Via "A Word to the Wives" (1955)
Yep, that's right. I'm tweaking a little bit Louis Sullivan famous quote, "Form ever follows function," here.
In 1896, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase 'form ever follows function' to capture his belief that a building's size, massing, spatial grammar and other characteristics should be driven solely by the function of the building. The implication is that if the functional aspects are satisfied, architectural beauty would naturally and necessarily follow.
This approach trickled down to various design disciplines over the course of the 20th Century, but designers realized—through overly functional design attempts—that function should definitely be considered as a key part of the design strategy but never its sole driver. The Post-war kitchen design is a great example of how functionalism can get in the way of human behavior.
During the years following the war, womens' role in society changed drastically. During the conflict, women were regarded as an important element of the workforce and became an essential part of the warfare apparatus. After the war it has become obvious that this marked a major social shift. In order to accommodate the new family dynamics, the kitchen needed to be redesigned. Lots of ethnographic studies were conducted and a full range of proposals to optimize activities and movement in the kitchen were conceived. This seemed like a great idea—and it still does, if you think about it for a minute. If you had the power to minimize the effort and time women spent in the kitchen by nearly 80%, why wouldn't you, right?
Well, problem is, this is not as black and white as it seems. Kitchens, like most things in life, comes in grayer layers of behavioral complexity. I mean, if you look at it solely via the lens of reductionism then the full-throttle / all-in, optimization approach may appear like the perfect idea... except that reductionism kills behavior.
Reductionism is an old scientific philosophy, which can be traced, between others, to René Descartes. It states that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that it can be completely mapped and understood, in its whole, via the individual study of each part. It is the diametric opposite of what we designers call "gestalt." Gestalt means "the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts." Reductionism is, therefore, the extreme opposite to design itself. Design in its "bauhausian" mother language, German, spells gestaltung.
The problem with reductionism—the "black and white" approach—is that, when dealing with complex, wicked problems, the sum of the parts never explains the behaviour of the whole. And, trust me, in a service economy, everything is a bit wicked.
For instance, take the consumer journey. A consumer journey, in a service experience, is never the result of the sum of all the processes to be touched by the user. People reframe it and give it their own meanings according to their belief systems, expectations and emotional state. This takes place independently of how those processes or transactions were scripted and sequenced to be executed by the provider.
A Collision of Intentions, Thoughts and Avatars: that's my current definition of a service.
The idea that an organization can package and delivery a service (or value) is industrial, scientific, old-fashioned and does not come close to explain the dynamics that take place in the real world. That is one of the fundamental points I discuss in my new book, The Service Startup, on which I will elaborate in this post.
But, first, hi again!
I've been gone for a while to work on my new book, but now I'm back and intend to keep my posts here flowing.
It has been exciting times here at Livework with wicked projects and our team winning the Design Team of the Year award at the Design Week Awards 2014. Personally, I also served as the Jury Captain of the Service Design category of the Core77 Design Awards. We went through exciting entries and will be announcing the honorees soon.
Back to my point. The truth is, there are no services—only journeys. And a journey is not the same as the sum of all the processes the user interacts with. A journey is a story that lives inside the users' minds. As such it cannot be "delivered," it can only be influenced and co-created.
Take a moment to think about the last service interaction you had. Ok, I'm pretty sure that what came to your mind was a story, not a series of technical process specifications or track numbers. Which puts service designers in the position of memory weavers.
A memory is an event, a residual piece of information that is stamped in the mind with the help of emotions. The greater the emotion associated with the event, the more likely the memory will endure the test of time.
To design a service is to design a journey and this ultimately means the design of moments in people's lives. We have the need to connect emotionally with everything we encounter in life. This is imperative, and comes hardwired in our brain. Some connections are commonplace and pass unnoticed, while others define our mood, the way we perceive others and ourselves and, most importantly, the way we will remember the experience itself. This ability for people to connect emotionally with everyday things is called anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics and behaviors to a thing or a process, and this topic is very dear to designers. Anthropomorphism is the doorway to connect emotionally with people and, the quest to positively influence this mental process is the quest of design itself.
Posted by Fosta
| 14 Apr 2014
I spent the first 36 years of my life living in the UK, more than half of which was spent in and around London. As such, I have a deep personal affinity to Gin, that wonderful, complex, delicious spirit made famous by the Dutch and infamous by Hogarth. Gin has recently enjoyed a significant resurgence in popularity, gradually extricating itself from the caustic syrups of the 70s and into the most sophisticated concoctions of mixologists worldwide.
There are numerous reasons why I like gin. It's incredibly versatile, and can be drunk in many forms: with a mixer such as tonic or soda, as a base for classic or contemporary cocktails such as negronis, martinis or gimlets, or even neat (try a glass of Old Tom over ice next time the nights draw longer). Primarily though, gin's allure lies in the glorious, deep variety of tastes. From the driest of London gins to the complex, tea-like Golden Moon, there really is nothing like it. I think gin should be regarded by the same sommelier standards as wines and whisky. It's on it's way, but it still has some distance to go.
So by now you should be wondering what this has to do with Industrial Design. It's an analogy that I've been mulling over for some time and it has to do with the ways in which we approach the creation of contemporary objects. Let me explain by way of vodka.
Posted by An Xiao Mina
| 25 Nov 2013
Hacking away at San Francisco's Freespace, a pop-up space for artists, designers, developers and other creatives.
I've been spending a lot of time at hackathons lately. It's not a surprise; here in the Bay Area, hackathons and coding sessions are a way of life, a social scene as common as a cocktail party in New York. The idea is what it sounds like: a bunch of people come together and "hack" on a project. It can be a group project or an individual project, something you've been working on for a while or something you're starting. And it's an idea I've seen come to life in creative communities across the globe, in places like Shanghai, Kampala and Manila.
The "-athon" suffix is appropriate: As in a marathon, simply doing an activity with others is a lot more fun than coding alone, even when you're aiming for your personal best. And having people with different skill sets and energy levels around you provides an additional motivating force. Don't know much about the Natural Language Toolkit? Someone probably knows. And in return, you can share your experience with Wordpress libraries.
One of the many rooms for hacking at the California Academy of Sciences.
I recently spoke with Ariel Waldman, who organized the most recent Science Hack Day at the California Academy of Sciences. Waldman, a designer herself, felt it was important to encourage more people to engage with science. This year's event included skills workshops, a planetarium show, star gazing, access to lots and lots of tools like 3D printers and LEAP detectors, and a chance to sleep over at the museum next to the shark tanks.
"With hackathons in general, the thrill of knowing you can make in such a short amount of time is exciting," noted Waldman when I spoke with her the phone. "I think with Science Hack Day, it's a place where people can play w things they don't normally play with. It adds to the excitement of what you can prototype."
Posted by Fosta
| 7 Oct 2013
Broadly speaking, design projects may be split into three categories: now, next and future. Most of our time as designers is concerned with the now or next, but occasionally we are called upon to embrace projects which are overtly future facing in nature.
These projects are typically used as a platform to tell a story, be that a business projection, a socio-cultural exploration, or an illustration of new materials or technologies, so it comes as no surprise that one of the more significant inputs for many designers is science fiction cinema.
Science fiction works in the space between people and technology in much the same way as industrial design, and the two have an influential effect upon each other. If you have visited any design tumblr in the last six months you will no doubt have seen countless sketches and production stills from Oblivion, and design's (sometimes literal) impact on science fiction cinema is well documented. In some respects, it's difficult to divorce the two industries, but there is a key difference which often gets missed: For the sake of brevity, I need to be reductive, so if there is a line to be drawn between industrial design futurism and science fiction cinema, then that's the line between narrative, story and plot.
Industrial design futures require a story, a sequence of events that happen. In some cases they require a narrative—a way in which the story is told—but they almost never need a plot. Science fiction cinema, which has an implicit role as entertainment, requires a plot. Plots are difficult, complex and involved. Plots require significant development of character and space, leading to an aesthetic that drives the narrative forward.
When creating future visions, industrial designers have a habit of grabbing at cinematic aesthetics without a plot, leading to images, products and movies such as this:
Videos and presentations of this sort are plentiful indeed, and in some respects they have a place, yet they invariably seem banal, twee and idealistic to the point of fantasy. For this reason, it's often easy to scoff at such work and dismiss it out of hand.
In 2002, at the Clarion writing workshop, science fiction novelist Geoff Ryman expressed similar concerns about the prevalence of fantasy elements in his genre. Warp drives, invisibility and interstellar travel were becoming the norm in science fiction writing, distracting readers from critical subjects closer to home. He introduced the concept of 'Mundane Science Fiction,' which aimed to generate literature based on or near earth with a believable use of technology as it exists in the time the story is written.
As a counter to the fantasy-laden future worlds generated by our industry, I'd like to propose a design approach which I call 'The Future Mundane.' The approach consists of three major elements, which I will outline below.
Imagine you move to a new city and after some time you decide to have your hair cut or get a new hairstyle. For some people, this would be a frightening thought. Based on your knowledge of the consequences of not finding a new hairdresser who is "as good as" the one you used to have, what would your options be in such a situation? You would probably turn to your local acquaintances to hear about their suggestions and experiences. Then, you could personally visit some of the suggested hair salons to see if they meet your expectations in styles and budget. That's a start. But wouldn't it be great if you could present your previous experiences to this new hair dresser, showing images and ratings of those experiences? After all, all of that knowledge you created in your previous visits to the hairdresser is now the most useful asset you could wish for in order to guide you into this new experience.
But the truth is, that knowledge is not easily available. Most certainly you will have to start from scratch. You'll have to test the available options here and there, until you're confident of having re-established your "knowledge base" in this new city.
That's how it is, but definitely not how it needs to be. The currently available technologies make it very simple to create a platform that could collect data from your experiences going to a hair salon in a very easy and rewarding way. The development of a system (e.g. an app, a website, etc.) that could collect key points on the agreement between your previous hair dressers and you would be reasonably simple to implement nowadays. For example, instead of doing a simple "mirror walk" at the end of the haircut, there could be a system that would privately collect pictures or videos of your final haircut and upload it to a platform (e.g., using a tablet connected to the internet), along with your name and the one from the hair dresser, making future service provisions much easier.
After that, you could rate the whole experience attributing levels of satisfaction for each of the service phases based on the perceived benefits you think you got from them. The hairdresser(s) could also add the experience they had with you to their profile, classifying it based on the type of hair, your personality and the purpose of the specific hair style.
The possibilities to add all sorts of information are too broad to be presented here, but (to mention a few) even the chemical products applied to your hair could be made explicit and then related to the final perception of benefit, including allergies and other unwanted reactions, that was registered by you and the service provider.
All of those possibilities—or better yet, those potential service innovations—are made clear if you look at them throughout the lens of a new "logic" to the service provisions: the Service-Dominant Logic.
Posted by Fosta
| 5 Aug 2013
Note: Throughout this piece, I refer to simplicity in relation to the operation of devices or the experience of use, as opposed to a reductive or minimalist aesthetic.
As with everything involving language, a design brief brings with it a host of cultural nuances which reveal the true meaning of the request, a design direction that is rarely explicit but resides just below the surface, unspoken but evident. One of these unspoken standards is the drive towards simplicity.
In the world of manufacturing, productivity is king. The more one makes, the more one can sell, and the more one sells the more profitable the endeavor. At some point, one faces the limits of human ability, and we engage the services of tools and devices to bridge the gaps of effort and time. A lean system takes the critical path between volition and goal. This, in essence, is the machine ethic, the driving force behind industrial simplification, a force so intoxicating that it has found its way into almost every element of contemporary design.
Without wanting to be too binary, there are two types of activity: those which may be considered 'compressive' (chores, tasks) and those which are 'donative' (fun and hobbies).
Tools have been a part of domestic life for hundreds of years, but it was the proliferation of labor-saving devices in the 20th Century that brought the machine ethic to the fore. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners and electric appliances became commonplace tools to help complete tasks around the home. This expansion was facilitated in part by the spread of domestic electricity (a U.S. growth of 46% between 1917 and 1930), and partly by the convenient nature of simplicity as a marketing tool. 'Simpler' is a useful metric for comparison, it shows a clear progression with the promise of an improved quality of life, and thus the drive towards ease of use became part of our collective conscience.
Every design cycle brought simpler and simpler solutions. Wrinkles were ironed out, generating new devices that promised to get things done in half the time or with half the effort. Over time, traditionally donative activities began to be approached with a compressive mindset. Designers and engineers began to focus on performance and efficiency—adjectives usually reserved for industrial projects. Almost every aspect of life underwent a process of taskification, and success was judged as such.
This notion persists today, with simplicity and ease going hand in hand with progress. By portraying an activity as a task, we can help drive products into use by focusing on their compressive performance. Convergent digital devices are particularly prone to taskification, given their multiple uses. For a device with which you watch movies, play games and converse with friends, 'multi-tasking' 'task switching' and 'taskbar' seem strange terms indeed, yet they pass by without a thought.
"...but, why wouldn't we make something simpler if we could?" seems like a perfectly reasonable question, and one which you may be asking right now, but we could also make that same thing taller, softer or more purple... Can it be that we have spent so long under the spell of the machine ethic, that we have become blinded by it?
Market shockwaves are all around. The exchange place has never been so liquid and vulnerable. In this scenario, intuition gains momentum when compared to the sciences because everybody knows that to act instantly one needs to learn how to let instincts take over.
The temple of the technological wonders that used to be called R&D opens space for the search of a new construction mechanism, more human, collaborative, and decentralized inside organizations.
Call this what you may, a New Design, Design Thinking, it doesn't matter... The only approach fit to deliver such a human and business balance to these companies is Design.
And don't be fooled. I'm writing from Brazil and the winds of change that bring these shockwaves, have already swept through our shores as well, it started long ago, and culminated yesterday at the historical 16th of June night, when hundreds of thousands of people took the streets and the congress, to protest against corruption, lack of public services infrastructure, and an forthcoming World Cup that is causing the government to deviate money that should be used to improve health, education and other basic services.
But the implementation of a culture that allows companies and governments to adopt a Design—like mindset isn't child's play. Neither can it be done overnight. Since I've started Livework in Brazil, I've been involved in projects directed towards the implementation of a culture of innovation through the lens of Design in several organizations, among them Itau, the biggest bank of the southern hemisphere, Bradesco, its biggest competitor, Petrobras—yes, the oil giant is also interested in Design—and many other clients.
This means we've helped those organizations learn how to think Design, not only use it into their projects, but also make good use of it in their small day-to-day decisions. It was Paul Hawken in his book Natural Capitalism who said, "Natural Capitalism is not about making sudden changes, uprooting institutions, or fomenting upheaval for a new social order, Natural Capitalism is about making small, critical choices that can tip the economic and social factors in positive ways."
Posted by Fosta
| 17 Jun 2013
In every job there is a line between personal time and employment. In some roles, the line is very clear, demarcated by a klaxon, punch card or timesheet. In other fields of work, the line is blurred, sometimes to the point of vanishing altogether. Design is one of those fields.
Every designer is a cultural voyeur—a perpetual sponge for inspiration and a running faucet for ideas. When we design, we draw on experiences from our private lives, from our travels and observations. Design is a lifestyle, the method acting of careers. Design doesn't stop at 5pm.
When individuals take jobs with design firms, they sign contracts and begin to serve their clients. With that step comes a disconnect between employment and personal time. Contracts typically draw hard lines around the two with a variety of privacy and commitment clauses. Personal projects are often relegated to second place in the hierarchy of creativity, and referred to euphemistically as moonlighting. This is a thorny issue with some Paleolithic attitudes, but one which would benefit from open discussion.
Genera of Moonlighting
As I see it, all moonlighting work sits upon a sliding scale:
- A blog or other public writing
- Public speaking or conference appearances
- Work for friends, family or self
- External client work
Every case is different, but at some point in the scale, every company draws a line. Some are more flexible, some are more regimented, but every contract has a clause referring to this behavior. Let's take a quick look at the key drivers behind these clauses (followed by a quick debunking of each):
Continuing our journey through Design @ Your Service, the article below is a contribution from service thinker Luis Alt (founder of live|work in Brazil). Good read!
Take a look around. It is very likely that right now you are surrounded by objects that in some way or another make your life better and more pleasant. All those objects have been in some degree designed—some nicely, others not so much.
Now, if you start thinking about the way you interact with the world around you, you will notice one other common pattern: you access your life through services. Private services, governmental services, local services, global services, digital services, physical services. You use the world around through the services that somewhat are available to you. When you interact with a product, very often someone has put a lot of thought into figuring out beforehand how your experience should be when dealing with this object. Product and interaction designers take into consideration users desires and needs, materials and processes that are available for manufacturing the product and they run a series of anthropometric and ergonomic studies to come up with the final object. Everything is done in order to make sure that you will get the best experience possible when in contact with this product—which also makes it easier to sell it in the first place.
But let's take a look at the different services that we access. Who is behind the solutions we use on a daily basis? Who is thinking about our experience when we order something at a restaurant, don't receive a package at home or forget to pay a bill that never got to us in the first place? Unfortunately the answer is, in most cases, no one. We are using everyday services that have not been thought to our benefit as customers, but instead to be easy and, most of all, efficient to its providers. The business must run efficiently and it's up to the user to 'deal' with it.
Much has been said in marketing theories that we get to use products by interacting with a whole range of services that exist around it. If I want to use my phone, for instance, I have to buy it in a retail store, pay my monthly bills and then I'm ready to, well, use the device. We think the opposite. Service thinking teaches us that any product is just one mean to access a set of services (or a main service). Take the mobile phone, for instance: in the essence of everything is the service. The bill, the store, the mobile phone, etc. are just products or services that help me to communicate with others or access information through a connected network. In the core of everything, there is the service.
Now the really good question is, "What exactly should be designed in a service?" And our answer to that is: what shouldn't? Service designers have to take an important role in the new service order, given they are the ones with the capacity to navigate between the broad and strategic aspects of the service and to translate the business purpose into user journeys that are useful, usable and desirable, thinking on the overall experiences of clients and service providers that are connected throughout different touchpoints.
It has been said over and over again that we now live in a service economy. For most developed countries, that means more than 70% of their GDP is driven by the service sector. For the not so developed ones, the number can range from 60–70%—still pretty high. In fact, the lowest sector-based GDP income countries are Saudi Arabia (31.1%) , Indonesia (38.8%), United Arab Emirates (39.8%), China (44.6%) and Iran (48.2%). Meanwhile, the rest of the globe is running more than half of its economic machine solely on service oil.
Before you act surprised about China being on the lower-end of this list, I should add that they expect a 4.5 points increase on their service sector GDP by the end of 2015. That, in numbers, is huge. This is not a coincidence—rather, it is a pattern that runs on top of every economy that is serious about putting itself on the development runaway. There's a clear product-to-services economic shift taking place and it is silently, or not so, affecting the way we live and work.
In some ways, we do know what that means. Metaphorically speaking, it means that we are becoming a software-based economy while industry steadily moves away from its manufacture smoky days and grabs a slice of the digital-era pie in nearly every sector. It also means that we, as consumers, are more willing to trade possession for access and that we expect to engage in relationships instead of short-term transactions when we buy.
What about design?
Economical shifts are not new to design. In fact, industrial design was born out of a shockwave caused by the mother of all economical shifts: the Industrial Revolution. The early Bauhaus movement was about creating a new breed of professionals called industrial designers. These were people who could both look back at the artisan mindset and look forward to the new industry, not aside or against it. In order to do that, this new breed had to integrate arts and business thinking, yes, business thinking, as production was the imperative business model those days. Ok, let's call it "production thinking."
Despite the recent explosion of fancy design suffixes, real design was never alienated from business. No, I'm not talking about art or the shallow exploration of design in advertising. Instead, real design, since its early days, has always been about bringing a human perspective to any system in order to find opportunities to create positive impact, and, at the same time, keep a steady and sharp eye on business profitability and/or execution viability.
Returning to the present, we are now living the next shockwave. I'm talking about an economy that has moved from the commercialization of hard-goods to a more dematerialized state where people exchange electrons and borrow thing from one another instead of owning it—an economic system where it is possible to thrive whether or not you sit at an industrial plant. A system where David-like startups are seriously threatening gigantic marble dinosaurs by rethinking the way they serve their customers.
Alright. It is what it is, and gosh, thanks for the most of it. But that being said, what are the new skills and knowledge we are going to need in order to keep designing for this new world?
Posted by Roland Boal
| 29 Mar 2013
Note: The Latin script versions of Chinese names contained in this article are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be accurate Pinyin (the official Latin script version of Chinese characters.
It is not a novel observation to say that names, whether they belong to people or to brands, are important, but in China they assume an even greater level of significance than they do in the West. Amazingly, this is sometimes overlooked by companies moving into the Chinese market, sometimes to their cost.
In China, names always mean something descriptive. Take popular girl's name 丽娟 (pronounced Li Juan) for example. Its popularity stems not just from its agreeable sound, but also because it means 'beautiful and gracious.' Brand names are no different: to succeed they must not only sound appealing but provide some kind of suggestion as to what the product or service is offering the consumer.
A foreign company looking to launch their brand in China must overcome several challenges before settling on a suitable name. Insisting on using a Western one implies a lack of respect for the local market as much as it misses the opportunity to communicate something 'on brand' to consumers unfamiliar with the name.
That is quite apart from the fact that anything written in Latin characters will be illegible to many people.
Instead, a name needs to be found that does at least some (but preferably all) of the following:
1.) It can be written using Chinese characters
2.) The chosen characters result in a name that sounds enough like the original as to be convincing
3.) The characters sound pleasing in and of themselves
4.) The characters mean something appropriate to the brand, either an expression of the values of the brand or the performance of the product or service.
I first became aware of these layers of subtlety when I was learning to introduce Priestmangoode in Chinese. The name 'Priestmangoode' is a combination of the family names of two of our directors and, as such, doesn't actually mean anything. We needed a version of our name that could be written in Chinese, and eventually settled on 普睿谷. Pronounced 'Pu Rae Gu,' it sounds enough like our original name to be convincing and can be translated as: 普 - universal, popular; 睿 - wise, astute; 谷 - valley. Whilst this may not immediately appear to be a perfect match for a product and transport design consultancy, each word does reflect a value of our brand. We believe that good design should be universal and available to all. Our experience of designing products and services all over the world over many years means we offer design solutions sensible to their environment. As for the translation of 谷 to valley, this actually means 'a place where treasure can be found.' Not unlike Silicon Valley.
When deciding upon a Chinese brand name, it is possible to take one of several approaches. The simplest of these is to identify a straight phonetic translation that means nothing. Cadillac, for example, are known in China as 凯迪拉克 (Ka Di La Ke), which sounds spot-on, but has no meaning: an approach that would only work for an already well-known brand.
Another solution is to choose a name that means something but bears no relation to the pronunciation of the original name. It would be hard to argue that 佳能 (Jia Neng) has much in common with Canon, or that 路虎 (Lu Hu) really does sound like Land Rover. But they do mean largely brand-appropriate things: 'Good and Capable' for Canon and 'Tiger on the Road' for Land Rover.
However, the strongest examples are those where all four criteria are satisfied, and there is an almost poetic symmetry to some of them. Coca-Cola, for instance, known as 可口可乐 (Ke Kou Ke Le), works on every level by also meaning 'delicious and joyful.' Even with tens of thousands of Chinese characters to choose from, that is either very lucky or very clever.
Subway, the high-street sandwich chain, have also been successful. 赛百味 (pronounced Sai Bai Wei) means 'better than a hundred other tastes.' Whilst off-road vehicle manufacturer Hummer are 悍马 (Han Ma) or 'Tough and Strong Horse.'
Posted by Don Norman
| 19 Mar 2013
OK, I take it back. Well, some of it anyway.
In June, 2010, I posted an essay on Core77 entitled "Design Thinking: A Useful Myth." (Got a lot of responses, that one did.) Since my essay was posted, I keep encountering people who jump to solutions and who fail to question assumptions—engineers, business people, and yes, designers (and design students). These encounters made me reconsider. I observed design students who were acting mindlessly, simply doing their assignments as presented. No creativity, no imagination, no questioning. That's not what design thinking is about. As a result, I have changed my mind: Design Thinking really is special. Alas, it isn't embraced by all designers, but where it exists, it is powerful. However, if we call this "design thinking," then shouldn't all designers do it?
I am here to say that I now have rethought my position. I still stand by the major points of the earlier essay, but I have changed the conclusion. As a result, the essay should really be titled: Design Thinking: An Essential Tool. Let me explain.
Posted by Jeroen van Geel
| 26 Feb 2013
Image courtesy of smashingbuzz
Jeroen van Geel was invited to participate in the Redux at Interaction 13 in Toronto. Speakers were invited to reflect upon the conference content on the last day of the conference. This is part of his reflection, combined with some after thoughts.
Interaction design is a young field. At least, that's what we as interaction designers keep telling ourselves. And of course, in comparison to many other fields we are relatively young. But I get the feeling that we use it more as an excuse to permit ourselves to have an unclear definition of who we are—and who we aren't.
At this year's Interaction Design Association (IxDA) conference, Interaction 13, you got a good overview of the topics that are of interest to interaction designers. And I can tell you that, as long as it has something to do with human behaviour, it seems of interest. In four days time there were talks and discussions around data, food design, social, health, gaming, personas, storytelling, lean, business and even changing the world. The topics ranged from the very specific task of creation of attributes to having an impact on a global scale. It shows that interaction designers have a great curiosity and want to understand many aspects of life. When we think we have an understanding of how things work, we have the feeling that we can impact everything. Of course this is great and we all know that curiosity should be stimulated, but at the same time this energy and endless search for knowledge can be a curse. Before we know it we become the jack of all trades, master of none. Interaction designers already have a lot of difficulty explaining their exact value. But where does it end? I don't know the answer, because I myself understand this endless curiosity and see how it helps me to improve my skills. Maybe the question is: are we becoming more a belief than a field?
The theme of Interaction 13 was 'social innovation with impact.' From this topic there were several presentations that focused on the role of interaction designers making the world a better place. Almost all designers in general, but every interaction designer specifically, wants to have this kind of impact. Over the last few years I've seen quite a few presentations at 'User Experience' conferences where a speaker enthusiastically puts his fist in the air and proclaimed that the time has come for the interaction designer to make the world more livable. Everybody cheered, interaction designers rallied up with their sharpies and thought they could solve every possible wicked problem. They enthusiastically went back to their huge corporation or agency in the hope that the next day they would finally get this world-changing assignment from their boss. But of course it didn't work that way.
Posted by Bruce M. Tharp
| 7 Jan 2013
This is the third column in a series on product licensing from materious' Bruce Tharp.
So let's say that you have decided to pursue a licensing contract for your new product idea instead of trying to go into the production and distribution business yourself. You are OK with losing control of the final product outcome, and you are comfortable with the tradeoff of much-less-work for (potentially) much-less-compensation. I say "potentially" because even though going it alone affords a greater percentage of the profit, there is still the issue of "percentage of what?" If you choose the right licensing partner, their ability to sell product through their well-established distribution channels is likely much better than yours. A bigger share of smaller sales can be worse than a smaller share of much bigger sales.
But after the decision to license, the first question that I am almost always asked is, "What's to keep a company from stealing my idea after I show it to them?" Enter the confidentiality conundrum...
The Buddhist notion of the "beginner's mind" is a great way to approach the design of a product; similarly, the Licensor's Mind is also predicated upon an inherent humility. Three of its many tenets are:
- Your idea is not as unique as you might think
- Even if some aspect is particularly unique, profitability does not necessarily follow novelty
- The licensee has more to lose than you do
I know of many designers that are so worried about someone stealing their ideas that they do nothing with their ideas—they remain buried in their sketchbook (and by "buried," I mean dead). The licensor's mind is comfortable with risk, knowing that there is no reward without at least a modicum of risk. And generally the risk of disclosing your idea to a potential licensee should be far less daunting than risking hundreds, if not thousands of work-hours, and tens of thousands of dollars when going into business yourself.
Of course, willingness to risk does not imply naïveté. For the licensor, there are two fundamental tools of the trade that predicate the opening of the kimono: the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and the provisional patent application (PPA). In this article we will discuss the NDA, while the PPA will be discussed in a future column.
The NDA, or Confidentiality Agreement (CA), is a tried and true contract through which two parties agree to handle the secrecy of disclosed information. A simple web search will produce many examples, or you can download a few telling contracts from my own experience with actual companies here.
Posted by Roland Boal
| 18 Dec 2012
The change in perception of goods being 'made in China' to 'designed in China' is very important to Chinese industry. Whereas the former is indelibly associated with high volume, low quality production, the latter signals a long-overdue transition from decades spent as a producer of throwaway objects to the creator and manufacturer of world-class products.
At least, it should do. When it comes to China, instead of defining 'design' as a broad discipline, encompassing mass-produced products to hand crafted objects (and everything in-between), the global design press often seems to be focusing on arts and craft, to the exclusion of almost anything else. Any mention of the nascent design scene in China on design blogs or in magazines invariably focus on 3D designer/makers and 3D artifacts that are products only in the loosest sense of the word: that they are physical things that have been man-made. That this is not the be-all and end-all of what is being designed in China seems to be going largely unnoticed.
I am conscious that as an industrial designer I am tempted, by default, to define design as being limited to products like consumer electronics or vehicles. There is no such limitation, of course, but it is true that if you were to stop someone in the street and ask them what 'design in Italy' means, they would undoubtedly say: Ferraris, suits, handbags, stylish homewares, yachts... all consumer products.
Posted by Tad Toulis
| 13 Nov 2012
The other night, I caught myself riveted to one of those blocks of cable programing one stumbles upon with increasing frequency: back-to-back episodes of some show you've never heard of. On this particular evening the focus was Animal Planet's Monster Inside Me. For those who haven't had the pleasure, each episode is a gruesome account of parasitic infestations and the effects they wreck on their human hosts. While not quite appointment viewingthe show is definitely compelling in an 'I-can't-believe-what-I'm-seeing' sort of way. On this night, as I settled into my 3rd straight episode, I found my thoughts drifting towards creativity; specifically to how organizational operations, like outsized autoimmune systems, often function in pitch-perfect opposition to creativity and innovation efforts.
This idea first started knocking about in my head a few months back when a client lent me a copy of The Other Side of Innovation by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. The book presents some interesting arguments as to why innovation efforts frequently fail. It's not merely that these efforts generally traffic outside the norms of the organization, according to Govindarajan and Trimble, they operate in direct conflict with them. Think about it: an organization strives to achieve a certain measure of success and that success, if met, leads to growth. Overtime the organization necessarily figures its business out; they learn how to do what they do. Growth is the proof that they've cracked the code for doing it in a manner that's repeatable and in balance. This state of equilibrium, and the mechanism that keeps it all humming along smoothly and without frictionis the performance engine. A codified system of hard won practices and truths that keep the flywheel spinning 24/7. It's the recipe that works within the context of the business as it is.
Posted by Roland Boal
| 9 Oct 2012
Opening Ceremony of Beijing Design Week 2012
Having lived in Qingdao for a few months now, it has been interesting to observe and reflect on the differences in working cultures between the West and China. Watching the opening ceremony of this year's Olympic Games in particular led me to think about what these inaugural showpieces say about the host nations.
The London 2012 ceremony was quintessentially British: ingenious, rambling and bursting at the seams with creativity. Four years earlier, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games was a beautiful and expansive showcase of impeccable timing, precision and immaculately orchestrated entertainment. Its sheer scale and splendour were unprecedented, even for an Olympic event. As one commentator pointed out, the Beijing ceremony was both 'awe-inspiring and perhaps a little intimidating'.
Interestingly, what I have been able to observe over recent months is that the scale and grandeur demonstrated in Beijing 2008 was just one example—albeit the biggest —of the way in which the Chinese use pomp to ensure an event gets underway with the most successful start possible.
I had another opportunity to witness this on a recent trip to the opening of an industrial design expo in a city near Shanghai. Having arrived early for an 8:30am start, I was somewhat taken aback to see over 3,000 people arrive en masse to listen to senior local dignitaries rhapsodize about the importance of the expo for the town's future, and convey how proud they were to be a part of it. After perhaps an hour of speeches, the theme from The Magnificent Seven rung out and an enormous explosion of fireworks lit up the sky. Following the display, everyone—including the politicians—promptly left the event on chartered coaches. Show over. Having never seen anything like this in Europe, I turned to my guide and asked if that was typical. 'Of course!' she eagerly replied, seemingly confused by my question.
Posted by Don Lehman
| 25 Sep 2012
Kickstarter made some interesting changes to the rules Project Creators must follow last week. What's really interesting about these rules, is that they mainly affect only Product Design and Hardware projects.
Let me take you through each rule change, tell you how I think they will effect Product Design projects, and then finish up with something I think Kickstarter should consider.
Change #1: Risks and Challenges section
Located at the bottom of a project's home page, this is a Creator written overview of the risks and challenges a project will/could face. It's now in effect for all Kickstarter projects.
This is a great idea. Backers should know upfront what needs to happen to make a project a reality and it reinforces the idea that Kickstarter is not a traditional store.
Ultimately, this rule will be more beneficial to Creators than Backers. The more you think through potential pitfalls, the better prepared you will be. Many of the Creators I see doing product design projects on Kickstarter are novices and don't think about this until it is way too late (crying to themselves at 2AM, ten months past their estimated delivery date).
I actually think Kickstarter should take this a couple steps further, with Backers receiving more background information on the Creators. Things such as the number of people on the project team, how far along in development they are, what their professional/educational background is, and how much manufacturing experience they have, should all be made available for Backers.
One thing I want to note: The projects I've seen use this new Risks & Challeneges section don't seem to have put enough thought into it. On one project I saw, the Creator wrote a three sentence description that boiled down to, "There are many steps to complete," with no explaination of those steps. Perhaps Kickstarter could give a basic outline that would help Creators fill this form out and make sure they answer important questions?
Verdict on Change #1: A good change that should go further.
Change #2: Product simulations and photorealistic renderings are prohibited. Pictures of prototypes in their current state, technical drawings, CAD designs, sketches, and other parts of the design process are allowed. This only effects Product Design and Hardware projects.
The problem Kickstarter is trying to address is the right one, but the way they're trying to solve it is wrong.
Here is what's currently happening: When Backers see a hot looking computer rendering, they (understandably) think what they are looking at already exists and support the project believing that the project will ship with no problem. This is bad.
The problem isn't renderings, it's that Backers don't know how to interpret renderings. Most of them probably don't even realize they're not photographs. However, you don't solve this communication problem by eliminating renderings, you just create new problems.
Kickstarter's solution is to only allow pictures of prototypes as they exist at the time of the project launch.
Prototypes are really important and should be required for all Product Design and Hardware Kickstarter projects. You learn more about how your design works and will be produced from making a physical mockup than you would from 100 renderings.
But here's the thing, prototypes can be just as misleading as renderings. It's easy to make a single prototype, just like it's easy to make a photorealistic rendering. The trick is actually mass producing that thing. I can't tell you the number of projects I've been on where we get what looks like a finished prototype back in a month but then it takes another year to get it through production.
Eliminating renderings does not make manufacturing easier, it just makes it harder to describe to Backers what you are trying to do.
Here's how I would solve the problem. Make prototypes required, but also allow renderings. The difference will be when Backers see images of those things, they need to be clearly labeled as to what they are with Kickstarter provided explanations of what a rendering is and what a prototype is. That way, Creators would still have the tools they need to tell their story and Backers would have an explanation of what they're looking at and a better understanding of the level of development that has gone into the project so far.
Verdict on Change #2: This rule doesn't solve the real issue: Backers need to be educated on what they are looking at.
My recommendation: Kickstarter should start requiring prototypes, but renderings and simulations should still be allowed. In either case, both must be clearly labeled as to help Backers understand what they are looking at.
Change #3: Offering multiple quantities of a reward is prohibited. This only effects Product Design and Hardware projects.
In the past, Creators were able to offer different quantities of a single product. Say my project is to develop a "widget". I could offer a reward tier that would allow you to purchase one "widget" and another reward tier where you could purchase five "widgets".
Kickstarter's hypothesis is that by limiting the quantity of "widgets" that are produced, it will help make life easier for Creators. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how to streamline manufacturing.
Producing large quantities of a single item actually helps Creators. It allows them to make larger purchases with their vendors, giving them more clout with that vendor, which keeps Vendors motivated to help the Creators. Smaller orders always get less priority, leading to delays. Larger orders can also mean more efficient use of a Vendor's equipment. Once a production line is up and running, the difference between producing 500 and 5,000 can be minimal.
For Creators, large quantities of a single item can lead to bulk discounts. If 1,000 "widgets" costs $1.00/unit to produce, 5,000 "widgets" might cost $0.50/unit to produce. This is hugely beneficial to Creators, especially when the unexpected happens. It's common on Kickstarter for shipping to end up costing more than estimated or a project turns out to need more development than anticipated. We shouldn't punish Creators for things that happen all of the time in even normal product development.
Posted by Kevin McCullagh
| 14 Sep 2012
Large sections of the British design industry will wearily greet the onset of London Design Festival today. The first LDF in 2003 felt like a coming of age, as London celebrated our profession with a pocket version of Milan's Furniture Fair. Do you remember when we got excited about Milan too? This year's frivolities are likely to leave most designers cold, although with a nagging sense that—what with so many parties going on—they should be having the time of their lives.
So what went awry? In short—benches, bloat and blogs.
Milan is unashamedly a furniture show, but at its best it showcased an array of design creativity that inspired the wider design community. While LDF doesn't feature furnishings in its title, it amounts to a straight down the line furniture and homeware trade show. Commerce trounces culture. Furniture designers make up a fraction of the profession, and most of us can only take so many of our four-legged friends. As Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign commented recently, "Why does every material innovation have to end in a chair?"
Posted by Bruce M. Tharp
| 11 Sep 2012
You may have to wait six months to a year to get on the shelves after a buyer agrees to sell your product
So let's talk money.
In the first article in this series about product licensing for industrial designers, I presented a vision of what is possible—positive, encouraging, optimistic but slightly cautionary. Here, I am interested in throwing out some numbers so that you can decide if licensing might make sense for you (or under what conditions it would).
It is important to understand that there is no "standard" contract across industries or even within a company. Everything is generally negotiable and there are many ways that compensation can pan out. The most common mode is for a company to compensate through royalties only, which helps mitigate their risk that the product may not sell well. It is also possible for the designer to receive up-front cash in addition to royalties, but often this is just an advance payment deducted from future royalties. But this is still good if you can get it, because there is no guarantee that there will be future royalties. Hence, companies usually only agree to advances if the amount is relatively small and/or if they are confident that the product will sell. Insisting on significant money up front is often a quick way to sour a deal.
OXO offers licensors both cash buyouts and royalty deals
Some companies prefer to buy the intellectual property outright in one lump sum—as with Ikea, for example. This is more of a gamble for the licensee, but saves the administrative hassle of calculating and cutting royalty checks, as well as the risk and cost of potential contract re-negotiation or disputes with the licensor (you). But with this risk comes the reward of saving all the royalties they would have paid out if the product proved particularly successful. Some companies like OXO consider both the royalty and cash-buyout options.
Companies can also offer an equity stake in the business that surrounds the product. This is much less common, however, and occurs usually when the designer brings more to the table than just a single new product idea (e.g. name cache, design services for a whole product line, expertise and connections, or even money). More established designers/consultancies do this, like Yves Behar's fuseproject that has had at least 18 equity partners including, more recently, with Core77 Design Awards 2012 Notable for Consumer Products, Sabi.
Fuseproject's recent joint venture, Sabi pill products
I am going to focus however on the most common approach—royalties-only. In doing so, I want to emphasize the need to understand the licensee's position. Being in the mass-manufacturing business is tough! There are high start-up costs with tooling and initial inventory, increasing pressures from mass retailers (like having to take back product if it does not sell!), overhead costs of product development and sales teams, stiff global competition, changing regulations, expensive and lengthy certifications, insurance, etc.
Posted by Don Norman
| 10 Jul 2012
"Drawing the Passage of Time" by Niek de Snoo; photo by Ray Hu
When What Is Natural for Some Is Not for Others: Culture and Design
I was in Asia, giving a talk. I was given a remote controller for advancing my slides. This one had with two buttons, one above the other. I dislike traditional slides with long streams of text that the speaker reads to the audience, so I have a rule: "No words." Most of my slides are photographs. I was all ready for the first photograph, but when I pushed the upper button to advance to the slide, I was flustered: I went backwards through my slide set, not forward.
"How could this happen?" I wondered. To me, top obviously means forward, bottom backwards. The mapping is clear and obvious. If the buttons had been side-by-side, then the control would have been ambiguous: which comes first, right or left? It isn't clear. But this controller used the correct mapping of top and bottom? Why was this control designed incorrectly?
I decided to use this as an example of design for the audience. I showed them the controller and asked: "to get to my next slide, which button should I push, the top or the button?" To my great surprise, the audience was split in their responses. Many thought that it should be the top button, just as I had thought. But a large number thought it should be the bottom.
What's the correct answer? I discovered that as I asked this question around the world that some people firmly believe that it is the top button and some, just as firmly, believe it is the bottom button. Each is surprised to learn that someone might think differently. Who is correct? Both are.
Posted by Roland Boal
| 1 Jul 2012
Bamboo Electric Vehicle, Professor Matsuhige Kazumi, Kyoto University from "Rethinking Bamboo" exhibition at the Beijing Design Triennale 2011
In February this year I decided to give up a cozy life in West London and move to Qingdao, China, to head up the first overseas office for one of the world's leading industrial design consultancies, Priestmangoode.
In recent years the design industry has become less narrowly focused on the West and increasingly global. From Sao Paulo to Beijing—which will be running its second Design Week later this year—design hubs are now dotted all around the world.
This is not so much a shift away from the West, but the creation of new design centres (especially in emerging markets) where previously there were none. The opportunities presented by this combination of rapid development (and nowhere has it been more rapid than in China) and the West's long history of using design, promise to be very exciting. It is wanting to be right at the meeting point of these two design cultures that motivated me to come to China in the first place: to both observe and have a part in shaping what will hopefully be a more globally inclusive industry.
At Priestmangoode, we have already been working in China for several years, and whilst there are some similarities between the way things are done there and in the West, there are many differences too. The scale of many of China's projects and companies is impressive (Qingdao is home to the world's longest bridge over water, electronics giant Huawei is the word's second largest supplier of mobile communications infrastructure, to name just two examples) but what is perhaps more interesting is the speed at which projects are completed and products launched.
Not unlike some other Asian electronics companies, the approach of many Chinese manufacturers is often to launch several models of a particular product type in quick succession, each either building on the last or exploring a different market niche. Whilst this does lead to vast product portfolios, and some lapses in quality, it does mean that the needs of small, otherwise alienated, consumer groups can be met, and products refined 'in-use', a process we are unfamiliar with in the West.
There are merits to both this approach and the West's focus on quality of choice rather than quantity, and the potential for a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge is very promising for the future of design.
This column will explore these and other issues surrounding not just design but also living and working in China. It is not meant to be a systematic portrait of, or be the defining authority on, doing business in China. Its intention is to provide some insight into the Chinese design industry from someone on the ground, as well as the differences in office culture and work ethic. I will consider the value of design in China, how consumer culture is so completely different and what misconceptions we have (and bad advice we are given) about working in China.
China is actively trying to shed its image as a country of cheap manufacture. Rather than 'Made in China', the future lies with products that are 'Designed in China'. I will be looking at how and where the changes necessary for this to happen manifest themselves. I will also be considering what challenges face a country with such vastly different regions when trying to establish a distinct design identity, more or less from scratch.
In doing so I hope to bring a little objective clarity into a fast-changing industry in a fascinating country, dropping in any interesting observations, thoughts on my favourite places and things to do in China along the way.
Posted by Bruce M. Tharp
| 29 Jun 2012
The designers at Orange22 landed a multi-million-dollar licensing deal for its Grid-It™ elastic storage technology, which is now in over 200 different products.
This is the first in a series of columns on product licensing for product designers.
Product Design students and recent graduates from across the country contact me for career advice. At some point, the conversation inevitably turns to entrepreneurialism. When I float the possibility of doing some product licensing, I have always gotten the same response: "What's that?"
After explaining that it's when you design a product, let someone else make and sell it, typically in exchange for royalties, I get: "Oh, yeah, of course." Then there is a pause followed by: "So...how do you do that?"
Despite design education's predicament of ever-expanding content areas within an already distended discipline, this seems to be a missed opportunity. But it's certainly not a new omission. I was never exposed to product licensing as a design student, nor had any other designer that I have known over the past 20 years. Design education has basically ignored it. In the Comments section below, I welcome readers' examples to the contrary (I do know of some recent guests/lectures at Art Center in Pasadena). And as a full-time educator for the last 7 years, I am also culpable; neither of the institutions where I have taught has dealt with the topic. That is until this fall when I will run a dedicated course on product licensing specifically for product designers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
ABC's television show, Shark Tank, mostly follows the venture model. The Food Network's, Invention Hunters, follows the licensing model.
Usually during the last semester of the senior year, design students take a "professional practice" class to ready them for what lies beyond. These courses involve developing portfolios, visiting local design firms, and having design-related professionals come lecture. Sometimes design entrepreneurship is taught, but from the perspective of going into business yourself (venturing). Most design students and young professionals are not aware that there are two fundamental modes of entrepreneurial practice—venturing and licensing. Those who watch the television shows, Shark Tank or Invention Hunters may have a leg up, as the bleak economy has sparked the popular imagination.
The tragedy of education's licensing lacuna is that the business world has entered an era of "open innovation." Over the last decade, companies have realized that they do not have a monopoly on the best ideas, and/or that it is really expensive to keep research and development teams in house. Overcoming their hubris, laziness, ignorance or risk-aversion, manufacturers/distributors are increasingly welcoming new product ideas from individuals outside of their corporate walls. For example, since 2008 over half of Procter & Gamble's new product offerings have come from outside the company. A powerful, new opportunity awaits independent product designers.
You may be thinking, "This is nothing new. Designers have been getting royalties from companies since the mid-20th century!" Certainly this is true, but there are some key distinctions. Early on, designers often received royalties in addition to work-for-hire design fees. As such, they were really consultants, and the royalty was a way of sharing the risk between designer and manufacturer especially when the start-up costs were high. Also, these designers were of some repute and the companies went looking for them.
Another common method, still today, is for less-well-known designers, to pitch their capabilities to a company in hopes of receiving a project brief. If successful, they are tasked with designing products that the company is already looking to produce—not necessarily a new idea or direction from the designer. And increasingly these briefs are done on speculation (no fee, just royalties if the idea makes it to market) because of an increasing supply of capable designers. So, yes, royalties have long been a means of recompense, but open innovation makes this more accessible because you do not have to have a big design name—or even a portfolio. And you don't need to try and schmooze your way to a brief (but it still is fun to go to Milan Design Week anyway).
Based on his award-winning Endo magnets, Scott Amron licensed his idea to OXO
Posted by Tad Toulis
| 19 Jun 2012
Watching last month's meteoric funding spike for Alerta's Pebble Smartwatch you no doubt caught your inner voice asking: Could I do that? The weekend of April 21st—as the project rocketed from roughly $3 million to $4.5 million and on to approximately $7 million by week's end—what was truly impressive wasn't that Alerta's ask was for a mere $100K, but rather that the project still had a 30-day drive left to go. As the funding surpassed $8 million then $9 million with little sign of abating, the blogosphere frothed with the predictable range of rants, encouragements and forebodings.
Ultimately the project raised $10.3 millionimpressive coin to be sure.
Coming on the heels of last year's TikTok/LunaTik storywhich earned a then impressive $950K, the Pebble story raises a slew of questions for any designer with even the most modest entrepreneurial urge. While the signs have been out there for a while, crowdfunding is now indisputably hitting its strideand its impact on design, and culture at large, is something all of us should be taking note of.
Everywhere one looks, whether it's the recent purchase of Instagram for $1billion, Facebook's mid-May IPO, Kickstarter success stories like Alerta's, or the simple fact that every other business article today seems written by, for or about some start-up founderentrepreneurial fever is in full effect. The slow-breaking realization of this fact got me reflecting on some longstanding opinions I'd held tightly to over the years. Historically, when asked for career advice, I've regularly encouraged young designers to get some consulting experience in under their belts before considering a stint in corporate. My logic being, you'll learn a lot, get stress-tested, work a variety of projects and come out the other side with some strong skills, good time management practices and a surer sense of what really matters to you. To this I'd usually reflect for a beat on my own corporate experience and add a bit about consulting being a sprint and corporate being a marathon. And for years that advice felt fairly legitimate.
Today, I don't know if that advice still holds true.
In a landscape of long odds, the chance to be an active agent for change in your own life wins out over being a bit player in a narrative of stasis.
Four years of mediocre economic performance served up with partisan bickering in Washington and stock price leadership in the boardroom has created what I imagine must add up to a rather un-inspiring 'now' for design school graduates. The majors, with a handful of exceptions, have proven they are either devoid of new ideas, or worse, have lost the will to gamble on them. Instead they sink millions into acquisitions and legal fees in an attempt to better position themselves in a seemingly endless game of patent collecting; a tightly scripted play in which building and creating takes a very public back seat to defensive maneuvering.
Posted by Panthea Lee
| 6 Jun 2012
This is the final post in a 7-part series from Panthea Lee of service design consultancy, Reboot. Lee is the jury captain for the 2012 Core77 Design Awards for the Service Design category. In The Messy Art of Saving the World, Lee will explore the role of design in international development.
Communications technology provides government with the tools to be more transparent and accountable to its citizens. But just as giving someone a hammer doesn't make them a carpenter, there's more to the accountability equation. Achieving accountability requires creating a successful relationship between people—those in the government and those on the outside. An accountability system, then, is a two-way street: not only is the government responsive to citizen needs, but citizens must also be able to effectively communicate their grievances to the government.
Nigeria is a country that is oil-rich but accountability-poor. This is partially due to a lack of connective infrastructure, such as roads (only about 10 to 15 percent of Nigerian roads are paved), Internet access (only available to 11 percent of the country), and electricity (most of the country only has access to a few hours' worth a day), upon which service delivery and social accountability systems rely. This lack of infrastructure doesn't just hinder people's daily lives and opportunities. It also prevents them from being able to demand better services, and over time, it undermines their confidence that they have power to make demands at all. For a social accountability framework to be successful, then, it must account for and overcome these deficiencies.
At Reboot, we're taking on that challenge right now, helping the Government of Nigeria to develop a social accountability and citizen feedback system, a project funded by the World Bank. We're designing a technological platform to collect citizen feedback on government-sponsored, Bank-funded healthcare and agriculture programs. Equally important, we're designing the supporting program that will make sure the feedback is put to use in improving those services.
We design projects for continued success long after we've left. To do this, Reboot takes a user-centered approach to our research, design, and implementation methodology. We start with developing a deep understanding of the communities we and our clients and partners seek to serve, and we work in close coordination with all stakeholders, including governments, NGOs and funders. The goal of our ethnographic research approach is get to know the context from as many angles as possible: to that end, we are spending half of our engagement time in Nigeria, far more than most international consultants, and are maintaining a field presence of local staff throughout.
Our research has helped us gain an understanding of people's existing technology habits, as well as norms around community policing and redress of grievances. Because most of these norms are not technology-based—our target populations resolve issues by seeking mediation from their village and/or religious leaders—we need to ensure that a technological solution will complement current habits and expectations.
Early on, we realized that mobile phones were the best tool available—51 percent of our target population owned mobile phones, and 31 percent of those who did not still had regular mobile access through friends or family. Though the quality of network signal is poor in the rural areas we are working in and mobile credit is costly for our target population, our users had creative techniques for overcoming these challenges. In areas with poor mobile signal, locals always knew the exact spots (under a particular mango tree, at the farthest corner of the church) where they could get good service. As mobile credit was expensive, users buy top-up cards daily: though more time-consuming, it helps limit the temptation to spend beyond a certain amount on any given day.
When a tool is valuable enough, people will find a way to use it. The value our target population placed on the mobile phone made it the best platform to build upon. Further, using the most common, inexpensive phones saves on procurement and training costs, and is more sustainable: success is more likely when you build on a tool people already use. Our technology partner, Dimagi, is building the tool along with a talented local Nigerian developer, who will maintain the system in-country over the long-term. We're testing a prototype right now with citizens, who use the tool to report on their experience with two government services: a series of public health clinics and an agricultural subsidy program, both funded by the World Bank.
Our work in the field uncovered unique challenges that our accountability program must overcome. For instance, we found that among our target populations, those who can read are taught to do so in English in school (even though speaking and reading comprehension are poor), and remain illiterate in their native tongue; deciding what language to use for our tool and for program communications is tricky. We continue to develop the program with these challenges well in mind, exploring the use of visual aids and employing a network of agents/reporters to enable access to and usage of the tool.
On our most recent trip, we spent three weeks testing the prototype with users and iterating—rapidly—to improve it. Each night, we updated the software as well as our communications materials based on that day's user feedback, improving both the technology as well as the content. Every day, we had a new, better iteration to test. In the coming months, we will be rolling out a late-stage, high-fidelity prototype of the tool. Once the pilot has launched, we will further test and iterate the platform, ensuring that the final tool has the best possible configuration for collecting and recording citizen feedback.
As the project develops, we are designing the platform for the World Bank and the Nigerian government to process the citizen data-stream, and use it to support improvements in service delivery. Fast and meaningful feedback is vital to showing citizens that their input matters, and is critical for their continued engagement. But providing immediate feedback is also costly for the government. The challenge, then, comes in balancing the two. While quick service improvements are ideal, there are also other, interim solutions service providers can deploy as they vet, prioritize, and implement ideas for improvement.
But without a robust, people-centric system to handle and resolve grievances, any technology tool will fall short of its potential. Thus, we continue to work with the World Bank and the Nigerian government to design a program that ensures the feedback provided by citizens is put to good use.
When one of their community's youth gets a post with a local government, Nigerian villagers celebrate the new—and seemingly only—means to finally have their grievances heard by someone with the power to address them. We are excited and hopeful for the success of this program at scale, and for what Nigerians can create with their government when the promise of accountability is literally at their fingertips.