From app design to sock choice: Everything communicates

They say that everything communicates.

Quick digression: the reference to “they” reminds me of the classic scene in Pulp Fiction

You know the one – where Vincent and Mia are having dinner at Jackrabbit Slim’s – here excerpted for your reading pleasure from the IMDb script database.


Is that a fact?


No it’s not, it’s just what I heard.


Who told you this?



Mia and Vincent smile.


They talk a lot, don’t they?


They certainly do.

But, back to the post: everything communicates. Meaning what you wear, what you say and how you say it, where you live, when you eat, how you walk, etc. Everything.

The same is true of your website, enterprise software, or mobile productivity app. Everything about your app communicates.

So, when you are conceiving it, start by understanding what the heck you’re actually trying to do. Understand the context. Listen. Observe. Learn more about a usability technique, called contextual inquiry, that provides some useful guidance.

In addition to understanding context, it’s important to understand what the actual design elements themselves communicate. For example, elements like typeface and color are too often taken for granted.  They are considered more a matter of personal taste than deliberately approached with data in mind.

And, finally, understand the elements that lend credibility to your app.  This is perhaps the least understood yet most crucial aspect to design. I studied this subject years ago, stumbling across what I still consider to be the seminal, original work addressing persuasion and credibility in technology: BJ Fogg’s Persuasive Technology.

My 2005 article in Pragmatic Marketing magazine, Seven things you can do to improve your credibility on the web, is a good quick summary of some of Fogg’s research and writing, primarily focused on the credibility of promotional-oriented websites.

So, as a team, remember: think about what your _________(fill in the blank: app, website, office décor, customer thank you gift… whatever) communicates to see if it is saying what you want it to say.

Experience matters; brains, maybe not

Back in the 1990s, I used to say that my brother Frank and I both worked in outsourcing, just different industries.

Frank was a champion tennis player in high school and ended up playing Big 10 tennis on scholarship for Indiana, before graduating and going to work for WTS International.

The core of WTS’s business is managing fitness clubs, resorts, and spas, primarily around North America…basically, they outsource the management of health clubs.

I, on the other hand, spent most of the ’90s at BSG Corporation – primarily responsible for publishing, communications, and marketing programs – where among other things we developed custom client/server applications.

As BSG grew, we began outsourcing portions of the IT operations of larger enterprises, the most significant being for the oil and gas services company, Tenneco in Houston.

Neither of us is with those companies any longer, but when we were together over the recent Thanksgiving holidays, we got to talking about our respective experiences at those firms and how great they were as training grounds for what we do today.

As we visited over a glass of wine, we got to chuckling about how all of those years of experience can be boiled down into a series of statements that we seem to say over and over again in our different fields.

Frank, who now serves as an executive in the publicly-traded fitness firm, Town Sports International (NASDAQ: CLUB), rattled off the following six-point list of things he finds himself saying repeatedly at the clubs he travels to:

  • It looks okay
  • He (or she) is a really good instructor
  • Cut housekeeping
  • You gotta sell more
  • You guys need to pick up the trash (variation, when referring to a customer entrance outside: you guys need to pick up these cigarette butts)
  • Everything looks safe

We laughed, because as simple as these things sound, when they are said with the voice of authority from years of experience, they carry the sense of the profound, the wise, or the expert.

In turn, I rattled off my own six-point list, but from the perspective as a publisher / producer, coming up with the following:

  • It’s too long (“it” referring variously to a sentence, paragraph, article, etc.)
  • I’d like a draft (or, if a lengthy assignment, an outline) by tonight
  • Double-check the spelling of the names and call the phone numbers
  • Try it in Internet Explorer
  • Have someone else read it first
  • Look at it (the picture, the logo, the chart, etc.) in black and white before finalizing

What does all of this have to do with technology innovation – which after all, is loosely (not always) the subject matter domain of this blog?

Turns out a lot, because in essence what these examples refer to is an artifact of rapid cognition, as popularly described in Malcom Gladwell’s best-selling book Blink.

More recently, this notion of rapid cognition and our ability to impart a superior version of such capability in machines was announced by IBM in the latest update to the company’s artificial intelligence technology. A version of the company’s software named “Watson” will compete with prior stars of the game show “Jeopardy” in February 2011 to see which competitor is the ultimate knowledge champ.

Should be a fascinating test; whether or not it makes for good TV is an entirely different question. But I, for one, will be DVR’ing it – mainly because I want to see Ken Jennings and Watson’s go mano-a-machino!