Followup: Data for self-centered folks in denial

I’ve previously written about whether connected devices (primarily screen-based ones) make us perhaps inadvertently selfish or self-centered, trying to draw out a distinction between the two. I focused on the effect on society around us, and let loose a few NYC-centric anecdotes.

But I fear I drastically understated the problem. Not only are deaths increasing 2-3% specifically because of ride-sharing services, but other follow-on effects are being felt, and most acutely in dense cities:

Consistent with the notion that ridesharing increases congestion and road utilization, we find that the introduction of ridesharing is associated with an increase in arterial vehicle miles traveled, excess gas consumption, and annual hours of delay in traffic. On the extensive margin, ridesharing arrival is also associated with an increase in new car registrations. These effects are higher in cities with higher ex-ante use of public transportation and carpools, consistent with a substitution effect, and in larger cities and cities with high ex-ante vehicle ownership.

Do the design conventions we use play a role? Designers might like to think “less is more” but does the UI we create drive us to make decisions with unintended consequences? Nikil Saval writes in The New Yorker:

Think of the experience of waiting for an Uber driver, in which you follow a single vehicle making turns on an empty Google Map. Everything is evacuated from the picture except for streets: there is nothing standing between you and the vehicle but time and empty space. For a consumer, the image is ethereal. But the streets are actually full of buildings, people, and other cars. Getting around in a city requires taking up space, which by nature is subject to scarcity. Every new passenger diminishes the experience for the existing pool of customers.

These seem to be solvable problems, partly through policy changes, but political will is something easily bent. Companies, too, should be conscious of the effects their software has on cities and practice restraint.

Reflections on teaching Design History, Year Three.

I teach a class covering Design History at the SVA MFA Interaction Design Program. This is my third year teaching it, and I thought I’d try to recap what I learned and put down some ideas for next year.

  • I tried to incorporate some of my thoughts from last year, especially structuring the class thematically and pulling back from a strictly linear approach. I think this was pretty successful and I intend to refine this again this year. The students responded to the themes, I think perhaps because it gave them a more obvious and useful framework to apply their learnings to.

  • The composition of each class varies widely, and this class was no difference. I found the mix of students to be a little more optimistic and engaged with the subject matter than years past, but that could have been an artifact of my next observation.

  • I think I’ve made a lot of headway trying to be more inclusive of female and non-Western designers, but admittedly I ran out of time prepping for the course. I plan to make use of several sources that cover design history outside of North America and Europe, but the material is a bit thin for the early years.

  • I’ve changed up the reading/homework assignments to include more varied media, and I’ve also included more in the lectures. In an amazing turn of events, several (well all, in their own ways) of the student reading groups put a lot of work into recapping readings using really engaging methods such as quizzes and an almost game-show format. I plan on using this an an example for next class.

  • This is the first time I’ve taught the class at the beginning of a semester (its a half-semester course, and the last couple of times I started mid-semester), and I feel like it made a huge difference in how students approached the subject.

Do Our Phones Make Us More Selfish or Self-Centered?

As a New Yorker I navigate the city in a variety of ways - subway, walking, running, biking, driving, car-service passenger - and I relish seeing the city at different scales and speeds. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my 18+ years here to all of these modes has been the smartphone. The iPhone was introduced ten years ago, and I’ve only noticed the impact of smartphones accelerating, good and bad. So I have to ask: do our phones make us more selfish, self-centered, or is everything ok but just different?

Although they appear to be similar in meaning, the differences are subtle. Selfish (of a person, action, or motive) means lacking consideration for others, and/or is concerned chiefly with one's own pleasure. In contrast, self-centered means being preoccupied with oneself and one's affairs. I like to think people are merely disengaged with their surroundings in most cases.

Its important to recognize that when we are talking about smartphones, its the connected capabilities along with the amazing processing power, that makes these things so impactful. So what has that connection and power done for us?

  • Ask any New Yorker about pedestrians with poor sidewalk etiquette, drifting, stopping suddenly, not watching where they’re going, people exiting subway stations slowly as they check their phones, etc. The pride New Yorkers took in their ability to navigate crowded sidewalks seems gone.

  • GPS has been sending trucks to incorrect or inappropriate destinations for years, with drivers blindly following until hilarity ensues. There are even reporting mechanisms for people to try to influence the god of traffic routing.

  • Dining out takes longer now, and the smartphone is to blame.

  • Uber/Lyft drivers are driving like drunk drivers - like pedestrians, they weave, drift, slow down and generally behave erratically as they search for an address or drop-off point. Being a passenger is sometimes terrifying, and riding a bike near them is often dangerous.

Of course its not all bad. Certainly having eyes and ears all over now has had a positive effect on crime and emergency response. Also, as a parent, being able to know my child’s whereabouts and safely get them across town when the subway isn’t convenient, all from the comfort of my couch, has been a huge boon. 

I think we’re still at an early stage of understanding what the effects are at an individual as well as societal level. App and device makers are aware of the dangerously addictive (and crude) mechanisms they’ve used to hook users. Like a lot of new methods, “gamification” seemed like a great way to create engaged users a few years ago, but few thought of how all these would add up to people disengaging with the physical world. Perhaps we’re just not built to handle these devices, but more likely, we haven’t built devices for us.

Reflections On Teaching Design History, Year Two

I teach a class covering Design History at the SVA MFA Interaction Design Program. This is my second year teaching it, and I thought I’d try to recap what I learned and put down some ideas for next year.

Approach This is a survey course, and it covers mainly the period between the Arts and Craft Movement until the early 2000’s. I use a mix of lecture, readings, class participation, and a final paper/presentation to get the students through a decent amount of material over a long period of time. The syllabus is here, and we use the Meggs design history as the baseline text, although I supplement with several readings. There are several challenges that I am grappling with that I think I can only attempt to minimize:

  • The class has only six sessions over seven weeks. Yes, you read that correctly. The sessions are nearly three hours, but that presents an issue of fatigue on everyone’s part.
  • About half the students from non-design backgrounds, so a lot of remediation is required. The other half often come from deep design backgrounds and some of this is too general for them.
  • The student body is incredibly diverse, coming from multiple countries, so the European/North American focus of much of what most materials covers may not be familiar to them, especially the cultural references.

What Worked Based on last year’s class outcomes, I changed up the research assignment from something more speculative (you can see last year’s project here) to a more straightforward paper/presentation, with the topic up to the students. I also tried to break up the class sessions with more participation, and that worked better, but still not quite enough. I think the scope of material is appropriate, but could use some tightening up along thematic lines.

What Didn’t Work Two main takeaways from this year were in the negative column: I still lecture too much, and the material is too dry. The scope of the class is overly broad, covering multiple design fields and movements over a long period. I need to communicate a lot of material to even establish a baseline, I feel, but it ends up sucking the life out of what already can be dry material. I also need to make the materials more inclusive from a gender and cultural perspective, since an acknowledged deficit is that the field suffers from the kinds of biases prevalent in other academic fields.

Next Year I’m going to restructure the class along broad thematic lines and align materials and lectures to those. It should look something more like this:

  • Communications - graphic and communication design, including movements from late 1800’s to later 1900’s. This might take two classes
  • Objects - industrial design and industrialization
  • Interactions - the impact of computation and networks. This also might take two classes.
  • Systems and Environments - origins of usability, user research, service design, design thinking.
  • I am looking into switching the baseline text to Victor Margolin’s new World History of Design.
  • I want to work on providing better reading prompts for the students, and then involve them more deeply in in-class discussions of the work. Hopefully this means I can lecture less, or at least break things up more.

The Limits Of A Data-Driven Approach

Because we lack the conventional metrics to define and measure, for example, the hardships of walking, we don’t design and enforce solutions or adopt targeted public policies.

Designers in almost all fields make critical decisions based on their domain knowledge, observable conditions, and of course data. More and more, incredible amounts of finely grained and immediately available (and updated) data is required to be incorporated into product decisions. Given the quantitative nature of some of this data, it is often judged to be unbiased, truthful, and complete. Few people take the time to question the data - not the accuracy per se, but what is (and is not) being measured.

This article highlights the assumptions and challenges urban planners encounter when considering the health of our cities. It also shows how qualitative data can be used to make clear problems that purely quantitative approaches often fail at capturing. Indeed, its hard to imagine the level of instrumentation required to provide the nuance captured in a stroll down a city street.


John Maeda's Annual Design In Tech Report

Probably the best and most polished one yet, John Maeda's annual report on the state of design in the tech industry is out. There is an emphasis on eduction and a helpful breakdown of the kinds of design that are emerging.

2015 Reading List

Regrettably another year goes by in which I've read more books than I've posted posts to this site. That said, some awesome fiction, non-fiction and biographies. Non-fiction

The Wright Brothers By David McCullough - great read for anyone interested in product development. The cool intensity with which these men worked to kickstart manned flight is inspiring. Also worth noting the backdrop within which they worked.

Between The World And Me Ta-Nehisi Coates - a critical and heart-rending letter from a father to his son, I found this very moving. I hope to see this as required reading in schools.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End Gawande, Atul - thoughtful and sobering look at end of life and how our society (mis)manages it.

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution DuVal, Kathleen - only got about 1/3 through this, but intend to keep at it.

Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation. Polk, William R. - I read this along with my daughter for her class, and found it really engrossing. American and Western foreign policy can be deeply shameful.

One Summer: America, 1927 Bryson, Bill - I couldn't finish this. Interesting, but highly repetitive and loaded with random trivia that ended up occluding the main theme.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Harari, Yuval Noah - I absolutely was riveted for the first 2/3 of this unusual history of mankind. The last 1/3 really let me down, though.


The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series Lagercrantz, David - more tightly written than anything Stieg Larsson wrote.

H Is For Hawk Macdonald, Helen - deeply interesting and funny at times.

Fortune Smiles: Stories Johnson, Adam - intense and disturbing stories.

The Water Knife: A novel Bacigalupi, Paolo

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A novel Flanagan, Richard - Intense novel of POWS captured by Japan in WW2. Beautifully written, with a love story to boot.

I Am Pilgrim: A Thriller Hayes, Terry - perfect for the beach with a beer in hand.

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance VanderMeer, Jeff

The Martian Weir, Andy - Super fast and fun read, but definitely not a great work of fiction.


Notable Articles

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration Ta-Nehisi Coates was on fire this year. Very important read.

Design Thinking Comes of Age

Paradigms Lost Excellent essay on how to properly look at science.

It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change — Matter — Medium

The end of capitalism has begun Quick overview of what the post-captalist era is looking like.

Moving Beyond Design Thinking

This has to be one of the clearest articulations of Design Thinking I've come across in a while. In the course of talking about moving beyond Design Thinking to something the authors call "intervention", they do an excellent job of embedding an explanation in the context of how it should be used and built upon.

The principles of this approach are clear and consistent. Intervention is a multistep process—consisting of many small steps, not a few big ones. Along the entire journey interactions with the users of a complex artifact are essential to weeding out bad designs and building confidence in the success of good ones.

Slipped Crown

Stephen Johnson zeroes in on some of the challenges using the Apple Watch, and specifically the Digital Crown (the main controller for the device, which sits on the side like an analog watch). I don't own one, nor have I had an opportunity to use one. Johnson seems to have nailed the problem by observing that there's no safe place for a user to navigate to and "reset". For a lot of users, and especially those who are just learning, memorable linear pathways from a consistent starting point are what they want. Like learning a city subway stop by subway stop, once those pathways have been learned, users can branch out and discover new features.

I'm always fascinated by how product decisions get made, and in this case, how Apple may have compromised their usual clarity when it came to defining the behavior of a critical interface element. I don't know if this anything more than a stumble for Apple, a sign of them letting technological complexity get out of hand and dictate the user experience. It is certainly intentional and on the other hand may reflect a new outlook for how Apple approaches user experiences.

Interaction Design and Sci-Fi

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Prof. Robert Thomas' Collaborative Design For Innovation class at Georgetown University. The curriculum is fantastic - something I could keep studying for a long time - and Robert and his class were welcoming and attentive. Afterwards, one of the students I was speaking with noted that I had listed a number of fiction - science fiction in particular  - works in my annual reading list, and asked why. At the very core of their practice, designers are clearly tasked with imagining the future state of a product or service. Herb Simon said that "The process of design is a continual cycle of generating alternatives and testing to evaluate them." I've always had a fondness for speculative fiction, and it informs my ability to create and iterate solutions by training my mind to think beyond present realities and imagine different ways of doing things, big and small. When I was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon's School of Design, Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age was required reading. One of the greatest science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke, was also credited with inventing a number of significant scientific breakthroughs. In much the same way, I enjoy traveling to different countries where I can experience a significant culture shock.

I highly recommend that designers read science fiction periodically. It doesn't need to be stereotypical rockets-and-lasers stuff, either: there's quite a bit of work being produced today that is excellent. I came across a few readings related to this that might be worth digging into for more inspiration:

Why Todays Inventors Need To Read More Science Fiction and mentioned in there is Sophia Bruekner's class on scifi 

Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction

2014 Reading List

A good year for fiction, especially of the science variety. I thoroughly enjoyed The Moor's Account based on both the concept of the book as well as the story itself. I especially enjoy how Ian McEwan paints his characters, and The Children Act did not let me down. The Sixth Extinction was less in depth and more accessible than Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker articles, but the breadth captures the scope of the disaster humans are making of the planet. The Serial podcast was memorable for its storytelling, although it ended up putting a big dent in my reading time. Fiction

The Children Act Ian McEwan

The Son Philipp Meyer

All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr

The Moor's Account Laila Lalami

Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel

The Book of Strange New Things Michel Faber

J Howard Jacobson

Gone Girl Gillian Flynn

Tenth of December George Saunders

On Such a Full Sea Chang-Rae Lee

Train Dreams: A Novella Denis Johnson


Non-Fiction How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World Steven Johnson

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Elizabeth Kolbert

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential (unfinished) Tom Kelley

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town Beth Macy

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks Ken Jennings

Podcasts Serial

Notable Articles

The Case For Reparations -  Ta-Nehisi Coates Reza Aslan on What the New Atheists Get Wrong About Islam How Fossilized Ideas Live on Even in Science – Andrew Crumey How To Get Beyond The Parasite Economy - Eric Garland Silicon Valley's Youth Problem - Yiren Lu The Mammoth Cometh The Collateral Damage of a Teenager


How Bad Products Get Made

This article recounts how the Pontiac Aztec, perhaps the most notable automotive failure in recent history, came to be. I suggest reading the whole thing as a lesson in how bad products get made. A few things stood out as significant to me: Targets and goals that aren't grounded in actual user needs:

"Wagoner and the automotive strategy board decreed that henceforth, 40 percent of all new GM products would be “innovative.” That started a trend toward setting internal goals that meant nothing to the customer."

I've emphasized that a clear vision and support from upper management is an absolute necessity, but leading by dictate is often disastrous:

We've all made up our minds that the Aztek is gonna be a winner. It's gonna astound the world. I don't want any negative comments about this vehicle. None. Anybody who has bad opinions about it, I want them off the team.

Adhering to first principles you've established with customer input is critical. And the manifestation of those - the design - is something that's arrived at through a process of invention:

Many people in the car business do not understand that a vehicle has an image. To them, a vehicle is a collection of attributes. If your attributes are better than the other guy's attributes, you're gonna win. It's engineer thinking, along totally rational lines.

A Tweet From Me neilw

There might be a baby in that bathwater: Here's The Replacement For Ford's Hated MyFordTouch Infotainment System #nwb

Does Apple Hate Old People?

Recently, Apple tripped me up trying to install software from the App Store on a new Mac. It had been a while since I'd done this, so the security questions were pretty obscure: "What was model of your least favorite car?" and somewhat less so, "What was the model of your first car?". After quite a few tries, I was kicked out and had to set up a phone call with Apple support (answering security questions in my open-plan office). Once I was let back in to my account, I was prompted to establish new security questions. This is what I was offered:
Possible security questions Apple offers users
The intent of this is find answers that only the account holder knows and may not exist online. Most people don't realize you can put whatever value you want as an answer, but it might be self-defeating to ignore the prompts and forget what you entered. For someone getting on with his life, and probably more than halfway through it, these seemed like a stretch for me:
9 questions (half the total) that involve "first" memories.
3 questions from early childhood, depending on how you count.
3 or more questions questions from high school.
Perhaps the team in charge of this is very young (as tech companies can be) and these memories are not so distant, or there's an intent that I'm not appreciating. I hope there are culturally-specific versions of this, since not every country has a population that relies on automobiles or has an educational structure like the US does.
Or maybe I really am just losing it.

The Rental Car Test

I recently spent nearly two weeks using a rental car - a 2013 Ford Explorer - on a family vacation. We drove from New York to Chicago, around Chicagoland and Northern Illinois, and then back to New York, with daily trips in the car. One of the highlights was taking advantage of the My Touch infotainment system in the vehicle. My car at home is a decade-plus old Subaru, so "hi-tech" for me means a cassette deck. Call it a busman's holiday, but I was excited to use an up-to-date interactive system that's in so many vehicles (and is somewhat notorious). My first and lasting impression is that the UI is more suited to a tablet than an automobile. The screen was reasonably responsive, and there was some pairing with physical (albeit digitized) controls. Giving Ford the benefit of the doubt, I'm sure they tested it in a moving vehicle, but I found the the typography too fine, the layout cramped, and enough nomenclature and flow quirks to trip me up to the point of defeat. I couldn't escape the feeling that this worked well in a simulator and on someone's tablet, but hurtling at 70MPH down the highway is an entirely different experience.

It seems to me that a serious usability test for vehicle manufacturers building these systems is how quickly a car rental customer could figure out basic tasks. Like climate control, the stereo, and then synching a mobile phone, getting directions, and on to more complex tasks. Like a lot of rental car drivers, I get into a car in the airport parking lot and drive off without stopping for couple of minutes to figure out controls beyond the mirrors and seat. Frequent rental car customers might actually have an advantage, since they could be exposed to a multitude of systems, but I don't know how much thought people give to how things work. Perhaps a "simple mode" for frequently-accessed items, and — this is a minor annoyance — some way of resetting everything so that a new renter doesn't have to encounter a previous user's radio stations, trips, etc.

Not nearly as ubiquitous as the airticket redesign projects (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), but perhaps much more meaningful in potentially saving lives — and as a design exercise, significantly more challenging — is the vehicle touch screen redesign exercise. This one caught my eye as being one of the better ones of the breed: it showed an appreciation for the context by attempting to use multi-touch to overcome the lack of physical affordances in a screen; another one addresses Tesla's attempt to overcome the problem (by going all-in with a giant screen and no physical controls) with an attempt at splitting input and output into two different screens. Actually, the Ford Explorer I rented had some elements of this, although it seemed they were unable to restrain themselves. In the end, I don't think a heavy reliance on a touchscreen is a good idea - reserve them for what computers do best: complex, nested, changing features, and use physical controls (with digital refinements) for the top 3-5 user needs.

News reports tell me that Apple and Google/Android are getting into the car UI business, which may be welcome news. Its difficult to say if touchscreen GUIs are too far outside the expertise of carmakers to do well, or its an issue of large companies not being able to do small things well. While an outsider perspective might work well, the decades of deep expertise carmakers have is extremely valuable and can't be discounted.

What I Read in 2013

I don't think I read quite as many books in 2013 as I did in 2012, but I'm pretty sure I read substantially more long-form and short-form content. I'm on a better pace so far this year, but I've noticed that I tend to read much more in the winter and during my summer break. Here, in no particular order is what I managed to get through. The Orphan Masters Son - I can't recommend this enough.

The Teleportation Accident - I was entertained, but not completely thrilled with this.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb - Well crafted, if not completely satisfying scifi.

Transatlantic - Fairly sprawling, beautifully written historical novel.

The Windup Girl - I actually enjoyed this a lot more than I thought: another scifi book with a good mix of tech, plot and character development.

The Plot Against America - An alternate history that was very entertaining and well-written.

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo--and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up - Reporting of a murder that reads like fiction.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created - Deeply interesting to me, and certainly sends a message about how we continue to ravage this planet.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon - Really stunning piece of fiction.

The Brothers - If you've ever wondered why the rest of the world hates the US, read this.

Notable Articles

Why it's time to lay the selfish gene to rest – David Dobbs – Aeon and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality - Clay Shirky

And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be an iPhone’ - Fred Vogelstein

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How. - Elizabeth Weil

What Paintbrush Makers Know About How to Beat China - Adam Davidson

Linda Stone on Maintaining Focus in a Maddeningly Distractive World - James Fallows

The Enlightenment's 'Race' Problem, and Ours - Justin E. H. Smith

Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart? - Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

The Innocent Man, Part Two: Texas Monthly December 2012 - Pamela Colloff

Designers, not Dribbblers

Paul Adams has written a fantastic short article (I suppose it might even be considered long-form these days, but that's another topic) about what he calls The Dribblisation of Design. In it, he derides the growing trend, as he identifies it, of designers posting attractive mockups and reworks of existing or fictitious products on Dribbble, a gallery of member's work, in the absence of any context. By context, he means the business environment that almost all substantial product work takes place in. He's not knocking the desire of designers to show off their work, but the undue influence that showing work out of context can have.

Dribbble itself shapes the conversation to some extent, the medium shaping the message, with highlighting of colour palettes and other superficial details prominent in the UI. People look and people emulate.

Designers can easily retreat into pushing pixels because "it’s just more fun to draw nice pictures and bury oneself in pixels than deal with complicated business decisions and people with different opinions."

Regrettably, this is a problem that has always existed and will never go away. Designers come from all sorts of backgrounds, with a huge array of skills and experiences informing their practice. Richard Buchanan, one of my professors at CMU talked about design practiced across four orders, and while he emphasized that these should not be considered as existing on a continuum or as outcomes, it is a useful framework for understanding the breadth and depth of what a contemporary product designer should be addressing:



Strategic Planning

Systemic Integration


Signs, symbols, and images





Physical Objects




Activities, services, and processes



Systems, environments, ideas and values

Most designers aren't trained to do more than decorate - to spend time in the upper left, where their skills are most easily displayed and recognized. The woeful lack of preparation designers are getting in most schools is a serious issue. I think Paul is addressing an elite group of product designers in this piece, not the vast majority of designer/decorators. Not mentioned in Paul's piece are the structural issues within most contemporary product development environments that favor the atomization of output, further exacerbating a designers worst habits. He does talk about the need to align work to company vision and provides some excellent guideance on how to frame that understanding. Processes that disallow for a holistic view of the business problems and user goals are only going to yield fragmented, disconnected experiences. They might look great, but they won't be solving the real big problems designers should be.