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.

Thursday Oct 18, 2007

What's Right With This Picture?

Loren Mack is a design architect in xDesign who creates strategic and tactical designs for the Service Oriented Architecture/Business Integration group at Sun.

Things done right in the darndest places...

Every once in a while I imagine myself and Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods trotting the globe, he's searching for strange cuisine and I'm searching for usability blunders. I can see us chatting over the table, smiling for the camera, and me wincing while he chokes down some bizarre-bug-bisque. I would then comment on the strange design of the spoon he's using.

Yes, I know what you're thinking - "What a fantastic idea!!" Change the name of the show to "Bizarre Foods and Users", or "Eat-a-usability", or my personal favorite "Bizarre Food Usage". Funny thing is he still hasn't called me back on it yet. It's going to happen though, and I can be patient.

While I was waiting for that call though, I went down to my local library to find some ideas on potential destinations. And then, while waiting in line to check out my books, I saw the most amazing newfangled contraption ever. It was beauty and simplicity defined, an ergonomic eros of non-error. I was rapt with attention while I watched some brave soul actually use the thing.

I had to try it myself!! It was just so... um... usable!! I approached the lady whom I'd just seen use this usable thing -- a kiosk at the public library -- to check out a book, and then realized she didn't speak English. Her books were in Russian! It was amazing to me that a non-English speaker could go to this public library and check-out books without any assistance!

I immediately found my favorite librarian and asked for a demo. This video shows her showing me how to use the most usable kiosk I've ever used.

Notice that even though the interface is in English, the video instructions are so clear that even someone who cannot read them can see what needs to be done. And, if you listen carefully, you can hear auditory feedback as well, letting you know something happened and you succeeded.

Every once in a while, you'll find something that's really well designed and thought through, and in the darndest places.

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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.


xDesign is a software user experience design group at Sun.
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