Friday, March 28, 2014

The Next Challenges for ChangeLabs, IdeaLabs and DesignLabs

John Thackara gave a considered talk on ‘What Makes A Change-Lab Successful’ at Science Gallery on Friday 14 March.

His theme was that “to effect system-level change in health, energy, food, or mobility, a first step is often to reframe the question. Grassroots innovation is emerging wherever people seek new ways to meet their daily life needs. So the question becomes: what are the best ways to support, connect and amplify these experiments?”

John Thackara. Photo by Uros Abram
He began with an overview of what he has learned from his years working in this area. In recent years there has been a proliferation of ‘Labs’ across the world. They use many names: Change-Labs, Design-Labs, Ideas-Labs. As traditional models of economic development have come to an impasse, these labs are exploring new models. People are investigating how to build social capital.

What the work of these Change-Labs has demonstrated is that people have no problem generating lots of good ideas. The greater challenges follow on from the initial ideation process. The first challenge is how to choose the best ideas from those generated. The second challenge is how to take the next actions arising from those best ideas. For many interconnected reasons putting useful ideas into practice is a lot more difficult than anticipated. The third challenge is how to make all the ideas work together in a long-term ecosystem.

There was a definite sense of optimism meets realpolitik to his introduction. But that kind of reality-check seems unsurprising to me.

He looked at the contemporary research area of ‘Smarter Cities’. All cities are already rich in (often vernacular) service ecologies. Many of the solutions Change-Labs brainstorming today already exist. He advised Change-Labs that they need to get better at looking back in time and across to other countries and cultures for applicable solutions. True success lies in minimising the amount of times that people reinvent the wheel.

He asked how can a city be vital in ways other than spending money? Most cities do not acknowledge their hinterlands. They depend on them for the food, materials, and energy they need to survive. So it is worth investigating how to reconnect cities with the land.

Change-Labs try to foster trust to activate their projects. This takes time and effort. He advised that they ought to get better at connecting with the ‘trust that already exists in many local place-based organisations’.

Addressing the role of ‘Design Thinking’, his view is that designers add true value in moving the process from discussing things on to making things. What I call delivering tangibility

Thackara posed a set of questions challenging a common business orthodoxy that only activities operating at a vast scale generate the greatest value.

  • What value can accrue from that which cannot scale?
  • What value can accrue from within the local living economy. 
  • So-called ‘wicked’ problems are more meaningful when they are “unique to here”. 
  • What methods of collaboration will succeed within your specific context? 
  • What coalitions and platforms are possible within your specific context? 

One particularly interesting statement was his observation that there are lots of one-person Change-Labs out there. “There are innovators everywhere.” How can we create informal social structures that will support those change agents? Otherwise he is concerned that they will burn-out without achieving their true potential. “Change is not a trick we find in a Lab; it needs social supports.”

At a macro level, he suggested that Change-Labs could contemplate how they operate as an integrated combination of: Space, Place, People and Time.

His key insight concerned the issue of project timeframes. Most Change-Labs think and act in short-term and medium-term timeframes, due to the political and cultural contexts they operate in. To effect more significant change they need to begin to act in medium-term and long-term timeframes. In practice this means that the people who finish a project are not those who instigate it. So Change-Labs need to build self-sustaining projects with longevity baked-in.

He identifies the greatest issue facing Change-Labs as that gap between creating the initial big idea and realising the intended long-term impact. Change-Labs have a two-to-five year interstitial period in which to build “coalitions of constellations” that they can work with to tackle their chosen problems.

Thackara’s thesis is that Change-Labs need to transition from their current output-based processes to interconnected ecosystem-based processes. He posited that to be more successful they need to learn how to build “mindful systems-based and time-aware processes” which come after their Design Thinking activities.

Given the research I have been conducting into this topic, Thackara’s experienced-based observations and high-level analysis does raise many valid questions for anyone considering applying Design Thinking to tackle complex problems.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Offset Conference Themes 2014

This year’s Offset creative conference was a refreshing recharge for my creative batteries. I saw a lot of interesting and inspirational work over three enjoyable days. I experienced a lot of new creative work that I was unfamiliar with. Measured on that basis this conference delivers.

The most common style of presentation is where people showcase their work throughout their career while also imparting some wisdom they have learned along the way. This is a challenge on many levels. With an audience of over two thousand creatives from many different industry sectors, the inclination is to speak in broad principles rather than in specifics. With more than twenty other presenters imparting similar insights, there is a lot of scope for crossover.

Rather than write up my notes on each presentation this year, I made this list of aphorisms from presenter’s key slides instead. All are from the formal presentations on the main stage, rather than the discussions and debates on the secondary stages. The presenters expressed a lot of shared sentiments. I have anonymised, reordered, and mixed this selection of their messages. This representative list may reveal an emergent theme for the whole conference.

  • Be uncompromising in your approach. 
  • Be true to your own heart. 
  • Great work comes from passion.
  • Dig deep. 
  • Always be curious. 
  • Always ask questions. 
  • Find your own authentic voice and speak with it very loudly. 
  • Explore your identity through your work. 
  • Pay attention to what you do when no-one is paying you.  
  • Talk less about making things: just go and make things. 
  • Everything is a design problem. 
  • Coming up with ideas is the easy part. 
  • Embrace ambiguity. 
  • Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. 
  • Build a process that delivers the unexpected. 
  • Be fearless.
  • Almost all fear is bullshit.  
  • Dive in head first. 
  • Don’t be afraid to lose control. 
  • Make trouble. 
  • Explore, fail, and fail again. 
  • Set yourself constraints. Play by your own rules (and break them).
  • Focus on your work/play balance; not your work/life balance. 
  • Play is your most important activity. 
  • Get away from your computer. 
  • Think outside the box.*
  • Don’t learn creativity: unlearn restrictions. 
  • Keep simplifying until you can’t simplify anymore. 
  • The parts that no-one sees can be the most important.  
  • Try to interrupt the dominant narrative. 
  • Always over-deliver. 
  • Respect your client.  
  • Invest in progress. 
  • One good thing leads to another. 
  • Fight for what you believe in. 
  • Never say die. 
  • Don’t be an asshole. 

One concern I am grappling with is that the speakers are just delivering broad generalities. Perhaps I am expecting too much. I may be better off just appreciating the exceptional creative work on its own merits and being less concerned about any advice on how to find success and happiness in a design-centric career.

*Yes, someone actually stood in front of two thousand creatives and advised them to think outside the box.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Brand

One of the challenges of working in brand consultancy are the many overlapping meanings of the word ‘brand’ itself. 

Each client brings along slightly different interpretations of ‘brand’ when they engage with branding services. Some are better informed and have a more fully-rounded understanding of the scope of branding. Often different people within the same organisation use the word to refer to different ideas. To complicate matters further, different brand consultancies then offer their own interpretations of ‘brand’ depending on their particular mix of competencies and services.

To get a sense of the variety of meaning you can start with a dictionary definition of brand and the Wikipedia entry. Neither provides much clarity. Brand is an expansive category term (like ‘design’ and ‘technology’) which includes many sub-meanings within itself.

It irks me when commentators, journalists, academics, and particularly brand consultants (who should know better) decide to use the single word ‘brand’ in reference to many of these alternate interpretations within one article, or even within one paragraph. While this often suits their own rhetorical ends, it confuses their readers.

This variation of interpretation is an important factor to bear in mind when discussing brand with clients. Obviously it is essential that both parties in a conversation about brand are referring to the same idea. Particularly in a group discussion when contributors may bring many interpretations.

Rather than retreat into the academic literature to scope out the complete gamut of meanings, what I want to do in this post is record the actual usage I encounter. These are the common interpretations which I find that I have to engage with in my day-to-day conversations with Irish organisations. This is not yet an exhaustive list. I may add to it later.

The Minimalist Interpretation
Brand is limited to meaning only a logo or a symbol.
“We are commissioning the design of a new brand for application onto our website, literature, vehicles and stationery.”
(Also notably used in the evergreen scandalous rebranding news story: “Outrage At €20k Spent On New Logo for NameCo!”)

The Maximalist Interpretation
Brand is intrinsic and encompasses almost all of an organisation’s activities.
“If marketing is the talk, then branding is the walk.”

The Corporate-Identity Interpretation 
Brand as a set of assets which includes a brand mark, colour palettes, typefaces, imagery style, and graphic patterns, etc. It defines a structure upon which to build a coherent visual expression for an organisation.
“Refer to our Brand Usage Standards for guidance on how to use our brand.”

The Purpose-Based Interpretation
Brand is an emergent property arising from an organisation’s Mission, Vision and Values.
“The Board of Directors held an all-day workshop to define the new brand strategy.”

The Reputation-Based Interpretation
Brand as a synonym for the organisation’s reputation.
“The expenses scandal has dramatically weakened the NameCo brand.”

The Relationship-Based Interpretation
Brand exists in the mind of customers and informs their relationship with the organisation.
“Our brand is our promise to you.”

The Internal-Cultural Interpretation
An organisation’s brand resides in its people: in their culture, processes and practises.
“Our HR team is our greatest asset in building our brand. Everyone one of us must live the brand.”

The Experiential Interpretation
Brand is every experience that every customer has with every touchpoint of an organisation.
“Our app always brings you that authentic NameCo experience wherever you are.”

The Narrative Interpretation 
Brand is the story that an organisation tells to its customers, to its own people, and to all other interested parties.

The Exclusive Interpretation 
Brand used as a noun referring to luxury goods, or to the premium product sector in general.
“Consumer spending on brands has decreased in the last twelve months.”

The Personal Interpretation
Every one of us has our own personal brand, which we must steward to maximise our personal success and happiness.
“You are the full-time CEO of BrandYou.”

The conundrum is that the concept of ‘brand’ can indeed include all those interpretations, each being facets of the whole. Indeed that complexity is part of the fascination of devoting precious time and attention to the topic.

Some of these interpretations are more inclusive and others more restrictive. Given that interpretation is subjective, then none is necessarily more correct than any other. More importantly they are not mutually exclusive either.

Different client organisations will focus on particular facets when parsing their specific challenges. Different brand advisors specialise in addressing sub-sets of the gamut of branding activities. The ideal is in best matching the client’s requirements with the appropriate brand consultant’s area of expertise. But as a profession we do not always make that as easy as is should be.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Thought Experiment: Infinite Spotify Playlists Via Procedurally-Generated Tracks

I use Spotify to listen to a lot of instrumental music when working; as it is less distracting than music with vocals. The Spotify Radio feature generates an effectively nigh-infinite playlist of tracks based on the characteristics of a chosen source genre, artist or track.

What appeals to me about this technology is that is encourages a very different mindset from that fostered by the old economic models. I actually like the idea of hearing lots of novel music without knowing who the artists are and quite likely never hearing that one particular piece of music ever again. It can be a river of sound: never the same experience twice.

However, how comprehensive are those playlists today? At what point would the artists or songs start to repeat themselves too much?

It strikes me that one factor which makes Spotify Radio so compelling is that it allows you to hone in on your own favourite sub-niches of sub-niches of sub-niches within musical genres. But at a certain point surely any personalised niche becomes a finite set. Perhaps it is defined by a set period of geography or of time: no-one makes music of that sort any more. Or perhaps it is defined by a small set of artists, or other such variables.

Could we reach a point in the future where Spotify, or similar services, were able to enhance such playlists with their own procedurally-generated music? Thus giving each user their own ultimately personalised music stream.

What I wonder about is the state-of-the-art regarding computer-generated music. Has the technology advanced to the point such that an algorithm could take a detailed blueprint of the DNA of a particular musical sub-genre (such as Pandora’s Music Genome) and then create novel variations on, and iterations from, those conventions? And, most critically, whether the best results would then rise above the levels of musak? I imagine that this would be more readily achievable for instrumental genres, as including lyrics and vocals would add another layer of complexity.

Before all of the Muso-Purists create a flame war in the comments section about musical integrity and whats real,  lets consider the following. What if for many users the job-to-be-done for Spotify turns out not to be the high-end ideal of “find me great artists whom I can follow and develop an ongoing appreciation for the complete depth of their back catalogue”. Rather what if the job-to-be-done was the more prosaic “find me a large amount of novel music that sounds like the kind of music I prefer”. There is a subtle distinction between those two use-cases. Spotify's marketing emphasises the former (perhaps to keep today's iteration of the music industry on-side) but they could be equally successful serving the second need.

Now perhaps the world’s musical output will always be enough to back-fill people’s infinite playlists. (Given that there already at least one dedicated service for playing only the millions of never-played tracks already on Spotify.) But it is also not beyond the realms of imagination to see such user-customised tracks slipping into playlists at some point in our not-to-distant-future.

This may not be a business which Spotify themselves would wish to enter. If so, then perhaps there is a gap in the market for businesses to start creating such content.

(I am thinking of blogging a few short thought experiments of novel features or blue-sky ideas for products and services that I use regularly.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


(Being a palette cleanser after my last heavy-duty blog post.)

Descriptagram is an idea for a small creative writing side-project. It is an exercise in brevity and clarity. It begins with the question: if a picture is worth a thousand words, what happens when you summarise that picture in 140 characters?

I scanned through my Instagram feed and attempted to capture the essence of select images using the minimum of words. Interestingly, the juxtaposition of content in this written list is far more dissonant compared with viewing the source images within the app.

“Disembodied head of a vintage shop mannequin: seventies-chic, cracked lipstick, disappointing hair.”
“Desiccated orange starfish atop a variety of grey pebbles.”
“Four bright green fractal broccoli arranged square-wise on the rich brown hues of a wooden table.”
“Mandarin Chinese characters finger-written in the mist of a window’s condensation sheen.”
“Close-up of distressed street lettering – disintegrated white paint on a black tar road.”
“Random metal letterpress type characters arranged within a steel tray, mostly serifed capitals.”
“Landscape: four-fifths dark night sky to one-fifth tiny lights delineating the vastness of a city grid.”  
“A pair of hipster spectacles completely disassembled on a wooden table.”
“Midnight. Red. Green. Blue. A neon sign’s lettering reflected onto water surface.”
“Rusty, weathered, fifties-era Vegas motel sign contrasted against a bright blue sky.”
“Close-up of overly ornate letterforms from a Victorian advert (bonus naive pro-smoking message).”
“Long shot of dark tree trunks covered in snow. Colour image appears faux-monochrome.”
“Sunrise viewed through silhouettes of leafless trees. Elongated shadows creating emphasised perspective.”
“Wrinkly young puppy asleep on a cushion; indoors, no flash, amber hues.”
“Predictable birds-eye view of a cappuccino; starkness of white cup contrasts details in wood grain of table.”
“Poorly-kerned vernacular typography. With the obligatory scathingly superior comment appended.”

I may continue this exercise in a dedicated Twitter account. Its longevity would depend on how quickly the novelty of sentence construction devolves into similarity and pattern repetition. I guess I should go and research some Haiku...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes and Thoughts From The ‘Designing Growth’ Event

As part of Design Week 2013, Dublin City Council’s Pivot Dublin organised ‘Designing Growth’ – a panel discussion on how design could be harnessed to drive growth in Ireland. The event was promoted as “a discussion on ways to develop new and better public services, communication platforms, education and business models through design”. These are my notes from the evening’s discussion, along with some further thoughts on my ongoing investigations of Design Thinking.

Four of the five panellists were international speakers:
Marco Steinberg, Founder of Snowcone & Haystack
Robin Edman, CEO of the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation
Maureen Thurston, Design Principal at Deloitte Australia
Enrique Avogadro, Head of the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Design District

The fifth panellist was John Moran, the Secretary General of the Department of Finance. Representing the beneficiaries, rather than the providers, of ‘Design Thinking’, John was asking the skeptical questions about what precisely that methodology could add to the public sector and to broader state policy.

Ali Grehan, Dublin City Architect and Pivot Dublin representative, set the scene by positioning the evening’s event as the starting point for a conversation about a national vision for design. She expressed her belief that Ireland needs to develop a National Design Strategy which addresses our specific context and our particular needs. She stressed that in forming such a strategy we should learn as much as we can from international best practice: hence the panel of international speakers.

Some initial definitions of ‘Design’ and ‘Design Thinking’

Steinberg — Design brings coherence to things. In terms of public policy, ‘Design Thinking’ is another tool to better ensure that the policies you build are robust and fit for purpose. Design Thinking is useful for creating simpler solutions (that is, better solutions). In many regards designers can contribute like economists and engineers, by adding their expertise into a collective process. For example, one of their useful roles on a team is to be the ‘proposition-based’ thinkers; in counterpoint to the ‘analysis-based’ thinkers.

Edman — The key differentiator of ‘Design Thinking’ is that you do not just step through your process and once you have ticked-off all of the actions on your checklist then you are done. With Design Thinking you are stepping into the unknown: you need to be brave. You must iterate and learn as you go along, without knowing precisely where the process is eventually going to lead you.

Thurston — The value of ‘Design Thinking’ can be as an alternative to traditional problem-solving methodologies. More people need to understand and appreciate the values and utility of Design Thinking within the earlier ‘Problem-Finding’ and ‘Problem-Defining’ stages; before using it in to the more expected ‘Problem-Solving’ stage.  A key benefit of teaching people to use Design Thinking is they then learn to approach problems with an open mind, rather than relying upon bringing along their pre-considered solutions (even when such solutions have proved effective for similar problems in the past).

On Promoting Design

Edman’s argument was to stop attempting to promote the Irish design industry and Irish designers. Do not elevate them onto a pedestal and then promote them using the lingua franca of the design sector. Rather you need to promote ‘Design’ by focusing on the buyers of, and the users of, design. (At the same time, he added that the Irish design sector does need to raise its game and learn to position its design services at a higher level, so that it can then become a welcomed contributor to government policy-forming.)

Steinberg on Public Sector and Policy

In my view, Marco Steinberg was the most engaging of the four ‘Design Thinking’ panelists on the night. His particular areas of focus seemed most concerned with public services.

“Redesigning public service can no longer just be about making your existing processes and services increasingly efficient any more. Given the scale of cuts over recent years you now need to totally rethink many public services from the ground up. One critical question then becomes: what is the skill-set needed to re-imagine, re-invent and transform your public services at the required scale?

Too much of existing policy-making uses a general vernacular design process (“This is how we do it” and “It is just common sense”). There is a discipline of ‘Design For Policy’ which is about formally leveraging Design Thinking as part of your policy-making process. You can use those methods to investigate and address these three questions to solve policy issues in an integrated manner:

  • What is your culture?
  • What are your tools? 
  • What are your procedures? 

Policy-makers need to become far more comfortable playing with ideas and with failing. Learning to fail is critical to the Design Thinking methodology. Then, failing faster is a key way of learning and ultimately becoming wiser.”

Steinberg noted that when he advances that particular line of argument he often gets a lot of push-back from the public sector. In their view they do explore already, and they do iterate to develop new initiatives, and they do pilot them. While that may indeed be the case, he argues that cycle times need to be questioned, as most are far too slow. As an example, he claimed that some global corporations may iterate aspects of their services 15 times in a single day.

There is a need is to innovate government itself and ultimately to change the culture of the public sector. For example, he asked, what if the public sector tried to move from providing services to providing platforms, along the lines of the Kickstarter model? This could be a mechanism that channels activism into something more useful. As most activism tends to burn-out over the longer term unfortunately.

A mission critical question is where would such an innovative design capability exist? If you place it at the centre of your public service then it will be crushed by incumbents and vested interests. If you place it on the outside it will be seen as separate and ultimately irrelevant. The optimal point is at the periphery. If it operates along the edges (near delivery of services?) then it will have more of a chance of being effective and engendering substantive change.

John Moran Responds

“A post-crisis Ireland has to be open to reinvention. So we do need the design-process mindset more than ever before. We have to redesign a lot of what Ireland does. We have to design a new economic model for this country. (We tried just selling houses to each other and that did not work out so well!) What I think ‘Design Thinking’ can contribute to that process is a Culture Of Innovation that can help us to find a way for this country to be the best that it can be.

I believe that the underlying ideas being discussed here are correct, but I remain unconvinced about the ‘Design Thinking’ label. What you all call ‘Design’ and ‘Design Thinking’, we simply call ‘Policy-Making’ within the Department of Finance. And I think that lots of other people in other areas already practice such ‘Design Thinking’ as well. Surely many applications of this methodology do not necessarily require designers. Within this new paradigm we have to ask who is a designer, and who is not a designer?”

My Own Thoughts

The topic of ‘Design Thinking’ (and its related field of Service Design) is something that I have an ongoing interest in. I have been wrestling with how to incorporate it into my own professional practice for some time. Its cross-disciplinary nature is a big part of its appeal to me. The fact that Design Thinking is just as a valid topic of investigation for business schools as it is for design educators is interesting. They are both converging on the same topic from different directions.

It is noteworthy that as senior a figure as the General Secretary of the Department of Finance is interested in engaging with design thinkers to investigate what benefits their methodology can contribute. It is disheartening when the design representatives can not then deliver a unified elevator pitch for the benefits of Design Thinking. In that sense I think that ‘Designing for Growth’ was somewhat of a lost opportunity. In my interpretation, one of the (perhaps unspoken) purposes behind this event was to move design thinkers a step closer to a seat at the Big Table.

After this event, I did find myself asking: if John Mahon had wholeheartedly embraced the idea of leveraging ‘Design Thinking’ methodologies within the policy-creating function of the Department of Finance – who would he then turn to for delivery of that service? Which, if any, Irish design firms actually can offer that service at the appropriate level today? Or is it being offered by any of the business strategy units within the large Irish management consultancies? Or would he have to look to international management consultancies at present?

There is also another interesting discussion to be had exploring the reality that there is going to be an inherent conflict between any efforts at bringing a lean, light, fast-moving, iterative, design-informed process into a public sector where innovation is still constrained by cautious, slow-moving procurement policies built to counteract financial prolificacy and wasteful spending. Where are the spaces for the sorts of experimentation needed to investigate the most ambiguous problems?

The malleability of the meanings of the words ‘Design’ and ‘Designer’ in this evening’s discussion has to be telling. The catch-all term ‘design’ being perhaps too all-inclusive to be truly useful in these kinds of discussions, given that it can signify a mindset, an activity, and a practice, as well as an atypically broad industry sector which includes many different sub-sectors of activity with vastly varying business models. (But, having said that, what other term could be used in its place?) As more activities are included within ever-broader definitions of ‘Design’, then the term becomes more vague and less useful. That breadth of definition may be part of what confuses the issue whenever trying to discuss topics such as ‘Design In Ireland’.

Although I think that it is still only somewhat loosely defined within the various design sectors, it seems clear that the phrase ‘Design Thinking’ does make sense within the industry as a useful differentiator that allows certain designers to position themselves higher up the stack and so to capture greater value. So within the design sectors that phrase can be a useful signifying differentiator which is understood as being contrasted against other forms of design activity. While I do not think that those other activities are considered to be ‘un-thinking’, those forms of design activity are necessarily set in counterpoint as being somewhat less analytical or rational. In every field of human activity we always have to account for the Narcissism Of Small Differences. Therefore it is unsurprising when, within the broad church of design, a rationalist tendency should seek mechanisms to define their activities as distinctly separate from (what we can refer to as) a more instinctual tendency.

The communicative problem then arises when that intra-sector signifier ‘Design Thinking’ has to be parsed and interpreted by the purchasers of design services. It seems probable that, rather than considering Design Thinking against other forms of designing, they are considering it against other forms of thinking. I suspect that was one factor informing John Moran’s comments this evening. So it seems to me that one open challenge for the design sector is to find a better way to explain ‘Design Thinking’ in a less self-referential manner.

Also, to gain broader acceptance of its various methodologies, it is important that ‘Design Thinking’ is not positioned as some form of panacea. That line of thinking is obviously nonsensical, but it does still tend to be a theme that these conversations can circle around. For that reason I found similarities between this event and the discussions at this Summer’s IxDA ‘Design & Thinking’ event.

To me ‘Design Thinking’ can be usefully understood as another tool in the mental toolkit, offering a different perspective that works best within a broader collective process. It can obviously be approached from many different directions, each dependent on the professional’s own expertise. My current notion (well, for today at least) is that some of the most useful manifestations of ‘Design Thinking’ may lie in collaborations between business strategists who can think creatively on one hand, and strategically-minded designers with a bias for integrated thinking on the other. But I still have a lot more thinking to do on this topic.


It took me a few weeks to carve out time to assemble my notes from the event into this post. That delay has had one benefit in that during the interval Clay Shirky posted his article ‘ and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality’. Shirky’s dissection of the mis-management of the Obamacare online service delivery is as strong an argument as any I have read for the benefits of an iterative, prototyping and testing-based methodology for public services.

Read Pivot Dublin’s own review of this event here.


It is important to clarify that all of the attributed statements in this post are paraphrased from my own (fairly concise) notes and none are verbatim quotations. As usual, if I have seriously misquoted anyone please do let me know.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Messenger 3.0 Icon Redesign

Last year I wrote about Facebook making the design of all of their app icons more consistent. Yesterday’s release of their Messenger 3.0 app indicates that they have now reversed last year’s decision. What can we possibly intuit about their branding strategy from this tactical design decision?

In the new icon a bright blue iOS7-flavoured oval speech bubble on a white background replaces the previous round-rec speech bubble reversed out of the darker Facebook blue. The new oval bubble looks a lot more friendly and presents a far less corporate impression. So much so that the inset lightning bolt symbol now looks somewhat too harsh.

Previous Messenger icon in the centre.
So, why might Facebook decide to take such a different direction with the icon design for this release? Firstly, and most obviously, they have visually refreshed the complete app UI to benefit from the new design conventions of iOS7. The new icon needs to signify this.

One of the other jobs-to-be-done by the previous icon was to send a strong, clear signal of this app’s Facebook provenance. It seems that is no longer a requirement for this new design. (Note my related observation that although the Facebook app was also updated yesterday its icon has not been redesigned into a corresponding white lowercase ‘f’ within a blue circle on a white background.)

It turns out that the most immediate precedent for this new icon design may be Facebook’s Poke app launched in late 2012. (Does anyone remember Poke? When grabbing its icon off the App Store I could not help but notice that the app has never once been updated. A telling comparison to the main Facebook app which seems to get a revision every fortnight at least.)

But looking beyond the aesthetics of the new icon, there are more substantive issues being signalled by these design decisions. For the first time, this latest release of Messenger now allows users to message people who are not their Facebook Friends by accessing their phone’s address book. Adding this feature now puts Messenger into direct competition with Apple’s pre-installed Messages app. More tellingly this functionality signals a response to the significant growth in messaging apps such as WeChat, Viber and Whatsapp over the past year. (Services such as the sticker-messaging app Line and the disposable photo-sharing app Snapchat can be included within this category as well.) All of these apps are capturing market share at an accelerated rate. Their single-use model is understood to be attractive to those users who see Facebook’s range of bundled services as overwrought and complex.

There are some prevalent icon conventions within this category.

Facebook’s overall rate of uptake and engagement with the teen demographic has been slowing. Teens are among the most active users of messaging service apps. Any increased fragmentation within the messenger app marketplace is an issue for Facebook over the long term. So this release of Messenger needs to address those factors. Deliberately de-emphasising the Facebookishness of this app is a step towards re-engaging with those demographics who perceive Facebook as being too unwieldy for their needs. Messaging has become an increasingly competitive area of focus for all of the social networks, so I think that we can expect a lot of activity and innovation in the coming months.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Experiments not Features

One of the more interesting conversations that piqued my interest while watching the live feed from this week’s Web Summit was Jay Bregman, co-founder of Hailo, explaining their evolving methodology of ‘Experiments Not Features’. 

During the summit’s ‘Going Global’ session Bregman explained some aspects of Hailo’s business model. (His comment about Hailo eventually becoming a platform for many more service transitions than taxi rides is also something worth a blog post all of its own some time.)

Hailo works effectively as a network because “it is local and it appears local”. What that means for the business is that each of their markets operates slightly differently. The overall global network learns a little from each different market, which then feeds into refinements to the master model for more efficient and effective roll-out in future cities.

Because Hailo needed to be a global company from the offset, they deliberately planned not to have one centralised headquarters. Rather their model is to have “centres of gravity” in Asia, North America and Europe. This makes them more sensitive to the specific localised needs of the cities they are serving.

There are three primary implications arising from that corporate structure: firstly they need superb integrated processes and secondly they need excellent internal communications. The third implication relates to their underlying technology. As they are a global network, they have to look as coherent as possible to all of their consumers. Therefore it is mission-critical that they can identify which proposed technological deviations/innovations are truly beneficial for any local market, and which are merely personal preferences. This is where their experimental methodology kicks in.

Bregman claims Hailo has “had to build one of the best A/B mobile testing platforms”. This is allowing them to run massive large scale tests – with the vision that ultimately they can test everything. So if the Dublin operation wants to modify some aspect of the technology platform in future, rather than request a new feature, they would simply be able to run a live test. Then, if they can prove that it produces better results in their city, they can implement it.

On one hand reading this just sounds like common sense – A/B testing is a not new methodology. But the fact that today’s technology now facilitates companies runnig large scale live experiments in real-time is becoming profoundly disruptive. Behind-closed-doors development of digital services design is counterproductive, iterating in public is becoming the proven methodology for success.

It is worth thinking through how this approach effects product development roadmaps and workflows, increases the pace of innovation, and ultimately delivers greater responsiveness to customer needs.

Here is the video of the Web Summit ‘Going Global’ session which features Jay Bregman co-founder of Hailo, and Niklas Adalberth co-founder of Klarna, moderated by Niklas Zennstrom co-founder of Skype.

PostScript: for a complementary take on this subject, have a read of Dan Frommer’s post from the same date: ‘The Best Part Of Twitter’s New Design Is That It’s Experimenting In Public’.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Excisions And Omissions from ‘Thinking Out Loud’

There are some differences between the printed edition and this online version of my blog. While it may be possible that not many copies of the volume will be printed, I wanted to note those differences here.

My initial impulse for creating the print-on-demand edition was to produce an archival volume of my complete blog. Therefore, I originally included every blog post in the manuscript. However, typesetting everything resulted in a far greater page count than I had anticipated. So I needed to edit my existing content down to a page count that I was more comfortable with.

One complicating factor in deciding which material to excise is that my own perception of the ‘job to be done’ for my blog has evolved over the years. So I had to make decisions about a variety of different classes and categories of blog posts. I decided that the essence of what I most usefully wanted to record in the volume was my own thinking. So firstly I could dispense with all of my published posts where that was not the core focus.

Many of my early posts from 2004 and 2005 were merely web links with short accompanying descriptions, and that text was often only cut and pasted from the linked source page. This was before Evernote had evolved to its current form. One of my primary uses for my blog during that time was as a searchable online archive. There was no value in including that class of posts when editing the volume. I did decide to retain a very small number of such minor posts from 2004 that convey some sense of what finding my feet in my early days of blogging was like.

In retrospect it seems surprisingly prescient or somewhat telling that my second and third posts were concerned with initial attempts at uploading content into the Blogger CMS using my 2004-era featurephone. Wholly without prior consideration on my part, those first brief posts turned out to be the seeds of one of the stronger emergent themes of the collection. So while it may have taken time to find my voice, some of my themes were there right from the start.

Then in 2008, while I was blogging my way through my Masters, I began to cross-post some pertinent tweets onto this blog in a Thought for the Day series. I have retained those tweets within the printed volume but, rather than typeset them as complete posts, I gathered them together in the first appendix.

Also during 2008 I ran a complementary series of posts called Quote of the Day highlighting some interesting or inspiring quotations that I had come across during my MA research. As none of those posts included my own commentary I omitted all of them.

I posted the majority of my MA original research on Blogging in the Irish Graphic Design Sector onto this blog as well. I omitted the substantial amount of my quantitative research, which is mostly voluminous check-lists of Irish design companies’ social media activities during 2009. All of that research material still remains available online and would have seemed incongruous and redundant within the printed edition.

There were some interesting (and popular) posts which I omitted solely due to their lack of any of my own commentary, such as the evergreen Colin Powell’s Rules of Leadership. For any number of reasons, not least copyright violation, I did not want to republish any directly reblogged content.

Another small number of posts were so dependant on embedded video that they made little sense within the context of a book.

Finally I had to make some judgement calls. I omitted certain posts that concerned friends and family. While there would be no reason to retroactively whitewash those posts out of the online blog (they are still available here) they just did not contribute enough to the overall arc of my blog to warrant their inclusion.

All of those excisions gave me a more focused manuscript without losing sight of my original intent of producing a representative printed archive of my writing on this blog.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Book ‘Thinking Out Loud’

So I decided to make a book version of this blog. I made it for myself. It is called Thinking Out Loud and it looks like this. 

Given that so much of my writing on this blog is essentially Digital-First Advocacy, it is worth addressing the question of why I have invested time and effort into reconfiguring my blog writing into a paper-based artifact? There are a set of related answers to that question.

The first reason is the sense of agency achieved by creating an alternative second home for my writing that exists apart from the Blogger platform. My current belief is that Google’s Blogger product is unlikely to be depreciated within the next few years, as was the case with Google Reader which they closed down in July of this year. That said, since I do not host my own blog on my own server, I have to be very respectful of the fact that every single word I have published on this platform since 2004 is always only ever available at the whims of Google. So there is a lot be said for being able to read this material in a separate context not beholden to Google or to anyone else. While a printed edition hardly counts as a viable back-up, there is something (non-logically) reassuring about having my complete blog in one discrete container in my shelf.

While doing some work-related research into ebook publishing at the end of last year I became intrigued with the idea of this blog existing as an ebook. After that initial idea took hold, a cloud of unanswered questions occurred to me. What different characteristics might my blog exhibit when reconfigured within a book format? (Even as the person most familiar with this blog, I still find it challenging to comprehensively conceive of its remit, scope, and what I can only think of as its overall shape.) Would a hard copy make that shape more comprehensible and apparent to me? Would my writing read any differently when presented on paper as opposed to on screen? Was there any overarching narrative themes to my writing over the years? And would those themes become more apparent when presented in a traditional oldest-to-newest chronology? (Blogger presents posts in a reversed chronology, with the latest posts first and older material progressively further downstream.)

What started out as a seemingly uncomplicated idea – producing a hard copy archive of what I had written on this blog – took on a life of its own and my little side-project hobby gradually expanded its scope.

The ‘minimal viable product’ approach would have been just to re-purpose this blog as an electronic book for my Kindle. After considering the amount of work involved in producing an ebook, it seemed to be only a short distance from doing that to creating a physical on-demand printed version. In retrospect, I was very very wrong about that.

To make the book, I had to take on the roles of sub-editor, designer, typesetter, and proof-reader. As a result of taking that one-man-band approach, completing this book needed precisely zero meetings, emails, phone calls , or other mechanisms of coordination. Obviously then, any and all errors of comprehension, argument, logic, reasoning, referencing, attribution, spelling and typography are solely my own responsibility.

Firstly, I needed to correct the assorted typos and grammatical errors that I uncovered. As I originally intended the print-on-demand edition to be an accurate archive of the online version, I made all of those corrections within the Blogger CMS. I did not want to fork the content and end up with an alternative improved version on my own bookshelf and the less polished version representing me online.

For various reasons, above and beyond the fact of an unreasonable page count, I ultimately decided that I needed to edit out all of the posts which did not logically or usefully translate across to a printed edition. However, I left in as much material as possible. So this is definitely not an edited-highlights version of my blog. It still includes plenty of examples of my early writing that personally I find somewhat challenging to re-read.

Admittedly, most of the free time I would normally have spent writing new blog posts this year has been absorbed with all those inter-related tasks involved in putting together a book. That is my explanation for the paucity of all-new posts that I have published so far this year. So there was a definite opportunity cost in pursuing this project. Arguably, producing this book may not have been the optimal use of my spare cycles. But, in counterpoint to that, I wanted to create a tangible realisation of my existing writing. I thought that having the book would being me some joy and a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

My initial reaction to having the physical object since yesterday is that – even though I might be tending towards being ‘Mr. Digital’ these days – I have to admit that holding a printed copy of your own book in your hands is very satisfying.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I made this book for myself. Now having my own hard copy sitting on my bookshelf realises my original intention. That said, I have published this book using which means it is also available to order print-on-demand for anyone else who is interested in having their own copy. Print and delivery took just under two weeks for my copy.

You can purchase copies of Thinking Out Loud here.

Everything included in the print on-demand version will always remain available online here. This blog will still be the canonical version, due to it being both pointable-at and deep-linkable-to. The print on-demand version is a snapshot in time.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blogs as Apps

For the first time I am actively considering the possibility that this blog could migrate to a different publishing platform. Google’s Blogger platform – although it is incrementally much improved – has not been fundamentally reconfigured in the nine years that I have been using it. The online publishing environment has evolved significantly over that time. Blogger is a stable and dependable product. However, whether it still remains the best platform for this particular blog is now an open question. Specifically I am thinking now about a potential future where I could publish this blog within a stand-alone iOS app. A line of thinking directly inspired by Craig Mod’s ‘Subcompact Publishing’ article from November 2012.

Mod’s key points are that online publishing today needs simple tools wrapped in minimal containers. Readers need to be able to subscribe to an author’s writing in the most simple efficient manner. RSS never made much sense for consumers. So creating a better kind of consumer-facing RSS is a useful first step. Then, given the devices people read on today there is need for optimal clarity and precision in the presentation of content within a minimal UI. He states that any novel subcompact publishing is future-facing, as its customers are most likely to be emergent content producers rather then incumbents, who by definition are embedded within an existing publishing system.

The conversations coalescing around the desire for a potential “Moveable Type For Mobile Publishing” suggest an idea whose time may have arrived. The quality and breadth of discussion inspired by Mod’s article suggests this idea occupies the notional space that VCs refer to as the ‘Adjacent Possible’. Although I can clearly see why the subcompact idea is a compelling Adjacent Possible, I do have to ask then, why has no-one disrupted the mature blogging platforms with such a mobile-first replacement? We are now more than five years into the ascent of the smartphone ecosystems and I do not yet see a viable champion of mobile-first blog publishing.

To clarify my thinking at this point I need to make one critical distinction between the class of novel standalone Blog-Delivery apps which would provide a subcompact container for a blog’s readers and the class of established Blog-Enabling apps (think WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, SquareSpace and the like) which give authors smartphone access into their chosen blogging platform’s CMS.

Today’s primary blogging platforms are still all desktop-first. Yes, they do all have their own mobile Blog-Enabling apps, and are addressing the new mobile reality by implementing responsive design and other tactics. Both their history and the foundations of their platforms were all built upon the desktop Internet.

  • A chronology of major blogging platforms
  • Blogger (Pyra Labs) founded in 1999.
  • Moveable Type (Six Apart) founded in 2001.
  • WordPress founded in 2003.
  • SquareSpace founded in 2003.
  • Tumblr founded in 2007.
  • LiveJournal, Typepad, and Posterous were other credible blogging platforms, but did they not achieve longevity within this timespan. 

I am specifically concerned with thinking through the issues for single-author blogs here, rather than addressing the needs of the larger publication-scale blogs with multiple authors, (think TechCrunch, The Verge, Engadget and ReadWriteWeb). That class of news aggregation blogs have already embraced delivery via their own dedicated apps in support of their page-view driven advertising revenue models. If app-based delivery can work for that blogging model, then some adapted variant could be useful for the smaller single-author blogging model.

It is surprising how few bloggers have released their own apps. One pessimistic hypothesis could be that the heyday of blogging is past. The existing cohort of bloggers are all wedded to their chosen platforms. Perhaps the majority of nascent proto-bloggers are now writing on social media platforms and see decreasing value in the effort required to maintain a dedicated blog. If the significant addressable market for blogs-as-apps is too small then the products will not be developed. That said one or two of such apps do already exist.

I installed the app version of Seth Godin’s blog when it was released in December 2012. While his app offers some moderately useful functions, such as creating an archive of favourite posts and cloud sync across all of your devices, using it never become a habit of mine. I did not discover sufficient additional utility from having his blog’s content available within a stand-alone app. (Now in my particular case, that may be because it is the only blog on my daily reading list which I do not read via RSS. My email subscription to Godin’s blog predating my adoption of Bloglines as my first feed reader some time in 2002. So perhaps more than ten years of an email-based reading habit is simply too difficult to break.) Another factor which may be limiting my adoption of his app is that Godin’s blog is very much a one-way publishing channel. He does not support comments to his posts. So any conversations around his ideas must necessarily take place off-site.

So where a dedicated blog app may potentially prove more useful would be for the class of blog which delivers as much of its significant value from the conversations taking place within the comments as from the posts. Trying to follow longer and more involved comment threads within mobile browsers is still a sub-optimal experience: one with many opportunities for improvements and for potential innovations.

One appropriate example which I have in mind is Horace Dediu’s essential Asymco blog. Most of his posts seem intended as starting points for discussion with his audience. He actively seeks their collective knowledge and insight to improve and expand upon his initial thesis. Reading Asymco within an RSS Reader merely delivers his original inciting arguments; without the depth of any broader discussions which follow.

However, as a lot of my own available recreational reading time tends to be when I am limited to mobile access, I find that I do not follow those conversations in as much detail as I would like to. I find that following the debates on a desktop browser is far more effective than on a mobile browser, mostly because of the way that the user experience has been configured and presented on each platform. Asymco’s interface in the desktop browser is a very effective at delivering the site’s content. The corresponding mobile interface uses a standard WordPress mobile theme. Which I find problematic as once comments are nested more than three indents deep their legibility is significantly impaired. I end up trying to read paragraphs set with only one or two words per line.

So to appropriate the key investigative tool from Dediu’s own methodology – what would be the ideal job-to-be-done that would be solved by delivering that blog packaged within its own dedicated app? Could a notional Asymco app further enhance the user experience of reading the comment threads? And what additional, novel, and superior functionality, such as increased levels of valid participation within the Asymco community, could such an app version afford? A line of thinking worth exploring further.

I think that Ev William’s new Medium project is one interesting response to some – yet not all – of the issues I have been ruminating on here. As a contemporary web product, its authoring tools and CMS incorporate the latest technology in a thoughtful and considered manner. Yet it seems to me that its essential business model is not to become an underlying publishing platform. (I doubt that you will see ‘Powered By Medium’.) Rather than being able to build and establish my own blog on top of their platform, the affordance provided is more for me to write within their framework. It is a subtle distinction – but a critical one. I worry that, if say I adopted that platform, my writing would ultimately end up building the Medium master-brand, rather than my own personal brand. (Although my initial analysis may prove incorrect, as while I was drafting this post, the online magazine Epic has launched using Medium as its delivery mechanism.)

This has turned out to be a post where I have asked a lot of questions without a clear idea about what the answers may be. It just indicates that there is still a lot left to think about the topic of blogging and that there is plenty of scope for innovation and new ideas in this area.

Innovations in technology will always create new affordances that open up new opportunities around the acts of writing and publishing. Opportunities for collaboration, critique, debate and conversation. Opportunities for distributing ideas and connecting with audiences.

I am convinced of the benefits that accrue from writing consistently in public. It is a practice to which I remain committed. Over the long term, whether my writing is delivered by an evolved blogging platform or via some as-yet-to-be-created novel technology is less significant then the act of publishing the work and making is available for debate and discussion.

The writing is what is important.


My opinions about reading the Asymco blog in a mobile browser were formed back when that site just used the most common mobile Wordpress theme. After just checking Asymco, it would be remiss of me not to note that blog now uses the mobile Basic Maths theme by Khoi Vinh and Allan Cole which has a superior smartphone UI. Although not addressing all of the commenting issues that I discussed, it definitely makes reading the comment threads a much more feasible endeavour.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Informed Analytical Speculation

Retaining quality levels in a period of accelerated growth is a challenge for all businesses. So it is interesting to observe how the quality of analysis and discussion being broadcast by the 5by5 Podcast Network is still improving in parallel with their ongoing increase in sheer quantity of programming output. Two of their programmes from this week are worth noting here. 

Earlier this week, in Screentime episode 40, Horace Dediu extrapolated on where Apple’s disruptive television strategy could ultimately progress towards, based on current evidence and information. He had insightful observations about a strategy where our iOS devices could ultimately become our ‘televisions’, with our existing legacy hardware TV screens relegated to merely being their display accessories.

Then Dediu did the same thing yesterday, on The Critical Path episode 91, exploring the range of possible jobs that the nascent iWatch product could be hired to do, and mapping out some of the potential strategies around the iWatch. He identified some of the opportunities for building a novel multi-billion market atop the existing global wristwatch industry. In the same way that iPhone created all-new markets and ecosystems that upended the stasis within the mobile industry in the latter half of the last decade. (I also note this morning that Apple have just hired the former Yves Saint Laurent CEO to work on some ‘special projects’. I am guessing that move is iWatch-related.)

Both podcast episodes are great listens if you are in any way interested in Business Disruption Theory. They make a superb double-header if you can organise the time to listen to them back-to-back.

Too much of what passes for technology journalism today is little more than rumour-gathering, so it is refreshing and educational to listen to a truly analytical mind construct a coherent and plausible narrative of possibilities based on facts to hand. Yes it is still speculation, but it is a very reasoned and informed class of analytical speculation. Even if none of Dediu’s projections end up being realised in quite the way he envisages at present, there is still much to learn just by following his trains of thought.

Horace Dediu on Twitter
Horace Dediu on Asymco

Monday, June 24, 2013

Outsmarting Ambiguity

Panelists: Ré Dubhthaigh, Nuala Flood, Alex Milton, Frank Devitt, Frank Long and Morgan McKeagney.

“A metaphor for a complex problem is playing chess, while a metaphor for an ambiguous problem is having your in-laws over for dinner for the first time.” 
— Udaya Patnaik of Jump Associates interviewed in Design & Thinking

I attended the screening of the documentary ‘Design & Thinking’ organised by IxDA Dublin at the Sugar Club on Tuesday 18 June 2013. I was interested in this event because my own areas of activity now tend far less towards designing as a form-giver, but rather towards acting as the kind of ‘solver of ambiguous problems’ discussed in this film. (Something I was working through in this post I wrote in 2011.) As more of the issues I am being asked to address by my clients and the kinds of thinking I am delivering for them are now increasingly straying into UX territory. So I wanted to inform myself more about the topic of ‘Design Thinking’ and its practices. This event seemed like a good opportunity.

Unfortunately, the documentary film itself was a big disappointment to me. It turned out to be a flawed investigation, lacking the necessary depth of insight into its subject matter. Perhaps best indicated by how the film was over-enamoured with the initial creative brainstorming phase of the design process. Perhaps the panning shots of studio walls festooned with multi-coloured Post-It Notes is a visual trope and signifier that the film-makers felt necessary to incorporate, but it is a somewhat tired visual and already a cliche.

This film’s viewpoint tended to reinforce the fallacy of the Creative Design Thinker as a modern day Randian figurehead, whose burning clarity of perception, restless vitality of innovation and benignly insightful oversight would inevitably always solve everyone else’s problems.

Less seriously, some of the more outré West Coast cultural idiosyncrasies on display did not play well to the Irish audience. With the result that some of the more thoughtful insights and learning moments within the film got lost amongst all of the Zen Beanbag Boardrooms and the Office Hammocks.

In what seems a glaring omission to me, the film failed to show many, if any, realised design outputs from all of the Design Thinking discussed.

The film was mostly constructed from a series of interviews and, as is usually the case with that structure, some interviewees were far more informative and engaging than others. The final cut was too fragmented, both in its content and its structure. The overall thesis and narrative thread needed better definition, clarification, and expression. The content would have been far better served by a tighter edit and a shorter running time. Fundamentally this film failed to present any reasoned analysis of its subject.

The evening was not a total bust however, as there was an interesting panel discussion afterwards. There were five panelists.
Morgan McKeagney, Managing Director at iQ Content.
Frank Long, Director at
Frank Devitt, Head of the Department of Design Innovation at NUI Maynooth.
Alex Milton, Head of Design in the Faculty of Design at NCAD.
Nuala Flood, architect and PhD Researcher at Trinity College Dublin.
The panel was hosted by Ré Dubhthaigh.

Although the panel all agreed on the shortcomings of the underwhelming documentary, there was still plenty to discuss concerning the core topic of Design Thinking itself.

Devitt defined Design Thinking as taking design processes and methodologies and applying them to problems which are not traditionally design-related.

MCKeagney spoke about using Design Thinking to give clients new tools that help them to frame their problems better and collaborative tools that change experiences and cultures within huge organisations.

Long added the proviso that it is critical to always recognise that Design Thinking is not simply just a movement. While it is advocated and promoted by Ideo and their ilk, it is also a service which is packaged and sold by those companies as well. However, the general upside of their selling of Design Thinking as a service is that it is helping to raise the profile of design in general at executive and board levels within the largest organisations.

Professor Milton addressed some of the benefits of Design Thinking within design education.
Milton: Design Thinking helps educate people to think in different ways through the use of design processes, rather than teaching them how to learn to become designers.
He said that one huge challenge for design educators today is to teach integration. As designers his students shall need to design truly end-to-end experiences, not merely products or services and they need to learn to design with users not just for users.

One of the ideas that resonated with the panel was to always remember that designers are not the Ne Plus Ultra of thinkers, and that to be effective they really need to understand the core problems of users.
McKeagney: As designers it is vital that we know the limits of what we do not know — so that we do not do any damage.
One of the most alluring traps within the Design Thinking philosophy is a notion that if only designers were given free reign they could solve everything. Some of the interviewees in the film also identified and skewered that particular fallacy.
Milton: Designers just cannot know it all. So while you must strive to have both breadth and depth in your knowledge, you also must have real empathy for and respect for, the other disciplines you are going to need to collaborate with. 
The counterpoint to those statements is that it is also true that design professionals too often underplay their own value: to their personal detriment and to that of the broader design sector. So there is an essential unavoidable dichotomy there and quite a tricky balancing point to be reached.
Devitt: Designers can ‘know more than they know they know’ and can have far more value to offer than they may often think. 
The panel discussed how the application of Design Thinking could benefit Ireland at the macro level.

McKeagney argued that in Ireland our fundamental lack of considered long-term systems thinking across multiple inter-related domains has contributed to our country falling into the situation that we are in today. (Un-Designed Thinking?)

He posited that re-designing Ireland to become a more design-centric society is a truly Wicked Problem. Particularly as, in practice, our education system seems to not value creative thinking.

To address those failings the panel did think that the principles of Design Thinking could prove beneficial if implemented by Government.

McKeagney believes that local government is a vast potential audience for Design Thinking. There is huge value to them in being able to prototype by releasing beta products early and iterating on them based on real usage and feedback.

Flood endorsed that view, adding that Design Thinking gives local government the ability to trial things. They need to learn to try and to fail and to prototype and to iterate, rather than to always have to button everything down one hundred percent prior to release. A lot of the approaches within Design Thinking are still new ideas for many within the civil service.

Although in McKeagney’s experience Irish local government still tends to mostly resist beta testing, even on huge services with national roll-outs. He said the underlying reason given is invariably something along the lines of “we can’t look like we don’t know what we are doing…”

Finally, there was one interesting closing point, which really deserved following-up but panel time ran short. Devitt observed that:
There is a greater context here, Design Thinking is also a facet of a general societal movement: which is the ongoing humanisation of all of the professions.
I had to miss the post-panel networking, which was unfortunate as I would enjoy engaging in more depth on some of the topics discussed. Considering the breadth of the Design Thinking spectrum covered tonight — from UX Design through to Policy Design — I would be interested to see how the in-depth systems thinking I practice in developing brand architectures and corporate identity systems could also be applied to inform and contribute to the kinds of problem-solving discussed.

Note: It is important to qualify that all of the attributed statements above are extrapolated and paraphrased from my (pretty concise) notes and none are verbatim quotations. If I have seriously misquoted anyone please do let me know.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Bucking the Anti-Skeuomorphic Trend: Yahoo Weather App Icon

Habitually I always scan the developer’s update description text before updating any apps on my iPhone. So that I have a sense of any new functionality and features when I next use the app. Mostly when I see a one-line description it is that most generic of updates: “Important bug fixes”. However last Saturday this particular one-line description caught my eye: “Improved app icon.” While it is rare to see an app update that addresses only one specific issue, it is rarer still to see one that solely addresses a marketing issue.

The original purple icon from April 2013.
Yahoo launched its weather app for iOS last April. A well-designed and well-regarded app, it was another important signifier of the corporate turnaround activities of new CEO Marissa Mayer as she began to reinvigorate the moribund tech giant. The functionality and UI of this app made me adopt it as my default weather app on my home screen. It deposed Solar, which I have previously praised on this blog.

My only reservation about Yahoo’s new app was its poorly-designed icon, which did not reflect the attention to detail given to the rest of the design. Arguably the initial icon was designed within the – currently much-discussed conventions – of ‘flat design’. It was a simplified symbol of a sun appearing behind an equally simplified symbol of a cloud, both on a graduated background of the Yahoo corporate purple colour. While that garish shade of purple was easily sufficient to communicate the Yahoo-iness of the product, someone had made a belt-and-braces decision and included a full width Yahoo logotype as well. The failures of this initial icon design demonstrate some of the difficulties of executing such flat design with skill. If flat design is attempted without due consideration and finesse then the overall effect can easily appear both under-designed and out-dated. I was not the only one noticing the shortfall of the icon design. Many of the initial reviews of the app drew attention to that fact, which is not an issue commonly referred to in product reviews on the technology sites. Prominent tech bloggers also had strong opinions as well.

The updated icon from May 2013.
Yahoo have taken the negative feedback and acted in it. As I noted above, the updated app that shipped this weekend had only one upgrade: a new icon sharing the successful bright blue colour scheme used by Apple’s Safari and App Store icons. The job previously done by the corporate purple is now solely handled by the large Yahoo logotype at the top. (Watch that logo get smaller in future app iterations.) A photo of a cloud now replaces the original sun and cloud graphic. As well as being more aesthetically pleasing this choice of design treatment is far more true to the product, given that the app integrates with Yahoo’s Flickr service to place evocative location-specific photos behind the weather data.

Given current media conversations about the resurgence in appreciation of the value of design by businesses, I cannot help but wonder whether Yahoo are choosing to make a deliberate statement regarding design by pushing this upgrade now without waiting to simply include the revised icon within a future release based on feature enhancements.

As a parting thought, it is worth asking yourself how much thinking and effort are you putting into the design of the icon for your app?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hack Ergo Sum

This year I have decided to just post about only one of the presentations I attended at the Offset 2013 conference. This is due to a combination of my taking far fewer notes than in previous years and many of the best talks this year not lending themselves to concise summaries. Iain Tait, the Executive Creative Director at Google’s Creative Labs, spoke on the first day and gave the most impressive presentation of the three-day event. (Bob Gill was arguably the most challenging and entertaining speaker, but on reflection Tait was more relevant, informative, and proposed superior useful actionable ideas.) Two aspects of Tait’s presentation are worth remarking on.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Naming Startups

Create new names for seven startups in three days: that was the challenge I faced last month when consulting at the Nexus Innovation Centre at the University of Limerick. I spent three intensely productive days brainstorming, creating, debating and negotiating with the startups. Here are some thoughts and observations arising from that work.

Monday, March 04, 2013

With Our Fingers Gliding Effortlessly over Glass

I wonder what the current turn-around time is for a technology to progress from the novelty of the cutting-edge then onto the utility of the mainstream before being relegated as an nostalgic affectation? It seems to be an ever-decreasing time span.

Once any technology becomes superseded it can move along a broad cultural path taking it from utility to anachronism, relegated to hobbyist affectation and collector’s item, and then occasionally adopted again in some degree of ironic re-appropriation. Just watch the recent documentary ‘Linotype’ to follow the story of how a once all-pervasive and near-indispensable piece of technological infrastructure from the early twentieth century eventually became financially worthless and finally consigned to an artisanal ghetto of retro print-fetishists.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Revisited, Revised, Remixed and Remastered

I am working on an archival copy of Thoughtport using’s ‘print your blog as a hardback book’ service. Contrary to my usual digital-first stance, I have now become interested in seeing what my blog will be like as a physical artifact. What will the heft and weight of eight year’s worth of writing be like when it is paper in my hands? Also, I still find it quite remarkable that it is now technically feasible and cost-effective to have a single copy of a book printed for our home bookshelf.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Instagram and the Startup Branding Conundrum

At the time it was acquired by Facebook in April of this year, Instagram was given a greater valuation than The New York Times (1). Working within the branding industry I find that have trained myself to operate within an accepted convention that the optimum path to business success involves developing and deploying the full suite of conventional branding and marketing tools.

The Branding Design Consultant worldview holds that, in addition to an essential coherent brand story and the necessary connection with its customers, a company also requires the complete formal apparatus of brand identity assets, brand guidance systems, and brand tone-of-voice to achieve optimal effectiveness. What intrigues me is how high potential technology startups can now short-circuit, or even dispense with, most of this apparatus and methodology — and sometimes do so on a dramatic scale.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Managing My Million Apps

I remember when I had less than thirty apps on my iPhone and tended to use each of them for substantial amounts of time. Now I have more than one hundred apps on my iPhone.

While there are many of those that I only ever use rarely, the core set that I use the most has increased in proportion with the total. As a result, each app is now used for smaller amounts of time on average. I now find that I can productively segue between quite a lot of apps when I have only a five-minute dash to gang together a block of tasks. This is a very different use-case to what I adopted when first using this iPhone. On one hand this is a way of working that I have developed that best suits my needs. On the other hand this behaviour must reflect the affordances of the available software, where the vector is now clearly moving towards single-use apps that do one thing really well.

Extrapolating forward from this current use-case and the macro-trends of the software infrastructure, could we be looking at a future where we will have many thousands of apps on our phones and use most of those for little more than a few minutes each week? (1) That is an interesting line of inquiry that leads me to think about the overall way that the OS serves the user and how it could be optimised for such a use-case.