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8 posts from October 2009

The Fourth No

No No No

One of the risks in creating comprehensive brand experience frameworks, replete with scripted behaviors that employees must follow dutifully down to the letter, is that it can make a mockery of conventional human activities.

Take my shopping visit over lunch to Borders, which is a few blocks closer than Barnes & Noble—a critical decision factor when the rain is pelting down in its characteristic Seattle fashion. Walking through the front door, I paused to peruse the new Eoin Colfer entry into The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy canon. Scanning through the preface, I was interrupted by a headset-wearing young woman.

"Need any assistance?"

"No, thank you," I demurred, glancing briefly through the tome before wandering deeper into the wilds of Fiction & Literature. As I strolled along the stacks, the book spines flicking past in reverse alphabetical order, I was stopped by another Borders employee.

"Looking for something?"

"No, just browsing, thanks," I said. I didn't want to let her know the title of the book I was seeking—Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness—so I wouldn't be sucked into dialogue regarding cross-listing of books within various departments, opportunities for special orders that may be delivered to the shop, and an infinitude of other actions that could emerge from that simple request for help. She can tell that I am hedging my true intent, as most customers do, and swiftly moves along to Westerns.

I arrived at the B's. They only had copies of de Botton's On Love and How Proust Can Change Your Life. I took the former book from the top shelf and began to read the first chapter.

"Finding what you're looking for?" I turned to see another Borders employee, kindly smiling up at me as my mind froze mid-sentence.

"You bet, no problem," I said. She continued about her business. I continued to read about transatlantic flights, the probabilities inherent in meeting your true love, and a host of other topics. After glancing at a few other volumes on the shelf, I started to walk out—only to be confronted by yet another staffer.

"Need any help?" he said.

What I wanted to say: "I do need help. I need you to seriously rethink what customer service looks like in a bookstore."

Instead what came out was a final, cavernous "No." This was the last word I emitted before leaving.

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Phone Knows Best

Trust Me

Can a phone be your trusted best friend? Your personal trainer? Your confidante? Can it cheer you up when you're stressed? Can it know what you're feeling, and why you're feeling it? Can it go away when you just want to sit in the corner and cry?

If we're serious about pushing the utility of mobile devices to their absolute limit, then we will have to create software so sophisticated that it can discern the difference between the perceived intent of user actions and the actual intent contained in our brains and bodies. Computers will need to make us feel like they're reading our minds—not just our words, where our eyeballs are pointing, and where our body is positioned in physical space. And when we behave in a irrational manner (meaning like human beings) these same computers will need to withhold judgment on what does not compute.

We will call these design challenges "HAL 9000 problems," because this leap in technological evolution brings up some very gnarly dilemmas for designers and developers—though not because an AI in a spaceship is preparing to kill us. (Yet.)

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YOUser Experience


What DNA does conceptual art share with interaction design? More than any technical profession would care to admit.

"The idea in conceptual art is that the artist causes experiences to happen to himself, and then ruminates on the interaction between the self and the experience; an audience may be permitted to observe, but is not essential," says Roger Ebert, in his recent (and fantastic) blog post "The agony of the body artist."

So if I was to apply Ebert's thinking about conceptual art to the discipline of interaction design, then it would read as follows:

The idea in interaction design is that the designer causes experiences that happen to others, then ruminates on the interaction between the other and his or her experience; a designer may be permitted to observe, but s/he is not essential.

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How to Estimate Design Projects: Tips from a Pro


Two words that make a designer's ears bleed: "Over budget."

Estimating is the scariest activity that designers manage for themselves or their studios. We are experts at making intuitive design decisions based on qualitative information—but in the rational world of dollars and cents, that same intuition doesn't always make for a better profit margin. We learn (and forget) this, over and over again. I've heard countless designers say to me, "I haven't done this kind of work before. I don't know what to charge. So I just made a guesstimate, and if I go over budget, I'll just eat the difference."

Sadly, "the difference" is not edible. While designers may hate estimating, it's a business skill that you'll need to develop—that is, if you'd like to make some money.

For professional estimating advice, I emailed Fiona Robertson-Remley, a fantastic project management guru I'd worked with at Worktank Brand Storytellers on a wide range of interactive and traditional marketing programs. This is what she had to share on the subject.

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A Hundred to One

Dog ISO headline

When I first moved to Seattle, I freelanced at what was considered to be the meat grinder of the Seattle agency world. My first assignment was to serve as a production artist for a series of pet food ads. I was provided with layouts in QuarkXPress 4.0, consisting of a few dozen black and white portraits of happy Scotties, terriers, and other sedan-sized pups. The traffic person then handed me sheet of paper completely filled with three- to six-word phrases. "These are the headlines for the ads due today," she said, and scooted away.

I spent the next few minutes puzzling over the page. Some of the lines made no sense to me, outlining in scientific terms the benefits of Pet Food Special Formulation A to Crappy Pet Food Type B. Others were clever puns and riffs on animal lingo. The rest of the lines seemed like doggrel, and at the time I didn't really understand why the writer had even included them.

Until that point, I'd never been exposed to the full brain dump of a creative person, and while I could see which lines were pretty good, I was a bit stumped as to which would make the best ads.

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The Proper Place for Procrastination


I've been putting off writing about procrastination for some time now. I thought I knew what I wanted to say, but now that the subject has rattled around my brain for so many days, I'm not quite so sure.

This is the curse of being an iterative design thinker—the longer you mull over solutions for a big problem, the more options you end up considering for the result. Possibilities shift and morph in your mind like taffy. Arguments and counter-arguments scrape and spark, misaligned gears in a house-sized machine that keeps chugging along no matter how hard you try to feed it another subject... unless you're dealing with a well-defined problem. Solutions can appear fully formed, like magic. These "rabbit out of the hat" moments seem like the norm in our community, but we are rarely clocked upside the head with a stellar idea, ten feet tall and luminous, just like the sign letting travelers know that you have arrived in Las Vegas.

Gigantic problems must be chipped away, slowly but surely, until the solution emerges from paring away excess. Opportunities come out of nowhere, but the ideas in our mind must be given form before they can be regarded as proper. Otherwise, we're just thinking some more.

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The First Law of Design Dynamics


Much like the First Law of Thermodynamics, which expresses the conservation of energy between various states, my imagined First Law of Design Dynamics states: "We are unsolvable problems."

Or, to put it another way: Problems persist, and we are an expression of them.

The problems we face as human beings are wound together so tightly, they only improve or degrade over time against a man-made metric—they do not go away. We create them, we attempt to solve them, and those solutions are expressed through the lens of our humanity.

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How to Throw a "Part with Your Art Party"

Donnie Dinch and his lovely girlfriend hold up work by myself and the photographer Alison Braun


My wife and I were staring into our closet at a big bundle of framed photographs we'd accumulated over the past eight years.

"What are we going to do with all of these?" I said. It was unlikely we'd ever show them again or own a place large enough to accommodate them all. Wouldn't they look better in someone's home? At this point, would it make sense to just give them away?

"Let's throw a 'Part with Your Art Party,'" my wife said. Hence, a plan was hatched.

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