May 27, 2005

Death Throes of a Business Model

If the announcement today that Snapfish will be dramatically lowering prices on prints isn't a harbinger of a business model's doom, I don't know what is.

Snapfish, Ofoto, and Shutterfly have been playing a sucker's game, trying to generate revenue from prints of digital images. The not-so-secret secret -- most people don't want prints of most images. But they were so locked into a model of "paper", of "rolls of film," -- it's getting about as antiquated as typewriter ribbons.

On a sales call with a potential client, I tried to impress upon her the need to fundamentally reconsider how her company approaches what they do, and I used the analogy of Snapfish/Ofoto/Shutterfly and Flickr. The former were stuck in pre-Web, pre-networked-world ways of thinking about people, things, and relationships. The latter is built, ground-up, *of* the Web, and recognizes that the "value-add" (as business types like to call) lies not in the production of things (which inevitably get commoditized and provide negligible margins), but in the provision of services that provide an experience you simply can't get anywhere else.

Posted by peterme at 02:59 PM | Comments (1)

IDSC Followup Thought - Bringing the Disciplines Together

One topic among the many discussions going on at IDSC was the degree to which business types should know design. Do we want the business types to be designing? If not, just how far along that path should they go? The flip side came up, too -- just how much "business" stuff should designers be doing, be aware of?

And, we didn't even mention other people who should be involved, most obviously the technologists/engineers.

For me, I have no interest in seeing business people become designers, designers become business people, engineers become designers, etc. etc. BUT, obviously, all these groups need to meaningfully interact, they do need to work together, and they need to understand the value that each brings to the table.

I identified three key points at which all these disciplines should be working together, side-by-side.

Developing Intent

This is the outset of any project or process. WHY are you engaging in this project. What is hoped to be achieved? What hypotheses are you bringing? How will you go about challenging them. It's crucial that all voices are brought to bear here. Bad things happen when one group (usually a "business owner" or "product manager" or some such) defines everything for the rest of the organization. All parties have something to contribute here, and this is most definitely one place where no one group has more to offer than any other

I suspect this is pretty obvious. Nothing shocking there. Get the team together at the start. Great. But then what? Typically, either disciplines go off and do their own thing and come back together, or there's a series of handoffs as the project moves from one group to another.

This is where the two other key points come in.

Observational research (aka "ethnography")

As Harry Max put it in a talk he gave at the IA Summit Redux, there is only one thing that every business needs - customers. And this means that everyone in that business should be interested in and concerned with those customers.

This is all about empathy, people. And everyone in the organization should be encouraged to be as empathetic with their customers as possible.

The one key place where this appreciation can happen is through observing and interviewing customers. This should not be the purview of some small group in the organization. There's no reason that everyone can't engage in this practice. Yes, it might take some practice to learn appropriate ways to observe and interview, but, really, this isn't a highly specialized skill to only be practiced by vaunted experts. Everyone is better off when everyone observes and listens to customers. It's essential for getting everyone to recognize what is going on with the customers, what's working and not working for them, and to really feel what it is like to be a customer.

(I'd also like to note that, contrary to some recent "design thinking" hagiography, that empathy and ethnography are NOT elements of design thinking. In fact, when I first started working with designers, they proved to be among the least interested in truly engaging with customers. And if designers try to claim ethnography, they will be doing it, and their colleagues, a disservice.)

I don't think that everyone needs to be involved in all forms of customer research. Surveys, market analysis, user testing, trends, etc. etc., can be performed by specialists. But I do think watching and talking to customers is something everyone should do.

Generate Insights from models

This is the one that's probably the least obvious, but I think potentially quite powerful. After the customer research has been gathered (and not just ethnographic research, but all the awareness that has been built up around the customer), it should all be laid out in front of the entire team. And the entire team should be involved in figuring out what all that research means, what models can be developed to tease out patterns and stories, and what the implications are on the project.

Insights can and should come from anywhere on the team -- in fact, this is one of those situations where the more perspectives there are, the better. This is brainstorming. This is generative. This should be about coming up with ideas. This won't be untethered brainstorming or blue-sky -- the customer research should provide a foundation, and a boundary, that insures relevancy. But, again, this shouldn't be "owned" by any one group. This should be a joining of hands, as the team understands the implications of the research, and agrees upon the most appropriate direction for the project to take.

It is at this point, with a fair amount of shared, common understanding about the problem to be solved, that people can once again firmly put on their discipline cap and focus on execution. The idea being, since the strategy and direction is shared, the disciplines, even as they do their own thing, or working toward a common goal.

Posted by peterme at 12:00 PM | Comments (7)

May 25, 2005

Enforced Contraception is Not a Good Thing

Yesterday, I found myself in attendance at the tail end of a workshop on scenario planning. And a gentleman was presenting a two-by-two, with the x-axis being about degrees of community, and the y access about degrees of innovation. And the upper right quadrant, with high innovation and deep community, was labelled "Brave New World."

Brave New World is a dystopic novel by Aldous Huxley, and not really something you want to set out as a goal, or a marker of a desirable future.

One of the worst offenders of the Glorious use of "Brave New World" is, not surprisingly, Wired. A list of google results on "brave new world" constrained to reveals a number of misuses (Brave New World of Web Services, Brave New World of Myst). Though, not surprisingly, considering the schizophrenia that is Wired's editorial vision, there are a number of appropriate phrases ("brave new world of government intrusion").

Anyway, I'm calling this out because the misuse of Brave New World has always been a personal bugbear. It's a brilliant phrase, when used appropriately (i.e., IRONICALLY). It loses its heart when simply slapped on as a label for "forward thinking."

Posted by peterme at 02:46 PM | Comments (5)

May 24, 2005

Go Spurs!

Or, as Sir Charles might say, "GI-NO-BILI!"

Posted by peterme at 10:25 PM | Comments (2)

May 23, 2005

Thoughts on the Institute of Design Strategy Conference

In the past, I've written up my thoughts on the Institute of Design events:

About, With, and For 2003: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

HITS 2003: Parts 1, 2, 3, Parting Thought

Last week I attended their Strategy Conference, which is the successor to HITS. My notes aren't as extensive as in conferences past -- the presentations were more Big Idea talks that weren't conducive to note-taking, and, as per usual, much of the best stuff happens in the hallways when you're not jotting things down. Also, I'm getting lazier in my later years. That said, I'll do my best to capture what it meant to me.

Design Thinking: What's That Mean?

The phrase most on the rise is "design thinking." Any number of presenters mentioned it, usually in reference to how business needs more "design thinking" in order to stay competitive in this modern world (in the face of globalization, commodification, complexity, etc. etc.)

In the past, I wrote my concerns with this phrase, and this conference brought those to the fore. It was never defined, and it was used in such a way as to suggest that "design thinking" is a magic pixie dust that you can sprinkle on businesses and it will lead to success.

In hallway discussions on this matter, we were able to bring some shape to the term. The consensus matched closely to Dan Saffer's definition, with a particular emphasis on seeking options/alternatives, prototyping, and emotion. (I think Dan's overstepping with including customers/users and wicked problems -- those are issues that many folks who aren't designers address.)

I think the Design Community needs to be very careful about the use of this phrase. If used too broadly, it will be rendered meaningless. If oversold, the backlash will be painful. Let's be open, honest, forthright, and humble in our discussion of what we bring to the table. As another presenter said (on a different topic) -- Underpromise and Overdeliver.

Innovation Fetishization, Still in Full Force

In 2003, I criticized HITS' obsession with innovation, and the same can be said about the IDSC. Presentations suggest that designers have some inside track on innovation. They also often suggest that the sole purpose of design is innovation.

Products are Commodities -- Services and Building Relationships Are Where the Value Is

This theme isn't a huge surprise, but it came up quite a bit. Especially considering outsourcing, and the copyability of products, the real competitive differentiator will be the services offered around the products. Think iTunes. Think TiVo (which, while having difficulty in uptake, has remarkable loyalty after the fact). Or think about how, once a bank gets you to use online banking, your degree of lock-in has gone up something like 4x or 5x.

Kevin Fong, a VC at Mayfield, had a whole presentation that seemed to be based on this idea. He said one thing that I felt worth quoting: "Anything that does not have a service associated with it, will."

And Larry Keeley, of Doblin, gave pretty much the same talk he gave at HITS, where he discussed the 10 different types of innovations that companies can make, and stressed that, in Doblin's research, the least valuable type is "product performance."

Attention from the Business Pubs

Two presentations came from journalists: Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek and John Byrne of Fast Company. BusinessWeek's "The Power of Design" cover story was considered a bellwether by this community. Fast Company gave everyone a copy of their June 2005 issue, which is cover-to-cover about design.

While it's nice to see discussions of "experience," and "design," and even "usability" make it into the business press, it often feels like they miss the boat. For one thing, they still focus on product design way too much. I'm guessing they do so because it's tangible, but, really, product design is, like, maybe 5% of all the design that happens in the world. And they tend to focus on issues of aesthetics and styling over function and use.

The NextD folks are sharp.

As per usual with conferences, most of the best stuff comes in hallway/interstitial discussions, and some of the best discussions I had were with GK and Elizabeth from NextD. They made a lot of sense about recognizing the boundaries of design (and putting reasonable limits on the idea of "design thinking"), how design can meaningfully interact and integrate with other fields, how designers have to be careful about patting themselves on the back too hard, and just, in all, providing some refreshingly clear-eyed thought on the topics of the day. They may be doing more than any other publication to meaningfully situate design.

AIGA pointing in the right direction?

A long time ago, I was quite involved with the AIGA's Advance for Design, and its product, Experience Design group. It seemed the single best place to address the emerging discipline that I found myself a part of.

After a few years, though, Experience Design stalled, and I grew impatient, and started a company, and stepped away from the AIGA. And the AIGA seemed to be having difficulty moving forward, considering its large membership wedded to "traditional" design.

At IDSC, I ran into Ric Grefe, AIGA's Executive Director, who suggested that the AIGA is finally truly turning the boat, and moving toward a more integrated and complex design future, even if that means losing some of its legacy membership.

And the fact that the AIGA has taken over the Aspen Design Conference demonstrates a true commitment toward "big D" design. We'll see where it all leads, but it looks like AIGA is worth paying attention to again.

Why no blogging?

It strikes me as odd that, of all the conferences I go to, this one has almost no coverage in the blogosphere. I don't quite know what to make of that.

Posted by peterme at 11:05 PM | Comments (5)

May 22, 2005

Poontangologists rejoice!

The song that inspired my page, "Everything I Know About Poontang," has been made available for download, thanks to copyright infringement by my dad.

Download "Oh! Mr. Mitchell". (MP3)

Posted by peterme at 07:06 AM | Comments (2)


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