Posts tagged “Adaptive Path”

Rage With The Machine

Biodiesel-fueled coupe made from old semi truck, Half Moon Bay, California

lawnmower-race-sequence.jpgLawnmower Races, Half Moon Bay, California

I went to a huge auto and machine show recently at a small airfield down the coast from San Francisco. I really love this kind of stuff, but my machine lust was battling thoughts of carbon footprints, sustainability and global economics that made it a little difficult to see the event as entirely wholesome.

Living in and trying to navigate this consumption/sustainability paradox is the conundrum of the day for anyone who loves things.

Nokia’s Jan Chipchase gave a talk at Adaptive Path a couple of weeks ago, and showed a model of the Remade mobile phone concept. The Remade is produced almost entirely by upcycling, a Cradle to Cradle concept whereby potential trash is transformed into something valuable and useful.

Appearance model, Remade mobile phone concept, Nokia. (picture from

The extruded aluminum body of the Remade model seemed really tough, and made me think about what it would be like if products were built so well that they rarely broke.

Would that be the most sustainable approach to the object cycle-making things that lasted, and using them for as long as they lasted?

It’s a complex picture: there’s technological evolution constantly rendering our stuff obsolete, there’s the need for producers to continue to produce and sell what they make, and then there’s that crow/magpie thing-our persistent desire to add new objects to whatever we already have sequestered in our nests.

Thinking about a system this complex always leads to big questions. Here are some of mine for this round:

  • What is the relationship between remaking how objects are produced and shifting cultural attitudes toward consumption?

  • Can producers profitably focus on business models that take advantage of long use (for example by focusing more on post-purchase relationships and less on product replacement)?

  • Can it ever be as cool, sexy, and fun as buying new things to use our things for years and years, so that they acquire a patina, shape themselves to our bodies and our personalities, and bear scars that tell stories?

Or will that leave something fundamental in our natures (our crow-selves??) unsatisfied?

Designing for Emergence

A recent BayCHI panel on Designing systems with emergent behavior featured Tim Brown (IDEO), Peter Merholz (Adaptive Path), Larry Cornett (Yahoo), and Joy Mountford (Yahoo), and was moderated by Rashmi Sinha.

My notes are up on Core77

Tim: Contrast that with physical design where you have more chances to test prototypes, with rapidly changing software, it’s too easy to do something new. Seems like a new feature got launched before a design process happened. Maybe they didn’t get to test it a little bit. Not referring to Beta, in videogames they are always testing all the time. It’s part of the design process. He prefers that to the classic Alpha Beta approach

My UXWeek Session

Here is a link to a podcast page for my recent talk at Adaptive Path’s UXWeek.

Effective user research requires both observation and interviewing. When doing research we strive to get outside our own default expectations and perceptions, in order to better see the details of what we’re looking at, in other words, to understand the cultural context. This third component is the most crucial to innovation. Interesting things happen when we leave our homes and our comfort zone, perhaps in another country where business, language, food, and more is beyond our own frames of reference.

Steve Portigal, founder of Portigal Consulting, offers expert tips in both observation and interviewing, and considers the challenges and opportunities in conducting research abroad. He believes that one way to better understand a different culture is to look at how things in your own culture are handled differently. He gives some examples of how some things are promoted differently in Japan than in the United States. He states that mundane observations reveal important cultural differences.

Here are the slides

I’ll be curious how others fare; I couldn’t get it to go past slide 6, although I could go to the end and page backwards. I’ve reported a bug and hope it gets fixed, but since it’s just been launched and getting some buzz, who knows. I re-uploaded and replaced it with a version that works. They are working on tracking down the problem with the last version.

Cross-Cultural Research

Notes from my UXWeek session are online (not sure how helpful they are without hearing me talk through the issues, (Update: you can hear me talk through the issues here) but if you want to, check out Dan Saffer’s notes or the notes from the wiki.


Hawai’i makai/mauka signs
different orientation toward navigation: toward mountain, toward ocean
difference in how we move through space

so what?
mundane observations reveal differences in cultural needs or drivers

Michael Bierut at UX Week

Michael gave one of the keynotes today at UXWeek. He is a great storyteller with a wonderful self-deprecating style (that somehow combines with an amusing cynicism about some of those around him; but yet he’s genuine in it all). His talk essentially focused on his learning moment(s) as a designer around being user-centered.

He took on a pro-bono project to rename/rebrand/create a logo/etc. for a project to redo decrepit libraries in NYC schools. In a post-modern fashion, he presented his deliverables for that client in a dry and critical tone, mocking his own “big ideas” in a way that made it clear he no longer sees them as big ideas any longer. It was an interesting line to skate, there is always bullshit and performance in trying to convince someone that a new idea (or a trite idea, brought in for the first time, etc.) is a valid one, and it’s easy to present the same idea as genius or crap depending on the tone of voice. Listen to some old Bob Newhart recordings for a concrete example (Tob-acco… er, what’s tob-acco, Walt? It’s a kind of leaf, huh?… and you bought eighty tonnes of it?!!… Let me get this straight, Walt… you’ve bought eighty tonnes of leaves?… This may come as a kind of a surprise to you Walt but… come fall in England, we’re kinda up to our…).

Bierut’s ideas were completely inappropriate and indicated how poorly he understood the problem. The client took him out to see the libraries, and he got it. Instantly, and hugely. And the design work that he and many others collaborated one was wonderful. Framed as a story about his own failures, it’s actually a story about success. But the framing is what makes the telling of the story so genius.

Bierut gave his client a new treatment for the library. In a funny PowerPoint build he went from

He planned to deliver a full specification document indicating fonts and treatment and all the rest, but in the interim, the client took control over the logo and started using it whatever way they wanted. He realized that this was okay, and that the cultural (and indeed design) benefits outweighed any super-specification desire he might have projected on them.

One awesome and obvious (in hindsight) example of this dawning user-centered perspective was in how Michael and his team referred to these different libraries being designed. Before meeting the librarians, he referred to them by the architect (i.e., the Peter Arkle (sp!) library) but afterwards he learned that it was referred to as “Vince’s library” – a classic user research insight – different groups call things by different names, revealing their underlying use model!

Five things he learned
1. Innovation is overrated*
2. You get power by giving away power
3. The real opportunity may be outside your scope of work
4. Consistency does not equal sameness
5. Take care of the experience and the brand will take care of itself

The “innovation” comment was challenging and Ryan Freitas asked about it. Bierut added that “innovation has never been a profound motivator for me…design has to work within conventions to work.” Seems like we’re approaching the I-word with some different things in mind. Bierut felt he started off being too “clever” – which I hear as new for new’s sake – and that wasn’t the right thing to do. I don’t think innovative means shocking, obviously new, different, and all that. I think innovation can be invisible and brilliant and seamless to adapt to, with that whiff of exhaled “ooh!” that happens afterwards. To a graphic designer, the word may mean something else.

Quickies from UXWeek

Despite all the training, the swanky Palomar Hotel, site of UX Week, isn’t able to get basic things like room reservations (ObSeinfeld: “See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to *hold* the reservation”) sorted out. I wasn’t the only one it seems that arrived (hot and dusty from a long long voyage) to find some polite confusion at the front desk. And today (after friendly but pungent maintenance men visited my room during the well-communicated fire alarm test) a polite person knocked on my door to see if my room was indeed occupied.

Anyway, more content stuff to come (great keynote by Michael Bierut). Surreal moment of zen last night when the very “guy” bartenders at the billiards bar where Google hosted a (recruiting) party poured out pitchers of shots (of what they referred to as a concoction and had us all toast – like patrons of wet-t-shirt-nite – to GOOOOOOOOOOGLE!!!!!!!!!! It was a viral-video/co-creation opportunity waiting to happen.

D.C. bound

User Experience Week 2006 is coming up in just 2 weeks. I’m looking forward to the event; I’ve never been to D.C. before, looking forward to seeing Michael Bierut and some of the other presenters. My talk and Jared Spool’s take place simultaneously, so I can expect an (ahem) intimate audience, I guess.

I know some of the folks who will be there (especially other presenters), but I’d love to hear from other folks who will be at UX Week?

Todd calls for “A new framework”

Todd writes, over at the adaptive path blog

Focusing exclusively on tasks and goals means that you tend to ignore or de-emphasize all of the activities that people engage in that are specifically not goal-oriented. It also means that you will often ignore the messy jumble of activities that take place around but are not oriented toward your system. This is not always problematic but it quickly becomes so when you are designing for multiple contexts and mediums. When it comes to designing for the total experience, the activities that have little to do with the system you are designing are often just as important as those that are central to it. More than ever before, people switch from one context to another rapidly and often. They were in the outskirts of Cleveland mowing their lawn then the cell phone rang and suddenly they’re planning a trip to Thailand.

The thesis of the piece, as I read it, is not simply to shift methodologies (do ethnography and forget usability) but to change the fundamental way that we structure and act on the information we gather about the people we are designing for.

It’s a great challenge for organizations, and for consultants, because there’s powerful cultural infrastructure that drives what is an acceptable piece of new knowledge, and of course, what isn’t. In order to see how you might act on something – what do we DO with this information – requires a shift in perspective. And those don’t happen overnight, when they do happen.

The Last Days Of Privacy

Last week Adaptive Path very generously hosted a presentation by Adam Greenfield, tied in with his new book Everyware.

I enjoyed the talk for the most part. He’s so passionate, respectful and articulate about the challenges facing designers as we unleash new technologies that have the potential to track insane amounts of data (he gave examples such as a door that would know who was approaching it based on sensors in the floor that match style of gait to a person’s name, and lock or unlock accordingly) in order to offer new functionality. Adam is thinking about ethical design principles for ubiqutious computing and certainly found a receptive audience with his presentation.

No disrespect to Adam, but I found the technological focus a bit wearisome, and wanted to hear more about the human element. Although the technologies he is warning us about are new(ish), the issues are really wrapped up in our discussions around privacy. The cultural behaviors (the culture of manufacturers who want the data, of designers who face these questions, of consumers who consider tradeoffs between privacy and functionality) are actively challenging and being challenged right now. Even if the technology of Google is not the same technology as an RFID chip in a credit card, the cultural and market issues are the same. This is happening now, so what is the point in drawing a line in the sand and saying “let’s focus on design values for everything on the other side of this line”?

Case-in-point in THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVACY in the SF Chron recently.

Pay By Touch admits it has encountered some resistance among shoppers it approached in supermarkets that already use the company’s fingerprint service. But Morris, its president, says many of these customers are quickly won over by the convenience of Pay By Touch, which is free for consumers, and that the company keeps data points based on users’ fingerprints, not actual fingerprints. So far, supermarkets in 40 states use the Pay By Touch system.

Pay By Touch says it takes great care to safeguard its users’ data. After fingerprints are converted into algorithms, they’re encrypted, then stored in IBM computers. Those algorithms can’t be reconverted into an exact copy of the fingerprint, though Pay By Touch may eventually store users’ actual fingerprints if the technology improves, Morris says. The company insists it will never sell users’ personal information or fingerprints to anyone else — a pledge that’s backed up in writing when users sign up with the company. But what if federal authorities, citing national security, insist on the finger scan and payment history of a Pay By Touch user?
Pam Dixon, who heads the World Privacy Forum, a public research group, went to Chicago to warn potential Pay By Touch users about possible dangers.
“It didn’t stick,” she says. “People were (more) concerned with (convenience than) the potential risks. People can put their thumb on a pad and be done with it. But meanwhile, their biometric data is sitting with another company, a third party, that’s subject to subpoena. One argument that I made: Let’s say that every supermarket in the country, particularly the large chains, (use) a biometric payment system. It’s a law enforcement dream because who needs a biometric database run by the U.S. government when you’ve got one being run by private companies?”

“(Users) like that they don’t have to pull their card out anymore. They (tell us they) like that they don’t have to carry their (purses or wallets) through the parking lot of an urban supermarket. There’s a physical security benefit. Their numbers are never displayed. The safety of securing their data is the No. 1 thing they like.”

No surprise to anyone reading that this is the angle I’m more interested in. Now, Adam didn’t ignore this angle by any means; he proposed a series of icons that would alert people to the fact that data was being collected in an environment and so on. But I think the challenges to addressing these issues are more fundamental – Adam is asking how things change when we’re interacting with a technology that’s in the room somewhere, rather than simply typing at a keyboard (a more deliberate act). But we don’t have a good handle yet on the fundamental cultural issues – the tradeoffs that people are making between what a technology affords and what they may be giving up. It’s the same issue no matter where that is happening, and solving for this new special case seems moot if we don’t get a handle on the underlying socio-cultural aspects.

speaking gig: UXWeek 2006

I’ll be leading a session at adaptive path’s user experience week in Washington, D.C., August 14 – 17, 2006.

I’ve never been to D.C. before. The feedback I’ve got so far is mostly around the lunacy of going to D.C. in August. I don’t do well in California in August, so I guess I’m in for a humid treat with this trip.

I’m pretty stoked about the opportunity to see D.C. and to be on a slate with some pretty amazing people. Cool gig!

Overlap, at Adaptive Path

I’ll be doing a brown-bag presentation at adaptive path on Tuesday, entitled The Overlap: Cultures, Disciplines, and Design. I hope this will be the theme of an upcoming FreshMeat, if I can ever get around to writing it!

Steve will raise some questions about whether or not some things are better as unambiguously one thing or the other, or if there’s more richness to be mined in the spaces between. Indeed, will it become essential to live, work, and play in that space?


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