The appeal of an open office design originally seemed harmless. Imagine: open offices with lines of clean and minimalist modular workstations with modest privacy shields, pop-up and convertible collaboration spaces, library carrel-style break pods, video conferencing areas, and--why not?--bleacher seating on one wall for those culture-building pep talks. The open office plan was supposed to be less expensive and conducive to building a lighter, happier, tighter company culture. But now it's backfiring.
Across the country, we're now seeing what can be categorized as a "privacy crisis" among workers. The office, once a place where your cubicle seemed semi-shielded and dedicated to your needs, a place where you could even hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign with a pushpin or at least signal that you being at your desk meant head-down work time, has morphed into something resembling a hot-desk buffet, where first dibs determine whether you'll secure a relatively quiet work space or be resigned to another morning of wearing Bose headphones just to get a few tasks accomplished. When privacy suffers, the rate of productivity quickly goes downhill.
Open office design--whether for small startups, large corporations, or co-working setups--has exploded in popularity over the last 20 years. In 2017, 70% of U.S. offices had an open office floor plan. Some companies, including Netflix and Hubspot, are completely open: even their CEOs don't have private offices.
Open offices started out with great intentions. They became a status symbol of the next generation of entrepreneurs. They were meant to level the playing field, knock down walls, introduce more natural light and open fresh air, and keep an office feeling young.
Now, we are heading into some unhealthy territory with this design trend. When dedicated desks are sacrificed in the name of "creative flexibility," when introverts are forced to attend more meetings at touchdown tables simply for the trendiness of meeting at touchdown tables, when a phone call echoes across 2,000 square feet, when desk sizes are reduced to fit more workers into one open room...you begin to have a privacy crisis on your hands. Employees are now raising their voices against this trend. When Apple Park debuted their completely open "pod design" last fall, employees revolted with emails and complaints, threatening to quit.
On one hand, this is a personal privacy issue. With managers and even CEOs typing away next to you, there's a pressure to appear 'on' and engaged at all times. Some company workers may also feel a peer pressure to work late or sacrifice work-life balance...in an open office, no one may want to be known as the first out the door. Additionally, there are few private spaces with which to deal with personal issues. If someone is upset or visibly stressed, it distracts the whole team. Some employees may fear taking creative risks if it means everyone in the office will see their experiments or failures. To top it off, when a human being's personal space is opened up to invite others in, it can be a hard period of adjustment. We are naturally territorial creatures with a need for categorization, rules and structure. When a company throws all those values under the bus for trendy design, employees don't have a physical space to anchor them and may therefore feel less significant to the company.
On the other hand, completely open offices also present a business privacy issue. Phone calls, emails, screens, videoconferencing, meetings...all of these can be observed, noted, copied, turned into fodder for gossip, and even sabotaged if you have a highly competitive team.
What is the solution to this privacy crisis?
Fortunately, companies are starting to wake up and realize that dream loft isn't all it's cracked up to be and are starting to introduce a more moderate form: activity-based workplace design (ABW). ABW presents a mix of open, semi-private and private spaces in one commercial office to meet employees where they are in the moment, not forcing workers to accomplish their tasks in a specific non-ideal space. But in this contemporary evolution of ABW, employees still keep their desks. Think: quiet floor with assigned workstations, another floor of private offices and suites with conference rooms, and a floor with a cafe and social hubs. There is a return to privacy that is gaining ground, and furniture makers, interior designers, and architects are slowly helping us get there.
Starting my career in the pre-technology era, I am very accustomed to talking rather than texting. Plus, being from New York, I frequently use my hands to communicate, gesturing to add emphasis or other emotions. All of this means that this new era of intelligent devices--objects you can speak to and wave at--is a very comfortable one for me.
I chatted with Frank Yang, the CEO and Founder of simplehuman, inventors of products primarily for kitchens and bathrooms (where people spend most of their non-working and non-sleeping time). He said at first he resisted creating a voice- and motion-activated trash pail. Do consumers want a high-tech trash can with a $250 price tag?
It appears they do--the company says the new product is selling well at major retailers, including Bed Bath & Beyond. (Simplehuman would not disclose any specific sales figures, but says that it accounts for 60% of total company sales.) It's especially popular among consumers with physical limitations and cooks who want the garbage pail open and waiting for them (as much as 10 feet away) when they go to throw away messy garbage. Yang doesn't believe in technology for technology's sake, however. "Unless the tool makes you live more efficiently, it doesn't make sense," he says.
I asked Yang about his process for deciding whether or not (and how) to build technology into an otherwise "human" device. His perspective is:
"Have a high bar for your products. Ask, 'Is this a product I would use myself and be proud to give to my very best friends and family?'
Your product is only as strong as the engineering you put into it. It's critical to source quality materials from trusted partners -- never settle for 'good enough."
Yang talked about his development lab, where hundreds of ideas have been scrapped because they didn't pass the test. Before simplehuman launched their line of "smart mirrors" they spent two years rejecting options including a mirror with a USB charger and one with built-in bluetooth. But then the company focused on the two most important consumer features -- lighting and clarity. The mirror that ultimately made it to retail lights up as your face approaches. Yang knew he had winners with the trash pail and the motion-sensor magnifying mirrors when he started getting rave reviews from consumers and the products started selling rapidly.
As you evaluate new voice and motion technologies, ask yourself, "Will the time this will save ultimately justify the expense?" Motion sensors may reduce your utilities bill. And, if you generate a lot of trash, that $250 garbage pail might ultimately pay off.
According to the USDA, Americans spend 37 minutes a day preparing and serving food. Home meal kits like Blue Apron and Plated attempt to reduce that time with pre-cut and measured ingredients (as a result they are now a $2.2 billion business). But, for people who want to have more control over what they eat, new timesaving kitchen gadgets may be a better solution.
This is especially true for older individuals and those with disabilities or physical limitations. According to the World Bank, 15% of the world's population has some form of disability and a 2015 study by the US Census Bureau projected that by 2050 nearly 17% of the world will be over the age of 65. For those with limited mobility, simple meal prep tasks can be daunting. As the population in the United States ages, the market for redesigned elder-friendly products grows too.
Here are some of the coolest additions to the market this year that everyone can benefit from.
1. An Ice Cream Scoop You Push
We can thank Michael Chou, an aerospace engineer, for the wild looking Midnight Scoop device. This scoop arrives in a Apple-like packaging, which opens to reveal something akin to a space-aged weapon. The Midnight Scoop features a heavily weighted curved handle and a scoop with sharp edges on either side for carving. The design changes the way you interact with ice cream, where instead of pulling and turning, you push and shovel - thus protecting your wrist as you use your body strength instead of your arm. The curved edges force the ice cream into balls as you push forward so you end up with the same perfect scoops you get traditionally. While not a space-saver in your drawer, the Midnight Scoop is worth its weigh - making it a must-have gadget for weak-handed ice cream lovers everywhere.
2. One-Handed Bottle Opener
Imagine if opening a bottle of beer was as easy as pulling a trigger - in a good way. That is the what the design of GrabOpener is like. Instead of pushing down or pulling up on a stiff
board with a hole or hook on the end - both of which often send the sharp cap flying - the GrabOpener lets you use your second and third fingers in a trigger-grip to lift the cap up and away from you. The magnetized metal it is made from keeps the caps from getting away. The result is a quick, one-handed solution that makes opening bottles a party trick - literally (at least according to one enthusiastic Amazon reviewer). An added bonus is that the design keeps caps unbent for those who collect or make jewelry out of them.
3. Herbs on Demand
Using fresh herbs can make your cooking extra delicious, but for many people with limited space outside or physical limitations that make bending over to garden impossible, outdoor gardening is not a viable option. Smart Garden has invented a counter top Click & Grow kitchen herb garden that is similar to a Keurig but with seed pods instead of coffee.
Just plug in what you want to grow, add water, and turn it on, and the garden system takes care of the rest. The Smart Garden delivers herbs in 20 days (or less if you just use a few and trim as it grows). When you are ready for new herbs, just plug in replacement pods.
4. Effortless egg peeler
Anyone who makes deviled eggs regularly knows that peeling hardboiled eggs can be a time consuming mess. When Connecticut resident Bonnie Tyler got fed up with peeling
(and was forced to arrive at a potluck empty handed), she had had enough. Her invention, the NEGG®, is a brilliantly simple and effective solution. To use it, you place your hard boiled egg into the plastic container (lined with raised bumps), add water, and shake. That's it. You really have to see it to believe it, but the shell when you remove the egg from this contraption literally slips away. No more delicate finger work required and lots of time saved!
5. The Watermelon slicer/server
Seedless watermelon was the first great timesaving invention for this favorite summer fruit, but now there is a much faster (and easier) way to slice and serve rind-free pieces without fancy knife skills. The Angurello watermelon sliver and server looks like a double-bladed
handheld scythe. To slice, you push down and pull towards yourself in one swoop. To remove the slice, you squeeze the blades together and lift. Suddenly, you can slice up a melon in less than a minute. No more juice all over the counter, either. No more hacking away in chunks or balling. This simple solution is great for those with limited hand mobility, but also every day melon lovers (a.k.a. the rest of us).
6. Push and twist jar opener
My husband makes fun of me every time I open a jar because I now yell, "I'm unstoppable!" as I turn and pop the lids. As a petite woman with small hands, opening pasta sauce and jelly jars ranged from humiliating (when my husband was home and I needed his help) to infuriating (when he was not home and I was left to smack tops, run hot water and scream in frustration).
That all changed when I got my hands on the OXO Good Grips Jar Opener with Base Pad. You place the jar on the silicone pad, move the opener into position and push down and away from you. Like with the Midnight Scoop, this allows you to use you whole body to do the work. It is a brilliantly simple and game changing design.
While these kitchen "upgrades" may seem frivolous to some, they represent real independence for others. In an era where we are trying to empower people of all ages, small changes can have a bigger impact than one might think.
Evidence from cave paintings suggest that people began skiing in some capacity over 5,000 years ago, and the archeological record from Russia includes skis from as early as 6000 BCE. Skiing for sport, as opposed to transportation, really began in the mid-1800s, with the first public ski competition taking place in Norway in 1843. Since then, skis have changed from wood to metal to fiberglass, and the shape has changed from thin and long to curved and flexible.
As skis have evolved so has the gear skiers use to stay comfortable on the slopes, and those innovation and improvements have been updated annually. Here are some of the best upgrades for the 2018 spring ski season.
1. Telescoping Poles
For backcountry skiers, trekkers, and people who just hate having their poles smashed between the ski lift railing and their body, Leki has created a telescoping high-performance ski pole that can attach to your glove. It quickly shortens to as little as half-length with the flip of a clasp (making it easy to stash in your trunk as well). While you can buy other telescoping poles for as little as $10 at Wal-Mart, Leki's (which retails for about 10x that), are the ones used by top ski racers such as Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsay Vonn. What makes them really exceptional is not the ability to change length but the "Trigger S grip system" they integrated into their Trigger Vertical glove, which uses an elastic band within the grip that lets you change positions quickly without having to click out. This innovation lets you switch to various gripping/palming positions seamlessly. Once you see how secure and flexible this two-pronged system is, it is hard not to look at straight poles dangling akimbo from loose wrist loops and just feel sorry.
2. Thin Balaclavas
Balaclavas are great for keeping your neck and face warm on chilly ski days, but the fleece ones do not fit comfortably under helmets and the moisture can quickly make your face feel swampy. To solve this problem, BUFF has created a line of balaclavas, tubulars and neck warmers, that in addition to coming in very stylish patterns, are made from a 70% recycled material that is 4 times warmer than microfiber and super fast-drying. They are also much longer than the normal balaclava, so you don't get cold air seepage on your neck. They represent two big upgrades in one new design.
3. Eco-Wool Thermal Underwear
Thermal underwear is often made from synthetic materials, which are not very breathable and hold moisture close to the skin. REI notes that these materials also can get quite stinky when worn for several days. Natural materials, like cotton, are better, but not always as warm and even cotton production, unless it is organic, is not great for the environment. If wool does not irritate your skin, it can offer the perfect solution. While Smartwool continues to be the official supplier (of socks anyway) for the US Ski Team, Ridge Marino's new line of adorable and soft base layers are a notable addition to the market this year. Their products are made from merino wool, which is sustainably sourced from select responsible sheep farmers in Australia and New Zealand. The Merino wool is an entirely natural, renewable and biodegradable fiber and the company donates a percentage of every sale to environmental causes through their partnership with 1% For The Planet.
4. Eco-Down Jacket
Synthetic material does not breathe well, but people who care about animals have a hard time buying traditional down. The good news here is that more quality ski clothing is being made under the guidance of the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) than ever. The RDS is an independent, voluntary standard that was developed and revised over three years, with the input of animal welfare groups, industry experts, brands and retailers. The standard recognizes the best practices in animal welfare, and excludes those that violate the animal's well being.
RDS ensures that down and feathers come from ducks and geese that have been treated well (e.g. live healthy lives, express innate behaviors, and not suffer from pain, fear or distress). The standard also follows the chain of custody from farm to product, so consumers can be confident that the down and feathers in the products they choose are truly RDS.
Some large companies like the North Face now use RDS down, and Outdoor Research is a great example of a company committed to using RDS for top shelf ski apparel. They recommend pairing a down layer as a mid-layer with a waterproof layer on top for cold wet days. According to the reviews, ice fishers are raving, and when it comes to ice and cold, they can't be wrong.
5. Glove Dryer
No one likes the feeling of slipping day-old wet gloves back on for day two of skiing. Yes, it is nice if you are staying somewhere you can warm you gloves by the fire, but what if you are in a hotel without such a thing? Karen Smoots, a working mother and avid skier, has created a clever and completely green invention to dry out her boys' things after a long day on the slopes. The Green Glove Dryer is basically a set of six hollow plastic tubes with little holes all over them held together with a floor mount that fits perfectly over a floor heat register or attaches to a wall heat register. This design funnels the warm air up through the nozzles and into the gloves, hats, shoes or other wet gear, drying the out quickly without using any additional energy. It is so effective, that even very wet gloves are usually dry within an hour - so if you are willing to store this device in your locker on the slopes, you could even dry out your gloves in between morning and afternoon runs.
While these new ski technology upgrades are not inexpensive, they price tags are reasonable for a sport that costs as much per day as a trip to Disney World. For those looking to upgrade to the best and most eco-friendly ski equiptment, 2018 is a great year.
The solutions to this creeping mental health crisis are certainly manifold. Politicians could do plenty to help us all be less anxious (but probably won't), while tech fixes, and personal behavior changes all have a role to play too. But many of these levers are out of the hands of employers.
So what can businesses do to soothe the stresses of modern life and help their people perform at their best? Amazon has one simple but radical answer: more plants.
Nature makes employees happier, more creative, and more productive.
The online behemoth's new offices in Seattle feature three domes called The Spheres which are filled with an incredible 40,000 plants, feature a real waterfall and a treehouse, and are designed to give the impression of walking through a rainforest. By all account, the project took heroic efforts to complete. Did Amazon do all this just to impress architecture buffs and environmental activists, and win a lot of 'best offices' press coverage?
Nope, data-obsessed Amazon is just familiar with the boatload of science that shows nature has powerful effects on humans. Spending time in so-called "biophilic" environments helps to offset many of the negative effects of our frenzied, insecure modern world. Studies show that spending even just a little time in nature can,
In short, nature seems to both soothe the human soul and make our brains work better. That feels nice for people, but it's also likely to make those who work in a high-pressure work environment like Amazon better at their jobs.
Looking at the science in it's easy to see what cash-flush Amazon might be willing to employee 600 full-time horticulturists to look after an office space that houses 800 employees (slots to work in The Spheres are already booked up for months, according to Business Insider).
No need to hire an army of gardeners
Of course, retaining a small army of gardeners is probably beyond the budget of the vast majority of businesses, but that doesn't mean you can't bring a little bit of nature's magic into your office.
On a personal level, simply opting to take your lunch break in a local park is will refresh and sharpen your mind. Or, for more long-lasting effects, hit the garden center and bring some more green into your office. If light is an issue, science even shows that simply incorporating more natural materials and images of nature into a workspace boosts creativity. (Or just get a philodendron -- they're practically impossible to kill.)
You might not be able to afford 40,000 plants like Amazon, but certainly you can afford four. Even that will probably make a difference.
In today's business landscape, design has gained traction as a key factor for success. From the commoditization of technology, to lower barriers to competition, design has become a bottom-line investment because of it's ability to help brands differentiate and become more competitive. Good design:
helps companies improve brand equity--creating a visceral reaction and an emotional connection through beauty and simplicity.
drives intent--connecting products to customers' needs and wants.
captures attention--translating information into effective communication.
Good design also helps make things "intuitive" and "easy-to-use." But what does that really mean? We often hear these words in reference to products and services that require minimal training and mental effort.
The secret to intuitive UX? Mental models.
Question: when you see a photo on a social media app, what would you do to zoom in?
For me, it used to be double-tapping, a learned behavior from my use of other social media apps like Facebook. So when I first used Instagram about five years ago, I can't tell you how many times I tried to zoom in on a photo by double-tapping.
So hypothetically speaking, if you attempted to zoom in on a photo of your ex-girlfriend with her new boyfriend, you would have accidentally "liked" the photo instead. That wasn't hypothetical for me, unfortunately.
Double-tapping used to be the most common convention for zooming into a photo, until that convention was broken by Instagram.The reality is, if you've made this mistake too, it's not your fault. It's the designers fault for neglecting to take your mental model into consideration.
A mental model is a critical component of product design. According to Susan Carey's 1986 journal article, "Cognitive science and science education," a mental model "represents a person's thought process for how something works (i.e., a person's understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems."
Good design aligns a product or service with its customers' mental model--what users know (or think they know) about how things work. When a user's mental model is disconnected from reality, they get frustrated, disengaged or, in my case, embarrassed.
Design makes products conform to users' mental models.
Obviously, designing products that conform to users' mental models requires first understanding them. Surprisingly, from my experience running a design firm, I've seen too many instances where companies create solutions based on their own mental models rather than their customers or users.
Remember, mental models are not at all based in facts, but rather, perception. There's only one way to uncover mental models, and it's to go straight to source: the customers themselves.
One of my favorite methods is through contextual inquiry, which combines interviewing techniques with ethnographic observation, you can not only observe a user's behavioral patterns, but you can get a sense of their expectations as well. It takes a little planning upfront, but can be organized fairly quickly and inexpensively.
Card sorting is another research technique that many designers use to illuminate the mental models of their target users. This method can also be done completely remotely using digital tools like Optimal Workshop. It's most effect for developing an overall layout of information, be it a website navigation, menus, and possible taxonomies--all things that are usual suspects to what creates confusion.
But not all mental models are uniquely subjective. People who have even the most rudimentary understanding of interfaces share a basic expectation of where components should be located and how they should function. Some examples include shopping carts, buttons, text links and search boxes--components that are consistent across most all interfaces.
While my intention is most commonly used to identify mental models of digital interactions, these two methods can also be used to generate suggestions of how to organize any service or physical space.
Design clearly communicates what users should expect.
In the Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman introduces the notion of affordances in design, applying a term that, until then, had never left the realm of psychology.
An affordance describes the relationships that individuals perceive within an object or an environment. A bottle screw cap affords twisting. A hinged door affords pushing or pulling. A staircase affords ascending or descending.
Language plays such an important part of setting expectations for users. An input field that asks you for your "Full name" affords entering your name into it. Language provides clear guidelines on not only what you should be doing, but also what you could be doing. Entering letters, like your name, is different than entering numbers, like your phone number and you can tell which one you're able to do by the context of the text.
Familiar, metaphorical patterns that imitate real objects are also used to communicate expectations. For instance, an email doesn't require an actual envelope--it never has--and neither do settings require dealing with gears. But we've grown to associate those visual cues with the action in both the physical and digital world.
What's even more important than signaling what you can and should do with a product, is what can't do. Negative affordances can be thought of as specifically indicating a blocked action, such as when you have an inactive button or a button that looks inactive. The most common instance of this is when a button or a link is greyed out.
You're probably wondering "OK, I have supporting language, metaphorical patterns and negative affordances, but how do I know if it's working?"
Here's the key: a Visual Affordance Test. Simply put, print out your screens and ask test users to highlight what they believe to be clickable, and moreover, what each click does. 10-20 tests will suggest where the faulty affordances lie.
Just take the first step.
There are several methods for gaining deeper insights into mental models, and I've only outlined a few. For most teams, methods like card sorting, basic immersion and time spent evaluating affordances will suffice. In any case, taking the first step if you suspect that erroneous mental models exist is most important. Otherwise, it could cost you.
There was undoubtedly a huge demand for the pricey $1,000 iPhone X, even though they are reportedly cutting production in half in Q1. You might remember the memes making fun of its incredibly steep price. However, that didn't stop people from forming massive lines outside Apple stores hours before they even opened their doors (I personally bought mine online -- seemed like a more feasible path). There was clearly a high demand for the iPhone X even though many didn't want to dish out $1,000 on a phone.
Knockoffs Were Borne
However, Bogus iPhones from China soon entered the market at one-tenth of the price. GooPhone, the company behind the fakes, was apparently so convinced about their product that they attempted to sue Apple for copyright (that's a bold move, Cotton).
Experts and Apple enthusiasts often point out some very startling differences to distinguish between real and fake iPhones. The most common alteration is the technology - a knockoff iPhone X usually relies on Android technology and in some models, features like Siri or the fingerprint scanner don't function properly.
The Genius Technique
There's one other way to spot a fake iPhone: its rounded edges. The iPhone X has rounded screen corners called squircles - a cross between a square and a circle (yes, this is a real thing). However, Apple's squircles aren't exactly the same as rounding a corner with a circular arc - they're subtly different and require precise examination to spot the changes. The products have something called curvature continuity, meaning that straight lines never meet at a single point.
Apple doesn't have a patent on the curves, but most companies simply don't have the dedication or resources to try and match the preciseness of its products. Industrial designers might also be confined by their software or expertise.
Furthermore, finding the exact curve is incredibly difficult, even for the most experienced designers. Marc Edwards from Apply Pixels used his Photoshop skills to try and replicate the shape of iOS apps, but was unable to get an exact match. Many others tried different methods, including creating custom formulas and reverse engineering the final product, but only managed to get close approximations. Apple did, however, release an iOS template for app builders to use.
Apple's attention to detail and craftsmanship is what helped make them the company they are today. Every minor aspect is carefully crafted with finesse and aptitude and in this case, there were major advantages.