From Business to Buttons 09 report: day 2

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Today was the closing day of From Business to Buttons 09. During the day several good speakers went on stage and shared their knowledge with us on some very different subjects. We had fun, listened seriously and secretly tweeted the brilliance onto the interwebs. And now we bring you a report of some of the talks.

Bill DeRouchey – Designing Humanity Into Your Products

Today Bill did the opening keynote by telling us how important it is to design humanity into products. He did this by giving many examples, both good and bad. Bill states that as a company it is really important to have a healthy relationship with your customer. The only way to do this is to be on the same level, respecting each other and talking to each other in a human voice. And that is where the problems arise.

A lot of companies are faceless, lacking a human voice. They communicate to customers in a distant and very formal way. This formality is in fact a way of communicating power and at the same time fear. An example of this can be found in a lot of car advertisements, where cars are sold with features instead
of emotions “This is the most fuel efficient car around.” By communicating with this tone you avoid a possible connection of customers with your product or company… Because what is there to connect to? According to Bill companies have to change their tone of voice and step forward with a real voice. By doing this and making themselves vulnerable and honest they can create sympathy and understanding, thus creating slack. And Bill states “Slack is the most underrated thing.” I think he’s totally right there… A good, and obvious, example he brings up is the Microsoft – Apple comparison. Microsoft is the closed faceless company that we think is stupid every time it makes a mistak… While Apple is a company we understand, feel related to and forgive when it makes a mistake: because making mistakes is human.

So how do we humanize technology? This is a question Bill asked himself. Robots were an attempt, also the happy face of Mac and even Clippy of Microsoft Office. But there is an easier way of humanizing your digital products, and that is changing your tone-of-voice. And that is what Bill focuses on for the rest of the presentation. He gave a lot of examples of how good copy can help you sympathize with a brand or service. It’s important that this copy is not distant, but very recognizable. Like when you want to buy a product you can place a button stating “Order this product”, but it could also be “I want this now!” It’s the same function, but a totally different tone of voice. Another, and in my opinion one of the best, example was, a service to order your business cards. When you order business cards you get an automated reply from the system. Normally this would be a very boring text stating your order is being processed. But approaches it differently by just rewriting the copy… It’s not an automated no-reply mailaddress, but Little Moo the service robot that e-mails you a story of the upcoming steps. He will be sending the order to Big Moo, the printing robot, who will try to finish up your order. This way of approaching the customer brings a smile on your face and builds up a relationship. And all of that just by changing the copy and approach.


  • Good tone of voice humanizes the interaction between me and the service
  • It’s extremely important to focus on the words
  • Get the best writer you can afford
  • Don’t talk AT people. Talk TO them as peers
  • Write as you speak. Speak as you write
  • People remember humor

Lennart Andersson & Niclas Andersson – Designing beyond the screen: the convergence of products interactions and services

Lennart and Niclas are both working at Ergonomidesign, which is a Swedish design firm I really respect. During their talk they explained the approach their firm takes towards convergent design, which is basically that type of design where different fields come together (in their examples: physical and digital products).

First they jumped into their way of looking at research and approaching projects, which is focused on ergonomics. They split the field up in physical, cognitive and emotional ergonomics. Physical ergonomics focuses on the way your body works and it’s limits. Cognitive ergonomics is a field interaction designer are used to, focusing on the mental workload or how people’s mind works. And lastly you’ve got emotional ergonomics, which looks into emotions and the way people connect with designs. How do they associate things? If you’re interested in learning more about this I recommend the interview we did a few weeks ago with Lennart and Thomas, prior to the event.

The reason they’ve got such a broad scope is because all the products they design touch all those fields. And more and more interaction designers will start touching those fields soon, with more physical products getting digital interfaces. But it’s not only the interaction designer that is involved in this proces. Lennart and Niclas show us of what disciplines their teams consist, which is a combination of interaction, service and industrial designers. By bringing them all in on the same time you get a great mix of knowledge, which should lead to better products. Each discipline will touch the fields of the other disciplines, but mainly focus on their own. A industrial designer will look at how strong the material must be, an interaction designer at the way somebody will interact with it and a service designer at the different contact points.

Another topic the Anderssons (no family btw) touched was the world of natural user interfaces. How do we bring the natural into NUI? Is it truly a more natural way of interacting? Lennart said that “A natural gesture does not necessarily equal a natural interaction.” Which is very true. Consider this: sticking your thumb in the air is a natural gesture to OK something… But when you are in a public space you are never going to keep putting your thumb in the air to say OK to a user interface waiting for confirmation. You would feel ridiculous. And is it intuitive? People are clueless how they must respond, since it is new. Here arise all different questions around the discussion of most advanced yet acceptible. And NUI’s are so immersive that you are completely cut out from the world. It is so unique and new that it needs all your focus, which isn’t a good thing.

Other interesting brainfarts:

  • Emotional experience cannot be designed, but enabled
  • How do we stage for a good user experience?
  • To design really useable and compelling natural user interfaces – you need deep insight about the users

Gene Liebel – Every 3 Seconds, a User Dies Somewhere

Scott Berkun – Why Designers Fail and What to Do About it

And so we approached the end of the event with the closing keynote by Scott Berkun. He pulls us into a world of failure and learning from failure, which designers aren’t good at.

As designers we don’t like talking about failure. We try to forget about it and mostly like to share success stories. But the success stories are unique, while we fail 95% of the time… We do this while drawing, sketching, prototyping and designing. And according to Berkun in failure lies the biggest chance of learning and improving ourselves and the products we create.

So why do we fail? We seem to set the wrong goals and fail to meet those goals. One example Berkun pulled out of architecture is the design of a building by Koolhaas. It was a beautiful building everybody loved, except the people working there… Because all the visitors kept asking where the restrooms were. Somebody forgot to design good wayfinding… And since there was no room for solving this problem, the people working there hang up their own signs… How could this have happened? Why didn’t anybody notice this during the design proces? According to Berkun this is because designers have no failure analysis. We don’t check up after delivering a design… We fail to have a feedback proces, while other disciplines do have this. Like a doctor having an autopsy, and the airforce holding a mission debrief.

So his message is: let’s start checking how things went and learn and improve. If you can’t solve a problem, redefine the problem and solve that. There is nothing wrong with this. As an example Berkun refers to the Newton, the failed PDA designed by Apple. Everybody laughs about it… But it probably gave Apple good knowledge about designing that type of products, causing them to create the iPhone as it is now.

During Scott’s talk I had to think of a book that I consider my personal bible: ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be’ by Paul Arden. In the book Arden states that if you want a problem to be solved, you have to make it your own problem. Because as long as you are pointing to others causing it and needing to solve it, you can basically do nothing about it. And this is something Scott also talks about by stating “Own your mistakes” You must study the failure you caused and learn from it.

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

One comment on this article

  1. Mike B on

    “This formality is in fact a way of communicating power and at the same time fear.”

    Interesting, but I’m not sure if this is true. Formality is something that you use in the presence of someone more powerful than you, and is intended to communicate respect. You might use a formal tone with a judge, an informal tone with a child. The fact that formality is distancing is precisely what makes it respectful; for example, you shouldn’t look a king in the eye, use his first name, or treat him like another human being just like you.

    Of course, the king can do those things to you, and that’s the real expression of power: other people have to be formal with you, but you can be informal with them. In modern business, the people who most experience this most frequently are not the customers, it’s the customer service representatives, the employees at the bottom of the organization whose job is to treat the customer like a king.

    And what if it’s actually dangerous to humanize businesses? Apple is perceived as vulnerable, sympathetic & human, and this means customers forgive it for it’s mistakes. Is that good? Shouldn’t we hold companies responsible for their mistakes instead of giving them a break, like with friends and family?

    What if you felt connected to your insurance company, and they called you to raise their rates: “Hey, it’s Friendly Neighborhood Insurance Company! So, how are you, how’s the family? Good, good! Listen, things aren’t looking so hot on our balance sheet this quarter… yeah… we are thinking we might have to let some of our people go… do you think you could pay a little extra for your insurance for the next few months? That would be really awesome, we’d totally appreciate it!”

    Is that better or worse than having a formal notice come in the mail? Even though it’s friendlier, it’s not so clear. Think about all the stories of people being exploited by their friends, lovers, even con-men. It’s possible to be mislead by our desire for connection and forgive what shouldn’t be forgiven. Businesses have a massive financial incentive to exploit those weaknesses, so is it really a good idea to teach them how? The ethical problems of advertising are well known; humanizing businesses could potentially magnify this same problem.