Wonder what the conversation is like at someone else's shop? Ever wanted to go backstage at a design firm? We asked Steve Portigal, Julie Norvaisas, and Dan Soltzberg of Portigal Consulting to sit down and share what they're talking about. Here's their open mike/chin-wag/theory slam.
Dan: I envisioned sitting down here to have this conversation and trying to figure out what we're really talking about. So I pulled this statement out of some notes Steve wrote the other day: "The Analog Human; The Digital Machine." I thought that was really provocative, so I wanted to start by asking you to say a little more about this idea?
Steve: I feel like there's this tension that goes on in business and especially in marketing, this conceit that we can take humans—you know, messy, irrational, organic—and somehow cut them open and figure out the binary, rational, predictable, money-making algorithms that determine what they do. You see all this harnessing of science, you know, whether it's neuro-this or lie detector-that or psychotherapy-this that gets used in the service of, not helping people, but helping marketers crack the nut of what people want, where is the desire center in the brain. You know, that we can learn things about people in a way that is "true"—that is predictable and true, and will determine consumption patterns. I find the idea that we should be able to do that just fascinating, because that's not the world of people that we live in as people, so why as marketers or designers or producers do we think that we should turn people into things that they really aren't?
Julie: There's another aspect of that that I find really fascinating too: that you're just talking about it in this dichotomy like there's "us," and then there's "people." Well, we're people, right? We're people trying to understand people and trying to create these scientific methods of doing it is just—I think you're absolutely right—a conceit, and we often kind of remove ourselves from the situation. And I think empathy is a much more powerful tool than science in that case.
Steve: It's easy to harsh on science, but I guess that I'd rather harsh on marketing and the way that they try to corral science to do their work for them. Because every time you see how scientists talk, they actually evince much more empathy and they seem to be a population that has more sensitivity to the human condition, despite the fact that they work—you know, we think of people with Bunsen burners and spreadsheets.
Dan: That's interesting, because that kind of takes me back to what you said about "money-making algorithms," and I wonder if there's something about the purity of science as just an act of—an attempt at discovery—without that kind of consumption-based function that allows it to be more pure.
Steve: There was something we were talking about the other day. Some friends took a tour of Biosphere 2. And I guess the story of the tour was that the guides were quick to point out that it wasn't a "failed" experiment. And of course if you know the scientific method, there aren't failed experiments—you have a hypothesis and you either accept or reject that hypothesis. And that's so different from marketing language—you know, "oh we put people in there and we didn't know there were going to be cockroaches, they didn't know this was going to happen." Well scientifically, that's just discovery. And I think scientists are maybe more grounded in sort of pure discovery, and that as a consumption culture we keep framing those things as "failed experiments."
Dan: I think that sense of not finding the answer you're looking for—that you went out there with something already in your mind, and not finding that means failure—is really powerful, and I feel like we see that so much when we take clients out there in the field and we hear "that's not our customer," even though we've just been watching the person using the client's product in front of us.
Steve: That reminds me of my very first encounter with marketing personas in the late 90s. This company had an alliterative description of these different types of people running IT in organizations, and so we recruited people to study who fit that definition. And then when we talked to them, they didn't fit the behavior of this stereotype, and the feedback from our client was, "Well, those aren't 'Sams.'" So it just became kind of self-reinforcing, that, by definition, if they didn't do what we already said customers were going to do, then the people you've talked to aren't actually our customers. So it's like the opposite of the Scientific Method: you've created this paradigm where it's impossible—you reject any information that's new because it doesn't fit the framework of the information you already have.
Dan: And then when a product fails, it's not because it's actually not something people want, it's because there aren't enough Sams out there.
Steve: Well in fact, the reason these guys failed is because they felt like their goal was to educate the customer. The customer didn't understand why they had a better solution, so they needed to educate them, which is another trigger word for me.
Dan: So what do you think it is that "the customer" is actually looking for, if not to be educated to the better way, as your clients were thinking?
Julie: Well, there's a lot of higher level goals. They're trying to get stuff done, on a very functional level, and express themselves—you know, I think that's a lot of what the choices people make in their lives as consumers are about. Defining themselves and conveying their identity to the world. Products are how we express ourselves, largely.
Steve: What do you think when you go into a meeting and the people you're working for tell you they're in a "low-interest" category—do you ever hear that phrase?
Julie: Or low involvement category.
Steve: Maybe that's the phrase.
Julie: It's the whole thing of commodity, right? You know, "our product is a commodity, and we don't want it to be—we want it to be a wow product, the next iPod," whatever.
Steve: Sometimes I feel refreshed when they say this is low involvement, because what you learn so often is that people don't really care about your thing, or even what your thing enables.
Julie: Right. Companies often feel like their things are more important in the world than they actually are.
Steve: Right. Because they sit there all day working on it. So they should be really really involved in it.
Julie: I used to show a picture of this jumble of things in a garage—all these different products. Some were products for kids, some were like an easel, and a bike, and bike helmets—you know, this array of products that you know people spent years in rooms figuring out with great care and precision. What these things were going to be and how they were going to help people and solve these needs and be beautiful and all these things. And they're just in a big pile in somebody's garage, covered with dust and rubbing up against each other. And that picture was to illustrate to people that there is a point where it's just some stuff that people are going to use for a while and it doesn't necessarily have to be the be-all and end-all every time.
Steve: That reminds me of Dan Harden, from Whipsaw, talking about when he first found one of his products in a landfill.
Dan: Oh, that's a Tim Brown story. He tells it about someone he worked with at IDEO.
Steve: I wonder if this is becoming—
Dan: —an urban design legend?
Steve: There's two if not three high-profile versions of that story, which maybe isn't germane to this conversation, but that's an interesting discovery—that we in our field create these myths around our own relevance or lack of it.
Julie: Right. Then what do we do about that—that fact that half—I think half is probably an underestimation—but that half of what we do ends up in a landfill and not cared about or a pile in a corner. What does that mean to us as designers or as people who participate in this mass-production culture? I think that's a popular story in our field because we don't feel good about it. So what do we do about that?
Steve: I think there's sort of politics behind that, or cultural politics, that landfill—you know it just makes you cringe, that "Oh my God, drowning porpoises," but I think your story about the garage should be equally horrifying.
Julie: And I think it is. It's basically a landfill in somebody's house.
Steve: But it doesn't evoke that "we're destroying our planet with stuff" response. We're just filling people's houses with crap. Which is sort of more tolerable than a sort of Al Gore nightmare or something—that we're contributing to our literal deaths.
Julie: It's a little easier pill to swallow, I guess, but, I mean, the implications are the same right?
Dan: That's another interesting angle on this idea of the Analog Human and the Digital Machine. You know, that we have these life spans that are from beginning to end—it's you the whole way—but all these products come and go in our lives, these things are really finite. It's almost like having a pet, and knowing that your pet's life span is so much shorter than your own, and there's this discontinuity to it. That's a real difference—do you have anything that takes that whole journey with you?
Steve: I don't know if anyone has read Neal Stephenson's Anathem? This is a piece of science fiction that deals with a lot of the issues that the Long Now people kind of deal with. It's this society where, what we think of as cloistered monks, there's no religion to it, they're all dealing with math. There are these "mathic" groups, and they do things like—one group only goes out one day a year, one group only goes out one day every 10 years, one group every hundred, every thousand. They're all kind of separated from each other and from the mainstream society, and so how does this group keep itself constant, and keep its practices constant—do what it's there to do? How do you set these things up when you're going to get no influence from the outside world? It's that idea of designing for life spans that far exceed your own. I had this reflection when Obama gave money to high-speed rail from the stimulus package recently. And they're talking about the San Francisco-to-LA train. And I think, like, that's the kind of thing that if you were ten years old, you'd think to yourself, "wow, someday when I grow up, I'm gonna take a train..." And now I'm old enough and these things are still far away, you know? I'm going to be like, retired, potentially, when these things come out. It's not going to change my life. I wonder about the people working on those projects, and how they have a sense of involvement and engagement if they're not going to live to see it completed.
Julie: Which is an interesting circle back to your observations about science and how it's maybe more pure in a way, that maybe that's because they have a longer view of what they're doing—it's a process of discovery, not answering a single question. And having to have that definitive answer, which, let's face it, we have to have in business. Our clients and we certainly on a project basis don't have the luxury of solving big problems over time—it's not how the system's structured, right?
Dan: There's more of a paradigm in science too of contributing to this general body of knowledge, you know? It's collaborative, as opposed to commerce, where you've really got these entities competing against each other. And in a sense, the active struggle is for others not to know what you have until you come out with it, as opposed to this building collectively.
Steve: So that's why there's a hunger for breakthrough innovation and not incremental—well, I don't know if it's "innovation" if it's incremental, but...
Julie: I think it is, but I know that's up for debate by a lot of people. But even within organizations, there doesn't seem to be either the capability or the interest in building that kind of knowledge base. I mean, in really great organizations, there is that, but a lot of times it's so piecemeal that—needing to get the right answer—and maybe that's the answer you already have in your head—is the primary objective.
Dan: Yeah, there really is a sense that these project cycles are almost like the lifespan of a moth or something—5 weeks, 10 weeks, a quarter, a year.
Julie: I wonder what you guys think of this—you know, I've heard a few little signals here and there that the consumer culture and mass production is kind of shifting, and what we want are more like heirloom objects—and Apple is a company that maybe could be an example of that—it's beautiful, it has function, it's less disposable.
Dan: But is that true?
Julie: I don't know—I've heard some of this—it's another way of addressing sustainability, right? I don't want a plastic cup everyday, or a bunch of plastic cups—I want a beautiful mug that I take with me and maybe have with me for a longer period of my life.
Steve: I feel like you always get these trends and counter-trends, right? So you've got people making electronics out of wood, and then you've got the Always-in-Beta movement, which just says we're gonna make things and they're never finished. The web has kind of created that—there was that whole thing when Gmail finally came out of Beta, and it had been out five years or something like that. It was obviously just a symbolic move at that point, but the idea that people would commit their email to a Beta product for years and years and years...like Flickr was in Beta forever, and it was hosting millions and millions of photos. I think David Armano is someone who sort of champions that as kind of a design ethos—you don't put out fixed monolithic things, you put out something and kind of keep working over it. Which is fine if you don't have to create tooling and...
Dan: Yeah, right, and so I think part of this schism between us, as living organisms, and things is the difference between what it's like to use things and to make things. The different processes a company has to go through like tooling and funding and marketing—these things that are very bounded and very concrete don't allow a company to be analog about how they develop something.
Steve: Even in software, which is sort of easier to be Beta-y about, every client we talk to tells us something like, "there's no shortage of ideas here." That the scarce resource is still actually prioritizing and building stuff. And so the more customer insight and facilitation and brainstorming and ideation they do—they can come up with more ideas. They can come up with hopefully better ideas—I think that's what we feel like we're in the business to provide, is helping them get to better ideas, but they still have the scarce resource of internal attention and internal development capacity.
Dan: It seems like we're hearing that a lot lately—that "there's no one here to work on this." It's like the fruit is ripening on the tree, and there's no one here to pick it.
Steve: It makes me wonder how these companies are set up, especially when they go on these engagements with companies like us to come up with new opportunities, when there's still no one that's available to go work on them.
Julie: Right—knowing full well that it can never really get anywhere. It's just like planting seeds. I think someone said that at one of our ideation sessions: that the primary function is to plant seeds and start things moving in a direction, not to necessarily have a concrete outcome. Which I thought was interesting.
Steve: Well, if we're in the business of making stuff and helping people make stuff, but really what we're doing is helping people plant seeds—I agree that's what I see happening almost every time we work with companies, that we are planting seeds—but I think that we are in a field where the belief is that "we make stuff." Portfolios are sort of Things That Have Shipped, and a lobby full of plastic objects that have shipped—that's what you do.
Julie: But we're really dealing more in ideas than concrete objects, at the level we're working at, anyway.
Dan: And I think processes are a really important piece of that. It's not just innovating the thing, it's innovating how things come to be, in that particular organization.
Julie: Mm hmm.
Dan: Everyone agrees. That's good.
Steve: Good job, Dan. Score.
Dan: [makes bell sound] Ching!
Julie: I'm just thinking we started thinking about the calculus of how people make decisions and how we unpack that, but it seems like we get a lot of that, and we can get insights from that, but just thinking out loud about this, that our clients need more help understanding themselves in a way than they do understanding their customers. And I know that's something we talk about, that it's both of those things, that we're helping you understand both aspects of that, to help forward your thinking.
Dan: Well, it makes perfect sense, because we're always finding that the customer's world is vastly different from what the client thinks it is, and you know, unless you help them remake their world a little bit, even if they understand what's out there, they're just still going to be so far away from really being able to internalize that in their process.
Steve: But it's sort of something we have to sneak up on them with. They're not coming to us for organizational therapy and understanding themselves more deeply, but—I think we know that the only way to understand what you don't understand about the people you're designing for is to turn it back on yourself as part of that. But, the light bulb has to be willing to change—they have to be in that learning-ready moment. And it's a struggle to say, "we're going to really peel back the onion with you guys and your customers"—they're like, "No, no—we need to learn about our customers." So I think with the methods we use, there are explicit tools and there are implicit tools—the ways we go about it, which help uncover that.
Dan: Julie was talking about how people make decisions and I feel like we get asked a lot by clients to go out and find this precise equation they imagine is out there: you know—if someone has product X and they're in place Y, how do they do task Z? Come back and tell us. And it seems like what we are able to identify isn't a specific equation like that but a set of factors that influence how those situations are constructed and get responded to. And I was wondering—you know it's maybe a dangerous question, but I wanted to ask us as practitioners—is identifying those factors useful? Since our clients are really asking us to come back with something else, is what we are able to see and put our fingers on, is that useful to them?
Julie: I think that just the way that clients are asking the question and the way it's being experienced in the real world is often reflected in what we come back and tell them—that what's happening in people's lives doesn't map onto your organizational structure and the way that you have it siloed into these different areas—those two things don't compute. So you know—is it interesting...yes—is it useful...sometimes. I think it raises as many questions as it answers often, and the implications of those on an organization—companies often aren't willing to go there. Oh, it means you're actually going to have to restructure your entire organization if you're going to map back to how people actually experience your products. You're going to have to do that: there isn't an offline and an online, people are doing both at the same time, or going back and forth, but you have them separated—why? You know, people in the room are plugging their ears and humming a tune—they don't want to have to do that—it threatens their job.
Steve: Right. To talk about how their customers experience their offering across channels, and as you say, that's how they're structured—across channels. That'd be a funny thought exercise: imagine asking a customer about that. They have no sense of multiple channels—it's all the service.
Julie: Or what I'm trying to get done. It has nothing to do with even—they don't even realize there is such a word or thing as channels.
Steve: It goes back to that analog/digital thing we talked about, that people are behaving very analog, and this idea of trying to create the algorithm...and I wonder if it could be done, if you take someone with a PhD in Communication Theory and you do a five-year study and try and come up with some more in-depth patterns. But certainly at the scope we're working at, if we're coming up with the factors that might come out of that five-year study, I feel like it is useful because it reframes the conversation, it helps them understand triggers, you know, levers that they might start to press on, and opportunities to satisfy and to delight. But at this stage of things, there's unlikely to be a formula, like you were saying.
Julie: And I think that's really kind of what I love about doing this kind of work, is it is really about the mystery of what it is to be a human being, and what it is to make these choices and create these personalities and situations and families and communities that people do—I mean, there is no real way to understand it. You can understand parts of it and get clues and understand influencers and things like that. But I think it would take a lot of the fun out of being a human being if you understood every aspect of why. We're basically like Sherlock Holmes, like you said the other day, more than like Charles Darwin.
Steve: Right—you see garages full of stuff and messy homes and people not being clear how to use technology products and struggling to manage their identity, and doing all the things that we see as thematic patterns over and over again. I think we never stop being surprised by that, and amused and amazed by the people that we meet.
Dan: Yeah, I think you just really see over and over that needs are analog, you know? They're on a spectrum, and a log of solutions are digital, and they're just intersecting with that wide swath of need at a point.
Steve: Tell me more about needs being analog and solutions being digital—that's an interesting idea.
Dan: I just sort of wrapped up what I heard you guys saying, you know, that a person doesn't really experience channels, they experience what they need to get done. And I was thinking, yeah, your needs are analog—they bleed into other things, they're influenced by your emotions, they don't start and stop...
Julie: They're shifting, they're organic...
Dan: They're continuous and shifting—exactly—and solutions, by their very nature of being produced in these ways that we've talked about, are very finite.
Julie: More rigid.
Steve: That's what the Always-in-Beta people would claim—it's a philosophy of product development that has more organic-ness to it.
Julie: Yeah, definitely, it's allowing that element of change and evolution into the process—inviting it, rather than saying "Okay, we got it, we nailed it, what you need is..." and people saying, "Yeah, it's not what I need but it'll do, it'll do for now."
Dan: It's interesting if you think about, in your own life, trying to solve problems and trying to improve your ability to do the things that you want to do—like there's never a moment where you say, "Okay, I've got that mastered, now onto the next thing." It's like a problem bubbles to the surface and you focus your attention on it for a certain period of time, and then suddenly you realize you're not really thinking about it anymore. It's funny; it's like these low-involvement categories that we were talking about before, in a way a lot of the things that we need companies to produce for us—we sort of want them to be invisible almost. Just to kind of take care of the problem so that suddenly you realize you don't even have that problem—"how nice!"
Steve: It's kind of like film directing. Should you notice a good director or not? If you do, has the director failed? And as people become more involved with things like movies, they become more geeky about it, and choose to think about the set design or the costume design.
Dan: You get a Tarantino or something where you're really aware of that authorial voice.
Steve: That's the auteur theory, right? I'm digressing into film geekdom.
Dan: I'm trying to think of a director who's kind of invisible...
Steve: You don't know their names, though. Because there's not that voice—I mean, there's this meta-Tarantino thing that goes on where you're like, "I'm on this ride, I know the name of the ride, I'm gonna be aware of it the whole time"—that you're kind of in on the joke with them, you're in on the experience.
Dan: So of course as people become more aware of design in the same way, with things like Objectified, and just the public discussion about design, maybe you start to have more things like that—people experiencing their products like that.
Steve: We have to teach people the word chamfer.
Dan: Right. "Hey, check out my new gizmo—look at the radius on that."
Steve: Sweet chamfer, dude.
Dan: We're not so far from that moment, actually, in some ways.
Julie: Yeah. I don't know—does everything really need to be that designed, though? I mean, this idea of invisible products—there
are heroic products that are a presence in our lives, and some that should just be—like I don't need my toothbrush to look like a racecar—it's alright if it's just a toothbrush. I don't need that constant chaos of design languages coming at me all the time.
Steve: But there are hardly any toothbrushes left that just look like a toothbrush. I think the ones the dentists give away -
Dan: —I like those, actually -
Steve: —and maybe when you're stuck in a hotel overnight.
Julie: I know, but then you get those, and you're like, "Oh -"
Steve: —"What the hell? -"
Julie: —boring toothbrush.
Dan: Julie, when you were talking before about heirloom objects and iPods, I was thinking about how we're starting to see more and more drawers full and shelves full of old iPods. It's almost like that drawer full of old ugly cell phones that we always see is becoming a drawer full of beautiful iPods, but in a way...I'm not sure—is there more value there for the person or not? Because the cycle is still so short for these things. It's like Apple's almost designing against becoming heirloom objects.
Steve: I think they've created upgradeable, replaceable heirloom objects. They've created an ideal. So you keep reconsuming that ideal.
Julie: Reconsuming, I like that.
Steve: I just made that shit up.
For more information about Portigal Consulting, visit Portigal.com.