Design and Business – The skills you’ll need in the future

I recently ran across the fantastic short film “Design the New Business” which you can watch online. It talks about the trials and tribulations designers and business people go through when they work together in new ways to solve challenging problems facing businesses today (sounds familiar?). In particular, I really appreciate the fact that it covers business and designers outside the US: The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, UK, which in my opinion gives a much broader perspective on the state of design nowadays.

Few key points that stroke a chord with me:

1) Fail to Learn

Days of designing in the vacuum are gone. We need to experiment – see what works and what doesn’t work as early as possible so we can switch and adapt. We as designers have to change and find new ways to do things. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to create value for people, and for our partners and customers. Also, we need to realize that design isn’t linear (which becomes pretty obvious in multi-modal projects), meaning solutions nowadays have to consider different users, with various needs and lifestyles, as well as external systems we all need to interact with.

2) Skills for the Future

What skills will we need in this new world? How do we stay relevant and demonstrate the value of design to businesses? Fact is aesthetics are no longer enough. Any company that just worries about redesigns, improvements and optimizations is not going to survive for very long. Aesthetics are but just one outcome of the design process. Pure observations without interpretation are useless. And because it is as much about numbers as it is about users, social insights and understanding should be feeding the design so that it concentrates on creating something new, that satisfies the needs and desires of users, that yields an engaging experience that fulfill their expectations, while at the same time making sure they have a positive impact on our customer’s business bottom-lines.

3) The Era of Service Design and Innovation

Prices and Products are easily imitated, so I guess the key form of differentiation for us [Virgin] moving forward will be experience innovation.

Applying proven solutions from the past to new problems doesn’t work anymore because problems are now different (please read as – “VUI design solutions we’ve implemented in the past might not work anymore!!!). The solution that allows you to think differently is Design. One interesting way of thinking mentioned in the book is that during design, we should start by exploring multiple solutions and problems, and that the last thing we should define is the problem we’re trying to solve, to make sure we identify the right one to pursue. On this point, I feel that we very often rush to identify the problem with the [fill in the blank - requirement, prompt, grammar, text, code, etc.] instead of taking a step back and exploring the universe of solutions and problems.

And of course, design cannot happen in isolation anymore; designers now have to work with cross-functional teams, that take into account lots of variables, until the design reaches a good level of maturity and is ready to go out into the world.

Finally, here are some links for further reading based on some of the things discussed throughout the movie:

Enjoy, and would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas, your experiences, etc.

Can IVRs change their bad reputation?

We’ve all have heard the horror stories about poorly design systems as well as seen people’s reactions whenever the topic of self-service automation and IVRs come up. Let’s be honest, businesses deploy automated solutions to reduce their costs, and customers that are aware of this, see automation as a reflection of poor service and lack of interest from the business in taking care of them.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most systems are referred to as “IVR jails”, business are created with the simple purpose of finding ways for users to bypass those systems or speed up the process until they can reach a human being (like the now defunct Bringo).

That’s why I found the FastCompany article on “Baby-Carrots – The New Junk Food” so interesting and thought provoking.

They talk about how the image of a food that is perceived as a health alternative to junk food (read “boring”) could be transformed into its exact nemesis: the new junk food.

What was their recipe?
1)    Find similarities – they are neon orange, dippable and addictive
2)    Stop trying to go against the flow (no more advocating its health benefits) or attempt to make it “cool”, and instead find a way to get it into a different category altogether
3)    Change its presentation – make it easier to obtain (checkout lane) and consume (vending machines, snack packs)

This made me think, is there a way a similar recipe could be applied to IVRs? Can we make them the new human? Here are a few thoughts:

1)    Find similarities where automated and human-based service flow together
Think about supermarkets. If you opt for the regular checkout lane, a human clerk helps scan and bag your articles, yet after that process ends, you’re “forced” to turn to the little box right by the counter so you can “self-service” yourself for the payment portion of the interaction. Therefore, if you opt instead for the self-service checkout lane, you’re nor replacing a human lane but rather just the human scanning and bagging process. Why do some people like the latter option? Because it is efficient and gives you full control.
Switching to the IVR world, imagine having a process where you could select to use the IVR or a human being to collect your order details, yet at the end your only option was to use a self-service payment process. I think a setup like this would present the same opportunities for users, and makes me wonder how many would opt for 100% self-service because of the same efficiencies and control over the interaction

2)    Stop trying to go against the flow
Similarly, we as designed often attempt to make our systems “cool” or spend a lot of energy trying to convince users about the benefits of self-service. Are there any ways we could get IVRs into a different category altogether? What about entertainment? Can we let users share more easily to turn them into a social media network? Could this simply be a problem with perception? Most users don’t complain about completing transaction on the web or via mobile apps, yet those interactions are fully self-served (many users press “0” as soon as they hear an automated greeting, yet almost no one reaches a website trying to find the “chat now” button)

3)    Change its presentation
I believe this is definitively the future, and we can already see some glimpses of it – systems that intercept data calls and convert them into visual interactions that are a combination of mobile apps and visual IVR trees, or systems that accept verbal input and interpret a user’s request (think “how much have I spent in pet food this year?”) to then present the information in a visual and graphical way

Do you want fries with that?

Design with Intent to Avoid Errors

Interesting how the world around us can teach us many design lessons. In particular, I spent some time with my family in the California area, where I had a chance to experience design without intent.

This happened at a sea-themed park where after watching some shows and enjoying some rides I started noticing the overwhelming amount of “Do not” messages all around me — “do not put the hands inside the tank”, “do not let the children sit in the fountains”, “this is not a bench”, etc. — which really made me think about whether the original designers considered how their creations would be used in the real world, or if they simply had to craft “error recovery” strategies afterwards once they saw how people were using (and abusing) their original creations.

And not only that, but I also ran across an interesting design choice which even my 5 year old couldn’t completely understand. We were on a ride that allows you to move up and down using a simple lever. Here’s a snapshot of it:

The interesting part is that before the ride started, the prerecorded announcement instructed users that in order to go up, you needed to pull the lever down, and that if you wanted to go down, you simply needed to release the lever. My son, after looking at the shape and freedom of the joystick (8 directions), went for the obvious choice and attempted to pull it up to go up, and push it down to go down, unfortunately that had the exact opposite effect — pulling it up didn’t trigger the switch so the ride would go down (same behavior as releasing it), and pushing it down triggered it so the ride would go up.

I can understand how sometimes technical limitations force you into making certain choices, but I think this is a great example of how form should follow function — if the lever goes up and down, each position should perform an action, and if you can only support one action, then why not changing the lever for something that would look more like an on/off switch? Maybe a big button you can push? On the other hand, I’m amazed by how nobody has suggested the “crazy” idea of simply rotating the lever! Pulling it up would trigger the action (go up) and pushing it down will not trigger any action which is the same thing as releasing it (go down)

Not surprisingly, this same park had all sort of issues in other places where the shapes, colors, materials, sizes, etc. used in their design triggered all sorts of undesirable results: confusion, premature wear, graffiti, and an overwhelmingly amount of “do not” messages (both visual and audible) in a sad attempt to revert those behaviors.

The Golden Circle – How to inspire users

I was recently listening to a talk by Simon Sinek about how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. His premise is pretty simple yet very powerful, and can be better understood by looking at his “Golder Circle” and its three layers: The core “why” (the cause), the middle “how” (the value proposition) and the external “what” (products or services).

He discovered that leaders (both individuals as well as companies) think, act and communicate in the exact opposite way (or direction) than everyone else, starting with the “why” instead of the “what” as mostly everyone else does. When you start from the outside, you deal with reasons and logic with the hope of triggering a reaction. But when you start from the inside, you deal with emotions and beliefs which drive decision making and then simply use the facts and data as justification.

The power behind this idea is that communicating and interacting with others that share your belief (the “why”), you trigger gut decisions that change behaviors. At that point, the “what” becomes somewhat irrelevant.

Thinking about this in the concept of prompt design, I realized that most prompts follow the same uninspiring sequence of what-how-why where we first tell users what it is that’s going to happen, how they are going to interact, only to hope that they understand our reasons and play along with the system — so we shouldn’t be surprised if users push back and run for the operator option.

Does this seem familiar?

“Please listen carefully to the following choices (what) before making a selection (how)(why).”

I think that by inverting the order on some of these prompts, we can connect with users more easily. If you notice, some of the latest pre-transfer designs already follow a similar phrasing structure:

“So that I can transfer to the right person (why) please tell me (how) what’s the reason for your call (what)

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that these types of prompts have much higher acceptance rates.

Think about it. If you combine this concept with the new age of transparency, why can’t companies and their systems be up front and say “We believe that you should decide how to interact with us. We believe in using technology to reduce our costs so we can pass the savings to you and our self-service solutions reflect that. So please tell me, what can I help you with?”

SpeechTEK – Multimodal Interaction Design Slides

I just realized that for some reason the digital handout for my presentation isn’t available on SpeechTEK’s site.
While I sort that out, I though about proactively posting the deck for anyone wanting to download a copy.

The session is entitled “Lessons in Multimodal Interaction Design”, and particularly, the topic I’m going to cover is “The Coexistence of IVRs and Small Screens”. If you’re attending SpeechTEK, I would love to have you join us tomorrow, August 3rd, at session D203 from 1:45 pm – 2:30 pm.

See you there!

The importance of irrelevant choices

I was recently watching a presentation from Dan Ariely regarding the nature of human decision making and how we all are “predictably irrational”. The example I found most interesting and relevant was a little experiment he ran based on an ad for the Economist magazine and the various subscription choices it offered.

Here’s the setup; suppose you’re offered three options:

1) Digital edition: $59
2) Print edition: $125
3) Print AND Digital edition: $125

Which would you pick?





Well, he found that 84% of respondents chose option number 3 (combo), 16% preferred option number 1 (digital only), and no one selected option 2 (print only). Which did you choose?

Now, considering those numbers, option 2 is irrelevant to users, hence can be removed, right?






(by now you probably know this is a tricky question). He did exactly that and repeated the experiment with the two remaining choices. It just so happens that after doing that, 68% of respondents chose option 1! Even though we could all argue that it was the obvious (less expensive) choice, the interesting part is that the previous option 2 – the one that no one chose – made a huge difference on people’s choice.

This really made me think in terms of UI design. We often find ourselves trying to define which elements belong in a menu, how to order them, and which items to remove/replace with others more “relevant”.

Should we blindly assume that choices with no or very little usage have no impact on the remaining choices? Is there a way we can improve the performance of all “relevant” choices by adding irrelevant ones as part of the set? Could it be that our brains are better tuned to compare choices in pairs so that when two out of three options are easy to compare we tend to make that comparison and chose one of those options, even if by doing that we end up ignoring a third choice even if it aligns closer to our goals and priorities?

Very interesting stuff. Here’s the full session for your viewing pleasure:

Are designers really necessary?

The role of “experience” designers and “user interface” designers has been much harder to justify than other designer disciplines such as graphic design or industrial design.

For that reason, I find it interesting that the topic of value added by designers has been coming up more and more often, particularly when customers are pretty adamant about designing systems/interactions themselves simply because they “know the business” or have been doing maintenance on an existing system “for a long time”.

Even amongst peers there has been debate recently about whether the industry has been either making systems “hard to build” in an attempt to retain control over those systems and to create dependency (aka. keep the money flowing) or not being as diligent when it comes to educating customers and allowing them to maintain their systems themselves.

In my opinion, I don’t think there any sort of industry conspiracy going on nor I see designers making things harder than they need to justify their jobs or to serve a hidden agenda.

I think part of the problem relies on the fact that our profession isn’t as well defined or as structured as other design professions, meaning that in our midst we have linguists, psychologists, engineers, designers, sociologists, cognitive scientists, human factors practitioners, etc. that even though share similar goals, can tackle a problem from very distinct approaches, with their own processes and even “vocabulary” which can explain some of the confusion customers might experience.

I think the other culprit is the current economic environment. Companies might be inclined to pick one technology over another simply based on cost, not on customer experience or interaction capabilities. Furthermore, companies are squeezing their budgets as much as they can while trying to keep more control over their projects.

I’m convinced that if they could design the solutions themselves, they probably would, but the truth is they simply can’t. But they don’t realize they can’t! So that’s where I think designers like us come into play to help them learn about our design processes and methodologies in a way that they may be confident enough to contribute, which in return allows designers to obtain very rich feedback out of them.

I really liked the way Mark Baskinger explained the differences he sees between industrial designers and interaction designers:

“[Customers] may think they are directing, but really what they are doing is learning, and as a designer we’re interpreting their direction as sort of boundaries, wishes and desires we can operate within to really challenge the opportunity and do some really good design.”

I think that if designers are conscious about this situation and continue to play the role of sounding boards that customers can leverage to bounce ideas off of, help plan strategies and the guide them through the process, the ones that will benefit the most are the ones that really keep us all in business — our users.

Seductive Design and Humor

Sense of HumorI was recently asked about the presence of humor in IVR applications. To be honest with you, I haven’t ran across too many of those, other than the one implemented at Travelocity. One of their menu choices is to hear a gnome joke. On top of it, they allowed user participation by inviting people to submit jokes. You can hear it by dialing 888.Travelocity, say ”No on the first prompt, and then say gnome joke of the day.

Aside from the entertainment aspect of this type of design, I realized that the same question seems to be popping around in other aspects of User Interface Design. It seems many designers are transitioning from a notion of “self service or “automation to one of “user experience and “engagement.

In particular, I’ve seen a special type of emphasis on designers trying to marry appeal with usability. Some studies have shown that first impressions have a longer lasting effect than initially thought, and that it not only affects someone’s willingness to try the system but also to push through usability barriers, ending up in a more satisfying experience.

Interestingly enough, in the case of websites, researchers found that users rate high appeal as more interesting, easier to use, easier to navigate, more accurate, more trustworthy, and overall more satisfying than a low appealing counterpart (even if their usability is superior). Hence designers are arguing that aspects of psychology and human behavior such as persuasion should be (and are being) added to all designs (digital and physical).

Think about some of the things you know about people: they like to interact, they like to be entertained, they are curious, etc.

So, how can you leverage that? For example, if we focus on the notion of being funny and playful, they’ve found that humor and surprises can be addictive and exciting, increasing the desire of a user to use a system and to be more forgiving towards unexpected situations (I recently talked about the use of humor in error messages).

Who hasn’t seen twitter’s fail whale?

Or what about or flickr’s “error page” which you could color and send back to enter a contest for a Pro account?

I’ll argue that there’s definitively value in humor, but that humor for humor sake should not the intent. We should rather focus on how to improve the experience and make the interactions more “sticky” by carefully planning how to infuse our designs with elements like humor. Some designers like Andy Budd are calling this “Seductive Design”.

Below you’ll find the video and slides of one of his recent presentations which I found extremely fascinating. Enjoy!

Interface Design Lessons From The World Around Us