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.

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.

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.

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

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

What I Read in 2012

Although its not complete, and doesn't include many excellent periodicals and longer-form essays that I consumed here and there, here's a list of what I read over the year 2012: 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Born to Run by Christopher Mcdougall

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson

The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea by John Moynihan

How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Started, still in progress:

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever by Christopher Hitchens

Articles and essays of note:

Why Things Fail: From Tires to Helicopter Blades, Everything Breaks Eventually -

How Culture Drove Human Evolution -

The Enemy (Kindle Single) - Christopher Hitchens

The Hunt for Geronimo - Vanity Fair

TechCrunch Disrupt Presentation

I had the distinct honor and pleasure of presenting a new app that we've been working on at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference as part of their Battlefield competition. The competition pits 30+ startups against each other in a judged competition. Each team gets roughly five minutes to present, followed by another five minutes of questions from the judges. Overall, I think it worked out well even though we didn't win. Here's the video (first there's an ad).

TechCrunch also did a pretty good writeup of the app, which saves me from having to explain it.

Jobs I've Had

I was thinking last night about all the different jobs I've had over the years, and how many were "relevant" to what I do now. I suppose they were all relevant, since they got me to and are a part of what I am now, but there are a few that I consider to be a direct link to what I do now. They also signal a conscious shift in my outlook with regards to my career. Note that while this is roughly chronological, and includes only wage-earning jobs, I've done the same job at multiple employers, so I rolled up those positions.

  • Car wash carhop Learned that ill will created by older siblings can negatively affect job duration
  • Gas station attendant Learned how change the oil in a VW, smoke Marlboro Reds
  • Busboy in a fancy restaurant Leaned how to set a proper table, which side to serve and clear form, hang out with waitresses
  • House painter Learned about importance of health insurance. First management experience, and my team sucked
  • Apartment painter Learned how to paint student housing interiors, survive all day on a diet coke big gulp
  • Sorority houseboy Learned how to steer clear of a house full of college girls
  • Mail room of McDonalds world headquarters Discovered they serve beer in the HQ McDonalds
  • Printing plant Learned about union-mandated breaks
  • Bartender Discovered bar tending isn't that much fun, really.
  • Stereo equipment sales Learned how commission sales work (or doesnt)
  • Lawn maintenance Learned how to drive a big truck, second management position
  • Busboy Learned that laundromat/bar combinations are a great idea
  • Picture framer Learned how to get involved with much of the female sales staff, third management position
  • University telecom warehouse storekeeper Learned about DOS/Windows, and all the types of RJ jacks. First direct experience leading to current career.
  • Telephone customer service/technical support Learned about flaming co-workers via email not being a good idea, fourth management position. Also first experience working in a meritocratic workplace. Led to beginning of current career.
  • Product design and management Learned I loved designing interactive products, fifth management position. Start of current career.
  • University computer science department design intern Learned I had no idea how to build a large website, learned a lot about methodologically sound research.
  • Interaction design consultant Learned a lot about client management, had to lay off my first employee.
  • Interaction design manager Learned a lot about excellent and horrible management, big company politics.

Behind the Bitly Mascot

Ok, so its a bit of a puff piece, but I was interviewed by Mashable about the origins of the Bitly mascot.

How did the pufferfish develop?

We started looking at renderings of pufferfish, and one of the things that I hit on was why not show two pufferfish and show them in the states you would encounter it, puffed out and shrunken down. Once we played with that, we hit on the relationship between these two. So we invented a backstory that the little is always pranking the big one and the big one is sort of clumsy. The little one is the smart one because it’s a shortened link and there’s a lot of data and valuable attributes that are useful to people, where as the big one is the sort of big, dumb long link that breaks in emails when you send it to people or IM it.

The full post is here.


A couple quick quotes on the meaning of design: "In most people's vocabularies, design means veneer. It's interior decorating. It's the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service." - Steve Jobs

“ cannot have depths without surfaces. They communicate with what is within; between the two there is always a great dialogue.” - Linda Grant

Interface Design Concepts

A nice roundup of some interface design concepts over at the Fast Company design blog: I'm particularly taken with both the DJ turntable concept because it doesn't shy away from expecting users to develop a knowledge of how the system works, and isn't a slavish replication of both the appearance and interactions of a real-world system. The Mozilla Seabird phone concept is quite compelling too, since it breaks the screen entirely, extending it into the adjacent space for users.

A History of Product Development at betaworks

I recently (December 8th) gave a talk at the betaday 2010 - a small private conference put on by my company, betaworks - covering the history of product development there. I was excited to present because of the occasion, but also since I got to talk about product development.

John Borthwick has a simple framework he uses to describe our approach to creating products, and it goes something like this: Inception, Iteration, Scale. The overall approach is similar to Paul Graham's Six Principles for Making New Things and lean startup techniques like Minimum Viable Product. A key distinction from most startups is that betaworks intentionally makes products that turn into companies, and its companies are held in a loose network, fostering learning and growth. Here, then is a short description of each of the phases:

  • Inception: this is closest to Lean Startup/MVP ideas, in that we try to have a single developer build out the core product use case end to end in a short period of time. What we do at the end here is some kind of assessment to determine if an idea is solid enough to make a bigger investment. In my talk, I refer to the origins of chartbeat, and while people gravitate to stories with clear beginings, most betaworks companies emerge from a primordial soup than a flash of divine insight.
  • Iteration: the next phase is also closely aligned to current startup thinking, and is where we start making rapid iterations and pivots, looking to pick off substantial and hopeful edge cases that were overlooked previously. If we think we have something - and often the market will tell us - we usually need to scale it up. Knowing when to pivot or completely change a business model is difficult, especially when so many startup narratives are about founders sticking to their vision. chartbeat is a clear case of this in that the underlying technology had origins in a real-time chat environment and ended up powering a data dashboard.
  • Scale: rapidly accommodating growth of a user base is often accompanied by corresponding growth in staff, the breadth and complexity of the app, and wildly spiking usage patterns. The betaworks network of companies share knowledge and experience with each other, so companies can move faster with fewer mistakes.

After my talk I was asked about the role of user experience at a startup and when to hire a UX person or team. The answer is, of course, it depends. My role at betaworks is pretty unique, in that I work across several companies at a time, and do almost everything (user research, interaction design, visual design, usability testing). I help companies grow, and to the point where they need to hire their own fulltime UX staff. To what degree a startup needs help with their UX (if at all) is dependent upon several factors:

  • The type of company. Some startups may be backend and/or API focused, and only need a simple marketing presence to communicate what they do. Other companies are completely dependent upon low-friction user interaction or cultivating user-generated content and might need more attention. spent a considerable amount of time scaling up its infrastructure and refining its API, only paying attention to the UI later on.
  • Where in its growth cycle a company is. Generally speaking, I'd advise that companies outsource their UX for as long as possible (depending upon the above), since reasonably talented developers can get good mileage out of some good design patterns. Forming a close relationship with a single UX contractor can keep costs down while benefitting from gains in institutional knowledge.
  • The kind and level of UX involvement needed and is possible. The term "UX" is often misused and poorly understood (entirely through the efforts of its practitioners) but goes far beyond the appearance of a product. UX methods and solutions run the gamut from strategic to reactionary, from game-changing to decorative. A skilled practioner will be good or excellent in several areas, and wise enough to know what's good enough or when to call for help. A startup might not be willing or able to bring in user's voices to product develpment efforts, or choose to direct efforts in the wrong area. Having a designer make concepts "real" through lightweight prototypes or designs, and validating those with users can be far cheaper and time efficient than having a team of developers code up something. The nature of the business should indicate which paths to go down.

Overall, this was a great opportunity to deliver my perspective on how UX is valued and integrated into the startups at betaworks, and something I'll talk about more in the future.

Prius Dash Usability

Visiting my Dad in Illinois, we were driving around in his Prius and I took a shot of (one of) the dashboards. I'm not a daily user of this car, so I'm biased, but I found it incredibly difficult to believe this is an effective in-car driving experience. The layout and typography are poor, and there is a lot of extraneous data (outside temp?) that distract. Even though the primary dash is separate, reasonably designed, and located appropriately, I can only guess that the marketing department had a stronger hand in this than they should have.

On a Roll

The new launched today, which I designed the UI for (I did the old one too, but this time I had the incredible talents of Gregory Tomlinson available). Check out the tour for more information. On a related note, there was a nice writeup in the New York Times today about betaworks - great timing!

Ideation and Invention

In grad school, we talked a lot about invention. Invention is distinct from discovery and the scientific method in that it is a process of combination rather than unique observation or singular insight. This helps mark the distinction between designers and scientists - the latter is about finding a single truth, while the former can accomplish multiple solutions through a more inductive process. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about invention in the New Yorker and one of the takeaways was his distinction between invention in the artistic (or cultural) realm and the scientific realm. He notes that artistic invention is truly invention in that it is the unique creation of an individual, while scientific inventions happen in a cloud (or, that most inventions are destined to be discovered eventually). By this, he means that a scientific invention is the product of previous accomplishments as well as (and this is important) the fact that almost all "inventions" have been duplicated simultaneously or even previously. Many times, the wrong inventor is credited when in fact someone else - completely independently - has developed the same solution.

It seems the definition of invention needs clarity, since the common perception of how solutions are discovered is more aligned to the archetype of the solitary genius than someone working within a community and era. Gladwell mentions this as well, reporting that Robert Merton researched the subject and posited that geniuses do the work of many people (30+). This doesn't diminish their accomplishments, in fact it shows how brilliant they are that 30 other people might discover the same thing it took only one person to