Patterns And Asks Left And Right, With Innovative Iterations Kinda, Sorta, Somewhat In Sight

by Ben WisemanIllustration by Ben Wiseman

I published an article on Medium last week entitled, Understanding Snowflakes, Wheels, and Innovation.

The gist of the five-minute read is pretty straight-forward: smart modern day product teams aren’t slaving through 12 hour days within a high-cost, iterative gestation process in the pursuit of a “born perfect” entry to market; they’re most likely stitching together an experience based on a saturated market’s best practice patterns (think: regenerative braking in an electric car, or access to apps for smartphones).

Only once the business deems the market viable will a deep investment in major differentiators begin.

None of that is news to product teams, but what I’m discovering in my first B2B enterprise software rodeo is that the sales variable is much more influential than I had understood when breaking into the space six months ago. From shipping expectations to requirements definition to even the definition of the interaction model itself, sales greatly influences product across the board.

This reality has me attempting to work out an equation to immediately support ever-spawning sales profit arteries while nurturing an innovative and iterative product design culture, one that will have much more impact on our end users the farther we go down the line.

A brave new world. Interesting stuff.

Design, Post-Modern

For 20 years, I’ve been pining for the industry to consider interactive design as something far more than pushed pixels, first & foremost. Looks like even industrial design is becoming a second class citizen to the experience of things.
jonathan-ive

Has Jonathan Ive Designed Himself Out Of Existence?

[…] Think of massively linked datasets on user behavior, which allow your phone to guess what you want to do, when you want to do. Think of digital assistants able to parse even the vaguest commands and parcel out all the sub tasks to the right app—”Hey, can you make a reservation at one of my favorite restaurants this Friday, and make sure that my best friends get the invite too?”

These things are invisible. We can’t hold them, and the sense in which they are “designed” will be vastly different from any piece of hardware we have today, or even any piece of software, no matter how beautiful. […] The next great design monuments won’t be easily displayed in a design museum. They’ll instead be the systems and incentives that dissolve all the messiness of our whims into that simple bit of feedback that happens when your smartphone listens to whatever convoluted thing you’re asking about, and simply says, “Okay.”

3, 2, 1… MedBridge.

surf's up

On May 5th, a Thursday, I heard back from the COO at MedBridge; my references had finally checked out, and their offer to join the team as their Product Design Manager was official. Just three days later, I found myself on a plane to Seattle and started work the very next day. To say the last month and a half has been an acclimation whirlwind would be the mother of understatements.

I’ve been somewhat of a lone wolf for the last eleven years, so it’s going to take me a while to wrap my head around what I can share that’s job specific, but I’ll figure all that out in due time. In the meantime, I’ll stick to posting a smorgasbord of product design thinking that’s been rattling around in my head.

As for MedBridge; what a great opportunity to do work that truly impacts people’s lives.
medbridge

The company started five years ago with a focus on creating high quality online courses for physical therapists and a HEP platform to improve patient outcomes. Since then, they’ve invested in a production studio, and the product line has expanded to support enterprise solutions, along with continuous shifts towards the latest advancements in the field. As a bootstrapped company, we’re as agile of a business as you’ll find in our industry, which allows us to nimbly pivot to address immediate needs—whether cementing our strengths or addressing our shortcomings.

While the design challenges are deep and wide—from overhauling the existing interaction model to standardizing our patterns and visual language to impacting the next wave of products from the moment they become a directive—it’s the exact challenge that I’ve been looking for. The last time I had a similar opportunity, my team made some serious waves in the financial industry with the Apex platform.

Surf’s up.

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.
dmp-site

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 Knewton.com to FXCM.com 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.
family

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 of my friends 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.