When I started the writing that eventually resulted in this book, I was driven by a conviction that some critical conversations seemed to be missing from the development of new technologies for knowledge workers.
I kept returning to the same four observations about how many real world product teams operate:
1. Many product teams overlook common needs that knowledge workers have of their onscreen tools while at the same time developing unneeded functionality. These teams start with a seemingly blank slate, even when many valuable product requirements could be explored based on existing, proven understandings of how computing tools can valuably support knowledge work.
These observations would not carry much weight if it was not for the current state of computing tools that are available to knowledge workers in many vocations. Put simply, these products often contain vast room for improvement, especially in highly specialized forms of work, where there are concrete opportunities to truly tailor technologies to important activities. Highly trained individuals, working in their chosen professions, commonly spend unnecessary effort acting “on” and “around” poorly conceived tools, rather than “through” them. The toll on performance and work outcomes resulting from these extra efforts can be drastic to individual workers, but since it is difficult to collectively recognize and quantify, the aggregate of these losses remains largely undetected within organizations, professions, industries, and economies.
2. Many product teams’ everyday yet pivotal definition and design conversations do not sufficiently consider knowledge workers’ thought processes or how a technology might influence them. While individuals in these teams may occasionally use terminology borrowed from cognitive psychology, the actual details of how a tool could meaningfully impact “thinking work” may not receive more than a surface examination.
3. Many product teams struggle to understand the knowledge work that they are striving to support. Even when some of a team’s members have a strong empathy for targeted work practices, teams as a whole can have mixed levels of success meaningfully translating their cumulative understanding into overall models of how their tool could valuably mediate certain activities. These shared models, when executed well, can guide the definition and development of a product’s many particulars. Without them, resulting applications can become direct reflections of a team’s lack of guiding focus.
4. Many product teams begin construction of final products with very limited notions of what their finished product will be. Whether unintentionally or intentionally, based on prevailing ideologies, they do not develop a robust design strategy for their application, let alone consider divergent high level approaches in order to create a compelling application concept. Instead, they seem to assume that useful, usable, and desirable products arise solely from the iterative sum of many small definition, design, and implementation decisions.
I believe that current deficiencies in technologies for knowledge work are strongly tied to our often low expectations of what it can mean to support complicated activities with computing. Our shared ideas of what constitutes innovation in this space have, in many cases, become tightly constrained by our infrastructural sense of what these technologies can and should be. Too often, we are not seeing the proverbial forest due to our shared focus on a small grove of trees. In our cultural accommodation to what computing has come to “mean” in our working lives, it seems that we may have lost some of our capacity for visionary thinking.
To regain this vision, product teams can spend more time considering what it might actually take to support and build upon knowledge workers’ skills and abilities. Getting inside of these essential problems can require teams to adopt goals that are more like those of the pioneers of interactive computing, who were driven by the potential for augmenting human capabilities with new technologies. When teams extend these pioneering ideas by applying them at the intersection of specific activities and working cultures, they can discover a similar spirit of considered inquiry and exploration.
Higher order goals — aimed at creating tools for thought to be used in targeted work practices, cooperative contexts, and technological environments — can lead product teams to ask very different questions than those that they currently explore during early product development. Through the critical lens of these elevated goals, the four observations listed above can truly take on the appearance of lost opportunities for innovation and product success.
I have personally experienced these lost opportunities in my own career researching and designing knowledge work tools for domains such as life science, financial trading, and graphic design, among others. Even with the best intentions, in 20/20 hindsight, I did not always have time to think through and apply some important ideas — ideas that could have improved products’ design strategies and, in the end, enhanced workers’ user experiences. There are simply so many useful ideas for these complex, multifaceted problems, and under the demands of real world product development, time for questioning and exploration nearly always passes too quickly.
Listening to other practitioners in the field, I know that I am not alone in making these observations and facing these challenges. And yet, when it comes to accessible, practitioner oriented references on these topics, there seems to be large areas of empty space waiting to be filled.
This book is a foray into part of that empty space. The 100 ideas contained within can act as shared probes for product teams to use in formative discussions that set the overall direction and priorities of new or iteratively improved applications for thinking work. As a collection, these ideas present a supporting framework for teams striving to see past unsatisfactory, “business as usual” technologies in order to create compelling and meaningful tools for knowledge workers at the forefronts of their fields.
I look forward to hearing about how these ideas hold up in the context of your own product development challenges. My sincere hope is that this book provides some measure of inspiration that leads you to envision tools that promote more powerful, engaging, and productive user experiences. Knowledge workers — those who will opportunistically make use of the fruits of your efforts, if you are fortunate — deserve no less.
1 Nov 2008, Seattle, WA
This book is for my grandfather, William Wolfram, who believed that the nature of work was changing into something very
different than what he had experienced at sea, in the fields,
and on assembly lines — and strongly encouraged me to
explore what it might mean.
Since this book feels more like a synthesis with a particular perspective than a completely original work, I would like to emphatically thank the authors of all the publications that are included in the bibliography. I would particularly like to thank William Lidwell, Katrina Holden, and Jill Butler — the authors of Universal Principles of Design: 100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design
Decisions, and Teach through Design — which was a key
inspiration for the format of this work.
The following reviewers have provided invaluable comments on various drafts of this publication: Liberty Harrington, Kristina
Voros, Amii LaPointe, Myer Harrell, Aaron Louie, Brian Kuan Wood, Jessica Burghardt, Matt Carthum, Matt Turpin, Miles Hunter, Julianne Bryant, Eric Klein, Chris Ziobro, Jon Fukuda,
and Judy Ramey.
I would also like to thank understanding friends who spend long, internally motivated, solitary hours working on personal pursuits. You made this project seem not only possible, but like a good idea.
Working through Screens is the inaugural publication of
FLASHBULB INTERACTION, Inc.
This book is available for free in .html and .pdf at
www.FlashbulbInteraction.com, where you can also find an
abbreviated “Idea Cards” version designed for use in
product ideation exercises.
All original contents of this publication are subject to the
creative commons license (Attribution-NonCommercial-
ShareAlike http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/) unless otherwise noted. Please attribute the work to
“Jacob Burghardt / FLASHBULB INTERACTION Consultancy.”
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