The most important thing in design and business in general is to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. Unless your target base is yourself, you will not see the product/service you have created in the same way as them. Just as importantly, even if you do understand your customer, or user, they will experience your creation in a different way. For example, they will probably have to discover it (you know everything there is to know), buy it (all you need to do is ask) and use it without anyone telling them what to do (you made it, you know how it works). Finally, how can you know that the service you have designed is delivered right?

The answer is this: dogfooding. Use your product! It’s that simple – although it sometimes means going out of your way (and it can be particularly difficult if you aren’t the target audience). And it’s not just about putting yourself in the position of the ultimate customer – you also have to understand the people making and delivering your idea.  The concept is well known from programming, but applies absolutely everywhere. Take Bobby McFerrin, an amazingly talented singer. He has found a way to manipulate his voice so that when he performs he doesn’t need any accompaniement to create multi-layered compositions. For example:

How does he do it? By being brutally honest with himself:

“It took me at least 2 years, 3 years, of going into a room by myself and turning on a tape recorder and singing before I felt comfortable singing in front of other people. I was afraid to sing around anyone. I was intimidated by the sound of my own voice. I would wait until the house was empty and then I would sing. So it took time. It took six years before I did my first solo concert. So it took about six years of singing constantly, doing a lot of practicing. For the first two years I didn’t listen to another singer. Because I wanted to find what my voice sounded like. Knowing myself, I’m very impressionable. It would have been very easy for me to shop around for a singer whose technique I liked, and use that as my base and try and do what they did, but I made the conscious decision not to do that. I just wanted to make sure that I had a strong base of my own, because I could easily flounder by going out and just copping somebody else’s licks. I used to do that as a piano player and I knew that wasn’t going to get me anywhere.” (link)

You can’t improve until you know what you’re doing.

A bit of homework

So take this concept of dogfooding and think about these two stories about the management of two well known companies. Here’s your homework: which of these two companies has bucked the trend of a declining industry, becoming a globally recognised innovator, and which one is the poster child for its tragically collapsing, bailout-needing sector?

AirAsia’s and its CEO, Tony Fernandes – (link)

Mr Fernandes says that he came to the industry with no preconceptions, but found it rigidly compartmentalised and dysfunctional. He wanted AirAsia to reflect his own unstuffy, open and cheerful personality. He is rarely seen without his baseball cap, open-neck shirt and jeans, and he is proud that the firm’s lack of hierarchy (very unusual in Asia) means anyone can rise to do anyone else’s job. AirAsia employs pilots who started out as baggage handlers and stewards; for his part, Mr Fernandes also practises what he preaches. Every month he spends a day as a baggage-handler; every two months, a day as cabin crew; every three months, a day as a check-in clerk. He has even established a “culture department” to “pass the message and hold parties”.

General Motors and its top management-(link)

Not only are managers and executives insulated from learning what goes in their company because they generally talk rather than listen, they are also insulated from experiencing what it is like to buy and own a car.   GM has a perk for managers down to fairly low levels where all are given a GM car to drive – they rotate from one car to another.  I am not sure of the exact details, but answers to the questions I’ve asked over the years  suggest it goes something like this: the lowest level managers have to buy their own cars, the ones at somewhat higher levels get a new car to drive every six months or so but have to do some servicing, the managers who are somewhat higher-up get somewhat fancier cars and are freed from any servicing (gas is even put in the cars of some executives so they don’t have to go to the service station), and the highest level executives get a car and a driver.

In other words, this system effectively insulates people in management – especially those in senior management — from experiencing what it is like to shop for, bargain for, purchase, service, and sell a car. They only get the driving experience. Well, except for the most senior executives, who don’t even get that experience — they watch a person in the front seat drive a big car.  Now, it is true, that the most senior executives do own GM cars for personal use, but it is my understanding that when a car is delivered to a senior executive, special attention is devoted to the car – even during the production process –to make sure the top brass aren’t exposed to a car with any flaws. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So there you have it, a system that seems designed to isolate executives from reality.  They talk instead of listen and are protected from the experience of owning car.   I might be exaggerating some, but not much.

It’s not too hard to guess…



The above = product packaging?

Yes and no.

One of the things that good brand promoters get is that a product must speak with one voice, of which physical packaging is just one part.

However, the voice of many businesses is often so split that it risks drowning itself out with inconsistency and contradiction. It takes just one look at the standard divisions (funny how they are called that) of many large businesses to see how this might happen, with siloed sales, R&D, support, marketing, advertising, distribution and other functions on the standard organisational chart.


The answer to this problem is relatively simple to describe, but of course incredibly difficult to implement.

1) The product (or service) comes first.

Learn everything about your customers and design something exceptional and highly focused on their needs so that they simply cannot live without. I opened with Apple as it is the obvious example, but others abound.

One often cited example is 37 Signals’ Backpack, Basecamp and their other applications, which are intentionally very limited in what they can do, which allows them to do it rather well. The team itself make a very good case for their ways in their book, Getting Real, which is free to read online. It’s good.

Examples abound aroung the home too. For example, some people tired of vacuuming now swear by their Roombas. When it came out in the 80s, women with hair that wouldn’t stay ‘done’ started loving a simple, $20 plastic device called TopsyTail. In 1993, men ditched their bulky foam for King of Shaves Oil (a “few drops!?”) and never looked back. I swear by BlogJet for writing.

Useful applications are not the only area where this matters. A recent example of exceptionally well designed products were EA’s new IPs, Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, which both absolutely nail two very different and new game mechanics (if you must know, gruesome dismemberment for the former and first person free running for the latter). Both have been critical and commercial successes.

More examples to come.

2) Everything (*everything!*) else should guide your users to your product

After all, the only reason they’re not using and loving it is that they don’t know about it, are too busy to try it, tried it but didn’t have long enough to be sold by it, are scared of switching (the endowment effect), tried to buy it but were distracted by something else, etc… If only the knew what it could do for them!

There are a million and one reasons why someone would choose not to use something that would help, entertain, or otherwise positively impact them.

And so, you try to package your product well. The fundamental change, however, is to view the packaging not just as the box at the end, as nice as it may be, but as the layer upon layer of experiences which help the customer to understand why he should use, no, love your product.


Of course, each person is different. A tech savvy gamer may breeze through the advertising layer around Dead Space and immediately grok the gameplay. Another may come not be a gamer, but be convinced by the comic book. Some may come to a blog first, then shop online. Others may see a billboard and drive by their local Walmart. Everyone sees a different set of layers.

What matters is consistency.

And for god’s sake be authentic. Don’t lie, and where possible build honest relationships with the people who can help spread the word. Never start a press release to a techie blogger like this idiot (emphasis mine):

Hi <<First Name>>,

With You Tube and MySpace all the rage – there’s a new breakthrough in advertising that takes advantage of these online videos in a brand new way. Viral marketing has gone high-tech!

I thought you might have interest in a story.

From the very insightful ideasonideas blog (seriously, read it)

All of this is the packaging of your product, and should be treated as such in the way your business is organised.

Here’s some homework.

The path of least resistance

If you can design something genuinely good, everything else you do should be focused on helping potential customers understand why it will help them.

The path of change is frightening.


Your job is to make the experience as inviting as possible. You can’t force people to take what you offer, but you can try to make it as easy as possible.

All you can do is make the the way to your offering the path of least resistance – and hope that people choose to walk it.


In my last post I mentioned a fascinating essay by Stephen Downes: “The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On”. In it, he revisits and updates his 1998 predictions about the future of education, most of which are apply heavily to business, which is already an environment where people have to learn at different paces. Here are five of the most interesting ideas from this long and thoughtful piece.

1. One task to rule them, and in the mashup bind them

“In 1998 I wrote that computer programs of the future will be function based, that they will address specific needs, launching and manipulating task based applications on an as needed basis. For example, I said, the student of the future will not start up an operating system, internet browser, word processor and email program in order to start work on a course. The student will start up the course, which in turn will start up these applications on its own.”

This paragraph is related to one of the big changes caused by the move towards a world where we perform complex tasks using an array of interconnected web applications, each with simpler functionality and hosted on an array of increasingly smart devices, each serving a more specific purpose and connected to each other via the Cloud. UNIX junkies with their tiny command line applications will be overjoyed. Developers of wonderful, hulking, multi-purpose applications (Microsoft and Office, Adobe and Creative Suite, Autodesk and AutoCAD) will find their most casual users chipped away.

The big challenge for designers of these tools is twofold: 1) their applications need to be open, and interoperate properly and, 2) the user experience will somehow need to be consistent enough not to confuse people.

Resources like and organisations like are helping the industry to make headway on the first point. Thanks largely to Google Maps, the word mashup is now commonplace, and tools like Yahoo Pipes, Microsoft Popfly, JackBe, Dapper, Kapow, IBM’s QEDWiki, Proto, BEA AquaLogic and RSSBus.” (more here). This matrix is also pretty cool.

Number two is tougher, as there is more of a grey area between it working and not than when grabbing data from another service. However, it is crucial for designers to keep an eye on the development of standards in interaction design. For the web, frameworks like YUI which allow standard controls to proliferate are useful, although they must still be carefully used. Physical devices are an entirely different issue, and can turn an accepted way of interacting on its head (e.g. iPhone and touch and the Wii with motion sensing).

The main opportunity: get to know your customer and you will be able to meet their specific need better, faster and more cheaply than ever before.

2. Many screens – a.k.a. letting information come to us

“In 1998 I wrote that ‘The PAD will become the dominant tool for online education, combining the function of book, notebook and pen.” The PAD, I said, would be “a lightweight notebook computer with touch screen functions and high speed wireless internet access.” I also said it would cost around three hundred dollars…”

“With slim, lightweight technology, truly useful and portable PADs will be widely available within the next ten years. We have already seen significant improvements in screen technology, including slim touch-sensitive screens. Wireless access and cloud computing make bulky storage devices unnecessary; what local memory is needed will be more than adequately managed using tiny flash memory chips. Improvements in battery life and solar power will mean that these low-wattage portable computers will run for days. They will, as I suggested before, come in all shapes and sizes, from a slim pocket version (much like the iPod touch) to a notepad version..”

“The same technology that makes PAD technology possible will continue to proper improvements in large screen displays (devices I nicknamed WADs (Wide area Displays) ten years ago).

“In the future, it will be common to see these large-area displays hanging on living room and classroom walls. Instead of being the size of small windows, they will be the size of large blackboards. They will be touch sensitive (or if not, connected to a pointer tracking system device similar to the ones being cobbled together for less than $50 by Wii enthusiasts (Lee, 2007)) or included with any of a number of children’s educational webcam games today (such as Camgoo, among many others).”

For too long we have bent over backwards for computers, limited to a (relatively) small screen and a computer taking pride of place on our desk.  In the future, the opposite will be true. We are surrounded by information. In the future, we will use an array of different devices to access it – from iPhone style handhelds for simpler tasks to desk and wall sized interactive touchscreens for the bigger ones:

…imagine that any environment that contains a flat surface can become a teaching environment, one where your friends’ faces (or your parents’ or your teachers’) can appear life-size on any old wall or on a table surface as you converse with them from the next room or around the world. We have already seen how the availability of mobile telephones has transformed society in less than a generation. (New Media Consortium, 2008) Having much more powerful, much more expressive, communications technology available everywhere will have a similar impact.”

3. If it ain’t fun, forget it

“A great deal has been written in the last few years about educational games or, as they are sometimes called, ‘serious games’. (Eck, 2006) In 1998 I wrote that “educational software of the future will include every feature present in video games today, and more.” Though this hasn’t proven to be strictly true, it is largely true, and probably no more true than in the domain of games and simulations.”

“In 1998, I wrote the following: “To give a student an idea of what the battle of Waterloo was like, for example, it is best to place the student actually in the battle, hearing Napoleon’s orders as they become increasingly desperate, feeling the recoil of one’s own musket, or slogging through the mud looking for a gap in the British cannons.” (Downes, The Future of Online Learning, 1998) Today we can say that the creation of such simulations will not be simply the domain of large production houses, but will rather be more and more the result of massive collections of small contributions from individual players. And that the creation of content – any content – needs to take this phenomenon into account, or be seen as abstract and sterile.

Giving people a chance to experience a situation they are learning about is an unusually good way of making sure they understand it. The humain brain is playful. As such, give it a complex environment to experience and you can guarantee that it will start pushing, pulling, prodding and generally attempting to find the way it works  – trying to work out the rules.

Imagine trying to teach music by showing someone only the score to Mozart’s Requiem, or art appreciation by describing one of Turner’s sunsets. Ultimately, our subconscious minds are much more attentive than our conscious, which is why we get so much more depth from an experience than from a description.

4. Personalised learning, group evaluation

Another big idea is that of personalised learning environments. Instead of having students chug through a defined syllabus with standardised tests to mark the pace, the educational institution’s responsibility will be to connect them with projects, resources, games and members of the community around that domain. As they get more and more involved:

“…each person will have what may be thought of as a ‘profile’ of their own art, music and other media, which they have created themselves or with friends, along with records of their activities in various games and simulations (we see things like this already with applications like Launchcast) that take place both on and off line.”

What is really interesting is how all this will be tested:

“In the end, what will be evaluated is a complex portfolio of a student’s online activities. (Syverson & Slatin, 2006)These will include not only the results from games and other competitions with other people and with simulators, but also their creative work, their multimedia projects, their interactions with other people in ongoing or ad hoc projects, and the myriad details we consider when we consider whether or not a person is well educated.”

“Though there will continue to be ‘degrees’, these will be based on a mechanism of evaluation and recognition, rather than a lockstep marching through a prepared curriculum. And educational institutions will not have a monopoly on such evaluations (though the more prestigious ones will recognize the value of aggregating and assessing evaluations from other sources).”

“Earning a degree will, in such a world, resemble less a series of tests and hurdles, and will come to resemble more a process of making a name for oneself in a community. The recommendation of one person by another as a peer will, in the end, become the standard of educational value, not the grade or degree.”

5. Learning resources will annotate the world

“Online learning stiff suffers from the misperception that it is about having students sit in front of their computer screen for extended periods of time. As a consequence, the idea that online learning might foster independence of place has been missing in much of the discussion of the field. (…) That said, with the recent development of smaller and lighter wireless-enabled devices, we are approaching the era when online learning will also be seen as mobile learning. Students will be freed from the classroom, and freed from the stationary desktop computer. And as I said last time, true place independence will revolutionize education is a much deeper sense than has perhaps been anticipated.”

Much of what goes on about us has a history and a significance that we miss completely, whether it’s the context in which a piece of technology was developed or the story behind a piece of architecture. In a more concrete business context, it might be the profitability of a piece of machinery or the childcare problems of an employee you have a meeting with in 10 minutes, which are affecting his ability to concentrate.

Well designed learning resources have the potential to guide us through the physical world rather than pulling us away. Incidentally, that’s why walking tours of cities can be so interesting – you see these layers peeled back for you.

More to come.


How did Cisco go from one or two big new initiatives a year to 22 in the last one?

Most would call Cisco a bellwether for the technology sector as it is well managed and sells to businesses rather than consumers, which puts its in the front line of Mr Market‘s fluctuations. The company is now in the news for its planned New Year shutdown to help trim €1bn of costs (link). In last month’s earnings call, it announced that it is expecting Q2 2009 revenue to be down 5 to 10 percent on the previous year. Not great.

But Cisco is good at this. In the face of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it continued to invest heavily in the afflicted economies and obtained a number one market position which it keeps to this day (source: HBR article). As John Chambers reminded listeners in that same call, “Cisco has always navigated [economic slowdowns] very effectively. We did this in 1993, 1997, 2001, 2003, and in each scenario gained both wallet share and in my opinion profit share. As a result we were better positioned coming out of these transitions versus our peers.” (link)

How will it deal this time around?


Cisco’s TelePresence and other communications technologies make collaboration easier (and have allowed it to slash travel costs by 20%). However, it is the structuring of the organisation that is most interesting.


Cisco appears to have put the onus on employees from across the company’s divisions to form ad-hoc groups to pursue new opportunities, rather than being told what to do from up-on-high. The seniority of these groups depends on the estimated size of the opportunity, but each has enough independence, authority and flexibility to move decisively. In the words of John Chambers:

“At Cisco, our major priorities are managed not by our top five or top 10 executives but instead by cross-functional, collaborative councils and boards. And, in fact, our engineering organization – which is a third of our total employee base – is not run by a single leader but instead by what we call our Development Council, which is made up of the nine senior vice presidents who lead our engineering divisions. This companywide, council-based leadership model has allowed us to move from taking on only one or two cross-functional priorities a year in the past to addressing 22 this year. We think this is what organisations of the future will look like.”

He goes on to explain how boards and councils actually work: “boards and councils are the equivalent of social-networking groups, where groups of people with relevant expertise work together to make and execute key decisions supported by networked Web 2.0 technologies. Councils are established where we believe we have a $10bn opportunity, boards are created for €1bn opportunities, and working groups are formed for more tactical initiatives related to a board or council.”

“Working groups are accountable to boards, boards to councils, and councils to the Operating Committee, which consists of two dozen or so senior leaders at Cisco. Each person on a board, council, or working group has the authority to speak on behalf of their entire organisation, allowing decisions to be made in real time, with all who may be affected in the same room.”


To push things further, there is a clear process driving these groups and keeping a consistent standard: VSE. These are three steps: 1) vision, 2) strategy and 3) execution.

“The councils and boards propose possible initiatives to the Operating Committee through highly detailed business plans that have to answer three questions: What’s the vision? What’s our strategy for sustainable differentiation? And how are we going to execute the plan over the next 12 to 18 months?”

“Each plan has an owner who makes a commitment to his or her peers and is held to that commitment and measured on his results. In fact, compensation for many of our top executives is based more on their success within the councils they belong to than their individual performance. In this way, management can consider many, many opportunities spanning the capabilities of the company, instead of just viewing them by silo or by function. This allows us to have a constructive discussions, get buy-in and execute rapidly.”

Why is this interesting?

Technology usually comes up when collaboration is discussed, but is often just a tool with little benefit in the wrong hands. Collaboration is hard, and is often implicitly discouraged by the organisation of large companies. The example of Cisco highlights how much (of the right kind of) structure it takes to get ideas flowing freely and has allowed it to run with 22 ideas at the same time. How?

  1. Cisco has put together a structure which makes it much easier for ideas to bubble up from its 67,000 employees. Every corner of any business (sales, marketing, R&D, support, etc…) has its own approaches, strengths and weaknesses. Formalising these cross company groups allows the different functions to collaborate and speak with one voice.
  2. Breaking down structures speeds up innovation and development, but can make it hard to channel. However, Cisco’s clear mantra of VSE gives each group the same benchmark against which to plan its offering and a clear plan to get it to market. This ensures they speak the same language so they can be heard within the company.

A final quote:

“To me, collaborative management means putting a lot of people who speak a common language to work towards a common goal.”

What other rules make collaboration work, and gets the results in the hands of customers?

Full article here (sadly behind pay wall).

AppendicitisCome on, it won’t take long. Just squeeze it in with that round of bugs. I’m sure it’ll work just fine. After all, it’s pretty simple isn’t it?”

Whether your team is stuck in the dark ages of waterfall development or has adopted an agile methodology (agile what? read this or this), this thought has probably gone through your head. Unfortunately, it far too often comes out of the mouths of managers.

The problem is that you often end up with unfinished, half working features which bloat the code, distract developers and confuse users. Left unchecked, these can become toxic to the project’s credibility and usability.

This is particularly important for projects with limited budgets, which can run into the wall with a backlog of bugfixes/feature requests (they’re not that different, really). These can hound you for a very, very long time.

The complicated answer? Follow a tried and tested agile methodology.

The simple answer: iterate thrice. Don’t implement anything that can’t fail at least twice.

What does this mean? Release quickly, test it on users, fix the problems, rinse, repeat.

How long does this take? If your users use your software daily, give them at least a week to spot the room for improvement. Increase this time as necessary. If you have a limited budget, never start a new feature unless you have that time before the money runs dry.

At best it’ll be only partly useful.

Worst case: it will come back to bite you.

You’ve just started a small software project with just one programmer or a small team. You’ve read Peopleware and Joel and your specifications are so lucid they bring a tear to the eye. You think you’ll be done in a couple of months.

This is how to screw up.

  1. Don’t enforce high standards from the start. Tell yourself you’ll mention any sloppy work ‘later’ when things ‘kinda work’.
  2. Micromanage. Whatever you do, don’t chunk tasks into interesting, self contained problems and certainly don’t trust the programmer to work out a good solution by himself. Got a little technical knowhow? If you can make enough highly specific suggestions you might just be able to atrophy his creative thinking completely.
  3. Ignore gaps in your programmer’s skills; treat every task equally. Demand feats he finds impossible without offering training and motivation.
  4. Be a bottleneck. If you’re lucky you’ll completely drain the momentum from the project.
  5. Don’t communicate every day. It only serves to maintain the sense of urgency, and nobody has ever needed forum to resolve issues before they escalate.
  6. Allow your programmer to ignore good testing practices. Also, make sure you test his work for him, so he never feels that quality assurance is his responsibility.
  7. Never set clear, reasonable deadlines.
  8. If by some freak chance you do set one and it is missed, never talk through the why and how.
  9. Never, ever, ever communicate the impact of your coder’s hard work on the business. Keep it abstract, you wouldn’t want any perspective to creep in.

What have I missed?