111 posts categorized "design"

Friday, 20 March 2009

Good Design Can Make You Happy

Stefan Sagmeister, renowned for the album covers he designed for Talking Heads and Rolling Stones, recounts some of the happy moments in his life. Many of these moments are related to good design.

One of these happy moments occurred on the NYC subway when Sagmeister came across a set of new Subway signs that were an art campaign by an artist named True. I could not find any articles about this campaign, nor the original images. But I did find a recreation of one of the graphics on the site of Chris Glass.

Life Instructions

Monday, 02 March 2009

No designer is an island

Sarah Nelson of Adaptive Path recommends a collaborative design process to help navigate through office politics and other hidden stakeholder agendas that can kill a design project.

I advocate for a very specific type of collaboration; I call it structured collaboration. It’s not rocket science but it can be a powerful addition to your toolbox. Unlike simply going into a room and working together informally, structured collaboration consists of thoughtfully designed work sessions, using visually-based techniques, physical materials (stickies, paper, pens) and planned activities to move the design process forward. Structured collaboration is loosely based on Participatory Design techniques, where users are directly engaged in the design process. Since these users are typically not designers, games, activities, and other visual tools help them express their ideas in ways designers can interpret. Structured collaboration does not replace other design tools; it simply helps designers better understand and balance the needs of a diverse set of constituents.

Collaborative design session illustration

Friday, 20 February 2009

Is Good Design Replicable?

Joshua Porter of bokardo.com asks "Is Good Design Replicable?"

I ask because many people seem to think process is the key to good design. For example, on almost every thread of the IxDA mailing list, there is an argument about which design methods are better…are personas better or is genius design better? What method or process should we be doing to get the best possible product? The implicit assumption is that if you perform some particular UX method then you’ll produce consistently better design: the right process = the right product.

So, the obvious question to ask is: Is there evidence that someone following a certain process produces great design every time?

Be sure to check out discussion that follows the article as well as on IxDA Discuss.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Great Design Hurts

At SxSW 2008, John Gruber Raconteur from Daring Fireball and Michael Lopp from Apple, discussed how great design hurts. The author at The Email Wars (I couldn't find a name) posted their notes from the panel, which include Lopp's summary of Apple's mysterious design process.

The core dilemma for talented designers in any field is this: If you strive for greatness in your design, you will meet resistance; if you strive to avoid resistance, you can’t do great design. Different is scary. Great design has to fight with the idea that many see “better” as meaning “more of the same”. The better your work and the higher your standards, the more you’ll have to fight against the urge to stay within the warm, safe confines of mediocrity.

I found more notes from the panel here and here.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

How to be a Free Thinker

Scott Berkun writes on how to be a free thinker. Free thinking is a critical skill for a designer because it is our job to make something better; to improve products and services. That can't be done if we don't know how to ask questions and challenge assumptions.

Ready? You are wrong. You are wrong much of the time. I’m wrong too and some of what I write in this essay will be wrong (except for this sentence). Even if you are brilliant, successful, happy and loved, you are wrong and ignorant more than you realize. This is not your fault. None of our theories about the world are entirely true and this is good. If we had perfect answers for things progress would be impossible, as to believe in the idea of progress requires belief in the many ignorances of the present. Look back in time 100, 50, or even 5 years, and consider how misguided the wisest, smartest people of those days were compared with what you know now. Governments, religions, cultures and traditions all change, despite what they say, and there is not a one of them still standing that is exactly the same as it was when it started. The traditions that have remained may have value, but ask yourself: who decided what to keep and what to throw away? And why did they decide what they decided? Without knowing the answers to the questions, how can you know exactly what it is you are right and wrong about in what you believe? Especially if these traditions have been changing for 100s or 1000s of years? It’s ok to be wrong if you learn something and grow from it. In fact often there’s no way to learn without making mistakes.

Anatomy of an Iteration

Jared Spool dissects the iteration process...

Iterations are key to successful design. They help reduce risk by letting us get all the bad ideas out of our system early, keeping only the best of the best.

Unfortunately, we've found that many teams don't know how to iterate effectively. Good iteration is a deliberate activity, with four important stages: planning, implementing, measuring, and learning. The best teams focus on each stage appropriately, making sure they get the most out of it. While iterations can be very short, (we've seen teams that can iterate a dozen times in a single day,) the best teams don't short change any of the stages.

Thursday, 05 February 2009

Design Process

Michael Bierut of Design Observer admits his real design process is different than the one put on proposals. And the real process is very true of anyone who makes things.

When I do a design project, I begin by listening carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you're lucky, I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can't really explain that part; it's like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem! Now, if it's a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I'm not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you're inclined to take my advice. I don't have any clue how you'd go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people — at least the ones I've told you about — have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, could you just sort of, you know...trust me?

This design process is discussed in the book Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work, written by Harvard Business School professor Rob Austin and Swarthmore College Theater professor Lee Devin. They advocate a process similar to Bierut's based on producing a play.

The authors take pains to point out that they're not advocating a "loose" process or one that lacks rigor. "A theater company," Austin and Devin point out, "consistently delivers a valuable, innovative product under the pressure of a very firm deadline (opening night, eight o'clock curtain). The product, a play executes again and again with great precision, incorporating significant innovations every time, but finishing within 30 seconds of the same length every time." They are careful to identify the defining characteristics of this kind of work: allowing solutions to emerge in a process of iteration, rather than trying to get everything right the first time; accepting the lack of control in the process, and letting the improvisation engendered by uncertainty help drive the process; and creating a work environment that sets clear enough limits that people can play securely within them. They call this artful making: in short, "any activity that involves creating something entirely new." This includes not just the obvious "arty" things, but, for instance, "a successful response to an unexpected move by a competitor" or "handling a sudden problem caused by a supplier."

Thursday, 29 January 2009

5 Design Decision Styles

Jared Spool and his crew have summarized the 5 design decision styles they've seen teams use:

  1. Unintended - focused on development and deployment
  2. Self - design for own use
  3. Genius - based on past design experiences
  4. Activity Focused - specific tasks
  5. User Focused - beyond activities into goals, needs, motivations

The order reflects the increasing amount of research the team employs to make decisions. While one could also think of the order as a growing maturity of the team, it turns out that each one has its place. Some projects don't warrant the costs, time, and resources necessary for extensive user research, but other projects will fail without it. Knowing when more extensive research is necessary is key to good experience design management.



Since the teams are working with different styles all the time, does it matter? Our research says it does. The teams that produced the best experiences knew these styles well and how to quickly switch between them. They knew when they needed to go whole hog and pull out all the stops for a User-Focused style project, while also knowing when it was important to bang out a quick design, knowing the results would essentially be unintended. Those teams had a rich toolbox of techniques and a solid understanding on how and when to use them.

Monday, 05 January 2009

Design Loves a Depression

The current downturn may ignite a new wave of design such as with Modernism during The Great Depression.

Design tends to thrive in hard times. In the scarcity of the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames produced furniture and other products of enduring appeal from cheap materials like plastic, resin and plywood, and Italian design flowered in the aftermath of World War II.

Will today’s designers rise to the occasion? “What designers do really well is work within constraints, work with what they have,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. “This might be the time when designers can really do their job, and do it in a humanistic spirit.”

In the lean years ahead, “there will be less design, but much better design,” Ms. Antonelli predicted.

Iconic chairs

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

What makes a "User Experience expert"?

RJ Owen asks and attempts to answer the question What makes a "User Experience expert"? He lists the top 5 things that distinguishes "real" UX professionals, which sparked a great discussion in the comments. Some highlights...

David Malouf:

What all UX practitioners agree to is the necessity of understanding user needs. This is not always what users ask for, but rather what they really need. It takes a lot of analysis to get tot he latent needs inside of manifest statements, but it is this "fuzzy" area where UX really does its magic and provides the greatest value.

stevenb:

I would disagree that UX is just another term for customer service. I agree that you can't have a great UX if your organization has lousy customer service, but I like to say that UX has a quality of totality to it. You might have great customer service, but if your website stinks that's going to bring down the whole experience. Or if your store is poorly laid out and people can't find things easily - that's going to impact on the UX. Every touchpoint needs to be a part of the overall UX.

Larry Marine:

User-experience is only part of a solution. It works in concert with other disciplines to help create the right solution that meets the users' needs and supports the business' objectives. The iPod change the user-experience of the day, but it also had good ID, packaging, and marketing. Remember, though, the older MP3 players had good marketing, ID, and packaging, too. But they lacked the user-experience that the iPod provides. And guess who owns the market?

This isn't to say that a good user experience can save a bad product, but a bad UX can certainly kill a a good product.


I have some of the most successful designs out there, and they are successful due, not to some self proposed design genius (that I most certainly do not posses), but, to relying on good user research. Einstein once said that if he had 20 days to solve a problem, he would spend the first 19 defining it and the last day solving it. Good user research defines the problem better than anything else. Don't rely on the "existing" problem statement. I've worked on over 250 different projects, and all, and I mean 100%, of them had a dramatically incorrect problem statement.

As I am known to say, without good user research, the best you can hope to do is solve the wrong problem, very well.

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