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Subject To Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World: Adaptive Path on Design Hardcover – Apr 25 2008
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About the Author
Peter Merholz is President and one of the co-founders of Adaptive Path. For more than six years, he has been instrumental in developing the company's world-class consulting, training, and public events. Peter began his work at Adaptive Path with a focus on information architecture, and has since developed expertise in product strategy, user research, and practice development.
Peter's personal blog, http://peterme.com, and his essays for Adaptive Path demonstrate his unique ability to foresee what's coming next in information architecture, organizational change, and product strategy. He has the perhaps dubious distinction of coining the term "blog" in 1999, when blogging was still a nascent genre.
As a design researcher for Adaptive Path, Todd Wilkens has worked on research, strategy, and design projects for a diverse group of clients, from large multi-channel media organizations to Internet startups. He is especially skilled at working with people from different backgrounds to synthesize product, business, technology, and user needs into cohesive strategies and designs.
With academic training in sociology, information science, and computer science, Todd is also well versed in social science theory and a wide-ranging toolkit of research methods from ethnography and interviewing to statistical analysis and eye-tracking. He publishes and speaks regularly on design research and human-centered design.
Brandon Schauer is an experience design director for Adaptive Path. He speaks on, writes about, and practices design as a means to create value. He has *over * a decade of experience developing new user experiences on the Web, desktops, and products. His passion for finding and understanding the unmet needs of customers has led him to diverse environments, from the homes of cancer patients to tunnels beneath Walt Disney World.
Brandon holds two master-level degrees from schools with the Illinois Institute of Technology, a Master of Design from the Institute of Design in Chicago and an MBA from the Stuart School of Business. Brandon also has a love of Excel that is unnatural for a designer.
David Verba is the Technology Advisor for Adaptive Path and the Chief Technical Officer of Emmett Labs. His many years of technical leadership and architecture experience cover a broad range of projects and strategies, including Sun, Java, Oracle, and a variety of open source technologies.
In 2000, David launched the WholePeople.com initiative as part of Whole Foods, Inc. He was also a core developer for CodeZoo.net, a web site for programmers sponsored by O'Reilly Media. He provided essential technical leadership to Measure Map, a free web service (now part of Google) that tracks blogs' traffic stats.
Top Customer Reviews
-Adaptive Path on Design
By Peter Merholz, Todd Wilkens, Brandon Schauer, David Verba
Book Price: $24.99 USD
Personal Rating: A MUST READ!
As a individual working within the design and advertising industry, I can say that I have a pretty good idea about the truth in the design process for this particular industry - it's all about the creative, winning awards and getting results for our clients. However, after reading "Subject to Change", I'd like to think that I've seen the light about how to better develop solutions not just for my clients, but for their clients; the end user, the person who will ultimately be influenced by the product or service I have been hired to create.
Adaptive Path successfully shows that it is the experience of the end user that determines the success or failure of a product or service. By encouraging a process of design that takes into consideration the experience of using the product or service, Adaptive Path have proven that their recommended processes can be adopted by any development team and be used to create a successful product or service.
I would encourage that any professional who works or participates in any sort of design cycle that creates, they should read this book. It will lead to a change in they way they think about what sort of outcomes they are trying to achieve.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book is a wakeup call for product designers and marketers -- stop focusing on features and try to understand what the user really wants to accomplish with the product. While this is not radical new thinking, the straightforward style in which the information and concepts are presented should make it easy for just about anyone to finally achieve a "d'oh!" moment when it comes to designing products and services.
When my User Groups' book shipment from O'Reilly came in with a complementary copy of Adaptive Path's "Subject to Change" I was intrigued. From the title, the book is about "Creating great products and services for an uncertain world". It claimed to be a book book that seemed to be all about how to create and manage a product in the everchanging world of the internet. Now, it turns out that my initial enthusiasm was a little naive, since the argument presented in the book was substantially different than what I was expecting. In fact, one of its chapters is titled `Stop Designing "Products"`, which made me more than a little concerned.
Yet having said that, and taking into account the often blatant plugs for Adaptive Path, it turns out the book was exactly what I needed, even though it wasn't exactly what I was looking for.
Chapter 1 lays out the foundation of the argument, which is that customers aren't attracted to features, they're attracted to an experience. Note that this does not mean bells and whistles - I can have an experience at a circus, but that's not what I'm looking for in a laptop. Instead, it is critical to look at what your customer is actually trying to accomplish, and to make the experience of accomplishing that task as positive as possible. Layering on feature after feature is good only if the original intended task experience is not compromised, otherwise it simply adds noise to what should be an all-signal experience. In other words, good products are well designed, by which they don't mean pretty, nor that they have an elegant software implementation. Design is instead used in the inclusive sense- all aspects of the product, experience and execution are carefully considered and integrated into one seamless whole.
This foundation is then built on in Chapter 2 by presenting the idea that the aforementioned experience is a strategic decision, and then clearly defining what that does and does not mean. Those of you who are trying to achieve some flavor of competitive advantage (aka differentiation aka edge etc etc) should definitely read this chapter, because it provides a long list of clarifications given the context. Quite frankly, the whole thing reads like a snopes article that slowly dismantles many lessons learned in academic marketing classes. My favorite one is the ideal of Parity - the misconception that a product can be competitive simply by matching features with the competition. See, a feature is simply that: An implemented piece of functionality on a product spec sheet. If accessing and using said feature requires an advanced degree in astrophysics doesn't matter; the mere fact that the feature exists makes the product competitive.
With the supporting framework of their argument is clearly established, and Chapter 3 puts in context of previously established marketing approaches. When your focus is on the experience and the user's motivations, habits such as market segmentation rapidly get turned upside down. You can no longer assume that the consumer is some faceless drone who exists to give you money, but instead have to give that person a face, a background a motivation, and an objective. A segment rapidly evolves into a persona, and eventually loses its distinction altogether- you're no longer sculpting your message for a particular group or persona, but are instead approaching individuals to discover how you can best meet their needs and improve their experience.
Yet none of this can be accomplished without information, which is usually garnered by research (Chapter 4). Interestingly enough, the book does not necessarily go into individual research methods, but focuses more on the importance of qualitative over quantitative research and the need to involve every team member. Research, as is stated, too often happens in a strategy or research group independent of the team that will actually implement their findings, and thus the opportunity for consumer or persona empathy is lost within minutes of the powerpoint presentation. It is only by keeping everyone involved up front (though perhaps not directly contributive) that information gained is relevant, actionable, and provides durable insight.
Chapter 5 then takes us full circle back to the beginning, and really drives the idea that success is not driven by features, capabilities or marketing, but by the experience of the customer. It's not just the experience of completing a specific task that is meant here, but the entire support system ancillary to that task. You might have an iPod, but without an iTunes all you have is a pretty piece of plastic. Find out what the customer wants to accomplish, figure out what it'll take to perform all steps of that, and build a system to do so simply and elegantly.
At this point, the book could have ended and been a pretty effective piece on product design theory based on experience. It has taken us from the initial presentation of the idea all the way through the strategic advantage and full circle back to the beginning. Instead, it continues on and picks apart the actual implementation strategies, beginning with Design in Chapter 6. This is a beast of a chapter and not for the faint of heart, but is nevertheless utterly critical for understanding the depth of the argument. Design is picked apart by discipline, target, competency, strategic importance and implementation, and the chapter itself does a remarkable job breaking down common misconceptions. Design is necessary, strategic, and is presented as a mindset rather than a discipline, one that everyone must implement to properly contribute to the delivery.
Chapter 7 then goes into the nitty gritty of implementation by speaking about agile development methods. This is where the developer in me went squee, because for the first time I saw Agile presented within a strategic context rather than a reactive context. Too often when management hears "Agile Development" the first thing that comes to mind is "Development will be faster", or more responsive, and in many cases this is true. Even so, the book presents it as an integral part of experience based design, and discusses how its rapid iterative nature can be used to convert a design or motion prototype iteratively into a fully functioning application, while allowing user research and experience evaluation (and revision) at every step of the way. If you've ever had to say "That's what's written in the requirements, we can't change it now" this chapter is for you. Lets face it- issues and problems will arise during development no matter what happens, but if you keep everyone on deck (and not siloed into different expertise groups) you'll be able to confront it much faster.
And with that, Chapter 8 closes the book. I'd copy the two pages that compose it here verbatim if I didn't think there'd be conflict of interest issues, but safe it to say that it is the conclusion and summary of the entire book. The only thing certain is change, and here's how you deal with it.
Overall, a very good book, but I do have a few pointed comments. First of all, the cases presented within the book too often follow the pattern of "Here's company X, known as a genius at Y, and here's their process/methodology/etc." The academic in me chokes at statements like that, because they imply causality - that their process is the reason why they are so well known and respected, when in reality it could be something completely different. The book itself warns of making surface level assumptions like that, so I'm fairly irritated that they do so themselves.
The other one is the mixture of authoring tones. At times casual, at times formal, it's clear that more than one person wrote this book. When I'm reading a structured section about research and am suddenly approached in a conversational tone, my brain kicks me out of the narrative (and thus my experience with the book is diminished). Even so, I'd recommend this book to any marketer, strategist, developer... or, well, anyone who plays a role in a product production process. At 165 pages it's a light read, the ideas are straightforward and well explained, and though they aren't often supported as rigorously as I would prefer, the book itself make an excuse for that: If you spend too much time backing up your argument, you lose the time you'd spend on determining where your argument should take you.
On reading it, I was proven correct. Much of the book was nothing more than an extended advertisement for Adaptive Path. Case studies were too short to learn much from. The only case study really discussed in depth was of Target's new prescription bottles, which have been discussed more in depth and more usefully in too many other books.
The book's eight chapters are full of short sections; many of them read as though they are blog entries. They're strung together with little regard for content or context. The seventh chapter, a flawed discussion of agile development, is completely worthless. The book could have been so much better if the authors had taken the time and effort to better consider their arguments and write a more cohesive work.
If you can look past the book's many shortcomings, there are some interesting nuggets in there. Sadly, the useful bits comprise less than 10% of the book, but they're good enough to earn this book two stars.
Nonetheless, however well-intentioned the messages, I find that the real-world as presented in this book is a partisan world. I also find there is a bit too much gloss, which leads to the professional landscape in which this book stands being incorrectly assessed and in some places, cheapened.
For example, it's in more than one place in the book that the discipline of marketing is associated merely with the messages around a product and not with the core development of a product itself; and that marketing research is considered to be the minion of an advertising master domineering the consumer as a message receiver with exhortations designedly to serve communications that are generally a one-way traffic. Now even I could see through this one. I spent a lot of my undergraduate time interviewing people - either face-to, in groups or on the phone, and although much of this was quite non-penetrative as regards the real sounding reaches of the under-running consumer waters, I did manage to get glimpses; fleeting but definite glimpses, of marketing research going a lot further than that and pointedly in the development of some very high-profile products.
I once worked on a project where we spent 3 hours interviewing individuals one-to-one about a postulated new car design, going into stacks of detail around all the corners and curves to all the internal gadgetry; and if I was doing this, albeit serving the research design of a very good and innovative agency; what were all the other research agencies doing? They must have been doing the same thing. And lo and behold, later on I discovered that they were. Overall then, I feel it's a bit crass of these authors to conceive of marketing and marketeering in the way that they do. There is a lot more work done on product development than these guys realise.
At other places in the book, I became a bit worried about the partisan aspect and often when I least expected it. I know that Adaptive Path is a company and I know the work they do; but they are not the only people out there doing it and nor, necessarily, are they the best authority. In places, this book reads like an expanded White Paper or an extended philosophy brochure. I don't know how many times I came across sentences or phrases beginning "At Adaptive Path....", but it was way too many for the book to be taken seriously as a piece of intellectual authority.
There were other issues too. A remark about shavers particularly rankled with me. The authors danced over the subject, saying something about there having been no innovation around user experience in the shaver market (page 6-7), and that functional and technical considerations had driven innovation in this area. Really? Had these boys done any proper work? I once went to an exhibition which showcased the work of a designer who had spent almost the entirety of his professional career as head of design at the German electronics company Braun. This chap designed shavers that were nothing short of miracles in form and function - truly fantastic, performant objects; and for so may years Braun has been such a durable business. And yet here were these authors glossing over the entirety of this industry and inspiration. I think personally I'd always rather be a Braun - someone who has done it repeatedly and consistently, made money and livelihoods for thousands; rather than just be in Adaptive Path who seem to be a morphable and morphing consultancy who only want to capture my intellectual castle any way they can, tell me what they think I want to hear and potentially risk me sending my product development effort down only their path, and not the one perhaps best fit.
So I'm suspicious - more than that, I suspect self-interest. This book, for all it's seeming plausibility, for me is just that - plausible in the proper sense of that word - possibly specious - well-seeming, with underneath, the potential to be harmful. The writing is too good. It's all too smooth - too glossed. It's sales copy.
For all those issues though, the book in itself could be a reasonable distraction for some light reading if you can find it in a library, borrow from a friend or download it illegally somewhere. Whether it belongs being for sale on an e-tailer site I can't comment.
While light on theory, the book does give good advice. This advice is mostly in the form of what not to do. This most probably reflects Adaptive Path's pain points in earlier engagements with customers. Don't use competition as your main driver. Don't depend on novelty. Don't get stuck on research or reporting. Don't get stuck on product design. Don't over-engineer. Don't get too confident about what you think your customers want.
If there is only one important take away from this book, then I believe that it would be this. It's all about the user experience. What you should be focusing your design efforts on is the user experience. What you should be focusing your strategy on is the user experience. The only thing you do that your customers care about is their experience of your product or service.
They heavily advocate using an Agile methodology. They agree with early prototyping, failing fast, and continuous customer involvement. They are lukewarm on the SPARC model.
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