Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: design (page 1 of 2)

Unanticipated consequences of design decisions

I’ve recently been interested in the subject of unanticipated or unintended consequences. Most of my interest has been fueled by a sense that arguments of the “nobody could have predicted this massive, now-obvious consequence of actions I took” type are becoming more popular: think how often they’ve been deployed in the aftermath of the Iraq war, the financial meltdown, Deepwater Horizon, etc..

Of course, unanticipated consequences can be good things too, as I noticed this morning. We recently bought a new vacuum cleaner, one of the bagless cyclonic kinds with the transparent canister. I mainly liked the fact that there were no bags, and that it was less than 20 years old. But my kids turn out to really like too: so much so, in fact, that they’re actually cleaning their rooms when friends come over.

Why? Because as they vacuum their rooms, the canister turns into a “tornado of grossness,” as one of my son’s friends put it.

Making the canister transparent turns vacuuming into entertainment– and because it combines technology, loud noises, visual effects, and gross stuff, it’s irresistable to young boys.

I have no idea if the designers have kids, but: well done.

[To the tune of Rob Dougan, “Furious Angels,” from the album Furious Angels (a 3-star song, imo).]

Game features in the real world

When I've spoken about the end of cyberspace, and the displacement of the idea of cyberspace as a Platonic plane of information, separate from and superior to the real world, someone's almost asked, "But what about Second Life?" (or World of Warcraft, or Everquest, depending on what year we're talking about). The idea is that these kinds of games and game-worlds represents a continuation of the vision of cyberspace as alternate world.

My response has been twofold. First, despite claims about the utility (or potential utility) of Second Life to business, or the number of hours devoted players spend in World of Warcraft, so far as I can tell, nobody argues that these constitute alternatives to physical reality that will lead to the death of the office or the transformation of travel. They have their appeal, but their appearance is not a sign that the tectonic plates of reality are starting to rumble. Second, it looks more likely that with the coming of ubiquitous computing, some of the kinds of interactions and feedback that make games compelling are going to migrate into the real world, but with serious social and economic implications.

This evening I ran across a piece by Brett McCallon on the growing pervasiveness of games in everyday life that echoes this last point:

"Lexulous", and the game's incredible popularity on Facebook, does say something about the way that gaming is infiltrating the experience of seemingly non-gaming-related activities. As gaming becomes more mainstream, and as designers learn to use gaming mechanics to enhance our work, education and relaxation, we can envision a time in which nearly every experience offers the possibility, if not the requirement, for play….

Exercise is only one of the non-gaming areas into which gaming has intruded in recent years. Games that teach foreign languages, cooking and other skills are also becoming increasingly popular…. Even such mundane activities as household chores can be made less onerous through the addition of gaming mechanics. A free, web-based game called "Chore Wars" lets players apply traditional role-play game rules to their laundry, dishwashing and vacuuming duties. For each completed task, players are granted "experience", "gold", etc, which helps their characters advance through imagined quests. It's a fairly basic system, but as a means of motivating lazy spouses and housemates to pull their weight, it could be quite helpful.

I think McCallon's argument is inaccurate but in a revealing way. It's inaccurate in the sense that while we are going to see the growth of feedback and incentive systems around everyday activities, they're not going to really be games. They may borrow some bits and pieces from games– familiar visual tropes, rewards, and the like– but they won't turn housework into a game, any more than my offering my son a quarter to clean his room turns my family into a labor market.

But what's revealing about the piece is that it suggests how likely we are to embrace the language of games when thinking about, and interacting with, these technology. I saw something of this when I was interviewing people about the impact of the Prius MPG estimator on driver behavior. As I wrote in 2008,

Interestingly, many drivers describe efforts to boost their fuel efficiency as a kind of game. One driver, a former Silicon Valley tech executive and car afficionado, recalls that "When I got my Prius, it absolutely felt like I was piloting a large, rolling video game, seeing how to optimize the mileage." Another, a Valley educator, reports that driving her Prius has "become a game for me. I always try to improve the mpg over the last trip." When I gave my end of cyberspace talk at IDEO last week, I brought up the Prius MPG estimator, and one personal immediately said, "It's like a game!" Game designer Amy Jo Kim recalled, "When I first got my Prius 4 years ago, I was completely transfixed by the real-time MPG display. Multi-scale feedback! I could see my mileage per tank, in 5-minute increment, and moment-to-moment. I experimented with my driving style, trying to beat my "high score" each day." A 2006 Cnet article described the Prius as "a mobilized video game… surely the most expensive, biggest gaming machine built… so far."

This may sound like a distinction without a difference, but think about how many times we borrow bits and pieces of phrasing from one realm and apply it to another, and how those borrowings have but a limited influence. We talk about business as war, or coworkers as teams, but we understand that these metaphors don't mean we should bomb a competitor's offices. Doubtless we'll be able to learn some things from game designers about how to improve the interfaces for, say, home energy monitoring systems, but it's not clear that creating an entire game– complete with characters, more elaborate rules, goals, etc.– would be necessary or even desirable to achieve substantial energy savings.

[To the tune of Peter Gabriel, "Intruder (Live)," from the album Plays Live (I give it 2 stars).]

Inexplicable bathroom designs

For a continent that’s pioneered social democracy, good industrial design, and a generally above-average interest in social welfare, Europe seems to have some of the most dangerous bathrooms in the world. Let me give two examples, both from hotels that otherwise I thought were very good.

First is from my hotel in Vienna, which is in the center of the city, blocks from Stephensplatz, on a nice square, etc.. The main thing going on here is that the absence of a shower curtain– just the half-wall glass thing– seriously raises the odds that I’m going to get water everywhere, and then slip and break something.


k&k hotel, vienna, via flickr

The Royal Oxford is even trickier. I love the hotel in every other respect, but the bathroom is tiny, it’s got the half-glass wall thing, and the bathtub is really high. Now normally I like deep tubs, but when it makes it hard to keep your balance in what’s likely to be a slippery environment, I’m less of a fan.


royal oxford hotel, via flickr

Maybe people in the rest of the world can handle this kind of thing fine. Maybe shower curtains are the equivalent of Humvees with spinning rims– unnecessary, wasteful, and uniquely American. Or perhaps the dangerous bathroom is like Europe’s architectural equivalent of Inspector Clouseau’s butler, Kato: by constantly trying to kill him, Kato helped keep Clouseau alert and in shape. Of course, it didn’t go Clouseau’s apartment much good….

[To the tune of Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces,” from the album Wide Open Spaces (I give it 3 stars).]

Mighty Mouse, Italian edition

I seem to have an article in Disegno industriale 39. I can't read it, but it seems to be there. Hooray!

[To the tune of The Police, "When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around," from the album Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings (Disc 2) (I give it 3 stars).]

Philips does sex toys

Interaction Design Umeå writes about the new line of Philips sex toys (note the term “relationship care” in the URL). Though Fast Company asks, “does anyone really want to buy a Philips sex toy? I mean, there are surely some Apple freaks that would love an iVibrator. But is Philips’s brand versatile or sexy enough to pull this off?”

[To the tune of Duran Duran, “Bedroom Toys,” from the album Astronaut (I give it 2 stars).]

What to do with those old CD cases

Use them in a building, like the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion by Atelier Feichang Jianzhu.

The exterior structure is composed of hundreds of polycarbonate transparent recycled plastic tubes formed into a grid-like matrix. Recycled from used CD cases, the polycarbonate tubes will be able to be recycled again at the end of the building’s life. Multi-colored LED lights will be built into the exterior structure and be computer controlled to change the appearance of the exterior on a whim or based on a computer program.

[To the tune of Giorgio Moroder & David Bowie, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” from the album Cat People (I give it 3 stars).]

Explaining why the Ikea switch to Verdana is a mistake

It’s easy to dismiss the IKEA switch from Futura (a font I used in my e-mail when I worked at the Institute for the Future, for obvious reasons) to Verdana as much ado about nothing. But this Guardian piece does a better job than many of explaining why it matters:

Futura has a quirkiness to it that Verdana does not, as well as a much longer history linked to a political art movement. Futura, dating from the 1920s, is loosely Constructivist (only loosely, because the proprietary version that Ikea made its own – Ikea Sans – is slightly tweaked to distinguish it from, say, something Joseph Stalin might have used). Verdana… is one of the most widely used fonts in the world, and people who care about these things dislike the way our words are becoming homogenised: the way a sign over a bank looks the same as one over a cinema; the way magazines that once looked original now look like something designed for reading online. This is what has happened with Ikea: the new look has been defined not by a company proudly parading its 66-year heritage, but by something driven by the clarity of the digital age….

Verdana seems to have been chosen by Ikea by default, or at least by economics. An Ikea spokeswoman, Monika Gocic, has said that Verdana is for them because “it is more efficient and cost-effective”. This is another way of saying: “We use it because everyone else does.”

It’s amazing to think that serious modernism is now a century old– a hundred years ago, more or less, Peter Behrens was revolutionizing industrial design at AEG and training a generation of architects and designers who would shape the look of the 20th century (Gropius, Mies and Le Corbusier all studied under him), Charles Rennie Mackintosh was finishing the Glasgow School or Art, Frank Lloyd Wright completed the Robie House— and so IKEA can reasonably see itself as a company with a serious history that it should take seriously.

Further, IKEA matters in the world of design, not just because it’s a company that has shown that (at its best anyway) good design sells, but because it has a disproportionate effect on the design market:

According to Swedish folklore, there are more copies of the Ikea catalogue printed each year than the Bible. It certainly has more Billy bookcases than either the Old or New Testatment, but its designers would do well to remember their history. The first movable type appeared with Gutenberg’s Bible in the 1450s, and everything followed from there. In this strange way, the multi-million print-run of the Ikea catalogue has now adopted a cloak of heavy responsibility. But things could be worse. It could be in Helvetica.

[To the tune of Alban Berg Quartet, “String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4: II. Scherzo (Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto),” from the album Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets (Disc 4) (I give it 4 stars).]

Reflections on SciBarCamp

SciBarCamp is done. Other than a lot of excellent leftover Pakistani food, a surprising amount of beer, and a photo set on Flickr, you’d never know we hosted 60+ people for two days. Time for a bit of reflection.

Wednesday morning, as I was getting the Institute’s conference space ready for SciBarCamp– hauling tables, moving chairs, trying to figure out how to get sixty people into our large conference room, calculating how many and what kinds of signs we needed to put to up to help guests find the wifi, bathrooms, etc.– I overhead someone say, “What I love about these things is that you don’t have to do any preparation. You just show up.”

Yeah, right.

Events like these may look like they’re spontaneous and free, but that’s only because someone has set up the environment in which it takes place. That labor shouldn’t really be visible to the participants– like all infrastructure, its purpose is to be useful, not to call attention to itself– but it is essential to the success of even the loosest and most improvisational event. To make a brief comparison to music: the most brilliant jazz improvisers, people like Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman, aren’t brilliant because they just get up onstage and do whatever comes into their heads: they’re brilliant because they’ve played for thousands and thousands of hours, are highly disciplined, have great training… and bring all that to the concert hall. [Update: See Fred Kaplan on creativity in jazz.] Likewise, when I travel, I like to be able to wander around and explore things; but I can do that because I carry a pack that has all kinds of things that I find useful, and come in handy under a variety of circumstances. (Preparation is likewise important for biking and cooking, and other things.)

The Institute’s conferences are scripted to the minute, the presentations are rehearsed endlessly, group exercises are agonized over. There’s a lot of top-down structure, because we have a lot of content to share, and because it’s hard for most people to think about the future in an orderly way. People, we assume, need the structure we provide in order to translate our work into terms that will be useful to them. So the bar camp model is one that I find very interesting.

But the camp isn’t just the absence of organization: that wouldn’t be a bar camp, it would just be chaos. There is structure here, and I want to understand what it is.

I was talking to Jamie McQuay, one of the organizers of this year’s camp and a veteran of the bar camp scene, about the ingredients for a successful bar camp. He said that the two things you really need are free space (which saves the organizers money and time, and cuts down on the number of sponsors you have to look for), and interesting people. Tantek Çelik, a camp veteran, told me that all you really need are physical and virtual spaces– a conference venue and a wiki.

But my sense is that there’s more to it than that.

There’s a cultural element to the camps that I think is important. People here are veterans of academic meetings, scientific society conferences, and industry trade shows, and know that world well enough to be intelligently dissatisfied by it. (I had a professor who said you couldn’t rebel effectively against Catholicism unless you had been educated by Jesuits. Not Franciscans or Dominicans, mind you– Jesuits. Truly, give me the child until he’s seven, and he’s ours forever.) When you have an event that’s a mirror-world of the traditional conference, you need to know what the traditional conference is like, so you can do the opposite. I would draw a comparison to Wikipedia. One of the usually unacknowledged reasons Wikipedia works is because people know, or think they know, what encyclopedia articles are supposed to sound like: readers and creators alike share a basic understanding of what they should be doing.

I also suspect a good bar camp also requires some minimum number of people who are veterans of the camp scene, and can catalyze others and acculturate novices. I’m not sure what that number is. Tantek said that return attendees are like culture in yogurt, which I think is a good comparison.

I think there are also some practical things that you can do that I’ve listed after the jump. None are especially profound, but they’d all make the event work better, and are worth paying attention to. But what else is there? Besides physical and virtual space, interesting people, a familiarity with conventional conferences, and perhaps some elusive bare minimum of people who’ve been to bar camps before, are there other things that a successful camp needs?

[To the tune of John Coltrane, “Out Of This World,” from the album The Classic Quartet – The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (I give it 3 stars).]

Very practical things

  • Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. You can’t have too many signs for wifi, Twitter tags, arrows pointing to the bathrooms and exits, put the agenda in a very public place, etc..
  • You can’t have enough mobile whiteboards, flipcharts, and other public writing surfaces.
  • 5-minute breaks between sessions. People need time to get from one room to another (or find out what room they’re headed to next).
  • Work in time for longer breaks. We tend to want to pack a day as full as possible. Don’t. People will take breaks whether you schedule them or not.
  • Clocks in the rooms. Also having someone go around and announce how much time is left in each session is good.
  • Cloakroom. People tend to put bags and coats on chairs, which inhibits their use by other people.

Remind me to keep an open mind

Again from Metropolis, a good interview with John Bielenberg:

Yesterday at Project M lab you drew a doodle that read, “Remind me to keep an open mind.”

It’s so easy for us to be a victim of our own orthodoxy and synaptic connections. I’ve often thought about giving Project M’ers t-shirts that they have to wear the whole time that reads, “Please remind me to keep an open mind.” That’s why I wear this stupid little bracelet that says, “Live Wrong” because it’s always a reminder to me to think wrong.

How do we actively keep an open mind?

I try to surround myself with people that encourage that. If you’re just sitting in your cabin in the woods, it’s very easy to get wound up in your own thoughts and they reinforce each other…. The biggest thing is having people to play with, who get it, who are challenging and who keep the conversation activated like that.

IDEO on 21st century education

From Metropolis: a nice, short, but provocative list of 10 things to do to create the classroom of the 21st century. A couple of my favorites:

6. Teachers are designers. Let them create. Build an environment where your teachers are actively engaged in learning by doing. Shift the conversation from prescriptive rules to permissive guidance. Even though the resulting environment may be more complicated to manage, the teachers will produce amazing results.

7. Build a learning community. Learning doesn’t happen in the child’s mind alone. It happens through the social interactions with other kids and teachers, parents, the community, and the world at large. It really does take a village. Schools should find new ways to engage parents and build local and national partnerships. This doesn’t just benefit the child—it brings new resources and knowledge to your institution.

8. Be an anthropologist, not an archaeologist. An archaeologist seeks to understand the past by investigating its relics and digging for the truth of what was. An anthropologist studies people to understand their values, needs, and desires. If you want to design new solutions for the future, you have to understand what people care about and design for that. Don’t dig for the answer—connect.

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