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ChittahChattah Quickies July 31st, 2012

Patton Oswalt’s Letters to Both Sides: His keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 2012 [The Comic’s Comic] – We’re regularly exposed to wicked-problem discussions about complete upheaval in many industries: manufacturing, newspapers, music, books. Patton Oswalt addresses the upheaval in comedy, how he struggles with it, and how he thinks performers and producers can address it. Inspiring stuff.

You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival…Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone…Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s not because we haven’t gotten our foot in the door, or nobody’s given us a hand up. We can do that ourselves now. Every single day we can do more and more without you and depend on you less and less…I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers. I want you to be as excited as I was when I first saw Maria Bamford’s stand-up, or attended The Paul F. Tompkins show, or listened to Sklarbro Country.

For More Pianos, Last Note Is Thud in the Dump [NYT] – Another example of the old slowly, gradually, and then finally being replaced by the new.

The value of used pianos, especially uprights, has plummeted in recent years. So instead of selling them to a neighbor, donating them to a church or just passing them along to a relative, owners are far more likely to discard them, technicians, movers and dealers say. Piano movers are making regular runs to the dump, becoming adept at dismantling instruments, selling parts to artists, even burning them for firewood…It is strange to think of them as disposable as tissues. Yet economic and cultural forces have made many used pianos, with the exception of Steinways and a few other high-end brands, prone to being jettisoned. With thousands of moving parts, pianos are expensive to repair, requiring long hours of labor by skilled technicians whose numbers are diminishing. Excellent digital pianos and portable keyboards can cost as little as several hundred dollars. Low-end imported pianos have improved remarkably in quality and can be had for under $3,000. “Instead of spending hundreds or thousands to repair an old piano, you can buy a new one made in China that’s just as good, or you can buy a digital one that doesn’t need tuning and has all kinds of bells and whistles,” said Larry Fine, the editor and publisher of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, the industry bible.

Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare as Corporate Focus Groups [NYT] – A misleading headline; social media allows high quantities of shallow consumer input. In focus groups, the numbers are much smaller but there is the chance for a discussion.

Frito-Lay is developing a new potato chip flavor, which, in the old days, would have involved a series of focus groups, research and trend analysis. Now, it uses Facebook. Visitors to the new Lay’s Facebook app are asked to suggest new flavors and click an “I’d Eat That” button to register their preferences. So far, the results show that a beer-battered onion-ring flavor is popular in California and Ohio, while a churros flavor is a hit in New York. “It’s a new way of getting consumer research,” said Ann Mukherjee, chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay North America. “We’re going to get a ton of new ideas.” When Wal-Mart wanted to know whether to stock lollipop-shaped cake makers in its stores, it studied Twitter chatter. Estée Lauder’s MAC Cosmetics brand asked social media users to vote on which discontinued shades to bring back. The stuffed-animal brand Squishable solicited Facebook feedback before settling on the final version of a new toy. And Samuel Adams asked users to vote on yeast, hops, color and other qualities to create a crowdsourced beer, an American red ale called B’Austin Ale that got rave reviews. “It tells us exactly what customers are interested in,” said Elizabeth Francis, chief marketing officer of the Gilt Groupe. Gilt asks customers to vote on which products to include in a sale, and sets up Facebook chats between engineers and customers to help refine products. “It’s amazing that we can get that kind of real feedback, as opposed to speculating,” Ms. Francis said.

Women Outdoors [Metropolis] – A review of an interesting new book Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets.

Mumbai’s public spaces belong to all of its 13 million inhabitants, but at any time of day or night the ratio of men to women is glaringly disproportionate. Men have no qualms about hanging around on street corners or at tea stalls, but women make a point of looking busy, striding with purpose, or talking on their cell phones. Thousands of women travel by trains or buses, but it’s not easy for them to find a toilet, a park bench, or any public place in which to linger. “If Mumbai is the best city for women in India,” says the sociologist Shilpa Phadke, “then the bar is set very low indeed.” Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets, coauthored by Phadke, the architect Shilpa Ranade, and the journalist Sameera Khan, takes a close look at the public spaces of a city where women are said to live more independently than anywhere else in India. But over three years of “extensive, not intensive” research through ethnographies, mapping, interviews, and workshops, the authors found that the city doesn’t quite live up to its egalitarian reputation. And while the book is specific to Mumbai, the ideas in it apply to any metropolis – are public spaces anywhere truly gender neutral?

Can Geoengineering Solve Global Warming? [The New Yorker] – A discussion of innovation in the context of a wicked problem provides some delicious quotes.

“What is fascinating for me is the way the innovation process has changed,” Eisenberger said. “In the past, somebody would make a discovery in a laboratory and say, ‘What can I do with this?’ And now we ask, ‘What do we want to design?,’ because we believe there is powerful enough knowledge to do it. That is what my partner and I did”…”There is a strong history of the system refusing to accept something new,” Eisenberger said. “People say I am nuts. But it would be surprising if people didn’t call me crazy. Look at the history of innovation! If people don’t call you nuts, then you are doing something wrong.”

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Stories behind the themes: Wonderland December 22nd, 2011
Part 12 of 19 in the series the Omni project

2011 is coming to a close and so are the installments of secondary research for the Omni Project themes. The fifth theme, Wonderland, comes as no surprise. In fact, the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles alluded to it over two thousand years ago when he wrote “And through the future, near and far, as through the past, shall this law hold good: Nothing that is vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse.” Welcome to the future, where the vastness of technology delivers both the promise of possibility and the curse of consequence. Here we share a few examples of how people are consuming, managing, producing, processing and even inadvertently participating in the unstoppable proliferation of technology.

So You’ve Shared a Link? This is How Long it Will Stay Relevant [The Atlantic] – Here bit.ly discuss a metric they developed called ‘half life’ to measure how long a shared link remains relevant. They analyzed links (shortened through their site) from YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and directly through email and instant messages. The results are not surprising so much as deflating (a feeling which is, after all, only relevant for a few hours).

Bit.ly analyzed click data for a thousand popular links shortened through their website and found remarkable consistency in how long bitly stay relevant on various sites. The company’s blog summarizes the results in the chart below. The half life of a Twitter link is the shortest, at two hours and 48 minutes, yet Twitter links tend to garner the most traffic. Links shared on Facebook have on average a half life 24 minutes longer. Similarly, “direct links–those shared through email or instant messaging–have an only slightly longer half life of three hours and 24 minutes. The three types of links share the same basic distribution, reaching their peak number of clicks shortly after being posted and gradually tapering off in clicks from there.

How to stop e-mail overload? Think before you hit send. [Washington Post] – This piece discusses the deluge of information we confront in our email inboxes and the ensuing internal and external battles to stay afloat, which resulted in this Email Charter.

But the unintended consequence is that communication volume is expanding to the point where it threatens to take over our lives. An e-mail inbox has been described as a to-do list that anyone in the world can add to. If you’re not careful, it can gobble up most of your week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own priorities.

Spin, Spin, Die Less Quickly [The Wirecutter] – Here’s a techno-topic that many of us can relate to. Following the death of a hard drive belonging to a friend-of-a-friend, the author reflects upon the frailty of the infrastructure that supports data and content exchange and storage. Hence emerge the challenges of managing and maintaining the onslaught of information so that we may reliably refer back to it in the future.

Data should last forever but individual data storage devices tend to be frail. Just ask the people who run Google’s data centers- In the end, it pays to have your stuff stored the way Google would-in many places at once, in as many copies as you can. Right now, that means having multiple drives for backup, or, having a local drive and an online back up drive like Backblaze or Crashplan. That is the final truth about hard drives.

What Does It Mean To Be Connected in the¬† 21st Century?¬† [TEDxMarin] -¬† Tiffany Shlain explores the “connective tissues” that now bond us (email, texting, etc.) and some of the biological reasons why we are nearly powerless to resist the gravitational pull of technology.

I half expected the statue of liberty to have torch in one hand and be texting with the other- I read that every time you click or check your email or your cell phone, you get a squirt of dopamine. Now dopamine, most people think it’s like a pleasure… but they have actually found out this it is about seeking, and finding, and searching, Dopamine is really associated with searching for information.

David Carr: The News Diet Of A Media Omnivore [NPR] – Interview with a media columnist for The New York Times about his own media consumption habits. Focused primarily on Carr’s entanglement with Twitter including the lovely quote “My persistent concern is that I’ll become so busy producing media that I won’t consume enough of it.” Carr probably isn’t the only one who faces the consequences of being a media prosumer, any of this sound familiar?

This is the first year that I think my productivity has dropped because [of my media consumption]. I’m looking at the coming year and thinking, what am I going to give up? Am I going to give up following the NFL? Am I going to give up listening to music and going out and seeing it? Am I going to give up riding my bike? Or am I going to cut back on some of these digital habits I have that are eating me alive and some of these … endless panels about the future of journalism? The future of journalism is wearing badges and talking on panels, as far as I can tell.

(for more on the future of journalism, check out the IxD12 Student Design Challenge)

The Curse of Cow Clicker: How a Cheeky Satire Became a Videogame Hit [Wired] РCan a cow sitting in pasture, making cud of clicks, reflect the insidious nature of gamification?  It most certainly can, especially when developer of said cow created said pasture and clicks as a tongue-in-cheek satire of deceptively banal games. Even more so when said developer finds himself hungrily grazing in a Pavlovian pasture of compulsive production, trying to keep the hungry cows ruminating.

Bogost kept his players hooked by introducing new cows for them to purchase using virtual mooney or real money. They ranged from the crowd-pleasingly topical (a cow covered in oil and sporting a BP-esque logo on its rump) to the aggressively cynical (the Stargrazer Cow, which was just the original cow facing the opposite direction and for which Bogost charged 2,500 mooney). They may have looked simple, but they were time-consuming to conceive and draw. By the end of the year, Bogost was devoting as much as 10 hours a week to Cow Clicker. Drawings of cows cluttered his house and office. “I was spending more time on it than I was comfortable with,” Bogost says. “But I was compelled to do it. I couldn’t stop.”

‘Tis the Season… If bit.ly is remotely accurate with their estimates, this post will cease being relevant long before the festivities are done so we better act fast and wish you Happy Holidays! And in case there is any kernel of doubt left in your mind that we are snowed in by a blizzard of techno-possibilities, allow us to regift- er, repost- a little tongue-in-cheek holiday house music to soundtrack this winter wonderland.

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ChittahChattah Quickies December 6th, 2011

Seer of the mirror world [The Economist] – Embedded in this article, along with Gelernter’s thoughts about designing technology and some future-casting (expect more software agent-bots!), is some good drama about patent wars among the tech-cognoscenti.

“Google is commercially successful and dazzlingly imaginative but I don’t see what I would like to see from them, or Facebook or Twitter,” says Dr Gelernter. “They’re not turning on their imaginations”… As ever, Dr Gelernter’s excitement about the potential of new technology is tempered by frustration that too little attention is paid to aesthetic and social factors. “A lot of convenience and power could be gained, and a lot of unhappiness, irritation and missed opportunities avoided, if the industry thought about design, instead of always making it the last thing on the list,” he says. “We need more people who are at home in the worlds of art and the humanities and who are less diffident in the presence of technology. There are not enough articulate Luddite, anti-technology voices.” It is not the sort of thing you expect to hear from a professor of computer science, let alone the victim of an anti-technology extremist. But as well as having foreseen the future of computing, over his career Dr Gelernter has developed a clear understanding of humans’ conflicted relationship with the technology on which they increasingly rely.

Making Noise About People Who Talk to Their Cellphones [NYT Bits Blog] – Behaviors and sensitivities are explored and exposed as voice-activated software adds to the out-loud interactions people can have with their mobile devices now. The reaction as people feel subjected to these interactions is much more negative than we’d have (culturally) to the old-fashioned practice of overhearing two people talking, or the more desirable and salacious hobby of eavesdropping!

“As I was waiting in a Southwest Airlines cattle queue to fly back east for Thanksgiving, I was subjected to 15 minutes of listening to the man behind me as he dictated all the details of a prostate surgery into his ‘personal’ assistant,” wrote Exiled In MO from St. Louis. “People have simply lost all knowledge of what constitutes personal space and appropriate public behavior. What a noisy, sad world we’ve made.”

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Information Overlord August 19th, 2011

We are seduced by and dithering with some mind-boggling stuff these days – magical gadgets, apps to enable whatever the hell comes to mind, wireless (!), interleaving social networks, the delight and terror of being geo-located, etc. These objects and experiences are often lumped together and referred to as “technology.” We don’t yet get what we sacrifice or gain by this tech-driven new world order, or how it will ultimately affect us as individuals, as generations, as a culture. Of course, our underlying motivations as human beings remain pretty stable (from survival straight through to enlightenment), but the way we can go about things now is all different. Implications abound. A faceless evil foe emerges from the uncertainty: technology itself (never terribly well defined when the witch-hunt is on). The foe is also the enabler. Agnostic pipes blissfully propagate these ideas, unaware they are being demonized, allowing us to consume them on whatever miraculous screen we happen to be peering at.

Here are a couple recent examples of technology – in particular the volume of information it allows us to access – being discussed in the popular press.

The Visionary: A digital pioneer questions what technology has wrought [newyorker.com] – Jaron Lanier has spent his incredible career envisioning ways for technology to delight and empower us, but is disappointed by the dominance of information in the system. We’re not thinking creatively enough. Technology is a harsh schoolmarm. It limits us with its relentless focus on information.

Such objections have made Lanier an unusual figure: he is a technology expert who dislikes what technology has become. “I’m disappointed with the way the Internet has gone in the past ten years,” he told me at one point. He added, “I’ve always felt that the human-centered approach to computer science leads to more interesting, more exotic, more wild, and more heroic adventures than the machine-supremacy approach, where information is the highest goal.” … Unlike more Luddite critics, Lanier complains not that technology has taken over our lives but that it has not given us enough back in return. In place of a banquet, we’ve been given a vending machine. “The thing about technology is that it’s made the world of information ever more dominant,” Lanier told me. “And there’s so much loss in that. It really does feel as if we’ve sworn allegiance to a dwarf world, rather than to a giant world.”

The Elusive Big Idea [nytimes.com] – According to the more academic Neal Gabler, information is overwhelming ideas in our culture. Technology is a sandstorm. It blinds us, prevents rational thought. The compelling notion that our culture is drifting towards a post-Enlightenment and post-idea state is undermined by his facile assumptions about how people use technology and in particular in this quote, social networking tools (and why, and for what).

For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus. To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.

Can we please get beyond Twitter-is-for-talking-about-sandwiches? Interaction and ideas on Twitter and other technology-enabled platforms for human communication are as rich and prosaic as humanity itself. It’s quite easy to find “thoughts organized into words” and “grand arguments” on any social networking site on any given day. These are not trivial forums for discourse at any level. To reduce the effects of technology on social interaction in this manner is simplistic. It does not live up to the quality of intellectual thought that the author himself calls for as the central idea of the article. I guess we might interpret this as just more evidence of the ill-effects of Twitter on our culture. The aforementioned Jaron Lanier, himself a player in and product of the world of technology, seems to be, incidentally, the kind of big thinker that Gabler pines for.

We sacrifice agency when we cast technology as an outside force acting upon us. Technology is still, as of this writing, made by and for human beings. There is no technology. If technology prevents us from having ideas and represses our humanity, then we do that to ourselves.

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ChittahChattah Quickies June 29th, 2011
  • [from steve_portigal] rep.licants.org – enhanced virtual self – [I'm trying this although I may come to regret it; meanwhile the notion is so fascinating, giving virtual extensions of our presence and personality to make us "more" human in our interactions rather than less human!] rep.licants.org is a web service allowing users to install an artificial intelligence (bot) on their Facebook and/or Twitter account. From keywords, content analysis and activity analysis, the bot attempts to simulate the activity of the user, to improve it by feeding his account and to create new contacts with other users…The bot does not born with a fictitious identity, but will be added to the real identity of the user to modify it at his convenience. Thus, this bot can be seen as a virtual prosthesis added to an user's account. With the aim to help him to forge a digital identity of what he would really like to be and by trying to build a greater social reputation for the user.
  • [from julienorvaisas] Venture Inside China’s Tiny Public Housing Cubes [Flavorwire] – [A surprising variety is borne of extreme domestic constraints: approaches and techniques for featuring and concealing objects, decoration and overall effect or mood.] The dwellers of the Shek Kip Mei Estate public housing project in Hong Kong occupy just ten feet by ten feet of living space. The humble rooms that originally served as relocation units for fire victims in the 1950s are furnished with bunk beds. The crowded units balloon with dozens of plastic bags for all-purpose storage and are decorated with a varying amount of patriotic paraphernalia.
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Dwelling on One Day for Design April 25th, 2011

April 13th was the one day for One Day for Design (1D4D), an event conceived of by AIGA to “bring together a global community of designers and design enthusiasts to exchange ideas, challenge viewpoints and push boundaries in a real-time, online global debate” about the future of design, led by an impressive line-up of moderators.

What a fantastic notion! For our part, we were excited to be part of the conversation, and to see how AIGA pulled it off. When the day arrived we were ready. We dutifully signed onto the website and Twitter and TweetDeck, ready to talk design… and were paralyzed. Random content was scrolling by at a feverish pace, too feverish to manage. Tweets we could grab ahold of felt disjointed and distracted (as did we). The velocity of tweets is a testimony to the power of the idea, certainly, but also made for an unsettling user experience. Other people felt similarly. A series of responses and critiques have since surfaced.

  • One Day for Design – Deep Dive by DoubleThink out of Minnesota is a great analysis of 1D4D Twitter data showing how much work it takes to pull patterns and value out of the “waterfall,” as Phong puts it.
  • MJ Broadbent posted AIGA’s One Day for Design Conversation to the IxDA discussion list, calling the event laudable, but “kind of a mess to follow and participate in.”
  • Frank Chimero focused on the content of the 1D4D conversation (calling his post Designers Poison) but noted first that “Twitter seemed like the wrong place for the discussion, because it presented a conversation on design that required holistic thinking in a fragmented manner.”
  • On GOOD, Dylan Lathrop wrote in Global Twitter Conversation Proves Designers Don’t Get It that “try as hard as they might, moderators couldn’t contain the endless barrage.”
  • Equally pessimistic was Lindsay McComb on TheMetaQ, in Why design can’t be described in 140 characters:”I felt as though my tweets were a drop in a massive ocean of irrelevance.”

We felt similarly. Back here at the ranch, it was only a matter of minutes before the impulse to analyze and think about improving the experience kicked in. How could this be better? What exactly felt so daunting? The event’s energy was exciting but it was unclear what people were trying to accomplish on this day and how this energy would/could be harnessed to do that. So many different types of people were taking part; surely their objectives differed. And underlying it all, how was Twitter faring as the de facto forum for this event?

Based on our brief brainstorming, we identified a few generative ideas and themes (in other words, we’re staying away from the “put the comment box near the newest not the oldest tweet” UI tweaks that others are so much more qualified to address, and sticking with our sweet spot – teeing up the questions that lead to a broad swath of new solutions). After all, what’s possible when you have 3,900 engaged designers (and design enthusiasts) from all fields eager to talk?

Let Moderators Moderate!
Allow a little lag time (think about broadcasting’s 7-second delay) to give moderators a chance to filter, sort, and respond. This could result in something like moderated “channels” to follow.

Segment the group
Allow people to self-identify as being affiliated with certain disciplines, areas of interest and/or years of experience, enabling participants to establish and dwell in affinities and also to make targeted connections beyond them.

Anticipate and Seed Topics
The topic of design is broad (understatement alert!). AIGA and/or moderators could anticipate or encourage certain topics. Participants and the community at large could benefit by a little time prior to the big day to pull thoughts together and perhaps even engage in dialogue outside of the event.

Better Control Content
There are numerous ways to imagine enabling people to organize the information stream. Self-tagging? Content-bots? Anything that would allow people to create their own “channels” based on individual interests. Essentially Twitter’s existing “Trending topics”, we imagined a dynamic hashtag cloud that would guide people towards what others are talking about and help to get them there.

Twitter-fu?
There are three of us in this office. Our interest in 1D4D, which we all shared, bore no relationship to our interest in (and experience with) Twitter, which varies wildly. Master and neophyte alike should be able to participate in the conversation without a black belt in Twitter. Help people by providing a semi-curated experience.

There are many good reasons not to include some of these ideas into general Twitterings, as they introduce constraints on the free-form and user-generated stream of consciousness experience that defines Twitter. We’ve weighed in elsewhere on the challenges Twitter faces in general and those factors can be exacerbated when large numbers of people convene with a larger purpose for a time-bounded conversation. Perhaps some scaffolding would improve the ability for more meaningful exchanges, enabling serendipity without letting serendipity reign as the organizing principle.

With all the fertile design minds out there as part of this conversation we’re sure that others have ideas. Let’s hear ‘em!

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ChittahChattah Quickies March 4th, 2011
  • [from julienorvaisas] Revealing the Man Behind @MayorEmanuel [Technology – The Atlantic] – [Professor/former punk zine publisher comes clean as author of Rahm Emanuel's apparently epic fake Twitter feed. Atlantic makes a case that it represents a new kind of fiction.] @MayorEmanuel is a new genre that is native to Twitter. When you try to turn his adventures into traditional short stories or poems, they lose the crucial element of time. The episode where the mayor gets stuck in the sewer pipes of City Hall just does not work when the 15 tweets aren't spaced out over 7 hours. It's all over too fast to be satisfying. There's no suspense. This is also a piece of fiction that could interact with reality in real-time. So, when right-wing Michelle Malkin lauded @MayorEmanuel, he could tell her to eff-off. The character could be right there with you when the Bears lost, when snow blew in or as Rahm visited Google. He created fiction both out of what was happening and out of what you, yourself, were living. And he did it for five months. It was serialization in a sense, but alive.
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ChittahChattah Quickies November 12th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Start-Ups Follow Twitter, and Become Neighbors [NYTimes.com] – [The supposed demand to be co-located in the same office building as Twitter, hoping for some f2f meatspace benefits from proximity to a virtual powerhouse] And so he snagged an office at 795 Folsom, Twitter’s headquarters in the SoMa neighborhood. There, he has been stalking executives on — where else? — Twitter, to see who is to visit Twitter’s offices. When he finds out, he pounces and “hijacks the meeting,” he said, by asking them to swing by his company, Klout. By doing that, he has met Robert Scoble, the influential technology blogger, and Steve Rubel, director of insights for the digital division of Edelman, the big public relations firm, and has spotted Kanye West in the lobby on his way to Twitter. Through elevator and lobby run-ins, he has also forged a close enough relationship with Twitter’s chief executive, Dick Costolo, that Mr. Costolo is helping Klout raise venture capital. “Now I have his cellphone, and I text him,” Mr. Fernandez said.
  • [from steve_portigal] User-centered Innovation in Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class [SF Chronicle] – [The article mostly focuses on a specific innovative design – a low-cost incubator-type-solution for Nepal; but the most quotable bits were towards the end, where they discuss the operating framework of this class.] About to start its eighth year in January, the class has completed about 60 projects for 15 partner organizations in 10 countries. It brings together students from different academic backgrounds…They all have one goal in common: to design products for the poor and to treat them as customers rather than handing them our leftovers and castoffs. "We are trying to figure out what they want and need," said Jim Patell, the Stanford professor who leads the class. "It is not our job to tell them what they want."
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ChittahChattah Quickies November 1st, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Why Evan Williams of Twitter Demoted Himself [NYTimes.com] – [Creating a small but deliberate interaction – say, logging onto a computer – that serves as an engine of culture change in an organization] Twitter’s executives talk about the “Dunbar number” — the maximum number of people, generally believed to be 150, with whom one person can have strong relationships. This effort, mind you, comes from a company with a business model that fosters a multitude of ever-growing — and largely glancing — interactions among Twitter’s users. “I’ve never seen a company so focused on avoiding the Dunbar number,” says Adam Bain, who recently joined Twitter from the News Corporation as head of global revenue. “You can tell Ev planned it out.” Each time employees log on to their computers, for instance, they see a photo of a colleague, with clues and a list of the person’s hobbies, and must identify the person. And notes from every meeting are posted for all employees to read.
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ChittahChattah Quickies September 14th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] University to Students: No Facebook, Twitter for A Week [Technologizer] – [Asking people to stop doing something they often do is also a research technique, ask people to make a change and then reflect on it. This implementation is a bit paternalistic but hopefully very valuable for participants] The provost of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology is taking an unusual step to teach his students a lesson on how social media is impacting their lives: he has banned both Facebook and Twitter on campus for an entire week. Provost Eric Darr doesn’t look like he’s anti-technology, rather he believes that students may take these technologies for granted. “Often, there are behaviors or habits, ways that we use technology that we may ourselves not even be able to articulate because we’re not aware of them,” he told the NPR in an interview. “If someone feels the need to borrow their friend’s phone to go check Facebook, it’ll be interesting to ask the question at the end of the week: Why did you feel the need to do that? What compelled you to do that?”
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ChittahChattah Quickies July 15th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Report: EPA kills Chevy Volt’s 230 mpg rating [Autoblog Green] – [Thorny problem about how to give an actual rating of a car's performance when that rating is based on gasoline consumption and the car in question doesn't (really) use gasoline! The whole frame of reference for assessing the comparative economical/ecological performance of a breakthrough product is based on a slightly obsoleting technology. Craziness ensues!]
  • [from steve_portigal] How the Old Spice Videos Are Being Made [ReadWriteWeb] – A team of creatives, tech geeks, marketers and writers gathered in an undisclosed location in Portland, Oregon yesterday and produced 87 short comedic YouTube videos about Old Spice. In real time. Those videos and 74 more made so far today have now been viewed more than 4 million times and counting. The team worked for 11 hours yesterday to make 87 short videos, that's just over 7 minutes per video, not accounting for any breaks taken. Then they woke up this morning and they are still making more videos right now. Here's how it's going down. Old Spice, marketing agency Wieden + Kennedy and actor Isaiah Mustafa are collaborating on the project. The group seeded various social networks with an invitation to ask questions of Mustafa's character. Then all the responses were tracked and users who contributed interesting questions and/or were high-profile people on social networks are being responded to directly and by name in short, funny YouTube videos.
  • [from steve_portigal] Who’s Mailing What – [A very specific form of "competitive intelligence"] Every month the Who's Mailing What! Archive receives and analyzes approximately 4,000 to 5,000 pieces of direct mail in nearly 200 categories — consumer, business, fundraising, catalogs, and much more — forwarded to us from a network of correspondents around the country. Why? Because the best way to create successful direct mail is to study other company's mail to see which campaign and techniques show up again and again. If you're tracking a particular area of direct mail — you can go right to that category, see what we've received and discover: Who's mailing what, the offers, the control, the complexity of the mailing, whether there was 4-color work, sophisticated computer work, a poly envelope, a self-mailing format.
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ChittahChattah Quickies June 18th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] ALT/1977: WE ARE NOT TIME TRAVELERS [Behance] – [Alex Varanese's thought-provoking concepts go beyond blogosphere-hipster-silliness to really provoke reflection on design and functionality often taken for granted] What would you do if you could travel back in time? Here's what I'd do after that: grab all the modern technology I could find, take it to the late 70's, superficially redesign it all to blend in, start a consumer electronics company to unleash it upon the world, then sit back as I rake in billions, trillions, or even millions of dollars. I've explored that idea in this series by re-imagining four common products from 2010 as if they were designed in 1977: an mp3 player, a laptop, a mobile phone and a handheld video game system. I then created a series of fictitious but stylistically accurate print ads. I've learned that there is no greater design element than the anachronism. I've learned that the strongest contrast isn't spatial or tonal but historical. I've learned that there's retro, and then there's time travel.
  • [from julienorvaisas] 10:10 Tags Symbolize Committment to Climate Change [10:10global.org/uk] – [The fact that this tag is tangible but also symbolic rather than overt, and versatile enough to be carried on the body as a daily reminder of a commitment to the cause of climate change can help change behavior and improve compliance, as well as subtly telegraph solidarity.] The 10:10 Tag is made from a recycled jumbo jet, and can be worn on the neck, wrist, lapel or leotard to symbolise your 10:10 commitment. Whether you pin it to the lapel of your business suit or thread it through the laces of your skateboard trainers, your 10:10 Tag shows others that not only do you know how to accessorise; you’re also part of the solution to climate change.
  • [from Dan_Soltzberg] Grateful Dead scholar in heaven at UC Santa Cruz [SFGate] – [More big things happening at my Alma Mater] The ultimate job in Dead-dom is in Room 1370 at McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz. The door is marked by the steal-your-face logo, and superimposed over it reads the name Nicholas G. Meriwether, Grateful Dead Archivist.
  • [from julienorvaisas] Ariely’s Upside of Irrationality: using irrational cognitive blindspots to your advantage [Boing Boing] – [We've seen the principles of behavioral economics applied to help us understand and explain consumers irrational choices in a business context, now here's a self-help book helping us apply them to our own everyday lives.] Upside of Irrationality is a mostly successful attempt to transform the scientific critique of the 'rational consumer' principal into practical advice for living a better life. 'Mostly successful' only because some of our habitual irrationality is fundamentally insurmountable — there's almost nothing we can do to mitigate it.
  • [from steve_portigal] Text 2.0 – What if your book really knew where you are gazing at? – [This is essentially one of the concepts we proposed from our Reading Ahead research – where an eyetracker in a digital book manipulates the text dynamically based on your gaze. In our use case, we addressed the interrupt-driven commute reading revealed by our research. If the book saw you looking away, it could mark your spot to enable more efficient resuming]
  • [from steve_portigal] Twitter a hit in Japan as millions ‘mumble’ online [Yahoo! News] – Japanese-language Twitter taps into a greater sense of individuality in Japan, especially among younger people less accepting of the Japanese understatement and conformity. 16.3% of Japanese Internet tweet 16.3% (vs. 9.8% in US). "Japan is enjoying the richest and most varied form of Twitter usage as a communication tool…It's playing out as a rediscovery of the Internet.” It's possible to say so much more in Japanese within Twitter's 140 letters. "Information" requires just 2 letters in Japanese. Another is that people own up to their identities on Twitter. One well-known case is a woman who posted the photo of a park her father sent in e-mail before he died. Twitter was immediately abuzz with people comparing parks…"It's telling that Twitter was translated as 'mumbling' in Japanese," he said. "They love the idea of talking to themselves," he said…"In finding fulfillment in expressing what's on your mind for the moment, Twitter is like haiku," he said. "It is so Japanese."
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URF10: Research, Creativity and Astonishment February 22nd, 2010

Many thanks to our friends at Bolt|Peters for hosting an energizing User Research Friday last week! Dan and I heard a recurring theme of research and creativity, both in method and mindset. Dan noted that several people spoke about research and creativity as though they were separate, and that combining them was somehow novel. But research done well, from framing the problem through storytelling, is creative by nature!

In particular I was struck by how Michal Migurski of Stamen (see his annotated slides here and video here) framed his discussion on their creative visualizations of information streams for Digg Labs and the Twitter Track for the Olympics (to name just a couple) as research-free, when we saw their work as a terrific illustration of a pretty standard method: Using stimulus (in this case the visualizations themselves) to do rapid prototyping based on immediate user feedback, all as a way to guide development. He even talked about Digg Labs as a “wide-open playing ground” for this kind of cycle of experimentation.


One of many visualizations on Digg Labs


NBC Olympics Real Time Twitter Tracker

Even beyond that, Migurski implied that Stamen’s visualizations have become research tools that help people to understand, navigate and make use of vast swathes of data, such as the journalist who keeps the Digg example up on his screen as a snapshot of what’s got buzz. So Stamen’s gorgeous visualizations are really a product of research as well as possibly a nascent research method. If their creation doesn’t feel to Migurski like deliberate research methods are being employed that may be because it’s just so embedded in their process. I’d argue that’s the best kind of research: an integral part of the process.

Now, terms like “User Research” are slippery, but I do object to his definition:

“User research, to me, is an attempt to mitigate and control astonishment by determining what an audience believes or expects, and where possible delivering on that belief and expectation. User research promises stability and predictable outcomes, and I think that we’re at a curve in the road where the idea of stability is just not all that interesting.”

This sounds like the objectives of conventional focus group or usability testing, not the front-end discovery methods that are at the core of our discipline. Our goal is not simply to determine what consumers believe or expect and then use those observations as marching orders, but to creatively synthesize these discoveries into insights about what people need and value, in order to drive the development of experiences and products that delight and (why not!) astonish.

Overall, the content at URF10 left us hungry for more discussion about how creative research methods are used as a set of inputs and methods that complement and inform design and business strategy at many stages of the development process.

Finally, a tip of the hat to presenter Ed Langstroth of Volkswagen for telling us about the “Party Mode” button (which turns up the bass in the back of the vehicle) on the new Toyota 4-Runner:

For more User Research Friday goodness, check out Steve’s 2008 User Research Friday presentation: Research and Design: Ships in the Night? (slides, audio, and video here) and the subsequent articles in interactions: Part I and Part II .

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Twitter as the Tree of Souls February 4th, 2010


The Omaticaya clan link the group mind via the Tree of Souls in the movie Avatar

Steve published a Quickie post recently on the Twitter remix of his Deep Dive Interviewing Secrets webinar.

I was struck by how the Twitter remix goes beyond reportage, not just echoing the points raised in the presentation but adding a layer of synthesis and translating the content across different media.

It’s a crowd-sourced boiling-down, and yet another of many examples of how this type of platform can be harnessed to interpret and respond to events in real time.

It’s also another illustration of how, as complex as technology has become, it so often still exists in service to the most elemental human activities. In this particular usage of Twitter, the support of tribal communication and the distillation of the group mind.

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ChittahChattah Quickies February 2nd, 2010
  • Remixing Deep Dive Interviewing Secrets [Things On Top] – This remix of tweets from “Deep Dive Interviewing Secrets”, a UIE virtual seminar by Steve Portigal, gives you some of the answers. I missed out on Steve’s webinar, unfortunately, and decided to check out what others had tweeted about it using the hashtag #uievs. Luckily, there had been lots of activity and discussion, and I felt that Twitter provided me with quite a comprehensive summary of Steve’s stunning insights in to interview techniques. For my own sake and for future reference, I decided to compile that Twitter timeline in to a short document.
  • Remembrance of Candy Bars Past [WSJ.com] – These companies are the face of what the candy industry in America used to be. Each city or region had its own factories, and people could actually see and smell the place where their favorite sweets were made. Regional candies are a dying breed. Today, there are perhaps a dozen such concerns left in America. The rest have been swallowed up, or put out of business, by the massive consolidation that has shaped the modern confectionery industry. Thousands of candy bars have disappeared along the road to consolidation, including such recent delicacies as the peanut butter-and-chocolate pods known as Oompahs, the treacherously chewy Bit-o-Choc, the glorious, nougat-and-caramel-filled Milkshake, and the Bar None, an ingenious marriage of peanuts and wafers dipped in chocolate. Also gone (but not forgotten) is the curiously alluring Marathon Bar, a braided rope of chocolate and caramel whose wrapper featured a ruler on the back.
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