Monthly Archives: January 2009

Design is in the details

I loved this 15 minute talk by Paul Bennett of design innovation firm IDEO. In it he highlights some fabulous, empathic solutions and explains how they were created.

Paul’s main points are that designers need to:

  • reconcile what organisations want with what individuals need,
  • look at situations from ‘the person out’ rather than ‘the organisation in’,
  • consider the human element of a solution and foster it,
  • look at people’s ‘thoughtless acts’ which contain significant meaning,
  • have a beginners mind – look at ideas afresh, and
  • communicate clearly and simply with their clients.

Also that:

  • good solutions are often staring us in the face,
  • tiny solutions can make a huge difference, and
  • many significant inventions come from observing small interactions.

What small changes could you make to your offering that will have significant, positive impacts on your customers?

Experiences: Build-A-Bear Workshop, Pete the Pom

I pity the teddy bear stores that sell just bears – Build-A-Bear Workshop delivers an experience ‘where best friends are made’. Here’s a video that a customer has made about their visit (because Aunt Debra sent a gift card). Don’t skip what the kids have to say.

Children follow this process, posted on the wall of the store:

  • Choose Me (select an empty bear from around 20 styles)
  • Hear Me (a prerecorded/personally recorded sound or heartbeat)
  • Stuff Me (insert a heart, make a wish and child presses button to fill)
  • Stitch Me
  • Fluff Me (brush the bear on a stand which looks like a child’s bath)
  • Name Me (name the bear, print a birth certificate)
  • Dress Me (choosing from a wide range of clothing & accessories)
  • Take Me Home (in a home-shaped box)

Because Build-A-Bear Workshop provides every opportunity for kids to personally create and bond with their bear in-store, the bear is highly anticipated, lovingly made, unique to each child and cherished longer than the average bear. This in turn makes the bear worth more to the parents who happily pay higher prices, giving more profit to the store owner.

Most products can be turned into experiences of one form or another, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a large investment. My local shoe repairer is called ‘Pete the Pom’ and the entire district knows him. He ends every sentence with either ‘me handsome’ or ‘my lovely’ as in ‘What’s wrong wiv your ‘eels, my lovely?’ or ‘That’d be fifteen bucks if that’s alrigh’, me handsome’. We all know he’s hamming it up but we love it, love him and love his work. He doesn’t repair shoes, he makes us feel good. Sure, his style doesn’t suit everyone but he doesn’t care – visit on a Saturday morning and there’s a queue well out the door of his tiny store.

Take every opportunity to turn your product into a customer experience.

Gordon Ramsay, restaurant catalyst

I love watching the UK version of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, a TV show featuring one of the world’s most successful chefs delivering weeklong, intense and foul-mouthed crash courses on how to run a restaurant for those who desperately need it.

Here’s the first ten minutes of one episode:

Gordon follows more or less the same consulting method each episode:

1. Visit as a customer
Gordon visits, tries the food & samples the service. He provides critical feedback, pulling no punches, to the assembled owner and staff.

2. Obtain commitment to change
Gordon shows how bad things really are and obtains commitment from everyone to change.

3. Observe staff
Gordon steps into the kitchen and watches the chefs and service staff at work. Typically owners haven’t put systems in place either in service or the kitchen, don’t have properly trained staff and don’t have enough experience to improve the situation.

4. Demonstrate viability
Most owners cannot go much further financially and have reached desperation point. Gordon demonstrates how the business can be turned around, sometimes running trials to show how much money can be made.

5. Inject business sense
Gordon puts systems in place across the restaurant, leverages relationships to get better deals on business inputs and finds contra deal opportunities such as cross-promotion.

6. Rebuild passion
Usually the staff have wallowed in mediocrity for so long that they’ve lost all interest in their job. Gordon works with them to restore passion, care, attention & love for food.

7. Provide focus
Typically the restaurant has an inconsistent theme and a menu without focus. Gordon says “a good restaurant does one thing brilliantly, a bad one does fifty badly” and typically cuts the menu down to 5 excellent (& simple to prepare) dishes per course.

8. Restore confidence
Gordon often provides the staff with a surprise challenge that irons out problems in the kitchen and restores confidence of the staff and owner.

9. Consolidate the learning
Gordon observes staff on a busy night, irons out remaining bugs in the system.

10. Find replacement staff
Some staff cannot change or do not have the owner’s interests at heart. Gordon provides the owners with the courage to get rid of them and finds qualified replacements.

11. Leave
Gordon Ramsay know how to make a number of small changes to achieve significant outcomes. Then he hands control back to the thankful owner and leaves.

So that’s Gordon Ramsay’s method. It’s good advice for any type of business and entertaining to boot.

Being remarkable

In this classic 20 minute video, Seth Godin explains how to make your idea spread:

The core ideas:

  • The TV-Industrial complex (where more advertising -> more sales) is dead.
  • People don’t care about you, they care about themselves.
  • Be remarkable (both being different and worth talking about) to cut through the noise.
  • Find a passionate audience – sell to people who are listening & maybe they’ll tell their friends.
  • Making average (merely very good) products is now risky – no one will notice.
  • Be remarkable.

For further reading, check out one or more of Seth’s books.

Beware the second-order solution

I have a great party trick – I can catch almost anything that I accidentally drop. My ability to catch is only a second-order solution, however – it’s a response to a first-order problem of clumsiness. Really I should try and overcome my clumsiness but for now it’s easier to catch things and wear the odd breakage.

I’m not alone – many businesses have sexy, fun or easy second-order solutions to first-order problems. It’s sexier to make new sales than it is to invoice on time and chase bad debts. It’s more fun to chase new customers than to take care of existing customers and generate repeat business. In a public company it’s easier to boost the share price by making grand announcements than by working hard to increasing company profits.

Beware the sexy, fun or easy second-order solution – the only long-term strategy is to knuckle down and fix your first order problem.

When to satisfice

Satisficing was a term coined by Nobel-prize winning economist Herbert Simon for a decision-making strategy that combines satisfaction and sufficing. Put simply it means selecting the first choice that meets your predetermined criteria rather than continuing to search for the optimal choice.

In the book The Paradox of Choice (Why more is less), author Barry Schwartz gives an excellent and well-researched account of the negative impact that excessive choice has on our wellbeing. He strongly recommends satisficing when making personal decisions so as to be more satisfied in life. For a teaser of the book (which doesn’t do the book justice) he has written this manifesto: ‘The Paradox Of Choice’ manifesto

By comparison, Matthew E. May – author of the book The Elegant Solution has a must-read manifesto on innovation that calls satisficing the fourth of the ‘Seven Sins of Solution’ – sufficing causes innovators to accept a ‘good enough’ solution rather than pushing through to find the best: The ‘Mind Of The Innovator’ manifesto

So – when making a personal decision, satisfice. When solving a problem, optimise / maximise.

Evil Feedback, Truth & Transparency

Feedback is crucial to the success of systems – by use of sensory cues, designers remove user uncertainty, informing them that their actions are understood by the system and correct for their task.

As with all good things, however, there are people who use feedback for evil. Consider the poker/slot/fruit machine, designed to separate fools and their money. I’ve tried one machine and found it to provide inconsistent feedback, greatly rewarding modest windfalls with dazzling sound and light displays and allowing losses to go all but unnoticed. The feedback I despised the most was the machine giving ‘you’ve won’ feedback when someone bet a dollar and ‘won’ fifty cents (ie. they lost fifty cents). Evil.

Another obvious contender to win evil feedback awards are the cigarette manufacturers who, in adding nicotine, allow their cigarettes to give new users a mild high – feedback that the product is beneficial to you – when the reality is quite different.

Mainstream organisations often use feedback in ways which are cunning, if not necessarily evil. Consider, for instance, the use of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) in foods. In Malcolm Gladwell’s typically insightful article, ‘The Ketchup Conundrum’, he points out that MSG has a taste which is pure umami, the fifth fundamental taste of the human palate and a marker of protein in foods. Manufacturers who add MSG to their foods may therefore be providing their food products with feedback that implies wholesomeness – protein – where this may not be the case.

Don’t be tempted to join these companies in provide misleading feedback in your products. Take a long term view of business, building your brand by frequently delivering on and exceeding customer expectations. This calls you to a higher standard of truth and transaperency, now valued by increasingly aware consumers.

My favourite truthful & transparent product of late is Another Bloody Water. Just reading the naked truth on the label or website is enough to make you smile, a powerful use of a Liking trigger that raises this product from a commodity to something remarkable.

Do your products, packaging & promotions provide accurate feedback, reflecting the utility that users can expect to receive from you?

How can you use truth & transparency to increase the appeal of your products?

Desirability and design

Wandering around a motor show last year, only two cars really interested me – the Ferrari F430:

and the Mitsubishi Evo X:

This troubled me – that in spite of a plethora of choice and my significant interest in cars, all but two left me cold. I sat looking at the Evo X and pondered until I came up with a formula of sorts for desirability in design:

Desirability = (clarity of design purpose) x
(commitment to that purpose) x
? (an aesthetic factor)

In other words, I’m wondering whether the Evo X, the F430 and other products are desirable because:

  • they’re designed with a very clear purpose in mind (to not be all things to all people),
  • the manufacturer totally commits their products to that purpose, and
  • the designers made them beautiful as befits their purpose.

This, then, may be a useful framework for considering the desirability of your products:

  • How clear are we on the design purpose of our products?
  • How committed are we to delivering on that purpose?
  • Is there a way to increase the aesthetic value of our products?

Or in summary form:

  • Are our products highly desirable to a niche market (or equally undesirable to everyone)?

Finally, I commend the dieline blog to you as inspiration for extraordinary product and packaging design. It contains countless examples of commodities that have been elevated to objects of desire through clear, committed and beautiful design.

Eradicating bad behaviour

Seth pointed us to The Technium recently, and there’s a wealth of considered opinion there. Believing the impossible has struck me deeply – a piece on how Kevin Kelly had thought Wikipedia would never work but, despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better. The following comment in particular has kept me thinking:

It turns out that with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues.

Most solutions seeking to prevent malicious behaviour do so by limiting opportunity – passwords, permissions, encryption, etc in the connected world and locks, alarms, security guards, police & incarceration in the physical world – and people with motive invariably find a way around them.

Wikipedia has instead incorporated a simple, single function that has all but eliminated the motive (‘to have my vandalism seen by others’), allowing them to make their content freely editable by an anonymous public. This may look obvious in retrospect – good solutions invariably do – but it’s a remarkable achievement.

Town Hall Column

I love being alone late at night in the city – carrying 15 kilos of camera gear around for hours on end is the only downside. I noticed the beautiful light on one set of columns in Sydney Town Hall vestibule one night and spent the next hour or two setting up this shot under the watchful eye of a security camera.
This time of finding and setting up an image is precious to me – it’s an opportunity to dwell only in that moment and have respite from my brain’s constant connection of ideas. Also I find that photography (and, occasionally, sketching) gives me that ‘permission’ to sit and contemplate an object or space for long periods of time, permission that I would not otherwise grant myself.
Most of the setup time was taken in selecting the best column, the best angle, optimising depth of field and then carefully lining up the camera to make it truly vertical – while it’s straightforward to rotate and skew images on a computer, you lose significant image area in the process.
If you went to see this in real life, you’d be disappointed – the columns are a dirty brown, the lights a horrible orange and there was a small amount of graffiti on the column that I needed to photoshop out. Through the magic of black and white film, however, it looks strong, pure and timeless.
You’re welcome to make a print for personal use: 10×13 inch, 300 DPI JPEG