Don’t put your garbage here! Please!
By Steve Portigal at 1:17 pm, Thursday July 31 2014

sleep-study

I encountered this box recently at my local medical office. It’s a squat white bin with a wide black opening near the top. It looks a lot like a trash bin. Obviously I’m not the only person that reacted that way, because they’ve tried desperately and ineffectively (with EXTRA SIGNS as they so love to do in healthcare) to communicate that. There are three signs (see the orange pointer) telling you what the box is for (dropping off sleep study equipment) and two signs (the purple pointer) telling you what it’s not for (it’s not for garbage).

That’s five different signs, only two of which even vaguely cohere with each other (the red tape), all requiring English. The net effect is chaotic. There’s no empathy here; each message acts as if its the only one, without awareness of the others.

And still – the thing looks like a garbage bin! That message is loud and clear and no amount of signage will get around that. But the staff who have to pick the garbage out of there have no control over the bin’s design and so they are left with their default tool: signage.

I wonder if they could do better if they went further, such as painting the white surface and/or the black flap to more strongly shift the meaning. Or by having a sleep study device (which comes in a little carrying case) or at least a large icon near the opening. And a garbage bin nearby. The tactic would be to communicate more visually and directly what stuff (sleep study devices, trash) goes where and not rely on words. Until then, they can expect more trash.

See previously Signs to Override Human Nature? as well as other writing about post-design.

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Contextual research from a bygone era
By Steve Portigal at 10:56 am, Wednesday July 30 2014

While listening to This American Life I learned about Roger Barker, a psych professor who turned the small Kansas town of Oskaloosa into a laboratory in the late 1940s.

Barker was one of the most extraordinary — and least known — figures in the history of psychology. Shortly after he became chair of the KU psychology department in the late 1940s, he relocated his family to Oskaloosa to observe and gather data about the residents who lived in the town, population 725.

At that time, psychological research was primarily done in laboratories. “It was the era of running rats through mazes to understand human behavior,” he said. “Barker said you won’t learn about any real human behavior in a laboratory. If psychologists want to understand human behavior in the real world, they must enter the real world.”

More from this article

Among Barker’s more unusual efforts was a 1951 paper he co-wrote under the title “One Boy’s Day.”

It chronicled 14 hours in the life of a local boy with the pseudonym Raymond Birch . He was 7 when Raymond’s parents allowed the Midwest Psychological Field Station to record his every movement, according to Sabar’s book:

7:00. Mrs. Birch said with pleasant casualness, ‘Raymond, wake up. …’
7:01. Raymond picked up a sock and began tugging and pulling it on his left foot. …
7:07. Raymond turned to his dresser and rummaged around among the things on it until he obtained a candy Easter egg” for his dog.

The notations, archived at KU, track Raymond on his walk to school. He finds a baseball bat in the grass and swings it, accidentally striking a flagpole.

“This made a wonderful, hollow noise,” researchers wrote, “so he proceeded to hit the flagpole again.”

Barker eschewed academic prose and wanted his charges to record any telling, prosaic detail.

Through the 1950s, Oskaloosans grew accustomed to the sight of a child being shadowed by a note-scribbling adult. In published papers, this was the town of “Midwest,” in keeping with the scientific practice of shielding the identity of the subjects being examined.

Barker’s work differed from other scholarly studies of places such as Muncie, Ind., (Middletown) and Candor, N.Y., (Springdale) in at least two ways.

First, it focused less on class and politics and more on the relationships that made kids feel comfortable.

Second, Barker’s family settled into Oskaloosa as a permanent home. Roger and Louise continued to live there until their deaths, Roger’s in 1990 at age 87 and Louise’s in 2009 at 102.

While Barker used many methods, the part that struck me was his belief that simply documenting in exhaustive detail the ordinary activities throughout the day would somehow provide some additional insight. What would Barker have made of today’s era of personal analytics, data smog, quantified self and beyond?

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Smart stuff that seems dumb
By Steve Portigal at 9:07 am, Monday July 28 2014

Watch and laugh as Stephen Colbert takes on the Vessyl smart cup. While the company’s video patiently explains the features, their benefits and the design rationale, Colbert calls out the ridiculous jargon (e.g,. “real-time” is not something novel for people in their daily lives which of course take place in real time) and – most devastatingly – the lack of a compelling use case.

This is the barrier all Internet-of-Things things will have to overcome – so what? Why does it matter to me that I can do this with that and with my iPhone? This recent review of Belkin’s Smartphone-Controlled Crock-Pot – a product that is currently shipping from a major manufacturer – says that it” feels more like a solution in search of a problem.” While the crock-pot isn’t as ridiculous (as it’s presented without the overblown ego), it shows just how immature today’s products are.

I recommend these companies aim their products at the hobbyist/maker users who will figure out what they might actually be good for and otherwise keep them in the lab until they are compelling to regular people.

[Disclosure: I bought a smart light bulb via Kickstarter a while back. I can change it to any color or brightness using my iPhone. I also have to use the smartphone to turn it off and on (properly) which takes about 35 seconds. I just put it back in our "light bulbs" box in the closet.]

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What we eat and what we trash
By Steve Portigal at 8:45 am, Monday July 28 2014

There’s no end of photography projects documenting an ordinary aspect of life, across diverse individuals, with the hope of throwing some light on who we are and how we live now. Or how others live. It’s art with the frisson of anthropology. Here’s another two in the same vein, each looking at different elements of our consumption.

Dinner in NY by Miho Aikawa looks at people having dinner, in New York (hence the clever title).

cat
couch
mushroom

Also see Dinner in Tokyo and read more at Slate.

With no nod to naturalism, Gregg Sega shoots portraits of people surrounded by 7 Days of Garbage.

one
two
three

Also see the fascinating project frogdesign did back in 2007, where staff blogged about the trash they found themselves accumulating throughout a regular week, and read more about Gregg Saga’s project at Slate.

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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 8:09 am, Monday July 28 2014

A top of the week to everyone.

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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 11:42 am, Monday July 21 2014

Hello y’all!

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The veneer of empathy
By Steve Portigal at 11:18 am, Thursday July 17 2014

14USAToday1-master675

From this article about newsroom practices at USA Today

For Social Media Tuesdays, the staff must act as if there is no other way to get their articles except through sites likes Facebook and Reddit. That means USA Today’s journalists diligently place each of their famously punchy, graphic-rich stories onto various social media platforms. The purpose is to get them thinking like their readers, who increasingly get news through their Twitter feeds instead of the paper’s front page or home page.

“Think like your reader” is a generous framing as it highlights empathy, and who wouldn’t want their company, their products, their staff to be more empathetic? In fact, trying to get attention through social media is an exercise in manipulation (see Harry McCracken’s analysis/history of the “restore your faith in humanity” flavor of linkbait). That’s not empathy.

I’m not sure if this distortion was introduced by the reporter directly or whether they simply took what they were given at face value. Either way, that’s poor journalism (which is ironic in an article about the challenges facing the newspaper industry).

Now, the idea of taking what you know how to do and setting it aside, as a creative constraint, is a fabulous approach, like something from Oblique Strategies (See more about Brian Eno, one of the creators of Oblique Strategies, in this great article about his approach to art and creativity).

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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 9:53 am, Monday July 14 2014

Good Monday morning to all!

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Ugly Yet Yummy
By Steve Portigal at 8:04 am, Friday July 11 2014

ugly-strawberry

From the New York Times comes this story about Fruta Feia, or Ugly Fruit, a cooperative in Lisbon that has found opportunity through a combination of economic pressure and reframing conventional norms for food appearance.

There is a market for fruits and vegetables deemed too ugly by government bureaucrats, supermarkets and other retailers to sell to their customers. A third of Portugal’s farming produce goes to waste because of the quality standards set by supermarkets and their consumers. Fruta Feia buys the unwanted food at about half the price at which producers sell it to supermarkets. It has quietly subverted fixed notions of what is beautiful, or at least edible.

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Take pictures (of food that) lasts longer
By Steve Portigal at 9:09 am, Thursday July 10 2014

burrata

Insanely delicious burrata small plate, from Alden and Harlow in Cambridge, MA

On one hand this is just another article about the hype that social media more easily enables, but on the other hand, it draws the (perhaps spurious) conclusion that since so many diners are taking pictures of restaurant food (and posting the pictures online), that restaurants are designing food for photographic appeal first and for taste a noticeable second.

Cameras that can capture and transmit images in an instant are being used to photograph food that is meant to hang out indefinitely in suspended animation. Parceled out on a slate tile and pitilessly accessorized with leaves, crumbles, froths and sauces (set with emulsifiers so they never break down), even a charcoal-grilled steak would be as cold as a bologna sandwich. And this is what now passes for great, or at least significant, cooking. But great food is rarely static. As soon as it leaves the kitchen, it’s changing. In general, it’s getting worse. The soufflé is sinking. The arugula is wilting. The color of the steak excites us because it’s deeply browned, and we know that toasted, roasted, seared and caramelized surfaces mean deep flavors. But cameras hate brown food.

Again, I’ll suggest this is not necessarily true, but it serves to remind us of unintended consequences, and at the scale of social media, we are seeing more of this special type of unintended consequences, where we create with the consumption in mind. The media consumption used to be a consequence, but perhaps it’s becoming the primary design target. As consumers, we learn how to participate in experiences so that they can be documented and shared (and earn those addictive likes) and as producers, those that create those experiences, we are learning how to stage them so that they can be more easily shared and earn addictive likes (and valuable cash rewards as well). Public speaking in easily-tweetable soundbites or food-plating in easily-instagrammable bites; either way it all feeds the beast.

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Kayfabe and narrative frameworks
By Steve Portigal at 10:19 am, Wednesday July 09 2014

deadman

“Original Deadman” t-shirt, street market, Bangkok, 2006

I just learned the word Kayfabe. It describes the artificial story elements in professional wrestling. Beyond any discussion of the fights themselves (long dismissed as fake), kayfabe refers to the everything else that is fake, such as the feuds and rivalries. The word is probably a Pig Latin-esque version of “fake” (where by avoiding saying “fake” outright, it’s now a codeword to keep the fakery discussion only among those in the know).

Here’s more, from the above Wikipedia article

Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the “relationship” between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Matt Hardy and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended).

Whoah. Layers of meaning and truth and piled onto other layers of implication and lies. My brain feels like I’ve been pummeled with a roll of quarters. Layered conceptual devices are challenging enough, but there’s also interest in breaking kayfabe

To have certain non-fictional elements weaved into a storyline. They might be staged to look real, meaning that a real truth is being spoken, but are part of the script to make the rivalry look authentic or personal, and to make the feud much more interesting.

That’s some efficient use of a narrative framework. When you go outside the framework, you still have story (and meaning).

If you find this difficult to parse, join the team. At least having some labels (kayfabe, breaking kayfabe) make it easier to discuss.

Related: Canon, the defined world (characters, events, history, etc.) of a story. Especially notable in science fiction, with complicated story lines, detail-oriented fans, and franchises with sequels and prequels galore. Previously about Star Trek’s sprawling fan-driven post-TOS canon, and the person hired by Lucasfilm to maintain continuity as the Star Wars canon guru.

Related: Retcon is the portmanteau word for retroactive continuity, where a new story element is introduced that changes our understanding of previous facts. I would include It Was All A Dream (e.g., Dallas) as the laziest version. It can also be ironic as well as convenient, such as having Klingons in Star Trek explain their differing physical appearance over the various series (obviously the result of new production designers as well as budget and makeup technology) as part of the race’s own history. Many more examples are here.

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David’s War Story: Let it Bleed
By Steve Portigal at 10:34 am, Monday July 07 2014
Part 68 of 68 in the series War Stories

David Hoard is an interaction designer and here he shares his second story.

Years ago we were re-designing a device to cool a patient’s blood during open heart surgery. This protects the body during the procedure. The client arranged for us to witness a heart operation, and we were pretty excited about that. My only concern was that I would faint from seeing blood.

Research day came and we headed to a nearby hospital, prepared to be serious, professional researchers. A nurse helped us gown up and get ready. I was expecting the operating room to be a sober technical environment, and I saw that was true. The equipment was stainless steel; the walls and floor were blue-green tile. I anticipated that this would be an orderly collection of findings.

But as soon as the surgery team started to come in, the vibe changed. The nurses chatted. The anesthesiologist joked. The patient, a man in his late fifties, was casually whisked in on a gurney.

The nurses chatted with the patient as they put on the anesthesia mask and he drifted off to sleep. They slathered him with a brown antiseptic wash. It made his skin look like a basted turkey, and I thought “He’s just another piece of meat to them.”

Then things really got started. The surgeon came in and straight away had the nurse hit the music. The sound of the Rolling Stones filled the O.R. The jokes and banter increased. The technician operating the blood cooling machines set to work and we tried to stay focused on that. But it was futile.

When the patient was sufficiently chilled, they set to work with a powered saw and cut open his sternum. They were ripping a person’s body open, and they did it while talking about sport scores.

They pried the chest cavity open and prepared for a bypass procedure. They took a vein from the man’s leg that would be used as a new artery for the heart. “How you doing back there?” came the question from the surgeon. “Good!” we replied, and I realized I wasn’t woozy at all. It was all too fascinating.

It was at that moment that the most surprising thing happened. The surgeon said “How do you like this?” as he put his hand down in the chest and lifted the beating heart up and out. The music thumped, the heart pumped and the surgeon gave us a wicked grin. He knew full well he was holding the patient’s life in his hands. But at the same time, it was all in a days work for him. No big deal.

After completing the bypass, they finished their work and stapled the man up. The surgeon cleaned up and zoomed off to something else important. Before we knew it our research session was over.

As for our actual goal of observing blood-cooling machine, we did gather information about that, but the bigger lesson was in understanding the true nature of our users. We expected one-dimensional experts and we saw three-dimensional humans.

My work on projects like this has taught me that experts are simply regular humans with a specialized job to do. Help them be smarter, help them be more successful. But don’t forget the human underneath that needs ease of learning, ease of use and help preventing errors. Humans don’t want to devote 100% of their brainpower to your product. They need to reserve some for cracking jokes and singing with the music.

When your research goes in an unexpected direction, go with the flow and let the Stones play. You might learn something more meaningful than your original plan.

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This Week @ Portigal
By Steve Portigal at 10:25 am, Monday July 07 2014

Hello, summer!

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Ari’s War Story: Chicken Run
By Steve Portigal at 9:06 am, Tuesday July 01 2014
Part 67 of 68 in the series War Stories

Ari Nave is Principal at The King’s Indian.

My very first field research was in the north of Ghana along the Volta River north of Keta Krachi, trying to unpack the usage rights and other factors that enable the sustainable use of a common pool resource (in defiance of the tragedy of the commons).

The research was hard. I was isolated, lonely, and physically drained. No one in the village spoke English. They spoke primarily Ewe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ewe_language and I was communicating through an interpreter. I had a feeling that I was missing a lot of nuance and detail with the interpreter and had several discussions with him about my concern.

I was also sick as hell of eating fish stew with fufu or gari. For one thing, it was spicy as hell…so spicy that at every meal I had these convulsive hiccups. This hilarity may have endeared me to my host, but the diet was monotonous.

I had spotted guinea fowl wondering around the village. I asked my host family about it and they just laughed and said they are wild animals.

So I set my mind to catch one. That evening I watched as the guinea fowl hopped up a tree in the village. They used the same tree each night and seemed to jump up in a predictable pattern.

The next evening I was prepared. I had a long string for my trap. I tied a slip knot on one end and placed the snare on a protrusion of the trunk that was chest-height, a pivotal step on their journey up the tree.

The string was about 50 feet long and I ran the length straight to another tree that I hid behind.

The folks in the village just laughed at me, which they seemed to do with great frequency. But I was determined. Patiently, I waited.

As dusk fell the fowl made their way up the tree. When the third bird was on the spot I yanked as hard and fast as I could, while running in the opposite direction. And I had the little bastard. He flapped his wings and I reeled in the string, and soon had a plump guinea fowl in my hands. My host and all the other villagers came running at the commotion and now stood with jaw agape as I proudly displayed my bird.

I asked my host to put the bird in a basket and put a big rock on top to keep him secure. It was too late to cook them so I ate my mind-alteringly hot fish stew but with a content mind, thinking about the fowl I was going to eat for dinner the next night.

I woke up refreshed and optimistic. I gathered up my notebook, camera and tape recorder and headed out, but first stopped to gloat at my catch. To my dismay, it was gone. I shouted and my host came running over. “He has escaped in the night,” he explained by way of my interpreter. No way, I thought. The boulder was still on top of the basket. Someone stole my bird. When I voiced my opinion to him he shook his head and simply repeated the claim.

That night, I executed my hunt again, with equal success. This time, a larger group came out to watch my escapades and were equally surprised both by my technique and success. Again, I place the bird in the basket, this time adding another large rock on top.

The next morning, I woke with foreboding. I jumped out of bed and checked the basket. Stolen! I was pissed off. My host tried to placate me but I was having none of it. Arrogantly, I told him that I was going to complain to the head of the village. My host shook his head. He waved to me to follow him.

We walked toward the center of the village where the elder lived, ironically where the guinea fowl often congregated. Before we reached his compound, my host swooped down and picked up a guinea fowl with his hands! Of course I had tried this many times when I first got the notion to eat one, but ended up running around like a fool. He lifted the wing of the fowl and I could see a colored ribbon. “Each bird is owned by a family,” he told me. “There are no wild birds here.”

So I had captured a bird that was someone else’s property. I was confused as he had earlier told me they were wild animals. In the end, it turned out that he never thought I would be able to capture one, nor did he understand why I wanted to capture one. When I explained that, while I loved the fish stew, I wanted to expand my eating horizons, he laughed. “Just buy one from the neighbor and my daughter will cook it for you.”

So that afternoon I bought a fat guinea fowl and the daughter of my host prepared the most delicious ground-nut stew with him. To this day, I crave that stew. It was unlike anything I had before and better than anything I could have imagined. Although, it was still insanely spicy.

I felt a bit idiotic about the entire episode and it only reinforced to the folks in my village how odd I was. But it had one positive side-effect. People realized how little I understood about even the basics of their lives, and they began to be much less assumptive about my state of knowledge.

Note: A similar recipe is here.

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Facing Your Fears: Approaching People For Research
By Steve Portigal at 10:27 am, Monday June 30 2014

intercept

I’ve always found intercepts – where researchers stop people on the street and ask them to participate in a quick study – to be challenging. (I also prefer to have longer interactions with people and even have them prepare for those research conversations, but that is a bit outside the point here). In Facing Your Fears: Approaching People For Research Carolyn Chandler breaks that challenge down into many pieces and addresses each of them. It’s a wonderful article because it gets deeply into the specifics and considers the mindset we bring to the activity and how to reframe that, in many different ways.

Rejection is people’s number one fear when approaching strangers. Hearing no has always been difficult, whether it’s a polite no or an angry no followed by a rant. Either way, it stings. Your response to that sting, though, is what matters. How do you explain the rejection to yourself, and does your explanation help or hurt you?

Martin Seligman, one of the originators of positive psychology, conducted a study in the ’70s that gives insight into the types of mindsets that make people feel helpless. Seligman found that those who exhibit long-term “learned helplessness” tend to view negative events as being personal, pervasive and permanent. In other words, if a person is rejected, they might rationalize that the rejection is a result of their own failing, that everyone else is likely to reject them as well, and that they can do nothing to lessen the likelihood of rejection.

When you prepare to approach someone, consider instead that, if they say no, they aren’t really rejecting you, but rather rejecting your request. It’s not personal. Maybe they’re in the middle of something, or maybe they’re just not in the mood to talk. The rejection is fleeting, and the next person might be perfectly happy to participate.

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