Concrete Fence Posts

Since moving back to Indiana in April, I’ve done a lot of cycling. It turns out, even though Hoosier drivers aren’t the most amenable folks to having bikes on their roads, there is so much space in-between everything that riding is pretty good. It doesn’t take long to get out to gravel county roads, and away from most cars. Riding through a lot of areas that time seems to have forgotten has really engaged a standing interest in Indiana history.

One of the things in particular that has interested me as I’ve been putting on the gravel road miles are all the old farm fence posts still left intact.  They are an interesting artifact of a time when (I assume) roads, as such, didn’t exist, and the fences held up by these posts were the divider between farmers fields. This dovetails with some longstanding field-based Indiana location names – Westfield, Greenfield, Bloomfield, Chesterfield, Plainfield, Wheatfield, Winfield.. And probably several more defunct ones.

I’ve snapped pictures of a few of these posts haphazardly. Most are concrete, but there are a swath of weathered lumber, with various forms of bracing, both wood and steel. Continue reading

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..on treating machines like people

I just saw a blurb on huffington post that had Clifford Nass talking about what he usually talks about; treating machines like people. If you’re not familiar, go check out The Media Equation and his other books. Why an article about him in the mainstream media? I’m guessing it’s because he worked on the google glasses. Sidenote: it kind of sucks that you have to commercialize science to make people care.

Anyway, the article is mostly nothing new. What was new from him, at least for me is his concern with multitasking.

What concerns you most about the direction of current technologies?

Unquestionably my biggest concern is the dramatic growth of multitasking. We know the effects of multitasking are severe and chronic. I have kids and adults saying, “Sure, I multitask all the time, but when I really have to concentrate I don’t multitask.”

The research to shows that’s not quite true: when your brain multitasks all the time there are clear changes in the brain that make it virtually impossible for you to focus. If we’re breeding a world in which people chronically multitask that has very, very worrisome and serious effects on people’s brains. For adults it has effects on their cognitive or thinking abilities. For younger kids we’re seeing effects on their emotional development. That does scare the heck out of me.

I have the same concern, and actually wrote a paper about it last semester. By the time the paper was done I had kind of stopped caring about the issue because I’d blown it up into a deep mindmap and kept getting stuck on the issue of efficiency as a sole guiding force to interaction design development. My thought is that we need devices that use less of our attention, but I think the problem is really more human than machine. Given more unused attention, we’d probably still be trying to cram other tasks in there.

I guess I need to revisit this idea. How can we reduce the cognitive overhead of multitasking while still multitasking? A Nass-like solution seems ideal, since we have the ability to deal with multiple other humans. (ex: mother with a minivan full of kids) Surely though there is even a finite number of humans we can deal with at once.

I really don’t have a good answer. I’d love to hear other opinions.

hueristic evaluations.. beyond the screen and ergonomics

Since beginning my foray into Industrial Design and Interaction design, there are a few common threads that keep popping up in my projects and annoying me. Today I want to write about one that came up in a recent project where I was designing a ubiquitous computing/ambient weather forecasting device. As is usually the case, we were required to plan a heuristic evaluation.. for a physical device.

Bonsai weather forecaster

Bonsai weather forecaster

This shouldn’t be a big deal, but the problem is, everyone immediately jumps to Neilsen for the heuristics they’ll be using. This is all well and good; they’re a pretty good set, but they are intended for 2D screen based interfaces, especially web, where it’s automatically assumed that the interface will have the user’s full attention; ie: staring at a computer. I’ve googled “heuristic evaluation” +”physical device” about a hundred times over the past two years and always get the same sad results. Usually, the only things remotely worthwhile are various archives of this IxDA forum thread from 2008. The gist is that a guy is looking for heuristics for physical device  testing, and the IxD folk tell him to look up ergonomics.

In my own practice, I take Neilsen’s 10, ditch the ones that really don’t apply, alter some, or grab some from other limited sources. One of these other sources that I’ve used before is a list from a consulting company called Tristream. I used these in the evaluation of a piece home/industrial automation back-channel management software. It wasn’t totally ideal, but it got the job done.

Neilsen's Heuristics vs AmbientHeuristics (Markoff et al, 2003, p.172)

Neilsen's Heuristics vs AmbientHeuristics (Markoff et al, 2003, p.172)

Back to my ambient weather forecasting project.. I was lucky enough to find a great paper titled “Heuristic Evaluation of Ambient Displays” from the ’03 CHI conference. In it, some folks from UC, Berkeley and Intel Research went through the heuristic selection/creation process I described above, in this case, especially for ambient displays. The paper discussed their test of these heuristics and found them to be significantly more useful in identifying major issues than the original set from Neilsen. In the test, “a single evaluator will only find about 13% of major issues” but “a single evaluator using the ambient heuristics finds 22% of known major problems on average”. (Markoff et al, 2003, p. 175)

Where am I going with this? I really think there should be a published set of heuristics for physical devices. I understand that the type of device greatly impacts the heuristics that should be used, but it would be nice to have a basic starting point that made more sense for 4D interaction than just the stock set from Neilsen. I’m hopping to draft such a paper over the summer. It’d be of tremendous use for myself, but I think the Industrial design community as a whole could benefit. If any of the designers out there have suggestions to this end, please let me know! I’d appreciate the input.

Designing bicycles..

So I intend to work up a submission for the International Bicycle Design Competition over the summer. You would think that this might be an easy task given the amount of time I spend on a bike as well as the amount of time I spend keeping up on products and emerging technologies in cycling. Sadly, it is not. I’ve a bit of “designers-block”. You see, it’s not enough to simply make a cool looking, functional bicycle; you need to have a gimmick. My experience in Industrial Design remains somewhat limited, but in the year I’ve been involved in it, it seems like the gimmicks are the fuel that makes things happen in most cases. So-called “green-ness” is a hot topic, as is helping 3rd worlders. (regardless of their thoughts on the matter!)

So I need a gimmick. I initially was on the “3rd worlders” band wagon until I did some research on what they actually need. Turns out it’s additional inner tubes and trustworthy mechanics. This is not to say that I haven’t considered turning my design eye towards those matters, but I rather feel like I’m reinventing the wheel.. er solid innertube, as it were.
I’ve got some business/empowerment ideas kicking around, and they might even impress the contest judges, but I really doubt it’d do much for the end users.

Thoughts about the physicality of communication devices

I saw a website article a few weeks ago displaying new conceptual models of iPods/iPhones. Most were wearable items like a ring or bracelet. After some time, I realized that these concepts were kind of sitting uncomfortably with me. I guess I just have a difficult time believing that the next generation communication technology interface will be something you wear. I’m prone to thinking that we are already at a pretty efficient interface ideal with the iPhone/Android/etc. At least until such devices are more bio-integrated and worn on the inside of our bodies. That is a subject for another time. For now lets focus on the current crop of smart phones.

The brief physical anthropology of communications devices:
I think it’s definitely possible to see an evolution in electronic communication devices. Skipping the obvious face to face methods that have existed for thousands of years, I think the telegraph is a reasonable starting point for a communications technology as the term has come to be generally understood. The interface was stationary and passed information serially using only boolean data. Next came radio transmission, which in retrospect seems like more of an underlying support technology, allowing the telegraph to be mobile. Then the telephone, which began as a stationary unit for parallel audio transmission. Then we slid the radio technology under audio transmission and had what we now know as AM/FM radio, which at the time supported stationary transmitters, movable receivers. The receivers were too large and heavy to be moved regularly. Next the radio technology came to the telephone and we had wireless handsets which were very mobile, but had limited range. Soon the first cellular phones appeared, with gigantic battery packs and resigned largely to emergency use in a car, or for military communication. They slowly shrunk in size, and picked up more casual use and overlapped with the user base of landline phones. Computers also came on the scene, initially adopting a typewriter like interface for input and output. This hasn’t changed much from the keyboard/display setup we are still using with computers today. And lest we forget the fax machine, which I feel was already obsolete shortly after it hit the scene, yet for whatever reasons still has quite a user base.

So at this point, this is probably looking like the so-and-so begat so-and-so bit from the book of genesis in the bible. We’re about caught up to current though. There already seem to be a few instances of convergence when a new technology or social use comes along. So here we are with a rapidly shrinking cell phone, and highly mobile laptop computers with wireless connectivity as well. These user bases overlap, and we start seeing the functionality of computers in phones (instant messaging, email, web browsing) and phone functionality in computers. (VOIP such as Skype, et al) it kind of makes sense to combine the two, and here we are with iPhones, Blackberries and Androids.

The actual interface:
Ok, so we understand a bit of the physical anthropology of the communications device, lets take a closer look at the interface. The profile we’re looking at is an object that can be operated with one hand and stored in a pocket, like a cellular phone, with an approximation of a desktop/laptop computer’s capabilities for high resolution display, data storage, input capability and processing power. Along the way we also convergent-ly picked up the functionality of digital cameras and music players. It’s interesting to me that we seem to have taken more functionality from the computer and shoe-horned it into the small package of the cellular phone. I believe that this illustrates the strongest aspects of each device. It’s also interesting that the camera and music capabilities are easy to tack on since the requisites for computer functionality provide an easy infrastructure to add these other functionalities.

Since the general form is more like a phone than a computer, it’s easy to see that the interface of the phone functions will be similar to that of a standard, non-smart, cell phone. The physical form of the computer on the other hand, was large, and this size was mostly occupied by the I/O elements. A smaller screen, and likely lack of a physical keyboard show the need for a modified interface. It’s very important to note that there is a trade off here. What we have wound up with interface wise is a stripped down version of what MS windows and MacOS have been all along – a list of clickable icons. In absence of a mouse, we are now using touch screens. A keyboard is emulated, but almost all incarnations of this idea pale in comparison to the efficiency of a standard computer keyboard.

What am I getting at:
After all that, I hope you can see my point. We have arrived at the modern smart phone handset through a kind of natural selection, adopting traits of communication devices we find beneficial and leaving others behind in favor of more favorable traits. The beginnings of a move away from a physical keyboard illustrate this idea – the small, portable size of smart phones might be more important than the typing efficiency of the old keyboard. As a result, we also see the social ramifications of this with truncated language (O I C. U R welcome. LOL.) use starting on mobile devices and spreading to more traditional forms of communication. Could we assume that the use of mobile devices for communication is more important than maintaining traditional language norms?

The future:
I personally cannot see any immediate jumps away from the current smart phone hand set. It seems like a very flexible platform that has not been fully tapped for functionality yet. I believe that a more functional voice control, such as the one in the iPhone Google app, and the Android maps feature, will be the next step with this platform, allowing information request and retrieval to take place over a headset with limited physical interaction with the hand set. This would be highly dependent on voice recognition technology, which on the iPhone and even on desktop computers seems to be a ways off. If and when the VR technology catches up, concepts like the iPhone ring or bracelet will make a lot more sense, but until then seem like they would just be a hassle to interact with.

For more realistic future implementations I hope to see gesture control and perhaps more accelerometer control. But who knows what we will see.

Photo credits: