Immelt Calls Out Managers for ‘Meanness and Greed’

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.”

Full-text of speech

Who is Advising Executives on Customer Experience?

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.

Stepping Back, Squinting

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.

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.’

We Put the ‘No’ in Innovation

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:

Progress is Overrated

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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

Play Literacy

…yes, that term sounds a little dumb, but it’s an idea I think will be important in the future. A deliberate spin on computer literacy, I think play will not only be important to designers to support creativity and innovation, it will be important simply to get along in an electronic world.

In the past I’ve argued that software tools will continue to be created much faster than we can possibly design quality interfaces for them. So consumers who can and are willing to play with a device to figure it out may be more successful.

I had this thought today while driving and navigating with the Google Maps iPhone app (I know, I know). The iPhone is slick, and the app is slick, but for so few functions it ain’t easy to use. But the slickness, the playfulness, of it all helps me overcome this. The desirability of the device and the experience make me want to overcome the usability. As designers, we can build playfulness in to help people, and, cynically, playfulness might be a sexier product development approach to sell than usability.

Update: Only tangentially related is how receive serious political ideas from comedians

In one “astounding half-hour” of television, Stewart viewers saw “more trenchant talk of the financial crisis and the responsibility of the networks than you’d find on any news channel, all the more surprising in that it aired on Comedy Central.”

Not surprising, really, in that comedians like Lenny Bruce did this long ago. It’s just another place where we like to coat our serious work with a bit a humor and fun to make it palatable.

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.