Monday, November 20, 2006

Mass collaboration: Silicon Valley comes to Oxford

The school again hosted Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, an intense day of panels and discussions led by (successful, and often serial) internet entepreneurs and those involved enabling infrastructure and services such as venture capital and law.

I benefitted from hearing in-depth presentations by two speakers: first, Matt Cohler, VP of strategy and business operations at Facebook, a social networking site, and Julie Hanna Farris, co-founder and director of Scalix, an Open Source based enterprise email and calendaring application provider. Matt's talk included two key ideas where design disciplines and practices have something to offer entrepreneurs: the first being the requirement to think how to "create value for end users" rather than building a business model, rather than the other way round. The second idea he emphasized was the importance of iterating the product, and learning from user behaviour and feedback. Take a flexible and iterative approach, he advised, in contrast to what's taught in business school; very small details can make a huge difference and you have to keep iterating to find out what the details that matter are.

In her talk Julie Hanna Farris discussed the principles of Open Source software (underpinning its many variants) and how they are disrupting conventional business models. In particular she emphasized community, transparency, authenticity, word of mouth, informality, and motivation. Each of these presents problems for business people and investors used to conventional businesses. Like Cohler, Farris stressed the importance of trying things out and learning: "Fail early and often" - a phrase that design company IDEO also invokes. Her seasoned advice to entrepreneurs included making customers part of the process of building a product - and of knowing customers not just markets. I don't think I heard the word "design" in either of their talks but what design theorists and practitioners would recognise as design principles - iterative processes, human-centred frameworks, co-design with end users - were already there.

The evening panel threw up another set of insights from a panel including Facebook's Matt Cohler; Allen Morgan of venture capitalists Mayfield; Reid Hoffman, CEO and founder of Linked-In; and Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives at Google, chaired by FT journalist Jonathan Guthrie. The post-Web 2.0 future according to these speakers was seen to be: filtered by social context, more personalised, more complementary to your other ongoing activities, and more responsive to your identity. I was struck by a comment from (I think) all four speakers at different points, that they would most likely not invest in an enterprise that didn't come to them introduced by someone they knew. At first glance, this is business as usual: networks of the powerful investing in those to whom they are already connected in some way. But with the ability to design, develop, launch, run and continue to iterate digital networked products with rapid feedback from end users, internet entpreneurs can - if they succeed in instantiating a community around what they offer - perhaps join those networks. (George - if you read this - you already have done 80% of the work with Chatsum).

A question I asked about which practices, and which academic disciplines, had most insights to offer entrepreneurs and investors about end users and their behaviours generated the following suggestions: psychology, social sciences, game theory, and the need to be able to analyse and understand the vast amounts of data being generated (Chris Sacca: "We worship data."). But not, alas, design. There remains a significant gap between what designers are perceived to be able to do - or are educated to do - and what designers are asked to do - and what they can do. I wonder if Bill Moggridge's forthcoming book Designing Interactions (MIT Press) will be on Silicon Valley's reading list.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Dinner chez Arne Jacobsen

After staying the night there last week, this week I had dinner at St Catherine's college - where form meets function (according to a college poster spotted on the way in) - the guest of Andrew Barry, fellow of the college and member of the Oxford Centre for the Environment. Given Oxford's history and much of the existing architecture, it was a radical decision to appoint an architect such as Arne Jacobsen for a new Oxford college. He paid a great deal of attention in the design to the forms both of the buildings and the gardens, and to details of fittings like door handles and the furniture in the senior common room (SCR) and the cutlery at high table (shown here). My hosts indulged me and let me take some pictures and even went as far as asking the steward to show me the two soup spoons - one for the left handed and one for the right handed.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Chez Arne Jacobsen

One of the things about working in Oxford and living in London is that I need to stay over in Oxford every week. Sometimes I stay with friends, but often in the fellows' guest rooms of the colleges. Last night I stayed again at St Catherine's College, designed by Arne Jacobsen and now, forty years or so on, more than slightly worn. But that might not trouble him. As I lay on my patterned duvet in the room, I imagined that Jacobsen would be disappointed how the calm simplicity of his design has been encroached upon by Bed & Breakfast chic, as the images I took show. On the simple desk, the tea making service. On the chest of drawers, the telly. A blanket covering a chair. A fan, for hot days. An electric radiator, for cold ones.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Wonderground: Design Research Society conference, Lisbon

Last week I joined over 250 people attending the Design Research Society's Wonderground conference in Lisbon bringing together researchers working in diverse design disciplines including graphic and product design, architecture, interaction design and the odd engineer. The plenaries were held in the grand Society of Geography built in the mid-19th century. On display were massive statues of the major Portuguese mariners who travelled the world in the 15th century (see Vasco da Gama, to the left), and a large map showing some of their significant journeys, the trails that are so linked to colonization and globalization.

Conferences such as these can be frustrating and stimulating since they involve people at different stages of their professional careers with different levels of knowledge and understanding about their own practices and research and their wider context. So in each presentation you have to focus really hard on both what the presenter is saying and why they are saying it now; I needed a geography, and a history (which we got in a presentation from Nigel Cross), and a sociology and an economy and a politics of design research. What I found valuable about attending was access to a snapshot of design research activity within (mostly) academic contexts to help me situate my own research, within a social science institution. I also liked the vinho verde and the pasteis de nata.