Learning from Students about Phones

Over the past month I’ve been conducting research for the University of Denver for various web-related projects they have going on. As part of this process, I interviewed a number of undergraduate and graduate students about how they find information, connect with their friends, and generally how they use technology in their daily lives.

Without getting into the details, there were some fascinating general findings, especially regarding the use of cell phones. I’m no Jan Chipchase, but I think this information may point to some interesting opportunities for future design.

Most of the students I talked to weren’t early adopters of technology, so they were mostly interested in finding ways to use devices in a way that makes their life easier.

As you would expect, all the students have cell phones, and they are very important to them in staying connected with their friends and family. They also all have laptops, and there is a clear separation between the two devices.

None of the students I talked to use their phones to browse the web, though a few were considering getting an iPhone (or a similar device) sometime in the future once it’s easier to connect to wifi networks. This is a particularly important on the campus given the requirement for authentication to connect to the university’s wireless network. But mobile web browsing didn’t appear to rate very high on the interests.

Similarly, mobile email wasn’t something that the students used on a regular basis. Unlike business users (like myself), with our addiction to our ‘crackberries’, the immediate access to email isn’t that important to students. They are okay with accessing their email via their laptop, and if they don’t get an email message immediately it’s not a cause for concern. Usually they check their email (often through a web browser) as they’re getting into their work process. Check email, check a couple of news sites, and then settle in to do your homework.

What was much more important to most of the students I spoke with was “mobile messaging”. They used messaging to connect with their friends, sometimes to chat, but mostly for ‘transactional’ messaging. “I’m running ten minutes late”, “Are you going to be at the coffee shop tonight”, that sort of thing. All who did this said it was so much easier and more efficient than talking on the phone.

In fact, most of the students had little interest in talking on the phone at all. One said that he only uses the phone on Sundays when he was calling home to talk to his family. Other than that, messaging was the preferred way to connect with his friends.

Unlike myself, these students have all grown up with instant messaging, and using their phones in this manner is second nature to them. It’s what they are comfortable with, it’s easy, it’s just how things are done.

I’ve recently gotten myself into a new phone contract, and I ended up with a blackberry pearl. I considered an iPhone, but decided against it as I try not to buy first generation products from Apple (not that I haven’t done it in the past – I’m still waiting for my first generation iPod to die so I can get a newer model) I find the email capability to be very handy, though the ubiquity of it can be a bit overwhelming at times, and I use the WAP web browsing from time to time. But messaging isn’t that important to me, and I’ll still resort to a phone call if I’m running late.

In some ways, I’m more of an early technology adopter than most of the students I interviewed. It’s not better or worse, just a result of what we’re comfortable with and what works in our particular situation. One of my favorite quotes came from a recently admitted graduate student; “it’s weird to be 24 years old and already feel like technology is passing you by.”

Tell me about it. Who knows, maybe I’ll give mobile messaging a try.

Note #1: Wired has an interview with the national champion of texting here. lol.
Note #2: Donald Norman, now a professor at Northwestern, says has this to say about texting in an interview with cnet:

If you’d asked me to predict texting I’d have said, “No, it’s really too hard. Jeesh, you need to type three times to get a ‘C.’ That’s ridiculous.” Not only did people learn it, but (they) learned it so well…So, there’s an adaptation for you.

The issue is not how tech-savvy you are, or how quick you pick up to it. I believe these are things that often take many hours to master…You just didn’t want to spend the next 20 hours of your life mastering it. But a lot of the kids, they have that kind of time to devote to it.

what is concept design?

One of the more difficult parts of doing work without easily identifiable artifacts is describing what you do.

When I get asked what I do for a living, I usually answer by saying “design strategy and research.” Which almost always brings on a second question; “what the (expletive deleted) is design strategy and research?” At which point I wonder how much this person really wants to know. If I sense it was a throwaway, usually I’ll just respond by saying something like, “oh, you know, websites and stuff.” Then we can get back to the more important questions of sports and weather and TV shows.

But every once in a while there will be a followup question, and I’ll realize that either the person is either involved in the design business (or the design of business) or they are just curious about what differentiates design strategy from other forms of creative endeavor. I’ve tried various approaches to describing it, and heard or read of many others through the years. None of them are completely satisfactory.

Sometimes I’ll start in with my own niche, and discuss the importance of storytelling in the design process.

“Working from as clear a strategic goal as I can develop with my client or partner, I engage in a combination of observation and interviews, through which i develop an understanding of the persons who might be helped by the product or service. Then, this research is applied to the generative process through a combination of models, scenarios, and prototypes, often generated in a collaborative environment. Finally, we critique the alternatives and iterate to a greater level of fidelity.”

Then they say, well, yeah, but what do you do?

So then maybe I’ll move in with a quick synopsis of the Tim Brown/IDEO talking points about the value of Design Thinking. Or the idea of the ‘anthrodesigner’ (as put forward by Dori Tunstall), who encourages her students to become hybrid researcher/designers who are adept both in observing and creating.

Or maybe the description of Transformational Design as put forward by Hillary Cottam and the Red design team of the British Design Council in 2006:

Transformational Design:

1) Defining and redefining the brief: Whereas traditionally designers are brought in to follow a brief, the transformation design approach involves an analysis of the wider implications of a design problem.

2) Collaboration between disciplines: Recognizing that complex problems need to be addressed through a multI-faceted approach, we rely on collaboration for results.

3) Employing participatory design techniques: Advocating bottom-up design methodology – involving users and front-line workers in the design process. Making the design process more accessible to ‘non-designers’.

4) Building capacity not dependency: Transformational design seeks to leave behind not only a designed solution, but the tools, skills and organizational capacity to respond to change.

5) Designing beyond traditional solutions & ‘systems thinking’. Applying design skills in non-traditional territories, and also creating non-traditional design outputs. ‘Systems thinking’ is the ability to consider an issue holistically rather than reductively.

6) Creating fundamental change: Transformational design aims high: to fundamentally transform systems and cultures.

Great, interesting stuff, and brilliantly done by firms like Stone Yamashita. But, it’s a lot to throw out at a cocktail party. Maybe there’s an easier way to talk about designing something intangible, or at least apparently intangible.

So, I was intrigued when I heard about this new idea, promoted by FORA, a Danish quasi-governmental group, called Concept Design. Concept Design is, according to the subtitle, a way to “solve complex challenges of our time.” There is not a whole lot of information on concept design available on the web (yet, at least), though the paper is available for download from the FORA site as a PDF file.

According to the paper,

Today’s companies are seeking answers to the question “what?”. What should companies focus on? What problems should the companies’ innovation solve?

In the past companies wanted answers to the question “how?”. How do we develop a new product? How should it be designed? How should it be marketed, and how should the company be organised to achieve the best solution?

This feels pretty accurate to me, though of course it risks oversimplifying the design process. Once concern I have is that the term ‘concept’ feels a little thin, for instance in comparison to the idea of ‘transformation’, though it does point to the formative stages in the process where design strategy is particularly appropriate.

The paper goes on to say

Concepts are solutions to unsolved problems or new solutions to problems that are solved in a poor manner. A new concept can be a product, a service, or a combination of products and

The task of creating concepts is referred to as concept design. For the purpose of this study, a model was created to describe concept design based on the processes and competences applied in concept design. Concept design works abstractly with questions on what should be produced rather than on how it should be designed.

Concepts and business strategies are approached strategically, and multidisciplinary work is performed using a combination of competences from business management, social science and design.

According to the following diagram, concept design lies at the intersection of business, design, and social sciences.

What’s the difference between transformational and concept design? Perhaps concept design has the potential to focus more narrowly on a particular problem, rather than working on a the broader idea of organizational change, though certainly there is overlap between the two.

The writers of the paper did a great job of vetting their research, and the document includes case studies from a wide range of companies in Europe and the United States, including IDEO, Frog, Lego, Philips, Gravity Tank, BBDO, and others.

I’m not entirely sure if concept design is an idea with legs or not, though it has been adopted by the AIGA and appears to be a topic of conversation at the 2008 Torino World Design Capital events. At the very least it provides some new ideas.

And maybe something to talk about over dinner.

thoughts while chopping onions

When the weather starts getting colder, there’s nothing better than some homemade onion soup. It requires chopping a lot of onions.

In “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius“, Dave Eggers talks about how best to chop an onion. I was never quite sure what method he and “Toph” decided was the best. I have my own way of chopping an onion, though probably not the best way. I nip off the top and the bottom skin, and then cut the onion in two pieces from top to bottom. After removing the remaining skin, I slice each half as thinly as possible from end to end. It works well enough.

Dave was just awarded one of the TED prizes for 2008, along with physicist Neil Turok and religious historian Karen Armstrong. Seems pretty well deserved, between his work with McSweeney’s, 826 Valencia, and the Voices of Witness oral history program. I don’t know if he still has much time for chopping onions. Hopefully so. Chopping onions is good for your soul.

When I was nine or ten years old, I used to watch the Galloping Gourmet (Graham Kerr) on TV. I don’t remember much of the show, except that he always seemed to have a good time and man could he chop onions. I couldn’t figure out how he chopped so fast without losing a finger.

According to (possibly apocryphal) stories, Jack Kerouac died while watching the Galloping Gourmet on television. It was 1969, he was 47 years old, and I was 8 or 9. Now it’s 2007, and I’m 47 years old. I like to think we were watching the program at the same time.

Now the onions make my eyes water. Maybe it’s the onions.

Onion and Potato Soup, based loosely off a recipe from Family Oven (which isn’t a half bad recipe site).

6 onions, sliced in your preferred way
4 cloves garlic, crushed
Olive oil
6 small or 3 medium potatoes, in small cubes
1 cup sherry
8 cups vegetable stock
Fresh thyme
Bay leaf
1 tsp. Paprika or other savory spice
salt, black pepper, red pepper, as desired

Using a heavy soup pot, sauté the onions over medium heat and until they are translucent. Add the garlic, spices, potatoes, and continue cooking and keep cooking until the potatoes soften.

The onions and potatoes will stick to the pot; just use a wooden spoon to stir the browned bits back in.

Add the sherry and deglaze the pan.

Add the stock and simmer for another half hour or so.

To make it a ‘french onion soup’ top with some gruyere and a crouton.


A Model of the Creative Process

Continuing on in the ‘models of design’ theme, here is a model of the creative process I put together for a presentation I gave to 350 toy designers at Mattel in Los Angeles last week (a pretty cool group of people). It’s a variation and adaptation of the process developed by James Webb Young in A Technique for Producing Ideas. In my mind, there are four different phases in the creative process: Gather, Gestate, Create, and Critique.

The Gather phase correlates with research, but involves both specific and general information. Specific information about the project and its background and goals, but also more general information on the context of experience. Gathering should be done in as non-judgmental a way as possible (though of course we all bring our own history to bear), which is why ethnographic techniques (observation, etc.) have such value in this process.

Gestate is the process of ‘mulling over’ – it might involve noodling around, or thinking, or taking a walk, but it’s not aimed at created the final product. It’s hard for our minds to move straight from research to solution; this can be described as the time for lateral thinking.

Create is where the ideas are generated. At their best, ideas come forward in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. We need to get them out there without worrying about whether they are the right idea or not. Sometimes the right idea comes out of the wrong idea. Creating can be done alone or in small groups. There is always a tendency to engage in critique during the generative phase (especially when working in groups), but that makes coming up with ideas much more difficult.

Critique is where we refine and revise out ideas, explore other combinations, and connect our ideas back to the mission and vision of our project (whatever that is). This can be done in groups (through charrettes, for instance), with the goal of moving the process forward toward greater fidelity. Critique can be destructive if it gets personal, but it can also be very constructive and is in fact a generative act.

Of course, the process isn’t really linear (or circular), so we need to consider variations on the process. Which leads to a diagram that looks like this (a little messy but perhaps more accurate):

Every person and group has a slightly different process for generating ideas; especially when we’re working together we need to consider how best to achieve the goal of creating the best solution. The loops in the process can (and I believe should) be rapid and iterative, but this doesn’t mean that it’s an endless process.

Time and resource limitations restrict the amount of opportunity for iteration, and it’s important not to forget that we are creating something – the artifact of our creative endeavors also pushes the process forward. Sometimes enough is enough, but the awareness of the process helps to give a structure to our endeavors.

What is Design Thinking?

This summer when I was at Mike and Kathy McCoy’s High Ground gathering in Buena Vista, Bill Moggridge of IDEO handed the attendees a xerox copy of a hand-scrawled 2×2 diagram. I wandered around with it in my notebook for about 4 months, and finally decided to transcribe to the digital realm this past week.

Bill attributed the diagram to Hugh Dubberly, Rick Robinson, Stafford Beer, and Christopher Alexander (which pretty much sums up the pantheon of the design modeling gods); through a quick web search I found one version of it online uploaded by Shelley Evensen of Carnegie Mellon from a presentation she gave earlier this year located here in PDF format.

Although this diagram doesn’t make any claims toward describing what design thinking is (or design strategy for that matter), I think it obliquely provides loads of insight into the value of research and prototype modeling.

In a typical, non-reflective approach, it’s very easy not to leave the ‘concrete’ world, attempting to move directly from “What is” to “What is might be like”. In a sense, this is a typical human approach; I do it, my clients do it, we see it all the time in our day-to-day lives.

But when we’re designing systems, when we’re designing for use, we need to get out of our own heads and not just run to the first solution that presents itself. So, instead we can move from the concrete to the abstract, where we develop models of our understand of what is (research). Then, that model is turned into the ideation/generation mode (prototyping). From this, we move toward concrete ideas of “What it might be like”.

When we take the time to explore research and prototype models – in other words, when we engage in design thinking – the design process yields significantly better results. Add in the potential for iterative cycles, and you have a strong foundation for improved solutions.