Designing for (visual) provocation

I’ve often written on this blog for the need for visual aesthetics to enrich the interaction of a product/service, adding that humanizing dimension that shapes emotive response. I myself am not the best visual designer out there, but I see myself more as a visual concept “catalyst” or “provocateur”, instigating and stimulating discussion amongst stakeholders about new possibilities: brand, style, overall product experience. Depending on the place, I’ve done a few crazy things to get conversations going:

** At Oracle I spent a weekend concepting out ideas for changing the look/feel of Oracle Applications (just a few screenshots in various treatments), then printed out a massive poster of them, which I posted up next to my cubicle. Monday morning a murmuring/buzzing crowd of engineers and managers hovered around the poster as I walked up to my cubicle… They were wondering what’s going on? Pointing and chatting excitedly. My own manager was none to happy about this “stunt” as she called it, but it certainly woke up people’s sensibilities about what could be for future revisions! And I gladly put all the files on the server for anybody else to improve and build upon–open source it! Many folks were excited to see the self-initiative, and indeed a few months later there was a department-wide “next generation” design contest to explore ideas further.

** At BEA I created “mind grenades”–tricked out (practically impossible) visual concepts that literally and figuratively detonated the dev team’s preconception of what the product interface and behaviors should be. I really wanted to get them out of the “enterprise” mindset. It sparked diverse reactions: engineers thought it was “the spec” (and thus were freaking out) while product managers enjoyed the imaginative take on current/new features, wondering aloud about marketing pitches and new customer segments.

** At Adobe, after trying out a new consumer version of Photoshop, I got so frustrated with the features and navigation that I drove home after work, sat down and sketched out ways to improve it, then driven by that passion to do it “right”, I just mocked it up overnight as a series of 3-5 screens (storyboards) which I then presented to the design manager for his take. Great discussions ensued which led to a team-oriented revamp of the product features that became productized over time.

** At Cisco similar feature frustration led me to just re-conceptualize the tedious thing (a people directory lookup tool) in a radically different expressive form, which (once presented to the design team) became a critical seed for a more formalized team project with outside partners.

Yes, it’s great fun being a firestarter. Not every culture may respond positively to this kind of approach but as I’ve said on this blog several times, taking the position of “informed visionary” can only empower yourself as a designer, thus improving the product and customer experience…and thus the business overall. Sometimes you just gotta provoke and light that fire, before being suffocated by the tunnel-vision induced mediocrity or bureaucratic processes. It’s good to provoke discussion, debate, conversation, to get ideas flowing and people talking about ways to make things better. Sometimes you just gotta ask forgiveness, not permission, and do the right thing.

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