I have always loved RSS because it gave me just the slightest bit of control and measure of accountability for the sites and blogs I read. I was able to sit back and opt out of most of the chatter, receiving only the important stuff without the risk of falling for false controversies and inaccurate news. I could spot editorial trends, identify site-biases, develop affinities for particular writers or aversions to others, and generally get the news on my terms. When a site stopped delivering a quality product, I had the satisfying ability to withdraw my subscription.
“To an outside observer, it looks like we’re, like, the least disciplined people in the world (and, you know, in a way we are), but it’s the unpredictability that keeps everything fun. When the guys decide it’s too dang sunny to work and pile into a car and go to the mountains, nobody says, “Hey, we’ve got to work.” Because we do work, all the freaking time. What we have to do is play.”—Wil Shipley. Life is hard if you can’t embrace unpredictability.
We tend to elevate artisanal, individually made objects for the exceptional care put into their creation. But as much human effort goes into making a great machine-made object. Mass production is itself an artform, and a modern miracle.
Friends, I can attest to this. We see the light at the end of the tunnel for Twine (which of course then leads to a narrow bridge over a canyon), and now I hope to find a bit more time to share this and other miracles I’ve experienced in the last several months.
“Given everything a phone can do, suggesting that the screen is the most important thing about it seems like a misunderstanding of what’s powerful in there. For me, the single most powerful aspect of the mobile phone is that it’s connected to other people and other things.”—A conversation between Rob Walker and co-founder of Area/Code, Kevin Slavin : Observatory: Design Observer. Questioning the faith placed in AR (like QR, right?), but there’s a bigger philosophy here. My perfect phone is forgettable, saving my gaze for my environment. I don’t want to connect, I want to be connected.
“Your phone should know when you have a meeting across town and tell you to leave early because it’s going to start raining. It should wake you up at 5AM because there’s a fresh bed of snow on the hill and your better grab your sled before everyone else. It should tell you exactly when to leave the restaurant on your first date, timing it just perfectly so you both get stuck in a downpour trapped under that awning where you’ve planned the perfect first kiss.”—Kickstarter blog, Featured Creator: Adam Grossman of Dark Sky. This is what even more data and context gets you. No comprehension, just the Right Thing happening. (But leave room for happenstance.) We backed Dark Sky.
When we crystallize our manufacturing processes and ship them to the factory Over There, we lose the ability to improve them ourselves. This isn’t felt immediately, but outsourcing means you’re paying someone else to get better at it, and then they can use that expertise for their own benefit when new opportunities come along.
But you’ll just move on to the Next Big Thing, right? Unfortunately, you’re at a disadvantage there, because even new product categories are built on expertise in existing ones. Pisano and Shih offer the example of the rechargeable battery market, which is swelling to supply the most expensive component to tomorrow’s electric cars. U.S. companies can’t compete here because battery technology has grown by leaps and bounds in Asia, ever since we farmed it out along with the rest of our consumer electronics in previous decades.
Narrative seems to be required in products these days. Pornographic details of how this chair was assembled, where this jacket was discovered, the machines (not humans!) which carved my laptop out of metal. Lots of adjectives like ‘hand-selected’, ‘rugged’ and ‘refined’.
It’s because above a certain price point, consumers are buying authenticity that bolsters their own narratives. I didn’t make this chair, but I support and am connected to the worker who did. I didn’t find this jacket, but I’m the kind of person who could. Lord knows I didn’t build this computer, but this is my digital canvas, not a digital grindstone. Even buying a generic brand becomes a conscious decision to say, I’m no-nonsense and unaffected.
Most product stories come frozen in a pre-purchase state. Shouldn’t we get more in these malleable times? Designing for post-purchase wear is one branch—impose your own history on the object.
Another direction is to place the object in a fantasy. It acts as a portal to some other wonderful tale, in a very different way from a television. It might be a reminder of some past event.
I don’t mean to pick on Google. But this crystallizes the “memes as virus, humans as carrier” meme to me. Here Google+ claims to do even the work of curation for us, but it’s on all social networks. We exist to pass others’ content on, and pay the network for the privilege, in personal data. The medium is the message, but it’s not our medium.
There’s a whole generation of dumb ass kids who grew up convinced that they’re creative in some way.
I just worry that real creation will no longer be recognized as valuable. Are we creating real value when we retweet? Networks are encouraging us to invest in our “reputation,” which ultimately is as ephemeral as derivatives. But the brokers always win.
"Digital content" is more than reading it on a screen
I thought I was waiting for reasonable digital prices to finally subscribe to the New Yorker’s fine long-form journalism. Yet now that I can buy an iPad subscription, I’m still weighing it. For $20 less and more of my personal info, I can get all this plus the print copies.
Funny that I thought the new digital price is reasonable until I see how it’s actually more than the physical+digital subscription. (I’m trying to break my habit of maximizing.) Either way it’s a hell of a deal for that much quality writing. I’ll probably subscribe my mom to the paper copies while I read the digital ones.
My lack of enthusiasm for the digital edition is because it isn’t more convenient. Blame goes to Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite. This bolt-on to InDesign is heralded as “the future of publishing,” which sounds like an epitaph once you see what it is.
It renders each page in an existing InDesign layout as an impenetrable PNG. Adobe promises “immersive reading experiences” using “innovative viewer technology,” but it’s not as interactive as PDF, let alone HTML. You can’t search text, or select a quote to share. None of the advantages of digital other than portability are present. Particularly with the New Yorker’s longer, more durable articles, I can see myself wanting to read a piece months later — and I’m afraid it may be quicker to pick up a paper copy and thumb to a dogeared page than to browse a dozen slow-loading digital issues.
Publishers are going with Adobe because it’s the simplest addition to their workflow, but the fundamental differences between text on paper and on a screen remain. At least Quark’s new version looks like it does searchable text. Better yet would be HTML5-based apps (Flipboard does this well).
As the industry tries to catch up with digital media, it’s going through the Flash stage where it thinks that readers want novelty. No, we want content, we want it everywhere, and you’re getting in the way. I’m sorry to say we don’t read your magazines for the layout, and we won’t for the UI either. Stop dicking around with navigation experiments until you can give us the novel new navigation called search.
“I like to give customers the feel of looking through their grandmother’s old jewelry drawer so that when you do pull out that one special piece it’s that much more fun and meaningful.”—My sister, featured Brooklyn Flea vendor and like any good hustler, user experience designer. She also has an amazing collection of record players.
“a rectangular screen, tight bezel, flat back. This description can be applied to any number of devices: TVs, phones, media players (themselves endangered species), tablets. How is a device supposed to assert its identity, its soul?”—YES. This becomes a problem as software becomes the product. Analog Form | Blog | design mind (via slantback)
Just got to play with a WiFi Motorola Xoom. For those who haven’t gotten to yet, here are my quick and utterly incomplete impressions as a designer:
Physical — I’ve long admired the machine aesthetic Motorola has developed through hard edges, texture and refined color and material choices. This slips on form but not the rest. I liked the feel in the hand but I was also surprised by how heavy it felt, even though it’s about the same weight as the iPad — I actively felt wrist strain after a few minutes. I suspect this is because Honeycomb nudges you to use landscape mode, and that plus the larger aspect ratio puts more torque on your wrist when one-handing it. The power button right on the back means you have to pick it up to turn it on.
Android 3.0 — The Xoom is zippy but still has that barely perceptible Android lag in touch response. Honeycomb seems nice enough, but I can’t critique it too closely since I’m not a frequent Android user. The rearrangement and restyling of controls did scuttle what little familiarity I had. The escape button — home — is nestled between other software buttons, which makes it harder to stab when you launched an app by accident. The screen previews of all the open apps before switching are really nice.
Apps — The software lacks polish. The Android Marketplace only works in landscape, and it has amateur errors like a heading and its drop shadow being different fonts and sizes, and “no results” text stuck in the background that stays fixed as you scroll. I was excited to try the movie editing app, but on first launch there’s nothing to do. When you try to add a clip, it doesn’t have any, and you can’t record one right in the app. Or at least I couldn’t after trying every control. Presumably I’d have to find another app just for video capture. Not good for the novice.
While the iPad just scales up iPhone apps, Android apps are supposed to stretch and rearrange on a bigger screen akin to how a website might. This is partial cover for the dearth of apps written specifically for Honeycomb. (Hey, a desktop-class web browser was the only killer app the original iPhone needed.) But in practice, this can look bad. As UI elements align to the center or side, there’s lots of white space between. Buttons stretch to absurd widths to fill the screen horizontally, even as they remain the same height.
The Xoom’s hardware is fine — nothing groundbreaking about scaling up a smartphone’s guts. But it’s clear that Google rushed the software filling to market while it was still gooey, or else it’d have fewer silly glitches and more developer support. Just as the Android phone OS really hit its stride at 2.1, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Android tablet experience changes materially over the next couple of releases. The 3.1rd time’s a charm!
Pouring so much plastic into disposable conveniences has helped to diminish our view of a family of materials we once held in high esteem. Plastic has become synonymous with cheap and worthless, when in fact those chains of hydrocarbons ought to be regarded as among the most valuable substances on the planet.
Designers like to talk about the honest use of a material, that worthy alignment between representation and function. We praise wood furniture and metal utensils. Plastic, though, means fake. Through use, it’s been defined as a trashy material, but the fact that we wrestle with its place in our lives indicates that we haven’t found what that alignment is.
FormaFantasma explores one alternative design present with Botanica, which extends the original organic polymers like celluloid as if oil-based plastics were never conceived. This is a lovely direction. Can we ever consider plastics a craft material? Would it take advantage of plastic’s manufacturability?
Kartell furniture, I think, gets closer to honesty while accepting our current relationship with plastic. It emphasizes polycarbonate’s aesthetic and durability that no other material can match. Problem is, other plastic objects don’t match this example, either.
Are there other objects and techniques that restore value to the material? Plastic means flexible, too. It’s impossible to nail down one identity for a material with such a range of properties. But we can burnish personalities among the plastics to restore dignity to the family name. When we value plastic, we will make it more sustainable.
“The visual design of the iPhone app icon communicates that it is like a little physical pebble….
I feel like I could take all my apps and put them in a little bag and carry them around. Just like the collection of marbles I had as a kid. There is something viscerally satisfying about the physicality of those little app icons.”—The Only App Phone, Greg Cox (via Daring Fireball)
'I want to sit here at my desk… cranking out beautifully layered Photoshop files that have absolutely nothing to do with this person's business goals, and call myself a designer.' And I think designers like that make other designers' jobs a lot harder….
I define design as solving a business problem. And if you’re getting that problem second-hand, and if you’re not taking an active role in figuring out how to solve it and explaining how you solved it, you’re not being a designer.
“A true industrial designer is more of a problem solver. A true artist tends to make a singular piece that stands almost in a museum by itself, whereas an industrial designer is designing a solution for millions of people.”—Industrial designer and Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles
Yesterday at the Media Lab, Sherry Turkle hosted a discussion of her new book "Alone Together," which I gather has been earning her accusations of grumpy luddism. So she made a point to say that she’s an optimist: “We think the Internet is grown up. It isn’t.”
When the Internet is grown up, it will be less insistent. The way we absorb it from phone screens while shuffling around in public is going to seem as gauche as belt clips and earpieces. The smartphone is still pretty dumb about getting out of the way. I suppose the dream of augmented reality in an eyeglass display, a literal take on Weiser’s favorite invisible technology, is the answer. I suppose. It could leave us just as twitchy if the content keeps shifting.
On the way home from the talk, I see a man doing the head-down hand-up walk. I’m judging him. But when I peek over his shoulder, he’s absorbed in a (paper) book. Gutenberg, what have you wrought?
As an engineer, my design has become one thousand times more effective because of knowing my limits. Drawing a glass form with little to no regard of the technology driving this not only makes your design look juvenile, it is insulting to engineers everywhere.
Design and engineering are parts of a basic and essential synergy. Without one, the other is pointless. A design without regard for engineering is pointless. A machine without regard for design is not pointless, but is ugly, hard to use, no fun…
Article in the mX commuter newspaper. My aunt in Melbourne found it on the train: “I was reading it when my eye caught this heading about a wallet. I started reading it & lo & behold! it is our Johnny boy’s invention!! For the 1st time I got a good understanding of what it is.”
The latest thing was a segment with Discovery Channel Canada. Coverage will trickle out to periodicals, but for my mom’s benefit, below is a list of all the press so far. Thanks go to all the journalists who talked with me—now back to work.
The original iMac is a landmark in electronics design language. The handle, the colors, the friendly face, all contributed to changing the user’s relationship to computers. None more so than the translucent shell that exposes the guts. It says there’s nothing to fear in here—it’s engineering, not magic.
Compare this to the blingy, hollow towers of home stereos that mask their cheap commodity. Those go to the pile of products that reflect the alienation between the givers of form and function.
In Nendo’s ceramic-speaker, circuitry becomes ornamentation under the hand of a potter. It draws a line back to older crafts. And why not? Circuitry is craft. The wonder of its engineering should be clad with the same skill. You can’t get any more honest to have them be the same thing. I don’t want to lose touch with that wonder, or take the function and the functiongiver for granted.
“…the first thing that happened when he bought an iPhone “was that New York fell away … It disappeared. Poof.” That’s the first thing I noticed too: the city disappeared, along with any will to experience. New York, so densely populated and supposedly sleepless, must be the most efficient place to hone observational powers. But those powers are now dulled in me. I find myself preferring the blogs of remote strangers to my own observations of present ones. Gone are the tacit alliances with fellow subway riders, the brief evolution of sympathy with pedestrians. That predictable progress of unspoken affinity is now interrupted by an impulse to either refresh a page or to take a website-worthy photo. I have the nervous hand-tics of a junkie. For someone whose interest in other people’s private lives was once endless, I sure do ignore them a lot now.”—from “Sad As Hell”, a book review cum social critique by Alice Gregory (via craightonberman)
Saying that Android is fragmented as a phone platform by comparing it to the iPhone is…the wrong comparison. Instead, think of it this way: Android is the most unified electronics device platform in the industry’s history.
Forget cellphones—Android heralds a shift in embedded electronics. Entrepreneurs will be free to create newcategories of consumerelectronicsdevices without worrying about icky hardware engineering. It’s a platform making a thousand new Apples possible.
This article is a lesson that came out of Neuros’s experiment with open software on top of a hardware platform. I like its narrative of bringing back American industry, letting American entrepreneurs focus on innovative software design—though I don’t think it’s inherently American anymore.
Brenda Garand, the Dartmouth professor, picked up a C- clamp to which Fane had welded a pair of angle brackets. She said, “This is something that Larry made for a specific purpose. It was for holding on to something at multiple angles.”
Jim Osman laughed, and shook his head. “That is so Larry,” he said.
“That’s the power of the object,” Garand said. “It’s the history, it’s the touch, it’s what is left of that person.”
Astronomy, driven by the needs of explorers, has left us instruments that were so beautifully crafted that they remain in our cultural consciousness long after they have been obsoleted. These measured and modeled a universe of which we were the center.
We’re at not the center now. The attention that computers now demand is why Bill Buxton calls for a divergence toward a multitude of simpler tools, looking to the design arts field for leadership. David Rose, founder of Ambient Devices, sees a future of “beautiful antique” instruments scattered around the house, each providing rich, specific data in an elegant tool.
A perspective that implicates UI in our behavior. As if all those email alert sounds explicitly breaking our concentration weren’t enough, are our interfaces implicitly encouraging distraction? We can’t solve the problem of focusing on work while scheduling interruptions is encouraged both in our work culture and in our interfaces.
Montiero says to instead start with scheduling goals, and then their dependencies. Make meetings with yourself. (It’ll all look the same to someone who just sees you’re unavailable on your calendar.) Now, let’s adopt a conceptual model for calendaring that conserves time instead of giving it away.
“I’m no longer the expert and that’s great. The individual subject teacher is now the expert in teaching digitally in their class….
The idea of acquiring additional software for your computing device has become so straightforward and non-threatening to normal computer users that instead of pushing new software into the school, I’m now trying to hold back the demand for software to keep it manageable.”—Fraser Speirs muses on how the iPad has upended a hierarchy.
Julie hates the new digital broadcast TV. With our weak signal, it’s unforgiving. You can adjust the antenna, but the signal cuts out with seemingly no connection to what you’re doing.
The analog broadcasts were more forgiving, she says. You could see and hear the signal getting weaker or stronger as you moved the antenna, which provided cues on how to adjust it. And you could get by with a degraded, but constant, picture. With digital, it’s all or nothing.
“For new evidence to overcome truthiness, it must be framed in an appealing story, one that acknowledges the existing narrative…. “His heart is shimmying like the front end of an old Chevy truck, and as long as it’s shimmying, we can’t do the surgery.”—
Convincing the Public to Accept New Medical Guidelines, Miller-McCune. The difficulty of practicing evidence-based medicine raises the questions, what is our relationship to science these days, and how are we being taught it? Blame education if you like, but have things become so complex that we have to fall back on our imaginations to make sense of things? If so, then it’s not a matter of explaining directly how things work, but supporting a productive narrative. Stories are more powerful than data.
This is a good design problem. The truth may be as small as “the program is doing complex things so you need to wait” or as big as “some cancer kills so slowly that operation isn’t useful.” But accept that this is not enough to overcome the mental model of the user. It must not lie, which can cause complications later, but a responsive fiction can help the user understand the non-fiction. The article has some ideas on how to achieve this.
Explanations that offer hope and empowerment will always hold more appeal than those that offer uncertainty or bad news, and when new evidence offers messy truths, they must be framed in a positive light if they’re to gain traction.
“June comes, and a new iPhone is introduced to the world, creating a shock wave of obsolescence….yet the materials of which it is made have ultimately all been abstracted from nature, resources consumed in the long chain of the manufacturing process, very few of which — apart from the packing materials — have been recycled.”—
The Half-Life of Phones, New York Times. Think of the energy extracted from the earth and thousands of people in order to design, manufacture and transport your phone. The staggering work of creation is not well represented by the physical object. The miracle of the tiny box in our pocket is that we take it for granted.
When I read the sales reports, I see 3 million existing phones looking for a new purpose. Yet with the App Store, repurposing a consumer electronic device has never been so easy. Did you keep what you had, hand it down, sell it, or put it to a new use? What app gives your phone a stay of execution?
I have been quiet, mostly basking in the post-thesis glow and transitioning to the next thing, but also because I spent a week in Helsinki attending a product sound design workshop.
It’s been inspiring to vocally “sketch” interactions with aural affordances, or analyze how the audio track of a movie supports the main narrative, or reveals something deeper. It’s good for designers to exercise this muscle — we’re not trained to work with sound as we are with visual output. We’re quick to use sound for attention-getting measures, but audio is well-suited to more nuanced and ambient uses. I will explore this in future posts.
I can’t stand the way we’re slaves to the screen even when we’re walking around. Sound is part of the solution to this. It often goes hand in hand with touch, and so is frequently designed into electronic objects to emulate physical interfaces, like the “clicking” touchwheel on nearly every non-touchscreen iPod. But there’s also pleasure in the sound of baseball cards stuck into bicycle spokes, and the sh-chunk of the Viewmaster shutter. Whether you’re a digital or physical designer, consider the palette that sound affords you.
“Invisible technology needs a metaphor that reminds us of the value of invisibility, but does not make it visible. I propose childhood: playful, a building of foundations, constant learning, a bit mysterious and quickly forgotten by adults. Our computers should be like our childhood: an invisible foundation that is quickly forgotten but always with us, and effortlessly used throughout our lives.”—Mark Weiser, The World is Not a Desktop