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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Technology can’t contribute to a better world while those who make it are so unrepresentative of society

Judy Wajcman’s Who’s to blame for the digital time deficit? starts off like many similar articles as she ponders the role smart phones play in making us feel time-starved. But then she takes an unexpected and well-reasoned turn:

If technology is going to contribute to a better world, people must think about the world in which they want to live. Put simply, it means thinking about social problems first and then thinking of technological solutions, rather than inventing technologies and trying to find problems they might solve.

We can’t do this while the people who design our technology and decide what is made are so unrepresentative of society. The most powerful companies in the world today—such as Microsoft, Apple and Google—are basically engineering companies and, whether in the US or Japan, they employ few women, minorities or people over 40. […] Such skewed organisational demographics inevitably influence the kind of technology produced.

And later on:

If we want technology to bring us a better future, we must contest the imperative of speed and democratise engineering. We must bring more imagination to the field of technological innovation. Most of all, we must ask bigger questions about what kind of society we want. Technology will follow, as it usually does.

Streaming music and venture capital

Ben Thompson wrote the best analysis of Tidal I’ve seen so far. From Tidal and the Future of Music:

I would again draw an analogy to venture capital: startups can spread via Twitter or new discovery services like Product Hunt; minimum viable products are cheaper to build than ever thanks to Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, etc.; and distribution channels like App Stores have natural promotional channels. And yet the importance – and amount – of venture capital has never been greater.

The truth is that because so many folks can now get started it is that much harder – and more expensive – to cut through the noise. Consumer companies need massive growth for many years, and enterprise companies need expensive sales forces, and the only folks enabling both are venture capitalists.

It’s a great overview of the all the challenges Tidal will have to overcome to beat incumbents like Spotify and Pandora.

Don’t stop believing (in user research)

I’m having a hard time with Alex Schleifer’s (Airbnb’s head of design) proclamations in Why Airbnb’s New Head of Design Believes ‘Design-Led’ Companies Don’t Work. There are a lot of sweeping generalizations in the article, but I’ll focus on one specific part — user-centered design. First, this:

The solution Schleifer and CEO Brian Chesky devised actually deemphasizes the designers. The point, Schleifer says, isn’t to create a “design-led culture,” because that tends to tell anyone who isn’t a designer that their insights take a backseat. It puts the entire organization in the position of having to react to one privileged point of view. Instead, Schleifer wants more people to appreciate what typically lies only within the realm of designers—the user viewpoint.

So far, so good. It makes total sense to bake user empathy into the process and not elevate it to some elite role. Let’s continue:

Thus, every project team at Airbnb now has a project manager whose explicit role is to represent the user, not a particular functional group like engineering or design. “Conflict is a huge and important part of innovation,” says Schleifer. “This structure creates points where different points of view meet, and are either aligned or not.”

Ok, this is good too. This is usually the role the product owner or user researcher or UX designer should be fulfilling (if they’re not, something’s wrong). But if we need to call it something else to avoid stepping on toes, that’s fine. Let’s keep going:

Airbnb’s approach does seem fairly novel, simply because it deals with a problem that bedevils any product company to one degree or another: Designers tend to design for themselves, whether they intend to or not.

I agree with this, and have written about the phenomenon before in Designer Myopia: How To Stop Designing For Ourselves. But then the author goes on to say this:

User research, meanwhile, often has limits. It’ll tell you what’s wrong, but it only rarely leads directly to great products. A true user perspective is something more nuanced, specific, intuitive, and independent.

This is where he loses me. User research is not just usability testing that tells you what’s wrong. It’s also ethnography and contextual inquiry and participatory design and in-depth interviews and a slew of other things that result in exactly what they are trying to accomplish: a user perspective that is “nuanced, specific, intuitive, and independent.” As I point out in that designer myopia article:

We do ethnography to learn, not to confirm our beliefs. By using this method to understand the culture and real needs of our users, we’re able to design better user-centered solutions than would be possible if we relied only on existing UI patterns and some usability testing.

Leaving the office and spending time observing users in their own environments is the best way to understand how a product is really being used in the wild. It’s the most efficient way to get out of your own head.

I would love to know how Airbnb proposes that their project managers get these perspectives without qualitative user research, i.e. direct contact with customers.

Articles like this make for great “you’re doing it wrong” headlines, but they are often so light on detail that you’re just left feeling bad about yourself without knowing why (or how to fix it). So I just want to say, don’t let them get to you. Keep doing what you’re doing. Conduct observational user research in context, triangulate your results, and speak up for user needs. There’s no evidence to suggest that those methods have stopped working.

Usability testing and agile, together

I really like the approach described in Jen McGinn and Ana Ramírez Chang’s RITE+Krug: A Combination of Usability Test Methods for Agile Design. It’s a dense paper, but worth your time. Here’s a key part (my emphasis added):

Prior to using the RITE+Krug combination, the user research process and results had been divorced from the Agile processes, which resulted in the findings coming too late to be acted on. Because of this issue, we integrated the user research with the rest of the process, as illustrated in Table 1.

The team consists of developers, product managers, user experience designers, visual designers, quality assurance engineers, and a user researcher. The user experience designers and product managers work closely with the development team during the feature sprints—answering questions, giving feedback on progress, and fine tuning the feature as it is implemented. The bug fix sprints give the developers time to focus on product stability.

Meanwhile the product managers, user experience designers, visual designers, and the user researcher work on preparing the small set of features that will be implemented in the next iteration (see Table 1). This work includes feature selection, design, user testing, and redesigns. The whole team (including developers) gives feedback on the feature specification and design before it is ready to be implemented. Like others, our design team stays an iteration ahead of the development team. Like Patton recommends, we iterate the UI before it ever reaches development, thereby turning what is traditionally a validation process into a design process.

And here’s the table:

One of the biggest issues with usability testing and Agile is the complaint that testing slows down the process. This seems like a really good way to alleviate those concerns.

Big data and big statistical mistakes

Tim Harford has an excellent critique of the statistical issues with the “big data” trend in Big data: are we making a big mistake? First, there’s this:

But the “big data” that interests many companies is what we might call “found data”, the digital exhaust of web searches, credit card payments and mobiles pinging the nearest phone mast.

I still love the term “digital exhaust”. I first saw Frank Chimero use it in the context of social media when he said (in a post that’s now gone from the internet):

The less engaged I become with social media, the more it begins to feel like huffing the exhaust of other people’s digital lives.

But back to big data. The big problem (see what I did there?) is that statistical problems don’t just go away when you have more data. In fact, they get worse. For example:

Because found data sets are so messy, it can be hard to figure out what biases lurk inside them – and because they are so large, some analysts seem to have decided the sampling problem isn’t worth worrying about. It is.

The article goes into the detail on this, and I think it’s important for us to recognize the limitations of big data before jumping on the bandwagon.

How to write perfect software

Charles Fishman’s They Write the Right Stuff is an incredible profile of the engineers who write software for NASA’s space shuttle missions:

How do they write the right stuff?

The answer is, it’s the process. The group’s most important creation is not the perfect software they write — it’s the process they invented that writes the perfect software.

It’s the process that allows them to live normal lives, to set deadlines they actually meet, to stay on budget, to deliver software that does exactly what it promises. It’s the process that defines what these coders in the flat plains of southeast suburban Houston know that everyone else in the software world is still groping for. It’s the process that offers a template for any creative enterprise that’s looking for a method to produce consistent—and consistently improving—quality.

The article goes on to explore the four propositions that underly everything this team does. Also see if you can spot what’s different about their working hours…

This is not the time to give up your business model

Dave Pell—in the context of Facebook’s plan to host news sites’ content natively—explains what tech people are good at (and usually not good at) in Don’t Take a Flying Leap:

But building a really successful app or site does not mean you know more about education than educators. Disrupting the photo-sharing space does not qualify you to disrupt higher education. Or to understand the health system better than doctors. Or to understand the woes of urban poverty better than those who have spent a career on those corners. […]

This is not the time to give up and it’s not the time to give in to one of the most prevalent myths of the era: that people who can build technology know how to run your business better than you do.

What baby carrots learned from the junk food industry

Douglas McGray’s How Carrots Became The New Junk Food is not about carrots. I mean it is, a little bit. But it’s mostly about product positioning and marketing.

“Everyone else pitched baby carrots as an antidote to junk food,” [Jeff] Dunn says. “Where [ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky] came out was almost the exact opposite. We want to be junk food.”

They realized that junk food is desirable. So instead of pitting carrots against that industry, they decided to play to its strengths instead. And it worked:

Crispin imagined individual snack packs made of opaque, crinkly plastic, like a potato-chip bag, with bold, junk-food-style graphics (the new packaging would cost about 25% more than traditional veggie bags, but Dunn could justify it as a marketing expense). “People are now grabbing a bag of these, you know, eating them in the car,” Dunn’s marketing chief, Bryan Reese, says. They’d look right at home by a convenience-store checkout.

User-centered design at Ikea

Beth Kowitt’s How Ikea took over the world is a great look inside the Ikea machine. For me, the biggest takeaway is how research and prototyping drive everything Ikea does. On research:

One way Ikea researchers get around this is by taking a firsthand look themselves. The company frequently does home visits and—in a practice that blends research with reality TV—will even send an anthropologist to live in a volunteer’s abode. Ikea recently put up cameras in people’s homes in Stockholm, Milan, New York, and Shenzhen, China, to better understand how people use their sofas. What did they learn? “They do all kinds of things except sitting and watching TV,” Ydholm says. The Ikea sleuths found that in Shenzhen, most of the subjects sat on the floor using the sofas as a backrest. “I can tell you seriously we for sure have not designed our sofas according to people sitting on the floor and using a sofa like that,” says Ydholm.

And on prototyping:

Products under development go through rapid prototyping in the pattern shop to provide a sense of what they will actually look like in the flesh—or at least in plastic. On a recent visit, one of the four 3-D printers was outputting a toilet brush. Apparently this is one of the more normal items. “We have a lot of strange things,” says Henrik Holmberg, who manages the department. “That is very good that we can do it in our own shop rather than spreading the crazy ideas externally.” One of the oddest things he’s ever worked on was a lamp made from the same material as egg cartons. “I thought that was very crazy,” he says, “but we proved the technique was possible.”

Great article on the power of user-centered design.

Face-to-face contact still matters

Susan Pinker explains why face-to-face contact matters in our digital age:

Our survival hinges on social interaction, and that is not only true of the murky evolutionary past. Over the last decade huge population studies have shown that social integration — the feeling of being part of a cohesive group — fosters immunity and resilience. How accepted and supported we feel affects the biological pathways that skew the genetic expression of a disease, while feeling isolated “leaves a loneliness imprint” on every cell, says the American social neuroscientist John Cacioppo.

And here’s the problem: being “more social” online doesn’t help:

Recent MRI studies led by neuroscientist Elizabeth Redcay tell us that personal contact elicits greater activity in brain areas linked to social problem-solving, attention and reward than a remote connection. When the identical information is transmitted via a recording, something gets lost.

I guess catching up for coffee is still better than texting.