24 February 2011

Should You Use A Decision Tree?

As a follow-up to Tuesday's post, I want to offer the following decision tree to help you determine whether or not to make a decision tree.

22 February 2011

Trimming Tool

Genrich Altschuller's Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (aka TRIZ - pronounced trees) is a brilliant framework that designers and engineers should all be familiar with.

One of the many tools included in the TRIZ methodology is an approach called trimming. Basically it involves arbitrarily removing one element from a design, then trying to make the system perform all the necessary functions without that piece.

I put together this little flowchart to help explain how Trimming works. To quote John Hodgeman, you're welcome.

17 February 2011

Bonus Post: On Failure

The first Tom Robbins book I ever read was Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates.  It was brilliant - funny, thought-provoking, insightful and inspiring. I quickly ran out and got Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas, which was coated in just as much awesomesauce as Invalids (ok, maybe a little bit less awesomesauce, but not much). And no, I'm not talking about success-guru and awakener of giants within Tony Robbins. They're two different guys.

Now I'm reading Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and it's knocking my socks off. Just like the other two, I find myself underlining parts that are particularly memorable... and deliberately not underlining some parts because they're just so darn good they stick in my head forever even though they're not underlined.

In honor of some recent discussions about failure, I'd like to pass along a few lines by Mr. Robbins, from Even Cowgirls Get The Blues

"… you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free.
- Tom Robbins

Dark Side of Systems Engineering

I thought I'd share a couple of the comic ideas that didn't quite make it into Defense AT&L's 13 Theta series (more than TWICE as good as six sigma!). 

I must confess this one isn't an entirely original idea but it did make me laugh.

15 February 2011

Simple Is Hard

Several friends recently recommended The King is Dead,  the latest album by The Decemberists. I must admit I wasn't familiar with their music so I figured I'd check them out. I like it quite a bit, but that's not why I bring it up.

The writeup on Amazon had some interesting comments about simplicity and complexity, explaining that this album "...marks a deliberate turn towards simplicity after the band's wildly ambitious and widely acclaimed 2009 song-cycle The Hazards of Love."

The description goes on to say their simpler sound is just as good as their previously complex efforts: "The King Is Dead showcases the ways in which The Decemberists... sound just as glorious in simple, stripped-down compositions as they do on the elaborate structures that have defined their work for years."

From an aesthetic point of view, complexity can be really attractive. I love-love-love the intricate flavor of steampunk tech, for example. Part of the appeal is historical, I'm sure. I like the way steampunk highlights an older, more effortful way of doing things. Steampunk is cool because the complexity involved is something we've moved beyond. But it's also cool because, well, it just looks cool. But I also totally dig the stripped-down, simple and elegant designs of iPods, for example.

So The Decemberists' album isn't praiseworthy because their earlier albums were lousy - nobody's saying that. It's just a different approach to making good music. A simpler approach.

What really caught my eye was when one of the musicians explained that "creating straightforward, unadorned songs can be at least as hard as building complicated musical epics. "For all my talk about how complex those records were, this one may have been harder to do," he says. "It's a real challenge to make simple music, and lot of times we had to deliberately hold off and keep more space. This record is an exercise in restraint."

An exercise in restraint. That's a good exercise for musicians and artists as well as program managers and engineers. The results, well, I think they speak for themselves.

Want to read more about simplicity and complexity and how they relate to design and user experiences? Download your free copy of The Simplicity Cycle at RoguePress.

10 February 2011

The Effectiveness of Signs

I had to chuckle when I came across this sign taped to the wall of an unnamed university. Naturally, I whipped out my ever-present, oh-so-fuzzy little camera phone and took a picture or two.

This sign is clear and unambiguous. Where does the trash can belong? It belongs here. Right below the large, red arrow. There's even a helpful picture of a trash can, lest there be any confusion. So there's nothing wrong with the design of this sign, right? Right.

Well, let's zoom out a bit and see how things worked out:

Hmmmm.... I see the sign. I see the top of the trashcan. And yet, there seems to be no correlation between the sign's request and the can's position. Why is that?

Maybe it's unintended disobedience, rooted in the fact that the sign is tucked away behind the door and therefore goes unseen. Maybe it's deliberate, because that's an inconvenient place to put the trashcan.

Regardless of the reasion, this grievous transgression of refuse receptacle locationage tells me what we've got here is an ineffective sign. And that got me thinking.

Someone clearly cared enough to design, print and post the sign. But they didn't care enough to follow through, either by talking with the janitor or stopping by to make sure the trashcan is where it belongs (this is where the can was for the whole 4 weeks I was in class).

This isn't a big deal, but it's worth mentioning because it's a small example of how bigger things go wrong. See, even clear, unambiguous direction can fail to deliver results if not paired with follow-through, a solid understanding of the environment & situation and personal involvement. Someone wants the can behind the door, and someone else wants it in the middle of the hall. Who wins? Not the person who makes a sign. The winner is the one who actually moves the can.

09 February 2011

Press 1 for...

I got a call from American Airlines the other day, letting me know my flight from Chicago to Cedar Rapids had been cancelled and I was being rescheduled on a new flight. The automated voice on the other end kindly provided the new flight information and a confirmation code, which I dutifully wrote down.

Only problem - I wasn't actually flying anywhere that day.

Yup, some poor schmoo inadvertently gave the airline my phone number and thus missed getting notified about the flight change.

Being the diligent dude that I am, I called the airline to let them know their message didn't reach its intended recipient. Let me tell you, this is not a situation the system designers anticipated. There was no option to Press Seven If You Received A Call That Was Supposed To Go To Someone Else. My conversation with the chipper computer went something like this.

Computer: Please state the traveler's name.
Me: Um, I don't know.
Computer: Did you say Turnbull?
Me: No
Computer: Please state the traveler's name.
Me: I don't know.
Computer: Did you say Durnho?
Me: Help
Computer: I would be glad to help. Please state the traveler's name.

Would you believe I hung in there long enough to get through to a person? And of course, that person did not have an alternate phone number, so this hapless, unnamed traveler would have to wait until arriving at the airport before finding out the flight was delayed / rescheduled... which I guess isn't a huge deal, right?

Should the automated message have included an option for someone to provide a "Sorry, wrong number" response? I don't know. Maybe this doesn't happen often. And when it does happen, the impact is relatively minimal - I mean, the guy was probably on the way to the airport anyway. But it doesn't seem like it would have been that much effort to add a short "If this message was not intended for you, press 7" or something, if only to avoid inconveniencing people in situations like mine.

08 February 2011

Seeing Differently

No, the glasses in the picture below aren't broken. They're supposed to look like that.

These reading glasses belong to my buddy Chris Gunderson, shown modeling the specs in the picture below. The first time I met him, he was wearing the glasses. Then he went to take them off and did a move like this:

... and my head sort of exploded, in a classic I-was-NOT-expecting-THAT moment.

Here's the thing: everyone knows how glasses work. You put them on from the front, with thin bars stretching across your temples and hooking over your ears. If you want extra security, you can add a loop on the back side, connecting one temple bar to the other. But if they break at the bridge, you're either out of luck or risk looking like a dork by taping the break.

Someone obviously noticed that glasses sometimes break at the bridge. It happens often enough that it's sort of a cliche. So why not break it there from the start? And let's use magnets (how DO magnets work?) to keep things together.

A little research showed that the design has been around for a while. I guess I'm just a bit behind when it comes to reading glasses technology. But late or not, I still think it's a pretty sweet design, no doubt produced by someone who sees things a little differently. I think there's a lesson there for all of us...

05 February 2011

Bonus Post: Better, FTW

I just finished reading Atul Gawande's book Better. In a word: breathtaking.

I'm at a loss to describe how this book affected me. It's about how to perform well in a complex, high-stakes profession, and I find many parallels to my own work.

It's also an example of truly fine writing. As in, his writing is so good you almost don't notice how good it is. The quality of his prose blends in to the background of his story, then halfway through the chapter you notice that reading his words is like drinking cold water on a hot day.

I wish I could write half as well as Dr. Gawande.

If you haven't read any of his books, today's not too soon to start. He's really that good.

03 February 2011

Types of Innovation

Just for fun, I asked Mr. Google for information about different types of innovation. I quickly discovered that there are four / ten / six types of innovation (and, interestingly, five types of innovation snake oil salesmen).

Now, most of these innovation salesmen experts laid out taxonomies that omitted some of the more interesting types of innovation. So I decided to put together my very own list. It's not comprehensive. It's not authoritative. No snake oil for sale here, please. It's just a different way to think about how to approach this thing called innovation.

I have my favorite types - I bet you can pick them out in the list below. How about you? Got anything to add to the list?
  • Frugal innovation - using minimal resources to deliver new capabilities.
  • Disruptive innovation - products or practices that disrupt the current market
  • Innovation without permission - innovation by rogues who don't technically have authority to proceed but who deliver meaningful advancements anyway. Sort of like Thoreau's "majority of one." Often related to Disruptive (see above)
  • Open innovation - Using crowd-sourcing, open architectures and broad collaboration. Innocentive is one of the leaders in this area.
  • Sustaining innovation - the opposite of disruptive; it's expected innovation that expands the current market
  • Operational innovation - innovations in how things are used and implemented
  • Process Innovation - innovation in process design & execution
  • Incremental Innovation - delivering increased capabilities in small steps
  • Radical Innovation - the opposite of Incremental, similar to Disruptive, it is "competence-destroying" because it changes the game space so completely.
Anything to add?

01 February 2011

Location, Location, Location

Today's design lesson comes to us from the local grocery store. Let's start with a photo, shall we? Who can tell me what this is a photo of?

A gold star to anyone who said "an example of terrible design." Other acceptable answers include "the worst location in the world for a cup holder" and "a Customer Inconvenience Device that blocks placement of certain grocery items." Minus ten points for anyone who even thought the word "innovative."

Now, it may be a bit hard to tell from this photo, but that is indeed a cup holder. It is awkwardly far from the part of the cart you push to make the cart go forward. As in, it's so far away that the handle doesn't even show up in the photo. I promise, it's well out of reach if you're standing behind the cart. And while you can't tell from my photo, that thing definitely gets in the way as your cart fills up.

Personally, I usually manage to survive a trip to the grocery store without needing caffeine, but for those who do appreciate a cup of joe while strolling the aisles, this device offers no assistance at all. I've got to wonder what people were thinking when they designed, sold, bought and installed it. I suspect somewhere along the way they congratulated themselves for being innovative ("It's a cup holder! On a shopping cart! We're so clever!") From experience, I know what people are thinking when they use it: "Hey, I can't reach my coffee from way over here," and "Dang, this thing is in the way of my groceries."

This is not an example of innovation - it's an example of superficially satisfying the requirements. Somewhere along the line, someone said "Hey, wouldn't it be nice if our shopping carts had cup holders?" Someone else said "Hey, great idea!" But insufficient thought was put into answering questions like "Um, where should we put the cup holder? Does it need to be accessible from the typical cart-pushing position? Does it matter if it blocks the groceries?"

It's not like they don't have options. The photo below shows a very simple cup holder from a different store.

This one is positioned perfectly for the convenience of someone who's actually pushing the cart. Now, it's also within reach of any toddlers who happen to be riding along and are interested in splashing themselves or others with hot coffee, but that's a topic for another post. For now, I'd better go put my groceries away.