is so. A forum has to look like a forum.

Ambiguity is the first step towards failure. A product that doesn't speak for itself and say what it is, will confuse users about its purpose and end up being neglected.

Most product owners seem to want too much and yet play safe. Mostly unclear as to what they really want to provide to their users, and under pressure to face up to competition and not be left behind, they end up creating multiple objectives without a central focus. The result is a salad of ideas, each with independent objectives, none of which add to the objective of the whole.

Focusing on a central idea and saying what it is, seems risky - it seems easier to bet on a bag of ideas and hope that some of them will work out rather than having to put your money on one. Ambiguity seems to be a guise for lack of confidence. The end result is a mediocre product and the probable path to eventual failure.

It must be realized by all product owners, that product development is a risky business. Here taking risk is the only way to be safe, and playing safe the riskiest and the surest path to failure.

(Photo Credit: Tall Chris, Flickr)

Friday, 13 March, 2009

Successful Products have Life - an Energy Theory

Robin's first hello

Do successful products have "life" ?

I know this might sound crazy but let's explore the possibilities.

Life can be defined by an "energy" that enables an object to have the unique capacity to act on its surroundings, react to it, connect to-and-between other objects around it and facilitate and enable that environment, besides of course the ability to grow and reproduce. Some attribute this life-energy to a higher spirit, others to a God, many others to ambivalence and still others to nothing.

Successful products do all of the above, either in a positive or a negative sense.

Starting with the guys who germinate the product idea, to the ones who incubate it, to its eventual audience/users and its environment - all of them contribute to this "life" in the product. It is all these people and the environment who bring into it this energy.

Bringing this energy into a product is not easy. Each contributor needs to channelize a lot of their own energy into the product before it can spring into life. That is why only a handful of products succeed.

Why Products Fail?

Too many people get into building a product without this energy, concentrating on putting the superficial building blocks (features) together, without focusing on the energy within. The result is similar to an anatomical construction of the human body without life in it. Inevitably, an energy-less construction and then a post-construction effort to blow life into the product doesn't do much to bring it to life.

The Success Formula (Duh !!)

Investors will tell you that they don't just evaluate a product, they evaluate the people behind it, before they invest in it. And, they do so very rightly. Right from ideation to construction, release and beyond, the people behind and then around the product conjure together their cumulative energies to bring it to life. You need the idea generators and germinators to bring in their vision and passion, the constructors to work out the details, the magical "conductor-like" product manager to orchestrate this incubation and bring it to release. Finally, you need the audience/users to bless the new-born into acknowledgment, existence and growth. Once grown, the mature product will use the energy of its environment to spawn and encourage other ideas and products to grow from it and reproduce beyond.

Does this theory that successful products have life, matter?

This construct brings out the importance of the vision, passion and persistent energy required to bring a product to life and make it successful.

Life, as always, is a metaphor. It can also be the truth.

Look around and you will see successful products around that live successfully. The tech industry is abound with examples like Google, Amazon, eBay and now Twitter which have sprung to life and are successful.

(Photo Credit: pleasantpointinn, Flickr)

Tuesday, 10 March, 2009

Crowdsourcing with CAUTION !!

A Crowd at the Market

A lot is being said about "crowdsourcing" almost everyday, and more and more entrepreneurs are jumping onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon. There is however, need for caution.

Just as the banking and financial services industry in the US jumped on the sub-prime lending bandwagon leading to the crisis we face in the world economy today, any "fad" needs to be taken up with caution. This moment of economic crisis should teach us not to evaluate options based on short-term gain, but do a careful evaluation of its long-term implications before taking it up.

I have been evaluating crowdsourcing with respect to the design of software products, which is my area of work, and I would welcome suggestions and more thoughts on this.

Design broadly consists of four major phases:

1. An initial understanding phase, where a designer employs various tools at her disposal to understand the needs of users of the product and society in general,

2. A second divergent ideation phase, where ideas are generated,

3. A third convergent phase where the final solution is chosen, and

4. A final implementation phase.

One can package this in many different ways, but the essential activities in design will typically conform to these four phases.

It is the second phase of ideation, that typically holds the potential of being crowdsourced. If you are creating a product or service and need ideas, it does make sense to crowdsource. The ideation phase is afterall a divergent phase and you need to explore. You can hire a consultant and pay money to do this exploration or use the crowd for free to do the same - either way you will need to explore ideas. There is just one small glitch - you will end up getting a lot of ideas that are grounded in different contexts and not in the context your business might be oriented towards. This will happen, because the crowd will typically not have done the first phase of understanding your users. You will therefore need to sieve through the ideas and take those that fit your context, when you move to the next converging phase of arriving at a solution.

Therefore, in the third phase of converging towards a solution, you will need expert advice. A deluge of ideas from the crowd can be overwhelming, if you don't know how to sieve through them and you might end up losing your way, and even going away on a tangent that is detrimental to your business model. Therefore, for the third phase of arriving at a solution, you will need an expert designer to bring all the ideas together and connect the dots, using tools and experience at her disposal. Crowdsourcing will provide you with "opinion", but you will need "informed opinion" to make decisions.

Similarly, in the first phase of understanding user needs and studying it in the context of society and the business, you will need an expert who can use the necessary tools at his disposal to capture these needs with the right amount of empathy and understanding, both of which take years to imbibe.

Again, in the final implementation phase, you will need an expert to plan and implement this design - it is a fine balancing act of all the constraints at hand, and comes only with training and experience.

Crowdsourcing enthusiasts, whom I have read so far, seem to be so gung-ho about cost savings in the short-term, that they seem to have ignored all these aspects in their espousal, and this can be dangerous. Traditionally, not having done enough home-work upfront has meant doing multiples of that work down the line - cost savings upfront is a myth that results in more expensive rework later with much pain and hardship as well.

As I see more and more entrepreneurs and enterprises jumping onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon to get design done, I am concerned. I worry that this mad rush will leave most entrepreneurs with burnt fingers and products with lost opportunities that can affect society adversely in the long run. Creating and supporting the creation of good products is not an obligation, but it is necessary for the well-being of each and every one of us. We don't need an economic recession to tell us, that we were wrong - we just need to be positively careful about the choices we make.

Since the fundamentals of product design, apply to all other forms of design - organizational and social - I am of the opinion that the application of crowdsourcing needs to be done with a lot of thought.

(Photo Credit: Christopher Augapfel, Flickr)

Monday, 2 March, 2009

Why design?

I was thinking about the scenario we are in, especially with the economic recession, and how designers need to work in this scenario.

On the one hand, the recession has meant more focus and prioritization, and the same has obviously reflected in the designs we do, and yet, designers still have the responsibility of seeing that this "focus" is not so short-sighted that we put the longer term at stake, both for our clients as well as to the users of our products.

While lurking on the internet, looking for advice on this thought, I chanced upon this interesting talk from Philippe Starck, which provides interesting insights:

Friday, 23 January, 2009

The "more is less" paradox in Product Design

Last Wednesday, as part of our "Design Discussions" session, my team and I watched the "Paradox of Choice" lecture by Barry Schwartz. We had watched Barry's talk before but we loved listening to the talk again.

While the whole talk is relevant, one area that is particularly relevant to Product Design of Software is "Capability vs. Usability". Barry opines that customers buy a product on its "potential" or "capability" and its only later, during usage, that they become aware of its "Usability". He goes on to make many more important points that include the point that customers know that the usability of the product is not the same as its capability, and yet many products are bought on their mere capability. Now this is very significant if we extend and evaluate the way we design and sell software products. I know that Product Managers face the dilemma of whether to build features at the risk of feature-overloading or spend effort in keeping the product simple and useful, while road-mapping for their product and I think the "Paradox of Choice" should provide them the starting point to apply to Software Product Development.

A simple way to think about it in the context of Product Development of software both for the enterprise and the individual consumer is as follows (these are just my initial thoughts and I am still trying to wrap my head around it - i am hoping comments from readers will provide more insights):

1. The Feature-Rush Approach : Product Management and Product Marketing almost always rush to build more and more features to stay ahead of competition. Now, this may seem bad, given the fact that this mad rush can hamper quality and usability of the product. However, the fact that most customers will judge and make a "purchase decision" on mere capability (the list of features), makes this "feature-rush" approach attractive. For many large enterprises, software purchase decision is made by the procurement organization or the CIO/CTOs who don't use the software themselves, but buy it for the organization. Such people are more likely to evaluate the software on its capability rather than usability. This is one of the reasons for success of Microsoft software in the enterprise space. Even large and credible brands are not immune to the "Capability-Buy" phenomenon. Enterprise 2.0 vendors, while trying to make the product usable, will still need to be feature-capable in comparison to existing products, if they want to make any impact on the enterprise space.

2. The Use-and-Buy Approach: If you are really concerned about building a kick-ass product, that users love to use or betters their life, you will need to let users use it before they buy it. This is the approach most Social Media and Direct-to-Consumer products take. The best example is Google's Search. To be able to really be successful in this approach, you will need the conviction and the staying power of an innovator and the ability to keep persisting, before users see the benefit of your product and move in. Initially, the field will be spread across multiple such vendors, but if you really have the "killer app" with the best user experience, you can be sure that users will stick by you.

Friday, 16 January, 2009

Will Google buy Twitter?

There is already a lot of buzz around the question if Google is planning to buy Twitter. Some people are already predicting that this is certainly true.

My friend Stowe, says in his post,

This suggests to me that Google is *very* interested in acquiring Twitter, and I bet discussions are happening already.

I know that this was on the offing, but it would be disastrous if Google buys Twitter. Twitter has the potential to create a new revolution in publishing and content assimilation, an idea that Google has no clue about.

Google's strength lies in its ability to create products that present information easily and with great relevance, be it text or images. Google is great at figuring out what people expect to see from the content present on the web. However, it has no idea of how people communicate with each other and how that content can be created.

Twitter hit upon something different, or maybe the users of Twitter have made it seem different (and I hope Evan Williams and team understand this) - Twitter has provided a new content generation mechanism to people, along with the ability to tag them and therefore index them in a way that people associate them. Ofcourse, this does mean that searching and finding that information (which is Google's expertise) does become easy and more relevant, but that is not the "big" idea. The big idea is on the other side - on using the Twitter model to generate content, which has till now been too tedious and cumbersome both to generate and to tag and associate in an easy way.

I suspect that if Google buys Twitter, it will be able to use the relatively small idea of the Twitter model of content access, which is of importance to Google. Google will also achieve its more important objective of capturing the Twitter user base, usage pattern and so on. But it will be a lost opportunity for the "big" idea of the Twitter model of content generation.

If the Twitter team have a vision of the future, they should stick on with Twitter by themselves, just as Google has done. In a few years they will be able to buy Google.

Wednesday, 7 January, 2009

The Social Media Circus

I follow a lot of people via their blog feeds and on Twitter. What amuses me is that all these guys seem to speak to each other and pat on each others back, creating some kind of a self-appreciation affinity group, and nothing more. I don't know if they make much sense to the rest of the world. It's kind of a circus where each clown is trying to outdo the other.

Some of these "bloggers" write 10 to 15 posts a day ( I don't know when they get time to think, eat, sleep or spend time at home, even if blogging itself is their paid job) and most of their posts tend to be either links to other posts or a small comment made on "quoted" text from someone else's blog. I mostly avoid these and go to the source blog at once. It's as if people are trying to cram as many words as possible in their blogs in some kind of a rat race for writing the most words on the web.

As for myself, I enjoy the circus, but have to sift through a lot of crap to actually end up getting any new information.

One blog feed I really love because of its sensible and good quality posts is the O'Reilly Radar

I like Twitter, but again, the crap bothers me. While some guys do post a few important piece of information or news, most of the others simply announce to the world everything from what they are having for breakfast to how they snore at night, as if the world is interested in that crap.

Again, the purpose on Twitter for these ego-maniacs seem to be just about gathering as many followers as possible and its not surprising that many of these guys end up following each other and forming the same self-appreciating affinity groups. They also end up self-announcing themselves as social media gurus.

I think in course of time, most serious bloggers and those on emerging stuff like twitter will have to rethink if this self-gratifying circus adds any meaning to their life or to the society at large. With the start of 2009, I recommend the following for such people:

1. See if you really enjoy reading what you write on your blog or whatever you tweet. This will give you a fair idea if people want to read them. Don't cram in words just to increase your web presence.

2. Get a life. One good post can make your day as well as the day for your audience. You don't need to write in 15 non-informative posts.

3. Assume that tweets are like cars on a "streaming" roadway. Keeping your insignificant tweets out of this road will help keeping this information roadway less crowded and valuable.

4. We have too many gurus anyway. It might be fun to not become another one. The self-appreciation might just be hollow.

5. The web is a serious medium and no one knows it better than those who use it. Let it remain less polluted.

Tuesday, 23 December, 2008

Of Indian Languages and the Internet

Nikhil Pahwa in a post on Medianama tells us:

At the Internet Governance Forum being held in Hyderabad, Ajit Balakrishnan, CEO of Rediff.com said that there is no evidence from the last ten years of the Internet business that users want Indian languages. Rediff has email in 11 languages, and 99% of the users prefer to use email in English. One of the issues is that “practically all of the 300 million young people who aspire to something in this country aspire to learn English.” Therefore “Let us not assume that users want Indian languages.” He mentioned that Nokia has experimented with Indic language keyboards, and pointed out Eterno’s transliteration app which allows the usage of latin characters for messaging in Indic languages.

There has been interesting posts/comments on this by various bloggers, one in particular by BG Mahesh (Mahesh's post)

Obviously, Ajit Balakrishnan has missed the point. Mahesh does make some interesting comments but I find his ideas unconvincing.

I think all of the posts and blogs I have read on this have not thought about the following:

1. Language is not important, Communication is
This might sound distasteful to language purists, but this is just the basics. Language does become important as an identity projector and for its political ramifications, but beyond that, for day-to-day life, its just a means of communication. In their daily life, people will use whatever language allows them to connect to the largest mass of people, or whatever is easy and available. As of now, its neither easy to read (rendering) or write (script complications in use of "matras") in comparison to English (which uses only letters for both consonants and vowels). One might argue that the Japanese script is complicated as well, but that argument falls short simply because India is more comfortable with English because of reasons I have outlined in point 2 below.

2. Its not just the Internet when it comes to Indian languages
The internet is just a reflection of the society we are. Indian languages are not in their prime in urban India (at least). The average child in North India no more says "ma" and "bapu" while addressing her/his mother and father - surprisingly uses "mummy" and "papa", for the two words that represent a child's closest relationships. Higher education is mostly in English. We don't have too many books for advanced studies written credibly in any Indian language like the Germans or the Japanese have.

3. People might be looking for different content and packaging when it comes to Indian languages
Till now effort has been made to provide Indian language alternatives to the applications that exist in English, as if people will adopt it because of some dying need. Most of these people who have created or pushed for these alternatives, may themselves have had no real need for the same, and have just contrived it to suit their intellectual pursuit or some archaic belief that other people across the often imagined "digital divide" need it - a condescending attitude if not ignorance. A little looking around (and I know I am still guessing it) might show that the solution lies elsewhere. Because of usage, vernacular languages might have their own content and packaging space in media, one that does have overlaps with English media, but also has its own niche - and the same is true for the internet. Some ideas to consider:

1. Blogs: A Tamil or a Bengali might blog about work-stuff in English, but would he blog poems in the same? Poems are about feelings and its not easy to blog in a language other than your mother tongue - after all it will end up being just a transliteration, mush like the way most Indians speak English - thinking in their mother tongue and then transliterating it into English. I am sure content like poems or lyrics or even native jokes would be blogged in an Indian language.

2. Social Networking: It would be so un-cool to network on Facebook in an Indian Language, simply because Indian languages have not grown fast enough to accommodate and now create college-slangs and fashionable yet simple words - the languages have stagnated and gone out of fashion. However, it might be very very cool to use Hinglish, which is a spoken combination of Hindi and English and has been made fashionable by the aspirational urban youth.

3. Mails: It would be a pain to write long mails in Hindi, for example, where getting the "matras" right would be so much difficult. On the other hand, if written in English, people can figure out words even if one makes a "tpyo".

4. Twitter: Now that is something one might want to write in an Indian language like Hindi, or Hinglish, or Telegu or Bengali for that matter. Micro-messaging wouldn't be so much of a pain, even if one had to use "matras" in Hindi, as was the case in mails. On the other hand it might be interesting to explore and tweet in different Indian languages and rediscover them.

The possibilities could be endless. But its important to keep it cool, simple and easy.

The internet is not an intellectual event. Its a mass phenomenon. You have to design for the masses.

Tuesday, 16 December, 2008

Products are not just a collection of Features

Software products are not just created but also thought out and conceptualized as a collection of features. While this works for extending features on an existing large product, for the conceptualization of a new product, this is possibly the best way to lose your way.

The value of the whole is not always a sum total of its parts.

Let me use a familiar analogy. A house, for example, is not just a collection of rooms, or of its accessories. Each room by itself doesn't have the "value" to its occupants as the whole house has. This is because, beyond the collection of rooms, the house is also built around the social interaction of its occupants. The same collection of rooms, organized in 2 different ways based on 2 different social interactions, will provide a wholly different kind of "value" to their occupants. Similar is the case in software products.

I am a big advocate of the need to think and conceptualize a software product in terms of its social interactions. After all its the social interactions in a product that users of the product experience, and the features are only a means to achieve them. Many of the current range of Web 2.0 applications are actually based on a single social interaction. Many products, in fact, started from a single social interaction, but have since found expression in a wider range of social interactions as well.

Twitter for example, is a simple application that started off with a simple social interaction - "implicit asynchronous messaging" - you could "publish" your status to the stream and let people downstream know about it, without having to explicitly message people. This might have seemed initially to most people (including myself) as not such great stuff, but a little thought will tell you that this is akin to "micro-publishing". The possibilities of extending this social interaction to evolve into a whole genre of social interactions, as people "get it" is endless. Thinking of Twitter as only a feature couldn't have opened up these possibilities, as thinking of Twitter as a publishing-consuming social interaction does.

Of the current crop of Web 2.0 products, those that will survive and grow into the next big thing, will have successfully mapped the next generation of social interactions.

Each such social interaction may involve a single or a multiple set of features. Again, each such interaction may involve some of the features partially. So, those coming from the old world of product management might want to create a matrix/map that co-relates social interactions to features and this might be helpful for them in product development. However, the progress in product development still needs to be measured in terms of how much of the conceptualized social interaction has been achieved and what possibilities lie ahead.