Archived entries for Design

Wealth Insight

I’m excited to share that the Wealth Insight project I worked on with PNC has launched. As the blurb on the IDEO website says, it helps to provide “greater transparency for investors in their dealings with financial institutions, a desire that increased during the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession.”

One of the interesting parts of the process was the high-fidelity web-based prototype we made to iterate and evaluate the design. It had information visualizations driven by real data, which helped us test our assumptions and refine the details during our feedback sessions with investors. It was the first time I used Protovis instead of Flash for dynamic graphics, which had a bit of a learning curve but worked out well.

You can learn more about the project on the IDEO website or the PNC Wealth Insight microsite. I’m particularly happy to see that PNC has also created some “making of” videos, which talk about the human-centered design process. They even include a cameo by Hal Monson, the IDEO project lead. The videos won’t let me embed them here, so check out the links below.

Future of the Book?

Today I was asked to generate some provocative statements and questions pertaining to eBooks and the future of reading; I thought I should share them here  as well. This is a very hot topic right now and one in which technologies and behaviors are changing quickly. I’m an interaction designer, and I’m excited by new ways of engaging with things, but my personal stance is also one of critique and skepticism. I’m always interested in teasing out what value has been gained or lost rather than instantly and wholeheartedly embracing technology-led change.

To that end, here were my provocations. Many could be interpreted as a negative statement about eBooks, but also reveal potential opportunities for design in this very young medium.

“What are the cornerstones of the reading experience that we want to preserve, no matter what the format?”

”Why should I buy an eBook when it has no (monetary) value as soon as I buy it?”

“What is the role of a local book store as a reseller of eBooks?”

“Can I get a download code for the eBook when I purchase a physical book, the way I can for MP3s when I buy a vinyl record?”

“As an author, how do I sign a reader’s eBook when they come to my reading at a bookstore?”

“When I’m done reading a great book I like to pass it along to a friend. Can I do that with an eBook?”

“I can’t open any of the documents that I created 10 years ago because I don’t have the programs anymore. Is this going to happen to my library as well?”

“My apartment would look really empty if I didn’t have bookshelves full of books.”

“I look at a screen all day, I read books to relax when I’m sick of fighting with technology.”

Being there, actually and digitally

I spent the last 6 weeks doing a project San Francisco, a great opportunity to live and work in a different context for a while. It was nearly a perfect amount of time to really experience and begin to understand a place without losing touch with home. I ended up exploring a good amount, here’s a map of everywhere I went.

In Chicago I do a lot of things by myself, but given my living situation in San Francisco I found myself going out alone even more often. Whether it was a restaurant, park, coffee shop, or music venue I ended up reflecting on how I was relating to the places and people around me, and what role technology was having in helping or hindering that relationship. My iPhone was invaluable for finding my way around public transportation and pointing me towards good restaurants, but once I arrived somewhere it felt like a crutch, something I receded into. With my glowing rectangle in hand I could be anywhere, reading my friend’s updates or world news, oblivious to my surroundings and broadcasting that message to everyone else. It reminded me of Chris Ware’s brilliant cover for the New Yorker nearly a near ago. Needless to say, I tried to keep my phone in my pocket.

Recently, the New York Times published an article on this topic that makes a conclusion I disagree with. In E-Book Readers Make People Less Isolated the author argues that the iPad and Kindle provide more openings for strangers to engage someone using these devices than if they were reading a book. One of the quotes is that “Strangers constantly ask about it,” which gets precisely to what I think is the misinterpretation. These are heavily marketed consumer devices that receive attention because they are new and shiny; the interest is in the thing, not the person. There’s little wonder that this particular article was published in the Fashion and Style section and features a photo of a runway model holding an iPad.

In my experience, there is a huge social difference between using an iPhone and physical media such as a book or magazine. The numerous possible activities afforded by an iPhone creates a “down the rabbit hole” effect that draws the user deeper into their own self and projects an unapproachable air to others because they can not gauge the purpose, or level of intensity, in which you are engaged. In contrast, a book or magazine projects a temporary, non-transactional activity, and the trivialness of interruption is obvious.

These are hardly original thoughts, but in an era when social media increasingly claims to be contextual to your location I think it’s an important time to reflect on what is really enhancing a sense of “thereness” and what is using mobility and location as merely a search query or as communication to others not present.

Last week I stopped by the Processing.Android conference at UIC to see talks by Malcolm McCullough, Ben Fry, and Casey Reas. It was inspiring to see the state of Processing and the breadth of ways it is being used, but Malcolm’s talk is the one that’s been rattling around my head in relationship to this topic. The presentation covered familiar points from Digital Ground concerning street level media, foraging vs. searching, urban markup, and general discussion of embodied interaction in public space. At the end of the Q+A Malcolm asked us what we thought of the state of locative media, after bringing up examples including Yelp Monocole, Loopt, Layar, and of course Four Square.

I started considering his question in relationship to this topic of digital isolationism. What strikes me about locative media today is the weakness of connection to what is actually present. A vision that Malcolm puts forth in his book is a world of embodied technology, of sensors and computation found in buildings and the environment that one can interact with directly. A survey of today’s mobile applications would disappoint if that was the expectation, since they mostly use location as an input to a constrain a search in a remote database.

Our devices may always be connected to the internet, but they are rarely aware of each other or connected directly with technology embedded in the environment. Instead, a semi-accurate GPS coordinate is sent through our increasingly strained and spotty mobile data network, a solution that greatly limits the possibilities and autonomy of our devices in their relationship to their surroundings. A Four Square check-in is the digital equivalent of an “I was here” graffiti tag. It establishes territory, but does it connect you more deeply to a place? One need not even be present to “check-in”.

Perhaps we have simply not yet caught up to Japan and South Korea, and once the catch-22 of device and infrastructure roll-out is solved we we will find RFID and NFC integrated in our devices and paving the way for different types of touch-based connections to our environment. It’s interesting to consider how this would alter the social situation of using our devices in public, especially if you consider the possibilities for gestures that are more physical and placement-oriented instead of screen-based. NFC capabilities are hardly a guarantee of anything, but they do open the door for truly local services. The next evolution of locative media will not be something that mass market companies like Four Square can offer on their own, since it will need to involve the owners and maintainers of the physical environment. That local quality may be exactly what we need for these interactions to feel more authentic and present.

McCullough talks about a goal for embodied interactions as being “slow and close”. I’m still exploring what that can mean, but it sounds like a great thing to work towards.

My auntie the clock and the lying-down policeman

In the Aug 30th issue of The New Yorker, Ian Frazier visits a gulag prison and discusses their history and place in the Russian psyche. In the midst of this story is a wonderful paragraph about the relationship people in Russia have with objects and technology that I’ll repeat here since the full article is not available online:

Beneath a surface layer of unbelief or Orthodox Christianity, Russia is an animist country. Ordinary physical objects are alive in Russia far more than they are in America, and, however Russia’s religious or political currents flow, this native animism remains strong. Tree, streets, utensils, groves, machines–each has its own spirit and its own personality, like the cabin belonging to the witch Baba Yaga that could get up on is chicken legs and run around. A Russian telephone isn’t just a phone, it’s a being; once, at my friend Alex Melamid’s mother’s apartment when I was having trouble dialling her phone, she showed me how, explaining, “He likes to be dialled slowly.” In Russia, alarm clocks don’t ring; they burst into rooster-crowing. Another friend Luda, had a clock in her apartment that announced the hours in an old-lady voice: “The time is one o’clock exactly!” Luda referred to the clock as moya tyotka–“my auntie.” When you pass a turnstile on the St. Petersburg or Moscow metro without paying, there’s not a siren sound, as in New York, but a frantic chirping, as if you’d just trod on some creature’s nest. In Russia the windshield wiper on your car isn’t called a mechanical name–it’s dvornik, a word whose more common meaning is “custodian.” What we call a speed bump in America the Russians call lezhachii politseiskii, which means “lying-down policeman.”

This type of anthropomorphizing of everyday objects can be found in any language, but it’s interesting to hear that it’s particularly strong in Russia. It reminds me  of Bruno Latour’s article Where are the Missing Masses? Sociology of a Door, where he talks about delegating human roles to technology. The article starts with a story about finding a note on a door that read “The groom is on strike, for God’s sake, keep the door closed,” in reference to an automatic door closer that was broken. As a designer, it’s an interesting exercise to explore how people might assign agency to something you’re creating, and decide if you want to encourage it through naming or metaphor. I like to imagine the language they would use, the matter-of-fact and even humorous way, they might explain to a friend what it does for them.

Reflection in social media

Earlier this week Dave Blanchard, a colleague of mine, asked an interesting question on Twitter:

Has social media pushed self-reflection out in favor of self-projection? Is there time for both?

Reading this made me first think of Slow Design, a movement I’ve been tracking for a few years now. It began as an offshoot of the Slow Food movement and holds similar goals of fostering deeper connections, promoting reflection, and focusing on longer time frames. A slow design is one that affords and promotes these types of behaviors. Can social media be slow?

The second thing I thought of was an episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge that I heard on NPR recently. The first segment was an interview with David Bainbridge, biologist and author of Teenagers: A Natural History, on the makeup of the teenage mind where he discussed the intensity of the brain’s growth during that time period and how it leads to an almost overwhelming level of self-reflection unlike any other time in our lives. Given this, do teenagers tend to use social media simultaneously for reflection and projection? Anecdotally, it seems like teens mix these modes more than adults. I makes me want to dig into danah boyd’s ethnographic work on teens and social media to learn more.

Finally, it reminded me of Momento, an iPhone app I’ve been enjoying “which provides a quick and easy way to record ‘moments’ throughout your day.” It is essentially a diary app with a subtle and beautiful interface design, but the twist is the way it connects to and displays your social media projections alongside your private reflections. The integration of the two is simple and straightforward; it displays Twitter posts and Flickr photos chronologically mixed with your Momento entries. The effect, however, is much more profound as it promotes additional reflection on the difference in tone and content between the private and the social.

The reason Dave’s question prompted me to make these connections, and to write this post, is that I hope social media isn’t having this effect. Obviously there are those who use it only for self promotion, but as the medium matures perhaps we will see more adaptations like Momento that build upon these platforms in new ways. Perhaps the accumulation of social media over many years will grow to naturally promote reflection as our archives mix the self-projection of today with that of a very different future self.

How free will the tablet be?

Next week Apple has a press event scheduled  and the rumor mill predicts that they’ll be launching a new product, most likely the long-fabled tablet computer. There is already plenty of speculation over what the new device might be like, but the aspect that I’m anxious to hear about is how free it is; free as in speech.

Apple has always designed closed ecosystems where you must use both their hardware and operating systems together. Without courageous and unsupported workarounds you can only run Mac OS X on your MacBook, and only use iTunes to manage the music on your iPod. On the iPhone they upped the ante, successfully controlling not only the underlying operating system and desktop component but positioning the App Store as a gatekeeper for every third party app. The iPhone is an amazing device that has changed the way I learn, communicate, and travel, but it is not very free.

In a book I’m currently reading, The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain provides a perspective on generatively in the history of computing and the internet. He is referring to the quality of a system that allows for unexpected uses to develop in an unimpeded manner, and highlights numerous examples of today’s products and services trending in the other direction. It leaves me feeling conflicted — I know firsthand as a designer that when you control all aspects of an ecosystem you have a better opportunity to provide a good user experience. Similar to the issues of privacy vs. tailored interactions I find myself acknowledging that this cohesive experience comes at a price.

Many products today go beyond restricting generatively and are actually tethered to their makers, able to phone home to tattle on their owners or install updates that restrict or remove features at the manufacturer’s whim. Examples include Tivo or the Amazon Kindle, which infuriated owners when books they had previously purchased were removed from their devices remotely.

Next week, I will be very interested to see how Apple continues their trend towards increased control. Of course I’m curious to see how big the screen is, and what kinds of gestures it will support, but I’ll be looking deeper too at what kind of relationship they are facilitating between the device and its owner. Will we be able to use it how we want? Will they support new and unexpected user innovation? How free will it be?