Features Aren't A Measure Of Innovation

A fix to keep a door from clanging against an adjacent utility pole. Observed in Seoul, South Korea.

It’s too bad that the measure of results often must translate to quantities or business-y things, like numbers of meetings obtained or pages of PowerPoint presentations. Decanting often rich, qualitatively substantial ideas into boxes and “slides” and “decks” sloughs off so much richness that all that was learned often evaporates. The miscommunication is tragic in such instances. When asked for “the presentation”, I’ve taken to doing the electronic email version of a *shrug* — sorry, no “deck”. We can chat. I can send you some object-thing-embodiments-of-principles..if you like. If you want to stare at words, well..

The culture of PowerPoint is best described as a social disease. I don’t mean to gripe too much — it’s not a new thing, and it isn’t only a reaction to conditions as they exist for the Laboratory right now. The culture of the deck has been around us since the days at the advertising agencies and brand marketing agencies during the last cycle — where there were entire departments who did nothing but make presentation decks. Ugh. Can you imagine?

The Measure of Reality has been an obsession since I fully comprehended the made-up nature of reality, I suppose while thinking about the social and cultural parameters of science while over-educating myself. It’s good stuff — I’m not complaining — and it makes it positively frustrating at times to communicate something where you know that everything depends on how you communicate and not only the idea living in your head. No matter how much you believe in it, you have to materialize it in such a way that other people believe in it, too. You need to enroll people in your vision to the degree that they suit up and follow.

In the world of things the Laboratory works on — weird gizmos, gadgets and devices — this becomes particularly difficult when the basis for describing a design-led vision avoids touching on technology-specific features. For some reason lists of features are legible to accountants and engineers who often have the keys to the car and decide what gets done. Here, we wouldn’t offer something up that starts with a bit of technical kit — an augmented reality sensor array or whatever — and then build around that. We would start with a peculiar people-centric platform of experience — say, an otherworldly city guide as we did for the first analog edition of the Drift Deck and as Laboratory Associate Platinum Class Jon Bell is doing for the second digital edition of the Drift Deck. Our conceit has been that experiences for people offer a richer, more meaningful and legible way of creating new stuff. Innovating, only not by stacking lists of features and parts and stuff — but at least by starting with ways of creating opportunities and experiences that lead people in new, unexpected directions. That make space for experiences that go beyond expectation. Basically creating new user experiences. I don’t think you do that just by creating new features and bolting on new technologies.

When I first wrote the draft of this post, it came to mind when the folks at Tenyagroup asked permission to use a photo (that wasn’t even mine, but whatever..) I looked at their short article and found it intriguing. At one point they say:

..great brands change the game by changing the customer, not by changing the product. They become new platforms of opportunity for a new kind of customer, freshly empowered.

Those are weird words not really in the Laboratory lexicon, but somehow it makes sense. The “changing the customer” part might be stated plainly as: offering new sorts of interaction rituals and behaviors. Merely adding a bit of technology does not translate that technology into a necessarily compelling experience. It’s back to the doorknobs joke — if you can’t translate the technology into terms and experiences legible to a normal human, you’ve just stacked yet another unnecessary ornamentation on top of everything else.

This is all swirling around an argument not to design for features lists.

For brand builders, the following definitions of “features” might be useful:

Feature – Evidence of unfinished design.
Feature – The absence of brand vision.
Feature – Fear of freeing the customer–and raising him/her to the next level.
Feature – Footprint of the committee: more is less. As a rule, good design minimizes features and maximizes customers.

(inspiration via http://tenayagroup.com/blog/2009/02/21/customers-drive-brand-growth-not-features/)

Why do I blog this? This has been sitting in the Drafts pile for 18 months and I felt it was time to just post it before it got lost to some kind of data backup failure. But, I am continuing to hunt down ways of putting design-for-people as a guiding principle ahead of just adding meaningless features. Sometimes I see ideas from powerful decision-making people that basically lists the technologies du jour as specifications for what should be made. It’s infuriating — which is entirely my fault. I wish I had the techkwondo to flip that for real, and do so in an elegant way that helps people see the trouble of trying to stick doorknobs on everything they see. Also — trying to cohere some thoughts and scraps for the upcoming Device Design Day later this month.
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The Week Ending 050210


Looking back on the calendar to see what notes I have from the week ending last week and poking through the notesbook, the thing that stands out is an engaging discussion with Kurt that, as it turns out, was about communicating ideas. You know *how do you enroll someone into your conversation and evolve intellect into action and materializations? Originally planned as a meeting to share with him the material of the project itself, we ended up spending the two+ hours talking about various strategies to make an idea compelling to someone who is perhaps not entirely inclined to ingest a rather unusual project, with (*quite potentially) rich implications. In an organization with the inertia of a planetary body, shifting trajectory and adjusting priorities is an epic task. (*With, here, only modest expectations here as to doing this, and certainly not alone.)

The conversation obviously perpetuated thinking about the theater, drama and story telling techniques that can benefit from a mix of design and fiction. How do you tell the story of *Trust through exemplars first rather than the usual front-first build up. As a story, could it be more intriguing to start *at the police line-up, for instance, tell the story as a knot of associations, linkages, encounters, coincidences — in other words, show the Latourian *knot and then walk folks through its unknotting — it’s *denouement? More of a story than a linear, beginning-to-end explanation. Do you start with the outcome, in the form of peculiar, confusing, provocative *evidence/*objects/*exemplars and tell the story backwards? Doing so could certainly begin to shift the conversation, to be a provocation that is not the ordinary tale that one sees in the usual suspect — mundane, boring, creaky, poorly crafted, baroquely illegible PowerPoints?

And then the *prototypes shift more into the role of *props — behaving as a different sort of story telling device. Somewhere along this rough continuum are *canonical prototypes (doing as they do, to test a proposition, idea, technique or technology), *diegetic prototypes (David A. Kirby’s formulation for ideas run through a story, simultaneously achieving their function to contribute to conversations about science, for example, that exist outside of/alongside of the film’s story, as well as serving a role as a bit of narrative glue in the film itself), and *props as used in films that serve no specific function except insofar as they help move the story of the film along (as in the Macguffin which need not be anything particular or have a legible meaning or function outside of anything except the film — the suitcase that all the characters want, for some reason we need not worry about — so long as our characters create drama that is the final source of enjoyment of the film.)

An exciting consideration that requires as much consideration, crafting, production as telling a good story. But, also — as difficult, if not more so, I am certain. What we’re ultimately trying to do is turn good intellect into something more than just that. The communication should be more than a rejuvinating *brown bag lunch chat. It should call people and things to action.

Weeknotes and <a HREF="weeknotes

The Week Ending 220110

Sunday January 24 14:01

What one finds house hunting in Los Angeles and coming across one owned by a Hollywood set designer. Also looking at the same moment, a demure, polite and inquisitive actress vaguely recognized and thence confirmed to be the nitty Shannon from season one of Lost.

Diligent weeknotes are already eluding me. Perhaps because it was a short week last week and I wasn’t in the studio until Thursday. Nevertheless — mostly a couple of days of dusting off the desk and considering what remained to finish from the previous year and continue on into the new one.

Project Trust achieved its milestone late last year and the last couple of days last week were spent assessing it’s 2010 tributaries — where and to who does it get shared? How to distil what has been learned both in practical terms as well as in the very intriguing, curious *meta* terms such as — what did we learn about how to design in such a way as to achieve unexpected, new, perhaps innovative things? What about the friction of design that hones and reshapes and burnishes a nascent idea into a new, curious, future form that moves away from the hum-drum expected outcomes? What about the style of communication, which has moved away from PowerPoint / Keynote into visual stories? What is that and how can it be informally formalized as a new way of sharing ideas that, for the time being, while this style is still new — shock, excite and awe people into becoming fervent allies and help turn that idea into its deserved material form.

So. Decisions made, for the most part, about what prototypes find their way downstream, or up-the-ladder, or to new lands. Movies blocked and storyboarded, or at least decided upon. That was those two days last week.
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