Friday, September 23, 2016

Bottoms Up Plus Top Down Equals Design Thinking?

A Modern Topsy Turvy Doll
One of the hottest topics in one of the online Design Thinking discussion groups has to do with the nature of DT; Is it an authentically valid problem identification and resolution approach or a fraudulent repackaging of old ideas in an effort to drive more money into the pockets of consultants?

One aspect of this question which I haven't seen discussed much relates to the differences in the Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up approaches to design, problem solving and learning. These were discussed very nicely in two articles; one by Dipwal Dessai,  Director of Product at Samsung VR and the other by Allison Toepperwein and Vince Penman on the Product Design Show;

Dipwal tells a story about discussing a new feature that involved building functionality which had never been done before. In order to design it, they relied on a few assumptions that were difficult to validate without actually building the product. He wrote;

"This reminded me of the fundamental differences between bottom-up vs top-down product development, and two companies that follow them: Google and Apple, and how this approach defines how products are built.

Google believes in being extensively data driven. All the products that are built at Google go through extensive number-crunching and analysis before (well, for the most part). It is very difficult for someone to justify a brand new product as there might not exist enough existing data to validate it.

Apple, on the other hand, is driven by vision. There is, of course, a lot of user research which drives the vision, but Apple has repeatedly built new products which create a new market which never existed before. They have changed the company focus multiple times in major ways that affects more than 50% of their revenue or users. It usually involves the high level teams defining a clear product vision for the company, and everyone working towards executing on that path.

Creating something that is truly groundbreaking is extremely difficult to validate using existing data, so it relies on having clear vision of what is going to be useful. It is also very difficult to create something using iterative, data driven techniques to change people’s behavior significantly. It is, however, a great way to do incremental improvements to an existing product and get big results and can work quite well until someone ‘changes the game’. A top-down, vision driven strategy can refute the existing mindset to create something truly revolutionary, but it relies on a ‘leader’ being able to analyze the data they have and define the new 'vision’ clearly.

Having a clear overall vision for the company also helps the project teams know what’s good and bad, because they have a clear path which they can follow to be successful. The vision has to be broad enough to consider global trends, but also sharp enough that it can be followed, This is absolutely the most critical thing for the long term success of a company.

One can also argue that the difference is similar to a democracy vs dictatorship. On paper, under the ideal conditions, dictatorship based governance can be more efficient. However, its more prone to ‘rogue dictators’ which leads us to the belief that democracy is better in the long term.

In the end, getting the right vision is extremely difficult, but is arguably the biggest factor in determining long-term success of a company. As someone building new products, I always strive to have a very clear direction for where the product should go in the long term, and if that vision is right, the pieces will fit in as its executed."

Vince and Allison discuss the same subject in this video from the web page. 

To summarize;

Which design method will work best for your project? Consider the following:

1. Will your Product Concept Phase be heavily experimental? Are you trying to make something completely new? If so, a Bottom-Up iterative approach might be best for your project.

2. Is your project constrained by a tight budget? If so, a Top-Down approach can help you maximize savings by thoroughly planning budgets at the beginning of your product concept design cycle.

3. Are you building a large, complex system? Complex systems and machines benefit from a Top-Down approach because it breaks down a project’s goals into smaller problems that are more easily solved.

4. For your project to be successful will you need everyone’s voice to be heard? If the problem you’re trying to solve is going to require a lot of creativity a Bottom-Up approach can help leverage all of the creativity in your group by letting them experiment and voice their opinions.

Of course, that raises the question; What do you do when you are trying to design a completely new, large, complex system, on a tight budget and need everyone's voice to be heard? In the video they don't give that process a name, but they do on the website;

"While some insist that one approach is better than the other, those who are invested in the Design Thinking methodology know that a blend of the two approaches often produces the best results."

What would you call that? Apparently Bottom Up + Top Down = Design Thinking.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Zachman Framework and Design Thinking

I've posted previously about TRIZ, the method of resolving conflicting requirements and we've explored how similar Design Thinking and Boom's Taxonomy are, but I was introduced to something today that I'd never seen before.  It's called the Zachman Framework;

John Zachman's Architecture of Everything
It's a matix which maps the artifacts of storytelling against the points of view of of everyone involved in the product development process - except the customer/user.

Product Development Swim Lanes

According to John Zachman the framework is; "a theory of, the existence of, a structured set of, essential components of, an object, for which explicit expressions is necessary and perhaps even mandatory for creating, operating, and changing the object (the object being an Enterprise, a department, a value chain, a "sliver," a solution, a project, an airplane, a building, a product, a profession of whatever)".

In other words; a way to describe something completely enough to be able to understand and change it, and therefore be able to control, the process of its creation/manufacturing.

Zachman said; "this ontology was derived from analogous structures that are found in the older disciplines of Architecture/Construction and Engineering/Manufacturing that classify and organize the design artifacts created in the process of designing and producing complex physical products (e.g. buildings or airplanes).

It uses a two dimensional classification model based on the six elements of storytelling; What, How, Where, Who, When, and Why, intersecting six distinct perspectives, which relate to stakeholder groups (Planner, (Business) Owner, Designer, Builder, Implementer and Worker). The intersecting cells of the Framework correspond to models which, if documented, can provide a holistic view of the (business) enterprise".

Apparently Zachman's framework didn't take the world by storm. In 2004, twenty years after it's creation, he admitted that the framework was theoretical and had never been fully implemented, saying; "If you ask who is successfully implementing the whole framework, the answer is; nobody that we know of yet."

Perhaps it would be interesting to add a row, at the top of the matrix, for the end user's "story"?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Doing the Spectrum Dance - Autism in the Workplace

Listen... Up!
Working with someone with autism (including Asperger syndrome), can be an interesting and challenging experience for managers, colleagues and employees.What follows are some suggestions to avoid or overcome any difficulties, in order to ensure enjoyable and effective working relationships.

It's important to understand what is going on for both parties in the interaction. Here are some ideas, collected from reputable sources, that may be helpful on both sides of the conversations;

Social Communication

People with autism have difficulty using and understanding verbal and non-verbal language, such as gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice, as well as jokes and sarcasm. Autists tend to be quite literal and may not understand analogies. They might also have very specific meanings in their personal vocabularies. They may understand what others say to them but prefer to use alternative forms of communication, like e-mail.

Social interaction

People with autism have difficulty recognizing and understanding others’s feelings and managing their own. They may, for example, stand too close to another person, prefer to be alone, behave inappropriately and may not seek comfort or help from other people. This can make it hard for them to make friends.

Social Imagination

Those with autism have difficulty understanding and predicting other people’s intentions and behavior, and imagining situations that are outside their own routine. This can mean they carry out a narrow, repetitive range of activities. A lack of social imagination should not be confused with lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative, but typically in a narrow range of expression.


On occasions when problems do arise  – particularly in social interactions where communication can break down, try to deal with them promptly and tactfully.
If the person seems aloof or uninterested in talking you or colleagues, or says the 'wrong' thing,
remember that this is probably unintentional and is likely to be due to the person's communication difficulties.

If the person irritates colleagues by seeming to 'muscle in' on a conversations or other's jobs, be patient, and explain the boundaries. Remember that reinforcing the boundaries may not just be necessary for the person with autism – other staff may also need reminding that their attitudes may have a strong impact on the job performance of their autistic colleague.

If the person becomes anxious try to find out what is causing the problem. One-on-one is probably the best way for doing this. You may need to think laterally. For example, the stress may not be caused by a difficulty in the job but by a colleague not being explicit in their instructions, by things not working efficiently. Trying to think around the immediate issue may help, as well as supportively asking the employee specific (though not invasive) questions to try to get to the root of the problem.


The following approaches may help companies with employees on the autism spectrum;
  • Having clear unambiguous codes of conduct, job descriptions and competency frameworks;
  • Using direct and unambiguous communications;
  • Creating documents, including agendas containing standard and specific points for discussion, and timetables.
  • A consistent schedules/shifts/manager(s);
  • A defined set of job responsibilities;
  • Use of organizers to structure jobs;
  • A reduction of idle or unstructured time;
  • Clear reminders;
  • Feedback and reassurances;
  • Working arrangements and responsibilities of Occupational Health, line managers, HR;
  • Positive behavior feedback and support.


Reasonable adjustments are a fair and robust way managing health-related performance and attendance issues in the workplace. Employers should consider any request on its individual case merits rather than worrying about setting a precedent.

      An assessment should explore:
  • Social interaction deficits;
  • Cognitive inflexibility;
  • Sensory abnormalities.
Individual Needs
  • Equipment;
  • Training;
  • Mentorship;
  • Supervision;
  • Time off or flex-time to attend a health improvement programs to improve performance performance or attendance, for example cognitive behavioural therapy;
  • Temporary redeployment or alternative work activities or promote skills or rehabilitation after an acute episode.

The process should have clearly defined objectives and success criteria to ensure that employment decisions can be made in a timely and appropriate manner.

On Being Shellfish

Social Skills?
Engineers, artists and actors are usually thought of as being very different and somewhat mutually exclusive. Although there are exceptions, like Boston's guitarist Tom Scholz, NFL Coach Tom Landry, President Jimmy Carter, Jazz Musician Herbie Hancock and Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Inventive engineers are usually known for their persistence and multidisciplinary thinking rather than their social skills. Exceptions are few and far between. It seems that for every Walt Disney there are ten Tomas Edison's.

When you think about it, that shouldn't be so surprising. Engineers prefer to interact with things, artists and actors prefer to interact with people. The primary difference between people and things has historically been that people are alive, dynamic, emotional and somewhat unpredictable. Things are static and predictable, at least when their structure is open and observable. But it wasn't always this way. Many of the big names in the history of invention were decidedly trans-disciplinary and even social creatures;  Eratosthenes, Benjamin Franklin, Galileo, Leonardo daVinci and James Lovelock were all polymaths. 

The other very recent change has to do with the nature of the things we design and engineer. With the invention of the programmable micro-controller and the software which runs them, we began to create things with personalities. Not emotions, but personalities. Repeatable, but not always responsive.

We used to complain about not being able to set the digital clocks on our VCRs. Over time that grew into complaints about user interfaces on other devices and into a whole new area of specialty we now call usability. The importance of UX, user experience, has similarly grown to become the foundation of its own college major and job descriptions at companies around the world and impacts from toothbrushes to themed entertainment.

But, what is it? What is the significance of User Experience? Let's go back to the penguins and take a closer look.

Leap of Faith

There are dozens of penguin videos on YouTube with good reason. They are funny, cute, clumsy and entertaining creatures. They are soft and fuzzy outside and remind us of ourselves.

Scallop Seashell

I know what you are thinking. I'm not playing fair. That's just an ordinary scallop shell. Nobody expects it to do Vaudeville. It does what shells do; sit there, don't talk and don't move.

O.K. Here's another image.

Sundial Shell
Yes, it has a beautiful exponential spiral and has a lovely, warm glow, but when it comes to making us laugh or cry or want to pick it up and hug it, its a no-show. That's the problem with being shellfish; they are hard on the outside and aren't very responsive. (By the way, that image is backlit and posed.)

For many years our technology was the same. Hard, emotionless boxes with minds of their own. Then came Apple's iRevolution and the user moved into the driver's seat. With that shift, the balance of power changed for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

More recently some interesting social changes have happened.  According to a study by the University of Michigan over 140,000 students who entered college since 2000 have empathy levels 40% lower than previous years.

Research by psychologist Jean Twenge found what she called a"narcissism epidemic," with more students showing increases in traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder - a condition in which people are so self-absorbed that others are simply objects to reflect their glory.

One explanation is that children's free with others declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003, right when the students who entered college in 2000 were growing up. Without unstructured play time children don't learn to know each other very well. And connecting and caring takes practice.

In addition, time that used to be spent playing outdoors is now being spent in front of screens. Television - a one way medium - doesn't teach empathy, let alone reflect reality. Even "nonviolent" children’s TV is filled with indirect aggression which has been linked to real-world bullying, which has been reported in other studies as already being experienced by 1/3 of the workforce.

It's a difficult squeeze. At the same time that empathy is declining, customer service and user experience expectations are rising, leaving greater and greater numbers of dissatisfied customers with unmet expectations.

In this midst of all this, how do you want to appear to your clients? Shellfish or penguin?  

The Neurobiology of Courage and Faith

I came across this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal and was wowed at several points. The implications of this in science, sociology and religion are profound. Her concluding statements offer great cause for hope and explain why this talk received a standing ovation and has over 11 million views on TED.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Persnickety Penguins and Shellfish

Two engineers were discussing their company's relationship with a long time customer and one of them compared it to how penguins select a mate; The story goes that male Gentoo penguins will search through piles of pebbles looking for ones to present to their intended companion. If she approves, the stone is placed in the nest and the pair bonds and breeds. The engineer explained that the problem was that there didn't seem to be any way to know in advance if the customer was going to accept the pebble.

We've all heard stories of clients which were difficult to please and on the surface the penguin story appears to be an appropriate analogy. The problem is that the story leaves out some critical pieces of information; According to some online sources female penguins have a selection criteria; the rocks need to be very smooth. I suppose that would make sense. The gestation process lasts for weeks and sitting on rough stones would be a real pain, both for the mother and the baby.

But then I came across this video on YouTube;

Penguin Nest Building

After having viewed this a number of times, I can't tell if the stones are smooth or rough, just that they need to be small enough to pick up and carry to the nest. I also didn't see the female rejecting any rocks.

It struck me that the story was analogous to design as a consulting process; Customers have needs, which are obvious to them. As designers it's our job to figure out what those needs are and come up with a way to fill them.  This is where things start to get very interesting.

Disagreements and misunderstandings are funny things, particularly when you are getting paid for having them. If you don't believe that, take a look at this classic Monte Python sketch;

The Argument Clinic

The key takeaway from both of these stories is that when you or the customer don't understand what is wanted, things don't go well. So, what can be done to fix that? In the engineer's version of the penguin story, the female rejects some of the rocks, which is the equivalent of being told "That's not what I asked for." or Python's mirror image; "That's not what you came here for."

There is a book which describes how a large government agency does product development. It is over an inch thick and details every step of a highly organized and co-ordinated process intended to anticipate and mitigate every possible way something could go wrong in advance of situations where accidents almost always result in serious injury or death. The design process is thorough, repeatable, highly structured and predictable. Analytical minds love it. The problem is that its not particularly reliable or dependable in the face of the unknown.

Duct tape has been on board every NASA mission since early in the Gemini program and as you may recall, it saved the lives of the crew of Apollo XIII when their carefully planned mission hit a little snag. Ed Smylie's Tiger Team had 24 hours to solve that problem, or the crew would die. “My recollection of the threat,” said Jerry Woodfill, “was Don Aabian's voice bellowing from the mission evaluation room; "I need those guys to come up with an answer on the CO2 thing and do it fast!" 

Using only the equipment and tools the crew had on board, including plastic bags, cardboard, suit hoses, and duct tape, Smylie and his team conceived a unique and totally unplanned solution;

“The concept seemed to evolve as all looked on. It was to attach a suit hose into a port which blew air through the hose into an astronaut’s space suit. If the space suit was eliminated and the output of the hose somehow attached to the square CO2 filter perhaps the crew could be saved. The air blown through the filter by the suit fan would have no carbon dioxide as it reentered the cabin atmosphere.”

Jack Swigert working on Apollo 13's  LiOH canister.

"The biggest challenge was adapting from a small round hose to a much larger square filter. A funnel would most likely leak. Added to that problem was that the hose and plastic bags tended to collapse, restricting the air flow through the filter.

Then the thought came, ‘Use cardboard log book covers to support the plastic. It worked! But more importantly, they had to figure out how the funnel adapter could be fashioned to prevent leaking. Of course… the solution to every conceivable knotty problem has got to be duct tape! And so it was.”
I haven't read every word in the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't mention using Duct Tape. Maybe it shouldn't. Handbooks are written to deal with situations which can be anticipated and predicted. They codify the tribal knowledge which we turn to when the complexity, ambiguity and risk threaten to overwhelm us. What Handbooks don't do is inspire the kind of ah-ha! moments which saved the crew of Apollo XIII.

How do you codify having a blinding moment of insight so it can be called up on demand?

Scamper-Duttton TRIZ Matrix
There is someone who tried to do exactly that. In 1945, after studying thousands of patents, Genrich Altshuller concluded that similar technical problems had been solved by resolving similar technical conflicts.  His Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, (TRIZ) got a big boost in the 1970's with the invention of the desktop computer, which enabled working thru TRIZ's 39x39 conflict matrix more easily.

That is one way of shortening the problem solving process; knowing how someone else resolved a similar conflict and reframing your problem to look like theirs. But it's not creative or innovative in the traditional sense. It does bring a certain predictability to the situation, which gives the illusion of being prepared and in control to the project managers. It's also technical.

Are you listening to me?
Which takes us back to our persnickety penguin. How can you know what rocks won't be rejected before you bring them? The answer is pretty simple; You have to understand penguins The pebble gathering isn't directed at the female, its directed at building a nest, which the male often begins before a willing female even arrives.  That is the message for the analysts and engineers; Your persnickety customer isn't being difficult, you simply don't understand their behavior.

The reason you don't is because you are shellfish and they are penguins.

We'll explore that in the next post.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Do you want to be led or managed?

Today, I present for your consideration two TED talks.

The first is Bob Davids at TEDxESCP on Leadership without ego.  It's 12 minutes long.

The second is Simon Sinek on What Leaders Eat Last really means. It only runs 4 minutes.

Find the time to watch them today. One on a break, the other over lunch.

Bob Davids

Simon Sinek

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Four Thee Birds

Chipper, Bully, Snob & Neurotic
I recently had the opportunity to see an old friend thru new eyes. The object of my affection is the Pixar short film For the Birds and the new vision came as a result of seeing it in 3D. What I wasn't expecting was the change in perspective which resulted from having written a post about workplace bullying and mobbing.

Disney has been reminding us that there are many sides to any story and villains are sometimes heroes in disguise.  So, it was with some retrospection that I began to consider a story behind the story of the primary characters in For the Birds.

If you aren't aware of their names, don't be surprised. They're not mentioned anywhere in the credits. Although you might infer them from their behaviors.

(Pixar stories usually have a detailed backstory. Parts of this one can be found on the Pixar animation website, but I must acknowledge that I'm pushing the storyline a bit further in this posting.)

A bird called Bully arrives first and starts to settle in. Chipper lands and stretches, bumping into Bully, who becomes annoyed, pecks at Chipper and starts an argument. Snob lands next, sees what is happening, moves away, while looking up and rolling his eyes in disgust, until Bully bumps into him, at which point Snob starts to argue with Bully, who gestures at Chipper as if to place the blame there.

In the mean time, Neurotic has landed. Snob bumps into Neurotic and gives him a peck. Four other birds arrive and soon everyone is involved in their own personal squabbles. All this takes a mere 20 seconds. It's just another day at the office.

The small birds' similarity and familiarity would seem to indicate that they are all members of the same, long established, flock. They may not like each other exactly, but they do know how to function in a group. They have their order and places and don't even object to the occasional outbreak of pecking. It's all normal behavior. No one specifically encourages it, but neither does anyone cry foul or try to stop it when one bird argues with or attacks another.

It isn't until something unusual happens that things start to turn in a different direction.

Under Attack or Paranoid?

The arrival of the Big Blue bird causes a moment of concern. This intruder isn't like the members of the flock. The corners of Bully's beak are not raised in a welcoming smile and the rest of the birds stare in wonder. What is this huge blue creature? What are its intentions? Is it friend or foe? Are we soon to be its lunch? What are we to do?

With a bully at the head of the group, the next move is fairly predictable; Big Blue's friendly gesture is met with derision and soon everyone is on board and fully engaged in the critical pantomime repl . This fluffy foe is no threat, quite the contrary, he's crazy, ineffectual and to be ignored.

Hi Five

 This is a pivotal moment in the story. With odds of 15 to 1 and no advocate inside the flock, Big Blue doesn't stand a chance of inclusion. In spite of Big Blue's wiggled pen feathers, Bully and Snob poke fun and then snub him. The group joins in and soon everyone is poking fun at their huge, although now less threatening, interloper. The group gags have reduced him to a fluffy blue target of derision.

Poking Fun

Undaunted, Big Blue continues to attempt a connection. Another High Five makes no difference.  The group, again led by Bully, turns their collective backs, moves away on the wire and begins to gossip. Leaning in to hear the chatter, Big Blue almost seems to stumble, then recovers and flies over to try and join the group. Landing on the wire, he gets the Evil Eye from Bully, although everyone else just looks shocked and bug-eyed.

The Evil Eye
At this point physics intervenes as Blue's weight stretches the wire and gravity forces everyone together. Blue seems pleased at this turn of events, although it's clear that no one else is. This may be where we realize that in spite of being birds, they aren't speaking the same dialect. The little birds are probably all yelling Get off the wire! but Big Blue doesn't understand.

Time to get nasty

Next, Bully goes on the offensive, driving his beak deep into Blue's side, causing him to jump and fall, although still holding onto the wire, which drags the whole group back down. The little birds still aren't happy and Bully decides to try and finish the job of getting Blue off the wire by pecking at Blue's toes. Soon the group joins in and the effort to kick Big Blue off the wire and out of the group kicks into high gear.

On the verge of reality
While this arguably leads to the funniest part of the story, it is also where the fantasy kicks in, as Blue will eventually end up laughing and OK. The moment when the last toe slips and the wire launches the flock skyward, simultaneously exposing Bully, Chipper, Snob, Neurotic and the rest of the flock for the selfish, naked cowards that they are, doesn't typically happen in real life. More often than not, and at an earlier stage of the gradually increasing processes of harassment, the Big Blues of the world sense that they are not wanted and leave. Of course, history is written by the victors, so Blue gets painted as an irregular outcast, or worse, a monster, invader, and unwelcome past guest.

On the surface, For the Birds may not seem like a tale of bullying and discrimination, but once you peel back the veneer, its' all about how we abandon, marginalize and minimize others out of existence, or at least out of a job or school or club.

It's a sad and funny at the same time, which makes it all the sadder.