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Design a Magical Product

Design a Magical Product

Yesterday I took part in a workshop on Design Thinking. The exercise that fascinated me most was when we paired up with strangers to create a product for them. We started by empathizing with the “customer” by talking to them. My partner was international and was carrying all these receipts in his wallet for reimbursements and filing taxes back home. He clearly needed a product that digitally scanned receipts but also was able to provide the physical copies on demand in case of a tax audit.

elfWhile ideating and brainstorming on how to solve this problem, I wrote down standard solutions like pre-stamped envelopes, pocket receipt scanners, and more. But I also wrote down “Magical receipt reading elf.” It was not a serious brainstorm, and indeed I had already started to cross it out when my partner latched onto the idea. “It’s perfect! It can eat my receipts and scan them and then if I need the physical receipts in the future it can regurgitate them on request.”

Yes, a magical receipt digesting elf (MRDE). With an MRDE, you don’t have to worry about carrying all your receipts. You can load them digitally into your accounting software. And, if the IRS comes knocking, you can have the elf regurgitate the receipts, sorted by date and itemized.

It’s a perfect solution to a common problem. It’s innovative. It would fly off the shelves. Problem is, it’s magic!

Magic Comes First

That got me thinking about magic, and especially Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. About what people have always said about Apple products, that they are like magic. And what they mean by this is that good products “just work.” They don’t ask questions of you or require your permission. They function as an extension of yourself.

Good products are one step down from magic without being magic themselves. So why not use magic in the design process? Why not design elves, fairies and spells before designing MVPs, prototypes and demos?

Our magic elf was of course not possible to build…or was it? A pocket-sized receipt scanner and storage unit is not completely unthinkable. If the magic elf that performs these functions is a perfect solution to this common problem, certainly a slightly less magical mechanical solution would be an ideal MVP.

By using a Harry Potter approach, you are no longer constrained by what’s feasible. You are only constrained by what the user wants and needs. All iterations on the magical product can be done on paper. Only when your magic spell is written, do you step down and think about how to make the magic real. I think in most cases there would be a way to do it. And if there isn’t, then start thinking about what technology you would need to be invented (or invent yourself!) for it to be reality.

I’m going to try to apply “magical thinking” to product design from now on. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, wingardium leviosa!

October 8, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
I Used DuckDuckGo for a Week and Had to Switch Back. Here’s why.

I Used DuckDuckGo for a Week and Had to Switch Back. Here’s why.

It was really hard to switch off of Google, and when I finally did it, I didn’t think I would switch back.

In the past, whenever I’ve tried another search engine, I have failed. Searching is such a natural, compulsory thing to do on the internet, that whenever I have navigated to Bing or DuckDuckGo, I find myself staring at a blinking cursor not entirely sure what to search for. The conscious decision to make a search has always interfered with my ability to search naturally.

DuckDuckGoBut the recent revelations about PRISM and the NSA have led to a surge in interest in cutting the chord to big cloud services like Google whose data collection practices are well known. So, following the herd, I decided it was time for me to switch my default search engine. It wasn’t enough to remember to navigate to DuckDuckGo for searches; instead, I had to change my address bar default search engine in Chrome to force me to use the new engine.

Before I knew it, my 50 or so odd searches a day were going through DuckDuckGo instead of Google.

Now, I love that DuckDuckGo doesn’t track searches. In terms of their commitment to privacy and their users, I don’t think there’s a better option. And I love that there’s an alternative for people concerned about their data being collected. But it took me only a week using DuckDuckGo to appreciate the little things that Google does that still make it a far superior product.

Google is Faster

I didn’t think this would be something I even noticed, but it was apparent immediately that with DuckDuckGo, search results take a fraction of a second longer to show up. It must be no more than 200-300 ms, but it really makes a difference. Every time I am faced with that momentary pause all I can think about is switching over to Google to get faster gratification.

Google Keeps Up with Timely Search Queries

Earlier this week, I searched for “Pride,” expecting to find out more about Pride Weekend in San Francisco. DuckDuckGo seemed to have no understanding of that context, whereas Google’s first results were exactly what I was looking for. It wouldn’t require tracking, just an IP lookup to know where I am and return timely results. Google’s natural integration with their news engine is invaluable to my search experience.

Google Doesn’t Index Sites with Code Errors

This is huge for me. Since I am coding all day long, I need to be able to search for errors that crop up from time to time if I don’t understand them. There was one PHP error this morning that I searched (DuckDuckGo’d?), and the top 20 results were sites that had thrown this error. The sites were destinations like–completely irrelevant to my query. Google, as usual, returned very useful StackOverflow results that got me on the right track.

Google Knows When Not to Surface Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia, but sometimes it isn’t the most relevant result. The “Pride” search is a good example, but in general if it isn’t a proper noun, I am more likely to go for a news or video result than Wikipedia. DuckDuckGo seems to surface Wikipedia way too much. I like the way Google does it, especially when they float the Wikipedia results to the right so I always know where to find the article.

In short, I love that DuckDuckGo is gaining interest, and that Google has competition, and that there are choices for all of us when we use the internet. But I tried, and for the things that matter to me, it seems that Google is just a better experience. I hope DuckDuckGo improves the product, because eventually I would love to switch back. But philosophical alignment isn’t enough to get me to use an inferior product.

So, Google, you have me back for now.

June 28, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
UX in Sandwich Making

UX in Sandwich Making

I was with my friend, on line at a local submarine sandwich shop, watching the man behind the counter make sandwiches. He was a samurai. His moves were methodical and precise. Mustard on the bun. Salami slices. Onions and peppers evenly spaced and flattened. Toaster oven. Next sandwich. He was a one-man assembly line.

italian-deli-submarine-sandwich-04We were behind a guy in his 20’s who ordered an Italiano, the sub we were going to get. The friendly sandwich samurai happily assembled the sandwich and when he was done, folded it tightly, cut it in half, then wrapped it. When it was our turn, we ordered the one big sub for two, and the sandwich artist did the exact same process to build our identical sandwich. However, this time, he folded it, wrapped it in paper, and then cut it in half.

Years of working in tech, and the best UX I’ve seen is in the simple and seemingly unimportant gesture of cutting after wrapping a sandwich, so that two people could easily split it, and cutting it before wrapping for one, no questions asked, all brilliant use cases seamlessly accounted for.

This is what UX means. It is the attention to customer needs, even if those needs go against normal conventions. It is the meeting of those needs with the best possible assumption, and making their day just a little bit easier. It’s providing the same great product but adding that extra detail that makes the product worth buying again.

Thanks for your attention to our customer experience. We’ll be back.

January 21, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More