The Oldest Methodology In The Book: Adaptation

Inspired by Damien Newman's process
Inspired by Damien Newman’s process of design visualization

That’s a 30,000 foot view of Damien Newman’s process of design. It may be crude, but it’s absolutely clear: the unknown heading into Research leads to the sparks of Concepts and culminates with the clarity and details of Design.

While being a universal axiom of both art and design—we all start in a fog as we attempt to narrow down to any clear form of visual or behavioral communication—what it doesn’t begin to touch upon are the moving parts found within the various methods that we must employ in order to participate within & contribute to a product development team.

I’ve been thinking about the evolution of my own creative method for a while now, as I’ve moved from personal expression to participating within and creating Design methodologies for both start-up & large organizations over a 20+ year-long career. So if you’re inclined to join me on this journey, be warned up-front: I’m going to start at the beginning and that goes way back.

Being an Artist

Before, during and after art school, I was a drawer on most days, and an illustrator when things got fancy. As a drawer, I’d usually go directly to pad with either pencil or my rapidographs, often attempting to remove cognitive processing altogether with blind contour drawings. My portfolio for art school was filled with them. The subject matter was mine to define, and I finished when I felt it was complete.

As I became more serious, I’d spend time understanding the subject matter, find inspiration, and prep in a number of ways—taking photographs, sketching, cutting images out of magazines, you name it. If the illustration was for a class or a client, I’d spend time up front to understand the concept I was attempting to illustrate. My creative process evolved to include other people’s input for the first time.

artist ad design
“Dunk” (1988) & Sunkist: Nature’s Temptation (1991)

Undergrad Advertising Design

My illustration focus at Crouse College quickly took a turn to advertising design, and with it, a whole new set of creative challenges and processes were introduced. We discussed campaign parameters in studio, sequestered ourselves to research, sketch and write copy, and then returned to present three concepts and be critiqued by our peers. Repeat, narrow down, complete. It may not sound like much at first, but being able to clearly pitch an idea, and then take criticism as constructive rather than negative, is almost as important as the ideation process itself.

Towards the end of my undergrad career, we began to collaborate with Newhouse copy writers, prepping us for the machinations of a real world creative team (I never pursued a traditional print & tv agency career). With no developers to speak of—let alone bottleneck with our conceptual work—this was a pure commercial design process, but one with greater degrees of complexities than fine art and illustration when it came to client input and production (I’m not going to bore you with the details of setting type and creating animatics).

Designing Games

From ’94 to ’97, as I spent my days designing CD-rom games (I landed an internship at a production studio during college), the notion of a downloadable patch or version updates simply didn’t exist.

Just imagine if that were the case developing modern day apps or sites; would Agile even be a concept? As such, production houses didn’t concern themselves with developers constantly being busy shipping product. We began the project with one clear goal of burning a gold disk to take to a reproduction house as our literal shipping deadline (one day I’ll tell my story of a late night, deadline-pressed, speed-limit drive to Lancaster, PA to do just that). As such, there was no rollout plan aside from the inherently defined big bang and the design/development methodology took that into account.

big bang product development
From nothing to everything

We often started with a non-linerar, node-based script >> storyboarded key frames and interface behavior >> sketched sprite and background details >> and then focused on final animations and artwork. As we did so, the development team would ramp up their technical architecture and take new input from the creative staff to iterate their approach and code base. So yes, we intensely collaborated and dev prototyped & tossed out code, but it was more similar to the collaboration found on set and in pre & post-production for a film than a web-based product with an MVP.

Our reputations (and often compensation) were dependent on releasing a finished product that found a market. And from our publisher’s perspective, releasing product into the sales channels that existed prior to the robust long-tail online retail world existed, well, we only had one chance to make a hit impression with both reviewers and customers. So if you ever see me twitch when an MVP is mentioned, that’s simply muscle memory from a product age long ago. It subsides with a good night’s sleep.

Agency Life

As east coast game production dried up, I transitioned to the web and cut my teeth within a couple of agencies, first as an art director, and then as an information architect.

The creative process as an AD was somewhat similar to undergrad—though pitches and critiques absolutely stepped up in intensity—and my experience in the gaming world prepped me for collaborating with a development team. Similar to gaming, online campaigns, websites, screensavers, etc. were a first impression venture—both from a philosophical perspective and often logistically—so the notion of updates and additions were limited to fixing bugs. As an IA, the work was more focused on translating user requirements into sketches, schemas, taxonomies, etc., but the ideation, presentation and executing processes were similar.

In the late nineties, when agencies were in the luxurious position to offer soup to nuts service, development teams didn’t have complete agency in terms of driving innovation, as they were somewhat separated from the Design process—minus feasibility reviews of deliverables—in order to control costs. Only the best of the best shops could honestly tout a record of pushing the boundaries with their work, and those shops were doing it with pretty amazing collaboration and financial wrangling across the board.

linear design process
Traditional process for one-off production

Being truly iterative in a manner that fosters innovation is a rare bird for far too many engagements, and it has nothing to do with the skills of the people involved. Unless a firm has a well-funded retainer, most clients will devise a release plan and agencies will simply drive to meet those deadlines. Most will run a linear design process (some might iterate in varying degrees) and once specs are in the hands of development, the design firm will tend to fall out of the picture, leaving future iterative feature development to the client.

This is the future that all potential clients (from the perspective of an agency) are moving towards. They may invest upfront to bring in a shop to provide specific thinking or output (that often needs to come from the outside of the organization), but they’re leaning more and more on their in-house product design teams to take the majority of iterative responsibilities moving forward.

The very DNA of agency work makes a traditional definition of “innovation” difficult (think: an agency releasing an app on the scale of Google Maps), but if viewed specifically through the lens of expert, outside consulting along the lines of brand, behavioral design, technical approaches, etc., then an agency can most definitely help foster innovation within this business climate.

Collaborative method for ideation

It’s ok that the halcyon days of Silicon Alley are coming to an end, if they’re not already dead and buried. The industry, in general, needs to adjust their method from running processes that create documentation to ship a product for their clients to processes that, first and foremost, provide immediate returns on innovative thinking and design, such as with variants of Design Studio methods.

Innovation will be even more important for these firms to position themselves for future work as the client ecosystem continues to shrink and become redefined. The challenge is moving to business models and methods that can adapt to the shifting world around them to redefine what innovation looks like and how an external team can provide it.

Spin-Off Consultancy Within A Global IT Shop

I wanted to include this experience as it represented my first time working within a development-centric organization. Hired by the recently appointed corporate creative director—who was brilliant to work with, btw—my charge was to develop an information architecture practice with an operating methodology that could be rolled out the firm’s satellite agencies across the US.

Aside from forming strong allies with creative directors in each office—which became a difficult line to toe as they, understandably, felt comfortable running their own teams as they saw fit—the largest problem was that the business (business analysts and developers, in particular) operated in an object-oriented, UML methodology—beginning with JAD meetings that bore stacks of business requirements and development documentation bordering on ceremony for ceremony’s sake.

When I realized the client work was primarily website engagements, with the random software project that escaped from the IT sales team, it became apparent the scale of the challenge ahead of me.

How to drive a designer crazy, 101
How To Drive A Designer Crazy 101

My primary goal out of the gate was to figure out how to get tech management on-board with user-centered design in the midst of client engagements constantly kicking-off across the country. What I immediately discovered is that IA had to own as much of the actor-driven UML documentation as possible or we had no leg to stand on. While we were successful in taking ownership of certain aspects of the process—from key insertion points to deliverables—we just couldn’t nudge the overall methodology, which was a nightmare.

As we attempted deeper degrees of change, my efforts quickly became a game of tug of war with management, but this was the time we lived in (2001)—most of my design peers were experiencing similar struggles with development-centric organizations across the industry. Convincing an entrenched executive technology staff that Design needed to have a seat upstream to inform development of what users needed in their interfaces and in a way that would reduce documentation (read: billable hours) quickly devolved into a street fight.

The daily struggle for optimizing how Design fit into a potential innovative space created a blindspot for me to the possibilities of more collaborative opportunities (think Agile). Over the next five years, I unceremoniously took on the sub-conscious role of being a change agent for Design, which unbeknownst to me at the time was as important to me as producing innovative work.

Product Design in an Environment Not Ready to be a Product

In the period following my uphill battle within the IT world, and just prior to the rapid evolution surrounding Extreme Programming & Goal-Directed Design, I took a position to design streaming applications in the financial industry. Not only was this particular domain ripe for Design to impact innovation, but the industry as a whole was chasm for our craft. As with my previous stop, it took results to seal the deal of institutional change.

Over the three years that I was in their employ, Design moved from a position of downstream, last second patchwork application to an upstream presence that impacted every aspect of the brand made available to the public. But to describe our methodology in a simple sentence just isn’t possible; the firm knew they were providing a service to their clients, but at the highest positions internally, the authenticated space simply wasn’t perceived as a proper product. It was treated as the flip side of the marketing layer; the logged-in space that had a lot of traffic who were paying clients, so downtime was not an option.

cooper design
We ran a modified version of Cooper’s Goal-Directed Design

Put rudimentary, the history of the (acquiring) firm had Business providing Development with direction that described desired front or backend projects, with Marketing providing all visual assets when applicable. Eventually this process evolved into a prioritization list, but not close to an Agile list of product features. It was simply a list of everything from back-end to middleware to front-end projects, with very little degrees of specificity.

After successfully navigating the domain for a few years, I was given the opportunity to staff a centralized Design team to design the new trading platform. We operated in more of a waterfall manner than not, but our front-end team was in Design, so they were constantly prototyping wireframes. Without this approach, we would’ve stopped development in their tracks, but our team collaboration was top-notch. At any given time we had 10-15 active projects (pre-Basecamp or Teamwork era), which should have ground our productivity to a halt, but our internal processes adapted to produce on-time and above expectations.

We pushed forward within a Goal-Directed Design framework to produce solid work for our clients—both internally and externally—but any opportunity to proactively collaborate cross-functionally in a broader manner, to address the design of n number of other client touch-points in an innovative manner, was limited as the projects continued to stack. True collaboration between Design, Development & Business had a ways to go.

On My Own… And Sometimes Calling The Shots

Fot the past ten years, I operated a one-man design shop that would flex in size depending on the opportunities in front of me. Similarly, the particular engagements I landed (and the domains behind them) greatly influenced the process and methods available to employ.

For almost two years, we engaged with a huge player in the media industry and our design process with the internal project management and development teams was steeped in an early-stage (2007) Agile method. The project was a ground-up content management system specific enough for the needs of all internal users, but generic enough to be used to publish to a handful of prominent websites with millions of daily viewers driven by television traffic.

After beginning the gig with a large round of research to inform the general parameters of the product, my team (located across the US) would hold our own daily scrum each morning prior to joining in for the client scrum in the afternoon. We (myself, the PM and dev lead) discussed which features (from the approved scenarios) that we’d focus on completing over the following three week period to get us close to an MVP. The process gave our design team a week to sketch and specify, and then iterate with dev over the following two weeks.

While that was a rather optimal situation for us to cross-functionally innovate within, the most important aspects of a Lean process had to be handled in more conventional manners. This was an internal application for a huge, high-profile publishing organization, with a degree of politics surrounding its rollout. We simply couldn’t prototype, receive feedback and ship in a cyclical manner. Regardless, those decisions were out of my hands.

These methodology decisions matter, as method—collaboration, iteration, agility, etc.—directly impacts the possibility of creating a useful experience for people and positively impacting the bottom-line. Unfortunately, one only has so much input into the process when one is an outside consultant.

Adaptation to circumstances
Adaptation to circumstances

So Can I Have That With A Side Of Innovation?

We began with a process of design, which seems ridiculously simple looking back across this essay, and here I am, fully taking in how much I’ve had to adapt to my environment over the years to thrive, even survive at times. While I’ve admittedly operated with an agenda to nudge others to shift their perspective on how to work with Design over the past 20 years, the evolution of my understanding of Design and how it fits in this space has immensely changed as well.

Just as industries shift their operational tactics as the world evolves around them, we designers must also evolve in order to produce quality work in an ever-shifting technological environment with varying expectations from our clients.

My d/Design interests have never resided in the realm awards chasing and my fight to establish Design titles within an organization/across the industry ended when I started my own shop (thankfully, Design lost its training wheels in our industry over the last decade). My interests today lay solely in contributing to the formation of excellent product concepts and executing their design to the point of them becoming wildly successful.

Managing a design team within an innovative space whose expectation of designers—once artists free of parameters, input, and time constraints—is that they are not only able to see the forest through the trees, but do the difficult work of collaborating to nurture features into a production lifecycle, to refine a smart idea into a working behavior and onto a great product… that’s the rare orchid I’m looking to catch out in the wild.

Case Study: Redesigning Media Matters For America

media matters for america

In 2005 I collaborated with Khoi Vihn (a founding partner and Design Principal at Behavior Design) as a contract information architect to redesign the Media Matters for America website.

The organization had launched only a year prior in 2004, but with the explosion of political blogs beginning to make a dent in online conversations (pre-social media), their platform couldn’t handle or take advantage of the overflow of new traffic. If you’re not familiar with the media tracking platform, here’s how they describe themselves:

Media Matters for America is a Web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.

The team we worked with was led by a handful of senior research fellows who were mostly in charge of the position pieces on the site. While the incoming goal of the engagement was centered primarily around re-architecting the site to make specific content more findable and visible to users, the team knew that they were posting blindly to the web with only the hope of satisfying audience needs.

Who Actually Needs Monitored Media

In leu of a large research budget, we decided the next best thing was to run a user requirement session with our staff of in-house political consultants and subject matter experts. Armed with a bunch of large sticky pads and markers, we set up shop in their war room in downtown Washington DC and started in at the beginning:

  • What do we know about who comes to the site today?
  • Where do they visit; what do they do?
  • How can we better serve their particular needs?
  • Who isn’t currently aware of MMFA?
  • Let’s talk about potential users backgrounds and life goals…

When designing an information heavy, public website—as opposed to a task-oriented, internal application—it can be hard to narrow down design personas that provide useful context scenarios. Far too often demographic-generated market profiles end up being as discrete as you can get up front without either round after round of (costly) user interviews or an iterative (rare) infusion of analytics, feedback and other forms of user data as a project progresses.

In this case, we were able to start the conversation with a solid understanding of a user base that had very particular needs, and then extrapolate outwards to see if similar users might exist with even more discrete goals. Our generic MMFA user began to show enough specific tendencies for us to divide the profile into three primary design personas:

  • Jonathan Kenney represented the archetype of the journalist that MMFA knew was using the site for research purposes. Upon fleshing out his experiential and career goals, we recognized the opportunity to design a program that fed content into his topic-specific research needs
  • Jackson Martin represented the scores of political bloggers that were on the rise at the time. This was pre-social media, but the scenarios were similar: Make content findable, digestible and shareable.
  • Efrat Zori represented the mass of anti-war and left leaning activists who simply didn’t appreciate being lied to. MMFA can become a community for her to spend time both commenting and sharing media tips.

Somewhat outside our purview, and deeper into the objectives of MMFA itself, lay a fourth potential persona. Dharia Hsin represented a political staffer who was dealing with the media, putting out fires and suggesting policy strategy her congressman. We believed that she might also be pegged strategically by MMFA as a conduit to share misinformation research and video with her boss to assist movement on the hill.

Moving From Strategy To The Interface

Once we had our personas in play, we crafted a number of scenarios that positioned our users within their daily context and imagined, in the most optimal manner, how they might interact with MMFA. This narrative exercise allowed us to design solutions without the constraints of the interface. We then walked the client through each scenario, and made changes where necessary. Once we were in agreement on the strategic approach concerning user needs, I began to document lower-level scenarios—following key paths throughout this yet-to-be-sketched interface.
mmfa deliverables

The key paths began to resemble functional requirements, but not as an out-of-context collection of direction; rather, much more of an an organic semblance of explicit interface needs steeped in user goals—from particular widgets to search results hero campaigns to column requirements. We used this process to iterate internally and then with the client, eventually leading to design sketches… but with a twist.

As I began low-fidelity template sketches that were heavily laden with modular features, I visually assigned our personas to each content area. From the home page to content pages to search results, it helped to communicate the bridge between the strategy work and the interface to the team.
mmfa wireframes

Form there, as my sketches gained in fidelity and Khoi—probably the most renowned grid designer on the web in this era—worked with the team to establish interface details and a more sophisticated palette, we iterated on module placement, widget behavior and a metadata scheme. Previously, MMFA wasn’t tapping into tagging as an approach to make their content more available, either internally or externally. We made it a priority that all content published—research, video, article, etc.—would have an explicit approach to tagging, which helped the team align more closely with the citizen media launch spots (think: Technorati) of the time.

In the end, the MMFA team loved the work. Our strategy improved their community building efforts and laid the groundwork for MMFA to become the go to place for journalists looking for misinformation. Ten years after launch, not only can you experience the vast majority of the architectural foundation we put in play, but the domain has skyrocketed in popularity. Sure, the advent of social media is probably the primary reason for their popularity, but there aren’t many examples of domain designs that have stood the test of time for more than a decade. That’s very gratifying.

10 years after the engagement, the interface works and looks pretty much the same
10 years after the engagement, the interface works and looks pretty much the same

Ramping Down & Moving Forward

change in view

It won’t come as much of a surprise to those close to me that I’m planning on retiring dotmatrix studios as a business this winter. Housekeeping will keep me billing clients as such until the end of this calendar year, but any aspiration of evolving the business passed a few years back. It’s time to move forward, or as my favorite philosopher once said:

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
Alan Watts

I’ll continue to consult independently while I shift my focus to pursuing the right fit of an in-house design management position.

Quite honestly, it’s a few years past time for me to return to the challenge of building, collaborating and developing professionally with an internal team. And regardless of the results of my full-time pursuits, I’m going to pursue work that is more strategic in nature, which is not to say I won’t dive deep on projects, but at this point in my career I’m exponentially more valuable upstream consulting strategy, defining direction, mentoring designers and working cross-functionally.

Before my life becomes too hectic in this next phase of my career, I figured this might be a good time to document the history behind my studio (RIP), hash through its evolution and take into account the positives that I took away from these past 10 years. By no means do I consider this to be a case study of any particular importance, but it could provide interesting fodder for those looking to strike out on their own.

86 Bedford Street

When my stint with Ameritrade ended a decade ago and I moved from Jersey City to Greensboro, my professional goals were simple enough: to open my own shop. After three years of negotiating the waters of a development-centric organization sans executive Design support, I had become disillusioned with the politics of leading an in-house product design team, on deadline, while fighting turf wars to meet the needs of our clients.

In comparison, the notion of running my own shop, making decisions that fit my approach to design, business and the ripening opportunities of the web was more than appealing.

After a few months of consulting I quickly came to realize that I wasn’t interested in constructing a traditional agency; I had zero desire to get caught in the loop of chasing down work in order to maintain a bench of designers. That was when I took inventory and came to understand that my interests revolved around three distinct axes:

  1. to collaborate with as many of the best and brightest I could find
  2. to work on projects that I found to have value beyond a paycheck
  3. to immerse myself in community-building efforts

This “mission” is what drove the choice of the dotmatrix name and mark. Riffing off an analog printer’s output—imagining individual members of a team or community coming together to create something larger than themselves—within the spoken equivalent to a top-level domain, the branding was ironic, cryptic, geeky, aloof, and executed with sophistication (thanks, Tina)
sean coon office

After putting 10+ years in the industry, I was still an artist at heart who trained as a designer and learned the art of business out of necessity. If I was going to run my own shop, it would be by my own rules, so I decided up front that I wasn’t going to chase RFPs and local clients—let alone propose panels and angle for speaking engagements—but rather invest my time and efforts in openly posting my thoughts and ideas about our quickly evolving 2.0 world and attempt to meet potential collaborators.

From ’05 to ’07 I attended a good number of conferences—from SXSW to Emerging Technologies at MIT—and met some brilliant folk along the way (such as Tara, Doc, Nate, and David). The more I posted, the more I became a part of the 2.0 conversation and the more project feelers I’d get in return. Over the last ten years, every project I’ve worked on was the result of either a past colleague reaching out, a referral or someone pinging me based on my writing.

dotmatrix studios never marketed itself with a website or a twitter account; we were the speakeasy that you came to know by word of mouth.

The Work

One of the advantages of setting up shop in a city like Greensboro is the cost of living, which can give you the opportunity, if you’re so inlined, to balance your time between paid gigs and creative pursuits.

After contracting with Behavior Design to rethink and design the Media Matters for America platform, I had the opportunity to assemble a full team to design the CMS for Scripps Networks, which was to be used to publish, manage and monetize content for multiple high-visibility online properties (i.e. The Food Network, HGTV, DIY, etc.). I’d co-lead scrum calls on Skype and interview users on location every few weeks. Working out of offices Knoxville and NYC with a team based in both, including London and Minnesota, the project was a bonafide feat of collaboration.

In my (few) off-hours, I ended up becoming waist deep in the local music scene, and after watching my musician friends struggling landing crowds at shows and getting their music to the masses, I came up with the idea for the dotmatrix project (DMP). Encompassing all three of dotmatrix studios’ mission elements (collaboration, value project, build community), DMP was an experience design challenge both online and off.
dmp banner greensboro

Offline, we crafted the shows to be experienced by the audience as a mixture of a studio recording, a video shoot and a live show, which got the locals talking and showing up in numbers; online we posted high quality documentation of the shows and promoted both the documentarians and musicians as if they were all rock stars.

The goals of the project were large (win grants to pay documentarians and open a venue were just two), and the commitment exhausting (I carried equipment with the engineers, contributed to designing & hanging show posters, produced the shows, managed all creative collaboration, etc.) and in the end it was just too much to juggle with full-time paid design work. We produced our last show in May of 2010 and imbibed a few tall ones to celebrate a good run of close to three years worth of monthly shows—all through the efforts of a volunteer community of more than 200 local, creative souls.

For the last five years, dotmatrix studios began the slow ramp down from taking on team-oriented projects to individual consulting projects, with me eventually teaming up with a few different shops: Bluespark Labs (where I took a UX Director role for a minute until I felt the itch to try one last time to make dotmatrix work) and my current partner, Analogous. The work has been challenging and interesting—from the startup to to Indiana University Libraries to the Inter-American Development Bank—but priorities change.

It’s A Wrap

Sometimes I look back on where I was in 2005 and wonder if I made the right decision to move from NYC to the south; to leave Silicon Valley offers on the table in order to startup my own business. I have zero regrets. While ten years removed from being employed by a large company might make it difficult to transition back into a full-time product team, too many amazing things have happened to me over the past ten years to think twice about my decision.

If you ever have the chance to do your own thing, regardless of the obstacles that lay in your path, be sure to go for it. Take that risk, as life is too short, or as the kids say nowadays, “YOLO.”

Dislike Within The Facebook Ecosystem

facebook dislike

The recent announcement of Facebook “working on” a Dislike feature could read like an overstated talking point for a seemingly simple update. I mean, design an icon, add it to all posts and register the count, right? What could be so involved to make this such a “working” situation?

Brand integrity and the bottom-line would be the short answer.

When Like Is >> Love

This “minuscule” feature update has probably been tossed between Facebook upper management for a while now, but not due to a “slow to respond to feedback” perception as many users might believe.

The Like behavior has become ubiquitous with the Facebook brand; it’s one of the core experiences we have when when using the product. I’d imagine management realizes that Like has transcended the brand itself, becoming a pseudo-proprietary eponym for all likable (favorite, best, etc.) interactions online. Even offline the term “like,” used in practically any context, has become the a collective linguistic signifier for the upturned thumb, which equates with the Facebook brand.

That’s a valuable interactive component for an online product; as valuable as asking for a Kleenex instead of a tissue. As my former colleague Dan Saffer describes it:

[…] Microinteractions, when done well, can become Signature Moments that are associated with the brand. Facebook’s “Like” is one great example. […]

Facebook isn’t going to disrupt such brand DNA haphazardly. While Dislike may make perfect sense to the user within the context of registering a quick opinion on a post, it introduces tangible degrees of dissonance to the purity of the brand as a diametrically opposed interaction. Disrupting such a key aspect of the brand—with the potential of turning the simplicity of a Like experience into something heading in the direction of the faceted rankings of posts on Buzzfeed—takes a measured approach.

So yes, it’s a simple execution, but not from a brand strategy perspective.. and even more so when considering the bottom-line.

Adding Up The Ads

facebook like ads

From individuals (artists, musicians, politicians, etc.) to businesses (phone companies, restaurants, airlines, etc.), people have recognized the value of a Facebook presence, understanding that a high numbers of likes on a Page can provide:

  • a perception of credibility in the field, such as a musician with a large following looking to book gigs with established venues
  • an avenue for traditionally non-sexy, non-communicative brands, such as an AT&T, to get placed in the news feed of users

This understandable path to credibility and gained attention has become a strong revenue model for Facebook, as in-product advertising—presented to highly targeted users—drives conversion to Liked Pages.

So where would Dislike begin and end in this business model?

I would imagine that if Dislike is rolled out to all posts and comments, users would expect the ability to downgrade everything else as well. AT&T’s 5M plus Likes looks “impressive” when positioned alone; add in the context of, say, 35M dislikes and… “Houston, we have an issue here.”

This is the fine line that Zuckerberg tows.

One persona—the daily user of Facebook that posts to generate conversation with friends and/or the general public—would thoroughly enjoy the ability to provide “truth” to everything; from politicians to corporations to local restaurants to individuals. But revenue providing personas? They’re not going to enjoy catching one-to-one cancellations of hard-earned/paid for Likes.

It’ll be interesting to see how Facebook handles the different interests in play, though I have a pretty strong feeling that they’re going to lean in the direction of catering to the user base who parts with cash. Call me crazy.

A Wrench In The Algorithm

facebook algorithm

Lastly, and potentially most interesting to me (aside from people de-friending people left and right for dropping explicit, negative, system feedback such as DISLIKE!), is how the behavior of Disliking would affect the News Feed. Here’s how Facebook positions its purpose:

The goal of News Feed is to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time so they don’t miss the stories that are important to them.

Facebook designed the approach for how to filter content based on user behavior, and then codified these specific choices it into an algorithm. Of course, no one will be 100% happy with the results, but that’s to be expected and quite honestly, we’re not dealing with brain surgery here. As long as the context of inclusion feels like it’s in the ballpark, user won’t complain… too much. That said, the behavioral decisions are somewhat obtuse at times. Here’s the approach (from 2013) with my comments in bold:

  • How often you interact with the friend, Page, or public figure (like an actor or journalist) who posted – Do I really want to see more content from someone I negatively interact with? Isn’t there a good chance that content hidden might be more appropriate?
  • The number of likes, shares and comments a post receives from the world at large and from your friends in particular – Who’s to say I consider my friends as equitable partners in my world view? If one friend’s posts surfaces more often, and I explicitly interact with them, does that actually mean I want to do the same down the road?
  • How much you have interacted with this type of post in the past – Can the system recognize “type” beyond content types of video and music, and explicitly understand the difference between politics and sports? Or more specifically, left vs. right or Jets vs. Patriots?
  • Whether or not you and other people across Facebook are hiding or reporting a given post – If I hide or report a post, the post is gone. Does the algorithm look at the “type” I reported and draw conclusions about future “similar” content?

Now toss the Dislike feature into the mix. Am I disliking my friend’s contextualization of a post, more so than the post itself? If I’m passionate about the subject matter, I probably wouldn’t want to see less of it based on a dislike; I may want to dislike more of the same to remain vigilant with my position and potentially impact other people’s perspectives. It’s a tricky balance.

While I’m constantly berating myself for the amount of time I spend on Facebook—tending to draw some pretty ill conclusions about what drives our society’s collective addiction to connecting, pontificating and arguing—I have to admit that this evolution intrigues me. Don’t agree? Like this post and I’ll argue my position on your wall.

New Product Launch: IDB Project Mapping

idb project mapping

As we wrapped up the redesign of the IDB website, the team reached out to see if Analogous could assist with a redesign of their mapping tool, MapAmericas.

MapAmericas was used as a secondary mechanism for IDB employees in the field to input project data, with the additional benefit of geo-targeting projects and their corresponding results. The public-facing map featured every project across Latin America, introducing users to contextual information within a click. The concept was useful, but the interface segmented projects by country, had limited filtered views and the iconography overlapped and confused navigation. With a low adoption rate by all users, we had our work cut out for us.

As I wrote up a heuristic evaluation of the user experience, the design team researched mapping solutions out in the wild to review the variety of visual and experiential options in play. After a review of all our findings, we settled in on an overarching approach:

  1. The project map couldn’t exist as a destination point in the global navigation. While it had the potential of being be a smart, useful visualization of regional projects, it just didn’t fit the context of how users browse or might use it. We decided early on that the map needed to be accessed contextually from project, sector and country pages while providing avenues to return to the same templates when appropriate
  2. There’s a large amount of structured data found on project pages, but only structured in terms of the information design of the page, which allowed for great readability. We needed to free up data as explicit attributes for filtering purposes to navigate within the map interface.
  3. The overlap issue needed to be address, so we decided upon a clustering approach for projects living in nearby proximity at high-level views, and situations when exact geo-coordinates overlapped. We also created two tiers to the map—a pre-project view and a project/results view—which allowed for different behaviors specific to the context of the current task.


project filter wireframe

The resulting experience now allows users to view projects across all of Latin America, but subsets particular to persona interests. So an Education Minister in Bolivia can view all education projects in her country, and then broaden the results to show education project across the entire continent, allowing for better context. Similarly, data points such as total cost and phase were made available as filters, so that same user can now view projects in the approval phase that cost $50M-$100M. These were simple, yet powerful changes to the browse paradigm.

project view wireframe

Once the user drills down to a particular project view, results are now explicitly tied to the project, whereas previously, results lived within their own view with no discernible relationship to a project and/or a mechanism to get more project information. The cognitive result is an immediate processing of scale—how many outcomes were produced by a single initiative.

A decent amount of code tweaking remains in order to get the experience exactly right, but that should occur over the next few months. Once we have usage numbers, I’ll update this post.

RETHINKING: Planet Fitness Mobile App


As a member of Planet Fitness for over seven years now, I have to admit that I had not once thought about the utility of a mobile app. My personal context scenario is focused on making it to the gym first and foremost, then jogging for 20 minutes, lifting free weights, cooling down with cardio and dragging myself home.

But that’s my routine when I’m casually hitting the gym; for those brief stretches when I’m serious, my routine becomes highly structured and dependent on there being low traffic on both machines and weights. That made me wonder—could a mobile app actually assist me attain my goals?

The Current State

When I imagine the potential for a gym app, I think of an experience that’s going to assist me with my fitness goals and the close context surrounding that primary set of scenarios. Planet Fitness doesn’t view their app in the same light, as the focus is centered around marketing their business to the general public, rather than assisting a member in their workout. 90% of the navigation leads to sections that could be the responsive output of a marketing site for a mobile devise.


From a list of local gyms to member benefits to a PF store, the marketing navigation clouds potentially useful member interactions. Even the “Planet of Triumphs” section—one with an authentication requirement of members—is set up for members to help market the PF brand by sharing our workout stories. In a world of blogs and social media, why exactly would I or any other member waste time with this feature?

The responsive version of a well designed site should be able to cover these requirements, as potential members will most likely end up there via organic search. Why would a non-member download a branded mobile app? It should be built with highly specific goals of members in mind by presenting highly specific member features.

Highly Specific Member Features

Once you get past the marketing noise, there is one section geared towards supporting member workouts: the My Fitness area. The primary features include:

  • Scheduled Workouts: Set up a cardio or weight-lifting workout, choosing from a list of activities with times, effort levels, weight, number of reps & sets etc.
  • Log an Exercise: If not working from a predefined calendar workout, members can document their workouts
  • Start Your Exercise: Countdown based on in-the-moment choice of exercise and all its details
  • Sync a Wearable: Link a Fitbit or Jawbone fitness tracker to the details of an exercise
  • View Reports: Goal Progress, Day/Week/Month reporting (hours, exercises, calories burned)

Currently, I bring a workout calendar on two sheets of paper to the gym, covering each day of the week for two weeks, with weight, rep and set info. I have to admit, it’s somewhat annoying to walk around with it and even keep track of it at home. PF has made the process of creating a calendar with both cardio and weight specifics super easy:


PF could’ve stopped there, but they dug in deeper to support member needs, adding the ability to sync with a fitness tracker and review progress reports automatically generated by previous workouts. These features create closure around the context of workout goals—the reason we all drag ourselves to the gym in the first place.


This set of features should be the absolute primary purpose of the app. Aside from the rare need for finding a PF when on the road, members shouldn’t even see the corporate marketing content. That said, PF is missing out on supporting one huge scenario, core to the gym workout experience.

A Packed Gym

How many times have you shown up to the gym and had to wait for a treadmill or exercise bike or a series of free weight stations, throwing off your schedule? What about when you’re just getting back to the gym and simply want less people around as you try to reach a 15 minute mile? Could the mobile app present data to help with these scenarios? I think so.

What about a visualization on the main screen that presents the current capacity of the gym? 40%, 80% full, etc.? Since PF members use bar codes on a keychain to check-in as they enter the facility, the entry data is already captured. When signing up for the “Planet of Triumphs” feature on the current app, a member enters the same bar code ID# to be verified as an actual member, so the two systems already speak to one another.

In a perfect world, members would check in AND out with their cards, creating conclusive data re: time spent in facility. This would allow for explicit visualizations of traffic in the moment, and reporting of historical trends for, say, a Friday night or a specific holiday. Another option would be to tap into the phone’s GPS to approximate when the member leaves the gym, though that might have unintended consequences regarding privacy issues. It may even be worth it to PF to incentivize checkout behavior by members, but even without exit data, PF could present occupancy patterns based on check-ins at certain times of the day. With more than enough employees roving the floor, they could also manually input % of cardio and weight stations used on a half-hour basis.

These are the scenarios that matter. Get me in the door, no waiting, into my routine and help me accomplish my goals. Develop that app, strip away the noise and members of a $10 per month gym would gladly participate in the best type of marketing corporate could ask for: word of mouth.