December 2004 Archives

In the IDSA Innovations magazine there's a story by Scott Henderson describing his salad bowl and forks. It's a gorgeous product and a wonderful design, but Henderson devotes a full paragraph describing why it's ecologically sensitive because it's expensive. I find that pretty ridiculous, and it raises all kinds of questions for me, but rather than rant about it, as I'd like to, I'll just reprint it in its entirety:

When designers try to defend their work from an ecological standpoint, they are often forced to search for some spin about the product's material being recyclable. Hence, "the Ensalada is primarily constructed from glass, a natural material that is recyclable and regarded by many as a manufactured material, the use of which is critical to human health and safety because of its ecological properties."

All true actually, but the real reason the Ensalada is an environmentally sound product has its basis in something far less scientific--money! The high-end nature of this product contributes to its position as a protector of the environment. It is not a product intended to compete on price, rather it is a special piece that will be displayed with pride and used with care for many years.

Quality is perhaps the factor in the world of design that best protects our environment. The esteemed timepiece company, Patek Phillipe of Switzerland, for example, sells watches for tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases. This successful business is based on the idea that once you own a Patek, you not only own it for life but your children's children also own it because of its extreme quality. The environment will not be damaged on their watch. The Ensalada has a similar goal: to be valued enough by its owners to be passed along to future generations.

OK, maybe I'll rant a bit: so we are absolved from our responsibility for designing ecological products when we make them really expensive. Huh? And since when is the role of a salad bowl to be handed down from generation to generation? It's a day-to-day functional object, and should be designed as such. Quality does not equate to price, and it certainly doesn't equate to protecting our environment. There are lots and lots of high quality excellently designed products that are ecologically unsound (the Coca Cola plastic bottle, perhaps?). Patek Phillipe is a brand based on elitism: do you think that buyers are actually passing those watches down to keep them out of landfills, or is that from an ad campaign designed to help affluent people convince themselves that they need something that is much, much more expensive than any functionality it can possibly deliver?

Environment awareness and long-term thinking are important, maybe even critical, aspects of design. But justifying environmentalism through elitism masked as quality is cynical and ultimately unhelpful.

Reading IDSA's "Innovations" magazine this morning, I found an example of two very different ways to view user research in the industrial design process.

In describing the design of the DeWalt 735 planar Bob Welsh and David Wikle talk about how they do user research:

Marketing led the charge by conducting user research throughout the country, digging into what fed portable planer users' likes, dislikes, needs and wants.


This preliminary information was converted into quality parameters, which focused on the team's efforts. These parameters were ranked in order of importance and quantified so that we could directly measure our progress toward each prescribed target. [...] The team proceeded to zero in on the top four opportunities: surface finish, minimum snipe, accuracy and ease of knife change. Curiously enough [because it's a portable planar --mk], portability pulled up last in the rankings.

What's interesting about this to me is the tension between their functionality-driven philosophy, natural in a power tool company, with the recognition that the rationality of function is not necessarily a primary driver. In between discussions of features, thoughts like the one about portability slip through.Portability is not an actual functional factor, merely an aspirational one, in the way people choose planers. Similarly, they acknowledge these kinds of emotional/surface design decisions later when they talk about the placement of the threaded posts at the corners. Yes, they serve a functional purpose, but "the team thought that visually exposing the posts would drive the machine's character as well as garner credit for their function and design." In other words, the posts are there to look like big, badass bolts as much as to elevate the mechanism. Another quote is amusing: "just above the opening to the cutterhead, 'teeth' were added to cognitively warn the user that this is the business end of the machine."

Tej Chauhan of Nokia takes the opposite direction when describing his design for the Nokia 7600, that wacky lozenge phone that came out last year. He begins his description by talking about functionality:

The Nokia 7600 had to look like no other mobile handset. But this wasn't an exercise to design something different just for the sake of being different. The form had to be as purposeful as it was unique.

He then describes Nokia's user research process/philosophy:

Our research extends from people, to trends, ergonomics, technologies and a host of other criteria. Trend research is in itself a vast area. "It's all about making observations, and then defining them and telling them as stories," explains Liisa Puolakka, experience design specialist at Nokia. "And like stories, they should have a frame, characters, context, references to culture and society, and so on. These observations are looking at new emerging interests, lifestyles, desires, dislikes, attitudes, etc. But the most important thing is that the products we then create appeal to people, are relevant to them and their emotions."

Of course the role that the 7600 was supposed to play was to introduce new functionality to the world, since it was Nokia's first 3G phone, so the phone has a camera that can do video and a large color screen. Plus, it's designed to be more of a camera and picture viewer than something to dial numbers, enter text or talk on, as evidenced by the wacky key layout: "Having the keys on both sides of the display put the display and image at the centerpiece of the design. It also encouraged two-handed use, giving the produce and instinctively familiar [in a phone?!? maybe a camera. --mk] and natural-to-hold quality."

Comparing Nokia to DeWalt is interesting: one talks about functionality, the other with emotion, but they're both making consumer products and both dealing very much with both. What's interesting to me is how the corporate culture of the two groups has defined the approach to design and the shape of the end-product. i would say that if they're making mistakes, it's that they're both taking their positions too much to the extreme. DeWalt seems almost embarrassed to talk about the esthetic impact of their design, choosing to couch it in languages of touch "DeWalt design DNA" and Nokia seems to be so obsessed with the emotional impact of their products that they're forgetting that they have to work first. Maybe the two could learn from each other.

I posted a note to Core77's blog about the Arts and Crafts show at LACMA. Here's the highlight of my post:

The show's strongest point is how it contextualizes the objects and draws interesting connections between product design and social philosophy. Most surprising is how much the European movement linked handicrafts and motifs with "national identity." Traditional elements stand in for "traditional" values and explicitly refer to a mythological agrarian, pre-industrial utopia.
[...] a light, flexible solar panel that is a little thicker than photographic film and can easily be applied to everyday fabrics. The thin, bendy solar panels, which could be on the market within three years, are the fruit of a three-nation European Union research project called H-Alpha Solar (H-AS).

(from an article in New Scientist)

In the article they're talking about using these in large patches to recharge cell phones and iPods while you're walking around. I think they'll actually be much more useful as ways to create small computational objects that live outside and are always on. Depending on durability, cost, power, and recyclability imagine integrating these into, say, stuff that's destined to lie by the side of the road. McDonald's cups with a solar patch, a small amount of hardware and a tiny transmitter could create an ad hoc trash network from coast to coast.

Or something.

On that note, I wonder if there's a battery that can be made of leachate. That way, maybe technology could have a built-in leachate mode that used the power of the garbage dump to power little computational devices--each dump could form its own computer, making money off of the trash.

I took these in Amsterdam, Berlin and Middletown, CT, in the last couple of weeks:

I copy and paste a lot of text from various documents to other documents and it drives me a bit crazy when word processors tend to overhelp and insist on trying to keep formatting. "Paste Special..." is fine, but requires several steps. So I always end up reinventing the same macro, regardless of what word processor or system I'm using. I just got a new Mac and bumped into this problem, and ended up reinvening the macro, so I figured I'd share while I could. At some point I may find the OpenOffice/StarOffice version of this command, and post that. It's the simplest macro ever, but here it is:

Sub PasteUnformatted()
' PasteUnformatted Macro
' Macro recorded 12/16/04 by Mike Kuniavsky'
    Selection.PasteAndFormat (wdFormatPlainText)
End Sub

To use:

  • Go to Tools:Macro:Macros...
  • Type in "PasteUnformatted" into the Name field
  • Click "Create"
  • Paste "Selection.PasteAndFormat (wdFormatPlainText)" into the space where it puts the cursor
  • Save
  • I then assign it to a command key (I use Command-Shift-V--currently "Paste from Scrapbook," but who cares about the scrapbook?) and give it a toolbar icon (I like the little grey piggy bank) through Tools:Customize:Customize Toolbars/Menus command.

You'll have to exuse me. This is totally self-indulgent, but in doing some research i realized that the very first site I had a hand in designing, the HotHotHot hot sauce store, is still using some of the same graphics that I hand-tuned for it more than 10 years ago, based on drawings by Yeryeong Park. This may make them the oldest continuously-used graphics on the Web, apart from the ones that are built into Apache or something. Woohoo!

Here, you can compare.

The originals:

Its nice to see something be semi-permanent in the ephemeral world of the Web.

William sends a link to a short story about smart furniture and ubicomp.

Blebs had been around for about twenty years now, almost as long as I had been alive. Their roots could be traced back to several decisions made by manufacturers—decisions which, separately, were completely intelligent, foresighted, and well conceived, but which, synergistically, had caused unintended consequences—and to one insidious hack.

The first decision had been to implant silicon RFID chips into every appliance and product and consumable sold. These first chips, small as a flake of pepper, were simple transceivers that merely aided inventory tracking and retail sales by announcing to any suitable device the product's specs and location. But when new generations of chips using adaptive circuitry had gotten cheaper and more plentiful, industry had decided to install them in place of the simpler tags.

At that point millions of common, everyday objects—your toothbrush, your coffee maker, your shoes, the box of cereal on your shelf—began to exhibit massive processing power and interobject communication. Your wristwatch could monitor your sweat and tell your refrigerator to brew up some electrolyte-replenishing drink. Your bedsheets could inform the clothes-washer of the right settings to get them the cleanest. (The circuitry of the newest chips was built out of undamageable and pliable buckytubes.) So far, so good. Life was made easier for everyone.

Then came the Volition Bug.

The story also has many animist elements to it. I've written about animist reactions to ubicomp before, but it's nice to see it as part of a story, since that brings the point home even better. There's also a nod to the Power Tool Drag Races.

change and innovation in technology that people will see affecting their daily lives, he says, will come about slowly, subtlety, and in ways that will no longer be "in your face". It will creep in pervasively.

This is coming from Nick Donofrio of IBM, quoted in this story from the BBC. It's interesting to see a representative of a tech company downplaying the immediate effects of technology. That implies a potentially deep strategic shift, one that requires a different approach to understanding the role technology plays in people's lives. Of course he's using it to push IBM's pervasive computing agenda (whatever that is) and, surprisingly, big iron:

Behind this vision should be a rich robust network capability and "deep computing", says Mr Donofrio.

Deep computing is the ability to perform lots of complex calculations on massive amounts of data, and integral to this concept is supercomputing.

IBM clearly hasn't given up all of its assumptions, and I think the supercomputing idea is totally shoehorned into the pervasive idea, but it's interesting to see that they're at least giving lip service to some of these thoughts, if only to further their existing position. GE created GE Capital when they realized that their role in the building process had changed to one of financier and oursourcing consultant. IBM's consulting unit became responsible for a big chunk of the profits because they realized that they weren't just selling computers, but services. These things point to the idea of understanding the system in which products exit. Similarly, this could be the beginning of an attitude shift in tech toward understanding and manipulating the social system in which technology is used.




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

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Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

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ISBN: 0123748992
Published in September 2010
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Observing the User Experience: a practitioner's guide to user research

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ISBN: 1558609237
Published April 2003
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