A Bite of the Apple

If you were hiding under a rock last month then you might have missed the news that Steve Jobs resigned his role as CEO of Apple, although he retains his role as Chairman.

Apple has become an iconic company, their understanding of design as integral to the way we use technology has revolutionised design across the industry. It’s also a company that attracts fans known to be, well, zealous. Which means that it attracts some pretty zealous detractors as well.

So the announcement that he was stepping down has CEO did cause a slight wobble in Apple’s shareprice – it was down at the end of the trading day – and it led to an outpouring across the internet of… admiration. He was lauded across twitter, at one point he and Ghadaffi were the trending topics. There’s a site where you can tweet your thanks to Steve Jobs directly, and of course you can rely on someone to make a joke out of it.

Every tech blog/site is rushed publish their take on the news, with personal reminiscences, or praise for Steve’s leadership, or paraphrasing him to advise others, or advice for Apple as a company. There’s already a video of his life already.

Of course there are a few detractors, but overall it was a love fest. A lot of the adulation is warranted, although part of the outpouring is surely because Steve Jobs is not a well man, one of the articles linked to above even calls itself a eulogy. However ill he is it’s clear that the commentators are here to praise Jobs, not to bury him.

I am typing this on a Mac, there’s an iPod in my bag, and I recently bought and iPad, so clearly I’m a fan but I’m not evangelical about Apple. I do resent the limits Apple builds into its products and in other industries the locked relationship such as between hardware and software would be challenged as an anti-competitive level of vertical integration.

The company is good at what it does, the sales figures, the growing market share, the profits, and the share price and point to a strong business. But what I’ve found disquieting in all this love fest is the number of commentators saying that Apple will never be the same. Not to take anything away from Steve Jobs, but there’s a team of people running Apple with a combined experience with the company of more than 100 years (plus some handy background experience at companies such as Intel).

We like the idea of a great man and a great leader, but surely a company is stronger with a leadership team.

In fact one commentator did point out that Tim Cook has been an effective (acting) CEO during Steve Job’s extended leave of absence and goes on to suggested that one reason behind this decision is to retain Tim Cook, since he would be a desirable hire for any number of companies.

In any case; the company is fundamentally strong, a lot of the expertise that made the company great is still there. And although the sentimental outpourings continue, the share price was up again at close of business the day after the announcement.

Now if only I could get wordpress to work on my iPad.

image apple

“Let the Data set change your Mind Set”

Another fantastic TED talk on data visualisation, and how it might help us understand the enormous amounts of complex information we’re facing.

I love working on visualisation of information, and have had mild success in simplifying problem statements or project goals into single images. I admit I get a kick out of the moment when the data/information “clicks” into place and the diagram becomes clear and simple. I get another click when someone else’s response is along the lines of “ah, now I get it”.

Brainstorming – 7 tips

I was invited to a brainstorming session a couple of weeks ago, I jumped at the chance – I love brainstorming sessions, I tend to come out of them with more ideas for my own work as well as contributing some to the session.

But this one fell flat and I’ve been thinking about what went wrong and what makes a good brainstorming session. Here’s what I’ve come up with;

Timing
Choose a time when participants have some energy to be creative; Friday last thing might not be the time of the week when people are feeling their most energetic or creative – or it might be a good opportunity if you can move them to a different environment and finish the week on a high.
Environment
Go somewhere different, or do something different to make the participants feel they’re outside the office and away from their work. One friend spent 50 euro at IKEA to buy everything needed to create a picnic environment for his brainstorm.
Participants
Choose a mixture of participants; you want a mixture of approaches, ideas, thought processes. Try to have a mixture of introvert and extroverts – but make sure the introverts get a chance to be heard. If the brainstorm is about a creative issue, for example a product name, make sure there are people in the group from the target audience – and make sure their voices are heard.
Purpose
Make sure the purpose of the brainstorming is clearly defined; “re-imagining how we work” or “naming the new product”.
Process
Be very clear on the process – even if not all steps are disclosed to the participants up front. The process should include;

  • set ground rules – everyone’s ideas are valid, no ‘black hat‘ reactions, no blocking, no evaluating of ideas
  • a briefing, outlining the purpose, the context, and how the outcomes of the brainstorm will be used
  • an exercise to switch people’s thinking out of their daily grind mindset, I’ve used masks to reinforce that we needed to look at the question through different eyes
  • an exercise to generate ideas – this should be a no holds barred free for all idea session
  • order ideas – group or order the ideas, for example if the exercise is around naming a product you might group the names into types such as “emotional”, “descriptive” and “new word”
  • discuss – it’s important to discuss how everyone arrived at their ideas, sometimes this will help convince at the next step, or help people think of new direction

Outcomes
I always go into a brainstorming hoping we’ll get the perfect answer, sometimes that doesn’t happen. It’s important that you drive towards the goal but don’t force it; if the right answer doesn’t come out of the brainstorm be positive about what has been offered and reinforce what the next step will be.
Fun
Do something original to make the brainstorm fun. Our meeting rooms have glass walls and after the brainstorm were I used masks I had several people ask if they could join the next session. Dare a little, it will be appreciated.

The best brainstorming session leaves everyone feeling positive about the project, and invested in the outcome – even if it wasn’t “their” idea that was chosen.

What was the best brainstorming you’ve been to?

image Brainstorms at INDEX: Views /Jacob Botter/ CC BY 2.0

Unexpected Beauty

At TedX Amsterdam I came across this unexpected beauty of a presentation, about (more or less) unexpected beauty, and titled From pretty to ugly and back again; mysterious ways of beauty in photography.

He speaks on photography’s relation to art, his own photography and his journey back go photography. Which lead to someone calling him and saying “We hear you are in possession of a camera”. He now writes about photography. His lecture is a delight; thought-provoking and humorous.

Christmas Cards; A Cautionary Tale

My company gave up sending paper Christmas cards years ago, and since then has sent various online versions. You know the sort of thing, it arrives as a link in your email and when you click on it you open a website with spinning Christmas trees, a seasonal message and the company’s name.

Last year one of our interns working in another team set up a website for us to do this in a very simple way. It worked well, and when he left in summer none of us thought about asking about the Christmas card tool.

Roll on November and I ask my new intern to look into making some cards for this year and loading them up onto the site. She makes the cards, they’re all approved. Then we go to uploading them to the site.

What is the password?

I contact the old intern via facebook to ask for the password info, which he emails me with a warning that he’ll be on a long flight to Singapore and won’t be in contact for a while. We upload the new cards.

They work, but you can’t preview them.

No-one knows why. We figure out a work-around (link to an html page of a sent card), but also ask the old intern if he knows what is the problem. He does, and we fix it. We do one last round of testing and send a message to the department.

The next day nothing works.

We’ve tested everything and know it should work. It worked yesterday. We check on the external connection, not through the company network. It doesn’t work there either. So perhaps it’s a problem with the hosting company, no, other parts of their site are working fine. We’re about to email them to ask for help when the new intern in an inspired moment checks the account information.

We haven’t paid the bill.

We didn’t pay the bill because we never got a notification, and we never got a notification because the hosting account is connected to the old intern’s email address, which hasn’t been in use for about 4 months. We pay the bill. Everything works.

But now it’s very late in the Christmas season. And although our problems stem from how it was set up last year we look pretty bad in the eyes of our clients.

Lessons learnt;

Standardisation is a good thing, using our standard content management system would have avoided all of this, although the functionality of the cards may have been limited.

Documentation is a good thing, if the old intern had prepared a one page document on how to manage the Christmas cards tool, including the password information it would have saved us a lot of time – both actual work time and total project time as we were waiting for his response on occasion.

Generic email addresses are a good thing, if the account had been set up using the department’s email address we’d have found out we needed to pay an invoice back in October.

We’ll do better next year!

image Christmas via pixabay

Usability in Action; Banks

Years ago, more than 10 years ago, I withdrew my rent money from an ATM, as my automatic payments hadn’t been set up. I got the receipt but not the money. Obviously I was a bit concerned, but the bank happened to be open so I went in to try to solve this. The teller told me that it was a Good Thing I’d kept the receipt because it helped them track my transaction, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything until they reconciled the machine’s balance at the end of the day.

Well eventually it was resolved and since then I’ve always chosen the “with receipt” option when withdrawing money.

The process of cash withdrawal at ABN Amro

That’s probably more than a thousand receipts. Think of all that paper. And the only reason I’m doing it is just in case the machine doesn’t give me my money. (Never had a problem since but I’m still cautious).

Well ABN Amro’s machines here in the Netherlands have made a very simple change to the process of withdrawing money. They now ask you whether you want a receipt AFTER you’ve taken the money. Now I choose no. No more receipts. I bet others do the same.

It’s one of those blindingly simple changes to a process that helps the customer, saves money and saves the environment.

I think we should all look at design, including process design from the user’s perspective. We should ask ourselves not just what we want the user to do, but what does the user want out of each step. In this example someone at ABN Amro has worked out that a lot of people get the receipts “just in case” the machine gives them the wrong money. So they’ve moved that step to after the cash step.

We need to take time to re-examine a lot of processes, I bet there are more smart ways to improve design of machines, objects, websites and processes.

image ATM

Postcript is…

A brief postscript to my “Design is…” post from a couple of weeks ago.

I used the design ideas from Presentation Zen to give a speech, a speech that needed to use visual aids at Toastmasters.

Toastmasters is a club that focuses on public speaking, and some members of my club are a little allergic to using powerpoint for this project. I was toying with the idea of using fabric samples to illustrate the colour wheel, but when someone in the club said that powerpoint was always awful I decided to rise to the challenge.

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 5.26.15 PMI choose “Fear” as my subject, and gave an 8 slide presentation (the speech is 6 minutes) using images to illustrate the various fears we have and our reactions to them. I got positive feedback on the night.

Even better at the following meeting two people came up and said they’d “copied” the concept of my presentation – that is they’d gone for image heavy presentations rather than text and bullet points. I recommended the book and website of Presentation Zen – I really can’t take any credit for the concept but I’m so happy that that others are picking up on it.

Image Claustrophobia I /Laura Lewis/ CC BY 2.0

Design for Development


IDEO, the award-winning design consultancy with success across multiple industries has created a design process kit free for download.

They’ve called it a Human Centered Design Toolkit and it’s aimed at NGO’s and social enterprise, and it’s developed with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

They’re arguably the world’s experts in this having worked on design projects in energy, health, education and more recently developed the wonderfully simple kickstart pump which has helped farmers irrigate their land and earn around $37M per year.

The toolkit consists of five guides; introduction, hear, field, create, deliver. Because there can be language barriers making the field research phase the kit includes some visual aspirational cards to ease the discussion. The cards feature images of everything from farming to cities, from money to cowpats; some are shown at left.

The design kit is brilliantly simple, each guide is well set out, with tips on running brainstorm sessions, collecting the ideas and developing them into practical solutions. It helps field workers find solutions that will fit the local situation and economy in developing countries.

But the lessons and process can be applied more widely, and the guides themselves offer inspiration.

Usability in Action; Streets

We respond very well to visual clues on how something should be used, in fact we probably respond more to visual clues than to any other sort of clue

visual_signal

I was reminded of that this week when crossing the road – the one shown in the picture. It’s a little difficult to tell, but it’s a crossing and then a traffic island. On the other side of the traffic island – beyond the bicycles – are tram tracks. You can see it on the google satellite map.

Until recently that traffic island used to be a forest of bicycles and you really had to weave your way through them. It annoyed me, I really wanted to just kick the bicycles out of the way and under a passing tram (for the record I did not do this).

When I went through the city on Thursday I noticed that someone has painted a large white rectangle across the island with an ‘X’ in the centre of it. Marking it a no parking zone, and that’s all it took for cyclists to park their bikes in a way that leaves space for pedestrians.

There’s no sign saying that people may not park there, there’s no indication that the painting on the ground was even done officially, it could have been done by a similarly frustrated pedestrian in the wee hours for all I know.

But I’m fascinated that one visual clue is enough to trigger the mass of cyclists to change their behaviour.

Design 101; the User’s Perspective

In designing websites, buildings, business cards, kitchens, hospitals and pretty much everything else the user/visitor should be central in the decision making. In our current project to relaunch our corporate site we’ve named the visitor, and decision deadlocks are often broken by asking “What would Iris think?”

Paul Bennett from IDEO takes it further step, and discusses designers really going through the visitor experience.

He covers four broad themes in his talk.

1 A Binding Glimpse of the Bleeding Obvious

Sometimes the right idea is so staring you in the face that you miss it. In the case he gives showing hospital staff footage of the ceiling (as seen by a patient) gave the staff a better understanding of the patient’s experience than any amount of data or any fancy graphical representation would have done.

In our case seeing an analysis of the search terms actually used on our site told us that people visiting were looking for content that’s just not there, and (due to legal and organisational reasons) won’t ever be there. (We’ll solve this with an enterprise search engine, which can search across all company websites. We’re working on it, Shell’s already done it.)

2 Finding Yourself in The Margins

Notice the small things at the edge of the experience, these details make a difference. Look at how people subconsciously design their own experience.

This sort of thinking meant that his team noticed that nurses will often comfort a patient by holding their hand as they go through a diagnosis step – so a two-handed diagnosis-palm-pilot was not going to be a solution. They designed a less sexy device that can be used in one hand.

For us a random email set of a small but cool change. There is a glossary on our site, that covers technical financial terms, it’s good, but it’s probably not enough to help the consumer. A rewrite was already planned. And then I got an email, from someone who missed a term, suggested we add it. So our “Word of the Day” will include the possibility of suggesting a term,  suggesting a definition, and adding your email address so we can tell you when it’s added. It’s a tiny thing, and we’re not expecting a huge response, but it’s something on the margins that invites visitors to engage.

3 Having a Beginner’s Mind

Getting to new design solutions requires that you consciously start as if you know nothing; you need to unlearn.

His example is a project with IKEA, for children’s storage. It’s a cool solution from a kid’s perspective but probably not a solution from a parent’s perspective – and it’s not in the IKEA catalogue as far as I can tell.

Having a new person in our team has helped provide that fresh outside perspective.

4 Pick Battles Big Enough to Matter and Small Enough to Win

His example of this was a lightweight portable water pump, not very designer-y, but incredibly practical for the African communities it was designed for, and went on to get on to win design awards.

image design