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.
Of all the images to come out of the iPad announcement, the one struck me the most was less about the device and more about the experience of it:
Lying back on the sofa — isn’t that a nice way to be?
And sitting or lying on the sofa with a 9.7 inch screen means we’ll typically hold this about 2 feet (.6 meter) away from our eyes, versus 1 foot with an iPhone, which means you can rest it on your lap. While some may buy the dock, putting the iPad on a surface means having to uncomfortably lean over it. I think lounging will be much more common. We can do this with a laptop, but the separation of output (display) and input (keyboard and trackpad) is disjointed in comparison. And the iPad will be a little awkward and heavy to hold aloft like a phone.
Consequently the mood while interacting with an iPad may be more relaxed. The interaction has the potential to be more passive, though not necessarily. We’ll make bigger gestures and pivot at the elbow and shoulder rather than the wrist. We’ll scroll/size less than on a phone, using more eye movement to scan the screen. And while Apple has had to succumb to menus to make more functions available, we have the potential for powerful new forms of direct manipulation.
As a designer I’m tempted to display more, denser visual content at one time that a person can sit back and absorb, and offer control with fewer, grander gestures.
Given the physical similarity, it’s tempting to look at the iPad and call it a big iPhone. But I think the posture we adopt and interaction with the device will make it an experience unlike a phone or a laptop.
Aside: how long until someone designs a lounge chair specifically for optimal iPad use?!
In case you’re wondering how to expose business leaders to the innovative power of design and design research without using those words, read how John Kay does it in the FT:
For years research and development scorecards have dutifully recorded how much pharmaceuticals companies spend on the search for new drugs and the expenditure of governments on defence electronics. But a Nesta report, presenting plans for a new innovation index has now recognised that most of the spending that promotes innovation does not take place in science departments. The financial services industry may have been Britain’s most innovative industry in the past two decades – perhaps too innovative – but practically none of the expenditure behind that innovation comes under “R&D”. And the same is true in retailing, media and a host of other innovative industries.
Support for innovation is not the same as support for R&D. Important contributions to commercial innovation come from new businesses such as Easyjet, which see opportunities that others have missed. Most of these opportunities do not actually exist and the innovations fail. But only a few such entrepreneurs have to be right to change the face of business. Other innovations come from successful companies, such as Apple, which may not be at the frontiers of science but are in close touch with consumers. Like all business success, innovative success is based on matching capabilities to market.
Though even Kay needs to mention Apple :-)
As reported in FT:
“We are at the end of a difficult generation of business leadership … tough-mindedness, a good trait, was replaced by meanness and greed, both terrible traits,” said Mr Immelt, who succeeded Jack Welch, one of the toughest leaders of his generation, at the helm of the US conglomerate. “Rewards became perverted. The richest people made the most mistakes with the least accountability.”
Several executives, especially in financial services, have apologised for their companies’ role in the crisis but Mr Immelt’s remarks went further, linking bad leadership to growing inequality.
“The bottom 25 per cent of the American population is poorer than they were 25 years ago. That is just wrong,” he said. “Ethically, leaders do share a common responsibility to narrow the gap between the weak and the strong.”
A few years ago I wrote an essay on “Strategic Delivery Points” to try and show how great product/service design, customer service, and other points where we deliver service to a customer can actually be a strategic advantage. There’s nothing new about this idea, of course, except that the emphasis on this approach is more important now more than ever, and why we read so much about design in the business press. Where before the product design or customer service was the responsibility of a low- or middle-manager, executives are now focusing on it.
Does that sound like hyperbole? Stop rolling your eyes and read this:
Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, admitted that Windows Mobile isn’t losing market share because of sales or marketing or distribution or feature set, but that, “Our experiences aren’t as rich as they need to be.”
This one is better:
“The engagement with our users wasn’t there. One of the things we’re focused on is relentlessly improving the user experience.”
— Owen Van Natta, a former Facebook executive who replaced Chris DeWolfe as chief executive of MySpace six months ago
Interesting — we’ve now got CEO’s talking about the strategic importance of user experience.
So who’s advising them?
“Meanwhile, Nokia’s attempt to match the iPhone, with the N97 launched in June, has failed to impress. Credit Suisse analysts gave the N97 a score of 63 out of a 100, compared with 91 for the iPhone.”
Credit Suisse? Yes, I’m sure they can hire for UX expertise, but when thinking of core competencies is a bank the one you go to for UX expertise? Or even for a quote in the Financial Times?
People, fill this gap.
I’m finally in a position to use much of my design and business experience and thinking, as well as facing challenges where I have no experience. And the situation is causing me to question much of what I knew about how to effectively deliver design consulting.
In short, there’s a lot of blah blah blah in our industry, and little knowledge and practice of what actually works. And now that my ass is on the line to make something work, the blah blah blah gets no attention from me.
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:
- Tiny, tiny enough to fit in a laptop bag
- Powered by USB so there are no extra cables or batteries to worry about
- Great looks
- Decent sound, at least good for speech
Here’s a few candidates:
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.’
Here’s an ad that I saw in the May 1, 2009 issue of The Week magazine. It’s from Post advertising their Shredded Wheat cereal with creative from Ogilvy:
Personally, I love it. Just as wrong-headed financial management is being righted in this economy, we can reclaim the oft-maligned word innovation to mean actual progress.
So where does real progress exist? It’s in between the innovation hucksters and those too reluctant to strive to make things better. I think Barry Curewitz, managing partner of Whole-Brain Brand Expansion, advocates for a rational, balanced approach to developing new products in his article, “Innovate with Balance.” due out in the May/June 2009 issue of Marketing Management magazine.
In summary, Barry argues two major points:
- His research shows companies are chasing too many strategies in a time when there’s too few resources, with identifiable shortcomings in the operations of otherwise good product ideas. In other words, in this time of tight budgets, invest wisely by supporting only what has potential, and then invest with real commitment. His examples of market performance for common household products demonstrates the point clearly.
- Companies can benefit by balancing structured, analytical methods with less structured, creative methods. We need the former to execute development plans, and we need the latter to create unique products, e.g. collaboration between MBA’s and creatives; coordination of innovation methods with Stage Gate methods.
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.
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 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…
Now here’s a little nugget of gold for concept hunters like myself: The Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s original 1999 proposal for the Seattle Public Library. I love flipping through it and reading the story of how they let their idea unfold.
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