Review: The Evolution of Useful Things

Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things is ostensibly about how things like paperclips and zippers came into being. And, sure, that stuff is in the book. But what is most interesting (for me and probably for other designers as well) is his debunking of the design dictum “Form Follows Function,” replacing it instead with “Form Follows Failure.”

Petroski looks at the diversity of objects (131 knives in the Montgomery Ward catalog, say) and asks, Why? “What underlying idea governs how a particular product looks?” he asks.

All designed objects, Petroski asserts, leave room for improvement. Nothing is perfect. Even things that have been “perfected” over a millennia such as tables and chairs can be improved upon. It is the one common feature among made objects, and

“it is exactly this feature that drives the evolution of things, for the coincidence of a perceived problem with an imagined solution enables a design change.”

What form the solution takes can vary widely, given the same basic problem. Petroksi offers up the example of the fork and chopsticks as an example. Both designed for manipulating food from a hot pot (which would burn and dirty the fingers) to the mouth, but two very different design solutions. Form does not follow function. Instead, “the form of one thing follows the failure of another thing to function as we would like.”

This isn’t to say that some designs aren’t better than others. Certain attributes (like the appearance of a chess piece or the tines of a fork) become fixed over time because they are more perfect than any solution found thus far. New designs (or “inventions” as Petroski calls them) arise out of “the crowded past of reality” only if they better address the perceived need better than what is currently available, often following the correction of failure after failure, sometimes for centuries. “Looking forward is indeed the essence of design, but artifacts take their form over the course of long, rough, and frequently precarious roads,” Petroksi writes.

Form (at least expected form) also follows, to an extent, fashion. “Fashion more than function is without question what determins so many of the contemporary forms around us,” Petroksi claims, adding a warning, “A myopic obsession with fashion…can lead to premature extinction…if it does not anticipate failure in the broadest sense, including the failure to be fashionable tomorrow.”

As a plumber’s son (and grandson and great-grandson), I was particularly taken with the chapters on specialized tools, which goes into detail about why, for instance, there are dozens of types of hammers. There’s also an interesting discussion about the social life of tools, how it is more socially-advantageous to be able to handle silverware well than it is to wield a hammer well.

Petroski also notes that design solutions can also give rise to new problems. fast-food packaging, for instance, while excellent for solving the immediate problems of making and consuming the food rapidly, are a tremendous litter problem. Petroski admonishes designers to “look beyond immediate use. Each artifact introduced into the universe of people and things alters the behavior of both.”


UX Week 2006: Mobile Experience Design Notes

Anita Wilhem, Caterpillar Mobile

When we normally think of mobile design, we typically think of phones. And the market is huge! But there are other devices. Most of those devices do single things: tell time, listen to music, etc. Mobile phones, however, are now doing many things.

We have these devices everywhere this us. They are very personal. We don’t typically share phones. They are intimate.

Hardware interaction modalities: phone, keyboard, stereo, tv, camera…why do we still think of this as a phone?? Manufacturers think of these different modalities very differently.

Single-task objects will never go away, but we’re also bringing with us the multi-task phones with us all the time.

mFoundry example
Making a richer presentation of data on the phone
A very iPod kind of experience

Changing metaphors: buttons used to be physical, then it became a soft button on a web interface. But what’s the button on an iPod? Arrows become the button.

Designing for mobile devices is not just designing for a smaller screen! We can’t just design things smaller. Mobile devices are smaller and change context and stay with people. People have limited attention, constant interruptions, physical and social obstacles. We have to deliver relevant bits of content.

4info example
Changing search for mobile. Don’t get all results, just a select amount.

Monetizing: traditional advertising (even ad words) on phone is intrusive. It needs to be extremely relevant for it not to be annoying. Less about accessibility, more about relevance.

Sociality: Intimacy and Co-Presence
Not about a device–it’s an extension of our personal and private being. We take keys, wallet, and phone. It’s part of our identity. Extension of my connectedness.

As I change context, might encounter other technology and engage with other phones, devices, fixtures, but it is still my private device. No one else really looks at my screen.

Highlight common, essential elements that make interaction possible from many platforms.

UX Week 2006: Cross-Cultural Research Notes

Steve Portigal

Don’t get bogged down in jargon-laden discussions about names for user research!

What Steve means:
Examining user in their own context. What are they doing and what does it mean?
Infer something. Go from data to insights. Inferential, interpretive, and synthesize. Finding connections and the researcher is the “apparatus” for creating inference. It’s a subjective methodology, but that’s its power.
Apply to business and design problems.

How people are doing [something]? Look for and documenting processes. What the the sequence of events and duration? Who does what and in what order? Identify what you want to want to know more about it. Why are you doing this? (Can ask in interviewing)

Who to interview? People that are involved in your activity, no longer involved in the activity, people that refuse to be involved, and people that are over-the-top involved.

Judgement: You go into environments that aren’t your own and its very easy to have a judging reaction. Allow yourself to have a judgmental reaction, but don’t act on it. Note it as data.

Cultural Context
What is “normal”? Look at artifacts in the culture: media, products, advertisements, street culture, trends and fads. Advertising tells our stories back to us and can show cultural norms. Normal isn’t right or wrong, it’s the set of background rules.

What happens when we leave our culture? Tips and Tricks.
When we’re really out of our comfort zone. The backdrop (the stuff we usually ignore) is unfamiliar. We’re getting a huge amount of data. We’re trying to create a cultural model. The artifacts are different. It’s a visceral different, we’re in constant synthesis. This will be more impactful than outsourcing the research to a local firm.

Finding participants
Partner with a firm in the destination country. Partner with a local firm with connections or offices in the destination country. Use social networks. Make sure you localize your screening criteria! Are the things we’re thinking about to find these people appropriate?

Logistics and Location
Allow a day in your schedule to get acclimated and a day for “culture loading.” Stay a day later and do the processing there in the place. More great stuff happens. Take advantage of the location. Take pictures, collect crap on the street, local newspaper. Figure out what you’ll use it for later. Be aware of themes that arise.

Interviewing in Another Culture
Be the humble outsider and that will provide you with dialog. People will meet you halfway. You are naive, so dumb questions are expected.

Don’t call it translation! get referrals and hang onto folks you like. Have them be a partner, get them involved in the project. Use them to help avoid breaking cultural rules. Interpretation creates this entertaining “language soup” between interviewer, respondent, and interpreter. Where do you make eye contact? Don’t ask the interpreter the follow-up question!

Cultural Context
When we leave our culture, we also lose some of our ability to describe things like tastes. “Mundane” observations can reveal crucial cultural needs.

There is an interesting tension between that fact that people are the same where ever you go, but also completely different. Looking outside ourselves is a provocative way to learn about ourselves.

UX Week 2006: Facilitating Collaboration Notes

Ryan Freitas, Adaptive Path

Isn’t it enough to set up basecamp? Nope, coordination isn’t collaboration. Collaboration is about fostering ideas, intentions, and interests.

What we actually use to collaborate: email, secret IM name, mobile number, tags, blog, bloglines OPML, IM status, flicker, twttr.

All of these are about attenuation, status, and communication. All are from implicit and explicit. “Governance Architecture”: a system for using simple tools that are better than monolithic solutions. A toolbox: each one is used for a particular task. An agreed-on framework.

Overcoming: out of the office, slow decision-making, email overload, “where’d we put that?”, lack of alignment. Don’t repeat efforts or have miscommunication–coming out of left field. Attending to others’ thoughts, what I’m thinking about right now.

What’s wrong with email-based collaboration? We’re trying to do too much with a platform that is already overlaoded. Can’t use a highly structured platform to capture highly unstructured activities.

Moving past the “Swiss Army Knife” of top-down solutions. Lightweight tools, not NO tools. If you avoid tools all together, there’s no record of the conversation.

Need tools that facilitate distributed and autonomous collaboration. Lots of tools are available, but you need to experiment and play with them to evaluate them. Evaluate for appropriateness (does it work in this situation), commonality (is it something we can all access–can’t be lightweight if its hard to set up), centralization (do we need all the features of this thing?), portability (can I get things in and out of it? control of the things you created), uptake (how quickly can we all share and use this?).

Styles of Collaborative Tools
Status: are people available? What are you up to? Status is more than location. SMS and IM don’t need encouragement. Encourage narcissism.
Real-time editing: email wasn’t built for version control. Make and show changes in real-time. Show the value in order to gain adoption.
Attenuation: Collaborating by being aware. “Visible trails” that show common interests and are persistent. Not just what you’re interested in, but why you are interested in it and the ideation behind it. You have an understanding before a deliverable is created.
Visualization: Instant set-up is crucial. Screensharing is more useful than seeing someone’s face. Don’t try these out when you really need it.

Wikipedia: All visitors can edit, create new articles, collaboration among users will improve articles. But don’t replicate Wikipedia’s bureaucracy!

Wikis can break the bottleneck of information. Centralized place for information that can replace intranets. Let people use it in the manner they see fit. Adoption shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself.

UX Week 2006: Jeff Veen Keynote Notes

The ideas behind Web 2.0 are very powerful. It’s unfortunate that it’s getting mixed up with hype and raising VC money.

How boom and bust cycles happen: In the 17th century in the Netherlands, an innovation happened: shipping runs brought tulips from Turkey. Soon, a run happened on tulips and eventually, a bust as well. The steam engine did the same thing: a tech innovation, a boom, a bust, a correction, and then sustained growth.

We’ve been through this once on the web. And we’re going to see this again. It’s a cycle. What can we learn and take with us through the cycle?

Putting the Elements of User Experience to use in Web 2.0:

Surface Layer
How do we let go of complete design experience on the visual level? Allow users to control the data–their data–especially the scale and type. Give control to users, but don’t discard good design techniques. Trust on the surface: Visual appeal is important. It’s the place where cognition meets emotion. All in under a second!

Think of your users as peers. Hopefully we’re away from the idea of corporations as machines that spew out messages. Instead, it should be a conversation.

Skeleton Layer
Ajax changed the way we think about interaction design on the web. Browsers are more mature–and so are audiences. It makes the user experience much more fluid. It allows users to explore without the penalty of navigation. The core principles of interaction design have shifted on the web. Be careful about innovating on crucial features. Help users not make mistakes, not just recover from mistakes.

Internal capabilities are an issue here. Is there enough internal competencies to create and support an Ajax interface?

We need to rethink feedback: how do we show changes to the page?

Structural Layer
Allow users to create their own architecture to a site. Algorithms create clusters and create a semi-editorial structure that is created via user data.

Scope is interesting because of commoditization. In 1996, you had to have $10m and be a category changer. Now, with a small amount of money, it’s easier to try out an idea. The scope of the idea doesn’t have to be so large.

All the old problems still exist. But with new platforms, we’re able to solve them in different ways and with participation from the audience. Using simpler solutions and reduced scope to solve problems. APIs allow for participation.

Your site is just one piece. You have to play well with everyone else. Now there are powerful tools in the hands of passionate amateurs. We need to make users experts in what we do.

UX Week 2006: Architecting Government Websites for UX Notes

Leo Mullen, Natalie Buda, Cindy Blue of NavigationArts

Social and economic value of getting UX right is getting more profound every day. It’s priceless.

Optimization through centers of excellence: strategy, research, IA, UXD, technical implementation.

Companies thinking about the web has changed radically over the last 10 years. Now there is the recognition that the web has become the software platform of choice. Almost all big companies are investing heavily in the web. If the web is down, their business is down.

What have we learned with companies that can be applied to government? User experience really matters. Begin with the users, don’t put it at the end of the line. UX is critical to building trust in any branded entity.

How can we take the best practices of the for-profit world to the government world? US Governemnt will spend $64 billion on IT. Much of the money is aimed at government simpler and more accessible, especially in self-service environments. Get info from the government or supply it to the government.

Why is it so difficult to create the types of experiences that users now expect? The experience still lags! Most people have elevated expectations as to what the web can do., because they interact with some of the best sites on the web. Those sites have relentlessly honed their sites. Powerful web economics have forced the web into this. In the government world, it doesn’t work like this, although the same people are served by this.

Many organizations fail to deploy good UX because of internal team organization–too many owners (sales, customer service, marketing, IT, etc.) each with a different goals and issues. There is fractured ownership.

The larger the scale and scope of a web effort, the more likely it is to fail: “boiling the ocean.” Web needs more tactical approach: iterate, test, launch. Iterate, test launch. You can only address one or two things at a time. Conflicting priorities are the problem. Took the top 50 priorities for a site, then threw out the bottom 47!

Many organizations do not align their sites with the needs and goals of their users. Don’t deploy an inward-facing site. Users don’t care about how you structure your business. Invest time and energy in understanding your users.

Most users want to spend as little time on your web environment as possible! Need to simplify and shorten interactions.

Half a trillion dollars has been investing in IT in the US. Vast majority have no good user experience at all. Now there are more links into these legacy systems and users keep bumping into them. Huge defection rates, huge abandonments. Web Translation Layers: allows people to interact with those systems without users having to know about it.

Common Themes with Government Clients

Government agencies often produce and display information by how they create it and how they are organized. Need to allocate time to educate the stakeholders, especially the sponsor.

Government websites have to be accountable to many diverse audiences and comply with federal regulations. Need to understand what are the common goals of the users? Use current web standards to display different versions for different audiences.

Goverment agencies are held to fiscal years. Structure your projects to deliver at the end of the fiscal year.

Strong political hierarchies with independent divisions. Education, advisory boards, and group meetings are a must.

Political priorities. Websites can be affected by election cycles. Focus on the long-term goals.

Amount of information. Thousands or millions of pages possible. Need to establish a scalable system.

Need to establish policies and procedures that preserve the user-centric nature of the site.

Secure ownership by high-ranking official.

Increase project time to include stakeholder buy-in and education.

Develop a plan that takes into consideration the fiscal cycles.

Share and advocate for UCD at every opportunity.

UX Week 2006: Creative Production Notes

Chris Conley, Gravity Tank, IIT Professor

We’ve lost the art of how to work together. We’ve lost this in a profound sense, especially to organizations. We need a new way of working: creative production.

Peter Drucker: “Profit is only a measure of marketing and innovation.” Marketing is about identifying opportunity. Innovation is designing and launching it. The best products such as the iPod are a combination of both. It recognized a market opportunity and designs it well.

Our organizations are made up of amazing talent. One of the main problems is how we organize that talent. To maintain what exists is fine (80%). For the other 20%, siloed organizations work horribly.

How do we really work today? EEEMP: Email, Email, Email, Meetings, and Presentations

Story is central. What things are about resonate with people. Story is a device to move people. All products should have stories. Not a narrative that people watch, but interfaces that people interact with.

There should be a Producer and a Creative Director on all teams. Classic opposite sides of the spectrum. Idea of an ensemble–experts coming together creates something amazing. Working on all aspects at once, within and without of the product. Never sure where you are going to innovate.

Work low-fidelity to high-fidelity.

Don’t give a powerpoint–give a pitch. Bring emotion into it.

Use dailies. Review work and critique it every day. Create an environment that allows critique. Make meetings into activities. Open up meetings. Don’t worry about the meeting going “in the wrong direction.” The talent in the room will affect the outcome!

Is the thing that is embodied close to what you want it to be? Critiques need to come from a base of respect.

Push beyond “the edge” (what people are comfortable with) to make the team better.

UX Week 2006: Interface Culture 10 Years Later Notes

What Steven got right

Metafilters: bloggers. New form of filter that allows for different sensibilities, critical views, editorial views. “Meta-journalism”

What Steven missed

Interface ecosystems. It’s now easy to think of the world in terms as modules. Don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. You deal with this problem, I’ll deal with that one. Easier to stitch together innovations. Created a great, densely-connected ecosystem. Captures information very efficiently. We’ve lost control of our pages in a good way.

Things Steven half understood, but now are better understood

Interfaces are in the strange zone between medium and message. What is the impact of this new medium? It’s hard to determine what the impact is.

The Hive Mind

Sacred space of the individual vs. the “electronic anthill”

The blog is the most personal form of mass communication ever invented.

The Long Tail/Triumph of the Niche

Even though there’s the long tail, the web is still dominated by hits.

The most filtered AND the least filtered conversations. On one hand, there is conversation, on the other spam.

Interfaces are different than other mediums. Television is inflexible, vs. the web. You Tube vs. HDTV. The web is a shape-shifting form of media. Great possibility for innovation and exploration. Everything is up for grabs. We can see this in the evolution of metaphors about the internet: library, highway, series of tubes, a city.

Design for Serendipity

The importance of chance and discovery. Little noise, but not too much. Joy of a city is walking down the street and finding something by exploration. We’ve lost some of this.

Design for Clusters

Like-minded people forming communities. Specialized areas in a bottom-up structure.

Design for Visible Trails/Adaptive Paths

You see where people’s going. You see activity on the street.

Design for Connection to Real Cities

Enables cities to function better. More things to discover in a city. Things can be organized by real space.

Interfaces are central to all the things we’re talking about. Mainstream culture now accepts that Google and such are changing society. Innovations all happen with interfaces. It’s not just bloggers, but those who create the software for blogging. People who create the things that allow the open medium of the internet to happen have a great role to play in society.

UX Week 2006: JJG Keynote Notes

As a field, we are starting to understand the scope that designed experiences have on individuals, organizations, and the world. Designed experiences have become part of our daily lives. Designed experiences are the lens through with we experience our relationship with the world. Are we moving closer to our best selves or away?

In the past, we’ve turned to scribes to make the complexity of the world to make it simple. Today we have information architects to do that. We’ve also turned to shamans to guide us through our daily tasks. Today we have our own incantations of our own: zoom, fit in window. Our incantations are written by interaction designers

We’re talking about structure for people’s daily lives. The work we do defines the way people live in and understand the way they do. This isn’t new; not part of the world of technology. It’s deep and special.

What I’ve Learned in Four Years of Blogging

This month marks four years I’ve been blogging. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it.

First off, the first two years of this blog were terrible. Like many people, I started under the stupid assumption that people cared what I thought about things like politics, pop culture, and world events. They don’t. My traffic numbers prove it. Sure, the odd post here and there is still about those things, but I was posting daily my feeble, half-baked rants about the Bush administration and the lead-up to the war in Iraq. That is, I had the same opinions as roughly 48% of the US and no substantial difference in my thoughts. My posts could have been written by any one of tens of thousands of people.

There were some posts that I did in a more personal voice, like my 9/11 Year Two entry, that I felt good about and pointed the way for how I should have been–and everyone should be–blogging: to share things that only the blogger can: thoughts, information, details that are either unique to the blogger or else told in a unique way. No One Cares What You Had for Lunch unless you are a food critic. The best blogs are those that contain focused information on topics of interest that you won’t find elsewhere, told in a singular voice.

And that, along with remembering to post semi-regularly, is what I’ve learned.

Oh, and spell check.