What’s Your Favorite Book on Building Digital Products/Services?

The responses to my question about your favorite books on innovation were so interesting and useful I can’t help but ask another:

Let’s say you’re a manager charged with developing a software-driven product or service like a website or a mobile service. You already have staff to handle the interface design, programming, and marketing. But you need to figure out a process for creating the product, a process with activities like generating ideas, creating conceptual designs, analyzing business factors, working with partners, etc.

Do you have a favorite book on this topic? And by the way, what term do you use to refer to this?

Again, I’ll start with mine…

Agile with a capital/lowercase A

It looks like agile software development is having the same growing pains, expressed through semantics, as the design field (or the Design field). It’s the perceived misapplication of language that catches my eye…

Jason Gorman argued that the meaning of Agile was ambiguous and was being inappropriately applied to a very wide range of approaches like Six Sigma and CMMi. He also argued that “Agile”, “evolutionary”, and “lean” (as in Lean software development) did not mean the same thing in practice, even though they are all lumped under the banner of “Agile” – possibly for marketing purposes. Gorman argued that process-oriented methods, especially methods that incrementally reduce waste and process variation like Six Sigma, have a tendency to limit an organisation’s adaptive capacity (their “slack”), making them less able to respond to discontinuous change – i.e., less agile. He also argues in later posts that “agile”, “lean” and “evolutionary” are strategies that need to be properly understood and appropriately applied to any specific context. That is, there is a time to be “agile”, a time to be “lean” and a time to be “evolutionary”.

Fascinating, but a nuance that will be completely lost on business clients who are focused on other matters. But just as IDEO shows what they do instead of only talking about it, I think making it all tangible will be a way around the semantic mess. I’d like to see the Agile Alliance produce a “shopping-cart“-like video of an agile project.

IDEO’s UMPC Vision Video

A nice example of what I call a tangible future. I like how it starts with more conventional examples and then ends with others that have believable gestures but without clear intentions, which could make it a good conversation starter between IDEO (the design firm) and Intel (the client).

Tech Reality Check: eCommerce and Microchips

A colleague recently complained that furniture company Room & Board has a great website but the buying process stops halfway and must be completed by phone. By coincidence we recently bought a bed from them and I have to admit the order was completed much quicker using the phone compared to a typical online shopping cart process. Even better, the bed was just delivered and I assembled it in 3 minutes. Literally. With no tools. And since the pieces were delivered by their own service and wrapped in the truck, it required almost no wasteful packaging. Overall a great customer experience, sans eCommerce.

Meanwhile, my new (deep breath) Gillette Fusion Phantom Power Razor cost $11, has 6 blades, and runs on a battery and a microchip, bringing us closer to Kevin Kelly’s prediction that chips will be in everything everywhere. Shaves nicely too.

Update: the next day Room & Board sent me an email (from a person, not just botmail) making sure the delivery went alright. Very nice.

Categorized as Products


I was hanging out with my peeps last week and a couple times Paul used the word awesome, as when we were talking about building tools for customers and he said, “The tools should make them feel capable of awesomeness.

Making people feel capable of awesomeness. That in itself is awesome. So this is my new mantra. Let’s make it awesome, and if it’s not, why the fuck isn’t it? Life is too short not to be awesome.

Wynton Marsalis, photo credit Clay McBride

Idealized Design

Idealized design is a way of thinking about change that is deceptively simple to state: In solving problems of virtually any kind, the way to get the best outcome is to imagine what the ideal solution would be and then work backward to where you are today. This ensures that you do not erect imaginary obstacles before you even know what the ideal is.

…not unlike tangible futures.

Link courtesy of Austin.

Tangible Futures in Denver, Wednesday, August 16th

I’ll be giving a presentation on Tangible Futures in Denver next Wednesday, August 16th. Since giving the talk in Philadelphia I’ve refined the how-to part of the talk quite a bit with more perspective of the people on the receiving end of this work. If you’re in the neighborhood and interested I’d love to meet you…

Tangible Futures: Creating Designs of the Future to Influence the Present

Edward de Bono has said, “You can analyse the past, but the future has to be designed.” As designers, we have influence not only over the products and services people will use in the future but also in how companies plan for the future. We can improve the quality of our influence by using our design skills to more actively anticipate and shape the future. Examples of this vary from auto designers’ concept cars to Bruce Mau’s Massive Change. These “tangible futures” act as a clear, compelling vision that helps organizations make progress.

More info…

Jamais Cascio on the Role of Artifacts in Futurism

Artifacts from the Future: “If scenario creation was the poster-boy for futurism in the mid-1990s, artifact creation looks to play that role for mid-2000s futurism…. I can’t imagine doing a major futurist project now without using some kind of tangible element of the future, even if it’s just an article from a magazine of a decade or three hence. These artifacts provide an anchor for the recipients, not in the sense of holding them back, but in the sense of giving them a grounding from which to explore.

Tangibly understanding your retirement

Our retirement is one topic where all of us think many years into the future. In my tangible futures presentation I’ve been showing a typical screen from my online retirement account. It shows how much money I have saved, where it’s invested, the rate of return, my asset allocation, and so on. It’s a great tool for helping me understand my investments, but it fails to help me understand what I’m saving for, and therefore if I’ll have enough money to retire the way I’d like.

Then I show a more tangible concept I like to call Cancun 2035:

It’s just a concept, but immediately it signals to me what a great retirement I have awaiting me and how close I am to it financially. I don’t know if Cancun will actually be a nice place to retire to in 2035, or how much it will cost, or what the rate of inflation is, but my financial services company can help me with that. Then they’d be my retirement services company, a big identity and capability change for an organization, but one that might be facilitated by creating a new vision for themselves using a tangible future like this one.

Recently I noticed Ameriprise is giving away a Dream Book that does help you plan for what you’ll do in retirement. Unfortunately the book is mostly text and not more tangible, but they’re headed in the right direction.

Creating organizational vision with storytelling and artifacts

The Institute for the Future couldn’t get clients to read its trend forecasts. So it started giving away prescient product ideas instead.

These are great examples of the tangible part of what we’ve been calling Tangible Futures. The IFTF objects seem like good ways to, as they say, ‘start conversations’ about alternate futures. The intention behind our Tangible Futures is a little different. We want to help change the way organizations think about their capabilities and identity so they’re more capable of innovating. The one key difference is that instead of making the artifacts ourselves we think these artifacts are more likely to result in actual innovation if we help companies create their own artifacts. More on this in a moment.

In either case, the conundrum is that we need the tangible artifacts to stimulate the imagination, but then we need to immediately focus away from the artifact to what is required internally for an organization to produce it.

Why? Because innovative companies make innovative products. That sounds obvious, but some companies want to ignore the company part and jump right to the products. To illustrate the difference, consider (surprise) the iPod. Is the difference between the iPod/iTunes ecosystem that Apple had a better idea than everyone else? No. Other companies had already released components of this system, such as hard drive-based mp3 players and online music stores. Sony in particular was the logical one to lead the way, since they possess significantly more portable electronics design, manufacturing, distribution, and retail expertise than Apple. Sony also happens to own a handful of record companies. Apple’s advantage comes down to management innovation. They took smart risks and created effective collaboration across disciplines and groups, where is one place Sony definitely failed. Regardless of which was the better product, the more innovative company won.

Artifacts from the future are highly useful to inspire us into action, but ultimately the challenge is managing people to execute on the innovative ideas. How do we get beyond the focus on the artifact? One approach could be to embed the artifact within a strong story. To use a classic example, we can conjure the story of Adam & Eve using the apple with two bites taken from it. The apple is an artifact that represents a wealth of concepts, and yet our focus is not on the apple, it’s on the people and events.

To develop a corporate vision, scenario planning is a great way for groups to co-create stories about the future. If at the same time the groups create artifacts that conjure those stories, they possess a tangible conveyance, communicating the vision necessary for others to align their work in the same direction. That’s what Tangible Futures is all about.

GE dares to dream of the future

In my tangible futures presentation last week, I repeated a statement I’ve written here, that sometime during the second half of the 20th century, American companies forgot how to dream. I’m happy to contradict that statement with a clear example: GE.

In Growth as a Process, Jeffrey Immelt reveals the process that led to their Ecomagination initiative. Not only is it not greenwashing or a flimsy vision statement, it grew out of their strategic planning process and has metrics that benefit the company and the environment, while bravely looking several years into the future.

The whole article is full of valuable insights, but this section is worth quoting:

The very economics [of scarcity], by the way, that drove you to read the demand for organic growth. You’re trying to make tailwind out of the headwind.

Exactly right. So we plugged that input from S-1 [GE’s strategic planning process] into the Commercial Council, which studied it for nine months. We met with people from NGOs, government offices, and other relevant organizations. We brought a lot of assets together, including our knowledge of public policy and how it gets influenced. Once we had done our homework, we launched ecomagination with 17 products we could point to. As always, we were metric driven. We said that our $10 billion of revenue from products tapping renewable energy sources like the sun and wind had to go to $20 billion in five years. The $750 million we were spending on R&D for clean technologies had to go to a billion and a half. Our own greenhouse gas emissions had to come down by 1% by 2012.

Has there been any push back from your customers, some of whom I can imagine would rather stick to their carbon-burning ways?

There were plenty of guys on our energy team who hated this in the beginning because half of their customers were saying they hated it. Never mind that half of the customers loved it. We just kept talking: “Here’s where we’re going. Here’s why we think it’s good for both of us. And it’s going to come someday anyhow, so let’s get ahead of it.” We hosted what we call a dreaming session in the summer of 2004 with the 30 biggest utilities. Some of the top players in the industry—CEOs like Jim Rogers and David Rutledge—came to Crotonville and heard Jeff Sachs from Columbia talk about global warming. There were other speakers who were pretty compelling on different topics, and breakout sessions. I floated the idea of doing something on public policy on greenhouse gases, and we had a good debate.

In part, ecomagination helped to show the organization that we can do these things. The company has been great in terms of management practice but more reluctant when it comes to what I would call business innovation. Ecomagination was one way to show the organization that it’s OK to stick your neck out and even to make customers a little bit uncomfortable.