Tuesday Oct 23, 2007

A designer's take on the myths of innovation

Maya Venkatraman is an Interaction Designer at Sun Microsystems. She started working in the area of Human Computer Interaction in graduate school, where she earned her Ph.D, and has been working in the industry for almost a decade, designing software that is easy to use.

http://www.scottberkun.com/wp-content/themes/scottberkun/images/myths_cover_small.gif There seems to be a tight coupling between each phase of the internet era and a set of buzz words. The omnipresent and overused buzz word for the web 2.0 era is "Innovation".

My garden supply site , a respected business journal, and everyone in between wants to tell me about their innovations, how to innovate, who is innovating, why we are not innovating enough, and many, many more innovative things.

Given all of this attention to the topic of innovation, I found it hard to resist buying and reading Scott Berkun's latest book The Myths of Innovation. After reading his first book , The Art of Project Management, I expected this book to be pragmatic, realistic, entertaining and informative. I was not disappointed.

The earlier book, The Art of Project Management, is about the effective management of the environment in which designers work. But this book is about the everyday work of designers and the way their work is perceived. While I learned a lot of new facts reading "The Art...", I found a lot of supporting evidence for existing beliefs when I read "The Myths...".

The book is organized into ten chapters, each chapter focusing on debunking one myth. I have taken the liberty to translate the list into design parlance:

  • Myth 1: Good Design is the Result of a Single Moment of Inspiration or Epiphany
  • Myth 2: Winning Designs Are Immediately Obvious
  • Myth 3: There is One Single Method to Get to Good Design
  • Myth 4: People Love New Designs
  • Myth 5: The Designer Works Alone
  • Myth 6: Good Design Ideas Are Hard to Find
  • Myth 7: Your Boss Knows More About Design Than You Do.
    (probably not, but he can create an environment where it is safe for you to innovate)
  • Myth 8: Problem Statements Do Not Matter
    (they do, phrasing the problem correctly can give you half the solution)
  • Myth 9: The Best Design Always Wins
    (no, the design that is optimum for a given situation and time - wins)
  • Myth 10: New Designs are Always Good

I can see myself reaching for this book when I want to use a quote or anecdote to make a point, but I can also see myself using this book to analyze the "innovation trajectory" of projects that I'm involved with. My favorite quote from the book is, "An idea is not an innovation 'till it reaches people."

Entertaining and informative, I would highly recommend this book to anyone involved in, or nearby, a design project.

Wednesday Oct 10, 2007

Book Review, Geography of Home by Akiko Busch

Bruce Lee is a brand strategist, who works closely with xDesign to define the branded look and interactions of Software user interfaces.

Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live by Akiko Busch

I paused for more than a moment before starting to review and recommend yet another book for designers that isn't a design book per se. I mean, how can a five-by-seven-inch book that runs 163 pages (including the epilogue) and which content is a collections of essays about rooms in a home be so important to design? 

When I arrived at an answer it was in my usual oblique way. This book isn't really about the design of things as much as it is the design of a designer's mind. It has more effect on the designer who creates the design. I believe that in order to design anything effectively—from medical equipment to juicers—a designer must understand how we live. Akiko Busch gets this. She used to write the essay on the back pages of Metropolis Magazine. Metropolis understands that how we live is the central question for architecture, and Akiko Busch understands it as a central question in creating a life worth living.

The essays in this book are atmospheric and evocative, and reveal a mind finely tuned to the the subtleties of space. And it's spiced with a generous helping of wry humor:

"The Shakers have always irritated me. Not that I don't love the benches, candle stands, wheelbarrows, and chests made by members of this now all-but-extinct American sect. But to my mind, the simplicity of line and the sense of industry expressed in these objects aren't enough. It's no big revelation that beautiful objects can come out of limited circumstances; that's one of life's ordinary truths. But exclude sex and books, as the Shakers did, and you begin to define a starved life.

This is what really bothers me most about the Shakers—they didn't believe much in books."

She's such a good writer, I wish she was more prolific. She's also written and edited some stellar design books, notably The Photography of Architecture, and the awesome collection from Metropolis: Design Is...Words, Things, People, Buildings, and Places at Metropolis.

My recommendation: get everything Akiko Busch has written, and read it... twice. And, I'll confess that I've even purchased books for which she only wrote the preface.

Happy reading!

Monday Aug 27, 2007

A Brief Review of Leonardo's Laptop

Janice Critchlow is a technical writer in the Software Information Products Group. She has been a valued member of the Software User Interface Review Board (UIRB) for many years.

Picture of book cover Imagine a change in the way that we think about and design technology -- a change comparable to those that Leonardo DaVinci influenced in the arts and sciences in the 15th Century. That is the premise of Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, authored by Ben Shneiderman. It's not exactly a book that asks What would Leonardo do? but more a call to action for computer user experience to undergo something of a Renaissance.

Ben starts by reviewing some history related to Leonard DaVinci and computer experiences. Among other things, he cites several instances in which poor user interface design causes more than just inefficient work, but actually causes injury. He talks about how developments in technology relate to user experiences, and goes on to suggest that our technology-centric approach to user interface design should become more user-centric.

After defining the user-centered approach to design, Ben examines the user experience in several segments of our worldview in detail: education, commerce, medicine, and politics. For each segment, he suggests how changing the way that we experience technology could significantly improve our lives.

From my perspective as an information designer, two key concepts jumped out at me. The first was Ben's assertion that a "user interface" encompasses much more than just the look-and-feel of an application and that we need to consider this expanded definition when designing our products. Specifically, he mentions the importance of items such as:

  • Documentation
  • Quality assurance
  • Simplicity
  • Good error handling built into the product
  • Testing

The second major concept was a discussion about getting users to know what they need to know ("bridging the gap"). Ben talks about the different ways that people learn and a variety of techniques that we can use to enhance that learning. Some techniques are within the product interfaces themselves, while others fit into the more traditional "training" space.

References to Leonardo DaVinci's life and works are scattered throughout the discussion, which make for an engaging, although somewhat esoteric, read.

If you're looking for a book about technology, history, and user experience that makes you think, this is an excellent choice. If you're looking for a "formula" to solve all user experience problems, this book is not the answer. In fact, my interpretation of Ben's writing is that there is no simple formula to solve all user experience design problems. Instead, we need to use an approach that considers the users' needs before all else as we mesh technology, sociology, psychology, and art.

Monday Aug 20, 2007

My Book Review of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Bruce Lee is a brand strategist, who works closely with xDesign to define the branded look and interactions of Software user interfaces.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
224 pages (215 pages of comics) Black and White with 8-page color section. 6.7" x 10.2"

This book by Scott McCloud isn't just about understanding comics. The 215 pages of this 1993 book cover just about everything: time, creativity, psychology, quantum mechanics, and the whole of human endeavor. Seriously, folks, this book uses the comic book form to talk about the process of telling stories using comics. It talks about its own form. But I don't mean to make it seem like the book is either recursively academic or feverishly adolescent. The truth is that the content of this book is universally applicable to nearly any activity that seeks to communicate about the internal or external human experience. Because the comic book links language with images to tell stories, it's more effective than either words or pictures alone. What puzzles me is how this form got such a bad rap to begin with. I recommend this book first to anyone wanting to know something about art or design. Read it now. Ranking: 10 of 10

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