At dConstruct, the real world is calling. It wants its designers back

Kelly Goto stands on the stage at Brighton’s Dome, head down, staring at her palm, a perfect mimic of the modern smartphone user, and issues a simple challenge to the dConstruct audience: “Help people to stay upright.”

This is the pivotal moment at which digital design finds itself. After decades training people to gaze into ever more enchanting screens, it’s time for a shake-up, to re-engage with the world around us, once more to look each other in the eye. And it may not be a comfortable experience.

Kevin Slavin dares to ask a roomful of designers why we always look to optics to provide wonder and comfort. Why do we feel the need to mediate the world through a screen, to create (according to a beautiful if only half true story from World War II USA) an upside down backwards town? Why are we not more aware of the dangers that “things that serve the eye trick the eye”? Don’t we remember the beguiling Cottingley Fairies, who showed us long ago that we can’t believe everything we see?

In place of the uncanny valley marketing vision of augmented reality – “We’ll make it magic by putting stickers on everything” – Kevin argues for engagement through behaviour. Pixelated monochrome Tamagotchi inspired more devotion than max polygon count 3d graphics, not by looking real but by exhibiting real traits – being hungry, vulnerable, rewarded and sick. And Kevin should know the power of the invisible: he admits to being spooked by his own code when Crossroads’ Papa Bones swept through the Area/Code studio late one night.

Bryan Rieger and Stephanie Rieger challenge us to engage with the world by releasing stuff that’s not finished, because people prefer it that way. For me their case is marred by over-reliance on the “accelerating pace of change” trope (on which another post follows) but I reckon they have a point about the value of good enough.

As Matt Sheret eloquently puts it: “Hacks scratch the itches that contemporary product design hasn’t caught up with yet.” Time-traveller Matt talks us through the special qualities of things you can put in your pockets – from a Victorian watch to an RFID bike hire key. “RFID is a huge gift for interaction,” he says. I think this is because of its potential as a gap-closing technology that helps link the real world with its digital mirror image.

“Think about the spaces between the experiences you are creating,” says Kelly Goto: to make things that work in the world, we have to understand its people, their rituals and the way they live their lives.

Kars Alfrink makes his own attempt to do this: pointing out the dark side of gentrification. Our cities are divided in plain sight, sharing territory yet blind to each other, like the young Hackney couple enjoying a glass of wine while a tense gang stand-off plays out around them. How do designers get out of their bubble and contribute to a resilient society?

Respect for time and memory surely have a big role to play. Don Norman, in a slide-free talk rich with insight on the state of the user interface art – says we should design memories not experiences: “A memory is a form of augmented reality,” he posits.

And Frank Chimero, who always gives good metaphor, forever replaces my previous best image for our online history. From now of it’s not data exhaust, it’s “walking through snow”. Also Instapaper, Delorean.

Full marks to Frank for the most compelling account I’ve seen of “curation” as applied to web content. Until today I’ve seen “curation” online as a pale, twisted imitation of the real thing, as practiced in museums and art galleries. But Frank put his finger on the thing that makes for good curation – not just hit-and-run picking of stuff but making an educated second pass to transform a collection of objects into a meaningful narrative.

Craig Mod seems to be on similar territory. He talks about data as if it were a living herd, needing to be corraled, then as a field of dead artifacts, in need of “excavation”. What is the shape of the future book? Kilometres high, and chopped up into a million pieces, apparently.

Dan Hon has also dedicated his career to chopping up stories – having followed transmedia storytelling from web 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond. There’s online storytelling the hard way (do it in 2001) and the seemingly easy (do it all on Twitter) though the common thread is good storytelling. Some platforms lend themselves to stories, others do not. Heello is a platform for pretending. Quora is not.

Curiously Dan and Frank both need the same tool for different purposes – something to break out of the blocky file-status-update-album-art tyranny of today’s web services into ways to tell more fluid stories. For Frank it’s about making stories from our real lives, for Dan its creating pretend lives from stories, but in essence both demand the same aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic whose time has come – one that’s authentic without being skeuomorphic. The real world is calling. It wants its designers back.

Mobile experience in use and ornament

Thanks to @MrAlanCooper for highlighting Rahul Sen’s beautifully-written piece on the relevance of the Bauhaus movement to modern-day interaction design. The world would be a better place if more designers could cultivate such a deep appreciation of the history. I tried to  comment on the Johnny Holland blog but was foiled by the pernicious Recaptcha, so this post is by way of a response. Please read Rahul first.

He writes…

The Bauhaus Movement (1918-1933) was based on a German revival of a purer, honest design representation in architecture, art, typography and product design. Its philosophy celebrated an austere functionalism with little or no ornamentation. It advocated a use of industrial materials and inter-disciplinary methods and techniques. The  Bauhaus aesthetic and beliefs were influenced by and derived from techniques and materials employed especially in industrial fabrication and manufacture. Artists included Paul Klee, Wassilli Kandinsky, and Feininger. Architects and designers included Mies Van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Lazlso Moholy-Nagy and several others.

Rahul detects the emergence of a new Bauhaus trend in interaction design, typified by the innovative new Windows Phone 7 user interface. But in concluding he asks exactly the right question by pointing to the failings as well as the early promise of the Bauhaus brand of reductionism.

If the Bauhaus movement in the early part of last century failed to resonate with users… can we as designers prepare ourselves to meet the challenges ahead?

If you can bear the profuse ornamentation, I think it’s worth looking a couple of generations further back, to the roots of the movement against which Bauhaus was reacting.

John Ruskin hated classical strictures and mass production. He loved the changefulness that comes when anonymous workers are set free to express themselves through their craft. I think his Nature of Gothic makes a good model for the amazing variety of mobile, web-enabled media, savageness, redundance and all. You can have your IxD Bauhaus, but I’ll keep my Mobile Gothic.

The Best Thing in the Helsinki Design Museum

A day in Helsinki with my wife and three lively sons included a visit to the Design Museum.

We enjoyed the permanent exhibition on the ground floor. It raised questions about what is designed and how. Also, what belongs in a design museum: Aalvar Aalto, kitchenware, ceramics, chairs, lots more chairs, and – being in Finland – Fiskars scissors and a Nokia Communicator, wooden prototypes and all. But none of these could be described as the best thing in the museum.

The sight of my boys fighting over the mouse of a virtual reality interactive of the Finnish Pavilion from the 1900 Paris World Fair definitely added an extra frisson when we moved upstairs to a whole floor filled with stunning and expensive Oiva Toikka glassware. Sensational, but still not the best.

For my money they saved the best design until last. (I mean this sincerely and not in any way to undermine the contents of this wonderful museum. I’d love to return with a little more time on my hands.)

Like many other museums and galleries the Design Museum gives visitors a sticker to show they’ve paid. Thus, outside other museums we see little clusters of discarded stickers, erupting like a disease on any available surface. Like this…

Or this…

Not so the immaculate doorstep of the Helsinki Design Museum. For just inside the doorway is a box, about the size of my smallest child. The box’s role in life is to attract coloured stickers. I say with some certainty that this was the single most interactive, participatory and engaging part of our family’s visit.

I have no idea who put the box there, whether they understood its true purpose beforehand or simply permitted it to remain once the practice emerged. I’ve seen the solution elsewhere. Maybe museum people swap tips like this at museums conferences.

Whatever the story, the originator of this solution is a true design genius. It’s simple, fun, human-centred, and it solves a social problem. Without a doubt it’s the kind of thing that belongs in a design museum.

Service Design Leeds, from Drinks to Thinks

There are lots of reasons to come along to Leeds Service Design Thinks on Tuesday 14 September. So many that it’s hard to know where to start.

I could begin with the chance to meet and chat with some of the smart and passionate service designers who made it to our first Service Design Drinks event back in June, and some more who’ll be joining us for the first time. It was a bit of a gamble to bring this format to Leeds, modelled on successful events in London, Glasgow and elsewhere, but it paid off handsomely. We discovered there’s lots going on already, and lots of interest in developing a northern community of interest around service design and design thinking.

But starting there would be to neglect the fact that on September 14 we’re giving you the chance to hear from Dr James Munro about his social enterprise, Patient Opinion, and the challenge of building better services in the NHS. James already presented his work at Service Design Thinks in London, and we know it’ll be of interest to many people working in the North. I’d give up my Tuesday evening just to hear from James.

But that might give the impression that service design is only for public services and social enterprise. It’s not. We also have my Orange colleague Kathryn Grace presenting her work on retail customer experience. As a designer for a company called Everything Everwhere, Kathryn has a unique viewpoint over in-store experiences, large-scale e-commerce and e-care, and cutting-edge mobile applications. I know she’s passionate about making all these things work together to deliver a simple and engaging customer experience. Kathryn also deserves the credit for making this whole event happen in the first place. Tero and I have played supporting roles, but hers is the main drive and motivtation behind both “Drinks” and “Thinks”.

And if you’re still wavering, consider this. Not one, not two, but three amazing speakers! For we will also hear from Professor Guy Julier of Leeds Metropolitan University. When we set up SD Leeds we wanted to explore how service design approaches could make a positive difference to the place where we live and work. So Guy’s role in the Leeds Love It Share It community interest company is right up our street. He’ll tell us about “Margins within the city” a recent community development project.

There’s no end to the fascinating questions that arise when we consider these three topics together. When designing a service, where do you start? Who do you start with? And what kind of people and processes make a new service more likely to succeed? That’s why we’ve tag-lined the event “Starting Points”.

“Service Design Thinks Leeds 01 | Starting Points” is on Tuesday 14 September, from 6pm to 9pm, at a central Leeds venue to be confirmed. You can sign up now on Eventbrite, follow us on Twitter, or find out more about this and other similar events on servicedesigning.org.

Maybe it’ll be the start of something new.

When too much perspective can be a bad thing

An article by my former colleague and TEDx Leeds speaker Norman Lewis reminds me of an ingenious device imagined by Douglas Adams in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Yes, I know you all like a good Douglas Adams quote.

First, though, listen to Norman, writing about ‘Millennials’ and Enterprise2.0 on his Futures Diagnosis blog:

The Millennial issue in the workplace has become symptomatic of the uncertainty of the ‘information age’ which exaggerates the novelty of the present at the expense of the past. This generational shift is regarded as unprecedented and a unique feature of our times. The workplace (and indeed, the world) is now divided into two periods: the past where everything remained the same with little change and the current moment with its constant change where change and disruption are incessant.

This rhetoric of unprecedented change is precisely that, rhetoric. What about the generational shift that occurred in the 1960s? The rise of the teenager in the post-War period was indeed unprecedented and had a huge impact on Western society. But did this result in the end of the enterprise as we know it? No, the exact opposite. It helped to forge the enterprise as we know it.

This is spot on. As I’ve argued before, what has changed in the last decade is the enterprise’s level awareness of stuff that has previously gone on behind its back.

Throughout the so-called “mass media” era, managers were encouraged to delude themselves that they had the attention of their employees and customers, who were in reality talking amongst themselves all along.

The web puts an end to the delusion. It acts like Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex:

… allegedly the most horrible torture device to which a sentient being can be subjected.

When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”

Why is the web like this? Because of the convergence of communications, entertainment and commerce into a single seamless mass.

Once upon a time, television appeared to be an uncontested safe harbour for entertainment and commerce, the corporate-networked desktop PC a clearly bounded productivity tool. Sociability and communication happened out of sight and out of mind.

Now those things are collapsing in on each other. When commercial messages have to compete with pictures of your kids, cute kittens and plans for nights out, there is no contest. When employees openly use the same tools to converse with their peers as to conduct business it becomes clear at once that bonds of friendship are stronger than those of salaried fealty. When even the biggest brand is reduced to a fraction of one percent of searches on the web, it becomes just another microscopic dot on a microscopic dot.

These truths are not new, but the tools to discover them are.

Executives stepping out of the Vortex for the first time are understandably mind-blown. Realising quite how insignificant their businesses and products are in the lives of their consumers, they become easy prey to social media’s snake-oil salesforce, who promise to swell the ranks of their Twitter followers and guarantee instant Google gratification.

Maybe they’d do better to remember that they were young once, and that, as Adams wrote: “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

Enter your 16-digit card number folllowed by Arghhh

So I got home late last night and opened a letter containing a replacement bank card. To activate it I had to call one of those automated phone lines. It taught me something interesting.

Though standing in the living room just a few feet from a landline phone, I reached for the phone that is always with me, the shiny computer in my pocket, with wifi, a web browser and a touchscreen so slick it has to defend against my disgusting human fingers with a lipophobic coating.

I entered the number (because, yes, this computer also makes calls!) and was greeted by a man from the Nineteen Eighties. This is going to be a breeze, I thought smugly. I’m a confident 24-hour e-banking consumer. I laugh in the face of paper bills. I sweep administrative trivia into the gaps of my a busy lifestyle.

“Now,” demands Nineneen Eighties Man, “using the keypad on your phone, enter your 16-digit card number followed by the hash key”.

The keypad on my phone? The keypad on my phone? My phone has a camera, a compass and an accelerometer. It tells the weather to save me the strain of looking out of the window. It has no need of a keypad!

Continue reading

On newsprint: the potency of cheap paper

This post was going to be all about newspapers, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that before writing about the news I have to explain the paper, specifically the cheap, low quality paper we call newsprint.

It’s a fascinating story which, I think, explains why short-run, nichepaper projects such as Newspaper Club are so deliciously disruptive.

After all there have always been easier formats for getting messages out to people. For decades there was the mimeograph, then the photocopier, and desktop publishing, books, leaflets, A4 newsletters and “vanity-published” books. Rarely did the newspaper form get a look-in on anything other than, well, news.

To understand why that is, we should consider the trade-offs. This involves a graph, with no numbers, but stay with me, please.

Continue reading

Mobile Gothic: a flight of fancy

I’ve always found it strange that Eric S. Raymond chose the cathedral as his metaphor for closed development in free software, because the construction of our great medieval cathedrals must have been a very open process.

Passing peasants were doubtless discouraged from picking up a chisel to hack at the nearest stone, but Gothic buildings like York Minster and Strasbourg Cathedral were certainly the work of many hands, over many generations – not generations of software but generations of people. They were in very public beta for longer than Google News.

And so in chronicling the exciting changes we’re about to see in the mobile user experience it seems appropriate to turn to John Ruskin, Victorian art critic, social theorist, and owner of a magnificent beard.

Continue reading

Temple Works 3.0 Alpha

In December I blogged about the perilous state of Leeds’ Temple Works. Neglected for several years, this Grade I-listed building had suffered a partial collapse, blocking the road outside with shattered masonry and opening up a gaping hole in the roof where sheep once grazed on a covering of grass. Six months on, I’m pleased to report that things are looking up. Repairs are underway and plans afoot for reuse of the building. Last week, thanks to Culture Vulture Emma, I was privileged to get a peek inside.

Here in the heart of the world’s first industrial nation, it’s not unusual to see old places learn to serve new purposes in response to peoples’ changing needs. As traditional manufacturing has moved offshore, countless mills, factories and warehouses have been regenerated as offices, retail, flats and hotels. At Salt’s Mill, Bradford, you can find art and electronics under one roof.

Yet Temple Works stands out from the crowd for so many reasons. At first sight there’s the weighty Egyptian facade, modelled on the Temple of Horus at Edfu, looming incongruously over edge-of-town Holbeck. Inside, you can appreciate the sheer scale of the place; once it was reputedly the largest room in the world. And in its stripped-out state the innovative construction is easily visible. The sun streams in through 66 65 circular skylights.

Scratch the surface for something still more fascinating: in two distinct incarnations Temple Works tells the story of the past 160 years of working life, and with a third it poses tantilising questions about where we go next.

Continue reading

Duck, dive, scribble, spray – now gestural interfaces are within everyone’s reach

Lower down this post, you’ll probably find some high-flown stuff about gestural user interfaces going mainstream, but in all honesty the thread that joins together the following two-and-a-half things is that they’ve all left me grinning like a fool. A hand-waving grinning fool. And a bobbing my head up and down like Churchill the nodding dog grinning fool.

Thing 1 – Season’s greetings from friends and former colleagues at Common Agency, in the form of Snowballed – and yes, I know it’s a Flash gimmick from a design agency, but stay with me, please. What makes Snowballed stand out from the crowd is the way it’s controlled using your PC’s video camera. As Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud pop up and hurl snowballs at you (no really), the object is to dodge them just by moving about. Squint carefully at the image below and my face is visible direct from my laptop’s webcam.

snowballed

Move left, and the snowman moves left, move right, and you get the idea.

Now I know this interface isn’t brand new – take Eyetoy for example. What is different is that this just works on any PC with a webcam and Flash installed – no specialist kit required. When HP specced my laptop with a camera built-in, I guess they were thinking of video calling or whatever. I’ve never used my laptop for video calling, but now I have used it to dodge snowballs thrown by dead white men with beards.

Thing 2 – hacking the Wiimote’s built-in IR camera to make  FriiSpray – Open source Infra-red graffiti. From the project site:

FriiSpray is a project thought up by three heads in the North of England, based at the Innovation North co-working space in the Old Broadcasting House, Leeds. The project is based around the Wiimote Whiteboard software, built by Johnny Chung Lee – have a look at his stuff here. We thought that it would be a great idea to take this interface between the Wiimote and the computer and adapt it to allow people to create digital, or virtual grafitti as an interactive media installation.

It’s a fun experience to take round events, and the team already have one booking. They’ll also be presenting the work at the forthcoming O’Reilly Ignite event in Leeds. Again, a great hack of cheaply obtainable stuff to do something wholly different from the original purpose.

Incidentally, Friispray also made me aware of a bit of misdirection by Nintendo: the Wii comes with a “sensor bar” which sits by the TV and interacts with the Wiimote. But the sensor bar, does not sense, it emits two points of infra red light, which the remote senses with its IR camera. At Stuart Childs‘ suggestion I tried pointing the Wiimote at other IR light sources, and it works. I wonder at what point in the product design and marketing process, it was decided that it would be easier to explain this as doing the opposite to how it actually works?

Thing 2.5 - Crayon Physics Deluxe, just because it made me smile and now I can’t wait to test it out on my children. Crayon Physics works a treat on a Tablet PC, and I’ve also seen good reviews by users of Wacom graphics tablets and the like.  In its own words it is:

a 2D physics puzzle / sandbox game, in which you get to experience what it would be like if your drawings would be magically transformed into real physical objects. Solve puzzles with your artistic vision and creative use of physics.

Draw stuff with a pen on a computer screen and they come to life. Brilliant! Video demo here.

Here comes the science bit.

I think in the future using a mouse will feel a bit like painting with your fist. Typing on a keyboard may have more longevity, but is still not so many steps removed in sophistication from writing a ransom note by pasting cutout newspaper letters onto a sheet of paper. Gestural interfaces have been around for a while, and are slowing making headway into mobile devices as well.

What marks out the stuff I’m writing about here is how accessible and natural it can be. Got a webcam? You’ve got motion control. Got £20 for a Wiimote? You’ve got an IR camera. There are so many ways to control our computers, and I sense that this year is the year that some of them will go mainstream. I’ll be grinning from ear to ear.

Play Small: why mobile challenges designers to make a better web

In a single Noisy Decent Graphics post, Ben Terrett effortlessly segues between my two preoccupations of the moment – agonised middle-class parenting, and the superiority of mobile web over fixed. How could I resist?

“City kids are not like country kids”, he notes, “… the space available to play is smaller… so they learn to play smaller.” (Whereupon I’m reminded of Christopher Alexander’s delightful Child Cave pattern.) For designers, the resulting constraints can be a Good Thing. We all need to Play Small…

“One thing that really brings home Play Small to me is iPhone web pages.

“Most people would assume that a mobile web page is a compromise. Not as good or as rich as the main page. The thing is, more and more I’m finding I like the mobile pages better than the main pages.

“Stripped of all superfluous content and navigation, devoid of over elobarate graphics, they’re like raw ‘what I came here for’ in one handy pocket sized rectangle.”

Absolutely. The mobile web tends to make for better design, and the small surface display is just one of the reasons.

Design for the PC-based web has been rendered flabby not just by growing screen size, but also the assumption of fast, always-on broadband. This assumption enables two kinds of impositions on the user.

First, with less worry about filesizes, people pack an almost limitless number of links, graphics and styles onto a single page. Can’t decide which of your site’s functions to prioritise? Why not include all 19 of them equally! Above the fold! Can’t fit it all in? Make it dynamic to expand and shrink stuff in new and confusing ways.

Second, since pages appear almost instantaneously, we fall into the trap of assuming that any additional clicks cost nothing of the user’s time. Who cares if they take a few blind alleys? That’s why there’s a back button.

The cost, of course, is in the increased cognitive load. Website owners that work like this are abdicating their responsibility to think through a problem fully. They are offloading the work of understanding onto their users.

Ben’s “‘what I came here for’ in one handy pocket sized rectangle” speaks of the reverse, of care taken and thought for the user. The most popular page on the web also bears this out: earlier this year, Google applied a “one in, one out” rule to the 28 words on its classic homepage.

Which brings me on to another reason that the mobile web has the potential to generate better designs: mobile forces an increased focus on the context of use.

It is too easy in the fixed web world for us to assume that we and our users inhabit the same environment. Maybe this happens because desktop and laptop computers are at once the tools we use to specify the online experience, and  the appliances on which our users will interact with the results.

In contrast, mobile experiences are defined by their external environments as much as by their internal functionality. And in considering the environment we also end up considering our users as different from ourselves, and hopefully better understanding their needs and priorities as a result.

In Paper, Scissors, Phone I suggested getting real with sketches and mobile prototyping as a way to further sharpen this focus on target users and contexts.

Ben concludes with  a beguiling extrapolation of credit crunch chic:

“Make no mistake, we’re currently leaving the era of Baroque brands and moving into a new period of austerity in communication. And as we move towards Depression 2.0 maybe Play Small will become a vital tool for all designers across all forms of media.”

The “austere” bit worries me though, because well-thought-out design doesn’t always have to look like a bank statement (though that’s the noble aesthetic of Dopplr, which earns a special mention in Ben Terrett’s post for being so well designed on the PC that even mobile cannot improve it).

I’m reminded of a video I saw of an iPhone user comparing the full web and made-for-mobile versions of a social networking site. Unlike Ben, he preferred the full version on his phone. He felt the mobile version was “limited”. And as he talked to the researcher’s camera, his fingers danced across the touchscreen. This user so clearly relished the panning and zooming and the satisfying gravitational bounce as he hit on the edges of the page. The made-for-mobile page – one long screen-wide galley of content – was functionally superior but it had much less “bounce” than the full website. It was too austere.

I really hope that a fitter, more fitting web will follow from the widespread adoption of mobile multimedia, and that doesn’t mean there’s no room for delight. Though the space may be small, it can still be a great place for play.

Update 18/10/2010: Stacey Higginbotham on GigaOm tells how “mobile connectivity sets developers free” –  Stop Cramming the Mobile Web Into the PC Box

Brushed chrome – the story of Google’s browser in comic book form

What a stroke of genius to commission Scott McCloud to tell the story of Google’s new web browser, Chrome, in comic form.

McCloud’s own books have communicated his enthusiasm for the past, present and future of comics themselves. Now his fluid, conversational style perfectly captures the diverse passions of project team members – passions that gel together to create a finished (well OK, it’s Google, so it must be beta) product.

The Chrome comic is packed with exhibits in support of Google’s claim to have started from scratch with the browser, to “design something based on the needs of today’s web applications and today’s users”. Among them, four in particular struck a chord with me:

The PC and the browser are always on, which has implications for memory usage and management. The fragmentation problem created by current browsers “grows all day, as the lifetime of the browser extends.” “Have you tried turning it off and on again” is no longer an acceptable IT helpdesk solution.

The homepage is dead (long live the new tab!) Web users rely less and less on a single web page as their starting point, instead developing a habit of checking a handful of different sites whenever they go to the browser. Google’s nine-thumbnail “new tab” page is a neat response to the way we now use the web.

Some things are best forgotten. With all this personalisation, Google of all service providers must be ultra-aware of users’ privacy concerns. McCloud diplomatically chooses “Want to keep a surprise gift a secret” as the, ehem, discrete scenario to illustrate their solution to this user requirement.

Mobile is already starting to make the deskbound web a better place. Software engineer Darin Fisher is quoted: “We also knew there was a team at Google working on Android and we asked them, ‘Why did you guys use Webkit?'” So when it came to something as fundamental as the choice of a rendering engine, in a company self-proclaimed to “live on the Internet”, it turned out to be the mobile team that had the inside track. I’ve long believed that the PC-based web experience has lots to gain from applying some of the discipline of mobile.

… and finally a nostalgic aside: seeing Scott McCloud’s technical explanation of the principles behind Chrome reminded me of Donald Alcock’s delightfully hand-drawn and lettered “Illustrating Basic” which helped me get to grips with my BBC Micro as a boy. I’m determined my own Cbeebies-generation children should also have some exposure to programming languages, and make periodic attempts to divert them from iPlayer and AdventureQuest to Scratch!

Reverie on the difference between perceived service and actual service

Police notce

Ah hello, may we come in madam, it’s the police. I’m PC Smith and he’s PC Jones. Yes, you can take the chain off. Oh, and the other one, my that’s a big bolt. Thank you, cosy in here! Tea, don’t mind if I do. Don’t worry about the batons and body armour – standard issue. Anything wrong? Ha ha no no, quite the opposite in fact. But as it happens you may be able to help us with something…

You may have seen the news about the latest crime statistics. Yes, terrible those stabbings you read about in the paper, but the thing is that, overall, crime’s actually been going down. That’s right going down. Only we don’t seem to be getting credit where it’s due. Crime levels reduced 18% in the last four years, but satisfaction with the police is only up by 6%. That’s right Jones, hurtful isn’t it, ungrateful…

The thing is, the Home Secretary says that from now on we won’t be measured with top-down targets, and that’s a good thing – too much paperwork, not enough time out on the beat. Except for one target, from now on, she says, we’ll be measured on public confidence in the police. “Outcome-based metrics”, that’s the buzz word. And that’s where you come in madam…

Yes, you see our computer has identified your postcode area as one where the fear or crime is out of all proportion to the actual chances of being a victim. Yes Jones, it’s hard to believe. I mean it’s not exactly the Bronx round here is it, all these net curtains and privet hedges. Myself, I blame “A Touch of Frost”. But if we don’t do something our Chief Constable will have some explaining to do, madam, and that’s why we’ve come to ask you a little favour…

Well it’s like this. If a nice lady with a clipboard happens to stop you in the street, maybe she’ll say something about the British Crime Survey and ask you lots of questions. Well if that were to happen, my Chief would be ever so much obliged if you could say nice things about us. Like how quiet the neighbourhood is, and how safe it feels, what a great job your local boys and girls in blue are doing…

Oh no Madam we’re not asking you to fib, but let’s put it another way. That’s a lovely collection of porcelain you’ve got there. My colleague, PC Smith, he gets emotional sometimes. And then he can be clumsy with that big funny old side-handled baton. Be a shame if anything were to happen…

The unexpected moment of truth: Disney’s $100,000 Salt + Pepper Shaker

In the 21st century, few consumer services follow a neat linear model of awareness, consideration, purchase and use. Instead we see a web of customer expectations and perceptions where little things can make a big difference.

It’s the job of service designers to cut through the mass of insight to find the decisive moments where you can make or break a customer relationship. And sometimes you can find those moments in unexpected places.

David Armano recounts a story from Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” that sums up one of these moments perfectly. You can read “Disney’s $100,000 Salt + Pepper Shaker” here.

All this rubbish Powerpoint must be telling us something

Chris Heathcote’s abstract pointillist Powerpoint toolkit once again reinforces the received wisdom that Microsoft’s near-ubiquitous presentation software presages the end of civilisation.

Unlike the army of total Powerpoint rejecters, Chris’ solution is to fight pixel with pixel, subject to three strictures:

POINT ONE: Presentations are about IDEAS, not TEXT.

POINT TWO: READING from SLIDES is a heinous crime.

POINT THREE: PEOPLE cannot COPE without some kind of visual STIMULATION.

I love the abstract toolkit and hope one day to try this parlour-game in a work context (but not, I promise, at the forthcoming Mobile Internet Portal Strategies conference for which I’m preparing this week.)

However, it set me wondering: if Powerpoint sucks so badly, how come so many people use it? And how come they use it the way they do – densely textual, reading from slides, as a substitute for eye-contact between presenter and audience? It’s not like Steve Ballmer has issued a decree forcing people to do it this way – in fact it’s the reverse: our sucky cut-and-paste Powerpoint culture is the ultimate product of co-creation.

So rather (or at least as well as) decrying rubbish slideware, how about we spend some time trying to understand the deep needs that drive people to it in the first place, and how they might be met better some other way. I don’t have all the answers, but here at least are a few of the forces at work:

  1. You need cue cards – but the 80GSM A4 stock in printers doesn’t cut it. In the old days speakers had palm-sized index cards with hand-written notes, but (a) you won’t find them in the office stationary cupboard any more (I know, I checked), and (b) have you tried to read my hand-writing? I went to school in the Seventies, you know. Result: the cue cards are no longer in the speaker’s hand, they’re up for everyone to see on the big screen.
  2. Your audience speaks a different language – when presenting to people who don’t share the same first language, sending the slides round beforehand isn’t just an administrative nicety, it’s a necessity so that they can make sense of proceedings at their own pace. Powerpoint is to business what subtitles are to art-house cinema.
  3. Your audience is only paying partial attention – gone are the days when the whole family would gather round to listen to a Malcolm Muggeridge lecture on the wireless. These days you’re lucky if anyone peeks up from their laptops and Blackberrys long enough to read a few bullet points, let alone actually listen to a complete sentence, with sub-clauses and everything.
  4. Your audience is somewhere else entirely – and in this respect i’n’t the internet brilliant! Chris Heathcote’s modern-day ink-blot test has had almost 4000 views on Slideshare in just four days, so my bet is that more often than not, the presentation document does have to speak for itself. Who then could resist the temptation to reiterate in the slide text every major point they plan to make in person?

In new product development, we often look for “workarounds” – the sub-optimal things that people do as a way of achieving their goals, then we think about how we might help them achieve these goals more elegantly, with less effort. Where are the innovations that meet the subtle communications needs of the Powerpoint-challenged? They must be out there somewhere, but they probably don’t look like presentation software at all.