Way too many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Kim Erwin, an energetic and intelligent graduate student at the Institute of Design (today she is an assistant professor at ID). I was at ID finalizing an investment in one of their research programs for Aldus (now Adobe). Patrick Whitney at his Tom Sawyer best sealed the deal by having several students talk about their class work.
Kim’s project was to come up with a new interface for a search engine. As part of her user research, she found “tangible surrogates” for the search process that she could go observe. Never having heard the term, I asked Kim to describe what the heck a “tangible surrogate” is.
Kim shared the simple definition which is that a “tangible surrogate” is a way to find a substitute for something that is abstract or conceptual that is tangible enough that you can observe it. She continued “for example, it isn’t very insightful to watch folks use a search engine on a computer screen. About all you do is see some minor usability things you might improve. To find real innovations you have to find situations in the real world, in the wild, that are similar to the process of searching online. You need to look for something tangible that is a surrogate for the computer operation.”
As Kim reflected on the problem of where might tangible surrogates be for searching or better yet navigating an unknown space, she realized that there were several places in the real world that were so big that you had to develop search and navigation strategies. The four places that she came up with to observe were: video stores, large university libraries, Chicago’s many museums like the Field Museum, and outpatients visiting large hospitals.
She then went on to describe the many patterns of searching and navigating that people used to find their way around these complex physical locations. Some of the patterns she identified were “know what I want” and “surprise me.”
Then she showed the concept, paper and behavioral prototypes she developed for the project. I was stunned as these were the most innovative thinking I’d seen to date on how to do better searching interfaces on the computer. A key part of the search interface was to quickly determine what kind of search the user really wanted to accomplish – what search pattern were they trying to accomplish.
I have no idea what happened to the work that Kim did with this project, but it wasn’t until some of the recent work by Peter Morville with Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become and Search Patterns: Design for Discovery that something as innovative in the search realm has showed up.
The other area where tangible surrogates is important is working with idea stage entrepreneurs and asking them about business examples that are similar to what they are trying to accomplish. Of course, the first thing they assert is that there is no business remotely similar to what they are proposing. I then point them to Geoff Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm and his chapter on finding your competitor. Geoff points out that there are always competitors even if it is the manual way of doing things.
At the early stage of an idea it is important to have other comparable companies (preferably in several industries) to look at the value chain ecology they are a part of and to understand their business model. Just by looking at how others navigate the VRIO (Value, Rarity, Imitability, Organization) components of the Value Chain (see Jay Barney’s What I Didn’t Learn in Business School: How Strategy Works in the Real World) sheds a lot of light on how the new entrepreneur should be thinking about their own value chain.
So the next time you are designing a product, service or business, what are the tangible surrogates you can find to observe?