August 2005

Poet_3Design may be our top competitive edge – says Tom peters on the cover of the book. I have a list of design books that I need to devour. One of the them being Emotional Design – By Donald A. Norman.

While wandering through the Gangaram’s , one of the largest book stores in the city, I stumbled upon this book and was immediately stimulated by the fact that it was written by Norman. I decided to plunge to this book as my fascination of design was pretty evident after the usage of i-pod, a product which to my knowledge has an immaculate design.

The book as the title states is about the understanding of the every day things and the importance of design element in each of them.

First a word on the cover page – , the picture of a coffee pot invented by the French artist Jacques Carelman ."Coffeepot for masochists" is what he called it, and it is quite unusable, for the handle is on the same side as the spout. Just goes to show that hitec things become so unusable.

In the first chapter of the book, the basic philosophy of POET (Psychology of everyday things) is revealed, where it states the design of any thing should be based on the needs and interests of the user with an emphasis on making the products usable and understandable.The author takes us through a number of everyday examples which lack some of the elements of good design.Swinging glass doors where people get trapped, telephone with innumerable functions but poor design, cooling unit of refrigerator, seat adjustment in Benz car, floppy drive etc. In all these examples there lies a common thread of presence / lack of core design principles.

As per POET, there are 7 design principles that need to be followed:

1. Good Conceptual Model: Usage of Knowledge in the head and Knowledge in the World. Providing a model to the user which has a consistency in presentation of operations and results, besides providing a coherent system image.The designer’s mental model and user’s mental model should be in synch with the system’s conceptual model.

2. Simplify the structure of tasks- Use Affrodances: Affordance refers to the perceived and actual characteristics, properties of the product. These decide the way the device would be used.These provide strong clues to the usage of the devices

3. Make things Visible : By Looking , the user should be able to tell the state of device and the alternatives for action.Bridge the gulf of execution and gulf of evaluation

4. Get the Mappings Right : Relationship between action and control.Make sure that user can determine the relationships
Between intentions and possible actions
Between actions and their effects on the system
Between actual system state and what is perceivable by sight, sound or feel
Between the perceived system state and the needs, intentions and expectations of the user

5. Exploit the power of constraints:The usage of constraints in the design such as Physical, Semantic, Cultural and Logical helps the user know, use, experiment and ultimately become convenient with the device.

6. Feedback (Design for error): Full and continuous feedback of the actions.

7. When all else fails, standardize

The above design principles become all the important in this increasingly technological world where we seem to confront with the paradox of technology, a time when the things provide a whole host of functions in a device , however it also results in complicating the usage of the whole product.The end result is gulf of execution ( difference between intention and allowable action) and gulf of evaluation(amount of effort required to know the state of the system and determine how well the expectations and intentions have been met) . It should be designer’s endeavor to reduce both the gulfs to minimum.

One way to dissect and start analyzing a device in its design rigor is to look at the following framework of action. The author describes the 7 steps of action as

Forming a goal + Forming an Intention +Specifying an action + executing the action + Perceiving the result of the action + Interpreting the state of the world + evaluate the outcome

The combination of 2 factors i.e Knowledge in the World and Knowledge in the Head are used by users to work with devices efficiently. In most of the situations , there is a trade-off between 2 factors where the knowledge in the world is structured in such a way by the user that knowledge in head is minimized.

Incorporating error element in the design:
Errors come in 2 forms. Slips and mistakes. The fundamental difference between the two is this : Slips are a result of a wrong execution of a activity which has been done so many times that it forms part of sub conscious mind. User typically has the right goal in his mind as far as the slip is concerned. When a user committs a mistake, it is usually to do with the wrong goal in mind.

Slips can be classified in to 6 categories :

1. Capture slips:
When two different action sequences have the same initial tasks but have a different sequence towards the end, the most commonly used activity sequence is carried out for all the similar activities thus causing a slip
2. Description slips: These tend to happen when the wrong and the right object , are at a close proximity
3. Data Driven errors: These are automatic reactions to some events and can intrude in to the action sequence of a user
4. Associative Action error: When 2 activities take place at the same time and user needs to attend to both the events, it is possible that he makes a wrong association between the event&what’s he supposed to do.
5.Loss-of-activation error :Forgeting something
6.Mode errors: This happens when devices have different modes of operation. Action appropriate to one mode has a totally different implication to another mode.Time devices and computers are some examples where users can come across mode errors

Why do we need to know the kinds of slips and how does it help in the design?
It helps in design in 2 ways. One is try to design in such a way that these slips/mistakes do not happen.Secondly,incase a slip/mistake happens, provide feedback readily, easily and accurately and in a form consistent with user’s goals.
One way that is commonly used to reduce errors is to have forcing functions which will stop the effect of one error to produce a cascading effect. Lock-in(Automatic switchoff of device), Lock-out(seal the cellar during fire mishap) and Interlock (ovens)are typically the forcing functions used in various devices.These help narrow the gulf of execution and evaluation.

What is the design challenge?
From a designer’s perspective, the needs of his clients are different from the needs of the end consumer. Clients are typically from the purchase department and other non-user department of the company, where the cost and fast deployment is all a client looks for.Hence usability does not figure in the scheme of things in the mind of the designer. Besides, the hunger of extra features and worshiping false images(placing hi-tech gadgets in the office to show off that the firm is high tech) also are driving the designers to incorporate more and more features and thus making the usability a lesser priority item.Hence most of the designers put aesthetics first , cost second and somewhere a distant third comes usability.

Typically the best design is the one which arises out of evolutionary design, i.e design that comes out of various experiments and tests. Examples include telephone, type writers which have evolved over a certain period of time and people have become quite comfortable with the design.However because of the factors mentioned previously, it is difficult for the device to take its path of evolutionary design. In such situations it is better for the designer to build a lot of experimentation in to the product. This invite to experiment must be built using the same principles like visibility, mapping, lesser cost to experiment , feedback so that the evolutionary period for each user is shortened.

Final thoughts on User-Centered Design :
Design should:
Make it easy to determine what actions are possible at any moment of time (Constraints)
Make things visible, including the conceptual model of the system, alternative actions and results of the action(Visibility)
Follow natural mappings between intentions and the required actions, between actions and resulting effect and between the information that is visible and interpretation of the system(Mappings)
Make it easy to evaluate the current state of the design(Conceptual Model, Feedback)

If the design involves big instruction manuals, or makes user think" How am I going to use remember this ?" – It is a clear sign of a bad design.

This book has truly enhanced the way I look at the world. In the past days itself , I have started noticing various products and appreciate / critique the design that went in to it. I can relate a lot of principles mentioned in the book to a mundane activity like a website design. I think this book serves a good primer for me to go on to the book that I wanted to read "Emotional Design". Planning to lay my hands on it asap.


Profitability2_5Pyramid Profit model ? Is it possible in services industry ? A very basic service which is used as a fire wall and a profitable service at the higher levels of the pyramid. Ok, let me think out of software industry.

In the entertainment industry, lets take Walt Disney. Each of the theme parks has so many levels of services that it caters to all strata of the society. It is difficult for any normal company to come up with the services like that of disney theme park to begin with. May be Disney took time to make money on each theme park to begin.I need to get in to Disney archives to understand the profitability model of the company. However I feel that in all probability pyramid model was the one working for the company

The Second Model which Zhao describes is the Pyramid Profit Model

The firm typically has a slew of products. The products at the bottom of the pyramid serve as a firewall . These act as a barrier for potential entrants and usually these are manufactured and sold very very efficiently. Most often , the company might also end up losing money. However , it more than makes up in the top rungs of pyramid. The profit generators are at the top.
Very very few companies manage can get to maintain and run this profitability model. One of the most important reasons for the success of the model is that customers themselves need to foram a hierarchy with different expectations and attitudes towards the product. The best example one can think of is Barbie doll.
At 10 dollars, a barbie doll is with in the reach of umpteen customers, but however, the real money is made at the top end of the product line where niche barbie dolls cost 200 dollars. Now if one looks at the customers, they themselves are at various socio economic strata and hence end up buying barbie dolls placed at various points of the pyramid. This is one way of explaining the success of barbie dolls

What are the other products that one can think of :

Cell phones like Nokia where there is a product at each price point
iPod where ipod shuffle, mini, ipod and other powerful feature products are available at each price point..
Software products : typepad itself, where basic,professional versions cater to various customers who can afford / want various features.

So, is this model all about segmenting the customer base and having price points so that the lowest rung serves as a firewall and the upper rung serves as revenue generators ?

What are the critical success factors for this model to flourish ?

  • Meaningful segmentation of the customers
  • More value in the age of customer life cycle should result more revenue for the company

More thoughts on Pyramid Model in the next post.

AopcoverI began reading Art of Profitability last night and the most exciting thing about the book is the way of delivering the point using simple schematic diagrams. The book urges the reader to read one chapter a week , try to get the gist of each of the chapter , chew, ruminate, reflect on various businesses that one has come across which fits the models described in the book.

From the title of the book, it is clear that the book talks about various profitability models that are present across successful businesses in various industries. The first model that’s described by the author is :

Customer Solution Profit Model :


Invest time and energy in learning all there is to know about your customer. Then use the knowledge to create specific solutions to them. Lose money for a short time . Make money for a Long time.

If one looks at the graph shown, the horizontal line shown is the break even line and in the initial period of time, the business does not make money and after the learning period, the firm reaps high profitability

What are the firms , Industries which follow this profit Model ?

This is mostly the case of firms where its customers are Corporate customers, where there needs to be time spent in understanding the problems and opportunities of each client, customize the solution and then create a terrific value for the customer, in the process, the firm can increase the margins and hence its profitability.
Examples :

1. Oracle when it deployed its ERP and database suite at a lesser cost and then made money by deploying the web enabled erp, sophisticated database products etc

2.Windows: Give explorer free , sustain the loses and then charge for the various add ons  (Operating system).

This model was also heavily relied during the dot com boom. Firms/Websites thought they could built websites, build volumes, understand customers, increase eye balls , and then increase their profitability. Alas! No such thing happened. , which brings us to the important point, in which cases is this profitability model applicable ? Is it worthy enough to spend time to understand customers , in spite of losing money and revenue streams being far away?

Can Delicious make money, while it is understanding the tagging behavior of the online community ? Yes why not, didn’t craiglist make money in the longer run ?

But if one looks at few things that separates the winners from losers , amongst folks who follow this profitability model, it is clear that there are certain traits of the winners like

Clear Execution of the customer involvement plan: What would be the man power deployment in the first month, in the second month, first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, 1 year down the lane , etc? Successful firms have always decreased their people per account deployment and increased their revenue per account as time went by

Get the project/ client first before you market your service bombastically:
Most of the firms have first tried to get in to the market with one client, then built a host of services around the client, leveraged the experience working with the client and then market it to other clients. Classic case of Moore’s product marketing strategy "CROSSING THE CHASM".

Fast Prototyping : No point in spending years together in building a full fledged product. Build a prototype, test it at the client, incorporate the changes asap and deploy a working solution of the product at the client’s side. This becomes crucial as the customer feedback is so much essential during the initial phase of service / product roll out.

Understand customer even though it involves losing Money: Somewhere down the lane, when things get tough , people decide it is not prudent enough to lose money and tighten the belts and make the free service a high premium service, which then makes the user base fly away. This mistake has been committed by far too many firms when they fail to take the decision of making the product/ service a paid service at the right time.Either they are too early / they are too late…This definitely is more of an art and less of science I guess

This model has been far too common in the reading that I have come across . I am awaiting to get fundas from the other profitability models described in the book.
More on it, in the next post.

FreakonomicsThis is my third book of the week .
After a pretty long hiatus, I have gone on a book binge.

Freakonomics , another very popular book among the reader community turned out to be like a novel with a BIG difference. The difference being that of using data to show interesting results to interesting questions.

The book as such has no underlying theme, but only urges the readers to ask a lot of questions and then use data to challenge some of the conventional wisdom in the society .

Steven D. Levitt dwells on the following questions:

  • What do sumo wrestlers and teachers have in common?
  • How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents ?
  • Why do drug dealers still live with their moms ?
  • Where have all the criminals gone in USA, considering the drastic reduction in violence rate ?
  • What makes a perfect parent ?
  • Does a name matter in the success of an individual ?

A first look at the questions itself show that there are very different .Infact the answers to some of them are so obvious / seem stupid that no researcher would even ask them , leave alone analyse them in the first place. However author tries to glean the data and come up with very interesting results.

To summarize, this book is less about answering a set of questions and more about asking a lot of questions, taking the effort to understand the importance of test and control groups while doing the analysis and challenging the conventional wisdom.

Overall, a fun read for any person who enjoys stats . I am sure any person reading this book would atleast make an effort in asking a lot of questions and not accept conventional wisdom blindly.