Thursday, September 20, 2018

Design and Experience

If you seek information about design from professional educators, or read the blogs of the unemployed, you will quickly get the sense that design is about art and experience.  A designer crafts objects that give pleasure to those who use them, either through the aesthetic experience of through ease of use and ideally a combination of both.   

None of this is wrong – but neither does it consider why it is important to deliver a pleasurable experience, or more aptly, the importance of the usage experience in the greater context.   It would seem axiomatic that users would prefer a pleasant experience to an unpleasant one (though there are in fact instances where people actually desire an arduous experience, this situation is atypical), the point of using something is rarely to enjoy the user experience, but to achieve an outcome by means of that experience.   

Where the quality of outcome is diminished to facilitate the pleasure of the user experience, then it undermines the purpose of undertaking the task at all.   In this sense, focusing on experience to the detriment of efficiency and effectiveness leads to ultimate failure: we enjoy the process of performing the task, but fail to achieve the outcome for which the task is undertaken – or at best, we achieve an inferior outcome.   In smaller words, design for experience alone results in an easy way to do a poor job.

There are few instances in which experience is the sole reason for undertaking a task – and these are all leisure activities that are done for the pleasure of doing them, not for the sake of achieving a desired outcome.   That is, they are entertainment activities, that have no value after their performance has ended.  Because there is no outcome, or the outcome is entirely unimportant, the experience is all that matters.  But this encompasses very few activities, and those activities are of very little importance.

Here, consider that value is subjective and that each person may seek a different value from the experience he is performing.  One person may play recreational softball because he enjoys the experience of playing, whereas another may play because he wishes to socialize with his teammates and not care about the game at all, and still a third may be seeking for psychological reasons to win the local league championship.   Whether they are ultimately pleased with a game, or the entire season, depends on whether the value they sought was delivered.

And this is where experience must focus on the user rather than the object: to design a solution that provides value, one must research the users to know what value they seek. For some, it is the value of the experience, but for most it will likely be the value of the outcome.   To claim to “design” without knowing what end is to be achieved is contrary to the basic principles of design itself.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Consumption Value of Esteem

A generic product is usually consumed for its functional value – it is a means to an end, and the consumption experience is evaluated according to the effectiveness of the product in achieving the desired end.   A branded product, however, is usually consumed for a non-functional reason: the consumer seeks the product for its functional value, but any brand of that product would be equally effective in achieving that functional value – so the choice of brand is for reasons other than functionality.

Once such reason, arguably the most significant, is the esteem of the brand.   To consume a brand is a statement, “I am the kind of person who uses this brand,” and in that sense the brand aligns to the perceived personality of the perceived user (perception being significant in both instances, as few consumers conduct much research to determine the actual personality of the actual users of a given brand).

The most common and easily understood aspect of esteem is in social recognition of conspicuous consumption.  A person consumes a given brand because of the expectations that others will witness this consumption and, in so doing, recognize or at least consider the consumer to be in line with the kind of person that consumes that particular brand.   It is part of their declaration of social identity, whether the identity that they are declaring is actual or desired (as people commonly seek to associate themselves with what they wish to be rather than what they actually are).

A less recognized aspect of esteem is self-esteem, the declaration of one’s own standing to oneself – regardless if the act of consumption is witnessed by others.   The individual consumes the brand not so that others will recognize them, but so that they will recognize themselves – to feel that they are the kind of person that consumes a particular brand, even if no-one is there to witness it.   Brands that are privately consumed, in the home for example, still rely upon this form of esteem.

And while it is generally considered that the desire for esteem is always upward bound, this is not always so: a person of integrity may wish to be identified precisely as they are, and at certain times in history (the present included), there is a certain fashion to nostalgie de la boue, which would cause an individual to adopt a brand of a lower stratum of society.   The three are by no means mutually exclusive, and in fact they can often be witnessed in combination.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Failing to Accept Failure

While perseverance and tenacity are generally admirable qualities, they can be taken to far – to the point that they become dysfunctional.   In individuals, we can quickly recognize those who have a pathological need to spin their histories to make even their most dismal failures sound like success stories.   In organizations, we can also witness those who insist on propping up unprofitable products and programs for years in spite of the harm that they are doing to the health of the organization as a whole.   Nobody wants to fail, so there is a lack of knowledge, education, and etiquette for failure – except to deny it and keep fighting a losing battle.

Ironically, working in new product development in a change-averse organization has taught me to anticipate failure.   There is seldom much excitement about the prospect of success, and every review and checkpoint that a new idea must go through seems to be based on the presumption that the product will fail – the sponsor must work hard to develop an ironclad case that addresses every imaginable contingency, and those along the approval gantlet can be very creative in imagining contingencies that would cause the product to fail.   As a result, very few new products have been introduced in decades.

But it’s been remarked that there is no such rigor for existing products.   Shall we continue to offer a product or program that has been losing money for years?   The default answer is “of course.”   The decision has already been made, people have already committed, and we have to work hard to make keep a failing product afloat.  How embarrassing it would be for everyone who signed off on that product, and how detrimental to all those whose profession is to support it, if we were now to admit that it is a failure.

And so, the failing product lines trudge on, their expenses compensated for by successful product lines.  The successful product lines do not evolve, and they cannot be competitively priced because their revenue must compensate the firm for the weight of one or more failing products that the firm refuses to abandon.   There is no periodic checkpoint at which an established product must re-prove its merit in the same way (and certainly not to the same level of rigor) as a new product.  There is no sunset plan to elegantly phase out a failing product or program.

The exception to this seems to be when there is a change in management.  A new leader can be objective about standing products and programs – he had no part in their creation, nor in their perpetuation to date, so he can call something a failure without losing face because it was someone else’s work.  Often, this “someone else” is the previous leader, who is already being demonized in his absence.   Even so, this seems to happen less and less in the present day: new leaders enter an organization without making a splash, and barely a ripple, as they perpetuate the old products and programs without many dramatic changes.

And this reflects back on a cultural intolerance of failure – “success or death” rather than admit to having made a mistake, or admit that times have changed and a once-successful product or program has lost its appeal.  The more it happens, the more difficult it is to see perseverance and tenacity as noble qualities when they lead, inexorably, to catastrophic failure instead of success.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Need for the Hard Sell

In a conference session about marketing, there was rather a long digression on the difference between selling and offering that seemed to be belaboring the difference in the hard-sell and soft-sell approaches, in favor of the latter.   In the presenter’s mind, the days of hard selling are over and it’s time that all industries switch to a soft sales process.    I cannot disagree more.

Soft selling is a tool, a good tool, and the right tool for most jobs – most, but not all.   The soft sell works when there is a motivated and informed customer, who has accurately recognized and diagnosed his problem, correctly identified the solution (product) he needs to achieve his desired goals.   And while customers today are more informed than the information starved masses prior to digital media, there is a significant difference between “having access” to information and actually “accessing” it – and then understanding and applying it.

For the customer who does not recognize that he has a problem, who has not accurately diagnosed it, who does not feel empowered to solve it, or who does not know the correct way to solve it, hard selling is still necessary.   You cannot simply sit back and wait for the customer to come to you, but must convince the customer that he can and should leverage your product to solve a real problem.   You have to go to him, help him recognize the problem, show him the solution, and make him feel empowered and motivated to act.

All of this can be snake-oil in the wrong hands: making people believe they have problems when they really do not, suggesting your product is a solution when it really is not, and stirring people to action that they really don’t need to take.   It depends on the situation.   And the soft-seller is not immune to unethical selling – when he passively allows a deluded person to purchase his product and shrugs off any responsibility for the negative consequences because he played no active role in helping the customer make the appropriate decision. He is the proverbial “good” man who does nothing when action would prevent harm, which is not a very good man at all.

Ethics in salesmanship means matching customer problems to commercial solutions – regardless of the sales tactic – a prerequisite to which is accurately recognizing the level of sales assistance that is needed.   Where customers accurately recognize and diagnose problems and identify and employ solutions, stay out of the way and give them what they ask for.   Where the cannot do all of those things, provide assistance – and whether it is ethical assistance or unethical pressure depends on the customer, the product, and the situation.

It is no more correct to soft-sell in all circumstances than it is to hard-sell in all circumstances – and to suggest otherwise is an act of ignorance and immorality unto itself.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Slow Pace of Technology Today

Something I recently read stuck in my mind: that the pace of technology has slowed considerably in recent years.  The author pointed out that the twenty-year period from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s brought a whirlwind of change, and every couple of years there was some revolutionary new capability: the personal computer, networked computing, the Internet, cellular phones, mobile computing, and so on.   But in the past fifteen years or so, nothing of that magnitude has happened.

While progress has not ceased, its has been limited to making minor efficiency improvements: processor speeds are getting a little faster each year, display resolution a little better, network speed a little faster, components a little smaller, etc.  But no new device has come out that has changed the way that people interact with technology in any significant way, or extend it into any aspect of life in which it didn’t previously exist. That is, technology hasn’t delivered anything truly impressive or impactful in more than a decade now.

It may be that we have reached a point where the core technology – the computer – has been fully extended.  It is as fast, as small, as portable, as connected, etc. as it needs to be for any functional purpose.  Engineers are out of ideas for new ways to apply it – or at least, new ways that are meaningful to the market, or at least valuable enough for the majority of people to see it as a must-have device or capability.

And in daily life, there does seem to be a certain ennui and even distaste for technology – the tendency of people to question the value of technological advances and even seek to moderate their technology consumption, questioning if it is really worth the money, time, and attention to adopt the latest fads, or even continue using previous fads once their novelty has worn off.

I’ve looked for examples to the contrary, and have thus far been unable to find anything that has been as impactful.   The only thing that comes close is wearables – the Apple Watch, Google Glass, and FitBit – but even these technologies failed to have much of an impact.  They certainly haven’t become a must-have technology that makes their predecessor (the smartphone) obsolete, or even extended the capabilities in any meaningful way.

So I’m left without grounds to dispute – the pace of technology really has slowed, the really has been nothing new and revolutionary – and likely the next step, societally, is to find a more sensible integration of technology into life – which means questioning the value that technology affords.   That, at least, seems a refreshing notion.