Is The Best Interface Really No Interface?

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I’m a User Interface Designer here at Control Group. I have a master’s in graphic design from School of Visual Arts here in New York. I’ve loved designing interfaces for projects like the MTA Wayfinding Kiosk and the EMKI Interactive Museum, as well as for our clients and their audience.

So why would I read a book called “The Best Interface Is No Interface”?

Because, like the rest of modern society, I am inundated with glowing rectangular screens day in and day out. And as much as the hyper detailed floating interfaces in Iron Man (among other blockbuster movies) seem nifty, I prefer the future of Her, where the way we communicate with computers is a bit more subdued. Like Don Norman, famous user-centered design advocate and author of “The Design of Everyday Things”, I appreciate any argument for simplifying how we interact with the world.

The author of “The Best Interface Is No Interface”, Twitter-renown Golden Krishna, makes an excellent case for what we all probably feel already: not every problem can be solved with an app. He condemns the overused phrase “there’s an app for that”, with hilarious examples of unnecessary screen-based products. In addition, he doesn’t mince words with how he really feels about some of the standard UI elements that we’ve been using since the start of the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) days. His expletive-fueled rant about dropdown menus alone is worth the price of the book.

The UI Design profession takes some bashing in “No Interface” especially. Krishna paints a picture where it’s “cooler” to be a UX Designer because they’re the ones who think about “people, happiness, and solving problems” where UI is more concerned with “navigation, buttons, and rounded corners”. While that’s true, all the visual elements that UI Designers think about contribute to “happiness and solving problems” through the manifestation of well-thought out UX approaches.

As it is, the main argument Krishna makes is that UI and UX have fused into one role, which in turn, promotes a user interface as the “correct” solution to larger user experience-based problems. True, the two roles are related, and in certain cases one person can wear both hats. However, if a user interface designer is assigned a non-user interface problem, this can create a conflict of interest. How can a visual designer remain an objective problem-solver if they just want to make cool parallax scrolling animations?

Great user interface designers come from varied creative backgrounds: illustration, graphic design, industrial design and so on. As such, they are already familiar with exploring “No UI” solutions along with UX designers. It should go without saying, but what separates a good UI designer from a great one is knowing the right solution to the problem, even if that solution is not a UI design. All designers, whether they are UI, UX or otherwise, should keep the needs of the audience first and foremost, or else they do the whole project a disservice.

So what are those needs of the audience when it comes to a user experience? Jakob Nielsen, grandfather of usability and human-computer interaction, put it succinctly with these “Five Quality Components of Usability Goals”:

  1. Learnability
  2. Efficiency
  3. Memorability
  4. Errors (keeping error rates low)
  5. Satisfaction

Note that none of those explicitly mention a screen. Nielsen has been criticized for not mentioning typography, color and other design elements, but those are just methods for achieving the goals listed above.

Lastly, Krishna smartly addresses some of the challenges to the “No Interface” concept. If he hadn’t, I would’ve been sorely disappointed. This is a book that’s designed to ruffle some tail feathers, so best for him to address the nay sayers head-on. As he mentions, privacy is a huge concern in a future world where the computer automatically anticipates your every move and whim.

Just like a personal assistant, a level of trust has to be established between the system and the user of that system. Sadly, the “opt out” solution is usually not as clearly defined as Krishna would want it to be, mainly because it’s not in the best interest of the system. For instance, Facebook doesn’t want to “forget” that you like cupcakes or any of your other interests. Or, Amazon might let you set the option to ignore certain purchases when generating suggestions, but it doesn’t stop them from pushing ads to you on partner sites based on your browsing history. Krishna maybe assumes too much that the systems we will use in the future will have our best interests in mind over their own.

In conclusion, is the best interface no interface? It depends. Certain user interactions like email and calendars require an interface. Other interactions may require an interface to serve up advertising – the necessary evil for free services – such as public kiosks and alike. In the world of advertising, some interface designs are fun, engaging, beautiful and memorable, but many more are irritating, repetitive, offensive or irrelevant. UX and UI designers should most certainly question whether an interface is the right solution, and if it is, those same designers should strive to make it the best damn interface they can.

 

How to Host an Amazing Field Trip

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Control Group prides itself on being an active and positive member of our greater community. Welcoming the occasional field trip is just one of the many ways we try to contribute. This past winter, Control Group was thrilled to bring a group of middle school students from Brooklyn School of Law and Technology into our offices and discuss our experiences of life in the industry.

The field trip was a great success and I wanted to take a moment to share some of the ingredients of that success with the wider community.

Clearing the Visit

ScriptEd, a volunteer group that teaches coding fundamentals in under-resourced schools, had approached its volunteers to host a field trip and I felt that Control Group would be a great candidate for such a trip. I had an idea of the sort of people they should meet and what technologies we could share with them. Our facilities coordinator along with leadership welcomed the idea and approved the demos I had in mind. I sent out a tentative calendar invite to the fellow employees I felt our students should meet.

Preparation

A week before the scheduled trip, we prepared our ScriptEd students for their trip by running through a quick slide show presentation at their school. This allowed the students to become more familiar with who we are as a company before we embarked on the trip together.

Introduction

To kick off the presentation, we briefly reviewed what Control Group is and what we do.

Logistics

We covered the logistics of their arrival, where our offices were, and what the best what the best travel routes were. While these details are often left to school staff and chaperones, in an urban community such as ours it can be particularly helpful to prepare students to navigate public transportation.

Conduct Guidelines

Be sure to let the students know what behaviour is expected of them as they tour your facilities. Field trips shouldn’t be disruptive to the work environment, but they shouldn’t be quiet marches through hallowed halls either.

FT1

Ask your students to take a moment to consider some questions that they may want to ask. Have them write those questions down and bring them to the trip. They may never use these questions, but it is a great chance to cover etiquette. In our preparation, one student wanted to ask “How much money do you make?”. While it’s great to let students know the earning potential of a particular career, it’s best to keep that kind of information as impersonal as possible.

 

Hosting the Trip

Leadership Buy In

Part of demonstrating that your organization is heavily invested in the community is seeing participation by leadership. Scott Anderson, one of our Founding Partners, was kind enough to kick off our field trip by welcoming the students and giving a brief overview of the history of the company and what we do at Control Group.

FT2

Demos

It’s not enough to tell visiting students what you do, it’s imperative to show them as well. If you have a product that you’re working on and can share, students will get much more out looking at living technology rather than a powerpoint covering your past successes. Due to non-disclosure agreements, this may not always be possible, but at least show your visitors something that’s in the field.

We lined up three technology demos. While our students really loved seeing the technology we developed for the UGG Australia Store, they were probably most impressed by getting to see inside the MTA Kiosks. This gave them a new perspective on an object that they already encounter daily.

We also gave the students a chance to interact with an exhibit we’d been building for The Edward Kennedy Senate Museum. This actually ended up acting as an impromptu user testing as some of our demos didn’t work perfectly. These hiccups can provide teachable moments. It drives home the point that things don’t always work, and it’s part of the job to find out why and fix them.

FT3

Q&A

As a company is more than just its products, it’s very important to let your guests interact with the folks who design, code, and test your products. Q&A sessions showcase the human side of the industry. No one at Control Group just appeared here. Allowing students to hear about the various paths individuals take toward their place in their career reinforces the idea that they too can arrive at a great career.

Pizza!

Never underestimate the power of pizza. The promise of food definitely takes the edge off any hunger your guests may be feeling. We combined our Q&A session with pizza so that students (and speakers) could nosh while learning. Your colleagues are also more likely to show up if you reward them with food.

Shwag

While totally optional (we didn’t have any on hand), it’s a nice token to send your visitors home with a souvenir. After the students have left the office, a lapel pin, t-shirt, or some other company momento can spark a conversation around your brand. It will also serve as a reminder of a great field trip.

Overall, with a little prep and the participation of your leadership and colleagues a great field trip isn’t hard to pull off.

 

 

We <3 our neighborhood

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The Alliance for Downtown New York today unveiled a series of videos highlighting Lower Manhattan’s powerful draw to businesses across a host of sectors, and how choosing to locate in the district has been a significant force in helping companies thrive. The videos feature top executives from best in class companies discussing why Lower Manhattan has proven to be the best location for their business.

The video series features Control Group founding partner Scott Anderson, who leads our community engagement initiatives and is a prolific proponent and supporter of our neighborhood. From his perspective, “the business and creative value of being in proximity to companies that are forging the future is priceless. The support shown to the community and emerging businesses is unique to Lower Manhattan, and could be a model for fostering growth in the creative and tech economy in other parts of the City.”

Check out more videos, featuring Goldman Sachs, Droga5 and SHoP Architects here: http://downtownny.com/why-lower-manhattan

Zombie Malls. You thought they were dead but now they’re back and hungry for retail!

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If we’ve learned anything from AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead – it’s that even if you think something is “dead”, you should keep looking over your shoulder. The same can be said of the American shopping mall. Paying attention to recent conversations around the future of retail, you’ve no doubt heard several eulogies for the American shopping mall. The website deadmalls.com hosts an ongoing ode to the crumbing infrastructures of these hollowed halls of commerce. It is understandable how a savvy retail marketer could be lulled into ignoring the “dead” channel of the mall and instead focus on the lively channel of ecommerce and mobile – only to wake up later as the brain buffet for those formerly “dead” malls who have morphed into their competition’s omnichannel powerbase.

Before all of this talk of death and zombies, the shopping mall was a mainstay of Every Town, USA, rising to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, and becoming the place to go for your every retail need. It was also the perfect hangout for teenagers everywhere. In many ways, the mall became an icon of American culture.

Then, with the onset of the Age of the Internet, the future of retail was viewed as an e-commerce  utopia and the seemingly dowdy mall was left for dead. Despite the media’s proverbial funeral march, consumers still like to shop in malls because having multiple retailers under one roof continues to be convenient. In fact, the shopping mall is once again thriving, and now even pure-play e-commerce retailers are exploring the value of becoming mall tenants. With the virtually endless real estate of e-commerce, the value proposition has flipped and the limited floorspace of real world retail is now a premium. “[M]alls are not fungible,” said James Sullivan, Cowen and Co. analyst. “You can’t just turn around and build another one in the same market.”

Not all malls are enjoying this value rebound. The suburban/exurban cookie cutter mall with its typical retailer line-up and food court just won’t cut it these days. The malls that are struggling and “dying out” are the gigantic shopping centers with the same collection of retail stores as everywhere else. A few decades ago, this model worked as these retailers were the only game in town, and people had far fewer options, but time and tech have changed the way consumers choose to spend their hard earned money. According to Ryan Severino, a senior economist for Reis, “Demand has kind of splintered. When it comes to neighborhood and strip centers, they’re often selling more mundane products. Consumers have way more options for where to buy the items available at these centers, including the Internet, outlet centers and downtown shops. You just don’t find a lot of Gucci stores in those centers.”

More and more of these declining malls are looking to non-traditional and non-retail solutions to effectively utilize their physical space. Mall reinvention plans include the retail-tainment juggernaut approach of a mega mall and entertainment complex with features including submarine rides, ice skating rinks, casinos, sea lions and artificial ski slopes. Other Malls have taken the economical approach of upcycling their mall properties into greenhouses, server farms and even combining retail and residences to create loft-styled micro apartments. Taking the prize for the most ironic (and apropos to this article) reinvention has to be the UK-based Zed Events who stages “real-life zombie experiences“ at the Friars Walk Mall in Reading, UK. Desserted malls are the perfect environment for the two and a half hour experience in which you and your group are pitted against a horde “zombies” in a series of missions in a full-on ‘run and gun’ gore fest.

The ascendent group of malls that are bucking the trend have figured out the right mix of unique retail brands, experiential innovations and personalized concierge services that keep customers coming back for more. These malls are turning to technology to find ways to reinvent themselves. Malls have invested heavily in way-finding, proximity networks, experiential interactions and customer services to provide consumers with an assortment of experiences and attractions to leverage repeat visits.

In the 90s, a new breed of mega-malls began springing up around the country, the most obvious of which was the Mall of America in Minneapolis. These malls were built with the purpose of creating original and memorable experiences that could not be duplicated – and that thinking is still inspiring malls today. The question of, “How do we offer the consumer endless choices and a totally unique and fulfilling experience?” is what’s driving this innovation.

Despite this overhaul of the traditional shopping center, brick and mortar retail locations remain at the heart – and wallet – of the typical consumer. While shopping centers may not look and feel the same as they once did, with many adopting a more open, “Main Street” influenced environment, purchasing habits are still largely rooted in the idea of shopping at a physical location – be it a mall or a local shop downtown.

It’s been proven that e-commerce decisions are heavily influenced by the physical experiences within a store, dependent on the location of the customer at the time of purchase, as well the “top of mind” value of a physical store being in a consumer’s local geography. While this may be surprising to some, recent studies have shown that consumer’s decisions are heavily motivated by what they are able to see and touch and experience in the real world, even if the eventual point of purchase is online. As Wharton marketing professor, David Bell, states in his book, Location is (Still) Everything, “Anyone can go online and buy a pair of jeans— but the likelihood that we will do so depends to a significant degree on where we live.”

In light of the claims that the shopping mall is dead, that assertion couldn’t be further from the truth. The American mall has risen from the “dead”, is investing heavily in technology and non-traditional ways to enhance the consumer experience beyond retail. Based on this evolution, as well as the malls’ influence on e-commerce and continued prevalence in purchasing trends, it’s fair to say that malls are here to stay and those retailers who choose to focus only on mobile and web will suffer the same fate as those unlucky survivors on the Walking Dead.

 

Innovation at Scale

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scaleAt Control Group, we help some of the biggest brands leverage technology to solve complex business problems and build engaging customer experiences that activate new sources of revenue. Over the past year we have been working with a Fortune 50 national retailer to transform their marketing operations and position the organization for future agility and growth.

In speaking with key leadership early in our engagement, it became evident that in order to be successful and deliver meaningful and lasting results, we were going to have to solve for a key problem that is common amongst many clients we work with: tension between enterprise IT and the business. On the one hand enterprise IT has traditionally focused on implementing policies and controls that provide security, minimize risk and ensure that technologies are ready for the enterprise environment. The business, on the other hand, is commonly tasked with finding the best solutions to increase the speed of bringing new ideas to market. While these two forces can often seem contradictory and at odds with one another, strategies can be employed that harnesses the entrepreneurial spirit of the business to innovate and try new ways of doing things and maintain the necessary organizational controls – solving for a seemingly intractable problem and bringing about the best of both worlds.

Sustainable innovation requires inherent tensions to be managed appropriately, and for this client, we developed an innovation framework built on some core principles:

Staged Innovation Process. The culture of innovation at this client is particularly vibrant but it required focus and an outlet for creative ideas to be acted upon and executed. Control Group spent time understanding existing business processes to identify what worked well, pinpointed opportunities for improvement and crafted an innovation process tailored for the client and rooted in methodologies Control Group has used successfully time and time again. This process clearly articulates how new ideas progress from concept to prototype to limited pilot to scaled production launch and incorporates key stage gates and departmental sync points along the way to ensure the appropriate controls are in place.

Strategic Alignment. With an innovation process defined, we worked to build support amongst the client’s key leadership as well as their strategic partners to galvanize the framework and unite all stakeholders around the shared vision for the future. From executives to managers to line staff, we ensured a consistent message about the significance of work ahead, the value to be gained and the importance of each employee’s engagement was being delivered.

Controlled Experimentation. To promote inclusiveness and employee engagement, Control Group built a sandbox environment to allow the business to evaluate new technologies, simulate and test future in-store interactions and replicate incumbent technology ecosystems. The environment was built leveraging the organization’s approved technologies, is aligned with the enterprise IT’s preferred technology stack to ensure future compatibility and support and incorporates best practices from enterprise architecture, integration services and agile Software Development Life Cycle principles. This environment will serve as the rallying point for marketing innovation and toolkit for getting new ideas to market; allowing stakeholders to remain hands on in the innovation process, providing full visibility into early wins for the business and customers and functioning a staging ground for production planning and readiness.

Managed Implementation. At Control Group we understand the complex issues that exist with enterprise deployments and believe that success is not simply a system implemented to specification; it is a great user experience for customers and employees. To ensure that this client reaps the full benefits of their innovation framework and platform, we’ve brought to bear our comprehensive program management approach to manage change through strategically aligned work streams, established roles and responsibilities and formal governance processes.

Through working collaboratively with our client and understanding their core needs, we’ve found a way to harmonize the aspirations of the business with the requirements of enterprise IT. Together, we are building a platform to reach more people, more inventively and more effectively. And beyond the technology transformation, we are helping to develop a sustainable innovation practice within the organization that will unlock future growth opportunities for the business for years to come.

Food Groups: A Real-World Experiment in Workplace Interaction

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pushI recently repurposed a weird, old project of mine from grad school for use in our office, which will basically turn all of my co-workers into test subjects in a company-wide social experiment. So let me elaborate…

Two years ago when I was a research assistant in the Changing Places group at the MIT Media Lab, I spent a good deal of time exploring how technology can be used to increase informal, serendipitous workplace interactions. These are the famous “water-cooler” types of conversations that you might have even experienced at your own company. For example, perhaps you recently struck up a forced, awkward conversation with a coworker you only sort of recognized as you both waited for a pot of coffee to brew. Then you realized that he happened to be an expert in the programming language you were having trouble with, so he offered you a few pointers. As I had written in my paper at the time, organizations are particularly interested in these serendipitous encounters because “such interactions can lead to increased idea cross-flow, creativity, productivity, and innovation at large, though few attempts to design architectural, organizational, or technological solutions have succeeded in achieving this.”

My thesis revolved around designing and testing a few different technological approaches to this problem, and one of those happened to be a quirky, little device called Food Groups.

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Food Groups is a flashy, big red button on a pedestal that randomly matches coworkers up to grab lunch together. Even in highly creative and collaborative places like the Media Lab and Control Group, people tend to eat lunch either by themselves or with the same group every day, making lunch time a prime time for interaction optimization. When I first built Food Groups, I tested it out with the students and faculty in the Lab, but it received a lukewarm reception. Despite having been initially excited about the button, my subjects quickly became afraid that they’d be matched up with less-than-desirable lunch partners, and seldom used the device. I jokingly chalked these results up my participants being awkward MIT students and always had the intention of testing Food Groups out in a real-world workplace environment. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to do so, until now.

Control Group is a growing company and as such, sometimes it’s hard to know who everyone is and what they do. But as a fast-paced development shop that uses cutting-edge technologies to build never-before-seen digital experiences, we need as much help as we can get to ease the flow of knowledge within our organization and be as collaborative and productive as possible. So, last month I was inspired to bring Food Groups back to see how it would fair in the real world. With a little refactoring to make the code CG-specific, it was ready to start revolutionizing lunch time.

Here’s how it works:

1. Anytime before 12pm, CG employees can head to the kitchen, swipe their ID card, and hit the button.

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2. They then receive an email confirming that they signed up for lunch that day.

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3. At 12pm that same day, they get matched up with 2 – 3 others and receive an email introduction with a suggested lunchtime of 12:30pm at a suggested nearby restaurant.

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4. Groups then use the email chain to coordinate further

Food Groups has only just launched at CG, so it’s still too early to say whether or not it will be successful. Check back here on the CG Blog in a month for a follow-up post with an analysis of how much (or how little) it’s being used! What do you think? Would this get much use in your own office place?