Product Design As Communication

Here’s another entry for the cryptic category. It’s time I formulate a design philosphy of sorts. A philosophy to help me lead and set expectations, and hopefully to inspire. A philosophy you can build a venture on.

Viewing things through the lense of communication comes naturally to me. So here we go, three tenets for communication centered design (yes, it’s User Centered Design that incorporates the creator’s constraints and incentives into a framework that views creator and user as roles analogous to sender and recipient — the product/medium really is the massage).

  1. A product speaks to its user.
  2. A product speaks for its designer.
  3. Markets are conversations.

Hence, product design is marketing.

New Frontiers in Publishing

I’m currently involved with a startup in digital publishing. My work will involve bringing the design thinking perspective from other fields I previously worked in to a field that is notoriously conservative. So naturally when I read the post of David Pogue about e-book piracy, I was dumbfounded by this gem of an admission:

Traditionally minded publishers are very much opposed to the idea that abandoning DRM is a viable business strategy. When Tor (as have others) did provide their material free of the consumer hassling technology and noticed no increase in piracy, the go-to explanation is that their case is special and does not apply to other publishers.

Tor acknowledges that its science-fiction/fantasy reader community “is close-knit, with a huge online presence, and with publishers, authors and fans having closer communication than perhaps some other areas of publishing do.”

Here is my take, though: No kidding Sherlock!

When the main disruptive force of the internet lies in disintermediation,1 that’s where your business model needs to answer some pressing questions. And if you fail to see how creating a close-knit community that connects authors and readers is part of your new role in a digital environment, you deserve to be strong armed into irrelevance by Adobe, Amazon and their ilk.

Dear publishers: There is a choice to aim to be special, too! Create a better experience for readers. At least that’s what I’m going to do.

  1. A fancy way to say: Making everyone in between producers and consumers obsolete. ↩︎

While we are on the subject of physicality in interfaces (see my last post) I urge you to have a look at what Andy Kirk wrote about tactile maps. These maps are a great example of design as problem solving and introduce you to several affordances that are grossly underrepresented in current design.1

The indigenous people along the arctic circle have overcome many challenges of the environment they inhabit. So that they don’t get lost at sea they designed a navigation tool to guide them along coast lines. Bear in mind that it needs to be reliable in the harshest of circumstances. Functional constraints clearly drove this design process. It just works.

  1. Though there is some talk about tactile feedback for shape shifting phones↩︎

Visualising Data | Tactile visualisations: Inuit wood maps

Some interesting words from Dr. Drang about how critical a properly implemented feedback loop is for human computer interaction. Just days after I lauded Apple for being quite savvy about this whole human-computer interaction thing, he presents a case where they fall short. Rightly so.

I don’t use Fantastical, the tool that he discusses, but I do endorse his comments about usability through instant, incremental feedback.

[The animations are] not just eye candy. The animations are providing instant feedback on how Fantastical is parsing your words and, more important, they’re teaching you Fantastical’s syntax. This is tremendously useful because, despite the wonderful flexibility of NLP, there’s always a syntax and you need to learn it if you’re going to use the product. This lack of instant, incremental feedback is what makes Siri impenetrable to some people; you have to give Siri an entire command and wait to see how she interprets it.

Incidentally, instant incremental feedback is ever present as a repair strategy in human-human interaction. A puzzled expression on a face of your audience prompts you to rephrase what you just said, for example. These sort of natural interactions are what artificially designed interfaces need to imitate in order to make interacting with them feel natural, too. Read the post on All This to see feedback discussed in the context of an actual product.

what's really great about Fantastical

UX and Localization

It is more by happenstance than by design, but I came across lack of localization as a user experience issue on several occasions recently.1

I don’t think that it is by chance that most of the issues revolved around a lack of empathy for non-angloamerican users. Many of the biggest web services and tools still stem from the US. Being from the US entails that you experience the hegemonic bias2 privilege of being blissfully unaware of your lack of empathy for needs and expectations of non-angloamerican users 3. I do wonder if UX design teams in US based companies really pay enough attention to intercultural communication issues.

Case in point: Several times in the last weeks did a web form refuse to accommodate my non-US data, and in turn I was forced to BS the system go gain access. Surely that’s not the kind of user experience you want your customers from abroad to have?

Moreover, software that is meant to be deployed to a world wide audience often lacks localization features that are critical for the tool to work in other cultural contexts. Mail automatization was but one example where I cursed the Intertubes. Surely the T/V distinction is relevant to a large enough part of your users world wide, what with the European languages (and their colonial offspring) all featuring it? Well, almost all. English being the one sizable exception. How many Spanish, Portuguese and French speakers are you willing to exclude from your service?

There is more to honorifics in other languages, where implementation may be more complicated than introducing a toggle switch. I should know, because the intricacies of Japanese were part of my personal struggles. And yet, would it not be worthwhile to spend resources to overcome the limitations of your tool once you are expanding your target audience?

Apple for example still does not provide me with an easy toggle in my address book to mark if I am on first name terms or still on last name terms with a business contact of mine. That is critical information in many cultural contexts, and it’s not like Apple is struggling to make ends meet. Then again they are notorious for screwing over their non-US customers anyway. USD prices converted into other currencies, like EUR, without doing any actual conversion except for changing the currency sigh are not unheard of.

But most companies cannot rely on zealous customers to overcome their apathy towards foreign users. There is a reason so many well designed tools fail to get any traction outside of the US. It’s because they are not designed for us. So stop wondering, why your marketing does not work for you and start investing in localization expertise for your UX design team. Localization is about much more than translating your interface.

  1. Seeing that I intend to share my experience with you more frequently than in the past year, it is probably a good idea to quit putting things on my radar into an ever overflowing task box: Rather than waiting to post until I can show off my solution (that I may never get around to create) I should think that perhaps smarter minds than I may find it worthwhile to be made aware of those issues. ↩︎

  2. $%&, 1504 Google hits. I thought I was more of a sociology hipster. Anyway, more chance for you to read up on your Gramsci about hegemony. It’s not a leftist-liberal conspiracy, it’s about understanding how experiences frame your perception of the world. ↩︎

  3. Shall we call them “core removed users”? Peripheral users would be my preferred term here, but unfortunately it is being used with a slightly different meaning in UX design already. I mean users from the periphery (as opposed to core) in the sociological sense. Yes, I want to make sociology a thing in UX circles. There are some pretty well thought out articles out there that deal with the sorts of phenomena where design is still struggling to find a name for. ↩︎

I’d like to present you with a thoroughly enjoyable article that may serve as a reminder why communication is a founding principle1 in design that goes beyond semiotic tokens. This is all the more true for user experience design, where interaction between a user and a machine has some of the very properties humans look for when they communicate with each other.

As a side note: Being a semanticist myself I find it pleasantly surprising how often Lakoff is mentioned in UX design circles, deservedly so, I should say. However, his seminal work is decades old by now and more contemporary insights from cognitive science have yet to find their way into UX design. Grice’s work is older still and if you are looking for more advanced methodical applications of his theoretic underpinnings, perhaps Relevance Theory is an avenue you may wish to pursue.

Seriously. There is lots of stuff that has evolved from what Grice introduced (beyond Relevance Theory). Lots of it is much more apt to describe and analyze communicative phenomena. Especially when it comes to interaction with computers, that just so happen to fail to qualify as a communication partner because they lack, in Grice’s terms, the capacity to act as intentional agents under the cooperative principle.

Still, read the article and make up your minds. Especially, if the concepts I threw around here are alien to you.

  1. The details of which I’ll save for some later posts. Suffice it to say that there are two systems of communication, a semiotic and a co-constructivist system. The latter is not one in which a computer may partake in communication, but it may well serve as a mediating proxy for communication with the creator of a program. ↩︎

UX Magazine: UX Design as a Two-Way Conversation