Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I love Bloomington

I had been wondering for a while at my own overweening love of Bloomington. I was puzzled by the little tear that oft forms in my eye while driving south on route 37 from Indianapolis, and at the beaming accounts that flow from my mouth during visits back home in Boston. It all seemed a bit inordinate. I mean, why do i gush at every chance to tell of the culture, the arts and the fresh produce? It seemed extreme. And why do i automatically tack on an extra %5 gratuity every time a restauranteur welcomes me to B-ton? It didn't make sense. And why do i skip along merrily from building to building on campus, even in (and perhaps especially in) heavy rainstorms? I mean, Bloomington is a great place - the culture, the geology, the University, the people, the food and the recreational possibilities. All of these things are good, but it just didn't seem to add up and explain my over-exuberance about living here. So i was lost for an explanation until now..

That little inexplicable spring in my step was immediately explained yesterday by a broadcast on WFIU radio, where it was revealed to me that - hold on to your spandex - Bloomington is not only my current home, but also the birthplace of David Lee Roth - the reigning King of high culture. Yep, read it and weep, Boston - you with your pitiful little Emersons, Poes, Morses, Franklins, Fiedlers and Adamses. I'm living in the eden that birthed the genius behind consummate American ballads like "Jump", "Hot for Teacher" and "Bad Habits." I'm breathing the same air that fueled a generational spandex conflagration.

Monday, September 25, 2006

HCI/d and NPD - Acronyms Ahoy!

I'm currently doing an independent study with Dr. Thomas Hustad, a professor of Marketing in the Kelley School of Business. His extensive knowledge of the area has been extremely helpful in scoping a new area of research for me that occurs at the nexus of marketing, new product development(NPD), and overall business strategy, particularly as these things are increasingly facilitated on massive scales (or could be) via computer systems. For any hard-core HCI/d folks out there, i'd highly recommend taking at least a quick tour through the some of the NPD material that is out there. Essentially, the field of NPD covers the product life cycle from concept creation to launch, and even into later product-related activities which includesthings like customer relations management (CRM). For the HCI designer in practice, or for those of you headed into practice in the future, it is imperative to understand the hardcore business viewpoint on the business to product to consumer relationship.

What does an MBA-trained NPD person see when they look at a potential product? Where we as HCI/d professionals are trained in and tasked with understanding the user, the NPD professional (take for instance a product manager who is tasked with getting a quality product out the door) is trained in and tasked with understanding the financial, legal and logistical issues that make it possible (or not) to launch a quality product to these same users, but to still maintain legal compliance, company strategic objectives, product schedules and to still at the end of the day to return some money to the stockholders whose money is funding the entire endeavor.

For the HCI/d professional, it is important to understand the current NPD thinking for a few reasons:

1. In our current economy, unless you are designing a product only for your close circle of friends or for opensource distribution, product design is usually part of a larger, fairly standard business process. If we as HCI/d designers are not aware of this larger process, we risk designing amazing solutions that cannot make it to market where they can actually be a benefit to real users.

2. One of the struggles that has always faced NPD teams is innovation. Right now we are in a time of unprecedented online user participation. Wikis, Social Networking, Consumer Reviews, etc. etc. Since consumers are now becoming socialized to participate in an online context, HCI/d designers may be just the people to develop effective ways for lots of users to participate in product innovation. In the NPD literature, this has been written about in the last few years, but not done very well to this point. I'm currently reading Eric Von Hippel's book Democratizing Innovation - available for free online under a creative commons license, which takes a broad societal look at this idea. I think the HCI/d community can take a lead in this area if we step back a bit and think about the computer imaginative-(pdf download) idea that one very good way to bring thousands of people together to foster innovation may be through the Internet.

3. As HCI/d pracitioners, we can gain some valuable insights from the ways that business people get things done. There are always tradeoffs between idealism and pragmatism in any process. In my experience, excellent pragmatism is what makes good MBA grads into a great business leaders. This sort of pragmatism is absolutely necessary in business, since there is usually hard empirical accountability for one's actions. The excellent pragmatist is expert in efficiently considering many factors and making smart decisions that have positive outcomes.

4. As designers, we can bring new ideas - especially in the area of customer interactions - into this process that can perhaps foster breakthrough product developments, rather than just incremental ones. In an article entitled New Product Development as a Complex Adaptive System of Decisions this month's issue of the Journal of Product Innovation Management, Ian P. McCarthy, Christos Tsinopoulos, Peter Allen, and Christen Rose-Anderssen introduce a complex adaptive system that, in their words:

..develops and presents propositions that predict how the configuration and organization of NPD decision-making agents will influence the potential for three mutually dependent CAS phenomena: nonlinearity, selforganization, and emergence. (from the abstract)

it also

..takes into account considers individual NPD processes to be capable of switching or toggling between different behaviors—linear to chaotic—to produce corresponding
innovation outputs that range from incremental to radical in accord with market expectations. (also from the abstract)

I am still working through the article, but what the publication of this article represents is a willingness of the field of NPD - and perhaps an eagerness on its part - to find new ways of stepping out of its linear, deterministic roots and into more organic means to understand and to improve New Product Development. I have seen similar shifts in the thinking of business strategy experts, who are even looking back at some older ideas like Stafford Beer's Viable System Model. At the IU School of Informatics, recent collaborations between the Complex Systems and HCI/d folks have shown a great deal of promise in the design of music recommendation systems, analysis of social networking, identification of shortcomings in traditional HCI in predicting large-scale computer-facilitated emergent user interactions, and other areas. Perhaps NPD will be another place we can help.

I'm still in the early stages of understanding the codified field of NPD. More to come in the near future.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Status Skills

At, a site that i'd highly recommend to anyone interested in the consumer space, the September issue focuses on "Status Skills", there defined as:

"those skills that consumers are mastering to make the most of those same goods and services, bringing them status by being good at something, and the story telling that comes with it."

As with all of their content, this issue is chock-full of nice examples of Status Skills in action. Essentially, it refers to the art of empowering, and then leveraging the empowerment of, an increasingly particpatory consumer market.

The idea works like this:

1. Sell a consumer a product
2. Educate them on how to use the product (Give them Skills)
3. Offer further monetized education on how to use the product (Give them More Skills)
4. Create superusers of the product
5. Make the superusers the superstars in the user community (Give them Status)
6. (they allude to this but don't develop it very far) Allow the superusers to help you improve the product (Use their Skills)

I think it's brilliant if it's not exploited by companies for evil - and this whole movement is starting to get companies thinking about the fact that inviting consumers inside of the "castle walls" has the multi-positive result of a) creating greater customer loyalty, b) generating more word-of-mouth referrals, and c) gaining more valuable customer insights.

Since most of the companies referred to in these reports have thousands or millions of customers, this is an area where Informatics can provide a lot of guidance. One company that is already having success in this area is Powered.

Monday, September 18, 2006

On the Fly Wiki

A company called SystemOne is preparing to launch a very interesting new product that finds semantic links between what a user is creating and content on the web, in emails, rss feeds, etc. I have yet to preview the s/w, but i wonder if this could be useful for researchers? Short review by Michael Arrington of Techcrunch here:

Friday, September 15, 2006

Marketing as HCI/d?

It occurred to me today that the heavily-evident connections in the systems inside of my head are not easily made by those outside of my head (go figure). So for those of you who are wondering about the not-immediately-obvious connection between marketing and the field of Informatics/HCId, please allow me to explain.

The field of what i would call business-consumer relations has undergone some fairly large paradigm shifts over the last thousand-or-so years. To be clear, business-consumer relations, in my mind, includes fields otherwise known as product development, sales, marketing, pricing, customer relationship management, and a few others. Some of the major shifts within this area have occured along the lines of consumer knowledge, participation and entitlement.

1000 A.D. (private, local economies)
  • consumer knowledge of the product and of the business: HIGH - the vendor was often also the manufacturer, and the product was simple enough to understand (quality, design) immediately
  • consumer participation: HIGH - consumers were involved with the vendor/manufacturer personally, since they probably knew them as neighbors
  • entitlement: HIGH - if the product was defective, the vendor would see the customer around town daily. in addition, bad word-of-mouth would spread rapidly
1800 A.D. (industrial revolution)
  • consumer knowledge of the product and of the business: LOW - products became more complex as did the businesses that produced them. the distance between business increased
  • consumer participation: LOW - consumers were no longer involved with the businessowner personally, and became mere consumers
  • entitlement: LOW - businesses held most of the power. in addition to labor being subject to industry's whims, so was the consumer
1980 A.D (Duran Duran era)
  • consumer knowledge of the product and of the business: MEDIUM - the rise of Ralph Nader and Consumer reports helped to create educated consumers, now aware of the "man behind the curtain"
  • consumer participation: MEDIUM - consumers began to band together and "participate" in business by forming buying blocks, demanding safety standards, ethical business practices
  • entitlement: MEDIUM - consumers began to demand that businesses respect the consumer
2006 A.D (still the Duran Duran era, in my book)
  • consumer knowledge of the product and of the business: HIGH - massive internet information from both professional and amateur sources provides everyone with information about business practices and products
  • consumer participation: MEDIUM - businesses are now trying to find ways to actively involve consumers in the business, pursuing new methods such as WOM (word of mouth marketing), ECC (experience co-creation) and various other sundry acronyms
  • entitlement: HIGH -consumers have been mistreated and mislead for a long time, and they are now empowered by information and massive interconnectivity to demand good treatment from companies
So here's the HCI/d to business/consumer connection:

It is clear that we're living in an age of historically peculiar traits with respect to consumers and businesses. These include
  1. massive consumer interconnectivity
  2. massive amounts of publicly, instantly available information
  3. massive consumer publication and participation
Any time the words "massive", "public" and "participation" co-occur, the antennae of HCI/d practitioners should start twitching. Connected computers (the Internet) is the first medium in history that allows for the facilitation of "massive public participation". As i see it, one of the great challenges ahead for HCI/d is to become expert in the creation of efficient spaces where consumer/business interactions can occur, creating value for both in a sustainable way. It will require continued research into group innovation, participatory strategies, value creation, complex systems and a host of other things. In my opinion, future gurus of HCI/d will not be the masters of adding %100 of the design value, but instead the masters of the design of interaction spaces (see Erik Stolterman's very fine ahead-of-its-time essay on conspiratorial design), where the users can then create their own value.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Marketing As Seduction

Kathy Sierra, one of the oft-quoted "customer-centric" pundits, recently posted a blog about some of the myths surrounding marketing to geeks.

I have been doing some recent exploration into the attitudes and practices of businesses, and have found some interesting things going on:

Marketing as Conquests
For many years now, product development and to a greater extent marketing (these are fundamentally part of the same function, though they have been "siloized" in recent years) has gotten a bad rap as a coercive art, designed to create a need in the consumer that they didn't have before - to get them to buy something that they wouldn't have otherwise. To be fair to the general public, this is mostly true. One way to get at the underlying philosophy of a discipline is to analyze the vocabulary of its discourse. Sit in on a product development or marketing meeting, and you'll hear words like "targeting", "campaign", "segmentation", "launch", "positioning", "attrition". The last time i checked, these words have a longer history in military conquest than they do in the production of goods and services. Rome mounted many campaigns, all of which targeted, just about anyone in their way, with the goal of furthering the interests of his country. They never claimed to be fully customer-centered in their approach, except for the thinly-veiled claims that they were bringing order and infrastructure to the people they conquered.

The Dissonance
In many recent interviews with successful small and large business owners, i have seen a distinct dissonance between their vocabulary and tactics (there's another one of those words). Most all have spoken of their customers in fond terms, citing that they feel indebted to them, and that they honestly desire to make them happy. Despite these feelings, business owners strain within an inherited system that still sees the business and the consumer in an adversarial, almost martial relationship. It's a system they've inherited which has told them for decades that the best way to grow a business is to squeeze as much revenue per customer as possible, and that non-monetary value only goes one way - created by the company and given to the customer in the form of a good or service.

This sort of dissonance would certainly occur in the case of a wide-eyed suitor, madly in love with a beautiful woman, who was forced to act on the only source of romantic advice he could find - from the mouth of his good friend Ghengis Khan.

"You say you love her? Yes, this is good. Acquiring her will be easy. Find where she lives, then ride as fast as you can around the Great Wall of her defenses (drinking your horse's blood to get there faster). It will surprise and delight her that you have showed up unexpectedly, sneaking in through the back window of her house. Once inside, if you have correctly targeted her, she will be yours. While you are there, ask if she will refer you to a friend. Then take her back to your stronghold. She will feel pleased and popular since she is your 100th wife, and you will know this by giving her a satisfaction survey."

The Future?
In some sense, the current product development/marketing methodology (exaggerated a bit here for rhetorical fun and impact) is similar to that provided by Ghengis. The business owners i've been talking to have learned through decades of practice that the customer should be treated like a target, though they personally feel otherwise. Currently though, there is no good alternative system. Up until recently, this has sustained business, but with the advent of highly informed, connected customers who sometimes know more about a business than does their owner, old assumptions are being questioned, and business owners are wondering if there is a new methodology out there to guide their practice.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Information Filters

In 1997, Steven Johnson wrote Interface Culture, an insightful book in which he points out the rise of media content like Bevis and Butthead, Mystery Science Theater and Talk Soup which, he points out, provide little if any original content. Instead, they are what he calls "parasitic media", which act as filters for an increasingly digitized world of information - helping to explain the behemoth machine of information that drives society. These forms, he argues, are similar in function to the Elizabethan novel that helped the populous to make sense of industrialization - a shift that must have been overwhelming - a machine that drove society, but that was too large to make immediate sense to the human mind. In a sense, this has always been the function of myth - to help so explain and filter the machines (loosely defined) of nature and society in terms more understandable to the human mind.

Since 1997, we have entered a new era of information filtering, where terms such as "folksonomy" and "wiki" suggest that the effects of mass human filtering is greater than the sum of its parts. Mathematicians and complexity theorists seem to suggest that it is the structure of these systems that is importantly causal in this sort of filtering - what seems to me to be a highly empirical/structuralist myth. Humanists seem to suggest that it is the intention of the actors of these systems that render these emergent interactions effective - the self-corrective mechanisms arising out of the statistically significant goodness of the majority of writers of wikipedia.

These are of course myths we're devising to explain a far more complex system than we can understand at the moment. I wonder what myths will supercede them?

Flash Debugging (code everywhere)

I periodically receive questions about Flash from students and colleagues, so i thought that i'd post the answers online for all to see. Hopefully these posts won't merely be a fix to each individual problem, but will also give some sort of ideas for troubleshooting methodolgy when working in Flash.

In this problem, when running a movie, error messages were appearing as follows:

**Error** Scene=Scene 1, layer=button, frame=50:Line 1: Mouse events are permitted only for button instances on (press) {

Here is the way to diagnose such problems in Flash. The first step is to look closely at the error message:

**Error** Scene=Scene 1, layer=button, frame=50:Line 1: Mouse events are permitted only for button instances on (press) {

This tells us a lot. The first thing, is that we're reasonably sure that the problem here is on frame 50, line 1. So the first thing to do is to look at the code on frame 50. There we find two keyframes with code in it. The second one has the same code included in the error message:

on (press) { gotoAndPlay (10);}

Now, the error message says that "Mouse events are permitted only for button instances". But this code is on a frame. Here is the problem. Looking a little closer, we see that the event "on(press)" logically would be hard to apply to a frame, since there is nothing to press. So we can then take the code out and see if the error still exists. In this case, the error goes away, and the problem is solved. You actually had redundant code both on the timeline AND on the button in frame 50.

The overall thing to be careful in Flash is code in places where you don't want it. Flash allows you to put code on movieClips, timelines, and other places where certain types of code will not work. Therefore be careful. Best practice is to put ALL of your code on one layer in the timeline, and create event handlers that refer to clips on the stage. i.e., for a button with the instance name "myButton" on the stage, the code would be

myButton_mc.onPress = function () {
trace ("onPress called");
//put the code here to effect change in the movie

The error messages from the Flash IDE are generally fairly easy to follow, and can be used to logically deduce the problem. The first step is therefore to look closely and to see what it is telling you. The next step is to take a deep breath. Third, use the "trace" function liberally to try and get at the problem. Trace is your friend.