Two tribes


A side effect of the digital revolution has been the closing of the perceived gap between product thinking and communications thinking. Not always with desirable results.

Watching these worlds collide has long been a fascination for me, as they are such distinctly different approaches, require such different skills and temperament and are typical bought by distinct clients.

Yet, they have much in common too.

Whilst the staff are rarely transferable between the disciplines, they are very much the same breed: recognisable by their dress, their attitude, their enthusiasm, their intelligence and creativity. And the technical tools and techniques used are often similar too: creative briefs, Photoshop, brainstorms and so on.

Many other worlds use these tools and techniques. You might find PostIt notes and Adobe in packaging, PR, management consulting and other parts of the professional services world, but you’re unlikely to find an agency that does Packaging, Consulting and PR products. Or, at least, one that does it well.

One reason why we see so many try to combine the art of the digital communicator and the art of the digital product developer could be that a single company that could do both could create, launch and grow digital products without need for external support. That’s a powerful dream. Although I don’t know how often it has been fulfilled in reality.

By treating these two disciplines as if they should be accomplished in a single place, do we run the risk of losing the best of each, and the opportunity to properly assess how elements of each would enrich the other.

Let’s look at the two things and see what, if anything they can contribute to the other.

And this is the hard bit. How do we capture the heart of each discipline succinctly, without jargon, and in a way that practitioners can both agree with for themselves and understand for the other.

Skill One: experience of the thing
Product designers (and that’s a pretty broad church) are responsible for developing the thing itself. The more obvious (if not easy) part of this is in developing things that the end consumer will love, that they will find intuitive, rewarding and so on; a thing that users will continue to want to use. In this case the user’s relationship to the thing is more or less obvious. The user experiences it directly. Of course, that doesn’t mean that each user has the sample experience, even if they all see the same thing. Experience depends on the user’s skill, the user’s context, the task the user is trying to achieve. As Lou Carbone puts it, the experience is not related to what the user thinks of the thing, but rather, how the user feels about themselves once they’ve interacted with the thing.

The science of trying to design for users despite their differing skills, context and so on, is quite well developed using research to understand and group people, using tools like user journeys and personas to codify them. Whether it’s a bottle opener or an app, we also need to push product developers to consider the aesthetic as much as the function of the product. The impact on the user can be equally impacted by emotional triggers in the product, not just how successfully it can be used to achieve a task.

Meaning is – of course – socially constructed. And so understanding how objects will be interpreted and understood, should understand this social context, norms, reference points etc. I’m sure owning the first gas lamps was a sign of being cutting edge. Now it would be a statement about being traditional. How do we compare the effect of owning and iPhone in New Jersey with owning one in Shanghai, and so on. When done well, a measure of this social context of use, and of understand the meaning derived from objects, is included in the definition of user experience.

Skill Two: communication of the thing
Modern communications skills are no less important or complex than the skills required to design a product in the first place.

By definition, this is not a design of a product which is directly experienced.

At the heart of it, the communicator is trying to precondition the audience to have a different reaction to the product (or service) and is doing so in the absence of a direct experience of the product. In fact, it is odd for communications about the thing and the thing itself to be present at the same time (think of those awful brand posters in Barclays branches or adverts for Rank Screen Advertising).

How can external stimuli change how we react to stimuli, real or imagined? Fundementally, it must help the receiver to create links amongst their understandings of meaning. It is a process which results in new associations. What is it that makes Prada posh or Pepsi-max precocious. These are truths which have been created by marketing.

In order to do this, a communications designer must have some grip on the inexact art of stimulus and response. Why is it inexact? Because meaning is ever mutating and audiences are not amorphous. If I talk about ‘pretty little colleens’, it is a phrase which some will recognise exactly (it has been a lyric in a pop song), others will recognise generically (Colleen taken as stereotypically Irish name), and others (those called Colleen) will identify with specifically. Your distance from the various references will impact on the extent to which you understand it at all.

So to a real degree, the communications planner must understand how embedded and related these social norms are and construct their message to match this.

So arguably meaning/context is even more important for communications than it is for product.

At the same time, the communicator is most often working to do a lot in a very short time frame, whether the turn of a page, or the 10 watched seconds of a 30 second TV commercial. This has led to lots of techniques focussed on gaining maximum traction with minimal transaction: big ideas, single minded proposition, visual identities and so on.

In contrast, product designers are often working to reduce the amount of time consumers spend with their offspring and making each moment delightful and uninterruptive.

I think all of us who have seen the inner workings of the development of a truly phenomenal advertising campaign, are in awe of the planners and creatives who can translate such a disparate context in such a challenge medium into so much meaning. Guiness’ surfer,  VCCP’s years of work for O2, the great Levi’s ads.

But why would the people that do one of these things be good at the other, and for what reason (other than commercial) would you want both under the same roof?

What I’ve seen is people from each discipline trying their hand at the other. This has rarely ended well. And, worse, I’ve seen managers from one discipline try and manage the other, but without changing their approach. This never works, except in the pitch room where all is roses, and the only possible impact of crushing together ying and yang, of fusing these atoms, is a joyful integration and 5% off the cheque.

I’ll wait for a braver clever agency person to show me the way. Perhaps even in the comments. Go on, you know you want to.

Decision time

It takes a very cold heart indeed to not love a user-experience concept which can be illustrated using a mathematical formula. Look at Fitts’s law:

T = a + b \log_2 \Bigg(1+\frac{D}{W}\Bigg)

This set of symbols help us understand that the ability to point at something on a screen (or in real life) is dependent on the size of the thing in question and its distance from where you’re currently point (D is the distance, W the width of the thing and T the time it will take to do it).

How do such formulae exist? They show us that we’re dealing with a fundamentally limited but predictable set of capabilities of a fundamentally mechanical end-user. They have real life results, visible in any good mobile phone interface design, no amount of jiggery pokery will change them.

Well it was in this spirit that I stumbled across Hick’s law.

The law is a formula to help show how humans make a choice from a set of available options. Most famously, I suspect, this has been spun off to show that navigation systems should have about 7 options in them.

The idea here is that humans have certain coping strategies for making decisions. If a long list is presented, for example, they will try to create patterns to help them (roughly) bisect the list (pick half and reject half). It has also been shown that decision speed  is related to IQ.

So – whilst we cling to the nice idea that any navigation system will be OK so long as we’ve got no more than 7 items in it, in fact there are several other dynamics at play

* Stimulus / response capability. It will take a lot longer to click on the right link if we break the intuitive link with layout (e.g. “bottom | top| left” is very hard to scan)

* Elements of mixed sorts shown together require the user to read all the labels and think about them together, placing enormous overhead. (“Carbon neutral products / Contact us / Back / About“)

* Users can ignore well known patterns, significantly reducing the thought process.

But the key thing to take away here – which may be very counter-intuitive for you advertising johnnies – is that it is positively in your interests if you can quickly help your users to ignore options which are not relevant to them. Support your user in ignoring messages Smile

Lost in telecommunication

News just in from the department of the extremely obvious – iPhone users can be a little obsessional and, even, delusional.

It seems a consultancy has invested a serious amount of time to diagnose what they call the ‘iPhone syndrome’. Strand Consulting tells us that the iPhone isn’t that great a phone but that users will sometimes overlook its faults or even come to defend its shortcomings as features. They liken the behaviour of both users and mobile phone networks to the delusional relationship which can sometimes develop between kidnappers and their victims.

Well I’ve certainly witnessed the behaviour. All one need to do typically is wait a couple of hours for the iPhone battery to die (normally a critical failure for a mobile phone’s performance) and the addict will claim that it’s not the iPhone’s fault – they shouldn’t have left the 3G switched on, they’ve been using the screen too much, or perhaps they’ve made too many calls. Indeed this is such an obvious design flaw that there are now several products, advice and articles (‘turn off bluetooth, vibrate and the music equaliser’) out there to try and remedy it. Or, you’ll receive an SMS resembling hate mail, only to find out it the result of a (practically unusable) iPhone keyboard, which the sender is yet to ‘master’.

But I think it is unfair to blame the technology press and general media for misleading the public about the qualities of the iPhone. The point isn’t that iPhone customers are duped into buying a product which is in some ways flawed. The amazing thing is that iPhone customers quickly accept these issues as facts and plough on being evangelical. Media couldn’t do this. It is the product of a piece of absolutely superb bit of software and hardware design, focusing not on the ostensible functions required of a phone (making calls, sending messages etc) – all of which the iPhone is at best medium at – but rather at looking at what the joys are of having a computer in your pocket (the iPhone has the same computing power as the first generation of iMacs).

Apple (under Jobs) has always been good at this, although it’s not original thinking (Theodore Levitt put it very nicely: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”).

It doesn’t matter if the Sony Vaio has better specs that the Apple Macbook. Why? Because the Macbook lets the guys with the funny glasses and the expensive jeans feel like they, not Microsoft or Sony, is in charge of the computing experience. With a Macbook or an iPhone, they are masters of their little computing universe (admittedly only for an hour or two at a time with the iPhone). Apple has given geek pleasure (of technology mastery) to the next wrung down the ladder – to the people without screwdrivers in their pockets, and they will forgive them a lot because of it.

Now we know what the future looks like

Back to the future

The whole phrase is ‘Now we know what the future looks like, what would we like to do with it?’

For the second post in a row I’m afraid I’m in a rather idealistic mood. But it seems to me, now, that we look at the structure of business and marketing as it’s being done by the market leaders, we look at posts by visionaries like this one, this one and this one, and we think we pretty much know how this is going to shake out…

The question of micro distribution of corporate reputation has been answered. The question of finding value inside organistations through enablement of individuals has been proven. The question of whether we think better separately or together has been answered.

So, my point is this. In the Future (doesn’t really need a capital does it, since it’s only a couple of minutes away), if we assume that we will broadly have a marketplace of ideas where we all now can have our say. If we will have a world where communities of interest can be powerful, and massively devolved. If we will have a world where companies can thive by coming up with powerful ideas and finding ways to communicate them quickly and powerfully. Then what do we want out of that world?

It probably sounds a bit irrelevant but it’s an important question. Because we’re not, any of us, I think really after better mp3 players, nor mobile phones, nor fruit smoothies.

But we also don’t really have the passions of the past. If we live in big cities, at least, we’ve started to see the back of racism, sexism, for the most part, intollerance; what are we worrying about now? Knife crime? I know it’s a serious question but it’s very recent and very media orientated. House prices? Economy? That’s just not intereting, really.

I think it’s about this (you’ll read a transcript of a Clinton interview about finding similarities rather than differences). For all the things that have been resolved, we live in a world where far too many inequalities exist for the wrong reason (there are good reasons for alot of inequalities of course).

But I’m in intrigued about views here.

If we’re all going to be a position where we have all this extra information, all this extra access to cheap, easy, global media, all of this ability to form communities, how do we use this to moderate our behaviour for the better?

And more to the point, what is we actually want to achieve? Or are we all going to turn into Miss World, and look for world peace and happy families.

Creating the ribbon


I’ve talked here a few times (here and here) about how Microsoft doesn’t seem to be able to catch a break. Google or Apple get gushing reviews for living ‘in beta’, Microsoft gets slammed for getting stuff out too soon. Apple’s security is questionable, but we never hear about that. Nor it seems are we ever reminded of the potentially dangerous level of detail Google extracts from customers. Ballmer’s an egotistical wild man, while Jobs is a quirky eccentric genius. Making huge profits turns Microsoft into the evil empire, but is seen as a validation of Google’s all round wonderfulness.

This year’s Mix event, which finished yesterday has been a strong reminder that in fact, there is a good deal of great stuff going on at the software giant, and that developers in particular are delighted with much of the company’s output.

Friday’s presentation on the design of Office 2007 provides a fascinating insight into the sheer scale of the software and interface engineering challenged the team faced, their tenacity in dealing with it, and the powerful role place on the needs of the end user.

Including early prototypes showing hugely varied ideas which the team went through to get to the version that has been released, the presentation is rich with insights into the internal battles that had to be fought throughout the process and some amusing asides to previous mistakes, the presentation (75m) is well worth a watch.

Jensen Harris looks all the way to Office 1, documenting the slow decent into the chaos of Office 2003 which boasted 31 menus and 19 taskpanes. The impetus to redesign the interface from the ground up for Office 2007 rather than more menus, wizzards and taskpanes, was an understanding that the user must feel in control of their document and that – while all the features should stay, the ‘perception of bloatedness’ had to be removed.

We see some of the stats from the customer improvement programme (collecting millions of anonymous customer usage patterns). This information was a key part of understand the sequence of actions that real customers actually take, and reveals – perhaps unsurprisingly – how erratic their actions actually are. There is also some amusing eye tracking against the 2003 site, some interesting insights into the challenges of creating a taxonomy of the 1500 functions, and some more unkind words about the demise of clippy, the automated assistant which was just one way to get around the almost impossible interface that existed until recently.

During the Q&A at the end of the session, Harris is asked about the extent to which customisation was considered. Whilst not against customisation per se, Harris argues that it mustn’t be used as a ‘crutch’, avoiding usability problems by allowing the user to remove them, and explains that only 2% of users ever used the customisation features of 2003, and then only for one or two buttons.