(An article I recently wrote for the Objective Digital blog)

It was sad news that Steve Jobs lost his fight with Pancreatic Cancer last week. We wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the things that Jobs (and Apple) brought to usability and customer experience.

It is widely agreed that Steve Jobs designed “insanely great products”, many of which have revolutionised the way in which we interact with technology and create and consume digital content today. Many of these products could be described as ‘disruptive technologies’ i.e. technologies that were game changers disrupting existing markets. For example, the popularisation of the ipod and iTunes changing how we consume music, the Apple LaserWriter printer combined with true type fonts and PageMaker software (made by Aldus, now Adobe) started desktop publishing, making the mobile web accessible and sticky through it’s applications for the masses through the iphone etc. Apple products may not have always been the first of their kind but they were usually the first of their kind that were both easy to use and widely purchased. Whilst there were many engineers involved in the creation and design of Apple products, there can be no debate that Steve Jobs was an influential force in Apple’s successes.

In 1984 Jobs unveiled the Macintosh computer to a very excited audience which fast became the first commercially successful small computer with a graphical user interface and a mouse.


The Macintosh computer through its use of a graphical user interface and a mouse provided people with a mental model to understand how to use it through it’s metaphor of a desktop, folders and icons etc. It should be acknowledged that this new interface within the early Apple products revolutionised the usability of computers exponentially. Whilst many other engineers were solely focused on the technology, Jobs understood the value of considering the people you are designing technology for.This sentiment can be seen by the promotional material for The Lisa, the predecessor of the Macintosh, as “the personal computer that works the way you do”. From the iPad, to the iPhone, to the iPod, Jobs and Apple continuously delivered products that were easy to use and easy to love.

Jobs also understood the value of creating exceptional customer experiences. He infused Apple with a culture that valued design and cared about the details. According to Jobs: Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

This consideration of how things worked went beyond the design of products. Not only did Apple focus on the design of exceptional products, they also considered every part of the purchasing process, both before and after you open the beautifully designed box. Apple’s retail service has been meticulously considered and designed across the entire customer life-cycle. Got a problem with your Apple device? Make an appointment with the Genius bar where an Apple Genius will assist you. Need some help with how to use your new Macs’ inbuilt movie making software? Book in for some training. (NB The inclusion of software with computers too was an early Apple innovation). If you ring technical support and give them your serial number they will know your name and when your warranty expires. The personal service you get when you go to an Apple store and talk to a customer representative about your needs gives you confidence that you are investing in the right solution for you. It’s this understanding on the entire customer experience, the focus on ‘details’ and ‘how things work’ that make customers feel valued and create customer advocacy. Apple makes buying their easy to use products easy.

This holistic approach can also be seen by Apples’ investment and evolution of iTunes and it’s associated services and sister products. Through iTunes, Apple was able to develop a content and product eco-system (a Product-Service-System) combining their products with services, creating a lucrative business model which others are trying to emulate. Through a tightly coupled integration between multiple hardware devices, media storage, indexing, acquisition and consumption, Apple has all bases covered. With iTunes and it’s associated devices one can discover, purchase, download and then consume content in minutes, on one device without leaving your armchair. The fact that you can even purchase and consume media through iTunes on your PC is testimony to the fact that they think beyond just their products.

This meticulous attention to detail, a focus on how thing work, the requirement for well designed products, and the intentional design of customer interactions across multiple touch-points all contribute to superior customer experiences and unprecedented customer advocacy for Apple. Further, we can all thank Steve Jobs for popularising the idea amongst his business contemporaries that better design makes both sense and cents (well more like dollars)!

Steve Jobs was a true innovator, a brilliant designer who really understood what people need and a remarkable entrepreneur. Thank you Steve, you will be missed.


I was fortunate to attend the Service Design Network conference  in Paris last month.
You can view the talks at this URL: http://www.service-design-network.org/content/media-1

Whilst many of the talks were excellent, below are a few brief notes about my three favourites which you should check out.

  1. I would highly recommend the talk by Craig La Rosa from Contiunuum. Craig shared a case-study he was involved with for Holiday Inn. It was an impressive project where they created a prototype hotel reception in a ware-house out of 25 cases of foam which they used for acting out scenarios with the staff. Better to iterate in foam than bricks! They are big fans of prototyping. They showed too an artefact that looked very much like a ‘design pattern library’ (used in interaction design) which they supplied to their franchisees to help them fit out their establishment with different modules e.g. breakfast area etc. His most salient point was for this Holiday Inn project which lasted 1.5 years was that 25% of it was design work and 75% of it selling in design concepts. Video was a format used a lot on this project to help create buy in.
  2. I also really enjoyed the talk by Julia Schaeper from the UK NHS where she shared some case-studies of co-design projects being done in a hospital whereby staff and patients collaboratively improved that patient and staff experience. Julia has the task of spreading design thinking across the NHS. She showed a lot of video footage of this work in action which was good to see. She stressed the importance of using terminology that makes sense to the participants and at the NHS they have developed toolkits (www.institute.nhs) to empower their staff to create change and improvements from the ground up. Staff are encouraged to think in a different way…the playing field is leveled and staff can ask “how can we do this better” and then act! To facilitate this it is vital that this approach is built into the organisational phiolosophy.
  3. I also really enjoyed the opening talk by Birgit Maher who talked us through the homelessness project in Cologne Germany, Gulliver: A survival station for the homeless. Using this case study she articulated 10 service design basics. I have seen this project mentioned in academic literature a lot and it was really great to see photos of it in process and learn about the details. It’s a really great project which consists of a drop in center for homeless people i.e. people who are not so comfortable with the idea of a home.

Some learning from other practitioners

I have translated my notes from this 2 day conference and have provided a summary of related insights I gleaned from discussions as well as some of my own reflections.

  1. Good service design bridges business and design. As designers we need to be focus on business benefits and be able to show value in terms of both financials and business efficiencies. The next frontier for service design is  being able to communicate it’s monetary value.
  2. The design thinker and the business thinker working together = power! Service design never works alone. Whilst facilitation is a core competency of the service designer, we are more than facilitators. We are experts in visualisation and design process which lead to outside of the box thinking.
  3. Service design bridges user research and strategic business interests. There is a risk that as designers we do too much research. Getting to know when to stop the research component for maximum ROI takes practice.
  4. Service design is concerned with both front and back-office interactions and processes simultaneously.  Staff need to be aware of the whole picture. It is important for middle management to be able to experience from the customer perspective as this is where the problems usually get solved. Senior managers do not interface with customers or solve front line issues.
  5. Include the staff in your research! What motivates them? How is accomplishment measured by, themselves, their peers and the organisation? The buy-in you will get from this from the people that deliver the service can not be under-estimated.
  6. Service design involves “sell-in” to your staff. Participative techniques can help with this and can assist with change management as well. There is a need for the design to be sold in differently to different levels of staff addressing the why should we change?
  7. Empower your middle managers to manage change. Provision of tools and infrastructure to enable change within the organisation is vital.
  8. Your customers’ experiences are largely a result of your staff. Often a service design project involves the change of the service attitude of employees and it is so important to hire staff with attitudes that compliment the organisation. Happy staff make happier customers. Staff KPI’s should include metrics for customer satisfaction e.g. customer retention over sales. Good customer service should be rewarded. Make sure you map your stakeholders as well and try and get the people closest to the top involved.
  9. Staff need to be empowered and not stifled by processes where they can not can not think outside the box and graciously handle exceptions. The way that exceptions are handled makes all of the difference. Staff need to be empowered to handle circumstances that fall out of the usual process.
  10. Understand your clients motivations for hiring you. At the outset of the project explore not only what the organisational aims are but what are the personal motivations of the client side representatives. Understand too their expectations from you and agree on some KPI’s for the project and associated metrics. Further, have regular meetings with your client in order to ensure they are getting what they need from you to manage things on their end.
  11. Speak the language of your client. It is really important to be able to have a shared discourse for your service design work. This is why frameworks are so important. Customer journey maps/service clue-prints become a language whereby everyone in the company uses them and thinks in these terms. It is so important to ensure that these frameworks make sense and are relevant and embraced by the people in the organisation.
  12. Visualisation is key to making services more concrete as a formalisation of the concept. A lot of service design is about communication and sell-in. Good visualisations of non-tangeible services is crucial for getting everyone involved on the same page.
  13. The importance of execution. How you execute an idea is just as important as your high level strategy in the beginning.
  14. User research should be fun! The experience of the research should be part of the reward. People who take $50 for research are often boring. Research is about building relationships so don’t treat your participants as idiots if you want good insights. Extreme users are usually very willing participants if you provide them with fun activities and create good relationships with them. Extreme users often provide the most meaty insights.

Google Think


Seems like Google have started a new channel for “Business in Bites”

Good idea but I wonder whether the signal to noise ratio is going to make it worth-while?
TED is excellent. TED is curated.

A friend just sent me a great video about Game-Storming i.e. brainstorming using games.

I highly recommend the book it mentions: Gamestorming: A playbook for innovators, rulebreakers and changemakers. I have had some great results using techniques from this book in workshops on a wide variety of topics. (There is also a lot of academic literature about these techniques by Eva Brandt and an article on Boxes and Arrows.)

As the video states these techniques are being used by both people in business to help business solve problems and thinking differently as well as those using these techniqies for ‘future workshops‘ for designing a more sustainable future and  making the world a better place!

Interestingly, I listened to a fantastic podcast yesterday at This Digital Life where Peter Merholz and Michael Dila were talking about ‘design thinking’. One of the points that emerged in this podcast is that the term ‘design thinking’ seems to be an umbrella turned which is used within different contexts:

1. How can we think differently and more creatively within business?

2. How we can use design to help effect positive and sustainable change in the world?

These are pretty different domains but gamestorming can definately be used in both contexts.

The hosts of the podcast  also raised another point about the creative class and how we can create a modern and virtual rotary club so that creative class memebers canlend their creative skills to assist with designing a better future. LOVE the idea. Surely there is a possibility in this uber networked world of ours.

Go check the podcast out…lots of great food for thought!

I love this video….so cute and really captures what UX design is about.


Last year I undertook a compulsory unit at uni in qualitative research methodology.It got me thinking about the research we do to inform the design of applications we develop and the value of using a framework for research.

I learned about how we all bring assumptions to our research as a consequence of our perspectives and how no qualitative research can never ever be truly objective, particularly social research.

When doing research it is vital to be aware of your theoretical assumptions and to design a study that enables analysis of associated factors.

Considering your assumptions

For my assignment in this subject, I undertook a pilot research study connected with my work. My research question was a case study which looked at ‘How can we improve the documentation system for the specification of online projects within a commercial context?’ As part of this research the consideration of a knowledge sharing system of sorts, I first needed to consider ‘what is knowledge?’. My research method and analysis would need to support my answer to this question.

+ Is knowledge something that is like an object? i.e. external to and independent from individuals, that can be passed from one person to another?

+ Is knowledge something that resides within the minds of individuals? i.e. something embedded within people whereby thinking transforms information into knowledge, where knowledge involves the sharing of information to yield knowledge.

+ Is knowledge something that is contextually and socially constructed? i.e. knowledge is socially and contextually constructed, whereby knowledge is embedded within a community rather that within individuals.

I favour the 3rd perspective ….and indeed I would argue too that technology design (as within web and mobile devices) these days needs to consider both social and contextual factors.

This study also necessitated thinking about assumptions about collaboration and the role of artifacts to facilitate work and share knowledge. There is some really interesting literature about artifacts as ‘boundary objects’ (Star SL & Griesemer JR (1989)), i.e. objects that communicate knowledge across domains.

With my assumptions in mind I decided to use the meta-theoretical lens of Activity Theory to guide my research and have since decided that Activity Theory can provide a very useful framework to do design research within design for computer mediated activities and Service Design.

Activity Theory

Activity Theory takes ‘activities’ as it’s main unit of analysis taking into account the larger social and contextual systems that activities occur in. Unlike related frameworks of ‘task analysis‘ which does not consider people’s innate knowledge required of users and ‘user modeling‘ which doesn’t take context into account.

Activity Theory acknowledges the relationship between activities and their broader social and physical contexts, through itʼs consideration of activities within the context of a broader activity system comprised of other actors, mediating artifacts, social rules, division of labour, as well as other related activity systems.

It was  written about by Engestorm (in Perspectives on Activity Theory in 1999) and later applied to the design and development of IT systems by Kaptelinin and Nardi in 2006 (in their book Acting with Technology.

Activity Theory has two underlying assumptions;
1) that human cognition emerges and exists within context of an individuals interactions with the world and can only be understood in terms of these interactions or activities,

2) activity is culturally and socially determined. It focuses on the interaction between consciousness and human activity within particular activity systems or contexts.
Below you can see a model by Engestrom and some descriptions explaining this model.

Node Description
Mediating artefacts A tool that mediates the relationship between the subject and the object, which caries the history of the relationship. It can refer to a plan, an idea, a sketch or a theory. An object created by a subject becomes a mediating artifact for another actor within the activity system.
Objects In order to reach an outcome it is necessary to produce certain objects (e.g. experiences, knowledge, and physical products); they connect a subjectsʼ actions to the collective activity; something that can be shared for manipulation which can be tangible or intangible, for example, physical objects (e.g. products), soft objects (e.g. computer programs), conceptual objects (e.g. theories or models). The transformation of an object is the motive of the activity.
Social Rules Social rules which effect the activity and are imposed by the other actors including the larger organisational and professional communities.
Other Actors Involved Other actors, often called communities refers to other actors that mediate the activity. Often subjectsʼ are members of multiple communities within the organisation of which have influence on their work.
Division of Labour Activities usually involve a division of labour which are often negotiated between actors. As (Suchman 1983) notes that the actual division of labour at work often differs from those prescribed by the organisational structure .

For the interviews I did I asked questions relating to these nodes and noticed that I was able to get a holistic view of the system in question from my various respondents. I was able to use this model to see emerging patterns and felt that I got a very thorough and well rounded understanding of the state of play as well as the different needs and motivations of my respondents. I found it a very valuable tool to help guide my research and analysis.

OK….so how is all this theoretical academic stuff to UX?

These days IT systems never function within a bubble. Particularly with the fact that many people access IT systems in multiple contexts using multiple devices. For example mobile applications usually need to be divided for fragmented attention, they need to be able to picked up and put down at any given moment, and they are often used in social situations, and these devices also often “socialise” with other devices too! Perhaps we need to think more about the dimensions Activity Theory posits? How do social factors influence the contexts of your products use? It’s not really about the relationship between a “user” and a “system” now really is it?

Nardi maintains that “activity cannot be understood without understanding the role of artifacts in everyday existence, especially the way that artifacts are integrated into social practice” (Nardi, 1996, p.14). Activity Theory provides a framework to do research to inform the design of new IT systems whereby by taking the perspective of different actors within the system, a subjects’ view can compliment a systems’ view….. yielding a more detailed picture of the different contexts and actors that you are designing for.

It is in this way, Activity Theory offers a complimentary theoretical framework to consider computer supported activities and HCI research.


Engestrom, Y. 1999, Perspectives on Activity Theory, Cambridge     University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Kaptelinin, V., Nardi, B. 2006, Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction     Design, MIT Press, London, England.

Kutti, K. 1996, “Activity Theory as a potential framework for Human-Computer-Interaction     Research” in Nardi, B. (ed) 1996, Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and     Human Computer Interaction, MIT Press, London, England, pp 16-44.

Nardi, B. (ed.) 1996, Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human Computer Interaction, MIT Press, London, England.

Starr, S.L. & Griesemer, J.R. 1989,’Institutional Ecology,‘Translations’ and Boundary     Objects: Amateurs and Professionals’ in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology,     1907-39’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 19, pp. 387-420.

Suchman, L., 1983, “Office procedure as practical action: Models of work and system     design.”, ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems, vol. 1, no. 4, pp     320-328.