Putting People First

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September 2006
28 September 2006

No more SMS from Jesus: ubicomp, religion and techno-spiritual practices

Prayer times application
In a reflective and insightful paper, Dr. Genevieve Bell, a highly respected anthropologist and director of user experience at Intel, analyses the use of technology to support religious practices.

Bell argues that “the ways in which new technologies are delivering religious experiences represent the leading edge of a much larger re-purposing of the internet in particular, and of computational technologies more broadly, that has been underway for some time.”

“We need to design a ubiquitous computing not just for a secular life, but also for spiritual life, and we need to design it now!” she claims. “In no small part, this sense of urgency is informed by an awareness of the ways in which techno-spiritual practices are already unfolding; it is also informed by a clear sense that the ubicomp infrastructures we are building might actively preclude important spiritual practices and religious beliefs.”

She adds that, despite the fact “there are few other practices or shaping narratives [as religion] that impact so much of humanity”, there has been up till now “an ideological and rhetorical separation of religion and technology”, which says a lot about “the implicit understanding of the kinds of cultural work” that technology should enable. Instead Bell positions: “If it is indeed the case, that religion is a primary framing narrative in most cultures, and then religion must also be one of the primary forces acting on people’s relationships with and around new technologies – one could go as far as to suggest that there can be no real ubiquitous computing if it does not account for religion.”

The anthropological research the paper is “informed by”, took place in urban settings in India, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, Indonesia and Australia. Bell relied on “a range of ethnographic methods and methodologies, including participant observation, semi-structured interviews, ‘deep hanging-out, and genealogies of ICTs to explore life in one hundred very different Asian households.”

The paper ends with two short scenarios that she wrote “as part of a
corporate exercise to develop a future vision for user-centered computing in 2015.”

The paper was published in P. Dourish and A. Friday (Eds.): Ubicomp 2006, LNCS 4206, pp. 141 – 158, 2006, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2006.

Since it is not clear where you can download the paper, but Bell herself sent it out to the public anthrodesign Yahoo! email group with 853 subscribers, I consider it to be part of the public domain and re-post it here (pdf, 216 kb, 18 pages).

28 September 2006

My customer, my co-innovator

“Involving customers in the innovation process can add value to new product designs,” writes Michael Schrage, codirector of the MIT Media Lab’s e-Markets Initiative, in Strategy+Business.

“In industry after industry, a shared model for innovation adoption is emerging. The most valuable ‘platforms’ — the tools and technologies used internally to discover, design, and test new products and services — can be creatively and cost-effectively sold or lent to customers, clients, and prospects. Customers get a chance to ‘try before they buy.’ They can adopt and test new ideas and technologies before investing in them. And the purveyors of new technologies rapidly gain insights into the potential value of their wares — insights that might otherwise take years to gather.”

This has lead to a “valuable cultural change: Technological innovators become far more aware of and empathetic to customer needs and constraints.”

The article then continues with a series of examples. Cisco Systems has developed customer design interaction platforms that allow to “conduct collaborative meetings in which prospects literally see and play out the architectural implications of their network priorities”. Procter & Gamble “has begun to share some of its computer modeling and market research techniques with Wal-Mart, Tesco, and other distribution channels.” And the Goldman Sachs derivatives group launched a series of free financial simulators.

Read full story

In an analysis of the Schrage article, Renee Hopkins Callahan writes in Corante’s Idea Flow blog that companies could obtain three types of value from such customer co-creation: in addition to the idea value (better design ideas), there is the insight value (a better insight in what customers actually want) and trust value (allowing your customers to co-create with you implies trust and is highly persuasive).

27 September 2006

Fab Labs deliver innovative solutions to local needs [Christian Science Monitor]

Fab Lab
Fab Labs are different than the myriad other nonprofit programs working to introduce technology to disadvantaged communities. The MIT professors who came up with the Fab Lab concept believed that rural villagers in India, sheep herders in Norway, and impoverished teens in the Pretoria township of Shoshanguve – anyone anywhere, really – could learn to create technology, as well as use it.

“The capabilities are there,” says Sherry Lassiter, program manager for MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, which developed the Fab Labs. “What we’re trying to do is to give them access to the knowledge and the tools.”

The labs are part of what the Center for Bits and Atoms believes is a trend toward widespread personal fabrication. This is the idea that, not long from now, individuals will be able to manufacture goods at home in the same way they now use personal computing.

The Fab Labs are filled with modern manufacturing equipment [and] show how personal fabrication can empower communities. Once people learn the basics of the Fab Labs’ computers and manufacturing equipment, they can start developing their own solutions to local problems.

In rural India, for instance, inventors at a Fab Lab are developing a machine to measure the fat content of milk and to sound an alarm when that milk is about to turn sour – important for local dairy farmers. In the mountains of Norway, the local Fab Lab inventors are developing a monitoring device for herders to put on sheep, which would give the animals’ location, body temperature, and other statistics. In Ghana, inventors are working on portable, hand-held solar panels to charge appliances such as televisions and refrigerators.

Read full story

26 September 2006

Yahoo! study on the internet, Family 2.0 and the 43-hour day [Reuters]

Family 2.0
While many a parent will lament there are not enough hours in the day, the simultaneous use of several technologies is allowing families to cram in 43 hours worth of activity from one sunrise to the next, a new study claims.

The survey by Yahoo Inc. and media buyer OMD untangled the overlapping use of the Internet, telephones, text messaging, radio and television during work and recreation hours for more than 4,700 adults in 16 countries, from the United States to Argentina and Taiwan.

According to an in-depth Yahoo! press release on the results of the research, entitled “”It’s a Family Affair: the Media Evolution of Global Families in a Digital Age,” the project “included in-home ethnographies and scrapbooks as well as a quantitative online survey. The in-home interviews and scrapbooks were conducted in New York, Wichita, San Diego, Toronto, Montreal, Mexico City, Sydney, Paris, London and Mumbai. Participants represented some common and emerging family types typical in those cities. The online survey was conducted with a total of 4,783 respondents aged 18+ in 16 countries in Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas.”

- Read Reuters article
Read Yahoo! press release

26 September 2006

BBC Radio interview with Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold
Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs, was interviewed by Robin Hamman for BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pods and Blogs.

According to Robin Hamman: “We talked about the common themes between his books, the differences between mobile phone and social software usage in the UK compared to the US, and participatory media”.

Click here to listen (The interview, which lasts about 10 minutes, starts at 26:30.)


26 September 2006

Ethnographic research on teens and brands

Super influencer
Starcom MediaVest Group (a subsidiary of the Publicis Group) and CNET Networks, Inc. revealed the results of an ethnographic study on teens and brands.

The extensive ethnographic youth study was aimed at “helping marketers understand how to reach today’s elusive population of 13- to 34-year-olds, responsible for $600 billion each year in consumer spending”.

The study set out to assess “how young people feel about brands, how they talk about them with friends, and how they take in, manipulate, and redistribute marketing messages”. In addition, the study identifies ‘brand sirens’, i.e. “the super-influencers of the youth market, including who they are, what they do, and how marketers can better reach them”.

Not surprisingly (in light of the sponsors), the study shows that “today’s young people care about the brands they use, talk often with their friends about brands, and like watching real-time television”.

- Read press release
Go to study website
Download presentation (pdf, 29.3 mb, 58 slides)

26 September 2006

New usability report on the online travel sector

Online travel
The UK usability firm Webcredible has published a usability white paper on the online travel sector, based on a comprehensive study of online flight booking services on 25 travel websites in June 2006.

Webcredible states that poor usability, including hidden charges, cumbersome search functions and booking forms that are hard to find, is driving away customers.

The company presents ten key guidelines to help online travel companies significantly improve the user experience and effectiveness of their website.

Though based on the online flight booking process, many of the guidelines are valuable and transferable to other online travel sectors, such as booking holidays, hotels or car hire.

Practical advice and examples of best practice are provided throughout the report.

- Read story
Go to download page

25 September 2006

Google’s VP of user experience makes cover of Newsweek

Marissa Meyer on Newsweek
Google’s Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products & user experience, makes the cover of Newsweek and is named one of the most powerful women of her generation.

Her home town paper gives her a write-up here: Wausau girl hits big-time, along with a large version of the Newsweek cover.

(via ValleyMag and SearchEngineWatch)

25 September 2006

Design intervention at Philips [Fast Company]

Philips' Ambilight TV
In a long, in-depth Fast Company feature article, Jennifer Rheingold tries to answer the question if Philips will “emerge as a shining example of an organization that fueled its renaissance with design, or as one that ultimately failed because it lost sight of its real objective?”. In the article she provides a detailed portrait of the Philips Design unit and its role within Philips in general.

“Mapping out just how it should function has fallen in large part to Andrea Ragnetti, Philips’s chief marketing officer, and Stefano Marzano, the longtime CEO and chief creative director of Philips Design, a freestanding unit with 450 staffers, a satchelful of prestigious awards, and an estimated annual budget of $250 million. Marzano has been tapped to unify the company through what it calls ‘simplicity-led design’. He wants to establish his design principles–the unity of form and function, ease of use, and, in Philips’s world, improving the consumer’s life–as an organizing framework for the entire company, from its corporate structure to the ways departments and executives communicate, right on up to the user interface on every electronic gizmo.” […]

“Marzano’s attempt to overhaul Philips through design is not just some right-brain fantasia. There is a method here, one that draws together the data-driven old guard, the truest of blue-sky thinkers, and everyone in between. Marzano has devoted his career to exploring meta-trends in society and has put that experience at the center of product development at Philips. So, where a company of this scale would typically rely on designers or engineers to generate ideas in-house and then force them into the market, at Philips the process starts out as macrofocused as possible.”

“It starts, in other words, with a mandate not to develop the next iPod but to assess what, exactly, would change consumers’ lives for the better, whether a lightbulb or a music player. Drawing on broad, proprietary sociocultural research, the group– a small army of designers, social scientists, cultural experts, and assorted brainiacs–might identify, for example, an emerging baby boom, a global water shortage, or a growing desire to spend more time at home. It then distills its research into a series of “personas,” each representing a group with like-minded interests, needs, and values–on child rearing, maybe, or the ideal home. Only then do designers and engineers try to imagine and build a series of products such a composite person might want.” […]

“Ragnetti established a new vetting process three years ago in which design, marketing, and technology evaluate each new product idea as a team at every stage of development–both to translate the big think for more-analytical types and to anchor that big think in reality.”

“Philips is also trying to better track the impact of design at the company. Now, design shares its broad-based research at every early meeting to ensure that each proposed product is backed up by a real “validated proposition,” in Philips jargon. This means it’s based not on a hypothesis about what people might desire but rather on hard research that shows what people actually desire. Since March, the company has been tracking the percentage of R&D funds spent on such propositions; products that are now “mission critical,” meaning one to two years from the market, must be tied to research or they will not go forward. And thousands of managers have had to be retrained to understand these new metrics.”

Read full story

24 September 2006

Internet’s future in 2020 debated [BBC]

The Internet in 2020
The internet will be a thriving, low-cost network of billions of devices by 2020, says a major survey of leading technology thinkers.

The Pew report on the future internet surveyed 742 experts in the fields of computing, politics and business.

More than half of respondents had a positive vision of the net’s future but 46% had serious reservations.

Almost 60% said that a counter culture of Luddites would emerge, some resorting to violence.

The Pew Internet and American Life report canvassed opinions from the experts on seven broad scenarios about the future internet, based on developments in the technology in recent years.

- Press coverage: BBC News | San Francisco Chronicle
Comment by Loïc Le Meur (Six Apart)
Read press release
Read fact sheet
Read report summary (pdf, 80.4 kb, 9 pages)
Project website “The future of the internet” (Elon University / Pew/Internet)

24 September 2006

Greater than the sum of its parts

Tom Coates: Greater than the sum of its parts
Last week Tom Coates of Yahoo!’s Tech Development group talked at the Future of Web Apps conference in San Francisco about how to generate systems and models wherein large groups of people can publically create something together that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s about Wikipedia, Flickr, “technologies of cooperation”, motives for social engagement, how to derive value from innumerable small contributions and what challenges this form of creation may be causing in a world of proprietary data.

- View web-optimised presentation
Download presentation (pdf, 75 mb)
Read presentation notes (written up by Marnie Webb)

23 September 2006

Ethnography and philanthropy: giving is aspiring

Ethnography and Philanthropy
If we take as the assumption that “modern American philanthropy is a consumer marketplace”, then “what, in consumer marketing terms, causes consumers to act; specifically to buy (in commercial terms) or to give?”

This is the starting question in an article written by Tom Watson, publisher of the free onPhilanthropy web publication.

“Can ethnographers help to create the perfect cause? And if nonprofits want to adopt this increasingly important area of social science to mimic their corporate cousins to design campaigns and causes based what anthropologists tell us what are the implications for philanthropy?”

“Clearly, if nonprofits are chartered to serve the public good, the pure creation of products to appeal to consumer interest runs counter to our mission. Those of us raising funds for nonprofits do so because those organizations do worthy things, not because we need to increase marketshare (as worthy a goal as that clearly is for corporations). The role of the consumer anthropologist in philanthropy becomes clearer, I think, when you peer inside an organization’s ongoing fundraising and communications. Here, within the structure of raising and spending funds for a cause, experimentation has been going on for many decades. Any nonprofit involved in a serious direct marketing program must test new methods of attaining donors, almost by definition. At trade shows and conferences, I’ve seen plenty of really visionary fundraisers talk about envelopes, streaming video, clever giveaways, and a wide spectrum of rewards marketing. Even in major gifts at the top of the fundraising food chain good practitioners create “product” all the time: in the form of naming opportunities, events, giving circles and the like.”

“What every good fundraiser has to realize is that the particular consumer marketplace that philanthropy inhabits is almost entirely aspirational.”

“When we make the decision to give, it is based on a relatively simple checklist of smaller decisions all of which have to do with how we see ourselves in the world. Brand managers in the consumer world have long understood this. Remember the phrase, “you are what you drive?” You can apply it to what you eat, where you live, what you wear, watch or listen to and how you give.”

“When we make a gift, it is less transactional certainly than a purchase. The desire to fund change, to help the poor, to better society is real and it goes beyond the purely commercial. But we also aspire as we give.”

Read full story

23 September 2006

Tangible user interfaces: misconceptions and insights

Nicolas Nova on tangible user interfaces
“Tangible user interfaces: misconceptions and insights” is the title of a presentation that Nicolas Nova gave yesterday at a Nokia Design meeting (part of their “IN&Out speaker series”) in Topanga, California.

The presentation pointed out some potential misconceptions drawn from user experience research, and is meant to be “food for thoughts” for designers by triggering some insights and discussion about design problems/solutions and ideas.

Nicolas Nova is a Ph.D. student at the CRAFT (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne) and the author of the Pasta & Vinegar weblog about emerging technologies usage research and foresight.

Download presentation (pdf, 6.12 mb, 45 slides)

23 September 2006

User-generated content uncovered: power to the people [Digital Bulletin]

The future of user-generated content
User-generated content is driving the next stage in the growth of the internet. Larissa Bannister examines the opportunities for brands and agencies in Digital Bulletin, the daily digital newsletter of Brand Republic.

Most of the current buzz-words in digital marketing (blogging, podcasting, social networking) and most of the websites being fought over by the big media conglomerates have one thing in common: they are built on user-generated content. […] The web is stuffed full of video and text uploaded by people who want to share what they’re doing with the world.

It’s a shift that is behind the growth of what people are calling Web 2.0 – the second phase of the internet. This time around, it’s not only about the amount of time people are spending online (significant though that is), it’s also about what they’re doing online. And what they’re doing is creating content and sharing it with each other.

According to Nigel Morris, the chief executive of the Aegis-owned digital network Isobar, this change means the media market itself is moving from an old and inflexible model to an environment of infinite flexibility, where content from anywhere can be viewed by anyone.

This might sound scary to a market built around a traditional broadcasting model. But, in fact, it’s also an opportunity for media owners, advertisers and agencies alike. By getting involved in user-generated content, you can get people more involved in your brand than they ever have been before, increase their loyalty, even make them your brand advocates. And you can find out exactly what they think about your product.

For brands, this means a change from traditional marketing methods such as advertising to getting involved in dialogues with consumers. “It’s not about your message any more,” Morris says. “Now, it’s all about whose consumers are telling the best stories about them.”

Read full story

23 September 2006

Jeffrey Veen: designing the complete user experience

Jeffrey Veen talk at d.Construct
Jeffrey Veen (bio), one of the founding partners of Adaptive Path and now design manager at Google where he is project lead for Measure Map, gave a very entertaining talk at the d.Construct conference about user-centred design.

Social software consultant and writer Suw Charman wrote a lengthy post on Veen’s talk, which you can download here (pdf, 10.1 mb, 78 slides).

According to Veen, the three things to consider when building a website are feasibility, viability and desirability.

Veen defines user-centered design as “developing an experience based on the patterns inherent in your stuff that empowers users to accomplish their goals”.

“Patterns turns a pile of stuff into a structured experience. This includes labelling and navigation systems that are intuitive to users.”

“Since not all users have the same goals, good design lets many users access lots of stuff so they can accomplish their goals.”

“We don’t even know what else is going on in the user’s life. We make assumptions about their experience which are usually wrong. People multitask and get distracted. So you have to have a sense of overall context. You have to do user research.”

“Successful design comes from two approaches: top-down and bottom-up.”

“The top-down approach involves interviewing and observing users, developing features and matching goals to features.”

“The bottom-up one is based on an inventory of what you have, followed by an evaluation of content and features, an organisation with librarianship, and tools to let the users participate.”

23 September 2006

Branching out [The New York Times]

Branching out
Certainly the message you would get if you were to visit the Umpqua branch in Portland’s trendy Pearl District neighborhood seems only vaguely related to the mundane business of certificates of deposit, checking accounts and loans. With free wi-fi access, Umpqua brand coffee, a spacious seating area and flat-screen television monitors, the place has been designed to suggest a stylish hotel lobby where you’re tempted to hang out (and, perhaps, read a tastefully printed brochure about certificates of deposit, checking accounts and loans). This and other Umpqua branches also serve as the setting for things like sewing groups, yoga classes and movie nights. Actually, the word “branch” is not used in Umpqua’s official internal terminology: the bank operates 127 “stores” in Oregon, California and Washington. As Lani Hayward, who oversees “creative strategies for the company,” explains, Umpqua sees itself as a retailer.

The reason for this strategy is the same one that leads companies across many sectors to play the lifestyle card: a proliferation of competitors peddling largely interchangeable wares. If a bank wants to stand out, it’s fairly difficult to do so with the financial products it offers. It can, however, differentiate the manner in which it sells and packages those products. This is more or less the approach that Umpqua’s C.E.O., Ray Davis, has taken over the past dozen years or so. When he started, Umpqua was just another small regional bank, with about $150 million in deposits. Today (because of acquisitions, in addition to building new branches), the figure has increased to more than $7 billion.

Read full story (permanent link)

22 September 2006

A look at Mau’s Massive Change [Business Week]

Massive Change
“What do a featherless chicken, Wal-Mart’s (WMT) logistics system, and an economic theory on homeownership have in common? To Bruce Mau, they all demonstrate the power of design-oriented thinking in the innovation process,” writes Robert Berner in Business Week.

“These examples and far more are packed into Massive Change, the multimedia exhibit that made its U.S. debut Sept. 16 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The exhibit is the brainchild of Mau, a Toronto designer internationally renowned for his graphics work. But of all the points the show makes, and it makes many, the most obvious is how far design reaches in our lives, beyond visual expression and product development.”

“The show presents design as a method of creative problem-solving that can be applied to large social problems such as hunger, housing shortages, or energy for the Third World. ‘We have to liberate design from fixating on the visual,’ says Mau. ‘Instead we wanted to think about design as the capacity to effect change.'”

- Read full story
Massive Change exhibition press release
Massive Change exhibition feature site
Massive Change project site

22 September 2006

Mark Vanderbeeken interviewed on engageID

Today engageID, the student newsletter of the highly acclaimed Chicago-based Institute of Design (part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), published a rather lengthy interview with Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken on experience design and some of the differences between the European and American praxis.

Mark is quite proud that his interview also launched a new interview section in the newsletter, that sets out to know more about how design is understood and practiced in different cultures and markets.

The interviewer was Enric Gili Fort, who was particularly sharp in the framing of his questions, in part also due to the fact that he is originally from Barcelona and worked in the Netherlands, so he knows the European context rather well. Thank you Enric!


On 22 September engageID, the student newsletter of the highly acclaimed Chicago-based Institute of Design (part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), published a rather lengthy interview with Mark Vanderbeeken, senior partner of Experientia, on experience design and some of the differences between the European and American praxis.

The interview launched a new interview section in the newsletter, that sets out to know more about how design is understood and practiced in different cultures and markets. The interviewer was Enric Gili Fort.

The interview was originally published on the engageID website of the Institute of Design, and has been reproduced here under a Creative Commons arrangement.

* * * * *

Enric Gili Fort: Thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview. As the author of the popular Putting People First blog and as a partner of a firm that is based in Italy, we thought you would be a great person to talk about experience design and innovation outside of the US.

Just to get us started, could you talk a bit about your background, what has been your career path and how being Belgian have you ended up being partner of a design consulting firm in Italy?

Mark Vanderbeeken: First of all, thank you for the invitation to this interview.

To answer your question, I have always been interested in human behavior and in communications. In fact, I am trained as a cognitive psychologist (with degrees both from Belgium and from Columbia University, New York). I then started working in the broad field of communications and marketing, in Belgium, in New York and in Copenhagen, gradually taking on more strategic roles and challenges. In 2001 I was asked to work on the communications for the meanwhile no longer existing Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (in Italy), where I came to realize that my interests in human psychology, communications, innovation, and strategic visioning could be integrated within the nascent discipline of people-centered experience design.

So after Ivrea, I decided that I liked Italy enough to stay here longer. I knew Jan-Christoph Zoels from Ivrea and met some good Italian people (Michele Visciola, who actually also has a psychology background, and Pierpaolo Perotto), and together we started a company. We are all in our forties, have all lived in the United States, and have quite a bit of experience behind us, It is a good fit, since our skills are complementary. It allowed us to create the company with exactly the right mix that we wanted: user research, design prototyping and business strategy consulting, all combined into one.

EGF: You (and your company) have extensive experience working with both European and American companies that are looking to grow through innovation. From your perspective, what are the similarities and the differences between those companies at the time they are looking for innovation consulting services?

MV: First, I would say that the broader economic context is somewhat different in Europe, with a much more important public sector here. This also means that many European companies do work for these public institutions. This translates into a slightly different role for experience design. I would say that in Europe (and to some extent also Canada) you hear a lot more about design for social innovation, about service design, and about the role of experience design in healthcare, education, tourism, local or regional economic development, and public services. This even affects Europe-based multinational companies who work in consumer products like Nokia and Philips, as I tried to illustrate in my blog.

Experience design is based on the idea of giving people a role in the design of the products and services that matter to them. Both in the US and in Europe, it is believed that this approach will lead to better products and services and therefore to better economic returns. However, in Europe there is perhaps a more explicit social or ethical drive: by giving people this co-creative role we can establish to a more socially inclusive society. A lot of innovation in Europe comes from public institutions, from the European Commission on down.

Another difference between Europe and the US is the role of the mobile phone in society. Michael Mace of Rubicon Consulting recently wrote that the mobile phone is a tool in the US, a lifestyle in Europe (and Asia). The US has a more PC-centric innovation culture, i.e. a culture of innovation focused on the workplace, whereas in Europe and in Asia people expect more innovation on mobile devices and in their social environments. Perhaps it is because people in Europe spend more time outside the workplace or use more public transportation.


EGF: Why do you think big European companies like Nokia or Philips get involved in projects with public institutions? Is it simply because a) public institutions have bigger budgets and better business, b) they have organizational goals of corporate social responsibility or c) just because of the management’s ethics and the opportunity to give back to society by having a positive impact?

MV: This is a difficult question for me to answer, since I have never worked for such companies and can only second-guess their strategies. Private companies work within a broader social, political and economic context both in Europe and the US. Aside from the fact that public institutions are often important clients for them, they also want to be perceived as good corporate citizens, as this will help them in the long run. There are definitely also ethical and CSR reasons, but I am not close enough to the companies to assess their importance of these reasons.

EGF: Since you intensively collect examples of innovation in the public sector in your blog, could you highlight an example of one successful initiative and a failing one?

MV: I think the exemplary work at the UK Design Council, which is a public body funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, is a great example of how a public institution can generate innovative modes of thinking, prototype them on the ground, promote them widely, and then influence a much wider area of society, both within the UK and outside.

Many regional design-driven development projects, and I highlight a few of them on my blog including the Belgian C-Mine, the German Zollverein and the British DOTT07, could not exist without strategic government leaders and policy makers driving them. These projects come about as public-private partnerships, with win-win results for both of them.

What drives these projects is that they look at innovation beyond technology and allow substantial space for user research, citizen participation and a people-centered design methodology. A pure technological approach to innovation does have its merits for sure, but is not the only way to go about it.

EGF: Design and the way it is perceived are changing. More and more companies are looking at design/innovation consultancies expecting to gain advantage and grow.
What are the current challenges that design consultancies have when dealing with new clients (both public and private) that never before considered design?

MV: Challenges are always opportunities. The question is how to make them work for you, how to define yourself within the context of these challenges. Let me describe a few we have come across.

First of all, people still often think of design as an aesthetic activity that makes a good product look great. Italians for instance have a very important tradition in that and are known for it globally. The experience design approach is of course much more about a way of thinking a problem, doing research and then solving it, rather than about making something look good. The "design as a methodology" approach is still fairly new here, but also quite logical, once you explain it to it. But the leap is not so big either. Many product designers have architectural training, especially in Italy. Architects are trained in a methodological approach. Many younger firms are now actively engaged in participatory design.

A second challenge we are facing with some companies, but definitely not all, is a short-term financial logic, where usability can be perceived as an added cost, rather than an investment into a strong product. This is changing though.

A third challenge is the structure of European companies, who are not always used to combine their R&D work with their marketing activities. Experience design addresses both, or better transforms both. Unlike the typical R&D department, experience design is not technology driven, but people driven, and unlike the typical marketing department, it is based on what people actually do, rather than what they say they do. Sometimes we work with the top management.

Fourth, technology is often seen as the territory of engineers, and this is not just the case in Europe. There are many excellent engineers but they do not always have a people-centered or design minded professional methodology. Companies and public institutions can sometimes spend much energy on technologically splendid projects that people for some reason do not want to use. The step to a more people-centered approach might seem obvious, but is not always straightforward. If we want to change that, we need to know how to best talk with engineers, we have to understand the ‘engineer’ way of thinking, but also not be afraid of setting out a human-centered vision.

In fact, all these challenges are cultural challenges. Part of our role as experience designers is therefore helping to bring about a new culture of innovation, not just through our work but also through our public engagement in the social role of design. At Experientia we communicate a lot, run seminars, and organize lectures. We organized last year the first World Usability Day event in Italy (, which was very well attended, and we are doing it again this year. And we are editing an entire issue of UX Magazine (the members publication of the Usability Professionals’ Association) on usability and governance.

Our main challenge as experience designers is how to define our new role within the society we are part of. I think we should not shy away from the larger discourse on regional innovation. We are working within a social and economic context and we have to take on our responsibility of helping to change some of that context through a more human-centered approach.

But every statement about challenges is also relative. We have recently worked with major Italian companies and several regional authorities here, and they were mostly delightful in their flexibility and their openness.


EGF: If we put together the fact that design can be an economical growth enabler for a region and the fact that designing for public institutions can have a greater impact on society, it makes the designer enter in political waters that designers haven’t usually navigated before. How easily can a designer do his job in the public sector while remaining neutral and politically agnostic, and how influenced by politics is this area?

MV: As I said before, experience design is based upon the premise of giving people a say in the design of products and services that matter to them. It naturally requires participation and co-creation. Giving people a say is a political, democratic act in the true sense of the word democracy: let the people rule. I think it is exciting to think about experience design in this broader socio-political way. This is not party politics of course but it is social and moral choice that we strongly believe in.

Neutrality and agnosticism are difficult words in this arena. We want to give people more of a say, which is a choice and therefore not ‘neutral’, but we want to create tools that give everybody that say, which again is ‘neutral’.

Within any political context you have to position yourself well. We position ourselves as solid professionals, and have never been hired for political reasons. We want to keep it that way.

EGF: A few months ago you launched the e-democracy blog exclusively dedicated to "citizen participation and web 2.0 in public authority websites." What triggered this fervent interest in this topic? Who are you targeting this blog to?

MV: I actually changed the subtitle because web 2.0 is just a tool and therefore not so relevant in what I wanted the blog to be about. The blog, which you can find at, is now subtitled "creative ways to increase citizen participation in online public services". We are currently working with two regional government structures in Italy and it is inspiring to see how young people there are bringing in a very strong people-centered innovation approach.

They ask questions like: how can we create online services that work for our citizens? How can we make them usable and friendly? How can we have people participate more actively? How can we best manage this involvement of people without being overwhelmed by thousands of messages? How can we be a responsive government service and how can the web help us with that?

Our Experientia blogs usually start out as a way to structure our thoughts and our research. In fact, Putting People First originated that way as well: as a permanent home for the many emails with article links I was sending out before. The E-Democracy blog is for those interested in innovation in participatory public services on the web, and this includes our public sector clients of course. Bob Jacobson, one of the most thoughtful voices on experiences calls it a "necessary new venture aimed at exploring the interface between more representative forms of governance, technology, and social innovation."

What you call my "fervent interest" probably stems from a deeper empathy for the social role of design.

EGF: What are the reasons behind this people-centered sensitivity among young people? Does it have anything to do with lack of paths for youth, especially in Southern Europe, to become economically independent from their parents and a strong will to do something to address the problem?

MV: I can only speak for the people I dealt with and these are very well educated, well traveled and well read individuals who are working with passion for a public institution. They do not have high salaries, so they get their personal satisfaction out of the drive to deliver a high level service and to do something meaningful for society and the country they live in. They are interested in people-centered design because it resonates with their ethical drive as a committed employee within a public institution. So yes, there is a strong will to try to help address the problems they see around themselves.

EGF: You have blogged extensively on governmental initiatives promoted by small regions to revitalize their socio-economic area. Some have set up long-term and heavily funded programs as it is in the case of North East England’s DOTT07, others even have started design Schools with a business twist from scratch like the Zollverein School in Germany, etc..

MV: I am interested in how a visionary approach that is focused on creativity, design and participatory co-creation can become a tool to change an entire region.

Though related to the creative industries thinking of Richard Florida, these approaches go further and are based on creating synergies: between business and education, between public and private, between culture and tourism, between vision and reality, and between people and structures. They are about creating critical mass and about excitement. They usually take place in deprived areas, which for years have been lingering, and had big brain drain problems. They also often have spectacular sites full of old industrial buildings. And they have young and energetic public authorities that are trying to change the dynamic through visioning and systematic and sustainable planning.

I am currently working with some people in the East of Belgium, not far from where I grew up. I always knew it as a former coalmining area in decline and they are totally turning that around now. It is amazing how fast they are: two years ago they were still doing the master plan, yet most of the site will be ready in 2008. And we are talking about a huge endeavor.

Design and participatory co-creation for social renewal is a complex challenge, but one that fits very well with the European way of doing things.

EGF: What do you think has changed in the last years in Europe to make these regions so hopeful and willing to invest in these, for some, ambitious enterprises? Do you know about similar initiatives outside Europe? Do you think this would be possible in countries where public sector and progressive policies are not so common?

MV: Europe is changing fast. First of all, people travel more. The EU has this wonderful university student exchange program, called Erasmus, and many people in their early twenties spend 6 months to a year in another European country. Through traveling, the internet and good education systems, people in more remote areas of Europe are just as educated and knowledgeable as anybody else. Yet, there are in a sense more opportunities for them there, not necessarily more jobs, but definitely more interesting challenges.

Second, globalization is making us change. I just posted an article about the small Italian city of Prato. It is a textile town of 180,000 inhabitants. 25,000 of them are Chinese and there are 2,000 Chinese entrepreneurs who own one quarter of the town’s textile businesses. Doing nothing is not an option. We have to change.

The reason why regional authorities invest in such projects, often with the active help of their national governments and EU programs, is because they realize that these initiatives can become engines for renewal. Often such regions suffer from brain drain to the bigger cities and lack of investment. A major project with a clear and sustainable vision can help change that, create enthusiasm and put the place back on the map as an interesting destination, a valuable place to invest time, money and resources in. Regions are aware that they can change themselves and are working at the right level of action: beyond the city, but not as big as a country.

This is of course not just happening in Europe. Take a look at what the Michigan Governor is doing on design and how she emphasizes quite similar policies in quite a different economic context. Look at how American cities are investing in libraries and museums. The approach is slightly different perhaps, but not fundamentally.

I am not really sure about the situation outside of Europe and the USA but would love to learn more. I hear about more top-down approaches to regional innovation in Korea and Singapore but I am not a specialist. I invite people to comment on my blog with their own experiences.

EGF: I have recently read your post about Prato, and it is indeed a totally fascinating issue. From your multiple interactions with regional authorities across Europe, how do you perceive the adaptation gap between political leaders that are committed to help their regions make a transition to new social models, and big parts of the population that are still very conservative and very resistant to change? Are these leaders doing their job at educating and helping people understand that these changes are inevitable and that the solution is to be more flexible and adapt? If so, what strategies are following?

MV:Leaders are not always that visionary and people not always that conservative. For some issues it is actually quite the opposite. I can only suggest that more participation and co-creation in democracy is one of the ways to reduce the gap between the citizens and their representatives. And that’s what we are trying to work on.

EGF: With the introduction Central and Eastern European countries to the EU there is still a clear imbalance between western European countries and the newly added members. What are these regions’ governments doing to catch up in terms of development?

MV: I love working in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) because of the dynamic, eager, and innovative young people there. They are now part of the EU and their hands-on, curious mindset is influencing the rest of Europe.

I am not a specialist in CEE government policy, but I notice two developments.

Although the last fifteen years has mainly been a time of catching up, and trying to address the most urgent and immediate needs, CEE countries and people were quick to learn and were less stuck in existing structures and modes of thinking than some in Western Europe were (and still are). They were often free enough to choose better.

Second, they invested a lot in educating their people and people invested a lot in educating themselves. I met many hard workers and hard learners with entrepreneurial mindsets. I am really optimistic about these countries.

But it will take a little while still before we see experience design companies there. Or perhaps not even that long …

EGF: As a final question I would like to ask you about the current role of the designer in society. It seems that its practice has been getting more and more abstract in the last years and it has reached a higher meta-level. As someone that has personally committed to attempt to tackle more complex and systemic problems in design, how have you seen this evolution and why do you think this change has happened?

MV: I don’t think the practice has become more abstract. We do a lot of very concrete work through contextual observation, user testing and prototyping. I think that over time we have become aware that a designer needs to take the role of the needs and the context of people more into account, because only then can we design something meaningful and relevant. This approach can be applied to car design and mobile phones, but also to hospitals, schools and public services. Yes, it is systemic, holistic and complex, but not necessarily abstract, and definitely not removed from the concrete needs of people. I would rather argue the opposite: only by being holistic, we can really have an impact.

EGF: Mark, I want to thank for your patience and time answering our questions around design, education, politics and society. I do really appreciate your thoughtful comments and I want to highlight how enlightening and enriching it has been to have your perspective in the state of design in Europe.

MV: You are welcome and thank you as well for this opportunity to set out and share my ideas.

Original site

22 September 2006

UTUM: building the best smartphone experience [SymbianOne]

Sony Ericsson W950
The complexity of today’s smartphones is a world away from early mobile phones. With increasing sophistication comes the risk that the user will simply get lost in all the options available to them. It is not enough to be working to prevent the interface gridlock brought about by a mountain of features. Platform developers need to show that they have processes in place to ensure that, as more feature are added, smartphones remain usable and above all enjoyable.

It is against this background that UIQ Technology has started to reveal information on UIQ Technology Usability Metrics (UTUM) the process used to gather usability information as part of the UIQ platform development process. Richard Bloor caught up with Laurent Mauvais, Interaction Architect and Mats Hellman, Head of Interaction Design to find out more.

Read full story

21 September 2006

Picking the brains of the Institute of Design [Usability News]

Institute of Design
The Institute of Design (ID) is a rich source of papers on user-centred design, writes Ann Light in Usability News.

ID’s research goal is to ‘develop methods that will help organizations gain a more detailed and relevant understanding of users’ increasingly complex lives, and drive the development of innovative and humane products and business concepts’.

Their work is set in the context of embedding computing into physical products, and the ability to create value by connecting products and services via networks to increase exponentially the variety of offerings a company can create.

‘At the same time, organizations have a decreased ability to predict how consumers will use these new offerings. Twenty years ago it was possible to predict the general patterns of how people worked, learned, played, managed family life, and kept healthy. Today people have many more lifestyle options, making the old methods of market segmentation and demographic studies less reliable.’

In particular, one of the research programmes is Context-Sensitive Design.

Go to the paper download page