Sunday, May 25, 2008

Remarks on The Art of Innovation

Tom Kelley's The Art of Innovation was published in 2001, and I'll bet anyone with a serious interest in design and innovation has read it, so this recommendation won't count for a lot, but I really loved this book. Instead of a cookbook on how to "do innovation," it deals with organizational culture, and what it takes to create and sustain an innovative company. Kelley is general manager of the design shop IDEO, headquartered in Palo Alto.

Every chapter is a delight. If you work (or have worked) for a company that is stumbling down the path to innovation you'll immediately connect with Kelley's stories and observations on company culture. Look at these organizational "Barriers" to innovation in Ch. 9, "Barrier Jumping:"

  • "Hierarchy-Based. Innovation and structure are like oil and water. Forcing ideas to start at the top or rigidly follow a vertical path through an organization tends to weigh down new projects...
  • Anonymous. There are companies where nobody seems to notice or care. Places where you can cruise slowly up a predictable career path...
  • Experts. Expertise is great until it begins to shut you off from new learning. Many self-described more than they listen. Experts can inadvertently block innovation by saying, "It's never been done that way.""

I worked at a large company where some managers were interested in "innovation," and designated a few individuals as innovation experts, with predictable results. Had these managers read Kelley's they might have understood that successful innovation depends on breaking down organizational barriers and changing their own behavior. Or not, since the people who benefit the most from hierarchy and structure are usually the last ones to acknowledge its existence.

The part of the book that was a complete surprise to me was the chapter on the effects of space on innovation. Kelley's company IDEO has spent a good deal of effort designing their own workspace in order to encourage their own design activities. I recognized Kelley's descriptions of workspaces that stifle innovation, but had never considered how powerful the workspace is on the functioning of individuals and groups. I had to read the chapter more than once to understand the lessons. I visited IDEO's offices in Palo Alto two years ago and was really impressed with the layout. I realize now how much deliberate activity went into the design of the place.

I've blogged on another of Kelley's excellent books, The Ten Faces of Innovation. It's a great read, too.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Smoking and other group behaviors

Here's a link to an article in the NYT about some fantastic research on smoking cessation. These researchers tracked smokers for 32 years and made an interesting discovery. People who quit tended to do so groups. That is, when they and their friends tended to quit together. By extension, it's reasonable to assume that smokers' family and friends who also smoke make it harder for a smoker to quit. This is great research, for many reasons.

My background is in information processing psychology. I learned that problem solving was an individual affair. The research I studied included detailed models of memory for words, concept learning, problem solving, and decision making. The models were usually based on highly controlled laboratory experiments. A lot of the interventions for things like smoking are technologies directed at the individual: wearable patches, medication, spiked gum, etc.

But human behavior is social. It's all about families and friends. The smoking cessation research shows that very clearly. The interventions we need should account for both individual and group problem solving and behavior. Need more proof? How about the connection between family behavior and individual obesity? A lot of our successes and failures occur because of group dynamics - and that's where we need to look for solutions.

I know that a lot has changed since I was in school, and a lot has been done recently with modeling group behavior and problem solving. But we still look to technology for all of our fixes, when what we need to understand first is group behavior. Family and group interventions really call for a design approach to a workable solution - designers who can understand and design group problem solving behavior. If we get that right, the technology is the easy part.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Design anti-patterns: Extraordinary rendition

Some years ago I was asked to review and suggest improvements to a touchtone call routing IVR for a financial institution. One of the submenus had seven options, and it wasn't clear to me how callers would be able to select the correct product option. One of the business analysts told me, "Don't worry about redesigning that part. All of those calls go to the same unit. The options are just for reporting purposes." The management was just using the menu to gather statistics on what customers were calling about. Since that time I've seen a number of applications that require callers to select a number of options for the sole purpose of generating automated reports on usage.

Instrumenting your applications is usually a pretty good idea. It allows you to identify and fine tune hotspots and learn all sorts of things about how the application is being used. Requiring customers to wade through several menus of inscrutable options before they reach a representative causes several problems, however. One, it generates bad data, because callers can't be counted on to successfully navigate a poorly designed application. Or even a well designed one, for that matter. There are better ways to collect the data businesses are looking for. Two, it annoys the hell out of people to answer a bunch of questions before being allowed to talk to someone and receive service.

If fact, if the IVR is too disagreeable then people will simply answer prompts randomly or press zero (if it's available). It's like torture: if the experience is painful enough people will say anything in order to make the pain stop. Businesses shouldn't torture their customers (or allow its IVRs to torture customers by proxy). And they shouldn't build multi-layered IVRs full of inscrutable prompts in the misguided idea that reports are more important than happy customers.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A simple request: CSS for TTS

Text-to-speech produces output that has relatively flat affect, that is, it's mostly free of emotion. TTS engines account somewhat for end of sentences by changing the inflection and pause of the last word before a period or question mark. There are slight pauses for other punctuation in a sentence, but for the most part TTS doesn't do much to interpret sentences.

I'd love to be able to separate text from the presentation of the text, in the same way cascading style sheets allow web designers to separate written text from the presentation of the text. I'd like CSS for TTS. I'd like to be able to control the speed, pitch, intensity and stress of TTS text by tagging the text, and then writing style sheets that recognize the tags and control the TTS output accordingly. It would be a big step towards being able to define the persona of an agent implemented fully in TTS.

This should be perfectly feasible. I'm surprised it hasn't been done. If anyone with a technical background wants to work on this and needs some direction drop me a line.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Design anti-patterns: What's one more option?

You have just finished a solid draft of an IVR call routing application, and you're pretty happy with. The menus follow conventional wisdom for numbers and types of options, and the design has done well in early usability testing. You're looking forward to sign-off on the design, and one of the business analysts pipes up, "Hey, we need to add one more option to the main menu. What's one more option?"

"What's one more of anything," like records in a database or fields on a form, usually isn't a big deal. Computers are supposed to be able to iterate any number of things with a minimum of additional effort, so the same principle should apply to IVR menu options. That's the logic, anyway. Unfortunately, the same logic applied to IVR menus is a disaster, because it's the callers who have trouble sorting through and remembering and verbally reproducing multiple menu options.

The logic of "What's one more option" is very seductive, and can lead to main menus with ten or more options. Big main menus (or "Maim menus," for what they do to callers) just scream "I don't know what I'm doing! Hit the zero key now!"

IVR menus structures are still actively researched. For an excellent recent study on IVR menu options, see "A comparison of broad versus deep auditory menu structures," Commarford et al., (2008), Human Factors, Vol. 50, pp. 77-89.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An MBA version of "Scared Straight"

In March, I blogged about having heard Walt Pavlo talk about embezzling $6 million from his employer MCI. I compared his presentation to an MBA version of the "Scared Straight" program for youthful offenders.

Last week BusinessWeek carried an article about Pavlo's talks in MBA classes. The story was entitled "Using ex-cons to scare MBAs straight." Coincidence? Maybe.