Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Influence for Interaction Design

Traditional design education focuses almost exclusively on matters of aesthetics – the way that things look and behave, generally following current (or somewhat outdated) fashions in digital deign.   What seems to be entirely neglected is the far more important topic of influence.

That is not to say that aesthetics are to be altogether disregarded: it has been shown that users are more likely to show initial interest in interacting with an attractive interface than an unattractive one – but this tends to be superficial: if interacting with the attractive object renders no benefit, or turns out to be more difficult than expected, it is quickly abandoned.  And this is the reason many websites and mobile applications fail to achieve their business goals.

In its most basic sense, influence is about guiding human behavior toward the achievement of a desirable outcome.  And in the commercial world, this desirable outcome must be mutually beneficial – the firm seeks to gain a financial benefit, and to do so it must deliver a practical benefit to the user.   Influence is a matter of convincing the customer they will receive that benefit, reminding them as they progress of the benefit they will receive, and demonstrating to them afterward that the promised benefit was indeed delivered.

It seems rather simple, but in reality is quite difficult – and even more so when designers focus on the attractiveness of an interface and ignore its purpose, or understand its purpose only in a superficial way.   To succeed at influence, designers must have deeper knowledge of purpose and intent.   To be more specific: 
  • The designer must know what the customer wishes to achieve
  • The designer must assess how much time, effort, and money the customer is willing to expend
  • The designer must convince the customer that their solution will deliver the desired outcome for an acceptable cost (or change their perception of what is acceptable)
  • The designer must convince the customer that their solution is in some way superior (better benefit, less cost, less risk) than alternate methods
  • To maintain engagement, the designer must keep the customer mindful of the connection between action and result and maintain a positive cost/benefit proposition
  • To gain re-engagement, the designer must ensure the customer appreciates the results and is satisfied that they were worth the costs.

All of this is quite difficult, given that each customer’s perception of need, cost, and risk is idiosyncratic.   And this is the reason it is so difficult to be influential, and likely the reason that influence is disregarded in favor of aesthetics, which are much easier to assess and achieve.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Demotivating Creative Workers

“Motivation” is often spoken of as if it is something that one person can do for another – to inject other people with a will to succeed and excel.   It is this sense that the football fan, shouting at the television from his living room chair, feels that he has contributed to the game – that his favorite team would have lost the game, or sat sleepily on the bench, if it weren’t for all his cheering.   In a similar manner, a boss who feels he has “motivated” his people by barking orders at them, telling them to do what they already know how to do, and nagging them to do it better and faster without providing any means of practical support erroneously feels that he has practiced leadership and caused his employees to perform better.

Browbeating people can “motivate” them to do something they are not interested in doing, but only to the degree that is necessary for them to escape nagging.   People who are truly motivated to excel do not need a cheerleader or slave-driver, and in fact such people often distract them from their goal and detract from their performance.    You can direct a person’s enthusiasm to a specific course of action (only if they had none in mind), you can clear barriers to their success, and you can provide them with the resources they need to succeed – but you cannot make them want to succeed if they are not already motivated from within.

Ironically, most methods for motivating people tend to demotivate them instead: telling them to do things that they already know that they need to do, giving vague encouragement (or threats) to do things “better” or “faster” without specific guidance or additional resources, and otherwise interfering with and distracting from their ability to do the good work they might have done if they were left alone to do it.

Consider that the things that people do in their leisure time is not so different from the things that people do for a living – the difference between a gardener and a farmer, between a woodworking enthusiast and a carpenter, between a home cook and a restaurant chef, between an amateur golfer and a professional athlete is negligible.   

Some highly motivated employees have chosen a profession that matches their interests, but more often the motivated employee has taken an interest in what they happen to do for a paycheck.   There are many people who are quite happy working as janitors, a job that is often regarded as low-paying, tedious, and unpleasant – but a janitor who takes interest in the work, who finds  mopping a floor an engaging challenge and believes he has served others by doing the work, can happily carry on for years.

Creative people are drawn to professions because they love the activity, but lose their passion because of the lack of autonomy: they cannot create at their leisure, and cannot create work that is “good” by their own standards.  Instead, they must work to deadlines and satisfy specifications, and are often beset by meddlers who have less knowledge or expertise – yet who still feel that it is their role to tell the creative worker how to do his job. 

This is where a domineering manager or a toxic work environment can drain the enthusiasm of creative workers.   Many people bounce out of “creative” jobs quickly.   Others persevere for a number of years but are worn down and burned out over time – they attempt to contribute but are unable to do so, they hold out hope that the next project will be better, and over time they realize that they will never be able to contribute in a meaningful way and resign themselves to becoming hacks.   And by so doing, the overbearing manager can drive performance metrics (which have more to do with quantity than quality) while undermining the morale of his employees and the quality of the work of his department.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Managing for Reputation

Not only does a firm need to put out a good product to be successful in the long run, it must also:
  • Be efficient in its operations
  • Attract and retain quality employees by providing adequate compensation and a good work environment
  • Serve its clients well in all regards
  • Invest in long-term initiatives
  • Foster stable relations with reliable suppliers
  • Consider its impact in a broader societal context 

A good manager or regulator must integrate these objectives, and prioritize where contradictions and conflicts arise.   Ultimately, the firm that is able to set long-term goals and achieve them will enjoy stability and financial success.

Pursuing the same things will also transform the firm into a more respected institution.  A corporate brand is not respected in and of itself, but follows the respect people have for the organization on account of its behavior.   Largely, this is dependent on the quality of the firm’s product, but it also derives from the experiences that people have interacting with the firm outside their role as a consumer.

This can readily be witnessed in proactive: observe that the most respected firms are those whose chief concern is not generating short-term returns for shareholders, but long-term benefit to customers, employers, investors, and the public.  Financial success is the result, not the objective, of good governance and management.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Personalization to Mass Production to Customization

On its most fundamental level, design is about fashioning something (vehicle) to deliver a benefit to a person (beneficiary).   The more specific the benefit and person, the better a designer is able to tailor the vehicle to serve the beneficiary.   Where the designer does not know much about his beneficiary or the benefit that is being sought, he can at best design a general-purpose vehicle that delivers a weak benefit to a broad audience, and at worst he will design a useless vehicle that delivers no benefit to anyone.  And this is the problem of customization.

Before the advent of mass-production, personalization was the natural way of things.   Each maker designed each object for a specific use by a specific person.   Mass-production required compromise: to be efficient, a machine must make perfectly identical products regardless of the specific needs of the people who will buy them.   And this was a compromise people were willing to accept for the sake of having goods available and affordable.

The next phase in evolution was a step backward toward personalization, but not quite achieving it perfectly: the notion of customization meant some combination of mass-production and personalization, generally favoring the former: mass-produced objects had the same basic qualities, but certain of these qualities could be altered to suit the needs or tastes of the individual customer.  But the customizable features were defined by the maker, and the customization options were held to a very narrow range.   This represents a better compromise, but is still a compromise.

And this compromise describes the present state of design, as it has for the past hundred years or so.   The degree of customization varies by product and maker, but is still constrained to specific features and specific variations that the maker selects.   Consumer satisfaction with this compromise seems to wax and wane: there is always the demand for products to be better suited to the needs of the customer, but an unwillingness to compromise on the price and immediacy of possession.

So in the present time, the majority of personalized products are only affordable to the wealthy, and the demand for personalization by the less affluent is both inconstant and inconsistent.  There is some interest, but not the willingness to pay to achieve it.   Makers attempt to better understand these demands, and are in some instances willing to serve them if there is sufficient interest that is supported by a willingness to pay and to wait.

For the most part, we remain stuck in the era of customization, flirting with the notion of personalization in a superficial way.