Writing 2.0: On Being Transparent

transparency

We who blog, incessantly rave about the progressive attributes of transparency. It’s not a beckon call that we own; political activists have been screaming for transparency in government since, well, forever. Transparency provides credibility. The truth shall set you free. You pick the cliche, they’re all spot on.

Well, in this Web 2.0 world that we live in, transparency is beginning to take root in interesting ways. Take the age old process of writing non-fiction; I’m starting to see authors not only openly talking about their books in gestation, but reaching out to Joe Q. Public for participation in the writing process itself.

Since April of last year, Chris Anderson has been publicly blogging his thoughts about The Long Tail, the term he coined proper in 2004. His blog tagline describes his transparent approach as, “A public diary on the way to a book.” One of his recent posts, Death of the Blockbuster, is a perfect example of the transparent methodology I’m talking about:

I’ve been collecting data on just how bad it’s getting in the music industry, and this useful list of the 100 all-time bestselling albums offered another lens on the meltdown. I looked up the release dates of each and grouped them in half-decade bins. The data speaks for itself:

Chris Anderson graph

If you want to do your own analysis, the underlying data is in this spreadsheet.

Anderson engages with his audience, invites them to participate in his thesis and provides the underlying data behind his perspective. The above post has generated a link from USA Today, numerous comments and two follow-up posts that further this particular aspect of Anderson’s thesis. Aside from his trademarked phrase, “The Long Tail,” the entire blog is registered under a Creative Commons license, a copyright permission which allows anyone to replicate his content (as I did above), as well as to use his research finding for their own use (as long as they give proper attribution to Chris wherever they publish).

Share and share alike and build a better world.

This is how open, collaborative, iterative development works. Chris is writing a book, one which he’ll profit from, but his open-thinking and shared research and knowledge will undoubtedly assist others in their ventures, impacting industry in various degrees.

everything

David Weinberger, who is knee-deep in the process of writing his latest book, “Everything is Miscellaneous,” employs a similar approach to writing.

Joho the Blog isn’t a 100% topical slave to the complexities of data, information and knowledge (I rather enjoy his political and cultural posts), but when David does dive in, you can sense where his head is in the writing process. With some posts, he’ll directly reach out for assistance and perspective, while other posts are less direct with explicit ties, but steeped in organizational memes. David blogged before he took on his latest book, so he understands the value of releasing ideas out into the ether. Hell, he co-wrote the book on it.

Ideas out, ideas in. Links out, links in.

Now, this approach is far from widespread, as the majority of books still hit “the shelf” with guarded marketing plans as the only touchpoint into the potential reader community. Authorship equates with authority in many circles — circles which seem to care more about ownership of a thesis, rather than the conversation surrounding the subject matter and the avenues newfound knowledge takes once digested. But since the shelves themselves are changing and mainstream journalists and authors are beginning to blog themselves, this just might catch on and become SOP.

What would be the ramifications of such transparent collaboration beyond the target of binding particular pages?

David hosted an interesting thread about hyperlinks subverting hierarchies a few weeks back where the conversation shifted between the lines of power, organization and connections between people. Following that premise within the context of this post, imagine if authors who write life and death non-fiction (say, covering the war in Iraq) opened up to allow for community participation… Could the impact be greater than the explosion of citizen media alone?

Methinks so.

Even Jackson Pollock Had A Method

pollock

Designers are held to a double-standard, especially those of us who design for the interactive medium.

The stereotype of a designer is that he or she is self-referential with their design approach. Businesses cringe when faced with the prospect of bringing in a new designer to a product team. I mean, come on, all designers are “shiny-shiny” types, looking for that Golden Pencil or Webby Award, right?

Product management talk about wanting designers who have a rationale before suggesting a change to an interface behavioral pattern or a different approach to existing design patterns, which is understood. We’re designers, not artists. Designers should have a process that substantiates their output; a smart, talented, non self-referential designer, able to take both the domain and its particular users into account when designing interfaces.

Fair enough.

So designers expose their craft and processes to businesses and product teams in order to show that they get it. Seasoned designers are able to have a conversation about a business model; they can talk shop with engineers; they can subjugate their own preferences in order to understand the needs of the end user and the possibilities that lie beyond the present user experience.

The aforementioned approaches aren’t optional to practice the craft; these are the multi-disciplinary skill-sets required for the role.

“Innovation comes from rapid iterations of features” they say. “Okay” the designer adds, “Let’s just make sure we’re focusing on the right features, useful to actual people.”

Product management doubles down on their roadmap, project managers steel up, developers get frustrated, cats sleep with dogs, etc.

The intent behind crafting an interface is to create a representational model that reflects, as close as possible, the end user’s mental model regarding their goals, desires, and ability to use technology; successful interface design and ux isn’t about deploying an implementation model.

– Me

So why is the method of getting to the interface so disconcerting?

Designers create user archetype(s) and scenarios to represent the potential user base and their needs and desires in a product. If the synthesized findings confirm the company’s vision—from c-level to product owners—they can then be translated by the design team into interactions in the interface to either support or change user behavior.

This is how refined, holistic user interfaces are created across a single product, an entire domain, and even into external product and brand communication. Design a cross-functional, collaborative process which may or may not impact the core hypothesis behind a product’s position, but definitely will improve the user experience of the product itself.

If my non-designer colleagues in this field believe that experience design begins and ends at the interface level, where it gets pretty, then I guess I understand the hesitation to leverage our methods.

Maybe us designers should “just get drunk and throw paint on the canvas.”

Ajax… About Time

So it’s Friday night and I find myself cruising around the web after a night out. In my travels, I landed on JJG’s blog and subsequently stumbled into his Ajax essay on the Adaptive site. The only real conversation I’ve had on the topic was a recent conversation with a client-side developer pal and after reading Jesse’s well defined description of the approach and the benefits, my initial reaction was pretty much, “ok.”

I don’t say that to offend, nor downplay the great client-side work anyone is doing right now, it’s just that I’ve been immersed in online application design for years now and have always attempted to communicate these types of design solutions to developers. I say “these types of solutions” lightly, as I’m a designer, not a developer, so from my perspective these communication calls have been screaming to be stiched together for a while now.

Jesse spoke to the difficulties of designing online applications due to the technical workarounds which have been historically necessary to successfully support innovative interface behavior. While I agree on the impact on next-generation type apps, I disagree with the approach to design, for while practicing interaction design, scenarios shouldn’t be modeled based on technological constraints.

As David Fore of Cooper exhorts, the period of scenario modeling should be a period of making magic—that’s how innovation occurs to support user needs; the limitations of the front-end evolve over time. I agree that one has to understand the constraints of the medium when designing for it, but only to a degree, otherwise one can handcuff a more useful experience by setting the box too tight.

So how can one design for the user, while considering possibilities of Ajax?

While at Ameritrade I was able to convince management to include our relatively small client-side development team in my UX team. That brief organizational commitment created a huge opportunity for me to espouse innovation and collaboration across both designers and developers. I didn’t know how long the group structure would last, so I instantly switched up working from the level of context scenarios and began to iterate on features

We used the phrase “push the browser until it pushes back” more times in our weekly staff meetings than could be counted. Our client behaviors needed to be supported in our online applications, so in turn, I refused to limit us to any narrow definitions of client-side technology.

snapticket

Thankfully, my CSD team latched onto my mantra with vigor and did the heavy lifting to evolve our conversations into working code, while myself and the IxD team returned to iterating user needs into interface behavior.

Did the team use the Ajax approach per se? Probably not, but they pretty much pushed the browser until their SOP is now reflected in some of the latest Ajax app behaviors, such as Gmail.

Business as usual for design and development at Ameritrade began to evolve.

Were the solutions as soundly executed across the board as Google’s current attempts in leveraging an Ajax approach? I’d have to say no again, as we were performing Ajax-type workarounds on the fly. But the mere fact that the team addressed dynamic interface scenarios on a case-by-case basis, with dynamic executions on the presentation layer, led our marketing group to center their next campaign around the slogan:

Welcome to the 21st Century. Now trade like it.

The ripple effect of progressive experience design was contained, as it only applied to the authenticated Apex trading platform, but Barrons seemed to notice it by giving us a 4 star rating (up from 2.5 stars the previous year).
deposits_withdrawals_ui
A switch to a complete Ajax approach at Ameritrade today would entail a short period of refactoring, but would make the current authenticated interface move from “singing” to “harmonizing.”

Ajax should mark the sweet spot of the golden age for presenting complex scenario relationships as simplified behavioral experience in the browser.

Elegance in motion.

The CLIENT Is The Bottom Line

collaboration

In an industry such as online brokerage, one would assume that the client would always be at the center of focus. And while most of the time that is the case—firms do create products and services that respond to client needs in order to grow their business—the underlying focus on the bottom line of a publicly traded company often demands executive attention, which can obscure best practice methodology, client initiatives and how to make innovation a reality due to the pressures and expectations of The Street.

Therein lies the problem: Only a sustained and coordinated focus on understanding client goals, needs, desires, etc. can innovate in a manner that is useful to clients.

Collaboration

If clients can recognize the value proposition of an offering, firms will find clientele. That’s an understandable equation. But the daily costs of doing business can drive internal decisions that affect the quality and focus of a product, let alone how teams work together. Why change how an organization works when the sausages have been made the same for as long as we can remember?

Without a charge from executives, management tends to gravitate towards less external collaboration and less spending, rather than re-investing within their tribes of the organization. Whether such decisions lead to multi-tasking employees or avoiding methodological advances, working within conservatively defined parameters lessens risk in the short-term.

So how can a business operate in a manner that supports clients goals at a desirable investment level without risking management positions by putting the business in a tenuous position in the process?

The glue is the simple concept of collaboration.

Harder Than It Sounds

For the sake of simplicity, imagine a company divided into four primary units:

  • Business
  • Design
  • Technology
  • Marketing

In this simple example, nothing could be accomplished with quality, speed or at reduced costs without close collaboration.

  • Marketing and Design need to share quantitative and qualitative research (respectively) to assist the Business in developing an explicit understanding of client needs. These qualified findings can then be prioritized by Business and Technology in terms of viability and feasibility (respectively)
  • Business, Design and Technology must collaborate during all phases of product design in order for goal-directed and innovative experiences to become a reality. This collaboration is always crucial, but even more so when first (or speed) to market is the goal
  • Marketing must be looped into all Design points to ensure that brand communication meets brand experience. Marketing plans can then be created to introduce the client experience to the market in proper fashion

Yes, this is oversimplified, but the point is that successful product teams aren’t led by management that hunkers down, walling off their teams and agendas from other groups. There will always be office politics, no matter the domain, but when conceiving, designing, developing and launching interactive products, collaboration is essential to the success of not only the product, but the overarching brand.

The current buzz within the walls of Ameritrade has shifted from constantly touting our top operating margin in the industry to making transparent a commitment to designing an organization around the needs of our clients, while keeping that industry leading operating margin.

After a major merger (Datek Online), we’ve slowly grown in the direction of living and breathing the above degree of collaboration over the past few years, as Design has become an understandable entity, rather than the black box that development once considered us to be.

Keeping a competitive edge in this industry and on The Street is a tricky business. Producing killer products for clients can be made a lot simpler.