Why would a software design firm create a video game?

Human beings like boxes. Specifically, we like putting people, and things, and companies into boxes. As in, you’re this kind of person, and you’re that kind of person. As in, your company does this, and your company does that. In the simplest terms, we here at Jackson Fish Market are a design firm. We design experiences. These experiences span everything from the identity of a company or product to its marketing collateral, to its physical presence, to its software, to its support experience. We look at them all as being holistically connected, and when done right, all contributing to create a genuine emotional connection between the creators of the business, and the business’ customers. That is our purpose.

While we’ve talked about it a little bit before, when we’re not working hard for our clients, we’ve set aside a micro-team to work on a video game. So the question is this: Why would a software design firm create a video game? At first blush, it doesn’t seem to fit. But to us, it does. Let me explain.

For us here at JFM, we strive to create user experiences that are effective at creating emotional connections between the makers of a product or service and their customers. The experience in the broadest sense, is a bridge between the two groups. The wider, shorter, and more comfortable that bridge is, the deeper the connection is between the two groups. For us, even though our gaming experience and active gaming practice is completely across the board when it comes to our team, we are all in sync in terms of where game design fits into the overall pantheon of holistic interactive design. In our opinion, interactive game design is the highest form of our art.

Services like Netflix, or Facebook, or Uber all have high points in their user experiences (and some low points). And while their design is definitely a benefit for each of them, each also provides a core service that people really really desire – an instantly available good movie, connection with friends and family, and a quick ride without any hassle, respectively. In other words, as users, sometimes we will put up with small or even large speed bumps in their experiences because their core service is so desirable. But when it comes to a video game, there is nothing but the experience. There is nothing but the design. The user experience and the game are one. If the design gets in the way, then the game is not fun. And I don’t need to play the game to get home. I don’t need to play the game to do my job. In fact, often, spending time playing a game is a luxury that takes time away from doing something that’s probably more important.

A video game needs to immediately and unequivocally connect on an emotional level with a user and satisfy their craving to be entertained. It needs to do so in multiple dimensions at once. And abandoning it for another one is as easy as disposing of a piece of chewing gum. This purity of form, and this disposability, means that designing a video game that people fall in love with is the most difficult thing a designer in our field can do.

We are proud of the work we’ve done. Proud of the work we do for clients, and on our own products. But not a day goes by when we don’t long to improve. Not a day goes by when we don’t strive to elevate ourselves to be better designers, better communicators, and better storytellers.

We’re proud to (re-)announce that we are making a video game – Drey Duncan and the Haunted Hotel.

Drey Duncan, a newly minted graduate of the Columbia University graduate school of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation spent her last savings going to school to learn how to preserve the old buildings she loves. A city law firm comes looking for a grad student to evaluate a property in the city – a gorgeous art deco hotel, built in 1930, that opened for one weekend, and has been closed ever since. At first Drey says no. She’s fresh out of school and has no experience taking on such a big job. But after losing her only source of income, Drey has no choice, and accepts the gig. What will she find? Why did the hotel close? How could a beautiful hotel remain untouched for over 80 years in the middle of Manhattan? These are the questions Drey will try to answer on her first adventure.

Stay tuned to this blog where we’re going to be incredible transparent about the entire process of creating this game. And in the meantime, meet our hero: Drey. :)

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Responsive TV Remote — Dream Project #2

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This is the second in a series of posts describing some of the projects we would love to work on. As a holistic digital design firm, Jackson Fish Market is very fortunate to have really bright clients come to us with super interesting projects on a regular basis. But rather than wait for them to come to us, we figured we might let the world know which projects we’d love to work on. Each of these ideas is something we’re passionate about. And for each we have a deep set of ideas to help make them a reality. So if one of these is something you’re thinking about, call us. We’d love to help.

I think a lot of designers, sit back at the end of the day, turn on the television, and fantasize about redesigning the interface to their television. And while there are certainly challenges and opportunities when it comes to remote control of all the devices and services that connect to our televisions, that is not the are on which we would like to focus with this effort.

This effort would be about improving remote control of televisions in one simple yet profoundly important dimension — responsiveness.

I have personally probably used three dozen different remotes over the last decade or two. These include remotes for: DirecTV, Comcast, XBOX, Windows Media Center, AppleTV, Samsung televisions, Roku, Boxee, soft Remotes on iPhone and Android devices, and more. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I’m not talking about the ability for these remotes to render themselves gracefully on large and small screens. I’m talking about old school responsiveness. You press a button, and the thing you wanted to happen, happens instantly.

This may seem like a simple problem. From determining the right technology to wirelessly connect the remote to its target device, to making sure the device can render the results fast enough, there are many little details needed to make sure this happens properly. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to television especially, the gap between when you press a button and when something happens on screen is maddeningly long. You could recite an epic poem in that gap in some cases.

The set-top boxes we hook up to our televisions are so much more powerful these days than the fastest computers of yesteryear and yet, when we want to change a channel, they plod along. This is a thorny design problem, but there are many techniques that can be used to speed up the actual and perceived response of the device to the remote. We would employ all of these to create a tv watching experience that’s as instantly responsive and satisfying as it is to manipulate something with your fingertip on your touchscreen device.

If you’re looking to create something like this, and would like an excited team to help you design the identity, the hardware, the software, and the marketing experiences, don’t hesitate to let us know.

Disposable Video Display — Dream Project #1

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This is the first in a series of posts describing some of the projects we would love to work on. As a holistic digital design firm, Jackson Fish Market is very fortunate to have really bright clients come to us with super interesting projects on a regular basis. But rather than wait for them to come to us, we figured we might let the world know which projects we’d love to work on. Each of these ideas is something we’re passionate about. And for each we have a deep set of ideas to help make them a reality. So if one of these is something you’re thinking about, call us. We’d love to help.

It seems like every few months we read another article about how scientists are creating low power, flexible, super-thin, high-resolution displays. And that soon, really any minute now, maybe even yesterday, we’ll all replace those reams and reams of paper with flexible, bendable, foldable, and of course disposable, pieces of electronic paper. Of course, we’re not quite there yet. Not even close. But we may be closer than we think if we’re willing to set our sights a little lower.

What we want to create is a display that will retail for less than $10. It does not need to be color. It will play a 3 minute video. It will have no networking. It will run on batteries. Getting video onto the device will be a matter of a USB cable or perhaps a USB stick with a video file that is labeled correctly. The device will have almost no user interface as it will either be off, show the video, or show a still. The device will have rudimentary audio. When the battery runs out, the stored video remains. We’d like it to remain indefinitely so that decades from now new batteries will reveal the video on board.

The design of the device should be such that it will survive being mailed with no packaging and some stamps on the back.

Ultimately we believe these devices can serve as an analog to handwritten notes. Custom videos from businesses to favored customers. Personal video postcards from parents to their children at summer camp.

If the cost is in the $10 range, recipients of these “postcards” may be interested in using them. But we believe that as the cost goes down, the use will become more ubiquitous and the devices thought of as more disposable.

If you’re looking to create something like this, and would like an excited team to help you design the identity, the hardware, the software, and the marketing experiences, don’t hesitate to let us know.

We’ve written a new User Experience and Design Book just for you — Making Things Special

This week marks the eighth anniversary of Jackson Fish Market. In the last eight years, and the many before that, Jenny and I have contributed designs, identity, strategy, and a fair amount of execution to dozens and dozens of technology projects large and small. We’ve spent years thinking about and honing our answers to the fundamental existential questions of our profession. What is a User Experience Designer? Why do they exist? And how can they make a meaningful creative impact?

Often, engineers, business leaders, marketers and other non-designers in tech don’t understand what user experience designers are actually supposed to do. (Hint: It’s not write code.) But even worse, UX designers are often complicit in this dynamic by trying to live up to the rest of the organization’s misplaced expectations. And they do this at the expense of learning fundamental skills that every designer should have – e.g. color theory, typography, etc. What if designers embraced the depth and complexity of their roles? What if designers exceeded the industry’s low expectations? What if designers demanded and earned leadership roles across the tech industry?

Today we have launched our new book Making Things Special – Tech Design Leadership from the Trenches.

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We never would have reached this point without the support of our Kickstarter backers, the hard work of our Jackson Fish Market team and you, our loyal fans. Special Thank Yous to Tom Chang who illustrated the book informatively, beautifully, and with a sense of humor, and to Scott Berkun who edited our rambling text and kept us relentlessly focused on telling our story clearly.

You can read the book three different ways right now:

We worked really hard to make this book as useful as possible, your honest and thoughtful review would be greatly appreciated. There’s always room for improvement, and we can’t do it without your help. Feel free to spread word of our new book on social media by pointing people to http://makingthingsspecial.com.

As always, thanks for your support.

Seven Things Satya Nadella Should Do Next to Truly Change Microsoft’s Culture

From 1997-2006 I was fortunate enough to spend almost ten years employed by Microsoft. Microsoft is an amazing place for many reasons not the least of which include the company’s incredible generosity towards its employees, and the massive amounts of talent, passion, and intelligence in those employees. Today is a hard day for Microsoft and as someone with friends and family who are Microsoft employees I hope everyone lands on their feet no matter what happens. I also know that at any company, missives from former employees are usually greeted dismissively. Especially from someone who hasn’t been there in over seven years. That said, even if I didn’t owe Microsoft an enormous amount for all it taught me, I would root for Microsoft to go through a renewal and resurgence because multiple successful tech industry leaders is a good thing for all of us.

In that spirit, I offer seven thoughts on areas where I think Satya and his leadership team can make a real difference in the company’s culture. To me culture dictates what products a company makes. So for Microsoft to get past 14% device market share, the culture is what needs to change first. These seven areas are ones where I believe I was only able to get true clarity after being outside of the Microsoft ecosystem.

  1. The economics of saying yes are way too expensive. I always marveled that the single hardest thing to do at the then world’s #1 software business was actually ship software. Surely there were huge technical barriers that are currently being removed. But a lot of it was cultural. Employees learned that they could appear mature, wise, and responsible, by saying no to the ideas of others. There was never any risk to saying no either. Nobody could prove you were wrong to say no. But the cost of saying yes was much much higher. If you say yes, you’re advocating a position, an opinion, a direction. You’re putting yourself out there. And if by some miracle you actually get to put your vision out there, and it fails (which it most often will) then there is definitive proof that you were wrong. In a world where great designers teach us that saying “no” is more important than saying “yes” this may sound counter-intuitive. But there is a difference between having focus on a few key investments, and having a culture where employees vie for exec attention by squashing the ideas of others. Imagine if a meeting to review someone’s idea was spent thinking about how to support that person’s mission instead of picking it apart.
  2. Failure must be genuinely celebrated and rewarded. Successful screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote that “nobody knows anything”. He was referring to the business of movies, but it’s as applicable to the world of software as well. Even the most successful technologists among us experience massive amounts of failure when trying to create technology that customers love. This is the default. Every failure should be celebrated as it gets us closer to creating something customers will make a part of their lives. Fast failure, and constant learning should be rewarded. It’s not enough to say the words, there must be genuine, tangible, and public positive consequences for smart failure in pursuit of the broader vision.
  3. Vision must have a longer shelf-life than the first speed bump. Microsoft has never been short on vision. And almost all the ones that I’ve ever heard stated were thoughtful, eloquent, interesting, and plausible. The problem was not that Microsoft didn’t have an interesting vision. It’s that when the first instantiation of that vision wasn’t an immediate success, Microsoft would abandon it as if Windows hadn’t taken 3.1 versions to become something people wanted en masse. The Tablet PC was a great example of this. Microsoft had a great vision around tablet computing, but the first couple of versions had real issues that needed to be solved. Instead of doubling down, Microsoft abandoned the efforts, and we know what happened next. This is but one example among countless. Vision is something that should last a lifetime. And failure in execution of that vision is just part of the cost of doing something difficult.
  4. Don’t mistake sniping and undermining for a meritocracy and a culture of debate. Microsoft employees are competitive. This is good. But most of their energy is directed at competing with (and undermining) each other. The removal of the public curve in employee reviews is part of the solution. But so is a culture that doesn’t tolerate saying crappy things about other groups and businesses. When I was at Microsoft it was MSN and XBOX that people complained were money-wasting boondoggles. Today perhaps it’s the ad business or search. No business can thrive at the company without everyone genuinely giving it consistent emotional and material support. This may sound corny, but there is a tangible negative psychic energy that accumulates around these businesses when employees are allowed to make these comments. I know that these comments don’t get made baldly in front of senior leaders. In front of senior leadership they come in the form of “genuine well-reasoned concern” for the broader business, or advocacy for an “alternate strategy”. But the motivation is often to undermine. Executives over the years have gotten very good at this tactic. The more nakedly aggressive forms of this undermining happen behind closed doors all the time. In any form, these comments are a cancer in the organization.
  5. Reporting structure should be divorced from product structure. No matter how many times Microsoft has said that there is a career path for senior individual contributors, it’s really just an exception. The vast majority of senior leaders at the company have direct reports. Until the majority don’t, then real progress hasn’t been made. Imagine a world where talent management was different than product/project management. Imagine a world where who you report to is orthogonal to what you work on. I know this sounds random and crazy. But imagine a world where your manager is your personal coach, helping you as a dispassionate observer and cheerleader, while the person running the product you work on is focused totally on creating an amazing product instead of managing a team. Not every great product person is a great manager. And not every great coach is a great product person. Let’s stop assuming that the same person has to do both.
  6. Microsoft still has pre-dominantly a frat-boy culture that is unfriendly to women. (Yes, I know there are exceptions, but they really are exceptions. I think it’s fair to look at the numbers of women in the organization in senior technical roles and extrapolate the culture from there though I know some may disagree.) Many of the privileged males of Microsoft have no genuine understanding how the small things they do deter women from being comfortable at the company. But the single most important thing that can be done is to get women into real technical leadership positions, not just have them in the traditionally more female roles of marketing and HR. Microsoft has had literally decades to invest in the talent pipeline and cultivate serious female leadership in its organization. And while no company in the industry is stellar, I think it’s safe to say that overall, Microsoft and the industry have failed. Often seemingly sensitive men ask, what can we do if the women aren’t there to promote. But often women don’t rise up the ranks into leadership positions because the culture values things that are antithetical to a more diverse workforce – specifically when it comes to problem-solving styles. Being diverse doesn’t mean being gender-blind or color-blind. Being diverse means rewarding and encouraging different paths to success. Different techniques for achieving goals need to be celebrated and protected. Microsoft still has the Microsoft way. And that way is still relatively macho.
  7. Executives should be rewarded for getting out of the way. Executives at Microsoft still feel that it is their job to set schedules and deadlines for software projects. Despite the fact that these executives usually were once line-level software creators themselves, and know better. Let’s do a thought exercise, if you believe that your software developers are a) working hard, b) working on the right things in the right order, and c) honest, then what good is adding arbitrary deadlines made up to accommodate an executive’s plan? Software isn’t an assembly line process. It’s been proven that quotas and deadlines are counter-productive to this kind of work. I’m sorry to those of you who think that you can process your way into predictable deadlines. Software is done when it’s done. If you want predictability then you use the train model (trains leave the station every x weeks no matter which features are on board). Executives, especially ones with good teams, can get insecure as it appears they are doing nothing. And if they don’t do anything, then they fear for their jobs. But the best executives should be doing nothing most of the time. Once a product direction is set, their job should be entirely reactive, clearing the way for their talented team to do its job and making sure their employees are getting recognition and credit.

Even when I was at Microsoft, if I’d given this list to Steve Ballmer, he would have pointed to all the areas in which he was investing to address each of these issues. And I have no doubt that Satya would do the same because Satya and his leadership team are certainly not oblivious to these issues. The problem is that being a senior leader means you are insulated from the reality of what’s going on in your organization. Moreso than you even realize. I had a relatively small team of ~130 people when I was at Microsoft, and only years later did I understand how little I knew of what was actually happening among the people that worked for me. It was disheartening and eye-opening. I can only imagine the scale at which this problem exists when your team is over 100,000 people.

And in the interest of full disclosure, looking back, I was guilty of contributing to almost every single one of these problems myself in one way or another. And at the time I thought I was a sensitive leader who understood these issues. But in retrospect, I wasn’t doing nearly enough to set the right example from my small corner of the company.

The question is not whether Microsoft recognizes these issues. I’m sure in most cases they do. The question is what tangible things Microsoft is doing to truly change the culture. My advice is simple, be extreme. Now is the moment to be radical and do things that feel very un-Microsoft. To do things that feel scary. Because in a culture where it really is safe to take risks, no risk is more important to take than the risks required to make Microsoft an amazing place to work where the talented and passionate employees of Microsoft can feel that they are truly home.

A final note: These issues are often endemic to any large organization. Not just Microsoft. And these issues are hard to fix because organizations are optimized for self-preservation. As anyone for whom the television show The Wire resonates knows, organizations fight tooth and nail to preserve themselves. For most organizations, efforts to solve these types of issues present an existential crisis. That’s why small measures won’t do the trick. I know that solving these problems isn’t simple. But imagine if the way that Microsoft beat a path back to leadership in the tech industry was by creating a radical new culture for our entire industry to emulate. That would be something! I can think of no company better poised to do it than Microsoft.