Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Touch me! I'm a business model :)

In today's shifting economy, one of the biggest challenges is to find the right business model. In this project we worked with Servodan, to investigate the opportunities presented by one of their emerging products. We covered market analysis, design, user research, service scenarios and sales.  But the best part of it was that we showed them the resulting business models in tangible form - meaning touchable, playful artifacts that are great conversation starters and tools for reflection.
I got my PM hat down from the attic once again - but this time with a twist. 5 teams, 30 people, 20 different nationalities, a dozen different backgrounds, 3 weeks, one deadline. Knock yourself out! And make sure they all deliver.

At the beginning of the project I thought that most of my time would be spent in SCRUM meetings. I was wrong. Most of my time was spent trying to persuade people that "fluffy" is not a bad word. Initially, the deliverables for this project were only partly defined - since innovation can't happen in a box. Hence the fluffiness that marked the problem definition phase of the project.

This was nicely illustrated by a conversation that I had with one of my peers. He asked me "How are we supposed to start building if we don't even know what we have to build? We've spent over a week discussing it back and forth!" I told him that we were doing great. Our job was just that - to figure "it" all out. This reminded me of a very important lesson that I had learned earlier on when designing new features at Microsoft : if you find yourself pacing relentlessly around the room, staring at the white board in despair and thinking "where am I going with this", then good for you! It means you're doing your job!

Can't say that we didn't iterate! Can you understand anything from those posters? I know I can't. But like everything else, the posters too got clearer and clearer with time...

 Nothing like a good storyboard to show a service scenario.

In true ITPD style, we finished the project with a workshop for the company and everyone else interested in the project. 

It is indeed amazing how much more animated people are when confronted with something tangible that they can feel and move around. Note to self: props are great!

Burn the specs - make a movie instead!

Making video specifications for a project is a challenge - and it's also right at the very edge of "what's been done before". Courtesy of Jacob Buur's guidance I was part of the team who worked on the requirements for eco friendly power generators to be used in Angola by DanChurcAId .

The story is "simple":  conditions in countries devastated by war are so far from what any of us can imagine that design has to withstand a different acid test every day. We worked with video material shot in Congo (which is a similar setting) to edit a series of short movies that would encompass the most intriguing aspects about the users, their environment and their life. Our movies were then used as specifications to kick start the design of the generators.

Coming from a background of "toolbar must allow descending sorting" and "left pane must not exceed 200 pixels in width" this was a challenge, to say the least. After years of working with pages of bullet listed specs, taking this approach was both liberating and confusing. Indeed video is a powerful tool and a good picture stands for 1000 words. But I had to make sure they were the right words.

My video was entitled "Pushing the boundaries" and it included everything from a shot of an overheated engine to people boarding a 4x4 Toyota on an improvised float that was about to be pushed upstream on a muddy river. My point was to show that in Congo tools and equipment are pushed to the very limits and beyond, sometimes in ways that are unimaginable to us. The point was to make the designers and engineers develop an exceptionally enduring product. In this situation, I believe it would have been almost impossible to do this without actually showing them what things are like out there. 

One of the highlights of our project was the video card game - which is a very inventive way to work as a team to group and generally make sense of bits and pieces of video material.


Where there was once chaos, now there was order... and the starting point of 5 great short films.

But the even "brighter" highlight was that I discovered the power of movies and the magic of video editing - which has since become a great love of mine. 
The project ended with a workshop where the movies were presented to the team of designers and engineers working on the project. They brainstormed and prototyped several concepts… and I got to be in charge of the whole thing.

There I am... facilitating... and that's the talking points and schedule in my hand. 

"You want us to what?" I had probably just told them that either a) they should try to use the Lego trucks to see if they can fit in the generator parts or b) they need to wrap up in 5. 

"Dolna, let's play the last one - I need to keep these people on a German schedule!"

In case you were wondering, this is one of the designs that came out:

Those are solar panels, by the way. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

SuperUser, SuperUser!

The project that kick started my masters last year was Design is a Game in which we worked with the students at the Umea Institute of Design to develop board games. The inspiration for each game came from interviewing a company about their business process. I went to Larsen Strings and looked at how some of the best cello strings in the world are developed with the help of a few selected musicians that provide the manufacturers with unique and very critical feedback on the quality of the products.

This idea later became SuperUser - the game which asks the question "When is a product ready to be shipped to the market, based on user feedback?" Ironically, this was the same dilemma that my team and I faced during our own design process. As it turns out, iteration and user testing are holy - but only if you brace yourself for all the opinions you’re going to get! Not once did we have to deal with conflicting feedback on the quality of the game and had to make several hard decisions on how to move forward. 

Coming from a software engineering background, one of the biggest lessons I've learned was that when you are right at the very heart of creativity, there is no specifications sheet anymore. You know where you're going to start, but you can never know where you are going to end up. 

I guess this is what you can call a first draft - here I was trying to put my knowledge of statistics to work and try to calculate how easy the game was to win. I didn't really get anywhere. 

Second draft - we took tour little baby out for a spin. The testers liked the game... but that's only after we saved them the trouble of reading that whole page of instructions. Note to self: nobody ever reads the instructions.  

Why is it that I always end up at the whiteboard explaining something? The discussion that we were having here later became the theme of one of my presentations - how to dim the innovation process. Once you've generated enough ideas, how do you get them to converge towards a common artifact? Fascinating topic!
Aaaa... the spray glue.. a weapon that I got very familiar with during my crusade to stick 288 (!) playing cards like the ones below. 

Oh, they love it, they love it! 
After 2 weeks of hard work, too much junk food and 3 rounds of user testing, we met the deadline with a game that was indeed a pleasure to play :)