Category Archives: Work

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.


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.

A Multitasker’s Perspective: Behold, the Lowly Post-it Note

Check out Kord Campbell’s killer rig, complete with four monitors, at least two computers, two keyboards, an iPhone and an iPad.

Now, I don’t necessarily believe that multitasking is a bad thing, nor do I agree with Nicholas Carr and his assertion that the internet is ruining our ability to think.

I do believe, however, that multitasking and the ready availability of always-on, always-connected technology adversely affects my quality of life in many ways. And I do believe that I personally do not have the faculties necessary to deliberately manage these multiple, constant threads of information on my own.

Thus, my retreats into the woods. Externally-imposed isolation, where connectedness is not an option, is a very different beast than self-imposed isolation, and one I am far more fit to manage.

So, when I look at Campbell’s rig, I do not see it as an ideal to which to aspire, nor do I see it as a symbol of a computer-mediated life gone to horrible extreme. I simply see it as one person’s elaborate setup, their attempt to deal with the deluge of modern information, and I find it valuable and fascinating in its own right. I am here to observe, to sense-make, not to judge.

Really, I believe a focus on the number of screens misses the point, and what I find most interesting is the ecosystem that Campbell has created for himself.

Most poignant for me is the lowly Post-it Note, hanging off his primary monitor, front-and-center. For all the screens, all the software, the physical and spatial world was still implicated to record, display and remind Campbell of a few pressing tasks:

  • Signup breaks on template
  • Missing [frigge?] in add input
  • Trailing slashes on add input
  • Password reset issues

All recorded with pen and Post-it, and slapped up front on a 27″ monitor.

For all our screens, the physical, embodied world still holds significance and its own, rich meanings.

A Modest Update

Hello all. A lot has happened since we last spoke.

We now live in Berkeley, a great little town where the people seem to not like much of anything.

I now work as an experience designer for Adaptive Path in their San Francisco office. It is truly awesome. We have our own unique culture. We fight over belt buckles.

Sometimes I write for the Adaptive Path weblog. Sometimes famous authors call me out. This is a beautiful thing.

Kate is teaching geology field research in the Tobacco Root Mountains of southwestern Montana for the summer.

Spry lives again, and yesterday delivered me safely to Lake Merritt and back.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

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!

Hans and Umbach: Establishing a Language of Embodied Interaction for Design Practitioners

My work with Hans and Umbach on physical computing and embodied interaction took an interesting turn recently, down a path I hadn’t anticipated when I set out to pursue this project. My initial goal with this independent study was to develop the skills necessary to work with electronics and physical computing as a prototyping medium. In recent years, hardware platforms such as Arduino and programming environments such as Wiring have clearly lowered the barrier of entry for getting involved in physical computing, and have allowed even the electronic layman to build some super cool stuff.

Rob Nero presented his TRKBRD prototype at Interaction 10, an infrared touchpad built in Arduino that turns the entire surface of one’s laptop keyboard into a device-free pointing surface. Chris Rojas built an Arduino tank that can be controlled remotely through an iPhone application called TouchOSC. What’s super awesome is that most everyone building this stuff is happy to share their source code, and contribute their discoveries back to the community. The forums on the Arduino website are on fire with helpful tips, and it seems an answer to any technical question is only a Google search away. SparkFun has done tremendous work in making electronics more user-friendly and approachable, offering suggested uses, tutorials and data sheets right alongside the components they sell.

Dourish and Embodied Interaction: Uniting Tangible Computing and Social Computing

In tandem with my continuing education with electronics, I’ve been doing extensive research into embodied interaction, an emerging area of study in HCI that considers how our engagement, perception, and situatedness in the world influences how we interact with computational artifacts. Embodiment is closely related to a philosophical interest of mine, phenomenology, which studies the phenomena of experience and how reality is revealed to, and interpreted by, human consciousness. Phenomenology brackets off the external world and isn’t concerned with establishing a scientifically objective understanding of reality, but rather looks at how reality is experienced through consciousness.

Paul Dourish outlines a notion of embodied interaction in his landmark work, “Where The Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction.” In Chapter Four he iterates through a few definitions of embodiment, starting with what he characterizes as a rather naive one:

“Embodiment 1. Embodiment means possessing and acting through a physical manifestation in the world.”

He takes issue with this definition, however, as it places too high a priority on physical presence, and proposes a second iteration:

“Embodiment 2. Embodied phenomena are those that by their very nature occur in real time and real space.”

Indeed, in this definition embodiment is concerned more with participation than physical presence. Dourish uses the example of conversation, which is characterized by minute gestures and movements that hold no objective meaning independent of human interpretation. In “Technology as Experience” McCarthy and Wright use the example of a wink versus a blink. While closing and opening one’s eye is an objective natural phenomena that exists in the world, the meaning behind a wink is more complicated; there are issues of the intent of the “winker”, whether they intend for the wink to represent flirtation, collusion, or whether they simply had a speck of dirt in their eye. There are also issues of interpretation of the “winkee”, whether they perceive the wink, how they interpret the wink, and whether or not they interpret it as intended by the “winker.”

Thus, Dourish’s second iteration on embodiment deemphasizes physical presence while allowing for these subjective elements that do not exist independent of human consciousness. A wink cannot exist independent of real time and real space, but its meaning involves more than just its physicality. Indeed, Edmund Husserl originally proposed phenomenology in the early 20th century, but it was his student Martin Heidegger who carried it forward into the realm of interpretation. Hermeneutics is an area of study concerned with the theory of interpretation, and thus Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology (or the study of experience and how it is interpreted by consciousness) has rather become the foundation of all recent phenomenological theory.

Beyond Heidegger, Dourish takes us through Alfred Schutz, who considered intersubjectivity and the social world of phenomenology, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who deliberately considered the human body by introducing the embodied nature of perception. In wrapping up, Dourish presents a third definition of embodiment:

Embodied 3. “Embodied phenomena are those which by their very nature occur in real time and real space. … Embodiment is the property of our engagement with the world that allows us to make it meaningful.”

Thus, Dourish says:

“Embodied interaction is the creation, manipulation, and sharing of meaning through engaged interaction with artifacts.”

Dourish’s thesis behind “Where The Action Is” is that tangible computing (computer interactions that happens in the world, through the direct manipulation of physical artifacts) and social computing (computer-augmented interaction that involves the continual navigation and reconfiguration of social space) are two sides of the same coin; namely, that of embodied interaction. Just as tangible interactions are necessarily embedded in real space and real time, social interaction is embedded as an active, practical accomplishment between individuals.

According to Dourish, embodied computing is a larger frame that encompasses tangible computing and social computing. This is a significant observation, and “Where The Action Is” is a landmark achievement. But, as Dourish himself admits, there isn’t a whole lot new here. He connects the dots between two seemingly unrelated areas of HCI theory, unifies them under the umbrella term embodied interaction, and leaves it to us to work it out from there.

And I’m not so sure that’s happened. “Where The Action Is” came out nine years ago, and based on the papers I’ve read on embodied interaction, few have attempted to extend the definition beyond Dourish’s work. While I wouldn’t describe his book as inadequate, I would certainly characterize it as a starting point, a signifiant one at that, for extending our thoughts on computing into the embodied, physical world.

From Physical Computing to Notions of Embodiment

For the last two months I have been researching theories on embodiment, teaching myself physical computing, and reflecting deeply on my experience of learning the arcane language of electronics. Even with all the brilliantly-written books and well-documented tutorials in the world, I find that learning electronics is hard. It frequently violates my common-sense experience with the world, and authors often use familiar metaphors to compensate for this. Indeed, electricity is like water, except when it’s not, and it flows, except when it doesn’t.

In reading my reflections I can trace the evolution of how I’ve been thinking about electronics, how I discover new metaphors that more closely describe my experiences, reject old metaphors, and become increasingly disenchanted that this is a domain of expertise I can master in three months. What is interesting is not that I was wrong in my conceptualizations of how electronics work, however, but how I was wrong and how I found myself compensating for it.

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

While working with a seven-segment display, for instance, I could not figure out which segmented LED mapped to which pin. As I slowly began to figure this out, it did not seem to map to any recognizable pattern, and certainly did not adhere to my expectations. I thought the designers of the display must have had deliberately sinister motives in how their product so effectively violated any sort of common sense interpretation.

To compensate, I drew up my own spatial map, both on paper as well as in my mind, to establish a personal pattern where no external pattern was immediately perceived. “The pin in the upper lefthand corner starts on the middle, center segment,” I told myself, “and spirals out clockwise from there, clockwise for both the segments as well as the pins, skipping the middle-pin common anodes, with the decimal seated awkwardly between the rightmost top and bottom segments.”

It was this personal spatial reasoning, this establishment of my own pattern language to describe how the seven-segment display worked, that made me realize how strongly my own embodied experience determines how I perceive, interact with, and make sense of the world. So long as a micro-controller has been programmed correctly, it doesn’t care which pin maps to which segment. But for me, a bumbling human who is poor at numbers but excels at language, socialization and spatial reasoning, you know, those things that humans are naturally good at, I needed some sort of support mechanism. And that mechanism arose out of my own embodied experience as a real physical being with certain capabilities for navigating and making sense of a real physical world.

Over time this realization, that I am constantly leveraging my own embodiment as a tool to interpret the world, dwarfed the interest I had in learning electronics. I’m still trying to figure out how to get an 8×8 64-LED matrix to interface with an Arduino through a series of 74HC595N 8-bit shift registers, so I can eventually make it play Pong with a Wii Nunchuk. That said, it’s frustrating that every time I try to do something, the chip I have is not the chip I need, and the chip I need is $10 plus $5 shipping and will arrive in a week, and by the way have I thought about how to send constant current to all the LEDs so they’re all of similar brightness because my segmented number “8” is way dimmer than my segmented number “1” because of all the LEDs that need to light up, and oh yeah, there’s an app for that.


Especially when I’m trying to play Pong on my 8×8 LED matrix, while someone else is already playing Super Mario Bros. on hers.

Extending Notions of Embodiment into Design Practice

In accordance with Merleau-Ponty and his work introducing the human body to phenomenology, and the work of Lakoff and Johnson in extending our notions of embodied cognition, I believe that the human body itself is central to structuring the way we perceive, interact with, and make sense of the world. Thus, I aim to take up the challenge issued by Dourish, and extend our notions of embodiment as they apply to the design of computational interactions. The goal of my work is to establish a language of embodied interaction that will help design practitioners create more compelling, more engaging, more natural interactions.

Considering physical space and the human body is an enormous topic in interaction design. In a panel at SXSW Interactive last week, Peter Merholz, Michele Perras, David Merrill, Johnny Lee and Nathan Moody discussed computing beyond the desktop as a new interaction paradigm, and Ron Goldin from Lunar discussed touchless invisible interactions in a separate presentation. At Interaction 10, Kendra Shimmell demonstrated her work with environments and movement-based interactions, Matt Cottam presented his considerable work integrating computing technologies with the richly tactile qualities of wood, and Christopher Fahey even gave a shout-out specifically to “Where The Action Is” in his talk on designing the human interface (slide 50 in the deck). The migration of computing off the desktop and into the space of our everyday lives seems only to be accelerating, to the point where Ben Fullerton proposed at Interaction 10 that we as interaction designers need to begin designing not just for connectivity and ubiquity, but for solitude and opportunities to actually disconnect from the world.

Establishing a Language of Embodied Interaction for Design Practitioners

To recap, my goal is to establish a language of embodied interaction that helps designers navigate this increasing delocalization and miniaturization of computing. I don’t know yet what this language will look like, but a few guiding principles seem to be emerging from my work:

All interactions are tangible. There is no such thing as an intangible interaction. I reject the notion that tangible interaction, the direct manipulation of physical representations of digital information, is significantly different from manipulating pixels on a screen, interactions that involve a keyboard or pointing device, or even touch screen interactions.

Tangibility involves all the senses, not just touch. Tangibility considers all the ways that objects make their presence known to us, and involves all senses. A screen is not “intangible” simply because it is comprised of pixels. A pixel is merely a colored speck on a screen, which I perceive when its photons reach my eye. Pixels are physical, and exist with us in the real world.

Likewise, a keyboard or mouse is not an intangible interaction simply because it doesn’t afford direct manipulation. I believe the wall that has been erected between historic interactions (such as the keyboard and mouse) and tangible interactions (such as the wonderful Siftables project) is false, and has damaged the agenda of tangible interaction as a whole. These interactions exist on a continuum, not between tangible and intangible, but between richly physical and physically impoverished. A mouse doesn’t allow for a whole lot of nuance of motion or pressure, and a glass touch screen doesn’t richly engage our sense of touch, but they are both necessarily physical interactions. There is an opportunity to improve the tangible nature of all interactions, but it will not happen by categorically rejecting our interactive history on the grounds that they are not tangible.

Everything is physical. There is no such thing as the virtual world, and there is no such thing as a digital interaction. Ishii and Ullmer (PDF link) in the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab have done extensive work on tangible interactions, characterizing them as physical manifestations of digital information. “Tangible Bits,” the title of their seminal work, largely summarizes this view. Repeatedly in their work, they set up a dichotomy between atoms and bits, physical and digital, real and virtual.

The trouble is, all information that we interact with, no matter if it is in the world or stored as ones and zeroes on a hard drive, shows itself to us in a physical way. I read your text message as a series of latin characters rendered by physical pixels that emit physical photons from the screen on my mobile device. I perceive your avatar in Second Life in a similar manner. I hear a song on my iPod because the digital information of the file is decoded by the software, which causes the thin membrane in my headphones to vibrate at a particular frequency. Even if I dive deep and study the ones and zeroes that comprise that audio file, I’m still seeing them represented as characters on a screen.

All information, in order to be perceived, must be rendered in some sort of medium. Thus, we can never interact with information directly, and all our interactions are necessarily mediated. As with the supposed wall between tangible interactions and the interactions that proceeded them, the wall between physical and digital, or real and virtual, is equally false. We never see nor interact with digital information, only the physical representation of it. We cannot interact with bits, only atoms. We do not and cannot exist in a virtual world, only the real one.

This is not to say that talking with someone in-person is the same as video chatting with them, or talking on the phone, or text messaging back and forth. Each of these interactions is very different based on the type and quality of information you can throw back and forth. It is, however, to illustrate that there isn’t necessarily any difference between a physical interaction and a supposed virtual one.

Thus, what Ishii and Ullmer propose, communicating digital information by embodying it in ambient sounds or water ripples or puffs of air, is no different than communicating it through pixels on a screen. What’s more, these “virtual” experiences we have, the “virtual” friendships we form, the “virtual” worlds we live in, are no different than the physical world, because they are all necessarily revealed to us in the physical world. The limitations of existing computational media may prevent us from allowing such high-bandwidth interactions as those allowed by face-to-face interaction (think of how much we communicate through subtle facial expressions and body language), but the fact that these interactions are happening through a screen, rather than at a coffee shop, does not make them virtual. It may, however, make them an impoverished physical interaction, as they do not engage our wide array of senses as a fully in-the-world interaction does.

Again, the dichotomy between real and virtual is false. The dichotomy between physical and digital is false. What we have is a continuum between physically rich and physically impoverished. It is nonsense to speak of digital interactions, or virtual interactions. All interactions are necessarily physical, are mediated by our bodies, and are therefore embodied.

The traditional compartmentalization of senses is a false one. In confining tangible interactions to touch, we ignore how our senses work together to help us interpret the world and make sense of it. The disembodiment of sensory inputs from one another is a byproduct of the compartmentalization of computational output (visual feedback from a screen rendered independently from audio feedback from a speaker, for instance) that contradicts our felt experience with the physical world. “See with your ears” and “hear with your eyes” are not simply convenient metaphors, but describe how our senses work in concert with one another to aid perception and interpretation.

Humans have more than five senses. Our experience with everything is situated in our sense of time. We have a sense of balance, and our sense of proprioception tells us where our limbs are situated in space. We have a sense of temperature and a sense of pain that are related to, but quite independent from, our sense of touch. Indeed, how can a loud sound “hurt” our ears if our sense of pain is tied to touch alone? Further, some animals can see in a wider color spectrum than humans, can sense magnetic or electrical fields, or can detect minute changes in air pressure. If computing somehow made these senses available to humans, how would that change our behavior?

My goal in breaking open these senses is not to arrive at a scientific account of how the brain processes sensory input, but to establish a more complete subjective, phenomenological account that offers a deeper understanding of how the phenomena of experience are revealed to human consciousness. I aim to render explicit the tacit assumptions that we make in our designs as to how they engage the senses, and uncover new design opportunities by mashing them together in unexpected ways.

Embodied Interaction: A Core Principle for Designing the Next Generation of Computing

By transcending the senses and considering the overall experience of our designs in a deeper, more reflective manner, we as interaction designers will be empowered to create more engaging, more fulfilling interactions. By considering the embodied nature of understanding, and how the human body plays a role in mediating interaction, we will be better prepared to design the systems and products for the post-desktop era.

Your Workflow is the Battlefield

There’s been quite the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Apple iPad not supporting Flash. Personally, I welcome this new landscape of the web, where a future without Flash seems not only bright but possible indeed.

That said, what is unfolding here is of considerable gravity, and will likely determine the future of the web. Most web professionals use Adobe tools in some capacity to do their job, whether Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver (gasp), Flash, Flex, Flash Cataylst, or even Fireworks (which is, according to many, the best wireframing tool on the market, despite its quirks and crash-prone behaviors).

Now, I am not privy to inside information, but based on what I’ve been able to glean, Adobe’s strategy is something like this. There is a deliberate reason that your workflow as a standards-based web professional sucks; that Photoshop doesn’t behave the way you want it to, that exporting web images is still a pain in the ass, and that you actually need to fight the software to get it to do what you want.

Adobe knows how you use its software. Adobe knows how you want to use its software. Adobe understands your existing workflow.

And it doesn’t fucking care.

You see, Adobe doesn’t view you, as a web professional, as someone engaged in building websites. It doesn’t view itself as one who builds the tools to support you in your job. Adobe does not view you as the author of images and CSS and HTML and Javascript that all magically comes together to create a website, but rather as the author of what could potentially be Adobe Web Properties™.

They are not interested in supporting your workflow to create standards-based websites, because that is not in their strategic interest. They would much rather you consented to the cognitive model of Adobe Software™ to create proprietary Adobe Web Properties™ that render using Adobe Web Technologies™.

In essence, Adobe wants to be the gatekeeper for the production, as well as the consumption, of the web.

Apple knows this, and knows that the future of the web is mobile. Their actions are no less strategic than that of Adobe, and Apple has chosen a route that deliberately undermines Adobe’s strategy; Adobe’s strategy for controlling not just the consumption of rich interactive experiences on the web, but their production as well.

From the production side, as far as Adobe is concerned, if you’re not building your websites in Flash Catalyst and exporting them as Flash files, you’re doing it wrong.

Your frustrations with Photoshop and Fireworks in not supporting the “real way” web professionals build standards-based websites are not by accident, but by design. Adobe views each website as a potential property over which they can exert control over the look, feel and experience. As these “experiences” become more sophisticated, so do the tools necessary to create them. Adobe wants to be in the business of selling the only tools that do the job, controlling your production from end-to-end, and then even controlling the publication of and access to your creation.

Apple’s own domination plans for the mobile web undermines all this.

And Adobe is pissed.

Hot damn, I’m excited.


smartfm-evolution has submitted their iPhone app to Apple for approval. Their beautiful landing page for the app gives you a nice glimpse of what to expect.

I did the concept generation for the learning game experience while working at Adaptive Path for the summer. We had a kick-ass team, that included Alexa, Dan, Brian, and all the cool cats at They have all been chronicling their work on this project on the Adaptive Path blog.

I can’t wait to see this go live!

Multitask This

Ironic that this article at, which cites a study that reveals multitasking may harm one’s ability to filter out distractions, is interspersed with five headlines and hyperlinks to irrelevant articles on

“The Other Chris”

Huzzah! This morning I published my first post to the Adaptive Path weblog, and people have been stoked on it all day. I’ve been working on designing the iPhone application to go along with the learning website, and a large part of my contribution to the project so far has been sketching. Sketching, sketching, sketching.

I talk about it all in the post, but I can summarize it here as well. has a series of awesome learning games, based on heavy research into human psychology, that are designed to help you learn and retain facts. They have totally hit a sweet spot with people trying to learn other languages, and with the iPhone app we wanted to help people continue their learning, any place, any time. Their existing web-based games feature a sort of “flash cards on steroids” rhythm, which turns out to be a great functional description, but a poor metaphor for their actual gamelike feel. Thus, our goal with the iPhone app is to design something that perhaps resembles index cards at its most basic level, but from an experiential standpoint is a hell of a lot more fun.

Interaction Metaphor Explorations

And so, we began exploring metaphors. What makes something fun? What makes something gamelike? Alexa and Dan turned me loose with my sketchbook, and I began brainstorming enormous lists around such concepts as the materiality of the gamespace, the movements people perform to interact with the artifacts in the game, and how to best represent time and progress. I generated dozens and dozens of ideas, drawing inspiration from dollar store games to radio dials to Wooly Willy. Throughout my thought process I roughed these guys out on paper, giving ourselves a constant stream of tangible artifacts to look at, reflect on, believe in, or challenge. I talk about this process a bit more in this video, where I walk through my sketchbook with Chris and John, my fellow summer associates.

From these explorations I brought a few ideas up into a bit more coherence, which I talk about here:

"Your World" Concept

We shared all this work with the client, who is absolutely stoked with it. In their blog post regarding this project they speak of a “super-talented summer associate” who produced some pretty cool visual explorations, but when they say that I wonder if they have me confused with Dave Pederson (a.k.a. “The Other Chris”, a.k.a. “The Mysterious Fourth Intern”).

Again, the thread at the Adaptive Path blog can fill you in on all the details. Needless to day, it is an absolute delight working with the fine folks at Cerego, and it is all thanks to them that we can be so open about our process in designing their iPhone app.