User Experience as synecdoche

The word synecdoche is a very strange and uncommon word that seems to be popping up for me everywhere. Most recently in a talk where the speaker seemed almost embarrassed to use (or even know?) the word. As best I can tell, it is a way of using a simple word to describe a bigger concept or thing.  The other recent place where the word appeared was in a really great article by Oliver Reichenstein called Can Experience be Designed? This is a particularly enjoyable example of the navel-gazing self-justification essay that seems to pop-up with great regularity. He does not spare many punches in his critique of people who claim to be designers but have no substance to back it up.  He suggests that the only legitimate understanding of the title ‘User Experience Designer’ is as a synecdoche.  In other words, we do not presume to believe that we can actually design someone’s subjective experience, but we do understand that what we do does not begin and end with the placement of the pixels on the screen, or as he puts it “the visual design is a representative part of a much more complex construct”.

The other big trend that I hear a lot is to remind people in my field that the work they are doing is not really all that new. In fact many of the core problems have already been well discussed and articulated by the architects and industrial designers of the 20th Century.  In fact it was just a couple of days ago that I was reading on the Autodesk blog that we should all “get more familiar with Nelson, Goffman, and Dewey.” So as a little ‘tip of the hat’ to those last-century industrial designers, I have included this awesome image of car designers in the 1960′ (although I suppose I should have chosen a Herman Miller image to pay George Nelson his due).

Who needs Visio?

Microsoft Visio is a program that is commonly used in my field.  It is a versatile program that lets you do flowcharts, mindmaps, swimlanes, wireframes and even interactive prototypes. Being so full featured it does not come cheaply, and it is not one of the standard applications installed at work.  I do have Adobe Illustrator, so I have no problem with creating wireframes and other graphics, but I have always found it to be a poor tool for flow charts.  I then discovered how to do flow charts simply using MS Word. To draw flowcharts with Word you must use drawing shapes. The trick to get the connectors to lock to the boxes is:

  1. On the Insert ribbon, click Shapes, then select “New Drawing Canvas
  2. Draw your boxes
  3. Click Shapes, and select a line style
  4. On the first shape, hover over the shape, point to where you want to attach the connector (one of the blue dots), and click the first connection spot
  5. Do the same with the second connection spot on the second shape

It’s the little things that count

If you have been working with computers for a while you will have learned to be hyper-careful with important files because your system may crash or do something awful to your work at any time.  For me this means frequently saving my work and also frequently saving a new version of the work as I go along, each with a new filename.  This usually takes the form of newfile1, newfile2, newfile3 and so on.If I think ahead or plan on making many iterations I will name them newfile01, newfile02etc.  The reason being that as soon as you get to newfile10, the computer starts to put things in the wrong order if you don’t include the zero.  So newfile01, newfile02 … newfile09, newfile10 works, without the zero you typically get newfile1, newfile10, newfile2, … newfile9.  So over the years the dumb computers have trained me to always use a 2 (or even 3) digit numbering system.  Nonetheless, there are still the times where I only expect one or two versions, and I simply write the single digit numeral.  The other day this happened and in time that simple file had 9 iterations.  I realized I was about to go into double digits, so I opened up my file browser to fix my naming convention.  Well, lo and behold it seems that Windows 7 can now count properly!  It seems to know that 10 is more than 2. Amazing!  After all these years some kind soul at Microsoft has fixed this little usability irritation.  Huzzah!

Hooper’s House of Horrors

I had a dim memory of myself and a neighbor setting up a card table with some bowls of macaroni, peeled grapes and spaghetti and telling people to come inside and feel the real ‘brains’, ‘eyeballs’, and ‘guts’.  I don’t think it amounted to much, but I was telling this story to Kenton and I think I may have suggested that we charged entry to this ‘exhibit’, although I am not sure that is really true.  Nonetheless, Kenton immediately thought this was a great idea and started pressing me to let him run his own ‘house of horrors’. As the summer went along we collected interesting and weird things and talked about what we could include in our house of horrors.  I started to think of it as more of a wunderkammer – a kind of small exhibit of curiosities, rather than a traditional haunted house.  Nonetheless, Maya – who also wanted to participate – was dressed as a witch and I dressed up as a mad scientist.  We made some decorations and signs and invited a bunch of friends over.  It was a really great time.

It was fun to see Kenton run the show.  He was very serious about it and he kept Maya and I busy and in our proper positions at all times.  Towards the end Maya got a little tired of participating and she declared that she “needed a vacation”. Kenton was charging $0.50 per person and at the end of the day he paid his “employees” $2 each.  Maya was very pleased with her earnings.  I’m not sure what the total profits for the day were, since Mr. moneybags just squirreled away his money before I got to count it.

I enjoyed the event in particular for having all of the parents over for some coffee and snacks. It was like having a party – something which doesn’t happen in the Hooper household as much these days!  All in all, it was a lot of fun.  Now all of the wild and weird things have been stored away so we can do it all over again next year.

The conciliatory arts

I’ve been thinking about writing about the audiobook I’ve been listening to – Before the Dawn, by Nicholas Wade.  It is a very interesting book that I would highly recommend to anyone who is interested in archeology, anthropology or evolution.  Although really, those are just the broad categories that are covered by this book.  One of the topics that he covers in this book is the question of human aggression. He suggests that humanity has always been violent and in fact, 50,000 years ago we were a lot more violent than we are today.  He makes the case that while we are becoming more efficient and capable at killing, we are in fact, on the whole less prone to aggression than ever before and that we are slowly breeding for peace.  Today people are successful as much for their conciliatory art as for their martial arts.

This got me thinking about how often parents send their child to take a martial arts program as an antidote to school yard bullying.  At the same time, parents of hyperactive or aggressive children will also send their kids to a martial arts program as a way of directing and controlling the violence.  So ironically, the child who is being bullied is not well served by taking self defense lessons since the antagonist is just as likely to have taken similar courses thus nullifying any potential advantage. What I propose is that a course in the conciliatory arts are in fact a much better option.

There are countless books, going back to Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, that will provide adults with instruction and guidance on power politics, influencing others and social manipulation.  Adults can also take conflict management, interpersonal skill building and effective communication courses through work or continuing education programs. Yet there is no formal program that I am aware of that teaches such skills to children.  It seems to me that if someone were struggling with a bully at school, a good strategy would be to develop allies, become more persuasive, learn how to be more astute at reading a situation and knowing how to diffuse a potential conflict before it takes a physical turn.  I think that this kind of a program would appeal to many people and could be very popular.  30 years ago martial arts went from being a small niche sport to a massive multi-billion dollar industry.  Similarly, the communication and interpersonal coaching market is huge.  Now is the time to get in on the ground floor of a new market for child-focused social skills workshops.  Open the first conciliatory arts dojo!

Private space

When I say private space, I don’t mean a place for privacy, I mean the democratization of sub-orbital, low-Earth orbits and beyond. I am very interested in the privatization of the space industry because I believe that ultimately it will be the only way that access to space will become available to common citizens. While it may always be a rich person’s activity, they will drive new business models and new technologies in a way that government and military systems cannot.

So, it is with much interest that I am following the efforts of Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen and the team at Coppenhagen Suborbitals. I don’t really know much about them but they are almost mythic in their accomplishments. So far they have built their own submarine (which looks like a miniature U-boat) and are now building their own floating launch platform and sub-orbital manned rocket!

The rocket is a small, single person affair that does little more than offer a ride up to 100km and back. Still, to be able to do this – and all as a small not-for-profit team based in Denmark, is pretty remarkable. This is what I wish Canada’s daVinci project or Canadian Arrow had become. Perhaps it is because the Danes started out with the stated restriction that it was not for profit that they avoided the showiness and market churn that plagued the Canadian efforts. Instead the Danish team was able to focus on engineering and actual progress. Coppenhaggen Suborbital’s first test flight this week was cancelled due to a frozen valve.  The next attempt has been pushed back to June next year.  It will be a long winter waiting, but it really looks like this team has what it takes to get someone into space.


One of the most important sci-fiction films ever made, is the 1927 Fritz Lang classic, Metropolis. I happened to be looking through the Gutenberg library for free books to read on my iPod and I found Metropolis was available. As a science fiction fan, I’ve always been interested in Metropolis, but my only memory of it was a confused 1984 version with a pop music soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder.  As I started to read this literary version, I discovered that the versions most North Americans are familiar with is not what was originally shown in Berlin.  That version was considered too controversial.  Sadly, for many years, it was believed that the original version was lost.  Amazingly, in 2004 a version was found in the archives of a film museum in Argentina, and it had more complete footage than any other version still in existence.  So, just as I am reading the original text, I have discovered that this newly restored, complete version of the film is going to be release NEXT MONTH! What a coincidence!

While I have enjoyed reading Metropolis, the antiquated writing style and melodramatic characters makes it more of a curiosity than a great piece of literature.  Nonetheless, it is the original cautionary tale about de-humanizing technology, and as such is worth re-visiting.

Value added content

How do you get people to pay for something that they can get for free? Well, you can repackage it, add some new value and basically give it value by changing the nature of the product. For example it does not seem like you can imagine a real world freebie more basic than air, dirt or water. Yet all of these things are repackaged and sold at a premium.

The digital age has transformed items that used to have value into things that people expect for free. The most obvious example is music. Now musicians are forced to find new ways to supplement their income as fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for a song.

A friend recently pointed me to this really cool sculpture that the DJ and music producer Matthew Dear is offering along with his music. This a great example of the new music business models people are experimenting with. They are all about connecting with the fans in this personalized / direct way. In fact, the prevailing model that seems to be working is a combo of connection with fans + reasons to buy = sales (usually through some digital marketing medium platform like TopSpin or Nimbit). There are many examples now of people setting up “limited edition” box sets / glossy photos / signed pictures and comments / dinners with the actual stars and the list goes on. Trent Reznor made 1.6 million in a week doing it with a tiered system for his fans to buy and interact (check out the NIN site – they even have iphone apps).

It seems to me that there is a great opportunity to combine this need for personalization with the advances in mass customization. Mass customization is a topic I’m very interested in, and one of my favorite examples of this trend in action can be found on the Shapeways website. Here you can upload a 3D model and very quickly have a real solid object in your hands. There are no up front tooling costs or special skills (beyond 3d modeling) needed. A system could easily be set up to create a custom object for every album downloaded. So instead of it being this $125 limited edition precious thing like the Matthew Dear totem, it could be an equally unique and special $30 object.  I think that at $125 it is only going to attract the most dedicated fans – people who would have bought the album anyway.  However, at $20 or $30, you might get some people who might have just ripped a copy for free before, willing to pay this premium to get the music plus this little extra thing.  To make it a slam dunk, the”little extra thing” must also have some utility.  So, it is beautiful but is also a flower vase, for example. So, would you pay money for something you could otherwise get for free if you got a little something extra? One thing is certain – the music industry is going to change a lot in the next 10 years.

What makes a great hotel

I don’t think this is anything new, but when it comes to hotel experiences it is all in the details. The Delta hotel I am at now does not get this. It started with the 12 year old Internet connection instructions (“now open Netscape Navigator”??!!), but then the ancient bar staff and the generic Muzak in the pub make for a decidedly sub-par experience.
It comes down to possibilities. When I stay at a funky little boutique hotel I feel like I am some kind of special diplomat or person of influence and importance. It makes me feel like a designer with a capital D. In many ways the Delta is empirically better, but it does not help me re-imagine myself. That is what a better hotel offers – a chance to reimagine the possibilities of who you are or what you can become.

Belief in possibilities and the end of money

King Croesus' gold
The first state-backed money

One of the ideas that has fascinated me for a number of years now is the idea of am alternative economy that is not based on resource scarcity and does not use money as the medium of exchange. Most of this thinking was inspired by Cory Doctorow’s sci-fi story “Down and out in the magic kingdom“. Recently I have had some more fuel to add to this fire.
I am listening to an excellent podcast series produced by the BBC called “A history of the world in 100 objects”. In today’s episode they talked about the gold coins of King Croesus. These represented the first (along with some money in China) state supported currencies. They were significant because the state provide a guarantee of the weight and purity of the coins. This allowed for much more fluid and efficient commerce, and it was all based on trust. The system worked because people believed in the government to produce fair coins. In the podcast the host points out that this new way of thinking about trade was spurred on by the human desire to value things that represent possibilities. People will aquire wealth and hoard money well beyond what can ever be spent in a lifetime because of the possibilities that such wealth represents. It stirs their imagination.
When not listening to that podcast I am reading the excellent book “Thoughtful interaction design”. Today I read an interesting passage that talked about design ability and how that can be understood as a kind of intelligence oriented toward creating things for certain purposes. They reference a book by R. Musil called “The Man without Qualities” where he talks about a related notion to design ability, something he calls a “sense of possibility”. Someone with such a sense can just as easily perceive what is possible as they can describe that which already exists.
It is this inherent creative ability that exists to a greater or lesser extent in all of us that allows us all to participate in the global fiction that is known as “money”. It is also the fueling of this sense of possibility that seems to drive people to accumulate massive wealth. That is why Doctorow’s notion of a popularity currency is so rational to me. It formalizes the aspect of popularity and power that we all know – the fact that people will give and do things for a person of influence. If you have enough status, the possibilities are endless.