Watch for “emergent use” of your product

People use products in unexpected ways – they do things that the product’s designers never imagined. I call this phenomenon “emergent use”.

It’s something I explain to my clients: Don’t worry too much about  how customers “ought” to use your product. Instead, you must watch and learn how customers actually use it.

If you aren’t expecting emergent use, you can run into problems, especially around customer support.

But if you’re ready for it, it’s a huge opportunity.

Scott Heiferman talks about emergent use in the early days of Meetup:

“Most of what we thought Meetup was going to be used for, people didn’t use it that way. And what they did use it for were things we didn’t imagine when we were building it.” 

Be prepared to adapt what it is you think you’re selling once you find some real-world evidence. Or better yet, gather evidence before you launch, through a process like Customer Discovery and alpha testing.

Don’t forget to keep doing it after launch too – new emergent uses tend to emerge over time and can help you steer your product roadmap.

The scale of our oil problem

BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill is a catastrophe. Every single day, 1.7 million gallons of crude oil is leaking out into the gulf. That’s over 90 million gallons since the leak started. 

The oil slick now covers an area roughly twice the size of Wales.

If that seems like a lot of pollution, just consider this: that huge amount of oil – all 90 million gallons of it – represents only about half of the volume of oil that the USA turns into gasoline and burns every single day. In fact it’s worse than that – because gasoline only makes up about half of what’s contained in crude oil. The rest mostly just gets burnt in different ways. So, every single day, vehicles in America burn a volume of gas equal to four BP Deepwater Horizon spills. In a year it’s like a thousand spills – just in America.

We can all agree that the gulf spill is an environmental disaster on a horrific scale. But let’s not forget that this is a disaster for which all of us oil-addicts bear some responsibility. Our addiction paid for that spill. Every time we fill up, every time we crank the AC, we’re investing our money in developing new and more invasive ways to get oil out of the earth – wherever it may be found. We’re spending our own money to pay for the lobbyists to fight against legislative restrictions on the search worldwide. Like drug dealers willing to find ever riskier and more elaborate ways to produce and ship contraband, oil companies will continue to supply us in whatever way they can, whilst we are still addicted. If we continue this existence we can be sure that, as supplies get scarcer, the places we are able and willing to go to search for and produce oil will get ever  more remote, ever more dangerous. And we will have a greater and greater environmental impact on those few parts of the world where nature still exists in a semi-wilderness state. 
But this is just the pollution caused by the extraction phase of our oil economy. This kind of pollution is at least visible, localised and, in theory, preventable. Refining, transporting and ultimately burning all that oil releases pollution that spreads not just all over the Gulf of Mexico, but the entire planet. That kind of pollution can’t be cleaned up after the fact. It can only be avoided by not creating it in the first place.
What can we learn from this disaster? Well, a few things: Firstly – seeing a visible sign of the damage that a single leak at a single oil well can cause helps us to get a sense of the truly planetary scale of the industry we’re supporting with our oil addiction. It’s beyond heavy engineering now, it’s practically terraforming. Every square inch of the planet is fair game. And its impact is often not just environmentally negative, but also socially and economically, as the huge amounts of money involved inevitably lead to corruption and massive inequality in more and more of the marginal, often deeply undemocratic states from which our oil now flows.
Second, it seems obvious to me that at least some of the intense focus on “British Petroleum” as the baddie right now is designed to create a convenient fall guy, whose unique (handily non-American) recklessness caused the disaster. Because let’s face it, all the world’s other oil companies who aren’t BP, know full well that in the coming years, they’ll need the rights to drill anywhere on the planet they please. Blaming BP neatly diverts the focus from the fact that many of these same companies lease similar rigs from Transocean. Transocean have form, of course, being not only owners of Deepwater Horizon, but also of Sedco, the company responsible for the second-worst ever oil spill in history, when the “Ixto” deepwater rig exploded, back in 1979, leaking 1.8 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It seems not much has been learned in the intervening 31 years – the Ixto spill was found to be due, in part, to failure of the Blowout Preventer, the same piece of “failsafe” equipment whose failure caused the current spill. It’s imperative that the industry as a whole doesn’t get off the hook here.
Thirdly we need to appreciate the global consequences of our addiction to oil. They keep selling it because we keep buying it. So rest assured, there will be many, many more Deepwater Horizon-type disasters in the future. Many, many more filthy black slicks defiling our landscape and our oceans. Visualise that for a second. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on climate change because it’s effectively invisible. But after getting a grasp on the sheer amount of oil we consume, can anyone seriously believe that burning all this every year doesn’t have any kind of effect on the atmosphere? Put it this way – if all the crude oil the USA consumes every year leaked out, it would create a slick of nearly 4 and a half million square kilometres – ironically, just about the size of the USA itself. That’s a lot of oil being burnt. 
Think about it.

This is excellent – Ribbon Hero uses game mechanics to teach MS Office skills

I read about this neat little plugin on Danc’s fantastic Lostgarden blog, which talks about game design and game mechanics. Ribbon Hero is a plugin for Office 2010 that uses game mechanics to get users to build up skills in Microsoft Office. It’s a series of challenges or tasks, which you complete to gain points.


Visual reward feedback is good, with satisfying little balloons that indicate when you’ve succeeded - tangible enough to give a nice satisfaction kick – yet transitory enough to make you want to repeat the behaviour again.


What’s especially interesting (and what perhaps distinguishes this from just an ordinary learning game) is that the plugin somehow knows when you put into practice a skill you’ve learned via Ribbon Hero.


And of course, in this world of social gaming, the ability to share your score via Facebook adds an extra incentive and probably doesn’t hurt. (Not sure what kind of cubicle-jockey would actually do this, but hey – I’m not a big Farmville fan either).

This is interesting stuff. Is it just me, or are Microsoft becoming more adventurous, more human? And they seem to be getting UX right much more often than they did in the past.

That’s VERY good news.


Excellent photos from Brasilia – 50 years ago and today


To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Brasilia, the country’s magnificent, eponymous capital, UOL are running a set of photos showing the city at the time of construction and the present day. 

If you’ve never seen Brasilia, you’re missing something. Over just 41 months, from 1956 onwards, the city was not so much “built” as “terraformed” to create a City of the Future, right in the centre of the country, up in the “cerrado” plains. Vast in scale, with nothing much for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, the city is built around man-made hills, a huge lake and a spectacular bridge. From the air, the city plan is shaped like an aeroplane. Brasilia was born when Juscelino Kubitschek enacted an article  in the country’s constitution dating back to 1891, stating that the city’s capital should be moved to the interior, away from the overcrowded coasts.
It’s one my favourite places – a unique, retro-futuristic spaceport of pure modernist architecture. It feels more like Orbit City, (residence of George Jetson Esq.) than the legislative and administrative capital of a country that’s still largely agricultural. The Star Wars-like buildings all emerged from the imagination of one genius, Oscar Niemeyer, back in the early 60s. Still alive today, living high above Copacabana beach, he’s 100 years old, still a staunch communist, and one of my heros. His work makes me remember a future we never found that looks a lot cooler than the one we have today.
The 2010 pics were taken by my awesome friend, Leonardo Wen
Extra awesomeness points for the fabulous swipe-across javascript effect that lets you slide between “then” and “now” images. Great interaction design. 
More wonderful pics of Brasilia’s architecture from Cladio Marcio.

Let’s give up on user-centred design.

There’s been quite a debate over at Andrew Dillon’s blog Infomatters about the failings of “UCD”. Andrew (backed up by Jared Spool, it seems) argues that the whole phrase “User-Centred Design” should be scrapped. He rests his argument on three main pillars – first, that too many people are claiming to “do” UCD without actually practising it properly. Second, that the measures and methods we use have too much scope for bias and fall prey to poor execution by unsophisticated practitioners. And third, that the current definitions used in usability and UCD are too narrow, and that the rich, digitally enhanced and augmented experiences that we seek today are very hard to measure and quantify.

The comments on the post are actually more interesting and insightful than the post itself , as some industry heavyweights have been weighing in with their thoughts. My thinking? Well, in many ways I’m with Randolph on this one – just because people hijack your buzzword doesn’t mean you should abandon it in disgust. Do that, and in 18 months I guarantee that you’ll need to find a new buzzword, since they’ll all catch on again and start jumping on your bandwagon. (Why do you think we have moved from User-friendly through Usability to UCD to UX in less than decade?)
But let’s not be too pessimistic here. Sure, there are plenty of people saying they “do” UCD when we, the blessed adherents of the One True Faith, know that they are mere heathens praying to False Prophets (or should that be Fast Profits?).

That’s just too extreme. Firstly, anyone who’s been in this industry as long as Bias, Spool and Dillon have, has to admit that things are a *lot* better now than they were, even 5 years ago. And secondly, even if UCD isn’t done perfectly, the fact that it is done at all should be grounds for guarded optimism.

The other point I want to make is that, sure, we could spend our whole lives complaining about how project planners and stakeholders don’t understand what we do and don’t factor in enough time or budget for us to do our jobs perfectly. But where will that get us? Unfortunately, what happens in the real world – the one where someone is paying you by the hour for your work – is that only artists and monks (and maybe academics with tenure ;-) ever get all the time they need to do their job as perfectly as they’d like.

For an industry that makes money telling others how to make their products to fit with user needs, I find it both ironic and rather sad that our *own* products often seem so poorly fitted to the needs of *our* users. Instead, we complain that stakeholders don’t use our products in the ways that we would like them to. Sound familiar?

So what’s the answer? Surely it’s to understand our own users better, and then iterate a few new ideas until we find something that works. The issue of what we call it is irrelevant. We all understand what we are talking about here. The goal is to bring real evidence from real users into the design process. Jared touched on this in his , comment and I agree – way too much of what gets done isn’t “user-centred design”, it’s “opinion-based design”. By this I mean that it relies on the opinion of someone, (the designer? the stakeholder? the marketing dude?, the UCD expert?) and not on evidence from real users, in real contexts.

At my company we’ve been on this path for a while and call it “evidence-based design”. Sure, it’s another buzzword – which brings me right back to where we started – but I don’t care. I see it as our job to develop the tools that allow us to bring evidence from users into every stage of the design process. It’s a tough job sometimes, but that’s why they pay us, and that’s why I love it.

Call it whatever you like – but keep the focus of your attention on meeting the needs of *your* users. You know – the ones who pay you for your work?

Public data and private brands

San Francisco’s city council has opened up its data to the world, so anyone can use it to build useful – or useless  – tools and applications. We’ve seen apps to help you find your route home on the BART, apps to guide you to the nearest recycling centre, apps to help parents find child-friendly parks – even an app to help you choose the restaurant nearest you with the fewest cockroaches.

There’s a few reasons why this is a Good Thing:

  1. “Many brains” means that we have (potentially) several million smart, motivated citizens coming up with new ideas for using public data to help their fellow citizens live safer, healthier, greener, maybe even happier lives.
  2. “Many hands” means that we end up with valuable and useful apps that the public bodies would never have the money or time to create.
  3. It’s our data – we paid for it to be collected, so why shouldn’t we have the right to use it any way we like? (This makes it all the more depressing that here in the UK, the Post Office charges people to use the postcode database National Rail Enquiries shuts down the wonderful MyRail Lite just so it can flog its own iPhone app. And while we’re at it – why doesn’t all that Ordinance Survey data belong to us?)
  4. The kind of apps that people find most useful may help policymakers to understand more about what we actually care about. Actions speak louder than words, and seeing how many people are using an app may give some idea of the issues that people care about. This kind of meta data might be one of the most valuable unexpected emergent effects of all this.

Over here in the UK, we’re way behind. Directgov opened up their data to developers earlier this year via the Directgov Innovate project but it’s been a pretty disappointing show so far. It’s not clear where the “streams” that one needs actually come from. I couldn’t see any, and most of the rather paltry total of 13 apps created so far seem to rely on scraping sites – leaving developers to format and structure data themselves.

I’d love to see things improve. In London, for example, the natural choice would be to open up transport data. That’s pretty structured and really useful to citizens. I have no idea if TFL allows use of their data for free, but if not, they damn well should. Malcolm Barclay launched a couple of decent-enough iPhone apps for Londoners, but they’re far from perfect. And they’re both iPhone only – so no help to people on other platforms (excuse the pun).

What else might help? Well, besides relying on the efforts of concerned geeky citizens, I think that this is one space where brands might step in and provide real value. Surely HSBC’s vast marketing budget could pay for a suite of handy free apps for travellers, rather than flogging to death their tired-looking Global/Local campaign?

Cheap, easy, viral and (gasp!) actually useful? Surely that’s a winner.



This guy is an Incident Recorder.

He walks around London (I saw him in Gower Street) with a small webcam Velcroed on his chest doing absolutely nothing except…. Recording.

Apart from the half-zen half-kafka debate to explore what an “Incident” is, I find this guy remarkable. I asked him what on earth an Incident Recorder was. He had that slightly impudent, self-important sneer that not-real-coppers seem to have, but he still told me that he gets paid to walk around, waiting for an Incident that he can Record.

Am I the only one who thinks this is odd? Didn’t it used to be sufficient for someone to be an eye-witness of an incident? Is the video footage he is shooting even admissable in any kind of court? And is this symmetrical surveillance? Would this plasticop have carried on Recording his Incidents if his camera had happened to light upon, say… a policeman beating a newspaper seller to the floor with his truncheon? Would the video have made it back to the station, or might there have been a technical glitch?

The next question… given the new law banning the filming of coppers, would it have been classified an Incident worthy of Recording if he had seen me taking his photo? I took mine covertly,  of course… iPhone-ninja-style…