It’s been over 10 years since US TV show Nightline first aired an episode featuring the inner workings of a Palo Alto based design company called IDEO. The episode became an instantaneous hit, and it is often cited as one of the most requested videos (by viewers) which ABC has ever produced. IDEO was then a well known name within and indeed outside of the design community, but what was so special about this profile of the company?
Whilst the product design produced during the program was far from flawless, the program did allow outsiders a front-row seat into an exploratory process and a working environ a million miles from those of a traditional business.
It provided the viewer with a intimate view into the workings and structure (or non-structure) of a truly creative environment. It demonstrated how radical thinking coupled with an involved prototyping process can produce many ideas.
Despite many businesses and individuals having since watched the program, it would be fair to say that not many were able to replicate such a process successfully. This is in part because many businesses still presume they do not require this level of innovative thinking and secondly because they may not feel comfortable in allowing the seemingly chaotic process of design to occur within a company, and indeed lead a company strategy.
Granted it’s a fantastic showcase for IDEO and indeed parts of it may seem a little contrived or calculated but for a company to allow such an intimate glimpse into a creative process is rare. One which is not afraid to show all the ‘messy-stuff” – that is the mistakes, the stupid ideas, and the inherently fuzzy place from where a good idea is born and more importantly the manner in which it is allowed to breathe and grow.
For me this is one of the better demonstrations of what a user-centred design process is and nicely captures the imagination, empathy and effort that’s required to create such a design. For these very reasons ‘Deep Dive’ is always worth a viewing.
Reiterating the maxim that “It’s all about the journey, not the destination”.
As designers we endeavor to improve how things work, look and feel; this is achieved by examining how things are and imagining how they may be. It can be argued that all design is inherently concerned with change, which in turn is brought about by making decisions. Design activity involves the process of making many decisions, decisions on how things work, how things look and how things feel. Many factors contribute to this decision-making process and an ability to take onboard multiple considerations and possibilities is a essential skill for every designer. Every single decision a designer makes, however small, will have an impact on the resulting product or service. Therefore it can be said that every product we use, be it digital or physical, is the direct result of a set of decisions.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
When designing within familiar territory and established problem spaces, the decisions taken will be influenced by existing knowledge and previous experience – using known patterns to solve known problems. Designers can call on their experience and tacit knowledge to arrive at workable solutions to problems which are similar to those they’ve previously encountered. Many decisions will be made intuitively, almost subconsciously, with the designer instinctively knowing the correct choice to make as they overcome each small challenge. Familiar problems are, by and large, easier to solve.
However not all design problems are familiar and not all problems encountered can be easily solved. Sometimes a design problem requires a substantial shift in terms of how it is approached and the manner in which it is eventually solved. Inevitably such design problems require making the type of decisions not made before, requiring a leap of faith in the hope of arriving at an elegant, efficient and effective solution – this is brave design.
“Impressing is not just done by good design; it’s done by brave design.” – Elliot Jay Stocks
Brave design decisions occur when designing products and services which aspire to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary, when we need to solve a problem in a innovative manner, or when we wish to differentiate a product from the crowd. Brave design decisions require a vision to see past the present, to imagine being further down the road and to envision what it’s like there. Brave design often involves taking risks, and taking risks sometimes result in failure, but fear of failure should never prevent one taking a brave design decision.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” - Samuel Beckett
Failing Faster to Succeed Sooner
Success is rarely achieved without first having failed, though this is easy to forget. When we study brilliant products and successful services we often fail to acknowledge that they must have taken brave decisions, often many – be it removing features, venturing into a competitive market or simply undertaking a project which others deemed impossible. Start-ups and small teams can take these brave design decisions more easily and should they fail to work, they can be speedily rectified with a hopefully quick recovery. Brave decisions occur more naturally within those informal, collaborative environments where the decision making process is nimble and democratic. Hence start-ups and small-teams can achieve high growth rates dues to taking greater risks. They are innately brave by design.
Inevitably as an organisation grows, more layers of management are added, this results in a slower decision making process and a predilection towards risk aversion. Typically the organisations start sprightly, energetic and agile – akin to a rivers youthful stage, empowered to make iterative design decisions on a whim, zig-zagging along and forging a determined course to market. However as the organisation grows and matures taking on the necessary layers of management, it adds strata of decision making which eventually slow it down, running deep and slow, taking a meandering course out to sea. Cautiousness personified, bravery diluted.
An over-reliance on justifying every minute design decision can result in a stunted, stagnant environment. Doug Bowman’s recent experience at Google nicely illustrates what can happen when quantitive data has too much influence over what should be a qualitative process. By designing-with-numbers you may arrive at a good design but rarely will you achieve a truly great design. To achieve great design product managers must trust their designers intuition and their ability to make the brave decisions.
Following Your Intuition
Design inspiration often begins with a simple hunch, an intuitive feeling that something could work, could be potentially great. Getting up and actually exploring the idea and attempting to create a product based on a hunch is courageous, requiring a creative environment, an appropriate skill-set and a deep set determination among other things. Making a start is the hard part, after that it’s a matter of making the right choices and sometimes taking the brave ones.
It could be said that there are two ways of advancing through design – incrementally or by disruptive breakthrough. User interviews and focus groups will generally provide the type of insight that produces incremental or evolutionary advancement.
However to create something truly innovative and game-changing you need to follow your intuition and make the brave decisions, and not rely on your users insights to determine your products strategy.
Below are four examples of what I would consider as brave design decisions which eventually proved to be great design decisions:
Initially Twitter messages longer than 160 characters (the standars SMS carrier limit) were split into multiple texts and delivered in sequence. The team decided to place a limit on the number of characters that would go out via SMS for each post. They settled on 140, in order to leave room for the username. Many would argue that setting such a restriction on message length coupled with the omission of attachments or other enhancements was commercial suicide, however by employing these constraints they effectively created their own social communications powerhouse – with engineer Jack Dorsey remarking that
James Dyson’s personal quest to design a revolutionary vacuum cleaner involved a long arduous process. He prototyped obsessively for over three years, varying certain aspects gradually until he arrived at the product he had envisioned. All this time he was sinking further into debt, the venture could have potentially ruined him but he soldiered on, learning from each of his failures – convinced he could get his design to work.
“I made 5127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative… We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually. To me, solving problems is a bit like a drug. You’re on it, and you can’t get off.” – James Dyson
Ford Model T
When Henry Ford set out to design and popularize a revolutionary means of transport, he did so without even asking people what they wished for. When questioned about why he didn’t he replied -
“If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford
Supporting the widely held belief that truly disruptive innovations rarely if ever come from asking customers what they want.
Knowing they could not compete directly with the raw computing power of the Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, Nintendo instead focused their efforts on the area which really matters – the user experience. The key innovation of the Wii is how it makes players feel while they play – happy, engaged and active. Proving beyond doubt that user’s emotions are not necessarily enhanced by improved specs and faster processors and that the best graphics don’t necessarily result in the best user experience. Releasing the Wii was a brave but undoubtedly a genius move by Nintendo, instead of fighting a battle they were doomed to lose they instead subverted the market dominance by Sony and Microsoft and focused on creating their own niche. The physical interaction involved in playing the Wii became the key differentiator for Nintendo ensuring it was a runaway success.
I decided not to include the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to brave, innovative design. Suffice to say that Apple have been pushing the boundaries of both interaction and industrial design for many years. All the while removing what they deem unnecessary be it interface features, disk-drives or usb ports from our computing devices, however the popularity of their products has never been greater.
This has all been achieved by a strong focus on creating great products coupled with a superior user experience – by taking the brave decisions. Admittedly even Apple gets it wrong sometimes, as has been proved recently, however you can be assured of one thing, they have learnt from their mistakes and will bounce back smarter, better and braver. I will leave the last words to one of the true design visionaries of the computing industry.
“Don’t ask users – they simply dont know what they want.” – Steve Jobs
Of recent I’ve come to the conclusion that the one defining characteristic that is so fulfilling about using appropriately designed tools is that they become an extension of the user themselves, be it their body, their hands, or indeed their mind. Apples more recent device is a case in point, the iPad reduces the user interface to the extent that one feels as if they are actually ‘holding’ a webpage or application – and to all extents and purposes they are. However if one was to take this notion to the next logical level surely we would find that for many circumstances the ultimate interface would be no interface at all, and in turn the minimal physical interaction necessary, excepting neural and thought based interfaces, would be a simple and discrete gesture.
However many of the gestural interface implementations we have seen recently are concerned with how we as users might interact with a digital reality or unreality as the case may be. Projects such as Microsoft’s Natal demonstrate how a Natural User Interface (NUI) may be used to enhance our gaming environments by using our own bodies and actions as the proverbial input device in order to control a corresponding digital self or avatar.
In a recent re-reading of Don Normans excellent book the ‘Design of Everyday Things’ I was prompted to consider the real-world scenarios whereby a gesture based system would be advantageous in interacting with physical objects.
What implications would such changes have on our lives?
Many of the interactions which strike me initially would be scenarios where one is somewhat reticent to touch a shared surface, however by affording the modification of such behaviors would we be facilitating the creation of a generation physically averse to many everyday interactions which we as humans currently take for granted?
As our interactions with objects head in a direction visibly reminiscent of something approaching telekinesis how will this affect the way in which our everyday artifacts function and in what ways will designers harness gestures to influence behavior.
Which interactions or physical devices do we encounter on a daily basis which might benefit from such an interface?
An obvious choice surely? Maybe not. Many public facing doors in buildings are already using motion sensors to detect a person as they approach. Would they benefit by requiring a directive gesture to open? Probably not, although many of us would be familiar with two scenarios in which such solutions fall short.
a) The first we’ll call ‘Playing Chicken’ – When one walks towards an ‘Automatic Door’ with the intention of entering the building, yet the doors fail to open with sufficient time, forcing the individual to either break stride or stop, face the glass and wait patiently for the doors to acknowledge their presence.
b) ‘Getting Smart’ – when the flow of people using an automatic door is out of step with the sensors timing. Causing awkward uncertainty and nervous approaches by those who wish to enter, daunted by the prospect of getting sandwiched between the unforgiving glass panes.
The name of which is my tribute to an old spy TV show Get Smart in which the character confidently faced the prospect of simliar door malfunction.
However if a simple hand gesture were required would people feel socially awkward ‘waving’ to an inanimate object, or would it only be a matter of getting used to this slight change in behavior. For instance only 15 years ago a person may have avoided the prospect of having a full-blown conversation in a public space over a mobile device, yet nowadays many feel obliged to do just that not only by necessity but mostly by choice. Social conventions regularly accommodate technological advances with a unforeseen pace.
Use of a gestural command to lift and close a toilet seat would be of great benefit hygienically speaking, particularly in public spaces where one would be much less inclined to touch a toilet lid. When I researched this idea a little further it transpires that some other designers have had ideas alongsimilar lines.
TV & Audio Systems
Use of a hand wave to change channels would initially seem useful, yet imagine a scenario where there are several people watching TV who might have differing opinions on what exactly to watch. Moving a simple single-user interface such as a remote control into a to multi-user scenario may unnecessarily complicate an otherwise straight-forward situation.
Imagine your next home audio system being able to recognise your gestures such as snapping your fingers to switch it on, a wave of your right hand to play and raising ones hand to raise the volume correspondingly. Would we want for such a thing or a would it be more a hindrance than a help.
I also remember thinking that taps would also benefit from having a non-touch interface. Again we are already familiar with motion activated taps but what about one where we facilitate greater control, allowing a user to turn it on/off, modify the flow and adjust the hot/cold streams – this could be achieved through use of gestures. Until this morning I had forgotten my thoughts on such interactions, that is until I received a message from Jasper Dekker, a product designer with Flankworks in The Netherlands who for his graduation project designed a tap which is controlled via spatial interaction.
You can view a demo of this tap in action below. There is also a more polished conceptual demonstration available here but the initial prototype spoke to me more, for some reason.
Neat huh? Seeing this prototype in action, it again struck me that the potential for gestural interfaces is vast and, if you excuse the pun – untapped, and we have only seen the beginnings of the impact such a subtle, virtually invisible technology can and will have on our daily lives.
As children we watched movies such as Star Wars where Jedi characters used their innate ability to manipulate objects at will, such behavior seemed magical at the time. However as man-machine interfaces continue to advance and their applications broaden, our interactions with the world and the objects within will accordingly becomes less intrusive and more natural.
Where else can you see gestural interfaces adding value in our day to day life?
Bill Buxton is Principal Researcher with Microsoft Research, he is a noted expert within the HCI field and was a pioneer of multi-touch interfaces back in the seventies.
He has a 30 year involvement in research, design and commentary around human aspects of technology, and digital tools for creative endeavour, including music, film and industrial design, in particular. Prior to joining Microsoft, he was a researcher at Xerox PARC, a professor at the University of Toronto, and Chief Scientist of Alias Research and SGI Inc. – where 2003 he was co-recipient of an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement.
Buxton works from the assumption that sketching is fundamental to all design activity, and explores what it means to sketch a variety of possible user experiences. His approach is aggressively low-tech and eclectic. He argues that although you can use software tools to create fully-realized interactive mockups, you generally shouldn’t. Those things aren’t sketches, they’re prototypes, and as such they eat up more time, effort, and money than is warranted in the early stages of design. What you want to do instead is produce sketches that are quick, cheap, and disposable.
“Now that we can do anything, what should we do?”
His book Sketching User Experiences – Getting the Design Right and the Right Design is an absolute must read for anyone working on software/hardware concerned with creating an engaging and usable experience. Last year he gave the first keynote presentation at MIX 09 conference.
Recently at CES, Microsoft spent time alot of time speaking about the ‘Natural User Interface’ or NUI, and how this gesture based, human oriented approach could represent one of the most significant changes to human-device interfaces since the mouse appeared next to computers in the early 1980s.
Touch, face, voice-recognition and movement sensors – all are part of an emerging field of computing often called natural user interface, or NUI. Interacting with technology in these humanistic ways is no longer limited to high-tech secret agents and Star Trek. Buxton says everyone can enjoy using technology in ways that are more adaptive to the person, location, task, social context and mood. Microsoft’s XBox technology ‘Project Natal’ incorporates face, voice, gesture, and object recognition technology to give users a variety of ways to interact with the console, all without needing a controller.
Larry Larsen’s lenghty (38 min. 42 sec) but fascinating interview with Buxton can be seen above in which he discusses his work with Microsoft on NUI technologies and the implications and impact such advances in human-machine interaction will have on our daily lives in the near future.
The field of data visualisation appears to be the ‘Plat du Jour’ of recent. It continues to gain great popularity as more and more people recognise the value of visualising data of any nature in a more aesthetic form, be it as part of a narrative, a news-story or as standalone interactive piece. Indeed as an antidote to the constant information overload we encounter everyday it makes for a welcome alternative.
“The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures”
Ben Shneiderman (1999)
However three pieces of work have caught my attention over the past number of weeks, which I’ll briefly describe in this post. They also share a common theme, in that they are either made about, made in or made by a person who lives in NYC. Perhaps a somewhat tenuous link, but one none the less.
While the entire newspaper industry sits around debating whether the internet will bring about their demise and how they may avoid such a fate, The New York Times bucks the trend by embracing it. The work carried out by the inhouse team known as the Interactive Newsroom Technologies at ‘The Gray Lady’ has been making headlines of their own for quite a while now, and justifably so. Their combination of visualisation and data is leading the field in an emerging digital storytelling domain.
Interactive Newsroom Technologies are the minds behind the online pieces which have captured the eyes and the attention of online readers, works such as their ‘Word Train ‘- a mood database which appeared on the home page for Election Day and ‘Casualities of War: Faces of the Dead’ and ambitious project which merged photography, databases, audio, and graphics – this project marked the date U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached 3,000.
The recently launched The New York Times – Innovation Portfolio aims to showcase the work carried out by the team and is itself a excellent piece of interactive design work, incidentally it was carried out by the uber-talented Jon Dobrowski. The pieces are visually represented by color-coded bubbles under the categories Virtual, Multimedia, Personal Tools, Interactive Graphics, User-Submitted and Applications. They also provide some insight into user engagement by showing the actual page-views along with the average time spent with the feature.
Well worth a visit.
Next up is an interactive map I came across which shows the income & rent data by New York City neighborhoods.
It poses the questions - Who lives here? Who can afford to live here?
This visualisation stands out for me though, in that is is beautifully executed. It enables one to view income demographics and rents in the neighborhoods of New York City. When you click on particular neighbourhood, it maps the number of families in each income category on the multicolored bar residing at the foot of the interface.
Web & Information design was carried out by by Sha Hwand, Zach Watson and William Wang with concept and project direction by Rosten Woo and John Mangier of The Center for Urban Pedagogy.
As Tim O Reilly already pointed out this type of visualisation should be part of every city’s eGovernment toolkit, indeed every countrys. A highly functional yet simplistic visualisation that exposes the potential for applications as a means of explaining the numbers by way of the pictures.
Anthropology + Mapping Application + Data Visualisation = Awesome.
I first stumbled across the work of Jonathan Harris back in 2005, which happended to be an interactive piece named Phylotaxis it aimed to be an expression of the space where science meets culture. He designed it in collaboration with the one and only Stefan Sagmeister and it was commisioned by SEED magazine who recently hired another guru, namely Ben Fry to head up their data visualisation group.
Returning to Harris, his work aims to comibine elements of computer science, anthropology, visual art and storytelling, his projects range from building the world’s largest time capsule to documenting an Alaskan Eskimo whale hunt on the Arctic Ocean.
Phylotaxis was/is an impressive piece of work and his output has continued to impress since – however a year later he released a new work named ‘We Feel Fine’ which set out to be ‘ an exploration of human emotion.’
“It continually harvests sentences containing the phrase “I feel” or “I am feeling” from the Internet’s newly posted blog entries, saves them in a database, and displays them in an interactive Java applet, which runs in a web browser. Each dot represents a single person’s feeling. We Feel Fine collects around 15,000 new feelings per day, and has saved over 13 million feelings since 2005, forming a constantly evolving portrait of human emotion.”
Just released is a book which is based on the project, We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion. With lush, colorful spreads devoted to 50 feelings, 13 cities, 10 topics, 6 holidays, 5 age groups, 4 weather conditions, and 2 genders, We Feel Fine explores our emotions from every angle, providing insights into and examples of each. Equal parts pop culture and psychology, computer science and conceptual art, sociology and storytelling, It is a radical experiment in mass authorship, merging the online and offline worlds to create an indispensable handbook for anyone interested in what it’s like to be human.
Check out the interactive, installation and print versions of this amazing project at ‘We Feel Fine’.