The First Things on the Internet (of Things)

I was curious what the first non-traditional-computer objects were that were connected to a computer network. (A telegraph is probably the first device connected to any kind of network.) To be technical: a non-computer yet packet switched network device with continuous or frequent connectivity to said network.) Here’s some I found, stretching back 40 years.

Interface Message Processor (1969)
“The packet-switching node used to interconnect participant networks to the ARPANET from the late 1960s to 1989. It was the first generation of gateways, which are known today as routers.”

The “Prancing Pony Cooperative” Vending Machine (early-mid 1970s)
“A computer-controlled vending machine…it used to be directly connected to the SAIL DEC-20 mainframe, but when SAIL was retired, it was defunct for a while, and it’s now connected to the UNIX box that replaced SAIL. It’s basically a payment system; if you have an account, you can buy things and charge them to your account. The machine has an early-model laptop attached to the front (replacing a Teletype KSR-35) for this purpose.”

The CMU CS Department Coke Machine (mid-1970s)
“They installed micro-switches in the Coke machine to sense how many bottles were present in each of its six columns of bottles. The switches were hooked up to CMUA, the PDP-10 that was then the main departmental computer. A server program was written to keep tabs on the Coke machine’s state, including how long each bottle had been in the machine.”

Argos Seabeacon Buoys (1980s)
“It was originally intended as a scientific tool for collecting and relaying meteorological and oceanographic data, but with its location tracking properties, scientists quickly realised it could do much more. ‘It all started with a huge programme where 200 drifting buoys were deployed around the Antarctic Ocean,’ explained Mr Ortega. ‘The idea was to collect data – atmospheric pressure and sea surface temperature – from the buoys and to locate them. But at the same time, the buoys were drifting, and because Argos could locate their positions, the scientists also found out they could start to compute the direction and the speeds of the currents.’”

The Internet Toaster (1990)
“The toaster…had one control, to turn the power on, and the darkness of the toast was controlled by how long the power was kept on. However, a human being still had to insert the bread. [In] 1991…a small robotic crane was added to the system, also controlled from the Internet, which picked up a slice of bread and dropped it into the toaster, automating the system from end-to-end.”

The Trojan Room Coffee Pot (1991)
“In the Trojan Room there were several racks of simple computers used in the testing of our networks. One of these had a video frame-grabber attached and was not being used at the time. We fixed a camera to a retort stand, pointed it at the coffee machine in the corridor, and ran the wires under the floor to the frame-grabber in the Trojan Room. Paul Jardetzky…wrote a ‘server’ program, which ran on that machine and captured images of the pot every few seconds at various resolutions, and I wrote a ‘client’ program which everybody could run, which connected to the server and displayed an icon-sized image of the pot in the corner of the screen. The image was only updated about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly, and it was only greyscale, which was also fine, because so was the coffee.”

Live Wire/Dangling String (1995)
“An 8 foot piece of plastic spaghetti that hangs from a small electric motor mounted in the ceiling. The motor is electrically connected to a nearby Ethernet cable, so that each bit of information that goes past causes a tiny twitch of the motor. A very busy network causes a madly whirling string with a characteristic noise; a quiet network causes only a small twitch every few seconds. Placed in an unused corner of a hallway, the long string is visible and audible from many offices without being obtrusive. It is fun and useful. The Dangling String meets a key challenge in technology design for the next decade: how to create calm technology.”

The Telegarden (1995)
“An art installation that allowed web users to view and interact with a remote garden filled with living plants. Members could plant, water, and monitor the progress of seedlings via the tender movements of an industrial robot arm.”

Drive Me Insane (1997)
“This is a website. Specifically, it’s a website where you can turn lights on and off, and watch it happen via a webcam.”

Icepick Internet Fridge (1998)
Also toilet (1998), doorbell (1998), and mailbox (2000).

Any more? I’m particularly looking for any from the 1980s, especially a rumored “MIT door lock” project and some elevators (MIT?) that were networked (1970s? 80s?).

Thanks to Mike Kuniavsky, Scott Berkun, Bill Buxton, Ianus Keller, and Thor Muller for help!

Louis CK and The Creative Process

I’ve watched a lot of Louis CK over the last five years and most recently his 2013 comedy special Oh My God and the first four episodes of the fourth season of Louis, his brilliant TV series. As I’ve watched, I’ve caught onto one of his tricks, which is completely illustrated here in this 90 second clip from the first episode this season:

So let’s try to deconstruct what he did here. He started with an observation, which in this case is pretty banal: Garbagemen early in the morning are noisy. A lesser comedian might have stopped there. “Didja ever notice how garbagemen always come by when you’re sleeping? Doncha just hate that?” Observational comedy, ladies and gentlemen.

But here’s what I think he did next. He took a quality of that noise—it sounds like they’re right in the room with you—and imagined what would happen if that were really true, that they were in the room with you. How would they get into the room? What would happen once they were there? What would be the most funny reaction to that situation? In this case, it’s acting as though it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

Bill Buxton has a term for this kind of creative thinking: Order of Magnitude (OOM). He says to take a characteristic and stretch it as a conceptual thinking trick. “If something changes by an order of magnitude along any meaningful dimension, it is no longer the same thing.”

Louis CK uses this trick all the time, whether it’s garbagemen in his bedroom or in Oh My God in a bit about stepping over dead children in the mall in a world where murder is legal. The mastery, though, is in how he stretches the audience, most of whom certainly wouldn’t normally make such conceptual leaps on their own, with him. And how he does it is by building on small moments of detail. Look at how the garbage scene above grows, cut by cut. At first, you are empathizing with him asleep. But then, without your realizing it, you’re standing outside the scene laughing, because we’re first startled by the men crashing through the window, pushing the scene clearly into fantasy, but mostly because his reaction is not what ours would be. He remains asleep, then groggily wakes up.

Like the best comedians, he does this to show us an insight from that observation. What does this mean? In this case, it’s that the world isn’t outside our window; it’s right here in our bedrooms, in our dreams. His blasé reaction is the acceptance of the noise of the world. I’m certainly over-analyzing it because this bit is a trifle, but it’s an amusing one. And one that can teach us a lot about how to take an observation, no matter how minor, and using Order of Magnitude thinking, turn it into something new, something with meaning.

Designing a Creative Practice

Growth doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of intentional effort and consistent progress. You must define how you want to grow, then establish a plan to help you get there. —Todd Henry

For much of my life, I’ve taken a pretty haphazard attitude towards my own creativity. And while I’ve been mostly successful, I have long periods of creative block, as well as professional goals that have idled. I look back at envy at some of the most creatively-fertile periods of my life (2007-8 in particular) and I’ve realized there were activities I did every day that I should probably resume.

At the same time, for the last few months, I’ve been reading a number of books on creativity and forming creative habits. While many of these books have different, specific pieces of advice, I’ve collected the themes into a course of action for myself.

Block off time for creativity. This is obvious. You can’t expect projects to just happen; you have to make time for them. And it’s better to have a consistent small block of time every day than to expect large chunks of time at some future date (which almost never seems to happen). This is how I wrote my books: small bits every day, early in the morning. It’s how I should structure my other projects as well. From now on, every morning from 6-7:30 is creativity time. I’ve also blocked out one morning a week—on my work calendar!—for work-related (article) writing.

Start with a ritual. You need to get yourself into a creative state—even when you don’t feel like being in one. This is where ritual comes in. “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way,” writes Twyla Tharp. For me, the ritual is a cup of tea and Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

Work space. When I’ve written books in the past, it always has to be at particular place, which has (oddly) moved around my house with each book. I’m going to attempt to reclaim my (disused) desk and make it not just a place for dropping bills and other semi-garbage. It should be a place to summon ideas—and act on them.

Keep a list of Big Questions. It’s easy to lose track of what you’re supposed to be thinking about and working on, especially since my working days as a creative director are often chaotic and fragmented. Having a list of the top three things my subconscious should be mulling on is important as a centering tool. And phrasing them in the form of a question helps the mind work on answering them in the background. “When we phrase our objectives simply and in the form of a question, we lead our minds directly to solving the problem,” writes Todd Henry. I have a small whiteboard at home (it used to be my daughter’s toy) next to my desk where these questions can go.

Take walks.* Movement helps the body relax and the subconscious work. Too often I stare at my computer screen or flip through social media when I should just get up and walk around the block. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman noted, “Almost every dimension of cognition improves from thirty minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception.”

Fill the well. Advises Austin Kleon, “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” I’m going to make an effort to see more art, starting with buying a membership to my local museum, the De Young. I’m also going to expand my non-fiction reading to more general interest, biography, and other topics removed from design. I’m also going to increase my fiction reading. I used to walk down Haight Street in the early mornings, before the crowds came, and just look in the windows. Seeing new things can trigger new connections.

Record what you observe, then review it. I’ll be keeping two notebooks: one physical, one digital. The digital one (in Evernote) is for capturing anything I read online. The physical one will be for writing/sketching fragments of ideas, what Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.”

Without the little ideas, there are no big ideas. Scratching is what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you…Remember this when you’re struggling for a big idea. You’re much better off scratching for a small one.

When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Musicians know this because compositions rarely come to them whole and complete. They call their morsels of inspiration lines or riffs or hooks or licks. That’s what they look for when they scratch for an idea.

The physical notebook (dotted paper from Muji, if you’re interested in that sort of detail) is for scratching.

Because it’s not enough just to gather, on Saturday mornings (usually my longest working period), I’ll review and reflect on what I’ve read/seen/gathered that week.

Turn off the stream. Your mind needs time to work and process. I often find myself aimlessly going from Facebook to email to Twitter to RSS and repeat. When I catch myself doing that, I know it’s time to unplug (and maybe take a walk). Being bored and staring off into space is fine. Allowing your mind to wander allows ideas to enter. I’m not going to pull out my phone immediately while waiting in line either. “As we tune in to our devices during every moment of transition, we are letting the incredible potential of serendipity pass us by,” says Scott Belsky.

Rest. Related to turning off the stream is just switching off for longer periods. In addition to my (hopefully now) annual Screens Sabbatical on the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’ll be doing a weekly Screens Shabbat from noon on Saturday until sunrise on Sunday. “The idea is that one day a week, you need to get your mind in a different mode, you need to not work. Every week, your brain—and your soul—needs to be reset,” writes Tiffany Shlain.

Meditate.* I hate even using the word meditate. It sounds so San Francisco. For me, this is simply sitting quietly for a few minutes, not doing anything. This is very difficult for me.

Have a hobby.* I haven’t seriously played the cello in almost five years now. That needs to change. I miss it. Kleon: “It’s so important to have a hobby. A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.”

If you want your life to be different, you have to try something different. I hope that by taking these steps, I’ll move outside my comfort zone into a more fulfilling, productive, creative space. I’ll let you know how it goes. Although hopefully, the fruits will be self-evident.

* It’s very easy to find good advice, but very hard to take it. For some of these activities, I’m going to be using Stephen Guise’s “mini habits” to help me out. Mini habits are those that are designed to be too easy not to do, and lead to making it easy to form a habit. For me, this is doing (daily) one minute of walking, one minute of sitting quietly, and tuning my cello.

I recommend all the books on this list, but especially The Creative Habit, The Accidental Creative, and Steal Like an Artist.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp
The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry
Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
Manage Your Day-to-Day, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, Todd Henry
Maximize Your Potential, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise
Do the Work, Steven Pressfield
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson
Creative Something blog

My 2013 Bibliography


Drawing Ideas: A Hand-Drawn Approach for Better Design, Mark Baskinger and William Bardel
Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, Nick Bilton
The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, Todd Henry
Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff
The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better, Sandra Blakeslee
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity, Katherine Boo
Making Creative Mobiles, Timothy Rose
The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, Kevin Smokler
This Explains Everything: 150 Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, John Brockman (ed.)
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
The Way the World Works: Essays, Nicholson Baker
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick
The Lessons of History, Will Durant
The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Change, Alan Sepinwall
Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine, E. Paul Zehr
User-Centered Design: A Developer’s Guide to Building User-Friendly Applications, Travis Lowdermilk
Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, Todd Henry
Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise
Do the Work, Steven Pressfield
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield


The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
The Son, Philipp Meyer
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
From Hell, Alan Moore
Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts
The Player of Games, Iain Banks
Capital, John Lanchester
Life After Life: A Novel, Kate Atkinson
Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5), Hugh Howey
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson

My Top 10 Albums 2013

This year, I realized that aside from my usual criteria (repeat playability, no/few skipped tracks), one other subjective characteristic had to be there: I had to imagine at some point walking down a street and having this album be the soundtrack behind me.

10. Muchacho, Phosphorescent

9. Wonderful Glorious, Eels

8. If You Wait, London Grammar

7. Yes It’s True, Polyphonic Spree

6. Reflektor, Arcade Fire

5. When It Was Now, Atlas Genius

4. The Silver Gymnasium, Okkervil River

3. Trouble Will Find Me, The National

2. We The Common, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down

1. Modern Vampires of The City, Vampire Weekend

See also my picks for:

My Favorite Design Articles 2013

Five Ways to Prevent Bad Microcopy, Bill Beard

“We can fix that with copy.” I’ve heard this too many times when the UX falls short, and I hate it. If there’s a problem with the design, then fix the design. The best experiences have minimal copy because they’re intuitive. When designing the UX and you find yourself writing a sentence or two to help the user take an action, step back.

The First 15 Seconds: How Great Products Thrive, Scott Belsky

It is fair to say that meaningful engagement—with other people and with products and services (especially the internet kind) that could potentially change our lives—occurs only when we’re pulled past the initial bout of laziness, vanity, and selfishness that accompanies any new experience.

What Data Can’t Do, David Brooks

Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

Deep Inside Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco, Austin Carr

Like any serious renovation, Taco Bell’s started with a trip to Home Depot. It was April 2009. To show executives how the companies could fuse the flavor of Doritos with taco shells, the dev teams “basically went out to Home Depot to buy a paint-spray gun, and then sprayed [Doritos] flavoring onto our existing yellow corn tacos,” recalls Creed, with a chuckle. “It was pretty funny watching people from behind glass spraying our tacos with a paint gun. But it was enough for us to know conceptually that we had a big idea.”

You Lookin’ At Me? Reflections on Google Glass, Jan Chipchase

Glass is Google’s unintentional public service announcement on the future of privacy. Our traditional bogeyman for privacy was Big Brother and its physical manifestation — closed-circuit TV — but the reality today is closer to what I call Little Sister, and she is socially active, curious, sufficiently tech-savvy, growing up in the land of “free,” getting on with life and creating a digital exhaust that is there for the taking. The sustained conversation around Glass will be sufficient to lead to a societal shift in how we think about the ownership of data, and to extrapolate a bit, the kind of cities we want to live in. For me, the argument that Glass is somehow inherently nefarious misses a more interesting point: It is a physical and obvious manifestation of things that already exist and are widely deployed today, whose lack of physical, obvious presence has limited a mainstream critical discourse.

Three Ways to Make Wearable Tech Actually Wearable, Jennifer Darmour

Today’s wearable technology products are mainly in the fitness space, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Wearable tech will start permeating many other domains, including medical, entertainment, security, financial, and more. The more pervasive it becomes, the more important it is to advocate for products that are beautiful, peripheral, and meaningful. Only then will wearable technology achieve its full potential to enhance our lives, rather than disrupt, disconnect, and distract us.

The Future Mundane, Nick Foster

We often assume that the world of today would stun a visitor from fifty years ago. In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it.

Nearly a Decade Later, the Autocomplete Origin Story: Kevin Gibbs and Google Suggest, Liz Gannes

Since the feature would be actively showing results before someone had finished a query, there was a huge risk of Google putting forth something that offended people — even if it was the most likely result algorithmically. That meant many hard and strange decisions, Gibbs recalled, about terms like “hooters,” which could mean owls or the restaurant or boobs; and “lesbian sex,” which on its own is descriptive, but when followed by words like “video” is perhaps not appropriate for all eyes. (In the second case, he didn’t remove the root search, but blocked some derivations.) For many letters of the alphabet, the most commonly searched word was something related to porn.

All Technology is Assistive Technology, Sara Hendren

Instead of labeling some technologies and not others as assistive, let’s start like this: We’re all getting all kinds of help from the things we make. All kinds of help, all the time, for our many material and social and educational and political needs. Private needs and public ones. No one is exempt. Then the questions get really interesting: What can a body do? What needs are you interested in? Who might use which thing for what? Where might the surprises be? How might a familiar thing morph into something else altogether?

How Robots Can Trick You Into Loving Them, Maggie Koerth-Baker

We’re hard-wired, in other words, to attribute states of mind to fellow beings — even dumb robots, provided they at least appear autonomous. But little things — how fast an agent is moving, whether it changes its movements in response to our own — can alter how we interpret what it’s thinking.

Can Siri go deaf, mute, and blind?, Kontra

What happens to Apple’s design advantage in an age of objects performing simple discreet tasks or “intuiting” and brokering our next command among themselves without the need for our touch or gaze? Indeed, what happens to UI design, in general, in an ocean of “interface-less” objects inter-networked ubiquitously?

Why good storytelling helps you design great products, Braden Kowitz

I’ve observed that teams often like to walk through UI designs as they would a blueprint – showing where each element belongs on the plan. Each screen shows how the product might look in a different situation, but the screens are not connected in any way. The problem is that when designs are presented this way, you’re only building an understanding of how the product looks. You’re not focusing on how the product works, and you’re not simulating how customers interact with it. So when teams critique designs as blueprints, it severely limits their ability to reason through the interactivity of the product.

Algorithmic Rape Jokes in the Library of Babel, Tim Maly

Generative programs are force multipliers. Small initial decisions can have massive consequences. The greater your reach, the greater your responsibility to manage your output. When Facebook makes an error that affects 0.1% of users, it means 1 million people got fucked up.

User Expertise Stagnates at Low Levels, Jakob Nielsen

People don’t read manuals. People don’t go exploring all over the user interface in search of neat features. People don’t investigate whether there’s a better way of doing something once they’ve learned an approach that works…Learning is hard work, and users don’t want to do it. That’s why they learn as little as possible about your design and then stay at a low level of expertise for years. The learning curve flattens quickly and barely moves thereafter.

Great Design Always Means Great Style, Don Norman

There are many dimensions to great design, but great style is certainly among the most important. Style in appearance, style in behavior, style in the manner of interaction – style in every aspect of the product or service. Great style requires careful deliberate specification and then attention to all the details that result, for everything must be coherent, everything must be consistent with the chosen style. Call it personality, call it the voice of the product, call it the persona of the product, call it what you will: great design always means great style.

42 Rules to Lead by the Man who Defined Google’s Product Strategy, Jonathan Rosenberg

“Back up your position with data. You don’t win arguments by saying ‘I think.’ You win by saying ‘Let me show you.’”

The simple reason products fail: Consumers don’t understand what they do, Jasper Sørensen

Innovations that are totally new to the market are often extremely difficult to describe. Things that are difficult to describe are hard to understand. And things that are hard for consumers and investors to understand typically face two outcomes: They are either ignored or devalued.

We listened to the people, not the problem, Joelle Steiniger

We want so badly to nail it for everyone. But there are always edge cases, special considerations, etc. And you’ll hear about them a lot because they tend to be a very vocal minority. But we have to remember that it’s not our job to please everyone.

Product Strategy Means Saying No, Des Traynor

Making features optional hides the complexity from the default screens in the interface, but it still surfaces everywhere else. The visible cost of this is a messy interface with lots of conditional design and heaps of configuration. The hidden cost is that every optional feature weakens your product definition. You become “A Time Tracker that can also send invoices and, sorta, do payment reconciliation, but not reporting, yet, I think, I don’t know.”

Related: My Favorite Design Articles from 2012 and 2011.

Sensory Interfaces (SI)

I’ve always hated the term Natural User Interface (NUI) to describe the collection of touch, voice, and gestural interfaces. I think we need a new, better term for them. There are reasons for this.

As Don Norman rightly points out, there is nothing natural about “natural” interfaces , other than that we’re using our bodies. (We also use our bodies to move mice and tap on keyboards.) There is nothing “natural” about manipulating objects under glass; nowhere in the natural world can I pinch to shrink. Nor can I make a gesture in space that touches nothing and have it affect something else nearby (aside from a human). Or use my voice to command real world objects to perform actions (other than dogs, perhaps). So-called “natural” interfaces are, like all interfaces, learned interfaces.

My second objection to NUI is that it’s traditionally a Microsoft term. I have nothing against Microsoft per se, but the proponents of the term NUI have been traditionally people from Microsoft, many of whom worked on Surface (the coffee-table-sized touchscreen device, not the current tablet). I have nothing against those folks, but I don’t want to be identified as one of them either.

My third objection is that it sounds dated, old-fashioned, and HCI-wonky. NUI doesn’t replace Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), so why harken back to GUI at all? Granted, it builds on GUIs, but the current methods of interfacing are a different paradigm of interacting with a digital device.

And what makes them different, yet binds all three (touch, voice, gesture) together? Sensors. All of them rely on sensors to power them. Yes, physical buttons can use sensors as well, but they can also be purely mechanical; you can’t recreate a touchpad, Kinect, or Siri without making use of sensors. The new means of interaction all rely on sensors to make them possible.

This is why I’m proposing Sensory Interfaces (SI) as a way of labeling this new cluster of sensor-powered interactions. SI (“ess-eye” or even “Sí!”) makes sens(or). It doesn’t make any claims towards naturalness; it doesn’t come with any one company’s baggage; and it’s pleasing. Sensory is close to sensual, or pleasing to the senses. Although it’s not meant for consumers, it’s easy to say and remember. It also has some precedents: a brief Google search reveals a few thousand mentions in mostly academic papers, so there’s already some traction there.

Ever since I wrote Designing Gestural Interfaces (on touch and freeform gestures) in 2008, I’ve struggled to find a good term for the types of interfaces we’re designing now that use touch, gesture, and voice as input methods. And so too, I think, has the industry. I think this’ll work. Give it a try.

NUI, no. SI, sí!

My 2012 Bibliography


Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel
Imperium, Richard Harris
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller
Counting Heads, David Marusek
The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang
Bullfighting, Roddy Doyle
Dawn, Octavia Butler
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain


Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, Grant Morrison
Wild, Cheryl Strayed
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed
Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing, Neal Stephenson
The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, Olivia Fox Cabane
Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, Tom Bissell
Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer [Pulled from Amazon]
What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, Daniel Chamovitz
Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Suppose to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman, Richard P. Feynman
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon
The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, James W Pennebaker
The Power of Film, Howard Suber
You’re Not Doing It Right, Michael Ian Black
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt
Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain De Botton
Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zucker
My Seinfeld Year, Fred Stoller
Both Flesh and Not, David Foster Wallace
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max
Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World, Christopher Steiner


100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk
The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams, Klaus Kemp and Keiko Ueki-Polet
Designing with the Mind in Mind, Jeff Johnson
The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell


Make It So, Chris Nossel and Nathan Shedroff
The Mobile Frontier, Rachel Hinman
Designing for Emotion, Trevor van Gorp
Dark Matter and Trojan Horses, Dan Hill
Adversarial Design, Carl DiSalvo
Alien Phenomonology, Ian Bogost
Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business, Thor Muller and Lane Becker
Design is a Job, Mike Montiero
Lean UX, Jeff Gothelf

My Top 10 Albums 2012

It’s been a great year for music. I had a hard time putting this list together because (unlike, say, last year) I had a lot of great music to choose from, thus the massive list of honorable mentions at the bottom. All links go to Spotify.

10. Earlimart, System Preferences
Subtle, folky, melodic.

9. Sleeping Bag, Women of Your Life
Slacker power pop.

8. Guided by Voices, Class Clown Spots A UFO
If you’d told me a few years ago I’d have a GBV album on a best-of list in 2012, I’d have been really puzzled. But this is a great GBV album, right up there with some of their best like Under The Bushes, Under The Stars. Filled with pop gems and weirdness.

7. The xx, Coexist
In September, I said I doubted I’d hear a better album than this one all year. But after repeated listens, turns out it I might have overstated the case. It’s still a good album—the sound of late-night longing for a relationship long gone—but not as good as their debut a few years ago.

6. The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth
When I first heard this album, I was sure The Weakerthans had put out another album, but no, it was The Mountain Goats.

5. Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil
The indie P!nk, this albums contains some of the best pop songs of the year. “Do It With a Rock Star” has the best sarcasm of the year (“Do you really want to go back home/check your messages and charge your phone?”).

4. David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant
David Byrne and horns. Pretty much says it all. Another experiment that works.

3. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits
Catchy, almost-danceable, slinky. Like the best of Spoon.

2. Regina Spektor, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
While everyone was talking about Fiona Apple (the other weird girl with a piano), whose album left me cold, I was enjoying this album’s tuneful songs.

1. Sharon Van Etten, Tramp
She had me at the lyric, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city…or why I’ll have to leave.” This was the album I kept putting on all year, and I assume many years to come. Personal, heartbreaking, tough.

Honorable Mentions: Princeton, “Remembrance of Things to Come;” Yukon Blonde, “Tiger Talk;” Beach House, “Bloom;” Japandroids, “Celebration Rock;” Yellow Ostrich, “Strange Land;” Andrew Bird, “Break It Yourself;” The Ting Tings, “Sounds From Nowheresville;” Jaill, “Traps;” Bob Mould, “Silver Age;” Tilly And The Wall, “Heavy Mood;” Little Comets, “Life is Elsewhere;” Firewater, “International Orange!” Lord Huron, “Lonesome Dreams;” The Shins, “Port of Morrow;” and The Crookes, “Hold Fast.”

Super-special honorable mention to Beck for Song Reader. I can’t really put it on the best albums list because it’s only sheet music, but I’m loving the interpretations I’m hearing from it. And it’s just such a brilliant idea. An album for the Age of YouTube. It’s definitely the most daring idea of the year, and I expect when the songs are all in, it’ll make an appearance on my best of the decade wrap-up in 2019, seven years hence.

See also my picks for:

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.