“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

For those of you NOT at Yahoo, Google, or a design consultancy – hope exists for innies

I am now in the middle of my 4th week at my new position at Symbol Technologies and I couldnt be happier than a pig in sh*t and I really feel compelled to tell you all why, as I believe many of you are in current positions very similar to the ones Ive been at for most of my career.

First some background

Since its been a while since I posted any historical biographic material here, it might be helpful to give you a taste of what my design career has been like. I think, again, many may have some similar aspects.

(You can skip the auto-biographical piece and just jump to the juice.)

Ive been doing some sort of unofficial design since 1994 when I started coding websites for Michael Wolff and Co and his quickly failed Your Personal Network and NetGuide series of books. I quickly left (way before the crash of the MW Empire interestingly documented by Michael himself in Burn Rate) and moved to the advertising/interactive agency world as an HTML Designer (ah! Titles are great!). But for the next period of 5 years I bounced between Project Management/Producer positions and HTML coding jobs, the combination of which eventually got me the position of IA circa 1999 at a small but fun interactive design studio called Vizooal (now called Ivoution after Vizoola collapsed). It is here that I really believe my Design career began and my connections to the IA community, the User Experience profession, and my growing zealotry of design.

What happened at first is that IA for Vizoola really meant Business Analyst. We even modeled ourselves after Cambridge Technology Partners with whom we did a lot work. My role was very much parallel to whom they called a Business Analyst. But what got me thinking about design were a few things:

  • working closely with the great visual designers are Vizoola
  • making connections with the UX community (discovering SIGIA-L)
  • Going to the C|Net Builder conference (they should bring those back) and hearing Nathan Shedroff speak for the first time.

What I learned excited me–concepts like design exploration, design research, contextual inquiry, spliced more and more into my consciousness. The other aspects of UX like usability and the technical pieces of web design seemed to already easily fit for me.

But Vizooal and the rest of the dot.com community took a turn for the worse and I was forced to leave the design world and headed straight inside the old guard of the software community by joining Documentum (today EMC|Software). Now, I know that sounds bad, but I think by going inside was really smart. I learned so much about software product lifecycles (or even what a product lifecycle even was). Being an outsider you just dont get that. I also made great connections with engineers and learned how engineering leads innovation at a very tech savvy organization. But I still didnt get that design experience. However, my move to Silicon Valley brought me closer to the heart of the UX community and culminated with the following events (making me all the hungrier for design):

  • Attendance to the Design Expo at CHI in 2002 (pre-DUX conference)
  • My own participation in DUX 2003 with an accepted paper
  • The creation of the interaction architects Yahoo group today IxDA of which Im the VP.

I was so hungry for a design environment, but as before, my life took me further astray from it. I had to leave the Valley and move back to NYC. I took the only job I cold find and knew from the get go that I was not getting the position I hoped for. However, my passion for Design intensified through my active connection and work with/for IxDA. I made connections with more people and more mentors over this 3+ year period and through their advice and just care I was able to turn out a design process within a very stale business centric technology organization that I could live with. This culminated in what I consider to be an amazing re-design of a product in a process that felt akin to the building an airplane in the air approach that EDS is now promoting EEK!!!

During my search for DESIGN I realized that my formal training in design was very limited. So, I took 2 design courses at Pratt Institute of Design in industrial design (product design and drawing for product design). This experience more than any other solidified my desire to BE a designer and was the source of a lot of my success at IntraLinks. Probably the best $617 they ever spent and they dont even realize it (maybe now they do). It also made me a zealot Pro-Designer (think pro-Life) where Bruce Nussbaum and Jonathan Ive posters would have been pinned on my cube wall if there were such things. (Well, a real designer doesnt have a cube, but you get my point.) I broke out weeping at the documentary about Frank Gehry, “Sketches of Frank Gehry”. Yes, my wife thinks I’m a sap, but I was moved by the beauty that comes out of his creative processes, but that’s how badly I want this for myself. That one design breakthrough. A Professor at Pratt, Bruce Hannah, has been known to tell his students, “Design a chair for Knoll, and you are set for life as a designer.” What this has meant to me is aim high and find that one big success and the rest falls into place as a designer.

The whole time at IntraLinks (the aforementioned organizations that brought me back east), a small on-demand hosted software provider, I was looking for a real design environment to work in. I also (for completely unrelated reasons) ideally wanted to work in an environment that mixed Industrial Design and Interaction Design.

I do have to thank the folks at IntraLinks for giving me such tremendous trust, support and latitude during this period. They allowed me to go to a lot of conferences to speak and learn, and they were fine with me having a 2nd part time job, which was the forming of IxDA. Theyll never get official credit, but they should be considered a founding sponsor of IxDA in so many ways.

And this search brought me to where I am today!!!! Symbol Technologies (Soon to be Motorolas Enterprise Mobility Group).


Let me tell you about this special place

Let me just say that this organization is everything Ive hoped for and MORE! It is EXACTLY what Ive been looking for. Hardware + Software in a real DESIGN environment and now is the time to describe those aspects that make this place so special. (Thanx for wading through all this to get here.)

After all that forward information, I think Ill try to simplify all this (Just finished Jon Maedas book).

Research orientedmore than UCD
What is research? If we look at the scientific method we understand research to be the testing of a hypothesis again reality to discover a describable realityi.e. prove it.

If we look at the social sciences, we do research to observe reality (no trial), so that we can describe reality as a collection of generalizations we make against our particular acknowledged point of view.

Design research is the epitome of both worlds. Before user centered ideas began creeping into the design community (way before computers) design research was more akin to design exploration. This part of design research has been lost on most of the engineering oriented software/product/management consulting/internal financial/etc. shops out there today. There is no space for creative discovery which to me is the backbone of what makes design and ergo this whole age of innovation what everyone is clamoring for. Yet so many places today say they are doing design, when in fact they are just conceiving of ideas and describing them.

Here at Symbol, design exploration is part of the DNA. But how does that translate to the design process?

The best example I can think of was a recent show & tell where a designer was reviewing an appearance model of a mobile computing data capture device. This rendition was a complete re-design of something that is very common in almost every major warehousing environment.

The design was particularly engaging on its own for several reasons:

  1. It acculturated a design language from an adjacent product line (of even a non-related organization).
  2. It recognized through accessing reams of design research that the device is multi-purposed and that those purposes can be multi-modal
  3. explored a completely new set of design languages for our organization

To summarize, the design explored ideas previously not found within our organization and brought them all together within a product that the organization has familiarity and experience with.

During the show & tellour informal design review to gain feedbackthere was a part of the design that was creating a huge amount of discussion and division. There was severe disagreement about the issue. Our head of design at that point could have done what I expected to happen, Ok, lets test it and see what happens. Rather he says, Well, regardless of the right answer, I think we should keep this aspect of the design as is, because it is causing discussion about the issue. Since the design was a concept design and not a production design, its purpose was to capture ideas, any and all ideas of value and to provoke discussion. It did just that and our manager encourages this process as a form of design research.

In retrospect there are so many aspects of this design that will push for answers to great questions. For example, will the design be robust enough for our standards? Will it be cost effective? And will the interface really meet the multi-modal requirements of the many different use-contexts?

My point being though that this design review acknowledged a basic tenant of design researchThat unless you communicate the ideas they will be lost. Capturing ideas whether appropriate to the actual solution directly or some other adjacent or tangential solution is a hugely important part of design research.

Design is non-linear. What you are working on today (moving forward) may actually benefit a design that is years old and in fact resurrect it; Or it may sit and wait for the right time to blossom in the future.

In my 13 years of doing this work I have never worked for an organization that was able to not only do this work, but prove its intrinsic value to the entire organization as it seems that Symbol has been able to do.

But there is the other side of research as welluser research. Symbol has an entire team dedicated to User Research employing a host of different methods and processes for observing, describing and then analyzing. Since this is a UX blog, Im not going to go into too much detail about how all this is done or what value is derived from it, but believe it or not, I have never (again in 13 years) worked for an organization that in its design unit had a separate research group of about 6 people (out of department of about 20-30). This includes a marketing person who can help us create business cases for the concepts we develop.

What I will describe is to what level this works. Where the design team will get together and combine 3 datapoints and brainstorm ideas that then become user scenarios that will get their own design explorations: technology, observational data, design creativity. This is done through a series of brainstorming sessions with the goals of creating stories to tell designers and engineers to get further input, creativity and exploration.

That to me is the point of design research and why design is such a wonderful catalyst for change and innovation.

I could stop right there and say that is it. One word really says it all. But I guess I should explain a bit. To put it simply the organization is open to ideas from anyone from any part of the organization. But within the design department this is doubly true. So much so in fact there are concrete processes for expressing ideas, and these processes engage and encourage the foraging of ideas in a formal manner.

Even after only being at the organization for 3 weeks, I expressed an idea and was immediately encouraged to pursue it, using the tools made available. The tools were an aid to guide thought and creativity processes and to help organize your thoughts in a more understandable presentation so that others will be better able to understand your ideas giving them a better and more equal chance of success regardless of the source.

An organization that allows people to convert passions into workable projects to me is a key success factor for a design organization and its parent organization.

This type of openness permeates other areas. The above mentioned show & tell meeting is another example where people are encourage to engage the designer, and then engage each other through a conversation about the catalyzing artifact in question. Now many other organizations do this and I have experienced before, but most recently this was missing from my work life so I have learned to consider it quite precious.

Ego diminishing
While designers at Symbol usually work solo on their pieces, there is a great push to gain outreach during your creative periods to get not just feedback, but advice on the pieces you are working on. It seems that egos have disappeared in this design studio where people are on the one hand encouraged to write proposals for IDEA awards and then on the other hand work as a sole designer on a product, which usually leads to ownership and other ego raising qualities.

This is particularly interesting when one considers this phrase I heard recently from a recruiter: We are looking for people who have accomplished things in their life so when they arrive here, they leave their egos behind.

Admitting mistakes is a big deal for anyone, but to hear it from the executive levels is wonderful, especially when done with thanks to those who help point it out, and with engagement to try to figure out how to fix those mistakes. This models for everyone that mistakes are part of the process both short term (single project) and long term across product lines.

The last part of ego diminishing is in sharing. While I said most design projects seem to have a single designer at the helm (I like design vision leadership), there are projects where different players (industrial designer, researcher, ux designer [read interaction designer]) are all engaged on a single project (Industrial Designer is usually the lead), no one really cares where ideas come from. Credit seems to be shared across the team, thus encouraging more ideas to be generated because people have less fear about grasping ownership and care more about creating great things.

Community Involved
Symbol understands the value of encouraging community involvement in design organizations. The head of the department is very active in IDSA, and has used department budget for even sponsoring and organizing entire IDSA events.

My own involvement in IxDA and other organizations and community efforts have been encouraged. I have also seen designers actively encouraged to submit portfolio submissions for all manner of ID design awards.

To me this shows a real understanding of the designer psyche, which IS ego based (contradicting the above). Stroke a designers ego and you will probably get better response to your needs than a big bonus. Seriously, money is good, but showing an interest in THE WORK and value that work enough to encourage it to compete at a regional or local level and you really engage the worker at their more base motivations. Sure everyone wants to be acknowledged for their work, but designers want the world to acknowledge them, not just their boss. In this scenario we get both.

This one is a bit flaky (meaning hard to quantify), but I have never felt more engaged. People are hungry for input and feedback to what they are working on no matter how related it is to what you are supposed to be doing.

I have so enjoyed the side conversations about other peoples projects. While there is a distracting element to it, it is also very focusing as well. It gets me to clear my mind of stray thoughts because I get to express similar enough ideas where my swirling idea engine gets to calm down. This one might be me, but being able to engage people all the time in this way is so important to my work environment.

No one is inaccessible and everyone seems interested and well Engaged! I guess this last point is apropos because it is the name of my blog.

I do want to add that the current organization has a lot to learn about moving from the inefficiencies of face-to-face engagement to more efficient models that digital modes of engagement can achieve. Wikis, blogs, discussion lists, etc. can go a long way towards increasing knowledge management, engage discussion, and sprouting ideas. I am working with internal stakeholders on developing tools to do just this. To me it looks like a generation gap issue, where you have some MySpace generation folks mixed with some elder statesmen who havent caught onto the whole Web 2.0 bandwagon yet. But due to the openness above, there isnt a lot in the way of getting things done and proving out concepts for future engagement tools.

Symbol > Motorola
Im very excited for the coming year at Symbol. If things stay the same it will be great, but there is also a lot of unknown as well. The imminent merger with Motorola can mean so much change (or no change at all) and there is not this air that we need to just wait for things to solidify.

I hope that the marketing campaign by Moto is based somewhat in reality. The people Ive met working on the creative side of Moto have been great, and I hope they are representative of the types of designers Ill be working with in the future.

I have learned in a short time that Symbol HAS changed the very face of the world with its innovations in the past; and that its current set of skills if added to with good holistic thinking can further revolutionize the world with a host of technologies. The merger with Motorola only makes this even more possible, as more resources, access to adjacent technologies, and less expensive supply chains (bigger bulk) all come together here on Long Island.

What else am I looking for?
The one thing Im discovering about my current environment is a lack of solution to what we develop. We build hammers. But we dont tell people what to build with the hammers. This is very similar to what Ive experienced at Documentum, where we built a platform from which partner/vendors could build almost anything they needed with it within a the scope that the platform supported. This is what Symbol does, but at Documentum, we understood that we had to support and often supply solutions in order to better engage our vendors and to make the experience of our brand through our products better. It is dangerous to leave your brand so loosely in the hands of your vendors.

I hope that through the concept work that I can engage in more holistic solutions, to bring proof of concepts to life and then convert those solutions to sales and partner relations tools.

I enjoy the idea of thinking at a micro level of keypads and push buttons, but am I am into very holistic thinking.

A possible path that I see for myself is one where I begin to curve more and more into a meta-designer that can float between all the aspects of design (at least at the direction level; since craft has such a high learning curve in ID) where someone from UX (software) can be a design lead for product designs just like the IDs are today. Well see.

In the meantime, Symbol/Motorola has so many challenges and opportunities that I can see myself in this house for quite some time. So far the annoying arbitrariness of bureaucratic corporate life seems to have slipped by me so far. Hopefully it will stay that way.

Im sure this space will contain more thoughts on what it means to move from the soft to the hard side of things. Stay Tuned!

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