Hayes Valley, San Francisco

Process is not a Differentiator

There's a slide from Jamin Hegeman's recent UX week workshop that sparked a memory. He shows a diagram entitled "Interaction Design Process" that consists of four steps: Discovery, Definition, Design and Delivery. Then a diagram next to it entitled "Service Design Process" that consists of the same steps: Discovery, Definition, Design and Delivery. I imagine that it's demonstrating an affinity.

But that's also a graphic design process. My first job out of college was at a graphic design studio in Kansas City called D3. The name originally stood for the three partners, but over the years they converted it to "Discover, Define, Design." I also seem to remember "Define, Design, Deliver" floating around the office at some point. Unfortunately it was D3 rather than D4 but the delivery sort of goes without saying when you're dealing with a first-order design studio focusing on print.

The point is, "discover, define, design and deliver" tends to be descriptive of design as a whole and not unique to any particular sub-branch. It's not a stretch to apply it to any of the places I've ever worked; including industrial design studios.

You might almost say that process is not a differentiator.

Design for Service

If it seems a little quiet around here it's because I've been redirecting most of my energy toward another weblog that I started about a year and a half ago focused on Service Design. It's been a great way to keep abreast of developments in the service design community and contribute to what I think is an incredibly important facet of human interaction design.

I'll never abandon my obligatory weblog, but for now you'll find me more frequently over at Design for Service. Stop by and say hello!


Early last year I took some time to dig into the Wii and figure out what makes it tick. I wanted to see if I could prototype my own gestural interfaces. Turns out it's not too difficult. Lots of other people have done the heavy lifting to create bluetooth interfaces between the Wii and all manner of devices—including a Macintosh computer. I found a few different solutions that met my needs and cobbled them together into a system that lets me control iTunes with a Wii controller.

It requires some familiarity with the Terminal to get things up and running, so this isn't for the faint of heart. The A button plays/pauses. Hold down the B button while rocking the controller left or right to select the previous/next song. Swing it left or right to select the previous/next playlist. Tilt it up or down to increase or decrease the volume.

Here's the beta WiiMotion Program (Mac only).

Controlling iTunes is only one example. I wrote the script in such a way that pretty much any Mac application can be controlled with the same basic Roll/Pitch/Yaw gestures. It's possible to recognize much more complex motions too; roll, pitch and yaw are just the easiest to parse.

Realists vs Idealists

I love what this graphic says about realism and idealism. Now I just need one that defends intuition against Cartesian rationality.

IxDA Discussion Site

For a little over a year now I've been working on my unofficial discussion reader for the Interaction Design Association. It's gone through three different iterations, but as of today it's offically live on the ixda.org website.

Over 2,000 members have created accounts on the new site and nearly 12,000 posts have passed through the system. Here's an overview of the metrics.

Service Design Resources

A few months ago I decided to finally dig in to the canonical literature on Service Design to get a better sense of the history of the discipline. I went back about thirty years to compile articles from Marketing and Retail Journals, Design Journals and the Harvard Business Review.

To make sense of the piles of reading I kept notes on concepts and examples that reappeared in multiple articles so I could track their progression. I've put those cross-references together into a system to find papers by concept, example, author, journal or decade to make it as easy as possible for others to delve into the research for themselves.

Article Lookup
Service Design Research

If you'd like to help fill in the gaps by suggesting other canonical papers, please post them in the comments below.

Imaging the 10th Dimension

They say that a good theory gives you something to think about but a great theory gives you something to think with. By that standard, Rob Bryanton's theory about the existence of ten dimensions is merely good. But the video that explains his theory is still worth checking out. The verbal and visual communication work in harmony, taking us through the basics of the first, second, third and fourth dimensions with which we're familiar, then leveraging that familiarity to lead us into the tall grass before we know what's going on. It's exhilarating to periodically have no idea what this guy is talking about.

Google Street View

I've been fascinated by the use of photography in wayfinding since well before I began exploring the idea at CMU five years ago. A9's Blockview impressed me back then but Google has absolutely raised the bar with their new Street View version of Google Maps.

A9 was useful for researching my trip before flying out to interview at Cooper in San Francisco. I loved the idea of virtually exploring the city but the static photos always seemed to come up short. I wanted to turn my head and look around while I browsed the neighborhood. Google's done an incredibly intuitive job of allowing you to do just that. Using what I can only assume is technology from the Stanford Cityblock project, they've created essentially continuous VR maps of entire cities.

It's a virtuoso piece of technology but it still suffers from the same flaw as the now defunct Amazon A9. Google Street View is place-agnostic. It's brute force. By focusing on everything, they don't really focus on anything. I can "walk" down practically any street in San Francisco, but other than the roads, nothing seems to be annotated. Go over to 18th and Guerrero. You can spin around and browse all the buildings at the intersection, but you'd have no idea you were standing next to the most famous bakery in the city.

If you already know about Tartine, you can type it into Google Local, and it quickly pops up with all kinds of helpful information, including a link to the street view of Tartine on the map. But that assumes you already know about the bakery. It allows you to find what you already knew was there.

With all the metrics that Google has at their disposal, it doesn't seem like a stretch for them to help people uncover new facets of the city. To support exploration, not discovery.

Notes on Ethnography

Grant McCracken runs a site called This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. Some of the posts can be a little overwhelming--not many people can get away with using terms like diplomatic non-indexicality in their blog--but it's worth it to dig out some consistently good insights.

Check out his Notes on Ethnography and Fearless Noticing.


I'm in awe of the sustained brilliance of infosthetics.com. I stumbled across it a few months ago and they just keep finding mouth-watering examples of data visualization and information design. Skip the RSS feed and jump straight to the content.

Meet Nabaztag

I'm the proud owner of a small, white, wi-fi enabled ambient rabbit called Nabaztag. It's one of a new breed of smart objects that I'm using to investigate the design properties of calm technology.

One of my frustrations with physical computing is that the output methods seem pretty limited. It's a little disappointing to go to all the trouble of hooking up a sensor to an Arduino prototyping board just to watch a pathetic LED blink on and off. Nabaztag seems like a good way to solve this problem because it's designed specifically for ambient communication. It boasts three independent channels:

  • A series of full-spectrum LED clusters
  • Two independently positionable ears
  • A speaker for streaming mp3s

I've been prototyping different ways to control that output. I started with the ears, since they're the channel that allows the most control. Inspired by Schultze and Webb's Availabot, I hooked up the ears to monitor an iChat account, drooping a bit when people went idle, flattening completely if they were away and then perking back up when they returned.

The lights are a little harder to control. What I've been able to cobble together so far uses the built-in light patterns. The nose lights up whenever I have new e-mail I'm likely to care about. The rest of the lights pulse blue whenever it's going to rain. What I've learned from this is that binary conditions don't make very interesting ambient displays. In San Francisco, the weather isn't variable enough. The only thing I really care about is whether or not I need an umbrella so Nabaztag's display doesn't tell me much. It's basic communication theory; the amount of information isn't determined by how much something does tell you, but by how much it could tell you.

One source of data that does have some linear variability to it is the Muni Metro. There's a system called Nextbus that tracks the trains thoughout the day so it's possible to calculate their rate. Now a series of lights on my Nabaztag blink in tempo, from very slow to very fast, depending on how Muni is running. Muni runs faster in the morning and after work and slow late at night. But it's like that every day so there's not really much information. I also don't care about it.

I put off tinkering with Nabaztag's speaker because the built-in options didn't really seem ambient. Still, there could be something to it, so I finally set up Nabaztag to read Google News RSS headlines in the morning when I wake up. This ended up being more disconcerting than anything. Text-to-speech is hard to get right, and Nabaztag's voice selection pales in comparison to AT&T's natural voices. Every now and then my bunny speaks some random thing to me and since Violet's based in Paris, it's often in French. This is especially fun late at night.

Nabaztag has a built-in microphone and RFID reader so there are some more potential input experiments in store, but what I'm most interested in is finding more complex data to output. There's a nacent hacker community assembling around Nabaztag, trying to figure out what makes it tick so this is just the beginning.

Thoughts on the Nintendo Wii

I've been experimenting with the Nintendo Wii off and on for a few months now. It's an amazing system but all the talk about gestural interfaces somehow being more intuitive is completely overblown.

Wii Sports is the only game I've seen that comes close to being intuitive. For just about everything else, it's insane. The party games are the worst, with unique interfaces for each minigame and multiple screens of absurdly complex instruction showing the player exactly how to wield the controller. Without the tutorials it's almost impossible to figure out what permutation of shaking, waving and tilting actually has any effect on the game play.

It wasn't until Dan and I were talking about his cello the other day that I finally put it all together. Playing the Wii is like playing a string instrument. With typical game controllers, there may be a dozen buttons, but they have a clear visual hierarchy that doesn't change. Most woodwind instruments are like that, but with string instruments the interface is more of a continuum. There are an infinite number of variations and that makes them tougher to learn. Same thing for the Wii.

Compounding the problem is the fact that although there are an infinite number of things you could choose to do with the Wii remote, only a tiny subset actually do anything in any particular context. With a regular controller, every button does something but with the Wii the controls are essentially invisible. You're left to blindly flail around for the magic combination that actually does something interesting--like learning to snap your fingers or whistle.

Don't get me wrong. Learning complex interfaces is a big part of the appeal of gaming. I love the gestural system on the Wii. But it's far from intuitive.

On the Importance of Filters

Let's kick the New Year off with a metaphor. Say you have a bucket of rocks, a bucket of gravel and a bucket of sand. You need to consolidate as much as possible into a single bucket. You'll want to start with the larger rocks. Then you'll have room for gravel to fill in the gaps and then sand to slip into the crevasses. If you start with the sand, you'll never get the rocks and gravel to fit.

Right now my reading list is mostly sand. Dozens and dozens of tiny RSS feeds. I just added about 30 anthropology blogs to the mix and that number is only going to go up. This constant stream of news is critical for staying abreast of emerging memes but it doesn't necessarily foster a deeper understanding.

The problem with all that sand is that I only have room for a couple rocks perched on top of the pile. I keep a few books on my nightstand (and really, all around my apartment) that I read roughly in parallel. I'm always adding more books to the list, but what I'm missing is the gravel.

Maybe it's obvious, but that's what magazines are.

I've been reading Print and Communication Arts since college, but my periodical selection doesn't get much more eclectic. That's a problem. Design is a synthesis of Science, Politics, Anthropology, Literature, Art, Architecture, Technology, Business, Culture... My New Year's resolution is to start casting a wider net.

I'm building an initial list based off the recommendations in The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz. It's a scenario planning book from the early nineties that discusses research tactics for staying informed in a world before weblogs using (among other things) honest-to-goodness paper magazines.

Some of the publications in that early-nineties snapshot, compiled by Schwartz and his network, along with their comments:

  • Discover is a popular science magazine which "has a scoop" now and then.
  • The Economist is, in my opinion, the single best source of information about what is happening the world.
  • Electric Word (later to become Wired) is about what the new technology means to our lives, from art, business, politics, culture and education, to our personal relationships.
  • Foreign Affairs, the mainstream journal of thought about international relations.
  • Granta is a book-sized journal from London of unusually perceptive, high-quality writing and thinking.
  • Harper's is a relatively mainstream magazine which is very useful for surveying the fringes, because it culls material from unusual sources.
  • The New Yorker, amazingly enough, breaks news from time to time in a very thorough way.
  • The British New Scientist has an excellent filter. Important science news will often appear here first, while it is still navigating its way out of the fringes.
  • I read the New York Times Science Section every Tuesday for its in-depth coverage of three or four important science stories.
  • Scientific American is not where I see new ideas, but where I see new ideas moving to the mainstream.
  • Technology Review is the best on social consequences of new technology.
  • Utne Reader is a digest whose editors scan thousands of small and alternative magazines.

I still occasionally flip through Print and CA, and I'm adding some other design and culture magazines to the mix like I.D., Metropolis, Dwell, Wallpaper and Surface. But there's still plenty of room to grow. What other publications should make it across a designer's desk?

Demise of A9 Visual Yellow Pages

While I was planning for my research trip this morning I decided to pull up Amazon's A9 Yellow Pages to get some images of my destinations in Chicago and Denver. I was a little confused when I couldn't immediately find the link on A9's home page. It took quite a bit of digging to confirm that it doesn't exist. This is incomprehensible.

A9 Yellow Pages had a huge effect on my thesis research while I was at Carnegie Mellon, and seeing Amazon pull the plug is staggering. I've always thought of the launch of massive web services as a one-way affair. Even the little experiments that Google rolls out on a regular basis get tucked away somewhere, regardless of whether or not they're thriving. This is Amazon for crying out loud. Imagine if Yahoo unceremoniously killed Flickr or Google abandoned Blogger. Sure they're perpetually in beta, but we come to depend on them.

I guess the collective shrug from the rest of the blogosphere suggests that I'm alone in my mourning. The only reference I can even find is over at Searchenginewatch.com

BlockView? They've killed BlockView? It was the best thing A9 had going for it. Of course, none of these features have helped A9 succeed as a search service. It's gone nowhere...
As I think more about it, the disappearance of suck.com five years ago is the only thing that comes close to providing a personal frame of reference for such an unexpected demise on the web. How could something so over-the-top cool with no obvious competition just cease to exist? Maybe it has something to do with A9's CEO being scooped up by Google. Here's hoping.

Form Inspires Function

In the late 19th century, the architect Louis Sullivan coined the aphorism Form Follows Function. He believed that a building's shape should be determined by its intended purpose, and expounded that "it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution." The Bauhaus adopted this fundamental law and carried it into the realm of 20th century product design where it's remained largely unchallenged as a core tenent of design thinking.

One of the essayists in the book Managing as Designing suggests that "form might very well follow function some of the time, but that there's no reason to conclude that it should do so." I've been kicking that idea around in the back of my mind, examining ways to turn form and function on their head. More inside:

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