Creating a problem by solving a problem


An interesting article was recently published by the Washington Post – If this was a pill, you’d do anything to get it – that shows how solving a problem so often throws up a new one

Medical research has taken amazing steps towards curing or immunising people against infectious diseases – acute illnesses responsible for high mortality rates. The results are shown in the image below:

Graph: death rate for infectious diseases

The outcome is people living longer. When we live longer, we are more likely to suffer from a chronic condition – an illness that develops slowly over time and often cannot be cured but can be managed through early detection and ongoing medication or lifestyle changes.

And so healthcare is being disrupted by its own success.

In the US (as reported in the article), one healthcare program adopted a new approach. They targeted individuals based on their medical history (had a chronic condition and had been hospitalised in the past year) and instead of waiting for potential patients to phone when they get sick, they arranged for a nurse to visit the patient’s home on a regular schedule (weekly or monthly depending on the severity of the condition).

The results: Reduced hospitalisations by 33% and reduced Medicare costs by 22%.

You should read the article for what happens next. Not quite a happy ending and the clue is in the title of the article. Perfoming house calls is assumed to be expensive and inefficient, despite the success of the program. If the same results had been achieved by giving the patients a pill…

It’s a great demonstration of the need to think differently when solving one problem creates another.


Intranet design for aesthetics vs function

Picture of a pocket watch on Flickr

Whilst presenting earlier this year, I caused a mini-storm amongst some members of an audience by saying that branding of intranets is a vanity project. Some read this to be against visual design. It wasn’t. Designing to improve usability can lead to significant business benefits and should be part of any Intranet project. Corporate branding is about making a visual statement. In my opinion, that makes it a vanity project.

Vanity projects are not bad, I just get concerned when they take priority. I’ve been in meetings where people have wanted to create a bespoke design for the Intranet just so that ‘it doesn’t look like <insert product name>’, regardless of the costs or benefits and showing little interest in the purpose or content of the Intranet. This most often occurs when someone in the room fancies themselves as an amateur Steve Jobs.

Today I stumbled across a post by the wonderful Kevin Kelly from April 2011. It wasn’t the post so much that reminded me of this debate, but a rather brilliant comment:

As someone solely responsible for maintaining a very large hotel, here are a few other other things I’ve noticed about the nature of maintenance — There are mostly two types of maintenance — interior systems (plumbing, HVAC, electrical, lockware, audiovisual, web access) and exterior surfaces (carpet, paint, wallpaper, tile, upholstery) Maintaining interior systems requires special technical knowledge while exterior surface repair emphasizes craftsmanship. Interior systems speak to convenience and comfort while exterior surfaces address aesthetic desirability. In terms of the individuals who carry out these repairs, it is a rare soul who is equally skilled in the interior and exterior, as most seem to specialize in one or the other, i.e. with regards to expertise, there is seldom overlap.

If you look at just about every device, virtual or physical, this observation rings true.

Great products have thought through both the interior and exterior design. Good products usually have a strong interior let down by a clunky exterior, or over-complicate the interior, but ‘good enough’ may be sufficient if the desired outcomes are achieved. The label ‘lipstick on a pig’ is reserved for those with great aesthetics masking empty promises. Desirability is only possible if convenience and comfort are satisfied.

Image used in this post via Flickr, courtesy of Michael Hanscom

The need to mix business and design

A great article on Fast Company highlights the need for both business and design skills when faced with tough business challenges: What Both MBAs And MFAs Get Wrong About Solving Business Problems, by Melissa Quinn.

Article outline: Numbers and bullet points aren’t the only things driving executive decision making. And pretty pictures won’t get you there either. Both designers and MBAs have a lot to learn.

Toronto University’s Rotman School of Management has run a design challenge geared at exposing MBA students to the value of design methods in business problem solving. For the past 2 years, the MBAs (Masters of Business Administration) have been trounced by the MFAs (Masters of Fine Arts). How?

With only 15 minutes to convince a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today, [MFAs] fared significantly better than their MBA counterparts. Why? Because they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making

The key message – don’t assume you can teach MBAs to do this stuff well by chucking in a couple of modules as part of their course. Don’t dismiss the years of study that designers undertake to develop these skills.

That said, it wasn’t an entirely happy ending for the MFAs either.

While design students fared much better than their MBA counterparts that Saturday afternoon, I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.

A great article, worth a read. Particularly if you tend to rely on bullet points more than visuals in PowerPoint to explain something you want people to remember. (Side note: but does depend on the type and purpose of presentation. If teaching a technical topic, screenshots and bullet points are usually quite helpful after the event.)

p.s. The image at the top? A book shelf in my home office, containing some of the books that continue to help develop presentations. Story boarding for films has been the latest new topic of study. 🙂 (Half of those books are in Kindle-only format… times change.)

As a good mentor Nicholas Bate likes to say – ‘Always be learning’.

Align your project dependencies

Causal Loop

I recently presented at the International SharePoint conference in London. This year, the conference held a new business-focused track and I was asked to present a session titled ‘From Business Requirements to Technical Scope’.  It was third in a series of connected presentations. A modified version of the talk is embedded below. (As usual, the original contained media animations and not many words so doesn’t really stand on its own.  Soundbite notes have been added into the slide deck.)

I confess, I was convinced I would be presenting to an audience of about 5 people as I had always assumed this to be a very technical-focused conference. I was wrong. The room was packed and the feedback received was great.

The emphasis of the session was on how to tease out the dependencies that should be aligned and prioritised as part of any SharePoint project, to help ensure that desired outcomes can be achieved. It is always about much more than just the technology. To visualise, I used a very simplified causal loop diagram. I may do a follow-up with the more detailed original from which it was taken.

Architect or Gardener?

When planning for a new system and its governance requirements, consider whether the system is transactional and in need of specifics versus collaborative and in need of guidance. Architect one and landscape the other.

Read More

Style and Design are not the same

Lipstick on a pig

David Winer has a post titled Styling icons that makes the following observation

Design for the sake of design is not good. Design should enhance the utility of the thing being designed. Too many websites are substituting style for design

It’s an issue I see crop up alot. Whenever I hear someone say they want SharePoint to not look like SharePoint, they usually mean in style, not design. It’s a rare case when the reason is based on the flaws in SharePoint’s user interface (of which there are plenty).

As Lee Bryant from Headshift said so eloquently at a Dell B2B meet-up last year:

Investing in shiny corporate web sites is a form of narcism

Will not looking like SharePoint make the site function better?  Because Facebook looking just like Facebook doesn’t seem to be doing it too much harm…  Companies with those shiny web sites are finding they get 10 – 100 times more visitors to their company Facebook pages.  That ought to be telling them something.

And it’s not just web sites.  Improving presentation skills is to be recommended if you need to present. But reading Presentation Zen and then heading over to an online photo gallery will not transform you into Steve Jobs. I’ve muttered about this before:

…are they designing their presentation or creating a piece of art? Replacing bullet points or clipart with stunning visuals only works if those images enhance the message being delivered

I’ve sat through a few presentations in recent years where every single slide, all 30+ of them, consists of a full screen high-resolution photo, with or without a ‘clever’ caption.  It rarely works because it’s no different than a single slide crammed with too many bullet points at an unreadable font size.

Too many points being delivered in the same way means none in particular will be remembered, regardless of the format used.

The most effective presentations are those that vary the pitch throughout and choose a style appropriate to the purpose of the presentation. Got a key message to make that you want people to remember long after the event? Use a dramatic photo or quote that will make people stop and think. One photo. One quote.  Are you teaching a group about a specific topic?  Sometimes bullet points are useful when presented correctly.  Just don’t lean on those bullet points – they should be for the audience’s benefit, not to prod your memory. Too many means you should have prepared a separate handout.

To conclude, I attended an excellent presentation at Cambridge University in September 2006, delivered by Clive Grinyear. It had clip art, bullet points and photos in the mix. And six years later I can still remember the main point he made.  It included the use of an image not dissimilar to the one at the start of this post:

Why lipstick on a pig? No matter how much lipstick you apply, it is still a pig. Design only matters when the product function is also great. There are plenty of great designs that have failed to reach a market because the product simply isn’t good enough. (Examples given included the Sinclair C5 and the Segway)

You may not have heard of Clive. He co-founded a design agency called Tangerine. Commissioned by Apple in 1992, one of the other co-founders – Jonathan Ives – went on to design some great products there during the last decade…


  • Studying Icons by David Winder, Scripting News, March 2012
  • Presentation Zen by  (it is a great book, just don’t fall too in love with the use of photos in presentations)

Related blog posts

Facebook vs Google+ for companies

Update 1st July: Google now requires everyone to login to view anything so the first row of the table has gone red too. Makes it even less useful and it was already struggling to justify any effort…

The short version:

Facebook vs GooglePlus for company pages

The details…

The Wall Street Journal has a great article looking at Google’s efforts to rival Facebook – The Mounting Minuses at Google+ <- title kind of indicates how well those efforts are going.

Some quotes that stand out from the article:

“Nobody wants another social network right now,” said Brian Solis

Intel Corp said 360,000 Google+ members have signed up to receive updates from the chip maker since it set up a brand presence on the site. [But] While Intel gets dozens of responses to its posts on Google+ the company has nine million “fans” on Facebook and gets thousands of comments there [according to Ekaterina Walter who manages Intel’s presence on social media sites]

Facebook and Twitter helped change the way people discover new things on the Web, rivaling Google as the chief gateway to the Internet. Much of the activity on Facebook is private and can’t be accessed by Google’s search engine, making search less useful as people spend more time on Facebook.

All of this makes it more important for Google to win over people like Ben Hopper. The 29-year-old photographer in London joined Google+ shortly after it launched. But in November, Mr. Hopper stopped using Google+. Instead, he re-focused on Facebook and social media sites like Twitter. Google+ “was an additional tool that needed time investment—time I didn’t have to begin with,” he said.

That last sentence is particularly relevant.  When you are not first to a market, you need to not just do something different or better, you need to make it easier for the people who you want to not just attract to the product or service, but keep them using it. This is where Apple succeeded with the iPhone. It wasn’t the first smartphone, but without even talking about the hardware design compared to the standard at the time, its user interface was incredibly well thought out in terms of making features easier to use. Simple steps like when you move the handset from your ear to look at the screen, the keypad automatically appears (it assumes you are about to do something). Previous phones I used (both Windows and Android) required you to press a button to reactivate the screen – half the time I’d press the button that cancelled the call. Doh!

Having experimented with both Facebook and Google+ from a business perspective, the opportunity that Google has is making content accessible to everyone. I can add a link to a Facebook page on my web site. But nobody can see the Facebook page without first logging into Facebook and nothing from that site will ever appear in search results.  Facebook may have 800 million and counting users but there is a growing backlash to being logged into it all the time and I don’t want to make those sorts of demands on any client.  Google+ doesn’t require the same – anyone can view my company’s page on Google+, the page will appear in search results, and nobody needs to login unless they want to participate in the conversation.  All good reasons to prefer Google+ over Facebook.

So why is Google+ so quiet?

Google requires you to invest too much time to keep the site active. I haven’t found an easy way to share blog posts automatically through Google+. At the moment, I try to remember to go over and add it to the feed. Once there, I usually have to switch accounts because my Google Apps account doesn’t currently work with Google+ but my Gmail account does.   I’d like my Twitter feed (all or by a certain hashtag like #in for LinkedIn and #fb for Facebook) to be automatically added. If it can be done, I haven’t figured out how. This is compared to a great little tool I used a few years ago called FriendFeed that looked visually similar but made it easy for you to automatically integrate data feeds so that you didn’t have to duplicate effort. FriendFeed was acquired by Facebook.

But even the act of adding a manual status update isn’t obvious on Google+ in some areas (it is in others – consistency, or lack of, is another gripe). Where as Facebook and Twitter both put it right in front of you in the main part of the page, regardless of whether you are on your own profile or a fan page for a company, Google has taken a different approach for each area.

Google+ Example

The image above is the start of the stream for the Joining Dots company page.  See if you can spot where to add a status update (I’m logged in as admin for the page)…

…It’s the tiny + visible just to the left of the logged in account ‘Joining Dots’ in the top right corner. Go figure.

If Google seriously wants to take on Facebook, it needs an Apple mindset to make Google+ as easy and intuitive as possible when you are on the site. And it needs to start making it easier to add in automated feeds such as Twitter updates, blog posts when they are published etc.  Along with Likes and all the other trickery that Facebook has done so well  but keeps locked and hidden inside their walled garden (even if it is a big garden).  Until then, as the photographer Ben Hopper soon found out, Google+ is simply too much hassle. And that’s Google’s, not than Ben’s…