In part 1 of this interview, I talked with Edie Adams about the many innovative products she has helped develop at Microsoft. In part 2, my interview with Edie Adams continues, as we discuss product semiotics, designing products at the right emotional level and designing for flow…
TvG: You wrote your master’s thesis on product semiotics. Can you explain to my readers exactly what product semiotics is?
EA: It’s understanding that products communicate meaning through their form.
TvG: Is it exclusively through their form or do they communicate in other ways as well?
EA: There are other aspects too, but the part I was interested in was aesthetic. My thesis was about the functional and emotional meanings of products. I developed a framework for understanding product semiotics.
It’s acknowledging that people will ascribe meaning to a product, like they do with any three-dimensional form. As the designer of that product, it’s about trying to ensure that the message you convey through the product is the message you intend. So, it’s using the analysis of sign theory or semiotics – so meaning through signs – and applying that to the three-dimensional form of your product.
TvG: Can you describe how that initial interest in the formal aspects of product semiotics has affected your subsequent work?
EA: The fundamental underlying way that I approach how people and products interact is from the perspective of semiotics. In most of the computer industry, there’s a functional approach to what the computer means to the user. It means you can email your friends, you can manipulate photos, etc. It’s very task-based.
But with my ergonomics background, which was all about physical interaction, I wanted to understand the physical interaction between the person and the product. How do you hold onto it? How do you manipulate the controls. That kind of stuff.
What semiotics has allowed me to do is to understand how a product conveys meaning in the context of all the other forms of language and ways of conveying meaning that exist out there in different cultures. That’s meant I’ve brought a focus on social and emotional interaction to product design.
TvG: So, can you explain to my readers how product semiotics relates to designing for emotion?
EA: Designing for emotion is a way of making a product appealing that takes that product beyond the purely functional aspects. So it’s a way of differentiating between products.
If you don’t have the proper tools at your disposal, it’s difficult to purposefully design the emotional meaning that’s conveyed through the product. Semiotics gives us a way to understand that there are particular meanings conveyed through particular elements and that we can reliably evoke the meanings we intend to.
TvG: So semiotics would be one of those tools?
EA: Yes. What semiotics lets me do in my day to day work is decide what is the most important meaning that has to be conveyed. What’s going to make the biggest difference to the end user?
And sometimes it’s the physical stuff. In a keyboard, you have to make sure the feel of the keys is right and the actuation forces are not too high because that physical interaction is critical. In other products, the physical aspects matter and must be attended to, but they’re not the thing that will drive delight with the product.
Semiotics lets me figure out what will make the biggest difference. Emotional reactions to products are usually considered to be part of branding. But the emotional interaction is so much more than just the actual device, or the branding. It includes the whole story that surrounds it. It also includes the cognitive interaction and this is especially true with computer products.
So sometimes it’s the cognitive interaction, sometimes it’s the physical interaction and sometimes it’s the emotional interaction that matters most. Sometimes it’s the social stuff. What does having this product say about me to other people? Being able to read the product at different levels is possible because of the tools and skills that I have in product semiotics.
TvG: Could you draw a parallel here between the levels you mention and Donald Norman’s visceral, behavioral and reflective levels. Appearance or physicality, interaction or behavior, and status or identity?
EA: Sure. You could also think of it in terms of Maslow’s Need Hierarchy. You’ve gotta make sure that the physical stuff is taken care of before you can think of getting the task done. And you’ve gotta make sure that the behavioral things are taken care of before you deal with the reflective, self-actualization part.
TvG: The practice of designing for emotion goes by a number of names including Funology, Emotional Design, Kansei Engineering, Lovemarks, and Pleasurable Products, to name a few. Is there a term you use at Microsoft to describe this practice?
EA: Sometimes I call it emotional engagement or product personality It’s equally a part of branding, user research, and product design.
TvG: I’ve talked with some designers who’ve used emotional design methods in design projects and missed the mark because they’ve focused on the wrong level. How we can go about identifying what the most crucial elements or levels are?
EA: Talk to your end users and understand their motivations for using the product. I don’t need to have all the answers. I just have to be able to talk to people to find out what their answers are. It requires really listening to users and understanding their mental models.
TvG: Does that encompass any techniques that you would say are outside of normal user experience research methods?
EA: Probably. We’re always looking for new ways to do user research, product design and technology development. So much depends on the product. In my world, every product I’ve done has never been done before. So there’s often as much innovation required in how we do the research as in the resulting product specifications. We’re still delivering on the same goals, but how we get to those goals changes every time.
TvG: So the standard user experience toolkit is still useful; user interviews, usability testing, participatory design, competitive analysis?
EA: Oh yeah. That’s all good. But you can use all of those tools and still come up with really flat insights, or you can be the team that comes up with something that really makes a difference.
TvG: How can you ensure that the insights your team gathers really make a difference? Is it based on the quality of the teams you build? Or is it based on the individual designer’s talents?
EA: It’s partly the individual proclivity and partly what comes from having highly skilled people with highly disparate backgrounds work together. But one thing we do, that I’m not sure other teams do from talking with other user experience people, is to try and understand success at all the different levels of the product.
We have success metrics for the user experience and success metrics for the business and success metrics for the corporate strategy. We look at what success looks like in the industry as a whole. Then we take the research and the insights and decide which of those good ideas are going to drive success at all those levels.
I think what a lot of designers and researchers do is get stuck at a particular emotional level of the product with one low-priority feature. They become insulated and blind to the higher-levels goals that the product should be achieving. The more you know about the high level goals, the better you can figure out what will make a difference to the user.
TvG: Do you have an example of where designers have focused at too low a level, or the opposite, where they’ve hit one out of the park?
EA: Here’s a feature of a product that satisfies at all the different levels. On the HP Touchsmart, there’s one feature that I think makes this product really innovative. It has a 19” touch enabled monitor. It’s a walk-up PC. Using touch as an input facilitates casual use of the PC, and you can leave post-it notes for your family members by using your finger.
So at the user research level, you can think about how people can leave notes and draw simple pictures. You could be thinking about how thick the stroke a finger will leave on the screen. At the engineering level, you could be thinking about how much pressure is required on the screen to make a mark.
But if you’re focused only on those levels, you’re missing out on the huge potential of being the first to market with a touchscreen. And you’re missing out on the strategic level, where we’re promoting natural interaction through touch. So there’s a whole bunch of levels that are satisfied.
And from the user perspective, people think it’s just the coolest thing ever to be able to draw little smilies or a picture of the dog and leave that for a family member. It really resonates with users to be able to do something so personal through the computer. It’s almost as direct as seeing pictures of people and places they know. It takes away the focus from the technology and puts it on the people you know.
If you didn’t think about these things, you’d miss the most important issue, which is connecting people with each other, and you wouldn’t focus on what the best way is to do that.
EA: If you can design something that fosters or facilitates the Flow state, that’s great! I think you can use the attainment of Flow as a success metric.
TvG: How important would you say that designing for emotion and Flow has been to the success of the products you’ve worked on at Microsoft?
EA: I think it’s been a higher priority goal for some of the products than for others. In the work that I’ve done in setting up success criteria for products, we have always considered it in the context of what else that product was supposed to be doing.
TvG: So what would be an example of a product where Flow was an important metric of success?
EA: The Microsoft Natural Keyboard. The whole idea of the natural keyboard is to get yourself into a position that allows you to focus on your thoughts rather than on your hands on the keyboard and requires the appropriate amount of physical effort.
TvG: So there’s an element of redirecting attention from possible distractions, like physical discomfort?
EA: It’s all about eliminating the unnecessary or distracting. With the natural keyboard, for example, the issue was; how do you successfully remove any impediments that would otherwise have existed?
TvG: In projects where Flow has been an important success metric, how have you gone about measuring whether you’ve been successful?
EA: We have used a range of techniques. Some are surrogate, a result of being in a Flow state and some are self report. With the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, we used the physical metric. We can measure posture at the wrist. The question we sought to answer was; is there is a difference in the amount of time that the wrist sits in a neutral posture, which is good, versus how long it’s in a non-neutral posture?
We also worked with the very talented staff at the University of California, Berkeley to measure finger placement and pressure inside the carpal tunnel in the wrist.
TvG: What about for software or websites? How would you measure Flow?
EA: I’ve never done that, but the way I think I’d go about doing it would be to compare one piece of software over another to learn if, or how Flow is manifest when reading or interacting with websites. You could do it based on the amount of time people spend on task. I would also expect to see less evidence of distraction.
I’ve wondered if there’s something about identity in that. People construct their identities somewhat through the items that they keep around them. I’ve wondered if the items that you have around you can impact your ability to reach Flow?
One of the things we’ve done in that direction is to create the industrial design toolkit. It’s a design language that allowed our industry partners to translate the aesthetic qualities of VISTA into the physical form of PCs.
First of all, it was about translating the visual language of software into hardware. The next step was to say; can our industrial designers use that toolkit to design hardware that is substantially different than if they hadn’t had the toolkit? And then, could our consumers recognize the difference between a computer created using the industrial design toolkit versus one that wasn’t? What we wanted to know was, was that difference valuable to the user and did it improve the user’s experience?
We found that the users wanted that visual integrity in the experience. And by “integrity” I mean that a single experience was perceived across the hardware and software.
TvG: That sounds highly subconscious.
EA: Oh yeah! And you can’t just put four people together in a room and ask them “do these go together?” But we have statistically significant results that show the result is there. We did matching tasks and card sort tasks. We asked them “is this more similar or less?”
TvG: So kind of like Sesame Street? “One of these things is not like the other…”
EA: Yeah, and we extended that into “does it matter to you?”
TvG: Integrity is an important characteristic that we look for other in people. The work of Reeves and Nass at Stanford has shown us that people attribute personalities to products and objects in the environment based on how similar they feel to the object. Do you find that the psychological principle of Similarity is compelling for people with software and PCs?
EA: Yeah, the single experience of the hardware and software together is important. For some of our user groups, similarity between the way they see themselves and the way they want their computer equipment to be is important. It’s relatively easy to measure whether something is the same or different using relative measures or differential techniques.
TvG: What sorts of things (that you can tell me about) is the PC|3 group working on right now?
EA: Hardware innovation. Making the software and hardware work together and promoting innovation in the industry.
TvG: At one point, you were the chair of the Employee Committee for the Microsoft Art Collection. How do you feel that your interest in art has affected the emotional qualities of the products you’ve worked on?EA: It showed me that anything is possible. And broadened my perspective on how objects can communicate emotionally. Looking at art, every emotion is valid as a subject. And if you can do it with art, you can do it in products. You just have to want it.
TvG: Who are some of your heroes?
EA: Aesthetically, Tadao Ando for his treatment of light. And Eva Zesle for her incredible staying power. The stuff that she designed for housewares and ceramics at the beginning of her career still looks spot on today.
TvG: Anyone else?
EA: Ettore Sottsass for his playfulness in design. Memphis was really formative for me.
TvG: What are you currently reading?
EA: I just finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was preceded by The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan… and I’m reading Systematic Landscapes, a book by Myaa Lin and how she makes art. I’m also reading a book about moss gardening.
TvG: What advice do you have for young designers working to incorporate emotional considerations into their design process? What should they be learning and thinking about?
EA: Make sure the emotional content is there. Even if you’ve been given something else to do that’s unrelated, if you think it’s important, put the emotional content in. Do it the way that you know you want to do it. Sneak it in there.
Even if the design seems really mundane, do it your way and do it with emotion. It’s really about establishing design for emotion as part of your personal process for doing design.
TvG: Edie, it’s been great speaking with you again! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview!
EA: Thanks Trevor. It was fun talking with you!