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Reading Ahead: A Research by Portigal Consulting August 29, 2009

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Ethnographic Research, Innovation, Research, Trends.

Investigating the “reading experience” and “physical versus digital books” has to be one of the most interesting research topics available out there. Reading is one of the deepest experiences we have with “things” / “content” and it is presently facing (and resisting still) the new technologies available and other tensions that could entirely change that experience.

Steve Portigal and Dan Soltzberg from Portigal Consulting just released the findings from a really interesting research study they performed on the topic called Reading Ahead (study performed out of their own interest). I strongly recommend checking out their different blog posts about this and especially listening to their findings presentation.

Basically it is so good it got me to post again after such a long time away from my blog…

Note: I won’t summarize the study here as my post is already pretty long, so to fully put my reflections below into perspective, it’s better to look at their slides and listen to their presentation first (the presentation lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes).

There are several thoughts that came to me as I was listening to the presentation. Let me try to structure a few below.

Device Integration: Loss of Important Emotional Stimuli
Steve and Dan go through a lot of impacts arising from going towards a digital reading experience. One impact they mention is the loss of a direct link between the object (the book) and a set of memories or emotions. A book is a physical object and it ages. When you see it on your shelves or take it in your hands, it will automatically trigger specific memories (when you bought it, where you read it), specific feelings or moods. Taking an ebook reader in hand, will stimulate an emotional response as well, but using a single device for reading will make this response much shallower and less rich, as the response will mostly be linked to the device instead of the individual book.

As I listened to the talk I thought about a similar revolution that happened in the past when emails appeared to replace normal mail. Letters are single objects in themselves and are directly attached to memories, moods and other people. In the past, we were free to store these letters in different places according to the emotions they would trigger. Now, with emails (and this is re-inforced by the huge quantity of emails we receive), this link has totally disappeared. Going back to our archive in our email client and digging an old email will not have by far the same effect as reopening a box where we stored all our love letters. And this leads to a different type of emotional attachment, where users are attached to the device (the email client or the eBook reader) rather than the actual content (mails or books).

A changing world: Speed Versus Reflection
Right after listening to the presentation, I read this article from the Los Angeles Times called “The Lost Art of Reading” by David L. Ulin. This article strongly reinforces the insights extracted from Steve and Dan’s research to show how deep the reading experience is. It also highlights a very important fact which is that books are not only fighting a war against technology. They are also fighting a war against our changing way of lives.

As the article discusses, we live in a world where speed is of the essence – where we need to react to information we gather in the next second in fear of losing our edge. Books are all about a different way of life. Books can take years to write and for the most part could not care less about current events happening on the day you read them. Books are about unplugging (term used in Steve and Dan’s study) yourself from the world. Books are about reflecting on things. And these are less and less tolerated in the world today… but I am wandering off topic here (as I usually do), as this concerns the future of reading books in general and not the tension between physical and digital books.

Design Opportunities: Giving Life to Notes
Steve and Dan at the end of their report go through some opportunities that digital books’ designs can integrate to make the digital reading experience a stronger contender against the traditional reading experience. One that they do not discuss (unless I missed it) is notes. I would split notes into two categories in the reading experience: notes from the author and notes from the reader. Both of these categories of notes could be revolutionized by the advent of digital reading.

What would added interactivity do to author’s notes for example? What if you could click on a referenced article the author mentions and read that article the next second? Or even get a review/summary and ulitmately purchase another book the author also happens to cite? This would add a new depth to books and provide an exceptional experience to the reader (not to mention a great marketing opportunity for publishers). As Steve and Dan discuss in their presentation, this can of features would have to rely on a great ecosystem to provide this integrated experience. That’s something not in place at all today (especially outside of the US).

The other category of notes is user notes and this is where to me there is an even greater opportunity. Right now, you can highlight things in a book or put sticky papers on pages you think are interesting. What about searching for a term you saw in the book after you finished reading or looking up all the pages where another author is referenced? What about building yourself a set of quotes and comments about the book that you typed as you where reading and that are organized and retrievable anywhere after you’re done reading? What about co-reading even? See what people felt or commented as they read the book you are reading. What if the digital book allowed you to share your experience with other readers thus giving the digital book a life of its own, turning each book into a vertical social network almost…

As usual, I am just following a spur of the moment to write this post and I ought to have put more reflection into it (sorry… I am a product of the new changing world where speed is everything), but I do hope that it can even so modestly contribute a tiny bit to the discussion surrounding books and the reading experience. I am personally a big fan of physical books, but if the digital reading experience and a good ecosystem were in place, I would definitely juggle between both physial and digital reading (similarly to the way I do with CDs and digital music).


The GoAnimate song April 19, 2009

Posted by psychobserver in Social Networking, User Experience, Web 2.0.

It’s my first time blogging about something directly related to my current job as product manager at GoAnimate.com. I am not sure why I did not do it earlier… Working at GoAnimate allowed me to switch from being an uninvolved consultant advising people to being in the “pit” fighting to make the website a success not only in terms of user experience and interaction design, but also more generally as a company.

One major realization I had while working is the power of the community. I have been humbled by what and how users have been using the platform. We first designed it for people to create short funny stories, and we now realize that quite a number of users are now using the platform to create whole animated episodes that sometimes last more than 10 minutes. We also see amazing thing happening in terms of users sharing their creations and the content they upload to the platform. Overall it is amazing to see the dedication and passion of the users on the platform.

Passion that sometimes expresses itself in some strange ways, as the following video shows:

There is no question the Internet is magical in the ways it empowers people to express themselves in such diverse ways… for better and for worse. ;o)

Tim Berners-Lee: The next Web of open, linked data March 15, 2009

Posted by psychobserver in Social Networking, TED Talks, Trends.
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I got back to watching some TED talks and the talk from Tim Bernes-Lee felt like a good one to start with. In his talk he reveals his vision for the evolution of the Web, moving from sharing documents to sharing raw data. The presentation is very visionary and somewhat scary I would say.

Watch it below:

If I get the idea well, Linked Data means that when browsing the Web “tomorrow” instead of looking through documents (web pages), the search engine (or whatever is used to browse) will look through raw data. So, I guess one could type a question like “How many friends does Nicolas Lassus have?” and get results from many different places/databases that would answer that question.

Personally, I see quite a number of huge hurdles to overcome before something like that could work. The first thing is something faces by Wikipedia everyday. How do you ensure that the data is accurate and legitimate? Even if people are not trying to manipulate others, there are so many ways to calculate something that just providing raw data can be totally unusable. For this to work, everything around the world would have to be entirely standardize. For example, the way unemployment rate is calculated in different countries is different because of each country’s specificities (or political agenda). Theoritically speaking standardization would be great, but is it realistic?

Another problem is that data is actually a huge business. The open source concept is great, but gathering good data is actually a very time-consuming and tough job. How do we “reward” the people who bring the data to the masses? Personally, I am not a big supporter of the free economy and I believe things that are free today, may not be free tomorrow anymore. Somebody at some point in the supply chain has to pay for things.

The last problem is privacy. If people are able to post data about other people on the web. How do we control that? Facebook and other social networks are testing the limit of this on their side and it will be interesting to see where things go… (I’m reading some articles on the topic and will try to write a post soon about that).

This said, Linked Data can definitely have great applications in some fields. All the fields where data standardization has been happening really fast in the past like financial reporting, corporate social responsibility, etc. Linked data in that field would be a great advance. As I worked on CSR a bit, I really feel that all these reports corporation work so hard on producing should be replaced by Linked data. Something that allows people to easily compare and analyze what companies are doing to make better informed decisions about their purchases or which brands they supports. This standardization has already started and there is just a very small step to make to actually make Linked Data a reality… whether something like that could spread to the whole Web will be interesting to witness.

Black Swans and Web Start-ups January 28, 2009

Posted by psychobserver in Social Networking, Start-ups, User Experience.
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The Black Swan

The Black Swan

I have just finished reading The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book is a great read. I already found Fooled by Randomness by the same author very interesting and this one goes further by applying similar ideas to fields outside of finance. Black Swans are basically very improbable events that are impossible to predict and that have major consequences on their environment. There is no need to look very far to find a Black Swan, as we are in the middle of one with this financial crisis (although some could argue it is a “Gray” Swan as it might have been predictable).

For me, the main lesson I get from the book is that we need to face uncertainty as it is (unpredictable) and should not let unsound theories or stories (especially success stories) fool ourselves in making wrong or too risky decisions. Most articles out there try to rationalize things with checklists, qualities of the successful entrepreneurs… stories that transform successful entrepreneurs into semi-gods who somehow possess a magical potion to make any idea successful. One of the last such article I read had: “The product does not matter” in its checklist for a successful social network. After a short state of intense anger reading this few words, I came to wonder. Is that true? Does the product really matter? Or maybe not…

As a guy focusing on user experience and being a product manager right now, I am in a totally biased position. But I will anyway try to give my personal vision of the start-up world, focusing on the people in this world. There are two main types of actors for web start-ups. The investors (Venture Capital, Angels,…) and the actual entrepreneurs (I am lucky enough to be an employee in the start-up where I work, so I may have a clear vision on entrepreneurs). Both of these parties are aware of the role of Black Swans in their business. They somehow know that only a very small portion of companies make it big.

But which one of the two has the better position? Which one is the fool in the relationship? (after reading Mr. Taleb’s book I feel that there must be fools everywhere…)

When I look at all these articles and all the press only talking about the winners in the start-up world, I definitely see a massive survivor bias (the fact that you never hear about failures) phenomenon. Talking to entrepreneurs it also appears to me that only a few are aware of the real probability (or more accurately the total uncertainty) of their business being successful. While this is good to ensure entrepreneurs have the drive and put as much energy as possible in their business, it makes them the fools in this relationship. Investors know of failures. Most of their investment are failures and that knowledge makes them better equipped to not be fools.

So, what do investors do?! Well. They are looking for Black Swans. They invest in many companies and push these companies to put themselves in a position where they have a chance of being hit by a Black Swan. Usually, this results in a total reluctance to look at cash flow and profits and only focus on expanding the community and promoting the site (the product does not matter).

What is the result of that?! Well, many companies die as a result of this, but the investors still do okay as in the lot of companies they invest in, they only need one successful one to reap a lot of return and erase all their losses. They increase their chance of facing a Black Swan by having many companies under their umbrella and pushing them into the right direction.

But, what about entrepreneurs?! For that entrepreneur who hit it big, that’s great. But for all the ones facing failure (the immense majority), not good. Their companies could have done great by taking a more product centric approach with slower development but producing returns. Their growth would have been slower, their return (in case of success) would have been smaller, but they could have built a lasting business.

So the conclusion is: As an entrepreneur, it is important to know which group you want to belong to. Being a fool can be good, but only if you knowingly put yourself in this situation. For all the entrepreneurs who prefer not to be fools… the road is longer and tougher, but it may provide more chances of success in the end. And on that road, the product does matter.

Alrite. That was my 2 cents on the issue. I am sure that all over the web it is possible to find much better articles about this (I am just an employee after all). I just felt like putting some thoughts down as I was reading “The Black Swan”.

Requesting downloads on SlideShare December 27, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Usability, User Experience.

A week ago, I received a request from a user on SlideShare to download my presentation on “Hong Kong NowTV Shop“. I am not sure why I did not allow everyone to download the presentation in the first place, but now it allowed me to take a look at this specific process on SlideShare, a very useful type of interaction for social networks.

There are two actors in this interaction: The reader and the author.

The reader, browsing SlideShare (or more probably searching on Google) for content related to his study or presentation, finally finds something on SlideShare inside a presentation. Too bad though, the  author of the presentation decided he would not allow readers to download the presentation.

SlideShare has well addressed this need in their design. In case a presentation can be downloaded, the interface displays a clear “Download” button just on top of their slideshow, and if the presentation is not downloadable then the button is changed into a “Request Download” one.



That’s where unfortunately a nice dedicated feature breaks as the reader upon clicking on this link is thrown back into a generic messaging interface. The reader has his goal in mind already, so it is possible for him to refill the whole messaging form and explain his request. But wouldn’t have it been efficient to propose an already prepared message for him or her to use/customize?

SlideShare Messaging Form

SlideShare Messaging Form

Not only would it be more efficient, it would also add better control when the other actor in this interaction takes over. The  author is informed that somebody sent him a message, but no mention is made regarding the fact that the reader wants to download his presentation, that is unless the reader took the time to write a clear message explaining exactly what is needed.

… And even if they do, the  author is then faced with the task of turning the download option on for the presentation. As the original flow is related to “request download” one could expect that the option to turn this on would be clearly highlighted on the interface next to the message, but nothing like this is offered to the  author who if he is not using SlideShare on a regular basis (like me) is left wandering around the options of the presentation and missing the little checkbox on that page several times before being able to complete the task.

SlideShare Private Message

SlideShare Private Message

To go a bit further, we may also consider that if the  author made his presentation “non-downloadable” he or she may have had reasons for doing so. In that respect it may be useful to offer the possibility to the  author to let another specific user to download the presentation rather than having to allow anyone to download the presentation.

Oh. No! It sounds like my entirely objective blog post became a rant… :oS … Sorry for that. The aim is just to point out that a flow has to be thought from beginning until the end in order to be successful (including all actors in that interaction). A button on an interface is not enough in most cases… And thus now I will look back at the feature we have been building on GoAnimate and see where we may have fell into this trap as well (which with daily turnarounds like in any start-ups is unavoidable)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Goal-Oriented Design October 12, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Hong Kong.
Tags: , ,
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I guess goal-oriented design is one of the first and more important principle of user-centered design. If you design something, better make sure what it is you design will help somebody out there achieve a goal. Whether it is a product or a feature on a website, it will always help throughout the design process to remind yourself of that goal and make sure the end product is truly the best way for the user to achieve his or her goal.

It seems like a simple enough design principle, but it is actually one that is very easily forgotten. It could be the technology guy who is more interested in developing a technically challenging feature rather than a useful one. It could also be the marketing guy who decides what is in the best interest of the users forgetting simple privacy concepts. It can also be that the project team just loses its focus during the design process and comes up with a final solution that lost entirely its touch with the initial goal.

While I was visiting Ocean Park (one of Hong Kong’s main theme parks) two weeks back I saw a sign that reminded me of a simple design projects going wrong.

definition of queue jumping

definition of queue jumping

This sign was positioned in front of the queue of a specific attraction. The aim, it seems to me, is clear. Some visitors of the park must have complained about queue jumping, or the staff in the park witnessed visitors jumping the queue and did not know how to react. As a result, I’d say the goal adding of such a sign was to warn people that they should not jump the queue. A simple enough goal it would seem.

Nevertheless, the park seemed to believe that the best way to achieve that goal was to provide visitors with a definition of queue jumping. No warning. No directions saying what would happen if some people are caught jumping the queue. Not even a mention of whether queue jumping is good or bad.

It must be that at some point in this tiny project of designing a sign, somebody raised the question: “But what if people argue about what represents jumping the queue?” and somehow (like it can happen in any projects) this question took over the process, leaving behind the forgotten initial goal of the sign and leaving visitors to the park (at least me) puzzled at seeing a sign like that in front of the queue of an attraction… so at every stage of a project, remember to take a look at the initial goal and make sure your solution addresses that goal.

Note: Of course, all this only holds if the initial goal makes sense in the first place…

Back from the dead… into the Blogosphere October 12, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Uncategorized.

Back from the dead is maybe an overstatement, but anyway after 6 months away from my blog, I decided to start writing again. My last post was on April 10th, 2008… a few days before I joined GoAnimate. A near death experience!? Not quite. GoAnimate is a new start-up based on in Hong Kong trying to make animation mainstream by empowering anybody to come up with their own animated stories. The idea is not to replace animators, on the contrary. The idea is to democratize animation, by letting anyone use content created by animators to create their own stories. Needless to say such a project (even though as a product manager I am merely an employee in the venture) takes up a lot of brain space… so, to make a long story short I stopped writing.

I have always wanted to restart my blog as a way to get my brains thinking again about user experience in general instead of worrying about meeting my next deadline in my job. And in the past week, two people “scolded” me because I had stopped writing (David Jacques and Jane McConnell), so I decided to take the matter seriously and here I am… As always when I start something, there are many plans, like redesigning the blog, host a version of WordPress to allow more flexibility and maybe even use GoAnimate animation to accompany some of my posts. But overall, the idea is the same: “Talk about Customer Experience and cultural aspects of living/working in Asia”. First post to come in the time I need to write it…

A break from user experience: Climate Change April 10, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Global Warming, Green Culture, Hong Kong.

Al Gore at TED - March 2008A new talk from Al Gore about Climate Change has been posted on TED.com. As usual Al Gore does a great job at moving the audience and communicating a sense of urgency on the issue. The point he makes in his talk is: “Individual action is good, but it is not enough. The real answer is global regulations that will force governments, companies and people to change. There is no time for another approach.”

So, what can we do about it?… Well, my first step has been to take part in a petition locally in Hong Kong to pressure the government to put caps on carbon emissions from the two power companies on the territory. If you want to give a hand, just access the pre-formatted letter online and send it.

IxDA F2F: Inputs, process and outputs in interaction design April 8, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Hong Kong, IxDA, Strategy, Tools, Usability.

I have been a bad blogger! I started this post more than a week ago, and I only post it now… mea culpa!

Last week (two weeks ago now) we had another meeting with fellow IxDA members. This time we tried to set up a discussion instead of just socializing randomly and it seems that it went pretty well. We split the 8 people we had in two groups and chatted for a bit. The idea of the discussion was to cover the inputs, the process and the outputs that we use in our current design-related jobs.

While the first group of 4 people focused on specifics about the processes and the deliverables used, in the group I moderated we spent most of our time exchanging stories and discussing the environment and culture in which we work here in Hong Kong.

I especially like to discuss the Hong Kong user experience environment, because we are all struggling to get people to recognize our work here. Most stories practitioners exchange are about how difficult it is to get their manager or client understand the point of interaction design or usability. So the question is: “Is there any secret weapon to be successful in such an environment?”. Well, we are all still trying to figure it out, but let me try to summarize a few points:

Cultural Differences

The first very important criteria is culture. If you are working in a very “local” (meaning Chinese I guess) company, you will have a hard time. “Local” companies have a very top-down approach to work where subordinates do not ask questions, they execute. In this environment, designing interactions, which require developing a good understanding of users and business goals, is very difficult. A tip that some of the people in the discussion raised is to play on the lack of understanding of the people around you. Lack of understanding usually creates greater freedom; so just do your job as much as possible the way you think it should be done, choose your own deliverables and focus on showing the value of your work. Do not go head on fighting against corporate culture.

Take the Time to Educate

If your company has already some understanding of the issues, then continue to educate people around you. Involve them in decision-making. Make them feel like they are making decisions themselves based on your deliverables and inputs. Work on clear deliverables that other teams can use. Education is a very slow process and can be frustrating, but it can lead to great results and get people to really see the value of interaction design or usability. Integrating your deliverables in decision making is key there… after a while other teams will request for your deliverable to make decisions.

Be ready to become the “problem solver”

Starting to ask questions is dangerous. In some cases, once other people identify you as the critical mind of the company, everything will get thrown at you. Whenever a tricky decision has to be made, you will be requested to help. You will become the person who “thinks about stuff”. Be ready to take on that role for a while at least and face the consequences. Don’t forget along the way to protect yourself and involve others in decision making… or you will not last long.


Networking in critical in all areas of business and it is even more so in Asia. A good network within or outside an organization will greatly help. Most business deals here are made with people who “trust” each others, meaning have a personal relationship. Focus on keeping good relationship will make your work easier (and harder at the same time, see paragraph above).

Anyway. The conclusion is that there is no silver bullet to solve the usability/interaction design/user experience situation in Hong Kong. From the discussion we had, corporate culture is the main factor affecting all this. As long as companies do not care much about their customers and bosses are only interested in having their ideas implemented (regardless of business sense), interaction design will not flourish fully. Let’s hope the corporate climate continues to evolve in the right direction…

TED Talk: Clifford Stoll – An Agile Mind March 28, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in TED Talks.
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Clifford Stoll at TEDI guess Clifford Stoll is the most hyperactive human being on this planet. I found his talk about everything so good and inspiring. The thing that resonates the most to me is: “Think local, act local”. The world is so complex. If you try to reach too high you end up doing nothing. So just consider what is in front of you, make a small contribution and things are much easier in this way. And in the end you may contribute much more than if you try to reach for the stars.