The top 10 innovation sites

As a technologist and UX Lead for one of the world’s biggest software companies, I spend a lot of time reading about the latest trends in innovation and tech. How do I do it? I have a short list of sites I visit on a regular basis, and I thought you would like to see that list as well. Here it is (with a bonus link at the end I particularly like, for reasons you’ll soon note):

TED

The TED conference features a lot of very smart people talking about a range of different topics, but innovation is always consistently represented (and presented). http://www.Ted.com

Innovation Excellence

A great site with lots of posts on how many of the top companies in the world focus on innovation. http://www.innovationexcellence.com

TechCrunch

TechCrunch is a news site plugged into silicon valley, and covers startups and established companies. http://www.techcrunch.com

Patently Apple

Not everything Apple patents will ever be released, but it doesn’t hurt to see what they are thinking about. Everything the innovative company files and is granted a patent for is listed here: http://www.patentlyapple.com

Popular Mechanics

The magazine focuses mostly on hardware, but there’s lots of innovation present in every issue. The website features all the content from past issues as well as news and videos. http://www.popularmechanics.com

Wired

Wired has lots of great online-only content about technology and culture – a good place to look to see some of the moral and ethical issues involving the latest innovations (such as Google Glass). http://www.wired.com

Kickstarter

Where can you find a lot of today’s most innovative thinkers? Look to Kickstarter: There you will find new products in the formative stage – these kickstarted campaigns can provide insight into where things are going. http://www.kickstarter.com

Tech News Daily

“Tech news written for non-technical people” is this site’s slogan, and they live up to it: A lot of helpful insights that will not make your eyes glaze over due to technobabble. http://www.technewsdaily.com

Forbes’ Innovation and Science section

Forbes covers innovation with a focus on business and process, and I like reading the science content they provide as well. http://www.forbes.com/innovation-science

CultureBy

Grant McCracken is a very smart man, and he’s written a lot about innovation design and culture. His site has got a lot of random thoughts (like mine) but there’s some great ideas here. http://cultureby.com

This Week in Innovation

This list goes to 11, because I’m also listing my newest website, This Week in Innovation. This Week in Innovation aggregates stories from many of the above websites, giving you a snapshot of what is “top of mind” in the innovation space. It comes out every week (naturally) and can be read here: http://www.thisweekininnovation.com

Disney’s new Fastpass+ system damages the Disney Parks experience

The Walt Disney Corporation recently completed the rollout of their Fastpass+ system at their Walt Disney World park. The system uses RFID technology to allow park visitors to scan wristbands (called “MagicBands”) and walk on rides they had scheduled in advance. The new system replaces the previous ticket-based system, which allowed people to walk up, enter their park pass in standing kiosks at attractions, and get a ticket listing a return time for the attraction. Disney has invested over one billion dollars in the new system.

And it kinda sucks.

As a long-time Disney fan, I’ve visited Walt Disney World almost ten times over the past two decades. I have always been impressed by the service and experiences I’ve received. Until now. Visiting Walt Disney World and using the new Fastpass+ system made it a frustrating experience that made me think twice about making a return visit anytime soon.

(I am also someone who specializes in user and customer experience design, so I am particularly attentive and sensitive to such matters… so please keep that in mind as you read on.)

Here’s the problems, as I see them:

Sorry, only three Fastpasses per customer.

In the previous ticket system you could grab a Fastpass, per person, every hour and a half. If you got to the park at opening, you could potentially snag six or seven through the course of the (very long) day. The alternate to having Fastpasses is (of course) standing in lines. With only three fast passes per person, this means a lot more waiting for return visitors who are used to (and expecting) otherwise.

Here’s a couple of quotes, from long-time Disney park visitors posting at disboards.com, that should give the management at Disney pause:

“We have been giving Disney our vacation dollars for 3+ decades. In those 30+ years and I would say about 35 visits we have NEVER done a single rope drop. We are not rope drop people. Vacation to us is not getting up and running to a park at 6/7 am so we can do what we paid for. Now with this horrible FP+ system, we will be lucky to do one headliner attraction a day. Stand by lines as I predicted are growing and slowing to highest average levels ever. Disney only wants you in their parks to spend money on food and souvenirs(and soon FP’s), not to see their attractions. I’m sorry Disney, it was a good run, thanks for the memories.”

“Very disappointing to see the unfortunate regression from “Magic Your Way” to “Magic Our Way (like it or not)” by WDW execs.”

Protip: When you change the ways things work for customers, never make them worse. Always make them better.

Hitting two different parks in a day? Sorry, still only three Fastpasses allowed.

If you pay Disney extra money, you can get a “Park Hopper” pass as part of your vacation package. A Park Hopper allows you to go to more than one park a day. You would think that the new Fastpass+ system would accommodate these customers (who paid more) and give them extra Fastpasses, right? Nope. There’s actually some thoughts online that Disney HATES park hoppers, because it screws up thier predictive analytics about their crowd levels. So… not only can you not gt any more Fastpasses, but you can’t “split” the three between two parks. Not a great experience to provide customers who are paying EXTRA money to the company.

The Disney Experience site/app is buggy as hell

The site users use to schedule their Fastpass+ passes is still in “beta”, and it’s quite buggy. When my family traveled there in December, I ended up “having” six Fastpasses in one day because it hadn’t removed the ones I had originally selected and later removed. Even worse, the list on the website was different on the mobile app on my wife’s iPhone… So we had no idea what passes were real and which ones weren’t. And I won’t even bring up the UI design of the site and app… it’s fairly complicated and not very intuitive. Still some kinks to be worked out, but it’s clear the system is not ready for primetime.

“Tiered” Fastpasses and longer lines

If you want to schedule a Fastpass for the two most popular attractions at Epcot or Disney Hollywood Studios, well… sorry. The Fastpass+ system has set up “tiers”, so you can’t select two “tier 1″ passes at the same time (reminds me of the old ticket books Disneyland had when they first opened… You could only ride one “E Ticket” ride). You could get Fastpasses for both rides under the old ticket-based system… not anymore. Critics have called this “ride rationing.” The result of this? Longer lines and wait times for the most popular attractions.

Staying off-site, or a Florida local? Tough luck

If you live in Florida, or are not staying at a Disney resort, you have to schedule your Fastpasses after you enter the park… and odds are you are going to have less options and less flexibility with your Fastpass selections, because visitors staying at the resorts have already booked the best ride times. So budget-minded customers and locals don’t get the same “Disney magic” as people who are staying onsite.

In the old ticket-based system, everyone was equal. Now, like in Animal Farm, some guests are more equal than others.

Closing

The Fastpass+ system takes away flexibility, reduces choice, and makes a Disney vacation as spontaneous as making a doctor’s appointment. Many of you reading this may be going, “So? First world problems, dude.” My point is that Fastpass+ was not designed or implemented for users – it was created solely to benefit Disney, a company that are getting paid a lot of money by customers to even enter the park.

What benefits? Well, since every park attendee is carrying a tracking device with them, it will be lots of Big Data for the Disney company to crunch and analyze. It (supposedly) reduces wait times for popular rides (though according to some Disney representatives, in practice the opposite has occurred). If customers spend less time in lines they will spend more time in the shops, which means more impulse purchases of all those wonderful Disney souvenirs. And Disney is selling a lot of pins and accessories that customers can put on their MagicBand wristbands, another potential revenue source. Unfortunately, the benefits appear to not be happening as the planners foreseen and the hard (sunk) costs of the new systems is putting some cool projects on hold.

Critics of the new system say Disney should have invested the billion dollars in new attractions, instead of changing a system that (to them) wasn’t broken. With a slow economy and increased competition from other local attracts, only time will tell if these critics are right.

Fastpass+ is not a complete user experience failure – there are many people who like the idea of planning out their vacations to the nth degree. These people will undoubtedly love the ability to plan what attractions they want to do months in advance. But anyone who is spontaneous, who liked flexibility in their choices and activities and want to maximize their vacation… well, they will need to look elsewhere for that.

Maybe Universal Studios…

Happy 30th Birthday Mac!

I join my many tech and design brothers and sisters today in wishing a happy birthday to the Macintosh computer. Yes, I know inanimate objects don’t really have birthdays, but with the Mac it feels appropriate to use the word “birthday.”

The Mac was the first real PERSONAL computer, a machine that aligned with what users needed to do and empowered people to do things that was in the realm of complete fantasy just months before.

I learned how to do graphic design and layout by using a Mac, and while I am a user of both Windows and OS X, I still have a fondness for the Mac.

Here’s the video of Steve Jobs revealing the Mac to the world for the first time:

Will big data be used increasingly in the UX field to answer user experience questions?

Yes and no.

Big Data provides… well, big data. Lots of data. This data needs to be parsed, analyzed and understood. It is (potentially) a source for user insights and understanding that is unparalleled. It can provide a lot of answers into what users are doing, where they are doing it, and how they are doing it. So yes, Big Data will increasingly be used by companies to understand user behavior (many tech companies like Google have been doing it long before the term “Big Data” even existed).

But Big Data cannot tell us WHY users do things with real certainty. What motivates users, what their psychographic and emotional landscape is… it can be inferred from Big Data but not (in my opinion) to any degree of certainty. It will still take ethnographic research and usability testing to gain those particular insights (or at least identify them with any real confidence).

And I don’t state this because I love user research – though I do. I state it because I have worked with Big Data and I have seen its limitations. And Big Data is only as “good” as the data points that are captured. If you do not have the specific data you need to inform design decisions, it’s useless.

Finally, there is the question of access. Big Data tends to be mostly used in Enterprises, and even then access to the data is very limited. Until Big Data becomes available to access by design teams at mid-level companies and agencies, Big Data will not replace or supplement good old fashioned user research.

See question on Quora

This year in #UX (and a look ahead at 2014)

As the editor of This Week in UX, I’ve been able to regularly note what was going on in the UX domain. This weekly exposure to the best articles on UX design has given me some insights into what my peers were talking about the past 12 months, and what they were excited about in the year to come. So when the editors of UX Magazine asked me to contribute to a end of the year article, I leapt at the chance.

Unfortunately, they only had room for a few of my thoughts, so here’s what was left on the “cutting room floor.”

The year in review 

Flat Design is the new black

While skeumorphic design isn’t dead, it’s certainly not in the best of health. Flat design is the way of the day, and high-profile sites and operating systems (like IOS and Windows 8) have abandoned textures and leather stitching and moved aggressively into using the new paradigm. This is exciting, in that UX designers are no longer limited by real-world metaphors and can create authentically digital experiences. Is Flat design a fad or a long-term design trend? We’ll see… but I think that flat design will stick around for a long time.

UX gets a high-profile case study

Thanks to the high-profile UX #FAIL of the Healthcare.gov website, UX has been “discovered” by the mass media. While the media rarely used the term “user experience”, almost every report covered the usability and latency issues that plagued the site. The “bad UX as news story” phenomenon didn’t start here, but this was certainly the most coverage such a story ever received. With our increasing reliance on technology, I expect we’ll see more such stories in the future.

A robust UX job market

Companies large and small are paying much more attention to user experience, and as a result there’s a high demand for UX professionals. Which is great… Except that in much of the world there aren’t many talented UXers available. For people who are trying to build design teams (like me), it’s frustrating. Noticing this high demand, many business analysts and developers are transitioning into the UX domain, which (again) is great… as long as they bring the proper skills and focus to the table. Will this continue? I think so, since a new “baseline” has been set – 21st Century consumers of technology expect a quality user experience, and UX professionals are needed to help hit that mark.

Predictions for 2014

Here’s a look ahead at the (emerging) trends that I think will gain prominence in the next year (or so).

UX, Quicker and Leaner

More and more organizations are starting to do agile development, in an attempt to get their software projects “out the door” quicker. This approach means UX work needs to be done quicker and differently, which I’ve seen cause some heartburn with some of my fellow UX professionals. While there was lots of discussion of Lean UX in 2013, this will become a much more prominent focus point next year as the approach we take shifts to support this approach.

Intelligent interfaces will enter the mainstream

We interact with scores of interfaces with every day, and the processing power that drives these screens has never been higher… and yet, the UIs tend to be one-size-fits all, with limited personalization. With this increasing computing power, one of the only places left to go is to leverage data to create a bespoke experience. Early steps have already been taken – You see some of this in the Windows 8 “live tiles” functionality, and Amazon’s ubiquitous recommendations – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The idea of personal dashboards that intelligently surface important information to the user is now possible, if not probable. Will they catch on? It depends on striking the proper balance between innovation and user control and freedom… and UX professionals need to focus on finding that balance.

Wearable computing presents design opportunities and challenges

Google Glass, the Pebble watch… we are now living in a world where wearable computers are becoming a reality. While they are not yet mainstream, we are one major product release away from that potential reality (cough iWatch cough). Wearable computing presents users with new and different ways to interact with technology, and how we design these new interactions to make them effective and usable will be one of the major design challenges of next year and beyond.

Race to the bottom: how entertainment is becoming a (very cheap) commodity

Entertainment companies and movie studios are known for “creative bookkeeping” which allows them to claim that incredibly successful TV and movie properties never turn a profit. This rather unfair practice denies royalties to many of the creative people who worked on said properties. Well, these days another type of “creative bookkeeping” is taking place, and it is going to impact entertainment companies in ways they will not be very happy about.

This new accounting reality is all about value… That is, perceived value. Entertainment products – films, TV shows, and music – are becoming cheap commodities, and that is eating into “real” profits in potentially unrecoverable ways.  The old models are unsustainable and it will doom industry titans within the next two decades.

Course, don’t just take my word for it… A couple of guys named Spielberg and Lucas expressed the same sentiment a few months back. But what do they know about the entertainment business, anyway? And the stats support my claims: total “spend” on entertainment of the average U.S. household was only 4.11 percent of its income in 2012, down from 4.43 percent in 2007. While they are spending less, they are consuming MORE content: four hours a day, on average.

Here’s some of the things that I believe are pushing down the perceived value of entertainment:

The horrible theatre experience

I’ve written about how I’m no longer going to see movies in theatres now, because it’s an overpriced and an underwhelming experience. While I won’t restate all my arguments, I will emphasize that theatres are competing with a lot of different options, and in most instances the theatre-going experience isn’t providing impressive value to customers. People are foregoing the movie-going experience and spending their time and money elsewhere.

A recent Fast Company article that discussed diminishing ticket sales, and how theatre owners are looking at refactoring the moviegoing experience in response to these new realities and increased competition. Will it be enough? I don’t think so, especially when you have…

Cheap home video releases (and VERY cheap big televisions)

The cost of televisions have dropped like a stone over the past decade, and you can now ge a humongous flat-screen for less than $1000. When you can view movies at home on a bigger screen than you can get at your local multiplex, why leave the house? And now, you don’t even have to wait that long to do it.

I remember when you used to have to wait over a year after the theatrical release to buy a movie on home video. Then, these home video releases were an event, because you had to wait so long to own the movie you loved. Now, the average time to video release is four months, and I’m seeing a very interesting cycle developing:

  • Blockbuster movies are in theatres in the summer (May to July)
  • Blockbuster movies are then released to blu-ray and iTunes in the fall (August to October)
  • Blockbuster movies on blu-ray are sold at a 50% discount on their first week of release ($14.99 to $24.99) as “loss leaders”
  • Blockbuster movies on blu-ray are sold at an even DEEPER discount

So you can now get movies dirt cheap if you simply wait a while. “Catalog” titles are now in giant bins that retailers sell for $5, when they sold fo $25 just a few years earlier. A good thing for savvy consumers, but not so good for companies making these video releases. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Studios still get a lot of money from more video sales, but the past four years home video sales have not only plateaued, they are dropping. Because people no longer need to buy movies when they can use…

Netflix, Hulu Plus and Pandora

When you can stream the latest movies TV shows and songs to your computer for free or a low monthly fee, why spend more? More and more people are postponing the instant gratification of seeing new TV shows or movies immediately and “binge watching” them when it is convenient. And with the advent of internet-enabled televisions big and small, you don’t even need to sit at your compter to enjoy your selected content. And when everything is available online and streaming, you end up with…

The potential death of physical media

When you buy a blu-ray disc, a video game DVD, or a compact disc… you own a physical object, a thing that you can hold in your hand. This object is a manifestation of the content you purchased, and you can resell it or trade it to others. But what if you don’t ever have that physical object? Do people still assign the same value to the game that was downloaded as the one that was purchased at a retail store? I don’t think so.

There’s a whole generation that exists that grew up with digital downloads and many of them prefer that – less clutter, less things to keep track of. Hollywood and the tech giants have built out this ecosystem, and it was originally thought of as an additional revenue stream, above and beyond the sales of physical media. It hasn’t worked out that way, and you are now seeing consumers buying the bits instead of the physical media. Will physical media go away completely? Probably not, but you never know… especially when you start looking at:

The sharing culture

There is a large and growing culture of sharing instead of owning in America, and many millennial are eschewing possessions in order to have a simple life free from consumerism. They share and barter, and rarely buy things. They value experiences, not objects. To capitalist content creators like movie studios, this is a very bad thing. Less consumers and purchasers mean lower sales and… well, you can figure out the rest. And many of these people are not only sharing instead of buying, they are also creating their own content.

Everyone can be content creators now

We have seen an explosion of independent entertainment over the past decade, empowered by passion and technology. You can create your own web series, blog, movie, podcast… and the cost to do it is usually only the opportunity cost of your time. All this additional content (much of it crap, some of it brilliant) is competing for eyeballs and attention; competing with the traditional media produced by Hollywood.

Where this is all going

It’s a race to the bottom – Hollywood will continue to try to sell its content to the world, and people will continue to consume it… but will pay less and less for it over time. Entertainment has become a commodity, and the center will not hold. The business models that worked just a few years ago will stop working. Hollywood power-brokers have already started lobbying the government to “help” in various ways, and they will do everything they can to retain said power.

It won’t work.