The Education Versus Work Experience Dilemma: It’s up for a redesign

Can you really know what you like or dislike if you haven’t experienced ‘it’?

We like to think we can, and often, we convince ourselves that we have the answers for questions to what we ‘should’ be or ‘want’ to be doing for our careers. But when this vision is finally realized, the expectation of excitement and fulfillment is nowhere to be found.  

There’s a good explanation for this feeling or lack thereof: the importance of the ‘it’ too often is overlooked; stripped of its magic as we are conditioned (by the education system) to use research and personality tests as the “governing body” over our professional, and subsequently, personal success in life.

Whether it’s our own fault for simply being human — using our brains to over think our situation — or it’s at the hands of an outdated education system (many institutions are designing innovative solutions to this problem), the education versus work experience conundrum isn’t any easier to solve today than it was ten years ago, and this isn’t a problem we can shrug off.

A better way to learn?

In a conversation with our Executive Creative Director at Designing North Studios, Lisa Peacock, she reminded me of important conversations already happening throughout the higher-education arena, some of which are also being discussed within design fields.

One such conversation, as she explained,“How do we transform learning? Not just so young students don’t waste personal time when they set off on a pre-determined path, but also so that we can educate more people (beyond a residential experience) in the right way (experientially, via distance, collaborative learning, etc) to also solve problems that are becoming increasingly more and more complex as we evolve: the planet, our political system, racism, poverty, war, etc… If higher education doesn’t figure it out (leaving many capable minds for solving such problems behind) there will be no personal time loss to worry about — Life on this planet will be lost.”

Public or private, a university is a business; I get it; I have been a “customer” myself, and am a “customer” this very moment. Yet, the majority of the professors I have come to know well don’t teach for earning potential — they do it for the reward of working with students and serving as SMEs (subject matter experts) in their field. And to this day (seven years later) they continue to develop forward-thinking programs based on producing ‘experienced’ graduates; they are taking the education process one step further than previous generation educators, or better yet, pioneering new methods for students to overcome the challenges of adapting to what life ‘really’ looks like after school.

Should they really have to take matters into their own hands? Sure, to some extent it’s their job, but I see the corporation and executive board sharing in this responsibility with professors — adequate budget and technology tools should come with the gig. Still, when discussing the idea of introducing integrated learning programs based on real-world working demands, the common response is doubt induced by small budgets and staff.   

What’s even more interesting, these professors I observe aren’t working on projects to help students determine what they are good at, and what they find most interesting about their field of study. Instead, they are asking students to physically enter the real world (business arenas across the globe, often in a virtual presence) and identify opportunities that aren’t being met or can be improved upon. From here, skills of interest can be developed into a toolkit that transcends many fields.Furthermore, they are sending their students down a “road of discovery,” where the destination provides clarity on what they ‘actually’ want to do in contrast with what they ‘believed’ they wanted to do. What a concept!

WHAT IF learning on the job was more closely connected with time in school rather than in the workforce; an internship consumed 4-5 years (across multiple disciplines) rather than just one summer. This could provide students with the time needed to make more polished decisions without being coerced into a curriculum based on traditional constraints associated with school: time, money, grades, job outlook etc…

The frustration felt by professors who fixate on a single-specialization approach must be challenging. Given today’s disruption-prone workforce, I imagine they often reconnect with past students who don’t report back with stories of success, positivity, and progression. We can’t all receive a trophy like our beloved parents once promised, but that doesn’t discredit the time and hard work educators dedicate to producing successful graduates. It doesn’t have to be this way, we can design a more successful system geared around realistic preparation.

Visualizing a model for success

Now more than ever — with the millennial generation placing greater emphasis on soul-searching — the model for a ‘successful graduate,’ ready to tackle what life has coming, must be made more clear and beneficial to the many young learners chasing their dreams… or so they think.

We must also not forget the old model — law school was a great example. It used to be common for big firms to recruit graduates from fancy programs and offer irresistible salaries while billing them out to clients. This lasted until clients realized they were paying top dollar for untrained lawyers; the model had to change thereafter, once the big firms began losing business to smaller ones who provided more qualified resources.

I believe current learning models can be shaped by making slight tweaks to experiential learning. It’s no different than the first five years in the workforce, except you get paid to try new things rather than pay to learn about what you might later want to try, and if that doesn’t work out, well too bad, pay off your loans, go back, and learn about something else you might want to try. Shouldn’t students at least pay to actively try the many/few subjects that interest them, checking some off as they go while also uncovering skills that might otherwise remain buried by the pressure of discontent and fear? This is undoubtedly what the current model breeds — just ask five random people what they do for a living, and follow that up with asking what they would rather be doing for a living. I’m confident the two answers will be in misalignment.

I call it the “pick it and stick with it” approach. It’s not working. It hasn’t worked for decades.

The constraints of time and competition are leveraged to corral pre-professionals into “choosing” their path forward in society. Again, as a current paying customer (grad-student), I see experiential learning across multiple fields to discover what makes us “tick” as a superior approach to strategic selection based on what’s realistic and in alignment with personality, grades, background, and let’s not forget, affordability — queue the phone call to dad, ring-ring-ring: “hello. “ Hi dad, I think I want to go to med school… research says I would make a great doctor.”  

Experiential Learning Designingnorth.com

Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience, and is more specifically defined as “learning through reflection on doing. — Purdue University

I’m confident an institution-wide shift in mindset — with processes following behind — towards embracing discovery among students’ interests and imaginations will lead to a more effective population of young professionals entering the workforce. Speaking from what I learned along my journey, I met more people who were constantly searching for what could be, or what’s next. Very few people were excited with the present, and I attribute this to a fear of failure, a side effect to specialization too early in one’s career. Once you accept that you only fit into one small nook of the workforce, it’s easy to close yourself off from the plethora of knowledge and opportunity out there.  

There’s no good reason why working and living can’t go hand-in-hand… in harmony. But hope is on the way: shiny-bright lights are beaming down through the clouds with the help of the modern-education leaders who agree with my perspective on experiencing to learn rather than learning to experience. In fact, one in particular has curated a group of professionals from a similar educational/professional background to mentor his upcoming senior class: we will be guiding them through the transition phase of student to workforce-team member, and sharing the ‘experiences’ we recorded during our journey while equipping them with the tools and knowledge we wished we had just five or six years ago — I like to call this “paying it forward,” or “sending the elevator back down.”

There has to be more to the work experience than this.

This is a thought that has been repeated far too many times in my young career. And I’m not alone on this island. In fact, the majority of my previous coworkers and current friends share this perspective, they too are spending more time ‘searching’ rather than living. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

You see, we’ve come to agree on one thing: without experiencing something you don’t know with certainty whether or not it’s a good fit. And this mindset works both ways: there are plenty of undiscovered interests and talents in this world that are hidden simply due to lack of exposure. This theory resembles the way most kids are raised in the U.S. : parents enlist them in as many sports leagues as possible, allowing them to discover where they belong, and what they can derive happiness.

When I talk with fellow peers who, like me, are living out the last years of their twenties (I know, it’s terrifying), we frequently joke about getting ‘older’ and entering the age of no return: 30 — Yikes! Mentioning this is usually followed with a deep sigh.

It’s not the hesitation of tacking on an additional year to my age that scares me, but rather the concept of time running out before I gather enough experiences to identify my ‘it’ — ideal form of professional contribution or body of defining work. I have learned  about what I really don’t like and definitely don’t want to do. Looking back, I recognize missed opportunity that proved to be too “risky” at the time.

Have an open mind; allow new ways of thinking to influence the direction of your life, you will be happier person for it.

The post-college years should be a time of exploration and discovery in the professional world. Before family or a mortgage, you should feel justified in experimenting with career paths. But be prepared to fail, start over, and fail again — failure is a sign that you are actively designing. It’s OK to run into challenges right out of the gate — remember, it’s a marathon not a sprint.

At the current rate of change among companies, you will likely need to be good at many things to maintain a healthy career.

Current systems do in fact facilitate failure, and for some reason this is still viewed with negativity. Rather than manage success rates, it would be more productive to prepare professionals for what comes next: the getting back up and try something different part.

This is what you learn in your late twenty to early thirties (if you’re being honest with yourself). It’s the ‘I wasn’t expecting this part of life’ when the shortcomings of the education industry become transparent. So much is learned and achieved when the big-life plan fizzles out before it “booms,” but of course, you don’t know or understand this upon leaving the comfy confines of school; how could you?

The lessons learned during this stage of life (it really is just a phase many people experience in their lifetime) prove that you don’t know enough to pursue just one path. But for some reason society finds justification in criticizing those who don’t specialize in a single field of professional practice. This is the difference between learning in school and working in the real world: you don’t know all of the available opportunities until you are ‘in’ each unique work setting where stones can physically be turned over, and new doors opened.

For example, when I was in business school I didn’t know that I could enter the freelance economy if I choosed; I didn’t know that I could work on multiple projects at once as a consultant; I didn’t know that my education in marketing was just a foundation for a plethora of career tracks — I would still need to determine what the heck I was interested in (in the workforce), let alone good at and qualified for. And this caused significant tension — how could I become qualified for something I was advised to specialize in as a “best option,” not due to a deep interest, but rather a need to ‘simply’ pick something. And to think, I was paying to learn about a single subject I wasn’t confident I would enjoy… 100k should buy you a bit more experience, and a bit less book time — I think my fellow constituents would agree.

The truth is, you can be whatever you want to be in life, and that includes professionally; age doesn’t dictate what you can or can’t become. And figuring out what you want to be doesn’t always happen while in school; it may not even begin until entering the workforce — you just don’t know enough about the subjects you know nothing about. The elusive idea that we can excel at multiple things and build professional equity through a multidisciplinary approach is slowly becoming understood, especially as technology innovation powers full steam ahead and companies need their “rock stars” to manage numerous challenges at once.

As more and more industries transform in response to increased technology and competition, education institutions have an opportunity to follow their lead, while empowering professors to finally redesign the user experience associated with learning at a university. With this shift, learning would encompass more than subject matter, and would include the behavioral and psychological tools needed to make an impact in the workforce without regard to where you end up once the training is complete.

We are all fledglings at some point in life, but maybe a little more time in the nest would do us good.

These experiences will further train young professionals how to envision their true self, not just rely on their everyday self for answers and guidance. More importantly, they will empower students to seek multiple areas of interest, and develop a mindset that embraces transferable skills. The ultimate goal for education leaders will not be to graduate the most skilled engineers or marketing coordinators, it will be to shape problem solvers who are comfortable in many environments, and can alter their understanding of broad concepts to further absorb new knowledge. It’s this idea that will help shed more light on building transferable skills for the workplace while also exercising the human ability for rapid learning.

These are the changes we can make to fix the current education and work experience conundrum — it’s the firmware update this system has been waiting for, and it’s just in time for the arrival of smart machines. I’m not asking for a reinvention, I just want to see it designed better than before, to a level where it supports idea sharing, new ways of thinking, and most importantly, a greater value in oneself. One day, employers won’t need to evaluate education versus work experience to determine if a candidate is ‘ready’ for the gig. Can you see a similar future?

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What Is UI Design? Six Articles To Help You Understand

What is UI Design?

Once again, we turn to the Designing North Studio team (only a couple are dedicated UI practitioners) to share their their definition of UI Design in one sentence:

The translation of UX design into a visual interface, where the color, composition and placement of various interactive elements reinforce the user experience principles that have been deemed most important for a given interaction.Click To Tweet

“When function and art move in together before they tell their parents.”

The balance of visual design, layers of presentation, and interactiveness to provide a satisfying look, feel, and experience.

The translation of UX design into a visual interface, where the color, composition and placement of various interactive elements reinforce the user experience principles that have been deemed most important for a given interaction.

UI Design is the creation of graphics, illustrations, and/or use of photographic artwork and typography to enhance the display and layout of a digital product within its various device views.Click To Tweet

Have you ever heard someone say, “Wow, that website has horrible UI,” or “The UI of this app is the worst”? Similar to our comments on What Is UX Design, if you aren’t around designers all day this acronym is likely meaningless. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But to understand User Interface Design (UI), is to have a greater appreciation for the way designers craft  the look, feel and even responsiveness of a digital product, which all accumulates to interaction.

However, we understand that much like UX (user experience design), UI (user interface) is often interpreted slightly different depending on who you ask.  

At its core, User Interface Design creates the the look, feel, and interactiveness of a digital product — think web experience or app. But this is only the basis for understanding. You see, good UI is a multidimensional approach that enables a product experience to be responsive to a human being. It’s the Xanax of the design world. Remember that short animation that perfectly substituted the need for a thousand words? Or even that website that you navigated as though it was a guided tour. Now, that’s some good UI.

UI articles to help understand design.

Now, let’s paint you a more thorough picture of User Interface Design with these six articles:

1. UI is this, and UX is that:

https://medium.com/blu-mint-digital/ui-design-vs-ux-design-whats-the-difference-af97c2ff052a

2. UI basics, let’s start here:

https://www.usability.gov/what-and-why/user-interface-design.html

3. Good UI gets out of your way to help you complete a task:

http://blog.teamtreehouse.com/10-user-interface-design-fundamentals

4. Four ways color explains good UI

https://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2017/06/4-ways-vibrant-colors-boost-ui-design/

5. UI explained in 60 seconds. Starting now:

https://www.oho.com/blog/explained-60-seconds-ux-ui

6. These big design buzzwords make you sound more experienced — UI is one of them:

https://www.upwork.com/hiring/design/ux-ui-ia-digital-design-terms-explained/

Have a burning UI/UX question? Let’s chat!

What Is UX Design? Six Articles To Help You Understand

What is UX design?

Before diving in, we asked our Designing North Studio team (only a couple are dedicated UX practitioners) to answer this question in one sentence. Here is what they had to say:

UX design is a solution for understanding the user/customer/employee experience(s) with a business and/or businesses product(s) and the identification of what, if anything, that should change about those experiences to affect any identified business problem(s).Click To Tweet

A tool to reduce thinking during a user experience

UX design in the entire digital user experience with a brand’s product or service; sight, touch, sound, and feeling.

UX design focuses on optimizing the usability of a product, enhancing the interaction between the user and the product, and ensuring the user is able to get what they want out of the experience.

UX design should follow this simple tenet: Just make it bloody useable.

UX design is a body of ideas that shape an experience with a product.

UX design is the process of marrying usability data, visual cues, information architecture and a number of other factors to ensure that a user’s experience with a digital product requires the lowest possible cognitive load, and has the least amount of friction while completing an intended task or interaction.Click To Tweet

As you can see, this question can often lead to complex answers, and even experienced design professionals will have to stop and think a while before responding.

When you really ponder the idea of UX you start to understand that it’s not confined to the design realm.

UX design is everywhere. And It’s main focus is always “the user.”

UX design is in our homes, our work, and even our cars.

What we wear; we play with it and what we eat/drink are all influenced through UX design. In one way or another, UX design is a key part of your daily life. And when it’s implemented well, it enhances your experiences without recognition.

In reality, the majority of us aren’t trained to think about this concept, but that’s not to say that you shouldn’t start. Even if this practice isn’t a part of your current job — or it is and you just didn’t realize it — now is a great time to understand the basics of UX design. Or, at a minimum, identify what it is and what it is not. Who knows, it may inspire you to look at the world differently. 

Understanding UX design

To get you started, we have curated six articles that will help answer the question, what is UX design?

1. A  discussion with Andy Budd of UK-based agency, Clearleft and Digital Arts Magazine, on the classic role of a UX Designer:

http://designingnorth.com/2016/10/digital-designers-and-drug-dealers-we-all-need-the-user/

 2. Revealing the meaning behind the acronyms UX and UI:

https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/ux-design/the-difference-between-ux-and-ui-design-a-laymans-guide/

3. How to explain UX Design to anyone using simple thoughts and few words:

http://marianogoren.com/how-to-explain-ux-to-anyone/

4. The role of the UX Designer is still widely unknown. This article will help you explain UX to your team:

http://uxmag.com/articles/explaining-ux-design-to-your-team

5. What exactly is UX Design all about? How can I really make sense of it? This article from The Next Web (TNW) labels the key points to walk away with:

https://thenextweb.com/dd/2016/08/11/what-the-hell-is-ux-design/#.tnw_RfyMdXxN

 6. Learn the key differences between User Interface Design (UI) and User Experience Design (UX):

http://usabilitygeek.com/the-difference-between-ux-and-ui-design/

Still have questions? Send us a note! We’d love to help.

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Designing North Studios Playlist: Volume 1

“Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” — Ludwig van Beethoven

This is affirmation for every designer who stands on a musical foundation to power through the day.

Design and music goes hand in hand. Similar to art and a paint brush. With the majority of our time spent in front of the computer, we need music for many reasons. Music offers an escape to a place of focus; where creativity can be felt, absorbed, and expressed.

Day after day, we pour our heart and soul into our work, in the the design studio, striving to produce impactful results for every body of work that enters our virtual doors.

It’s here where we live, think, and invent with the intent to make the world a slightly more enjoyable place for all.

But this wouldn’t be possible without music. Our feelings, energy levels, and focus all rely on music in one way or another. Without even considering its power, we rely on music to set the mood, each and every day.

And contrary to popular belief, work is in fact a place for sound; a place where turning up the music leads to an atmosphere primed for creation not distraction.

From Stanford to Johns Hopkins, extensive research has been conducted, supporting the positive impact that music has on the learning environment.

A student is to learning as a designer is to creating, and music is the glue that bonds passion, focus, and intelligence to production and results.  

Although our favorites remain intact, we enjoy creating new playlists as we discover tunes that inspire and motivate us while in the design studio. Let us know how we’re doing and feel free to share your favorites along the way.

Designing North Studios Spotify Playlist: Volume 1:

Digital Design In Motion: Designing North Studios

It’s not a location, it’s a mindset.  

This is the brand tagline for Designing North Studios, our digital design and development studio based in the Bay Area. It’s meaning runs deep in the veins of the studio, and serves as the guiding light for every team member that walks through its doors — we like to call them Designing North Stars.

Designing North Studios is the product of many years of hard work and planning by Managing Director, Lisa Peacock. From the name, to the logo and color palette, and most importantly the mindset, Lisa’s vision always included motion in some way or another — it just took a few years for this vision to be brought to life:

“I’ve always envisioned that the Designing North logo would move. It’s not super easy to recognize that the DN from DESIGNING NORTH flips and glides together with our Yummo Font forming the combined ‘DN’ mark in our DN badge.”

The joining of the Designing North logo and motion marks a pivotal moment in the studio’s existence. It takes dedication, commitment, and most importantly, really good people to make a design studio “tick,” and that’s exactly what we do.

It’s all about designing a community that lives north of expectations.

Using Motion In Branding

Although motion and branding isn’t a new art form, augmented experiences are becoming an important part of our daily lives — across all screens. With more eyes on mobile, people want to experience a brand, not read about it.

As digital devices pervade all aspects of the human experience, motion design is an interesting and informative way to share the big idea or story; our story.

The Designing North interstitial display, designed by the talented Nick Alexander – expresses that marriage of the D, and then the N falling sideways, to form the mark.

Motion Design Inspiration

As the Executive Creative Director, Lisa Peacock envisioned every movement that takes place in the interstitial. It all has meaning, as it adds life to the Designing North name:

“It was important to give recognition to the use of the STAR in the logo badge. Even though a simple symbol, used by many – I always knew that the people I was looking for to work at Designing North Studios, would be my Designing North Stars. I had no one at first, but I knew they would come. And they did. So it serves both a tactical purpose of displaying the ‘mark’ inspiration, and it illustrates the aspirational side of the designing north mindset: we know the stars are out there, swirling around somewhere, and eventually we hope they land here and work with us at Designing North. But even more broadly: we know there are those out there, swirling around, ‘designing north’ wherever they are, and wherever they land. And we salute that mindset most of all.”

Five Ways Technology Will Change Our Lives By 2022

Whether you plan for it or not, your life will change in five years due to information technology breakthroughs. “5 in 5” as it’s called, is an annual series of imaginative predictions revealed by IBM, that aim to change the lives of humans through the implementation of ground-breaking technology. These predictions transparently serve to foreshadow the advanced  innovations that we can expect see in the near future. If the theme is artificial intelligence, you may just find your professional career intersecting with these advanced technologies sooner rather than later; are you ready for change?

AI Mental Health Tools

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness in their lifetime, with combined treatment costs being in the trillions – an alarming statistic to say the least. IBM predicts that their breakthrough implementation of AI will change the world for many people living with mental illness, and it’s how they plan on accomplishing this that’s most intriguing.

With the goal of early detection for developmental disorders, mental illness and degenerative neurological diseases, IBM plans on using a mix of automated cognitive systems — “simulation of human thought — to analyze a person’s speech and writing.” We find this advancement to be incredibly exciting; we are talking about cognitive computers here… whoa. Big data is finally ready to make an impact in our daily lives, not just sales numbers.

The use of AI is only in its early stages . IBM plans on using data points in combination with modern wearable devices — watches, monitors, earbuds — and imaging equipment to create a more complete picture of a person’s health than ever before; without the need for an office or specialized tools. Signs that were once invisible will now be transparent and manageable to the patient through wearable devices — this greatly reduces the barriers that healthcare presents to many people. AI technology of this form will alter healthcare as we know it. How many professional fields can lay claim to a statement like that?

Hyper-imaging With AI

The next five years will also reveal a change in how we interact with the environment, but not in the way you might predict. The self-driving car has been a hot topic of late for the sheer fact that human hands no longer need to control the steering wheel — still weird to imagine. Even before most of us see one of these on the road, IBM is already developing cognitive computers that will further enhance their reliability and safety through hyper-imaging — seeing beyond the domain of visible light. The concept of millimeter-wave imaging paired with sensors is making much of the invisible world now visible. Black ice, fog, and distant objects will no longer be out-of-sight; they may remain out-of-mind for us humans but our vehicles will certainly be aware.

In five years this eye-opening technology won’t be limited to our cars, it will translate to our health. Imagine taking an image of your food to determine its exact nutritional value — or lack thereof. Or what about imaging your meds to ensure that you know exactly what you are ingesting. Better yet, what if your video game could pair with augmented reality to physically see through solid objects? Like our own body? Crazy, right?

AI technology through connected devices

Digitizing the Physical World

Data is all around us; every second that ticks away mass amounts of data are being recorded, we just can’t see it. The data that we speak of is commonly used to educate us on our ecosystem although it’s often outdated since it takes so long to organize after collection. Researchers have revealed that data scientists spend nearly 80 percent of their time scrubbing data before analyzing it. IBM is confident that this will change within five years. Real time is going to bring real meaning.

Our human lives are connected with our possessions: watches, phones, computers, appliances, thermostats… the list goes on for days. According to IBM, there are already more than 6 billion connected devices relaying data on a monthly basis — we are truly living in a matrix. Through this digitization of the physical world, macroscope technology will reveal insights on the fundamental issues that affect every single one of us living on earth.

In theory, algorithms and software will soon aggregate, organize, and analyze data on anything we choose, including soil, water, food and even space. And yes, this data will be searchable by all, likely from your phone — if those still exist in five years.

Medical Labs on a Chip

In five years, wearable technology will determine when a person should see a doctor. The guesswork of being human will slowly vanish as nanotechnology advances. With the use of hyper imaging, computer chips will see (read) bodily signs and fluids that are invisible to the naked eye. The way IBM puts it, “The goal is to shrink down, to a single silicon chip, all of the processes necessary to analyze a disease that would normally be carried out in a full-scale biochemistry lab.” Take a minute to visualize that — an entire lab fitting into a silicone chip.

In five years, you and I will have access to handheld devices that can read biomarkers — thousands of times smaller than a human hair — while sending it to a secure cloud without lifting a finger. In combination with other real-time data from devices such as a sleep monitor or fitness watch, AI software can quickly analyze an individual’s health for immediate detection of problems. But will this be fast enough to fill our insatious appetite for immediate satisfaction?

Think about this technology as a liquid biopsy. It’s goal, to revolutionize the traditional tissue biopsy, making it more comfortable, accessible and convenient. Large populations may soon have the ability to detect disease before it even forms. That is, if your healthcare is generous enough to cover it — did we just go there?

Speed of Light Pollution Detection

Most pollutants are invisible to the human eye; unfortunately their devastating effects are not. Methane — the primary component of natural gas — is said to be the second largest contributor to atmospheric warming — yes this is a real ‘thing’ outside of China. In the U.S. alone, emissions from the industrial oil and gas sector account for the largest source of methane output into the atmosphere. The EPA estimates that natural gas systems leaked more than nine million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere in 2014 alone — a number so large that it’s incomprehensible.

In five years affordable sensors will line natural gas pipelines, wells and storage facilities; monitoring for any signs of a leak. The detection process will soon take minutes rather than weeks, drastically decreasing the overall environmental impact. IBM predicts that this sensor technology will do more than detection, it will also reveal the path that harmful gas travels before entering the atmosphere.

Maybe the environment isn’t your first priority, but let’s talk about how sensors can enhance your personal life in five years. This real-time sensor detection process can work on your breath as well; diagnosing respiratory disease will likely become a quick and convenient process. The days of expensive and invasive respiratory testing will soon be behind us.

Does all of this technology have your head spinning? If IBM’s predictions are accurate — their track record being  pretty darn good — the next five years will reveal scientific tools that enhance the way humans live and interact. The invisible world will become clearly visible, opening the door to breakthroughs in health, medicine, and the environment. Maybe then the validity of so many accusations wouldn’t require years of discussion. In five short years these five innovations just might become ordinary.

We happen to have a few predictions of our own when it comes to Technology and human interaction; let us show you what we are working on here at Designing North Studios.

Amazon Alexa: Negotiating With a Belligerent Two Year-Old

Released in November 2014, Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa, is making her voice heard across the globe. Although her speech is crystal clear, her understanding of the unique environment around her may take some time to develop. She also happens to be a fine listener — as the U.S. court system is discovering. But can she truly assimilate into any family? Well, that depends on how much character you’d say your family has. Our head of technology at Designing North Studios, Nigel Peacock, shares some of the quirks of introducing Amazon’s Alexa into a new home.

“Using Alexa to connect my home was a fairly easy process, and, when paired with a few choice IFTTT recipes — a digital connection between your apps and devices — I soon had our house working like the flight deck of the USS Enterprise — “beam me up Scotty”. Alexa is a font of knowledge and adept at controlling anything from refrigerators to robots yet we don’t have norms to judge our experiences; it still feels pretty experimental at this point.

Similar to how you might engage a ‘real’ family member, Alexa is always listening for the wake-word ‘Alexa’. If any of your household happen to also be called Alexa either a) have them adopted or b) change the wake-word to ‘Amazon’ or ‘Echo’. Option b doesn’t seem seem to invoke the emotional connection you may want with your virtual personal assistant  but it’s probably more humane than off-loading your relatives — we’ll leave this to opinion.

Using the Alexa app you can help her learn by marking how successful a command has been.. This is particularly useful for someone like me having grown up with an affliction such as a London (England) accent. The trouble is that  Alexa very often expects more drawn out syllable sounds than my vocal gymnastics can produce . This provided some low-brow entertainment for my ‘murican family as I attempted the intricacies involved in pronouncing “sauce”.  Is it source, sarse, saass who knows? Least of all Alexa. In my opinion a similar feature applied to drive-through window operators would help the fast food industry cater to those whose dialect is not from the backwoods of Arkansas.

For now Alexa can only listen to one Spotify channel at a time. Not really an issue if your only companion is a solitary online voice assistant. However if you have several family members all equipped with their own Echo Dot then Alexa coupled with Spotify, will provide some interesting playlists. Bursts of Ding Dong Merrily On High interrupted by The Insane Clown Posse regularly featured during our holiday festivities.

If you have any experience negotiating with a belligerent two year-old, then you’ll be well equipped to converse with Alexa. She’s dogged in her refusal to do anything not aligning with her preferred syntax. Being British I’m pre-disposed to say please and thank you regardless of the quality of service. It’s been said that we would thank our torturer if they said please before ripping out our fingernails. Alexa on the other hand has no time for such pleasantries  and, unless you speak to her like the family dog, will bluntly refuse to accept your repeated commands to turn the kitchen light on.”

5 Tips for Managing the Digital Product Design and Development Process

Everybody knows that the three most important words in real estate are location, location, location. But did you know that the three most important words in managing digital product design & development are communication, communication, communication?

No, this is not a new Geico ad. We recently interviewed Designing North Studios’ Managing Director and Executive Creative Director Lisa Peacock  and Head of Technology Nigel Peacock about how best to navigate the sometimes stormy seas of digital design and development. The interview was timely, as we just completed a retrospective on a major digital product design (yet to be unveiled to the public) – a process we undertake religiously after every big digital endeavor.

What tools or processes are most critical to the successful execution of a digital development project?

Nigel:

If the decision is solely ours, then we employ the Agile development methodology, which has consistently worked well for us. Depending on the Nigel_Peacock-colorclient’s preference, we can employ offshoots of Agile such as Scrum, Kanban or even Extreme programming.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t adapt to other more traditional processes, however, such as Waterfall or Critical Path Method (there’s one for the teenagers). That said, we often find ourselves working in a hybrid environment to accommodate a particular client’s internal processes. Whatever the preferred methodology, we do insist that a decision is made early on in the engagement usually during the discovery process which ensures that we get everyone on the same page thus completing stage one of “communication, communication, communication.”

Lisa:

Yes, and I think that the daily stand-ups are probably the most beneficial or critical element of that process. Every team member who is deployed on the project is part of the daily stand-up, and is expected to report on what they’re working on that day, what’s next on their task list, and any blockers or impediments that might cause them to not complete their task.

Nigel:

I would add  that it’s imperative that those meetings are kept to the brief three-point agenda that Lisa mentioned. In fact the meeting leader, the “Scrum master,” has a responsibility to keep the stand-ups organized to the point of being regimented and steer each contribution to a 5-10 minute slot at the same time every day.  Longer discussions can be saved for the “Meet After” or “Huddle.”  Working with a virtual team means that we don’t have the luxury of “water cooler” discussions, so tools like Slack and Basecamp are vital additions to our project arsenal, and allow us to continue conversations outside of the stand ups. Or we can just say “Hi’ to make sure we keep the team socialized and the energy levels up.

You’ve both managed countless digital projects over the course of your collective careers. What are the biggest potential pitfalls to be wary of – the perennial hang-ups?

Lisa:

designing-north-studios-lisa-peacock-pointingTwo Things: Business Requirements and Business Rules. Not keeping requirements top of mind throughout the project, and not documenting the product’s business rules effectively so that they are not lost in the hand-off between Design and Tech is critical. Establishing requirements up front, which is part of an Agile process or any project process for that matter, is the easy part. But it takes strong leadership to continuously circle back and hold both the requirements and subsequent business rules up against decisions points as the team progresses through a project.

Nigel:

Yes, and steady tracking of the requirements and designs makes it easier to eliminate disagreements as they arise. When you encounter a conflict between a proposed UX solution from the designers and a technical solution from the developers, we’ll grab the applicable business set to help inform a direction. I would also add that guiding the customer toward defining the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is paramount to any product launch success. It’s super easy to get excited as the product begins to take shape and keep adding more and more bells and whistles until you eventually have a difficult time reaching the finish line. Keeping a backlog of great ideas, with a quick prioritization indicator for add ons later is critical to keeping the creative thinking logged. It also helps to remind clients that you can eventually get everything you want, but not all at once. This is where Agile, used properly, can be a real asset.

Speaking of settling conflicts, how do you solve conflicts that aren’t necessarily settled by a review of the business rules?

Nigel:

branding-design-gallery01Even the most well documented, evolved business rules can still be open to interpretation when the development rubber meets the road. It’s really important to have members of the design, development, and analysis teams joined at the hip from the project inception to deployment.  Rather than constrain enthusiasm or creativity, we tend to let ideas flow freely, then before committing to them, we’ll have the Tech team make sure that designers aren’t writing checks that can’t be cashed.

Lisa:

Hey now, expertise comes at a cost my friend. Ha! No, this is true. Creativity can jeopardize scope. A good creative director will spot it when its happening. I would also add that the designers can often help to rein-in the tech team too when their solution is more elegant than might be needed for a particular requirement or business rule. Again, daily stand-ups can give tech a better understanding from the design and business teams as to what the customer not only wants but really needs. Then assumptions aren’t made along the way that can cost everybody extra time and money.

You touched on time and money and that translates to budget. What tools do you use for scheduling and for tracking budget?

Nigel:

Typically we use Microsoft Project for the project schedule and Google Docs to communicate high level planning.  Depending on the customer preference we will use a variety of development planning tools, but most often focus on Microsoft Team Foundation Server (TFS) or JIRA for sprint planning.

Lisa:

In terms of tracking project budget, we’re a Harvest shop. Everyone works to a detailed time sheet that’s approved every week. Harvest reports make it easy to see exactly where you are, and forecast burn rate which is especially helpful when talent is working on more than one project at a time. Specifically, for tracking design deliverables, we like Trello, and find it to be an effective way to assign tasks, see what’s coming up next, what’s in-review with the client, and finally fill-up the complete column once a deliverable has been handed-off to tech.

What happens when a designer or a developer just isn’t getting it?

Nigel:

You know, that’s honestly one of the best parts of our business model. We’re a blend of freelancers who have worked together on a variety of projects. When we select our team, it’s after Lisa and I have a good feel for the type of client we’re dealing with, the type of project we’re tackling, and the methodology that’s going to work best for the client. We handpick the team from there. We’re not saddled with having to use anyone “on the bench” just because they’re filling seats at an office.

Lisa:

And look, despite that flexibility, we still need to have the fortitude to acknowledge when we’ve got the wrong person for a particular task. We recently had a very talented designer who came out of the chute with the client’s favorite overall design for a digital product, but whose follow-up design comps kept missing the mark. Rather than beating our head against the wall, we just made the change; swapped out one talent for another talent more suited to the pace and ‘feel’ for the product brand direction. It worked out great, in no time, we were back on track. It was the right move.

Nigel:

Again, our business model gives us a lot of flexibility. We usually shoot for the Extreme Programming model in that we assemble a team dynamic which comprises a mix of business experience, technical talent, innovators, and leaders but most importantly a team that works together, understands each other, and just gets off on producing quality products.

Any final thoughts or advice?

Nigel:

No process is perfect. We see digital product design & development as an iterative process always. We’re continually improving and refining how we tackle new projects. But without question, effective communication between team members and between DN and the client, is paramount. And actually, a true strategy we believe in.

Lisa:

I agree with Nigel, and would add that having people who are generally happy, energetic, and who come to the table with the DN mindset we’re always looking for in our stars, is what I strive for. We put together teams filled with people who enjoy what they do. It makes life much easier during crunch time. You can have the best full stack developer on the planet, but if everyone hates working with him, it can make for a rough project. Respect for one another and collaboration are key.

Nigel:

And I think that when team members have a common goal and a mutual respect for one another, it also eases the process. When everyone has a solid understanding of the scope of the project and has respect for each other’s abilities, it goes a long way. 

Top 5 tips for effectively managing a digital product design & development project:

_______________

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

Conduct daily stand-ups. Every team member knows what he or she is working on that day and that week. Blockers are addressed and mitigated.

_______________

2. Revisit requirements & business rules.

They’re established during discovery with the client and are revisited frequently – Scope creep kills the project, erodes motivation, and makes planning a pain in the ass.

_______________

3. Establish an MVP.

Make sure the project plan has a clear definition of the MVP and successfully execute that first. Refer to the “wouldn’t it be great” list later, and don’t let that distract anyone.

_______________

4. Assemble the right team.

And don’t be afraid to make changes when needed. One wrong apple makes the whole tree look like it needs water.

_______________

5. Iterate.

No process is perfect, so keep striving to refine your processes with each new project. Wisdom comes by learning something every single day.

_______________

Ready to get started on a new digital product or redesign?

GIVE US A HOLLER

_______________


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My, How Design Has Changed

 

That sounds a bit like a grandma or a too-doting-an-aunt remark. But now and then I’m overwhelmed with conflicting feelings about the current state of digital design. When I started some two decades ago, it was a holistic, all-consuming affair. I studied media arts & graphic design at the University of Arizona, and web design & usability at UCLA when they were embryonic topics. I led Ernst & Young’s bicoastal design team for its Center for Technology Enablement group when email was just beginning to replace the interoffice memo.

Sure I’ve evolved. I no longer write HTML from scratch. We employ BaseCamp, Asana, Pre.Vue, Slack, and Skype to communicate and manage projects instead of the hand-built HTML project sites I used to craft. I rarely sit in person with a hefty laptop to present design concepts or wires to our clients – we meet virtually with Google Hangout, GoToMeeting, Join.me, or BlueJeans.

The scheduled photo shoots with a lighting guy, a stylist, and an assistant to nab the right shot for brand, web, and print pieces has morphed into the hunting, decision, and purchasing process from sites like Stocksy, CreativeMarket, VisualHeirarchy, et al. Designers can combine hi-resolution photography with well-designed themes, PSD smart objects, and helpful vector layout kits (not to mention Sketch). Laboring for hours over code to produce clickable user experiences is over – InVision, Solidify, and Axure have deftly allowed our team to provide UX prototypes for our clients that already look real. This ensures a collaborative, iterative design process that’s both quick and cost-effective.

As a firm, we still insist that clients do not skimp on brand development. But the basement competition allows you to flash a five-dollar bill on Fiverr or a couple hundred bucks on 99 designs – presenting a logo as a *brand* to the unwitting. Even websites can be quickly produced by the layman with SquareSpace, Wix, and the forthcoming phenomenon of The Grid.

And yet, as much as it sometimes feels as if a once respectable vocation has turned into a used-car business, I must say, I relish the change. Now small businesses that could not have afforded design studio contracts can have a relatively professional looking digital presence and take advantage of our increasingly digital economy. For these smaller clients, design studios might now be able to play a more strategic role, offering direction, consultation, and best practices.

In a sense, this evolution has sculpted the brand identity of our virtual team at Designing North Studios. We’ve been able to aggregate a team of stars who have the deep knowledge to both consult and implement. The digital revolution has permitted us to bring so many stars together because we’re not shackled to a single zip code. And due to the extraordinary volume of noise in the digital landscape, having a team who can make a business audible above the cacophony does add value. We can take our years of experience in listening, researching, strategizing, and finally designing to re-imagine user experiences and create strong brand identities that are intrinsically tied to clear business goals.

I guess it’s okay that I’m no longer slogging through HTML in every nook and cranny of our projects. It doesn’t make me less of a designer. In fact, it allows me to focus more deeply on the creative elements that add that hover above – that provide authentic differentiation. In the end, it’s great design if it successfully accomplishes what your business set out to do. Period.

Thanks for the therapy session. I’m cool now.

Note: I still love and prefer meeting clients in person whenever it works for them!

/Lisa

How about you?  What do you miss? Do you agree that the evolution is a net positive?
 

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6 reasons to (ahem) love tech gadgets

In January you made a resolution to improve yourself. In February you expressed your love. March typically is when all of that positive progress kind of fizzles and I say no. Keep it going. There are several gadgets out there that will help you continue being stronger, faster, and (ahem) harder.

Activite Pop
www.withings.com/us/withings-activite-pop.html

Google “fitness tracker” and you’ll get a plethora of results to suit your fancy. Want a big computer to put on your wrist that tells you your BPM and reminds you to buy milk? It’s out there. How about a tracker that acts like your mom and tells you to sit up straight? That exists too. But what I’ve been looking for is fitness tracker that well….doesn’t look like a fitness tracker. And we might just have that with Withings’ Activite Pop. It looks like a Swatch but with awesome extras. It syncs with your smart phone and tracks activity, sleep, and swimming. Lasts 8 months without charging and it has a silent vibration alarm. Most important of all, it doesn’t scream to the world that you’re obsessively tracking your steps and analyzing if that 30 minute run gives you enough room within your daily diet to squeeze in a donut. (FYI: It doesn’t unless you’re eating one donut hole. Plain.)

Bragi Dash
www.bragi.com

This headphone won the CES Best of Innovation Award 2015 and I’m not surprised.
Obviously it’s a wireless headphone that can play music from your smartphone.
It’s also a fitness tracker.
It’s waterproof so you can (in theory) swim with it.
It’s got an ear bone microphone so it picks up vibrations from your voice, not background noise. It isolates noise so you can block out babies crying on the plane.
It can make eggs on toast.
It takes your dog out for a walk.
It helps you decide whether you should eat burritos or sushi for dinner.
Ok, so it doesn’t do the last three things but what it’s promising is alot and the reviews for this headphone has been overwhelmingly positive. Right now this headphone is only available as pre-order but if it truly offers everything it’s listed, Bragi raised the headphone bar to a level that I’m excited for other companies to follow.

Smart Shirts

YES. Yet another item that tracks your activity! In theory the data will be more accurate because the sensors are tracking data from different points on the shirt. Not just from one point on your arm. These may seem ridiculous and overpriced but I really like the idea of body sensors becoming part of our lives in non-intrusive ways. Yes it appeals to the super OCD fitness freak who wants to know how hard they’re breathing when they hit a certain BPM. But imagine what it could do for tracking the health of loved ones? Imagine your grandma who lives 100 miles away is wearing this shirt and she starts to have a heart attack. You could receive an alert telling you what’s going on inside your grandma’s body within seconds. This isn’t just technology for hard core fitness nuts, it could be a way to monitor the health of our loved ones in real time.

Hexoskin and OM Signal offer some of the cooler looking designs for smart shirts. Ralph Lauren is actually using OM Signal’s technology in their Polo Tech Shirt.

All very pricey especially if you wanna buy more than one shirt. Who’s going to buy just ONE shirt? That would be a very stinky shirt indeed. But give it time. Fitness trackers were once overpriced too, now you can get them for under $70. I’m hoping smart shirts become popular, developers create interesting apps to go with it, and the idea of tracking our loved ones health from afar becomes an economical and easy choice.

Petcube
petcube.com

Many would agree that the one place where they’re guaranteed love is from their dog or cat. So it makes sense that you want to be connected to your pet as much as possible. But what do you do if your workplace won’t let you bring your pet to work? Sure you can get a Dropcam so you can watch your pet from home. But Petcube not only lets you see your puppy sleeping on your bed. You can also play with your puppy with the built in laser pointer from whatever remote location you’re at. The Petcube includes 2-way audio stream and a 138 degree wide angle lens that streams glorious 720p of your furry friend.

Teledildonics

You gotta hand it to the adult toy industry for pushing the bar as far as possible in the realm of pleasure. They find a need and they fill it. Are you and your loved one currently doing the long distance thing but video chatting isn’t enough? Kiroo has created a Fleshlight and a massage tool that are connected through Bluetooth. Proving yet again that if you add Bluetooth to anything, it makes the product ten times better. The idea is you and your partner could have a sexy yum yum time together in real time even if you are miles and miles away from each other. He would have the Onyx (the Fleshlight), the woman would have the Pearl (the massage tool), make sure Bluetooth is turned on, the wifi signal is strong, and boom you two are literally in sync.

Couple
couple.me

There are alot of social networking apps targeting smaller groups, specifically couples. Couple is the most impressive out of all of them. Yes it offers what you typically expect from an app to keep you updated on everything your partner is seeing and thinking. You can post pictures, write love notes to each other in the timeline, create to-do lists, update a shared calendar, and find restaurants where you can actually talk to each other IRL. But the cutest feature by far is “thumbkiss.” You open the thumbkiss feature, wait for your partner to join, match your thumbs, and the phones vibrate when your thumbs kiss. Is this a dorky way to express your love? Sure, but damnit this thumbkiss sure makes me smile.

Elaine Adolfo is a professional amateur of dance and all things tech. When she’s not helping the Stanford Center for Internet and Society improve technology and law as their Associate Director, she’s scouring the web for all things odd, brilliant, and life changing. Follow her site elaine.la.

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