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.

This is the sort of post I wish I had the time and talent to write. Now, the least I can do is link to it and urge you to read it.

With a little bit of introspection and reflection on the functional constraints and social affordances of media, we can grasp new forms of communication. Vine is just an example for Om Malik to elaborate how conventions and consumer expectations emerge from a particular medium.1

So please enjoy a quick introduction to very recent media history, and some context to help us understand how technology and a peer group of users shape what a medium is. Screen sizes, download speeds, user habits, they all have a systematic relation to the way we can package moving pictures into an experience. Putting the pieces together helps us understand, perhaps even tentatively predict media evolution.

And if, after reading the piece, you feel up to it, imagine how a change in user base, like a succession of generations, may influence the development of a tool itself. We don’t read our grandmother’s newspapers, if we read newspapers at all. Do you think that the Youtubes or Facebooks 15 years in the future will cater to today’s expectations? Surely they will adapt to new users demanding their experience to matter, lest they go the way of Myspace.

  1. Incidentally, Medium, the platform, is another example where it is hard to pinpoint what it is that makes the medium. Its properties are fluid, never quite clear to either its authors or readers whether it is a distribution platform or a channel with its own voice and brand. And yet, through networked use of the technology, of the medium, properties emerge that bring value to both, authors and readers. ↩︎

Vine gets better with age: How screens, speed and networks are changing the future of online video — Tech News and Analysis

Storytelling On The Web

Reading up on communication strategies there is no escaping the word storytelling. Storytelling seems to be a miracle cure for all purposes.

I disagree. Storytelling is a powerful tool when applied judiciously, and it just so happens that it is all the more compelling when it is being genuine1. But it does not work equally well in all contexts.

More importantly, the word storytelling is often being thrown around even when there is an abject failure of telling a story. Dropping pop culture references to famous stories does not magically transform a list of things to do into a story.2

While I am currently working in an environment where storytelling is the native art form, I do appreciate attempts to tell a good story in all kinds of settings. Which is why I would encourage you to dig deeper into the question what makes a story.

I’ve written in more detail about the theory of storytelling as applied to a business context, especially for presentations, over at the blog of BrightCarbon. There’s more about the Underwear Gnome Theory of Marketing, too. So please check it out.3

Storytelling & the Underwear Gnome Theory of Marketing

  1. Which unfortunately turns into an arms race of bogus authenticity attempts in marketing if people confuse telling a genuine story with putting on a show. Audiences don’t take kindly to finding out when they are being played, though. ↩︎

  2. In fact, there is a lack of storytelling even in storytelling media, if we take a closer look at some inane set-piece driven Hollywood specs or remember the mind numbing level grinding in generic fetch quest RPG-excuses. ↩︎

  3. And on a side note: I’ve made embedding HTML5 animations via iframe semi-responsive on Tumblr. That’s going to come in handy, pulling animations into responsive iframes in the future. Serious storytelling potential with interconnected narratives. I just cheated a little bit with the padding on the expanding container div set to 70%, if you look closely on resizing your browser window. ↩︎

Wonderful, just wonderful. Science informs how information architecture can expand its use across experience channels. Which is basically applied business model design.

Yep, this article from the Journal of Information Architecture presents us with a look at the retail experience both online (across various devices) and offline, and how to create semantic “anchors” that help customers make sense of the experience in both worlds.1

Successful cross-channel user experiences rely upon a strong informational layer that creates understanding amongst users of a service. This pervasive information layer helps users form conceptual models about how the overall experience works (irrespective of the channel in which they reside).2

  1. Which is, incidentally, eerily close to my USP. You know, the whole meaning business. ↩︎

  2. The nice thing about scientific articles is that I can just copy & paste the abstract. Much more convenient than having to dig for a quotable catch phrase. ↩︎

Sense-making in Cross-channel Design

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

Building Facebook Home with Quartz Composer (by David O Brien)

This is just the first in a series of videos that Dave O Brien created in a timely fashion: Some of you may have heard about the Facebook design team using Quartz Composer for prototyping their Home app.

The emphasis on animations resonates with another current debate, about the haptic experience that physical books provide. The result of that haptic experience should not come as a surprise to you, my endeared regular readers: There are affordances about mapping information to spatial and haptic cues that pictures under glass can’t provide.

When you read a book or magazine, you are navigating information in physical space. Your brain creates a rough map of the information that you are browsing while you are flipping page after page. Moreover, it draws upon past experiences with book space to inform the mental image of your current read and bestows you with a sense of empowerment over the text, and a feeling of serendipity.

Now, when you take away the physical feedback that paper provides to your senses, you are taking away functionality from the user interaction with the text. No feeling the weight of pages to tell how far into the text you are, no sense of halting and reversing the flick of a page in mid-air because you glanced something you want to inspect more closely.

But you know what pictures under glass can do for you to give you some design elements not available to print? That’s right. Animation. Hence the video above. The design team from Facebook realized just how much physicality matters, so they looked for a way to make their wireframes animate according to physics. Inertia, pseudo-gravity, all these sorts of things matter in animation.

I’m not saying that you can fully emulate the experience of physical objects with current digital technology. I’m saying that you need to make up for the shortcomings of our current interaction paradigm (pictures under glass) by introducing explicit feedback mechanisms. Visual feedback is the go-to choice most of the time. But sound or vibration is already available in many touch devices.