Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Branding is like therapy" is not a new idea. There are at least a couple of shops out there that do something like that (google "brand therapy" for examples).  But from my experience,  branding is more like therapy for children rather than adults. The clients are usually company owners (parents) who care very much about their child (the brand) and sense something is off, but they don't really know what to do. Say, Sally isn't making friends easily at school. Or Bobby seems to be incapable of listening to anything longer than fifteen seconds. In the business world, it would be Brand X's fails to attracts any customers despite the best intentions or brand Y's retention rates are dismal despite good enrolment rates for the trials.

Best case scenario, the doting parents realized there's something going on, admitted it to themselves and are now seeking professional help. Sometimes they don't admit something is wrong until when things are going really bad: Sally's behaviour is just short of asocial and Bobby's marks tank precipitously. Most parents try to enforce some discipline or gentle (or not so gentle) encouragement here, often with disastrous results.

Now this is not to say that all parents are doing terrible job parenting when they discipline or encourage their children. But it's important to understand that not all techniques work for all kids or brands. Kids and brands have distinct personality traits and individual development schedules. It is when the parents or business owners deny their darlings their personality when the problems happen. Sally is just an introvert, leave her alone and let her socialize with small groups of children. Bobby could benefit from removing some noise from his environment to help him concentrate. Brand X is attractive to their management but not the target audience. Brand Y fails to differentiate.  One child psychologist friend of mine once said parents can't make their child better. They can only make them worse.

Child therapy often involves their parents because the parents often need some correctives in their behaviours as well. Branding would be incomplete without at least some degree of soul-searching on behalf of the brand owners. Why are they in it? How far are they willing to go with this brand? What's really best for the brand as opposed for its owners? Good branding exercises work in both directions — towards the brand's outer world and towards its home life with the owners and stakeholders. It's not that brands (like kids) are difficult or boring, it's that they need to be allowed to shine in their own way.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Native American walks into an art museum...

I am paraphrasing from some source I can't remember now. But the story goes something like this: a Native American chief was invited to and Art Museum for an exhibition. After he roamed about the museum for a while, he was asked what he thinks. He said he was sad. When asked why he said "You paint these beautiful landscapes and put them on the walls  to preserve them. I am surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful landscapes everyday, and they are being destroyed by you people."

Both art and UX rely on their audience to learn a language. If someone has never seen a painting it would be hard to explain to him why Mona Lisa is so important. They would need to be educated about things like painting, portrait, Renaissance and Da Vinci to appreciate it. If someone has never used an email, they would need to learn some basics of how Internet, on-screen typing, and interface buttons works before they can use it.

Let's oversimplify for the sake of the argument that the "goodness" of an artwork comes from it's ability to induce the sense of enlightenment — the sense of connectedness to something larger then them, the sense of awe in front of the grandeur of the universe, etc. A good artwork can invoke all those feelings in the person experiencing it. The "goodness" of UX then comes from its usability — how much is it being used. Here a very important question also arises if the user interface opens doors to the information or function that is relevant to the users. If it doesn't, the interface alone won't make it relevant. Even if it's good it would be a good UX on a useless app and it still won't be used.

In either way for the user to  experience a rapture in front of an artwork or to giggle with delight over an app, it has to be relevant to them. There is some education that and "acquired taste" that can and should happen, for sure. Learning makes us all better people. But the question of relevancy will come up again and again.

The audience can learn the "language" in which the object is speaking (Louvre, paint, user interface, keyboard) and learn to appreciate what the object is saying (Renaissance, mystery, instant communication, connectedness, affection). But then again, if what the object is saying does not touch the user in any way, then its goodness will be lost on them.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Build. Try. Repeat.

One thing I like about science is how practical it is about ideas. The scientists only pursue a theory until they realize it's wrong. And then they pivot. In fact, the very definition of a scientific theory is that it must be falsifiable. If it isn't, then it's not a scientific theory. Like the statement "There is God because I believe so" cannot be disproved logically so it is not a scientific theory. It is a belief. The statement "Some people believe in God" however is a theory that can be substantiated by experiment (just do a poll in the subway or among your colleagues), so it is as a scientific theory.

So a good working theory is something that you don't know whether it's right or wrong, but it is something you want to find out if it works. It might very well not work, but you want to know that too. It can be a UX pattern, a start-up financing model or an interactive video projection. If it is truly fresh and new and you are excited about trying it, you probably have a hunch how it might turn out, but you're not sure. It's a good start.

How do you find out whether it would work or not? You can do some research to see what colleagues, competitors and gurus are doing about similar ideas, so you don't repeat their mistakes and benefit from their experience. But then you should build your own.

You don't need to build the thing that you envisioned in its entirety with to understand whether it's good. You should identify the core of your idea, build that and see if it works. Formulate what qualify as "it works" too. But be flexible here. Many scientific break-throughs were the results of experiments gone awry.

Everything else is details. It is something like a Minimal Viable Product for start-ups. Identify it , build it, test it, measure it. If it works, carry on (you will have modifications to make though, it's okay and be prepared for them) if it doesn't, reformulate the idea or abandon it! There is absolutely no valour in persevering in doing something that is not working. Even if this is a process-based art piece and you are making a statement about usefulness and aesthetics as a socially-imposed criteria, it still needs to evolve to remain interesting.

If your idea doesn't work in the form of MVP, it doesn't mean it will never work, ever, for anybody. You can change the medium. You can change the format. You can change your target audience! Anything, really. Another funny thing about science is that so much of if is just tinkering. You know it's not working but you don't know which part exactly, so you modify one part at a time and try again and again and again until it does. It will. Perseverance always wins. 

P.S. If you lack perseverance, don't worry it can be taught.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

It's good to be loud if you are paid for your voice

For some reason, the common wisdom goes that if you work for a client, your creative voice doesn't matter. That could not be further from the truth. Creative people are paid to have unique voices.  A voice is the creative person's differentiator. And we all know how important it is to differentiate yourself.

Businesses pay a creative person or agency to express something that they themselves cannot. They don't have the know-how. Often they don't even know what it is they are trying to say. That is okay. They probably don't wake up every morning thinking "what is it that I am trying to say here?" They are not used to this type of thinking. Their worry is day-to-day operations. 

Creativity is all about making decisions and making good decisions takes  creative thinking. An you know who does creative thinking full-time? That's right, the creators. 

Why would you be the best person to do an identity project for the client X? Well, because your creative voice matches what the client is trying to say. Your voice is the embodiment of client X's vision. It gives concrete sights and sounds to the image of what your client is trying to portray. What is the point to give you the project X if the client can't tell your voice apart from the next person? How would they know what look and feel will you give them. 

I know you will say that a good designer should be a good chameleon and adapt to the client needs. That is true. But I am not talking about just how things look. If you are able to justify your creative decisions every step of the way, you are doing it anyway — you are really designing how things work. And this is what good design is about.

Having a voice takes practice, and practice is doing all kinds of things that let you develop your voice — doing art projects, writing, soul-searching, protesting, serving a cause, there are plenty of ways to develop your voice out there. Not exercising your voice enough is like not being very fit while having a physically demanding job. If you can't lift heavy things you won't be very useful working as a loader in a warehouse. 

So if you are paid to make creative decisions developing your voice should be high on your priorities list. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"All I want for Christmas..."

Clients often don't know what they want. I have to guess what they want, build it and show it to them. And then they decide whether this was what they wanted or not. This is a somewhat frustrating process but I understand them. They don't know how to want what they really want. 

I can see that because I too often want what I don't really want.

For example, I had this internal dialogue in my head earlier today:
"I only I knew where I want to be, I would go there."
"You already know where you want to be."
"True… Now, if only I knew how to get there…"
"You know how to get there too. You read plenty of smart people's guidelines, tips and tricks and have multiple scenarios of how to get there."
"Why am I not on my way then?"
"That is the question I don't know how to answer. Are you sure you want to get there?"
"Yes… sort of"
"Ok, let's take it as a yes. Now, do you know how to get there?"
"Yes, i think so."
"Ok so what's the problem then?"
"I don't really know if I want what I want?

Wanting the right things is a skill that is not only not taught anywhere, it's is actively discouraged. "Waste not, want not", right? Well, wrong. How else are you supposed to know what to do next if you don't know what you want to do today, this week, this year or in your ten year plan? Do what your mother told you? Or what your boss wants you to do? Do they actually know what is best for you? You are the single best-equipped person in the world to know what you want because well, you have your own best interest at heart (if not, you should) and you probably know yourself better than anyone else (if not, you should) and because you spend more time with yourself than any other person would. So if you are miserable you are the one who will have to listen to your own incessant whining, you are the one who's going to make you feel bad on a daily basis and you will be responsible for your own unhappiness.

So. Wanting things is important. Now how do you start wanting the right things.

1. It's a process. It's not like you can figure out your wants once and for all. You are a living person, your wants will grow and change with you. That is perfectly okay. 

2. Be selfish. Wants are selfish. It's okay. Healthy selfishness is good. The world would be much better place if people took better care of their wants and stopped doing so many things they think they should. 

3. Start small. Developing clear wants and goals takes practice. You probably won't be able to answer the question "What do I want in my perfect life" right now (If you can answer the question, you probably don't need to read this post further). So start small and concrete. What do you want to do this weekend? Or, smaller, what would you want to do tonight? Or in the next five minutes. Stop thinking "oh yes but I can't because x, y, and z". What is there that you want to do that you can do? Take a mini road trip to the nearby park? Go to a movie? Take a walk? Focus on experiences, not possessions. Things fade and fall apart, experiences stay forever in your memory. 

4. Let it flow. Don't censor yourself for your wishes. Some of the stronger wishes are seemingly irrational. I want to move to this city. I really like this song, I want to see this band's concert. I really want to talk to this perso.  If you ever find your brain doing the internal monologue like the one in the beginning of this post, reconsider your want. It's not the want that is wrong, but maybe your vision of this want is.  

5. Imagine. I dread very much the state of "should want" where I feel pressed into wanting something just because I think I should.  What do you (not your spouse, boss, or mother) want to do? Do you really want X? Why? You saw someone else has or does X? Forget for a second how will you get there. Imagine yourself when your wish had come true. You have or did X. How do you feel? Do you feel anything is off? Can you see why is it off and modify your initial wish? 

6. Practice, practice, practice. Gradually develop your wants to larger and larger things, but check in constantly with yourself if you still genuinely want them. it's only in trial and error you will find out that some things you want only so much and you're not willing to step over some barrier to achieve them. Thats' okay. It's okay to quit doing things you no longer want. Because it will free up time for doing things you actually want to do. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How user experience design is like media art

In a nut-shell, UX and media arts are both about communicating complex and often vague ideas to your audience with the goal of eliciting a certain response. 

When users are interacting with your piece, they are faced with the results of your creative decisions in the following order:

What information are you presenting. At all times, your audience needs to be aware what is it they are looking at. Is your piece about memory and identity struggles? Is your app about their personal finances or business news? Here you need to strike balance between clarity and interest. UX will lean towards clarity, but still needs to maintain user's interest by allowing for multiple ways of interacting. An art piece will lean towards maintaining the audience's interest by intentionally presenting the information in ambiguous ways, letting them guess a little. But either way, the creative decision should be evident. If the message becomes too vague it is impossible to grasp and audience becomes dis-interested. If your message is too plain it bores the users.  

How do you present that information. Even if your goal is to make your audience question what exactly are they looking at, you still need a point of departure. It is way easier to subvert an existing form than invent a new one. Like an arty how-to video. Also this is where material reality comes into play. How can you make your users do what you want them to with what you have at your disposal? Is it better to do a performance or a video projection? Is it better to do a social media app or a news broadcasting app? 

What do you want them to do. This is where your starting point should be when deciding to do something — answering the eternal "So what?" question. It really comes down to why did you decide to do this piece/project in the first place. Are you eliciting a certain emotional response? An enlightenment experience? Do you want to make them buy something? Learn something? Realize something? The answers to this are infinitely variable so there isn't really a good cookie-cutter solution. 
As you can see, the more you think about it, the more esoteric your thinking becomes. What message are you bringing to the table? What are your values at work here? Why are you doing this job in the first place? But this is good actually. If there was more thinking put into "why are we making this app in the first place?" there probably wouldn't be so many under-used apps littering the marketplace
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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Pre-christmas rumination

I'm having difficulty concentrating because I feel my thoughts are chasing way too many rabbits.

Problems, real and imagined, that fall off the sky - Christmas! Rent! Car Repair! do not make it easier in any way. 

Some discomfort comes from  the inevitable flow of seasons — it is pre-Christmas time after all. On the other hand, some is just random. And some is self-imposed, like the money problems, for example because I decided to pay off my credit this year. I don't have to. I just said I would. It was my new-year resolution last year. 

But it is okay, really. I am making a good progress on my payments (although at times like now it doesn't seem like it), I am still productive at work. I am figuring things out with my significant other. 

Some things cannot be predicted. Even by my hyper-active brain. Just because there are so many unknowns and variables. I don't say it's no use to ruminate (I would do that anyway, whether I approve of it or not) but it is ambitious to try and encompass everything at once. 

Sometimes it's just wait and see. Do the motions. Move some mountains. Even if you don't know where it leads in the grand scheme of things because you can't see it yet. It will all make sense eventually.