07 Sep

iOS 8, iPhone 6, and the Future of Interaction Design

Apple has often been at the forefront of interaction design and when they introduce whatever they’re going to introduce on September 9th, I think it’s safe to say that there will be some people who are thrilled at the new products, some people who are less than overwhelmed, and a lot of people who will miss the most important long-term implications.

One way to illustrate this is to look at the introduction of the new “flat” design of iOS 7. Phasing out skeumorphic design elements and introducing a visually more simple interface elicited a lot of comment. Some thought the change was a welcome departure from overly-designed UIs, while others labeled it a shameless knockoff of Windows 8.

But what I had thought was particularly interesting was the degree to which people referred to the new design as “flat”, when it was anything but. Yes, visually the UI elements on the screen lacked dimensionality. But what replaced it was a distinctly multi-layered stack of UIs, and a slight shifting of the gestural interface to enable people to access a much deeper set of content.

Think of it this way: iOS 6 and its predecessors were an increasingly ornately decorated cake – icing, frosting, and sprinkles of every shape and color. iOS 7 has replaced that frothy, whipped sugar stack with a croissant. On the surface, the croissant seems less complex, an over-simplification, a loss of essential detail. But take a bite: it’s multi-layered and textured in a way no mere birthday cake could ever hope to be. Rich, buttery, sumptuous and deeply, deeply satisfying. Just enough flour to hold the butter together.

Viewed this way, iOS 7 reveals itself as a framework for a much richer, deeper information stack. Stripping away the skeumorphic design aesthetic paves the way for an interface which more accurately represents the many layered ways in which you can interact with the information contained therein. Notice, particularly, the manner in which you switch between applications, or the motion graphics involved in drilling down from Home screen, to Folder (and in through multiple nesting sets, if you desire), to an App, and into the information hierarchy within an app using iOS 7-native design elements. The experience has become three-dimensional, in that you are now navigating deeper and deeper into an information hierarchy. And yet app-switching allows you to quickly zoom back up to the top level, and dig down again at will.

So, two questions arise:

  1. Is this terribly new?
  2. Does it matter, and why?

The answer to the first question is definitely, “not really.” The concept of providing navigable “space” within an UI and the ability to switch seamlessly between those spaces goes back at least as far as the NeXT Cube, SGI workstations X-Windows, and possibly further. But for iDevices, the constraint of screen real estate is a real concern, and a foundational element of the design aesthetic. Regardless of how high the resolution of the screen becomes, the physical size of the screen has some upper bounds if you plan on holding it with one hand, and navigating with the other. (Note: That doesn’t mean I think Apple won’t fiddle with the screen size of the iPhone on Tuesday. But you still have to be able to “get your hand around it,” as Steve Jobs once quipped.)

The answer to the second question is a bit more convoluted, but follows what I think is an important train of thought.

iOS 7 introduced a flat design aesthetic combined with a much more layered information design stack that has helped pave the way for what I believe will be the first commercially available and widely adopted 3D interface. Past attempts to introduce that kind of interaction environment have failed to gain traction not because the technology to implement them didn’t exist, but because the design approach failed to provide an easy path for people to travel along so that they could slowly become accustomed to the space in which they were navigating.

If we think of the interfaces that have been represented as “virtual reality” in the movies – Lawnmower Man, Disclosure, and Minority Report, just to mention a few of the more awful ones – we see a fairly common set of interactions: flat screens suspended in air, manipulated with hand-waving gestures, but ultimately no more interactive than the 2D interfaces we have now. There’s just more of them, scattered about our visual field.

For people to perceive a 3D interface as intuitive, the interaction design needs to obey a set of real-world principles with which people are already familiar. Weight, volume, and placement (i.e., order) within space are essential concepts that most humans have mastered by the time they can stand upright, so that’s as good a place as any to start.

The first two of these are always going to be very, very challenging to represent in a digital environment. No matter how high-definition the screen, it’s hard to communicate a sense of volume and mass with purely digital information. You can trick the brain a bit using certain physics models, but without proprioceptive feedback,  that’s hard to do convincingly.

But placement in space is another matter, and it’s frankly more essential to how our brains work when they’re processing information. We are mapping animals, and our evolutionary success is due in part to our fantastic ability to remember places we’ve been (and, for example, whether the food there was tasty or poisonous.) When you have an Interface that represents the layers of real space, and a set of interaction methods for navigating that space with which people are familiar, only then do you have the means to provide a truly immersive and usable 3D environment.

And for about the last 12 months, Apple has been training people how to interact with that space. iOS 7 is a leap forward in interaction design not because of what it looks like or what it does, but for what it is preparing people who use it.

A device (handheld or wrist-worn, it doesn’t matter) which makes use of this training is one which can seamlessly introduce interaction concepts such as:

  • Truly 3-dimensional displays, which show depth and stacking of objects (either transparent or opaque)
  • A set of 3-dimensional gestures that seem intuitive, but only because they mesh what we’ve long since known how to do, with 2D gestures that we’ve had a year’s worth of practice using.
  • An interface that expands way, way beyond the screen. When the presentation and layering of information maps to your metal model of the information space you’re working within, it doesn’t matter what’s actually showing on the screen at any one point in time. The physical gestures you’ve used to get to that particular screen are *synced* with how your brain naturally navigates a physical space, so you’re more likely to remember what isn’t being displayed to you at a particular point in time.
  • Touch-less gestures. Think Leap Motion, but embedded in the device, such that elements which appear to be floating in space can be “grabbed”, “twisted”, “pinched” and “tossed”.

Whatever Apple does or doesn’t introduce on September 9th, it seems reasonable to me that it’s but one more step on a long journey towards introducing interaction models to a mass audience in a way which seems natural and intuitive precisely because it’s being introduced slowly, deliberately, and with the long game in mind.

20 May

We Value Your (Positive) Opinion! | Customer Service Metrics

While in Washington D.C., we had dinner at an awesome Mexican restaurant near our hotel, and marveled at the combination of fresh guacamole, hot chops, and misaligned customer service metrics. Coming at the tail end of a day that started with three trips to/from Philadelphia International and home, included a 3 hour drive in a rented car large enough to carry 7 people and their luggage, our traditional Waffle House stopover and an afternoon at Air and Space and atop a tour bus around the Capitol, anything other than a bowl of carpet tacks and lemon juice would have sufficed.

Still, the guacamole was fresh, the tortillas crisp and the enchiladas hot. Service: fast, friendly, and accommodating. Ambiance: bustling, modern, hipster-doofus-free. Excellent all around.

Still, it takes a certain kind of thinking to provide a pre-filled canned customer feedback card along with your bill:

Customer Service Metrics Gone Horribly Wrong - A completed customer service form with all the "highly satisfied" boxes pre-checked

Was your service Excellent, Fantastic, Superb, Blisteringly Opulent or Mind-Bogglingly Outstanding?

I might have  assumed, charitably, that this card had merely been left behind accidentally by the last ecstatic customer who simply forgot to provide their contact info. And the waitress, hopeful that said customer would return, left it there hopeful that it would look familiar on their next visit.

I suspect, however, that there were some well-intentioned but misaligned incentives at work, which while interesting enough in this context, require another anecdote to fully unpack.

About three years ago, I purchased a new clothes dryer. Ours had died – or, rather, the belt on the drum wore away, said drum came loose, clothing was sucked into the mechanism and scorched, and then it died. I scoured Consumer Reports, Amazon and elsewhere for the best reviews, picked a model and ordered it online from Sears.

The delivery process left much to be desired, not least of all because the measurements of the dryer proved a smidgeon off. Getting the blasted thing into our basement where its predecessor had resided proved challenging, required three visits from the delivery truck and a circular saw. And once it was finally down there, the delivery team’s leader – let’s call him Stan –  informed me that a gas hookup was needed. Not surprising, since this was a gas dryer, and was replacing a gas dryer – but that they couldn’t actually do that part of the installation. They could remove the gas hookup from the previous dryer, but they couldn’t attach it to the new one.

Stan is managing to his target customer service metric: simpering smiles delivered

Friendly, courteous delivery man? Or ax-wielding maniac? You decide!

So, 72 hours, 3 failed delivery attempts and a visit from a plumber later, Stan takes me aside for the most important part of his visit – walking me through the process of giving Sears feedback on my experience.

I’ll receive a call in the next 2 days, I’m told, and it’s important- very VERY VERY important – that I respond “5 – excellent” to all of the questions I’ll be asked. Stan shows me a sample of the survey and reiterates – again – how very important it is that I respond enthusiastically to all questions. Now, I assumed Stan’s performance is monitored by the folks at Sears, and I’m sure he wants to be well-thought-of by his managers. But then Stan lays it on me:

If we don’t get all “5’s” on our feedback, Sears won’t assign us our next delivery for an extra 2 days.

I smile at Stan, cast a glance at the six-inch gouge on the wall leading to my basement and the sawdust from where I’d hastily sawed off a portion of the ballister footing  – and assure him that my feedback will be glowing.

And as he leaves, I begin to ponder the inanity of this system:

  • Stan works as an independent contractor for Sears, and his income day-to-day depends on the assignments he’s given
  • Stan’s assignments are based on reports from customers about his performance
  • Anything less than a perfect report impacts Stan’s income immediately
  • Stan therefor has every incentive to do everything – everything – he can to make sure the reports are superb. Fast, friendly, efficient service; earnest, forthright, heartfelt guilt trips.

Meanwhile, the thought put into devising this system probably went something like this:

  • Our delivery people are our front-line representatives to our customers
  • We want our customers to be happy, so our delivery folks need to do a really good job
  • We’ll measure how well they’re doing by asking each customer how they felt
  • To give our delivery people an incentive to do their best, we’ll award more work to the folks who score the best.

What could possibly go wrong? There are all kinds of ways that identifying into your customer service metrics can go wrong. But in the end it boils down to this: once you identify which metric is important to your team, they’ll start gaming the system to make that metric look good.

And tying compensation to the metric just makes things worse.

Good customer service metrics are an essential part of every Experience Design strategy – if you don’t know what you’re going to measure, you have to way of knowing if the strategy is working. But metrics are not an end unto themselves, and if you highlight them as the end goal to your team, rational people will do the rational thing: they’ll work improve the thing your measuring, whether or not it improves the customer experience.

Instead of the normal, sensible-but-counter-productive performance metrics, try this instead:

  • Tie customer satisfaction to future training for employees
  • Measure employees’ improvement over reasonably long periods of time
  • Tie compensation “boosters” to at least one element outside an individual employee’s direct control

Rewards which are random and feedback that is empowering are far more effective in promoting your desired outcome: a better overall customer experience.

09 Jan

User Experience Turned Inside Out: Let’s Just Do Great Work

Whenever I come across, or get sucked into, a conversation about how to define User Experience, or what does and doesn’t count as bonafide practice, I find myself asking, “why does it matter?” Yes, I have struggled to provide a succinct answer when asked, “what do you do?” But I’ve long given up hope of securing an imprimatur of the craft I practice, and instead have settled on a selection of audience-specific answers.

  • To strangers: “I design software.”
    (Signifies that I work with computers.)
  • To relatives and neighbors: “I help companies build software.”
    (Similarly signifies that I work with computers, while indicating that I cannot help fix their internet.)
  • To developers, designers and others with whom I collaborate: “I do information architecture, interaction design and usability testing.”
    (Hopefully delivered in a tone which signifies, “I am your friend, and will work to make your job easier. Really.”)
  • To clients (current and potential): “I do customer experience strategy.”
    (I will help turn your thoughtful but amorphous business idea into a something that can be built and measured.)

Boxes and Arrows, newly relaunched and looking for help in carrying on the flame, is featuring a series of articles from many people in the field of User Experience whom I deeply respect. And yet the conversation has turned into so much navel-gazing, as practitioners new and old wring their hands over what to call themselves, how to explain it to other people, and what to label the craft.

This is hardly groundbreaking conversation. Nor, as far as I can tell, does it serve any real purpose.

For evidence of that, let’s look back 10 years, and notice the quite similar way in which UXers were defining the field by trying to draw on other, supposedly better-understood, fields. Why has a decade brought so little progress?

Disagree? Stop any random person on the street and ask them what an “Interaction Designer” does. Now ask her what an “Architect” does. Why does the former draw blank stares, while the latter elicits a usually more or less “correct” answer and, in all likelihood, the name of an actual person who practice(d) that craft?

Quick, who was the architect who designed this?

OK, now who was the architect who designed this?

The confusion among non-practitioners (and people in the know, for that matter), springs not from the lack of a linguistic framework, or a proper delineation between roles. There have been no quiescent intervals during which disgruntled, misunderstood IAs and XDs have silently fomented. If there’s one thing we do particularly well, it is to discuss the nature of our craft. That, and lament the general public’s lack of understanding.

If there is an underlying cause to all of this – an obvious if largely unacknowledged motivating factor – it is our desire to feel understood by others. There is a sense of personal satisfaction inherent in the mere recognizability of one’s chosen profession. Even if “User Experience Architect” is not accorded the same level of respect as “heart surgeon” or “Nobel Peace Prize winner”, it would suffice to be met with the same nonchalant recognition as “plumber” or “cashier.”

But the simplest, and likely most effective way to accomplish this is not to argue incessantly over terminology. Instead, we need to do two things:

  • We need to concentrate our full efforts on doing great work. This includes, vitally, collaborating with other disciplines (from technology, business, and design), and moulding our practices to fit their needs every bit as much as those of the user.
  • We need celebrate great work, not out of hubris or self-congratulations, but out of a desire to set and live up to high standards.

The former implies that User Experience’s claim of “representing the user” is at best misguided, and at worst counter-productive. For if “we” represent “the user”, who does everyone else on the team represent?

The latter necessitates a measure of greatness that is more subtle than “most popular” or “most widely used.” An exquisite and superior customer experience is recognizably so even if the ultimate number of end-users is relatively small.

I’m intrigued and even delighted by some of the short list candidates for this year’s IxDA Awards, and even think some of them are going to be incredibly important as we consider the future of what it means to be a UX. But I’m a little disappointed that the big winners were so, well – popular.

When we begin to accomplish these goals, I believe the fortuitous side-effect will be a wider recognition of the basic mechanics of our craft – not least because we will have collaborated with so many more people on the periphery of our field, and word is bound to eventually leak out.

It would be lovely if we could manage to get ourselves thought of as ordinary, competent craftspeople, on the order of carpenters and potters.*


* “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.”

– John Manyard Keynes

07 Apr

The Trouble with dCommerce: Epilogue, and the Future of Money

In the debate over the future of money, most of the conversation seems to focus on the variety of payment methods which are – clever though they may be – simply replacements for credit cards. Which is to say: they’re faster, more convenient methods of stripping value out of more transactions, with few obviously superior benefits (besides offering marginally less onerous terms for clearing transactions.)

 “We must ensure that we protect our civil liberties by preserving some untraceable payment method.

– Jeffery Brito, in the New York Times’ debate on the shift toward digital currency.

Yet precious little of the conversation seems to focus on the elements of cash that have made it a durable and persistent facet of our economic lives for well over three millennia. While paper money has it’s drawbacks (it’s comparatively easy to steal and, when stolen, hard to retrieve or revoke; it’s impractical to use for very high-value transactions; and it can be surreptitiously imitated), cash offers three very important features:

  • It is convenient, at least within the community where it is accepted. If you’ve got a U.S. $100 bill, then pretty much anywhere in the world you can find someone who’ll take it in exchange for what you need.
  • Security (in terms of shielding from the view of third parties the nature of your transaction) is built in.
  • Familiarity is part of the appeal to cash, at least within one’s native economy.

But for many people, the need to secure a private transaction is becoming a more and more esoteric concern: if I’m willing to share my location every minute of the day with anyone I’ve friended on Facebook (or anyone who can, legitimately or not, gain access to that timeline), then why care about whether or not someone knows what I’m buying? The common refrain is, “I’ve got nothing to hide, so why should I care about privacy?”

Now, besides the fact that none of us are saints, and that we can all think of something we’ve purchased in our lives that we’d just as soon not have our 2nd grade teacher, or grandmother, know about, the simple best reason to want to keep your economic choices within your own private control is this: you don’t know all the reasons why you’d want to keep everything you buy private.

Mr. Brito hints at this, but only scratches the surface: in referencing the case of Wikileaks having most of its sources of funding choked off at the payment processor, he cites an obvious instance of political pressure being brought to bear against an unpopular target.

But consider what would happen if, in a society where all transactions were digitized and traceable in perpetuity, no transaction remained outside the reach of scrutiny by a third party:

  • Imagine a healthcare system where, even if you decide you want to spend your own money paying for a course of treatment that isn’t approved by your health plan, you were physically unable to do so (because your payment would be blocked.)
  • Suppose that evidence arose that a certain food additive – oh, say, high-fructose corn syrup – was determined to be detrimental to human health. Rather than bother with years of complicated litigation to force the manufacturer to pay damages for the harm done, why not just rescind every transaction (or the appropriate micro-portion thereof) which involved the harmful product?
  • Perhaps a consumer electronics company has manufactured a device which – purposefully or not – infringes on another company’s patents. Millions of people have already purchased this device, and yet the company which sold it has gone bankrupt. No problem – just re-charge every buyer an extra $5 to cover the damages caused by the now-defunct company.

Despite the sympathies one might have for any of the aggrieved in the above situations, even the most hard-core, central-planning, mega-Orwellian control freak would have to recognize the danger in such a system: where all cash is digitized, traceable and centrally processed, no transaction is ever final.

And this brings us to the most important attribute of cash: certainty. Once cash has changed hands, only the relationship between buyer and seller, enforced by social and legal contracts, can undo the process. Finality is essential because it forces the parties entering the transaction to decide whether or not they trust each other to deal honestly.

There is no severability here: if a transaction can’t be private (i.e., knowledge of its existence is limited only to the buyers and sellers), then there is no reason for the parties to want to trust each other.

If we’re going to have a society which relies almost entirely on the exchange of digitized representations of money, we need a system of value exchange which is intrinsically secure, private, and non-revokable.

Fortunately, all of the pieces of such a system now exist: it’s just a matter of pulling them together.

29 Jan

The Trouble with dCommerce, Part 3: Why PayPal, Dwolla & Google Wallet are Destined to Hit the Wall

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at a batch of current device-enabled payment mechanisms, highlighting the fact that none of them were designed as cash-replacement mechanisms and that, moreover, this ignored a significant and important part of the market. As this leaves almost all of the current mobile device payment options competing for the same role as a better credit card, Part 2 looked at the payment network, and the difficulty involved in duplicating it.

At least once a month, another bank rolls out a new mobile payment service, ostensibly with the aim of making it easy for people to send money to each other.

But as I’ve previously discussed, these are not true person-to-person payment schemes, in that invariably they involve at least three intermediaries – the banks of both the sender and the recipient, and the transaction network connecting them. (At best, when both people are customers of the same bank, the number of intermediaries decreases by one; still, this is the financial transaction equivalent of AOL’s walled garden, and as such it can never truly scale to become a pervasive payment method.)

What these and other electronic payment solutions, be they PayPal, ClearXchange, LevelUp, Dwolla have in common, is that they aim to evolve or replace credit cards as a transaction mechanism. This is not the same thing as replacing cash, and their nature has a fundamental flaw: over time, continual use of these payment mechanisms reduce the value of the currency exchanged within them asymptotically towards zero.

No matter how clever, useful, easy to use or “rewarding”, each of these systems fundamentally destroy what their users exchange. The transactional costs are structurally inescapable because intermediaries are involved. Making the transaction faster or easier, or tying it to rewards and other benefits doesn’t change that fact. Witness:

  • PayPal’s fee structure, for instance, lets you move money around inside their system more or less for free, as long as you – the person sending the money – fund the payment by transferring money from a bank account. Meaning, you have to transfer money into their ecosystem before you can use it freely. But even then, the recipient pays if they are a merchant. (About 3% of the transaction value, give or take.)
  • LevelUp gives you, the buyer, rewards for using the app as a payment mechanism. But whether you’re having your phone scanned or solving puzzles, the merchant is paying the costs of processing the charge (about 2%), plus $55/month for the equipment. (This is on top of the rewards themselves, where a merchant is essentially discounting your purchase.) LevelUp claims they are trying to push this cost to zero, but the truth is, they can’t.
  • Dwolla has tried to push the zero-fee envelop, first by charging a flat $0.25 for each transaction, then offering to process sub-$10 transactions for free. But Dwolla requires merchants to act as a manual bridge between their point-of-sale systems and this new payment network, essentially treat payments as something wholly different from cash or credit. Also, payers need to fund their Dwolla accounts first by transferring money from a bank account, though Dwolla will front you some cash if you need it.
  • Every NFC-based system out there, including Google Wallet and ISIS (which, actually, is more a theory than a service), ties your payment to a credit card. So in the end all they eliminate is the arduous task of removing a credit card from your wallet and swiping it through a reader.

Pretty much every device-enabled payment method out there continues to extract a fee from each transaction. Dwolla’s charges are the closest to zero yet – but for a $10 transaction someone is still paying 2.5%. (It’s a flat fee, so on a percentage basis it goes down the larger the transaction gets.) Still, as every dollar changes hands, over and over again, by the 100th exchange all you’re left with is about $0.14.

Even as these payment networks strive to reduce the transaction costs, they cannot break through the self-imposed barrier imposed by the transaction network itself: As long as there is a toll booth, someone will collect the tolls. And as the prevalence of electronic payment schemes proliferates down the value chain, the toll booths are getting closer and closer together.

But is there another way? Is it even possible to have electronic payments – on any variety of devices – which don’t involve a multitude of third parties?

One can’t explore this possibility without at least dipping a toe into the concepts behind currency, and it’s alternatives (some wackier than others.) Briefly:

  • Currency – whether it be dollars, British Pounds Sterling, gold or Rai Stones – is simply a physical manifestation of a promise: I’ll give you this thing, which by itself isn’t good for much, in exchange for some stuff you’ve got. Later on, you can give someone else this thing in exchange for some other stuff.
  • For currency to work, everyone using it has to agree to on its value. This can be spontaneous and voluntary, as when communities create their  own currency to keep spending local. It can also be compulsory, as even local currencies must have a fixed exchange rate with the dollar. And heaven forfend should you decide to mint your own coinage. The larger the community and the more entrenched the accepted currency, the more difficult it is to escape the status quo.
  • In most cases, currency is issued by either a centralized authority, or a closed system of issuing institutions.

Notice what isn’t on this list: a currency doesn’t have to be a physical object. If a group of people decide that they’re going to provide services to each other in exchange for a series of hand gestures, and everyone agrees to play by the rules, then that’s it: a flurry of waving and snapping buys you a hot dog. This is a useful metaphor, because it helps to explain why the physicality of most currencies does for you:

  • Physical currency can’t be spent more than once at the same time. A hand gesture can be repeated over and over by multiple people, unless everyone instantly knows that it’s been used.
  • Physical currency can be given back: if you want a refund, the system has a built in dispute resolution system.
  • At least at some level, physical currency has built-in scarcity. To some extent, it takes effort to produce more of it, which means that there’s some (albeit negligible at times) limit on how much can be produced. This helps it to retain value, though it is more true of “hard” currencies (like gold) which are based on a physical commodity.
  • It doesn’t “degrade” when you use it: what each recipient gets in exchange for their services is exactly what the buyer gave them (imagine if, every time you bought a hot dog, someone took your $1 bill and gave the vendor $0.95. That’s what happens when you use a credit card.)
  • While we’re on the subject, there are good reasons why gold has been used as currency for over 5000 years: it’s stable, it isn’t radioactively deadly, and it’s not a gas. It’s comparatively rare, but not too much so. What little of it exists will wash up in rivers, so it was easy to find early on in our history. And it’s malleable, flexible and divisible enough to be formed into a number of convenient shapes, sizes and quantities.

This gives us an important set of criteria we need to meet if we’re going to have a digital currency that everyone can freely exchange in any number of contexts. If we are truly going to revolutionize digitized, device-centric monetary exchange, we need a medium of exchange that is:

  • Persistent (it can’t “dissolve” into the air when I use it)
  • Divisible and fungible (I need to be able to spend any fraction of what I receive, or combine multiple units into a larger single unit)
  • Limited (it shouldn’t be possible for anyone to manufacture more at will, without expending an equivalent degree of effort)
  • Recognizable and accepted, at least by the group of people using it. (Even better, it would have qualities which are recognizable to the uninitiated, so as to smooth the way toward broader use.)

In my last (and bonus) post, we’ll explore some possible candidates for this Future of Money, including BitCoin, OpenCoin, Lucre, Ripple and OpenTransactions.

07 Jan

Street Art Curator – Progress Abounds

It’s been a couple of months since we provided an update on Street Art Curator, but the news is exciting! Although we weren’t sure who would make it to the finish line first, it looks like Krampus beat us all to the punch.

Friends and beta testers across the country have been avidly scouring the streets photographing their favorite works of art. Amani in Oakland has been particularly busy:

It’s exciting to see the variety and skill in both the works being captured, and the framing and curation of the works themselves. We had hoped that interest in street art would manifest itself in individuals’ thoughtful interpretations of the works they’d find, and that the act of curation would help to lend viewers a more nuanced perspective of the world around them – and we weren’t disappointed.

We are excited to announce, as well, that we will be providing an early preview version of the app which focuses on giving a quick view of street art in your immediate vicinity. You’ll also be able to submit a works you’ve found yourself for curation. While we continue to beta test the full version of the application, this will give everyone a chance to start diving into the world of street art around them, and to begin contributing their own discoveries.

02 Nov

The Trouble with dCommerce, Part 2: The Transaction Network

Part 1 of this series looked at how evolving options in the device-enabled commerce landscape were running into some serious competition; not so much each other, but with cash – which is universal, secure, and emotionally satisfying.  

This is Sonny D'angelo, and he makes one mean Turducken.

This isn't Sonny's cash register, but one like it. Sonny prefers cash. Sonny usually explains that he prefers cash while holding a 14 inch butcher's knife. On an unrelated note, most of Sonny's customers also prefer cash.

The choices facing any new entrant to the digital transaction ecosystem are formidable: this is not a system which lends itself to upstarts without substantial financial resources to bootstrap a new payment processing network. (For an entertaining look at what goes into supporting an infrastructure, check out this story in Fast Company.) Thus, a choice: Build, Rent, or Bypass.

To put these options in their proper context, a bit of background is in order. What follows isn’t pretty, but I promise to make it as painless as possible. in about 500 words or so you’ll understand how non-cash money moves around in greater detail than you ever would have thought was necessary.

Last night I went to the grocery store for some Chex Mix and Halloween Oreos. At the self-checkout aisle (of which I am fond), there is a bar code scanner, touchscreen, a credit card swipe machine, signature pad and a small slot into which I can insert my paper coupons. There’s also a device like you’d find on a soda machine that takes cash, and a coin slot.

After scanning and bagging my groceries, I chose “credit/debit card” from the touchscreen as my payment method, and dutifully followed the instructions on the touchscreen – which told me to follow the instructions on the credit card terminal. That device told me to swipe my credit card, which I did (I paid with a Chase Visa card.)

The authorization process, visualized - the process matches up to the the accompanying text.

Ben Gets Some Snacks, Part 1: The Authorization

What happens next is something of a miracle of digital technology – and all the more so because it was happening 20 years before most people had Internet access.

That credit card terminal dials up the grocery store’s bank (1), known as the Acquiring Bank (2). That Acquiring Bank is connected to several Interchanges (3, i.e. Visa, MasterCard, etc.) which connects them to the Card Issuing Bank (4) – the bank that gave me the credit card in the first place (i.e., Chase).

Chase takes a look into my account, and decides whether or not I’ve exceeded my credit limit. Presuming I haven’t, Chase sends a “transaction approved” message back through the Transaction Network (5), which tells the Acquiring Bank (6), which passes the message on to the card terminal (7), which flashes that serotonin-stimulating message, “APPROVED”. I am validated, authorized, and snack-possessing.

And all of this happens in about 2-3 seconds. (Fun fact: only counting Visa cards, it happens about 8,000 every second.)

I walk out of the grocery store, snacks in hand. And yet, the grocer hasn’t been paid. Their bank knows that the purchase was authorized, and my bank will eventually go through the trouble of making sure that I hand over the cash to them. But for the grocery store to get paid, they need to submit a receipt (it can be electronic) to their Acquiring Bank, along with the Authorization Code they got in step (7), which proves that the purchase was consummated. The Acquiring Bank deposits the money into the grocery store’s account, then contacts my bank and says “pay us.” Which they do.

That first go-around (from swipe to “Approved”) is called the authorization, and the second round trip of actual money from my bank to the grocer’s is called Settlement. And here’s where the fun really starts. The grocery store’s accounting system later (that evening, that week, or that month – but usually within a few days) contacts their Acquiring Bank to indicate that the transaction has been consummated (1). As the Acquiring Bank, Interchange and Issuing Bank pass those $10 along, they each take a cut. The Issuing Bank takes a bit, the Interchange takes a bit, and the Acquiring Bank takes a bit. The Grocer might end up with between 95-97% of the original – and that’s before they pay for the credit card processing equipment and the receipt tape on the register.

Transaction settlement, as explained in the narrative.

Ben Buys Some Snacks, Part II: The Grocer Gets Paid, Sort Of

There: that’s how a credit card transaction works, basically. But why on earth does it work this way? Instead of cold, hard cash in hand, our grocer gets an electronic credit to their bank account 3-5 days later for 95% of the value of the purchase. And, up to 90 days later, their bank can come along and say “you know what? Ben called and said that the Chex Mix was stale, the Oreos smelt like anchovies, and you wouldn’t take them back. So to keep him happy, we’re yanking back that $9.50.”

It’s enough to drive a business owner bonkers. So why put up with it? The answers come in three flavors:

Risk Mitigation

  • For the grocer, not having to handle wads and wads of cash at the end of every night is kind of nice. Also, the credit card issuer is always good for the money, so there’s essentially zero chance that you’ll get left with fake $100 bills, or a bad check.
  • For the consumer, the risk that a business might rip you off is largely dissipated: most credit card issuers will guarantee the purchase. But the consumer also doesn’t have to worry about being mugged, losing their wallet full of cash, or getting shortchanged at the register.


  • The grocer’s got bills to pay, too. So in this regard, it is convenient to have customers’ money deposited directly into your account, out of which you pay your own bills. Likewise, credit cards are a lot easier to deal with than checks, which have all of the drawbacks of cash (fraud risk, time lag for use of their deposit and possibility of loss), and none of the benefits (you can’t pay the potato chip supplier with a stack of customers’ checks.)
  • Consumers like the ease of making a payment with a swipe, the itemized bills and – let’s not be shy about it – the ability to spend money they don’t yet have.


  • Merchants have almost no choice: consumers use credit and debit cards in increasingly huge numbers, and will abandon merchants who don’t accept them.
  • In exchange for looking past some obvious long-term drawbacks (interest rates that would once have been usurious; harsh penalties for even slightly late payments, etc.) credit card issuers offer rewards, extra fraud and identity protection, and host of other benefits that seem to materialize out of thin air. (Though you can be sure that someone is paying for them.)

So, if you’re going to introduce a new payment mechanism into the relationship between buyer and seller, you need to be able to replace, replicate, or eliminate all of these attributes of the existing ecosystem. Your payment system needs to do five things:

  1. Move money – or more specifically, the means to purchase goods and services – between buyers and sellers quickly.
  2. Guarantee to the buyer and the seller that neither is going to be able to rip the other one-off.
  3. Protect both the buyer and seller from any nefarious third parties.
  4. Get ubiquitous, fast.
  5. Provide an obviously equivalent benefit to all those rewards junkies – i.e., the Power Users.

The fact that each of these five attributes is difficult and complex in its own right explains a lot about why the new generation of payment methods – LevelUp, Google Wallet, PayPal and others – all use existing transaction networks to actually do the heavy lifting of moving money around. Because of that, they carry the same burdensome cost structure as existing credit cards: interchange and processing fees that eat up to 5% of the value of a transaction.

A few players – most notably PayPal – are actually operating parallel transaction networks. If you use PayPal to exchange money with another PayPal user, and you fund the transaction from your PayPal account, then there are no transaction fees. This is about as close to digital cash as you can get, with any sort of scale.

When we look at the features and benefits each new payment method provides, we start to see some patterns:

No one hits all of the critical aspects of what a payment method that attempts to replace credit cards and cash needs to offer.

Of the current crop of competitors, only ISIS appeared to be aiming for a feature set which satisfies all of the attributes of a replacement payment system: a transaction network that provides security, fraud protection and reversibility; an architecture on which other systems can be built, a UI which unifies all of a customer’s transactions in a single interface, and a platform for providing rewards.

Alas ISIS – which is a consortium of handset makers and card issuing banks – has scrapped its plans to build a new transaction network, and will instead provide an architecture into which all existing networks can fit. So the cost structure remains the same.

The focus of most offerings, then, appears to center around the layering on of additional features – transaction and budget management, rewards and deals – to entice users to switch to a payment method which is at best unfamiliar, and at worst needlessly complex and baffling. (Tagtile wins Best in Show here: you must launch their app and tap against a special dongle attached to a merchant’s point-of-sale system, and in return you get a virtual hole-punch on your loyalty card.) This strategy is fundamentally at odds with the ultimate goal, however: attempting to lure customers away from payment systems which are perfectly adequate, these offerings merely add complexity to the process while delivering benefits that only barely mitigate the extra effort required. Aside from early adopters and technology enthusiasts (of which I happily count myself part), there is limited appeal.

And for their trouble, these payment vendors must endure the cost structure imposed by their vastly better-financed competitors (Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, among others), and have few opportunities – aside from charging merchants for the loyalty programs they administer or the deals they sell to customers – to create lasting, significant revenue streams.

What then, does the Future of Money look like? Is it merely a credit-card-by-other-means? And who, aside from the currently entrenched players, could possibly build such a system to scale?

22 Oct

Guest Lecture on Prototyping, Rutgers UXD

This past week, I had the pleasure teaching for a day at Rutgers mini-masters course in User Experience Design. On the previous three days, a group of 26 students – professional analysts, researchers, software engineers, managers, and other creative professionals – had dived into the basics of user-centered design, principles of interaction design, contextual inquiry, user testing and product development. My task was to introduce them to prototyping as a concept, provide guidelines for how to go about developing a prototype, and outline the fundamentals of Axure and some advanced prototyping techniques.

In about 3 hours. Leaving enough time to support the class as they developed prototypes of a design concept they’d researched the previous two days.

Waiting to begin my first lecture, I was much more excited than I had even expected to be. It’s probably better that I didn’t know that I would be following Marilyn Tremaine at the lectern. I’ve been doing user research on computer interfaces for about a decade now, so it’ll only be 4 or 5 more decades before I’ve caught up to Marilyn’s experience.

While many of the students had some basic familiarity with Axure before we began, it was truly amazing to see how quickly they were able to turn a bit of basic instruction into working prototypes. Axure plays a big role in this, ending itself to an easy start. Perhaps the bigger issue is that Axure also makes it easy to get yourself into trouble – complex interactions seems temptingly simple to execute, leading to one of the first errors in prototyping: over-fidelity.

I’m thankful especially to Ronnie Batista for the chance to participate> Ronnie’s energy and enthusiasm was motivating and reassuring. I am hopeful everyone felt the experience was worth their time and considerable investment.

The flexibility of the course structure allowed for some meaningful deviation from the day’s planned curriculum: an ad-hoc group evaluation of a prototype I had previously built offered a chance to highlight the unpredictable nature of testing, focus on the importance of prototyping only those elements which you can test with your audience (and go no deeper than that), and provided me with one of the things I value most deeply about testing: the chance to see my own work through new eyes.

A few “stakes in the ground” about prototyping kicked off the day, and it feels appropriate to close with them here:

  • If the process of design is simply a series of failures which eventually culminate in a successful solution, prototyping is your chance to fail early and often.
  • Design is essentially a competition – either cooperative or head to head – and the best design is the one which not only most elegantly solves the problem, but which is most elegantly communicated to those who must choose the winners. Prototyping is your hi-fi medium of communication.
  • Some products solve problems no one ever knew even existed – but not everything is the next iPad. If you need to solve a problem which exists in a known context, then you have to test your solution with users, and a prototype allows you to do that earlier, cheaper, and faster.
  • To be useful to anyone, a solution has to ship. Which means that sooner or later, someone other than the person responsible for the conceptualization will need to be involved. A working prototype can be the most effective means of communicating your vision to those who will ultimately bring it to life.
13 Oct

Street Art Curator – An Initial Peek

Street Art Curator is a forthcoming application for iOS that will allow you to discover, collect, organize and curate exhibitions of street art. We’re deep into the design and development stage.

Street Art Curator combines mobile application design, collaborative documentation, and the casual discovery of “art in the wild,” with current beta testers in 5 cities in the U.S.

We originally conceived of the application as one primarily centered around photographs of street art, composed by the contributor – and possibly reframed or paired in the act of curation. But our early discussions with gallerist Daniel Dalseth of Pageant: Soloveev enlightened us as to the storytelling process involved in curation, and the importance of the approach and environment in telling the story about a specific work or collection.

A series of photographs… a pan-and-zoom panorama… how to give curators the ability to fully describe and communicate the environment in which a work exists, and the approach to it? We soon had our answer, and video capture and embedding became a central aspect of the app. Here’s one example of a work in situ, as one might see it casually strolling through the 9th Street Market in South Philadelphia.

Though quite a bit more noticeable from a distance, this series of Joe Boruchow wheat pastings are impressive enough, but the layering and interplay between them and the other pieces on this corner adds color to their placement, and provides juxtaposition between newer and older, decaying works.

Curating video can be even more complicated (and open to interpretation) than photographs – so we’ve had to concentrate on making sure they don’t overwhelm the experience, either for the curator or the viewer.

One other snippet to share: it seems obvious from the start that curators (and the exhibitions they create) ought to be open not only to comment, but to ratings by those who find their work useful/pitiable/enlightening/mundane. We’ve long found that the simpler rating systems naturally provide better content over time – primarily because a mechanism which is straight forward invites greater participation. We want ratings to involve more than a thumbs up/down, but still easy enough that you won’t hesitate to use it.

Never the less, different contributions warrant different kinds of feedback mechanisms, which can be illustrated with a few examples:


Loving these pieces, one question remained: who was this artist? Luckily a friend and beta tester had been photographing similar works in Northern Liberties, and knew immediately that they were the work of Ben Woodward. That act of discovery, connection and revelation was both satisfying, and inspiring: doubtless there should be a simple, effective and cumulatively meaningful way of recognizing the person who acts as connector, whether or not they are formally engaged in the act of curation.

We are aiming for a release in the fourth quarter of 2011.

09 Oct

#occupywallst: an open beta for protest techniques and organizing strategies

Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about the OccupyWallStreet protest and its sister events nationwide offers at least one common criticism: that the lack of any organizing principles, or coherent set of agreed-upon demands, undermines whatever purpose they may have. That if they can’t answer “here is what we want,” then the protests are missing out on any chance of success.

But Sean Captain at Fast Company, describing the early stages (and seemingly doomed false starts) of the protest makes one stunningly important point: This protest didn’t have to be big. It was a first step and a chance to try new methods and technology… ‘We’re learning,’ said Alexa O’Brien.”

Lacking a coherent, unified set of goals – either in the beginning or on an ongoing basis – is completely besides the point. These folks are beta testing new strategies for organizing groups, new methods for conducting consensus building and democratically-determined actions. The process is going to be messy, buggy, and will shoot off into countless directions – many of them dead-ends or false starts.

And each and every one of those dead ends and false starts is itself a success: it is a data point for refocusing efforts and repositioning the collective’s work.

It’s standard practice for any startup: #occupywallst is pivoting, iterating, and refining its strategy, tactics and message. And it’s doing so on a daily basis, the process of which provides energy and momentum that can be fed back into the movement. It is the most efficient self-funded and responsive startup anyone has ever seen.