Reality vs. Theory
This is a great thread. It's a very broad (and deep) set of issues
that play into product, software, and system development, and it's (in
my opinion) almost entirely impossible to adequately discuss them
within the limited constraints of an email list like this. A true
conferencing system like The WELL is about a 1000% percent better
(having been there myself for 15 years), but I realize that not
everyone's going to be on a system like that, and so we have to make do
with email lists like this (or clunky, slow, web-based systems like
QuickTopic, which are only slightly better).
I agree in large part with many of the points Andrei makes (and has
been making for a long time). Most of all, I just like Andrei's
spirit. We need a hell of a lot more like him, I think.
I'd like to try and outline some of where I see theory and the things
I've heard promised for over fifteen years have fallen short (and due
to acceleration are falling even further and further behind what really
needs to be happening).
Part of the advantage of having been a consulting designer in product
and interaction design for 22 years, is that you get to hear things
that people in the field say, and then see how they actually pan out as
the years go by. ( I can hear hundreds of you now going, "Okay, here
goes the old dude again...") But it is truly amazing at how *little*
the conversation and issues have changed since at least around 1988 or
1989. Researchers and those interested in "user research,"
"anthropological research," "usability," "user testing," and various
methodologies and models have been saying many of the same things for
*years*. It was stated (in so many words) at BayCHI meetings in 1990
that "research was close to solving the problems of designing good
interaction. I was pretty skeptical of this, having known how little
resources most companies devote to projects, and the amount of effort
it took just to get any design conceived and implemented, using very ad
hoc and minor testing along the way.
Now I'm not saying that having excellent research (e.g.: knowing one's
market or competitors - if these exist, understanding how people live
and work and use things, or behave in specific or general environments,
etc.) isn't important or valuable. It is! A lot. And iterative
testing is also valuable.
However, and this is what nobody seems to want to acknowledge, and it's
been like this forever, and probably will be - corporate environments
have all these very deeply ingrained behaviors, structures, and
hierarchies - all of which conspire to work against rapid and
integrated incremental design and improvement - *LET ALONE* deep or
revolutionary innovation (even when the corporation's life might
actually depend upon it).
So, what we hear in our field goes something like, "This is the 'best
practices' way to go about User-Centered Design, and corporations need
to understand this." The term "User-Centered Design" is, to me, very
similar to phrases like "Family Values." It's a feel-good term,
mostly. Hey, who can be against "User-Centered Design"?!"
In reality, and I *know* this from having been a consultant to dozens
of enormous corporations, coming in primarily at the Director of V.P.
level over many years (where you can actually manage to get a lot
pushed though with somewhat less political hassle) - things have
accelerated greatly. In 1990 I consulted on projects that might last
one to one-and-a-half years from beginning to end. This was generally
the design and development stage. I worked on medical equipment that
was designed over six years, and some small handhelds that had software
and infrastructural systems that took a year to iteratively design.
Even back then, we had only relatively small budgets (this went for
most companies, either small startups or large ongoing corporations)
and few people.
As the 1990s progressed, these cycle times began to compress. By the
mid-1990s, product development cycles were down to less than a year -
perhaps 6 months to 1 year. This meant longer hours. What it didn't
mean (necessarily) were larger budgets or more people, or more
resources to do more research, etc.. By the late 1990s, this
development cycle was compressed even further (are you beginning to
understand why I haven't had much time to kick back and write and
communicate about these projects?!).
Nowadays, I go into clients (I'm currently consulting to one client
that is a $3B multinational corporation) that want completely new
innovative products designed in - get this - about two to three months!
And would you like to know what kind of resources a company like this
puts on a project of that importance? I'll describe a generic, but
representative example: a consumer electronics company of this size
might (I've seen it) assign a team of about three internal UX people -
a person who's got a few years experience, mostly with designs within a
narrow range, and maybe understands quite a bit about what he'd *like*
to do as far as research, a graphics production designer, and a coder.
They're given almost *NO* time (again, let's assume the corporation
wants this ready to build in two to three months), very little budget,
or the necessary time to iteratively develop and test it. Now not only
are these constraints placed on this internal group, *but* they're
*ALSO* expected to continue putting out all the little design fires
that are occurring daily in the corporation. I could not count the
number of corporations (ones you've heard of) that had very tiny
UX/Design groups that spent almost all of their time running from
project to project, doing what I call "Drive-Through Window" design.
"D'ya want fries with that?"
I've seen this again and again and again. This, my friends, is the
actual reality of the corporate world of product and software.
Researchers and people in the UX, IA, IxD, and all other acronym-laden
fields can talk until they're blue in the face, and from now until
kingdom come, and corporations are going to continue on the way they
Well, most true innovation occurs at the startup phase. You get a
small group of people like those that started Palm back in the
mid-1990s. Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky, Rob Haitani, and a few others
were able, without much interference, to *see clearly* and in an
unencumbered manner, develop a truly innovative and simple product that
did what many others were failing to do.
The Apple Newton was brought up in a recent thread as an example of
something that didn't work. Well, this occurred during a *NON-STEVE
JOBS PERIOD*. Take a look at Apple today - it's a completely different
*kind* of corporation than it was when the Newton was developed.
Today, the reason Apple succeeds is that the champion and lead designer
in the company *is* the CEO himself! They are not, like so many other
companies that use the rear-view mirror to guide themselves - Product
Marketing-Driven. They are *VISION-DRIVEN.* This is why they succeed.
This is why Apple is able, successfully and consistently, to actually
manage to integrate all the various things that make up it's products'
many interrelated and complimentary qualities. This in turn leads to a
mystique, and that mystique then leads to and reinforces the cult.
Apple is a wonder to behold.
And yet most corporations just don't get this.
Most corporations insist that their "processes" and their "team
intelligence" and all sorts of other buzzwords and fads and promises
will do the heavy lifting. Will actually be able to get the rubber to
really meet the road.
I would argue that even more incremental, evolutionary design
improvement isn't really working for us today. The vast majority of it
is feature-creep driven Product Marketing. Design, in the vast majority
of companies, is buried under either Marketing or Engineering. Both
have their advantages and both have their drawbacks, but neither is
capable of doing what Apple does - which is to have Design at the very
top of the vision heap.
As I've stated in numerous other forums - the day that the emails and
inter-office communication can flow between teammembers at the speed at
which neurons in a single, experienced designer's brain can fire and
arrive at a vision - then *that* day will be the day that group
processes are truly capable of outperforming the singular integrated
vision (or the very small, corporately unencumbered team, which is even
Corporations aren't giving more time for research and anthropological
understanding, and when they are - it's through the Product Marketing
departments. This, while informative, is almost never easily
integrated (in the time allowed by today's accelerated development
cycles) into an actual, successfully implemented product.
And that's pretty much just with products that *already exist* and are
in the process of being evolved and refined. If you want to get into
the issues surrounding corporations that need to move to an entirely
new type of product or integrate in whole new forms of technology and
social usage, well then it's even *more* unlikely that their corporate
cultures will allow for the kind of "startup" mentality and approach
that can actually produce those kinds of successes.
So there you have it - these are the realities as I've watched them
evolve since the 1980s. It's accelerating every single day. If you're
a person inside a corporation, ask yourself if this isn't exactly
what's going on. I've seen these realities again and again, and
unfortunately, the types of research methodologies, best practice
design processes, and everything else that's discussed (and cussed) ad
infinitum on this and in other forums just aren't addressing the actual
realities and constraints that exist in the real world.
And yet we *desperately need* to have both better products, and more
and more new and innovative products and systems, integrating more and
more new technologies to provide more and more useful functions and
capabilities for more people.
What we need to do is get back to a "Design Culture." We need to
recognize that it *is* the designers themselves, taking risks, working
intuitively, combining and discussing their experiences, and comparing
and showing their real world projects and successes and failures that
will serve us much better than the way our field is organized today and
for the last fifteen to twenty years.
Design is not simply a "job." Design is, as I was taught, a *sacred
profession.* It is designers that must see, perceive, envision, and
produce holistic and well-grounded solutions. I bristle when I hear
the dogmatic myth that "designers aren't real people, and as such,
can't produce solutions intutitively." This is complete hogwash! Many
designers can and *DO* design in exactly that way, and it's generally
these efforts that produce the disruptive and new ideas that others
then spend years or decades refining, extending, bloating, and
I salute each and every one of you that goes into the trenches every
day and fights the good fight! Each one of you is a hero to the cause.
Each one of you must fight to keep and implement your visions. Every
designer must strive to learn as much as he or she can about the other
issues related to the corporation and development - business as it's
really run, intellectual property and patenting, software programming
and manufacturing, and as much as you can beyond just IxD. Only then,
when you've learned enough of those other areas, will you truly be
empowered to stand up in corporate meetings and have the substance to
drive these ever-accerating fast-track projects in the right
directions, and in the small amount of time and tiny budgets that
corporations will forever devote to them.
It's clobbering time, folks. In fact, it's never been more that way
than now. Every one of you that's a designer, is in my opinion, a true
hero for our time. Let's get to it. And let's hear your stories, your
struggles, your failures, and most of all - your triumphs. We all need
so much more than ideas and theories. We need to inspire each other
and lead ourselves. The world is waiting, and it's *never* going to be
as perfect as the theories and processes have been promising - forever.
We just have to do it.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
James Leftwich, IDSA
131 Hawthorne Avenue, Suite F
Palo Alto, California 94301
jleft at orbitnet.com