May 2007  
Next Fall's TV Pick: Bionic Woman

Every year at about this time, the networks unveil their new fall series and I pick the one (or two) that will likely make it to my TiVo Season Pass. It's an old habit I picked up when I was a writer for TV Guide after college. Last year, I made the disastrous choice of Studio 60 which I have since, heartbroken, stopped watching and NBC has mercifully pulled the plug on.

This year, my choice is Bionic Woman.

It looks like it is going to be a great mixture of Alias (RIP), Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica. Katee "Starbuck" Sackhoff plays the cyborg villain and the fetching Michelle Ryan (with a great American accent) is Jamie Summers. And the always great Miguel Ferrer seemingly plays the new Oscar. An article in the LA Times has some good details:

The NBC line is that the new "Bionic Woman" is a "re-imagining," not a remake. Executive producer David Eick, a "Galactica" veteran, believes that the familiar title and premise may in fact give the writers more room to monkey with the concept, paradoxical as that sounds. The series that spawned all those plastic dolls and rust-susceptible lunchboxes seems more innocent than ever alongside the new, noir-ish "Bionic Woman," which tosses '70s optimism (technology can make us stronger!) in favor of post-9/11 paranoia (technology can make us expire!). It even concludes with a rain-soaked, city rooftop fight that looks descended from "Blade Runner," that ultimate classic of sci-fi noir. This is a "Bionic Woman" for anxiety-ridden grown-ups, not lunchbox-toting kids.

It can't be any worse than Studio 60. I mean, after all, it does have sexy cyborg women fighting each other in the rain. Aaron Sorkin, take note.

Originally posted on Wednesday, May 23, 2007 | Link | Comments (1) | Trackback (0)


Summer Speaking Engagements

Lots of time to hang out with yours truly this summer at various engagements, both in the US and in Europe.

First in June: Talking about Playful Interaction Design at Business to Buttons in Malmö, Sweden on the 15th. Although I'm talking about games, is not the same talk we've all heard in the past about how to make your application more like a computer game. Ugh. Instead, I'm looking at the deeper structure of games and figuring out how those structures can inform our own work. I'm in the middle of researching and writing this presentation now and I think it will be very interesting.

Then on the 20th at UXI Amsterdam (use my code of FODS and get 15% off!) I will be teaching the Interaction Design Day, which was a big hit in Chicago last month and is being slightly revised for this outing.

August brings out Adaptive Path's annual UX Week, which I am really looking forward to this year. (Again, use my code of FODS and get 15% off.) My colleague Sarah Nelson has put together a slam-bang four-day program, including my own keynote New Sources of Inspiration for Interaction Design. But there are also a ton of other awesome speakers I'm looking forward to like Bill DeRouchey, Leisa Reichelt, Deborah Adler, and Katrina Alcorn. (Hey, that's a lot of women speakers! Yes! Half the speakers are (gasp!) women!)

In September, come watch me do my gadfly schtick at Design Research Conference (formerly About, With, For) on the topic "How to Lie with Design Research."

Hope to see you at one or more of these!

Originally posted on Monday, May 14, 2007 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


Meaningful Objects

My family got a very hard lesson recently in how human beings give meaning to objects. Coming back from a plane trip, my six-year-old's favorite stuffed animal was left on the plane. Despite multiple trips to the airport lost and found, poor Moussie was gone. All of us cried. Once my wife even remarked, "We've cried less for human family members who have died." And it was true. This stuffed dog had an incredible amount of meaning for us.

In considering the characteristics of good interaction design for my book, meaningful was one trait I have frequently thought I overlooked. But I'm not sure designers can really make anything meaningful to anyone. Objects only become meaningful through use and context.

Ruth Mugge, a PhD Student at Delft University of Technology, did her dissertation on product attachment--why people get attached to the things they do. Here's a brief article on her work:

Mugge’s underlying idea was that if people feel strongly attached to a product, they will be less likely to discard it (which her research confirmed). The lifespan of the product therefore increases, which has positive environmental effects. Mugge distinguishes four factors influencing product bonding: self-expression (can I distinguish myself with a product?), group affinity (does ownership of a product connect me to a group?), memories (related to the product) and pleasure (provided by the product).

Now, I have not read Making Meaning: How Successful Companies Deliver Meaningful Experiences yet, but I am dubious that designers alone can make a product meaningful. Pleasurable, yes. Useful, yes. But meaningful? Significance is a personal thing; what might be important to one person is garbage to another. I'm not sure you can make meaning anymore than you make an experience; both are created in the minds of users. As a designer, you can only design for the possibility of meaning (and for an experience).

I think I am much more of the school of thought outlined by Peter-Paul Verbeek in his book What Things Do (My review). Products, Verbeek writes, coshape the relation between humans and the world. Objects allow us to form a relationship with the world based on how they are used. The meaning we derive from objects comes from that use. Had my daughter's stuffed animal sat on a shelf untouched, it would not have the same meaning as it had because it was used. Thus, designers should design for use, not meaning. Meaning comes through use. Verbeek says, "Products to which people develop an attachment are not generally as emotionally charged and irreplaceably present as heirlooms, but neither are they as anonymous as a throw-away item...what distinguishes these goods from our most loved possessions is that they are used rather than cherished."

Moussie was both used and cherished. He was meaningful. Goodbye, old friend. Thanks for everything.

Originally posted on Tuesday, May 8, 2007 | Link | Comments (5)


The Neo Cons of Interaction Design

I've been mulling over Aza Raskin's The Death of the Desktop presentation ever since I saw it at SXSW two months ago. Raskin, who is continuing the work of his father, the late Jef Raskin, had some interesting things to say that I agreed with. But I think some of his work has some serious flaws, at the core of which is what the purpose of computers is.

Before I begin, I want to note (again) that Jef Raskin's work greatly influenced me as a new interaction designer. But, as the Buddhist saying goes, if you meet your master on the road...

In his SXSW presentation, Aza Raskin outlined what he thought the things a computer (specifically interfaces, which for the point of this conversation I am going to refer to as computers) can do:

  • Create content
  • Navigate content
  • Select content
  • Transform content

In doing this, I think Raskin falls into the same trap early computer scientists fell into: thinking of the computer as just a content creator and manipulator. This is the fatal blunder of 1970s IBM's "women can store recipes on it" idea of what a personal computer would be good for. The biggest leap forward in computing came when the designers and engineers at Xerox PARC stopped thinking about the computer in this way and instead started thinking about it instead as a communication device. And we've seen what this led to: email, networks, the internet. The network is the computer now, and if you don't believe me, do what I did a few weeks ago and unplug from the internet for a few days and watch yourself squirm.

The Raskins, along with the builders of Doug Engelbart's Hyperscope, are what I call the Neo Cons of Interaction Design. These guys (and they are all men) all have grand visions for what computers should be and how everyone should use them. Which is, not surprisingly, exactly how they use computers. They are almost all engineers or computer scientists who claim to know what design is, because they have read Tufte and Norman.

The Neo Cons create these grandiose theories about what computers are for (learning, manipulating content) and want to apply a set of rules that seem obvious to them as high-end computer users. They want to recreate the past--a past that never happened, one where we all became computer scientists--in the hope that it becomes the future. The Neo Cons mean well and often have really interesting, counter-cultural ideas. And, like other Neo Cons, they are often wrong and wrong-headed.

The landscape of computing--and what a computer is and can do--has radically changed since the 1970s and even the 1980s. The term "computer" itself seems archaic and dated, a relic from an era long gone by. It would be as though we stilled called trains "iron horses." Computers are no longer about simply manipulating content, in the same way that electricity isn't only about powering lightbulbs. As I look around me right now at my home office, I see at least six "computers" right now--things with microprocessors in them. And yes, while these do what Raskin says they do, his reductionism seems, well, as archaic as the term "computers."

What is fundamentally different now that the Neo Cons don't understand is that computers are no longer entirely a top-down experience, dictated by engineers (i.e. "Here's how you can use this.") Instead, the ever-changinglandscape of computers is a curious mix of bottom-up (tagging, the open source movement, makers, all things web 2.0) and top-down, with the web being the ultimate example of this sort of breaking of the paradigm. It might have been the thing that finally broke the paradigm, in fact. The http protocol sounded the death knell of the earlier era of computing. Some people just haven't heard it yet.

Originally posted on Monday, May 7, 2007 | Link | Comments (8) | Trackback (0)



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