Monday, January 28, 2008

Design by committee vs. design by team

Most experienced interface designers have been in the position of working on projects that include representatives from multiple business units. In the worst case scenario, each representative advocates strongly on behalf of his or her own business unit, trying to optimize the design to the business unit's advantage. If the designer doesn't have the explicit support of the project manager and other stakeholders and loses control of the design, the interface design specification can become a sort of battleground for the competing interests of the BU representatives. Design decisions are made on the basis of political power rather than on good design principles; the interface design and the designer both suffer. "Design by committee" is the perjorative term given to the unwieldy output of such exercises.

A few companies ignore the negative connotation of designing in groups and practice design by team. Those who do include designers, engineers, and user researchers on the team. To get this to work right, the participants must be both designers and committed team players who can subordinate their own egos for the good of the team. Two very different, and somewhat rare, skill sets. Teams take time to function together at a very high level, so the successful team would have had to go through a period of getting to know each other's style.

It's an interesting approach, and I'd love to study design teams over time, and find out what works and what doesn't. Teams and design, what could be better.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Buzzword alert: innovation, incubator, value chain

Has anyone noticed that terms like "innovation," "incubator," and "value chain" have achieved buzzword status? I think Scott Adams noticed.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Voice control of consumer products: Sync

Speech recognition is showing up in consumer products. The 2008 Ford Focus includes Sync, which was designed by Microsoft. The product was reviewed very favorably by Cnet. Sync gets two things very right. First, the speech recognition of the car's audio works well even in a car interior, which is usually a pretty noisy environment. Second, it's easy for the user to connect the car's speech rec system with the user's own Bluetooth-enabled phone. Drivers then have voice control over their own phones. As often happens, the acceptance and usage of the product depends on the product's usability, and in this case Ford gets it right with Sync. I haven't used the system, but I'm impressed with Cnet's review.

Why worry about voice activating communication media inside a car? Ford, for its part, seems to be rethinking its view of a vehicle as a thing that you drive from point A to point B. If you think about a car as an extension of your office or your home, then you start to put in features that you have come to expect in your office or home. Of course, in a vehicle you're constrained by the fact that drivers need to hold onto the steering wheel when they drive, so they need another way to control their communication devices.

Microsoft, for its part, has a vision of turning every phone and PC into an always-on virtual conferencing device, part of their Unified Communication vision. This product fits nicely into that vision. It allows drivers to conduct business while in their vehicles, which, if you commute, is an enormous time saver. People in the voice business sometimes refer to vehicles as "BAMDs" (big ass mobile devices). Ford's Sync is a big step in the direction of turning a lot of vehicles into BAMDs.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Voice authentication Christmas toy

My daughter received an interesting gift for Christmas: a personal journal with voice authentication security. This little toy, called Password Journal, allows the child to record a spoken word of his or her choosing, and then access the journal with the same spoken word. If someone besides the registered owner tries to access the journal a chirpy British female voice exclaims "Intruder!" and a siren-like alarm goes off. The journal also recognizes a small number of voice commands, like setting the time of day and turning on/off an alarm.

In fact, the toy is a little hard to use for a child, and even for many adults. To get geeky-technical about it, the failure to enroll, false alarm, and false accept rates are pretty high. There aren't a lot of writing pages inside the journal, the novelty is in the voice activation itself. If you read the reviews by following the link, above, there's a lot of dissatisfaction with the product.

I helped design a voice authentication security system that is in use by a financial institution. I've also conducted research into consumers' acceptance of voice authentication. At the time the research was done (2005), people were still suspicious of VA, uncertain about its usability and effectiveness as a security solution. If people start growing up with toys that include VA, there won't be any novelty to it when they encounter VA in financial and other self service IVRs. Of course, if the toys don't perform properly then people may reject VA based on their previous experience with it. It's an interesting idea, though, that acceptance of VA as a security solution could be affected by peoples' experiences with childrens' toys.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Design anti-patterns: Hostage-taking sign off

Many companies employ "stage gates" in their development process, whereby a project is reviewed by management after major phases and a "go/no-go" decision is made. The project is reviewed in terms of whether it's tracking to its objectives, the soundness of the business case, and other criteria, depending on the phase. The go/no go decision results either in sign off and permission to proceed, or in cancellation. Used properly, stage gates can prevent unnecessary, off-track projects from going forward and costing the company money it can't recover. However, if there are no parameters around the sign off process it can also allow authorizers to engage in some dysfunctional behavior.

For a project team that is heavily invested in the completion of the project, the go/no go review meetings can be a source of stress. Great efforts are made to present the project in a good light during sign off meetings. Who, after all, wants to get to the end of an employee review cycle with nothing but cancelled projects to their credit? Knowing this, authorizers can leverage their position as stage gate attendants to add requirements to the project, insist on additional functionality, and even--my personal favorite--indulge their latent design skills.

"OK. This project is approved to go forward, IF..." where the Big If is some personally preferred enhancement or design change. The project team can argue against the new requirement, saying that it's out of scope or that it adds unnecessary complexity, but a hostage-taking authorizer usally isn't going to be moved by appeals to logic. The project team grumbles, agrees to make the changes, gets the hostage (the application design) released, and the project moves on.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Scott Adams, blogger

I recently discovered Scott Adams' blog. Of course, Adams' comments on corporate culture in his Dilbert comic strip are delightful. His blog lets him range around a little more than the strip allows. Judging from the number of comments he gets to each posting, his blog is quite popular.

Apparently, the Dilbert comic strip really ticks some people off. A casino worker in Fort Madison, Iowa, was fired recently for posting a strip that referred to managers as "drunken lemurs." I would say that by firing the employee the casino management sort of proved the strip's point. No telling how lemurs felt about being compared to human managers.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Creating a "design culture"

Is "design thinking" qualitatively different from the decision making processes of managers in corporations? Perhaps. It's an attractive idea, the notion that design thinking--the way designers solve design problems--can be applied to any number of challenges that corporations face. I've blogged about design schools that are teaching students business skills so that they will have the background to help set strategy and solve business problems.

With the interest in design thinking, I've started to see presentatations by consultants exhorting companies to "create design cultures" and "make innovation part of the firm's DNA." Design and innovation are motherhood and apple pie issues: how could anyone argue against them? If you make design and innovation part of your everyday corporate culture you'll unleash the creative potential of every employee and leave your competition begging for scraps.

Culture change in corporations is a different beast, however. Corporate cultures vary on a number of dimensions. They include team orientation, outcome orientation, and stability: the degree to which the culture maintains the status quo. The dimension that needs to change, of course, is capacity for innovation and risk taking. Where the company currently sits on these dimensions determines how difficult it will be to build a design culture.

There are two things to keep in mind about company culture. One, company culture is determined in large part (though not exclusively) by its leadership. How does the leadership behave? Who do they reward and promote? What behaviors are recognized? That's determines company culture far more than memos from human resources and published mission statements.

Two, changing company culture for the better is difficult. The consultants pushing design culture might forget to raise this issue with clients. Even when the leadership is fully committed to changing the culture it's difficult. All companies show resistance to change, some more than others. Jack Welch changed the company culture of GE with Six Sigma, which shows that it can be done, but it wasn't easy.

Any plan for building a design culture would start with a pretty serious change management plan. Senior leadership would need to know what's it's getting into, and the things they would need to change about themselves. Otherwise, any effort to inject design thinking and innovation into the company culture will just be the fad of the week, and will join the long list of "seemed like a good idea at the time" initiatives that wound up on the scrap heap of indifference.