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.

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.


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.

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

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.

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.

The Value of Drawing

Michael Graves, renowned architect and product designer, wrote about drawing in yesterday's New York Times. I'm a constant sketcher at work, so I found his discussion especially meaningful, since he addressed the "lost art" of drawing in an age of computerized rendering in the architectural profession. First, Graves talks about the intention and value of drawing, which is particularly valuable for those who don't draw or don't think they need to. I think he neatly sums it up with this statement:

"Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands."

What we've done since we were children is cast aside to easily, without considering what is lost. The literal connection that exists between our brains and hands has a much higher degree of fidelity and nuance than is possible with a mouse (pen, or tablet input as well). It takes a significant amount of time to develop and atrophies when not used.

And then Graves talks about his process, which I found particularly illuminating, since I don't think I've ever given names to the drawings I do, other than calling them "iterations". He identifies three drawing types called the  “referential sketch,” the “preparatory study” and the “definitive drawing.” The last is most appropriately done on a computer these days, but he finds the most value in the first two:

"With both of these types of drawings, there is a certain joy in their creation, which comes from the interaction between the mind and the hand. Our physical and mental interactions with drawings are formative acts. In a handmade drawing, whether on an electronic tablet or on paper, there are intonations, traces of intentions and speculation. This is not unlike the way a musician might intone a note or how a riff in jazz would be understood subliminally and put a smile on your face."

Read the whole piece here.

Design or Cut Bait

At a UX conference not so long ago, a fellow presenter (a non-designer) and friend remarked that in so many of the presentations, he detected a tones of exasperation, almost whining, coming from the speakers. He wondered why so many designers were concerned with not being in a strategic or decision-making position, when the opportunity is theirs for the taking. I've encountered this quite a bit, and confess to being that designer in the past. At a lot of companies, especially larger ones, the goals and language set are dominated by people with backgrounds in business, sales and marketing. Much of what is discussed has an aura of rationality, science or math, its largely subjective, and its difficult for many designers to overcome the wall of jargon they encounter. Designers definitely need to learn some of this to approach the table, but they should be prepared to bring their own. Look for ways to shift the culture, ways to open up the discussion to include stories from real users, and ways to build on what's already being done.

Take a hard look at where you are working - is it even possible to achieve this? In my experience, if there isn't someone a couple rungs above you who gets it, you are in for a long, frustrating and probably futile quest. If this isn't working, find another company that does get it, work in consulting, or start your own. Agency work is appealing to designers partly because someone else is paid to inject them into the position they covet, but also because someone is running interference for them. They get to focus on design work while someone deals with the challenging clients.

I vastly prefer working in-house, where I see a rich range of problems and get the chance to see solutions through to conclusion and revision. It's a personal preference, and one that requires patience and stamina in different ways than other contexts.

The Commuting Surplus

The share of automobile miles driven by people aged 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration's National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year. Meanwhile, Census data show the proportion of people aged 21-30 increased from 13.3% to 13.9%.

According to the experts, young people don't want to drive anymore, and the Internet is to blame! Aside from criticizing journalists for lazily falling back on not one, but two tired tropes (kids these days + the Internet) to generate interest in something that is not incredibly newsworthy, I wanted to see what else might be causing a decline in US car culture.

I see automobiles as the most prominent (and for many years, almost the only) designed object in most American's lives. For years, they were also an overt expression of identity. In movies, in cities and towns everywhere, life seemed centered around the car. Sections of cities were destroyed and new cities built for them. Like any strategy predicated on growth, it had to come to some end, right? With the design force Apple and multiple websites and interactive products, there are other options Americans to express themselves.

It may be that American youth is less interested in what's being offered by auto manufacturers. I don't have any data, but perhaps cars today are too conservative and aimed at broader market segments, with fewer interesting variants to be appealing. Smaller, cheaper cars for years have been overlooked by manufacturers as worthy of their attention. Practically speaking, people must be doing something with their time, and it seems they all want to be online. All along cars have been just a means to socialize, and now its a lot easier to do that using Facebook and Twitter and mobile apps. It's very hard to use these while driving.

Another aspect not covered is how the rise of hacker and maker culture comes into play. Cars can't be hacked so easily anymore (exception noted), with blackbox computers and sophisticated engines and drivetrains. Computers and websites can be easily customized and are vastly cheaper than cars, too. The economy has been in a prolonged recession and new cars are inaccessible for many.

Lastly, it seems collaboration and environmental concerns are powerful motivators for people to consider public transport, sharing services, and living in denser urban areas.

Compared to older generations, Millennials participate in and are more open to collaborative consumption programs, such as media, car and home or vacation sharing. - Millenials Prefer Sharing Over Ownership

In many ways, they are trying to undo what their parents and grandparents did when they fled the cities for "greener" pastures.

The challenge for designers is systemic, and has been for some time. Its a massive service design challenge in some ways, and one that seems to be coming from the bottom up, rather than the corporate-driven suburbanization effort. Better urban planning and a much wider array of transportation options are needed for people who want to use their cognitive surplus.

Who "Gets" Product?

Like many in my field, I'm always amazed when poorly conceived or executed products find their way to market. While every case study of failure is unique, starting with a great product team is a variable we'd like to have under control. Finding people who work in product development with a compatible outlook and skillset is difficult, but identifying higher-order abilities in those people is hard. How do you know if someone “gets” product?* You want to find these people, but what are you really looking for? This is a deceptively hard question, and the easy (but unsatisfying) answer is that you can't. The other easy answer is that there are many answers. I've shared my own perspective, but I also asked a number of people to hear what they thought. What I Look For - The Short List

  • X-ray Eyes People I know that get product can "see through" a product along multiple dimensions to understand all of what goes into making it and where it can go. What the decisions were, the trade-offs and meetings during the process of development. How many times did they test a part, and did they fix it? What will happen over time? How are they planning for the unknown?
  • Mostly Makers Skills in making, editing, and curation are very important to me, but are only part of a holistic skill set and outlook (and many great product people aren’t makers). Curiosity about how and why things work and succeed (or fail - why does Hollywood make so many bad films?). A good track record helps, but being flexible about what success is may be necessary. Some of the best product people I know I’ve known for a long time, but its hard to get that insider perspective.
  • Well Spoken I like it when someone can articulate the stance a product takes. Is a company trying to break out or fit in? They see how people use it (can they use it, is it meaningful, do they like it, will they keep it) now and in the future, and everything orbits around that. More literally, can people talk about products with clarity and directness (and metaphor). Many fields have a specific language set so insiders can be very specific, and product people should be well-versed or be able to adopt the local language.

From the Experts I asked several friends and colleagues to share their experiences, and was delighted with their responses. Several commented on the difficulty of the question itself, but all took up the challenge. I’ve synthesized their responses below, but thanks to Charles Adler, John Borthwick, Dan Boyarski, Liz Danzico, Alex Rainert, and Khoi Vinh for taking time to respond. Here are their key points:

  • Its About People People that get product understand that fundamentally this is about people. Product people use products. They talk about products in the context of use (as opposed to the features) and about the emotional engagement that exists for them. Development is a human process, and requires an understanding of the interaction of the roles involved and, of course, who the audience is.
  • It Takes Holistic Thinking Getting product also requires (or may be an outcome of) holistic thinking. They think about all aspects of the product: market, technology, operations, support, design. They can talk about and balance the relationships among them.
  • Bring a POV Despite being able to balance across disciplines and requirements, they have opinions that they hold strongly and can trust and defend them. They can say smart things about products - their own and other people’s. They understand where they’ve failed and can build on that.
  • Prove It Being able to demonstrate the ways they go about solving problems is important. Seeing past work is one measure, and seeing the results of in-person problem solving is used often. They understand the roles required, and they actually have experience shipping something.
  • Legacy Perhaps the most elusive, but in some ways critical quality, is whether someone can be trusted in the future to continue, extend and grow a product.


*By “getting product”, I mean people who can understand how and why products are made and succeed (or don’t), and can articulate and repeat that outcome.

Big Screen Chartbeat

Chartbeat is often displayed on large screens inside newsrooms and offices, usually in a static mode. In this shot, John Borthwick is using it on a giant touchscreen (an 82" Perceptive Pixel LCD Multi-Touch Display) at the Gizmodo Gallery (there are some Betaworks folks at the 22 second mark in the video). I think it's still holding up well after over 2 years without a significant change.

Whole-team User Research

In the 15 or so years I've been designing interactive products, I have always tried to involve the intended audience (users) in the course of product development. A recent article by Jared Spool on articulates something different that I've felt but rarely had the data to support: involve the rest of the team in deep exposure to users. I'm in complete agreement with this approach, as long as sensitivity to team structure and dynamics are understood and managed well. Resistance to conducting research (broadly speaking, from field research to usability testing) can come from unexpected quarters, but the usual suspects include Sales (who fear losing control of the relationship they have with their clients), Technology (who look at it as something that will slow down develpment time), and Product (who've invested too much time in their MRD and PRD documentation). The Design team, too, has their share of those who fear user input will impinge on their freedom to create, among other reasons.

I started my career at Morningstar working on Windows-based software, where our team used a waterfall process and testing was difficult. We had to wait until the product was nearly done, which was the only way it could stand up long enough for us to test it with users. Even then the feedback was invaluable, but we rarely had many of the front-line developers on hand to observe. Also, much of the development staff were from mainland China and had a more limited command of English.

Later on at Razorfish, I learned valuable lessons on how not to run user research. One of the failures of the agency model is how often work is done in an assembly-line fashion, with little room for iteration and teams that are separated from each other. My team did excellent work, but too often we weren't tightly coupled with the IA, Design, and Tech teams to provide user feedback in a timely manner. It was also trimmed or eliminated from pitch budgets since it always appeared as a line item.

At Yahoo!, we had a much more tightly integrated UX team, but we weren't physically or organizationally close to Tech. In between us was a firewall of Project Managers (necessary in any large endeavor, I might add). This inhibited our ability to get everyone on board, although we did manage to get some of the front-end developers to some usability tests.

Right now I'm at betaworks, and the situation is different still. Here teams are very small and fast-moving. I don't have a team and everyone is super-busy and its hard to find time to squeeze in anything other than core job responsibilities. There are vastly different outlooks on what roles are critical, and products serve very different markets (although they all have UIs). In a startup environment, there is a lot of pressure to maintain a clear vision and course in the face of all manner of obstacles, users included.

Here lies the challenge: how to integrate user feedback into a team's work so that its not considered unusual or can be sidelined. A few takeaways:

  • Convince teams that something that feels so counter-intuitive is actually better. Spending more time on understanding users, planning and designing actually makes the development cycle shorter (and saves tons of time post-launch).
  • Convince teams that this is as important a part of the process of developing interactive products as continually testing for and fixing bugs.
  • As Spool points out, every discipline needs to be involved to avoid the kind of infighting that comes about when people are basing decisions on assumptions about user goals, not empirical evidence.

Data Overload in the Military

...the screens in jets can be so packed with data that some pilots call them “drool buckets” because, they say, they can get lost staring into them.

It appears the military is bumping up against the limits of peoples ability to absorb and make sense of the streams of data they encounter in their rapidly digitizing field of operations. Myths about people's ability to multitask continue to lead managers astray, I fear. Scientists comment that multitasking actually impedes performance in simulations. If you've ever tried to complete this awareness test, you'll get some idea of these limits.

While well-intentioned, the impulse to add another monitor or another data stream only makes the problem worse for soldiers facing extremely stressful situations. Fundamentals in usability have roots in the military, when aircraft crashes were unexplainably high and researchers determined that standardization of control layout and developing controls with significant tactile differences dramatically reduced error rates. Efforts to "rewire" soldiers to aclimate them to information overload seem foolish to me, as there is only so much change the human brain can accomodate. There is nothing significantly different about the brains of today's 20-year-olds and yesterday's. No amount of video games has made their brains different, but it has acclimated them to this kind of work.

A closer look at integrating data into more holistic dashboards, making data more actionable, and offloading onto the system some tasks so that soldiers can operate better all seem like useful directions, and probably significantly cheaper. This last part is probably of no interest to the contractors supplying expertise and hardware to this effort, however.

Level Up or Out

An interesting series of articles appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this past week covering technology in education. Interesting to me because of the variety of approaches discussed, from drill-based learning to home schooling. One of the pieces discussed the use of video games as learning aids, and covered a new middle school here in New York that has a curriculum largely based around video games. It was a little hard to discern what level of integration gaming has with learning there, but there was a brief mention of what one might term normal learning activities (like reading) place. I'm a bit torn on the efficacy of this approach, and perhaps because this piece is a little lighter in facts and heavier on first-person interpretation. I am a little leery of breathless descriptions of people who only two years ago were running street art and puppet shows now commanding an entire middle school. There is some mention made of dopamine studies, but it all sounds extremely thin and premature.

My children are already well aware of what level they are on in most of their subjects where such measurements are taken (Reading, Math). They are fairly competitive, and I don't know how much more pressure they need in that area. What does appeal to me are the constructivist principles that seem to be at work in some of the learning. Kids building their own games is a very old approach, so its good to see it updated here. There was mention of game design and design thinking playing a role in the development of the curriculum, which is encouraging, because if it is done right it can bring the invaluable knowledge the educational system has acquired with newer understandings of motivation and reward.

I wonder if these principles can be used to instill a joy of long-form reading, and the kind of discussion that can accompany the development of close reading skills. Perhaps an "Om Reader", like the OmmWriter, but with more incentives and networking can be a part of children's learning experience. I don't particularly like it, but the "Popular Highlights" feature in the Kindle seems a step in this direction. IDEO released a concept video of three approaches to reading tools, and while the last one named "Alice" seemed the most interesting, I found the other two to be fluffed out features, not standalone products.

It points to the desperation our society feels about the state of education in our country, and how little we seem to know about how children learn. My guess is that we know quite a bit, in a general sense, but we keep trying to scale this knowledge up and apply to all children, which is where it falls apart. Perhaps that's the problem, and programs like this might help us make the brave decision to allow for much greater latitude in how our children are educated.

Lions, Mirrors and Reading

A couple of articles I came across provide insight into the development of our ability to read. Not only are some novel explanations put forward, but it comes at a time when one of my daughters has experienced what is described. Examples of how evolution can explain seemingly impossible developments in human are always interesting to me. As is often the case, an adaption suited for one thing is "hijacked" and put to use for something else. What I've seen in my household is how my daughters will often flip letters ("b" and "d", for example) when writing, and it takes months or longer for them to get the correct positioning down. In the Economist, new research has found that:

Learning to read requires the brain’s visual system to undergo profound changes, including unlearning the ancient ability to recognise an object and its mirror image as identical...[and] skills acquired relatively recently in people’s evolutionary past must have piggybacked on regions in the brain that originally evolved for other purposes, since there has not been time for dedicated neural systems to develop from scratch.

Since writing has only been around for 5-10,000 years, there hasn't been enough time to evolve an adaptation for reading. I recall that the shortest known adaptation is lactose tolerance in adults, which I think started in Europe and has been spreading since then. My kids (and all early writers) are unlearning an evolved survival response that allows them to distinguish between reflections from real objects. Again, from the Economist:

Dr Dehaene thinks that the VWFA (Visual Word Form Area) may be responsible for the ability of some primates to recognise themselves in a mirror, or to recognise a tiger even if it is seen only in reflection—thus conferring an important survival benefit. That it is also crucial for reading might explain why children make a type of error he calls “early mirror reading”. It was thought that only dyslexic children were prone to confusing “b” and “d”, and “p” and “q”, and occasionally writing their names back-to-front, but Dr Dehaene has found that all children make this error."

In a recent New Yorker article ("A Man of Letters" June 28, 2010), Oliver Sacks describes a case where damage caused by a stroke in a patient revealed the connections between many areas of the human body that allow us to see and read:

Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms–it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words, but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion. The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections–a network peculiar, it seems, to the human brain.

Sacks describes how our evolved capacity for rapidly recognizing objects by their shapes, even when we haven't fully processed what we're looking at, is at the core of reading. Type designers recognized this in the 1950s when working on the US Interstate: people recognized mixed-case words much faster than upper-case words because they could more easily discriminate the shape. Sacks cites research showing a limited range of shapes and combinations humans use to create alphabets of any kind, and their tight relationship to the kinds of topographies humans innately recognize. While we may think the alphabets of the world to be very diverse, they are actually limited and tied to closely to our evolved abilities.

I'm sure there are more important takeaways from this than to carefully consider when to use type treatments (any good designer should know this), but I'm always happy to find connections like this that link personal and professional interests with real-life experience.

Wasteful Infographic

I saw this infographic at a rest stop that attempted to communicate the superiority of hand dryers over paper towels. The amount of chart junk dedicated showing manufacturing transport vs. the ecological impact I thought was ironic given the location at a rest stop. I'd be curious to follow up and see what the true distribution of cost, energy usage, and environmental impact is.

Design decisions for

The chartbeat dashboard recently underwent its first major revision since launching a year ago. Below is a copy of a post I wrote for the chartbeat blog giving some background into the redesign. The team has a strong vision for chartbeat, and to bolster our vision I led some quick-and-clean research into how current and prospective users view chartbeat. Our plan included heuristic evaluation, in-person usability reviews, and group-based cognitive walkthroughs, all to provide insight and momentum. The team arrived at a set of first principles to guide development, and we quickly settled in an iterative design-build-test cycle, where the fidelity of each step evolved as we built out the site. I've highlighted some of the core principles and selected design decisions below:

Structure the site around user goals chartbeat is a tool for front-line workers, not just internal analytics teams. We designed the layout around a set of use cases, so users could walk through the data in a logical fashion, understand causality, and take action. The triad of panels at top allows users to understand "how many people, how did they get here, and what are they looking at?" in a snap. We also heard our users love the kinetic nature of chartbeat, so we extended that a bit with a Matrix-like stream of raw hits in the right-most column.

Data should be appropriately dense, clear and actionable Data should be rich and deep, without compromising ease of use and clarity. As an example, the tree map in v.1 was challenging for users - they liked the intent, but it was difficult to interpret. Sites with extremely low or high traffic or with few pages skewed the chart so that it was impossible to analyze. We decided to use a small range of fixed sizes, ensuring the display of most pages, and using dots to represent visitors. Larger numbers and page titles increase legibility, while isolating the page modules with white space makes it easier to read them as units. We also standardized and gave meaning to the range of colors we used, so users can more associate meaning across the panels.

Everything should be on a single page A key interaction design challenge chartbeat faces is letting users drill into richer data whithout resorting to traditional hierarchical navigation schemes. We came up with the notion of "pivoting" around a selected data element, where the entire page changes to reflect just that element. This way, chartbeat can serve as a site-level analysis tool and easily shift to isolate a page with a single click.

Use historical data as context, but keep it a real-time tool Users love the real-time aspect of chartbeat data, but a unanimous request is to provide some context to what they're viewing. Some amount of historical data was in the previous version, hidden behind a tab at the top of the page. Hidden, too, was a powerful replay feature that lets users isolate events and walk through it ("Tivo for your website" as Tony likes to say). By bringing the replay to the fore, we signaled to users that historical data is available by showing a trend chart. When users pivot on data, we also show a thin historical chart that can be expanded for more detail.

We've been doing some followup visits with users to understand their long-term usage and how it is fitting into workflows. One big finding has been that the clarity of the data brought many new features to the foreground for users, giving them new reasons to use chartbeat.