Monday, September 29, 2008

Branding Exercise

"This is truly the great breakthrough of e-commerce, the thing that has professional marketers really excited. It's the ultimate relationship move: a profoundly new ability to split entire nations into markets of single individuals. Handle this right, finesse the legal and privacy problems, and you can compile dossiers on customers that would have dazzled the gestapo."

Tomorrow Now, p. 240

More sophisticated information gathering leads to highly personalized marketing.

Demographic of One
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Re: Core 77 - rough guide to the future

Do You Matter? How great design will make people love your company certainly isn't afraid to demand attention. All of the details -- bright orange cover, too-tall proportions, monster san-serif titles, limited color-palate, grid-adherence so obsessive that even the cover format is the same as the pages within -- just scream "I've been overdesigned to look simple!" Combined with the existentially accusatory title, it certainly succeeds in demanding audience participation, but it's a book, not a graphic design experiment, and for it to matter to the audience, it needs to keep the reader's attention too.

Robert Brunner, an industrial designer for some of Apple's most iconic products, and Stewart Emery, author of Success Built to Last, pose a deceptively simple question: Do you (as a company) matter (to your customers)? Perhaps a more intuitive phrasing of their titular interrogative might be, "If you were gone tomorrow, would your customers miss you?" That's nothing new in business circles. It's just a retelling of product differentiation, a mainstay of marketing and competitive landscape analysis. The added value here is in the subtitle: "How great design will make people love your company," and Brunner and Emery are here to explain the role design can play in the competitive arena. The book is targeted at corporate America rather than designers, so Core77's readership ought to be familiar with the design side of the material. That said, design and business overlap, so while designers might benefit from the business side more than they might care to admit, the real benefit would come if a few more middle managers read material like this.

These days, even the pages of the Wall Street Journal and Forbes are singing the praises of design and Business Week even devotes a whole issue to the Best Product Design of the Year. Do You Matter? highlights this newly recognized collision of business and design. Structured as a series of topics by way of case studies on companies who have found relevance through innovation, the book spends a lot of time on the usual suspects: Apple, Nike, Apple, BMW, Apple, and finally, as a coda, OXO, just to make sure the last five years of IDEO and Smart Design consulting work were well covered. While it might be new to some in business, this material should be old hat for Core's readership.


Occasionally the book's endless coverage of the Steve Jobs juggernaut makes it seem like an extended infomercial, but since Apple is one of the clearest examples of a design culture in the world and Brunner happens to be intimately familiar with the company, I can't fault him too much for his Applephilia. The rest of the media is, after all, on the same bandwagon. Trying to explain Apple's success in terms of Apple products, however, winds up sounding more like a string of aphorisms and accolades than a corporate roadmap. Along the way, design laypeople might learn some interesting lessons about the need to be customer oriented and about the way design needs to be a cultural shift rather than an afterthought, but although the design emphasis is new, the core business concepts have been well covered before.

Instead, where Do You Matter? gets interesting is when it addresses companies struggling to figure out just how design can help them matter. The contrast between Samsung's ascension and Motorola's failure to follow the RAZR with another breakthrough product makes for a far more interesting tale than hearing about companies we already know have strong design narratives.

Although the middle of the book labors through a string of somewhat repetitive examples (BMW is an aspirational brand, Whole Foods is a nice place to shop, etc.), the authors close with actionable advice, formulating the acronym "FLAVOR," meaning Focus, Long-term, Authentic, Vigilant, Original, and Repeatable, which actually gets to the heart of what values businesspeople should try to instill in their companies to make them relevant. The real trouble with talking about "Authenticity," a design culture, or mattering from the customer's perspective is that the concepts are elegant and simple to understand, but extraordinarily nuanced and difficult to execute.


What seems to be missing, actually, is the methodology for successful design. Everyone can recognize the artistry in a Rembrandt, even if they can't paint it. Likewise, it doesn't take a professional industrial designer to appreciate the elegance of the iPod interface or the way that all of the controls in a European sports car seem to be in just the right places. Intuitive recognition of design seems to be an innate human ability (certainly of the buying public) and yet bad design prospers. What's needed is a clear and iterative process for making sure that products are refined and developed until they become good design.

Designers already know this process: prototype, test, revise, repeat (Donald Norman's Emotional Design covers the user experience that Brunner and Emery treasure from a design rather than a business perspective). Sadly, business often expects or reaches for a shortcut, trying to tack design on as an afterthought, where it needs to be addressed from the very beginning. Do You Matter? won't exactly be an eye-opener for most industrial designers. Indeed the author podcast makes it clear that business leaders are the target audience. Fortunately for Core's readership, from a personal perspective, the answer to the title question is a resounding yes. Brunner and Emery have literally written a book saying that industrial designers are the answer to corporate irrelevance! So while designers may not learn much from Do You Matter?, it would be in all of our best interests to get a copy in the hands of senior managers everywhere.

It's heartening to think that large corporations would make sure that their products/services/sales offices are aesthetically pleasing as a business plan. But the main problem isn't that big companies don't want their products to look good, it's that no one can agree exactly what "good" looks like. Taking chances just isn't in their blood. Imitating the prevailing trend is. So as long as companies like Apple, Nike, et al are making money while pushing the envelope, there's a chance for designers to make headway creating products that aren't just functional, but worth keeping in a portfolio. Here's hoping the message goes through.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Re: Bruce Nussbaum - Did Innovation Cause The Crisis on Wall Street?

Bruce Nussbaum - Did Innovation Cause the Crisis on Wall Street?

The stock market is crashing, housing prices are plummeting and the economy is poised for a severe downturn so I’m reminded of the criticism I heard at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January that innovation is responsible for this mess. A European banker came up to me and and said, “isn’t innovation at the root of all our problems?” “All those new financial instruments failed, right?”

He’s right. So what went wrong? I’ve talked to a lot of folks and the answer lies in the innovation process that took place on Wall Street. Hundreds of hugely complex products based on hugely complex mathematic financial models were created and sold around the world—without first being tested out. There was little or no real-world iterative process. Commercial ankers, hedge fund managers and investment bankers didn’t know what would work or not work in a troubled economic environment, such as one where housing prices fell sharply. In fact, the complex financial instruments were supposed to spread and reduce risk. In the end, they did the opposite. In short, the innovation process was flawed. New inventions were not stress-tested in a real enviroment.

Second, the new financial products were flawed. They were opaque—not transparent. They were sold to investors who didn’t really know what they were buying. Instead, they relied on the rating agencies to tell them the value of the products—if they were AAA or BBB. But that didn’t work. The rating agenices had mathematical models that didn’t work in a period of sharply falling housing prices. In the end, no one really knew what the new products were worth. Worse, when trouble came, those who sold them didn’t know how to fix the products. And they didn’t take responsibility for replacing them—in part because they didn’t know what they were worth. Again, bad innovation process.

There is a great new book out by my friend and colleague Stephen Baker called The Numerati. It’s about the rise of a new class of mathematicians, computer scientists and numbers people who collect the growing mass of data we emit and create new things based on the patterns and similarities. Think Google. The Numerati are the people who rule the data—and our lives.

My one question to Steve—have the Numerati caused the crisis on Wall Street by innovating new financial products based on bad models and poor process? And do we have more to fear from them?

In his Sept. 15 post, Bruce Nassbaum speculates that technological innovations may have been the contributing factor to the current financial crisis. It's a tempting hypothesis: the fear of modernization, from the steam engine to Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" to the dystopian works of science fiction writers like Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick, to movies like 12 Monkeys and the Matrix and beyond, we've always been fascinated/horrified/wary that the very things created to simplify our lives would turn against us in some fantastical way.

However, in this article for the Dallas News, Dave Michaels offers a more humanistic explanation: greed, and a lack of federal oversight were the root causes of this meltdown, and the innovations used were merely the tools that enabled them.

Michaels writes:

"Regulators and lawmakers allowed financial companies to police themselves while dismissing the need for rules to restrain the number of bad housing loans or the amount of debt Wall Street firms could take on.

Banks and brokerage firms invented new, complex products – many of them exempt from regulatory controls – to support growing numbers of risky mortgages.

Financial deregulation and the creative debt products that resulted made many on Wall Street and on Main Street wealthy, but they have left taxpayers to pick up the tab."

Nussbaum and Michaels do agree about one thing: both believe it's a lack of transparency that caused the crash, Nussbaum citing the opaqueness of the new financial institutions, Michaels citing the lack of oversight and regulation on the financial institutions.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Re: Seth Grodin - What Advertising Can't Fix

In a Sept 20 post, referring to the new Microsoft ads featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates, Seth Grodin writes:
"Microsoft has fallen into a trap that befalls many large companies in search of cred, buzz or respect. They've decided to buy some via advertising."

You have to feel for the PC world. Apple has hipster cool, music cred, and the entire design world sitting on its lap. Meanwhile, you get the idea that if you took a walk around the Death Star, you'd find the halls lined with Dells:

Grodin goes on to compare the enthusiasm of the Google/Apple employee with the relatively sedate and "bureaucratic" world of Microsoft/Windows. Still he does allow that this isn't entirely to Microsoft's disadvantage, stating, "The world needs reliable bureaucracies that mollify the needs of corporations and individuals in the center of the market."

A recent trip to the Apple store on 14th street brought to mind the dichotomy between the Mac and PC worlds. Walking into the store, there was no clear delegation of where to go to address specific problems. A friendly (and entirely too plucky) staff was available to address any questions at hand, but the significance behind their colour coded t-shirts were lost on me. Were they all available to address questions? Did an orange shirt mean staff and a blue shirt mean manager? The blue tooth devices lodged in their ears weren't helping either. Sometimes you need the no-nonsense approach of the DMV: this line is for paying tickets, this line is for your driver's test. Take a ticket, sit down, shut up, and you will be helped shortly.

As far as the Seinfeld doesn't really address the perception that Windows is a dry, sometimes frustrating experience while Apple is fun and user-friendly. Softening Bill Gates' image as an imperious software mogul isn't the same as addressing concerns about Windows Vista. On the other hand, maybe he's got a future in comedy: his straight man schtick is pretty funny, and nowhere near as obnoxious as Seinfeld's mugging.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Tomorrow Nøw: Quote

"This is truly the great breakthrough of e-commerce, the thing that has professional marketers really excited. It's the ultimate relationship move: a profoundly new ability to split entire nations into markets of single individuals. Handle this right, finesse the legal and privacy problems, and you can compile dossiers on customers that would have dazzled the gestapo."

Tomorrow Now, p. 240

More sophisticated information gathering leads to highly personalized marketing.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Re: Core 77 - Beyond the Schlock

Thoughts on predicting the future: Kevin Mcculloch gives some sound advice for trying to predict trends in design and technology. The article for me can be summed up by the heading, "Be an informed contrarian." Cautiously optimistic is the way to go, then.

It seems to me that anyone attempting to cash in on what's currently popular is already 2 years too late. Things go in cycles: what's popular now won't be in 5 years, but may well fall back in fashion in 10-15. Human nature is such that the immediate past is reviled while distant memories are given the instant soft focus retouching of nostalgia.

Re: A Thousand Tomorrows - Device Manners Policy

A Thousand Tomorrows write:

"Microsoft moves to patent technological means to enhance or enforce good manners on people with respect to their ways of using technological devices."

From the actual patent:

"The present invention includes methods and technologies for defining and administering device manners policy ("DMP"), propagating DMP, reception and recognition of, and compliance with DMP. Such policy may be used to communicate to various mobile and other devices the "manners" with which compliance is expected or required. Similar to some of the social manners honored among people, such as with "no smoking" or "employees only" zones, "no swimming" or "no flash photography" areas, and scenarios for "please wash your hands" or "no talking out loud", devices may recognize and comply with analogous "device manners" policy. "

Patenting corrective behaviour? What does that mean? Does the beeping noise when you don't fasten your seatbelt belong to Microsoft? I'm less concerned by judgemental technology then the patent issue. How do you define enforcing and enhancing behaviour? Does Bill Gates have to own everything?

Re: Firefox is missing the point

Regarding the new version of Mozilla Firefox, Seth Grodin writes:

So, Firefox needs to add functionality that makes the surfing experience better for all users when more users use Firefox.

I'm not sure I follow. Isn't the amount of people using the product/program secondary to the actual ease of use per user? Why do I care how many people are using Firefox? If the product offers quality and ease of use per individual user, then the product's user base will grow from that. But basing the quality of surfing experience on the number of users using it is a drawback to a browser, not a selling point. Doesn't the number of bugs/viruses/hackers increase with the amount of people using it? The whole reason I switched to Firefox in the first place is that I don't trust Internet Explorer with my personal info.

As far as Google Chrome, the only reason I'm trying it is because I've had great experiences with other Google products, namely Gmail and Picasa, not because all my friends are using it. Frankly I find the idea of getting a product because everyone else is using it annoying. Take that, iPhone.

Monday, September 8, 2008