Monday, September 6, 2010

Predictable irrationality

I have many friends and family members who have joined the likes of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert (both of whom I watch and like) to decry the backlash against the building of mosques around the US, most notably the proposed community center near ground zero.

My new friend Eric Bell is shooting a documentary about the opposition to the mosque that is being built in Murfreesboro Tennessee. I have not seen any of the footage yet, but in my conversation with him, he took issue with the irrational fear, prejudice and hatred that is now arising in America to muslims. The broad brush that many are applying to any and all muslims in this country and abroad was, in his eyes based on fear based perception fueled by propaganda and not based on factual evidence.

To be clear, I am not disputing his argument. The only issue I have is that Eric does not seem to addressing what I believe are the conditions necessary for this irrational fear to arise and for the propaganda to gain credence. Many people take issue with how the actions of a few will then be used to impugn whole segments of a population - and I do as well. The biggest differentiating fact for me is the lack of any tractable or visible evidence that the muslim community is doing anything to address the "rotten apples".

I do not deny that there are pockets of muslims and imams who denounce the actions of those who endorse and participate in violent acts and claim that this is not what islam is about. I do not deny that I can't tell you where the line is for me in terms of "what level of action is enough". These sorts of arguments contain the hidden assumption that we are somewhere close to "enough" right now and if one or two more things were done than that would be sufficient. I believe that in order for rationality to take hold in the American populace - there is an enormous abyss that must be not only crossed but also filled. Crossed with words and filled with deeds.

What sections of the islamic community speak out or act when the Libyan nation state routinely celebrates the Lockerbie Bomber?

What sections of the islamic community speak out or act in relation to the Iranian death sentence given to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani? As far as I have seen, France and the Vatican are leading the way and the Islamic nation-states are silent.

What sections of the islamic community speak out or act when the Palestinian people elect into office a group of people whose life mission circles around violence and death? What sections of the islamic community are now speaking out as women's rights are being curtailed in gaza by the Hamas government?

The voices I have heard and the actions I have seen coming from the islamic community are ones of defensiveness around the prejudicial perceptions and not around taking back their religion or their governments. The voices I have heard blame fear of retribution by the extremist elements if they were to speak out or stand against the violence and rhetoric. This, in my mind, is just as much to blame for the mass prejudice and fear, and I honestly find it to be a completely predictable irrational reaction.

When there is at least one islamic group or nation state who begins to turn the tide of violence in the world that is when it will be most opportune to start working on the prejudice and fear here in this country. Any attempts to do otherwise are equally irrational in that they will not be successful in changing the public opinion. They may indeed bolster the opinion in that they seem like defensive words intended to pacify the rage with no visible attempt to address the source.


Irrational fear - garbage
Condemnation of irrational fear with no share responsibility - crap

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It takes two to tango

The amount of coverage that has been given to JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater is not surprising to me at all. What is surprising to me is that no one has hit upon what I believe is at the core of the hostile encounter.

Some articles blame Slater as an individual, more articles and pundits speak to the trend in air-rage, some blame the downgrades in service. While I understand the thinking behind all of these, I don't think any of them have identified the core dynamic that is occurring repeatedly.

It is my belief that what we are seeing is a variant of the Stanford Prison Experiment, wherein flight, airline and airport personnel from terminal to terminal have been placed in a pseudo-prison guard role and passengers are nearly prisoners.

The authoritarian undertones from flight, airline and airport personnel is palpable. Quite often, the communication borders on contempt. Things that could be phrased as polite requests for cooperation are worded as mandates from an all powerful machine. The security checks further the metaphor and end result is rebellion.

The solution to this problem does not lie in spot fixes like returning peanuts to flights, but rather in analysis and increased training across the entire air-travel eco-system from organizational behavior professionals. Air travel workers need to be able to recognize confrontation and hostility and be trained to both avoid and defuse it.

In the meantime, try a little bit of niceness (OMG! I used "nice" in a positive way! I'm on record for hating the word!) and stop blaming passengers for responding to cramped spaces combined with overt and rigid authority with hostility - it's human nature.


Prison guard mentality - Garbage

Steven Slater's dramatic exit - I hate to admit it, but I like it

Maybe, just once, someone will call me 'Sir' without adding, 'You're making a scene.' - Homer Simpson

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why poor design seems to be the rule in business.

I've been working as a consultant advocating good UX design for more than 15 years now and one thing has pervaded almost every interaction with executive management. I'm constantly asked to justify the time and expenditure required for good design practices. Nobody ever asks for a business case to justify the poor design practices that are systemic in corporate IT. My guess is that people do not recognize that the lack of an intentional design is still a design. It's just a poor one (usually).

In thinking about this topic again and again, I think I've had a revelation. I now understand exactly why this attitude is the rule.

It is a habit learned over the last 50 years.

It takes a person about 66 days to form a habit. I could not find any research on how it takes for an industry to form a practice.

Think about it. When computers first entered into business environments, most people did not interact with them, most people interacted with the artifacts that computers could produce and with minority of people who could program the computer using punch-cards. Do you remember punch-cards? Have you seen them in documentaries? This is where the habit started. At this time the equation was very simple:

Cost to design and create a new interface system more usable than a punch-card reader > Cost to train the people who interface with the computer

This was abundantly true for so many reasons:
  • The people who interfaced with the computer in the time of punch-card readers were super geeks and punch-card logic came easily to them
  • The people who interfaced with the computer in the time of punch-card readers were very few in numbers
  • The concept for other possible interfaces did not even exist yet
As time progressed and command line interfaces became the norm, this equation held. The number of people who interfaced with the computer increased ever so slightly, the types of people using them did not shift at all, and a small group of people saw the possibility of graphical interfaces, but the numbers were still overwhelming.

As time progressed even further and WIMP interfaces (thank you Xerox!) became the norm, this equation still held. The number of people who interfaced with the computer increased a little more rapidly, the types of people interfacing with them began to shift as people who used computers in grade school hit the work force, and a different, but still small, group of people saw the possibility of putting standardized graphical frameworks on top of information systems, but the numbers were still overwhelming.

Time moved on yet again and web browsers have now become the norm (thank you Mozilla!), and despite the fact that the equation has finally shifted most businesses do not even realize the basis on which the original decision was made. It's not anyone's fault. There is no "big book of corporate assumptions" lying around that people are supposed to check every couple of years. Just like a habit, the mode of operating has become somewhat unconscious. When executives ask for the business case for good design, I do not believe that they know the basis for the question itself has completely changed.

  • The number of people who interface with computers in business or consumer settings is rapidly approaching 100%.
  • The types of people who interface with computers has dramatically shifted in ways beyond thinking styles; People of all ages now access computers and a new generation has entered the workforce; A generation of workers who don't view their employers as bosses, but as an easily replaceable organization entering into a trade agreement with them.
  • Useful, usable and desirable interfaces and experiences are readily conceivable (thank you Amazon & Apple!)
The equation has changed!

The required investment in user experience pales in comparison to the amount required to train an entire population of job-hopping workers and fickle consumers.

The first step in breaking the habit is admitting we have a problem. If we are to remain economically viable we must challenge our base assumptions.


Non-intentional design habit - Garbage

Turning over a new leaf - Like it

"Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. 14% of people know that." - Homer Simpson

Monday, July 19, 2010

Hard. Easy. What's the difference?

You ever watch one of those modeling shows and snicker to yourself when the model says: "Everyone thinks modeling is easy, but it is soooo hard!"? I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I'm beginning to think they're right. Imprecise, but right.

Several months ago, a colleague of mine said. "Sales is the hardest job. Convincing someone to part with money is the hardest thing to do in professional services." It is my belief that this is wrong. It is my belief that, for the most part, no one job is harder than any other or more important than any other. It is my belief that the job itself isn't hard, it's being great at your job that is the hard thing.

Doing a job well enough to "make it to the top" of any field is extremely hard given that "making it to the top" basically means finding a way to push your performance and abilities to a point where you can be better than more than 90-95% (and sometimes more in highly visible fields or fields where people's lives are on the line) of the rest of the population.

Being a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist isn't hard at all. It's being a good one that's hard. It's fairly easy to do a poor job at almost any discipline.

Professional services can basically be broken down into 3 components - sell the work, do the work, support the work. Some people like to articulate a narrative where one component is THE critical ingredient or one job is harder than the others. I'm just not buying it. I'm a big fan of the "three legged stool" model for professional services. Take one leg off and it's just a hunk of wood that is of very little use to anyone.

If you can't sell the work - nobody gets paid.
If you can't do the work - nobody gets paid.
If you can't support the work - nobody gets paid.

It's as simple as that.


Elevation of disciplines or jobs at the expense of others - Garbage.

Looking through the lens of system dynamics where all parts are necessary but not sufficient - Like it.

"I'm normally not a praying man, but if you're up there, please save me Superman." - Homer Simpson

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

If I were CXO of Disney

Still playing with my new experiment. This is number 3!

If I were CXO of Disney I would:
  1. Make grand gestures - I would immediately remind each and every member of the Disney team of the overall vision imparted by Walt and remind them to think and act as Walt would want them to. Establishing the necessary framework for a commander's intent model is only half of the equation. The other half is to show the level of commitment that leadership is making to achieve Walt's vision in order to remove the fear of consequences of "mistakes". I would look throughout the company to find highly visible ways to reinforce the desired cultural behavior and make several grand gestures to walk the walk. The first on my list - dramatically expand the monorail system at Walt Disney World. WDW is supposed to represent the mix of fantasy, adventure and hope for the future. I never knew Walt personally, and I do understand that transportation memes change, but I'm pretty sure that the current hodge-podge patchwork of buses and monorails & shuttles is not what Walt had in mind.
  2. Focus on story telling - Story telling is the heart of everything that is Disney from movies and TV to the park. In past years, Disney seemed to forget this and now with the Pixar acquisition, it seems this has improved but I would work to find ways to spread the concept further into other areas of the business (e.g., Disney TV, the Parks, etc) noting that Disney is at its very best when it is telling great stories. Story telling is not an abstract concept reserved for media communications. Epcot told a story. Space Mountain told a story. The original contemporary hotel at WDW told a story. I would find ways to bring that spirit back.
  3. Bring excellence to the employee experience - Great companies know that while brands are envisioned from the outside in, great brands are built from the inside out. Good employee experience drives good customer experience drives shareholder value. Showing the cast & crew that Disney is a magical place to work will drive the passion that will make Disney magical to interact with.
  4. Make Disney TV parent friendly - The sheer amount of shows that paint parents as mentally challenged is egregious. Disney is on the edge of losing its reputation of wholesomeness. I'm not saying return to the 1950's style Mickey Mouse Club, I'm saying that shows on Disney TV should not consistently make parents out to be clueless buffoons out of touch with the lives of their children.

#3 (of my experiment) - getting harder to keep up the frequency, but I still like it.

Losing the essence of greatness - garbage

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

If I were CXO of AT&T

This is the second in a new experiment for me. If I make it beyond 7, I think I'll make it to 30.

If I were CXO of AT&T I would:
  1. Acknowledge risk - I would immediately recognize that AT&T must make a revolutionary improvement in customer satisfaction to prevent a significant amount of churn once the iPhone is available on Verizon.
  2. Tend the root - Actions to improve the network would help, but they are not the root of customer loyalty. True loyalty transcends momentary transactional advantage. If AT&T is to stave off this near-term defection, it must act to win the hearts of consumers and then capitalize on momentum to win back the minds. The hearts can only be won if people truly believe that AT&T is committed to doing more than just short term talk. Start with saying what we mean, and meaning what we say in every communication (i.e., Be Authentic).
  3. Spend like there's no tomorrow - Do the thing we've said we are going to do. Do "everything possible" to fix the network issues. People from government to private industry cavalierly use this phrase with no thought to the actual meaning. It doesn't mean "everything within reason" as most people seem to think. "Everything possible" means doing things at a breadth and speed that approaches recklessness. In order to win the hearts, a gesture must be made - improve the network in the most populous areas "overnight". Set ludicrous goals for improvement and throw enough money at them to make the impossible possible.
  4. Simplify - AT&T bundled plans are industry leading. Capitalize on this and go further. Simplify beyond the realm of what consumers think is possible. Throw away concepts like the "triple play" and go for the "whole enchilada" $200 unlimited everything (TV, phone, wireless, data, internet, long distance, local... etc.). I don't know if the number is right, but the concept is incredible - and that's what AT&T should be shooting for: beyond credulity.
  5. Be world class - make our core service offerings world class. I don't mean "be perceived as world class". I don't mean "look like we are world class". I mean actually "be".
  6. Develop an innovation strategy - scour the enterprise for the best and brightest and find mechanisms to directly and in-directly incent innovation. AT&T lost something big when it lost Bell Labs. Bring that back.

#2 (of my experiment) - still like it

intentionally not being #1 - garbage

I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here. - Homer Simpson

Sunday, June 27, 2010

If I were CXO (part 1)

This is the first in an experimental series of entries. I am going to pick 10 different companies and explain what I would do if I were hired as the CXO (Chief Experience Officer). I don't know if I'll continue just yet, but I'm willing to give it a shot to see how it works out.

First off, my favorite company to hate, and a frequent bash victim of this blog - Blockbuster.

Discarding the fact that I would more than likely turn down an offer by a company that is doomed to be out of business before 2020 and is squarely opposite in orientation to my principles, this is what I would do...
  1. Start with why - Refocus the company from making short-term revenue to one of providing truly great in-home entertainment experiences
  2. Apologize with a megaphone - Blockbuster recently reinstated the dumb tax and is once again collecting late fees. This action speaks to the fact that Blockbuster exists to make money first and foremost and does not exist to be of preeminent value to people seeking home entertainment. I would immediately and publicly apologize for this misstep, remove the late fee policy and explain how it is antithetical to Blockbusters fundamental reason for being.
  3. Make amends - Just like a past entry in this blog points out, apologies without genuine gestures that show contrition are platitudes and ultimately contemptuous. I would refund each and every late fee collected since the reinstatement in the form of store credit.
  4. Catch-up - Partner with a hardware retailer (Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, or possibly Tivo) to get downloadable movies off of computers and onto the television.
  5. Fix the in-store experience:
    • The lines are too long and picking a movie from the shelves is too time consuming. Put kiosks in the store for help selecting movies and checking out.
    • Stop yelling "Welcome to Blockbuster" as customers walk in.
    • Upgrade the POS and peripherals (scanner, printer and signature pad) along with the couponing process that barely work, waste paper and power and serve to commoditize the offering.
    • Unify all the CRM systems to enable promotions to be applied and tracked without the use of paper
    • Enable "return to any store"
  6. Fix the multi-channel experience - starting with quantitative and qualitative user research search for opportunities to ultimately improve customers in-home entertainment lives and execute on those that align with the overall brand proposition.
  7. Expand the reach - Put vending kiosks or mini-stores into airports and other locations where impulse meets opportunity. It is critical to integrate these with the overall CRM system and "return to any store" policy in order to drive the sense that Blockbuster exists to serve it's customers in the way that will most fit into their busy lives.

My "If I were CXO" experiment - Like it. I Think I'll do it again.

Current customer experience at Blockbuster - Garbage

"No, no, no, Lisa. If adults don't like their jobs, they don't go on strike. They just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That's the American Way." - Homer Simpson

Paradox of Language

As my career has progressed one thing that can lift me up or conversely drag me down is the linguistic capabilities of my coworkers. My wide vocabulary and semantic orientation for precision drives some people batty and I have often been made to feel pretentious at best and elitist at worst for using "fancy words" (e.g., cognitive dissonance) in business conversations.

Over the last year my wife and I have watched the complete Tudors series on Showtime. While my wife is most fascinated with the drama, cinematography and history I can't seem to get enough of the linguistic pirouettes engaged in by subjects and nobility in discussions with governmental figures and the king.

As I have watched the fabulous dialogues unfold I have been ironically reinvigorated with my desire to use language more precisely in that I am at the same time vexed with the paradox therein - it's not what you say, it's what other people hear.

There is another paradox, however, that fascinates me even more; how language is at once the vessel to new rational understanding and the horizon that bounds our ability to conceive. It is both the device of perception and the blinder.

This conundrum became apparent while watching the Tudors in that I was stunned how lords accused of treason, and royalty seeking fealty could use language in such a precise manner that enabled verbal jousting of a form we rarely see today. What was equally apparent is that we have lost something in our culture - nuance.

In our constant endeavor to use terms and language accessible to the common man and shunning orators who use complex concepts and ideas as "too intellectual" we have lost the ability to see subtle yet important differentiators in topics in culture, art, business, relationships, politics and everywhere else.

The English language has an intrinsic beauty in its unique ability to differentiate between concepts so close that they can seem one and the same but have chasms of difference in meaning when applied. The English speaking populace used to pride itself on it's ability to break new ground and find new conceptual understanding through the use of language and dialogue.

The very construct that we use to break through our boundaries and create new communicable understanding is also the barrier that we must break through if we are to mature our intellectual capabilities as a species. This is apparent when we talk about how certain concepts or cultural idioms are only understood if you can truly think in a particular language. Some words do not have equivalent translations between languages. One mildly famous but erroneous example is Schadenfreude (which actually has an English equivalent - epicaricacy).

So what? Who cares?

It is my opinion that the inevitable result of the dumbing down of our cultural linguistic capabilities is the rise of anosognosia (meta-incompetence - the inability to discern competence from incompetence) in that when you lose the ability to describe the difference between things you begin to lose the ability to see the difference between things. One unexplored consequence of this trend is that deception will increase as those with a greater command of the language will be able to dupe those with only surface level understandings.

I beg all of my readers/followers (are there more than 3 of you now?) to fight back! Do not succumb to the penchant for simple un-nuanced language. Rather, educate your listeners and readers such that they may begin to see discernment as a valuable skill to protect themselves from deception and chicanery.


The Tudors - like it

Nuanced Language - like it

Aspersions of elitism for using nuanced language - garbage

"How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive? " - Homer Simpson

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Outsource your system integration to your customers? Brilliant!

I've got to hand it to Comcast (a.k.a. Comcrap). They figured out how to save millions in system integration. They chose not to do it and then force their customers to act as bridges between the groups and systems. How slick is that?

So after giving up on Comcast ever making a compelling bundle offer that doesn't contain at least $50 in hidden extra monthly fees (cable modem rental, HD upcharge, extra box fee, DVR fee. HD+DVR fee) I decided to call AT&T to try the U-verse bundle. I couldn't actually get U-verse, as it is not available in my area yet, but the bundle was still available with NO extra fees with DirecT

Once everything was setup, I called Comcast to cancel my service and hit a series of obstacles that highlight how brilliant Comcast management is.

  1. Organizational Fragmentation - Comcast customer service is totally separate from the organization that retrieves the equipment. They had no ability to schedule the pickup. They had no ability to transfer my phone call. They had no ability to email me the phone number. They had no ability to pass on a request to them. In other words, it was now my job to integrate the customer service and logistics teams.
  2. No Continuity - After I successfully memorized and dialed the phone number (I was in the car but not driving), I scheduled the equipment pickup which was no picnic either. They refused to give me anything other than a four hour window and would not take a note for the driver such that I could leave the equipment in my screened porch. This is another stroke of genius by Comcast - when you make it as inconvenient as possible for people to end their service there are bound to be a couple of people who just give up ans stick with it out of some form of Stockholm Syndrome.
  3. No Tools - After the equipment recovery person missed his window and showed up 1 hour late I happily handed all the equipment over to him. Choosing to be frugal and not give their employees wasteful tools, the equipment recovery person collected the two set-top boxes, manually captured the serial numbers on a form and gave me a copy of the paper receipt.
  4. No Follow-through - Where other companies might blow a whole bunch of money and time actually tracking their operations, a brilliant analyst at Comcast noticed that actually not tracking returns was in the companies interest! If a former customer is upset at being charged for equipment they already returned, they'll follow up and hound us. If not, who cares! And given that equipment recovery is not integrated with billing they'll hound the customer by phone 3 or more times a day anyway to provide a "legitimate excuse". Genius I say!!!
  5. Contemptuous Attitude - Start the calls off right! Comcast calls with an auto-dialer and shows blatant contempt for customer time by having the auto-dialer ask customers to hold for an "important business call". This sets the tone just right to make everything be coherent around the core brand message - "your time and money are not nearly as important as ours".
  6. No Accountability - Narrative, Narrative Narrative! The Comcast team has it down! The only way to make policies and decisions like these stick is to be completely unapologetic and obtuse on the phone and make the customer wrong on every level. The phone reps had the story and they stuck to it - it was my job to track the repair, my job to prove that they had picked the equipment, and it was even my job to call the billing department to get the erroneous charge for "not returning the equipment" changed. Why on earth should it be Equipment Recovery's responsibility to close the loop? It is this narrative which enables a phone rep to be legitimately upset with the fact that customer's are upset or frustrated. When an employee does not acknowledge that they are "representatives" of the brand or of the corporation then, clearly, the customer is the one who is rude for being frustrated!
  7. Plausible Deniability - Make sure your phone systems are easy to blame. Calls with Comcast were never pleasant in terms of the discussion, but what makes them even worse for the customer is that the auto-dialer is in control and calls would drop almost at random. As always, this serves the greater objective - now Comcast reps can honestly say: "I did not call you, the auto dialer did!" and "You keep hanging up on us!". i.e., "It's not Comcast's fault we keep calling you, It's the auto-dialer! It's you!"
  8. No Empathy - By hiring barely literate people with chips on their shoulder who are unhappy with their jobs. The message will really be sent - "You are not a customer anymore. You are not worthy of respectful communication or empathy. Being upset that you are called incessantly early in the morning, or late at night and being asked by a machine to hold without telling you who is calling is not our concern - even if we picked up the equipment already. We will just keep calling you for weeks. We will choose not to listen. We will choose not the enter the receipt number into our system because you were frustrated or the call dropped after we got the number but before we said we were done with you. We will hang up on you because you are audibly frustrated - but don't worry, we will call back and start all over again!!! You will comply sooner or later! Resistance is futile! You will integrate us!"
  9. Universally Low Expectations - Hire people who are in alignment with your brand. Make sure that they are ignorant of common business conventions. Make sure they are not accountable for their actions. Make sure that they are not grateful to be of service. This orientation will enable people to bluster on and hold forth on clearly specious arguments where precision and crispness of service delivery are of no importance at all. This false sense of self importance will further enable the phone reps to take personal offense at former customer frustration and will further solidify the organizations will to impose the company's responsibility onto the former customer.
Rating time:

Disgustingly contemptuous policies and decisions that force former customers to be accountable for Comcrap's organizational fragmentation - CRAP

Myth: It's only fair to pay for quality first-run movies. Fact: Most movies shown on cable get two stars or less, and are repeated ad nauseam."

Friday, March 12, 2010

What I Do

Quite often, people ask me "What do you do?"

This is how the conversation typically goes with the exception that I usually give some real world examples that are very freaky, but given that I can't put my sales pitch into the public domain, I'm sorry for the disappointment. :-(

Person X: "What do you do?"

Me: "I'm a User Experience Consultant"

Person X: "That sounds interesting. What is that?"

Me: "Well, there are a lot of different types of User Experience Consultants. I work with businesses to help them design and develop experiences that engender desired attitudes and behaviors without coercion or external support."

Person X: Best case: "Can you give me an example?" / Worst case: Puzzled look that says "How am I going to get out of this conversation?"

Me: "Let me give you an example. We go out and do a number of types of research with different audiences. In observing and talking to these people we learn a bunch of different things, some big and some small. The small nuances are the most interesting. For example, in working with a large home improvement retailer we learned a lot about the purchasing contexts for power tools. We analyzed the quantitative and qualitative data from the research and made very specific changes in language and photography to raise the percentage of people who purchase tools as opposed to those who just browse.

Imagine you walk into a friends kitchen to make yourself a cup of coffee. Where do you look for the mugs? Near the sink? Near the coffee maker? Near the pantry? Near the stove? There is some thought process that each person goes through. A UX consultant learns about people to understand how different types of people will go about their search. We combine that understanding with the types of people most likely to come to that particular kitchen and put the mugs right where people will look for them. More than that, we tell businesses where each type of person will look for the mug and how to create or modify the kitchen so that the right people will not feel stupid or get frustrated looking for the mug when nobody is around to help them find one."

Person X: "Wow! That is interesting. How did you end up doing that?"

Me: "Well, I started out as a software developer who hated being on the phone. I had all these pesky users who would call and email me all these questions that I did not want to answer. I also hated writing technical documentation. It was all just so boring to me when what I wanted to be doing was improving the business. Being an engineer at heart, I figured that there must be some way to design the interface in a way that they will never call me again that did not involve me writing a full an comprehensive user manual which they would never read anyway.

So I went out and bought a bunch of books on human factors, eye tracking and usability and started trying to design the interfaces just for them. Then I got lucky enough to work with some great UX consultants who were willing to let me play in their sandbox.

10 years later, and this is what I love doing. I hardly ever code anymore. I focus on some fairly esoteric stuff in strategy and technology that's fun and challenging for me.

There are college programs for it now, but there really were not specific programs or degrees for it when I went to school. Not in the mainstream anyway. I kind of got lucky. It just sort of happened organically based on my context, what I was interested in and my own stubborn refusal to do support work."

One of the worst aspects of this conversation is that I have to explain it over and over again to my dad (so that he can brag about his "brilliant genius son" to all the other Jewish fathers at the retirement community in Florida) and
my friends outside the industry (remember how stubborn I am in answering the same question over and over). So this is my first attempt to write it all down (even though very few will read it - and yes, dear reader, I see the irony).

Which brings me to another aspect of what I do - craft experiences that people will want to engage in; i.e., craft desirable experiences through strategy (remember that esoteric thing that I said I focus on). But that is a topic for another day.

Rating time:

What I do: Like it
Explaining it over and over: Hmmm... I'm tempted to say Garbage...but I actually kind of get excited in talking about it because I like the fun insight stories so much...OK, I give up. Like it.
Explaining it to my dad over and over: Garbage. (Dad, be grateful I did not use the "Crap" rating ;-)

Well, it's 2 a.m. Better go and spend some quality time with the kids.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Concepts of Creativity

I saw a question on "Linked In" today:

Do software companies need creative thinkers?

If yes, why? for what kind of work? Typically, what fraction of their developers are creative thinkers?

For most, what's more important - creativity or discipline?

what do companies do to enahnce their developers' creativity?

When reading this question and the proffered answers it reminded me of a topic that has bounced around for quite a long time.

Companies typically label visual designers or UX designers as "Creatives" or talk about the "Creative" disciplines.

Companies typically label software developers, architects and DBAs as "Technical".

This has bothered me for a long time, which, given my semantic nature is not surprising.

Anyone who has worked as or with a good software developer would not for an instant say that software developers are not creative.

Similarly, anyone who has worked as or with a good UX professional (either visual designer or information architect) would not say that UX professionals are not technical.

These labels of creative and technical are imprecise in their nature and cause much hostility and tension between the two camps who, amongst a myriad of other things, have something in common, which is ironically a large contributor to the hostility and tension; they don't like to be labeled.

This hostility and tension is apparent if you read the answers to the question.

"Creativity" and "Tool Usage" (the underlying skill behind technology) are skills we all have in different degrees. We are human and it is part of who we are as a race. When the question is asked as it above, it implies that disciplined developers are not creative. This is a blatant fallacy.

I think a more precise way to talk about the behaviors and thinking styles that people are referring to when they apply these labels is through the terms "linear" and "non-linear" thinking. Intuition and non-linear thinking are deeper components of what we percieve as creativity.

With this nuance in mind - I would rephrase the original question: "Do software companies need intuitive, non-linear thinkers?"

Answering this question without hostility becomes easier - Yes. Non-linear intuitive thinking allows for revolution where strictly linear thinking allows for evolution.

Conceptual holism (think Amazon, Apple) - comes straight out of non-linear intuitive thinking

Evolutionary atomism (think eBay, Microsoft) - comes from direct linear thinking.

If you hold all other factors neutral, enterprises with both linear and non-linear thinkers (assuming that the individual players can work in harmony) will ultimately be more successful over the long term.

Neither is more important. At the extremes - "non-linears" have trouble executing without linear practitioners, "linears" have trouble moving out of seemingly malicious compliance.

Some people answered that sending developers to conferences "where the latest and greatest ideas are shared" would develop their creative skills.

Conferences are not the answer to enhance developers capability to think non-linearly - because ideas are shared as an end result and not as a process.

Several philosophers from Jiddu Krishnamurti to Bruce Lee talk about the concept of "no way as way" to illustrate that those who are beholden to a particular dogma in any discipline, are very likely unable to see beyond the limits of the dogma.

Bruce Lee stated that his concept is not an "adding to" of more and more things on top of each other to form a system, but rather, a winnowing out.

The lack of capability to understand or appreciate non-linear thought is most felt in countries like the USA where language and discourse are focused on "Topic Centered" methods vs "Topic Associative" methods.

To actually enhance the capability of non-linear thinking (and ultimately affect that which we see as creativity) you must strike at the base assumption that every problem needs to be approached with a linear and fully predictable process.

Unfortunately, this concept while easy to explain at a high level tends to not be "teachable" through a lesson or a book. Rather, enabling a person to be more in-touch with their intuition is something that needs to be experienced and then practiced as opposed to practiced and then experienced.

So how do we attack this? Teams. Team linear and non-linear thinkers together to iteratively solve problems. When using this method, it is important to note that the success of these teams will correlate with the chemistry of the individuals and way in which the task is laid out to not give too much power to either type.

Rating Time!

Divisive labeling as "Creative" and "Technical" - Garbage
Appreciation for different thinking styles - Like it


I have not invented a "new style," composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from "this" method or "that" method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see "ourselves". . . Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don't, and that is that. There is no mystery about my style. My movements are simple, direct and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every movement in Jeet Kune-Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune-Do is simply the direct expression of one's feelings with the minimum of movements and energy. The closer to the true way of Kung Fu, the less wastage of expression there is. Finally, a Jeet Kune Do man who says Jeet Kune Do is exclusively Jeet Kune Do is simply not with it. He is still hung up on his self-closing resistance, in this case anchored down to reactionary pattern, and naturally is still bound by another modified pattern and can move within its limits. He has not digested the simple fact that truth exists outside all molds; pattern and awareness is never exclusive. Again let me remind you Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one's back.

Bruce Lee