Design Microcosms

yoda in a terrariumGood design doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It requires pollination; a sharing of ideas; inspiration.  It requires exposure to the unique and novel.  It requires illumination that will spark new thinking and explorations.  It feeds off the natural social rhythms and cycles that send information from one group to another. All this is difficult to achieve in a homogenous and isolated environment.

A group that works together for a certain amount of time will begin to form a shared perspective and approach.  While this commonality will improve cohesion and speed up generation, it will have an impact on design.  Design will become more homogenous over time, and new problems will begin to be approached in the same familiar ways.  New solutions and innovations become harder for the group to generate.  To keep this stagnation from happening, people and groups need to be exposed to outside influences.

In my current office space people from wildly different corporate groups bump into each other all the time; they sit next to each other and start talking about their day.  They raise awareness for the same charities, cheer on the world cup in the same room, attend the same trainings, and fight for the same last bit of cookies and cream ice on birthday day.  In these interactions, ideas about work are shared, tid-bits from other teams are shared, learning about new tech and initiatives is passed on, and new perspectives on old problems are given.

To increase exposure to ideas, communication opportunities with other groups need to increase.  This is one the reason companies engage in cross-functional teams, product fairs, offsite trainings and the like.  The problem with these is that inspiration is hard to force because we can’t predict what will spark the imagination, or send some one down a new path.  So even cross-functional teams have a tendency to drift towards conformity.  A more effective way is to have open and consistent community channels and places; channels and places that increase the opportunity for serendipitous interaction, sharing, and knowledge.

As designers, we feed off new information.  We love encountering a new perspective or discovering a solution we never knew existed.  In order to create more innovative work, we need to make our own microcosms.  Make sure you are regularly interacting with folks from other teams and disciplines.  And make sure that it is time out of official meetings with set agendas; you need to let the topics be able to flow.  Make sure you are reading emails sent by other teams, checking out other teams blogs, brown bags, or other events.  Change where you usually sit; go to a breakroom on another floor.  Open up your ecosystem and watch your inspiration grow.

Digital Money, Digital Emotion

“We do lose something when it’s [money] all digital.  It’s a lose of icons, a lot of symbols about who we are, how we are doing, and what we value things for.”  –Robert Reich

Bills turning into 1 and 0's

Reich is right to remind us that physical money is about more than tangibility.  It is not just a physicality of transaction, but the feeling and emotions physical money stirs up in us.  An email saying 20 dollars were deposited in your account isn’t the same as a birthday card with a crisp 20 dollar bill in it.  A print-out saying you have a thousand dollars isn’t as impressive as a fat roll of twenties. A credit card receipt taped up on a restaurant wall saying “first dollar made” doesn’t look as good as an actual dollar bill.

This shouldn’t surprise us.  Money, besides just being physical, with all of those added affordances, was specifically designed to create connections and impressions to the user.  Faces, sizes, colors, landmarks, world leaders, iconography, all say something about the currency issuer and the person who uses them.  Money even becomes part of the national identity.  The people on our currency were all carefully selected, mottos selected, and symbols debated.  With the current state of digital currency, we lose all that.

That potential loss bothers some people.  Though, for the most part, no one is fighting this.  Nor given the benefits of digital currency should they.  So, the march towards a symbol-less and context-less currency of bits and bites seems unstoppable.  While reducing our money to a stream of numbers on a screen may seem inevitable, it’s not.  It’s not, because we control the code, which means we control the experience.

When we first started replacing money with plastic cards, we had no choice in presentation.  Money had to be represented as printed line items, but technology has progressed.  Even credit cards now offer personalized pictures and designs.  With true digital money, we can go beyond that.  With current computational power in devices like tablets, smart phones, and maybe even glasses, soon we can create whatever type of experiences around digital money we like.

We can make experiences that are unique to the transaction. There can be an experience for buying groceries that is different from the experience of buying an engagement ring.  Transactions can work differently depending on where you are.  Stores can offer their own branded transactions to help increase customer loyalty.  Experiences can also differ for each individual.  If a person is having trouble saving for their daughter’s college tuition, we can pop her picture up every time they start shopping at their favorite guilty pleasure.  The technology exists to not only make transacting with digital money faster, easier, and more ubiquitous, but to make money, as a concept, more personal and more meaningful for each individual.

Right now many companies are focused on making it faster and easier for folks to pay.  The reality is, though, that it is already fairly easy to pay, and the speed between pulling out a credit card and swiping, versus pulling out your phone and taping, or checking in, is measured in seconds.  While improving the ease and speed of transactions is a goal that should not ever be abandoned, it is a well-populated and fought-over space.  It is becoming increasingly harder to have ease and speed be the sole differentiator.  However, one way for a company to stand out now would be to focus on creating experiences that tap into and enhance the emotion, the symbols, and meaning that money has for people.  Companies should focus on creating deep personal connections with users; connections that aren’t dependent on the speed that ones and zeros can move through a clearinghouse.

Leap through Glass

At SXSW I got to play with the new motion sensor interface Leap, and see a demonstration of Google Glass with some discussion around the design philosophy for Google Glass apps. Both devices are exciting have a huge potential impact, and present interesting problems for UX designers.

In the Leap tent exhibition space I found myself standing in front of a screen of brightly colored dots. “Move your hand back and forth and the dots will follow.” The Leap guide next to me said. I started waving my hand in space and the dots on the screen moved back and forth with it. It was cool, a fun little experience. Then the guide said, “point”. So, I pointed and nothing happened. I pointed again still nothing happened. “No, like this”, said the guide as he demonstrated a slightly different and slower point. Apparently I had been pointing wrong my whole life.

While not necessarily the fault of the Leap, since it is just a sensor, this anecdote does demonstrate one of the exciting problems those of us in UX will face as gestural interfaces become more and more common: how to define a gesture. What is a point? Does the finger need to be perpendicular with the screen? Does the finger need to be flexed in the sensor field? Does it need to be completely straight? What if the user has arthritis and points crookedly? At least with touch screens we had a contact point that helped determine intent. Now, in this new space, it is almost completely up to our interpretation of a user’s motions to determine intent. Execute poorly and we might as well use an Italian dictionary to write instructions for our French users.

Google glass represents a different problem for UX designers, one that is potentially more difficult because it will require us to really understand how our applications work in an ecosystem of products. Surprisingly, to me, Glass has plenty of scrolling and clicking (a physical interface on the side of the device), but one of its selling points is being able to automatically surface information to the user. Based on the applications you have installed on Glass you will get information presented directly to you through out the day. This is where I see things getting tricky.

Woman wering Google Glass with UI examplesFirst I want to point out that Google has laid out 4 design principles for Glass:

1) Design specifically for glass
2) Don’t get in the way
3) Keep it timely
4) Avoid the unexpected.

Adhering to these design principles will help designers and developers create wonderful experiences for the platform. However, I keep coming back to “don’t get in the way”. While it my be relatively easy to insure my application isn’t getting in the way on its own, how do I know that my post to the users device isn’t the 10th one they have received in the last 5 minutes? If a user has 10 apps and each one only send an alert once an hour, that user is still being interrupted once every 6 minutes. How do I know my post wont be the one that breaks the user’s back?

While some will argue that we currently deal with such interruptions with alerts on our phones and computers, we have never had information beamed directly on to our eye. We can’t even look away now. That will make Google Glass alerts significantly harder to ignore, and possibly significantly more irritating en mass.

To avoid this experience designers will need to focus more on the eco system their application lives in. How will the information one app displays interact, compete, and challenge the information surfaced by another application. Designers will also need to spend more time thinking about how important certain information is. Designers and developers may need to come up with a platform standard for ranking information to make sure critical alerts are surfaced to the user, without overloading or becoming lost in the noise.

I am excited about these new devices, and about the user experience challenges that come with them. These products have to potential to significantly change things, but only if the interface enables users to take advantage of them. It will be the UX designers that largely determine whether these products become the next iPhone or Segway.

Political Blend

I wrapped up my masters project, Political Blend, a little over a month ago. As I look back on it with a bit of perspective I must say that things went well.

The purpose of my project was to use technology to bring people of different political beliefs together for face to face meetings. To use technology to combat, instead of reinforce, the echo chamber and filter bubble effect. However, just because a solution is built doesn’t mean that people will use it. So, it was not enough to build an application designed to bring people together, I had to see if people will use it.

Political Blend was a mobile optimized web application that was open for several weeks to the Georgia Tech population at large. Over the course of those weeks 11 people used the application and engaged in over 20 meetings. Their response to the application was very positive. Individuals found the application easy to use, enjoyed the meetings they went on, and thought it created a positive social good. Given their responses more people should look at creating applications that bring people together around differences, not just similarities.

If you would like to find out more about Political blend, you can view a brief YouTube video here, or download a presentation here.

Social Capital Measured by Social Transactions

Social capital, the ability of individuals or groups to mobilize social resources for certain results, has been the focus of academic investigation for nearly a century. Beginning with rural communities, there’s been sustained interest in identifying the sources and strength of social capital. Contemporary inquires have focused on the number of connections and the strength of those connections in any given social network. As the volume of data from online networks, and access to it, has increased, more effort has gone into computing tie strength as a single measure of social capital. The assumption is that by accurately assessing individual or group network connections we can assign them corresponding social capital values.

If we think of Social Capital like money (as the name implies) we do not have too look far for real world economic examples that would back this assertion.  We all know of individuals who live beyond their means, and history is filled with stories of people living huge lavish lifestyles when secretly they are broke.  Also, people will dress or act a certain way to imply that they have more wealth than they really do.   If social capital really is like economic capital then we know the appearance of wealth can be faked.

A way to measure social capital that would go beyond appearances would be to measures people’s spending of it.  If we see an individual spend social capital then we at least know they had a certain amount.  While this may not let us know their total social wealth, it at least gives us a more concrete indicator of wealth than just appearances.

Social media gives us a way to measure and test these ideas about social capital transactions.  Often people make requests of their contacts through social media for certain actions.  We can take this signal a user spending, or at least trying to spend, their social capital for behavior in others.  Whether this request is fulfilled and by how many people gives us an indicator of wether the initiator’s social capital was accepted and sufficient.

This transactional approach would allow us to look at social capital out in the world, instead of as a static relationship.  It would also help us determine if the analogy of capital is appropriate.  Instead of social power being something that is lost when used, it may be more like trust where it exists at a set state regardless of usage.

If a transactional approach to social capital determines that social capital is like economic capital then we can make predictions, based on spending trends, when a user will have social capital and is in a position to spend it.  This knowledge would be a boon to advertisers, business, and social movements.

The technology now exists where, in certain environments,  we can track a person’s  social transactions.  Studying and researching these activities could lead to a more complete definition of social capital and allow us to use this information in more active and predictive ways.

Diagnose That.

IBM Watson 100 logoThis summer while interning at IBM in their Extreme Blue program I heard a lot about Watson.  For those of you who don’t know what Watson is, it is the computer that IBM built that beat the grand masters of the game show Jeopardy (click for more info on Watson).   As you can imagine it’s kind of a big deal at IBM.  Part of the reason that it is a big deal because unlike Deeper Blue, which beta the grandmaster of chess, Watson might have some real world business applications.

One of the areas being explored right now is using Watson in the medical field, specifically to help diagnose patients.   The thinking is that Watson can search through hundreds of thousands of pages of unstructured medical information, and based on a patients or doctors response to Watson’s questions come up with a diagnose and treatment options.  Needless to say if Watson can achieve a high level of accuracy this could revolutionize medicine.

The other night I was sitting outside with my friend who is doing his Emergency Medicine residency at a large community hospital, and his brother who is an MD MBA.   I started talking about Watson with my friend’s brother about a medical implantation of Watson and how it might work, how it might improve things, and whether doctors would be accepting of Watson’s help.

Maybe it was just because of the MBA, but my friend’s brother seemed to think that Watson would have a very positive impact on medicine and that patients might even prefer dealing with Watson.  So we talked about this for a while, however my friend who is currently working in the emergency room was strangely silent.

After a listening for a few more minutes he leaned backed and said “I want Watson to diagnose the case I had yesterday. It went something like this.”

“Sir, can you tell me what the problem is?”

“ I don’t have to tell you shit!”

“Sir, I am just trying to help you.”

“I don’t have to answer your mother fucking questions.”

“Sir, what seems to be the problem?”

“I’m not telling you shit!”

“Sir, how much have you had to drink?”


“I want to see Watson diagnose that…”

Then my friend grabbed a swig of his beer, and his brother and I were left with out much to say.

My friends “challenge” for me drove home the point you can’t assume the user will interact with the system in the way you want.

Color Me

This spring for my final project in my Computational Photography class I wrote a program in Processing that digitally manipulated the colors of a photograph based on the colors from another photograph. I decided on this project because I was intrigued by the idea of photographs affecting each other in such a fundamental way.

To explore this idea I creating a program that would ʻredrawʼ a photo by using the color palette of a different image. For examples of what my program was able to do, take a look at Color Me under the projects page here.

Thanks to Brandon Kirby, Sam Mendenhall, and Chris DeLeon for helping me code.

Are You My Neighbor?

I have been pondering the question lately “are Facebook and Twitter really communities?”

Mr. Rodgers

No doubt that community type activities take place on both sites.  People congregate, communicate, share, and support, but is that enough to be a community? Normally I would think that it was enough, but one thought keeps nagging at me: Are these communities in themselves, or are they tools that support existing communities?  In other words, are these just communication outlets for communities that have formed elsewhere?

In my experience with Facebook and Twitter, and people who uses those sites, I have come to see that they are just community support tools.  (As a side note, I know there are exceptions to my claim, but for the vast majority of users this holds true). Facebook relies on existing networks of friends and families to populate people’s connections.   Facebook even wants to go through your email address book to make sure that you are connected to everyone you ALREADY know.  Facebook has very limited ways to help you make new connections to other Facebook users that are not part of your physical life’s extended social circles.  Without existing communities, Facebook would not have a good way to populate your friends list or help you make connections.  Facebook was originally invented to help people in existing communities, colleges, to interact with each other.  Of course, Facebook can help an already existing community grow, or keep a community together, but it does not create communities.

While the way of interacting is different on Twitter, Twitter is still primarily just a community facilitating tool.  There are two major types of interactions going on with twitter.  One is people communicating with real life acquaintances; the other is people following one popular/famous individual.  Now, are these interactions community?  Clearly twitter is helping facilitate community among real life acquaintances, but these communities would still exist without twitter.  Real world friends on twitter use twitter, like Facebook, to facilitate their community, but it is only a tool for their existing community to use.  The other major type of interaction is people following a famous individual, an alpha twitter.  This is following is not a community, largely because there is very little back and forth interaction.  The alpha individual makes a tweet and then their followers re-tweet or comment.  From what I have seen, the alpha individual doesn’t often respond to any one tweet. Community needs back and forth interaction between its members.  Granted some times the followers will comment on each other’s tweets, but without the alpha tweeter they would no longer engage with each other.  Because of the lack of back and forth and of the extremely weak interrelationships, the act of following someone on twitter doesn’t make a community.

This primary reason that twitter and Facebook are not communities is that the relationships expressed on twitter and Facebook are not reliant on being connected through twitter or Facebook.  If the Internet crashed tomorrow, you would still be friends with your Facebook and twitter friends and you would still be able to contact them.  This is because Facebook and twitter are not the locus of your relationships, they are just facilitators of the relationship.   Now, if you contrast that with the communities in an MMO, if the internet crashed tomorrow most of those individuals would have no way of relating to each other or even contacting each other.  The MMO community would truly be dead.  I know that in twitter people would no longer be able to follow the alpha tweeter, but for the reasons I stated earlier the interactions taking place in this situation constitutes community.

The lack of reliance on the infrastructure or “place” of Facebook and twitter for individuals’ social interactions is what keeps both of these social sites from being communities themselves.  Both are important social tools, and have changed the way people interact, but they are the new telephone not the new suburbs.

I am the Law!

The anonymity of the Internet can be a blessing. Unfortunately, it can also be a blessing to the individuals out there who like to mess up your day.  Griefers, trolls, jerks are often a bigger nuisance in online communities than they would be in real life.  In many cases this is due to an inability of the community to punish the griefer.  Disruptive behavior is compounded in virtual worlds like MMO’s, where the actions can be much more disruptive and unavoidable than other virtual communities like forums and chat rooms.  It is much easier to avoid a post by someone you don’t want to read or put a character on ignore than it is to get around a player who is stalking and continuing to kill your game avatar.

Game world operators typically have a police force of Game Masters who can punish transgressors, but often the request for help far exceeds what the rule enforcers can handle.  This problem is especially compounded for developers who are start-ups or trying free-to-play models.  They do not have the monetary resources to hire an in-game police force, but if the griefers are allowed to ruin people’s game experience, the customers will leave.

It seems that the developers of League of Legends (a free-to-play MMO) may have hit on a solution.  They have created an in-game Tribunal system.  I first heard about the system from this article which caused me to go check out the League of Legends FAQ on the subject here.  After reading both pages over I think they have something.

The League of Legends developers have decided to put these decisions in the hand of their players.  Players, once they achieve a certain status, will be allowed to come part of the game’s tribunal system.  Once a member of the tribunal, they will judge cases of improper behavior from the player base.   The developers believe that this will allow the game to respond more quickly to game violations and thus keep bad players from ruining the game for the rest of the player base.

The League of Legends system seems very well thought out and, most importantly, they seemed to have figured out how to keep individuals from abusing it.  The cases are presented anonymously.  The person passing judgment must wait a certain amount of time before they can enter their decision (hopefully encouraging them to read the case carefully and at least keeping them from spam clicking).  Multiple judges need to view each case.  The judges are not told how other judges ruled.  If a judge rules in the minority too often they are removed from the system.  After a couple of reads I cannot find anything glaringly wrong with the system.  However time will tell.

I do believe if this system is half as effective as people hope, it will be copied in more MMOs and other types of online communities.   But could something like this be taken out of the virtual realm,\; could it work in the real world?  I think there are real possibilities for this approach in real world organizations. Universities, large business, and large non-profits all have to police their own policies and producers.  This could be an inexpensive and fair way to approach cases of potential misconduct.  Perhaps this could be a way to alleviate certain parts of our over taxed legal system.  Then again, having L33TCitizen402 pass judgment on a case might be going too far.