Single Function Buttons

Washing Machines

As ever, a thoughtful piece of design from BERG has kicked off some interesting analysis and writing by the design community.

Sitting in a more useful corner of ‘the smart home’, their Cloudwash washing machine concept/prototype is an interesting instantiation of a ‘mod cons’ becoming connected.

Single Function Button

While most of the chatter has focused on the choice of device and what it says about men (and don’t get me wrong I think this is a tremendously interesting area of discussion, go and read Rachel Coldicutt’s post) the thing that really caught my attention was the roll of a single function button.

Single Function Buttons

In an era of touch screens the presence of buttons becomes more noticeable. The iPhone’s mute button; the turn page button on a nook ebook reader; the Nest’s dial control.

Nest Thermostat
iphone 4 volume controls and silent switch
iPhone silent switch
Nook, next page button


What do they have in common? They all represent such a fundamentally important control for the device that they get their own button. (Incidentally, I don’t include on/off buttons in this group – I’m focussing on the functionality once the device is on.)

These buttons also allow for more tactile interaction, a learnable physical behaviour. In the case of the iPhone it’s easy to switch mute on and off without even taking your phone from your pocket. On the nook my gaze never leaves the page. Click.

On BERG’s washing machine the button that is given its own sole function is the notification override. It makes a lot if sense: notifications are both very useful, yet have the potential to become a big annoyance.


Buttons for Interaction Designers

The consideration of physical buttons by interaction designers is more important now than ever before, as touch screens have become the most pervasive format (perhaps even the default format) in such a short period it’s easy to forget the point of difference that a physical button brings.

What functionality deserves a button? What type of button is best? What is the button’s default state? What does it sound like? How does it feel?

From an accessibility perspective physical buttons are also tremendously important. The reason that you don’t get touchscreen ATMs? They’d be tough to use by those with limited vision. Equally those with restricted dexterity may also benefit from something more tactile and forgiving than a capacitive iPhone screen.

But physical buttons also bring different challenges, they fail, they stick, they break. In fact, all the more reason to keep them for the most important functions. You can read more on how hard atoms are compared to pixels here.

More buttons, less buttons, no buttons

A final thought on the roll of buttons from the new product developer at BERG (and recently Luckybite), Durrell Bishop.

Marble Answer Machine

The marble phone is an investigation into an entirely physical interface to an answer phone. Each new message is stored on a marble which rolls out onto the top of the machine when a message is left. You then listen to the message by placing the marble on the playback cup.

It’s easy to see at a glance if you have messages without a little flashing light (or notification). In fact it allows the technology to manifest as a piece of sculpture.

No buttons, no screen.

Worth thinking about when you next start designing the interactions or interface, on screen or with buttons.

Interview Advice for Designers

Recently I’ve started to get involved with the Graphic Design Course at LCC, I participated in a mentoring evening where I met with second year students, and offered a little advice on both projects and careers.

I’ve also been involved in the recruitment process, interviewing potential candidates for a new job in Design Research. Also, before my current job I was freelance for about two years – so I’ve been through my fair share of interviews (successful and less so).

As is often the case with advice like this I find myself suggesting the same things to people each time, so I’m capturing it here to shape my thinking and hopefully to be a useful reference for others.

Edit: since beginning to write this post, Duane Bray – a fellow IDEO, has also posted a similar article on Core77 have a read for another IDEO perspective.

1. Choosing projects

Pick the projects that let you tell a story about yourself. Any job interview is as much about you as a person as it is about your portfolio of work, so pick out projects that show of your particular approach. In the space of an hour you’ll probably have time to talk about 4–6 projects, any more and you might be rushing. Any less and you miss the opportunity to demonstrate a breath of work.

If you think about the projects that sum you up (and not just your 5 ‘best’ projects) then you’ll see the value of a small freelance job, whilst not the highest profile piece of work it might be an example of your interest in charity work. Or pick out the 2nd year university project that taught you how to write JavaScript, talk about how it was the beginning of your coding skills. They might not be the best and brightest, but if they demonstrate your passions and skills then they’re worth putting it.

Make sure you pick out work that shows more than just a series of final deliverables, it’s important to pick pieces that show a wide range of skills and techniques. For example, I’m always really interested to see the research work that went into a project as we do so much of it at IDEO.

2. Talk about your process, including the things you left out

When explaining a project or your process a good guide for the tone and level of detail to use is to imagine you’re explaining the work to one of your intelligent friends. You won’t need to cover the basics but the more complex elements might need a little explanation.

Talk about the process of your projects – and not just the outcomes. By explaining the research you did, the refinements you made and the things you left out, you’ll be illustrating your thought processes. Designers are equally interested in the journey you took towards the final outcome as the outcome itself; the person interviewing you is trying to imagine you as part of their team and process is as important as final execution on a day to day basis. (Of course, if the beautiful work you’re proud of is important too.)

Design is a process of elimination and the things that you cut from the final design will say as much about you as the final design does. Talking about process is also a chance to show off the other skills you have, the ones that aren’t immediately obvious from the work. For example if you’re interested in working for a design company that does a lot of coding then tell a stories that let you mention the various languages you’re learning.

3. Find out as much as you can about the company you’d like to work for

Do your homework on the company and people you’re meeting. I remember when I first did this and it almost seemed like cheating, I thought it seemed really obvious when I spoke about a recent project on the interviewing company’s website. But amazingly they were very happy to hear about themselves (but then don’t we all). By demonstrating that you already spend time in their world you show that you’re interested in the same things, and that you will probably get up to speed with their world more quickly. Of course this isn’t about cutting corners or being sycophantic, but finding out about the company will help confirm if they’re right for you, and if you’re right for them.

It’s also really important to be clear in your mind about why you want to work for the company, and why you want the job title your applying for. Duane Bray’s Core77 article gets into this issue in more detail. One of the most likely questions you’ll get asked is ‘why do you want to work here?’ so you’d better have an interesting answer.

However, as a counter to the two points above, don’t just try to explain why you’d be the perfect fit for the company; it’s also good to call out the things you offer that they might not. Very few companies will want exact replicas of the staff they already have – diversity in the workforce is important to any good company – so don’t be afraid to point out the difference you might bring.

4. Ask questions, have a conversation

I’ve often found the most comfortable and flowing interviews involved the interviewee asking as many questions as the interviewer. Ask questions yourself, get them talking. It’s a basic truth of human behaviour that most people quite like telling you what they think, I often treated interviews as an opportunity to ask the interviewer to share their opinions – in essence you interview them – even if you don’t get the job you’ll learn something interesting along the way.

Furthermore, don’t be afraid to let a conversation wander a little. This is perhaps a point of personal preference, but occasionally getting lost in an interesting conversation isn’t a bad thing. (But I appreciate this isn’t to everyone’s taste).

Ask what projects are passing through their studio at that moment (I always find this a fascinating question, to ask). Ask them the areas and topics that are interesting to them. Ask what the future holds for their company. This last question is always revealing as it’s not something most people think about day-to-day, so you tend to get some interesting answers.

5. Being in the right place at the right time

I’ve sent my fair share of unanswered emails, one of the most disheartening things is to put together a CV and write a specific covering note and then get nothing back. But don’t be disheartened, this is all part of the game. Just because you don’t hear back doesn’t mean you didn’t get through, remember that the people you’re getting in touch with might be in the midst of a busy day, so don’t be too hard on them. Follow up with a phone call and remember that sometimes you need to be in the right place at the right time.

Even if you’re not lucky when you first get in touch, you might also find that after few months or years that you become that right person. Getting on a company’s radar isn’t easy but it’s amazing how, once you’re there, there’s a chance you’ll pop into their head when the time is right.

I also think a trick to being in the right place at the right time is just to be in lots of places. Follow blogs, chat on twitter, write on Medium. Being good at self promotion and socialising (both on and offline) might just mean that you pop into someone’s consciousness at just the right moment.

6. Good luck

A few final tips from me:

  • – Have an up to date portfolio online and PDF format and a cover letter ready to go.
  • – Make sure you write a specific cover letter for every person you contact. It needs to be tailored to the recipient. Every time.
  • – I found a non-linear iPad portfolio really useful. Save your projects as a set of jpegs and then keep them in iPhoto folders. This way you can jump freely between projects (rather than clicking though one sequential list). It also forces you to summarise your projects in a series of images, and not ramble on too much.
  • – Don’t rely on an internet connection to share your portfolio. Although we live in an age of 4G and wifi, it’s far too patchy to entrust with anything as important as your portfolio and future career. Save it for offline viewing, or use a PDF/Keynote.
  • – Freelance can be a great way into a company, I was lucky enough to get a shot at IDEO as a freelancer. I never Left. My thanks to Mike at Represent for that.
  • – Finally if you want a job at IDEO, follow @ideojobs and keep an eye on
  • – Good luck! Let me know how you get along.

Some thoughts on the design of a news app

Recently, some asked about the design of a news app. It got me thinking about how to tackle the problem.

An App for a Gap

Like the majority of the content I consume on my phone, I use it to fill the gaps in the day. Those moments in between: waiting for a train, sitting on the bus, procrastinating while a file downloads. When I read the news in these situations it somehow feels productive, like I’m optimizing an otherwise empty moment.

But these gaps are irregular, they aren’t always easy to plan for and my particular mood at each moment is always different. So how would you design for these pockets of time? Maybe you’d serve up content based on the time it takes to read. Or maybe each article would have would have a 1 minute, 2 minute and 5 minute summary? Or could each article be condensed to a paragraph? So I could easily digest as many articles as I have time for. Maybe the app would ask how long I wanted to read for, then serve up a selection of articles to perfectly fill the gap.

This would have a big impact on journalism itself, it would require writers and editors to be thinking in different versions for each story. Maybe a burden or maybe an opportunity.

Super Productivity

I feel most efficient on my phone when I’m re-routing stuff. Save this for later, forward that email, take a photo of my receipt. My favorite IFTTT recipe copies the link from a tweet to my instapaper account, when I see an interesting article I favourite the tweet for later offline reading. Terribly efficient.

IFTTT receipe

I want the same with my news app, but more refined. I want a button to save for offline reading, add to evernote, save to Dropbox, share with a google group. Not just a retweet button (get with it). In fact, why not just set up an IFTTT channel and let me build my own recipes.

Curated Chaos, Personalised Bubbles

“It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper” – Jerry Seinfeld

Curating the world’s news down to fit a newspaper is one thing, to further reduce to an app is even tougher. While the temptation is to skim off the popular stories from the main paper, does this give a balanced view of the news? Does this selection suit my personal taste? Is popularity the right measure for the judging which story I get served up?

Another approach is personalization. If it is curated to my personal taste (through some complicated learning algorhythm) how do I escape the bubble of my own previous preferences? Will you occasionally surprise me with a story from a section I don’t normally read? Will you preserve the editorial tone amidst the individualization?

Perhaps through the design of the content you can let me be the filter of a large number of stories; like a newspaper, as my eye skims over, it’ll catch on the headline that suits my mood.

Money Making

Newspapers are yet to crack the business model for news apps. Buying each article seems punitive, and paying for a days content at a time leaves me with the opposite feeling of buying a news paper (once I buy the paper, I can read the articles when I like).

Another direction is the spotify/netflix subscription model – complete access for a monthly fee. But this too seems wrong, perhaps because the price point for these services is close the unit price of the old media (a CD or DVD). Instinctively £10 a month for millions of CDs is a no brainer. But then these services are selling the same thing over and over again, newspapers need to generate a new collection of articles everyday.

The paywall model makes money, but it doesn’t suit the irregular reader. At least with a newspaper I buy it when I need it.

So how do you make money from a news app? Maybe you sell functionality: offline reading, summary mode, ad blocking. But this needs to be packaged in a way that feels like I’m unlocking extras, rather than paying to release arbitrary restrictions.

In App functional upgrade
The app ‘Paper’ allows users to upgrade the functionality with in app purchases. It feels less punitive.

Or maybe you make the price of content so low that people won’t even think twice about buying it. 1p per article. Unarguably good value, so low that people won’t think twice about reading a second, third, fourth article. Just one more article. Oh, go on then.

Back to productivity. I feel most efficient on my phone when I’m re-routing stuff. Save this for later, forward that email, take a photo of my receipt. My favorite IFTTT recipe copies the link from a tweet to my instapaper account, when I see an interesting article I favourite the tweet for later offline reading. Terribly efficient. I want the same with my news app, but more refined: save for offline reading, add to evernote, save to Dropbox, share with a google group. Not just a retweet button, that’s so 2012.

So Much Data, So Little Time

Is there a more frustrating feeling than watching more data flow past you than you can process? Seeing your inbox fill up, trying to get it back to zero. More tweets in an hour than a person could process in a year. A symptom of the mass media age. etc.

I’d hate my news app to give me that feeling. I feel really guilty throwing away a newspaper that i haven’t read every single part of. Another app on my home screen with waiting notifications, no thanks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 23.17.27

Can you imagine a newspaper that fills up with new stories quicker than you can read them? At least with the newspaper i have the clear feeling of having ‘finished’ it. Is there a way that my app can convey this feeling? Is there a daily edition, or does this run at odds with the very nature of a live streaming device.

Ultimately I don’t want to be playing inbox zero with another app.

In Conclusion

These are just a few thoughts swimming around in my head, what do you think? Agree, Disagree?

Intermediate Impossibles

I first heard the term Intermediate Impossible in a presentation on creativity given by John Cleese.

You can watch it on YouTube, I highly recommend it. The term was originally coined in 1973 in the book ‘Po: Beyond Yes and No’ byEdward De Bono, he introduces the concept as a tool to use in the creative process. An Intermediate Impossible is an idea that in itself is impossible (or highly impractical) but that spurs better ideas that arepossible. Think of them as wobbly stepping stones while crossing a river – not a great place to stop, but they can help you to get to your goal.


In the creative process these bridging points can be the key to opening up new directions; they might even take you to some completely new ideas. This is in contrast to the processes of incremental change which is better suited to the refinement of an established idea.

In short, they are the wild ideas and opportunities that help when you’re looking to create something new.

What do they look like

The best way to describe and explain Intermediate Impossibles is to look at some of their defining characteristics. The list below represents some of the facets of Intermediate Impossibles that i’ve seen, there may well be others. This isn’t an exhaustive list they may be one, or a combination of, the following…

On the surface a bit dumb

They might look stupid for any number of feasibility reasons, they might have a child-like naïvity, they might make most people roll there eyes dismissively. They are probably the kind of ideas that would have got you into trouble at school because they weren’t “sensible”. The important thing is to let the idea live for a while so that others can analyse it an find hidden value.

Often funny

For me, the best sign of a healthy creative process is laughter. When you hear a project group laughing and talking and sharing ideas it’s a sure sign that the creative juices are flowing. An Intermediate Impossible can often sound a bit like the punchline to a bad joke (chocolate teapot? Inflatable dartboard etc). A playful state of mind is one of the cornerstones of creativity (see this film about an Elementary Class demonstrating amazing creativity) and a funny ideas are useful both as ideas and triggers help everyone get into a playful state.

Likely to dismissed for practical reasons

Intermediate Impossibles are easy targets for early dismissal by traditional measures of quality. The worst thing you can do to to anIntermediate Impossible is analyse it too quickly – it’s natural when coming up with ideas to give them a quick mental check to make sure they wont make you sound stupid. Whatever you do, don’t fall into this trap, it’ll limit you possibilities and kill your creative flow.

The simple solution here is to say “there are no bad ideas” and encourage everyone to postpone their analysis and judgement; there will be plenty of time for that later.

Deliberately provocative

Intermediate Impossibles might be a little risqué or inflammatory, but these provokative ideas can prompt the even quietest member of a team into action. It’s also common to see a provokative idea generating more discussion, and from this discussion can come more interesting questions and answers.

Half formed

This is a difficult goal to aim for when shaping an idea, it’s natural to want to think it through before sharing it with a group; however a half-baked idea can encourage others to step in and add their own input. The group may not build in the direction of the original thought but this is fine, it might actually fly away in a new and better direction, one the first contributor hadn’t even considered.


Many of the best Intermediate Impossibles look exactly like something only a child could dream up. A childlike mindset is an openness to play and exploration, it’s a willingness to take voyages into the fantastical. If you can embrace this mindset you’ll come up with much more interesting ideas.

It’s this ‘state of play’ that John Cleese talks about as a key part of the creative process (see the video above). If you’ve got a spare 36 minutes it’s really worth a watch/listen.

Dumb Ideas

Impossible Possibilities

So what’s so good about Intermediate Impossibles?

I’ve been working at IDEO for about two years and have seenIntermediate Impossibles used in three key ways. We use them in various stages of the creative process (although they don’t get referred to asIntermediate Impossibles when we work – that would be far too pretentious).

So here’s three ways you might use them in your creative process:

1 — The Icebreaker
At the very beginning of a brainstorm encouraging people to imagine a deliberately stupid ideas can be a great way to break the ice and get the creativity going. Throw out some dumb ideas and get the ball rolling. This approach is very similar to another Medium post by Jon Bell calledMcDonalds Theory, you should read that too.
2 — The Generative
Once you’ve got specific questions to answer, and you’re trying to rapidly generate ideas, Intermediate Impossibles can be thrown into the mix at any point. This is the most common time to use Intermediate Impossibles and the way that Edward De Bono discusses them as well. It’s very important at this stage that the ideas aren’t dismissed too quickly, at IDEO one of our ‘Rules Of Brainstorming’ is to defer judgement this means withholding your concerns to allow others the chance to build on the idea to get to somewhere new.
3 — The Sacrificial Prototype
The final use for Intermediate Impossibles is when developing products or services along with potential users (often refered to as co-creation). Once you have an idea with potential, build a sacrificial prototype* that you can share it with others. We call them “sacrificial” as we don’t mind if a potential user rips them to shreds (sometimes literally), so long as they articulate their concerns at the same time. People are much better at telling you what’s wrong with an idea than what’s right with it.

These prototypes are intentially half finished, this way the user can help you build the idea further. As with other Intermediate Impossibleswe put aside feasibility concerns, a prototype might represent an idea that could be impossible to actually mass produce or not be cost effective. These sacrificial concepts are not solutions in themselves; the aim is to improve the idea with the user.

These prototypes will benefit from being neutral in terms of colour and branding, this way the user reacts with fewer preconceptions, they will fill in the blanks and reveal more than a simple interview could. The prototype can make many assumptions about feasibility and viability – put them aside for now – the aim here is to improve the idea with the user.

Intermediate Impossibles


Intermediate Impossibles often raise more questions than they answer, in some ways this is their purpose: they give you a new set of questions adjacent to your original. Where you may have become stuck in a rut with the old way of thinking they change your direction in search of something new.

As a final point, a reminder of the most important thing when usingIntermediate Impossibles: their inherent fragitily. As ideas they need to be allowed to exist long enough for someone to find some hidden value, this is best summarised by Edward De Bono:

“Instead of rejecting the idea at once you look at it a bit longer and find good points that you would never have noticed had you rejected it right away.”

First Published on Medium:

Living with Sensors

In the last few weeks we’ve been experimenting with domestic sensors – the first wave of commercial products in the Smart Home area of consumer electronics. As part of our research i’ve been immersed in a world where my plants send me emails and the occasional push notification warns when CO2 levels rise above 1000ppm in our studio (whatever that means).

Plant Sensor
This is my ‘Smart Plant’, the white object that resembles golf club is a wifi connected sensor.

Admittedly it’s been a slightly contrived situation; with half a dozen devices all running in close proximity, and mainly in the office rather than at home. But even having said that there have been some interesting findings and I thought i’d share them here for future reference.

Emerging principles and questions

1. Simplest Setup imaginable

Most of the systems and sensors i’ve played with are designed to make use of your home wifi network, this means that you need to grant them access to your router and give them permission to use your Internet connection. On the surface this seems fairly straightforward but when you have to run through half a dozen steps – including disconnecting and reconnecting to your network, downloading apps and optimal sensor positioning, you quickly see how prohibitive it will be to those less technically competent and patient.

Some of the smarter systems let you pair your devices using QR codes as a shortcut (this is actually a pretty good use of the format), or some other method that doesn’t involve lots of smartphone typing, but the reality is that unless your new system is pre-paired it’s a fairly awkward series of stages to go through. One exception is a system that promises to work straight out of the box; it uses bluetooth and cellular 2G data rather than wifi for it’s connectivity, but even thi solution comes with its own limitations.

Questions for designers: how long does the new systems take to get up and running? Will I need a smart phone to set it up? How much fun is the set up procedure? How technically confident will I need to be to install it?

2. Meet one need

As with many technology driven solutions, there is a desire to pack many features into new products. More features = more functionality, right? Wrong. And doubly wrong in this world of new technology; these new products can be overwhelming enough by themselves, multi-functioning open ended systems are even more complex and require a lot of learning by the user.

We could take a hint from the ‘App’ world here and make sure we are focusing on solving one problem at a time. It seems like there’s a clear analogy here between so called Modern Conveniences or ‘mod cons‘ of the 40s and 50s (the first wave of home technology products), each did one job and it was easy to grasp what the benefits would be — a washing machine washed clothes, a toaster toasted bread — meeting one need at a time is crucial to new users’ understanding and adoption these new systems.

Questions: how would you explain your new system to a 5 year old/85 year old? What current need are you meeting? How many functions does the product have? Is that too many?

3. Give actionable insights

It’s common for these new sensing devices to feedback information about their environment, but very few of them go a step further and suggest what the user should do with the information. One environmental sensor we experimented with was able to show the CO2 levels in the room, not only that, it sent a warning message as the level went past 1000ppm. But what does that mean? Is it high? Is it dangerous? Later it would send another warning message when the level had passed 2000ppm. Was this serious? Should we evacuate?

Turning raw data into useful information is only one part of the process, the crucial step further tells the user that 1000ppm is too high and that opening a window or door might be a good idea. If this is done well the user will learn much more quickly what the new sensor data actually means.

Questions: what should your user do with the data your system provides? How important or serious is this data? How should/could the user respond to this data?

WeMo Sensor kit

4. Fail very gracefully

Most of the sensors out there today are reliant on other technology to function, typically this means joining your home wifi network and often connecting to the internet through it. It’s a certainty that at somepoint these other systems will fail – the question is how the new sensor product handles this failure. These systems must be designed for the imperfect world they will go into, when something goes wrong how much of the full functionality can you still provide? And when things do go wrong don’t bombard the user with error and warning messages. (For a seven days after I removed the sensor, one of my plant pots was still emailing me demanding more water).

It does rasie the question of how error messages could become more ambient; just because i’ve given something the power to send me push notifications doesn’t mean i want to hear from it every hour.

Questions: how much of the system can keep running during a break in connectivity? Does it really need to connect to the internet? When things start to go wrong, how much can the system hide from the user?

5. Manage sensor fatigue

In the coming years we are going to invite dozens of self aware devices into our homes, and they will each have a voice to express their needs, observations and concerns. It’s going to be a hectic place to live if each of these new systems isn’t aware of the current ‘noise’ levels of their new homes. Systems should at least be conscious of this, if not actively able to adjust to better ‘fit in’.

I have an oven at home with an alarm clock that I never got round to programming, occasionally i’ll accidentally nudge into it and then it’ll beep at me. So i turn it off. In a house with 10 things that might all start beeping at me the quietest devices will probably remain switched on for longest. A reversal of the old addage that “the wheel that squeaks loudest gets the oil”.

But there is a counter concern that if these systems do too much by themselves that eventually people will become numb to the things that affect their environments: don’t fiddle with the complex air conditioning system for 5 minutes, just open the window.

Questions for designers: how many other systems will your new one be functioning alongside? How much extra stress do you load onto the user in the management of the new system? How will the new system be welocmed into a household?

6. Smile

Finally, this is a personal plee to keep some of the fun in these new systems. It’s all too easy to celebrate the technology and the amazing data that it can produce, but something that makes me smile will earn it’s place in my home. Apple does this very well, even if it does get carried away with it sometimes.

Questions for designers: is there an opportunity for a bit of fun? Will it make me smile?

I hope some of this might be useful to designers working in this field, there certainly needs to be a dialogue about what we feel is right and wrong in this new world. I’d love to know what people think.

From Wayfinding to Interaction Design

Originally published on Medium –

Before joining IDEO as an Interaction Designer, I worked for one of the more influential wayfinding design companies — Applied Information Group (now called Applied). Wayfinding is the process of planning and making journeys through spaces; wayfinding design companies develop systems to help make this planning and journey-making easier. These systems come in all shapes and sizes, and can cover area naming, signage design, cartography, defining route networks and installing new landmarks to give an area more character. At Applied Information Group we worked on everything from simple internal building systems for hospitals to complex city-wide, multi-modal schemes that encompassed every mode of transport that the city offered.

The underpinning principles of the systems we designed were always the same, and we could draw on a great depth of research and academic study to inform our design; Kevin Lynch’s work on the mental models that people form when navigating the city goes back to the early 1960s. Of course the act of wayfinding is as old as the hills, so solutions were usually found in supporting innate behaviour rather than inventing new ones.

While I won’t go through all of the principles in this article, there are a few I’ve found to be useful in my move from wayfinding design to interaction design. I realise that it may not seem that a train station and a website have much in common, and so before I share some knowledge from the world of wayfinding, here are some of the similarities between the two:

1. Helping people get around complex spaces

If you break down a website, a city, a hospital, or an app, they can all be thought of as complex spaces that people travel through — spaces that are generally so complex that without some help users wouldn’t be able to navigate them confidently. A book, on the other hand, is not very complex — which is why I’m not comparing wayfinding to graphic design.

Interaction design and wayfinding design both seek ways to make it easier for people to understand these physical and virtual spaces.

2. Supporting journeys

When moving through complex spaces we make journeys made up of a sequential series of decision points — going from point A to B to C. But both interaction designers and wayfinding designers need to think in terms of journeys and not isolated points of interaction. Journeys are complex and sequential: the decision I make at point A will affect the rest of my journey (it might become impossible to get to point C for example). A journey could be the series of screens I encounter when viewing and retweeting a message on Twitter, or it could be a walk to the train station.

3. Creating solutions for a wide range of people

When you’re designing information for a transit authority, your potential audience is everyone. When designing Vancouver’s public transit system, we didn’t focus on demographics or market segments because everyone rides the bus, or at least anyone can. People with physical disabilities, young people, tourists, daily commuters, elderly people — the list is endless. For interaction designers — and the digital world we design for — the audience can be just as demanding. Though most projects and clients have a particular audience segment in mind, viewing the full spectrum of users and balancing their (often) contradictory needs is a daily challenge.

4. Prototyping and piloting

Related to all of the points above, prototyping and piloting are crucial to the design process. (I’ve also written about the importance of prototyping here.) When I talk about prototyping I’m talking about a range of different levels of detail, from the rough-and-ready cardboard mock-up to detailed near-final working versions. Problems and solutions are often so complex that you’ve got to make it real for people to be able to join the design process.

A page from the Legible London ‘Yellow Book’

What Can Interaction Designers Learn from Wayfinding?

Hopefully you’re with me about the similarities. What are the lessons to be learned from them by interaction designers? Below are some of the more interesting principles and methods that I’ve found applicable to both fields. Hopefully, for the designers out there, they will trigger some thoughts about how to improve their designs. For non-designers they should give you a glimpse into the difference between good and bad design.

1. Progressive Disclosure

If you give me every detail of a journey at the beginning, the chances are I won’t be able to process, store, and retrieve it. For example, when you ask for directions, after the fourth of fifth instruction you start to glaze over and struggle to remember what the first instruction was (Do I take the third left or the second left?).

Progressively disclosing information helps the end user by reducing the amount of information they have to deal with. The flip side is that we need to do a lot more work as designers to make sure everything fits together.

2. Consistency vs. Monotony

One of the best weapons for tackling complexity is consistency. As soon as I spot a familiar pattern in an environment, I can spend less time analysing and more time navigating. This is quite intuitive to most designers: uniform design means less “visual noise.” This becomes really important when you think about the baseline noise in a city. One of the key principles of the Legible London scheme (on which we collaborated with Lacock Gullam for TfL) was to remove signs that were made obsolete by the new system – rather than adding more and more.

But. There is a flip side: monotony. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but it’s good to remember that people may be using the service or tools daily or even hourly. So if there’s room for a little variation or even humour, then don’t be afraid of it.

3. Glanceable vs. Queriable

When I’m confirming I’m going the right way I only need to glance at information, but when I’m lost I need to query on a deeper level.

If your users will be shifting between these modes, then your interface should support them. This is the antithesis to “one size fits all.” Generally, serving up the most pertinent information in a digestible format requires a lot of analysis of what the user might actually need.

Wayfinding and Interaction Design

I expect that these points will already resonate with interaction designers, and that’s because much of the thinking involved in wayfinding is instinctive, based on the way human’s brains are wired up. Hopefully you’ll find something useful in the observations above, and at the very least they should give you some useful analogies when trying to explain your interaction design job to your friends.

Prototyping and Boundary Objects

I work at IDEO in London, a big part of the way we work is the idea of ‘building to think’. We specifically refer to this way of working as it’s a proven method for sharing ideas and moving towards a solution more quickly than simply talking and planning. We look for ways to prototype our emerging ideas as often and as soon as possible, this isn’t always an easy thing to convince clients to do and more often than not it represents an alien way to work.

Prototyping an entire retail environment, in paper and cardboard

Lots of my colleagues have written about the importance of prototyping and building to think elsewhere. It is a central tenant of the IDEO philosophy it translates into the mantra “Stop Talking, Start Making”. Watch IDEO founding father David Kelley talking about it in the General Assembly video below:

But why is building/making/prototyping better than talking when it comes to the creative process? Why shouldn’t we be able to simply talk through a problem and agree on a solution? Well, in the world of cross disciplinary teams, specialist practitioners and clients, the reality is that no two groups speak the same language. Coders speak in code, graphic designers talk in pictures, project managers, business designers and photographers all see the world in different ways. In a perfect world the best practitioners can talk across disciplines; but even then no one can talk across all disciplines. We all benefit from finding common ground and common points of reference, they help us calibrate the way we work together. And that’s where prototypes come in, a thing we can all gather around. In fact there is a sociological concept that sums up what a prototype is: A Boundary Object.

Three people talking about a house

Boundary Object

A boundary object is a ‘thing’ that is both defined enough that several communities can recognise it as the same thing, yet flexible enough that each community can use it according to their own needs. In the conceptual sense they can be abstract or concrete, but either way they exist outside of peoples’ heads. A conversation can’t be a boundary object for example as it doesn’t live beyond the people having the conversation. An annual report however is a boundary object as it lives by itself. There’s more about boundary objects here.

The beauty of a prototype/boundary object is that you can show it to a group of people and they can all stand around and point at it, interact with it, build on it and above all see the inherent complexity. It’s also much easier to understand the trade-off and decisions that have been made – even in a very low resolution prototype. Where a conversation could take literally hours to deliver consensus, a prototype can shortcut the process.

The real power of a process like this is that it forces everyone involved to consider their area of input alongside everyone else. So it’s harder for a decisions to be made in isolation.

Better Protoyping

So if we understand the importance of prototypes as a way to facilitate communication between different groups, what can the theory of Boundary Objects tell us and help us make better prototypes? In reading around for this blog post I came across a recent paper about the subject (which also references Mr. Kelley), it goes into much more detail than I have here but they pull out some key benefits of the prototype approach:

– Prototypes are a manifestation for feedback. For clients and designers alike
– Prototypes improve the team experience, by building confidence and emotional engagement
– Prototypes converge thinking

If we focus on these three key facets it’s easy to see how out prototypes can be designed to suit each of these needs:

1. Build Prototypes that are incomplete and demand feedback.
2. Prototype for the benefit of your team and your clients
3. Make prototypes early and iterate rapidly

There’s much more to be said about the world of boundary objects and the process of prototyping, hopefully understanding some of the theory that underpins it will help convince more clients to embrace the power of the prototype.

As Twitter Tendlrins are gradually retracted

A sad email arrived this morning from API rerouting service If This Then That (IFTTT):

“In recent weeks, Twitter announced policy changes that will affect how applications and users like yourself can interact with Twitter’s data. As a result of these changes, on September 27th we will be removing all Twitter Triggers”

To those of us who use IFTTT this is a bit of a blow. Currently I have a routine saved on IFTTT (also known as a recipe) which grabs any of my starred tweets and sends them to my Instapaper account. A simple process that means when I tap the little star on a tweet with a link to an article, Instapaper sees the tweet and downloads a text only version of the linked article as saves it for offline viewing. I usually read my recent articles when travelling to work on the train and the internet connection isn’t so good. I go from starred tweets to interesting mini-magazine on my iPhone in seconds.

For me to set up this kind of cross posting system would have been at least a few hours work. On IFTTT it took all of 2 minutes. But now as twitter cuts off these third party apps my recipe is gone forever, worse still: the web gets a little less useful. In fact Twitter gets a little less useful, in return – they hope – they plan to monetise some more of its traffic by having all the data run through it’s own site (and not these third party companies).

“The result of people using a system and shaping it to suit them”

But is this actually not a bit damaging? Maybe not immediately, but at some point this might actually make people think twice about link sharing. I’m probably being a bit crotchety here, but the bigger point holds true: the way Twitter has grown is based on the early adopters jumped on the service and made it there own. Most of the recognisable features of the service (using the @ sign to replay, hashtags, retweets) are all the result of people using a system and shaping it to suit them.

But as Twitter gradually kills off it’s deep rooted connections to other services – just like a plant having its root structure damaged – the whole entity is weaker. And as twitter is quite a big deal, I fear the whole of the web will feel this shock. Basically, its a bit like that scene in Avatar when they chop the big tree down. Sort of.

And how am I going to get my mini-magazine now?

This article owes a lot this this excellent post on the same subject from a couple of months ago: What Twitter Could Have Been by Dalton Caldwell.

Moving the peanut

I’m currently working on a project for a very big and (probably)  slow moving client. In many ways these are the most challenging projects you face as a designer because of the propensity toward inertia, where smaller companies can be more agile and adopt change quickly, generally the bigger they come the slower they move.

In this light a colleague of mine at IDEO passed on a bit of wisdom that she had received years earlier about the mindset to adopt when working on these projects:

Moving the peanut forward one inch.

It’s a curious metaphor but for some reason it chimed with me, the notion being that sometimes even a very small step in the right direction is all that can be achieved. But most importantly these very small steps by very big companies are actually much more significant than they might seem. At the moment this mindset is all that’s keeping me sane.

Why the advice invokes a peanut it is anyone’s guess.

QR codes and the end the Turing Age

Many things have been written about the New Aesthetic (NA) over the last few months, like many i’ve been watching and waiting, wondering what might come out of it. Just as thoughts were beginning to come together in my mind Bruce Sterling’s essay in has sharply focussed many people’s thinking, and the most interesting result of this essay is the response of the community and the clearer definition of various elements of this movement.

Sterling’s extended tretise calls for more thought and consideration and pitches the NA as the next significant movement after postmodernism and the 20th Century; for me the NA is less an artistic movement and more of a dawning realisation and connecting of disparate dots, each of which are a reality of living with networked digital tools. Whether NA truly represents the next movement in art after Post Modernism is for someone else to answer, I ask myself ‘what does the NA mean today?’.

Taming Lions and Domesticating Cats

The continuing domestication of high technology is really what’s at the heart of the NA, as so many articles rightly point out many of the things that get grouped under the umbrella term have been around for many years. It’s a strange set of cultural and technological touch points from satellite imagery to vectorised artefacts of 3D photography – newish things and oldish things – what holds them together is supernatural view of the world they give us. We can look over the planet from a mile above (flight), we can look though the walls of a building and see what’s happening inside (x-ray vision), we can communicate instantly with people on the other side of the planet (telekinesis), we can control objects remotely (telekinesis). I could go on. I almost wonder if our penchant for superhero films will begin to wane, we all have little supermen in our pockets now.

And these SmartPhones (SuperPhones) infiltrate our day-to-day they are leading the charge of pervasive technology. Automatic vacuum cleaners, Kinects, Drone-copters. They’re all making their way in the world. My guess is, if you’re sitting somewhere in the western world, you probably have 100 sensors of various types within 10 metres of you. Which is an amazing/alarming/alluring thing in itself, the fact they can all talk to each other as well is a very 21st Century state of affairs.

All of this technology has been domesticated and subsumed into the everyday, and by small increments we’ve been joined by a symbiotic species – we call them ‘devices’ and ‘widgets’ and ‘do-dahs’. We’ve begun to acknowledge the presence of these new things by adjusting our environment to suit them – albeit in a clunky way. The QR code heralds an interesting era where we share the visual landscape with our new robot friends, building in visual affordances for Computer Vision that make no sense to us at all, but that our smartphones absolutely love. As time goes by, and  Computer Vision improves, these QR codes and whatever follows them will disappear, or perhaps there will be a lasting remnance – just as even the most advanced CGI effects in films are identifiable, they remain otherworldly.

After Turing

Seeing our new robot compatriots as a different species is of course a bit spurious, but it might set some rules for understanding how to interact with them. The dream of Artificial Intelligence was to replace the human brain with technology, to build a thinking machine. The dawning reality is that this was probably the wrong thing to attempt, after all what do we gain from a machine like a human? What a wasted opportunity. The classic test of a thinking machine  was defined by Alan Turing; in short if you could chat with a computer and be fooled it was a human then we could all deem AI a success. What Turning hadn’t factored in was the adaptation by humans when communicating with machines, our ability to meet them half way changed our expectation of an interaction with a machine.

In fact we’ve already passed the point where spam messages can’t be distinguished from real messages, and people are falling in love with chat bots. Not because the machines got smart, but because we all exist on the same networks, and because these networks let everybody in. My Twitter feed is populated by friends, famous people and robots. They all get my attention, whether they pass the Turing test or not.

Ultimately we can leave the AI experiment in the 20th century and start to think about what we could better use robots for. And these decisions will be made by the content consumers not the content providers. More an more we’re building tools and small pieces that other people can assemble themselves, to construct their own personalised spaces. Of course this isn’t a new thing for the old physical world, but it is a new thing for the Network Age we now live in.

Enter the Network Age

So here we stand, us looking at the robots and the robots looking at us. Each trying to understand the other. Sharing spaces, being shaped by each other. What should we be doing to shape and disrupt and embrace this new world? To me there seems to be a few things to think about.

Firstly, maintaining some visible signs of the system we use feels important. Perhaps not in an overt way, but something to help people be aware of the robots having an impact on their world. It’s very easy to hide away the algorithms and snippets of code that set the boundaries around our lives especially as they become more complex – but people are becoming more code fluent and so perhaps there will be ways to keep things near the surface. Ultimately we can stop trying to humanise robots – what we need is to invent new personalities and behaviours that suit the machines themselves.

Secondly, and particularly for designers and content providers, we all need to be aware of the complex and shifting landscape our output will become a part of. This probably manifests itself as a combination of having a clear voice and a realistic expectation of the impact we might make. Let people appropriate your content and let them tell their own stories – forget trying to shape their reactions, they’ll do what they want. It’s hard to imagine how you can begin to legislate for the ways your stuff will bubble up in the world, so focus on making better content suited to serendipity. Distribution is no longer your problem.

And I suppose the best way to finish is to encourage people to ask more questions, and try to answer them publicly. Share the knowledge.