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Serious Play – How the Best Companies Simulate to Innovate April 1, 2012

Posted by matthewsander in Creative leadership, Creativity, Design Thinking, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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Models are efficient tools of collaboration. So says Michael Schrage. His book, “Serious Play,” is about building many models, prototypes, simulations – and using these tools for all the learning, sharing, and forecasting they can provide.


“Serious Play” tackles the goals and pitfalls of modeling. It focuses on the diverse roles of modeling, and on the interplay between simulation, communication, and innovation. The book encourages rapid prototypes and simulations as tools to facilitate collaboration between groups. This is where “play” fits in. Collaboration, ideation, enhancement, and the simple fun of trying new things each have a role in the process “Serious Play” advocates.

Through anecdotes and case studies, Schrage explains modeling, simulating, and prototyping, and emphasizes how the three tools of “Serious Play” can promote collaboration between engineering, manufacturing, design and management. Numerous styles are mentioned, including: spreadsheets, 2D and 3D electronic drawings, sculpted models, printed prototypes, and manufactured prototypes. Costs and benefits are associated with each.

According to Schrage, creating value is the essence of the prototype. With each cycle of prototyping comes the opportunity to improve the quality of the product. More than just quality, however, rapid prototyping can allow a variety of different focuses. Improvements, cost reductions, and product enhancements can all be explored through iterations of the prototyping process.

Image of the rapid prototyping process encouraged by Schrage

"Think of the extra cycles as currency: each additional cycle can ‘purchase’ a product improvement, cost reduction, or a speedup.” (Schrage, P. 98)

While collaboration and value creation are each big picture goals of prototyping, many pitfalls also exist. These pitfalls can hinder the value of a prototype. “Serious Play” suggests avoiding models that have no inherent purpose, that fail to benefit a particular party, that are too elaborate to effectively use, and that fail to facilitate a discussion between different product teams. The book also argues that the value of each model should be considered and evaluated by realistic business metrics.


Schrage’s style is almost exclusively anecdotal. "Serious Play" is full of insightStories of product designers, modelers, and innovators blend together as the book progresses, and behind each story lies a hidden gem of insight. Each insight is as valuable as the last; creatively achieved, and relevant to the real world. Schrage argues effectively for the value prototypes bring to communication and collaboration, and for the value that cheap modeling has brought to the economics of business.

It isn't clear how every insight fits into the thesis of each chapterThe book’s value is in its insights. But while very insightful, it struggles with organization. At times the book loses itself in its anecdotes, and fails to thematically tie its insights together into coherent themes. Selected blurbs are blocked out of the page, and are as likely to agree with a poignant point as they are to summarize an anecdote, repeat a commentary, or make their own point. The problem with this is that, although the points are insightful in themselves, it becomes difficult for the reader to quickly grasp where each point fits into the bigger picture.

The book is a model built for communicating opportunities in modelingThe book seems determined to offer ideas for a multitude of scenarios, model types, and businesses, and in so doing loses some focus. However, the variety of business practices, prototyping styles, and methodologies help provide a examples, or if you will, a “model” for a large section of reader needs. The variety allows the savvy reader to re-read particular sections that may apply specifically to their business strategy, and to pick up general practice techniques as they go along. This should be beneficial to the sect of readers who are currently exploring prototyping within their business model, and for those of us interested in ideology that guides when, where and how we should prototype.

Fortunately for those of us “time-pressed” innovators, Schrage recognizes that “Serious Play” is not easy for everyone to quickly read and apply. He recommends that some of us instead read “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Innovators,” or “The One Minute Modeler.” For the generalist, looking for tools to apply, I agree. However, to give us some quick tips, Schrage concludes his book with a “User Guide,” where he outlines specific steps that even the time-pressed can take to seriously play.


The Design of Everyday Things – Don Norman March 11, 2012

Posted by dairui72 in Design Thinking, Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.


The Design of Everyday things is an absolute classic in the arena of design and psychology. It was written by Don Norman and first published in 1988. The book has a good balance between theories and examples, most of which are industrial designs and products. Because of the broad range of design topics covered in the book, there is no single author’s point of view except that the design should be user centered – Norman argues issues and principles of product design from the user’s perspective and uses psychological models to explain usability and good designs.

The most important concepts (in my opinion) of design psychology include affordances, models, and mapping.

Affordance is the “perceived and actual properties of the thing”. For example, we know to turn the knob on a door (instead of pushing it or applying other actions) because the knob “affords” turning. The lesson for designers, therefore, is that the shape and build of a product can convey meaning and usage to its user.

Next, Norman argues that the design of a product is the conceptual model of the designer. The design (or presentation) essentially conveys that model to the user, who may or may not develop the same user’s model, which is a result of experiences and perceptions. When the two models mismatch, the product is perceived with poor usability. Then how to develop a better conceptual model? One solution is through natural mapping, a “close, natural relationship between the control and its function”.

Among other issues Norman also dedicates a whole chapter talking about errors. Norman categorizes errors into slips and mistakes: the former being errors from subconscious actions and the latter being errors from conscious deliberations. “To err is human” and as designers we should be proactively thinking about how to design better products to prevent and be able to correct human errors.

Critical analysis
The theories that Norman introduces in the book are valid and fundamental to better understand design from a user-oriented perspective. However, I argue that they are necessary but hardly sufficient to understand the full picture.

Affordance as a concept is centered on the product, emphasizing the physical design of the product conveys certain properties. It is a powerful tool and I use it to look at a familiar product that we take for granted and think of the design that goes into it. For example, we twist and turn the cap of a bottle because the round shape affords turning. We flip open the cap of a shampoo because that particular cap affords to do so.

However, assessing a product by its affordances does not take into account the context in which the product is used. A product can be used in very different ways in reality and can even be repurposed to achieve a drastically different goal. For example, when a water bottle is considered poorly designed by itself, should it still be considered poorly designed when it is not used as a water container but a vase?

With regard to the different conceptual models, a takeaway that I recognize is that as designers of a complex product or system we know it inside out; we know a great many details of how the system solves a problem and we can be inclined to present the product the same way to the end user, who, on the other hand, often only cares about the end result. Therefore, the way to present a system should not necessarily be the same way we design it or the way we solve the problem; rather, the presentation should always be user centered; keep it simple and intuitive.

For a current day example, think about the BART ticketing kiosk. To get a one-way ticket from SFO to Powell, a visitor/user needs to look up the exact dollar amount of the trip separately and enter that amount into the kiosk. But the dollar amount is just part of the solution to the user’s problem: I want to get from point A from point B! The design of the kiosk clearly does not match the user’s model. On the other hand, the best metro kiosk interface I have seen is one where I as a user can simply select my destination on the screen from a map and continue to payment. The control is the map of the metro system, which naturally maps to the function of the kiosk and also my need of getting from where I am to some other point on the map.

On the other hand, I do not think Norman has given enough elaboration on the role of a user’s cultural experiences when forming a conceptual model. There were some generalized discussions in terms of cultural constraints and social behaviors, but I think these factors largely determine how the product is being adopted and used in reality. How they actually help form the user’s model can be explored further.
Not saying that Norman should have included all these issues for the book to be valid, I think it is necessary for readers of the book to recognize them and be able to think about design in an even bigger context.

What is the value of this book?

The book offers valuable frameworks, guidelines, and concepts to product design. Like the book title suggests, these concepts are easily applicable to everyday things. A reader will be able to look beyond just the presentation and aesthetics of a product and practice critical design thinking.

The book joins tangible designs with abstract theories of psychology and it presents both aspects cohesively in a way that is also easy to understand. The theories provide insights into issues such as: How does the designer of a product communicate to the end users? How to make products intuitive to use? How to avoid and recover from errors?

What is the relevance of the book?

The book is highly relevant to our daily life, whether we are trained designers or not. Examples of everyday things such as doors and stoves are easily relatable and they make the book very easy to read. Users of a product no longer have to always blame themselves for not being able to use the product or when they make mistakes – maybe it is the designer’s fault! After reading this book I have become an avid critique of everyday things and I am able to appreciate good designs much more. For example, I went to my kitchen to inspect the conceptual model and mapping of my stoves, which turned out to have the “full natural mapping” as per Figure 3.5 – no wonder they were easy to use. The theories really come alive and I actually enjoy practicing them. In conclusion, the book is highly recommended.

The book has a few limitations, however. It is unfortunate that it was published over 20 years ago and a lot of the examples, although useful, are a bit outdated. When I was reading I could not help but wonder whether some of the problems are still common challenges for today’s designers and/or users, and whether developments that took place in the past 20 years brought up new challenges. In addition, the book centers on industrial design, but in today’s world which heavily runs on computer systems, it is necessary to understand how well the book’s concepts apply to software systems. Last, the book does not offer a methodology of how to come up with a good design. The concepts are good foundations and frameworks to evaluate existing work, but they do not necessarily “teach” someone how to know what the customers want, how to design iteratively, etc. It is difficult to turn some of the theories into actions.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson March 11, 2012

Posted by doviknissim in Design Thinking, Design-related Books, [Books] Leadership & Change, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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“Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”
(Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, 1997)

I’ll begin with a confession – Steve Jobs was my hero! I found his unique personality fascinating. On one hand, he was the genius with the Midas touch, the man who discovered the secret sauce for designing great products and the subject of legends while still alive. On the other, Steve Jobs was notoriously known for his bad temper and controversial character He was a very difficult man to work with. These contrasts generated a colorful personality that is normally attributed to great leaders and crazy inventors. When I learned that Mr. Isaacson wrote this book at the request of Steve Jobs and with his cooperation, I was eager to learn more about who Steve Jobs really was and what was his secret sauce.


“Steve Jobs” – the book tells the life-story of Steve Jobs and the stories of the companies and products he created. It is beautifully written. Isaacson uses simple language and simple story telling techniques to tell the tale of a complex man. He uses a chronological order, combining commentary from Jobs, his friends, his family, his co-workers, and his enemies, who offer contextual information that ties these beautiful stories to the man and his reputation. The author strips Jobs from his celebrity status and knowingly pays attention to the man behind the curtain, emphasizing that Jobs is not the “Wizard of Oz”

Critical Analysis:

The book gains credibility as it portrays and contrasts both sides of Jobs’s personality: The brilliant creator whose outstanding products changed our lives versus the obnoxious, untrustworthy, manipulator who stole ideas from others. In that sense the book does justice with some of the talented people that worked with Jobs and were hardly recognized. A great example for that is Jony Ive, Apple’s VP of industrial design and the man who should be credited as the designer of the iPhone.

But the book is not perfect. I was particularly disappointed with the author’s failure to pursue and document Jobs’s “secret sauce” for designing great products. While many believe that Jobs only used his intuition, there are indications that he had a set of clear, well-defined design rules (a.k.a. “the secret sauce”). An example for that is the story of both Jony Ive and Steve Jobs separately picking up a beautifully crafted knife in admiration, and then dropping it with disappointment, pointing out the same reason that made the knife’s design flawed. These rules should have been tracked and shared as Jobs’s legacy, as his gift to mankind. The author failed to realize that.

Another disappointing fact is the author’s failure to bring John Scully’s point of view. John Scully was Apple’s Former CEO and the man who mentored Jobs for a while, later on he publicly clashed with Jobs, and finally ousted him from Apple. John Scully played a pivotal role in Jobs’s life and Jobs even mentioned him at his Stanford commencement speech. The choice not to bring his perspective was a poor one.

The Story:

The book begins with a wonderful historical overview of how a beautiful valley filled with apricot and plum orchards boomed to become the Silicon Valley. The author walks us through how it all started when Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett launched their company at a Palo Alto Shed and how Stanford created an industrial park for companies to commercialize students’ ideas, opening the door for a booming economy based on technology – A great read for all residents of the bay area.

The author uses stories to rationalize Jobs’s complex personality. A good example is Jobs’s famous “reality distortion field” (e.g. his ability ignore certain realities when he didn’t like them or when he thought they were insignificant, like his cancer). The author uses the story of how Jobs’s foster parents treated him as the “chosen one” to rationalize Jobs’s belief that certain realities did not apply to him as he was “enlightened”

Similarly, the author tries to track the origins of Jobs’s design perceptions. He describes how Jobs’s father, while building a fence around their house, taught him how important it was to perfectly craft even the parts you could not see. The author also mentioned Jobs’s admiration to the clean design of his childhood home (built by Joseph Eichler) that instilled on him a passion for making great designs at an affordable price for the mass market. Furthermore the author ties Jobs love for simplicity, utility, and beauty to his trip to India to search for enlightenment and his interest in Zen Buddhism.

The author uses the early years of Apple to emphasize Jobs’s unique understanding of user needs and market trends, his strategic thinking, and his business sense – Apple wouldn’t have existed without these “superpowers”. Conversely, the author uses Jobs’s ousting from Apple as a platform to emphasize some of his weaknesses, such as: his a-political nature, his mood swings, his difficulty in building relationships, and his obnoxious behavior towards his colleagues.

But by far, the best part of the book tells the story of Jobs’s “restoration”, his second run to greatness. The author emphasizes Jobs vision, design principles, and business acumen as the main reasons behind the tremendous success both Apple and Pixar had. The author also uses detailed descriptions of the different product launches (iPhone, iPad, and iTunes) to emphasizing Jobs’s intuition and his attention to details.

Steve Jobs was a man on a mission and the author emphasizes that through his descriptions of his sickness. Cancer did not define him; in fact Cancer was pushed to the background. It focused him on what’s important (in his mind), it motivated him to pursue his destiny and create some of Apple’s boldest products.


Oh and one more thing, the last words of book are Steve Jobs’s own words about what his legacy would be. After reading these words, I couldn’t stop but thinking how different and how much better our world would have been if only Steve Jobs was given one more year to live.

The relevance of the book:

The book shares some of Jobs’s thoughts about design as a competitive strategy. These are, in my opinion, the “tip of the iceberg”, indicating why there was only one Steve Jobs. Here are some of those thoughts:

Jobs about design principles:

  • Less But Better: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Jobs made devices simpler by eliminating buttons, software simpler by eliminating features, and interfaces simpler by eliminating options.
  • Simplicity comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them: Simplicity is not just minimalism; you have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to get rid of the parts that are not essential
  • Design is not just about how the product looks like: it reflects the way the product was engineered, manufactured, packaged. A manufacturing mistake will ruin the greatest design.

 Jobs about designing great products:

  • It is not about the money, it’s about making great products!
  • Figure out what people are going to want before they do: People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Never rely on market research. 
  • Focus: deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. Free your resources to focus on what you do best. 
  • Design a great user experience end-to-end: tailor the purchasing experience, the ritual of un-wrapping the product – such experiences should be theatrical, and tell a memorable story.
  • Design drives engineering, not the other way around: Innovate via the design. Engineering will fit the boards and wires into the new design.
  • Do not allow hacks or customizations to your product: that way you control the user experience and make sure it executes your vision. 
  • Constantly refine your art: If you are not busy being born, you are busy dying. 

Jobs about the design process:

  • Ban PowerPoint Presentations: “People who know what they are talking about don’t need PowerPoint” 
  • Build models you can touch: instead of endless design documents and convoluted diagrams. Iterate often. 
  • Use intuition, instincts and fluid conversation as a review mechanism:  instead of formal design reviews that often lead to major disagreements.
  • If it’s not right, do not be afraid of making last minute changes: even if such changes will cause significant delays. It has to be right. 
  • Design all products in one place: gives you a sense of how all the newly designed products relate and connect with each other.


Living With Complexity February 6, 2012

Posted by Joshua Higgins in Design-related Books.

Do you view technology as “the application of scientific knowledge” or as “new stuff that doesn’t work very well?”  In our society, technology has unfortunately come to symbolize the latter more often than the former.  Don Norman sets out to discuss the reasons for this in his latest book Living With Complexity.

Professor Norman’s central premise is that the world is complex, but it doesn’t need to be confusing.  Technology has come to symbolize confusion and difficulty because inept designers have failed to take into account how humans will interact with the technology they create.  Poor design creates confusion and frustration, good design creates satisfaction and empowerment.

Critics frequently ask for simplicity and complain bitterly about overly complex products, but simplicity is not really what they’re after.  They are seeking a straightforward way to manage the complexity that is inherent in everyday life.  Simple tools don’t make life easier; it’s easy to understand interfaces to complex and robust tools that accomplish this task.

If you find yourself frustrated with the complex interfaces you encounter in your everyday life, you should read this book because it will give you some solace in knowing that you’re not crazy and you have the right to expect the things you interact with to function more logically.  If you believe that there is a tradeoff between simplicity and complexity, then you NEED to read this book before you unleash any further sins of poor design unto humanity.

Norman argues that the trade-off between simplicity and complexity is a fallacy, complexity is a fact of life and simplicity is a state of mind.  People wrongly assume 1) that this tradeoff exists at all, and 2) that it describes a zero-sum game.  He offers:

“Human behavior can be deceptively complex: social behavior is even more so.  We must design for the way people behave, not for how we wish them to behave.  People function well when the devices they are using make things visible, provide gentle nudges, signifiers, forcing functions, and feedback.”

Norman’s keys to simplification are familiarity and organization and the value of his book is in the way he uses simple examples to illustrate his points.  You might have not thought much about toilet paper roll dispensers in the past, but you will look at them differently going forward.

There are small frustrations with this book, such as Norman’s discussion of complexities of written language and musical notation without seeming to take into account the value inherent in network effects of current forms – it’s almost as if he forgets his earlier point about familiarity being a key component of good design here.  Also, he spends an entire chapter on the design of waiting in line without really doing a great job of tying this topic back to the book’s central premise, but overall this book is outstanding and whether you’re designing business processes, furniture, or MP3 players, this book is worth reading.

Don Norman discusses Living With Complexity:

The Opposable Mind April 10, 2011

Posted by isheikh in Opposable Mind.
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The Opposable Mind points out that the way that most of us think about solving problems is suboptimal and that some great business leaders have achieved success though integrative thinking.  The numerous examples that are mentioned through the book show how business leaders use integrative thinking to develop creative solutions.  Example after example is given where leaders are given two choices, each of which has negative and positive aspects and there isn’t a clear winner between the two.  Rather than settling for a less-than-perfect choice, they come up with a third option that isn’t a compromise.  Rather than settling for “or” they choose “and.”

Martin breaks down the process of decision making into four steps: Salience, Causality, Architecture, and Resolution.  Salience refers to the features related to the decision that you find important.  Causality refers to the connections between the salient features.  Architecture focuses on the order by which you will come to a decision.  And resolution is the end result.

Integrative thinkers recognize more (or maybe just different) features as salient and see greater causal connections between these features.  Perhaps most importantly, integrative thinkers keep all the ideas in their head simultaneously rather than breaking it apart in the architecture of the decision.  They might work on individual parts, but the system view is always in mind.  This, in my opinion, is what really sets the best integrative thinkers apart from the rest.  More salient features, with greater connections, that are all kept in mind at the same time results in a highly complex puzzle to solve.  In the resolution, they don’t settle for tradeoffs.

The mental models that we create simplify reality, and in doing so might leave out important aspects of the issue.  So, it is important to recognize that what we think is true, often is incomplete.  Similarly, specialization dives deep into a small area of the problem, but doesn’t have a view of the whole picture.  The reason that our mind simplifies is to create order in how we see the world.

Given our limited view of reality, it is Important to reflect on the actions that we take, the outcomes that result, and the thought processes that led to deciding to take those actions.  Martin points out that reflection often stops at action, but it is important to analyze the thought process too.

The idea of integrative thinking is compelling, and clearly those that are good at it have achieved success.  However, I think it could be summarized far more succinctly than Martin did here.  Repeating the same ideas over, and over, and over again is my main critique of the book.  I think he could have communicated the core material in less than ten pages.

While Martin attempted to teach the average reader how to think more integratively, I don’t think he did it successfully.  But I also think that teaching that skill is virtually impossible through a book.  Integrative thinking is hard, and very few people can do it well.  I personally think it’s more driven by creative talent than anything else.  Often, the line between creative solutions and integrative solutions was unclear in the examples he cited.  And my final critique is that he did not even mention how execution fits into the “solution.”  Having good ideas might be important, but executing even mediocre ideas could lead to greater success.  I would have liked him to deal with how integrative solutions are executed, and how that process differs from conventional methods.

I have not read any other books focused solely on integrative thinking, but I have read other books like Natural Capitalism that touch on integrative design.  I do not recommend reading more than the first couple chapters of The Opposable Mind because the same ideas are simply repeated.  I would have liked to see Martin find examples of integrative thinking applied to design of physical products or processes, rather than simply business models (which Hawken et al. do in Natural Capitalism).

I agree with Martin that interdisciplinarity is required to solve many of the complex challenges that face the world today.  While having deep knowledge of a specialty is useful, it is even more important to be able to think across disciplinary boundaries.

Serious Play March 31, 2011

Posted by joaquincabreracanabal in Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.

Serious Play – How the world best companies simulate to Innovate. (by Michael Schrage)

Review by Joaquin Cabrera, MBA candidate 2011 at Haas School of Business.

Serious play is about how leading companies prototype and simulate to innovate. The main argument the author conveys in this book is how different companies’ prototyping processes drive innovation. Across the book and with several examples, Schrage illustrates how simulation and prototyping serve as building blocks of companies’ innovation culture.

One of the central arguments Schrage makes in the book is that value creation steams from not only the prototypes but also from the interactions that flourish in the process of prototyping and simulation. By means of interactions and people’s behavior around different versions of prototypes, companies can “seriously play” with prototypes, create value and innovate.

The book is structured in three different sections, each exploring different perspectives of what makes prototyping one of the most important media for innovation.  Starting by addressing how prototyping redefines the rules of innovation, the book also explores the cultural and technological issues associated with prototyping as well as how to stimulate innovation through simulation.

There are several arguments made by Schrage with which I deeply agree. First, I totally agree with the concept that is easier to articulate ideas by “playing” with prototypes rather than by simply enumerating prototype requirements. I can recall episodes of my professional experience in which I heard from clients “You have given us what we asked for but it is not what we want”. As stated by Schrage, “People do not order ingredients from a menu, they order meals”. It is much easier to deliver the right solution to clients by continually interacting with them over prototypes (“serious playing”) rather than following a list of specifications. By means of playing with “Quick-and-dirty prototypes”, clients can see ideas evolve and better solutions are achieved.

Second, the idea that is behavior rather than technology what really drives innovation is very compelling. Value creation resides not only in the prototype but also in the interactions around prototypes. While reading the book, I remembered a personal experience in which interactions around a complex finite-element engineering analysis fostered innovation in the ways the team exchanged information. It was not the prototype but the interaction that had the most impact in our team.

Third, I like the concept that the unexpected may prove more valuable than the reason the model was built in the first place. Encouraging surprises (instead of mitigating them) can bring new perspectives or can challenge assumptions, adding value.

Fourth, I agree with the idea that the rougher the prototype the more questions it encourages. Several times I have confronted a beautifully designed model in which it was almost a crime to suggest modifications. As prototypes start to accomplish perfection, “playing” with them becomes harder, hampering new ideas generation.

Last but not least, I like the idea of learning from reworking not only the most creative prototypes but also the most creative interactions. The “serious play” behind the creation of a failure prototype may add more value than that from a successfully developed prototype.

There are some suggestions I would make to the book. First, the book reinforces the idea that continuous iterations enhance benefits that outweigh costs but it lacks recommendations about when to stop iterating. As an engineering design manager, I have been exposes to the “Christmas tree” problem in which features are added to a prototype as ornaments are added to a Christmas tree. Moreover, during simulations, analysts may easily fall into “analysis paralysis” in which the simulation process ends up filling the simulation time available. It would have been very valuable if the book would have included a more in depth analysis of these issues and recommendations on how to determine the point of diminish returns, both in terms of product features and simulation.

Another issue that could have been treated differently is the analysis of the tradeoff between prototype’s complexity and its approximation to reality. This is a critical issue since the ideal prototype complexity level is neither clear nor easy to determine. When I started reading this book, I expected to get a better understanding of how to address this issue but the book did not provide a clear view.

Also, the book could have included recommendations about how to integrate prototyping to companies that do not have a “prototype driven nature”. Certain industries that could (and should) rely on deeper prototyping see this process more as a cost rather than a benefit.

Finally, I found some minor issues about the book’s structure. For instance, I found  the book a little bit repetitive with arguments coming up again and again.  Also, I would not have spent a whole chapter in how spreadsheets have change prototyping practice or at least I would have include other examples such as CAD modeling which indeed has revolutioned areas of design, manufacturing and engineering.

All in all, I feel Serious Play it is a great book and encourage people to read it, especially to those interested in managing innovation initiatives successfully. Personally, I would try to use the main takeaways of this book on my upcoming professional career.


The Design of Everyday Things March 7, 2011

Posted by Sophie Wong in Design Thinking, Design-related Books.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

Review by Sophie Wong, PhD student in Bioengineering

In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman describes the psychology of users when they encounter products. Dr. Norman emphasizes that design is based on the “needs and interests” of the user, a philosophy called the user-centered design. Products should be usable and understandable without requiring the user to consult the user manual. If a mistake is made, it is never the user’s fault, it is due to poor design. Every day, we are bombarded with choices such as pulling, pushing, sliding, flipping, pressing, etc. How do we determine what to do? Design cues are supposed to point us in the right direction. Through examples of everyday objects such as doors, sinks, faucets, and telephones, Dr. Norman outlines the guiding principles to good design.

The seven principles for transforming difficult tasks into simple ones are listed below.

1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.

2. Simplify the structure of tasks.

3. Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation.

4. Get the mappings right.

5. Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial.

6. Design for error.

7. When all else fails, standardize.

Knowledge in the world relieves the user from memorizing every detail about how to use a certain product. However, knowledge in the head allows for more efficiency when performing tasks.  Thus, Dr. Norman argues that a product with external physical cues and easily interpreted internal relationships that allow the user to understand intended actions provides the user with the most comfortable experience.

The overall take home message is that successful products will provide the user with visibility and feedback. The user must be able to figure out what to do with the object and be able to understand that an action has been completed. I particularly agreed with and enjoyed the chapter on developing conceptual models and mapping features to functions. When there are fewer features than functions, the user becomes confused because the “hidden” functions are not immediately obvious. However, too many features can also be confusing and create a learning barrier for the user. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of the modern day TV remotes, especially the Sony Google TV remote vs. the Apple TV remote.

Sony Google TV remote and Apple TV remote

The Sony Google TV remote has many buttons that are the same shape and size – it would be difficult to use in the dark while watching TV.  This design must imply that the remote is capable of many functions, but what a nightmare to learn! On the other hand, the Apple TV remote only has three buttons. How would the user input channels? Both of these products are at the extremes of design: one has too many features, the other doesn’t have enough features.

I also strongly agreed with the analysis of conceptual models: the design model, the user’s model, and the system image. The design model is the designer’s concept of the product; it is what the product is meant to do. The user’s model is how the user explains and interprets the way the product functions. The goal is for the designer’s and user’s models to be the same. However, as we all know, this isn’t always the case. The system image is how the designer communicates with the user. The challenge is for the designer to ensure that the system image (the product) has the proper appearance, function, and feedback that is necessary for the user to understand how to operate the system.

Simple mappings in the system image can go a long way. Natural mappings that take advantage of the user’s knowledge in the head help increase aesthetics and reduce confusion. Dr. Norman emphasizes that good design does not require extraneous labels or signs to describe the intended action. A door handle should be designed in such a way that would be obvious whether it was meant to be pushed or pulled or slid or flipped. Light switches and stove controls should not have to be labeled. The steering wheel is used as an example of natural mapping. Users instinctively know that spinning the wheel clockwise will cause the vehicle to turn left and vice versa. This action makes sense because the clockwise turn points to the left side, which is the same direction the vehicle will turn. This natural mapping doesn’t require posted signs next to the steering wheel that says, “spin wheel clockwise for left turn”.   The balance between aesthetics and practicality is essential to a successful product.

The chapter on constraints was also provoking. It helped me re-examine the purpose and nature of everyday objects. Physical, semantic, cultural, and logical constraints work together seamlessly to help users determine how to approach an object without having to consult a manual. The example of a well designed car key that works in both directions never occurred to me until I read the book! I had taken for granted the ease of always being able to open the car doors immediately. I realize now that 60% of the time when I open regular doors, such as my apartment door, I use the key in the wrong direction and have to flip it over.

At the end of the book, Dr. Norman stresses the importance of planning for errors and keeping systems consistent.

Given that this book was written in 1988 (originally named The Psychology of Everyday Things), Dr. Norman’s vision of technological advances is impressive. Many of his descriptions of how things could improve have actually been developed in the modern world! For example, on pg. 74 Dr. Norman asks the question,

“Would you like a pocket-sized device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. I will definitely put all my reminding burdens upon it. It has to be small. It has to be convenient to use. And it has to be relatively powerful, at least by today’s standards. It has to have a full, standard typewriter keyboard and a reasonably large display. It needs good graphics, because that makes a tremendous difference in usability, and hook up to the telephone; I need to connect it to my home and laboratory computers. Of course, it should be relatively inexpensive…it will exist in imperfect form in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten.”

Apple iPhone 4 (source)

What do we have today that perfectly fits this description? Welcome, the iPhone and Android phones. The first smart phone, the IBM Simon, was released in 1993 (five years after the book was published) and the most recent iPhone 4 was released in 2010 (22 years after the book was published). These products demonstrate how attentive observation of everyday objects and user experience can help us design better products. I wonder what Dr. Norman thinks of today’s technologies and what improvements he suggests we need to make for the next ten years?

I highly recommend this book to everyone who wants to realize the difference between “good” and “bad” design. The book is entertaining because anyone can relate to the frustrations of the everyday objects that Dr. Norman uses as examples. The writing style is easy to follow and the arguments are sound. Although the examples are quite outdated, the underlying principles remain applicable in a timeless fashion.

The only criticism I have is more of a curious question for the readers: If visibility and feedback are so important why do designers who make “high-end” products that are also very expensive tend to disguise the product’s function? Does the monetary value of these seemingly aesthetically pleasing products reveal how society values non-user centered design? For example, how do the doors open in this image (bathroom stall doors)?

Bathroom design by architect Thomas Heatherwick. Pacific Place Mall in Hong Kong.

Image sources:

Restore Balance to the Force: Critiquing A Whole New Mind February 7, 2011

Posted by meganrast in A Whole New Mind, Design Thinking.

A review of previous Haas MBA’s blog posts on Daniel Pink’s 2006 book A Whole New Mind shows depth on describing left-brained vs. right-brainedbackground information, and the ever-easier ability to poke holes in dated information.   Pink does an excellent job describing neuroscience, making the case for design-thinking in business, and supporting the softer, holistic side of human abilities above the long-standing analytics of your typical knowledge worker.

In light of the forces of automation, globalization and affluence, his points regarding the need for design-based holistic thinking for in order to stay on innovation’s leading edge are well made.  If it weren’t for a belief that my skillset is unique in the post-MBA marketplace, the lengthy discussion of “Abundance, Asia and Automation” would have instilled panic at my life choices.   The short of it is to ask yourself: can someone overseas do it cheaper?  Can a computer do it faster?  Am I fulfilling a transcendent, unmet human need?

Whether Pink sparked this discussion, or encapsulated design in the zeitgeist of emotional intelligence in leadership, his book is still a good read for new-comers to the space.  His values of “Story,” “Empathy” and “Meaning” are particularly important in light of the Great Recession when consumer trust in corporations has eroded significantly.


But I am a Haas MBA, and thanks to our dear Dean Lyons, we have our own well-designed symphony of cultural values to give meaning to our time in business school: one of which is “Questioning the Status Quo.”  So instead of propping up the book with another mildly positive posting, I’m taking a critical stand that Pink’s book undermines itself.   Let me explain.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to principle that cognition requires both the left and right sides of the brain.  Pink argues that pseudo-science wasted years arguing which side of the brain was more important, when our current understanding reveals the need for both sides of our brain to work in concert.  That is to say the strength for someone analytical and logical (a “left-brainer”) comes from building up our holistic, perceptive capabilities (from the “right-brain”).

Subscription to the Daniel Pink orthodoxy would have me run away from my MBA towards his described “new MBA”: the Masters of Fine Arts.  In his fever to make this point, however, Pink goes full-tilt towards the right brain and loses the balance inherit in modern neuroscience: that we need BOTH sides.  Businesses that hire MFAs without a shred of financial and analytic capabilities are doomed to make sub-optimal decisions.  Businesses that hire MBAs without exposure to design-thinking and story-telling are going to miss the “big picture” and strategic opportunities in the competitive landscape.  The power comes from being multi-disciplinary, not from one side over the other.

To take the argument one step further, we newly minted MBAs are already getting a heavy dose of the “right-brained” skillsets in design-thinking, leadership communication, story-telling and emotional intelligence (for any current Haas MBAs, I only need say the word “BILD”).  I doubt my counterparts getting their MFAs are similarly multi-tasking in financial models or analytics.   Just as I doubt MBAs from 10 or more years past are exposed to these concepts.

But though I’m an idealist sort of MBA, I know the real economics of the situation.  Bestsellers rarely become so by using moderation and qualifications, which means we are doomed to read books with an overly-extreme point of view.   A title of “A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers (with the skillsets of a Left Brainer) or Vice Versa Will Rule the Future” just doesn’t have the same pithy ring.

Tom Peters Essentials – Design: Innovate, Differentiate, Communicate April 18, 2010

Posted by Ping Hay Lam in Creativity, Design Thinking.
1 comment so far

Named the “father of the post-modern corporation” by the Los Angeles Times, Tom Peters is the author of the bestseller, In Search of Excellence, published in 1982 and the book, Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age, published in 2003.  Design: Innovate, Differentiate, Communicate, captures the essence of business innovation from the previous Tom Peters’ books in redefining business thinking.  The main message that Peters conveys in the book is to have his readers “so pissed off” that they will do something after reading the book.  The book explores topics in the design of new business enterprise, systems, experiences, and branding.  Basically, “it is not optional” anymore to stay in the status quo and do business the same way it was in the last era.

As a student pretty much most of my life at this point, it is a bit hard for me to be really “pissed off” at the existing practices in companies that are exactly the same few decades ago and have not yet incorporated innovation and design into their core business models.  However, as a consumer, I do see how different firms have realized the importance of design and changed their value propositions to provide more innovative services and experiences during the last decades.  As Peters mentions in his book, the traditional business model “deals with one of your needs” while the new one “helps define who you are”.  One of the compelling arguments Peters make n the book is about designing women, the fact that men cannot design for women’s needs.  He uses a story, from his female architect friend, about the location of the laundry room in a house to illustrate the fact that men has traditionally neglected the needs for women in designing products and services that are shared by different genders in the society.  In his book, Re-imagine, he devotes an entire chapter that further elaborates on designing women as part of the new trends and markets nowadays.

The elements of design can also be seen in the presentation of book.  Unlike most business writing, Tom Peters uses a very informal and colloquial tone in his writing and incorporate different font sizes and colors to emphasize certain ideas in the book.  Each chapter starts with a list of contrasts comparing the business “was” and “is” and ends with a Top 10 To-Dos such that the ideas not just merely ideas but concrete actions which has made the book a very practical guide to business design.  For an “amateur” reader like me, who have not read a lot of design books, it was quite hard in the beginning to follow the flow of ideas in the book because the style is very different.  There are lots of figures, diagrams, and side notes.  But, with a little more effort in trying to understand the book, the message becomes very clear to me that it is necessary to “be weird” and different to invoke innovation and changes in people’s behavior and businesses.

Overall, I think that the book is a really good read because it provides a very good foundation on why and how to redesign business thinking in the 21st century.  The book is especially helpful for “novice” people who is interested in design in business but do not have a lot of exposures and ideas about design.  The birthday cake example, discussed in our Design as a Competitive Strategy class, was presented in the book to illustrate the change in the dynamics of value conceived by consumers.  The concept of bio-mimicry is also talked about in the book with the example of elephant dunk and termites to show how beautiful system could be.  The book, Design, also does an excellent job in summarizing all the important concepts in the previous book, Re-imagine, which goes into more detail explorations in innovating business through new context, technology, value, brand, markets, work, people, and mandate.  As a closing thought, here’s a quote from book on the staple of successful business:

“Stick your neck out.”

Design for the Real World April 18, 2010

Posted by Yuan-Yu Kristy Liao in Design Thinking, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
1 comment so far

About this book

It is not possible to explain this “Design for the Real World” with a few simple words, but it is a must-read for those who are interested in “really” doing design. The book does not have many newest, most advanced cases, neither did it tell us how to design practical, pretty, fancy products; but Victor Papanek taught us the most basic yet fundamental aspect: the design attitude. He explored issues from many levels, from the basics to the profound; including the true meaning of design, how to originate thinking from human and as human, how to integrate design and life, how to create values in design sustainability, how to benefit the society with design, and how to design with natural laws.

Victor Papanek analyses and explains the essence of “design for the real world” from many aspects. He starts with analyzing global enterprises and government policies, explaining how they consumes carelessly the world resources for their own profit, while disregarding our environment; thus reminding designers to care for the social and environmental sustainability. He discussed the true essence of aesthetics, how the superficial and depth (including functional) aesthetics differ, and he proposed may practical problem solving skills. As far as he is concerned, the biggest problem in school education today is that it has missed the most important point: facing the real problems. In short, besides really practical design issues, he has brought into light the many design problems in today’s society and schools.

Critical analysis of the book

This book levels a tremendous impact on me. As a designer in this field for nealy 10 year, I fully appreciate how designers, because of their total devotion on their works, overly placed emphasis on philosophical design process, design aesthetics, and deep design concepts, and ignore the most fundamental human needs. This book allows designers to reflect and return to contemplate the meaning of a living design.

Basically I agree with all his points, especially his insightful questioning of the status quo — with the exception that I feel that he did more criticize rather than praise. He has pointed out many problems, no doubt, but unfortunately he left out those match “Design for the real world” cases. It would be helpful to address both, so readers may also discover the existing methods that they can draw inspiration and enlightenment (rather than just despise) from.

The value of this book

Written 30 years ago, this book now bears the aura of a prophet, calling the awakening of the designers’ consciousness in sustainability, green, the love of Earth, the love of nature. The author’s insight and wisdom make this book a book for all time, a book for all lives.

The relevance of the book

This book establishes a basic design approach from “attitude” and “contemplation,” but in order for readers to gain a broader perspective in the field of design, or for them to become a real professional in design, three areas must also be addressed. First is to have more real case studies and modern industrial design works. Second is to build, form the human-centered perspective, design that involves human body (as well as psyche) consciousness. Third, plunge into the nature and experience in first person the core objectives of eco-design.

The following book recommendations are related to the three areas.

  • Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services (2009) Kim Goodwin, Wiley-Academy.
  • EcoDesign: The Sourcesbook (2002) Alastair Fuad-Luke, Chronicle Books LLC.
  • Ecodesign: A Manual for Ecological Design (2006) Ken Yeang, Wiley-Academy
  • The Chair: Rethink Culture, Body, And Design (1998), Galen Granz, WW Norton & Company.
  • The Design of Everyday Thing (2000) Donald A. Norman, MIT Press.
  • The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (2008), Mark Johnson, The University of Chicago Press.