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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