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March 28, 2003

The way it ought to be.

Blue sky. Warm sun. Cold snow.
Valeria, earning her turns somewhere not far from heaven.

Valeria, earning her turns somewhere between heaven and earth.

Posted by fabio sergio | 2:50 PM | permalink


Running in Connectedland.

Marc Rettig has posted his "Interaction Design History in a Nutshell" (download PDF here), a thought-provoking sequence of images and considerations that will take you from the 1940s and punch cards to our (likely) future.
Well worth the time it takes to download all 3 Megs of it.

Rettig's document also reminded me of Jeffrey Veen's nice story about the way connectivity is changing even simple things like running.
His "Schwinn and Treo" experience is a good example of what kind of challenges await Interaction Designers in the near future, or what Rettig calls dynamically enable.
Once even shoes are somehow connected to The Network how will the information they generate be (emotionally) meaningful for people, and how will they access it as they'll be walking and running in those same shoes?
The context will be the medium.

As a side note Jeffrey's comments (and reasoning) about the dubious usefulness of today's mobile web services should be printed somewhere big.
Really big.
But that's another story.

Posted by fabio sergio | 2:23 PM | permalink


March 21, 2003

Sensual computing.

Along the lines of changing the nature of interaction with digital artifacts and introducing an emotional variable into the equation as well, here's a handy new article on the excellent Metropolis magazine, "Starting Small":

"Six smooth white stones, like ostrich eggs, sit on top of round white tables in the renovated lobby of the Asia Society and Museum in New York.
When one of the stones, etched with the words food cuisine, is placed over one country on a tabletop map of Asia, magical things start to happen.
The map moves, the country name swells, and text and images relaying the region's culinary traditions rise to the surface of the table, as if called from the depths of the adjacent oceans.
The content revealed by maneuvering the stones is recalled from the Asia Society Web site, but the sensual appeal of this process has the effect of making the information seem more interesting.

David Small is an MIT graduate whose studio specializes in projects where digital information is manipulated through physical objects, such as in the stunningly beautiful Illuminated Manuscript or the evocative Stream of Consciousness.
Interactive digital artifacts are slowly breaking free of their 2D handcuffs and adopting deceptively innocent-looking 3D form factors.
The sensual, kinesthetically rich, emotional experience they will be able to convey will disclose new horizons, and promote tighter integration between interaction and product design.
It is time, as Jonathan has pointed out, that we start humming a new mantra: form follows emotion.

Before everything had to be something-log, everything had to be i-something, and before that everything had to be e-something, remember?
In those days I indulged in saying that we should have focused on e-motive and e-motion, to half-jokingly point out that emotions are semantically relevant if you want to motivate people to move into uncharted waters and help them draw new mental maps.
What I think is fascinating about objects such as those that David Small has been making available to the public, is that they have been long envisioned and prototyped in labs such as MIT's Tangible Media Group, but now they are finally ready to start changing the way people interact with CommonSpace and relate to it.
When results have the poetic qualities of Small's work my soul relaxes and welcomes our upcoming UbiComp world, arms outstretched.

Posted by fabio sergio | 2:02 PM | permalink


March 18, 2003

The pleasure of pleasure in use.

When a few months ago Donald Norman started talking about Emotion and Design I just couldn't help but shake my head and wonder why it had taken so long for someone so bright and influential to just acknowledge what common sense and daily experience openly shows.
There's no dichotomy between sheer beauty and efficient, effective, useful, usable functionality.
You can have your cake and eat it too.
Surely enough Norman hasn't actually started infamous diatribes about the dangers of focusing on the purely "aesthetical" qualities of a product (supposedly at the expense of its usability), but many interpretations of his ideas have often turned his words against designers.

I think everyone who has ever conducted a usability test must have been able to see firsthand the effects that the desirability of a product can have on its perceived ease of use.
I remember one of my first tests on, of all things, oven User Interfaces.
One oven had a really complicated LCD-based interface, and test after test users stumbled through the tasks, sometimes unable to even set the cooking time.
Nonetheless the very same UI also happened to be the most aesthetically pleasing, and people kept making enthusiastic comments about the oven's bright display and cute, colorful, animating icons.
Intrigued, we probed further to understand how this positive impression reflected on people's perception of the ease of use of the product.
Guess which was the oven people indicated most frequently as the most intuitive to use?

All of the above should really come as no surprise, as my favorite definition of usability (ISO DIS 9241) does include satisfaction:

"The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use."

Truth is that efficiency and effectiveness are perfect to measure rational benefits, but can be completely inefficient and ineffective (pun intended) to understand what emotionally motivates people to prefer specific products or services over competing ones.
Satisfaction, on the other hand, is often the irrational force behind the creation of those elusive emotional bonds, which, I am told, are what User Experience design and branding are in the end all about.

My simple, and in itself meaningless, example about ovens is actually just one of many that comes to mind and that include both physical and digital products alike.
Even credibility of content itself has been recently proven to be related to the way it is esthetically presented to users, as pointed out by Stanfordís Persuasive Technology Lab's Guidelines for Web Credibility:

"We find that people quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone.
When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more.

The secret is out, and it is Don Norman who, as it has often happened in the past, finds the simplest, most effective words:

"Attractive things work better".

Well, yes, they do.
Welcome to our world Don.

Other than Norman I am extremely glad to see that familiar voices from the product design community have started making themselves heard also in the interactive design world, and concepts and ideas that have been around for quite a while in product design circles have started to trickle down to the interactive floor (as a side note I must say it just baffles me to notice how two worlds so conceptually close to one another can be still so distant in practical terms, and deaf to what the other is up to).
I am referring to pleasure in use and to all the various researchers investigating ways to design desirability and pleasantness into products, and measure it afterwards.

Take Map24, for example.
Ever since I've stumbled onto this mapping service I've ended up asking myself why I have used such enthusiastic words about it.
After long hours of relentless self-analysis I realized that (drum roll please) it was simply because I had fun using it.
Stimulated by this dubious moment of enlightenment I decided to take a second, more rational look.
The result of the evaluation is that the site itself is overall a fairly standard, pop-up-plagued portal, with a visual language that leaves ample room for improvement and advanced features which are not necessarily very intuitive.
Actually using the maps, though, drastically changes the perception of the entire service.
The surprisingly dynamic, emotionally-engaging qualities of the interaction end up making the whole experience memorable, and set a new standard for all similar products.
This is a good example of the power of emotion at work.

I have to credit one of my former colleagues at Whirlpool, Jean-Yves LeGall, for introducing me to papers and books dealing with the effects that positive (and negative) feelings experienced while using a product can have on its perceived usability.
I recall a 1998 study on ATM user interfaces by Kim Jin Woo, "Designing Towards Emotional Usability in Customer Interfaces. (Trustworthiness of Cyber Banking System Interfaces)".
In the same period, in Italy, SEA's (Society of Applied Ergonomics, now ErgoSolutions) Lina Bonapace and Luigi Bandini Buti developed a very interesting methodology called SEQUAM (Sensorial Quality Assessment Method), which tried to identify which characteristics in a product help convey pleasantness. The method was successfully applied to support the design of car interiors.
Ever since then I've stumbled time and again into research done in this area, from labs working with Kansei Engineering techniques, to Interaction Ivrea's recent efforts on Designing Desire, from Helsinki's eDesign Lab's interesting pages to TUDelft's Design and Emotion Lab's projects and papers.

When the words "design" and "pleasure" are associated, though, one person can almost be credited to have single-handedly given visibility to this fascinating field of studies.
That person is Patrick Jordan, CEO (and founder) of the Contemporary Trends Institute.
I had first stumbled onto Jordan's ideas reading a couple of papers he published while still at Philips Design: "Pleasure in product use: beyond usability" (1995) and "Displeasure and how to avoid it" (1996).
Since then Jordan has written what is still the most referenced book on these themes, "Designing Pleasurable Products: an Introduction to the New Human Factors.", and climbed the steps to design gurudom, including holding the Nierenberg Chair at Carnegie-Mellon University.
Between you and me, the man's bio reads like something Clark Kent would be envious of.

Together with long-time User Experience and Interaction Design fave Jodi Forlizzi, Jordan is also one of the driving forces behind the only conference which has so far focused on these fuzzy, still a bit esoteric themes.
The first edition, held in 2001 in Singapore, was known as CAHD (International Conference on Affective Human Factors Design).
The second round, now called DPPI (Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces), will be held this June in Pittsburgh, and will be packed with interesting people.
I wish I could go, but my chances stand as high as my hair, and I happen to be, well, bald.

Usability. Usefulness. Desirability.
The good ol' triad.
As Alan Cooper has hinted in "The Inmates are Running the Asylum", you can arguably build a brand around each one of these dimensions, or around their reciprocal balance.
The quest for pleasure in use should ultimately thus start from considerations based around a brand and its underlying values.
Take Apple and Microsoft.
Apple has put desirability and "sexiness" behind every touchpoint with its customers, and has achieved a cult-like following from people who identify themselves with its values, ultimately creating a brand that is worshipped beyond reason, as Wired Online has recently pointed out in "Apple: It's All About the Brand.".
This has been apparent both in the physical design of Apple's products, which always strive to explore new directions and never stick to status-quo, and in the interactive qualities of its user interfaces.
From its Mac OSX onwards, for example, Apple has taken the graphic definition and dynamic qualities of icons and menus to new extremes, arguably to the point of almost getting in the way of what users want to achieve.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has been making products that have usefulness at their heart, but have always lacked any emotional appeal.
Whenever Microsoft has tried to take a stab at introducing a human touch in its software, it has ultimately failed, such as with its infamous "paper clip" assistant, possibly the most intrusive and hated feature in the history of office-ware.
Microsoft's products are, quite simply, necessary, but usually not loved by their users, a perception that has in the end reflected on the Microsoft brand as a whole (or vice-versa, maybe).

While the usability and usefulness of both Apple and Microsoft products has had wildly-fluctuating ups and downs, the real differentiating factors are to be found elsewhere, in the emotional bonds they've been able to create with their customers and users.

Posted by fabio sergio | 6:50 PM | permalink


March 17, 2003

The echo of your own thoughts.

In the February issue of Wired magazine Jim Lewis has written a short article, "Memory Overload", which echoes some of Adam's and Jonathan's recent considerations (and some of my own as well) around the use of life-documenting, digital tools.

"There's a famous allegory about a map of the world that grows in detail until every point in reality has its counterpoint on paper; the twist being that such a map is at once ideally accurate and entirely useless, since it's the same size as the thing it's meant to represent.
If you wanted to, you could make a fair-quality audio recording of everything that reaches your ears for a month ... though, of course, you'd need another month to listen to it.
Whence the rub: if life gets recorded in real time, it hardly counts as a record at all.

Mechanical memory, to its unexpected advantage, degrades. But digital memory, ubiquitous, fathomless, and literally gratuitous, serves neither idea.
The past is always here and always perfect; everything can be represented, no moment need be lost.
Moreover, all of it is as good as new, and every copy identical to the original.
What's missing is a cadence, a play of values, or a respect for the way loss informs our experience of time.
Like the map that's as big as the world itself, it's useless precisely because it's too good.

Well. Yes.

Posted by fabio sergio | 3:58 PM | permalink


March 14, 2003


Motorola has worked with Frog Design on a joint project called "Offspring Wearables Concepts" (via Chad Thornton).

Just like Nokia, which has already marketed very similar products (like their Camera Headset combo) and announced some more at CeBit (the Anoto-reminiscent Digital Pen), Motorola seems to be toying with the Wireless Personal Area Network, with several small, function-specific objects webbed together via Bluetooth.

On the design side the concepts are cool, but maybe a bit too reminiscent of what Philips Design has done with Nike in the recent past.
And if I were Oakley I'd be eyeing those glasses quite suspiciously...

Posted by fabio sergio | 2:11 PM | permalink


March 12, 2003

Time tripping.

Mike Lee had me almost crying with the story about his brother in law's creative reuse of 3Com's Audrey, hacked into a family-shared picture holder.

Audrey was just one of many Information Appliances that seemingly held a lot of potential, but also happened to lack any market whatsoever.
In the end it all came down (and still does) to products that did only a few things quite well, but had a price tag which was simply too high for their perceived value.
Today hybrids like Nokia's N-Gage seem ready to reap what objects like Audrey have sown.

Thinking about Information Appliances brought me back to a time when we were all young and hopeful, dot-coms were raging and all we wanted was a free, fast ride to IPOs and fame.
I still have my own private collection of faded PowerPoint-ed visions, and every now and then I rummage through dusty folders and take a look.
It warms the cockles of my heart.
Sorry, got to stop, tears are making my laptop's hard drive squeal.

Posted by fabio sergio | 5:41 PM | permalink


March 11, 2003

The map and the territory.

Map 24 has instantly replaced Mappy as my favorite online mapping service (sorry folks, just European countries so far).
You can choose between a traditional "static" version and an amazing, Java-based (Mac users beware), "interactive" incarnation.
I suggest you try the latter. :)
Type in your address of choice and you soon realize you're in for a few surprises, as you are welcomed by a fast descent from a continent-wide view all the way to your desired destination.
It's like Powers of Ten applied to maps.

If that hasn't got you smiling already, you are left to play with a full array of cool, useful features.
The zoom is just amazing, and each level has exactly the amount of detail you need at that level.
You can also simply left-click-and-drag to zoom, and right-click-and-drag to pan.
Max out the map's window size for large-screen luxury.
Calculate distances in real time, or use the side toolbars to plan your trip and print it out (you can even drag and drop the starting and ending point, anywhere in Europe).
Let your mouse linger over any element on the map (lakes, rivers, roads, hotels) and get overlayed, detailed info about it.

Then there's the rocket button, which quickly and automatically zooms out and then back in, with just enough time to let you put the current information into geographical context.
Rocket out, rocket back in.

Ready for one final surprise?
See the capital cities area below the map?
Well, try clicking one. Then another one.

Now you know how Superman feels.

Posted by fabio sergio | 12:01 PM | permalink


March 10, 2003

Green with envy.

First there was Amsterdam, now Austin and soon Portland.
Everybody is going to be there.
And here I sit, foggy skies staring back through the windows.

Posted by fabio sergio | 10:29 AM | permalink


March 07, 2003

The sound of your own thoughts.

My posts usually take shape on a messy text file which resides on my desktop, where I often leave half-formed thoughts, links and plain nonsense.
Some of my notes slowly find their way onto this web page, while most of them join the long list of discarded ideas that populate my get-rich dreams.
Lately I have twice experienced a strange sense of deja-vu while reading some of my friends' thoughts.

It all started with the text file mentioned above.
I've been thinking about the way we are increasingly surrounded by flocks of tools that allow us to record and share life as it unfolds.
While these (mostly digital) devices have long turned every proud parent into a prolific photo/video artist, they have also been behind the recent blooming of weblogs, moblogs, thinklogs, linklogs, photologs and all those (insert your own word of choice here)-logs we have become so fond of.
The "note to self" I had jotted down a few days ago around this fact was:

"Are we turning into self-appointed reporters and photographers, that document rather than live events and (ultimately) life?"

What I had in mind was that our attention has somewhat shifted, or so it seems, from experiencing events to recording and documenting them.
The very same day Adam Greenfield wrote about his get-together with Tokyo bloggers:

"There are already nervous, not-really-joking mails going around about blog-addiction ("Ever attended a social event because you thought it would make good blog material later?"), and if anything the potential for a tight navel gazing loop is even worse when image and location are folded into the equation.
This is me moblogging the Moblogging Conference, and so on.

Just as I was reading myself to comment on Adam's reflections, Jonathan Jaynes found much better words for my own thoughts than I could have ever done:

"I am terribly afraid that people have become so aware of the need to constantly share everything that the experiences of life are passing directly through a cell phone keypad, lens or blog and out into the world before they can be enjoyed emotionally, interpreted and saved in what is still the best place to store and retrieve our experiences: the human brain.
The constant need/desire to feed other people our experiences is detracting from those experiences in a very personal way and, in my opinion, making them less memorable.
The memory becomes the recording and sharing of the event and not the event itself.
We are quickly becoming a culture of experience brokers rather than experience collectors.

Posted by fabio sergio | 4:15 PM | permalink


March 06, 2003

You cannot not be connected.

It was Paul Watzlawick (and not Erik Spiekermann as I had originally posted, thanks Dave W. Smith !) that said "you cannot not communicate".
While connected mobile tools have helped rocket-charge his vision into everyday reality, they have also layered new (social) roles and rules on top of old ones, when it comes to communication.

Japan Media Review's "A New Set of Social Rules for a Newly Wireless Society" confirms that with all things mobile Japan is riding somewhere close to the fender, with most everyone else observing from the back seat.
While some of the considerations in the article are definitely specific to Japan's cultural environment, most of them strongly resonate with similar trends in Europe.
What it all sums up to is that not having your mobile tether to the network is becoming a difficultly sustainable social position.

"To not have a keitai (cell phone) is to be walking blind, disconnected from just-in-time information on where and when you are in the social networks of time and place.
Keitai-wired youth are in persistent but lightweight contact with a small number of intimates, with whom they are expected to be available unless they are sleeping or working.
Because of this portable, virtual peer space, the city is no longer a space of urban anonymity.

During my recent stay in Japan I got to experience a glimpse of what is soon likely to be our everyday experience with mobile e-mail.
While Adam has in the past highlighted the spamming-prone, dark side of keitai-based e-mail, I must admit that to me (and to at least another person) the whole experience had the flavor of magic.
I sent Valeria, comfortably seated in front of her PC on the other side of the world, a steady stream of images of the streets of Tokyo, and quick shots of details I knew she'd appreciate.
At one point I even sent her a picture of good ol' me as I was talking to her.
Talk about presence and bad taste.
The whole process of freezing time and attaching the result to an e-mail was so painless, immediate and frequent that people around me started laughing every time I took the phone out of my pocket.

Just like in Japan, handsets with built-in cameras have begun tsunaming European shores, as recently highlighted in the Guardian's "Why a kennel means trouble", which also looks at how image-based messaging (MMS) has been quickly adopted by teens to develop new communication forms.
Truth is that even though MMS has been available for quite a while in Europe, it has faced an early-fax-like scenario, lacking the critical mass of nodes to jump-start the system right onto the next energy level.
In addition to the high cost and low availability of camera-equipped handsets, the real bottleneck in Europe has been so far the questionable level of inter-operability between mobile operators.
In other words, people currently not only face the issue of having few friends with MMS-capable handsets, but they also stand a good chance to see their (costly), emotion-laden data mangled on arrival by unfriendly codecs.

Technology and mobile networks woes notwithstanding, what I found worthy of notice about my mobile e-mail experience is that it suddenly allowed me to reach (and be reached) by my own social network, without changing well established e-mail-sending habits, or forcing my minimal compact nation to adapt to new modes of interaction.
These considerations are also backed up by a research commissioned by the UMTS-forum "3G providers must understand mobile emotion to succeed", which has pointed out that in most cases mobile connectivity has not expanded but only enhanced and helped intensify contacts with our social loops:

"The study reveals that mobile phones do not widen a person's social connectivity, but instead drive more frequent and intensive relations with existing contacts; colleagues, family and friends."

Mobile phones have come to be de-facto social filters between us and the rest of the world, as pointed out in a recent BBC report "Mobile let you control your life" (even though Anne has expressed reasonable doubts about the validity of results presented):

"Researchers found that mobile phones are primarily devices of control and censorship, allowing people to decide the time and context with which they communicate with the rest of the world."

(No, nothing that relates to software that lets you remote control your computer from a Bluetooth-enabled Sony Ericsson phone).

"Just-in-time information."
"Expected to be available."
"Frequent and intensive relations with existing contacts."
All the ingredients needed for a perfect Interaction Anxiety recipe.
We are quickly moving into an era in which we will not only be able to avoid communicating.
We will also not be able to avoid being connected, to communicate.

The upcoming impact of new cultural and peer-pressure-induced, connectivity-based habits is obviously very high.
If being disconnected is already associated with impoliteness, how long will it take before it will feel akin to not existing?
The whole concept of presence, people's beeping representation on Connectedland's map, is definitely going to become one of the key themes around which we'll be all playing a role, whether as play writers, actors or spectators.
Interaction Designers need, more than ever, to work closely with people to shape tools and interfaces that will mitigate the potential downsides brought by these macro and micro-scopic changes, or at least to help people deal with them as painlessly as possible.

Posted by fabio sergio | 10:00 AM | permalink


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