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Very random thoughts on a variety of interactive media topics. Broadly looking at experience design, brand, digital consumer strategies, innovation and a fair dollop of user-facing technology. I'm Experience Director at EMC Consulting and you can also find me masquerading as @poleydee on Twitter.

Changing paradigms, changing cultures

I had the privilege of meeting and listening to Bill Buxton last week at the MIX UK Conference down in Brighton.

Bill is now Principal Researcher at Microsoft, and in his keynote, he talked about changing Microsoft from within. A good Register article on it is here.

A few things he said resonated, and one came to mind when I saw Swype. This is a technology that calls itself a gesture-based text input system, and is intended for use on small form factor devices where the main control input is a stylus and touch-screen. Give yourself a bigger touch-screen and a finger becomes a feasible input device.

Essentially, it is a predictive text input system, rather like the T9 system that runs on a number of mobile phones. But instead of hitting a small number of buttons, you just run your finger/stylus over the letters you want, without lifting it, except to indicate a space.

Here’s the demo:

So one of Bill Buxton’s statements of the day was that you will never change mass paradigms. What he meant, was that if there was an accepted way of doing things, and this was so deeply embedded in people’s experience and learning, then trying to change it one device or website at a time will simply never work. He’s not talking about always putting your search box top right on a website. He’s talking about major conventions. For example, he pointed to the failure of things like the Dvorak keyboard layout over the more conventional QWERTY layout.

And he’s right of course. If there isn’t enough momentum in users, or the market, or the advancement you have made isn’t significant enough to warrant shifting, and the old paradigm is so deeply embedded, it’s going to be pretty tough.

But does that stifle innovation? No. I’m sure the last thing Bill would want to do is stifle creativity or ideas, but he is saying ‘pick your battles’. He struck me as a very daring man, but equally a very pragmatic one. I asked him if he thought we would see some major work done in the coming months or years on the Microsoft brand. His answer was incredibly diplomatic, and essentially focused at the inner core of Microsoft first. He said that his focus certainly was on getting the product right. Once the product was right, he implied, brand perception starts to move.

So where does SWYPE sit on this continuum? Is it doomed to failure because it’s too far from the old paradigm? Or is it the best thing since sliced bread?

I’m not going to make predictions – but I will make observations. I can’t see a major advantage over predictive text input. If you follow the speed of the demo above, it doesn’t appear to be faster – although it may well be with practice. I’m also not sure it’s more accurate either. The demo’s don’t ever show a situation where the intended text is ambiguous or not recognised by the dictionary. This is the bit that kills the joy of use of the T9 predictive text entry and frustrates us all on a daily basis.

What I can see is that this has most chance of success if it picks its battles. SWYPE could potentially replace conventional keyboard input – but fortunately it’s not trying to. It seems to be focused on small form factor touchscreen devices, where it will have much more chance of shifting a paradigm.

If we begin to see it on tablet PC’s on Windows 7 for example, where multi-touch is rumoured to be built-in; then this will make the touch format more common in the market for a standard PC format – then maybe that will create momentum as users new to the tablet format discover SWYPE as their first method of text entry.

And is the old paradigm so deeply embedded? I don’t think so. I still know people who use the old ABC method of entering text. When devices come around that have new potential for interaction, we have to start working out how to leverage those. If touchscreen always remained a simple replacement for a mouse, then we’re not using the power of the device, and we’re crippling our applications needlessly.

Sometimes the factor of ‘desire’ comes in to play. Bill’s advice was certainly applicable in situations where users don’t have much choice over the interface. Whereas there are people who have specific applications where they will actively seek out a more efficient, or for them, better way of doing things. If a user is willing to learn a new way, then all bets are off. They may well change their paradigm willingly. This is where devices like Logitech’s Space Navigator, a 3D navigation device come in.

If I’m a 3D designer, a gamer, a 2nd life resident, I may well want to find and learn a new and better way to do things.

It’s key to understand user motivation before making assumptions about what they will and won’t adopt.

So for Swype, it looks like a 50-50. It’s got good intent. The idea works, it seems. It’s appropriate to its environment; but will we shift the old paradigms? Is it a step too far? Only time and venture capitalists will tell…

So finally, what else did I like about Bill Buxton? Two things he said:

”Don’t hold on to your ideas.”

Don’t be precious about an idea you’ve had and pursue it doggedly despite those around you. Instead, focus on having as many ideas as possible, and practising the art of idea generation so that they flow easily from you on demand.

“Always be bad at something.”

When you find that you’re the master of everything you do. Drop one thing and pick up something else that you’re bad at. Whether you stop playing the saxophone and start horse riding, or you stop banging on about social media and go learn Expression Blend.. but always be in a state of learning and discovery somewhere in your life.

I’ll leave you to rationalise your own ‘why’ on that one… it certainly made sense to me though.

So don’t treat advice from people like Bill as ‘the rule’ – treat it as advice from someone who has been there. Take it on board, but then make your own decisions and choices for the situation you’re in and the users you’re designing for. If I ever hear “You can’t put the navigation on the right… remember Buxton’s rule!” I will scream.

So try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, never be happy with the way things are – they can always be better – but pick your battles!

Anyway, I hope I meet Bill Buxton again. Interesting guy, interesting work.

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About Paul.Dawson

I started working in 'new media' when it was new... around 1996, doing websites for people like DHL and Cellnet (remember them?) as well as CD-Roms for people like Dorling Kindersley. I joined Conchango in 1999 because I was fed up with the conflicts and overlaps between the companies that we tended to partner with to deliver these things. Usually it was a tech company and a marketing agency. Neither had the user's needs in mind, and both were trying hard to take business away from each other. So at Conchango I saw the opportunity to create an integrated team, who as a result of all being on the same side, and following good user centred design process, delivered better stuff for both our clients and their customers. Bizarrely, now that we have teams who truly understand all these aspects of projects, we now partner very well with both tech and creative companies! So we built an interactive media team who do design, branding and user experience, and since 2006 have consistently been rated best in Europe at this by Forrester Research. Which was nice! Since then I've worked on digital strategy and innovation for companies like Virgin Atlantic, Barclays, Tesco and other great clients as part of EMC Consulting. Now I spend a lot of time evangelising to customers and at conferences, about what EMC Consulting do in the field of Customer and Brand Experience, as well as still working for real clients on real projects. The final thing I do is look out for what new user-facing technologies will be relevant to us, our customers and consumesrs. I help shape how we adopt them, and how we apply them, and how we build the skills we need to be the best at them.

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