Our technologies shape us

As the world around us changes, we need new technology and improved interaction to help us. But what causes the world to change? The very technology that we introduce.

I saw this quote stuck up on the wall of a furniture shop the other day.

Winston Churchill: We shape our homes and then our homes shape us

It set me thinking: if you replace “homes” with “technology” you get an insight into the business of interaction design.

Modified quote: we shape technology and our technologies shape us

Hitting a moving target

Good interaction designers know that their job is never done. As people adopt a new technology, their behaviour changes. And the technology needs to change with them, if its going to stay useful.

  • When everyone has a mobile phone, we discover we like sending text messages.
  • Multi-tap is a bit cumbersome for creating text messages. So predictive text helps us send more texts faster.
  • Blogs are great. But we can’t keep up. So we subscribe via RSS.
  • We can’t keep up with RSS. So we use an RSS ticker to help me stay on top of the flood.
  • We’re stuck in front of computers all day so Twitter helps us stay in touch with our friends and family.
  • We need the best quality information to be filtered from the noise. So Digg and Delicious help us share attention and opinion data.
  • We have lots of information available to us but we discover we want to mix and match it. So RDF, promises the next evolution, along with interfaces like Ubiquity and Aurora.

I think there’s a recurring theme here:

Information technology empowers people to produce more information more quickly. (SMS, Predictive text, Blogs, Twitter, HTML, IM, Ubiquity…)
Information technology protects us from the flood of information we have been empowered to produce. (RSS, Digg, Google, Technorati, Aurora?…)

We’re in a bizarre arms race with ourselves. I think the “producer” team is winning. Some people say that the “protect” team don’t stand a chance.

That’s progress

So, it seems, it has always been. Venerable sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen put it like this:

“Invention is the mother of necessity.”

This probably means two things, but I’m interested in just one meaning: When we use technology to solve one problem, we often create a new and different one, which in turn needs a solution.

Technology for our children

Well, since I had a few minutes to spare I asked my daughter to take that photo in the furniture shop, using my mobile phone. She’s 4. She managed it fine.

When the first mobile phone designers started out, I’m sure they had no idea of that requirement.

Apalling and astonishing

Two flowsters, Ofer Deshe and Simon Johnson, dug out these two fine blog posts and sent them to me.
The five worst website designs in the world

Bad web design

Worse web design

Ten futuristic user interfaces

Futuristic glass integrates information services with everyday life

A 180 dome display makes gaming more immersive

What I take from this:

  • The web on a computer is old, flat and slow.  But still incredibly useful.
  • When you ask cutting edge design teams to create interfaces, you get discernably better results.
  • The value that good design brings to a business couldn’t be clearer.

New facebook design confirms a drift to the right (nav)

Facebook’s homepage moves more of the navigation to the right – a signal that the convention of left navigation bars is shifting.

Facebook navigation
Facebook’s welcome page – lots of functionality has moved to the right.

When I first saw a left hand navbar in 1995, I was amazed at the idea of dividing the page up into zones, and dedicating one of them to this cryptic concept called “navigation”. I never stopped to wonder whether putting it on the left was a good idea. Fundamentally, I don’t think it is.

Left to right

In the west, we read from left to right. Eye tracking studies generally indicate the the top left area of the page is the place where everyone looks. But when we arrive on a page, we first want to assess if it brings us closer to our goal. Getting closer to our goals makes us happy. So content, not navigation should go in the prime, left-side spot.

At worst, a navbar says “Are you sure you wanted to be on this page? Why not try a different one?” And because it is there on every page, the question is quite incessant. It’s like having the store guide in a department store follow you around on wheels. Or the table of contents appear on every page of a newspaper.

Long left nav
Long left navbars: Do we really need to be able to navigate from anywhere to everywhere else?

Breaking with convention

Mercifully, around 3-4 years ago, left navs started disappearing. Maybe it was eye tracking studies that did it.

Blogs were among the first to shift- the standard templates didn’t feature left navs. The changes were a difficult decision for interaction designers. So deep rooted was the left-nav habit, that angst-ridden designers posted on lists asking, “Is it ok to put my nav on the right?”

Some debate ensued. Wasn’t convention the most important thing for ease of use? Convention said navbars went on the left. Right was for cross-links, bits and pieces. But a study showed that actually, it didn’t make a significant difference. People could complete key tasks with no training with pretty much the same levels of efficiency and effectiveness, with both right and with left navbars.

What we think while we navigate

I like putting the navigation on the right. Here’s why. I think people conceptualise their navigation through a website taxonomy like this…

Web navigation: a mental model

This comes from watching people during a lot of usability tests. If you think about web navigation like that, then right equals forward and left equals backward (just like in a book). People like going forward, making progress towards their goals. So if interaction designers can ensure there is always an interesting place to go forward to, left navigation becomes much less important. You can collapse it into top menus or push it into a rather lovely bottom navbar.
(The other key form of navigation, probably most effective of all, is inline links. But that’s another post).

Facebook is moving the emphasis to the right with its redesign. It hasn’t given up on the left navbar yet, but I think it will over time, and so will most other websites. Because overall, I think content on the left and onward links on the right suits the way we think.

To-scale paper prototyping for the home

I’m iteratively prototyping my new room layout at full scale with newspaper.

This is the second time I’ve tried this and it really works well. You stick sheets of newspaper together to represent the kitchen cabinets or the new sofa or whatever. Then you lay the sheets out in the room itself and see what it’s like. Of course, it helps a lot if the room is empty.

Paper prototyping a kitchen to scale with newspaper
Paper prototyping a kitchen to scale with newspaper

It’s a very similar process to designing good user experiences. Create a prototype. Simulate use. Discover what works. Iteratively improve.

The motivation is also the same. If I’m going to spend thousands or a new kitchen or a new sofa, I want to be sure I don’t end up with an expensive mistake. I want something efficient, comfortable and lovely to live with. Any organisation launching a website should be thinking something similar. “Measure twice, cut once,” as the saying goes.

Paper prototyping a lounge/dining space with newspaper
Paper prototyping a a lounge/dining space with newspaper

And what I have learned on both occasions?

  • Leave more empty space between the objects
  • Make sure there’s good flow from one space to the next

Which sounds a lot like interaction design too.

Social design for Springleap

Cape Town’s new collaborative T-shirt design website is a really interesting piece of social design.

A couple of weeks ago, Eric Edelstein, the CEO of Springleap asked me to pop by and chat about the user experience strategy for his site.

The idea for the site is simple: Designers submit designs for t-shirts, the community votes on the designs, and the winning t-shirts get printed and made available for to buy on the site. The designers of those shirts get a cash prize and people can come and buy the shirts.

Eric holding a Springleap shirt
Eric Edelstein and one of Springleap’s shirts.

It’s similar to Threadless but the community rules and processes are a bit different. And therein lies the challenge. Designing a community that works, and that makes money, is not easy but always interesting.

The number one rule for social design is: deliver personal value to each individual user. That way you’ll attract members regardless of how big or small the network is already. When you’ve attracted members, value will start to emerge from their interactions, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Now: where’s the personal value? Designers see value in submitting designs: they might win money, and they will certainly get exposure. And shoppers see value in buying: the shirts are limited editions by talented designers. The tricky part is the getting people to vote. There’s no obvious incentive for them to do it.

But people are already voting, and with some planned improvements to the site, they should soon be voting even more. Here are some reasons:

  • The designers encourage people to come and vote for them. This means the promotional activity for the site is distributed to the members themselves. That’s very scalable.
  • People who came to the site as designers or shoppers can be “seduced” into voting. Once they have completed their primary goals, designers want to check out the competition and shoppers want to find new things to buy.
  • Voters will earn kudos for voting, and particularly for predicting the winning designs. So if you vote well, you can become a respected design pundit on the site, and get free stuff too.
  • Voting will be very very easy. That’s a straight usability challenge. Put voting opportunities in attaractive locations, and make the voting process extremely quick.

Springleap T shirts in their bags
Getting a Springleap t-shirt is a great customer experience. There’s a mini brochure of that month’s winning shirts, and a postcard and badge of your chosen design.

It’s working so far

There are all sorts of business and community design challenges for Springleap to tackle. But the bottom line is: they’re getting designs in, selling t-shirts and doing something amazing. The web gives them world-wide reach, and there’s no need to stop at just t-shirts, either.

There’s a great vibe in the office, and we had a lot of fun brainstorming ideas. But the best thing about my visit: they paid me in T-shirts!

What makes us productive and what makes us stupid

Your working environment has a big impact on your productivity, creativity and happiness. And good user experiences follow the same rules.

The interruptions caused by email and other digital communications reduce your IQ by up to 10 points, and cost large corporations UD$1m in revenue per annum. They also make people unhappy. Among many corporations, Intel has been running a “quiet time” initiative, where every Tuesday morning is set aside for quiet thinking only. No email, no IM, no phone calls, even.

On the flip side, I found interesting research about how corporate environments that provide clear goals, facilitate progress and praise success make people happier, more creative and more productive.

It struck me that most of this is linked to the concept of Flow, proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is a state of optimal experience (very closely linked to happiness). If you’ve ever looked up at the clock and realised that an hour or two has rushed past unexpectedly, chances are you were in a state of Flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the idea of Flow

Flow is frequently caused by having clear and worthwhile goals, making visible progress towards those goals, and being appropriately challenged as you go. Almost exactly like that description of the happy and productive working environment.

But how many times have you sat down at your desk expecting to make rewarding progress, only to realise that you have a pile of unread email? Suddenly you’re wading through unexpected issues and problems, and your original goal for the day is pushed further away. That’s a recipe for no flow, and a feeling of frustration. No wonder the Intel pilot group look forward to Tuesday mornings.

Happy interaction

So, if you’re a manager, you need to be shaping your team or organisation to work in a Flow-inducing way.

If you’re an interaction designer, you need to design interfaces to help your users experience Flow. Three fairly plain lessons:

  • Don’t interrupt your users. People using computers are goal directed – they’re online to get a task done. Excessive confirmation dialogs cause frustration. Interstitial and pop-up ads are worse. Flash intros are, mercifully, a thing of the past.  And perhaps the cardinal sin is emailing your customers too much. Why any brand would want to be associated with these negative, frustration-causing events is a mystery to me. “Are users stupid?” some unenlightened designers have been heard to ask. Well, if you keep interrupting them, you’re reducing their IQ.
  • Help your users to accept new ideas. Innovation is a hot topic for corporations looking for an edge. Helping your customers to innovate makes them happy too. Blogger.com helps new users understand blogging and create a blog in astoundingly simple steps. Google Adwords suggests new products and services that are specifically selected to be relevant to the user’s goal. Amazon does the same, and also keeps many of it recommendations for after you’ve made some productive steps towards your goal – it recommends most stuff when you add to basket and when you complete a purchase.
  • Help your users to think creatively. A lot of Web2.0, and the latest thinking in UCD, is about helping people to express themselves by building or creating something. Myspace and Facebook pages and relationships are a labour of love for some. Family trees are loving crafted in Geni. Photobox lets you craft beautiful paper photo albums using custom software. All Flow activities, where users make clear progress towards desirable goals, and learn something on the way.

To be effective interaction designers, we need to be happiness experts. And because the organisation behind the interface will always show through, we need to be happy and work in happy places. Now that’s a goal worth working towards.

Making user experience a hot topic in Cape Town

Last week we had the SA UX Forum Cape Town meet-up. 16 people braved the rain and cold to show up and share ideas about user experience.

Because user experience is just getting a foothold down here, we started at the beginning.  I did a talk called “What is user experience and why do we care?”  [PDF 8MB]

Presentation slide thumbnails

Led by Bertus “AJ” Kock, the group also took a look at various attendees’ computer desktops. We pondered what the different layouts said about them, and about the limitations of the desktop GUIs they used.  Fun and fascinating.

Web and mobile services are growing fast in South Africa as broadband prices drop. And all the South African businesses I speak to are keen to get the benefits of UX. They know they need input, but don’t always know where to start. Hopefully the UX forum, and the face-to-face meetings, will help spread the word and raise awareness.

The forum in session

A few attendees (whose websites I know):

… and many more wonderful people whose website addresses I can’t recall now. That’s just the Cape Town gang. The Johannesburg gang had a larger gathering a little while back – and there’s another one scheduled soon.

Overall the forum has 80 people.  Maybe you should join too. (It’s free).

Collaboration and creativity use up the social surplus

Organised, industrial society creates left-over time for its citizens — and that time has to be used up somehow. At first it was with gin. Then TV. Now it’s just beginning to be with mass creation and collaboration.

Thanks to Anne Sophie Leens for the pointer. And “wow” to Clay Shirky for such a great post. I hope the book is just as good.

I have to say – it really shifted my mindset.

…if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

See? Read the whole thing…

Why did Apple launch a bad phone?

If if the 1st Gen iPhone was so “bad” – what was Apple thinking when they launched it?

Lots of people are excited about the new iPhone because they think it will address many of the annoyances present in the first one. (Well – not all of those issues are getting addressed, in fact. But some are.)

There was much complaining about the iPhone 1.0. And vocal user complaints are not usually a great recipe for a popular product and strong sales. In fact often, companies that rush products out to be “first to market” end up having their lunch eaten by products that arrive a little later, but offer a better UX. Apple themselves demonstrated with the ipod that late-comers can steal the the show by being “best-to-market.”

Here are 5 reasons I can think of why Apple launched a “bad” product, braved all that negative publicity, and gave companies like Samsung and HTC a chance to take a shot at them.

1. Launch simple products first.

Apple like everyone else had to launch a version 1.0. Business reality and human psychology demand it. At some point you have to get something out the door becfore you run out of cash or go insane. iPhone 1.0 was a product of controlled project scope.

iphone 3g

2. Get feedback from beta testers

Getting live market feedback works well – but mostly with early adopters. So perhaps Apple didn’t want go mainstream yet. Did they elect to keep sales constrained and stay with the iPhone *BETA crowd until they had perfected the product?

3. Move the focus to UX

The iPhone caused a stir because it moved the focus to a different aspect of the mobile UX. Were Apple deliberately saying “it’s not about hardware. Stop competing on hardware. This new phone is all about the user experience.” So in a way, the hardware shortcomings drew attention to the UX. People complaining about missing hardware could be accused of “missing the point/having no vision” – and frequently were.

4. No competitors stand a chance anyway

Apple decided it didn’t matter if their prodcut wasn’t perfect, because they were confident that none of the existing mobile manufacturers could get their act together to compete on Apple’s UX turf nearly fast enough. Efforts from HTC and Samsung were hardly mind-blowing. Nokia’s device is still in development.

And realistically, that wasn’t hard to predict. For traditional electronics companies try to squeeze into the Apple mold seems to be all but impossible. So Apple put their money where their mouth was and went first to market with an incomplete product. They knew they would get a way with it.

5. And now they can generate more buzz by launching version 2.

All publicity is good publicity.

Are people going to buy iPhone2? Some more will. That I suspect that question doesn’t matter to Apple too much. We’re still, arguably, in beta 2. One more release and it’s going to get interesting.

Tower Bridge starts to Twitter

Tower Bridge has joined the ranks of an increasing number of intelligent objects that can tell us things about themselves.

My colleague David Whittle uncovered this beautiful little story: Tower Bridge is now on Twitter. Effecitvely the bridge is keeping its own micro blog of its activitiy and notifying anyone who cares to subscribe about what it is doing.

Tower Bridges Twitter stream

This makes Tower Bridge into a spime – an object that is in some why aware of its’s own position in space and time, and able to report it to interested parties.

You’ve found your keys

Spimes offer a lovely way to connect the world of physical objects to the information flow of the Internet.

Lost your keys? If they were spime keys, you could Google for them.

Lent a book to someone but can’t remember who? If it were a spime you could Google for who had it. And maybe even if they had read it.

Bruce Sterling describes a vision of the future where product designers can iteratively enhance spime-products using spime data about when and where the products were used. Kind of like Web analytics but for physical products too. (Fascinating and useful for the designers, but no replacement for experience labs and other ethno techniques. Why? Because a spime will still not be able to capture and relay its users intentions, motivations and desires.)

Spimes and spime kludges

You can’t yet google your keys or get analytics about how someone used their new shoes. But there is already a lot of spime-like stuff out there, beyond Tower Bridge.

Track packages: Express parcels are spimes. They have barcodes and RFID tags, so that you can track where they have got to. There was furore a few years back over the idea of RFID tags embedded in clothes to help with inventory tracking. If you forgot to remove the tags, then conceivably, people could track you!

Find children: Mobile phones and cool sneakers with GPS are being used to help worried parents keep track of their children. (No need to implant the chip in the child, just give them a kid-friendly phone or trendy sneakers and they’ll take their treasure with them everywhere).

Kid tracking phone

And this low tech but ingenious approach is helping people find lost digital cameras. If you find a lost camera, just mail four pictures from it to the Found Cameras and Orphan Pictures blog, and maybe the owner will find them and claim it.

Spime your stuff now

If you own something that you feel need to be searchable by others, Google can help. Google Base lets you store any information about anything online now, so that others can search for it. But unless you can find a way to update the information in real time, then your object won’t yet be a spime.

Know any other good spimes? Do tell.