Friday, October 28, 2011

Unplug to plug into creativity, solutions, and new ideas

Post Bite: Unplugging helps us plug into trends, solutions, and opportunities.
I don't want to do anything today. 

There, I said it. 

You ever feel that way? 

I'm typically a high energy person, but occasionally I just want to check out. I'm still busy on off days like these - there's never a lack things to do around the house that require low bandwidth. I just don't feel like doing any mental heavy lifting. So instead I catch up on the news, surf the net, share stuff via my social media favs, skim magazines, check out articles others have shared, etc. But that's not REALLY what I'm doing...

I'm hunting. Collecting. Processing. Problem solving. Thinking. Experimenting. I'm unplugging to plug in.

Solo sorting
Taking breaks from direct, high quality production is actually essential to innovation and opportunity capture. I'm all for being an active participant on a great team working hard to turn out high quality products, solve complex problems, and plan strategic moves, but sometimes I just need time on my own. 

In his article We’re All Too Busy … Missing Amazing Opportunities, Daniel Burns makes this exact point. Yes, we're all EXTREMELY busy, but to truly innovate, we have to watch, assess, mull over what's going on around us and in front of us so we can ANTICIPATE future needs.

Curve surfing
I know when I do design work, it's never a straight path. I tend to follow curves over a few days or so to get to a solution. On the surface it might look like I'm just washing the dishes or just surfing the net, for example, but all the while I'm working that problem in the back of my head. 

I'm doing it now, actually, even as I write. I've started a new project with Tokii that requires a little think time to process. I wish I could just plunk down the details with the snap of my fingers but I can't.

My festive woman sketch
So while I'm doing laundry, I'm running through formatting and content types. As I'm trying to (still) get noses right in my sketches, I can feel myself rolling through visuals and user experience options.  

Permission to play
In his book The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry reinforces this idea that we need to give ourselves permission to take mental breaks. You don't have to say that twice to me! I keep glancing to my left where Victoria Finlay's book Color: A natural history of the palette is looking rather ready to be cracked open. 

Now I lay me down to sleep...
In addition to this technique, another thing I like to do is go to bed with a question. It's basically the last thing on my mind before I drift off. 

The key to making this effective is to NOT let yourself answer or analyze it. Rather, just visualize it. See it written or typed out in your mind's eye. Roll through visuals that represent the question. People have challenged the validity of this with me so imagine how nice it was when I stumbled on this article about sleep and creativity.

When I do this I almost always wake up with an answer or have some solid ideas to get moving on something I've been noodling. What about you? What do you do to get inspiration, ideas, or solve problems?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Making & breaking the rules with purpose

Courtesy of
Question the Rules
Chris Guillebeau, a talented travel blog writer I enjoy following, created a Call To Action (CTA) for  his readers: Questions to ask the people who make the rules

He asked us to consider the list he started and add to it. Already the list has grown and with good reason. 

Occupy Wall Street, a good example of the power (and opportunity) to question the rules, has spread worldwide. This isn't just a joiner event where people play music and have sex in the park. The true motivation might be getting lost in the tabloid noise lately, but thanks to David McCandless, we have a great infographic that explains why people are so clarifies the PURPOSE behind why the rules are being challenged.

It's our nature to question the rules. In an effort to constantly improve we continuously challenge the status quo even when we may not have the time or energy. 

The irony is that it's also our nature to roll with the status quo even if we're unhappy about it. The key is something near and dear to our soul must be threatened or challenged for rules to be deeply questioned and for change to actually occur.

Picasso courtesy of

Question with purpose
Rules give the artist guidelines for creativity. Rules give a writer focus. Rules give project teams deeper understanding for how to reach the end goal. Rules give product designers best practices for the the design process. Rules give guiding principles that keep us from destroying ourselves and our society.

Make & break the rules
So I'd like to throw out some questions to add to the discussion Chris started:

  • What do rules provide us with?
  • How can they help us do our job better?
  • Why do the parameters that rules create help a group align?
  • Who determines what rules become norms?
  • How can we tell when a rule is no longer useful?
  • How do we stay connected to the purpose of the rule?
  • When should a rule be broken?

I'm interested in hearing what you think. Jump in on the conversation at Chris's The Art of Non-Conformity

Traveling but...
I'm traveling this week so publishing will be light. I'm  working with Boston Scientific and my good friend, Lorraine Munoz, Director of Leadership Development in SoCal. Our focus will be on a workshop called Making Projects Work. I'm sure it will be a great session, but I want to keep the convo going here.

I think it's sexy and appealing to always challenge the rules, but I question if we can do that without context. Let me know what you think on or offline or via Twitter @alisonsigmon

Friday, October 21, 2011

Grab your feedbag... Time to care & feed those project relationships

There probably isn’t another word in any language more despised than the word politics. Simply saying the word tends to evoke churning of stomach, gnashing of teeth, and rolling of eyes. Yet we spend tons of time talking about it, watching it, and yes, engaging in it particular when it comes to getting stuff done for our projects.

While you might feel like you need a shower to wash away the grime and dirt that seems to come with politics, I think it deserves second look.  Maybe a nip and a tuck are in order for its VALUE in project work to be fully experienced.

Playing politics
My favorite definition of politics says it’s about getting people with different interests moving in a common direction. How do you do it? Well, there are two approaches.

Negative politics is first person driven where the individual gets things done at someone else's expense. This is the person who happily wins when others lose. Hmmm...That's no good.

Positive politics is when we use influence with an eye to the corporate mission to get things done. We seek to create a win-win for everyone as much as possible. We're advocates acting in the best interest of the project. Yay...That's more like it.

It’s no easy feat to get people across lines of business to work together.  It requires patience, organizational awareness, and a broad, deep network of relationships. And you know what makes the job even tougher? Read on.

Caring & feeding for change
A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a product or service. How does this play out?  Projects create change, and that's what makes it even tougher. This means somewhere somebody is going to have to do something different, and chances are they won't like it much. Ugh... 

Project-driven change doesn’t happen overnight.  While building relationships cross-functionally is a great lateral first step, it’s the caring and feeding of those relationships through positive politics that makes it happen.

Caring and feeding relationships is an ongoing activity activity. Don't expect people to pony up if you're only coming around when you want something.

Practice some VALUE
So how do you avoid the whispers of "Oh no, here they come again?" Caring and feeding relationship requires presence and VALUE which includes:

Visibility – Ask questions; be curious about people. Adapt your style to the style of others.
Availability – Stop multi-tasking and be present for others. Focus on the person or people with whom you're talking.
Lead by Example – Do what you say you’re going to do. Treat others how you like to be treated.
Understanding – Show empathy for constraints.  Lend a helping hand.
Embracement – Create ownership by hearing and incorporating their ideas.

In this digital age, we tend to have a just in time mentality which usually doesn't leave much time for networking or the positive politics approach. The downside is it can bite you badly when you don't take the time to cultivate the relationships you need to get projects done.

Just like anything, balance in all things is needed. What things do you do that help care and feed your project relationships?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Deliver bad news in good ways on projects

Post Bite: Tips for delivering bad news on projects.

For the past couple of years Systemation has kindly asked me to deliver a series of webinars on the topics of my choice as long as they related to project management. 

Having spent more than three years working with the Tokii team to design, develop, and launch an Internet business, there's no dearth of situations and issues to mine for topics. Life in a startup is fast and furious and project challenges are a way of life.

When I first started doing project management and then later designing and delivering project management training workshops and consulting on projects, the focus was definitely on the technical side of things. Although I understood the reason for this focus, it simply wasn't always where I personally hit the speed bumps.

Common denominator
We do projects on a variety of things. Some are rather small and others are large and complex. The golden rule in project management is not to overdo things; in other words, make the plan appropriate to the size and complexity of the project and only use what you really need to get the project done. 

This just means it's normal to use different tools and to trim steps to accommodate that rule. That's part of the art of project management. But while the project process and tools may change a bit, there's one common denominator that runs throughout a project: People.

Welcome to my speed bump and apparently the speed bump of the thousands of people I've either had the pleasure of training, coaching, or working with on projects.

When it comes to people, we all know one size doesn't fit all. The smart project manager checks their ego at the door when working with people. They also make adjustments in their personal style to accommodate the style of the person with whom they are working. This is particularly important when it comes to delivering bad news. 

I won't rehash the presentation here. It's brief and gives tips on how to say what we don't always want to say to sponsors and stakeholders particularly if we're working in an environment where the messager tends to get shot.
However you deliver bad news, the important thing is to not delay it. Let decision makers know as soon as possible when there's a problem. Keep it honest, brief, and focused. Be clear about what has to be done and prepared with recommendations for how to respond.

I've received a lot of feedback about this subject so I think I'm going to do a deeper dive by writing a book about it. I'd love to hear examples from you where you've had to deliver bad news and how you handled it. I look forward to your online and offline comments!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Interactivity principles for your digital design journey

Afternoon snack

Jason Cranford Teague published an excellent slideshow called 9 Principles for Interactive Credibility. Although the slideshow is a bit on the long side (102 slides), it's definitely useful not just for designers but for anyone who has to communicate with clients and co-workers. 

If you're in a hurry, you can chew on the gist of it noted in the list or have a look at the complete slideshow below. I recommend watching - it's worth the time!

9 Principles for Interactive Credibility
1 - Be sincere
2 - Know your voice
3 - Preserve context
4 - Transition changes
5 - Guide, don't dictate
6 - Show then tell
7 - Keep your promises
8 - Make it simple, not simplistic
9 - Leave them wanting more
What's your favorite design strategy resource?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Gamification: The digital experience "X Factor"?

Psychology of fun: Gamification and story presence in digital experiences turns work into play.
Play with me. Pleeeeaaaasssseeeee... 

I can clearly hear the Beatle's song Dear Prudence in my head as I think about this plea. Although it might sound like a statement only a child would make, if we're really honest with ourselves we adults tend to feel that way too. Whether your motivation is an emotional connection or an achievement oriented challenge, at the end of the day we all love to play.

What is play?
Play comes in a lot of forms which has resulted in academics struggling to align on a definition. While we don't always agree on what it is, we certainly know what it feels like when we're not playing.

In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, M.D., notes when play is not experienced for a while, one's mood "darkens." He continues:
"We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure."
Dr. Brown notes there's enough research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that when we play enough our brains function better, we're more optimistic and creative, and we simply feel better.

Got Game
What's this got to do with digital products? One of the emerging trends in recent years is something called gamification. Gamification basically takes game principles and concepts and applies them to things we probably aren't that interested in doing. It turns the mundane into fun or so the theory goes.

In his article  Gamification: 75% Psychology, 25% Technology, David F. Carr says the following about gamification: 
"...gamification is about understanding that 'if you can make something more fun, and include notions of play, you can get people to do things they otherwise might not want to do...Gamifying an application doesn't necessarily mean adding fancy graphics and sound effects, but often it does mean keeping score and letting "players" see how they rank on a leader board--the equivalent of the high scores screen on a video game."
How can we gamify a digital experience? The easy answer is just to add an element of competition, leveling, and badges, and you've got yourself a game. But actually, I don't think it's just that simple. 

I've been using Foursquare for a while now. I'm the mayor of a few places likely because the other people who frequent those places wouldn't know what Foursquare is let alone use it. I've got a load of badges, and I regularly make the leader board along with the few people I know who use it.

It was fun at first, but honestly, now I'm getting bored. Why? In his book A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster notes that once we've mastered something and realize we can't get any better we tend to move on. My interest in novelty and social gaming pulled me in, but just like playing tic-tac-toe, it gets old after the novelty wears off and mastery is reached even if there are incentives like vendor specials. So what's missing: The story experience.

Game/story partnership
The game process in the rawest form is very basic. You have the goal, patterns, reward, challenge, and result. Frankly, the process is pretty dry. What can make the experience more engaging? Stories.

Games and stories work hand in hand to create the experiences that GRIP us and keep us coming back because they both bring very different elements to the table. Games are primarily mathematical patterns. Stories are emotional events. Koster does a great job summarizing the differences between the games and stories.

  • Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously.
  • Games are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy.
  • Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions.
  • Games are external-they are about people's actions. Stories are internal-they are about people's emotions and thoughts.

Together they create immersive experiences because we become part of the process.

Play to Win or Play to Play
Gamification alone is not enough for customers to use your product beyond the novelty of it. Other elements include your company brand, the product interactivity, and the story users EXPERIENCE and can also CREATE as a result of using it. 

Designing digital products with game principles and a compelling story make products fun and meaningful to use and the combination, not gamification alone, is, I think, the "X Factor." 

How do you design for the "X Factor" in your products? 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Feeding our pleasure zone: Evolving digital products from storytelling to story experience

Product design starts with solid storytelling, but the goal is to have it evolve into an immersive story experience.

Feed me
I love a good story. Whether reading a juicy novel, watching a nail-biting film, listening to an animated reporter recount the events of a disaster, or keeping tabs on real life courtroom drama, we're clearly captivated by the experience enough to keep us coming back.

No, actually it's more than that. It COMPELS us to seek out more because we CRAVE the effect. It feeds the pleasure center of the brain. Yes, it has the same effect as taking a drug!

Why? Maybe it's the edge of the seat suspense. Perhaps it's the lure of gambling with predictions. It could simply be it reflects what we're feeling or going through at the time. Whatever the reason, the elements that move us from passive observation to immersive experience are the same no matter the source or medium.

Elements of good storytelling
Traci Lepore noted in the article The CSS of Design Storytelling the three essential elements of storytelling: Context, Spine, and Structure. Lepore does a good job walking the reader through the steps of integrating the art of storytelling into interaction design, but I'm going to try push it further with this post with moving from storytelling to story experience.

Using the elements of story writing in product and interaction design is not new. We create personas, use cases, user interaction flows, and thought experiments to push our thinking outside the box. Context feeds good stories and solid interactive experiences and creates relevance, feeds a mood, and stirs the us on a deep level.

Ensuring there's a storyline (plot) that connects the beginning with  the end through all the points in between is crucial to its endurance otherwise the lack of cohesion will make it fall flat. Finally, the mind loves familiarity and patterns. It has low tolerance for too much variance in an experience because it has to work too hard to understand. Little pleasure is derived from working so hard which means its quick to ditch what's not easy to grasp.

Getting your flow on
Beyond using the principles of storytelling, how do we design and develop digital experiences that are immersive? Well, immersion is state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow. It's when your skills and the challenge you've taken on are well matched. This allows us to get lost in the experience to the point where we lose sense of time, place, even body. This tends to occur more frequently in active experiences like engaging in a favorite hobby, talking with friends, and even when working with colleagues. It's least likely to happen when were doing passive things like watching television or just hanging out. As a matter of fact, apathy is most likely to set in when we are doing passive things.

Here's a TED video where Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  talks about creativity and flow and living a fulfilling life:

Creating story experience
To be fair this is subjective. If you don't have some emotional connection, interest, and skill with what you're doing, the chances of transforming passive observation to immersive experience will be probably be fairly low.

Moving from passive to immersive starts with the capacity of our nervous system which can only process about 110 bits of information per second. It takes about 50-60 bits per second to hear what someone is saying which means at best you can only process what two people are saying at one time.

What's this got to do with immersive experiences? Awareness of self is temporarily suspended in order to be present with what we're processing. We forget about what we're feeling and thinking when we're focused and immersed in a meaningful activity. We have no awareness of appetite. In that time we simply don't have any awareness of our own existence. This is the Holy Grail of the story experience.

Never-ending experiences
Think back to when you were a kid. When I was a child I could play for h-o-u-r-s by myself or with  friends. If it was hot and sticky, no one seemed to notice. If we were hungry, that would probably hit us about dinner time. We were simply so involved in the incredible stories and activities to care about all that other stuff.

An example of a digital experience of this is when skilled users play multi-player online games. My daughter loves World of Warcraft and can play for hours with barely moving. She didn't start out that way, of course. As her skill level grew she became more immersed in the experience. The ramp to this level was short because of the intuitive design.

Making the leap
What are the elements of an immersive story experience? We can start with the following:

  • Automatic, intuitive (there are a lot of things that go into this that I'll cover in another post)
  • Spontaneous
  • Familiarity mixed with something new
  • Challenge level matches skill
  • Effortless, simple
  • Focused, goal directed
  • Has obvious value (even Angry Birds gives us something - cognitive disruption and reward for little effort)
  • Meaningful to the user's current state or situation
  • Immediately engaging & easy to follow
  • Intense but not too difficult
  • Get immediate feedback
  • Creates a feeling of being part of something larger
  • Intrinsic 
  • Stimulating, arousing - pushes us to learn

More than just a list
Okay, I know a list is great and all, but how do you do it? First, I think it starts with the following:

- Knowing your audience (target market)
- Understanding the medium and method that works best for them
- Being clear about the goal, objectives, and what you would like them to FEEL in response.

Wrapping up for the moment
This is such a deep subject, and it deserves more time that I don't have at the moment because I have some pressing projects in the queue. Stay tuned!

What draws you into a story experience in any medium?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs: Technology Renaissance Man

I'm still reeling from the news about the death of Steve Jobs. 

Image credit to Lee Basannavar
My plane had just landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. I'd  glanced at one of my favorite game apps, Words With Friends, and noticed that a dear friend and former Apple employee with whom I've played this game for a while had changed his profile picture to Steve Jobs. I knew in an instant that Mr Jobs had died. I quickly jumped into the NPR app and confirmed my intuition. The irony of my actions is a little eerie... Thanks to this man's vision, I was able to quickly confirm what the world just lost.

It's unusual for me to be so deeply affected by the death of someone I didn't know personally. At first I thought it was because I'd lost my mother to cancer a few years ago, but I know it's not really about that.

I think it's because he brought art and intuition into the domain of science and engineering. He felt his way through things instead of just always thinking his way through. He was incredibly human. His failures exceeded his successes, but he still picked himself up and went on. 

Simply put, he had the courage to admit when he was wrong and start over.

He lived with passion - something that's very, very important to me, but something I have to admit I've only partially, openly embraced as I've navigated and wrestled with the conventions of living life.

I think the biggest impact he's had is not just influencing others - it's inspiring others. This, I feel, strikes at the heart of my response to his death. People feel happy, empowered, smart, excited, connected, and passionate through using the products he and his team created. Now people don't just listen to music, they became part of the experience without working too hard to have it. How To manuals simply disappeared over the generations of products produced by Apple because they assumed the burden of effort for us.

The iPhone and iPad have created portable social experiences with people near and far and gave us more control to connect with things and people important to us.

His vision and relentlessness incited generations to Think different and think oh so BIG. Under his stewardship, Apple created product experiences that brought joy to people, motivated them, and helped them feel more alive and connected without them actively realizing it. It just seemed to happen as if it were part of the natural order of things. Those are things which I value.

Forbes published a well-written article about him called The Top Ten Lessons Steve Jobs Taught Us. Number four in the article particularly resonated with me - actually the last two sentences. Tears filled my eyes with the following:

"Years of your life on a start-up that didn’t pan out as you wanted — can turn out to sow the seeds of your unimagin­able success years from now. You can’t be too attached to how you think your life is supposed to work out and instead trust that all the dots will be connected in the future. This is all part of the plan."

While living in a given moment we don't always know why it's happening. We question (and even curse) the pain, anxiety, frustration, uncertainty, or strife felt when it's a tough experience. We celebrate, congratulate, and sometimes cling when it's a welcomed experience. It's only when we move beyond that given moment and take the time to reflect that we can understand what it all really, truly means to who we are today. 

Steve Jobs seemed to live his life with presence, relentlessness, and passion. He once said he regularly asked himself if he was passionate about what he was doing at that given moment. He continued with saying if he said no a few times too many, then he knew it was time to do something else.

What are you doing in your life that inspires you and fuels your passion?

Monday, October 3, 2011

T-shaped thinking is key to product design & development

Morning snack
Creative thinking requires we go broad and deep. Ronald Brown's article Product Development: 9 Steps for Creative Problem Solving illustrates this as part of an infographic that walks us through the product design and development process.

It's important to draw on a host of resources to solve problems. Associative thinking helps us to connect the dots as noted by Mr Brown. We might hit a museum, watch a kid try to figure out a puzzle, listen to music. The point is to think broadly, horizontally then cherry picking those experiences to go deep with solutions.

The key to getting started is to be curious about things around you:

  • Ask questions
  • Wonder out loud
  • Keep a sketchbook handy (I carry a moleskin notebook everywhere)
  • Watch kids problem solve
  • Take the perspective of others
  • Listen and listen presently, deeply

What gives you inspiration? How do you capture it?