July 2006  
Good Interaction Design

It's no secret that I have a pretty expansive view of what interaction design is, that it is more about connecting people than it is about technology. Many people are surprised by this and wonder how it is I can say that. Hell, sometimes I even question it myself. Then I discover interaction design like this:

Kiva is an organization that lets people make small loans (as low as $25) to people starting businesses around the world. For $1000, say, you can fund Monyrort Chin's butcher shop in Cambodia. What is he using the money for? Buying a cow. You see the power of microloans in action to change individual people's lives.

Number of defaults on loans: 0. Success stories like a widow in Uganda who is now able to, thanks to a $500 loan, "take my children to school, buy two cows and five goats, and open a savings account."

Wow. What an amazing piece of good (in all senses of the word) interaction design.

Originally posted on Tuesday, July 25, 2006 | Link | Comments (2)


Review: Where the Suckers Moon

A recommendation from Michael Bierut in Design Observer led me to Where The Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign. For anyone who is interested in advertising and especially if you are in any sort of creative consulting field like design, I recommend it. Like many of the best journalism books, it reads like a novel, with rich detail and great characters.

Several times as I read it, I winced in recognition of the situation the ad guys find themselves in, namely the battles/trials between organizations: one that is set up to be maverick and creative, the other a conservative industry.

The book gets bonus points for a chapter featuring one of my design heroes Tibor Kalman (albeit one that has him in a pretty unflattering (yet truthful) light).

If you get this book, don't read the back cover. It gives away a crucial plot point! (Grrr).

Spoiler alert! My only complaint is that, as the relationship devolves between the companies, it isn't quite as detailed as the start of the relationship. I would have liked more reportage on how things broke apart. But that's a quibble.

Originally posted on Sunday, July 23, 2006 | Link | Comments (1)


Portland Bound!

I'm headed to Portland early Thursday morning for Webvisions 2006. If you are there, come to our panel: Let Go, Jump In: Community Marketing Strategies for Empowered Customers or just find me and say hi. I'm easy to spot these days: Elvis Costello glasses, orange bag, blue spot in my hair. I'm staying at the Jupiter Hotel, so likely I'll be found at its late night bar, the Doug Fir. I'm also bringing a bunch of peyote so we'll be sure to have some webvisions.

Originally posted on Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | Link | Comments (0)


Does Place Still Matter?

Of course it does.

For the last, oh, eight or so years, journalists and prognosticators have repeatedly tried to sell us the fantasy that where you live and work (read: cities) doesn't matter. You can telecommute! Broadband puts you instantly in touch! Fed Ex your stuff way out into the wilderness.


The latest of this is Forbes' 150 Cheap Places to Live, which suggests we should move from our cities to Bend, OR.

Now, this might work during good times. When there is demand for work, businesses are less picky about who and where they hire. But when times get tight, I'm not sure this is the case. There's still something about a physical connection between people that is very important. Even full video broadcasting is not the same as being in the room with someone. (This is why I fly a lot.) "Out of sight, out of mind" as the saying goes.

Cities also provide chance (and deliberate) connections. Someone you meet at a party or in the park or waiting in line could be your next client or employer or business partner. As lovely as it probably is, you simply aren't going to get the density of people (and thus the higher chance of connections) remote from your business.

Cities also provide fail-safes. If your business/industry goes bottom up, unless it's a one-industry town, you'll have a better chance of finding new work. When the bubble burst, I was able to move from interactive agencies to financial services because I was around New York City. (In systems design, this is called requisite variety: an assortment of responses to deal with a range of situations.) Cities, because of the variety of resources they have and can employ, have more requisite variety.

Cities also carry with them collective learning. If one person doesn't know how to do something, someone else down the street might.

So anyway, don't believe the hype. Moving out to the exurbs in the middle of nowhere might save you some money--at the cost of your career.

Originally posted on Tuesday, July 18, 2006 | Link | Comments (3)


Fighting Recommendations

Many of the designers I know (or at least know of) have greedily downloaded a bunch of the TED conference talks. And while some reviews are mixed, most have been the sort of glow-y, OMFG, you have to listen to this! sort--the type of hype I feel like I've spent my whole life avoiding.

Why is this? And I don't mean, why am I a crank, but rather how come some things that we should like, we simply don't (or simply don't care to take the recommendation)? Amazon offers me up stuff all the time that I can't stand, despite having nearly a decade's worth of purchases to make recommendations from. Tivo, after several years of data, is hopeless when recommending television shows. Music has traditionally had the worst recommendations for me. Celebrated bands that I really should love leave me cold.

I don't think that I'm that particular--ok, I am--but not so much that a ton of data couldn't overcome it. Or is it that the nuance simply isn't there yet? That there aren't enough data points for entertainment content yet for predictions to be more accurate? Steven Johnson has a great example from one of his books: searching for a popular alternative Seattle band with crunchy guitars and a passionate lead singer from 1990-1994 will get me both Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and there's a significant difference between the two: to humans, anyway.

But even human recommendations can be faulty. Most of the people I know who like similar music to me love Neutral Milk Hotel and are always shocked when I'm indifferent. I'm the kind of pretentious jerk who would like the British version of "The Office" better than the US one, but actually it is the opposite.

As I've said in the past, recommendations don't take into account whim. I might download an Ashlee Simpson song ("Autobiography" say), but that doesn't mean I want all her songs. Sometimes off-beat stuff you'd never otherwise like, you do. For me lately, it's the ridiculously catchy song "Crazy" by Gnarles Barkley. "Crazy" would likely never be recommended to me, but I dig it nonetheless. How do we account for that?

Most of my "recommendations" lately come from unplanned encounters--flipping TV channels, radio, co-workers' networked music, books my wife has bought and I picked up. How do we--or should we?--design for that?

Originally posted on Monday, July 17, 2006 | Link | Comments (1)


Trying to Understand Comics

After reading some of Ryan's posts about the state of modern comic books, I ventured, for the first time in probably 20 years, into a comic book store: the legendary Al's Comics here in San Francisco.

I spent $30 on a variety of comics, from Fantastic Four to The Eternals to Ms. Marvel (probably because of this cover--holy cow--but more on that later.). Al even threw in a copy of a Superman comic because I told him I never liked Superman and he took it as a dare.

Holy crap: so much has changed. The sheer number and type of titles has completely changed. It's bewildering and hard to simply get started picking up a comic book. For one thing, comic books seem like they have completely been overrun by fanboys over the last 20 years. Titles like the X-Men have splintered into a vast series of titles, many seemingly in different universes with different storylines that don't mesh together. Characters who are alive in one universe are dead in others, or have a different name or are evil or good or both. It's really confusing. Just check out one of the wikipedia articles to get what I'm talking about.

Comic books have ratings now??!

And why are the credits and title at the end now?

Boys, boys, boys. Nearly every female character in superherodom now needs a Brazilian bikini wax. I'm throwing away my Victoria's Secret catalog for being too demure. Even poor old flat-chested Kitty Pryde and Sue Storm are now crazy hot.

The art in general has completely changed. The influence of anime and more experimental pieces from the 1980s are everywhere. The old Kirby style is definitely long gone.

Here's some mini-reviews of the issues I bought, in case you are interested in checking these out:

  • All-Star Superman #1. Not bad. Comprehensible, with some neat riffs on the tired Superman cliches. Kind of a sci-fi Superman. I'll probably pick up another.
  • Fantastic Four #30. Dull, except for the Namor-Reed tension. Pass.
  • Green Lantern #11 and Green Lantern Corps #1. I have absolutely no idea what's going on here. Seems intriguing and layered, but I have no way of getting into these.
  • Uncanny X-Men #475. Lame. Thin story, weak characters.
  • Astonishing X-Men #14-15. Ah, now here's the X-Men I remember. Nuanced, emotional, with a core of humor and humanity. I'll buy more of these, and go back and buy the old ones.
  • Ms. Marvel #1. Ok, but probably won't continue.
  • Eternals #1. Interesting, but slow-moving. I'll probably give this one more read and see if it picks up.

I realize after writing this ("Can you believe what the kids are reading these days?") that I must sound like the most out-of-it old fart, and man, that sucks.

Originally posted on Sunday, July 9, 2006 | Link | Comments (3)


On Fireworks and Patriotism

San Francisco smells like sulfur. The Fourth of July fireworks display has just ended, the nighttime fog red from the bursts of the rockets glare. As with every fireworks display, people gather on roofs and hillsides (and there are many in this city) to watch. All kinds of people: families, hipsters, older folks, singles, married, partners, gay, straight, white, black, asian, hispanic. It's a patriotic and, to me, American, scene that people in other parts of the country don't expect of us San Franciscans--godless, liberal, and nearly treasonous as we're supposed to be.

But there's a different sort of patriotism here than is commonly espoused as "patriotism" in the US, a type of patriotism that borders on annoying, so filled is it with passion and conviction. It's the patriotism of Jefferson and Paine--men who believed in the separation of church and state, local governments, and the need, occasionally, for revolution. Not the crazy, live-in-a-Montana-compound sort of revolution, but instead an activist revolution from within, arising from reason, from Common Sense.

San Franciscans are impatient and angry about the political life of the US because we see the US as it one day will be and it looks like, well, San Francisco, simply because one day it must be more like us lest it perish--more tolerant, more diverse, more ecologically-friendly. We can see it so clearly, but have thus far been so perfectly blocked in making the country more like us. In fact, the US seems to be slipping away faster and faster towards the other direction, away from reason and tolerance and individual rights.

This sounds arrogant, I know, but I truly believe that time is on San Francisco's side. Eventually, issues like the gay marriage amendment and "intelligent design" will fade away, to be studied like Plessy V. Ferguson and the Scopes Monkey Trial. If it doesn't, well, I'm not sure what kind of America this will be then. Certainly not the America of Franklin or Lincoln.

So on this, Independence Day, let us celebrate independence, and recall the words of America The Beautiful:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

Originally posted on Tuesday, July 4, 2006 | Link | Comments (0)


The Internet Metaphor

Bizarro World Senator Ted Stevens last week had this to say about the internet:

"They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand that those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material..."

Now, I did my master's thesis (340k pdf) on metaphor, but these are new ones for me. "The internet isn't a truck. The internet is a series of tubes." Huh. Does he mean like pneumatic tubes?

Now obviously, Stevens doesn't know the internet from his elbow and needs to spend a few minutes learning how the internet works. But it is interesting the odd view his choice of metaphors give us on how the internet can be perceived by people who know very little about it.

Most tech-savvy folks (yes, that's probably you) are used to thinking of the internet in a few different ways: as a web (which relates to the underlying structure as much as anything: it is and it isn't a series of tubes) or as an ocean, upon which we "surf." Even though we've probably heard the metaphor "information superhighway," I guarantee few of us have ever compared the internet to a truck!

Human beings use metaphor as a way of grasping unfamiliar, abstract concepts by comparing them to familiar, tangible items, just as Stevens did here with the abstract internet and the more concrete tubes and truck. Even metaphors that don't make much sense (such as the truck metaphor here) can reveal things about the target of the metaphor. For example, before this, I hadn't really given much thought to one thing the internet does quite well: haul stuff long distances. Like, well, a truck. The internet is exactly like a truck. Of course, with this "truck" there's no engine, or driver, unless you extended the metaphor to say that http is one of those.

I don't know where I'm going with this, except to say that we should remember that not everyone has the same metaphors in their head as to how abstract things work. For Stevens and those with only a vague notion of the internet, a series of tubes sounds about right. I probably have similar, misguided metaphors about how, say, government works. I somehow think that senators should be leaders, not embarrassments, say.

Originally posted on Monday, July 3, 2006 | Link | Comments (3)


What I'm Up To

A bunch of stuff happening lately, most about the book and its workshops of course.

First off is a podcast of yours truly being interviewed by Brian Oberkirch talking about interaction design and stuff like designing for hackability.

Next up is a panel with Brian, Kit Seeborg, and Jeremiah Owyang about online participation at Webvisions on the 20-21st of this month in Portland, Oregon.

In August, the book comes out, and with it some interviews, including one in AIGA's Voice and another from Digital Web magazine. If you're an academic or reviewer and would like a review copy of the book for evaluation or review, please contact me and I'll arrange it.

August is also UX Week and the debut of two introductory sections of the all-day Designing for Interaction Workshop: What is Interaction Design? and The Elements, Laws, and Attributes of Interaction Design. Use my discount code and get 15% off: FODS.

You can also use that code when registering for the all-day Designing for Interaction Workshop in San Francisco on September 20th.

The following week, I'll be Down Under in Sydney, first teaching the all-day workshop at Web Directions on the 26th, then leading/participating in OZ IA, the information architecture retreat/conference on the 30th and October 1. It's my first time in Australia, and I'm thrilled to be going. Should be a blast.

Now that you know my schedule. I hope to see some of you at one of these events shortly!

| Link | Comments (0)



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