Agile From The Start

“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
-Douglas Adams

An entire project can be made or broken by a good or bad start. Creative projects, whether designing the Universe or a website, often get off to the wrong start, and are bogged down throughout the life of the project because of a lack of project parameters that prevent agility and rapid development. Creatives often blame clients, but it’s the responsiblity of the Designer, Art Director, Creative Director or Project Manager to set the right parameters for agile development. Agile project management by definition requires flexibility and interactivity between team members and clients.

julian_working2However, without definition and without parameters, projects can quickly get bogged down, and creative projects require some specific considerations that are somewhat different from other types of projects. This is due to two things: the first has to do with the peculiarities of the creative process and how designers think and work; and the second has to do with non-creative interested parties and team members lacking knowledge of that process. Defining the parameters of a project, and the working relationship between creatives and non-creatives are essential to making agile project management work.

The first step in any project is defining the project, or making what project managers call a Project Charter. In this document you define things like the goals of the project, critical constraints such as time or cost constraints, etc. If you are a self-employed creative you’ll be your own project manager, sitting down with the client to figure out what they want, how they want it and when they want it. If you’re a creative professional in an organization you may have to do this for external or internal clients on behalf of your team. In either case, it’s probable that the client will it understand then creative process, what information is critical, or even heat questions to ask.

Here’s an example. A friend of mine who is a graphic designer recently took on a project to design a website.  The client said “Do whatever you like, I’m sure we’ll love it.” Don’t ever believe this if a client says this to you, it’s a trap! What unfolded, and this has happened to me countless times, is that he client didn’t like any of the designs that the designer proposed. The problem is that many clients don’t know how to describe what they want, which is understandable because they didn’t go to design school and they don’t have the professional training in design language and visual literacy. However, clients always know what they don’t like.

Here’s how to avoid this trap: at the very beginning of the project, when you’re writing the project charter, you need to hold the hand of the client and define not only the goals of ex project (i.e. design a website) but also what information is needed in order to start the project, risks of things that could go wrong and delay or derail the project (i.e. the client changes their mind constantly) and what deliverables are needed to consider the project complete. Make sure the client signs off on the Project Charter before you begin, as this will save a lot of headaches later.

Going more specifically into the scenario I outlined above with the client who wanted a website, it is necessary with such clients to have a brainstorming session with them, not only to generate ideas and extract more detailed information, but to also educate the client about how the process works. Creatives certainly don’t want clients standing over their shoulder directing them what to do in PhotoShop (this has happened to me), but involving the client in the planning stage, and later in review stages, helps them to understand why the creatives are making what they are making, and helps to extract from the client what they want even when they don’t have the language to describe it.

Here are some critical questions that need to be answered in a Creative Project Charter:

  • Goal of the project (i.e. make a website for my business).
  • Critical constraints (time, money, people).
  • What is considered “complete”? (finished website and associate graphics files).
  • What’s the budget?
  • What people are needed? (graphic/web designer)
  • Key milestones in the project (i.e. mock ups of website are agreed upon by client).
  • Risk assessment: What could go wrong? (client asks for more than ten changes, etc.)
  • What is needed to start the project? (creative direction for website from client, including mood, style, examples of other websites the client likes, etc.)

This last point is critical, but following an agile management strategy all of these questions and the whole Project Charter can be completed in one meeting. If this is agreed upon and executed at the Project Charter stage before the project actually “begins,” it saves headaches down the road, most of the time will help to avoid endless change requests from the client, and will help the client understand the creative process. Each time the client wants a major change, another meeting is required to change the Project Charter, which will have a domino effect on cost, resources and schedule. This forces the client to think carefully about major changes, and can keep the project on track.

Agile project management is iterative and collaborative, but can quickly unravel.  Do not let your client stand behind you and tell you to move pixels around in PhotoShop. Do not begin projects without a clear Project Charter.  Do involve the client in brainstorming and project planning. Do discuss the Project Charter and agree upon the parameters before proceeding. And do be a teacher of the creative process. Doing so will gain you more respect and smoother sailing.

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Syncing Your Body To The Cloud

“Nosce te ipsum.” (Know thyself.)

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NBA basketball player Kevin Durant wearing the Nike+FuelBand.

The age of cyborgs is arriving, but quietly and without the violence and invasiveness of the Terminator or The Borg. Certainly there are surgically implanted devices under development for everything from the automatic administration of drugs such as insulin to artificial organs and bionic body parts. What’s happening more subtly but in many ways just as powerfully is with instruments that are wrapped around our wrists and apps that connect to our physical activities. Theses devices and apps are not just monitoring our activities, they’re turning our bodies into data producing devices that can be monitored and managed. The following are three such wrist-worn sensors.
The Nike+FuelBand fitness tracker wrist band uses a formula invented by Nike to calculate activity levels based on gender and weight by tracking yours steps, time taken engaged in activities, fuel, and calories burned. The data is wirelessly transmitted to your web based account and/or an app on your smart phone.

The Jawbone UP band measures food intake, sleep, mood, steps taken, and calories burned. It’s smart feedback includes tracking your daily activities and rhythms in order to tell you when it would be most beneficial to sleep, to wake up, eat and exercise. It’s connected to an extensive food database so that food items you eat can be entered by name, by photo, or by scanning a bar code with your phone’s camera. Unlike the Nike+FuelBand, it is not wireless and thus it must be synced by plugging it into an Apple iOS or Android phone or tablet.

The Fitbit Flex is similar to the Jawbone UP in that it tracks your eating, sleeping and physical activities. Sleeping and food cycles must be logged online. However, it is wireless and beams the data to your smart phone or tablet, and you can connect with friends who also use the Fitbit to share data about your routines. In a sense it turns the body into social media device.

There are also a slew of smart apps coming out for measuring and data basing the body. Cardiio measures heart rate, Ginger.io tracks activity and performs behavior analytics, inFlow and Mood Panda track and measure moods and emotional health. Stress Check measures stress levels via heart rate.

These devices and apps are rudimentary compared to what’s coming in the next five years. As chips and circuits get smaller there will be stick-on sensors the size of a small adhesive bandage. High end clothes will have built-in sensors in the synthetic fabric that will wireless beam data to the cloud. Further, these smart fabrics will generate electrostatic electricity to keep the sensors and our devices charged. The wrist bands and Google Glass we have now will seem clunky and cumbersome compared to the ubiquitous, invisible and unobtrusive sensors coming soon.

This is the age of big data, and even things that seem messy and unmathematical like biology and our bodies are a part of that. Figure out how to measure and quantify, and you’ve got data to sync to the cloud. Our bodies are biological machines with rhythms, functions and mechanics, and by interfacing them with these sensors we can be cyborgs without a single surgical implant, by plugging in all that data to our other devices. The body becomes another device like our smart phone and tablet that gets synced with all our other devices and with the big data cloud. What’s extremely powerful about this notion is an explosion of self knowledge that can lead to healthier lifestyle choices. When we eat a hamburger and drink a cola we don’t think about or see data visualization about the growth hormones and saturated fats in the beef, or the high fructose corn syrup in the soft drink. But if our body is a device synced to the cloud, we can. It’s as powerful as the real time gas mileage visualizer on the screens in many hybrid cars. When drivers see the real time result of their behavior on the gas mileage of their car, they tend to change their behavior. Game play results, as many drivers play at how they can get the best gas mileage. It can work the same way with our personal health, particularly if linked to social media so you can share your healthy choices with your friends and family, all through measuring, calculating and visualizing data.

Physicist Max Tegmark says, “Our reality isn’t just described by mathematics–it is mathematics, in a very specific sense.” What will designers do with that reality? To keep pace with innovation the UX designers of today need to be fluent in big data and ubiquitous computing. That doesn’t mean that they have to be mathematicians, but it does mean that design thinking must embrace a reality that IS mathematics, a reality where the human body can be another the ultimate device synced to the cloud.

Convergence is Done. This is What’s Next.

The New York Times on an iPhone.

The New York Times on an iPhone.

A couple of months ago I received a group email from a media studies instructor with a link to a story about Twitter reporting on Super Bowl advertisements, and the sender declared it to be “Convergence in the media!!!” (Yes, there were three exclamation marks).  I scratched my head at this, because it was just flat out wrong.  Twitter talking about and allowing users to rate television ads is not “convergence.”  But the word convergence has become such a trendy buzz word in media studies that even an instructor in the subject can misuse it.  So let me set the record straight: convergence is a phenomenon that began with the explosion of the world wide web, and particularly enabled by the spread of wifi networks and portable computing, where information technologies and mass media become so interconnected that they merge.  Convergence has transformed entire industries.  For instance, since news organizations have started distributing their product on websites, tablets and phones, they have expanded the types of media they distribute.  Now newspaper journalists not only write stories, they also shoot and edit videos that can be instantly streamed online.  That’s convergence.  Twitter buying some TV commercials isn’t.

Ads for the iPod were a template for how to design video content for the devices.

Ads for the iPod were a template for how to design video content for the devices.

In the early 2000s I gave a series of lectures on how trends in convergence and multi-modality (the delivery of the same media in different formats across different devices) were changing the aesthetics of media.  For instance, the design of news websites, with their multiple layers of information and software-style interface, fundamentally changed the look of television news.  Compare the look of a news broadcast from the 1980s to one today and the difference is enormous.  In the old style the news anchor is sitting in a physical studio in front of a camera.  In the new style the news anchor is embedded between layers of information windows and motion graphics, essentially placed within a software interface.  At the same time, a single device fundamentally changed the aesthitics of video: the Apple iPod.  Once people started watching music videos in the palms of their hands, the old cinematic style of music videos was replaced with a stark, flat, software-style aesthetic.  The micro-screen now rules over the cinema screen, and the affects this has had over media design was fundamental.  I predicted that these trends would spell the end of skeuomorphism in design.  Skeuomorphism is where designed elements mimic physical objects or textures in the real world.  So for example the contacts application on your computer would be designed to look like an actual leather-bound address book.  The new paradigm is called flat design.  Flat design is driven by a philosophy of simplicity and clarity, but even more so it is driven by necessity.  Like music videos viewed on palm-held devices, user interfaces have to be easy to see on micro-screens and easy to operate with your thumb.  Flat design is a beautiful necessity.  Form follows function.

Flat design in the Windows 8 OS.

Flat design in the Windows 8 OS.

Convergence has happened.  Multimodality is the norm.  Skeuomorphism has died (granted, it took a bit longer than I thought, and I didn’t expect Microsoft with their Windows 8 OS to beat Apple to the punch!)  Flat design is the new design.  These were the trends that drove the first decade of the 21st century. So what’s next?

Increasingly, the media and design landscapes are being shaped by the interactions between media, and are driven less by physical product designs such as the iPod or iPhone and more by apps.  But with apps it’s not about the design of a singular app, it’s about the synergies between apps.  Apps can hook into each other.  If I design an app that needs to make use of maps and GPS functions, I don’t have to reinvent those functions, I can simply hook into the existing map app on the device I’m designing for, and the existing GPS functions on the physical device.  Further, a lot of innovation in apps is how they tie into existing physical functions in our world, like apps that do our banking for us, apps for making restaurant reservations, apps that manage our automobile insurance (including using your phone’s camera to file insurance claims), etc.  Synergy is trend happening now.

The Nest thermostat and app.

The Nest thermostat and app.

Synergies not only tie apps to each other and our digital and physical worlds together, but also change our perceptions of the things we use.  For instance, the Nest thermostat fundamentally changes the concept of a thermostat from an HVAC controller in our home to an interactive networked device that learns our behaviors and is tethered to our phones and computers.

That designers now design not just products but synergies and interactions and reconceptualize the old paradigms of things in our lives into interconnected devices, means that every designer must be an expert in User Experience (UX) design.  What makes the Nest thermostat paradigm-shifting is it’s UX. UX has the power to transform anything. If you ever get a chance to sit in the cockpit of a Tesla electric car, you’ll see that the car wasn’t just designed with good ergonomics, it was design with good UX.  This means everything about the user’s lifestyle is taken into account.  The Tesla isn’t just a fancy electric car, it’s a device (one that can actually run apps on it’s enormous center-console touchscreen interface). Square isn’t just a credit card swiper for iPhones, it’s a new UX that creates financial synergies and makes our money a part of our devices.

Designers, take note: the next decade is and will be driven by synergies and UX.

Experiential Design in a Shot Glass

A technology entrepeneur named Brett Cramer, founder of the Spice Lab, is obsessed with salts.  He buys them by the container-load (I mean those small house-sized shipping containers) from all over the world–Himalayan salts, Hawaiian salts, smoked salts, spicey salts, etc. etc.–and sells them to foodies and gourmets.  If you think salt is just salt, check out The Spice Lab or just look at this rainbow of salts:

Tubes of salts from all over the world.

But is isn’t just the selection of salts that are unique to what Cramer and The Spice Lab are offering, it’s how in some cases they’re designed.  Some of the salts are sold in glass tubes that slot into holes bored into blocks of wood.  Cramer has designed a mixological interface to cooking with various exotic salts from around the world.

himalayan_salt_glassesBut the most striking design in his collection is the tequila shot glass carved from Himalayan salt.  Yes, the glasses are made from solid Himalayan salt, which has a translucent pink marbled appearance similar to rose quartz, owing to its high natural iron content.  This introduces a different phenomenological experience to drinking tequila.  With each shot, you get a bit of Himalayan salt, that with the presence of more than eighty minerals tastes earthier than standard table salt.  The glasses are soluble.  Each time they come into contact with liquid, a small amount of the salt dissolves.  They won’t last nearly as long as glass, and you can’t wash them or put them in the dishwasher like normal glasses.  Instead you lightly rinse and immediately dry them off.  But the salt is naturally anti-bacterial, so only minimal cleaning is required.

The experience is inherently different than the standard rock salt on the rim of the margerita glass.  The taste is different, the texture is different, the way the salt and drink are mixed is different.  These shot glasses invent a new way to consume tequila and salt (and lime).  Cramer has combined materials with consumables with interface in invent a new tequila UX.

UX design is the New Design standard.  Graphic designers, user interface designers, product designers, interior designers, architects, etc. can all take their work to a different level by understanding principles of UX design.  Some of these principles are to make things simple and intuitive.  The Himalayan salt shot glasses are an intuitive and simple way to consume tequila and lime with Himalayan salt,  far simpler than mixing a margerita and grinding the exotic salt, etc. Another principle is to reduce latency; these shot glasses make it faster and easier to have a truly sophisticated and different phenomenological and mixological experience with tequila.  And a third principle is that less is more, meaning everything about the design has a purpose.  The shot glasses hold the drink, deliver the salt to the drink in sufficient amounts to be palatable, and are aesthetically pleasing.

Some Thoughts on Creative Leadership

“A creative leader is one who leads with dirty hands, much the way an artist’s hands are often literally dirty with paint.” -John Maeda

In his book Redesigning Leadership, John Maeda charts his own journey learning how to be an effective leader as the President of the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), a position he assumed with very little prior leadership experience.  The very fact that he was appointed to such a position without first rising through the ranks of university administration (he was previously a designer and professor at MIT) speaks to the vision and willingness to take risks of the RISD Board of Directors.  Maeda has been remarkably successful, and points to the advantages (as well as disadvantages) of a creative professional filling an executive leadership role.

The willingness to get one’s hands dirty is one advantage, as Maeda points out in the quote above.  Designers and artists combine thinking and doing as part of the same process, writing notes, making sketches, working and thinking visually as well as conceptually.  This gives them a different approach to tackling problems faced by leaders, one that is at once detail oriented and intuition-based.  The whole gestalt of a situation is more important to a designer or artist than a spreadsheet of numbers, allowing them to see the forest for the trees.

A potential downside to this approach, and one that Maeda encountered first hand, is that the hands-on approach can lead to micromanaging.  Effective leaders cannot do everything themselves, and must trust each member of their team to do their job without their boss hovering over their shoulder or second-guessing their decisions.  The creative leader must balance their dirty-hands approach with trusting and giving space to her/his team members.  Team cohesiveness requires a certain amoung of individual autonomy.

Zooming back out to the bigger picture, one of the most compelling positives in favor of creative leadership is simply Vision.  More and more, innovation is what drives success in business, non-profit and education.  Creatives are who drive innovation because they are professionally trained in the creative process, which involves the enhancement of self-awareness, cognitive abilities and emotional intelligence.  Working intuitively isn’t just something that a creative does naturally, it’s a coherent and intentional process that is cultivated.  This is what enables ideation and brainstorming.

We are in an era of rapid and disruptive change, in economic and social structures, in local and global cultures, and in global resources and environmental disruptions.  The oft-bandied term in Silicon Valley “Innovate of Die!” applies not just to the dot coms but also to the financial and business institutions, to education, and to communities.  More than ever, the sideways thinking and dirty hands approach of creative leadership is needed across all sectors.

The most effective leader is one who is a facilitator rather than a dictator.  John Maeda uses the analogy of a leader who sits atop a pyramid structure, with the mass of his underlings crushed under the weight of the organizational structure.  Instead of this top-down structure, he suggests a leadership model that uses the metaphor of a plum tree, where the leader is at the roots of the tree and the majority of the members of the organization are the leaves and branches bearing fruit.  In this model the leader doesn’t do all the innovation, but rather creates the conditions for innovation throughout the organization. The Google corporation operates a model where employees are required to spend a certain amount of their time working on personal projects.  Every employee at Google assumes responsibility for leadership and participates in innovation, and many of Google’s products such as Google Maps and Google Glass came out of this initiative.  This brings to mind a quote by Lao Tzu: “When the best leader’s work is done, the people say ‘We did it ourselves.'”

UX Design is Impossible. So How Do You Do It?

“Nightlife design is a set design for a play that hasn’t been written.” -Serge Becker, Experience Designer

It’s sometimes said that UX design is impossible because you can’t design the user.  People are slippery and individualistic and won’t behave the way they’re supposed to.  The UX designer profiles user personas, writes narratives, defines parameters and design conditions.  But you can’t design the user, or as a creative director once told me when I was a young designer, “Never underestimate the stupidity of the user!”

The ways in which experience design is approached in the design of night clubs is extremely informative for the UX designer of other media.  Night club designers cannot design what people will do in the club, they cannot design the user.  But what they can do is design parameters and conditions, a “set design for a play that hasn’t been written.” Night clubs are most effective at creating a first impression and a conceptual environment different from your everyday life, taking you somewhere else the moment you step into the club.  And clubs are ephemeral, they don’t last, they’re only about what’s now and what’s next.  Digital media like websites and mobile apps are the same.

The moment you click onto a website or open an app on your smartphone, there is the potential to be transported into a different user experience than the other websites and apps you’ve used in the past.  In the case of apps, the loading screen is critical for this first impression. It’s not just a spinning wheel to reassure you that something is happening while the app loads into your device’s memory, it’s a prelude to the user experience within.

app_load_screensLet’s look for example at the load screen for the Netflix app.  It’s all red, with the netflix logo in the center and a small spinning wheel below it indicating that the app is loading.  The adherence to brand identity is excellent, for it’s readily recognizable as the Netflix brand.  But what of the user experience?  The color red is an emotionally intense color.  It can denote a warning sign (stop! danger!) as well as fire, blood, war, love and passion.  But what Netflix says they want their brand to be associated with, they identify “convenience, service, speed and cost.”  They want their customers to have the easiest, fastest, and most pleasant experience getting movies as possible.  Filling the entire screen of the smart phone with scarlet red is at odds with their branding objectives.  It’s setting users up to be anxious and on edge.  Then, even if a very small annoyance occurs during the customer’s experience, they may be primed to react passionately, and not in a good way.  Netflix has set up the UX experience to be on knife’s edge from the very start.

By contrast, the load screen to Temple Run features the entrance to an ancient stone temple, preceding a menu screen that mimics the same layout.  The aesthetics call to mind ancient ruins in a tropical environment, reminiscent of the stone temples found in the rain forests of Southeast Asia and Central America.  The typefaces, colors, and textures suggest an Indiana Jones-style adventure, and the arched entrance to the temple that is shrouded in darkness suggests the the user is entering this realm, embarking on a thrilling and exotic adventure.  The design creates a first impression that is critical for the user experience throughout.  The edginess and sense of danger are similar to the loading screen on the Netflix app, but in this case it’s appropriate to the UX.

There is much more to UX design than can be covered in one short article. But setting the tone with the user’s first impression, the concept of building a stage upon which the actors will invent the play, are critical foundational concepts.

The Higher Education Innovation Deficit

“There is a discrepency between the acceleration of culture and the slowness of architecture.” -Rem Koolhaas

This quotation by the architect Rem Koolhaas could be adapted as follows: There is a discrepency between the acceleration of culture and the slowness of higher education.  Culture, learning, and knowledge have in many ways far outpaced our universities.

In many fields, institutions of higher education have been and continue to be places of innovation and invention.  This may still be true in fields of science and technology, where research can pursue ideas without regard to commercial viability, an approach that is critical for making new discoveries.

However, most higher education institutions lag behind in innovation in the creative fields of art and design.  Traditional academic silos have become barriers to innovation in curriculum, in the acquiring of new knowledge, and in teaching students the critical skills required for the contemporary marketplace.  Innovation is happening at a much quicker pace in private companies where new ideas hold more weight than faculty status and conservative curriculum review committees.  The old academic system that used to protect academic integrity now hinders progress knowledge generation.  However, there are some higher education institutions that are breaking out of this rut.

The Arts Lab at the University of New Mexico is one example.  While many institutions pay lip service to “interdisciplinary” studies, few actually do it.  The Arts Lab combines programs from fine art and design with architecture and science that allows it to innovate in fields as diverse as film, new media, simulation, telehealth, game technology, image processing, scientific visualization, national security applications, and new markets for content.  Innovating across this vast range of areas is only possible by putting designers and creative people together with scientific and technical people, which is precisely what the Arts Lab does.

Innovation doesn’t just come from smart creative people.  It comes out of set of conditions that foster sideways thinking through the continuous exploration of lateral possibilities, encouraging networks that are fluid, and the collision of unconnected ideas.  These conditions are impossible within the iron-clad silos of traditional university schools and departments.

Some institutions, like the Savannah College of Art and Design, attempt to breach the academic silos with, for instance, a Center for Collaborative Learning that encourages, promotes, and facilitates cross-departmental collaboration for faculty. But in my discussions with faculty at SCAD this center is only partially successful because faculty have limited “extra” time and art still beholden to duties in their department.

Perhaps the old university model of schools and departments doesn’t work anymore.  Recombinant degrees may also serve to “save” university departments such as philosophy, history and literature that are still vitally important to a liberal arts education but suffer from reduced enrollment numbers and pressures from university administrations.  The Arts Lab suggests a new model, based not on disciplines but rather on synergies.