Friday, October 13, 2006

Split Personality

In any sort of project where functions of business, design and production are separated from each other (software, landscaping, architecture, music where Quincy Jones is concerned), there is an "interesting" tension between the business person, the designer and the producer. The epic battles that often occur between software designers and software coders is highlighted in Alan Cooper's book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, and i have seen similar struggles over and over throughout my career.

CEO of 25 million dollar publishing firm with a dollar-shaped twinkle in his eyes (otherwise brilliant business man and designer of sorts): Alright team, we've got an email list of 3000 people that are just champing at the bit to buy this video. Every one of them needs to make instant online payments via credit card through our system by Friday. This is the web. I love the speed of the web!

Web Team of the same 25 million dollar publishing firm with somewhat bleary eyes: Um, we don't have an online credit card payment processing system. This company has always worked on a subscription basis.

CEO: What? But [100 million dollar publishing firm's name omitted] processes credit cards online all the time. How hard can it be?

Web Team: It's not actually that "hard", it's just that the 3-4 day payment gateway approval process will put us at 1 day before launch before we can even test the system.

CEO: Great, so we'll be ready to take payments on Friday!

Web Team: Um, Ready to take test payments, perhaps, but when processing credit card transactions it's important to test at least..

CEO: - That's great. Make it so! (with thin star-trek reference)

Such struggles highlight 3 very different approaches to the same problem. In the above example, the business and design functions were both accomplished by the CEO.

As far as i can tell, one of the main sources of problems between the three in any given project is lack of cognitive capacity. It is a well-known fact that the human brain can only attend to a certain number of things at once. When dissention breaks out in a project, it seems to me, it is not so much that the business person cannot understand the point of view of the designer, or that the designer cannot comprehend the constraints of the producer. Rather, it is that any one of them cannot cognitively attend to the needs of more than one approach at one time. Given an extended period of time (and assuming that they have the core knowledge necessary to do so), the designer might be able to shift their attention and take on the role of the business person, or the business person that of the producer. What is virtually impossible, however, is for them to be effective in all roles simultaneously.

This fact has recently come to the fore of my mind as i continue work on a set of theories, tools and methodologies for SMB's (small to midsized businesses). In this work, i've simultaneously held all three roles for an extended period of time, and it's been quite a ride. My initial role was as part designer and part business person (the tools and methodologies are designed to be offered in the end as a business). Once that was started, the next step was to switch into producer role, in which i did some heavy research into the best digital frameworks and tools for production of the online platform that is part of the business. Next it was back to the designer role, where i worked to develop new tools that would serve the theoretical underpinnings of the concept. Simultaneously in the business role, i worked to ensure that the solution would still be marketable and profit-worthy, as well as theoretically sound. Finally, since some of the tools were best put into digital form, i entered hard-core producer role, creating an online enterprise application .

I've found, as a result of this sort of auto-ethnographic research, some interesting insights:
  • For the most part, my usual level of business, design and production abilities each diminished when combined simultaneously with another. The degree of diminishment (sp?) seems to positively correlate with the size of the project (i.e., at the beginning of the project when it was fairly small, combining the three roles caused almost no perceivable loss of effectiveness in any of them. This seems to suggest that this is related to cognitive capacity.

  • (more later)

No comments: