by John Armitage
And it would have worked, too, if it hadn’t have been for these meddling kids.
- Every villian from the cartoon series Scooby Doo, Where Are You?
As I mentioned, this book has two main themes. The first is the state of visual analytics and where it is going, and the second is a view into the practice of core innovation in digital product design. These are two big topics. Anything I’ve said or done here is merely standing on the shoulders of the visionary pioneers I’ve referenced. I’ve taken a number of side trips through anecdotes and references to non-design or non-numeric topics and sources. This is not intended to be long-winded or to try to make an otherwise dry topic sexy. Well, maybe a little bit of the latter. Rather, given the scale and potential impact of some of my claims, I feel the need to ground them using critical design and relate them to life, to prove to myself and you that I’m not blowing smoke. Looking back, much of the self-proclaimed innovative design work I’ve shown seemed a little too easy, too obvious. It may be due to the Groucho Marx Effect, where the famous comic declares that he would never join a club that would have him as a member. I felt the need to step back and continuously check that I’d not missed something, or was making too much out of nothing. As the character Don Draper of AMC’s Mad Men TV series declared, “I’m from the Midwest. We were taught not to talk about ourselves”. I’ve been pinching myself to wake from this dream, and not only is it still going on, but evidence keeps pouring in that it’s real.
I still come back to the need for designers and technologists to spend time in the real world, and use these experiences to reflect and triangulate upon their professional work with different perspectives and metaphors, and to build empathy for how others live and work. This empathy is, after all, a key part of being a designer. It empowers us to take responsibility for what will make a customer productive and happy.
LAVA is not finished or optimized. It’s a design language to guide the work of others. Its designs, in their current form, are not to be judged for their precision or definitiveness. They are not the curated masterpieces from Edward Tufte or the pristine arguments from Stephen Few. New cultural forms progress through the stages of prototype – the first instance, to archetype – the definitive instance, to stereotype – the commodity instance. LAVA is a prototype, and just the beginning of a surge of innovation I know is yet to come. As Churchill said after winning the Battle of Britain, “This is not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning”.
The illustrational metaphor represented by the stand-alone, published, static chart will be supplemented with dynamic, model-driven spaces that blur the boundaries of the author/explore/filter/share set of user intents. Although we find, prove, explain, publish, and teach the correct answers — as the BtF legacy has done — technology assures that the questions continue to change. This is both frustrating and exhilarating. Adapting to change is the process of seeking out which rules still apply, and which are obsolete. What has changed and what has not? In visual analytics, things like 2D geometric plots, persistent legends, rainbow pie charts, bottom-line totals, and non-scrolling dashboards are not the sacred cows they once were.
Everyone will eventually be motivated and able to track a handful of key personal performance metrics at a basic summery level, but they won’t do it if they need to plow through a complex experience to do it. As practical metrics are made available, over time people will invest in discovering more about them, including their influences and effects.
LAVA’s lean appearance is an example of how to enable this by embedding secondary interactive functionality within titles, and simplified data labels and plots. This preserves its dominant consumption experience mode, while providing a path to more features for the more adventuresome users who, by definition, are more motivated to discover them. As has happened with smartphones, initially foreign or obscure gestures and product capabilities can be discovered by users over time, as long as they are carefully designed, represent properties common in the real world, and are shown at the appropriate level of abstraction. The key is to initially give users a simple data-driven narrative, depicting something they care about, which can then gradually incite deeper interest and more sophisticated awareness of the subject and its content.
Facebook would have failed if it had asked users to design and configure their own pages. The complexity and effort required would not have been worth the value, and thus would have driven off all but the most ambitious and persistent users. Although LAVA, in particular the Lattice, pointed to similar effects for quantitative data, it was difficult for some people who were particularly close to BI to acknowledge its potential. The definitive objection from this faction was that LAVA “does not match Our metaphor”, which was of course precisely the point. LAVA is a new metaphor, and one that’s necessary for achieving SAP’s product aspirations. LAVA is a case where the ideal solution is also the less costly one, but requires a re-framing of the problem and an alternative breakdown of its inherent boundaries and systems.
Finally, I’ll add a few process notes that may be obvious to designers and those familiar with DT, but that were particularly relevant to working on the vision level with a complex topic like visual analytics. The UX discipline is a set of valid but contradictory rules and values. Professional experience is simply knowing which of them to ignore, and when. The first is often called Fail Fast First, and refers to having the courage to share a design proposal that you know to be imperfect or incomplete. Presenting work early is the only practical way to gather needed feedback, but always carries the risk that some in the audience will find you careless, ignorant, or threatening, whether they share their opinion with you or not.
Although in the ethos of modern software design the process of has become a mantra, it is not without risks or costs. Anytime you share something with colleagues with the expectation of receiving professional feedback, you are asking for effort and commitment on their part. Try to set their expectations about both the level of confidence you have in your work, and the timeframe for which your proposal is targeted. I cannot even count the number of misunderstandings over product roadmap proposals that were based simply on one person’s timeframe being short-term, and the other’s long-term. When unqualified as such, valid short-term proposals can be dismissed as uninspired, and valid long-term proposals dismissed as fantasy.
However, regardless of any presentation preamble you provide, you will surely offend someone. It comes with the territory: Shoot first, and then have Q&A. You want to hear objections to your plan, but if a source’s position is contrarian, dismissive, and not followed up with rationale or suggestions – as was the case with the “Our metaphor” comment – then the resistance is not merit-based, but rather ideological, political, or personal.
Innovation is hard and risky. Try to use existing parts when possible, and resist the urge to re-invent the wheel. The less experienced you are, the more likely that an answer to something already exists, and you don’t know about it. The international movement called IKEA Hackers exchanges ways to use IKEA products as a giant parts bin for new creations or modifications of existing products. I’ve done this often myself, but not to the extent of these guys. When you cannot get the desired result from existing parts and solutions, this is where design innovation is needed. When I saw that traditional, illustrational charts and dashboards would never enable behaviors I knew were in demand, I somewhat reluctantly pursued new innovations like the Lattice to fill the gap. If there were an easier path, I would have taken it.
The mantra from SAP’s leaders was always about the need for 1) company cultural change, 2) more innovation, 3) closer engagement with customers and the product ownership experience, and 4) an improved user experience for the products. Understandably, this was always inspirational and validating for me. Having come in through an acquisition, I had no attachment or dependence on SAP’s legacy culture or product virtues – to the contrary, SAP’s street reputation was a laughingstock of being arrogant, overpriced, and cluelessly unusable and ugly, particularly within the UX discipline but also in the general ERP marketplace. Despite this, SAP operates at a scale that enables small improvements to have massive effects, which can make it an exhilarating place to be. At the level of billions of impressions, upgrades such as the efficiency and legibility of the Lattice’s stacked row titles can have an immense cumulative impact, albeit one that is largely hidden from popular awareness within the walls of SAP’s customer organizations.
While much of SAP’s rap was unfairly applied to continued customer use of outdated product versions, I agreed that change was needed. Of course, I was biased: I was also working on innovative, UX-oriented stuff. Despite a healthy cynicism, I always got fired up when the top guys addressed the company. I waited patiently for our work to be recognized, and for accolades and opportunities to appear. It took much longer than expected. But I also saw that SAP’s value and role are almost like that of a public utility, honestly and diligently working behind the scenes on important stuff that the world needs, so they thus can be forgiven many of their trespasses. SAP accepted hard and unsexy problems, and has arguably been being held to unrealistic standards in the effort to meet them.
There is often a struggle for the right to innovate in companies, and I’ve mentioned the rivalries that can evolve between research and production, vision and execution, strategy and operations. Innovation can happen at any level of scale or visibility, but innovation that gets attention can create jealousies. It’s easy to simply declare that one or one’s team is doing buzzword-compliant work related to the perceived initiative du jour — in SAP’s case, often through a label-change to something combining “design”, “experience” “innovation”, “rapid”, “customer”, “cloud”, “big data”, etc. Doing so can make groups doing traditional customer handholding and technical support appear like a research institution, or the Bauhaus. People and teams claim that The New Thing is, in fact, what they have been doing all along. Program managers become UX specialists, and teams change their name to things like “Customer Experience and User Engagement” or “Rapid Innovation”, even though they still just run focus groups or do customer support for new product releases. UX Head Dan Rosenberg compared the culture at SAP to an otherwise coordinated and competent symphony orchestra that, when it comes time for the solo, all stand up and play at the same time.
While these descriptors can in theory refer to many types of work, and creativity and innovation are a part of any job, claiming them as one’s primary activity for promotional purposes creates confusion. The professional innovation and UX skills of qualified designers can be marginalized by this, either through lip-service employment on projects, where their work is ignored or limited to cosmetics, or through having their influence diluted through the practice of amateurs, who go through the motions of a DT process to demonstrate compliance, but without really doing substantial design work. This is made easier by 1) the fog of FMBE, 2) the often subjective results of design outcomes, and 3) by the slow processes, plan changes, and bureaucracies in large organizations. People and teams can simply obscure any poor results, and then await the next sound-bite initiative for guidance on what to call themselves next.
When challenged to remain relevant, people can feel pressured to innovate even when it’s not necessary, just to get attention. While this outcome is in fact part of the intent – “the leader is saying we need to be better at X, here we are doing it” – and can inspire and uncover true talents and results, such initiatives often come with the need to acquire new, legitimate talent, and give it power. Lacking the latter, much of the energy is expended in individual and group branding changes, with all the employees then going back to doing things the old way. Changing a large company’s culture is extremely hard, and some say it’s impossible.
In 2011 SAP tried to do this all the right way through its Apphaus initiative. SAP’s answer to the innovator’s dilemma, the Apphaus was a group of small, integrated, multi-disciplinary teams, churning out simple applications, complete with its own cool off-site location and political air cover. The intent was to create a bona fide Silicon Valley startup working environment – pre-filled with funded projects to execute – to demonstrate and prove how such practices could be widely adopted across the company. While an example of the tail wagging the dog – these working forms were common in silicon valley, having evolved naturally in response to the needs of legitimate innovation, not the other way around – the effects were generally inspiring and positive. At least it helped get us out of cubicles and into an open office space.
While it was an ego boost to repeatedly hear leaders affirm what I had, in fact, legitimately been saying on the record all along, its hard to blame others for trying to participate and contribute. Employees in large companies are starved for leadership, and a connection to the big picture of what the company is doing. The communication window from executives to the masses is limited. The single most important role of a CEO is to define and embody the organization’s vision and strategy. I’d have to say that these messages were coming through loud and clear, at least to me. The problem, of course, comes with implementation. I sometimes tried to put myself into others’ shoes. How would I react if the CEO was always on the record saying that we needed to focus on operational precision, marketing savvy, overseas expansion, supply chain optimization, or some other topic unrelated to my core competence and interests? Would I change how I described what I did to align with the initiative du jour? Would I try to optimize the supply chain aspects of my product design practice? Or, would I continue to plod along as before, but relegated to relative obscurity? This was in fact the case during much of my time at BOBJ. Despite its legitimate desire to improve UX, the product group lurched from one unstable release to the next, its collective mind occupied with basic quality assurance, and ways to get the different dev centers to cooperate. I pitched UX with a slant towards how it could alleviate the problems, but the company was never able to get ahead of these nagging issues. I even produced a farcical off-site video on the theme of multinational collaboration, and a comedy routine – based on the famous “Who’s on First?” from Abbot and Costello – to poke fun at working in multinational teams. I performed the latter live with Jay Xiong at our 2012 office holiday party in Shanghai.
Much of this UX obsession is well-intentioned, as any focus on design is better than none at all, and design professionals do not have a monopoly on innovation and design thinking. As I mentioned, the attention to perfection, detail, and control that is often stressed in design education can be a barrier to collaborative, fast-paced innovation – but of course the practice of design-led development is much harder than it looks, and many of its principles are hard-won through years of hands-on effort and training. In the Pixar movie Ratatouille, renowned chef Auguste Gusteau declares that “anyone can cook”. Within limits, I feel the same about design. This is not to say that EVERYone can design, but rather that good design takes many forms, and can be done successfully by anyone with a base level of requisite skill, and who is willing to take direction, experiment, and put in the work to improve their craft and process. This is not a call for developers and accountants to leave their posts and start re-designing things, but rather an encouragement to build sensitivity about the experienced form of things around you, to look for ways to improve how things look and work, to participate in design activities, and to either use professional designers when needed, or commit to developing professional-level skills to do it yourself.
Regardless of their training or experience, when it comes to design, some people simply “have it”. My wife Caroline – without having slaved through design school all-nighters of cutting, pasting, cursing, spraying, printing, cursing, and drawing my way through a parade of projects – has an exquisite foundation sense of composition, taste, and finish that makes anything she touches look like it was done by a professional. She took a summer introductory college photography course that resulted in a series of about 15 prints that would not look out of place in the museum of modern art. They were flawless. When we were dating I showed them to fellow designers – claiming they were done by my niece so as to remove any bias – and they all agreed that this work alone could gain her entry into elite design schools. I had hacked my way through the same course as a dedicated design student, and the results were terrible. I was a miserable photographer, with no patience, and concluded that photography was a numbers game of taking thousands of shots to find a few keepers. I was deeply humbled to discover that Caroline’s set of perfect photos had come from just one role of film. To be fair, this was the only class she was taking at the time, while I on the other hand had concurrently juggling a full course load. However, the composition of those photos, and the care with which they were printed, are difficult or impossible to teach at any level, let alone in her intro-level class where the focus was basic camera operation and black-and-white image printing. She, alas, prefers singing to design, and is great at that too.
To relate this back to innovative product design, I’ve worked with similarly untrained but talented people performing the product design role, yet without having UX in their job title. There is also a long but obscure tradition of elegance and beauty in the logic and execution of computer code. Although far from being ideal, in a crisis it’s possible to re-purpose team members from other disciplines to execute hands-on design work. However, today’s market is typically too competitive to not invest in formally trained, experienced, and accountable UX roles for product teams. When I started hiring UX designers in 1993, the requisite skill set simply could not be found. We had to screen for relevant skills and interests among graphic designers, architects, developers, and other roles, and then train and develop them into UX designers.
Today, I’m amazed at the elevated level of skill, knowledge, intelligence, and confidence in recent graduates from UX design programs. I believe that the diversity of interesting and visible workplace experiences offered by the UX design role is attracting top students away from engineering, psychology, architecture, and business curriculums. I think digital product design is appealing because it represents a way to participate in the ideas from these other various fields, and then apply them to tangible problems through a specialized, hands-on craft. The role is quite visible in organizations, and can contribute directly to business success.
Product design can be very rewarding, but the highest level of achievement is only possible when development is design-led, as is done at Apple. The term User Experience Design is actually redundant, in that anything we design – tools, buildings, music – is intended to be somehow experienced by someone, somewhere. Although in general a good term, and one whose practice is becoming more invasive within the product design process, the UX moniker in fact still serves to marginalize the practice. Most people consider LAVA to be more than merely a UX design, which is why I prefer to refer to work of this type as digital product design. User Experience is a consideration, not a role. Digital Product Design removes any bias that associates UX to merely surface-level effects, and brings a wider number of product variables into design consideration. Although users may notice and comment on a product’s ease of use, they don’t distinguish a product’s user experience from its functionality – what it does – or from its content – what it has. To them, products are relatively useful and good, or useless and bad.
Enabling all these design levers can only happen, however, with the consent and participation of colleagues from related product roles. Detailed sharing of strengths and weaknesses with other groups in an organization involves emotional and political risk, and it’s very rare for an individual to have the competence and information access to execute well at multiple legs of the product tripod. Even when possible, it’s often inefficient to maintain such a status as an individual. As Steve Jobs articulated in this interview quote, only though collaboration with those in other disciplines can the full menu of product design be available, and only when considering the whole experience can product design fulfill its potential:
“We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,” Mr. Jobs replied. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. ... That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started. This is what customers pay us for – to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”
When building BOBJ’s UX team, I needed to walk on eggshells to build trust while introducing a new and unusual topic to an engineering-oriented company. Working on large-scale, disruptive ideas like LAVA in the more mature SAP required being somewhat of an agitator, with a more invasive and, at times, aggressive approach. If a passive-aggressive response is encountered where collaborative access is not granted, and constructive reasons are not given as to why, it becomes necessary to apply pressure by other means, such as gathering more convincing evidence or, in extreme cases, by escalating propositions to a management level where entrenched local interests are subservient to overall business success.
By all means you need to accept and consider feedback. But if, when pressed, others cannot satisfy your curiosity with good reasons for why your idea might not work, keep pushing until you are convinced to change – but maintain the discipline of critical design to resist the delusion that you are always right. The art of developing an idea is this precise struggle between your vision and any outside evidence and opinions. Any idea not garnering fierce resistance from somewhere is not likely very innovative. If you are not failing or making enemies somewhere, you are probably not being ambitious enough.
Encountering resistance to LAVA made it, and me, stronger. It forced me to articulate in words what those with less time or imagination did not understand by merely seeing the images and examples I had provided. It forced me to analyze what the initial designs were truly doing, and why they were better. Although the delay cost the company valuable time, the effort itself was a worthwhile act of analysis, a breaking down of the design language into a set of smaller, digestible pieces. These results not only made the designs easier for others to adopt, but now serve as the foundation for the explanations in this book. Rather than serving as a showcase of cool new work, LAVA is rather the result of an exercise in finding the natural joints within a large topic, and then cutting along those joints so as to isolate, understand, and synthesize the parts back into a more lucid whole.
Following on from my initial case of impressionist painting is this, more modern example from George Lucas’ first screening of an early Star Wars cut to his key stakeholders, which included directing giant Brian de Palma:
As recounted in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — Peter Biskind’s wonderfully tawdry history of the Golden Age of cinema, the 1970s — Lucas held the cut together with footage of airplane dogfights pulled from old World War II films. As the lights came up in the San Francisco screening room, the movie was met with nothing but embarrassed silence. According to Biskind, Lucas’ then wife, Marcia, was in tears.
Over Chinese food that night, de Palma pulled no punches. “The crawl at the beginning looks like it was written on a driveway. It goes on forever. It’s gibberish,” he told Lucas. “The first act? Where are we? Who are these fuzzy guys? Who are these guys dressed up like the Tin Man from Oz? What kind of a movie are you making here? You’ve left the audience out. You’ve vaporized the audience.”
De Palma was dead right. And yet, when the movie opened on May 25, 1977, with the special effects and a rousing score pilfered from an old Ronald Reagan movie, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
If you are a UX designer, it’s OK to stick your nose into content and functionality issues, especially if your perspective is informed by research. Doing so enables you to address bigger problems with deeper solutions. If you are a product manager or developer, sit in on the design and user research sessions. Such integration requires tolerance, discipline, and trust to manage the greater number of cross-cultural interpersonal transactions and ideas, and management of the inevitable ego and turf issues, but doing so is the only way to achieve Apple-like results. It’s a cultural aspect of how work is done, and needs to be nurtured so as to avoid degradation into the universal, comfortable, default state of political and functional silos.
Computing is an appendage that provides us with an expanding capacity for quantitative rigor, an ability for which our minds are relatively weak. Before, the chokepoints to data access were related to technology shortcomings. Today, the bottleneck is defined by comprehension, relevance, and experience of the content presentation and consumption. If society is to fully benefit from this expanding opportunity, it requires a broader base of quantitative literacy, served by a more efficient quantitative vernacular. With this in place, numerical expressions will become a more fluid, integrated part of mainstream information consumption and decision-making. Color and motion are now virtually free of cost in our magic-ink device displays, primed for use in new ways to convey facts versus meaningless bling. Using design to put more life into numbers will be key to bringing these numbers to life.
24.0.1 Media Assets
L24.1 | CasaBOBJ (video) |
L24.2 | Hu Does Requirements? (pdf) |
L24.3 | Caroline Jou Armitage Photographs (images) |
24.1 | To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios (book) | Karen Paik | Chronicle Books
24.2 | The Inmates are Running The Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity (book) | Alan Cooper | Sams – Personal Education
24.3 | “And Another Thing…The Original Site is in German”: The Final Project in an International Business Consultancy (paper) | John Armitage | DUX ‘03 Proceedings of the 2003 conference on Designing for user experiences, Pages 1-15, ACM | http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=997107
24.4 | Sprint: Agile specifications in Shockwave and Flash (paper) | John Armitage, Tom Spitzer, Jack Hakim | DUX ‘03 Proceedings of the 2003 conference on Designing for user experiences, Pages 1-14 | ttp://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=997111
24.5 | IKEA Hackers (web) | www.ikeahackers.net
24.6 | Apple’s One-Dollar-a Year Man (web) | Steve Jobs | Fortune | http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_arc... index.htm
24.7 | The 35th Birthday of Star Wars? It Died 15 Years Ago (web) | Cade Metz | Wired, recounted from the film Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind | http://www.wired.com/2012/05/opinion-starwars/