John Hodgman explains design June 13, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
John Hodgman, comedian and frequent guest correspondent for The Daily Show, explains design at the recent TED conference in LA.
I wish I had some pithy comments to add, but I am awed by Hodgman’s insight. For example, I had never perceived the affordances of the Juicy Salif as a utensil or, indeed, as a weapon. Should it be classified as a munition?
The genius of design June 29, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Events , comments closed
I have recently watched a documentary series entitled The genius of design. The series consists of five parts, which are all accessible as playlists on YouTube:
- Episode 1, on design as a profession;
- Episode 2, on the development of modern design, concerning mass production and approaches to it through modernism in Europe and Industrial Design in the US;
- Episode 3, concerning the effect of WWII on design and mass production, contrasting the emphasis on quality in Nazi Germany versus the rough-and-ready approach adopted by Germany’s enemies;
- Episode 4, about the role of plastics in modern design, from high hopes to humdrum;
- Episode 5, about design from the era of plastic (did that ever end?) until the iPod.
The series is well made, with an appropriate mix of product shots, talking heads, and sound bite philosophy. (I mean that in a good way.) Each episode leaves the viewer with some interesting information but without glib pronouncements, although episode one comes close to being a mere paen to genius of designers in shaping the world we live in. Instead, we are invited to consider the problem of whether or not design, meaning industrial design, has served society well. Have a look and see what you think.
More GPS navigation follies October 7, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Globe and Mail has an article today about a young woman who followed the driving directions of her GPS unit and ended up not in Belleville, Ontario but in the Murray Marsh. The car became partially submerged in the marsh, forcing the woman to climb onto the roof while the OPP, heeding her call to 911, rescued her with ATVs.
(Image courtesy of SeppVei via Wiki Commons.)
The problem, of course, is that she trusted the directions of her GPS unit and, being unfamiliar with the area and driving through challenging weather conditions, she was not alert to the signs of trouble until too late:
On Tuesday night, she left a friend’s place in Campbellford, about an hour’s drive from Belleville. Unfamiliar with the region, she said she relied on her new Garmin GPS to get to her destination.
“That was the road it told me to take,” she said. “I don’t know the area at all, so I just thought it was okay, and apparently it was a swamp.”
It was pounding rain on the country roads, and visibility was poor. At first, she thought she was driving through puddles, but then her 2003 Mazda Protegé 5 stopped moving. Then water started seeping in, rising to seat-level.
Naturally, she feels “stupid” for getting into the predicament.
The article features links to other examples of travelers following their GPS units into the abyss, and an NBC news report, including a brief interview with UWaterloo’s own Colin Ellard, where the reporter smugly concludes that such incidents are best explained as a malfunction “behind the wheel” rather than on the dashboard.
We have discussed GPS navigation and their foibles before, but this latest incident provides an opportunity to discuss the issue of blame for failures of navigation. The producers of GPS units, and most reporters, simply blame the users: If only people were not so stupid, or were not so slavishly obedient to their gadgets, this sort of thing would not happen. Yes, sometimes people simply do stupid things, and sometimes they are overawed by their high-tech gear.
However, I think it must be conceded that GPS units are designed to fail in this way. How is that? Their guidance is based on simplifications about the road, the situation, and the driver, that are not always appropriate.
- To a GPS unit, the world is like a giant chess board, where the topology of the board and the locations of the pieces are all known with perfect certainty. The fact that road connectivity may change dynamically in a way that affects navigation is totally unrepresented. Nor is the possibility that the GPS unit’s information is simply false ever considered. Thus, the GPS unit provides its directions with the apparent greatest of confidence, no matter what.
- A GPS unit has no representation of the ambient conditions. In the story above, the woman was driving in the dark and through a heavy rain shower. Thus, she was not in a position to be critical of the GPS unit’s directions, if she had a mind to. Again, the GPS does not take these factors into account, even though such information is probably available to it through weather services over the Internet.
- A GPS unit has no representation of the cognitive state of the driver. People who are tired or stressed are not in a good position to evaluate GPS directions. As a result, drivers may follow the directions of their bossy GPS unit even when common sense suggests that this policy is not a good one.
In short, although GPS navigation units are presented to drivers as a kind of co-pilot, their design prevents them from acting like a co-pilot, especially in challenging circumstances. As people become more dependent on such units to find their way around, the situation becomes less promising. I understand, though, that designers of GPS units are starting to grapple with these issues. In the meantime, though, let us cut some slack to the poor souls who are guided by their high-tech toys into the middle of nowhere late at night in the rain.
Update: In Spain, a 37 year-old man drove his car into a reservoir following directions from his GPS navigator. The man drowned, although his passenger survived. The road had apparently been out of use since 1989, when the reservoir was constructed and flooded the roadway. This information was, evidently, not known to the GPS unit. Perhaps because it was dark, the driver did not realize his danger until too late:
“It seems the GPS system pointed them on to an old road that ends in the reservoir, and that in the dark they were unable to brake in time, with the car taking just a couple of minutes to sink,” the Red Cross said in a statement.
Technology should be more human September 24, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
At a TEDx event in Berlin, graduate student Fabian Hemmert presents a brief synopsis on how cell phones can be made better by dynamically changing their physical characteristics. For example, a cell phone could change its center of mass in order to indicate which way you should go while providing you with navigation directions. Also, a cell phone could change shape or become more animate, that is, a phone could have a “heart beat” that speeds up when an important call comes in.
These ideas are intriguing and worth exploration. And they raise interesting questions. When, I wonder, is it a good idea to make a device more animate, more like an animal than an inert blob? People do seem to like human voices emanating from their GPS navigation programs, provided that the right kind of voice is produced. However, people I’ve asked say that would dislike a GPS navigation system in the form of a robotic teddy bear that turns its head and gestures while giving directions (among other things).
So, what degree and kind of animation or humanness is appropriate in a given design? Are there any general principles? I would suggest, for starters, that a design should not give the impression that it is more intelligent than it is. GPS navigation systems, for example, give an exaggerated impression of confidence that their driving directions will work (and so must be followed). As a result, drivers may follow directions that they should not.
Perhaps we could look at the issue in another way: What sort of gear that you own would you like to see more animal or human-like? Why?
Choice blindness and the social nature of design August 17, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Cognitive psychologists Johansson et. al are publishing a paper entitled Magic at the marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea. Only the abstract is currently available to the public, but the content of the article has already been discussed in this Wired article. The article describes some recent work on the phenomenon of choice blindness. In brief, people are often unable to distinguish between items A and B, even though they purport to have a definite and justified preference for one over the other. The abstract of the article describes how the researchers used taste tests between two kinds of jam or tea to reveal this divergence between people’s statements and their actions:
We set up a tasting venue at a local supermarket and invited passerby shoppers to sample two different varieties of jam and tea, and to decide which alternative in each pair they preferred the most. Immediately after the participants had made their choice, we asked them to again sample the chosen alternative, and to verbally explain why they chose the way they did. At this point we secretly switched the contents of the sample containers, so that the outcome of the choice became the opposite of what the participants intended. In total, no more than a third of the manipulated trials were detected. Even for remarkably different tastes like Cinnamon-Apple and bitter Grapefruit, or the smell of Mango and Pernod was no more than half of all trials detected, thus demonstrating considerable levels of choice blindness for the taste and smell of two different consumer goods.
Pretty sneaky, eh?
It seems that our conceptual preferences write cheques that our sense perceptions cannot cash. We are convinced that we prefer Cinnamon-Apple jam over Grapefruit jam, say, when, in fact, we would be equally happy with either one. This work is profoundly unsettling for a number of reasons:
- We frequently make complex decisions based on calculations of what would make us most happy, reconciling a vast pool of potentially conflicting preferences. If we are indeed subject to extensive choice blindness, then these calculations could involve a great amount of wasted effort. We might be equally well off following a fairly simple method for making decisions.
- The process of design often involves creating a long list of explicit specifications that any successful design must meet. If we are subject to extensive choice blindness, then many such specifications are not relevant to the acceptability of the outcome. In that case, a great deal of design activity is wasted effort also.
Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. … Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design.
If choice blindness is a ubiquitous problem, then it seems that we will hardly know when we are successful in designing things that realize our preferences, or whether our preferences are even relevant. Is, then, much of the education of designers futile?
Yes and no. The argument assumes that, to be justified, preferences must be determined solely by each individual for himself or herself. In other words, your claim that you prefer Cinnamon-Apple jam over Grapefruit jam is justified only if you can tell the difference for yourself. Marketers have long known that this condition often does not apply. People prefer Coke over Pepsi based not so much on any difference in taste so much as what they believe other people think. If the taster wants to be part of the “Coke” crowd, then they tend to prefer Coke, for example. In general, individual preferences are influenced by social goals, goals like wanting to belong to a given social group.
(Image courtesy of Tim Wang; Wikimedia Commons.)
So, choice blindness is regrettable only if we decide that social goals should not influence individual preferences. In an individualistic culture, like the American culture, such influence seems unacceptable. Yet, as Sheena Iyengar points out, always forcing individuals to make choices without reference to the social group can be a burden, and make people unhappy. Moreover, as the Internet has taught us, there is sometimes wisdom in the inferences of the crowd. Why should we not say the same for the “preferences” of the crowd?
This conclusion should not lead us to be indifferent to choice blindness. Indeed, I think that this result should be discussed in the education of any designers in any serious design profession. It suggests that the “rational” model of design, in which a list of specifications is generated early on and largely held to and even expanded with time, is not as great as it might otherwise appear to be. Instead, designers need to be sensitive to the fact that their client’s preferences (and their own) are profoundly influenced by their social goals. Those goals must also be acknowledged and held up to scrutiny in the course of any important design project. Indeed, that is the burden of the concept of motivated design, which I have discussed previously in this blog.
The Betty Crocker Cruiser May 28, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I have been reading Shop class as soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. So far, I have found it both a compelling read and an insightful critique of the supposed opposition between manual work and the good life.
The book touches on a number of interesting subjects but one in particular struck me as relevant for a design audience. Let me quote from Crawford’s remarks on how companies now encourage people merely to consume their “stuff” instead of mastering it, while deliberately conflating the two situations (pp. 66-67):
An ad for the Yamaha Warrior in the July 2007 issue of Motor Cyclist carries the caption “Life is what you make of it. Start making it your own.” The picture shows a guy in his home shop, focused intently on his Warrior. There are motorcycle parts on shelves above his ancient workbench, and a full stack of grungy, obviously well-used tool boxes in standard mechanic’s red. He’s not smiling for the camera; he’s lost in his work. A smaller caption reads, “The 102-cubic-inch fuel-injected Warrior. We build it. You make it your own.” Smaller still, it reads, “You only get one shot at life–may as well make it mean something. And when you start with the four-time AMA Prostar Hot Rod Cruiser Class Champion Warrior, then add your choice of Star Custom Accessories, the result is very powerful. And very personal.”
So it turns out, in the small type, that what the guy is actually doing is attaching some accessory to his bike. This is a little like those model cars where the child’s role consists of putting the decals on. Motorcycle culture retains a dim remembrance of the more involving character of the old machines, and the ad seems to gesture in that direction. Back in the 1950s, when the focal practice of baking was displaced by the advent of cake mix, Betty Crocker learned quickly that it was good business to make the mix not quite complete. The baker felt better about her cake if she was required to add an egg to the mix. So if the Warrior were to be christened with a street name, an apt one might be the Betty Crocker Cruiser, forged as it is in the Easy Bake Oven of consumerism.
Crawford’s comment is relevant for any designer and, indeed, for their educators. To my knowledge, many classes in engineering and other design fields emphasize ease-of-use. Students in a Human Factors class learn techniques for making devices intuitive for their users. Crawford points out that this emphasis serves the purposes of a broader design ideology, namely consumerism. Consumers use their gear until it breaks down or they get bored with it. Then, they turf it out for something else. This process is supposed to make users happy and producers happy. Consumers, in this sense, necessarily have a flaccid and passive attitude towards the things they own.
Contrast this attitude with one that Crawford calls spirited. The spirited owner develops an attachment to his gear and desires to find out how it works and how to fix it when it breaks down. This attitude inhibits the urge to throw stuff out when it does not behave properly or goes out of style. Thus, it is vastly different than consumerism, and has different implications for the environment, obviously, but also for designers.
Designing a machine to be easy-to-use often means making its inner workings opaque and inaccessible to the user. If all goes well, then the user can make the machine work without spending time understanding its workings or strengths and weaknesses. However, when the machine breaks or misbehaves, the owner is at the mercy of “service representatives” or simply finds it cheaper to buy a new one.
Crawford argues that the passive attitude encouraged by consumer items is bad for owners. Whatever its economic rationale, consumerism stunts people’s growth and self-realization. It makes them stupid. If so, then designers of people’s gear face a question: Is it always a good idea to make things so easy-to-use?
There must be some balance between challenge and ease-of-use in design, and I do not yet know what resolution, if any, Crawford has to offer. However, this issue strikes me as an excellent one to raise with students who are learning one or another of the design disciplines.
Hidden costs of information technology April 15, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Underage, underpaid workers working 15-hour shifts, sexually predatory security guards, hourly pay of just 52 cents per hour after deductions for the canteen food. No talking during work hours, no listening to music, no bathroom breaks. These are just some of the conditions that workers at China’s KYE Systems Corp. plant in Dongguan City have to endure.
At the same time, an article from the Huffington Post discusses the fate of 23-year old On-Yang, a young South Korean man who died of leukemia after a short career in Samsung’s semiconductor plant. Other young employees and former employees have died of various cancers, leading to concerns over exposure to toxins in the workplace. Of course, it is difficult to prove such a link, and the South Korean government seems to avoid publicity over the matter.
These items are cause for concern in their own right, but they got me to thinking again about the hidden costs of our everyday IT gear. In economic terms, these hidden costs are known as externalities, costs that do not show up in prices. Here are a few kinds of externalities relating to our computers and cellphones that have made the news of late:
- Adverse working conditions. Besides the manufacturing facilities mentioned above, China is where Canadians’ computers and cell phones go to die. There, they are disassembled in highly toxic and unregulated environments, by people who have few alternatives to making a living. Similar facilities exist in other developing nations, such as India and Nigeria.
- The extraction of raw materials, like coltan, help to fuel civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The materials are cheap because, in part, they are extracted under the guns of private militias.
- Computing imposes an environmental cost because of the electricity it uses. Demand for electricity used in computing is provided by coal burning plants, for example, which produces carbon dioxide, among other things.
What would be the price of your computer or cell phone if the costs of preventing or mitigating these problems were factored in?
To some extent, these problems can be mitigated through design. Computing devices can be made more efficient in order to reduce electricity usage, for example, and efficiency is something that is studied in the education of electronics designers. However, what more could be done, in the education of designers, to mitigate these problems further?
Dams and unintended consequences March 19, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
An article in Science discusses how the Aswan dam constructed in southern Egypt about 50 years ago has had a host of unintended consequences. Prominent in the article are the following:
- The dam prevents the Nile from depositing sediments to the Nile Delta. As a result, the Delta is subsiding, that is, sinking into the Mediterranean.
- Every drop of water flowing down the Nile is used for irrigation, leaving none to flow into the sea. As a result, pesticides and other pollutants are collecting in the Delta soils.
- Also, the lack of fresh water flow is allowing sea water to leach into the water table, depriving the Delta’s inhabitants of drinking water.
The Egyptian government has hatched a plan to deal with the situation. It is diverting water at the Aswan dam into the desert, to create an oasis to which the people of the Delta can repair after the Delta becomes uninhabitable. There may be problems with this scheme:
According to Moufaddal, however, Egypt hasn’t seriously thought about the environmental impact of the project, which he fears could destroy desert habitats and hasten the demise of the Nile Delta by siphoning away its water. “We are repeating the mistake of Aswan,” he says.
Egyptian officials view things differently. “Bringing life to the desert” is the goal of the Toshka “megaproject,” says Khalifa. It is seen as crucial for meeting the government’s goal of a 50% increase in the country’s farmland by 2017. And by that date, according to a government brochure, 2 million people will be living at Toshka.
“That’s not going to happen,” warns El-Baz. Besides temperatures that can reach 50°C, he says, “no one wants to live out in the middle of nowhere.”
It is easy to laugh from this distance, but the problem is a serious one.
I would just point out one lesson (out of many) from this affair. Herbert Simon, in his theory of design, discussed the issue of bounded rationality. That is, the optimality of our plans or designs is limited by the fact that planners do not have all the facts at their command, nor do they understand all the consequences of their actions. Very true.
Another problem, somewhat overlooked by Simon, is that of motivated inference. In brief: planners design according to what they want to believe, not just what they have evidence to believe. Consider this point from the article:
At the time, the damming of the Nile raised few concerns. “There was no discussion” about the merits of such a potent source of pride for the newly independent nation, says Moufaddal. “It was a giant experiment,” yet, he notes, there was no plan for collecting environmental data.
Egyptian designers were proud of their new, independent country, and desired to exhibit their independence through major public works like the dam. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your country, but the pride that a major public work brings is not evidence that the work will accomplish its stated aims, such as making Egypt a better place to live. I think that this lesson is one that designers of any stripe and circumstance need to bear in mind.