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The value of folly: the UX Camp Brighton talk that (nearly) was

I very nearly spoke at last month’s excellent UX Camp Brighton. My talk was to focus on the user experience merits of cutting edge, high tech tat.

That’s right. I wanted to defend the sorts of gadgets which beg the question: “You made this… why?”

In the end though, I was felled by an epic cold, foiled by the failure of my demo, and distracted by my volunteering duties at the event. Excuses, excuses. Let’s face it: I mostly just wanted to enjoy the day without having to fret about my own talk. Then there was the pressing matter of participating in assorted banana abuse and three-legged bin bag races with Kat.

Besides, there was already a bounty of clever speakers on offer. Jiri’s talk on designing emotional experiences – complete with awesome slides – introduced me to a few qualitative tools I’d not heard about, such as the Geneva wheel. Kat covered some of the methodologies she used in her MSc dissertation on tablet ergonomics in office environments. Louise shocked, SHOCKED her audience with her Pound Shop Personas. Luis chatted to us about cognitive biases – specifically the adaptation bias. Luke took us on a grand tour of monitoring and analytics tools. Calliope lead an interesting discussion which ended up focusing on the UX of new product development. And the pogonolicious Danny had a packed room for his HyperCard demo.

Right, back to my non-talk. During the last Spring term at Sussex I discovered the work of Mark Hassenzahl, whose work explores the underlying causes of our positive experience with interactive products. Mark has shown that: pleasurable dealings with devices are closely tied to the fulfilment of basic psychological needs; and that products are far better positioned to fulfil those needs – such as competence, the need for popularity and stimulation – when they emphasize their “hedonic quality” over their “pragmatic quality”.

Naturally I took that to mean that when it comes to new digital toys “the more fun and pointless the better”. I set out out to blatantly abuse Mark’s research in my slides by defending a kaleidoscope of recently released, wonderfully pointless gadgets such as Olly, the smelly robot and iRock, the iDevice-charging rocking chair.

UXers are famed for bleeting on about products needing to “solve real problems”. But as with everything, it comes down to your definition of a “problem”. Sometimes a “problem” is simply the insatiable craving for something new, useless and fun.

Here are the slides:

Massive thanks to Patrick for organising a great event. Roll on #uxcb13!

Web wearables and tech textiles

All manner of web-enabled, tech-augmented textiles have been cropping up lately, from jackets that hug you when you’ve been liked on Facebook to an app that tracks and pairs your NFC-chipped socks (the app also comes with – wait for it – a “blackometer”).

On the more crafty – and less silly – side of things one can find “soft circuits”: LilyPad Arduino, especially designed to be sewn into various wearables. Go ahead: make awful light-up Christmas jumpers and LED-studded scarves to your heart’s content. Technology’s on your side.

All well and good, but how much closer are we to the ultimate hipster wet dream, glimpsed a few years ago in this Justice video?

If I really wanted that animated, web-ready – and possibly interactive – tshirt, I might consider the e-ink shirt . Or I might invest in the tshirtOS project, brought to us by CuteCircuit, the “future fashion” company.

But of course I wouldn’t. Every single one of these projects is in some way ridiculous or unappealing. But what I love about them is that they all seem to be churning up from a fertile swamp of innovation that may or may not yield something genuinely appealing and useful. The “ooh, how about this?” charm.

So, how about a hat that doubles as storage for my most interesting thoughts?

Summer of seemingly arbitrary pursuits

Summer cracks on at pace. I thought I’d stop and have a think about what it is exactly I’ve been getting up to.

Pursuing higher aims obliquely is something I seem to do naturally. But I’m also aware that doing so often makes it look like I’m simply flailing about. Well, perhaps I am. I’ve been keen for distractions.

A few highlights from the past month follow below.


BBC Archives Fieldtrip

At the end of June, I helped navigate 18 Brighton geeks and enthusiasts across London to the BBC Archives in Perivale, where we met our gracious host, Mr. Bill Thompson. Some months previous, Bill had kindly agreed to take us on a tour of the shiny new archive facilities.

While there we marvelled at the climate-controlled vaults where BBC’s carefully curated back catalogue is stored (including part of John Peel’s LP collection); and watched as giant tape robots meticulously transcribed decades of recorded history into a digital format. And we heard from Bill about some of the inventive mashups being created from the archival content already digitized and about Bill’s efforts to bring awareness about the possibilities of the newly created data stores to the wider public.

Naturally, we also had our obligatory Dalek encounter.

UX Brighton – Mobile User Testing Edition

Danny and I held July’s edition of UX Brighton at Fabrica Gallery, where two fantastic speakers, Walt and Raj, covered the practicalities of running user testing sessions on handheld devices. We had a full house and quite a few new faces, including many students. I was a bit daunted by the prospect of being the newbie half of the organising team, but managing the event turned out to be a blast and we’re already scheming the next one.

Big thanks Walt and Raj for their time and effort; and to Laurence Hill, Fabrica’s head of audiences and communication, for letting a bunch of UX types roam amidst the (very beautiful) exhibit of Annemarie Sullivan’s work.


Consciousness Expo

On 30th of June, just prior to kicking off an annual academic conference, Sussex University’s Sackler Centre held a public open day about the latest research into consciousness. We went along to play with the exhibits (a fun-filled array of brain computer interfaces, optical illusions and Turing tests) and to say hello to Kate, Sackler’s lovely artist in residence. Later that weekend, we had a chance to trial Kate’s new work, a magical, one-on-one experience centered around one’s heartbeat, sense of presence and body autonomy. It proved very moving and unexpectedly therapeutic.

Future UI

I’ve started a little Tumblr blog of projects, products and prototypes that propose new interaction modes – or attempt to broaden existing ones. Not quite sure what its purpose is yet – possibly merely to satisfy my hoarder’s instinct.

Summer reads

I’ve chewed through a few novels and a couple of UX books, but the gem of my summer reading has been Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. A fundamental text on the absurdities of human thinking.

THE Project

Once the slow, rising tide of cynicsm about my topic of choice reached its ebb, I decided to abandon the idea of writing my masters dissertation on slacktivism. I’ll be changing focus entirely, most likely to tablet apps designed for autistic children.

All this being said, I’m still not sure what all of this is adding up to. I suppose the true highlight of my summer so far has been the concerted effort on my part to see more of the people I genuinely like and admire. I’m very lucky that those whose intellect sparkles more brightly than my own can tolerate my company.

Machines and the music of making

I spent yesterday evening learning about the Happenstance project at the Lighthouse. The agency’s two resident technologists spoke about their efforts to integrate aspects of digital culture into the arts community.

As part of the project, and in an attempt to make the invisible practice of coding visible, the Lighthouse reception area was transformed by James into a “workshop”, complete with printouts and projections of code as it was being written, compiled and committed. “This is a working shop” tried to turn the almost furtive act of writing software into a spectacle of craftsmanship.

But on the way home Jane and I pondered if we – a generation of screen slaves – weren’t romanticising the idea of a workshop. Places of skilled craft were and still are filled with noise, pollutants and dangers. I still remember the gruesome tales of lost limbs, told with relish by the machinists I worked with in a biomedical engineering lab. And I remember the missing fingernails of our neighbour in Poland, who worked long hours in a seamstress shop.

That being said, James’ project made me think back to one of the highlight’s from the Ampersand conference I attended on Friday: the screening of Linotype the Film and what it said about the visible – or audible – aspects of the making process.

The film traced the linotype machine ‘s journey from its invention to its fate on the scrapheap, as told by its “operators”, past and present. Two things struck me during the screening. Firstly, the operators recalled working on the linotype with a fond respect born not only from a lengthy relationship with the machine, but also from the bodily dangers it posed and its intimidating learning curve. For anyone interested in usability this is a bizarre revelation. We no longer form such deep bonds with our making machines. Secondly, the distinct, visceral, mechanical racket of a machine built by a clockmaker made itself known almost from the film’s opening credits. Each of its sounds acted as a direct representation of some aspect of the line casting process. At one point during their story, the linotypists began to wax poetic about the “brass against brass” music of the “linotype symphony”, as if it had been the sweetest, most reassuring melody. It fine tuned them to the machine’s inner workings. It made them feel like an extension of it.

Linotype machine
Image source: Flickr

Perhaps they, too, were romanticising a dreary and dangerous toil. But after last week, I find the silence of my modern “making” gadgets deafening. I want them to sing to me of my efforts.

UX fieldtrip: Inition Studios

Last week I joined a group of UX types on a trip to Inition Studios in Shoreditch. Inition are dedicated to all things 3D – from 3D printing to motion capture to visualisation and augmented reality projects – and they kindly let us loose on their marvellous toys.

We got to play with AR projects like this virtual car customisation tool developed for Ford:

Ford augmented reality campaign

We saw the latest lenticular displays and stereoscopic film rigs:

Inition stereoscopic camera and 3D monitor

And we marvelled at the hulking 3D printers:

Inition 3D printer

I spent most of my time playing with and watching others figure out the gestural UIs of Inition’s augmented reality projects. It’s interesting to see people try out new and previously learned ways of interaction on unfamiliar interfaces: swiping, pinching, tilting, taking guesses about what is and isn’t a touchscreen. The playful nature of the evening and of the projects themselves seemed to encourage this kind of exploration and learning – a great lesson to anyone trying to engage users in new ways of interacting with a system or product.

Great evening. Thanks so much to the lovely Alison for putting it together and to the incredibly friendly Inition team for having us. Hope we didn’t break anything but if we did: you DID provide us with free wine and beer in the proximity of your very expensive kit.

Embrace the strange: on meeting weird interfaces

I’m in Lisbon this week. When you’re in a strange, new place, you tend to meet new people. You also tend to meet new interfaces, often as a feature of some public device or in the guise of some kind of public information portal – which at times makes these new friendships a necessity.

If you’re a designer forced into encounters with these UIs, it’s only natural to lash out at their eccentricities and usability shortcomings. Yet I can’t help seeing these alien interactions as part of the adventure of being in an unfamiliar environment. Besides, it’s nice to find yourself denied total, intuitive control over a system once in a while. It’s nice to be baffled and made to pay attention.

And lately I’ve also found great joy in antagonising and testing these systems – the sort you get from baiting a racist uncle at a family gathering.

So here are my Portugese friends.

Interactive Floorplan, Vasco da Gama shopping mall, Oriente

Possibly buggy but nevertheless mystifyingly hybrid touchscreen UI – only the video could do it justice. The “touchscreen” insists on possessing your fingertip with a cursor (one that shapeshifts into a pointing hand, no less) for reaching your onscreen destination. I played with a few of these displays, and some appeared to suffer from a kind of cursor lethargy. This meant that you sometimes found your finger not quite aligned with the ghostly cursor and were forced to daintily guide it towards its goal. You then click somewhere in the periphery of where you’d like the cursor – not your finger – to hit. A heady blend of direct and indirect input.

Floor selection keypad and display, Olissippo Hotel
Upon checking into my hotel I was given instruction: the buttons for selecting the floor were on the outside of the lift. Interesting! Let’s watch:

The keypad’s physical buttons have no way of retaining their pressed state and the little screen above them goes blank after informing you which of the two lifts would arrive. This means that if multiple people are selecting their respective floors, all quickly lose track of where the lift would be going or if they had selected the right floor at all. I’d like to point out that this had the oblique benefit of encouraging bonding between the waiting parties. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for designing for frustration as a way of facilitating shared experiences of bafflement or suffering.

City guide kiosk, Lisboa Airport
The city guide kiosk is the first interaction honeytrap you encounter on arriving in Lisbon – it hovers just outside baggage claim, luring those who mistake it for an ATM or local transport ticket machine – its first shortcoming. At first glance the kiosk appears to be a touchscreen map offering directions and information about the city. But look down and you’ll find a brushed chrome, industrial-strength keyboard familiar in these types of installations. Behold:

Lisboa city guide kiosk keyboard

I love the harsh, sturdy feel of these kinds of keyboards – they were clearly designed to withstand frustrated bashing. The “mouse” is a giant, shiny ballgag of a trackball that shunts reluctantly in its metal slot, jutting the cursor jerkily to its onscreen target. Once you’ve used it to guide the cursor to its destination, you must seek out a secondary confirmation button – and affirm your selection with another click. After that, steel yourself: every action you undertake is greeted by the screen with a “Loading…” progress bar.

And there you have it. All interesting encounters, but I don’t think we’ll be swapping postcards this summer.

A designer meets open data

A few of us spent the Friday before last at the Open Data Cities conference, organised by local hero Greg Hadfield. The conference was ostensibly aimed at developers and public servants trying to liberate and transmute data into innovative services for the modern city – for me, however, the day proved filled with ideas for designers who like a challenge. I wish there’d been more of us in the audience.

People don’t think about the concept of “data” – especially not about owning it, generating it or gaining access to it through public services. People think about solving problems, getting things done and meeting their basic and higher needs. Socially engaged UX types who understand this are doing an amazing job of bridging the gap between “your data” and “your stuff” – see, for example, and We need more of them.

Below are a few highlights from my favourite talks of the day:

Tom Steinberg –
If you’re a good citizen, you’ve probably used one of’s online tools (such as and know how beautifully clear and intuitive they are. The herculean, near-criminal efforts of people like Tom to source and administer the data stores which underlie them is, as far as the end user is concerned, nowhere to be seen.

The first speaker of the day to wave the flag for user experience, Tom argued the value of open data can only become apparent to sceptics and detractors through tools that meet genuine needs. Case in point, Tom cited, the shining jewel in Barack Obama’s open government policy. Although far bigger than UK’s own government data portal, doesn’t begin to match its traffic figures – primarily because the vast data stores it offers have little to do with information people actually want. Tom’s key point: no city can be considered open if it doesn’t readily respond for real people’s requests for information.

Bill Thompson – BBC
Meet one of the great heroes of our age: Bill Thompson, who is leading the efforts to digitise the BBC archives and open them up to you to do with as we please. Bill’s recap of some of his team’s R&D projects sent my geek posse into giddy heights of excitement and we’ve now organised a trip to see the man himself at the BBC archives in June. There are still a few places left – get in touch if you’re interested in joining in.

Emer Coleman – Director of Digital Engagement, Government Digital Service
With open data often perceived as a “hyper-democratic” threat, Emer called for digital disruptors to grab at data stores as they become available and prove the value of shared information by building services that provide for the greater good. Emer’s talk reminded me of the best bit of advice anyone’s ever given me: “Don’t wait for someone’s permission to do something great”.

Anyway, fantastic day. There was also talk of transparency grenades, air quality eggs and Charles II’s Twitter feed.

A snippet of my craptastic sketchnotes below. A gentle reminder to myself that I desperately need to improve my scribbling skills.
Open data cities notes

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