Podular Organization and Edge Businesses

May 9, 2013
Podulation -- From Dave Gray's Connected Company

Podular Design — From Dave Gray’s Connected Company

In Institutional Innovation and Podular Design I noted a number of insights from the Aspen Institute’s report, Institutional Innovation: Oxymoron or Imperative?, especially that “the most important innovation challenges are now in fact institutional in nature.” As an aside, let me just note that institutions typically change in dramatic ways only over long periods of time. Think of institutions such as religion, government, the economy, and then consider the various organizational forms in which these institutions took shape across cultures over time.

One insight I have not discussed in previous posts is relevant to understanding the changing way teams work together in organizations and, by implication, in a Connected Company – as outlined by Dave Gray. Richard Adler the Rapporteur for the Aspen sessions, noted that,

“New findings about the power of collective intelligence and about the most effective ways of organizing teams are providing practical insights about how to accelerate innovation.”

To start, let’s consider many companies organize teams and then turn to the “power of collective intelligence” mentioned by Adler to see how the two relate to podular organization. Several research projects in recent years noted the fuzzy boundaries of teams in large organizations. Skilful Minds first noted this phenomena in Who’s on Your Team? Enterprise 2.0 and Team Boundaries , and then a couple of years later in Social Learning, Collaboration, and Team Identity.

In fact, the phenomena of transitory team membership is so pervasive that some people propose we analyze “teaming” rather than teams when talking about how groups organize for cross-functional purposes within, or between, companies. Consider, for example the way, Mark Mortensen summarizes this trend in team dynamics,

First, organizations increasingly require collaborations to be fluid in their organization and composition, able to adapt to the rapid changes of the external environment. Second, collaborations increasingly overlap with one another, sharing resources — including people — as those resources become more limited due to increased competition. Third, collaborations must increasingly take into consideration the different contexts within which collaborators are embedded, including locations, time zones, cultures, and languages, structures, or organizations.

The liminality of such transitory teams results from several institutional challenges including the high degree of misunderstandings that initially occur due to team members rarely having the time to translate the different ways of thinking that people bring from their professional specializations into a mutual understanding of their shared business purpose. Developing mutual understanding requires shared experiences, getting to know who you are collaborating with, not just what they do or their skills profile. In addition, conflicting functional priorities, and often a lack of clear accountability, make it difficult for such teams to remain focused on the business purpose of their collaboration.

Teams were not always organized this way. As Mortensen notes, teams in multi-divisional companies were, at one time, defined by bounded and stable team membership and common goals that interdependent work was required to meet. Cross-functional teams in such companies today are not typically defined by bounded and stable membership, and common goals are still too often related to divisional performance driven by scalable efficiency rather than a connection to the purpose of the business the team is serving.

As Brown and Hagel recently observed:

Over the last 40 years, the emergence of new digital infrastructures and a global liberalization of economic policy have increased the pace of change exponentially. Many companies that were extremely successful in earlier times of relative stability are now finding that their relationship architectures are fundamentally misaligned with the needs of their business today. As the pace of change increases, many executives focus on product and service innovations to stay afloat. However, there is a deeper and more fundamental opportunity for institutional innovation—redefining the rationale for institutions and developing new relationship architectures within and across institutions to break existing performance trade-offs and expand the realm of what is possible.

Institutional innovation requires embracing a new rationale of “scalable learning” with the goal of creating smarter institutions that can thrive in a world of exponential change.

The challenge then remains how to enable organizations to adapt to their ecosystems by enhancing access to flows of knowledge that are likely to result in learning. Leinwand and Mainardi recently observed that permanent cross-functional teams tend to fare better than transitory teams in engaging organizational ecosystems. As they note:

We’ve recently seen a more robust cross-functional construct emerge, one  with an overarching organizational structure, based on building and maintaining a distinctive capability. Members of these capabilities teams are assigned permanently to them, reporting there rather than through a functional hierarchy.

Permanent cross-functional teams provide an institutional basis for what Hagel and Brown refer to as edge businesses that develop within large-scale enterprises, noting that such companies “should resist the temptation to confront the core, and instead  focus on opportunities on the periphery or at the ‘edge’ of their businesses that can scale rapidly.” I suggest below that Dave Gray’s conception of podular organization affords an important insight regarding how the institutional innovation of edge case businesses can develop and organize. Read the rest of this entry »


Collaboration, Empathy, and Language in Global Teams

March 27, 2013
Panacousticon -- Athanasius Kircher (1650)

Panacousticon — Athanasius Kircher (1650)

The importance of empathy for design research, organizational collaboration, and language is one of my major focuses. The relationship between empathy and collaboration is a topic I’ve covered in a range of posts over the past few years. One post in particular, drawing from the Open Empathy Organization concept of Dev Patnaik’s Wired to Care, focused on how empathy improves the overall communication patterns in organizations.

Organizations, for-profit or not-for-profit, which ignore the benefits of using empathy as an organizing principle do so to their own detriment. The point is especially relevant to global companies that mandate a lingua franca.  Companies currently mandating English as their lingua franca (ELF) include Daimler AG, Kone Elevators, SAP, Siemens, Philips, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, Nissan, Technicolor, Rakuten, and Microsoft in Beijing, among others.

The trade-offs in deciding whether to implement ELF are pretty well known. Pressure from other global players such as suppliers, customers, partners, and competitors who increasingly use English is one. Diversification of organizational tasks across departments in different countries creates bottlenecks without a lingua franca, increasing inefficiencies. A third reason relates to making mergers and acquisitions among global companies smoother in organizational terms.

Actual research into how ELF affects collaboration within distributed teams with members from different mother toungues and national cultures is less abundant. The following discussion looks at some recent research into the way ELF actually affects distributed team members of global companies.

However, before looking at the research, a brief review of the debate about ELF is useful to put the research into a broader context. Most of the points (pro lingua france and con lingua franca) below are drawn from a debate between Maury Peipert and Karsten Jonsen of IMD.

If I had known about Jankaki Kumar when I wrote this post she would have been my point of reference for how these concerns apply to what employees in global enterprises think, feel, and do while participating across national cultures and peoples.

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On the Roots of Social Computing

November 17, 2011

I recently received an invitation from Mads Soegaard, Editor-in-Chief at Interaction-Design.org to offer those who read this blog an early view of a new chapter on Social Computing in their encyclopedia. I’m a little late on this writing for you to get a pre-publication view of the chapter but I wanted to make sure and point it out for those who take topics like social computing seriously. Thomas Erickson wrote the chapter. To be candid, I didn’t really know much about Thomas until I read it. He seems like a very interesting person. Thomas’ chapter takes seriously the point of an early comment I made in a post here in 2008 on Social Software, Community, and Organization: Where Practice Meets Process, specifically my point that not enough of the influential discussion on the topic took seriously the roots of what it means to do social computing.

The distinctions involved are as old as the study of social interaction in organizations, especially the characteristics of routine work. However, we don’t need to go back to the 1950s when the distinction first emerged in the study of industrial organization to understand the significance of Ross’ point. Indeed, the early 1980s will do. Rob Kling discussed computing as social organization as early as 1982 in Marshall Yovits’ edited series on Advances In Computers. Drawing from the symbolic interactionist tradition, Rob distinguished between a line of work which, he contended, indicates what people actually do in computing work, compared to formal descriptions of that work, or what we might today refer to as business processes. Kling’s work was one precursor to the focus on computer supported collaborative work  (CSCW) in studies of group collaboration, most notably developed at Xerox PARC.

The social roots of social computing are important for influentials to keep in mind as they discuss current developments in Web 2.0 technologies, especially their use in the enterprise. The point is not a simple academic exercise of giving credit to what came before. Rather, it is to take note that the distinctions made explicit…regarding practice/process are as old as the modern, hierarchical organization and seem to survive regardless of the way communication technology is applied in it. Those who discuss tensions between social software and Enterprise 2.0, or learning management systems and eLearning 2.0, are pointing to persistent challenges in how organizations work.

Thomas’ chapter provides an excellent overview of the roots, history, and development of the concept of social computing as a concept that promises to stand the test of time regardless of the labels used to describe it, e.g. Web 2.0, Social Media, Social Business, Enterprise 2.0, etc. I recommend anyone involved in current discussions related to compound nouns like social media, social business, social “this” or “that” take a look at Thomas’ chapter as well as the Interaction-Design.org encyclopedia which offers in-depth analysis of such topics.


A Learnability and Experience Design Update

November 9, 2011

One of my earlier posts discussed the learnability of a service as a key challenge for experience design. Today I ran across this early video from Don Norman on learnability and product design. I thought I would share it.

 


Social Learning and Exception Handling

December 9, 2010

We know that most learning in the workplace is informal. Most observers put it at around 80%. Recently, John Hagel and John Seeley Brown contended that “as much as two-thirds of headcount time in major enterprise functions like marketing, manufacturing and supply chain management is spent on exception handling.” Of course, that fact is a result of the successes of process automation over the past few decades. Yet, still, The Barely Repeatable Process (BRP) persists as an organizational challenge for business.

Earlier discussions here focused on the importance of exceptions, to business process and formal learning. I examined the implications of the Kirkpatrick Evaluation model to the use of social media in learning experience design, while addressing the challenges facing learning leaders. Leading the Business-Centered Learning Experience noted that evaluating formal learning is as much about organizational learning and change management as it is about individual learning, largely because much of the learning, and performance, that matters today occurs at the group level. Marc Rosenberg recently echoed the point in an article in Learning Solutions Magazine, The Special Sauce of Social Learning. Marc noted that social learning is largely a change management challenge for organizations.

 The most basic point to remember is that exceptions to formal business processes require efforts to design a scalable learning architecture that supports content co-creation needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through an enterprise’s ecosystem. Whether judging an adaptation successful requires it to result in new formal learning content, i.e. content co-creation, or a new business process, i.e. organizational innovation, or both, remains an open question.

Echoing John Hagel, John Seeley Brown, and Lang Davison’s focus on The Big Shift, Tim Young recently noted the following about  social networking and exception handling,

When an exception happens, we have to step away from our PowerPoint, stop typing an email, or exit a meeting in order to take care of it. Routine work stops. And, our modern reliance on technology to find, aggregate, and alert us to these exceptions has made the task of managing them more burdensome than ever before. Systems that manage exceptions provide the enterprise with vast amounts of data points that have become overwhelming for employees to handle. The applications that we rely on for managing exceptions still rely on process owners to make decisions and respond to the issues. The result is a workforce that isn’t dealing with exceptions well at all. (my emphasis)

The importance of social networking to increasing the effective handling of exceptions is a major focus for those interested in social learning.

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Failing to See Money Hiding in Plain Sight

October 4, 2010

I’ve discussed ethnography, especially digital ethnography, several times here taking note that, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers. Ethnographers research settings, situations, and actions, with the goal of discovering surprising relationships. The most surprising relationships though are often hiding in plain sight, right under our noses.

I was recently pointed to a video from a link in the Yahoo Group Anthrodesign. The video, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, provides a unique example of insights about people we can glean from designing situations that transgress established sociocultural practices. I actually watched it three times, and not because Time listed it in the top five viral videos of the week…kind of like people (at least some people) did when the moonwalking bear video came out. Rather, my interest in it was how the mere observation of the actions taken by pedestrians leads us to experience surprise. More on this below. For now, let’s consider the video itself.

After sticking labels on 100 one dollar bills, with a unique message written on each, and clipping those dollar bills to individual leaves on a tree, Ben, Brian, and Amy video recorded how people respond to money hanging on a tree as they walk by it on a street.  The narrator, Amy,  indicates no crowds showed up to grab all the money they could get, though a few did take more than one dollar at a time. Most people who took money, a minority, pulled a couple of dollars, or one, and moved on.

(UPDATE: You will need to click on the Watch on YouTube link to see the video. Some proprietary thing I’m sure) ;-)

Amy offers two lessons learned from the Money Tree:

  1. That people routinely walk by a “tree filled with free money” without even noticing
  2. That people can look at a tree filled with money and not even see it

The Money Tree offers an example of what social psychology, but especially ethnomethodology, refers to as a breaching experiment. Breaching experiments typically involve a researcher breaking a rule about everyday life and then analyzing other people’s response. The Money Tree exemplifies a situation designed to break a tacit understanding about money and sidewalks.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees”, is a phrase most people in Chicago (the location of the Money Tree) probably know. We don’t routinely see money hanging from a tree along a sidewalk. It is certainly more common, as the bicyclist’s experience in the video shows, to see money on a sidewalk. And, I’d wager, most of us just think someone lost it. In other words, merely by setting up the situation to violate the pedestrians’ tacit knowledge of what walking down a sidewalk entails, the videographers show us something about people.

At the same time that the video offers us a surprising experience, it sure would be interesting to know what people who failed to take money were thinking. Anyone else find this interesting?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Video Analysis for Experience Design: The Video Card Family Game

July 12, 2010

From "A Journey Round My Skull's" photostream on Flickr

 Digital ethnography is an increasingly feasible research technique as smartphones decrease in cost and more people carry them around. The photographic capability of smartphones is an important resource in making digital research ubiquitous, giving people the ability to capture images and record observations as they go about their everyday lives, and characterize those observations for ethnographers. 

Of course, taking photographs and sharing them online as part of a diary or journal for ethnographic research predates smartphones. Smartphones simply increase the likelihood that an everyday experience is recorded as a representation of the moment in which it occurs. Nevertheless, the video recording capabilities of smartphones afford collaborators an opportunity for representing experience in a manner previously unavailable to ethnographic research. 

I’ll discuss the range of implications for ethnography posed by the ubiquitous access to video recording capabilities by ordinary people in another post in the near future. For now, my discussion focuses on how to use video in ethnographic research to inform product/service design. 

Video of people using products or services is one of the most challenging data resources used in ethnographic research. Playing and replaying video segments for review is time-consuming and, depending on the number of people involved and the type of activity recorded, difficult to distil into agreed-upon insights. 

I recently read several chapters from Sarah Pink’s Visual Interventions: Applied Visual Anthropology, thoroughly enjoying all of them. One chapter in particular though, Video Ethnography Under Industrial Constraints, by Werner Sperschneider, really caught my attention. Werner spells out a technique (the Video Card Game) for analyzing video in design research that I remembered reading about several years ago but, at the time, didn’t really give a lot of thought to.   

The Video Card Game draws from the “Happy Families” childrens’ card game, a game in which players collect families of four cards as they ask one another in turn for cards of a particular archetype. The goal of “Happy Families” is to collect a family of four cards, forming a stack. Collecting the most stacks makes you the winner.  

Werner provides an overview of how researchers in user-centered design at the Danish industrial manufacturer, Danfoss A/S, initially created the Video Card Game as a method for combining ethnographic and visual research methods using video. Design researchers, Margot Brereton, Jared Donovan, Stephen Viller, at the University of Queensland, as well as Jacob Buur and Astrid Soendergaard, of  the University of Southern Denmark, and the University of Aarhus, respectively, also provide case studies of its use. 

Family Resemblance and the Video Card Game

The Video Card Game’s design provides a collaborative space of interaction for researchers, designers, and design collaborators to co-create insights for product and service design, using video as a primary source of insight. The rendition of the game offered here refers to it as the Video Card Family Game for the explicit purpose of making it clear that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance is a key criteria in the gaming process for deciding to which themes a video card belongs. Using the concept of family resemblance to analyze video enables design researchers to organize, prune, and interpret actions taken in their research with collaborators in the field, providing actionable ideation outcomes.  

When playing the Video Card Family Game the key is remembering that, even though the cards give the video a tangible mode of expression, the images remain on relatively small cards, whether on the surface of a table or attached to a poster on the wall. One can imagine an interactive wall display like Microsoft’s Surface that minimizes the legibility problem. Short of such a solution however it is important to keep in mind the spatial limitations imposed by rendering video representations of action onto tangible video cards arranged on tables or walls. 

Keep reading if you are curious about how the Video Card Family Game is played in the context of video analysis for design research. 

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Wayfinding, Purposive Desire, and Service Design

April 20, 2010

 

My last post dealt with transformations in the grocery shopper’s service journey in the United States since the late 19th century, after creation of the shopping bag. It noted that, before the shopping cart was introduced into grocery stores, the shopper’s journey started with paper grocery bags and noted the transformation required to get shoppers to use shopping carts.

In recent years, local and state governments, grocers and other retailers, as well as many shoppers increasingly understand the environmental impact of using so many disposable bags, whether paper or plastic. Not to mention the direct costs to the grocer in providing the disposable bags.

Paper bags cost four cents each on average and plastic bags one cent. The cost per year in the United States is over four billion dollars, leaving aside all the unintended harm to the environment. This post suggests that shoppers exhibit a purposive desire to use reusable shopping bags. When will the large grocery chains design the customer journey to reinforce the purposive desire of their shoppers? Customers expressing such a purposive desire need symbolic resources to aid them in remembering to take their reusable shopping bags,

from here

or here

to here

and, finally, here

Let’s start off with an anecdote.

Schnucks is a grocery chain in the St. Louis area that I sometimes frequent. The particular store I shop in seems to stock the best Bibb lettuce in my area and that is the main reason I go there. Earlier this year, as I entered that store, I experienced the simplest solution you could imagine to a recurrent problem many retail shoppers face.

Someone in this store took the time to mount a reusable Schnucks bag onto a matte board and attach it to the Enter doorway. Even though I was almost in the store when I saw it, the mere sign with no call to action gave me the motivation to turn around and go to my car trunk to retrieve some reusable bags. 

My household owns 15 – 20 reusable grocery bags from various retail chains in St. Louis, Schnucks and Dierbergs. I keep several of those reusable bags in the trunk of my car to use whenever I go shopping, especially for groceries. I’m sure many of you do the same with stores in your area. Needless to say though, I can’t count the times I’ve reached the checkout counter and realized that the answer to the “paper or plastic” question is, “Oh crap, I forgot to bring my bags in with me.”  

As a recent Twitter poster noted:  

  

A Facebook group even exists for I always forget my green bags.  

For those of you who own reusable shopping bags I’d wager you know the experience. In fact, one of the reasons my household has so many of these reusable bags is that my wife often forgets also, but she is not reluctant to just buy another one or two bags instead of using paper or plastic. Don’t ask!  

In addition to an inexplicable sense of inappropriateness, which my wife says she shares, in bringing a Dierbergs bag into Schnucks, and vice versa, or banish the thought, to bring a Schnucks or Dierbergs reusable bag into Whole Foods or Trader Joes, the main culprit for my failure to remember is usually just getting in a hurry.  

Consider the following numbers:  

40% of 1,000 people surveyed by Consumer Reports in the United States say they own reusable shopping bags and use them along with grocery supplied plastic and paper bags  

17% of 104,830 people surveyed by MSNBC in the United States say they consistently use reusable shopping bags  

Any way you look at the numbers, many more people own reusable bags than use them consistently. Someone at the Schnucks store who posted the sign is obviously listening to those customers who end up at the checkout and express dismay over forgetting their reusable bags. None of the other five or six Schnucks stores I occasionally shop have posted such signs. Schnucks lacks a strategic communications strategy for addressing the green customer need in question, i.e. the desire to remember reusable bags.

Schnucks isn’t alone. Dierbergs doesn’t provide signs to support reusable bag shopping at the start of the customer journey. Neither does Whole Foods or Trader Joes, at least in St. Louis. Nevertheless, the Schnucks store discussed in this post developed a workaround for the overall failure of the company to engage the shopping journey needs of its customers. It serves as a paradigmatic example of service design brought to the wayfinding challenges of grocery shoppers who are interested and motivated to minimize their environmental impact.  

 A customer that voluntarily expresses dismay over leaving their reusable shopping bags in their automobile trunk, or at home, is also revealing a desire, an emotional response to their own failure to remember a personal commitment to a larger purpose, i.e. they want to act in an environmentally responsible way. It is a purposive desire. I suggest that such purposive desires are relevant to service design and wayfinding, and the sections below outline how.

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Transformations in the Grocery Shopping Service Journey

April 15, 2010

Grocery shopping is one of those chores that we all have to do from time to time. I’m introducing the topic of grocery shopping as a service journey not because the concept is new.  In-store ethnographic studies, and shop-alongs, implicitly recognize the concept. Few people who analyze what grocers do, and how people who shop in their stores get the job of buying groceries done, would be surprised that it is a journey. And, of course, the journey starts in the shopper’s home, which Tesco’s Fresh and Easy discovered the hard way when they expanded from the United Kingdom to the United States. What I want to do here is provide a brief, high level history of the U.S. grocery shopper’s journey, and key transformations of that journey, to establish the context for my next post. 

Other than time, money, and typically transportation, two pieces of technology are critical to the journey we take as we shop, especially for groceries. We must collect items around the store and move them to the checkout counter. Once our grocery items are checked out and we pay for them, we must move those groceries from the store to our source of transportation. For many of us that transportation consists of an automobile, or other vehicle; for others it may be public transport. 

A partial solution to the challenge of collecting items around the store came with the invention of flat-bottomed paper bags by Margaret Knight in 1870. However, it really wasn’t until Walter H. Deubner, a grocery store owner in St. Paul, Minnesota, created a shopping bag  in 1915 (a paper bag with a cord running through it for strength) that a workable solution to the challenge of collecting and moving items from shelves to the checkout counter came along. The Deubner Shopping Bag carried up to seventy pounds of groceries. In other words, at least initially, the grocery bag was supplied before customers began to shop. 

The invention of the shopping cart by Sylvan Goldman in 1936 provided the basis for changing the shopping journey. Consider the problems he faced in persuading shoppers to change their shopping journey. 

Goldman’s concept was simple: make shopping easier for the customer and they’ll visit the store more frequently, and buy more. Unfortunately, the customers didn’t want to use the carts. Young men thought they would appear weak; young women felt the carts were unfashionable; and older people didn’t want to appear helpless. So, Goldman hired models of all ages and both sexes to push the things around the store, pretending they were shopping. That, and an attractive store greeter encouraging use of the carts, did the trick. 

Paid female model pushing shopping cart.

By 1940 shopping carts had found so firm a place in American life as to grace the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Supermarkets were redesigned to accommodate them. Checkout counter design and the layout of aisles changed. 

As a result, shopping bags were relocated in the shopper’s journey, with the exception of small bags for produce and other perishables. The invention of plastic bags later on added another alternative for bagging, in the produce section as well as the checkout counter, and it was a cheaper direct cost than paper. 

Today, the result of these basic technologies for supporting grocery shoppers makes the experience much easier, no doubt less stressful on the back and shoulders than carrying heavy bags around the store while shopping. My next post focuses on the current transformational challenge facing the grocery shopper’s service journey through the diffusion of reusable bags.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Experience Design and the Intelligibility of Interfaces

February 16, 2010

Created by Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze

As I noted in a post on Peter Morville’s Findability several years ago,

“Interfaces are not what they used to be. The computer-human interface is both more and less than it was a few years ago. Interfaces are not only, or even primarily, a screen anymore. Yet, screens remain important to most design efforts, even though interfaces are increasingly part of the environment itself. As John Thackara and Malcolm McCullough both recently pointed out, entire cities are developing into user interfaces as ubiquitous computing environments expand.”

Caleb, over at MobileBehavior, recently observed that mobile phones do not yet provide users with a graphic language for touch interactions. Caleb’s post points to an early visualization of a standard graphic language offered by Timo Arnall of the Touch project, which researches near field communication. Caleb makes his point by talking about the confusion that consumers experience when faced with a visual tag (v-Tag), or 2D Barcode, and does so with the following Weather Channel forecast that offers viewers an opportunity to interact with a visual tag using their mobile phones (wait until about 45 seconds into the video). The forecast fails to indicate to viewers what the v-tag does. 

The user experience team that developed the v-tag for that particular forecast must have assumed viewers would know it represented an invitation to interact. A search on the Weather Channel website fails to return any information on the use of v-tags in their media programming though.

In a previous discussion of Dan Saffer’s book, Designing Gestural Interfaces, I made a similar point about mundane gestural interfaces in public bathrooms, a setting with fairly established graphic language conventions. Yet, even such mundane gestural interfaces can pose difficulty for users. As I noted,

I remember the first time, a few years ago, when I tried to get water flowing through a faucet in a public restroom that used sensor detection. Initially, it was not obvious to me how the faucet worked, and I suspect others continue to experience the same problem based on the photo I took during a recent visit to a physician’s office.

gesture_water

Among other observations, it is important here to note that these examples provide clear instruction for why experience design encompasses user experience. Specifically, people only experience a user interaction if the interactive capability of an artifact is intelligible, if they recognize the artifact as an instance of that kind of thing, i.e. an invitation to interact with media or machinery. Who knows how many people noticed the Adidas logo embedded in a v-Tag on their running shorts, or shoes, and failed to see it as an invitation to a user experience?

People can’t use an interface if it is not recognizable as such or, as the Palcom team coined it, palpable to their use. Otherwise, the invitation to experience, what Dan Saffer calls the attraction affordance, fails. Consider the more telling example of the symbol at the top of this post. It represents an RFID signal environment for devices using the Near Field Communication (NFC) standard. Indeed, Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze’s recent work for the Touch project demonstrates the spatial qualities of an RFID device’s signal, the shape of its readable volume.

Dan Saffer, in Designing Gestural Interfaces, touches on the fact that we are currently missing common symbols for indicating when an interactive system “is present in a space when it would otherwise be invisible,” or when we just wouldn’t recognize it as such. Adam Greenfield’s Everyware made a similar point a half decade ago.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Ethnography and Ubiquitous Digital Research

February 4, 2010

Ethnographers are traditionally known for immersing themselves in the everyday lives of people and paying attention to the details and context of their activity. Anthropologists after Malinowski considered extended participant observation in the lives of the people they studied a prerequisite for analyzing culture. However, in the last few decades of the twentieth-century ethnographers began to consider their analysis increasingly as a challenge of interpreting cultural phenomena rather than explaining their variation.

With the increasing availability of the Web, researchers using computer-mediated communication, i.e. digital, devices in their projects label their work under a range of categories. I’ve discussed ethnography several times before, the first taking note of the trend toward virtual anthropology and the next talking about the significance of Tom Boellstorff’s ethnography of Second Life, followed by a couple of posts about ethnography’s relationship to empathy and globalization.

In 2003, Cheskin’s Davis Masten and Tim Plowman characterized digital ethnography as the next wave in understanding the consumer experience in Design Management Journal. To my way of thinking they were correct in asserting that, “Digital Ethno enables participants to convey the real-time richness of their own lives and environments.”

Along with any new wave in understanding people’s experience comes a range of neologisms intended to clarify the multiplicity of research options that emerge. Kozinets recently suggested that the use of ethnography in computer-mediated research activities is best described as Netnography, a neologism he dates from 1996. He argues for the use of the term, netnography, in the following way:

Netgography differs from other qualitative Internet research techniques in that it offers, under the rubric of a single term, a rigorous set of guidelines for the conduct of computer-mediated ethnography and also, importantly, its integration with other forms of cultural research (p. 15)

However, as Kozinets suggests, the 2008 survey of Intenet users done by the Annenburg Digital Futures Project found that 56% of the members of online community members meet other members of their online community face-to-face. And, as Kozinets further notes, the Annenburg research did not include social networking sites, making the figures conservative ones since, as Brian Solis recently noted, social networking combined with geo-location and augmented reality applications is bridging the online and offline interaction. Kozinets insists that this simply means research must blend ethnography and netnography to study the intermix of online and offline activity.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think Kozinets thinking on the relation between netnography and ethnography fails to persuade. Suffice it to say that, to my mind, as Web 2.0 increasingly permeates peoples’ everyday lives, the term netnography fails to sufficiently describe the way ethnography works in a consumer environment where digital devices are  ubiquitous.

As people increasingly access the Web and engage online communities on the go, the notion that this is happening on the net seems quaint. If any term is needed other than ethnography, I’d suggest digital ethnography remains the most fitting. When we consider mobility as part of a ubiquitous computing environment, defining the relationship between space and place increasingly requires analyzing social practices rather than simply distinguishing a time and location for an activity.

As Johanna Brewer and Paul Dourish observe, “space is not simply an ‘inert container’ for the places of everyday experience; rather, space itself is the outcome of particular ways of reasoning about and representing the world.” Brewer and Dourish note, for example, that research on mobile messaging used to coordinate meet-ups or other rendezvous allow for people to show-up using a proxy form of participation before they get to the physical meeting. Additionally, the recent research by Hope Jensen Schau, Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Eric J. Arnould, How Brand Community Practices Create Value from the Journal of Marketing explicitly approaches brand communities using a range of qualitative techniques, including netnographic, to study participants across several years both online and off.

My inclination regarding ethnographic methods is to endorse the point of view offered in Sunderland and Denny’s Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. They note,

…ethnography is not a method per se, but rather a collection of methods…In commercial consumer research circles, one sometimes hears various rules, on the order “it is only ethnography if there is observation,” or “video,” or “multiple meetings,” or “sufficient time,”…or…(filled in with any number of favorite and idiosyncratic rules. But what seems most accurate about ethnography as a companion mode of discovery in cultural analysis is that as a methodology it must be viewed through, and seen as permeated with, the sociocultural. (p. 50, my emphasis)

In other words, the specifics of the methodology matter less than its purposive application. Following Geertz, Sunderland and Denny contend, the methodologies employed, whether participant observation, focus groups, in-depth interviews, diaries (online or offline), village censuses, surveys, or maps, “are not ‘ethnographic’ per se, but…are made so by the intellectual framing of the task” (p.52).

The purpose of ethnographic research is as important as the methods used, as long as the sociocultural context remains in focus. For example, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers.

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Ethnography, Globalization, and Experience Design

December 2, 2009

Rosetta Stone

One of the most visited posts on this blog is titled, Empathic Research Methods and Design Strategy. Indeed, if you google or bing “empathic research”, the post pops to the top few links, or vey close, often even ahead of IDEO. My aim in that post was to add to points made by Adam Silver, a Strategist at Frog Design, noting that globalization and digitalization in the 1990s resulted in product and service interfaces with more culturally diverse and geographically distributed customers. The combination of these economic and social forces led designers to search for new methods to augment artistic intuition about form and function. Considerations of form and function also required attention to feel, emotions, features, and interactivity attuned to the needs, wants, and beliefs of users/customers. The power of ethnographic research to discern empathic insights by observing and interpreting people’s cultural activity is now widely recognized.

Recognizing the implications of globalization for design and marketing is certainly not new. The now classic book, The Design Dimension, by Christopher Lorenz, explained the crux of the point as early as 1986. Lorenz noted that,

…globalization does not mean the end of market segments, but their explosion to worldwide proportions. Far from declining, the number of market segments may actually increase…Though industrial designers frequently can – and do – substitute for the absence of marketing imagination. In most companies the most potent force for imaginative marketing and product strategy is a real partnership between marketing and design (pp. 146-147).

 The significance of Lorenz’ point came back to me recently while reading “How does our language shape the way we think?, by Lera Boroditsky, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Symbolic Systems at Stanford University. Boroditsky’s research into language and thought complements a key point made in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Gladwell informs us that one basic reason exists for the tendency of Chinese students to outperform others in math skills. Quite simply,

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits for about two seconds at a time. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4,8,5,3,9,7,6—right almost every time because—unlike English speakers—since the Chinese language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

Whereas Gladwell’s interest is in the way language and culture affect our view of talent, Boroditsky is interested in whether, and how, language shapes the contours of thought itself, the kinds of questions people who speak a language are able to ask, and the kinds of significant symbols they recognize. Boroditsky’s research looks at an old question, and controversy, in anthropology and sociolinguistics — the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

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Thoughts on Cisco, Telepresence, and Reciprocity

November 18, 2009

While meeting for drinks and food at Llywelyn’s Pub a few weeks ago on a Sunday evening with two of my oldest friends, one of them mentioned recently using Cisco’s Telepresence video conferencing. I was keen to learn about the experience. Rocky said the experience was really immersive and described in vivid detail the sense of sitting around an oval table with video feeding into displays that curve with the shape of the table to present participants at distant locations.

My first question was whether the configuration provided a reciprocity display to reflect back to each location how local participants are seen by others at different places. He said that it didn’t. I said it didn’t surprise me at all, given the name of the service — telepresence. It really is a pretentious name if you stop and think about it. After all, presence is roughly the sense one gets from being in an environment, and telepresence is the extent to which one feels present in a mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment.

I consider myself an early adopter of communication tools that provide unique opportunities to engage other people. At the same time, I recognize the fact that face-to-face communication adds interpersonal depth, and not just bandwidth, to relationships that is either missing in asynchronous communication (whether user-generated or marketing -driven), or takes much longer to develop.

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The Fallacy of Open/Closed Culture in Social Business Design

September 22, 2009

 Think about a closed business culture. Try to visualize what it looks like. What do you see? Does it look something like a pyramid?

Now, think about an open business culture. Try to visualize it. What image comes to mind? Does it look something like a spider web turned on its side?

 These two imaginings pose similar relationships between their parts. A three dimensional pyramid flattened out is about the same shape as a spider web. It is a matter of perspective as to whether one is more open or closed than the other. When connections are made across, rather than only between, the existing nodes in a network we can start to visualize informal relationships in a way that adds value to discussions of culture. It sounds simple, at least initially.

So, how do these observations relate to culture and social business design?

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Reflections on Soil and Smartphones

September 1, 2009

dirtroad

I usually keep my discussions here focused on issues of experience design that cut across challenges faced by a range of professionals as they work to engage learners, customers, consumers, and just ordinary people. However, I saw something today that made me think about soil and the experience of working the soil. Just a little personal reflection I’d like to share.

I try to do a workout each day and today was no different. As I prepared for my 20 mile mental and physical excursion on my stationary bike, filling a large glass of water at the sink, my eyes were drawn to one of the guys who cuts our grass. He was on a large riding mower, stopped in the middle of my back yard, intently working with his thumbs on what looked like a smartphone from my viewpoint. Now I realize this is not a unique thing to see these days. Yet , it evoked a memory of mine that made me smile and take wonder in how an ordinary guy cutting a stranger’s lawn stays connected with anyone he needs to communicate.

I spent my youth in the late 1960s doing farm work in rural Alabama. One of my fondest, and most solitary, memories from that time involves driving tractors early in the morning. Farmers used to turn the soil each spring and then disc it into small clods before planting, a practice that since gave way to the better environmental practice of no-till farming. In the early spring, sometimes with frost still on the ground and a mist hanging in the air, I often found myself in a forty or fifty acre field alone on a tractor pulling a turning plow. Depending on how early it was in the spring, sometimes we tied cotton sacks along the side of the engine to bring back the heat for some warmth.

As the plow cut through the soil it turned the topsoil from about six to eight inches underneath onto the top of the ground. The crispness of the air and the earthy smell of the soil, provided a really pleasing experience, except for times when the wind shifted to blow the smell of the engine exhaust back in my face. The experience of such solitary work encouraged me to sing, which I enjoy doing to this day. Anyway, the image of the guy paused on the mower in my back yard texting someone to stay in touch made me wonder whether farmers still experience solitude when they are alone working a field with their machines.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Informal Learning in Health Care 2.0

August 19, 2009

transform-masthead

Update:

The presentations from Transform are now available online. Take some time and listen to these videos if you are in the least interested in how to transform health care. 


Health care is increasingly gaining attention as an area in which innovation involves informal learning, and many of the other topics that go along with using Web 2.0 to engage people. The current debates at the national level about changing health insurance carry with them an underlying focus on innovation in the design and delivery of healthcare services, an area referred to for several years as Health Care 2.0. And the Mayo Clinic is always at the top of the list when innovation is discussed in healthcare. So, it isn’t a surprise that the Mayo Clinic is sponsoring a symposium in September focusing specifically on innovating health care experience and delivery.

The symposium includes a number of segments with intriguing topics. However, the two I find most interesting are the Redefining Roles and the Content, Community, Commerce, Care, & Choices segments. It looks like a promising experience for those fortunate enough to attend.

Redefining Roles
This segment will introduce the emerging roles of disruptive technology and business model innovations in making products and services in health care affordable and accessible. It will touch upon the evolution of health care delivery systems — particularly hospitals — from geographically-centered and costly entities to decentralized and more focused operations. Participants will be introduced to emerging business models in health care, including facilitated networks — online communities of people who help to teach one another about how to live with their diseases. This segment will also explore the notion that health care can be designed to minimize the degree to which it disturbs peoples’ lives.

Content, Community, Commerce, Care, & Choices
Communities of people are sharing health care-related content online. This has come to be called “Health 2.0.” Individuals and organizations have built business ventures around sharing content. But what does it take for these models to evolve into reliable facilitators of wellness? How can these communities link with existing bricks-and-mortar care delivery systems in ways that help people in their journey to wellness? What are “microchoices” and how might they be more powerful than all of health care?

My interest in using communities to enhance the service experience goes back several years. I had not considered their application to health care services until recently when an associate pointed me to several hospitals using social media to connect with patients. It looks like a promising area for innovation and highlights the relevance of informal learning to health care services. 

Thanks to Tim Brown at Design Thinking for the pointer to the Mayo symposium.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Talking about Flatland as Visualized by Carl Sagan

July 29, 2009

I first read Edwin Abbot’s Flatland several decades ago. It is considered the first science fiction novel, after all, since its first printing in 1885. I must say though, the simplicity of the story never really hit me until I watched the following Carl Sagan interpretation of it recently.


Social Business Design: Insights from HP’s WaterCooler

July 15, 2009
snakes_handling

Social Media Snake Oil?

Does your organization approach using social media in its business as something to fear or as something to evangelize? Several recent observers note that incorporating social media into business involves changing the culture underlying communication patterns and decision-making in many large organizations.

Amber Naslund, for instance, tells us that adopting social media means changing the mindset on how to do business. In particular, she says using social media in business means “giving your customers a visible, valuable say in how you do things, and having the faith that doing that is just good business.” On the other hand, Caroline Dangson, of IDC contends enterprises aren’t yet sold on social media and that “there are executives still fearful of the transparency that comes with the social media spotlight.” Specifically, Caroline says that,

Corporate culture has everything to do with adoption of social media. I believe the number one factor preventing full adoption of social media is the lack of executive trust in employees. This culture is about control and creates a workplace of silos. This type of workplace is not set up to be social and the silos are barriers to worker productivity.

So, here social media sits, between fear and faith. Needless to say, the truth about social media’s implications for business design lies somewhere in the middle. The fact of the matter, as Todd Defren tells us, is that we need to begin seriously discussing “how Social Media Thinking will impact the greater whole of the company.”

As noted in an earlier post, keeping in mind the distinctions between formal, process-oriented organization and informal, practice-based organization is crucial in thinking through the collaborative challenges posed by social software for enterprises and designing for the experiences supported. We can learn a bit about the complexity of the challenges involved by considering a recent framework offered on social business design by the Dachis Corporation team and discussing the way it relates to a recent report on an experiment in enterprise social media at the Social Computing Lab of HP Laboratories.


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