ALA Article on Service Design Beyond the Screen

As usual I’m behind the curve, but this time I’m behind myself, which is weird. I don’t think I’ll psychoanalyse that too much more. I am really pleased that my article Designing for Services Beyond the Screen was published this week on A List Apart. I’ve been away and blissfully offline all week, so I missed all the Twitter flurry about it, but I’m glad it resonated with the audience it was aimed at, which isn’t particularly service designers, but those working on Web and other digital projects.

I’m really, really pleased that I got a great illustration of connecting silos from Kevin Cornell. I interviewed Kevin for my column at Desktop Magazine a few years back and I love his work. While writing for ALA is enough of a drawcard in itself, I have to admit that getting an illustration from Kevin was secretly the real sweetener. Anyway, he owed me one, right?

Lastly, I say my article, but I owe a great debt to the most excellent editing by Sara Wachter-Boettcher and my book co-authors, Ben and Lavrans. Following up on my previous post about storytelling for designers and storytelling being an iterative design process, the ALA piece was a good example of that in action.

Sara and I used the private beta of Editorially to work on the piece together and it went through several revisions, including cutting out all the material and title that I originally planned for the article. I’ll not go too much into what got cut out, because maybe it will become another article, but I think it’s worth sharing that sometimes this happens. The writing often just goes in its own direction and, like working with the grain of a piece of wood, if you fight it, it will end up a mess. Sara’s strong editing really kept me facing in the right direction and sanded it into a decent piece.

Storytelling for Designers

As a design educator I watch and read a lot of project presentations. I worked out the other day that I must have seen at least 2,000-3,000 student projects in my time. A key thing I have learned is that the telling of the project’s story, whether as a pitch, presentation or documentation, is as important as the project idea itself.

Coaching my students on the story of their presentations has become one of the key parts of my teaching. In our book on service design, we write about developing the service proposition and experience prototyping. As a set of testing criteria, we have a (mostly) hierarchical checklist of questions to keep in mind, the first and most important of which are:

  • Do people understand what the new service is or does?
  • Do people see the value of it in their life?
  • Do people understand how to use it?

This checklist works for almost any situation and project that you are trying to communicate to someone, be it a service, product, artwork, screenplay, policy, business proposal, relationship proposal and more. As someone who loves the idea of developing unified theories of everything, lists of principles like this appeal to me. Just replace the word service for whatever you are proposing. The underlying questions are:

  • What is this?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • How do they interact with it?

If you fail at an earlier step, it is very hard to be convincing at a later step. If people don’t understand what the product or service is, then it is impossible to convince people of its value and they are not even going to begin to bother to understand how to use it.

To take it back to relationships (and services are relationships), it’s like trying to convince someone to marry you without them even knowing what you look or sound like. It does happen, but shows like Blind Date are hilarious and cringeworthy because it usually does not. The Bachelor works by drawing these three principles out over a whole season:

  • Who is this girl?
  • What makes her special?
  • How does she act/do the couple interact in certain situations?

Most stories work the same way:

  • Who is the character, what is the setting?
  • What is of value and what is at stake and how does that create the dramatic conflict?
  • How does the character act in this situation?

Social networks mostly follows these principles too, but sometimes the value and how questions are switched, as anyone who has had to answer the “What is Twitter?” question will know.

Sometimes you have to start using something in order to discover its value. This can be a risky strategy. Some people won’t even bother to start interacting at all, because they do not understand what it is all about. I think the reason why this works with Twitter is because the learning curve of how to use it is so tiny: express something in 140 characters. The why of Twitter takes a little longer to discover.

Facebook is the opposite. The why is clear (at least it is if you are a teenager), but nobody knows how to manage their privacy and half a dozen other settings. Good luck with trying to find out how to permanently, properly delete your account too.

Storytelling is a design process

One of the reasons I coach my students about their project stories before their big presentations is because storytelling is an iterative design process that needs practice and it can easily go off the rails. We think we know our work so well and can just talk about it.

There is often the temptation to dive straight into the how it works part without any setting up of the context. This leaves the audience, including an external assessment jury, confused as to what they are looking at and why they should care. Sometimes, in earlier versions, the story of the project is pitched back-to-front or with sudden shifts in the narrative flow, leaving the audience to invent their own backstory. When the backstory is no longer controlled by the presenter, it allows room for misinterpretations and misunderstandings. That can be a recipe for disaster or, at least, bad grades.

Stories of stories of stories of stories

There is an interesting, fractal process of storytelling and re-telling that happens during design projects too. Insights researchers go out and gather stories from stakeholders. Then they come back and tell those stories to the project team.

The design team work on their concepts, telling each other stories about their ideas and previous experiences. They then present their ideas as stories to the larger project team and these concepts are finally pitched to the client as scenario stories. The client pitches these stories internally along with their own additions and interpretations of the design team.

Once the product or service is brought to market (with many stages of storytelling in-between), a brand will tell the story of the company, product or service to potential customers through advertising and marketing.

Finally, the customers use the product or service and tell others stories of their experiences with it, because markets and brands are conversations. Now we have come full circle, because it is those conversations that insights researchers tap into in the first place.

What’s your story?

There is an adage in screenwriting that you should try and write the best movie you possibly can, because it will eventually be watered down into just an okay movie by the time so many people (read: stars and executive producers) have had their input. I think the same is true with design projects — it is crucial to get the story clear in your own head as a designer, or as a team, before it goes out into the world and mutates into something unrecognisable.

The very act of defining and refining that story — in screenwriting these are reduced down to log lines — is an act of design and helps the designer be clearer about what they want to achieve. By having a clear story, designers can also be more aware of when things are going off track. Log lines are not as easy to write as it looks when you read them. This example is the log line for the film Looper taken from The Blacklist:

“In the present day, a group of hitmen are sent their victims from the future.”

Boom. The whole film encapsulated in one line. You can be sure the writer started with a longer line than that or even several sentences before whittling it down. One you have this, you know what your project is about and it remains a guiding light. If you find yourself having to explain more details to just get the idea across, something has gone awry.

Stories are the foundation if culture and society and what make us human. Without then we would, like dogs, be sniffing each other’s bottoms to find out about what our friends and colleagues have been up to. I’m thankful that we have language. Make use of it.

Draft. Write Better.

Draft is a way for writers to collaborate online writing in Markdown with version control. It’s very straightforward so far, which is probably a good way to roll. Export doesn’t seem to be working for me at the moment, but the plan appears to be to export to Dropbox et al and keep things in sync. That would be nice. It’s great to see these kinds of simple text-editor collaborative services starting to spring up outside of the Word/Google Doc ecosystem. It’ll be interesting to see how Draft compares to Editorially, which I am hugely looking forward to.

[Update: A few of these kinds of editors are appearing, including Dillinger.io and Markable.in]

The Virtues of Imperfection

I have enjoyed all of Jonathan Franzen’s books, in particular The Corrections, his novel about the complexities of family relationships, careers and, for one character, writing. The irony that 80,000 copies of his new book, Freedom will have to be recalled and/or pulped because someone used the wrong file can not be lost on him. Aside from Charlie Brooker’s amusing take on the sloppy way we all handle our digital filing, Stephanie Merritt’s piece highlights our fascination with imperfection:

It remains to be seen whether readers will want to exchange their “flawed” copies, though. As soon as Franzen spoke about the error at a public reading, there was a run on the venue’s bookshop with people desperate to get their hands on what might become a collectors’ item. People love the idea of imperfection and, for many readers, there’s a curious pleasure in the thought of seeing behind the scenes. A glimpse of the work in progress can give a sense of the writer’s process that might be almost more interesting to a fan than the final draft, especially if you’re obsessive enough to compare and contrast.

We love blooper reels because they show those people as human (and are funny) and behind the scenes looks on our DVDs. Despite the enormous amounts of money spent on creating these highly polished entertainment forms, we still want to see the man behind the curtain. We’re more fascinated by how things are made than the things themselves. In the end, we’re curious creatures and a good dose of randomness in an interactive work, like Brendan Dawes’s excellent Accidental News Explorer sets the field for serendipity that, as Liz Danzico argues, is often takes effort to design. Writing is such a private act, it’s rare to see behind the scenes – perhaps more writers should make use of a blooper appendix.

Core77 Columnista

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I’m very pleased to have been asked to be a columnist for the Core77 blog. It’s been in the works for a few weeks, but my recent trip to Ethiopia and our new daughter delayed my ability to get down to some writing.

I’ve long been a fan of “industrial design supersite” Core77 (now re-taglined with “design magazine & resource). They have consistently grown Core77 into a rich location for design articles and insights as well as providing great resources such as the Coroflot portfolio and job board and the Core77 Design Directory. They’ve managed some great scoops, such as their rare interview with Jonathan Ive on the design of the iPhone 4.

I have contributed to the Core77 broadcasts in the past (Nik Roope, Hector Serrano, Troika,Jason Bruges, and Matt Clark from UVA) as well as a few other articles, such as 19 Books Every Professional Should Own, A peek inside the Revo Heritage and Talk to the hand: Dan Saffer and gestural interfaces. So it’s nice to become a more regular contributor in the form of a columnist (a Columnista sounds more glamourous, don’t you think?).

With other columnists including Bill Moggridge and Liz Danzico, I feel I’m in far better company than I deserve.

My opening piece argues for access, not ownership of products as not only a more sustainable approach to production and consumerism, but also for a better customer experience.

Mentoring Creative Minds

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The current issue of COFA’s Incubate magazine has a piece by me in it called Mentoring Creative Minds, which is a reflection on 15 years of teaching (that I have been teaching that long came as a bit of a shock). They also used a scarily large version of my head logo (I can see some bezier points that need work there).

You can download a PDF copy of the magazine here (14.4 MB) to read the whole thing (my piece is on page 33), but here is an excerpt I wanted to share:

Unfortunately, the Vice-Chancellor does not whisper the secret to success in your ear while handing over your testamur. Fortunately, I can deliver it to you here: there is no secret.

Getting students to trust in this, and the knowledge that some projects succeed, others fail and that there is always another one around the corner, is really what teaching is all about. I’m sure there are academics who thrive on being the source of brilliant knowledge. For me, nothing beats the moment when the smart, creative student sitting opposite me realises their own brilliance and doesn’t need me anymore.

I’m sure my current students will be only too willing to remind me of this, but it’s true.

Writing is Design

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“Verbalizing design is another act of design. I realised this while writing this book,” writes Kenya Hara in the preface to his book, Designing Design. But writing itself is an act of design, whatever the subject.

Over the years I have done quite a bit of writing and recently my PhD is the largest block of words I have ever tackled. I have learned more about design and the creative process through writing than I have through designing.

The Guardian has a piece today titled Writing for a living: a joy or a chore? in which nine authors give their views on writing. There is the usual mix of tortured writers and those that love it and go into a “special place” in their heads, but it’s a good insight into the process because they are all pretty honest. My own feelings about writing are probably closest to Ronan Bennett’s.

I enjoy writing. I like it because it is a slower process than designing on the computer. It takes longer to make something polished because you need to write, edit and re-write several times.

One of the problems with working in applications like Photoshop or Illustrator is that it is easy to produce something glossy, but empty, very quickly. The finished-looking nature of the roughs can be a real handicap to generating new ideas or developing further iterations of an initial one. For this the sketchbook is king.

Tomato’s John Warwacker once said to me that he used to like the days when computers were slow because you could think about what you were doing whilst the progress bar was chugging along. Nowadays, we multitask. A quick Twitter or e-mail whilst Adobe applications crash around and update themselves in the background.

Thinking time is important and the slow, sometimes tortuous, pace of writing is perfect for thinking whilst creating.

Word processors make it easy enough to endlessly tweak, but I prefer keeping things simple with Mellel or Writeroom. Following John Cleese’s advice, writing is one of the few times when I happily ignore everyone. Even Twitter. No, really.

Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones is “allow yourself to write junk”. If you don’t, you never get to the good stuff and it is the imperfection of the written first draft that has taught me the most about design. I am happy to write a rubbish opening few paragraphs because I know that I will eventually find what it is I want to say by the time I reach the end. Then I can go in and re-write it.

Teaching students has taught me the value of the rough draft too, for students often hold their first idea as sacrosanct. They want to immediately make it, polish it, without realising the first idea is just a stepping stone to the next one and knowing where to stop is the real trick.

I find that much harder with visual design (and I’m not really a graphic designer, but an interaction and experience designer, so I cheat with graphic design). The tools are too distracting, there are too many possibilities and glossy options. I think it is why I prefer working out the concepts and wireframes – the bare bones are almost completely about the experience not the gloss. I’m thinking of downgrading to the earliest version of Adobe apps that will run on my machine. Perhaps I’ll even install Sheepshaver and run Photoshop 1.0 (which I remember using) and PageMaker 1.0.

If you are a designer I can recommend writing as a way to hone your creative process. You can even write about other designers’ writing if you want.

I suspect other people who are sporty have similar stories. Yoga has taught me a lot about slow, steady practice too, as has playing music.

What has been your greatest creative influence outside of your design life?

[Random shout out: Someone called Leigh got in touch with me from my contact page about my PhD. There was a bug in the form that meant I didn’t get the e-mail address. Leigh, can you mail me again – the form is fixed now or you can just use andy at this domain.]