What is a human life worth?

A few years ago, when he was in his mid-40s, Zell Kravinsky gave almost all of his $45 million real estate fortune to health-related charities, retaining only his modest family home in Jenkintown, near Philadelphia, and enough to meet his family’s ordinary expenses. After learning that thousands of people with failing kidneys die each year while waiting for a transplant, he contacted a Philadelphia hospital and donated one of his kidneys to a complete stranger.

What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You?

Thought for Friday: Relax

Two researchers at Pace University here in New York compared results from dozens of studies of thousands of employees in 21 occupations to find which exhibit more stressors. Did fire fighters and police officers come out on top? No. Financial and business people did. We worry more about poor job fit, management problems, and work/home tradeoffs. Whereas police expect and even crave thrills.

With that in mind, here’s a couple thoughts going into your weekend:

The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” — Lily Tomlin

“Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Peter Rowe on design thinking

design thinking book cover …design has often occupied an ambivalent position, being characterized as either a form of fine art or a form of technical science. From all perspectives, however, design appears to be a fundamental means of inquiry by which man realizes and gives shape to ideas of dwelling and settlement. Furthermore, design is a practical form of inquiry insofar as it is concerned with making and a certain commonplace usefulness, quite apart from its more esoteric benefits.

Design Thinking

Chuck Owen on design thinking

Design thinking, as a complement to science thinking, embodies a wide range of creative characteristics as well as a number of other special qualities of distinct value to decision makers. In advisory roles, properly prepared design professionals could make substantial contributions to a process now dominated by political and economic views….

I would nominate for design thinking the following characteristics and ways of working:

  • Conditioned inventiveness.
  • Human-centered focus.
  • Environment-centered concern.
  • Ability to visualize.
  • Tempered optimism.
  • Bias for adaptivity.
  • Predisposition toward multifunctionality.
  • Systemic Vision.
  • View of the Generalist.
  • Ability to use language as a tool.
  • Affinity for teamwork.
  • Facility for avoiding the necessity of choice.
  • Self-governing practicality.
  • Ability to work systematically with qualitative information.

Design Thinking: What It Is, Why It Is Different, Where It Has New Value (.pdf)

Dave Pollard on design thinking

…the rule set above is a mechanism for the intellectual process of intentional creation. It is much more than just imagination, or invention, or creativity, or project planning, though all of these are a part of it.

Maeda’s simplicity blog

Mike Lee just told me about John Maeda’s new Simplicity blog (where John is coincidentally blogging about Mike.)

While simplicity is a noble pursuit, we live in a complicated world and I was curious to know how Maeda could suddenly pounce on us with such a manifesto while surrounded by the complexity of work at MIT. The blog refreshingly shows his work-in-progress as he figures it out himself, such as by distinguishing simplicity from simplistic.

Also, Jess has revived interactionary.

Alexander and Eisenman

Katarxis reprints this wonderful 1982 debate between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman, Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture. Here’s Alexander being snarky:

It’s very interesting to have this conversation. If this weren’t a public situation, I’d be tempted to get into this on a psychiatric level.

This whole issue of Katarxis feels like a Christopher Alexander issue, so if you’re a fan you’ll want to check out the rest.

Link courtesy of Design Observer.

Exposing Company-Customer Tension

Not long ago I wrote about balanced design, design that benefits both the company and the customer. There’s an evident tension between company and customer: companies want to do less, make more money, gather more information, etc. Customers want better products and services, spend less money, retain more privacy, etc. The two parties meet somewhere in-between, hopefully in a solution that balances both sets of wants and needs.

Jess McMullin has introduced the idea of value-centered design (.ppt), where value is generated from “…the intersection of business goals and context, individual goals and context, a product offering, and a delivery channel.” It’s easier said than done, but with all the work already done on business management and on user-centered design, a way of balancing these two goals deserves more attention.

Actually creating balance can take a number of forms, but before this can happen a company needs to acknowledge that the tension exists (many people in corporations have no interaction whatsoever with their customers). So the process of creating balance could start by exposing the tension between company and customer. Imagine you are designing a new product and have a meeting to discuss what form it should take. Imagine inviting these people to the same meeting:

  • The CFO and the product manager
  • Marketing and interface design
  • Sales and information architecture

By simply bringing diverse points of view together we can expose and start to resolve the company-customer tension. The particular people will be different in each organization. For example, in insurance companies it’s the underwriting and sales departments. Underwriting wants customers to fill out long forms (the data from which, btw, can help with product development) and sales wants easier, faster ways for customers to buy policies.

So this tension can be exposed even before the customer has been brought in, simply by putting two people in the same room, describing the potential product, and having them to fight it out. Sometimes convincing people through negotiation can be more powerful than by showing them reams of customer data.

Everyone’s punk rock band

The nice people at Amazon recently delivered a book on design history along with all-time quarterback from Death Cab for Cutie songwriter/frontman Ben Gibbard, a lo-fi homemade recording. Reading one while listening to the other is oddly complementary. Gibbard, playing simple and melancholy pop songs, self-reflexively sings of his relationship to his punk rock influences…

And if we could break the rules that were already
Broken before we were born,
Then we could hold them to their guns
Cause we’d be a punk rock band too

In the book, they recount the design trends of the past. Art Nouveau, in UX terms, emphasized esthetics while the Bauhaus emphasized usability. The Modernists did away with all decoration, having the form follow the function, and so on. And of course the effects of all this on people and society was argued through essays as well as artifacts as passionately as we do today.

So now when I see gurus come along with something like expectation design it looks like they’re treading on well-worn ground. Yes, the intracacies of digital design are new and different, but the higher level of how design affects people has been addressed for a hundred years. I start to understand why the traditional design press doesn’t always take UX design seriously. When it comes to design theory we’re green.

I didn’t know about design history because I hadn’t lived through it, and had never read it. I’m now feeling more sympathetic to all those LIS folks who feel like they’ve been doing information architecture for decades. When you look at their artifacts it seems they haven’t, and yet in conceptual ways they sometimes have.

Given the variety of our backgrounds (my education was in the liberal arts, and training was first in IT), a lot of us probably haven’t read the design history. We all want to invent punk rock, and it’s a little humbling when we realize we’re just repeating what Thonet did 140 years ago. As Mr. Gibbard would say,

What could they possibly do next to shock the crowd?
“We’re gonna rock rock rock you, make you scream out loud”
Bad boys whatcha gonna?

Learn more:

Balanced design

In the past I’ve said that design is a conversation, a dialog that should be enjoyable for all parties. Last night at the NYC IA Salon we discussed a similar idea, where the designer creates something that either benefits the client, the customer, or both.

For example, Bella mentioned how some desks at the U.S. Library of Congress are slanted, with glass over the wood and no ledge at the bottom. This keeps anything harmful from being placed or spilled on the wood. It also keeps books from staying on the desks. James calls this slanty, design that purposefully reduces functionality. An even-handed solution would have protected the wood and provided an enjoyable surface to work on.

Statements of design goals like usable, useful, and desirable only describe the user’s experience. Return on investment only describes the business benefits. Design is a conversation that should benefit all parties. If a slanty design only benefits one party, then a balanced design benefits all parties.

Of course, people will have different understandings of what is balanced. But having a term makes it easier to discuss where the balance lies. ‘Well Bob, this design isn’t as slanty as before, but it’s still unbalanced. How about a revised handle that fits the hand better but is still inexpensive to assemble because it’s all one piece?

Conversational Design

Peterme-the-guru created a drum to beat, ‘Through my work, what I’ve observed is that the web is all about managing expectations . Setting expectations, and then fulfilling them. That’s it. You do that right, and you’re golden. The term I have right now for dealing with this is Explicit Design’

An excellent drum, one that needs beating. Jess chimes in with complementary thoughts and a great experience cycle model.

Everyone should have a drum, as Peter says it reflects your perspective on the world and reveals new ways of seeing situations. Currently mine is Conversational Design. Not too long ago I wrote about IA as Conversation which explains it, and recently wrote this:

Converse with Customers
Navigation is a way of conversing with customers, as if the interface were saying, “We sell designer fashions at affordable prices. I can show them to you, or if you like you can learn more about the company…” We speak with our parents, children, friends and colleagues all in different ways. To a child we are patient and instructional, and when we’re flirting we’re attractive and coy. We should similarly tailor our interaction with our customers. Conversing consists of two qualities: conveying information and saying it with a certain style…

Much more soon.

Dieter Rams: Ten Points

Dieter Rams: ‘I have distilled the essentials of my design philosophy into ten points.

  • Good design is innovative.

  • Good design makes a product useful.

  • Good design is aesthetic.

  • Good design makes a product understandable.

  • Good design is honest.

  • Good design is unobtrusive.

  • Good design is long-lasting.

  • Good design is thorough down to the last detail.

  • Good design is environmentally friendly.

  • Good design is as little design as possible.

an infinite number of small reversible steps

Stefano Mazzocchi’s email overfloweth with quotable wisdom:

It’s exactly like thermodynamics, where a infinite number of small reversible steps is more efficient than a small number of big but not-reversible steps.

…good ideas and bad code build communities, the other three combinations do not. This is extremely hard to understand, it’s probably the most counter-intuitive thing about open source dynamics.

The Unböring Manifesto


Form, function, and affordability. This is the key to IKEA’s philosophy. The egalitarian mindset seduces me. ‘For us, price is the magic ingredient. It divides the indispensable from the unattainable. And so we embrace a third dimension of furniture design – an affordable price.

Of course price point is always part of a proper business plan, but the philosophy here is not what will the market bear but what will fill the market with lust. Overall the manifesto manages to inspire, educate, and explain (and advertise) all at the same time.

Though a friend recently commented that modern furniture now looks cheap because it all looks like IKEA.

And I must ask, is it too cheap, environmentally speaking? Furniture can be the sort of thing that lasts generations and yet the Billy might only last a few moves.

Update: they post quite a bit of info about them and the environment on their site.

Complexity and Cars

Go read Haughey and come back.

No really, go ‘head. It’ll just take a sec.

Back? Interesting, right? That Niklaus Wirth quote is how I feel about ideas like emergence. It’s interesting, but trying to replicate them in a product isn’t necessarily desirable design practice. It’s just, interesting.

Regarding the BMW, I used to drive one (though my hopelessly middle-class mindset cringes every time I admit it) and I generally like them. Still, I’m hoping we get to a point where there’s a backlash and the demand for a simpler car arises. But building something to the tune of late-60’s simplicity is impossible because of laws necessitating specific technology. I don’t even think you’re allowed to put a carburetor in a new car, even if you invented a clean design.