Twitter was a slow hunch

Part of my research into concept design is to look at where successful products and services came from. Today, it’s Twitter.

Lately I’m also perusing Stephen Johnson’s thoughts on Where Do Good Ideas Come From. In this context it’s interesting to read here and here about Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s years of experience creating software to dispatch messages, and how this interest goes back to his childhood, so in Johnson’s terminology, the idea for Twitter looks like a slow hunch not a eureka moment, typical of many good ideas in Johnson’s view.

Here’s his sketch from 2000 showing key parts of the user interface:
early sketch of a Twitter user interface

Fast forward to 2006 via Dom Sagolla:

“Rebooting” or reinventing [Odeo, the struggling podcasting startup] started with a daylong brainstorming session where we broke up into teams to talk about our best ideas. I was lucky enough to be in @Jack’s group, where he first described a service that uses SMS to tell small groups what you are doing. We happened to be on top of the slide on the north end of South Park. It was sunny and brisk. We were eating Mexican food. His idea made us stop eating and start talking.

I remember that @Jack’s first use case was city-related: telling people that the club he’s at is happening. “I want to have a dispatch service that connects us on our phones using text.” His idea was to make it so simple that you don’t even think about what you’re doing, you just type something and send it. Typing something on your phone in those days meant you were probably messing with T9 text input, unless you were sporting a relatively rare smartphone. Even so, everyone in our group got the idea instantly and wanted it.

This telling from an Odeo developer helpfully points out that this session was one of several:

When it became clear that Odeo was not going to become a huge success in the podcasting space, there was a period of soul searching and hack days. One of those hack days, Jack, Noah, and Florian (another rails dev at Odeo), created Twitter. The initial version seemed interesting, Noah, Jack, and Florian kept working on it for several months, while the rest of the team stayed focused on Odeo.

This interview with Dorsey shows he really did have the essence of the idea years before, and had to wait for technology to catch up:

We were limited until 2005-2006 when SMS took off in this country and I could finally send a message from Cingular to Verizon. And that just crystallized — well, now’s the time for this idea. And we started working on it.

and again:

At that time, one of my co-workers introduced me to SMS (short message service), which I had never seen before. She used it all the time. Once I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome!’ This communication blew my mind, and the way she was using it blew my mind. I thought, What if we simply set status, archive it on the Web, use SMS to do it, and it all happens in real time? We all kind of went into a corner, wrote out a bunch of user scenarios, and started inviting co-workers in. They fell in love with it. We knew we had something.

A prototype was built in two weeks
and Twitter was publicly launched almost four months later.

There’s a few lessons here for anyone creating product or service concepts. One is that slow hunches are slow and take time to evolve. Two, sometimes technology needs to catch up to ideas. Three, nurturing company environments like Odeo help these concepts take shape.

Four, obviously Twitter is a very emergent concept and less goal-oriented than even many startups would attempt; it feels more like a demo you’d see on a Labs page, except it just wouldn’t work on a Labs page. And it’s different than how we usually create concepts that require making money; the New York Times profile states, They freely acknowledged that they had no idea how people would use it or how it would make money. But they thought it had potential…

I.B.M.’s Watson, Like a Good Designer, Thinks in Possibilities

After studying concept design for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that the single best thing designers can do to come up with better concepts is to do more of them. Generating more options increases the chances we’ll find better ideas.

With that in mind, I perked up while reading What Is I.B.M.’s Watson?, part of the NY Times’s series on artificial intelligence, which incorporates a similar process as great designers I’ve seen…

Watson’s speed allows it to try thousands of ways of simultaneously tackling a “Jeopardy!” clue. Most question-answering systems rely on a handful of algorithms, but Ferrucci decided this was why those systems do not work very well: no single algorithm can simulate the human ability to parse language and facts. Instead, Watson uses more than a hundred algorithms at the same time to analyze a question in different ways, generating hundreds of possible solutions. Another set of algorithms ranks these answers according to plausibility; for example, if dozens of algorithms working in different directions all arrive at the same answer, it’s more likely to be the right one. In essence, Watson thinks in probabilities. It produces not one single “right” answer, but an enormous number of possibilities, then ranks them by assessing how likely each one is to answer the question.

Presentation Hardware: Tiny USB Speakers

I’m learning the hard way that presenting concepts may mean giving them to someone else to show on an unknown laptop across the world somewhere. I can control for many factors by simply making a video of my design concept, with voice over. But that laptop won’t get the audio loud enough, and no one ever has a cable to plug into a projector’s speaker.

We need speakers.

Here’s what I would like in my show-off-my-design-concept speakers:

  1. Tiny, tiny enough to fit in a laptop bag
  2. Powered by USB so there are no extra cables or batteries to worry about
  3. Great looks
  4. Decent sound, at least good for speech

Here’s a few candidates:

Do We Live in a Fantasy World?

Rolf Jensen says so, but that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Though his point of view is certainly interesting…

In the Dreamtelligence era, we trade in stories and dreams, in the extraordinary and the implausible. In this new age, industry can make anything you want, but what it can’t manufacture is fantasy – and that’s where imagination comes in, for both brands and consumers. The blur between fantasy, reality, adulthood and childhood is inspiring brand communications that truly enchant, surprise and engage. Designers are dreaming up playful landscapes – playscapes – to which our inner child can escape, and to give consumers the ability to discover through playful interaction with products, spaces and brands.

We live in a fantasy world and we need to make products to fill it,’ says Rolf Jensen, chief imagination officer of futures consultancy Dream Company. ‘Fantasy products may never materialise in the real world. They could be robot milk, a computer game or a concept car. The product is a by-product of a fantasy.’

Brad Bird on Sacrificing Ideas

Here’s a quick clip of Brad Bird talking about the film creation process and giving up particular ideas for the good of the overall concept. I find that’s one thing people learn along the way: it’s good to critique and trash ideas, just as long as it doesn’t get personal.

His dig on “businessmen” is over-generalization of course, and we understand his point: making a film is a design process, and can’t be reduced to analysis.

The clip is from an interview on The Incredibles DVD, and includes bits of negotiation between Bird and the producer who has to get the film made on-time and on-budget, an insightful peek into how Pixar makes fantastic movies and fantastic profits.

Democratized Design at BMW

At the end of the concept design phase you’ll need to select among the concepts you’ve developed, and there are various methods for doing so: customer feedback (e.g. desirability testing), a decision market, an executive decision, a vote, and so on. The last option, voting, becomes more interesting when you keep the designers anonymous to keep the focus of the decision on quality.

In the case of BMW and their new Z4 they arrived at this…

by anonymously choosing these designers…

Most people are surprised the male-dominated role of BMW auto design was awarded to two women. To me that’s a useful case study for using an anonymous competition for not only getting to the best design, but also breaking through cultural barriers to do so.

Concept Art Book is Now Online

Concept Art is distinct from the design concepts I talk about here, but they do converge at the point of expressing a powerful image of the artifact. The Concept Design book, by Scott Robertson with a forward by Francis Ford Coppola, collects the work of seven concept artists, but the book has been sold out. I’m happy to discover they’ve posted this online version as a reference

Concept Design Book Concept Design Book rdinho10

Images That Sum Up Our Desires

We are, by turn — and a writer says it with sadness — essentially a society of images: a viral YouTube video, an advertising image, proliferates and sums up our desires; anyone who can’t play the image game has a hard time playing any game at all.

— Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, p 33

Reverse-Engineered Concept: Waterfree Toilets

Here’s a reality we deal with all the time: toilets that use a great deal of clean, potable water in order to flush. This urinal for instance, requires one gallon, or 3.8 litres, just to flush some pee, which seems excessive:

Urinal with 1.0 gpf

The sustainability problem here has multiple facets: the availability of water, the financial cost of water for the building owner, and the energy needed to treat and transport water, just to name three. The latter challenge alone makes up a large percentage of every city’s energy expenditure.

Let’s say we were a toilet manufacture responsible for a great deal of this water use. How might we develop concepts to address this problem? Here’s how I would use two tools from the concept design toolbox:

The problem we’re trying to address here is very clear (as opposed to, say, create a toilet that people are more likely to buy). So we can play with idealized design to set our bar very high for solving this particular problem. A ideal design statement is:

A urinal which uses no potable water at all.

Then the team could play question the brief on this statement to generate variations. Here’s a few:

  1. A urinal which uses greywater.
  2. A urinal which flushes with something other than water
  3. A urinal which does not use water
  4. A receptacle that accepts urine that is not a urinal

…and so on. Then the team could take each of these statements and workshop them, sketching and sharing and playing with ideas. Each different set of constraints helps us think differently and generate different ideas, for example the first could have us thinking of all sorts of ways of capturing and routing greywater.

We could probably generate several plausible concepts using this combination of idealized design and question the brief. One of those might be the Falcon Waterfree urinal.

Waterfree toilet

And a little PR doesn’t hurt…

Waterfree toilet

Communicating Concepts

When I see concepts that are received well, the concept itself can usually only take a portion of the credit. Just as important is how the concept is communicated. Some of this is common knowledge: make it look good, choose the right level of fidelity, show it in context. Others are maybe not so obvious…

  1. Show what’s new, then stop. As opposed to stories which can take their time to create worlds full of intricate characters and details, effective concept narratives should only last as long as they can sustain interest, inspire, and present the new. When I’m done showing what’s new, I’m done with the presentation.

    The temptation here is to show everything the team worked on, because the work was hard and full of careful detail. But like a beautiful movie set, the rest is there to support the concept, not become part of the story.

    The Charmr concept is a good example, focusing on day-to-day diabetes management only.

  2. State the time frame. Setting expectations of the purpose and feasibility of a concept is often accomplished easily by stating the time frame for a concept; we perceive a concept for next year’s product very differently than a concept for 10 years in the future.

    I find it useful to think in terms of the three concept types described in the book Product Concept Design: A Review of the Conceptual Design of Products in Industry:

    • Product Development Concepts support the definition of the product specification, which is needed to set detailed goals of the design of the subsystems of the product and for the following phases of the design process. An example is the concept for the second generation One Laptop Per Child XO-2.
    • Emerging Concepts are created in association with technical research or the modification of products for radically different markets. They unravel the opportunities of a new technology or market and growing user needs, and facilitate the company’s learning and decision-making process. An example is IconNicholson’s Social Retailing.
    • Vision Concepts support the company’s strategic decision-making by outlining the future beyond the range of product development and research activities. There is no expectation that this kind of vision concept will be implemented, and therefore the technical and commercial requirements are less restrictive than in other kinds of concepts. An example is frog design’s Aura.
  3. Distribute a holistic presentation. Whether it’s a model, a document, or Web 2.0-style syndication, the elements of our concept should stay together in one media piece so that anyone who experiences it will understand it.

    While not a concept, the way Apple presents the iPhone exemplifies careful, holistic packaging. Starting with Steve Job’s keynote presentation and extending to the video guided tour the tone is exciting, educational, and includes all the relevant information in one media clip (I would embed them here, but notice that Apple doesn’t let me do that).

    Unfortunately forums like the Techcrunch blog can be brutal on concepts when the presentation doesn’t do justice to the concept. I think different presentation can change that.

IDEO’s Open Dev of the BugBase Hardware/Software UI

It’s not often we get to peek inside anyone’s concept design process, so this blog from IDEO has me starting up my reverse-engineering machine….

An open project between BugLabs and IDEO, this deep-dive exploration of the BUGbase UI is focused on re-envisioning the BUGbase interface with an eye toward integrating new display and input technologies.

The outcome of these explorations will feel less like a finished product and more like a concept car. And like any successful concept car, we hope these provocations will not only help us gauge users’ interests, but will spur constructive discourse and inform future design, engineering, and business decisions.

BugLabs’ commitment to openness presents a unique and exciting opportunity for us to be as inclusive about the design process as possible. For this quick two week collaboration, we will be conceptualizing new interface paradigms, designing new tangible user interface directions, and creating the associated industrial design/housing-modification solutions.

Concepts as Inspiration


Concepts strive to sway opinion by eliciting emotions. Fundamental to this purpose is the new, the aspect that is beyond question different than what has been done in the past. The new is what causes the audience to pause and react.

This reaction can be polarizing (yes/no, this/that) in order to make progress toward a detailed design. This reaction can be stimulating, sparking new ideas to increase the number of possibilities. Effective concepts are carefully constructed to appeal to particular emotions.

Boredom is the enemy of design concepts.

Concept Design: Name the Baby!

When you create a product or service concept, you should give it a name. Sounds like a no-duh idea, but in the heat of the moment we forget to do this. Sometimes…

  • we give them numbers or letters. “You see the change in materiality here in concept 2…” or “Clearly Concept C is a total paradigm shift…” But this kinda sucks. It’s hard to remember how the concepts map to numbers or letters, and that makes it hard for people to reference the concept. “Um, you know, I think it was the second one, the one with the thingie…” And if people can’t reference it, they can’t talk about it, much less buy it.
  • we only have one concept, so we name it after ourselves.Our idea is to…” or “The Bixby Canyon Software System, from Bixby Canyon Inc., gives your plants just the right amount of water…” This feels good at first because you can publicize your company and concept name at the same time, and it avoids those messy, expensive naming exercises. But it falls apart when concepts grow up into products. Say when…
    1. you want to change the product or the product name, but people keep referring to it by your company name. You’re stuck, or you change it and risk lose brand recognition.
    2. you introduce a second product which means you now need three names, two product names and a company name, that need different identities. For a long time Symantec was synonymous with anti-virus software, and they had to work hard to be a company known for more than that.

An exception is when you (intentionally or not) have a naming system. Let’s say your company and your first product name is Super Fantastic. When the next product arrives, you name it Super Amazing, then Super Stupendous, and so on.

Just as you wouldn’t have a baby (or a company) without naming it, don’t birth a concept without naming it either.