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!

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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.

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