Information Design Watch

March 14, 2012, 1:29 pm

Eulogy for a Dinosaur

By Henry Woodbury

The venerable Encyclopedia Britannica has ceased print publication:

In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

Given the well-known collaborative editing model of Wikipedia, Gary Marchionini, the dean of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, makes an interesting claim about not only the competitive difference, but about the nature of knowledge itself:

The thing that you get from an encyclopedia is one of the best scholars in the world writing a description of that phenomenon or that object, but you’re still getting just one point of view. Anything worth discussing in life is worth getting more than one point of view.

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Comments (4) | Filed under: Business, Scholarly Publishing, Technology

December 28, 2011, 12:06 pm

What’s This Mobile Thing For, Again?

By Lisa Agustin

With more and more folks jumping on the smartphone bandwagon, and clients asking for mobile as part of their redesign projects, it’s not unusual to see articles on how to make your site mobile, or the latest design trends for mobile apps. How to develop for mobile is one of the forefront concerns of many web designers. But how about the Why? What are the specific advantages of mobile other than its ability to keep you distracted (productive?) while standing in line? Back in 2008, author and former Nokia executive Tomi Ahonen expounded on the unique opportunities of mobile as the “7th mass media channel” (print is the first, and Internet is the sixth). Conveniently, there are also seven unique capabilities of mobile media, which he summed up this way:

1 – The mobile phone is the first personal mass media
2 – The mobile is permanently carried media
3 – The mobile is the only always-on mass media
4 – Mobile is the only mass media with a built-in payment mechanism
5 – Mobile is only media available at the point of creative inspiration
6 – Mobile is only media with accurate audience measurement
7 – Mobile captures the social context of media consumption

These are not necessarily unique observations. But Ahonen’s perspective is one that puts mobile in the context of the media that preceded it, showing just how far technology has come. As an example, consider his first point, that mobile is the “first personal mass media”:

Never before was any mass media assumed to be private. Books and magazines are shared. Movies watched together. Radio we can have the whole family in the car listening at the same time. Records are played to a roomfull of wedding guests by the DJ. TV is watched together by the family. The internet is semi-personal, but often the PC is shared by the family or business employees. Our secretary or IT tech support (or Human Resources staff) may read through our emails. At home our parents often “snoop” what the kids do on the family PC etc. The internet is not a personal media, even if it often seems like it. But mobile. That is mine, and only mine.

Although the stats and facts are a little dated (the iPad had yet to make its debut), his post is a good read, and a reminder of why mobile represents an exciting opportunity in terms of creating innovative user experiences. It’s not just about Angry Birds.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Technology, User Experience

September 23, 2011, 3:00 pm

Follow the Money

By Henry Woodbury

Even on mobile devices a web app can beat out a platform-specific app. That’s the case for The Financial Times (FT). FT spokesman Rob Grimshaw reports that their HTML 5 web app draws more readers for more page views than their now-discontinued Apple store app.

This is a nice success story for web developers, but there’s more going on than traffic:

…Apple takes a 30 percent cut of subscription revenue from users who sign up for apps in the store.

More problematic is that Apple wants to control subscriber data — valuable demographic information used by magazines and newspapers to sell advertising — from people who sign up for the app in the store.

For subscription-based publishers such as FT this is not a supportable position. One has to wonder if other successful subscription-based sites are equally dissatisfied.

Of course, what makes the FT story unique is that its web app replaced its Apple store app. For many organizations the platform app will never get built, not when a comprehensive web development effort can leverage some common UI and code to target both desktop and mobile users.

“App stores are actually quite strange environments,” Grimshaw said. “They are cut off from most of the Web ecosystem.”

Update: In regards to my last point before the last quote, Jason Grigsby’s Cloud Four critique of responsive web design is required reading. The mobile and desktop environments each deserve their own optimization.

(via a Tizra Facebook post)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Implementation, Technology, Web Interface Design

August 16, 2011, 1:32 pm

The Organizational Context for Web Development

By Henry Woodbury

Why is it, asks Jonathan Kahn, that the user experiences that web teams envision and that organizations truly want to adopt often fail to meet expectations?

Here’s the problem: organizations are the context for our work, and when it comes to the web, organizations are broken…

Although we’re comfortable with the idea that the web is critical to organizations, we often miss the corollary: the web has changed the way organizations operate, and in many cases it’s changed their business models, too. When executives can’t see that, it causes a crisis. Welcome to your daily web-making reality.

Now some of Kahn’s exhortations cause me to roll my eyes. I’ve worked in a number of information-related fields in my career and I’ve heard variations on “we are the change agents” and “executives don’t get it” all the way through. But Kahn is right to demand an organization-wide framework for web development and he is right to point out the need for governance and measurement as well as strategy and execution.

And when you see an organization really commit to a comprehensive web strategy with creative follow-through, the results are obvious.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Technology, User Experience, Web Interface Design

August 3, 2011, 1:09 pm

A New Chart for Financial Indicators

By Henry Woodbury

The financial numbers generated by the U.S. and worldwide economic crisis have informed many charts and graphs but most are rudimentary. I have hoped to pull some into this blog, but haven’t seen any worth discussing as visual explanations.

Here is an exception. Bill McBride’s Calculated Risk blog offers a set of charts built on an elegantly different model. For example (click through for others):

Real Gross Domestic Product: Percent of Previous Peak (Calculated Risk)

McBride explains:

The … graphs are all constructed as a percent of the peak in each indicator. This shows when the indicator has bottomed – and when the indicator has returned to the level of the previous peak. If the indicator is at a new peak, the value is 100%.

The key mental construct is to remember that as positive indicators trend upward they define a new value for 100%. That is why periods of growth are represented as a plateau.

At The Atlantic, where I saw these graphs, Derek Thompson explains the graphs by simile:

The outcome reveals each recession in the last 50 years as a kind of hanging icicle.

The bigger the icicle, the bigger the problem.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Visual Explanation

May 20, 2011, 5:07 pm

Louisiana Economic Development on YouTube

By Henry Woodbury

Louisiana Economic Development has a YouTube channel. Among its interviews and news clips is an animated presentation we created to explain their Digital Media and Software Development Incentive. Based on an executive PowerPoint deck we created for LED representatives to present in person, the movie is a self-running alternative suitable for trade show or web presentation. Enjoy!

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Information Design, PowerPoint, Visual Explanation

March 3, 2011, 3:38 pm

Where Good Ideas Come From (or How to Avoid Clichés)

By Lisa Agustin

I love a good grid, with its precise measurements both horizontal and vertical.  We’ve blogged about how grids and scales can serve as guideposts for discussing visual design, a subjective and therefore squishy topic.  Now Smashing Magazine offers another take on this, suggesting that mapping clichés to the extremes of a scale can help guide discussions toward an original solution. The article goes on to explore four visual design problems faced by well-known designers, and the process each used to move away from tired, obvious approaches to fresh solutions.  The article concludes with some tips for avoiding clichés which include–ironically–embracing them:

Start by drawing every association you come up with for the subject matter. Draw it quickly, and don’t be critical. At this stage, it’s not about making pretty pictures, and it’s not about evaluating your ideas (in fact, the ability to turn the critical part of your brain on and off is one of the most helpful tricks you can develop). Don’t try to avoid clichés — let them happen. Trying not to think of clichés is like the old joke where someone says ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant.’ It’s best to get them down on paper and get them out of your system. Once you’ve jotted down every association you can think of, take a break, come back and jot down a few more. Then, take a longer break…

While this advice is targeted toward designers, this is also good advice for anyone looking to develop a good idea, since it’s often the bad ideas that yield the good ones.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Creativity, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation

March 3, 2011, 1:27 pm

Measuring User Experience on a Large Scale

By Lisa Agustin

So you’ve just relaunched your redesigned web site or web application.  You’ve addressed known user experience problems, met business requirements, and made sure the architecture is one that will accommodate future features, both known and unknown.  Now here’s the tricky question: How will you know you’ve improved your user experience?

The broader question of how to measure success is one that we raise with our own clients at the beginning of every project, as this helps us figure out the organization’s priorities and focus.  Definitions of success range from trackable statistics (“more users will see the catalog”) to anecdotal assessment (“employees will complain less about using it”).

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to measuring success.  Moreover, with the exception of online survey tools like Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey, which can be used assess usability and satisfaction, most tools today are designed to measure success from a business or technical staff’s perspective, rather than the users’.  Google’s researchers recognized this problem in assessing their own applications and developed the HEART metrics framework, a method of measuring user experience on a large scale.

The HEART framework is meant to complement what Google calls the “PULSE metrics” framework where PULSE stands for: Page views, Uptime, Latency, Seven-day active users (i.e., number of unique users who used the product at least once in the last week), and Earnings– clearly all stakeholder and/or IT concerns.  While these statistics are somewhat related to the user’s experience (which pages get looked at, which items get purchased), these can be problematic in evaluating user interface changes:

[PULSE metrics] may have ambiguous interpretation–for example, a rise in page views for a particular feature may occur because the feature is genuinely popular, or because a confusing interface leads users to get lost in it, clicking around to figure out how to escape.  A count of unique users over a given time period, such as seven-day active users, is commonly used as a metric of user experience.  It measures overall volume of the user base, but gives no insight into the users’  level of commitment to a product, such as how frequently each of them visited during the seven days.

The HEART metrics framework offers a way to more precisely measure both user attitude and behavior, while providing actionable data for making changes to a product’s user interface.  These include the following, which I’ve described very briefly here:

  1. Happiness. This metric is concerned with measuring the user’s attitude toward the product, including satisfaction, visual appeal and the likelihood that the user will recommend the product to others.  The use of a detailed survey as a benchmark and then later as changes are implemented will cover this.
  2. Engagement. This measures a user’s level of involvement, which will depend on the nature of the product.  For example, involvement for a web site may be as simple as visiting it, while involvement for a photo-sharing web application might be the number of photos uploaded within a given period. From a metrics standpoint, involvement can be assessed by looking at frequency of visits or depth of interaction.
  3. Adoption and Retention. These metrics explore behavior of unique users more in detail, going a step beyond the seven-day active users metric.  Adoption metrics track new users starting within a given period (e.g., number of new accounts opened this month), while retention looks at how many of the unique users from the initial period are using the product at a later period.
  4. Task Success.  Successful completion of key tasks is a well-known behavioral metric that relates to efficiency (time to complete at task) and effectiveness (percent of tasks completed).   This is commonly tracked on a small-scale through one-on-one usability tests, but can be expanded to web applications by seeing how closely users follow an optimal path to completion (assuming one exists), or by using A/B split or multivariate testing.

But these metrics are not helpful on their own.  They must be developed in the context of the Goals of the product or feature, and related Signals that will indicate when the goal has been met.  The authors admit that this is perhaps the hardest part of defining success, since different stakeholders may disagree about project goals, requiring a consensus-building exercise.

From my perspective, there is also the additional challenge of clients having both the forethought and resources available to track these metrics in the first place.  In many cases, measuring success requires a benchmark or baseline for comparison.  Without this in place, the new design itself must serve as a benchmark for any future changes.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Information Architecture, Technology, Usability, User Experience

March 2, 2011, 5:03 pm

What You Want to Own

By Henry Woodbury

Self-described entrepreneur  and gamer Brad Hargreaves has created a nicely multivariate chart on wealth creation. It is more philosophical than empirical, a way to frame a question rather than a survey. It is also self-explanatory, so I’ve only shown a portion of it below:

Brad Hargreaves Wealth Visualization

I found this at the Sippican Cottage blog, along with Sippican’s typically incisive summation:

1. Make money while you’re awake.
2. Make money while you’re asleep, too.
3. Make money even after you’re dead.

From the information design perspective I’m impressed by the labeling. The examples are well chosen and the repeated two-word “Own” phrases manage to indicate fairly clear distinctions despite their inherent subjectivity. That kind of parallelism is hard to carry off, especially seven times in a row. Why does Brett Favre fall under “Own Entities” instead of “Own Yourself”? I don’t know, but it works well enough to make the point.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation

January 6, 2011, 1:46 pm

They Aren’t in the Coffee Business, They’re in the Milk Business

By Henry Woodbury

I wish I could remember who came up with that jab. It stuck with me.

The new logo doesn’t say “milk,” but it doesn’t say “coffee” either.

New Starbucks Logo

Add this to the annals of Logo Evolution.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Branding, Business, Marketing

October 20, 2010, 9:54 pm

Passion, Collaboration and Vision: A Recommended Book Review

By Tim Roy

Lois Kelly, a good friend to Dynamic Diagrams (and one of our peers here in Rhode Island), recently published a wonderful review of John Hagel’s new book The Power of Pull.  Lois recently heard Hagel speak and was so impressed with his talk that she read the book and authored this compelling analysis of the work.

The talk, given at the Business Innovation Factory’s BIF6 conference can be seen here:

For me, the key take-away from Lois’ review was the observation that the time-honored tradition of predicting demand for goods and services and then working to reduce costs, while creating profitable economies of scale is on its last legs.  The result: a mass exodus of talented and passionate individuals who seek a different model.  Lois writes:

“It will be fascinating to see whether big, push companies will evolve fast enough to retain the talents of those passionate people on a quest to do meaningful work within the confines of today’s corporate cultures, cultures that often value process and politics more than outcomes and new ideas. Or whether passionate people and the Gen Y generation will simply flee these organizations and create new types of organizations that fit how people love to work.”

Please take the time to read the full review: The strong attraction to “The Power of Pull”.  You won’t be disappointed.


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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Social Media

October 1, 2010, 2:57 pm

Freedom of Choice (with Assistance)

By Lisa Agustin

According to a recent article in strategy + business, creating a better shopping experience is really about offering a better choosing experience. More specifically, fewer choices. Offering people lots of options — 31 flavors! (Baskin-Robbins) 87,000 drink combinations! (Starbucks) 27 million books! (Amazon)– sounds like a great idea.  But too many choices can have the opposite effect, leading to confusion, anxiety about the “right” choice and ultimately a poor choice or even No Sale.  Why? In a nutshell, it comes down to neurological limits on our ability to process information–while the idea of lots of choices sounds exciting (there’s one made “just for me”!), it can be paralyzing to choose from too many options.

The article references studies performed in a grocery store (choosing a jar of jam) and a workplace (choosing a retirement savings plan) to illustrate its point, but it struck me that this applies to online experiences, too.  A web site with a lot of content that offers too many options that are poorly organized will lead to frustrated users who will abandon your site for your competitor’s.

So how do we– marketers or user experience (UX) practitioners–craft a better choosing experience?  Authors Sheen Iyengar and Kanika Agrawal offer the following tips, to which I’ve added my UX take:

  1. Cut the number of options.
  2. Don’t worry about losing shelf space to competitors–in the end, trimming back the product line lowers costs, increases sales, and makes it easier for consumers to choose. According to the authors, “In case the poor performers aren’t evident from sales figures, focus groups and online networks can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.” My UX take: Focus on presenting the content and tasks that mean the most to your users. A combination of web analytics and user feedback (interviews or surveys) will help you figure out what should be on the site and what’s expendable.

  3. Create confidence with expert or personalized recommendations.
  4. Expert reviews and recommendations “let consumers skip over much of the information-processing component of choosing, minimizing cognitive stress and enabling them to make good choices,” according to Iyengar and Agrawal. My UX take: This tip speaks directly to the online experience. Many web sites offering highly differentiated items (books, music, clothes) benefit from recommendation tools, or automated systems (“electronic agents”) that generate suggestions based on consumers’ expressed preferences. While these tools require more of an investment on the part of the organization and sometimes the user (e.g., if a survey or profile needs to be completed), they can be worth it if your web site is one that offers a large quantity of content or inventory to peruse.

  5. Categorize your offerings so that consumers better understand their options.
  6. “For an expert, there is no completely unique product or service; rather, each offering is a distinctive combination of attributes that the expert has seen before.” The key is getting a novice to act like an expert by creating top-level categories that are easily understood. As an example, the authors cite wine retailer Best Cellars, which limits its varieties to 100 wines that are divided into eight top-level categories, such as “fizzy,” “juicy,” and “sweet.” Once the novice has chosen a category, he or she can choose a wine within that category by reading the detailed labels that accompany all the bottles. My UX take: For web site users that rely on browsing to find what they want, category names are critical. This means avoiding terminology that is either organization-centric (“Initiatives”) or vague (“Solutions”) and using what makes the most sense to users.

  7. Condition consumers by gradually introducing them to more-complex choices.
  8. “For certain kinds of decisions, you can set up consumers for success by encouraging them to learn from, and build upon, their own previous choices.” Iyengar cites a study in which two groups of car customers were asked to customize their vehicles, choosing everything from the engine to the rearview mirror. The first group started by choosing features with a high number of options, moving to those with low numbers of options. The second group started by making choices for features with a low number of options first. In the end, the first group had a less satisfying experience: “They began by carefully considering every option, but they soon grew tired and settled for the default. In the end, they wound up less satisfied with their cars than the buyers who had progressed from low choice to high choice.” My UX take: Users can go through a lot of information online, provided it’s presented to them in a way that lets them process it in logical bite-sized pieces. This means creating an information architecture that uses categories that make sense to the intended audiences, a hierarchical structure that lets users drill down and expose more information as they need it, and a supporting design that visually prioritizes information on each page.

Iyengar and Agrawal acknowledge the dilemma: “Don’t marketers have to give consumers what they want? Yes and no. We should give them what they really want, not what they say they want…They want to feel confident of their preferences and competent during the choosing process; they want to trust and enjoy their choices, not question them.” The online experience should work the same way.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Information Architecture, Usability, User Experience

September 9, 2010, 2:38 pm

How to Make a Lot of Data Look Like a Lot of Data

By Henry Woodbury

Stockmapper made Time Magazine’s list of the top 50 web sites for 2010. Stockmapper has a lot of data, but is it useful? I can’t tell. Which answers the question, at least for me.

Compare the Stockmapper heat map with Smartmoney’s Map of the Market. Stockmapper is the larger one underneath. You’re not missing much.

Comparison of Stockmapper and Map of the Market

The Stockmapper heat map, whether organized by ticker symbol, percent change, volume, or market cap, tells no high level story. You might as well use a spreadsheet with sortable columns. You can sort and filter, but not compare. Click on a filter such as market sector or country and Stockmapper rewards you with some neatly rendered bar charts, but the heat map is a failure.

In contrast, the Map of the Market offers a comprehensible high-level view of market trends. You can compare the activity of each sector of the market and see which are gaining or losing value. Market capitalization is shown by area which provides another way to compare sectors and individual stocks.

Martin Wattenberg created the Map of the Market well over a decade ago. The best of 1998 is better than the best of 2010.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Visual Explanation

June 8, 2010, 10:05 am

The Medium is Not the News

By Henry Woodbury

Who’s going to save the news? According to James Fallows, Google is. Fallows makes two key points. First, explicitly, that Google is serious about improving the economics of news gathering. Second, implicitly, Google had better be doing it because traditional news publishers are clueless:

…people inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether “paywalls” for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? The important questions involved the details of how they would pay, and for what kind of news.

The inefficiency of traditional news organizations is far more profound than the costs of grinding up trees into pulp and running “them through enormously expensive machinery” to hand-deliver a product that is almost immediately out-of-date. That lets television news off the hook. The inefficiency seen by Krishna Bharat, director of Google News, is the redundancy of thousands of publications writing about the same events using the same, predictable, story lines. On this score television’s focus on the blindingly obvious is, in my opinion, far more offensive than print.

The message to traditional news organizations isn’t just “go online.” It’s “start being distinct.” In a global, decentralized, electronic medium, boilerplate reporting deserves to be bested by smarter, deeper, more eclectic aggregations.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Technology

May 27, 2010, 11:15 am

We Promise to Use Our Powers Wisely

By Henry Woodbury

From the Harvard Business Review comes a cautionary tale of bias and visualization. Visual information can make people overly confident in predicting outcomes. In the study described in the article, viewers who watched a computer animation of driver error “were more likely to say they could see a serious accident coming than those who actually saw it occur and then were asked if they had seen it coming.”

The way human brains process the sight of movement appears to be one reason for this outcome. The visceral reading of trajectory events — such as an animation of moving cars — creates an anticipatory judgment that is highly persuasive to higher brain functions.

Also important is the fact that every visualization incorporates a point of view, one that is all the more convincing for its visual immediacy:

The information can be conveyed with certain emphases, shown from certain angles, slowed down, or enlarged. (In a sense, all this is true of text as well, but with subtler effects.) Animations can whitewash the guesswork and assumptions that go into interpreting reconstructions. By creating a picture of one possibility, they make others seem less likely, even if they’re not. (my emphasis)

In essence, this is what we do on purpose. Whether for marketing, analysis, or scientific reportage, we quite explicitly present the story of the strongest possibility (which may well be that there are multiple possibilities). We do it ethically; we rely upon validated data to tell a story and honor the integrity of that data as we work. The Harvard study cautions us not to let our visual tools — especially our analytical tools — persuade us too easily of what the real story is.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Cognitive Bias, Marketing, Technology, Visual Explanation

May 25, 2010, 11:16 am

Creative Destruction

By Henry Woodbury

Wired runs a very interesting piece on Pixar and how it, among all Hollywood studios, manages to produce hit after hit. One factor in their success is the stability of their team. Another is their ability to shred through ideas:

Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. “It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.”

I really like this framework for the creative process. Creative ideas — in design as well as film making — build from iteration, from critical review and rework. The time to run through this process of creative destruction is the concept stage — “to screw up as fast as possible.” Once you move into production, rethinking costs much more time and money. The importance of concept development is something we always try to communicate to our clients.

But I would add that the ability to respond to criticism starts with the stability and talent of the team. General Creighton W. Abrams put it this way:

The only way to get anywhere with kicking ass is with an outfit that is already good.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Business, Creativity, Technology

May 4, 2010, 10:17 am

Jobs Takes Flash to the Mat

By Henry Woodbury

Get your ringside seats for the Apple vs. Adobe fight, right here.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs tries the headscissors takedown:

Besides the fact that Flash is closed and proprietary, has major technical drawbacks, and doesn’t support touch based devices, there is an even more important reason we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads… We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen bounces back with a half nelson leg sweep (video here):

The technology problems that Mr. Jobs mentions in his essay are “really a smokescreen,” Mr. Narayen says. He says more than 100 applications that used Adobe’s software were accepted in the App Store. “When you resort to licensing language” to restrict this sort of development, he says, it has “nothing to do with technology.”

Meanwhile, Adobe plans to demo Flash for Google’s Android OS this month — and give Android phones to all of its employees.

By the way, here’s Rey Mysterio performing the headscissors move:

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Sports, Technology, User Experience, Web Interface Design

May 3, 2010, 1:28 pm

Social Media: The Means to the Ends

By Henry Woodbury

I’m no Jeremiah, but this critique of Facebook’s approach to privacy is quite unsettling:

When you think about Facebook, the market has very specific incentives: Encourage people to be public, increase ad revenue.

The speaker is Microsoft’s Danah Boyd. She doesn’t get into horror stories. She just nails the paradigm.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Marketing, Technology, User Experience

April 6, 2010, 11:06 am

The Audience-First News

By Henry Woodbury

Turns out that Rupert Murdoch agrees with me about content:

Speaking on the company’s earnings call, he said “Content isn’t just King, it’s the Emperor of all things electronic.”

At the completely unironic  paidContent.org, John Yemma, Editor of The Christian Science Monitor, picks up the theme, and elaborates:

Yes, people want multimedia. They want games, maps, 30 Rock on Hulu, bootlegged first-run movies from Pirate Bay, and whacked-out amateur videos on YouTube and a dozen other sites. But there’s no evidence that they want, for instance, a thoughtful interactive map/video/database mashup on Afghanistan or global warming on which they can comment. There’s no evidence that users love these things so much that they flock to them, stay around, and convert to a news site’s brand because of cool multimedia.

Yemma differs from Murdoch in his lack of love for paywalls. Instead he advances an updated version of the click-through mantra of 00s:

What we’re learning is that the key to building and keeping traffic is far more prosaic than multimedia and sharing buttons. It rests on overcoming a huge cultural barrier: evolving a serious, experienced, thoughtful newsroom into an audience-first organization. I use the term “evolving” because this is all about the present tense. Trying to understand our current and future audience is a work in progress that will continue for as long as we publish on the web.

How far removed from being “audience-first” is your web presence? It’s worth some thought. And see what Yemma says about Sandra Bullock.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Information Design, User Experience

January 29, 2010, 4:21 pm

Why Hospital Data is Growing: Genetic Testing, EMRs, and the “-Ologies”

By Lisa Agustin

As a UX consultant with clients in the healthcare arena, I’m not unfamiliar with the kinds of data needed by employees on a hospital intranet, or by current and prospective patients on a public site.   But I’m usually more concerned about the best way for people to find this information, rather than where it’s coming from and how it gets managed.

So I was especially interested in the Global Information Industry Center at UCSD’s eye-opening report on data growth in hospitals.  (If the group’s name sounds familiar, these are the same folks who recently concluded that Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information per day in 2008).  Eleven healthcare IT executives (nine from major medical research-focused medical centers and two from medical insurance organizations) were asked to estimate their future rates of growth and identify the reasons behind it.

Author Jack Robert identifies the following as the six main drivers of growth:

  • Image Technology. The number of images generated by each “ology” (radiology, cardiology, etc.) is growing both locally and centrally.  The ability to create thinner and denser slices of organs makes for huge images; a single slice can be as big as 1 gigabyte.
  • Web 2.0 Applications. Web-based software that enables a medical team to provide care collaboratively is a growing trend.  An example of this: medication list management, where every care team member has the ability to list, delete, or annotate a patient’s list of medicines.
  • Clinical Decision Support for Physicians. Physicians are treating more patients, and thus have less time to spend with each one.  As a result, they expect instant, anytime access to data and specialty applications to help in their decision making process. This means a heavy reliance on electronic medical records for patients (see next).
  • The Electronic Medical Record (EMR). The number of hospitals and physician offices using this is currently small, but wider adoption is expected in the coming years for two reasons: the realization that the current healthcare system is too expensive, and the federal stimulus incentives that will be given to hospitals and clinicians who demonstrate “meaningful use” of EMRs by 2011.  The what-if scenario of an EMR for every person in the U.S. is staggering in terms of data size.
  • Health Networks. These community initiatives will connect physicians, hospitals, health centers, labs, and patients electronically, building upon the capabilities of EMRs by collecting information from multiple medical sites, processing it, and providing it to physician offices.
  • Genetic Testing.  Genetic testing for high-risk patients will serve as another potentially huge source of  new data, given that “there are now 2500 diseases for which there is a genetic test.”

The main problem with this growth is how best to manage it all.  Much of the data is decentralized (especially in the case of research data), difficult to backup due to the increasing size of databases, and replicated by default (e.g., the  processing of a blood workup means information is duplicated and stored in multiple places).   But while there is no easy answer on how to address the exponential growth of medical data, the one hope is that the end result is improved and more efficient care for all patients.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Technology

January 20, 2010, 6:32 pm

What Price Content?

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times has announced that it will initiate a pay-for-access model starting in early 2011. The general framework is to give visitors a limited number of free articles each month before invoking a flat fee for unlimited access. Print subscribers will also have unlimited access.

While The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times both charge for access, the Times is significantly more popular:

NYTimes.com is by far the most popular newspaper site in the country, with more than 17 million readers a month in the United States, according to Nielsen Online, and analysts say it is easily the leader in advertising revenue, as well.

While analysts point out that this gives the Times ample resources to adjust their scheme if they start losing readership, the Times‘ revenue problems reflect a broader reality. Yet if the newspaper does succeed in setting up a successful micropayment model, other media sites will follow.

Looking forward, I can easily imagine the Times using the leverage of its popularity and reputation to cut deals with major ISPs. People already pay for different packages of cable television channels. The same broadband providers could apply the same business model to charge for a package of subscription web sites. If it works for The New York Times, ESPN will follow.

The low-hanging fruit is the smart phone market. For a few nickels a month, Verizon or AT&T can provide the subscription tied into the app that accesses it.

UPDATE: The Times offers a Q&A. Most interesting is their determination to accept incoming links from other web sites:

Q. What about posting articles to Facebook and other social media? Would friends without a subscription then not be able to view an article that I think is relevant for them? — Julie, Pinole CA

A. Yes, they could continue to view articles. If you are coming to NYTimes.com from another Web site and it brings you to our site to view an article, you will have access to that article and it will not count toward your allotment of free ones.

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December 16, 2009, 12:41 pm

What Matters Now

By Lisa Agustin

what-matters-meaning

With the end of 2009 fast approaching, it’s time to think about lessons learned, things to improve, RESOLUTIONS.  Seth Godin and Ishita Gupta asked over seventy big thinkers to each share an idea to focus on for 2010.  The result is a new (and free!) ebook, What Matters Now.  Godin challenges us to think about Generosity in spite of the current economy.  Author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the importance of Ease.  Guy Kawasaki explains how true Evangelism works.  (Pictured above: Hugh MacLeod’s take on Meaning.)  My current favorite is George Dyson on the role of Analog systems in the age of Web 2.0:

Complex networks—of molecules, people, or ideas—constitute their own simplest behavioral descriptions.  They are more easily approximated by analogy than defined by algorithmic code. Facebook, for example, although running on digital computers, constitutes an analog computer whose correspondence to the underlying network of human relationships now drives those relationships, the same way Google’s statistical approximation to meaning— allowing answers to find the questions, rather than the other way around—is now more a landscape than a map.

Check out a list of individual authors and their contributions or download the full book.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business

December 3, 2009, 2:57 pm

Will Better-Looking Money Improve the Economy?

By Lisa Agustin

brixton

With the economic recovery taking longer than expected, is it time for politicians to step aside and give designers a shot at it?  Over the summer, creative strategy consultant Richard Smith sponsored the Dollar ReDe$ign Project, suggesting that rebranding the US Dollar would boost consumer confidence and, as a result, jumpstart the economy. (Check out the winning entry by Kyle R. Thompson.)  But is an image makeover really enough?  After all, it’s less about what the currency looks like and more about what it’s worth.

Better-looking money needs to be part of a well-thought out commerce-based model.  Consider the Brixton Pound out of the UK (pictured above) or the BerkShares, created for the Berkshire region of Massachusetts.  Both are examples of local currencies created to stimulate local economic development.  How it works in a nutshell:  National currency is exchanged for local currency at designated exchange locations.  The consumer can then use the local money at businesses that have agreed to accept it.  Depending on the specific model, there are pre-arranged benefits, like exclusive offers or discounts to users of the local currency.  For example, the BerkShares model has a five-percent discount that is part of the exchange rate (ninety-five cents per BerkShare).  An example of how it works:

One day, you decide to go out for a nice dinner. You go to the bank to purchase BerkShares to spend at a local restaurant. You go in with 95 federal dollars and exchange them for 100 BerkShares. You go to dinner, and the total cost comes to $100. The restaurant accepts BerkShares in full, so you pay entirely in BerkShares. Therefore, you’ve spent 95 federal dollars and received a $100 meal – a five percent discount for you. The owner of the restaurant now has 100 BerkShares. They decide that they need to deposit them for federal dollars and return them to the bank. When they bring them to the bank, the banker deposits the 100 BerkShares you spent on dinner and gives the restaurant $95 federal dollars, the same 95 dollars that you had originally exchanged for BerkShares. The end result? You receive a five percent discount because of the initial exchange, but the same $95 you originally traded for BerkShares all goes to the business where you spent those BerkShares.

Yes, there’s some cool-looking money involved, and yes, it does something for instilling local pride.  But more important, these models demonstrate that design can play a role in solving real problems (like a sluggish economy), and providing tangible benefits to those involved.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Information Design

July 20, 2009, 12:12 pm

Cloudy Predictions

By Henry Woodbury

In the New York Times, Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain voices his objections to cloud computing. Zittrain brings up obvious privacy and security concerns, but then makes the case for a more fundamental risk:

But the most difficult challenge — both to grasp and to solve — of the cloud is its effect on our freedom to innovate. The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you — and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more to say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy. Microsoft might want you to run Word and Internet Explorer, but those had better be good products or you’ll switch with a few mouse clicks to OpenOffice or Firefox.

While Zittrain does well to call out Apple and its approach to iPhone apps in a later paragraph, he missteps here. Apple long outdid Microsoft in its corporate control over the peripherals and software that would run on its hardware. As for Microsoft, only an anti-trust case forced the giant software maker to share its application programming interfaces with third-party developers.

Given the holes in Zittrain’s alternate history, his fears about the freedom to innovate in the cloud have to convince on their own merits — and they do not. Facebook does not control the Internet, nor does the iPhone dominate the smart phone market (ever heard of the Blackberry?) While Facebook, Amazon, or Google could turn into “a handful of gated cloud communities whose proprietors control the availability of new code” the underlying infrastructure is out of their control in a way that was never true of the old PC world.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Technology

June 2, 2009, 3:30 pm

Some Ideas about Elegance

By Henry Woodbury

Guy Kawasaki interviews Matthew E. May on the concept of elegance. May, author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, speaks of elegance as a business concept, rather than specifically as a design concept.

May’s essential insight is that elegance is only achieved when a thing is powerful as well as simple. I’m not enamored with a lot of his examples (Sodoku, charging hippos), as he seems to dwell on the simple. The following example is more provocative:

Chess masters understand the nature of complexity—that it is part of the game, and it’s why they play it. The challenge and thrill lies in the endless search for ways to manage and exploit those complexities. Make it SEEM blazingly simple. That’s elegance. Complexity isn’t the enemy to a chessmaster—without it they’d be playing checkers.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business

April 8, 2009, 11:46 am

Cloud Computing: To Manifesto or not to Manifesto

By Kim Looney

An article on Economist.com, “Clash of the Clouds,” brought to my attention the the recent publishing of a cloud computing manifesto.

What is cloud computing you say? Well, according to the manifesto:

 …cloud computing is really a culmination of many technologies such as grid computing, utility computing, SOA, Web 2.0, and other technologies…”. And it’s key characteristics are “the ability to scale and provision computing power dynamically in a cost efficient way and the ability of the consumer (end user, organization or IT staff) to make the most of that power without having to manage the underlying complexity of the technology.

All that sounds good, and open standards also sound good for the consumer. But what about providers and associated technology businesses? There are some conspicuous absences on the list of supporters for the manifesto. I don’t know much about standards creation or technology policy-making, but I will be watching for developments on how cloud computing finds its place as a staple in computing technology — and not only so I can represent it visually for a client.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Technology

January 20, 2009, 10:06 am

Goosing the Gray Lady

By Lisa Agustin

newjournalists090119_2_560

Interactive infographics and visualizations have been part of the New York Times’ online edition for some time; typical examples include the “Word Train,” an interactive mood database for collecting public opinion on Election Day, and “Casualties of War: Faces of the Dead,” a project merging photography, databases, audio, and graphics that marked the date U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached 3,000 (both pictured above).

Now this week’s issue of New York Magazine features an article on how the Times’ Interactive Technologies Group came to be:

The proposal was to create a newsroom: a group of developers-slash-journalists, or journalists-slash-developers, who would work on long-term, medium-term, short-term journalism—everything from elections to NFL penalties to kind of the stuff you see in the Word Train.  This team would “cut across all the desks,” providing a corrective to the maddening old system, in which each innovation required months for permissions and design. The new system elevated coders into full-fledged members of the Times—deputized to collaborate with reporters and editors, not merely to serve their needs.

Most interesting to me is this idea that the roles of journalist and developer have merged at the Times, resulting in projects that aren’t window-dressing for articles, but offer new ways to explore and make the news more relevant to its readers.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Technology, User Experience

January 16, 2009, 4:46 pm

Dynamic Diagrams White Papers

By Henry Woodbury

For our recent Dynamic Diagrams site redesign we competely updated our two longstanding white papers (PDF format):

Why Your Ideas Need Visual Explanation and
Why Your Online Projects Need Information Architecture

Today we added our most recent white paper to the site:

Why Your Sales and Marketing Communciations Need Visual Explanation

With analysis and examples, this paper rounds out our presentation of how our approach delivers tangible benefits to business. We welcome your perusal and feedback.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Dynamic Diagrams News

November 20, 2008, 12:55 pm

Ugly is Timeless

By Henry Woodbury

Jason Fried at 37 Signals offers an appreciation of the Drudge Report:

A couple weeks ago on Twitter I said: “I still maintain the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the web. Has been for years. A few people agreed, but most didn’t. Some thought it was a joke. I wasn’t kidding.”

Fried starts with the site’s “staying power:”

Its generic list of links, black and white monospaced font, and ALL CAPS headlines have survived every trend, every fad, every movement, every era, every design do or don’t. It doesn’t look old and it doesn’t look new — it looks Drudge.

Fried touches on design, branding, production, and content. What is the content of Drudge? Headlines and links. Why is that enough?

The more often you hit his site to go somewhere else the more often you’ll return to go somewhere else again. You visit the Drudge Report more because you leave the Drudge Report more.

Lots of food for thought.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Marketing, User Experience, Web Interface Design

November 12, 2008, 2:00 pm

Crisis Metaphors

By Henry Woodbury

To explain the baffling complexity of the current U.S. and global financial crisis, Marketplace Senior Editor Paddy Hirsch has become a man of metaphors.

Here, he explains CDOs (Collaterized Debt Obligations) as a champagne fountain.

Other videos in this series include The credit crisis as Antarctic expedition, and Margin calls and the financial markets decline with girl scout cookies and barbie dolls as collateral.

Also recommended is Michael Lewis’s old-fashioned personality-based history of the CDO crash. As Hirsch demystifies the transactions that fueled the crisis, Michael Lewis tracks down those responsible. His article is simply titled “The End.”

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Visual Explanation

November 7, 2008, 3:44 pm

Best Business Books of 2008 #5: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures

By Henry Woodbury

The list is by Jon Foro, a books editor at Amazon.com.

The book is by Dan Roam.

Anyone read it?

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Current Events, Visual Explanation

October 23, 2008, 10:01 am

Don’t Eat the iPod Shuffle—Seven Years of iPod Design

By Kirsten Robinson

Wired has published a look back at iPod design, starting with this paper and foam core prototype from 2001:

one of the original iPod concepts

Check out the article to find out how the scroll wheel evolved over time, when color was first introduced (on the body and the screen), and where the title of this post came from.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Branding, Business, Color, Design, Prototyping, Technology, Usability

August 28, 2008, 11:28 am

Groovin’ with Some Energy

By Henry Woodbury

Areva Ad FrameHere’s an ad that actually caused me to click.

Areva, “the no. 1 nuclear energy products and services vendor in America,” has constructed a new print and Internet ad campaign around the birds-eye isometric view of its world. The Web animation shows energy production and use from mining to power generation to the disco.

It reminded me of the Royskopp video we linked here, but with a somewhat different rationale. Both animations were done by the French firm H5 (look under FILMS > CLIPS for Royskopp; under FILMS > PUBLICITE for Areva).

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Comments (1) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Art, Branding, Business, Illustration, Infographics, Information Design, Marketing, Visual Explanation

June 27, 2008, 1:35 pm

An Anchor and a Twist

By Lisa Agustin

Explaining an innovative idea or product can be tricky. What if your offering is so unique and/or complex that attempting to explain it could potentially confuse or overwhelm your audience?

Try communicating your innovation using an anchor and a twist, say Made To Stick authors Dan Heath and Chip Heath. Anchoring, or “hooking into an existing idea,” as the Heaths put it, seems counterintuitive when you want to set yourself apart. But it works because it puts your idea in the context of what people already know, making your idea easier to grasp. An example from the Heaths: Lumineyes, a laser-based process that permanently changes eye color. The innovation was described as one that “uses a laser to heat the pigment layer [of your eye]. The process either bursts the pigment cells, resulting in the release of free pigment into the iris, or simply damages them.” (Sign me up!) But describe it instead as “LASIK for eye color” and the listener immediately realizes it’s similar in some way to the popular surgical procedure that eliminates the need for eyeglasses or contact lenses.

So where does the “twist” come in? While the anchor sets the stage for your idea, the twist is your differentiator that will make the audience sit up and take notice. In the case of Lumineyes, it’s “like LASIK, but it makes your eyes blue.” The anchor and twist approach to communicating innovation no doubt has many uses — how about the good ol’ elevator pitch?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Marketing

June 4, 2008, 1:16 pm

John Maeda in the Kitchen

By Lisa Agustin

Designers and technologists aren’t the only ones taking an interest in Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity. Chef and author Mark “The Minimalist” Bittman recently blogged on how Maeda’s law of reduction (Law No. 1) is a good approach to cooking, too. Bittman is famous for keeping things simple (a prime example: “Summer Express: 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less”) and is always looking for ways to cut through the clutter of cooking:

I took recipes from whatever cookbook I was using (in those days, almost all were pretty complicated) and I stripped them bare. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t acknowledge that browning meat didn’t add color and flavor to a stew — it unquestionably does — it’s just that I also saw that there were times when I wanted to make a given stew recipe and didn’t have time for either browning or the extra cleanup resulting from it.

The idea of thoughtful reduction is an important one in the creation process, whether the end result is a new recipe or user interface: how do you make things simpler without removing what’s necessary?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business

May 5, 2008, 2:05 pm

Harvard Business Review Discovers “Emerging Science of Visualization”

By Mac McBurney

Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas, the two best-known creators of IBM Research’s Many Eyes, brief business execs on the benefits of collaborative information visualization.

Our research has found that the compelling presentation of data through visualization’s advanced techniques generates a surprising volume of impassioned conversations. Viewers ask questions, make comments, and suggest theories for why there’s a downward trend here or a data cluster there. That level of engagement could foster the kind of grassroots innovation CEOs dream of.

The article is available in the May 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review and for free online (at least for now):

You’ll also find Viégas and Wattenberg in MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition.

Finally, for even more info-vis star-watching, Viégas and two other designers will join John Maeda (an info design rockstar if ever there was one) later this month for IN/VISIBLE: Graphic Data Revealed. From the event’s blurb:

The visual ethics required in information graphics increase the designer’s burden from faithful executor to editorial arbiter. How do design choices affect the integrity of the data being portrayed?

If you see me there, say hello: http://www.aigany.org/events/details/08FD/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Books and Articles, Business, Current Events, Design, Information Design, Scholarly Publishing, Visual Explanation

April 29, 2008, 12:06 pm

Of Wii and Waterproof Mattresses: Hotels Prototype New Ideas with “Test Rooms”

By Kirsten Robinson

The New York Times reported today that hotels are using “test rooms” to try out new designs and technology before implementing them throughout the hotel, saving vast sums by discarding or improving upon ideas that don’t work. New technologies being tested include waterproof mattresses, digital door panels, customized Wii consoles, and even wireless electricity. But sometimes the greatest need is to make sure the existing features are usable. One guest who tried out a test room commented that he could not figure out the alarm clock or how to turn on the television. “All I wanted to do was watch CNN,” he said.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Prototyping, Technology, Usability, User Experience

March 10, 2008, 9:00 am

What Does “Capable” Mean in Redmond?

By Henry Woodbury

Today’s number one most emailed article from the The New York Times home page is about operating systems, of all things. Specifically, it is about users who upgraded to Windows Vista and “got burned.” Users like Mike Nash, a Microsoft Vice President, and Jon Shirley, a Microsoft board member.

These stories come from Microsoft internal emails, acquired in a class action law suit. At the heart of the dispute is disagreement about the meaning of the word “capable.”

Originally Microsoft planned to label Windows XP PCs with sufficient hardware and graphics power to eventually run Vista as “Vista Ready.” To avoid hurting sales of lower-end computers, Microsoft created a new classification, “Vista Capable.” This supposedly “signal[ed] that no promises are made about which version of Vista will actually work.”

An internal Dell report exposes the folly of this idea: “Customers did not understand what ‘Capable’ meant….”

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Technology

February 27, 2008, 1:06 pm

The Movie Money Landscape

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times has a very nice interactive chart on The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986 – 2007, partially captured below:

The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986 - 2007

This visual explanation does many some things well. It uses both sides of the horizontal axis to double the amount of data displayed in a vertical slice of time. It avoids unnecessary gridlines and tick marks. It uses color to clarify the area plot for “total domestic gross” allowing easier comparison between movies with short and long runs (compare Shrek to Hannibal, for example). A “Find Movie” feature helps locate any release in the time frame and highlight it among its contemporaries.

All that is missing is a single view of the entire chart. Even a static thumbnail image would help illustrate seasonal and macro trends. Here’s a sample view of 1986 – 1990.

The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986 - 1990, Macro View

Update: Thanks to commenter “tomp” I’ve made a few edits. My original “double the amount of data” statement was off base. By using both sides of the horizontal axis, the chart may increase the number of peaks, but since the data is stacked (not overlapping as I originally assumed), this technique does not increase data density. The macro view would, in fact, be much easier to analyze if all the data was stacked in the same direction (upwards). I also replaced a reference to The Animal with Hannibal so that my point about total domestic gross would actually make sense.

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Comments (4) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

February 8, 2008, 6:08 pm

Logo Evolution

By Henry Woodbury

From the Neatorama blog comes an interesting exhibit of tech company logos and their changes over time. The companies range from Apple to IBM to Nokia to Palm, offering an engaging contrast between start-ups professionalizing their brand and manufacturing firms reinventing their business. IBM, for example:

IBM Logos

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Branding, Business, Technology

November 27, 2007, 1:57 pm

Two hot concepts: iPhone and periodic table. What could possibly go wrong?

By Mac McBurney

Two dazzling and totally irrelevant visual metaphors in one thoroughly annoying interface.

I loved the novelty of being a kiosk/iPhone and the creative, behind-the-glass point of view. Then I tried to get something done. 3M is a kind of hometown hero for me. I know some good people there and I want to like the company, so part of me wants this crime against usability to be intentional, logical somehow. QWERTY keyboards were designed to discourage excessive speed. Could 3M have any conceivable reason to discourage excessive understanding? Anyone… Hello? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Usability, User Experience, Web Interface Design

August 1, 2007, 2:07 pm

2007 IDEA Awards Announced

By Lisa Agustin

Eclipse 500 Instrument PanelThis year’s International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) show was the latest evidence that design is a discipline that involves more than just aesthetics. Awards were won for service innovation in banking, creating broad corporate and brand strategies, bolstering sustainability via electric cars, and remaking hammers and wrenches in new, better forms. (Shown at left: The instrument panel for the Eclipse 500 jet, whose design team created a user interface that is considered more intuitive, less cluttered, less fatiguing and more motion efficient.) Run by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BusinessWeek, the competition boasted a highly international contingent (20 countries total), as well as an increase in the number of student-developed submissions. One particular trend was the rise in environmentally-friendly design, which included some unlikely product categories (green sportscar, anyone?)

A slide show of entrants:
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/07/07/0720_IDEA/index_01.htm

A highlights walkthrough by BW’s Bruce Nussbaum:
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/07/07/0723_idea_awards/index_01.htm

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Design, User Experience

July 20, 2007, 9:55 am

Is Marketing the New Finance?

By Henry Woodbury

Here is economist Hal Varian, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal:

WSJ: In the past, promising new economics PhDs who didn’t want to work in government or academia probably aspired to work on Wall Street. In the future, will they aspire to work at companies like Google?

Varian: I think marketing is the new finance. In the 1960s and 1970s [we] got interesting data, and a lot of analytic fire power focused on that data; Bob Merton and Fischer Black, the whole team of people that developed modern finance. So we saw huge gains in understanding performance in the finance industry. I think marketing is in the same place: now we’re getting a lot of really good data, we have tools, we have methods, we have smart people working on it. So my view is the quants are going to move from Wall Street to Madison Avenue.

And it’s all thanks to Google. According to Varian, the business model for search is not much different than the business model for publishing. The difference comes from Google’s ability to manage pricing on a real-time basis and thus transact an enormous amount of data. Here’s Varian again:

Adaptive forecasting, how I revise my forecast to take account of updated information, you use that a lot on Wall Street, where you have time series of stock prices. And some of those things carry over into things that Google is doing, that have this real-time flow of data. How do I detect unusual events, and react to them?

The internet gives us an engine. Now we start figuring out what fuels it.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Marketing, Technology

July 10, 2007, 8:50 am

Usability: the New Career Field

By Lisa Agustin

The New York Times recently covered the area of usability/human factors as an up-and-coming career field. The article doesn’t shed much light on the subject for those who are familiar with or work in the area of user experience. But for the broader population, I thought it gave an interesting perspective on the usability profession and its purpose in making technology easier to use: “Sometimes there is a huge disconnect between the people who make a product and the people who use it.”

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Usability, User Experience

June 1, 2007, 2:18 pm

In Which No One Knows What They Want

By Henry Woodbury

James Surowiecki writes about feature creep in a recent New Yorker column. He starts by naming the usual suspects: engineers devoted to custom tweaks, marketers enticed by more selling points.

But feature creep goes beyond the failure of the internal audience:

You might think, then, that companies could avoid feature creep by just paying attention to what customers really want. But that’s where the trouble begins, because although consumers find overloaded gadgets unmanageable, they also find them attractive. It turns out that when we look at a new product in a store we tend to think that the more features there are, the better. It’s only once we get the product home and try to use it that we realize the virtues of simplicity.

Thus it falls to designers to aggressively promote simplicity (over everyone’s objections).

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Technology, Usability

April 25, 2007, 9:31 am

The Entrepreneurs of Simplicity

By Henry Woodbury

My father recently recommended to me a book on technology entrepreneurs: Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston. Founders at Work is a collection of interviews with technologists from Steve Wozniak (Apple) to Caterina Fake (Flickr).

Here are some quotes Dad sent my way (all of a theme):

I think I was also surprised by the success of something so simple.  [W]hat we built wasn’t that amazing.  It was the idea of putting a couple of things together and being able to establish a lead by doing something really, really simple. How far you can get on a simple idea is amazing…. ~Evan Williams, Co-founder, Pyra Labs (Blogger.com)

Do as little as possible to get what you have to get done….Doing less is so important.  People often wind up adding features, adding stuff.  Making it bigger is the typical way you engineer out of a problem, right?  It’s the traditional, ‘I apologize for the long letter.  I didn’t have time to make it shorter.’ “ ~Joshua Schachter, Founder, del.icio.us

‘We’re making a product for mom and dad. Some of the features that you think we should add may not be the ones that they want to use. ….. It’s hard to convince 500 flesh-and-blood developers that their pet feature may not be desirable to 500 million imaginary users.” ~Blake Ross, Creator, Firefox

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Technology

April 20, 2007, 12:32 pm

The Walmart Projection

By Henry Woodbury

On a Mercator grid, artist Benjamin Edwards presents a Walmart projection: a world map that sizes nations by the number of goods they sell in Walmart.

The data was compiled in 2001 using a simple methodology:

Go to the nearest Wal-Mart from your present location. Inside each store, count as many objects as possible while noting their countries of origin.

To represent this data, Edwards roughly scales each country by percentage of the total product count, removes countries with zero results and places those remaining in approximate orientation. The result is crude but graphically effective.

But if you approach the map neutrally (elide the word “Walmart” from your brain), what does it mean? Compare the Walmart map to WorldMapper’s Total Population map.

Benjamin Edwards' Walmart Map fo the World Worldmapper Total Population Map

Now my question is not “why is China so big?” but “why is India so small?” (And, “why Italy instead of France, Germany or Spain?”)

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Cognitive Bias, Maps, Visual Explanation

March 28, 2007, 1:27 pm

Microsoft on Channel 9

By Henry Woodbury

We’ve linked to Channel 9 before (see here). With its blog format and aggressive comments section, you might not guess it was sanctioned by Microsoft — until you notice the “Microsoft Communities” bar at the top and the little “msdn” in the URL.

Now Wired describes how Channel 9 was born and how it has generated great PR for the company normally viewed as centralized, bureaucratic, and secretive:

…marketers say [Microsoft] has become the model for how corporations can use the Internet to manage their image. “The messages coming out of Microsoft used to be so one-dimensional and managed,” says John McKinley, who until the end of 2006 was CTO and head of digital services for AOL. “Now you can get four clicks into the organization and see engineers talking about products. It gives Microsoft a human face.”

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February 7, 2007, 2:28 pm

Web 2.0 at the World Economic Forum

By Lisa Agustin

WEF panelIs Web 2.0 just another tech buzzword or Something Bigger? “The Impact of Web 2.0 and Emerging Social Network Models,” a session at this year’s World Economic Forum, was the latest venue for the ongoing debate. The panel consisted of major players (Microsoft and Nike), those on the cusp of the revolution (YouTube and Flickr), and even a government representative (Commissioner of the Information Society and Media, European Commission, Brussels) who shared insights for what’s next online. Panelists agreed that the next phase of the Web is one that leverages the power of community, even if it’s too early to tell what the business implications of this empowerment may be. Overall, the session didn’t reveal earth-shattering predictions so much as discuss changes that are already underway:

  • Content delivery modes will continue to converge;
  • Delivery of content and advertising will be more closely linked to create a customized, personalized experience;
  • An interactive, participatory user experience will replace the traditional one-way message or broadcast model;
  • Social networks will continue to exert their influence in determining relevant and must-see content;
  • The collective intelligence (“the wisdom of crowds”) will help companies identify new opportunities for products and experiences.

Interestingly, talk of ad revenue and business models led to a brief discussion on what Web 2.0 may mean for useful user metrics in the future. “Page views are dead,” stated Flickr founder Caterina Fake. “On a social networking site, connections, the amount of messages, and time spent on a site is what’s important. But the [overall] measure of usefulness is still to be developed.” Whatever Web 2.0 finally turns out to be, Nike CEO Mark Parker urged that companies and other organizations will be at risk if they don’t “embrace this empowerment and understand what it means.”

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February 1, 2007, 10:16 am

Your. User. Is. Not. You.

By Henry Woodbury

That advice from computer science instructor David Platt could be carved in stone. It pretty much applies to everyone that makes anything for other people, but Platt has a particular target in mind. Programmers, he asserts, don’t think like users:

People who write software programs value control. The user, on the other hand, just wants something that’s easy to operate.To illustrate his point, he notes that computer programmers tend to prefer manual transmissions. But not even 15 percent of the cars sold in the United States last year had that feature.

Business executives don’t think like users either. Frankly, users don’t think like users. Here’s David Thomas, executive director of the Software & Information Industry Association’s software division:

You don’t want your customers to design your product. They’re really bad at it.

What you want to do is ask people what they want, then compare it to what they actually do.

Platt’s Suckbusters web site is here. A typically entertaining lede:

The common technique of confirmation, popping a dialog box into the user’s face and asking, “Are you really Really REALLY sure you want to do that?” is evil. It’s unfriendly, it’s distracting, and it’s completely ineffective. Have you ever, even once, said, “Whoa! I didn’t want to do that. Thanks,” and clicked No? Have you seen anyone do that? Have you even heard of anyone doing it? I haven’t. It shouldn’t exist. Anywhere. Ever.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Business, Technology, Usability

January 25, 2007, 12:54 pm

What is in a Name? The New Apple

By Lisa Agustin

Apple logoOn January 9, Apple launched its latest must-have, the iPhone, along with Apple TV, a device for delivering video content downloaded from Apple’s iTunes service to consumers’ television sets. The same day, the company announced a name change from Apple Computer to Apple, signalling a strategic shift that focuses less on personal computers and more on consumer electronics.

The latest issue of Knowledge@Wharton considers the question of whether Apple’s new strategy will succeed, and how well it will do when competing alongside Samsung, Sony, and Microsoft in the quest to dominate the digital living room. Apple’s talent for design will most certainly be a plus in this regard — not only in terms of the cool-looking hardware it’s known for, but also its ability to make technology user-friendly:

Apple’s design skills go beyond new gadgets to encompass softare design. One of Apple’s real design feats was making it easy for consumers to buy music legally wtihout excessive digital rights managment [DRM] software.  [According to Wharton professor Eric Clemons:] “Apple’s iPod and iTunes store are quite tightly coordinated to make theft of content of illicit transfer of content cumbersome.  It’s surprisingly easy for consumers to forget why there are restrictions and where the restrictions came from.”

Ironically, this “tight coordination” may also be a stumbling block for Apple:

…Consumers could eventually chafe at Apple’s attempts to vertically integrate is products–and thereby lock customers in– instead of working with other devices. Vertical integration refers to efforts to own multiple parts of a product chain. For instance, Apple operates its iTunes music sales channel, controls the [DRM] software and sells the devices to play content…It’s unclear whether this vertical strategy will ultimately win out with consumers, who may demand support for multiple standards.

While digital convergence has yet to be achieved, from a consumer’s perspective it will be interesting to see the range of products that are sure to emerge while the battle to rule the digital living room wages on.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Design

January 8, 2007, 11:07 am

The Secret Weapon of Product Designers

By Lisa Agustin

This month’s issue of Fast Company offers a peek into the DesignAid kit, a collection of twenty inventions with “unexpected properties,” such as impact-absorbing silicon (useful for building a sturdier car bumper) or sound-recording paper (consider a talking postcard).  Created by Inventables, the kit changes quarterly and offers product designers a peek at some unusual technologies along with suggestions for various applications. Kit recipients can decide whether any of the offerings might be somehow integrated into their own products, or just use the kit as a source of inspiration for innovative thinking.

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December 13, 2006, 3:02 pm

The Complexity Behind Simplicity

By Lisa Agustin

The idea of simplicity has been getting a lot of press lately, with the popularity of gadgets like the iPod and the release of thoughtful writings by folks like John Maeda.  Joel Spolsky offers his own take on the issue, suggesting that what makes “simple” products successful isn’t so much about what they are lacking, but more about what they encompass:

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.”

This brings to mind client requests for web site features that look clean and simple, but in fact are quite robust in their functionality.  (“Can you make it like Google?”)  Making something complicated is easy; making an elegant solution that addresses user needs, business goals, and content requirements–all while offering a positive user experience–is another matter.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Design

November 17, 2006, 1:21 pm

Does Good User Experience Pay Off?

By Lisa Agustin

UX consultants Teehan + Lax have started the Teehan + Lax UX Fund, an investment experiment to see if companies that deliver a great user experience will see it reflected in their stock price.  The group was inspired in part by the Design Council, whose Design Index research project showed that “the share prices of a group of more than 150 quoted companies recognised as effective users of design out-performed the stock market by 200 per cent between 1994 and 2003.”

To be included in the T+L UX Fund, each company needed to meet the following criteria:

  • A demonstrated care in the design of their products and Web site
  • A history of innovation
  • They inspire loyalty in their customer base
  • Doing business with them is a positive experience

The list of companies includes ones you’d expect, like Apple and Target, as well as not-so-obvious ones like Progressive Insurance. As to the question of whether it will pay off, the fund looks like it’s off to a good start: it’s already outperforming the NASDAQ by almost double.

This experiment brings to mind those sticky ROI discussions that are often part of justifying a site redesign and its associated costs. While client stakeholders might agree that a redesigned site could look better and might even lead to a better user experience, the “real” (i.e., monetary) payoff is often hard to assess, partly because each company may have its own measuring stick (e.g., fewer customer calls, more registered users) and partly because you won’t know the results until all is said and done. In the meantime, it will be interesting to watch how the UX Fund progresses, at the very least so those of us in the user experience/design arena can say, “See? It IS worth it.”

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November 16, 2006, 11:21 am

AOL Goes Web 2.0

By Henry Woodbury

David Pogue at the New York Times reports on AOL’s embrace of the Web 2.0 bubble and “the business plan known as free”:

AOL had been losing members at a staggering rate, with 300,000 people a month canceling their AOL accounts as they switched to high-speed Internet from their cable and phone companies. AOL now has fewer than 18 million members, down from 35 million in 2002.

So AOL decided to get out of the Internet service-provider game, a dead-end business for a company that doesn’t actually own the wires running to your home.

AOL’s plan is to grow like Google:

Since it went free, AOL has lost 2.5 million paying subscribers — but gained 3 million free members. That’s more people looking at the ads, which AOL figures will attract even more advertisers.

Like Google, AOL is rolling out free goodies, of which Pogue has a nice list.

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September 25, 2006, 9:12 am

Maps as a Tool for Creativity

By Lisa Agustin

social network mappingThe latest edition of BusinessWeek Online’s IN: Inside Innovation offers its picks for seven tools and trends that companies are using to jump-start creativity. Mapping is included in two instances: as a way of diagramming social networks within organizations, and also as a tool for visualizing collaborative work on wikis via IBM’s History Flow tool. While IN suggests that these tools and trends are used to “accelerate the creative process,” I wish they had elaborated on this point, especially with regard to social network mapping–e.g., Does a bigger network generate more (or better) ideas?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Visual Explanation

September 18, 2006, 9:10 am

Video Mash-Up Approval

By Henry Woodbury

YouTube, not yet profitable and a potential target for copyright violation law suits, has signed a big partner:

Under a revenue-sharing deal announced Monday, New York-based Warner Music has agreed to transfer thousands of its music videos and interviews to YouTube, a San Mateo, Calif.-based startup that has become a cultural touchstone since two 20-something friends launched the company in a Silicon Valley garage 19 months ago.

Unlike the notorious music sharing programs, YouTube offers value that entertainment companies want to leverage, not squelch:

Perhaps even more important for YouTube is that Warner Music has agreed to license its songs to the millions of ordinary people who upload their homemade videos to the Web site….

To make the deal happen, YouTube developed a royalty-tracking system that will detect when homemade videos are using copyrighted material. YouTube says the technology will enable Warner Music to review the video and decide whether it wants to approve or reject it.

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August 31, 2006, 2:13 pm

Your Blog, Coffee-Table Version

By Henry Woodbury

Blurb.com is testing a service that “slurps your blog right into a slick coffee-table book, professionally designed and bound to attract attention.” The goal, says Blurb CEO Eileen Gittins, is “to position Blurb authors at the forefront of an increasingly digital publishing landscape.”

Economics professor Tyler Cowen is unimpressed:

Translating good blog ideas into book format is best done by people who…have experience writing books, or who have journalistic experience, not by people who have large staplers.

It’s hard to take the Blurb “position” seriously enough even to knock it. Sounds like Blurb has some cool publishing technology, but when your output is business briefs, baby books, and pet portfolios you’re not exactly competing with HarperCollins.

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August 16, 2006, 8:08 pm

Medical Products and the User-Centric Experience

By Lisa Agustin

This week’s Innovation column in BusinessWeek Online features an interview with Stuart Karten, principal of Stuart Karten Design, an industrial design firm known for its user-centric approach to product design. The interview focuses specifically on Karten’s experience designing medical products, including a bone marrow biopsy needle, an infant ventilator, and a defibrillator.

Karten’s approach to medical product design extends beyond form following function, taking into account not only the product itself, but the context in which it will be used. On the question of what makes for a successful defibrillator, Karten notes:

What we realized is the actual frequency of use is really low, but when you have to use one, your adrenaline is pumping and you’re in a very highly charged state. So the ability to educate prior to use is important, and in this case we’re designing a public defibrillator, so we’re thinking about it like a public health service announcement.

Karten’s research techniques are familiar ones to information design practitioners, and include interviews and direct observation of the user interacting with the object (user testing, anyone?). It’s yet another example of how understanding and improving the user experience is the key to creating a successful product.

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August 11, 2006, 9:46 am

Reverse-Engineering Utopia

By Lisa Agustin

It’s time to catch up on summer reading. The Knowledge@Wharton site offers an excerpt from Idealized Design: How to Solve Tomorrow’s Crisis…Today, in which authors Russell L. Ackoff, Jason Magidson, and Herbert J. Addison propose what seems to be a simple idea: “the way to get the best outcome is to imagine what the ideal solution would be and then work backward to where you are today.” According to the authors, this “ensures that you do not erect imaginary obstacles before you even know what the ideal is.”

The book is based on the collective experiences of the authors. Ackoff’s seminal experience began on a side trip he took in 1951 to visit an acquaintance at Bell Labs. While there, he inadvertently became part of an all-hands meeting called to innovate the telephone communications system–a system that had not introduced a revolutionary contribution since 1900.

Tasked with improving the system as a whole rather than its individual parts, the six sub-system teams were instructed to design whatever integrated system they wanted, subject to only two constraints: technological feasibility and operational viability.

Interestingly, Ackoff noted that after his involvement ended and these design teams continued their work:

They anticipated every change in the telephone system, except two, that has appeared since then. Among these are touch-tone phones, consumer ownership of phones, call waiting, call forwarding, voice mail, caller ID, conference calls, speaker phones, speed dialing of numbers in memory, and mobile phones. They did not anticipate photography by the phone or an Internet connection.

Ackoff’s description of how the teams approached this challenging task contained two elements worth noting: an early phase of analyzing existing system problems and establishing users’ needs or requirements, and then working with each sub-system team to get a better understanding of how suggested improvements would impact the larger system. Above all, this approach reveals that creative thinking combined with a rigorous analytical process can result in big changes.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Technology

July 28, 2006, 1:01 pm

Focusing on Customer Experience, Part II

By Lisa Agustin

Earlier this month we shared a story on “experience immersion,” a holistic approach to evaluating the customer experience. Continuing in this vein, MarketingSherpa recently posted the results of a panel discussion on customer experience, in which senior executives from Cingular, Avaya, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts offered their insights on the role of customer experience in reinforcing brand. According to Renee Rodgers, VP of Avaya.com:

“We look at it from a marketing perspective: How do end users see our brand online, offline, in the technicians who come to their site, in the items they discover through search? Are they getting the same messaging and communication across their entire lifecycle?…We can’t let internal company factors influence the fact that it really is the customer who has final say over whether they leave our Web site or continue the experience. We’re selling technology, so it’s important for us to show innovation on our own site and provide an experiential aspect to that.”

From an internal perspective, it’s not enough to aim for customer satisfaction through specific endeavors, such as the redesign of a web site. According to the panel, organizations need to not only understand what customers need and want, but also foster a company culture that focuses on the customer experience at all levels, while providing appropriate tools that help staff collaborate and manage content that customers will come in contact with globally.

Note: Panel notes will be freely available from the MarketingSherpa site for about ten days and then for a nominal fee in the web site’s library.

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July 20, 2006, 12:54 pm

Understanding The Total User Experience

By Lisa Agustin

In the context of web sites, the term “user experience” applies to those elements that collectively have an impact on the user’s (or customer’s) visit to the site–for example, site organization, visual design, and ease of use, to name just a few.

Usability testing represents one of the activities used by firms (including Dynamic Diagrams) to determine whether a site’s user experience is positive (e.g., translates into an online purchase or a repeat visit) or negative (e.g., drives the user to the site of a competitor).

Some organizations are taking the analysis of customer experience to a higher level with “experience immersion.” This process involves more than just surveying customers or running a focus group. Experience immersion is about making company executives literally putting themselves in their customers shoes, using a variety of real-life scenarios. Take Swiss banking institution, Credit Suisse, for example:

The two-hour exercise begins with a visit to three local bank branches. At the first branch…execs watch customers; at the second, they complete a typical customer task, such as exchanging foreign currency; and at the third branch, they’re given a few questions to ask actual customers–by far the most intimidating task. [At the] office, the executives visit the bank’s Web site and attempt to check the interest rate for a mortgage or find out which bank cards can be used abroad. And they try to fill out credit-card application forms.

Each session yields results. Two of the branches visited during immersions are now being redesigned at the request of participating execs. Another manager, who was forced to cool his heels in a long line, kicked off a project to reduce waiting time. Christoph Brunner, COO of Credit Suisse’s private-banking unit, realized that “in some cases, we actually make it hard for customers to do business with us. [I saw] that little things make a big difference. For example, just having signage that people understand. Having friendly and helpful employees. As a bank, we often think that only the financial products themselves matter–but there is so much more that goes around that.

Experience immersion illustrates a point that is basic yet often ignored (often unintentionally) by executives: that a service or product is successful only when it’s viewed through the lens that matters most: that of the customer.

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July 11, 2006, 10:14 am

Rethink Your Instincts

By Henry Woodbury

Experienced managers, and technologists trust their instincts. While this helps them make quick decisions in rapidly changing environments, it can also blind them to new ideas. When businesses try to change, the problem is magnified:

Business instincts are never more likely to get in the way than when established and successful organizations launch high-risk, high growth-potential new ventures

Instincts are rooted in the success stories in your own past. What happens when an entire organization shares the same success history? Instincts become almost unbreakable. Through every conversation, every meeting, and every major decision, shared instincts are reinforced….

It is one thing to state a new direction, quite another to actually break momentum.

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July 8, 2006, 8:31 am

Flash Takes Over Video

By Henry Woodbury

With YouTube, Google Video and other Web sites using Flash as their video format, the animation player has leapfrogged over more established competitors:

Flash has soared from zero to No. 2 in its market in just two years, according to Paul Palumbo, research director for Accustream iMedia Research. Microsoft’s Windows Media format is the leader, handling 60 percent of all streaming video in 2005; Flash has 19 percent of the market, jumping ahead of RealNetworks at about 10 percent and Apple’s QuickTime, with about 8 percent.

“Flash is going to be dominant,” Palumbo said. “You can embed this into the Web page and it’s instantly ‘on.’ It’s a seamless process.”

The fact that Flash is embedded in the browser also means that it “plays nice” with other programs. It does not attempt to establish itself as the default video application on your system. Nor does it relentlessly bug you to upgrade to a “pro” version.

Seamlessness is a marketing decision, not just a design decision.

(hat tip: Paid Content)

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June 19, 2006, 4:30 pm

DesignBusinessArchitectural Thinking

By Mac McBurney

This recent Business Week article calls Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design (ID) at IIT in Chicago, a design visionary.

Traditionally, design education is based on visual expression, and students learn through drawing, model making, and studying the work of other designers. That is still the case in most design schools. Little emphasis is placed on how design fits into a business context.

Whitney pioneered a completely different model. The ID curriculum focuses directly on design strategy and innovation. Some 80% of the school’s courses don’t involve making things. User Observation & Early Prototyping aims at understanding consumers’ wants, the crux of the innovation gap. In New Product Development, students also learn how to read a balance sheet. In Design Languages, they learn how to make effective business presentations. In Systems Design, students look at designing business organizations…

“Most designers don’t understand business,” says John Seely Brown, the former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. “Patrick has done more than anyone in crossing this chasm.”

ID graduates and faculty made a strong impression on me at ID’s Chicago neighbor Doblin (www.doblin.com). On ethnographic research and innovation projects, designers combined forces with (for example) anthopologists from the University of Chicago and MBAs from Kellogg. Now, in addition to educating innovation-savvy designers, ID now offers a dual Master’s degree with IIT’s business school. From ID’s web site:

The first program of its kind in the world, IIT’s MDes/MBA marks an important milestone in the co-evolution of design, management, and innovation. As design becomes regarded more and more as an essential business resource, professional education that links the two fields is becoming increasingly important.

Could a triple-Master’s degree, adding anthropology or social psychology, be next? Whether companies acquire these skill sets by forming interdisciplinary teams, or by hiring a single cross-trained individual, more companies seem to be waking up to the benefits.

Unfortunately, Business Week applies a caricature of business schools to over-hype an already important point.

Corporations have traditionally mined the best B-Schools for by-the-numbers managerial talent. But who really wants to hire people with masters degrees in “administration” when today’s business culture demands managers who can master the process of innovation.

Historically, b-schools may come by their stereotype honestly, but equating today’s top MBA programs with a 1950s-style “degree in ‘administration’” isn’t fair. More importantly, it’s unnecessary. Programs like the one at ID are newsworthy and valuable even by today’s standards.

For their part, many business schools are offering courses on innovation and contextual research methods along side the finance and economics. What ID would call design thinking, Toronto’s Rotman School of Management calls “integrative thinking.” This is more than another business buzzword: Rotman’s integrative thinking pages contain seminar notes, videotaped speeches by Malcolm Gladwell and Jack Welch, as well as a coherent, detailed explanation of the term. See also: ID’s collection of research and ideas.

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June 16, 2006, 2:29 pm

Design Does Not Get More Hands On Than This

By Henry Woodbury

Remember subliminal advertising? A Time.com article on “menu engineer” Gregg Rapp details the totally visible design tricks a restaurant will use to steer patrons to higher profit selections:

The way prices are listed is very important. “This is the No. 1 thing that most restaurants get wrong,” he explains. “If all the prices are aligned on the right, then I can look down the list and order the cheapest thing.” It’s better to have the digits and dollar signs discreetly tagged on at the end of each food description. That way, the customer’s appetite for honey-glazed pork will be whetted before he sees its cost.

One ongoing difficulty in the design business is quantifying return. This is not so for Rapp:

Rapp is so sure of his menu makeovers that he offers a money-back guarantee that his menu will raise profits–and in his 25 years in the business, he has yet to issue a refund.

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June 6, 2006, 9:44 am

What Does Google Run On?

By Henry Woodbury

According to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, Google runs on trust. Which makes him wonder about its prospects:

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if Google has peaked. The reason is that, for lots of different groups of people, Google’s reputation as good guys has been stained. And I’m not sure what Google really has to bank on, besides a good reputation.

Reynolds points out that users can easily switch from Google to a competitor like Ask just by typing a different URL. However the barriers to change are not as low as he suggests — baseline users will use Google until it fails as a service while the webheads that are paying attention to Google’s PR problems may also have a Gmail account or run Google Desktop. And until advertisers see a change in traffic, they have no incentive to switch to a lesser-known service.

On the last point, Reynolds does link to a Buzzmachine post that suggests that Google’s marketing approach is not extensible. This doesn’t mean the current “views and click-through” model is at any risk, however.

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May 18, 2006, 8:32 am

The Universal Library and Who Owns It

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times Magazine this week sports a long essay by Kevin Kelly about the possibilities of an electronic, universal library:

When fully digitized, [all the information in the world] could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet — if it doesn’t plug directly into your brain with thin white cords.

As a “senior maverick” at Wired magazine, Kelly unfolds some very interesting and imaginative possibilities. After discussing the obvious advantages of linked bibliographies and cross-referencees, Kelly elaborates on “Books: the Liquid Version”:

At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or “playlists,” as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual “bookshelves” — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these “bookshelves” will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages.

At the moment, writes Kelly, the real obstacle facing the universal library isn’t technology, but copyright:

In the world of books, the indefinite extension of copyright has had a perverse effect. It has created a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark. In most cases, the original publisher simply doesn’t find it profitable to keep these books in print. In other cases, the publishing company doesn’t know whether it even owns the work, since author contracts in the past were not as explicit as they are now. The size of this abandoned library is shocking: about 75 percent of all books in the world’s libraries are orphaned. Only about 15 percent of all books are in the public domain. A luckier 10 percent are still in print. The rest, the bulk of our universal library, is dark.

Google has an answer. But it’s being contested by publishers. Read the article to get the gory details.

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May 15, 2006, 11:29 am

Success by Design Conference, Providence, Rhode Island, 4/27/06

By d/D

Introduction

We recently attended the Success by Design Conference, an annual event sponsored by The Center for Design and Business in Providence, Rhode Island, USA (http://www.centerdesignbusiness.org/conf.html). The Center’s mission is to explore the intersection of design principles and business intelligence. This year’s conference focused on innovation in product design and service delivery. The following is a recap of our team notes and conclusions from several key sessions.

“Service Innovation: Design’s New Frontier” by Jeneanne Rae, Co-founder, Peer Insight, LLC

A nationally recognized thought leader for innovation management and design strategy, Jeneanne Rae of Peer Insight, LLC, (http://www.peerinsight.com/) helps organizations recognize and take advantage of critical business opportunities. Services currently represent 80 percent of the U.S. economy and is growing. As this market expands, companies need to think creatively about how to get a competitive edge. According to Rae, infusing service delivery with well-established design skills can lead to innovations in the customer experience. The designer’s skill set is a natural fit for improving service delivery because it encompasses the following:

Empathy. Designing a service experience requires understanding users — not just their goals, but also their emotional, social, and cultural needs.

Broader Thinking. Designers think about the possibilities: What if? What could be?

Visualizing and Prototyping. Designers are used to developing typical scenarios to better understand how and why a product might be used. Some service scenarios can be studied with a physical model (for example, a passenger train car, built to scale); others can benefit from getting user response to verbal, visual, or virtual scenarios.

Iterative Testing. Designers know that good products only become better by repeated testing and iterative improvement.

Integrated Solutions. Design takes into account the perspectives of both users and key stakeholders. Achieving a balance is key.
Rae acknowledged that innovation in service delivery is not without its challenges:

There is no product portfolio. A company that innovates a service will find it challenging to describe the offering in a way that has immediate appeal and can, at a glance, stand apart from the competition. This is where visualization can make a difference.

Services are fuzzy. Unlike products that can use a platform strategy and established pricing model, services require companies to think more conceptually about an offering that is intangible and perishable (can’t be inventoried).

It’s hard to go it alone. Innovating services delivery with design approaches requires some expert help; service companies need to recognize this and form professional partnerships as appropriate.

We found Rae’s talk to be both observant and insightful. Design isn’t (only) about making objects more attractive or fun to use. It’s about understanding what goes into the ideal customer experience, and working to achieve that through research, modeling and testing.

“Designing the Xbox 360 Experience” by Jonathan Hayes, Xbox Design Director, Microsoft

Jonathan Hayes was responsible for leading the development of the Xbox 360 (http://www.xbox.com/), the Microsoft entertainment system known not only for its powerful performance, but also its beautiful presentation. Microsoft’s goal of expanding the audience for Xbox beyond core gamers to a global market demanded a unique collaboration of artists, engineers and researchers. According to Hayes, “technology needs poetry.” But balancing the tension between technology and design required some ground rules:

Structure the process. Because the team was very large and distributed worldwide, establishing a process, milestones, and master timeline was essential to keeping the project on track. Groups worked on specific activities independently, but also had a clear idea of when to converge with the rest of the team to share results and feedback.

Structure the solution space. The subjective nature of design can lead to excessive iterations, sometimes without an end in sight (“The right design? I’ll know it when I see it.”) The Xbox team managed this risk by creating a visual framework for articulating possible solutions: a quadrant system that indexed “Mild to Wild” on one axis vs. “Organic to Architectural” on the other. Stakeholders and users were told to frame their feedback within the context of these terms. This allowed very different prototype designs to be evaluated at a thematic level with specifics deferred for later.

Predefine inclusive design values. Before beginning the design process, the team established the requirements that the new product had to meet. By doing this, the team eliminated the risk of personal preference steering the design solution.

Look at work in context and in person. Throughout the process, the team validated the proposed solution by testing the Xbox with potential users and eliciting their feedback.

Hayes’ session demonstrated that successful design solutions aren’t crafted in a vacuum and often require the input of other talented individuals such as researchers and technologists. To make such a collaboration work, there needs to be agreement on the criteria for success and how to get there.

“Innovate/Resonate: Tools for Change” by Stuart Karten, Principal, Stuart Karten Design

Stuart Karten Design (http://www.kartendesign.com/) is an industrial design consultancy that creates products using a user-centric approach. During his session, Karten outlined a specific process, “mode mapping,” that visually represents observational and ethnographic data. The mode mapping process for human activity typically involves the following key steps:

  1. Do the research, then determining personas for the research subjects and a common set of appropriate “modes.” For example, the modes for a person’s average day might include: family, friends, work, play, rest, transit, etc.
  2. Determine more specific modes for specific inquiries. Peoples’ relationships with their cars might generate modes like: chauffer, errand, commute, maintain, etc.
  3. Create sub-modes for the personas that tie into a primary person’s mode. A “parent” may link to a “child” or a “patient” may be linked to a “caregiver”.
  4. Map the modes against appropriate axes, such as “State of Mind” and “Time” or “Active / Passive” and “Time.”
  5. Add pressure points, or the fixed demands on individuals, features that do not change (e.g., soccer practice schedule).
  6. Mark decision points — points where subject has choices.
  7. Look for patterns across multiple subjects and label them with descriptive terms (e.g., “mad rush”)
  8. Look for ways to improve transitions and decisions within the key patterns.

Karten’s approach to solving product design challenges resonated with our own approach to discovering user goals and needs. Using visual methodologies to translate research into requirements is a powerful tool for creating successful design solutions.

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March 17, 2006, 9:53 am

Digital Talent Scouts

By d/D

From garage bands to garage film-makers, the output of “do it yourself” outsiders is drawing mainstream media attention:

“Increasingly, the new, new thing in media is getting paid for the homemade. Reflecting the surge in the popularity of user-created material, both online and traditional media companies are opening their wallets to make sure that the best of it finds its way onto their television shows and Web sites.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/13/business/media/13user.html (requires Times Select or single article purchase)

So far, the best DIY examples on the Web are found where authorship is compartmentalized. Film clips uploaded to a site like YouTube are self-contained, making them easy to classify and rank. Most successful blogs are driven by the expertise or energy of individual authors. Extracting valid content from communities isn’t impossible, as witness Amazon.com‘s reader reviews and the adventure in learning that is Wikipedia. However, one gets the sense that the buzz has jumped ahead of the business. Jerry Yang, talking about Yahoo’s cartoonish new Answers portal, says:

“I think ultimately we’re trying to field a community where people feel comfortable and productive, and that with every investment on Yahoo, they’re getting more back. How we reward, and how we implement that, I think, is still very early.”

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February 10, 2006, 10:13 am

The Cost of Complexity

By d/D

In recent years, business experts have begun examining complexity as a business problem. Organizations that fail to check proliferating product lines and overly-customized services lose efficiency and confuse their customers. A special George Group report on the Knowledge@Wharton Web site gets into the details:

“‘Complexity accumulates over time,’ notes Eric Clemons, Wharton professor of operations and information management. ‘The problem is that clutter is not free. It interferes with operational efficiency, with production efficiency, with a clear image, and with distribution. It can strangle a company.’”

http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/index.cfm?fa=SpecialSection&specialId=45

The George Group’s report echoes a Harvard Business Review article, “Innovation Versus Complexity” (available at http://www.hbr.org with purchase or subscription). Authors Mark Gottsfreson and Keith Aspinall assert that quality-control approaches to excess complexity are insufficient. Instead, organizations must figure out their zero-complexity baseline and justify additional offerings one by one:

“What would your company look like if it made and sold only a single product or service? Answering that question is important for two reasons. First, virtually every complexity reduction exercise we have seen that does not do this has failed to break through organizational resistence…. [Second, only] by stripping away all the products, options, and configurations do managers get a clear sense of the extent of the complexity and its costs.”

While both of these articles focus on manufacturing and retail operations, the underlying ideas apply to communication as well. In our information architecture practice we have found that confusing content often reflects underlying conflicts in an organization. When an organization’s product is information, every effort must be made to make sure users are not confused about why they need it or how to find it.

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February 10, 2006, 10:10 am

Catching the Long Tail

By d/D

More than half of Amazon.com’s sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. For Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, this is an example of the “long tail,” the market of relatively obscure, niche, or one-off items that online vendors are bringing to light:

“Many of our assumptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching — a market response to inefficient distribution…. We assume, in other words, that only hits deserve to exist. But … executives at iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, [have] discovered that the ‘misses’ usually make money, too. And because there are so many more of them, that money can add up quickly to a huge new market.”

This is not necessarily a new business model. Many of the items in the traditional Sears catalog were likely “long tail” compared to the local department store. But now, when the local department store is Walmart, the long tail is just that much longer.

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

Anderson’s Long Tail blog is here:

http://www.thelongtail.com/

UPDATE: Anderson has now published his research in the well-reviewed The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1401302378/

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November 10, 2005, 10:51 am

Marketing the Design Firm

By d/D

Web and Information Designers, both freelancers and those in larger firms, may be interested in this interview with Philip Kotler, Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. His reflections on how traditional business and legal consultancies position themselves offers some interesting ways to think about marketing design expertise:

“The key to branding, especially for smaller firms, is to focus on a limited number of issue areas and develop superb expertise in those areas.”

http://www.managementconsultingnews.com/interviews/kotler_interview.php

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October 10, 2005, 11:09 am

Enhancement Overload

By d/D

A new paper by Wharton marketing professor Robert J. Meyer, with Shenghui Zhao of Wharton and Jin Han of Singapore Management University, describes a “paradox of enhancement,” the way in which perceived consumer interest pushes technology products to become too complex to use:

“When people are considering buying next-generation products, they find the bells and whistles attractive and decide to make the purchase, but when they acquire the products, they find the complexity of the new features overwhelming and end up using only the products’ basic features.”

This a warning to technology companies caught up in the process of “nerds designing products for nerds.” Technologies that crossover to general consumer use may not be less sophisticated, but they must be simpler to use. That is the problem for interface and industrial designers to solve.

http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/1292.cfm

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September 19, 2005, 12:22 pm

Talking Value

By d/D

Gerry McGovern offers a reminder that Internet projects need to be presented and defended in business terms:

“Many web teams I come across are fascinated by technology. They are fascinated by usability, personas, metadata, classification, search, navigation, layout. Some of them are even fascinated by content. These are not things that senior managers are remotely interested in.”

What senior managers are interested in is value:

“How does your intranet reduce costs and increase revenue? How does your university website bring in more and better students? How does your government website increase the revenue and reduce the expenses of your nation by saving the time citizens spend interacting with government?”

http://www.gerrymcgovern.com/nt/2005/nt-2005-09-12-web-value.htm

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August 11, 2005, 1:04 pm

Instant (Business) Messaging

By d/D

Getting beyond the personal, instant messaging (IM) tools are being adopted by organizations as a means of instant communication and distributed collaboration:

“Of U.S. companies that have deployed internal IM networks, 44 percent did so to boost intraoffice communications…. But the potential cost savings also are compelling — 33 percent said they offer IM to their employees to reduce long-distance phone charges.”

In our own experience, we have found instant messaging to be a convenient way for people to quickly touch base and set up more formal communications — such as a conference call — especially when key personnel are in different time zones or travelling.

http://news.com.com/Businesses+are+getting+the+instant+message/2100-1032_3-5770640.html

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August 11, 2005, 12:31 pm

Hands-On Visualization

By d/D

Taking visualization to the third dimension, Lego Serious Play is a consultancy program that uses the colorful building blocks as the basis for corporate workshops. Participants use Lego bricks, joints, and gears to model work processes and business strategies. In a typical session, simple building exercises might be followed by more complicated endeavors:

“Groups are asked to capture a work process or dynamic using Lego, and again to explain their creations. The resulting ‘sculptures’ tell a rich story, [Consultant Robert] Rasmussen says. Examples include an upside-down pyramid balancing on its point and a vehicle with an elaborate design, but without the ability to move.”

http://www.idonline.com/features/feature.asp?id=1511

The Lego Serious Play Web site is here:

http://www.seriousplay.com

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June 17, 2005, 1:14 pm

Wi-Fi Backlash?

By d/D

Some cafe owners are apparently questioning the economics of free Wi-Fi. Tables may be occupied for hours by patrons who make minimal purchases and inadvertantly change the vibe of the establishment:

“A cafe’s nature can be classified as ‘office,’ ‘social,’ or a hybrid, according to research by Sean Savage, who recently earned his master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley…. In his work, Mr. Savage found that an office cafe discouraged conversation and was filled with people who came alone and were focused on their work. Social cafes have customers who arrive in groups. ‘If you come into a place like that and it’s a particularly busy time, you get dirty looks if you open a laptop and start zoning out,’ Mr. Savage said.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/13/technology/13wifi.html (free registration required)

On his Weblog, Savage offers his own commentary on the story:

“I see no evidence of a new trend: both of the San Francisco cafes in question have been experimenting with limited access for more than a year.”

http://www.cheesebikini.com/archives/001103.html

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May 11, 2005, 1:21 pm

Social Networking on the Net

By d/D

New capital stills pours into the Internet. This time some of it is going to online community sites — specifically to those targeted to professionals. The New York Times describes two such contenders, LinkedIn and Tribe.net. The business model is based on advertising, but of a particularly local kind — the job lead and the sales lead:

“Like other social networking sites, LinkedIn is hoping to create a viable business by capturing a small piece of a classified advertising market estimated to be worth more than $20 billion.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/09/technology/09network.html (free registration required)

http://www.linkedin.com/

http://www.thetribe.net/

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May 11, 2005, 1:16 pm

Manufacturers Follow their Users

By d/D

Democratizing Innovation, a new book by MIT Professor Eric von Hippel, explains how low-cost design tools let enthusiasts customize high-end products to their own specifications. Using the Internet, these “lead users” are able to popularize their ideas and create demand for them that filters back to the manufacturer:

“In a study at 3M, [Von Hippel] and several colleagues found that product ideas from lead users generated eight times the sales of ideas generated internally — $146 million versus $18 million a year — in part because lead users were more likely to come up with ideas for entire new product lines rather than minor improvements.”

http://www.dynamist.com/articles-speeches/nyt/innovation.html

Professor Von Hippel’s book is available for download from his Web site at:

http://web.mit.edu/evhippel/www/books.htm

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November 10, 2004, 3:14 pm

Complexity and its Costs

By d/D

The Economist surveys the state of the IT world in terms of one idea: complexity. The thesis is that complexity slows the adaptation and spread of new technologies, undermines the usability of existing technologies, and, most bluntly, increases costs:

“The Standish Group, a research outfit that tracks corporate IT purchases, has found that 66% of all IT projects either fail outright or take much longer to install than expected because of their complexity. Among very big IT projects — those costing over $10m apiece — 98% fall short.”

The survey is mostly a catalog of known debates such as the virtues of Linux vs. Windows or voice-over-Internet vs. “plain old telephone service,” but it does pull together many different issues into a comprehensive pattern.

http://www.economist.com/surveys/displaystory.cfm?story_id=3307363

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March 9, 2004, 9:21 am

Google Under Fire

By d/D

Can a business model based on an algorithm succeed? As Yahoo ends its partnership with Google (see http://news.com.com/2100-1024_3-5160710.html ), the popular search engine faces aggressive new competition:

“‘When Google first launched, they had some new tricks that nobody else had thought about before,’ says Doug Cutting, an independent software consultant…. But plenty of other search engines now offer intriguing alternatives to Google’s techniques…. “For example, there’s Teoma, which ranks results according to their standing among recognized authorities on a topic, and Australian startup Mooter, which studies the behavior of users to better intuit exactly what they’re looking for. And then there’s the gorilla from Redmond: Microsoft is turning to search as one of its next big business opportunities.”

http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/roush0304.asp?p=0 (free registration required)

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