What We Make, Makes Us
In our age of rapidly evolving technology and unyielding human restlessness and discord, design ought to be more than simply functional; it should be expressive, socially meaningful, and humanistic. Design should transcend the purely technological, encompass the human, and strive for the sublime.
Sublime design presents itself, first and last, as a useful thing, but nestled within that window of interaction lies the novel articulation of a thought, an idea, a reflection—an invisible truth that speaks to us, intimate yet universal, purposeful without necessity of purpose, that leaves us playful, understood, elevated. It is a transformation so subtle that it escapes our conscious grasp but that once experienced—like music—we would never want to be without again.
Ge Wang is a professor and computer music researcher, perhaps most widely known in the field as the creator of the ChucK language for creating computer music systems and one of the founders of the company Smule, creators of numerous iPhone music creation apps including the Ocarina and “I Am T-Pain”. In this new book from Stanford University Press, he lays out a set of strong arguments about design (mostly focusing on his work in computer music, but also thoughtful ruminations on pencil cases and other artifacts) focusing on how we as designers can aspire to the sublime in the systems that we build. (more…)
Be More Than Just A Code Monkey
I wrote this book because I believe the shift away from “programmer as coding specialist” is inevitable. If that’s true, then our entire field will need to prepare itself for the not-so-distant future where “programmer as skilled solver of ordinary human problems” becomes the norm.
— Gregory T. Brown
I picked up this deceptively slender (~115 pages) book after reading an article about it on the O’Reilly site a week or so ago that said "it’s sort of like The Pragmatic Programmer for a new generation." Given how important that book’s been for me as a developer (it’s in my periodic re-read pile, along with Code Complete, the GoF Design Patterns book and Knuth’s Literate Programming), it didn’t take much thinking before ordering a copy.
A few weeks ago, I posted a review of the recent book on building connected products from O’Reilly. I also have a few more books on the shelf here that touch on this area from a slightly different angle.
The Best Interface Is No Interface
I became aware of Golden Krishna, the author of this book when I attended his panel criticizing the use of dropdowns at SXSW 2016. The content in this book predates that panel by a few years, originally presented as a keynote at SXSW 2013.
The basic thesis of the book is that it’s variously easy, lazy, and sloppy to always try to address the problems we’re solving through technology by slapping a screen-based interface on top of things. Early in the book he gives the example of a keyless entry system advertised by BMW, that requires the following 13 steps to occur between a user walking up to her car and actually opening the door:
- Walk up to my car
- Pull out my smartphone
- Wake up my phone
- Unlock my phone
- Exit my last opened app
- Exit my last opened group
- Swipe through a sea of icons, searching for the app
- Tap the app icon
- Wait for the app to load and try to find the unlock action
- Make a guess with the menu and tap “Control”
- Tap the Unlock button
- Slide the slider to unlock
- Physically open the car door (my goal)
Compare that with the obviously better sequence
- Walk up to my car
- Physically open the car door (my goal)
…which is how things behave on recent Tesla models (with the added coolness of the door handles changing from being completely recessed into the body until someone tries to open them).
The book’s 21 chapters thoroughly outline the problem, three general principles to follow in addressing the problem (“Embrace Typical Processes Instead of Screens”, “Leverage Computers Instead of Serving Them”, and “Adapt to Individuals”), and some of the challenges that make this approach to design not quite so easy.
Mining a similar vein is David Rose’s 2014 book Enchanted Objects:
Some believe the future will look like more of the same—more smartphones, tablets, screens embedded in every conceivable surface. David Rose has a different vision: technology that atomizes, combining itself with the objects that make up the very fabric of daily living. The Enchanted Objects of fairy tales and science fiction will enter real life.
The opening paragraph of the book’s prologue could almost have been extracted from somewhere in ‘The Best Interface is No Interface’:
I have a recurring nightmare. It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass … its face filled with tiny, inscrutible icons that now define and control our lives.
These two books work together as great complements; however, Rose’s focus on building Enchanted objects alters the tone of things quite a bit. Recurring themes and references take that idea of Enchantment quite literally, as he looks at fictional magical artifacts from the Harry Potter universe.
Besides many case studies of examples that illustrate his premises, he provides a pair of frameworks for thinking about systems that can be used as a designer of enchanted objects:
Six Human Drives
In these chapters, Rose develops dialectics between fictional enchanted objects (e.g., Dorothy’s Silver/Ruby slippers) and an analogous real one (in this case, the Nike+ shoes). He delineates six human drives that can be augmented or addressed through enchanted objects:
The Design of Enchantment
This set of chapters discusses opportunities and techniques for engaging more of our users’ senses through system design, rather than requiring the user to focus on a glass slab. He calls for a careful use of ‘subtle and subliminal phenomena’. He calls these out as the ‘Seven Abilities of Enchantment’:
Optimism and Humanism
Especially when considered as a pair, even though there’s much in these books that’s deeply and sometimes harshly critical of products that have been widely lauded, I see these books as extremely optimisitic visions of the future than not only should be, but that actually can be.
I’m not sure which will prove to be more difficult in practice:
- Learning to put these kinds of approaches and principles into practice when desiging systems
- Convincing the stakeholders on our projects that we can use these ideas to build better systems that adapt to their human users instead of continuing to require the opposite.
One could say that the ideas behind these ideas go back a long time, popping up in books like Donald Norman’s classic “The Design of Everyday Things”, “User Centered System Design”, or Jef Raskin’s “The Humane Interface,” but those were all written in an era when the idea of tiny battery-powered computing devices that are orders of magnitude more powerful than desktop/workstation machines of the era was still purely speculative.
The future is finally getting here, let’s try not to mess this part of it up.
The frustrating thing, I guess, is that all of us who make software want to make great software. Maybe there are exceptions to that deep down in the guts of some development shop in a government bureaucracy or the kind of Enterprise Development with Capital Letters shop that gives that world a bad name, I don’t know. The problem is that there are decades of experience on making great code, but much less so on how to make software that is great for our users.
It’s made worse by the fact that for most of us, the code is invisible to our bosses/clients, but as soon as you can see or touch or use something, everyone thinks that they’re an expert on How Things Should Be Done (and often decisions are made not on the basis of expertise or empirical data but by HIPPO). (more…)
In my quest for more knowledge of cryptography, I’ve started reading actual books (instead of just reading API reference documents.) If you’re like me, and you’ve decided that going deeper than just making the code work is a good thing, read on. (more…)