Category Archives: Design

<3 Adaptive Path

Ten years ago I asked my manager if we could go on a walk. I was working as a front-end developer for a tiny web development shop in Bend, Oregon. I was young, talented, and a bit of a shit.

My manager sensed something was up, so instead of a walk he recommended we go to the bar. Over a couple of pours of Deschutes’ finest I told him that in three months I was going to leave the company to go work as a wilderness guide in northern Minnesota.

I didn’t know how he would take it, but my manager, a dear friend and mentor to this day, slapped me on the back, said “Fuck yeah, man!” and bought us a second round. He spent his twenties gallivanting around and guiding rafting trips, you see, and he wanted the same for me.

I was angry and burned out on web development. It was the dawn of the standards-based web design movement, and I had spent the last year slicing and dicing visual design comps into HTML and CSS. Some of them were gorgeous templates produced by talented print designers, but after I painstakingly turned them into sites they would sit forlorn on the web for months, empty of content. Our team was hard at work building a content management system our clients never used, to power websites their customers never visited.

We had all-company meetings every Friday, where I would often drink a Sparks and yell at the founders that they were doing everything wrong. I had no answers to our problems, only strongly held beliefs, which is what you do when you’re in your twenties.

It was 2004. Blogging was the rage and I kept up with all the heavyweight web designers of the day, Jeffrey Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, Dave Shea and Doug Bowman, to name a few. This was pre-Twitter, and most people had little link lists or sidebars or whatever on their blogs where they shared hyperlinks to interesting things going on in and around the interwebs. Micro-blogging, before that was a thing.

That fall, I noticed that people kept posting about an upcoming two-day design workshop hosted by a little design company in San Francisco. I kept it in my periphery, but in the days leading up to the workshop the mentions got more and more hysterical. The week before the workshop I crossed my fingers and emailed my manager, asking if I could skip out a few days next week and travel to San Francisco.

Screenshot of Adaptive Path's 2004 San Francisco Workshop

(Let’s be honest… the whole reason I did any of this was because of a picture of a trolley)

He didn’t owe me anything. I had told him weeks before that I would leave the company in January.

Miraculously and fatefully, he said yes.

He gave me the time off for the trip, but said I would have to foot the bill myself. Not a problem. I was ecstatic. It was more than a fair trade.

I plotted a route in MapQuest, filled up the Subaru, and after work on Friday aimed south and started my journey from Bend to San Francisco. I hit Weed in the spooky dark. Near Castle Crags I pulled off the road and slept in the back of my car.

Morning, Castle Crags

I awoke to low clouds settled in the pines, and oaks yellowing with the season. I wound down through the mountains back to the freeway, and inched closer to the Bay Area. Later, while crossing the Carquinez Bridge into East Bay, I remember keeping up with traffic at eighty miles per hour as sports cars weaved through us as though we were standing still. I spent the night at a Holiday Inn Express in San Pablo for $60.

The next day I set out to find the “Ashley” BART station (as I wrote it in my notes) but got lost instead and ended up in a six-lane traffic jam. I stumbled blindly through Berkeley until I found my quarry, and hopped BART into San Francisco. I transferred at MacArthur and our train broke down at Embarcadero. For a child of the Minneapolis suburbs the entire experience was like traveling in a foreign country, and if you had told me that in six years I would be living here I would have told you you were nuts. If you told me I would move here to work at Adaptive Path, I would have told you you were insane.

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I found my way to Union Square and a kind homeless fellow named Benny helped me find my hotel, the Kensington Park. I checked into my room, gorgeous and a steal at $119 a night, and then met up with one of my freelance clients. We had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. We ate out on the balcony. A pigeon shit all over him.

The two-day Adaptive Path workshop kicked off the next morning at the Hotel Monaco. It was November 8, 2004, exactly ten years ago today.

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(If you’re into historical artifacts, you can download the slides from the Blogger redesign workshop or grab a zip file of all the materials they shared with us that day)

The entire Adaptive Path crew was super nice and welcoming. Doug Bowman and Jeff Veen shared the story of their Blogger redesign project, which promptly blew my mind. I had long suspected that there was a better way to design and build things for the web, but I had never heard of “user experience” before. In short order Jeff taught us about ethnographic research, personas, task flows, usage metrics and usability testing, among other things, and Doug revealed the magic behind the HTML and CSS that brought his designs to life.

I was elated. Here were my people. Matt Mullenweg was there in the audience, the author of a little tool called WordPress that some people used instead of Movable Type and Greymatter to author their blogs. He had just moved to San Francisco. Like, that weekend.

It was a pivotal time for many of us.

In a matter of hours, I had gone from wanting to move to the woods and give up on the web entirely to being one of the most passionate UX converts ever. I learned that it wasn’t just me who was dissatisfied with the status quo of development-focused product design, followed by a thin film of superficial visual design. In fact, there was a whole practice dedicated to the belief that the best way to build great websites and software for people was to empathize with them, deeply understand their needs, and craft a product that addresses them at a fundamental level. I can’t emphasize enough how much this discovery revolutionized my worldview.

Doug and Jeff’s workshop was a truly life-changing experience for me, and it happened all again the following day, when the guys from 37signals got up and talked about building Basecamp. DHH demoed Ruby on Rails, building a to-do list application right there before our eyes. I was positively drunk on inspiration, on the infinite abilities of humankind to do smart things and build kind experiences for each other.

This, this is what I knew I wanted to do with myself, and I owed it all to two days with Adaptive Path.

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(So young. So obviously in love with 20th Street)

The workshop wrapped. I took the Muni to Dolores Park, and caught up with a music friend who was living in San Francisco. Her friend was wearing a backpack with a seatbelt, which seemed kind of weird at the time. I hauled my ass back to East Bay, grabbed my Subaru from “Ashley” BART, and aimed north.

I slept in my car again at Castle Crags.

And arrived home in Bend the following day.

Everything was still the same, but somehow, different.

So thank you, Adaptive Path, for all of that.

My hypothetical talk for design students, based on a few years working at one of the best UX studios in the world.

The other day I got an email from Erik Stolterman, which got me thinking how nice it would be to get back to Bloomington one of these days and check in on the HCI/d program. With life and work and all the trip probably won’t happen soon, but our correspondence made me reflect on the talk I would like to give to current design students, based on what I’ve learned in my last few years in the industry.

I don’t have time to prepare this talk, let alone give it, but I feel if I did it would go something like this.

An introduction.

For the last 2 1/2 years I’ve been working as an experience designer at Adaptive Path, one of the top UX studios in the world. Every day we go toe-to-toe with IDEO, frog design, Hot Studio and other big wigs in our bids for new project work. I have good friends at each and every one of these studios, and more besides. We all do excellent work. Sometimes Adaptive Path lands one of these projects and I get to work on it, and other times my friends do. That’s just the way of the world.

I am a consultant. I work at a consultancy. That means companies come to me because they’re scared shitless about something and want me, a so-called design expert, to help them find the right path forward. Sometimes it’s finding the Buddha nature of a product. Other times it’s crafting and communicating a strategy for a product that does not yet exist.

Always, it is the pursuit of articulating and bringing to life the ideal experience of a product. Frequently that product is actually a multi-channel service that touches myriad users, customers, departments and stakeholders.

Always, I am working with clients.

Over the last couple years I’ve learned a lot of things. It’s been a painful experience, as is any true personal growth. I would like to share what I’ve learned with you, dear students, so when you go out and walk the path I have walked, you might have some idea of what to expect.

I sure thought I did. And I sure as hell was dead wrong.

This job is 20 percent how great you are at design, and 80 percent how great you are at working with people.

Being a great designer can give you a hell of a good head start, but if you can’t work with other designers, if you’re not good at interacting with clients and stakeholders, if you can’t show respect for operational, political and business constraints, you will always be limited in how much impact your designs will have on an organization.

Communication is absolutely key.

If you can share your ideas clearly, concisely and effectively, you will do well. If you cannot do this, you will need to work on it. Trust me. You will need to work on it. This goes for communicating with clients, as well as project managers and your fellow designers.

When someone is talking, they’re telling you something that’s important to them.

There’s the words that are said, but there’s also the motivation behind the words that are said. Your job is not just to hear and respond to the words, but understand why they’re saying those words, and speak to that. You know that empathy we are really good at extending to our end users? You need to apply those same principles to the people you work with, other designers and clients alike.

In the end, your client needs to be the strongest advocate for your design.

When you’re a consultant working with a client, there will come a time when your engagement ends and you move onto the next project. Your client, meanwhile, will continue to own your work in your absence, advocating for it within their organization, shepherding it through development into launch, and continuing to maintain and iterate on it.

Your job isn’t to be the genius. Your job is to get the best design possible out into the world, where it can affect people and bring about real change. This applies whether you’re designing an actual digital product or articulating a five-year organizational multi-channel strategy. The most powerful force for making this happen isn’t your skill as a designer, but the sheer will of your client, their belief in your design, and their desire to see it realized.

Ultimately, your design lives and dies with your client. The more you can involve them in your process, the more you can instill in them a sense of ownership, the better the chances of your design making it through the organizational gauntlet. If you can transform your client into an advocate for your design, they will move mountains to see that it happens.

You are always selling your design.

Your design work isn’t done until you’ve sold it through to the client. The word “sell” gets a bad rap. I don’t mean “sell” in a sleazy used car salesman kind of way. I mean “sell” in that you are authentically communicating the value of your design in a manner that resonates with your audience.

Pace yourself. It isn’t done when you’ve posted the deliverables, but only after you’ve walked through the deliverables, and you’ve gotten all the heads in the room nodding.

No one but you is going to sell your design work.

Again, this job is 20 percent design, 80 percent selling design. Whereby “selling” I mean “getting people to rally behind the idea you want to be realized.” Notice how I didn’t say your idea or your design. As much as possible as a design consultant, you need to pass the title of ownership to your client. Not necessarily intellectual or creative ownership, but gut ownership.

Always anticipate the next step.

Let’s say you present your design work to a C-level executive team. It goes better than you ever could have expected. They love it. They want to build it. Which part of it, you might ask? All of it. (trust me, this can happen).

For the longest time, I was under the impression that if my design work is good enough, if I communicate it well enough, that someone better and smarter than me would take it over and shepherd it into existence. The terrifying and exciting thing is, this does not happen.

What’s next?

You need to have a clear answer to this question. You’ve been living and breathing your project for so long that you are the authority on it. Any great leader at any organization is going to realize this, and you know what? They’re going to ask you what needs to happen next in order for your project to move forward.

In conclusion.

My talk would have an awesome conclusion where my last slide would say “And one more thing…” and I would walk over to a coat rack with a sheet over it that was on stage with me the entire time and I would pull off the sheet and wouldn’t you know it’s not a coat rack at all but AUSTIN CLEON HIMSELF and so my conclusion would be Austin giving his awesome talk How To Steal Like An Artist from UX Week 2012.

Does that sound good?

On Consulting

For two and a half years, now, I’ve been working as a design consultant. It wasn’t until the last year, however, that it’s begun to sink in for me what that actually means.

Let’s get one thing straight. Design is extremely important in my work. Every day I’m bustin’ hump in the tool du jour, whether it’s Keynote or Illustrator or Excel at my desk, Sharpies and Post-Its and half-sheets of paper in the project room, a red pen and 11×17 print-outs in a design critique, pen and paper when out in the field doing in-home interviews, or donning my coding mask and cranking out a prototype for user testing or front-end code for production or what have you.

I am a specialized generalist. I need to be insanely great at all of these design activities. And the new activities we invent on-the-fly to fit the needs of the project? I need to be great at those as well.

But.

I have found that while being a designer is extremely important in being a design consultant, being a good listener and communicator is even more important. Like, we’re talking 80/20 here. All Pareto Principle up in here. And that’s not 80 percent design, but eighty percent communication.

The biggest reason great designs never see the light of day is due to a lack of organizational will. And deeply understanding that will, and bending it to our purposes, is perhaps the most important thing a design consultant can bring to the table.

Good designs don’t die because they’re not great. They die for the same reason as great designs.

If you want to be a successful design consultant, you need to understand your design medium. And that medium is not web, not mobile, not digital, not print or multi-channel or built space or whatever.

Your medium is people.

But it’s not the people you think it is.

Because your probably thinking of your users. Or customers. Or whatever we’re supposed to call them these days.

No doubt, understanding your users and their behaviors, their emotions, their hopes and dreams and fears, is unbelievably important. But as a consultant, nothing you dream up is going to get remotely close to them if you can’t win over the hearts and minds of your client.

It took me far too long to realize this, but we’re not hired in order for us to do awesome design work. It’s certainly nice that we do, and people tend to be very happy when it works out that way, but it turns out it’s not about you or your designs. It’s about your client and their users.

Every day you are interacting with the client, you need to be selling your design. Not at a superficial level, not at a used car salesman level, but at a deep and empathetic level.

You know all that effort you take to understand and empathize with your users so you can design great things for them? You need to apply that same level of empathy to your stakeholders and clients.

When was the last time you proposed a particular approach to a design challenge that you felt was fundamentally in the best interest of the user? And when was the last time someone on your client team hesitated in accepting that idea, based on their knowledge of business constraints, market constraints, technical constraints, or whatever?

How did you respond? Did you carefully articulate your rationale for the idea? Did you lock horns and argue? Did you storm out in a huff? Did you agree to redesign it the way they asked while grumbling to yourself about how stupid an idea it was and how much it compromised the rest of the system? Or did you ask them why they feel that way, and try to arrive at some sort of mutual understanding?

Whenever someone is talking, they’re telling you about something that’s important to them. There are the words that are said, but there are far, far more words that are not said. Your job as a design consultant is to get to what people mean by what they’re saying, whether they’re users or clients.

Also, clients don’t hire you because you’re a hot shot designer with a reputation. They hire you because they have a job that needs done, and they think you’re the right one to do it. They’ve put a lot on the line, probably spent a considerable amount of their budget, to bring you into their game, and so you owe it to them to listen to them.

Your job isn’t to take a brief, go down a hole, and eight weeks later simply wow your clients with your work. That’s execution, not design, and the “wow” factor rarely lasts more than a few minutes after the big reveal anyway.

Nay, your job is to work closely with your client at every step of the way to make sure you’re aligned strategically, and yes, politically. Your client needs to be able to own your work, heart and soul, and evangelize it within their organization. They’re the ones who put their ass on the line to hire you, and this should be their victory.

A design that meets the needs of users without meeting the needs of the business and thus doesn’t get implemented, is a failed design. A design that meets the needs of both users and the business, but hasn’t been co-created or communicated in such a way that key stakeholders are sold on the idea, is likewise at huge risk of failure.

But what of the design that was brilliant, satisfying every aspect of feasibility, viability and desirability, but over time was chipped away and compromised at the request of a nervous client until it was unrecognizable? Who is responsible for the resulting mess, the client, or the designer acting under the client’s direction?

These are the good fights, the important fights to have, and they seem to have little to do with design skills, and everything to do with people skills. An effective design consultant is able to carefully listen to, understand and empathize with a client, alleviating their anxieties while simultaneously standing up for the design. Even after the design is finished, the majority of the work still remains. Design is a job, and you’re not done until you’ve sold your design through.

A great design consultant knows when to be the oak and when to be the reed, in a storm bearing little resemblance to what we might consider a design practice.

But this is life.

Introducing Another Website For You To Check On A Regular Basis In Addition To Twitter And Flickr And Kate’s Blog

It’s called thegreatsunra.com.

From 2001 to 2006 I maintained a weblog on a fairly regular basis. In those early years it was new and exciting to be “publishing” to the “internet” to “people” who may or may not be there; who you may or may not even know.

I started losing steam in 2005. My online publishing became downright anemic by 2006. For the last four years, my online identity has been wildly fragmented, publishing across the Twitters and Flickrs and Facebooks (for a spell) and Vimeos and Brainside Outs and Daneomatics and Tumblrs and even some super-secret projects that you don’t even know about, which I started and ended quietly in an attempt to rekindle that original flame.

For four years I feel I have expended far more energy trying to pull these disparate identities together into some cohesive whole, than I have actually contributing to the ether. You know, writing. Or publishing. Or making. The whole reason I started down this path in the first place. The technology was never meant to be an end, the packaging never the focus, but merely the mechanism by which I communicate with the world, externally processing my thoughts while simultaneously getting them out there in the world.

As such, I’m trying something new. Perhaps this too will fail, but I prefer to let time be the judge of that.

In 2001 my original website, by the ostentatious name of “Cromlech”, was built in Adobe GoLive. Then, it was built in Dreamweaver. Then in Notepad for a spell. Then Greymatter, if any of you whipper-snappers remember that (I’m pretty sure Zosia Blue does).

Greymatter was instrumental to supporting my blogging efforts during the summer of 2002, when I worked at Camp Ihduhapi. It was the first time I could update my website from any computer whatsoever, without needing to FTP into the server.

It was also the reason I learned HTML.

Cromlech became “Dane’s Bored” which became “Brainside Out” which I eventually migrated to Movable Type. Upon Movable Type it remained until 2006, when I launched Daneomatic on WordPress. The weblog portion of Brainside Out, complete with archives from 2001 to 2006, is still available on the internet at siskiwit.brainsideout.com, where it remains in stasis.

And so, I wish to introduce thegreatsunra.com, a Tumblr blog which may (or may not) support my contributions to the intertubes. This space is getting hella-crowded and writing for the web isn’t nearly as much fun as it was once before, but I do still have “ideas” that I need to get “out” so that I can continue having “more” ideas.

So, for the five of you who read this, you now have another place you need to check in order to keep tabs on me. And for that, I apologize. I fully realize it’s poor user experience, and I can only hope it is forgivable.

The Honda Fit EV concept car has a high heels button!

In other news, I cannot recommend the WordPress iPad app.

Clean Slate

I’ve been cleaning a lot of the cruft out of my domains lately. Subdomains, development domains, MySQL databases originally setup to stage all sorts of nefarious dealings… they’ve all been pulled up by the roots and tossed into heaping piles of gzipped tarballs.

As part of this activity I’ve been cleaning out my Google Analytics account as well, as many of my analytic site profiles refer to domains long gone, testing procedures long concluded, directions I thought my web interests would go but didn’t. Having just made a Great and Terrible Mistake and irreversibly destroying a trove of information courtesy of the slop that is the Google Analytics interface, I have penned a cautionary tale to let you aware of two of its most dangerous functions: pagination and deletion.

Google Analytics Pagination: Party like it’s 1995 (and your 14.4K U.S. Robotics Sportster just arrived)

The pagination tool in Google Analytics defaults to displaying only 10 site profiles per page. Using the dropdown menu you can change this to 5, 10, 20, 35, 50 or 100.

An option to display only five profiles per page? What the hell? In what universe would that be useful? Are we seriously so pressed for bandwidth in 2010 that we cannot afford to peer at the world through more than a pinhole? Further, the cognitive load of needing to choose between six freaking options is ridiculous. It’s a modest burden to bear but oftentimes interfaces manage to kill their users not through a single fatal flaw, but through an endless series of tiny papercuts such as this.

Seriously, Google Analytics. If you must have pagination, limit the options to 10, 50 and All. And for all that is holy, remember my choice for at least the duration of my session. Needing to reset the number of rows every time I go back to my profile list is maddening, and the fact that I can’t save this option as a personal setting is driving me insane.

Or would drive me insane, if I hadn’t screwed up in a much bigger way. Pagination in Google Analytics has an additional feature whose destructive tendencies are so finely tuned that they trump even the above critique. To expand on this, we’ll take a quick stroll through the flawed workflow for deleting a site profile.

Deletion: With great power comes insufficient gravity and illustrative consequence surrounding said power.

To delete a site profile, you click the “Delete” link in its corresponding row:

When you click “Delete” a beautiful alert box pops up, a charming implementation of the “Hello World” of any beginner’s javascript tutorial:

In the alert box, the profile that will be deleted is not mentioned by name. It is up to you to remember, guess or assume which profile you originally clicked on. The most prominent information on this alert is the domain of the website that initiated the alert. Is that really the most important thing you need to know at this point, in order to make an informed decision? More important than the fact that the profile data cannot be recovered? More important than the name of the profile that’s actually being deleted?

Also note that “OK” is selected by default, so that pressing the return key will delete the profile. With an action as destructive as the irrecoverable deletion of years worth of information, it’s insanely poor form to select this choice by default.

Perhaps if creating a sensible “Delete” workflow in Google Analytics was as precious as maximizing clickthru rates on text ads, we’d see Google employing the same obsessive levels of testing that the color of hyperlinks currently enjoy. As it stands, all I can say is user experience my ass.

One Plus One Equals Gone

The ambiguous delete tool in Google Analytics, combined with its poorly-executed pagination functionality, creates a perfect storm of destruction. No matter what page you are on, when you click “OK” to confirm the deletion of a profile, Google Analytics redirects you to the first page of your profile list.


(The alert box for confirming the delete action appears over your current page. After clicking “OK” from the alert box you are redirected to the first page, losing the context of your delete action.)

Like most humans, I have a finely-tuned spatial memory. I instinctively take note of where things are located in space, I can predict where they will go, and I can remember where they were. If I’m performing a repetitive task, say spooning food into my mouth, I don’t check my plate after every bite to make sure it hasn’t turned into a bowl of snakes. There is an expectation, born from my experience with physical reality, that the plate and food will remain fairly consistent between mouthfuls such that it doesn’t demand constant conscious consideration. In the words of Heidegger, the spoon, plate and food are ready-to-hand, an extension of myself, part of my world of absorbed coping.

In Google Analytics I had identified two profiles that were outdated, and I moved to delete both of them. Spatially, they were located right next to each other, one after the other. I deleted the first one, and instinctively went to the location of the second one, and deleted it as well. The javascript alert, boldly declaring https://www.google.com/, was promptly ignored because it offered no useful information to confirm.

So long, dear friends.
Well, numerical representations of friends.

Unbeknownst to me, after deleting the first site profile I had been quietly redirected to the first page of my profiles list. And so, it came to pass that I deleted not the profile I intended to delete, but the profile documenting four years of activity here at Daneomatic. Clearly I’m not the first person to have accidentally (and irrecoverably) deleted a profile from Google Analytics.

Dear friends of Daneomatic, I ask that you enjoy your fresh start. Save your comments, I know nothing of you, of your browsers or activities or search terms.

Please, remake yourselves however you see fit. The gentle fellows at You Look Nice Today may offer some valuable suggestions as to how to best use this opportunity.

I, of course, would recommend the Mork from Ork suspenders.

The West

Gracious Living

I may be honing in on part of why I find the American West, not only the landscape but also its people and history, so interesting. And history not necessarily in the wars fought or the great leaders and historic influencers and such, but in the everyday sense. What did people, regular people, do out here? What was their lifeworld? What was their intersubjectivity?

In a way, it’s a manner to defamiliarize myself with my own lifeworld, my own values and needs and hopes and dreams and goals and aspirations and fears… to try on someone else’s to render more explicit to my own consciousness my own silently-held assumptions, biases and predispositions. And if I understand mine better, I can come to know those of others better. I can better empathize with them, knowing that my own convictions and beliefs are sourced in something, sourced in experiences I have had that have influenced my values and thinking, rather than some innate characteristic of mankind that others may or may not have discovered yet.

Indeed, this thought experiment allows me to reject the notion that I have attained some kind of objective, universal, transcendent truth or enlightenment. In some ways I have found my own enlightenment, yes. I have discovered, and continue to hammer out, a personal framework for meaning. But this is not a guarantor. It is something that frames, that helps me make sense of human life, but not something that determines life.

Transactions for Saturday October 25th, 1884

And so, I look to the West, and the ephemera of the 1800s, yes, that era of westward expansion and exploration and such, and I find it fascinating to see what people, what ordinary people, did in those circumstances. What they were forced to do. What they chose to do. How they went about doing it, and why, and what they did once they got there.

And I’m figuring that a lot of the style of the West, artifacts and such that we inescapably associate with the West, are not necessarily by design… but that they were the only resources available from which to craft things. So yes, they were designed, if not in an aesthetic sense, but in that there were strict constraints of materials available to build, and those in turn determined the styles of things, of buildings, of main street in boom towns… indeed, the stark reality of building a town out of nothing, yes, that’s positively fascinating.

Wallpaper Strata

But also, what luxuries did we chose to bring along? From alcohol to prostitutes to sourdough bread to chandeliers in barrooms to player pianos to ornate ceiling tiles to framed art to wainscoting to wallpaper… these things didn’t just come from nowhere. In a lawless land such as the historic American West, it likely ended up there because someone decided they could make a buck by doing it. A piano is heavy and delicate and difficult to transport, but man just as with any bumpin’ night club, I’m sure it could bring the crowds if you were the only saloon that had one.

But also, I’m interested in the West from an art direction standpoint, from the way the western films, with their spurs and pointed-toe cowboy boots and electric guitars and whistles and harmonicas and such, the way Sergio Leone has basically mediated the portrayal of the West, and given us these vast tools of shared meaning with which we can craft and express a certain experience. And, in the case of diagetic sound, that can be pretty authentic, from the sounds of insects to wind to trotting horses, but also the electric guitars and whoops and hollers of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, how the non-diagetic sound has become a resource for emotional connection and, yes, designed experience.

So there’s West as nature, which I love. There’s West as life, historically, which I find interesting. There’s West as a shared cultural cinematic medium, the experience design of the West, which I find awesome.

And. There’s West as a raw portrayal of what we find quintessentially valuable as Americans. Or even, as humans. As people. I don’t want to draw too many universals independent of American culture, but there’s something telling to the West, the rawness of the hardscrabble life its history afforded, that tells a story of what we truly, truly value, yes as historic Americans, as a culture, but perhaps even as humans, when we have nothing and are presented with the rawest of living.

If we were to carve out an existence where there is nothing (taking on the perspective of a period-era pioneer, for a moment, and blindly ignoring the existing indigenous cultures we oh-so-ravaged, which already had indescribable “meanings” associated with all that we considered wide open “nothing” in the West), what are we going to carry with ourselves on our backs as we make our way westward? What are we going to build once we get there? What are we going to seek out, either from nature, or from others, in the hope that a loose regional society can provide what essentials we cannot provide for ourselves?

Entertainment District

What do we value, above all else, such that we will go through such pains to carry it with us, or build it, or seek it out? Shelter, water, food, fame, fortune, power, sex, liquor, the sublime, art, culture, music, the church, tobacco, opium… what motivates us, as a people, even at the fringes of civilization? What remains constant? What do we carry in our hearts, wherever we travel, whatever our society, whatever its wickedness and lawlessness?

In a way, I find the West a fascinating experiment in what we truly find most valuable as a culture, a society, a people, perhaps even a species… a perfected laboratory where, if given an opportunity to start it all over, with limited resources, how we would desire to remake ourselves. The scarcity of resources and obvious constraints and harshness of life in the Old West fascinates me as a designer, perhaps even moreso than the aesthetics of Western life, and I feel I’m beginning to understand that the aesthetics we associate with the West are inexplicably tied to something that was very real, and very raw, for some people’s existence.

The stories of other people’s lives, and how they lived them from day to day, fascinate me as a writer and a storyteller. I continue my attempts to unravel the stories of the West, for I feel as though they hold some kind of truth as to what dwells in the hearts of humankind.

Hans and Umbach: Exploring the Boundary Between Physical and Digital

My final semester of graduate school is now long over, I have spent the last few weeks immersed in the awesome culture that is Adaptive Path, and yet embodied interaction continues to dominate my thoughts.

Grope

Today I have been reviewing my notes from the Hans and Umbach project, after using a terminal command to combine hundreds of text documents into a single file, which I converted to a PDF and loaded onto an iPad that I am currently borrowing from work. One thing that is striking, and perhaps disappointing, is that I originally set out on the modest goal of learning Arduino, hardware sketching and physical computing. Where others have made LED matrixes that let you play Super Mario Brothers, or tanks that they can control with an iPhone, I made a few LED mixers, interfaced with a 7-segment display, took apart a Super Nintendo controller, and played Pong with a Wii Nunchuk.

Hans and Umbach: Arduino, 8-bit shift register, 7-segment display

My results didn’t quite meet my initial expectations. Electronics, it turns out, is still an archaic craft wrapped in cloaks of obtuse language and user-hostile encodings, and is certainly an art unto itself. I realized that to produce the robust interactions I had intended, with all the nuance and detail with which I approach my screen-mediated design work, would take an entire career worth of learning and refinement.

So then, were my efforts with Hans and Umbach all for naught? I don’t believe so. Physical computing exists at the intersection of the physical and the so-called digital worlds, which is why I was originally so interested in studying it. In reflecting extensively on my own process of learning electronics, and simultaneously diving deep on academic research behind notions of embodiment, I came to realize that perhaps stumbling through the craft of linking these two worlds together wasn’t the best use of my strengths.

Because, I realized, the boundary between the physical and digital worlds was a false one.

Indeed, mentally compartmentalizing the physical from the digital makes sense from a computer science perspective, or from a system architecture perspective, but it is a wrong, dead-wrong approach for an interaction design perspective.

Every interaction, whether it is with a coffee cup or a keyboard or pixels on a screen, exists in the physical world, is perceived through our senses, is actively interpreted by us, and is thus rendered meaningful by our interpretation. Whether it is physical or digital, every interaction is embodied, as we only interact with the physical manifestations of digital information.

Musée Mécanique

This was a surprising conclusion to reach, as the whole reason I set out on this inquiry was to prove that the interactions afforded by the devices at the Musee Mecanique were of a different class than those afforded by screens and input devices. What I began to discover, though, is that even our most familiar, most natural, most culturally-embedded interactions, are all technologically-mediated.

Type Cliché Letterpress Project

There is nothing natural about plain paper, dark ink or the printing press; these are all technologies. However, a book differs greatly from an e-book in terms of the richness of its physicality. Screens typically comprise an interaction that is physically impoverished, given the rich range of sensing capabilities we have as human beings. By not engaging our senses for texture, warmth, smell and sound, the e-book is limited in how it engages our sense of embodiment, but it is embodied nevertheless.

Indeed, too much effort has been wasted trying to explain how and why tangible computing is new and different than what came before it… what, intangible computing? I believe that the assertion is irrelevant, that tangible computing is not new, but as an area of inquiry it has given us a new perspective from which to reconsider all interactions, namely that of their embodied qualities. While tangible computing is mostly concerned with the sense of touch and physical manipulability, embodied interaction considers the larger notions of physicality as a whole, the human body as a mediator of experience, the nature of being, and the role of individual interpretation as central to the formation of meaning.

All interactions can benefit from an embodied perspective, not just analog, physical, in-the-world interactions, but so-called digital ones as well. There are all these things in the world, hardly perceptible but nonetheless important, that we use every day to create meaning.

What I continue to outline, through my consideration of embodied interaction, phenomenology and metaphor, is a means by which we can talk about these experiences in such a way that embodiment can better inform our design process.

I’m not there yet, but I’m continuing to work it out.

And now, I get to work it out with some of the coolest people in the whole entire world.

Hans and Umbach: Miscellaneous thoughts regarding the embodied future of interaction design.

Okay. It’s been awhile. I’ve taken some time off. From this, as well as from embodied interaction.

But let’s get back at it. Embodied interaction, that is.

I’ve had quite some time to decompress about this, take a pause and see what sort of ideas keep bubbling to the surface. And the results are not surprising. Or are surprising. Or whatever.

On a postmodern interpretation of technology, and rejecting a sense of inevitability.

Jaron Lanier. And questioning underlying assumptions, tacit assumptions, the colorless, odorless nature of our technological surroundings. Of our environments. Render explicit to consciousness that our ecologies are not inevitable, that they are not natural, that they are not predestined, that they are constructed and hold no truths. That is not to say they are completely relative, but just that they are subjective. Indeed. Privacy on the internet. That you cannot hear people from your car. Certain responsibilities, the lines we draw between designer and user, producer and consumer, etc.

Who is responsible when my gas pedal sticks? How about when I swerve to miss a deer? Or if I hit the deer? Should the car allow me to swerve so strong that I can flip it? Should it never be allowed to exceed 55 mph? What is the logical limit for the top speed? What is safe? What is safe enough? Given infinite resources, given no technological constraints, where would we find ourselves?

On the future of screen-mediated interactions.

Screens, for instance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with screens. A screen is just a collection of pixels. RGB emissive light, photons in this case. However, they could just as well be CMYK dots, like a newspaper. Like a magazine. Imagine how that would change our relationship with paper. Indeed, in that case you could pinch-zoom the 2010 Rand McNally U.S. Road Atlas. You’ve already tried that. Jake’s already tried to slide-unlock his wallet.

There is a feedback loop here. Digital technology influences how we interact with our analog environments. Not just vice versa. Twenty years ago the analog interaction of operating a Rolodex offered a logical metaphor for the digital interaction of browsing an address book. But no more. How many 15-year-olds today do you think have operated a Rolodex? How many do you think have operated an iPod? Or an iPhone? One metaphor for interaction here can no longer effectively be leveraged. Methinks the metaphor of the Rolodex interaction is dead.

So, you take Iron Man 2, with its transparent glass screens, and you think, man, that looks cool at first, but then you realize trying to focus on flat content projected on a transparent screen would be somewhat straining. But. If you can project an image on clear glass like that, who is to say you cannot also project a black background? And now, your office may consist of hundreds of screens, but when they’re off they’re transparent. Open. Airy. They barely exist. And the fact that it can be transparent, or can project its own black background for familiar contrast, or yes, that they can be transparent, opens up all sorts of options for augmented reality.

Though, for a truly transparent glass screen (which is merely transitory technology on the way to in-air displays) you come up against problems of auto-stereoscopy and determining the relativistic perspective of the user’s viewpoint… parallax and the like. I move my head, and the display needs to update accordingly. Or, what if I’m sharing the same augmented reality screen with someone else? They need to see a different display, from a different angle, than myself. Here we need some sort of holography, that projects a unique display along all emissive points.

When we think of screens, we need to think beyond the current technological implementation of the screen, and instead think of the screen metaphorically. What are the terms we use to construct our thinking of this display? Can we touch it? Do we touch it? If we touch it does it get greasy? Not necessarily. I predict in a few years that nanotechnology will provide us with materials, perhaps inspired by the leaves of the lotus, that collect no dust, accept no grease (even from the infinitely-greasy human hand). Imagine if all glass were made of such a material.

Is a screen an extension of a book? A viewport into another world? A wormhole? How we align ourselves, socially and culturally, with these artifacts greatly influences how we perceive them, how we conceptualize them, how we imagine ourselves using them. We look back at old science fiction movies and laugh at their cornball conceptualization of the future, but it’s important to recognize that every piece of science fiction is a product of a unique society and culture. Especially mainstream science fiction (or depictions of the future, as seen in Iron Man) needs to consider their sociocultural situatedness.

Ironically, technology in science fiction needs to appear futuristic, but not so much so that it seems unbelievable and unachievable given current understandings of the world. I recently read that plants may use quantum entanglement to maximize the efficiency of photosynthesis, and that quantum entanglement may allow birds to “see” the Earth’s magnetic field, aiding in migration. If these theories turn out to hold weight and thusly become popularized, they will influence our shared, intersubjective world, and become a resource that science fiction can leverage for believably futuristic renderings of the, well, future.

On questioning hegemonies.

I am realizing that one of my roles as a designer is to question, or at least render explicit, the tacit assumptions of the hegemonies in which we conduct our lives. As interaction designers, we have inherited the legacy, a powerful and important legacy at that, of a scientific approach to computation, as well as an initially cognitive-systems approach to interaction. The scientific, non-humanistic origins of our field, I believe, continue to silently influence the way we think about and talk about interaction.

There is a strong, increasingly strong, reaction against these rational histories of human-computer interaction, towards a more experiential model that considers the whole person, their emotions, desires, goals and fears, not only as something to design for, but something to design with. The user as a medium for design. Indeed, the interpretative abilities of the user are an incredible resource that can, nay must, be effectively leveraged by our designs.

The value in a design is not objectively measurable, and is not contained in the designed artifact itself, but in the union between the artifact and the user. The simplest designs are compelling not merely because they are simple, but because they so gracefully leverage the rich intersubjective world of the user (or users) to give them meaning. As phenomenology tells us, these meanings are situated not in the artifact, but in the consciousness of the user herself. Interaction design is concerned not with the objective world, but the messy, subjective world of interpretation. Phenomenology is at the very core of interaction design; concerned with reality as it is revealed to and manifest in consciousness.

I am proud that interaction design is increasing concerned with the messy subjective world, that it realizes that an account of the objective qualities of the world are insufficient to design compelling interactions. Nevertheless, I believe there is still significant work to be done in shrugging off the scientific cloak of computation, so that we can truly design future-facing interactions. I believe certain metaphors used for describing our systems have hung on past their prime, and silently and insidiously damage progress in our field. Most notably, as I have described recently, is the conceptualization of a virtual world that exists independently of the physical world.

On dispelling the myth of the virtual world.

While the difference between the physical and digital is certainly important from a technology and computation perspective, I believe it is meaningless from an interactive perspective. Nevertheless, we still speak of making virtual friends, roaming virtual worlds, or downloading digital information. I believe this categorization creates a false boundary between the physical and digital worlds, mischaracterizing the digital and trivializing the real, physical, embodied interactions that happen, that must happen, when a user interacts with the so-called virtual world.

Interacting with a friend in World of Warcraft is greatly different than interacting with them when they’re standing in your living room, but not because one is a “virtual” interaction and the other is a “real” interaction. No, they are both physical interactions, one mediated in co-present physical space (with all the available expressive faculties that come along with such co-presence), and one mediated through keyboard, mouse, screen and audio. To characterize the latter as “virtual” is to casually dismiss the embodied interactions that must happen in order for the conversation to take place, and to neglect possible opportunities to make the interaction more richly embodied.

On disentangling interaction design from its computational roots.

Computer science must necessarily distinguish between hardware and software layers, either of which can branch into any multitude of sub-disciplines. However, users do not necessarily make any such distinction. I have observed college freshmen working with computers, and their conceptual model of computers often does not distinguish between operating system and application, or even local (as in, on their computer) or remote (as in, on the internet). To them, a computer (or even computation as a whole) is one amorphous interactive mass, which whether we like it or not, is how we have to design it.

Also. We must design in the abstract, but ultimately our design are interacted with at the ultimate particular level. People never abstractly interact with a product. They only particularly, specifically, interact with something.

Or something.

Outside In: Evoking a Sense of the Natural World in Indoor Spaces

Last night I delivered my thesis presentation, effectively completing my master’s degree in human-computer interaction design. Over the last seven months I’ve been conducting a design exploration into the ways we find nature meaningful to us, and uncovering ways to enliven indoor environments with a sense of the outdoors.

Here is the 20-minute presentation:

A big, hearty thanks to everyone who came out to see it live and in person!