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…)
Who ARE we?
You may have noticed that we changed our logo.
We felt it was time to revise our design so it continues to represent our unique blend of art and logic while also connoting the kind of strong, solid, and innovative work we do. How to achieve this goal sparked some amazing conversations about who we are, what we do, and how we want to position ourselves in the market.
And so, the journey began…
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.
It was August 1, 1981.
I sat on the hotel room floor, surrounded by guitars, keyboards, and gadgets, doodling on a complimentary Holiday Inn notepad. Dad tinkered with a motherboard as his soldering iron glowed, delicately balanced on the edge of an ashtray. The smell of pork chops, rice and beans wafted through the air as mom worked her magic on our portable double burner stove. I sat on the floor, glued to the television. It was that very moment the iconic M came to life and made its beautiful debut. (more…)
A Book Review & Call to Arms
We’re pretty clearly on the cusp of an era where much of what we know about building software systems is wrong. As devices become smarter and networked (or dumber and networked, which may end up being equally important or more important in the long run), as people who design and develop the software systems that monitor, control, or otherwise interact with these new kinds of devices, we all need to acquire different sets of skills that are currently rare, and apply our old habits and knowledge in different ways than we’re used to. (more…)