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April 28, 2006

Jan Chipchase.

Did I ever mention how much I enjoy Jan Chipchase's writing and photos?

Well, I do.
A lot.

Posted by fabio sergio | 4:29 PM | permalink


April 21, 2006

Mobile interaction design context(s).

I just started teaching a workshop on Interaction Design for (Networked) Mobile Devices at the Scuola Politecnica di Design.
Founded in 1954, SPD is Italy's oldest design school, and people like Bruno Munari have taught there in the past (that alone being quite a thrill to unworthy me).

During the first encounter with students I gave an overview on "all things mobile", and I used a single photo to tell them a story about how the context of use plays a leading role when it comes to designing for mobile devices.

Photo: David Erwin.

Photo: David Erwin.

I love this picture not just because David is a great photographer and captured the moment beautifully, I love it because it perfectly frames the typical scenario for mobile device usage.

Three people in a group, crossing the street, suddenly stuck between opposing traffic flows.
Perched on a precarious little island of asphalt everyone fills fleeting moments with a mobile phone session.
The guy on the left is actually taking a picture with his Nokia, while the others are absorbed in their small screens, texting away or reading messages.
All around them, mayhem.
Cars rushing by reduced to light streaks, a distant museum luring attention with visual reminders of current exhibits, other fellow pedestrians just waiting to become added distractions.
You can almost hear the sound of traffic.

The interstitial-ity, the dangerously engaging chaotic messiness of it all.
This is the context of use that mobile interaction designers have to take into account, informing their every decision.

And yes, just in case you were left wondering, those are Matt Jones, Michele Chang and yours truly.

Posted by fabio sergio | 3:08 PM | permalink


April 16, 2006

Salone 2006 tales.

In April the world of design-at-large converges on Milano for the Salone del Mobile. One of the world's largest furniture fairs, the Salone is sided by a similarly vast constellation of design-related exhibitions, disseminated throughout the town.
After 5 long days of retina-blasting exposure to billions of chairs, tables, sofas and any sort of home accessory you can imagine (or not), I was left with two tales two tell, two stories that I feel well embody two extremes of today's furniture/product design spectrum.
Just like most tales they are mostly fictional.
Just like most tales they also have a moral.

The first story talks about a new product exhibited by the British firm Established and Sons, a wooden box (de)signed by Jasper Morrison.

The Crate.

Once upon a time in the land of Designia there lived two affluent cabinetmakers, Mr. Established and Mr. Sons.
"Hello Mr. Established", said Mr. Sons one sunny morning as he entered their laboratory.
"Hello Mr. Sons", replied Mr. Established, who was always very polite.
"What have you been up to Sons?", asked Mr. Established, who at times liked to call Mr. Sons just "Sons".
"Well, chance wants it I've gone to visit our good friend, Mr. Morrison."
"Isn't that something!", said Mr. Established, who really liked exclamations.
"Mr. Morrison is a crazy, crazy guy!" said Mr. Sons, who also really liked exclamations.
"Why so?" replied Mr. Established.
"Well, guess what: crazy Mr. Morrison uses a wooden wine box as his bedside table!"
"Can that be right?" said Mr. Established.
"Well yes, and he even told me that '... It's remained in use like that for three years and I've come to realise it does the job better than anything else' (actual words from the brochure)".
"That's really crazy. Mr. Morrison has made so many beautiful objects that people pay a lot of money for, why would he pick such a thing for a bedside table now?"
"I don't know!" replied Mr. Established, as bewildered as his good friend and partner.
"Hmmmm." mumbled Mr. Sons.
"Are you thinking what I am thinking?" suddendly asked Mr. Estabished.
"I don't think I know what you think I am thinking about!" replied Mr. Sons.
"Hmmm. Well then, I was thinking: why don't we use Mr. Morrison's idea for one of our products? We could make such a wooden box and make a ton of money out of it!"
"But nobody would ever buy a simple wooden box like that! Anybody could make it!" argued Mr. Sons, who tended to be very practical.
"Naaah...", said Mr. Established, "...don't you get it? People are stupid! Just as long as we tell them it was Mr. Morrison who conceived it they'll give us money, lots of it! They love anything he does! His name's worth gold!"
"But it's, well, a simple wooden box! Are you really sure?", asked again Mr. Sons, still not convinced at all.
"Yes! We could just make up one of those stories that stupid people like to read... imagine if we talked about 'Mr. Morrison paying homage to his original find by retaining its qualities in the production design' (actual words from the brochure), imagine if we created a 'beautiful package' for it, imagine if we talked about the 'fresh smell of out-of-the-box-wood' (actual words overheard during the exhibition)".
"Oh, I get it, you want to make one of those ironic commentary pieces!" said Mr. Sons, still trying to understand what his partner was talking about.
"No! No! You don't get it! I want this product to be serious! None of that irony thing here!", replied Mr. Established, a bit irritated now.
"But it's still a wooden box! What is the press going to say? Won't they accuse us of ripping our customers off?"
"You still don't understand do you?", shouted Mr. Established, fed-up with his friend, "We'll say it was done on purpose! That we wanted to make design affordable to everyone! We'll say we wanted it to be controversial! We'll say we did it precisely because it is controversial! (actual words overheard during the exhibition)".
"Hmmm... I think I am starting to like the idea!", suddenly replied Mr. Sons, who was a tad slow but could sniff a pot'o gold a hundred feet away, "How are we going to call it then?"
"We'll call it... well... we'll call it... The Crate. What else!?"
"The Crate? Yes! We'll stamp the name on the side, together with ours and that of Mr. Morrison!"
"Yes, we'll use a branding iron: our names together with that of Mr. Morrison will make the box look great!"
"Yes, a simple, cheap, everyday wooden box made special by our branding alone!"
"Made more expensive!"
"Yes, expensive!", drifted off Mr. Established, lost in dreams of wealth.
"It will fly off shelves!", concurred Mr. Sons, lost in dreams of wealth as well.

Jasper Morrison's The Crate.

Jasper Morrison's The Crate.

This is the end of the first story: the world will soon have a wooden box pompously christened The Crate, (de)signed by Jasper Morrison and produced (proudly, I'm afraid) by Established & Sons.
What's still missing is the moral of the story. As promised, here it is.
Shame on you Jasper Morrison.
You, of all people you, one of my all-time favorite designers, had to dilute your reputation by associating your name to such a meaningless materialistic exercise.
Where's the re-representation, the interpretation? Where's the irony, if nothing else, that would at least give this product the precariously dubious dignity of Philippe Starck's plastic garden gnome?
Where's the tiny intervention that justifies your presence and saves you from purely appearing like another greedy cog in the mechanism?
I invite you to leave on a pilgrimage to Achille Castiglioni's studio (now open to the public) so that you can look closely at the way he used everyday, humble objects to inspire him, not just so that he could copy them.

Sorry, got carried away a bit.
Make that quite a bit.

Time for the second story, which talks about Swedese's Polar coffee tables, designed by Nendo's Oki Sato, and Solid Poetry tiles, designed by Susanne Happle and Frederik Molenschot, which were part of Droog Design's exhibition.

Air made visible. (with homage to Bruno Munari)

Once upon a time in the land of Designia there lived two friends, Mr. Swedese and Mr. Droog.
They both spent long days sitting in the Garden of Delight, gazing at the sky.
Conversation was sparse, but one evening, as dusk was silently falling, Mr. Swedese suddenly spoke.
"Wouldn't it be beautiful if we could create something that evoked the sense of impermanence of twilight? Something that could be there one moment and then just as easily disappear?".
Silence ensued.
Long days went by.
"I would love to be able to.", replied Mr. Droog, just as rain drops started to darken the dry pebbles under their feet.

Left: Oki Sato's Polar coffee tables. Right: Susanne Happle and Frederik Molenschot's Solid Poetry tiles.

Left: Oki Sato's Polar. Right: Susanne Happle and Frederik Molenschot's Solid Poetry.

Moral of the (second) story.
Does the world need another coffee table? Another tile?
I think it does if they have the qualities of those depicted above.
When Nendo's three Polar coffee tables stand separately they are completely transparent, but once overlayed an evanescent decoration appears, thanks to the the polarized film that veneers their glass surfaces (and also gives them their name).
Re-arranging the tables creates ever-changing configurations, with light playing with shifting floral patterns on the underlying floor.
Solid Poetry tiles have similar magic qualities, revealing a bed of fallen leaves when wet, leaves that fade away as the tiles slowly dry under the sun. Instant autumn, just add rain.
In both cases: air made visible indeed.

There's still abounding beauty to be found in (the redesign of) simple, everyday objects.
Some decide to seek it using technology to evoke elusive poetic qualities.
Others waste time and (customers') money engaging in sterile, superficial, commercial endeavors.

Posted by fabio sergio | 4:00 PM | permalink


April 05, 2006

IDII, Salone del Mobile 2006.

Interaction Design Institute Ivrea will be holding an exhibition during the Salone del Mobile 2006, illustrating the standard and variety of work produced in the last year(s) at IDII.

IDII, Salone del Mobile 2006, Fabbrica del Vapore.

If you are in Milano for the Salone I warmly encourage you to stop by at the Fabbrica del Vapore, Via Procaccini 4, Milano.
It will be open every afternoon April 7-21 (closed April 16-17).

Posted by fabio sergio | 3:00 PM | permalink


April 04, 2006

Shells. Ghosts.

When it comes to mobile handsets there's hardly a single product that has in recent times ejoyed the commercial success of Motorola's RAZR.
Two years after its launch the RAZR is still one of the coolest, most fashionable mobile phones around... even in retina-scarring pink attire, and factoring in all the clones it is still spawning.
Moto has banked on the RAZR's success not only pushing the "thin is in" proposition with handsets like the SLVR, but has also extended it by exploring organic shapes such those of the PEBL.
All of these great-looking handsets pretty much sport the same operating system though, and here's where perspectives change a bit.

A couple of recent references to support the ensuing argument.
In its February 2006 issue Wired reviews Motorola's SLVR together with other wafer-thin mobile handsets, commenting: "Slimmer than the RAZR but equally full-featured. ... Muddled user interface causes confusion with simple tasks."
A month later Icon magazine's Kieran Long writes about his experience with the PEBL: "The interface of the Motorola PEBL is a nadir of untested, inept and badly thought-out design. When you open the highly resolved matt black ovoid you are faced with a fatally compromised operating system that belies the form itself. ... The PEBL, in the end, is a great-looking object ... but there is clearly little holistic thinking about the phone as a coherent product.".

While I fully agree that Motorola's interface platform has long been in need of a major overhaul, I am not necessarily trying to beat on Moto here (full disclosure: I interviewed with them in the past but nothing came out of it), also because quite a few people that work or have worked in Big M's Consumer Experience group are not only good friends, but also among some of the brightest people I've ever met.
What I am actually trying to do is point out a problem that currently hinders the experiential qualities of mobile handsets in general: their shells and their ghosts often tell different stories, with hardware currently playing the lion's share when it comes to innovation and sheer commercial appeal.

As a side note Icon points to Makoto Saito's Penck as a successful example of holistic design applied to mobile phones.
The Penck, part of KDDI's "designed by" line of phones (sporting concepts from the likes of Marc Newson and Naoto Fukasawa), is a good example of a principle informing an entire product in a coherent way: Saito not only conceived the handset and its accessories, but also looked after the graphic language of the interface and even took care of its sound design.
Unfortunately though the Penck fails where the PEBL excels: once you actually hold the handset in your hands high expectations are dissipated by cheap-feeling plastics and mechanical components.

Left: the Motorola PEBL. Right: KDDI's Penck.

Left: the Motorola PEBL. Right: KDDI's Penck.

As I've already noted in the past, user experience discontinuities highlighted above are rooted in current product development processes.
Mobile handset are churned out at a hellish pace, with the expression extreme parallelism describing common practices quite well.
Hardware and software follow parallel development tracks, each team running after rogue deadlines imposed by different, sometimes contradicting requirements, ranging from tooling lead-times and costs on one side, to software re-use and UI-platform-alignment issues on the other... this not to mention the fact that user interface designers are often nested within software development groups, while product designers usually enjoy a higher visibility and/or more independence.
The end result is that the key touch-point among the two teams often consists in the agreement around the number and position of buttons.
I am not saying this is always the case, mind you, but that it is not that uncommon either.

For the end-user this means an object that whispers certain qualities when turned off, and shouts contradicting values when on and in use.
Shells. Ghosts.

Development woes aside I do see problems also originating from today's stagnant state of innovation when it comes to mobile user interfaces.
Pick up your handset of choice and I bet that pressing the "main menu" button will have you facing a set of nicely/averagely/hideously designed static/animated icons, and that from there it will be a long descent into a hellish hierarchy of text-based lists that will hopefully get where you want to go... with a handful of shortcuts thrown-in to pretend catering to the needs of expert-users.
I do hear arguments about the value of standardization in this case, and the important role familiarity plays in reducing or even removing steep learning curves when purchasing new mobile devices (Nokia has arguably built part of its worldwide success on the fact that the basic interface paradigm of their mobile phones has pretty much remained the same ever since its inception... or surely enough ever since 1998, the year I bought the 6110, my very first mobile handset), but unfortunately the truth is that most mobile interfaces these days not only still fail (sometimes miserably) to even get the basics right, like composing messages and the like, but they are, well, uninspiring.
Dare I say it? Boring.

All of this not mentioning today's frankenstUIsh trend of forcing PC paradigms into small screens, or porting entire interfaces from "other" devices into mobile phones... er... personal networked multimedia computing gizmos.
Readers forewarned: two rants coming, skip this paragraph at will.
Rant about "smart" phones that keep on introducing PC features like a screen-cursor of some sort: NEC marketed their first neuro-pointer-equipped handset, the N2051, three years ago ("neuro-pointer" being NEC's marketing-lingo for "mouse cursor").
I had a chance to test the N2051 and it was soon quite evident how a cursor makes perfect sense if you need to efficiently and accurately reach scattered targets on a large surface, not necessarily if you have to select text-based items in a list, or even in a 3X3 grid.
Seen a lot of neuro-pointers lately?
Thought so.
Rant about camera-phones whose camera application mimics the interface of a "real" digital camera: such interfaces aren't necessarily easy to use to start with, how do you figure they will be any easier when coerced into a device missing dedicated hardware controls and all that?
Thought so again.

Back on track, let's be positive: what are interesting mobile UI paths being currently explored today?

One area that's been simmering for quite a while looks at using always-on connectivity to update items in the interface without user intervention, both with functional and purely cosmetic goals.
Such an approach has been creatively explored first by (what else) Japanese mobile games, with a notorious example being Samurai Romanesque, dated 2001, which used real weather data to change playing conditions: "it's raining, troops move slower".
Come to think about it the first feature to exploit this idea must be clock auto-updating, but that doesn't sound so innovative now, does it?

This mix of off-line and on-line items in the interface can be pervasive or affect specific areas only, with the most entertaining application probably being that of an active desktop of sorts (with the idea of talking about a "desktop" on a mobile device making me cringe).
Such solutions have been pioneered by companies like Surf Kitchen, Trigenics (bought by Qualcomm to power their UI One offering) and Cybenix, which attracted carriers with the promise of layering the manufacturer's native user interface with a branded coating, while also enabling easier user access to so-called value-added services.
Similar applications have then also "gone native", an example being Motorola's own "Dynamic Idle" (or Screen 3), a client-server architecture that allows carriers and media outlets to publish graphic "banners" of varying size straight to their customers' idle screens.
Such banners can be used to display information, to connect to mobile services or to act as "visual links" to download content and games.

Motorola's Dynamic Idle.

Motorola's Dynamic Idle.

Macromedia (in the process of being absorbed by Adobe and disappear as a brand), has had for a while a somewhat similar client-sever solution called FlashCast, which feeds updates to Flash Lite-based mini-apps.
Incidentally Flash Lite adoption rates have been so far held back by Macromedia's decision to license the use of its mobile client, which means that carriers and/or manufacturers have to pay money if they want their phones to be compatible.

A more recent and fashionable incarnation of these ideas takes inspiration from Apple's Dashboard and Yahoo (formerly Konfabulator) widgets and has them become, what else, mobile.
Yahoo has recently announced its Yahoo Go Mobile widgets, while smaller companies like Bluepulse seem to have seen the light too.
Widgets actually make perfect sense on mobile phones not only for their "choreographic" potential, but also because of their single-mindedness: they tend to do one thing and do it well, a perfect fit with interfaces that should be designed around tasks rather than applications in the first place.

In all of the examples above the innovation lies in the potential to take something that's basically static and "dead", a mobile handset's resident interface, and to turn it into a dynamic, ever-changing, "alive" experience.
Unfortunately the limit of most if not all of these solutions is that while they do offer an opportunity to deliver a richer experience, the risk of ending up with mere eye-candy is also quite high: I wish I had been given money every time I've heard the term "rich mobile experience" when it really meant "cool graphics".
Furthermore they do not really subvert existing UI paradigms, as they are usually aimed at helping carriers and content providers give higher visibility to their money-making services, not at making users happier.
The other obvious caveat for customers is the increased potential for fastidious disruption: unless they have a way to control what shows up on their small screen of choice, and to tailor it to their interests, the result will simply be that of unrequested advertising (read: SPAM).

On the carrier side instead an aspect that is seldom considered by all players in the field is a bit of a conundrum: for most scenarios above to be economically viable the number of customers that have to be reached needs to be high, but a critical mass of users seriously adds to the cost of creating an infrastructure strong enough to withstand heavy concentrated traffic at (ir)regular intervals.
Mobile koan of the day: what's the sound of 5 million clients uploading new banners?
Finally carriers cannot (or should not) charge customers for the banners themselves, and thus have to make their economic calculations only on revenues coming from people that will be enticed to eventually click-through and download something or access a service.
Along these lines I will also point out that these client-server architectures are proprietary, thus a lack of standard protocols that together with high initial investments make for risky decision-making and low adoption rates.
In other words: if only a few specific devices in the operator's handset portfolio support one of the solutions highlighted above it's difficult to reach a critical mass of customers.
In other words still: the market is too fragmented, with software developers, content providers, handset manufacturers and mobile carriers all pushing their own strategies rather than all working together to improve the user experience.

All in all there is potential for something interesting to happen... but it feels like it might require an almost miraculous convergence of events to see it blossom.
Player that might have a chance to push something like this through are either very big and all-powerful (think Ntt DoCoMo in Japan) or very small (think Mobile Virtual Network Operators such as Virgin or Helio): in both cases they can exert a higher level of control over the value-chain and also attempt servicing their entire customer base in a relatively limited amount of time.

Other than graphically-augmented widgety-gadgety menus and the like, other interesting interface directions being explored have to do with incarnations of the good ol' command line.
Zi Corporation, the company behind one of the most popular predictive texting solutions, has been marketing Qix, an interesting cocktail of 2/4 search engine shaken (not stirred) with 1/4 predictive text and 1/4 command-line.
The end result uses text entry to generate a Spotlight-like list of "most-likely" items in the UI that match the inserted characters, including things like contacts, files, applications and even actions like "writing a new email".

Zi Corporation's Qix.

Zi Corporation's Qix.

I must say that the true value of this solution needs to be experienced firsthand to fully understand its potential: overall it's quite effective and also encourages exploration by casually revealing features that are usually hidden deep within the hierarchy.
Qix is not that far from some of the recent ideas explored by Eugeniu Clim of Mobiface, which also happens to be a place where you'll find plenty of other interesting ideas around mobile user interface design.

To wrap-up this short and horribly incomplete summary I cannot avoid mentioning an innovation that has nothing to do with the user interface itself, but that does open, at least on paper, really fascinating opportunities.
I am talking about the world of Firmware Over The Air, or FOTA for short.
FOTA basically means that customers will buy handsets with hardly any software pre-installed, just what's needed for the device to connect to a (home) network: thanks to fatter and fatter bandwidths during the first handshake the appropriate software will be automagically downloaded to the device.
As you can easily imagine this is a scenario that could quickly enable an "empty shell without a ghost" paradigm, with users downloading not only the Operating System, but their interface layer of choice as well.
In this case what's optimistically imaginable is a world of third-party developers creating amazing new interfaces and selling them to enthusiastic customers.
The obvious counterpoint to my optimism is that I can't currently imagine anyone in the mobile value-chain really seeing liberalization of the UI market as an opportunity, but actually more of a further loss over the control every link in the chain exerts on end-users.
Putting all considerations aside FOTA does offer a back-door to improve over time the quality of the user experience: imagine users receiving constant updates of the OS that solve bugs and usability problems as they are discovered and addressed by development teams.
FOTA might also accomplish one half of the Wildseed dream, de-coupling generic software from generic hardware to then re-bundle software and hardware into a "Smart Skin", a mission-specific shell-ghost combo that can be applied onto a module common to all skins.
Wildseed was bought by AOL last year, another strategic decision from one of the big names dominating the web today that shows how the mobile arena (and its widening bandwidth) is finally seen as land ready to be colonized.
It was indeed called "The Mobile Internet" in the late 90's if I remember correctly... but that was before WAP made the term difficult to use without being laughed at.
Glad to see we've come full circle.

Revelation time: I must confess that none of the above really cuts it for me when it comes to interface design, and yes, I am saying this after having wasted quite a few minutes of your precious time.

The problem I have with interface design approaches today, and this applies not only to mobile phones but to most mass-market interactive artifacts as well, is that they are still rooted in productive-functional "office-inspired" metaphors, with efficiency and effectiveness informing most decisions and compromises.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, what I am really interested in are opportunities to base interface design paradigms not only on functional needs, but on emotional ones as well.

Neil Churcher and I spent the last three weeks working with Domus' I-Design students on a brief we called "Access OS".
In the days when the people at Xerox developed the Star the computer was perceived as an "office automation system", something that would have replaced paper, files and folders in a productive environment, and thus those were the metaphoric "bricks" that were used to create a world that would make sense to those professional users.
When Apple used the work done at Xerox as "inspiration" for their Lisa they took the whole package, metaphors and all (and I would even kindly advise you to take a look at images of the Apple Mac interface from 1984, you'd be amazed at how it closely resembles what appears on today's Tiger-powered screens).
More than 20 years have gone by and we're still stuck in the office-inspired world of computing, even though today PCs are not only everywhere (and soon Everyware), but they have become the tools we use to play, to connect with our social circles, to share music and pictures, to publish our lives and to peek into the ones of others.
Based on these considerations we asked the students to question the principles underlying the software that currently populates our large and small screens, to then re-think them in light of the ways our activities and mental models have changed and evolved.

During this activity I've had the pleasure of spending time with Steven Blyth, who graduated from Interaction Design Institute Ivrea last year, and whose thesis project, My Social Fabric, embodies most of the qualities I am ultimately after when it comes to mobile interface design.
My Social Fabric is a captivating exploration around the way personal communications can be accessed, managed and interacted-with in ways that have nothing to do with menus and folders or contact, message and call lists.
In Steven's own words it's an attempt at creating "... personal management tools that can record and represent the ... more ambiguous aspects of our lives with no less elegance and power (than traditional applications).".

Steven Blyth's My Social Fabric.

Steven Blyth's My Social Fabric.

Steven's other projects, Pond Life and Strange Fruit, also straddle the fine line between poetically attractive information visualization and functional communication management.
I think times are ripe for these initial explorations to become emotionally engaging commercial solutions, new experiences and metaphors that will change the way we use the devices we carry with us in our daily stroll through life.

I dream of the day when users will tend to their interfaces like to a collection of beautiful, nimble, integrated, task-focused widgets.
I dream of the day when our mobile networked tools will take full advantage of our playfully messy world-making capabilities.
I dream of the day when our little screens will cease to be aquariums for our data and truly become seamless conduits to our world of relationships with people, with information, with things.

Posted by fabio sergio | 9:00 AM | permalink


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