February 13, 2004

On the Unintended Uses of Information Technologies

Danah writes up her Etech talk on "Revenge of the User", and she notes:

When technologies are built, the creators often have a very limited scope of desired and acceptable behavior. They build the systems aimed at the people who will abide by their desires. Often, their users don't have the same views about how the technology should be used. They use it differently. Creators get aggravated. They don't understand why users won't behave. The demand behavior. First, the creator messages the user, telling them that this isn't what is expected of them. Then, the creator starts carrying a heavier and heavier stick. This is called configuring the user. And y'know what... it doesn't work.

It brought to mind a panel I spoke on at South by Southwest 1999 called "Interface Design as Social Architecture." I wish *I* had written up my notes, but instead I have to plumb the cobwebby depths of my memory. For my part of the panel, I talked about how people adapt technologies to their own needs, which often run orthogonally, if not in direct oppostion, to the creators' intents. Essentially what happens is that creators put functionality Out There -- what happens after that can be somewhat up for grabs.

My primary example at the time was Amazon.com's customer reviews. The designer's intent was to allow customers to provide feedback about products (in order to alleviate concerns with the uncertainty of buying online.) Somebooks, such as The Fountainhead, though, end up encouraging discussion between users. Probably not intended, but also not really problematic. But then there's the case of the infamous Family Circus book reviews. For the longest time, Amazon tried to squash the obviously parodic comments, but over time just gave up in the face of the unremitting onslaught.

I then stepped back to consider the Web and hypertext itself. Originally, TBL just wanted to help physicists publish and share their works. Even more ambitiously, Douglas Engelbart developed the Online System (NLS) to augment intellect.

Now we use these technologies to accumulate pornography.

(Yes, that's flip, maybe even facile, but still addresses my point about unintended uses.)

The point in all of this, is that, as William Gibson said, "The street finds its own uses for things." Cory had a remarkable riff on this at ETech two years ago.

Posted by peterme at 01:12 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 12, 2004

What User Experience Can Learn from the Oakland A's

The comments of Paul DePodesta, titled, "The Genesis, Implementation, and Management of New Systems," provide much good food for thought for those of us trying to "make the case" for user experience work.

While general manager Billy Beane gets all the glory for the Oakland A's remarkable success while having one of the lowest team payrolls, it's Paul DePodesta who did the math (and math and math) to figure out what actually makes a team successful, and found that it wasn't what the conventional wisdom esteemed.

As DePodesta points out, he had an advantage over people immersed in baseball because he knew "absolutely nothing" about it. He could approach baseball with a fresh pair of eyes, and see that the way it was valued didn't really make sense. (This actually ties with the reading I've been doing in an Information in Society course, where we discussed "paradigm shifts", a la Thomas Kuhn, where it's often an outsider who provides the perspective that the people within the culture can't attain on their own. Think about a patent clerk upending physics with some notions on relativity.)

What I found most valuable about this talk was DePodesta's revealing that at his first major league job, with the Cleveland Indians, he wasn't able to make change because the team was successful. Such an environment made innovation impossible, because people don't want to tinker with success. Even though a change could lead to remarkably more success, and stagnancy would likely lead to the competition surpassing you (which it did, a few years later, when Cleveland's far greater payroll performed worse than the A's.)

I think about this in the face of introducing thoughtful, robust, user experience processes and methods into organizations. One of the most annoying realities of a user experience professional's life is eBay, because it seems to flout everything we stand for. The Web's most popular 'pure play' sports a remarkably unwieldy and unattractive design. eBay is wary of changing it because, hey, we're making money, right? Yet I wonder about the untold billions more eBay could reap if it tightened up its experience. Yes, initially there would be a lot of grousing, and probably loss of revenue, as people adjusted to the status quo. But overtime, the site's ability for higher productivity on the part of its users would lead to greater activity, and more sales.

I don't think I'm just eating sour grapes. I actually work with a client that suffers this syndrome, and whom I'm convinced could reap an additional 50% in revenue through making their current site more usable. In the current set-up, people are spending so long maintaining their accounts as they are, that they don't have time to expand their accounts and their activity, which would in turn reap greater revenue for the company. (Sorry for the vagueness). But the company is profitable, so, "Hands off!" -- though, unlike eBay, they're starting to see their lunch get eaten by an innovative competitor.

Another interesting parallel to work I do is DePodesta's discussion of information overkill. Baseball is renowned as a sport for stat-heads. Trading cards are covered with numbers. The problem is, there are too many stats, and many of the lauded ones just didn't matter. Anyone who has seen a company grapple with their website's log files knows what DePodesta is talking about. Early on in the Web, it became a joke how companies were obsessed with "hits" -- because hits, really, are meaningless. Something with pageviews, time on page, and a whole slew of other metrics. It took a long time for companies to realize that the only numbers that matter are those that reflect results -- leads, sales, forms submitted.

And in much the same way that baseball folks are still grappling with the stat problem, the website analysis problem is far from solved.

Anyway, lots of good food for thought in that piece, as well as the other "Thought Leader" essays.

Posted by peterme at 08:32 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 10, 2004

Again With That Word, "Design"

I subscribe to two magazines, The New Yorker, and BusinessWeek. I enjoy BusinessWeek for its clarity of reporting and its breadth of coverage.

This week, however, I find myself seething at BusinessWeek. From an article titled "Designer Cars":

Now, a decade-long drive to close the engineering and quality gap among the world's carmakers has left the companies competing increasingly on, well, looks. "Design is the No. 1 selling point these days..."

Later we're told to "get the proportions and styling right -- an elegantly curved shoulder line or an innovative grille--and you can add up to !% to the sticker price and outsell rivals.

I don't dispute the facts, I dispute the use of the word "design." In part spurred by my recent reading of Henry Dreyfuss, I just wrote this letter to the editor:

Subject: Design Is Not Just Styling

For decades, designers have fought being branded as mere decorators, so it's a shame that BusinessWeek, which sponsors the annual IDSA awards, would equate design with styling ("Designer Cars", February 16, 2004). Design is a complex process that must work from the inside out. Coordinating relationships with marketers, engineers, and customers, while paying attention to external trends, designers strive to create products that are useful, usable, and desirable. To reduce this effort to "looks" does a great disservice to the design profession.

Peter Merholz
Adaptive Path

BusinessWeek's article only bolsters my concerns from a prior post of mine, "That Tricky Word, 'Design'". Generally, BusinessWeek is pretty clued in, and pretty clued in about design. If *they* use the word in this way, what should we expect from the less clueful?

Posted by peterme at 10:00 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack


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