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6 posts from April 2014

Join Me at CIID Summer School: "Happily Ever After: Storytelling in Interaction Design"


This summer, join me from July 7-11, 2014 at Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design's Summer School for a week-long workshop that will help you become a stronger storyteller and improve your product and service design efforts. 

This workshop, entitled "Happily Ever After: Storytelling in Interaction Design," draws from my semester-long storytelling class that I've taught since 2012 in the BFA in Interaction Design program at California College of the Arts (CCA). You'll take part in individual and collaborative storytelling challenges, which will build up to a long-form story project that will stretch your storytelling and design skills to the limit. The workshop will be co-taught with Mary Sherwin, who helped me build the CCA class and brings her perspective and expertise as a writer, teacher, and master public speaking coach.

What follows is the full abstract for the workshop, and you can register for the workshop here.


"Happily Ever After: Storytelling in Interaction Design"
CIID Summer School, July 7-11, 2014
Copenhagen, Denmark

Plot. Genre. Character. Conflict. Terms that you usually hear in association with the latest Hollywood thriller or blockbuster novel, not breakthrough interaction design. But as a designer, need to be strong not only at the craft of creating compelling products and services. You need to be able to construct and tell great stories, in the service of advancing the needs of your users and creating desirable, delightful experiences.

In this week-long class at CIID Summer School, you’ll explore:

  • Why stories are crucial as part of the product and service design process, from gathering stories from research (what is?) to envisioning future-forward experiences (what if?)
  • What story elements are necessary as part of envisioning those experiences: character, setting, conflict, motivation, scenic construction, compelling use of detail, and so forth
  • How design teams use story-based tools at various levels of fidelity: user stories, user journeys, scenario-based storyboards, animatics, and video prototyping

Then, in a multi-day team design project, you’ll have a chance to experiment with different storytelling tools, resulting in a compelling video prototype of your solutions

Requirements for participation: It is encouraged for participants to have a baseline familiarity with the design process, a computer with rudimentary video editing software, and a smartphone/camera with which to take still and video photographs.

If you've never been to Copenhagen in the summer, this is one of the best times of year to visit this wonderful city. We hope to see you there! 




The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 6: Make Change Fun


This is the final post culled from notes I wrote in preparation for a talk at Kansas City Design Week (KCDW). See the slide deck here.

At the start of this talk, I'd defined entrepreneurship as undertaking risk to create customer value by making needed things, receiving feedback on them, and improving business performance iteratively. And I'd said I wanted to answer this question: How might we bring design into businesses to improve their chances of success?

Here's my answer to that question. Increasing the chance of success for design-led businesses requires entrepreneurs to define their impact potential, seek out “duh” problems, make desirable solutions at greater and greater fidelity, and work in cycles of learning. If there's anything you remember from this talk and put into practice, I hope it's this.

Every week, every month, every year, your business is growing and changing. Uncertainty and change can feel daunting, especially with so much risk in the process of running a business. But change can also be great fun, an exciting process of discovery for everyone involved—your customers and your teams, everyone that’s along for the ride. And it won’t stop until the ride is over. 

So take regular breaks as you sweat your way towards your entrepreneurial vision. Swap stories and support those that are part of your team. Don't get too worried (yet) about breaking away from the peloton. And take in the stellar view you might miss, both in the peaks and valleys, if you don't stop to take a look.

The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 5: Improving Business Performance


This is the fifth of six posts culled from notes I wrote in preparation for a talk at Kansas City Design Week (KCDW). Read the first, second, third, and fourth posts, and see the slide deck here.

Improving Business Performance Iteratively

With enough customer feedback on our hypotheses, we are able to hone in on "duh problems" that, if solved, create major value for customers while also creating new business opportunities for our clients. This requires steady, consistent effort, and going through smart iteration on both the product and business.

Iteration doesn’t just mean to create improvement for improvement's sake, adding countless features and complexity in the process based on every piece of customer feedback that you receive. I see iteration as informed learning. If you aren’t learning in an ongoing cadence, and shifting your effort based on that learning, then you are taking on additional risk as a entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs need to be able to move not in long, slow, measured phases, but in a fashion that’s dynamic in nature. What you learn informs what you make, why and how customers value it, and how much risk you are still carrying through the product design and development process.

Let me use an analogy to try and explain this.


Think and Create in Measured Cycles

Do you like to bike? So do I. All the rage right now in San Francisco (and everywhere else, really) is the “fixie” bicycle, which only has one gear. This means that no matter whether you’re on flat ground or grinding your way up one of those terrifyingly large hills, you have the same level of efficiency in how you spin the wheel a complete revolution. This can be great when you’re in the flats, but on those insane hills, you’re getting crushed—and passed by all those people on their 20-speed bikes that can spin at a higher cadence with less extreme effort.

I like to compare the process of holistic iteration to learning how to ride a bicycle that has only three gears. The gears are associated with the fidelity of what you need to create, and the volume of complexity necessary to make that product tangible for your customers. The lowest gear is what you use to make a rapid advance on an early idea. You can move quickly to flesh out what you think the product will need to be. You shift into second gear, and there is increased challenge and effort to take the idea and translate it into the moving parts and pieces necessary to get it into customer hands. The highest gear has to do with small changes to your product or service. This is incredibly fast iteration, so you may be going up a very long hill, but you’re able to spin quickly to make incremental progress up the hill, polishing the smallest functional details to get them into use.

Often designers aren’t part of the pedaling in the lowest gear. They get stuck in the higher gears, spinning hard to make the tiniest details of the product or service—but they don’t get to take what they’ve learned and use it to inform the idea generation and big-picture design cycles. Designers work best when they have a chance to spin using all the different “gears” of the iteration process, moving from the big-picture flats to the peaks that provide the perspective to zoom down and plan out big sweeping improvements.

If businesses have designers only pedal in one or two of the gears, it can have a dramatic effect when confronted with these big hills. Design-led businesses have designers shift between all of them. Not only that. Design led-businesses understand that shifting gears may require not only rethinking their product or service, but also redesigning how the business functions as a whole. This is why I originally called this talk "Envisioning the Balance." You need to keep pedaling the gears at the right cadences, pushing toward a vision, to keep from falling down.


Keep a Record of the (Messy) Process

Often, the product is the only record of change for a business. Keep a record of the big changes, the things that really matter, the information that supported those big decisions. If I’m working on a product, I’m trying to receive feedback on a business’s product or service on a weekly basis, reflecting on what the feedback means, and adjusting course in the right ways for the correct “gears” that product teams are in. 

You will forget the reasons why you decided to turn left instead of right. You don’t want to repeat the same mistakes over again. Customer feedback is priceless, but only if you know what you’re learning as a result of said feedback, and can apply it at the right times.

The final post in this series will be about living with change.

The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 4: Making Things and Receiving Feedback

Always Be Making

This is the fourth of six posts culled from notes I wrote in preparation for a talk at Kansas City Design Week (KCDW). Read the first, second, and third posts, and see the slide deck here.

You Should Always Be Making

You’ve identified the level of risk you can take, and established the value of the problem you’re seeking to solve for your target audience. At this point, I still meet people who look at the entrepreneurship process as having an idea, formulating a plan around that idea, getting funding, then making the thing. This behavior happens not only in product and service design, but in nonprofit and global development work.*

Rapid prototyping and learning from those prototypes through intelligent iteration is the new norm. When people say the word "iteration," it's a marriage of both crafting versions of a product and reacting to what you learn from customers using that product. You should always be making rough versions of your solutions. These are ways to embody and test your assumptions and hypotheses around what customers might value. You can’t receive feedback about what customers value unless you make things and get them into their hands. 

This is the native impulse of many product designers. We have to make the things to understand them, argue about them, gauge their value. This is even for business ideas that may seem a bit intangible and contingent on technology for their execution. If you want to simulate how people would interact with a voice-command concierge like Siri, you could start with a scripted dialogue with people on the street rather than immediately building a front-end solution. If you want to create a website that provides the best chocolate bars available, use a paper order form and circulate it with your friends, seeing what content and prompting encourages them to part with their hard-earned cash. Test the value of the service or product in small chunks, touchpoint by touchpoint, and see based on their feedback what the shape of the system is going to resemble.


Know What the Things You Make Represent 

I recently had a project where our client was interested in creating a new business extension that could improve how we manage our money through smartphones. They had a lot of awesome capabilities to make this happen, but no explicit focus on what behaviors to target with people. So we spent time with the right people, meaning households where they were struggling to adopt strong financial behaviors, such as paying off their credit card balances on a monthly basis, saving money regularly, and all the other “good habits.”

At the end of these interviews, as we heard from them and observed different "duh," problems, we tested different hypotheses around what would best help them manage their money. We put provisional, sketched versions of dozens of solutions in front of them. We let them prioritize those different solutions, to see which would be more or less beneficial to them. Then we asked them, “Why is this solution are more valuable than the others you've seen?" You want people to say, “Oh, I wish that I had this, but it would be more like [a new solution they've drawn out] to explain what they need, because of [a situation or problem they hadn’t thought of until this stimulus was in their hands.]”


The Best Solutions You’ll Have to Tear Out of People’s Hands

In participatory design situations like the above, I gather feedback from people regarding potential solutions. Is it this exact solution, or are there other ways we can help them with similar issue?  I then ask them whether out of everything they’ve seen in the stimulus, what one thing would they want to have fully working and in their hands when they walk out the door.  

This is what’s known as forced prioritization. Sometimes the people we’re meeting with gravitate towards one or two ideas, and talk halfheartedly about how it might be useful for them. But you know you’re cooking with hot sauce when they say, “I wish I had this solution right now. I would start using it immediately.” Then they tell you how, in specific situations. This is a great starting point in which to gauge value, just as much as the fit or quality of a product solution as you’ve designed it. 

But as a designer, I'm also trying to understand how to create the most compelling, well-crafted solution. I try to get a range of solutions into people’s hands, whether we are talking about ideas sketched out on paper, screen-linked prototypes on a phone, or functional prototypes of a product solution. You want people to desire what you make. Not just like it, not just want to use it. You want to tear the best solutions out of their hands, because they want it now. 

This is how we know when the prototypes we’d made for our clients were resonating with each person she showed it to. They could see how they could use it in their lives, and wanted to start using it right away.

The next post in this series will be about improving your business through iteration.


*In a recent workshop I went to with Zaid Hassan from Reos Partners, he referred to this as Design, Implement, Evaluate (DIE).

The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 3: Creating Customer Value

Creating Value

This is the third of six posts culled from notes I wrote in preparation for a talk at Kansas City Design Week (KCDW). Read the first post and second post, and see the slide deck here.

Don’t Think You Have the Solution 

So, you’ve defined the type of impact you think you want to have. You have a theory about what particular group or community would benefit from your business idea or solution. 

Now you’re going to immediately make your solution and unleash it into this world, right?

This is a rookie mistake for any new business. We assume if it’s our problem, it’s important to everyone else. We believe that other people value a solution as much as we do, or struggle with the same issues we do in the same particular ways.

I hate to break it to you, but value is relative. Once you have a starting theory of who you believe would benefit from a solution, you need to validate you’re solving for a pain or issue that even exists. Never assume that other people are going to value the same things, or respond in similar ways to the same issues.*

There is no substitute for seeing how other people live their lives, with your own eyes. Spend time with the actual people who you believe will use your theoretical solution. Be methodical about seeing the systems they live within, and the aspects of those systems that hold them back. Do this without immediately showing your hypothetical solution to them. (And do your homework if you don't know much about the people you're going to talk to. Secondary research is your friend here. Immerse yourself in it. Start to get educated as rapidly as possible.)


Being on the Lookout for “Duh” Problems 

What I’ve learned by conducting hundreds of ethnographic interviews with people from all around the United States is this: My initial hypotheses regarding what people need is never, ever perfectly aligned with what they actually need. 

Yes, I know you believe you’ve got the big solution all figured out. But what you discover when you start testing your hypotheses is that you’re missing out on BIG needs that don’t get solved easily. 

And that is often where the real opportunities for your business begin. I call them “Duh” problems. As in, “Duh! This problem is right here in front of us, and nobody is doing anything about it.” Some “duh” problems that I can rattle off just off the top of my head: Dealing with all of the passwords for your online accounts. Helping people save money for an emergency. Improving the speed that doctors can help you if you have an emergency. Even figuring out where you want to go for lunch with your officemates can be a weird little problem that keeps cropping up over and over again, and there are many businesses trying to tackle it.


“Duh” Problems Are Systemic in Nature 

What you learn from looking at successful entrepreneurs is that they can’t make point solutions to try and crack a “duh” problem. “Duh” problems can't be dealt with by fixing just one little thing, and then ta-da they’re magically solved.

If you're going to tackle a "Duh" problem, you're going to need to suss out root causes for that problem. These root causes are challenging to identify. It takes some time to get to the bottom of things, and really understand foundational issues you need to start working from. Many of them change rapidly, based on cultural and behavioral trends.

Solutions to “Duh” problems are systemic in nature. They are challenging to make, because many entrepreneurs don't know how to visualize and make the appropriate elements of that system and test them. 

You have to train yourself to identify how these problems manifest themselves.  Designers see these as touchpoints in how people go about their lives, interacting with services and systems. (You could argue that in our modern day and age, anything that moves beyond a point "product" is just a proxy for a systematic branded service.) You need to know where these touchpoints are and keep track of them, as they are part of the ecosystem your business is going to work within (and potentially disrupt).

You may need to add, change, or remove touchpoints to deal with that “duh” problem and create the desired impact on the part of your target customers. One type of tool that designers use to do this is called a journey map, which helps you to clarify how people move through different touchpoints. The X axis on these journeys is always time, and on the Y axis are the different phases that customers move through to achieve a goal, based on the different touchpoints available to them from products or services. 

If you can map out how much things are broken, then you can begin to imagine ways that journey could change, to make it so much better for your audience.


The "Duh" about Trying to Solve "Duh" Problems 

Why would you go to the trouble of identifying and solving for "duh" problems? Because good solutions to “Duh” problems are more valuable.

“Duh” problems are surprisingly obvious, once you start paying attention to where people struggle most. But there are always reasons why people say you shouldn’t try to solve them. These reasons are often logical, highly reasoned, and tied to either legacy business models or quirks of human behavior that require untangling. (It might even be because someone else patented the crap out of potential solutions and is holding on to them. This is not uncommon.) 

If you map out how much a customer journey is broken, there are always reasons why the pain points exist, and some of them you can’t change.

But if you’re aiming for impact, these are exactly the problems that need to be solved. Each “duh” problem is an investment in helping people. 

Investing in tough problems can have greater risk, but it’s also where the big rewards are for customers in terms of value and in how much you can potentially earn with a business.

The next post in this series will be about making things and receiving feedback.


*Unless you’re creating social products—and approaches to creating these types of products merit their own deep dive—you should start by identifying the needs of the customers you believe would benefit from your ideas. Even when creating a social product, you should be referencing secondary research to see what behavioral trends or needs you can learn from.

The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 2: Undertaking Risk

Risk Reward Ratio - Animation from the Presentation

This is the second of six posts culled from notes I wrote in preparation for a talk at Kansas City Design Week (KCDW). Read the first post here and see the slide deck here.

Entrepreneurs Take on Risk

Risk is often measured in an investment of explicit resources: time, people, resources, money, space, and so forth. You can quantify these things. They are tangible. You can capture them in a spreadsheet, calculate in your head exactly how much "runway" these resources might afford you.* 

When talking about risk, entrepreneurs are often talking about exposure to potentialloss or downside if you take a particular course of action. These are decisions whose implications could make your business suffer in the short term, or reduce the amount of runway you had planned for in the long term. 

An entrepreneur always has a notion of their runway in their mind, whether they care to or not. It can boil down to how much money is in the bank, how much fuel is necessary to keep the business moving.** 

Entrepreneurs can’t spend all of their time focused on the downside. You are trying to reach the upside. When incubating and growing a business, the upside can be some grand vision about what outcome your business will have on other people’s lives. Product usage, customer benefit, satisfaction. 

To get there, you wager those resources at your disposal, to see if they will materialize. This is a series of bets. Some bets may be table stakes, with a high probability of a small payout. Others are substantially larger risks, by many orders of magnitude. 

As an entrepreneur, you are responsible for your business’s long-term probability of success or failure. Every decision you make changes that probability, and you can’t easily peek ahead or simulate exactly what the final outcome is going to be.***

With so much risk, and so many bets that need to be made, it's tempting to focus on technological capabilities—which can be controlled and quantified in some manner—as where entrepreneurs can exert maximum control when formulating their bets. However, in order to reach the upside, you have to focus on the benefits that customers want to derive from a technology. They are not always the same!

Let me illustrate with a scene from a fictional story that may ring true, based on your experience.


Lightbulbs Won't Go Off

Imagine you work at a technology company as a CEO. The head of the R&D department rushes through the door of your office, which has a view overlooking all of Kansas City.  

"Bob, you won't believe it." She waves a light bulb at you. "One of our researchers was able to invent a new type of lighting that can last for twenty-five years per bulb."

Your jaw drops, and the calculator begins whirring in your head. "Betty, that's fantastic. We're going to have such a big impact on the market with this new technology. How soon can we get this into production? How long does it take to produce these things at volume?"

Betty lets out a long, slow breath. "There's something I need to tell you, though."

"What's that?" Your head is floating in the clouds. You can already imagine this completely disrupting the lighting market. Your competitors are going to rue the day they tried to squeeze you out. 

"The cost of materials and production for these lightbulbs is going to be twenty-five times the cost of any other lightbulb out there."

You pause. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that too much right now. When we get it out there and our competitors find out what we've done, we'll know."

Have you ever been in a situation like this, where the technology capability drives all of the business considerations? I have. And as a designer, it's my obligation to say the following: "For who are you creating this product?" 

Design makes you think about the WHO. To quote Bill Aulet,

"Building stuff does not make you a startup… For the entrepreneur, stop obsessing about your MVP. Your first question, before HOW and WHAT, has to be 'FOR WHOM?'"

As a designer, I want to understand the impact you want to have on other people. Impact is often confused with having a vision. I.e. “I want everyone in the world to have been cured of cancer by 2050,” or “I want us to have terraformed Mars by 2075.”

Can you please be specific as to who will begin this movement? Who will benefit from it first?


Impact Is Bullshit, If You Don’t Define It

"I want to change the world!” is what I’ve heard from many founders, but when they clarify how they've changed the world, we describe things that cause shifts in market condition: New software products. Storefront businesses. Physical products. Websites that sell t-shirts and posters. A service that brings you candy. Things things things. All too often, the answer is the thing, how the thing is going to shift a market from a capital or resources perspective. The “what,” the “solution”—this is the first problem to be solved. 

I'm not against wanting to have an impact, or having an epic vision of changing the world. Having vision is crucial to a leader's success. It’s healthy to have aspirations. However, I don’t confuse a vision, which is often about the more abstract effects we’ll have on society on large, with the tangible influence a business can have in the here and now on a particular group of people.  

This doesn’t require an MBA or fancy spreadsheets, at first. You need to visualize what you believe your influence on a particular group of people, starting from your perspective. Then you're going to discover if your point of view is true, based on what they truly need.


Show Us What You Mean

One of my favorite tools to help visualize potential impact is the "Ripple Effect" activity that's in frog's Collective Action Toolkit (CAT). I've done activities like these with everyone from lifelong entrepreneurs to high school students, and they always help align everyone around an approachable definition of what impact their efforts could potentially accomplish.

The "Ripple Effect" activity forces you to visualize, with the group of people that you're creating a business with, the net change that you want to see on particular groups of people. The activity forces people to go from the fuzzy, abstract aspirations you've got about world-changing ideas, to creating a theory around who you believe your first focused audience might be for a set of technology capabilities. You can keep doing this activity as you learn more and more about the people you believe your business will serve, and what they need from you. This can be tested.


You Are Nothing Without Your Ecosystem 

Creating a startup or a business can feel like you’re in a hermetic box. It’s just you, intently focused on making something and getting into the right people’s hands, and those people responding back in kind. But you can’t hide in a box, make a thing, and unleash it on the world without knowing who’s part of your ecosystem. You’re part of a community that’s going to support and enrich your business over time. 

If you know the impact you want to have on a particular group of people, you need to align it to your customers, partners, competitors, friends, family, professional networks, “coopetition,” the government, and so forth. An activity I do with startups, often following "Ripple Effect," is the "Rings of Connection" activity from the CAT. This activity forces people to visualize the people and the entities—other businesses, partners, competition, supporting organizations, governments—that will support your efforts and help you achieve your intended impact.

You don't just do this activity once. Your view of the ecosystem is constantly changing, based on how your business acts in the world. Once you’ve determined who’s part of your ecosystem, take a little time every few weeks to update this picture, based on what you’ve discovered. Are there entities who should (or could) be added? Taken away? Get it out of your head and in a place where you can keep track.


Know What You Don’t Want to Happen

When starting a business, many entrepreneurs focus on the net positive effect they want to have on the people in the world. I encourage entrepreneurs to also do the opposite: write out what you don’t want to have happen as a result of your business activities. If those types of effects happen, whether through accident or explicit intention on the part of yourself or other partners, immediately step outside the situation and consider what other options are possible to fix the situation. Consider this your preparation for worst-case scenarios that come along, as well as a way to qualify the kinds of sustainability effects you want your business to avoid.


The next post in this series will be about creating customer value.

* For those not versant in the startup lingo, “runway” is how much time you have left until the plug gets pulled on how these resources are going to be utilized, from laying off employees to having to shutter or sell the business. The concept of a “runway” is a literal embodiment of how much time there is to make a business sustainable. There's a reason why startups get beat up when they hire tons of people to make something that turns out to be trivial in the eyes of customers: it is risking using up much of the runway.

** Once a business is profitable and free of major debts, new runways can be laid for new products or ventures as part of their portfolio.

***That is, until there’s a version of The Sims for startupland, and then we’d be playing at businesses rather than sweating making them.