Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Messaging Apps as the Operating Systems of the Future

Photo: Aiden Kenny
I attended an interesting presentation by Paul Adams and Emmet Connolly at the ‘Intercom On Product’ event in the Mansion House on 9 September. Their topic was messaging apps as the operating systems of the future. hey outlined three noteworthy factors deserving our attention which are now setting the stage for what they posited as an oncoming ‘Post-App Era’.
  1. The dominance of messenger apps, which are become better attuned to how we operate as social animals.
  2. The improvements in contextual predictive systems, such as Android Now and Siri, which are bootstrapping themselves to ever-more sophisticated levels. The availability of ever-larger datasets is accelerating the pace and capability of global-scale machine learning projects. 
  3. The rise of push-button service ecosystems, such as Uber. In which the app is merely one surface aspect of the greater ecosystem — which is the true product.
As these three inter-related strands converge they will negate the need to install and use many of the kinds of apps that we all regularly use today. These three shifts in technology and culture have fare ranging implications for us designers. So, to help clarify my own understanding, I have summarised Adams’ main points from his presentation and his earlier writings on the Intercom blog. Some of the key ideas discussed were the role of bots and affordance of card-based interactions.

Photo: Aiden Kenny

Adams’ advises that it is critical for designers today to think in terms of overarching systems, rather than of individual destinations such as apps. For the reason that we should not expect our primary computing paradigm today – that of a screen of apps on a sheet of glass – to persist over the long term. Products and services are already morphing into ‘digital fluids’ that flow into different forms conforming to the affordances of their destinations. That process is only going to accelerate.

Change is one of the defining attributes of the Internet. Today this implies that UX and UI designers have much to learn from the skills and mindsets of adjacent disciplines: such as animators because now they need to design for time, and architects because now they need to design for space. There are many hidden traps in continuing to use tools originally conceived for static design to now create experiences that have change, movement, transition, and flow as innate properties. We need to choose our tools carefully, or indeed build all-new tools fit for purpose.

Designers need to understand that we are in the midst of a transition from an ‘Internet Made of Documents’ into an ‘Internet Made of People’. We humans are social animals. So it should be unsurprising that the most successful Internet companies, services, and products are those that leverage our innate social nature. Adams sees the successful systems of the future as those that can best leverage our information to provide ever-more tailored feeds of personalised content. (Just don’t be creepy.)

Intercom innovate at the level of Product Strategy and Product Concept, and not at the level of User Interface. Adams works on the basis that we are still only in the earliest days of the Internet Era. So, as we collectively shuffle forwards out of the dark, we are going to need to rely less on existing design paradigms. More often we are going to have to rethink from first principles. That means there are now amazing opportunities to investigate, explore, define, and craft novel interactions and design patterns.

One design challenge is that to move large numbers of users along any technology innovation curve, it is often necessary to only introduce iterative changes, so that you do not break user’s existing mental models and habitual workflows. Designers and developers are often early-adopter personality types — eager to move fast and break things. We need to remember that most people are not. Even on a (relatively slow) one-year cycle time, changes to Apple’s iOS are still treated as suspect by many types of users.

Adams explores the idea of replacing a screen of apps with a design pattern based on cards. Cards are one of the atomic units of the web, as explained by Brad Frost. Cards can be considers as containers for content from any app. You can observe this today in the interactive notifications in iOS and Android. So that more often we do not need to open an app now to act. The notification itself can be the complete experience for many activities.

Interface of Facebook’s ‘M’ product.

Increasingly the content of cards and notifications will be brief conversations and interactions initiated by bots. Bots can communicate to users via messaging interfaces (think of Slackbot and Facebook’s prototype personal assistant ‘M’). Bots can already take on many basic interaction tasks, and so leave humans free to address more nuanced interactions. In future a considerable amount of our time spent interacting with companies will be communicating with such AI-enabled systems. Just as we all once had to acclimatise to ATMs instead of bank tellers, so people will adapt to this mode of interaction as well.

Facebook’s new ‘M’ product is one facet of their current initiative to overcome their lack of a native operating system. ‘M’ places a novel AI assistant inside their Messenger app. Users interact with the service using natural language texts. Currently this is only a beta service limited within a strict geographic area. At present the nascent AI still has to be supported by teams of humans to ensure it parses user requests correctly.

However, I wonder whether one master-stream of notifications could ever make sense to users? Even today, my full Twitter-stream is such an overwhelming juxtaposition of friends, bloggers, news organisations, apps, parody accounts, and much more, that it is essentially  unusable. So I depend upon my Twitter Lists to mentally shift contexts and to filter Twitter into a usable and beneficial service. I work with a different mindset, and range of potential actions, when I am reading my ‘Friends’ list than when I am reading my ‘Innovation & Ideas’ list. Classification tools such as Twitter Lists and Google+ Circles still seem to be more of a power-user preference. That said, lists are also a problematic design pattern in their own right. They make us define arbitrary categorisations. Unfortunately they need ongoing curation and regular maintenance to stay useful. Despite years of innovation and iteration no-one has truly cracked categorisation of social feeds yet.

Content within our apps is cumulative. Even the most diligent data-editors amongst us are always adding more contacts into our address books every year, following more people on social media, and accreting more connections on LinkedIn. These, and all the other data silos on our phones, represent ever-more opportunities for unwanted notifications. Any successful card-based interaction model is going to succeed or fail depending on careful tuning of the signal-to-noise ratio. Will that be better served by the user spending precious time curating and adjusting? Or will an algorithmic solution prove good enough? While we know that spending hours triaging email is neither an enjoyable activity nor a productive workflow, many people also spend blocks of time ‘going through Facebook’ or ‘getting caught up on Twitter’. These are the kinds of siloed activities that the proposed new interaction models seek to minimise.

How can design thinking help us to find the balance between people either achieving optimum flow and living in the moment with all timely and relevant information immediately at their fingertips, or descending into the near-adjacent possibility of existing in a state of permanent distraction?

One issue arising from the card-based systems discussed is – as they become optimised to present an ongoing stream of micro-events needing response or action – when will we get the time to sit, to think, and to process the inputs requiring more than immediate reactions? In one sense this is of course a personal question, relating to our own productivity habits and how mindfully we manage our time and our attention. That said it is also an issue that the technology industries need to address. If an ever-increasing number of notifications are not to overwhelm us, then automated filtering and prioritisation become critical problems to solve. Then we also need to consider whose algorithms do the filtering, and what do those entities gain from providing that service?

Adams poses these three questions:
  • The first is will this new model operate at the level of the app, or notification or OS?
  • Secondly, will these experiences occur in one consolidated stream, or in multiple streams?
  • Thirdly, will that stream be owned at a company level, or as an open interoperable standard?

His point is that apps are changing; they are not siloed destinations anymore. Increasingly we engage with them across multiple surfaces: notifications, cards, and whatever comes next, etc. Designers ought to think of apps as publishing systems and not as a destinations.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Disrupt Yourself

In this week’s episode of The Critical Path, Horace Dediu interviewed Whitney Johnson, the author of the forthcoming book ‘Disrupt Yourself’. She has taken the tenets of disruption innovation theory and attempted to map them to career progression strategies. Which is an interesting exercise.

Her thesis is that in today’s world of work we can no longer rest on our laurels and presume that our current skills and competencies will carry us to the end of our careers. We are all going to have to disrupt ourselves many times throughout the arc of our careers. She outlined seven strategies you can implement to disrupt successfully.

1. Take the right kind of risks 

She identifies two categories of risk. The first is Market Risk, where you innovate within your sector. “Play where no one else is playing.” The second is Competitive Risk, where you innovate against your peers. She observes that while our brains are wired to see Competitive Risk as being less risky than Market Risk, the reverse is actually true.

2. Play to your distinctive strengths 

Transpose your skills into a new environment and propel yourself up the curve.

3. Embrace constraints

Understand that you are going to be constrained along some axis: be it experience, or buy-in, or time, or money. Those people who are most successful moving up the curve often impose constraints on themselves.

4. Battle entitlement 

Do not fall into the trap of intellectual entitlement. If you are set in your ways of thinking about the world, then that makes it far easier for others to disrupt you. It is better to engage with people who disagree with you. Sharpen your arguments and learn more. “Stress yourself with an open mind to make yourself smarter.”

5. Step back

To practice self-disruption, you often need to step back in your career to catapult yourself further up the curve. Having support is critical at this step, so bring those closest to you along on your journey. Consider how you can give those people the confidence they need.

6. Put failure in its place

You can choose whether you view an experience as a failure or a success. Learn to see the process of failure as a process of learning. Humility humble in the face of that is key.

7. Be driven by discovery

Many successful businesses end up in a very different place than where they started from. “We like to think we can see the top of the curve from the bottom of the curve.” You need to be open to discovering our path by course-correcting along the way.

Worth a listen.
The Critical Path 158, ‘Disrupt Yourself with Whitney Johnson’ 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Digital Innovation Drives Breakthrough Customer Journeys

David Edelman of McKinsey Digital spoke at LinkedIn’s FinanceConnect event in May 2015. His discussed using digital innovation to support breakthrough Customer Journeys, and how joined-up digital design thinking drives those initiatives.

His four linked imperatives, driving the ‘in-the-moment’ Customer Journeys that organisations shall have to deliver, are enlightening:

  1. Real-time automation.
  2. Interfaces allowing ‘in-the-moment’ interactions.
  3. Proactive intelligence allowing just-in-time personalisation and optimisation.
  4. Engagement that drives further innovation.

The idea of the Customer Journey as the pre-eminent expression of organisation’s brands has gained increasing currency. (Obviously Service Designers have been making that argument for years. It is interesting to hear leading marketers take up the case.) Digital innovations are obviously driving much of the innovation and the affordances for new services within those customer journeys. Any squeamishness about the benefits-to-creepiness ratio of such novel services are surely an actuarial issue.

Edelman warns large organisations that they need to uncover their own internal battlegrounds (what I would refer to as Strategy Taxes) which cause all of the compromises along their customer’s journeys. Legacy organisations need to resolve those internal battlegrounds, because those are precisely the key opportunity spaces for digital-first competitors to route around them and disrupt their way to success.

Another implication of his thesis is that marketers have a responsibility to really understand their company’s IT architecture. Creating truly novel service delivery invariably means innovating within the technological backend. Marketers need to understand what falls within the realm of the possible.

Finally, Edelman calls on large companies to shift their thinking and consider how they can possibly reorganise their internal structures around customer journeys.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On Design Language Systems 01: IBM

One of my key professional activities is writing and designing brand guidance systems for companies and organisations. It has been a pillar of my practise for over twenty years. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to help people understand their organisation’s visual identity systems, use them effectively, improve them logically, and extend them thoughtfully.

Spread from Manuals One. ©Unit Editions.

As a corporate design aficionado, I have enjoyed spending many evenings pouring over esoteric design details in my copies of Unit Editions’ handsome publications Manuals One and Manuals Two. These two books, reproducing a rich selection of corporate design and identity guidelines from 1963 through to 2008, are an unrivalled design reference resource.

Cover of Manuals Two. ©Unit Editions.

However, examining the requirements of corporate design from the sixties and seventies inevitably got me thinking about the differences in how organisations use design today. At the simplest level, the underlying principles of corporate design still stand; while many of the various technologies of production, manufacture, and distribution have altered significantly, evolved, or have been replaced completely. At the more profound level, it is the ways that companies operate, organise themselves, deliver their services, and communicate with their customers, that have all changed most fundamentally in the last fifty years.

So it is worth asking whether the existing forms of design and brand guidance have kept pace with the ever-changing nature of the commercial entities which are their subject matter.

That line of thinking eventually leads one to enquire: what should designers strive to give as the most useful design guidance for the ever-increasing scope of digital expressions which are central to all experiences delivered by today’s organisations? While organisations will always require some form of brand guidance, I no longer think that itself is sufficient any more. I believe that the most interesting organisations today are having to evolve a more valuable approach of also defining their overall design experience frameworks. These frameworks are more all-encompassing than traditional brand guidance systems.

Four Design Language Examples

I think it is worth investigating some examples of the novel kind of design experience frameworks that I have in mind. These four organisations have each addressed different aspects of the overall corporate challenges to be expressed by design. They form a useful basis for study as they have made much of their design experience framework systems available online. These four sites are all rich in information and each is well worth delving into.

— IBM Design Language
To establish a unified digital experience across many digital products delivered by one global organisation.

— Google Material Design Framework
Towards a consistent digital user experience across many digital products delivered by multiple organisations, (but stewarded by one).

— BBC Global Experience Language
To establish a shared framework for a widely diverse range of content delivered by one global organisation.

— UK GDS Government Service Design Manual
To establish a shared framework for the digital delivery of a whole country’s public services.

(I like the elegance of IBM’s term ‘Design Language’, and will use that for the rest of this article.)

For the multinationals who are now the prime exemplars of these new corporate Design Languages today there are also larger strategic imperatives driving their investment in building these sorts of design systems. As such, their Design Language initiatives are just one strand within those organisation’s broader coordinated strategies: addressing their pressing need to engage with, and leverage, design far more seriously than before. (And also their equally important need to be seen as doing so.)

About Design Languages

The parameters of each Design Language depend on the characteristics of the each organisation’s products or services. For some organisations their Design Language would have more of a visual design emphasis. For others it would primarily address experience design, and for another group it would focus on digital design.

It is important to observe that all of those novel Design Language systems are discrete, and each is separate from their organisation’s brand guidelines. That point may seem somewhat nuanced, but awareness of that distinction is key to understanding the value that is unlocked by such Design Language systems.

Design Languages are primarily about designing the experiences of using an organisation’s products or services. They do not concern themselves with how an organisation communicates, promotes, explains, and sells what it does. Brand Guidelines are about designing those messages and communications around the products and services. The Jobs-To-Be-Done of these two complementary systems are different, so their incentives for excellence diverge.

So comparing them would be of little value. However, I think there is something to be achieved in exploring some contrasts between these two classes of organisational systems. My own professional experience primary concerns brand guidance systems, and my dissatisfaction with their inherent limitations has lead me to investigate Design Language frameworks.

Not every organisation has the need for a Design Language system. In contrasting Design Languages with brand guidance systems, I think that a critical, almost philosophical, difference is that a Design Language must start from the basis that everyone agrees that *design is what the organisation does*. If an organisation’s culture excludes that shared belief, then agreeing upon any shared Design Language is not relevant. Therefore, one significant issue to be aware of is that building any Design Language inevitably requires decisions about how broad or narrow an organisation’s definition of ‘design’ truly is.

Some thoughts on IBM’s Design Language

Starting with the first of the four organisations on my list, I have familiarised myself with the IBM Design Language system. Introduced in 2014, this is a significant organisational effort to collect a corpus of the essential principles of design that apply to IBM’s customer’s experiences of using all IBM products.

IBM delivers hundreds of products with a global organisation of around 380,000 people. Given that IBM is now building a substantial internal design function and is hiring ambitiously to populate that division, it needs a cohesive design system to operate at a global scale, and at the pace of the Internet economy. Explaining the reasons why design has become such a priority now, at this particular point in the lifespan of a one-hundred-year-old organisation, is beyond the scope of this article. For an insightful overview of their design vision and priorities watch this presentation by Phil Gilbert, IBM Design’s General Manager, at this year’s IBEC ‘Better Business By Design’ Conference here in Dublin.

IBM’s new Design Language system aims to bring a renewed focus on human-centred, empathic thinking to what has been an engineering-driven culture. This is now a critical corporate imperative in today’s world, where it is the experience of using digital products and services that is delivering true competitive advantage, more-so than brand reputation or authority. This has not traditionally been the case in the Business-To-Business sectors IBM operates within, but has now become one of the critical metrics for success.

A feature graphic from the IBM Design Language website. ©IBM 2015.

IBM’s Design Language is evolving. It cannot remain static. Their online Design Language resource records the current state of what has to be an ongoing dialogue within IBM. As IBM’s brand guidelines are tools for certain internal audiences, such as marketing managers, and external design and advertising agencies; so their Design Language is a shared framework for IBM’s designers and developers to build the organisation’s products. As such, IBM have structured their Design Language into four sections on Experience Design, Visual Design, Interaction Design, and Front-End Design.

A feature graphic from the IBM Design Language website. ©IBM 2015.

IBM’s Design Language does not instruct their designers how to achieve any particular desired design outcomes, rather it provides a shared conceptual framework. The system is primarily concerned with outlining their high-level design principles and is not intended to be an exhaustive explanation of every aspect of design. (IBM has an ever-growing cohort of trained designers on staff, who will be carrying such design fundamentals around in their heads.) So it is not a suite of integrated design elements providing libraries of digital assets and resources, like Google’s Material Design. Nor is it an out-of-the-box design toolkit, such as Twitter’s Bootstrap. Yet, in publishing most of their framework online, they have also expressed greater ambitions for its wider adoption outside of IBM.

My reaction as I read through the IBM Design Language site was that, although it is already a large corpus of information, I initially thought it was perhaps too high-level and lacking in specifics. In many paragraphs, the authors could have extracted every single sentence to serve as the title for a sub-section detailing how to deliver on that specific statement or goal. However, when I had read and absorbed everything, I understood how their intent was not to specify the answers to all design problems with a toolkit of detailed design patterns. Rather their goal seems to be build an extensible framework which they can improve and refine over time with further inputs as IBM’s designers apply it to ever more real-world products and services.

A feature graphic from the IBM Design Language website. ©IBM 2015.

The significant focus of the IBM Design Language is on design-for-use. They aim to build products which serve as tools that make their customers more effective and efficient. One relevant quote from their framework is that: “a design is not done until a person interacts with it.”

An important outcome of keeping their Design Language at a high-level is that aspects of the IBM Design Language can also inform design thinking. So the organisation can apply their core design methodology to many types of business use cases.
“To emphasise how Design Thinking is not solely about visual design, IBM have used this approach with internal teams creating APIs. In the case of an API there is no UI at all.” 
‘IBM Design: Think before you speak’ – Creative Intellect UK

Additional benefits of developing a Design Language

The key benefit derived from the effort expended in defining a Design Language lies in the organisation’s enhanced design output. That said, they also seem to deliver ancillary benefits as well.

One benefit of a Design Language is as a tool which sets a baseline for all design conversations and feedback within an organisation. Some of its utility must arise from the act of taking certain aspects of design discussions off the table. It must allow the organisation’s design leadership some additional leverage when having the kind of conversations that start like this. “Today we all need to focus on this specific aspect of this design challenge – as our high-level design principles are already in place and so are not for interrogation as part of this project.” Brand guidelines also play the same internal management role for communications design projects.

I can see Design Languages also providing better organisational focus through educating internal clients; by better explaining aspects of what designers do. So that, when evaluating design work, internal clients can hopefully display a greater understanding of the various strata of thinking underlying the design decisions being reviewed. Considering Design Language frameworks through that lens, then they do not need to be exhaustively comprehensive. (Any expanded encyclopedic version, if it was ever to exist, could be a dedicated resource for the organisation’s designers alone.)


The defining characteristic of all Design Languages is that they are never finished. They are an artifact of an ongoing conversation that each organisation is always having with itself. As such, rather than being outsourced to external design agencies or brand consultancies, the onus is on organisations to develop, manage, and steward their own Design Languages. The organisation needs to own design.

The macro-trend of the resurgence, increasing relevance, and importance of in-house design departments is a significant topic I have addressed in previous posts and will return to again. John Maeda recently published an insightful contribution to that ongoing discussion: Why Design Matters More than Moore’s Law.

The potential of Design Languages

The theoretical ideal of an organisation’s brand guidance system is as a platform for establishing a complete, coordinated, and coherent suite of messages, communications, and brand experiences. It must strike a fine balance between the quotidian, tactical, operational requirements and the long-term vision and goals of the organisation.

Unfortunately, in practise, many brand guidelines become used politically. Rather than opening up the complete range of possible expressions within any brand framework, they can become more focused on limiting options. Effectively, they become used as one mechanism to corral the divergent incentives and strategy taxes which exist within the organisation’s power structures. Robert Jones, the Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins, has written about this limitation of brand management in companies lacking a shared unity of purpose.

It most likely may be naive to imagine that corporate Design Languages can deliver on some of the ideals which brand guidance systems still struggle to achieve. Particularly given that such design initiatives are inevitably subject to the same organisational political forces that influence brand management activities. Yet perhaps the fact that Design Languages have user-centred mindsets embedded within their foundations may make them less prone to being undermined by organisational priorities.

To me the most interesting aspect of the potential of  Design Languages lies in applying design thinking, methods and insight to the core of what organisations do as opposed to what they tell people about what they do. Writing as someone who enjoys problems requiring systems-thinking solutions, I am fascinated by the intellectual endeavour involved in developing a complete Design Language. It is a significant challenge; one I would relish contributing to.

Home page for IBM’s example designs section. ©2015 IBM.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Notes and Thoughts From The ‘Hidden Rooms’ Conference

I took part in Dublin City Council’s ‘Hidden Rooms’ conference in November. DCC convened more than 350 participants over two days to brainstorm 16 policy issues in a variety of interesting locations across the city. Each room was asked to formulate a pilot project that could be be actioned by DCC in 2015. I was asked to join room seven ‘The Rewarded City’, discussing ideas for incentivising and supporting creative entrepreneurs in Dublin‘s emerging cultural cluster.

On the topic of the Rewarded City 
The one quote that most resonated with me on the day was from Anne Miltenburg, the international contributor to the Rewarded City room. She outlined a massive challenge as: “how to make our cities hard-wired to accept new ideas more easily”.

That challenge is one of the major underlying themes of the Hidden Rooms event (and arguably of last year’s DCC/Pivot Designing Growth event as well). It also segues with my own understanding of some broader DCC agendas. Although it is also worth noting Anne’s experience of the difficulties she outlined in trying to get some crowd-sourced innovation projects started in Amsterdam. Their Government believes that people doing things for themselves does not necessarily save any money. As the Government argues that they then have to ‘spend time monitoring what those people are doing’. So that becomes a disincentive for Governments to encourage such innovative, bottom-up activities.

Other interesting ideas that I took away from the conversations about the topic of rewarding creative entrepreneurs were that, as public bodies do not have much money, therefore they are reluctant to put any money that they do have into anything risky. So the State ought to focus to provide enabling mechanisms for creative entrepreneurs, rather than reward mechanisms. Creative entrepreneurs will create rewards, not accept them. Volunteerism is not the solution to anything (in the long-term). The strategic alignment of self-interest is what actually works. True creative entrepreneurs will say: ‘I am going to do this anyway whether you help me or not’. And paradoxically those are the people who get support.

Photo: DCC/Pivot Dublin

On the process and methodology
I have recorded some insights and lessons from the workshopping day of the event. Primarily I made these notes and observations as guidance for myself for whenever I am facilitating any similarly-structured brainstorming sessions in the future.

The central idea behind Hidden Rooms was to gather an interested cohort of people together to brainstorm ideas around key policy areas. With the intention of creating novel ideas unconstrained by the limitations of the perceived conventional thinking.

One insight shared with me about this kind of process and methodology was that ‘people can be enthusiastic and keen to take part; but not have the mental tools to take part effectively’. One participant  observed that in Ireland we do not have a history of working together in large groups. We tend to operate best in smaller groups, or in one-on-one scenarios. That is a general cultural limitation which we all need to overcome. One which initiatives like Hidden Rooms are intended to challenge.

One primary risk of this group brainstorming approach can be that he ideas which the group produce are either too naive or too top-level. That they are just variants of ideas the client has seen before, or tried already. Or that they are merely what the client might expect from a group which has only been thinking about complex multi-faceted issues for four or five hours. (In contrast with the deep domain expertise of the client.) I do not think that possibility was actualised in the outcomes from Hidden Rooms. That can only be known in the longer-term, when the number of initiatives and ideas that were fully implemented can be measured.

Another insight from the workshop day is that, to make ad-hoc interdisciplinary teams work most effectively within concentrated time spans, all of the participants would be best served with a comprehensive background briefing on the project; so that they have a clarified context to operate within. Otherwise, a substantial amount of time is needed simply coordinating the group around the specifics of the topic they are to address. That leads to the issue of what is the optimal amount of briefing time on the day? Working within a fixed timeframe, the ideal should be to maximise the amount of brainstorming time. A related question then is; how much pre-event briefing is too much? If you send people a comprehensive brief, of say ten-pages, will they all read it in detail beforehand? There is definitely a trade-off here.

It turns out that the expertise of the facilitator is hugely critical to the group successfully generating insightful Design Thinking outcomes. This may actually prove to be the greatest influencer on the outcomes within compressed timelines. The facilitator can cloud the issue easily if they do not actively listen to the group and follow the dynamic of the conversations. Yes, the day needs to be managed and the activities must progress within the allocated timeframe, but staying wedded to a predetermined agenda can prove counterproductive to this type of engagement, when conversations are still in flux.

You also need a domain expert in the room (in this case the DCC client). They need to provide the necessary context to anchor the new ideas being generated. But the intrinsic problem is that the expert also has a strong understanding of what is unlikely to work and what has being tried already — which can prove to be a limiting factor on idea generation. It is critical that the facilitator and domain expert work well together. They need to be in general alignment. They need to liaise and coordinate prior to the workshop to ensure that their goals and aims align.

How could the activities of the working groups in each room be improved for subsequent events? Would it be limiting to predefine the necessary sub-groupings in advance? That could ensure that each sub-group includes at least one person capable of taking on the ‘snowplough’ role (possibly an architect in the specific case of the Hidden Rooms remit) and one other person who is an experienced Design Thinking practitioner. Either of whom could run the cooperative idea generation process on their own, if necessary. That approach could either optimise efficiency or reduce spontaneity, so would depend on the personality and dynamics of individual rooms.

DCC have now published the initial outcomes from Hidden Rooms on the Pivot Dublin site. The specific outcomes from the Rewarded City room are at this page.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Future For Designers — Expanded and Annotated

We all know that we need to innovate. But which of the different classes of innovation should we expend our best efforts on? That choice effects the kind of futures we shall build. What novel roles could designers play within those futures? If it is not going to be what we expect or desire, what can we designers do to future-proof our careers?

That was the description of my presentation to yesterday’s Defuse Dublin event. I had to condense my message dramatically to fit into the five-minute Petcha-Kucha format. I hope that posting this comprehensive version here along with source material links will prove useful to all those interested in this topic.

I am interested in what it will mean to practice as a graphic designer in future. Not in the far-flung future; but within the span of our own career horizons. It is too easy to think about what is happening in graphic design this month, or what is coming up in the next quarter. Sometimes it is worth taking a longer-term view. Thinking about what changes lie ahead for the design sector; for the overall role of graphic designers; and in the professional activities of individual designers in five, ten or twenty years time. While acknowledging that such futurology contains elements of guesswork, we can extrapolate from existing trends. The workplace of the future will look different to that of today, and most likely entirely different to that of just a decade ago.

So, what trends are potentially coming down the line that are work thinking about? Automation is not a topic we discuss much within the design sector. In a real sense many aspects of knowledge work and creative work can eventually be automated. This is the prospect facing all white collar careers in all economies. Watch the fascinating documentary ‘Humans Need Not Apply’. Its key messages are:
  • That automation does not need to be perfect — it just needs to be better than most of us, most of the time.
  • That automation is not bad — it is simply inevitable.
I will accept that film is somewhat apocalyptic. But, if we can get past immediately dismissing it as being of little relevance to the creative economy, it does offer us much to think about. It is not only taxi drivers who need to be concerned in the face of automation. We graphic designers are not protected in some unique creative sector bubble.

Walter The Wobot ©2014 Rebellion.
Over the last thirty years technology has disrupted and depreciated the roles artworkers and typesetters in the design sector. Throughout the nineties many of those people’s careers migrated to being aspects of graphic designer’s job descriptions. Now it  looks possible that many of those design tasks will migrate further on to various forms of automated algorithmic technology.

A lot of my day-to-day activities involve writing and designing corporate identity systems. Essentially that is creating design languages and visual grammars for organisations. This establishes a coherent framework for other graphic designers to create within.

Corporate identity manuals are transitioning from nouns to verbs. They began as hefty physical publications and evolved through PDFs to become online resources. Soon they will become APIs.

One can think about corporate identities as high-level pattern languages with many iteration potentials. Unfortunately for some, quite a lot of everyday graphic design work is based on understanding, manipulating and re-purposing of such pattern languages.

Africa books montage by Simon Stevens.
What would be involved in designing another cover for a new book about Africa? Or perhaps creating the icon for a new To-Do app? If we believe that these – and many similar graphic design tasks – cannot ultimately be automated to a greater or lesser degree, then it is likely that we are fooling ourselves.

Such graphic design automation will begin with the design of relatively structured and formulaic materials. It will not begin by automating high level ‘creativity’ per-se. That said, rather than being science-fiction, or the white-paper aspirations of professional futurists, this is already possible.

At a simple level, consider the fascinating service: ‘Paper-Later’. This merges a read-it-later-style bookmarking app with the automatic layout of personal, customised, physical newspapers, printed and posted to you. Do these newspapers have a rudimentary and limited design layout? Yes, of course they do. But remember this is how disruption starts: at the simplest, almost trivial, level. Which is easily dismissed by the incumbents.

It is likely that the relationship of post-human algorithmic design to the accepted Canon Of Significant Graphic Design will be as the musical output of Pop-Idol is to, say, The Beatles. But, in many situations, it will provide the minimal viable solution. Design elitists may wail and gnash their teeth and rend their garments, but the pattern of disruption has been well mapped-out for all industries at this stage. It seems improbable that graphic design would prove to be the exception.

It is notable that IBM’s Watson has already proven its prowess at answering natural language questions. It won the US game show ‘Jeopardy’ and already supports medical professionals in making treatment options for their patients. So automation can already win game shows, compose music and write news articles. But are many of the human skills supporting advanced Design-Thinking too complex for any artificial intelligence software to handle?

We designers pride ourselves upon being creative thinkers who imagine novel solutions for a living. So it should not be a stretch for us to imagine creative algorithms which could design as well as the average designer today. Now, I am no AI research scientist. But for tonight, I have sketched out this quick wire-frame of a rudimentary ‘Design-O-Matic’ algorithm in my notebook.

I am an early-adopter and an anti-Luddite. So I am not discussing automation as a negative phenomenon, more as an inevitability. The correct response to the ‘Lump Of Labour’ fallacy has always been that new innovations open up new roles and free people from less skilled tasks to pursue higher callings. Yet, many experts are concerned that things may not pan out that way, this time around.

Read more: Lump of Labor: Certainly a Red Herring, Albert Wenger, 2014.

So, bearing all of that in mind, we need to ask ourselves: how many graphic designers will actually be needed in the future? And what kind of careers will they have?

The premise underpinning the related future theory of the ‘Gig-Economy’ is that all knowledge workers or members of the creative classes who do succeed in retaining a career shall have no choice but to operate as On-Demand, Super-Specialised, Free Agents serving the tiniest niches within a frictionless, Internet-enabled, global economy.

The most unnerving aspect of that future scenario is that only a small percent of the global population will be smart enough for the level of careers remaining. Ergo, only an equally small percent of the designer population will be smart enough for the remaining creative jobs. Will there be one-percent who provide the novel design solutions which provide the stimulus material for the other ninety-nine percent?

In such a scenario, the critical question then is whether the design-related jobs which are displaced by technology can be replaced at the same rate by those Gig Economy careers? (And how long before someone brainstorms a working business model for the Uber for Graphic Designers? Or even one for brand consultants!)

Learn more: Exponent podcast, Ben Thompson and James Allworth, weekly .
Read more: Airbnb CEO Spells Out The End Game For The Sharing Economy, Venture Beat, 2014.

In our personal response to all such speculative futures we can choose to be fatalistic, or to be excited and inspired. For many graphic designers our future is going to have to be less focussed on design-craft skills. If automation will not displace those jobs in the near-term, then it could be off-shoring, or the ongoing democratisation of design via smarter tools. All those forces are already acting on the graphic design sector.

But it is not all bad news.

Paradoxically, at a time when some designer’s careers will face their greatest challenge, there is also a potential upside for others. There is a parallel narrative of new opportunities for those designers who are prepared to reinvent and reorientate themselves with new mindsets, and in new roles. It remains an open question what proportion of graphic designers will have the appropriate levels and forms of creativity required to succeed within these new economic landscapes.

Read more: It is OK to Worry about Work, Albert Wenger, August 2014.

Illustration by 
One of the traditional career trajectories for designers has been to devote less time to their graphic design craft skills and more to developing their soft skills in consultancy and client advisory roles. Those trust-based roles should prove less amenable to automation in the medium-term. The disciplines of Service Design, Experience Design and Design-Thinking are examples of horizontal activities that broaden the scope of designer’s activities and roles.

Within the graphic design sector the practice of entrepreneurship has traditionally been limited to setting-up design studios. Most those have been lifestyle businesses and SMEs, and rarely economically significant enterprises of scale. Of course, starting such service agencies is entrepreneurial. But what about the designer’s role being neither that of a service-agent nor an advisor? What about designers taking on more of a true leadership role as drivers of innovation?

Wired magazine claimed that fifty percent of startup founders have engineering backgrounds with only six percent have design backgrounds. Most graphic designers have a maker’s focus on building their expertise in their craft. Or at least that is where they tend to start from in their careers. The personality-type of an entrepreneur is characterised as not being expert at any single discipline — except leadership. They have to be ‘good enough’ at many different disciplines and know when to delegate. Yet, both entrepreneurs and designers have skills in iterating and problem solving.

It is striking that 60% of Fortune-500 CEOs cite ‘creativity’ as the most important quality of leadership today. To me that suggests that we graphic designers need to broaden our conception of success. About one-third of today’s Fortune-500 CEOs have engineering backgrounds, rather than pure business backgrounds. What if, in future, one-third of such CEOs had design backgrounds?

Read more: The Economist Special Report: Technology Is Not WorkingOctober 2014

We can observe that — as the value in many products and services migrates upwards to the experience level — design-thinking skills are now deemed critical, valued, and sought-after. In recent years the international business and technology media have started reporting more frequently on the value that designers now bring in setting the agenda and leading organisations.

This narrative is that designers are amongst those best placed to capitalise in the future economy by focussing more on creative thinking and problem solving.
“Over the next few decades demand in the top layer of the labour market may well centre on individuals with high abstract reasoning, creative, and interpersonal skills that are beyond most workers, including graduates.” 
Read more: Silicon Valley's New Secret Weapon: Designers Who Found Startups, Fast Company, 2012.
Read more: The Interface Layer: Where Design Commoditizes Tech, Scott Belsky, 2014.
Read more: Why VC Firms Are Snapping Up Designers, Fast Company, 2014. 

The role of the ‘Designer-Founder’ is a notable new career path. This is someone who uses her design-thinking mindset and problem-solving methods to build businesses that are far more ambitious than service agencies. The challenges within the problem-spaces that many startups are starting to explore now benefit dramatically from experienced design-thinking. The time is right. The opportunity is now and the need is there. No-one is arguing that designer-founders are better than founders with technical or business backgrounds. Rather they complement each other.

Read more: Advice for Designers Who Want to Be Founders, Eoghan McCabe, 2013.

A relevant question to ask is what proportion of graphic designers do have these kinds of leadership aspirations? The answer is now more than has ever been the case before.

That said, it now seems probable that an ambitious cohort within the graphic design sector will decide it is economically most advantageous to abandon the artisan career path or the professional-service career path and step up to the founder career path. Indeed, there are already historical precedents for this type of industry-wide phase-change, most notably in Engineering.

So it is informative to note that incubators only for design-founders are appearing in the US, along with some dedicated venture capital funds such as ‘DesignerFund’. Initiatives like the experimental designer school ‘30-Weeks’ are pioneering the approach of equipping designers with the skills needed to start enterprises, after years of trying to teach startups about design.

We should ask ourselves what potential there is for similar initiatives here in Ireland?

Read more: 30 Weeks: An Experimental New Design School, Backed By Google, Fast Company, June 2014.
Read more: Google Funds a Design School That Works Like a Tech Incubator, Wired, June 2014.

Airbnb’s  Brian Chesky & Joe Gebbia, Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann & Evan Sharpe, Path’s Dave Morin, and Tumblr’s David Karp. 
Looking internationally, there are already examples of high-profile, market-disrupting companies whose founders have design backgrounds. I am sure you are all familiar with Air-BnB, Pinterest, Path, and Tumblr.

No-one argues that Designer-Founders are better than founders with technical or business backgrounds. Rather, that they complement each other.

Some VCs even claim that the core of start-ups has evolved from an ‘Engineer plus Hustler’ partnership. The new ideal is a trio of Engineer plus Designer plus Hustler.

I think it will be interesting to observe how different the priorities of organisations led with a design mindset will be in comparison with those led by a Technical mindset. Perhaps Designer-Founders will envisage and build a different kind of future to complement the visions of technology founders?

Intercom’s Eoghan McCabe & Des Traynor, SeeSearch’s Hilary Kenna, Thoughtbox’s Cristina Luminea, and Drop’s Zachary Davison, Ben Harris, Jonny McCauley & Jack Phelan.
While that trio startup model is now unexceptional on the US West Coast, Designer-Founders are still only a niche here in Ireland. But we are seeing some home-grown Irish startups with designers taking on key roles in their founding teams. While many of these are just out of incubator stage, there are certainly a few we can learn from.

Read more: Find Your Niche And Put Focus On Design, The Irish Times, November 2014.

How is the Irish third-level graphic design education sector grappling with these ideas and economic imperatives? The colleges will have a key role to play in encouraging and transmitting the entrepreneurial aspects of design thinking to the graphic designers of tomorrow. Have they started planning for these futures? Their critical challenge will be that colleges need to foster such entrepreneurial mindsets while they have been configured to graduate graphic designers with an agent mindset.

Ten years ago I attended a talk by Professor Christopher Frayling. He praised what he thought was the under-rated calling of being an “everyday graphic design tradesman”. He argued that educators need to realise and accept that not every student is going to be an iconoclast, a paradigm-changer or a design visionary. He argued educators should be content to train some people to be competent journeymen designers. I do not believe that is a viable strategy any more if we face a combination of automation and a Gig-Economy marketplace.

Obviously third-level design departments cannot just flick a switch and turn on some entrepreneurial acumen within their students. But there is little value in preparing their students for careers that may not exist when they graduate. I spoke with some of the design departments about this. While I found them aware of aspects of these challenges. The slow pace of institutional reaction times and the challenges in evolving their approaches frustrated some of those educators.

So, the future of graphic design work may be far more different than we expect. This third kind of career path will not suit all graphic designers. But, ultimately I think many of us are going to have to realign our mindsets from serving as agents or trusted advisors and step-up to acting as instigators.

The issue then becomes: how do we best prepare ourselves to operate in that capacity?

Read more: What It Takes To Be A Lead Designer At A Top Startup, Designerfund, 2014.
Read more: Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, by Seth Godin.

Quote from Merlin Mann, episode one of Roderick On The Line.
All this tells me that if you are a graphic designer, you need to work actively on keeping yourself relevant. Ask yourself:
  • What aspects of your work might simply just *go away* in the next five years?
  • Then identify what new areas of expertise you need to start building today.
  • Focus intensely on how you add unique value that cannot be readily replicated.
You need to design the arc of your own career.

Read more: The End of Design As We Know It, Dan Saffer, September 2014. (That post has a lot of crossover with my presentation. I had drafted most of this essay in August and September, before that post was published, but you can imagine how I felt when I read it!)

So, who will be the potential founders, leaders and innovators within our design community in Ireland? Perhaps it is you? Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow. But at some possible point in your future career. So do not close the door to that possibility.

No one is going to choose you. Choose yourself.

I think it is important to note that this essay is not intended as an incitement to jumping aboard some happy-clappy ‘Wantrepreneur’ bandwagon. This is not a call to all graphic designers to abandon their craft skills and just release their inner Jobs/Musk/Bezos/Zuckerberg. Obviously, the third career path discussed will not suit all graphic designers. My point is about recognising that there just are not going to be the same amount of artisan or service-agent design roles required in future. So staying active and relevant within the graphic design field may need a broader mindset and a willingness to apply the core abilities of the Design-Thinker to a new set of opportunities.

Presentation Video 
IxDA have now posted videos of all of yesterday’s presentations on YouTube. So here is the live version of my talk.

Writing an article like this does not happen in a vacuum. I road-tested some of my ideas, and investigated the background with some knowledgeable people. So my thanks to Valerie Haslam, John O’Connor, Barry Sheehan, Hilary Kenna, Jill Barry, Amy Neale, Conor Clarke, David Smyth, and Shirley Casey for their contributions.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Defensive Inertia

As I was distilling and percolating the themes for my forthcoming Defuse presentation, I ended up also considering the different ways we can unintentionally stall our own progress. Think about these three examples.

What’s the problem?
In general I am the person least likely to watch sports-related films. Although 2011’s Moneyball tells a story of American baseball, its theme is really disruption – a topic much closer to my own interests. The film charts the rise of statistical quant methodologies in team construction and player selection.

There is one critical scene where the protagonist Billy Beane confronts the Ancien Régime of grizzled talent scouts responsible for recruiting new players. He explains the true challenges being faced and they summarily dismiss him and his methodologies.

That scene has stuck with me because, whatever business we are in, it is always too easy (in many situations) to gradually fall into the role of that dismissive old guard. As we gain experience, we all develop skills giving us the fast insights, accurate rules of thumb and so-called gut instincts that made those talent scout characters successful in their careers. The danger lies in believing that whatever heuristics have worked for us before will continue to work in future.

However, the true skill is in knowing when the underlying topology is changing and the accepted ground rules are no longer operating. Do not find yourself defending the wrong territory.

Trapped in amber
Last year I attended the screening of the documentary Linotype at the National Print Museum. Many in the the audience seemed in tune with the nostalgic aspects of that film, which was in part a paean to simpler times. When the Linotype machine was introduced it was an innovative and disruptive technology. It allowed newspapers to expand their page counts and frequency of publication. During the era of Peak Linotype, thousands of people were employed worldwide operating those machines. Anyone still capable of operating a Linotype machine today is a novelty: either a nostalgic anachronism encased within an academic/museum setting, or else a decidedly retro design-hipster.

Reflecting afterwards, I think I gleaned a different message from the film than most of the audience. What struck me most was that when Linotype was later overtaken by superior technologies many who had once made successful careers as Linotype typesetters abjectly failed to adapt and make further progress in new or adjacent activities. What would your Second Act be, if the parameters of your industry were to change as dramatically?

Arrested Development
The third idea that I have been mulling over is how the concept of arrested development (loosely interpreted) can apply to our careers. The flip side of attaining high degrees of competency in anything, is that you can blind yourself to your own further potential in greater areas of operation. You can all too-easily define yourself as the person who only does X, precisely because you are one of the best there is at doing X. Yet, you could be even better at Y…

Obviously this poses an ongoing conundrum to all of us throughout our careers. This crosses over with the notion that ‘knowing what you need to know’ is a complex, recursive challenge facing all knowledge workers and members of the creative classes. Merlin Mann has been addressing this recently, both in his Back To Work podcast and in his recent talk Advanced Tricycling at this year’s 34e developer conference.

So a loose assembly of those three ideas was in the back of my mind as I composed my talk ‘A Future For Designers’. I think that the take-away here is that we always need to beware of getting ourselves stuck by defending our own personal status-quo. (Even though we most often do so with the best of intentions).

Friday, October 24, 2014

Speaking at Defuse Dublin 2014

Detail from what might just be my favourite slide. 

I am delighted to have been invited to speak at this year’s Defuse Dublin event in November. The line up of speakers looks interesting and this should be an enjoyable and educational evening. 

The topic of my presentation is ‘A Future For Designers’. (Well why not aim high?) I reasoned that it would be somewhat ambitious to try and figure out *The* Future For Designers — never mind then trying to present that within five minutes. But thinking about one possible future seems a worthwhile intellectual exercise.

I submitted this original outline for my talk back in August:
“We all know that we need to innovate. But which of the different classes of innovation should we expend our best efforts on? That choice effects the kind of futures we shall build. What novel roles could designers play within those futures? If it is not going to be what we expect or desire, what can we designers do to future-proof our careers?”
The final version of my talk is not as expansive as all that, given the realities of tailoring my message to fit twenty slides delivered in five minutes. 

This talk can be considered as a third instalment of an ongoing exploration I began in Applying Design Thinking to Big Data, Uber-fication, The End of Average and The Capitalist’s Dilemma and continued in The Future Of Work And The Internet Rainforest.

(And if I had more than five minutes, my talk could have included more slides on Christensen’s Disruption Theory as well as some Pixar Easter Eggs, cartoon hipsters from the Simpsons, Morpheus’ Red Pill/Blue Pill from The Matrix, and hard-take-off AIs. Who knows, maybe next time?)

Hopefully see you at The Sugar Club on the thirteenth.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Future Of Work And The Internet Rainforest

This year Exponent has become my primary must-listen-to podcast. (I am still hugely appreciative of The Critical Path podcast, but it has gradually drifted away from a weekly schedule.) What makes the Exponent format unique, amongst the podcasts I listen to regularly, is that the hosts Ben Thompson and James Allworth usually tackle a topic by taking two different analysis and having a robust debate to dig into the topic and uncover new insights. There is a lot to learn from their full and frank exchanges. I find their probing dialogues to be successful because, in general, they are dissecting the ideas – not the person proposing the ideas. I always strive to live up to the maxim of ‘Strong Opinions, Weakly Held’. So I think it is always educational to see how someone well-invested in one thoughtful analysis can revise their position in a debate that brings new insights to the surface.

Recently I have been doing some investigations around the topic of ‘The Future Of Work’. The twelfth episode of Exponent ‘The Internet Rainforest’ delved into aspects of that topic. To appropriate one of Allworth’s preferred superlatives this particular topic is ‘super-interesting’. There are many significant changes already underway in the way that labour markets are going to operate. With no guarantees of positive developments for the majority.

The aspects they discuss reflects Thompson’s career where he has established a viable niche as an analyst/blogger/pundit/podcaster by cultivating an audience of paying subscribers. They discuss whether the majority of viable careers will have to take similar forms in the future, and how many people shall be capable of operating at the required levels. They develop an intriguing metaphor of an ‘Internet Rainforest’ to represent the extremes within future labour markets: with colossal omni-national corporations above in the canopy and nimble techno-artisans below on the forest floor.

As I have already transcribed selected excerpts from episode twelve for my own notes, I hope that, by sharing them here, others may find them useful as well. I have attributed each quote to BT (Ben Thompson) or JA (James Allworth) and given an approximate time stamp. One disclaimer: I have lightly-edited portions of these transcriptions for clarity, mostly by omitting conversational repetitions.

One of the absolute outcomes of the Internet may be the end of super-large companies. (BT ~19.50) 
If you start a company on the Internet your addressable market is in the billions. So even if your niche is only point-one percent of four billion, it is still a very big number. (BT ~20.30) 
It is like you can longer have super-large companies now because they cannot be large enough any more. (BT ~22.20) 
My thesis is that there is going to be a massive bifurcation between very, very large and very, very small and everyone in the middle will go away. (BT ~23.40) 
I am imagining this Rain Forest with these massive trees, but this interesting canopy down underneath that is growing and harbouring all of this interesting life. But there is literally nothing in between the two. That is the economy that the Internet is creating. (BT ~28.00) 
I am reaching an infinitesimal sliver of the Internet, but the Internet is so huge that it is a meaningful amount. On the flip side: huge sites get more huge. They are reaping the benefits just as well. Meanwhile everyone in the middle, who has neither the focus nor the huge scale, is going out of business. (BT ~28.30)  
What is the future of jobs going to look like? It is going to look messy; just as the Industrial Revolution was messy. However, whenever we do reach that future, it is going to be a more individual, artisanal society. Where people do something super-specific that they are really freaking good at. And they are able to reach a sustainable audience through the Internet. (BT ~30.30) 
[The questions are] how technology is changing the ways people work and where the gains will accrue. They will increasingly flow to a few people who will become really big winners. Folks that are concerned about how the Internet is going to change employment and contribute to inequality are not Luddites. They have identified that something has changed fundamentally in the way that the labour market operates. (JA ~39.20)
Technology increases efficiency. Those efficiency gains accrue to the owners of capital and not to labour. The people who actually do the work, not only do they not make more money, but they are not even needed. That is all basic Marxist theory: but what Marx got wrong was that machines in the time of the Industrial Revolution were dumb and did not take that many jobs. Now machines are smart and just because people were wrong to say machines would take over human jobs previously, does not mean that it is not going to happen this time. Also, it is not like it was super-great the last time. The Industrial Revolution took decades and two world wars to work its way through the system. (BT ~40.20) 
In the Industrial Revolution, the number of new jobs and their value outweighed the number of old jobs that they replaced. So the question is: will that be true again here? (JA ~43.10)  
How fast can we come up with these new types of jobs? And can we come up with them at a rate faster than we are losing jobs to automation? (BT ~44.00)
What is encouraging is that this is a clear call-to-action for how we can meaningfully create the future and overcome those problems. (BT ~44.20)
The longer-term question is: are there potentials for everyone not working inside [a large multinational at top of the Internet Rainforest] to be doing the kind of thing you are doing? (JA ~45.20) 
If you start breaking the seven(?) billion people on the planet into these little niches: are there enough niches to support the vast majority of the world’s population doing these kind of jobs? The skills required have evolved from the Agrarian Age to the Industrial Age onto the Information Age. It sounds like creativity is going to be something that allows people to flourish on the forest floor. Are there enough creative people out there to do that? And if you are not creative what happens to you? (JA ~45.40)
Another way to frame your question is: will the number of niches outpace the gains to the power curve? (BT ~46.30)
In any particular niche there are going to be just a couple of big winners. And so when I talk about the long tail: it is not that there is a long tail within a niche, it is that there are an infinite number of niches. Because, in a particular niche, the whole reason the niche is now possible is that you can reach everyone on the planet. There is going to be the single best person who does X, and if you are the fifth or sixth best person who does X… Well that is where the tension comes in. (BT ~47.00) 
My hypothesis would be that there are going to be plenty of fifths and sixths; and the world we moving towards does not behave too kindly towards them. (JA ~47.30)
Even after the Industrial Revolution the vast majority of people do jobs that they don’t like. This is not a utopian future. (BT ~48.00) 
We started with 98% working on farms. We ended with 2% working on farms. The problem was that industrial jobs increased more slowly than jobs on the farms disappeared. That meant we went through a wrenching change over decades that manifested in all kinds of ways, through economic upheaval and wars. (BT ~49.30) 
When you have a system where things don’t line up temporaly, then you have the chance for all kinds of ruptures and fissures in society. To me that is a clarion call to us in Tech. (BT ~50.40) 
Everything is accelerating. We don’t want to overly pattern-match, So why assume? Just because it took a few hundred years before; it does not necessarily have to take a few hundred years this time. (BT ~51.30) 
If you find the ideas in those excerpted transcriptions engaging, then I urge you to listen to the complete episode here. The other episodes are worth delving into as well (there have been nineteen to date).

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Design Of Service Design

Service Design has been one of my ongoing topics of interest. It is something that I have been triangulating towards for many years. I have it up on my mental whiteboard in a group of topics addressing how designers can move further up the value-chain in an environment of commoditisation. I also have identified it as another hedge against that future impact point whenever the phenomenon of ‘Software Eating The World’ finally puts white collar professions and the creative industries on the menu. 

With that in mind, I recently participated in the Service Design Masterclass at The National College of Art and Design. The organisers may have mis-calibrated the naming and positioning of their summer school experiment. ‘Service Design Bootcamp’ would be a more accurate name. As this three-day course was no theoretical wander through the conceptual underpinnings of the discipline of Service Design. Rather it was an intensive, headlong dash through the Service Design process. We worked from initial research on the first day, through to taking a suite of prototype services out to market on day three. Ré Dubhthaigh, Lynsey Duncan and Sean Miller hosted the course which itself was a prototype of a new kind of offering for NCAD.

I have captured my initial reactions and learnings in this post. There is more that I still need to unpack long-term, but it is valuable to record first impressions. Just to note that I will examining this through the lens of brand consultancy, as that is my current area of focus. These are not my final thoughts on the subject. The course participants came from a broad variety of disciplines, including architecture, UI/UX, graphic design, planning, academia, innovation, and in-house service delivery, amongst many others. So the learnings from this course have a lot of other useful potential aspects of analysis.

The chosen course methodology was ‘Learning By Doing’. Which seemed prudent given that so much of the fundamental theory is available online and in books. What that method delivered was a tangible sense of the culture and the atmosphere within a Service Design team. While I have read some books on Service Design over the last three years, I never grasped that core cultural essence before. That is not something you can grok from books or websites – there is no comparison to just doing it. I have a working understanding and appreciation of the specific kinds of internal cultures that differentiate Design Studios, Internet Agencies, Advertising Agencies, PR Houses, Branding Consultancies and related enterprises. Now I think I can add a clearer understanding of the three P’s (the mix of People, Processes and Priorities) that might typify a Service Design Agency as well. What is interesting is that it is a culture with quite a different stance and attitude to what I am used to operating within. So that makes developing a Service Design competence more of a challenge than I had envisaged. But it is a positive challenge.

Reviewing first day’s work in progress. (Yes it is designers looking at Post-It notes on white boards.)

One key fact I have taken away (blindingly obvious in hindsight perhaps) is that organisations are building new services and refining their existing services all of the time — consciously or unconsciously and with or without the help of dedicated Service Designers. So there are many opportunities out there for design thinkers to contribute. The challenge we need to set for ourselves is how to add value and become useful participants within those processes. Thinking about many of the organisations that I interact with, (and using a metaphor given on day one) it seems obvious that many are still building their services from ‘back-of-stage’ outwards rather than from ‘front-of-stage’ inwards.

The most profound difference from the professional offerings I am accustomed to is that the design component of Service Design is fundamentally about co-creation. Design Agencies and Brand Consultancies primarily operate from a stance of expertise. Yes, there is an emphasis on working closely with their clients, of course. But in practice that only goes so far, at a certain point the experts go off on their own and return later with their considered response for the benefit and edification of their clients. Service Design is far, far more about discovering the best solutions together.

So being a good facilitator is a key skill for Service Designers. The working assumption seems to be that the Service Design experts alone cannot find the best answers. They must form them with the integral participation of those who deliver the service. While my own practice of delivering brand consultancy does include a significant amount of workshops; those are usually with C-level participants. When workshops have been with service-delivery teams they generally have concerned mining for raw materials or gathering information to filter upwards.

Service Design sits at the intersection between Research and Design. Both aspects are integral to delivery. The designers need to be researchers and the researchers need to be designers. The kind of research used in the Service Design process is all about listening. I found it to be much more exploratory and open in testing assumptions.  The research I am more familiar with, is sometimes concerned with finding the necessary evidence to buttress a certain position.

Ré in action.

The clichéd narrative about design is that clients do not understand it, and it is always something that merely gets added on at the end. While that is often indeed the case, it is also worth remembering that some client organisations do perceive ‘design’ as being about true problem-solving at a higher level, whereas they consider ‘branding’  as only about messaging and communication. Some people see branding as a subset of design: others see design as a subset of branding. The fact that both of these terms have become empty signifiers is something we simply have to deal with. Yet, that does not imply we cannot work their imprecision to our own advantages either. So, depending upon the particular emphasis taken by a client or potential client, Service Design can be proffered on its own, or else as an integrated element within a larger project offering.

I think the biggest challenge facing experienced designers is the learn to let go early and then go out and test ideas that are only half-formed, or quarter-formed even. I can just imagine the initial reaction of some of my designer friends to the prototyping mantra of “Early, Ugly & Often”. The fact that much of the Service Design practices outlined on the course do work best when the prototypes are almost un-designed is a mindset that is challenging to engage with. I can see how well this approach works. But overcoming the well-worn grooves of minimal design quality habits is a non-trivial exercise.

A friend of mine has been putting together a great novel framework of organisational personalities. It is based on the metaphor of everyone being either Tinkers, Tailors, Soldiers, or Spies (with suitable apologies to Mr. Le Carré). Within that model, the members of the design community are predominantly ‘Tailors’ by nature; obsessing about the fit-and-finish of every detail of every single thing they do. Service Design asks us to step outside our traditional mindset and become ‘Tinkers’; adept at putting things together using whatever is to hand to discover what works.

On-street interview to reality-check our prototype service.

The kind of rapid iterative prototyping we did on this course is far messier and rougher than anything that we would consider in my current practice. But, critically, that does not mean that it is uncontrolled and chaotic — it is just that the control has shifted to a different axis. Ré recalled a pertinent quotation that “a prototype is worth a thousand meetings’. While I do know that from my own experience, what I would have considered a prototype before is so much further realised and polished than anything we produced on this course. I suppose that for those of us with a design background, our innate response it that a consistent high degree of finish is a key aspect of the value we deliver. That is now something I need to recalibrate.

Productive chaos

Early in the course Ré and Sean deftly side-stepped the issue of precise academic definitions. I got the sense that parsing the nuances between Service Design, User-Centred Design, Human-Centred Design and similar terms was a potential conversational black-hole which could have swallowed a lot of time. From where I am operating, the relevant matching term would be ‘Brand Experience’. We would include much of the activities and deliverables of Service Design would  within the remit of that phrase. Yet, it is always worth bearing in mind that intra-sectoral naming debates do fall prey to the Narcissism of Small Differences (if that reference is too Psych-101, just think the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ and the ‘Judean People’s Front’).

I approached this class in a spirit of enquiry and curiosity, and with a willingness be challenged and to learn. The worst outcomes from investing time into this kind of enterprise is to come away thinking either “I knew most of this already” or “this does not apply to me”. Where I have ended up is that Service Design as a methodology and mindset would be a challenge worth taking further.

One opportunity arising from this initiative is perhaps to start forming a nascent community of practice around Service Design here within Dublin. I have been assembling a Twitter list of the course attendees which anyone can subscribe to. There is also an excellent masterclass Tumblr which has a comprehensive photographic record of the activities conducted.

Finally, on the lighter side, over the three intensive days we somehow also managed to address a significant amount of tangential, yet critical, issues and topics of the day. To throw out a few examples: we discussed how challenging it is for dolphins to use the Internet effectively. We explored the pros and cons that we might associate with the founding of an international ‘Festival of Questionable Digestion’ taking place in Dublin’s Liberties district. We also made a tentative diagnosis of ‘Post-It Sole’ as a common pernicious malady that afflicts Service Designers in particular. We also did some inadvertent primary research into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it pertains to the inverse relationship between the tea and caffeine intake of professionals and their learning acumen.

Spot the Service Designer’s room!
Two other class participants have blogged their ​r​esponses to the course.