My Favorite Design Articles 2012

The Accidental History of the @ Symbol, William F. Allman

Tomlinson’s challenge was how to address a message created by one person and sent through Arpanet to someone at a different computer. The address needed an individual’s name, he reasoned, as well as the name of the computer, which might service many users. And the symbol separating those two address elements could not already be widely used in programs and operating systems, lest computers be confused.

Convenience, Julian Bleecker

The Corner Convenience is a vault containing the treasures of great, world-changing innovations throughout all histories. Truly. We should see our Corner Convenience as a living Neighborhood Museum of Innovation. Someone should enshrine these and teach the lesson to every secondary school student.

Why Things Fail: From Tires to Helicopter Blades, Everything Breaks Eventually, Robert Capps

Product failure is deceptively difficult to understand. It depends not just on how customers use a product but on the intrinsic properties of each part—what it’s made of and how those materials respond to wildly varying conditions. Estimating a product’s lifespan is an art that even the most sophisticated manufacturers still struggle with. And it’s getting harder. In our Moore’s law-driven age, we expect devices to continuously be getting smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more efficient. This thinking has seeped into our expectations about lots of product categories: Cars must get better gas mileage. Bicycles must get lighter. Washing machines need to get clothes cleaner with less water. Almost every industry is expected to make major advances every year. To do this they are constantly reaching for new materials and design techniques. All this is great for innovation, but it’s terrible for reliability.

Mission Transition, Mark Cossey

Transitions take us from one state to another all the time, many times a day in fact. Most of the time, these transitions feel completely invisible (as they should), and until they are taken away we don’t really know they are there. This article discusses transitions and how well-designed transitions can enhance the user’s experience by imparting a sense of control and easy navigation.

How to See The Future, Warren Ellis

Understand that our present time is the furthest thing from banality. Reality as we know it is exploding with novelty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to understand, before you start the day here, that the invisible thing in the room is the felt presence of living in future time, not in the years behind us.

To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come. To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better.

10 Timeframes, Paul Ford

We’re constantly switching accelerations; we’re jumping between time frames. That’s what we’re asking people to do every time we make something new, some new tool or product. We’re asking them to reset their understanding of time. To accept that the sequence we’re asking them to follow is the right way to do a thing.

Augmented Paper, Matt Gemmell

It’s so easy to saturate electronic representations of paper with what I call “digital artifice”; the gratuitous and ultimately heavy and objectionable skeuomorphisms and decorations that betray a simplistic thinking process: let’s just make this look the same. That’s a damaging frame of mind, because it enforces a false dichotomy between the real and the virtual. Software should be an enhancement, not a replication.

True Innovation, Jon Gertner

But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

Redefining Hick’s Law, Jason Gross

We can’t always eliminate all confusion for our busy, distracted users, but we can ease their pain by limiting the options that they have to mentally process. When we view chunks of content as decision-making points, it becomes clear just how much we ask of visitors. Each option is an opportunity to evaluate its importance in the design. Designers who force users to decide between only meaningful and clear options are the ones who deliver an effortless user experience. And when the experience is effortless, everyone wins.

In praise of lost time, Dan Hill

Facebook Timeline is not quite there. While Timeline really only remembers your activity in social media, and so just a tiny proportion of one’s existence, it is interesting for two reasons:

First, it is an exemplary bit of interaction design, balancing technical innovation and business strategy with a narrative sophistication appropriate to an attempt to trigger memory.

Second, Timeline hints at what it might mean to be immersed in systems that capture our every move, and which comprise an augmented memory that may significantly alter our sense of who we are and what we do.

21st Century Gestures Clip Art Collection, Dan Hill

For some years I’ve been collating a list in a text file, which has the banal filename “21st_century_gestures.txt”. These are a set of gestures, spatial patterns and physical, often bodily, interactions that seemed to me to be entirely novel. They all concern our interactions with The Network, and reflect how a particular Networked development, and its affordances, actually results in intriguing physical interactions. The intriguing aspect is that most of the gestures and movements here are undesigned, inadvertent, unintended, the accidental offcuts of design processes and technological development that are either forced upon the body, or adopted by bodies.

Gardens and Zoos, Matt Jones

This is near-future where the things around us start to display behaviour – acquiring motive and agency as they act and react to the context around them according to the software they have inside them, and increasingly the information they get from (and publish back to) the network.

In this near-future, it’s very hard to identify the ‘U’ in UI’ – that is, the User in User-Interface. It’s not so clear anymore what these things are. Tools… or something more.

Is Siri really Apple’s future?, Kontra

Our computing devices, however, are far more “self-aware” circa 2012. A mobile device, for instance, is considerably more capable of passive intelligence thanks to its GPS, cameras, microphone, radios, gyroscope, myriad other in-device sensors, and dozens of dedicated apps, from finance to games, that know about the user enough to dramatically reduce the number of unknowns…if only all these input and sensing data could somehow be integrated.

Siri’s opportunity here to win the hearts and minds of users is to change the rules of the game from relatively rigid, linear and largely decontextualized CLI search towards a much more humane approach where the user declares his intent but doesn’t have to tell Siri how do it every step of the way.

The best interface is no interface, Golden Krishna

It’s time for us to move beyond screen-based thinking. Because when we think in screens, we design based upon a model that is inherently unnatural, inhumane, and has diminishing returns. It requires a great deal of talent, money and time to make these systems somewhat usable, and after all that effort, the software can sadly, only truly improve with a major overhaul.

The Ups and Downs of Making Elevators Go, Kate Linebaugh

At their core, elevators are a mode of transportation. Serving passengers well is constrained by the number of elevators, their speed, how fast their doors open and close, and how many people can fit in a car. In the U.S., these factors come together 18 billion times a year, each time a passenger rides an elevator.

That experience is at the heart of what Ms. Christy does. From her sparse second-floor office in a leafy office park in Farmington, Conn., she writes strings of code that allow elevators to do essentially the greatest good for the most people—including the building’s owner, who has to allocate considerable space for the concrete shafts that house the cars. Her work often involves watching computer simulation programs that replay elevator decision-making.

The Digital-Physical: On building Flipboard for iPhone and Finding Edges for Our Digital Narratives, Craig Mod

Abstractly, you can think about going from digital to physical as going from boundless to bounded. A space without implicit edges to one composed entirely of edges.

Welcome to the Future Nauseous, Venkatesh Rao

We live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak. To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

Creating the Windows 8 user experience, Steven Sinofsky

We created standardized ways of doing common tasks: with touch, you swipe in from the edges to reveal commands. With a mouse, you move to the corners. The lower-left corner of the screen takes you to Start, no matter where you are. Right-click always reveals off-screen commands for the app you’re using. Within apps, Settings and Search and Share are always in the same location (the charms), no matter what app you are using. There is real value to having the consistent aspects of apps always work the same way. Yes, you do have to learn a few simple things up front, but once you know them, you know how to use the entire system.

Atari Teenage Riot: The Inside Story Of Pong And The Video Game Industry’s Big Bang, Chris Stokel-Walker

“Anyone could play,” Alcorn says. “You didn’t have to know physics or space flight or anything. Pong was designed so you could participate in athletics while maintaining a firm grip on a can of beer. You could literally pick up a girl, drink a beer, and play a video game at the same time. It was wonderful.”

Are Design Patterns an Anti-Pattern?, Stephen Turbek

Patterns, once literally a design on paper that could be copied, in UX are an abstract idea that professionals can reference. You can not copy a UX pattern, like you can copy a sewing pattern. Having someone read a pattern library will not make them a competent user experience designer. It would be akin to teaching writing by reading the dictionary – the “why”s are not answered.

GE’s New Emphasis In Appliances: Sound Design, Kyle Vanhemert

The way a product looks and feels goes a long way to telling its story–conveying what it’s meant to do and who it’s meant to do it for. But sound, too, can play that role. So it’s hardly surprising that companies like GE are putting more thought into designing the acoustic identities of their products as much as the visual ones. “You can touch, taste, smell, hear, and feel things,” Bingham says. “Besides paying as much attention as we have to the visual portion of it, we’re looking to round that out with the auditory portion.”

See also my picks for 2011 and 2010.

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