December 2005 Archives

In Red Herring's latest issue on tech trends for next year they talk about flash memory:

By 2009, flash memory will cost just two-tenths of a penny for a megabyte compared to $0.052 today, according to iSuppli.

Although the exact prices don't matter, and (as Red Herring admits) this is still more expensive than hard drives, what it does mean is that lots of fast, low-power, solid-state memory will be available for cheap. More than just for storing MP3s and DVDs, it'll allow for the storage of lots of configuration and preference information. One of the ways to make something react very quickly is to pre-calculate the results of complex calculations and then quickly access the pre-stored calculations. With cheap flash memory, for something to "learn" a behavior (say, a bed that learns your body shape and sleep patterns and adjusts accordingly) and adapt, it may only have to figure out which one of the millions of pre-calculated "profiles" it has calculated (based on everyone's favorite Baysian learning algorithm? [look I used "Baysian" twice in one day!] ;-) and then recall a whole set of patterns of adaptive behavior (for example: when it warms the bed, when it moves your feet, when it rolls you, etc.). That may be good enough for a typical experience and it will be very computationally inexpensive, thus making the CPU requirements for the device (and therefore the battery requirements, the heat requirements, etc.) quite low, allowing for the inclusion of information processing technology into all kinds of devices it previously didn't exist in. In the case of things that react at people speed, memory may well trump CPU power.

Back in February I talked about World of Warcraft and Feedback. I'm on to a new game, The Sims 2 from Electronic Arts/Maxis. My insight about Warcraft was that automatic feedback across a number of progress indicators is a seductive way to measure our success in the virtual world--part of the satisfaction of the game is watching the progress bars go up--and that it could be a model for how automated feedback could be created in a ubiquitous computing environment. The Sims 2 takes this to a new and more intimate level. The game is much closer to our reality, so its metrics start seeming eerily familiar, making its simulation that much more emotionally resonant. It's also a good place to study what kind of feedback would actually be appropriate in an instrumented environment.

(image from Wikipedia, showing a number of elements of the game)

Sims 2's progress indicators are divided into three categories: Needs, Aspirations and Skills.


  • Food
  • Comfort
  • Hygiene
  • Bladder
  • Energy
  • Fun
  • Social
  • Environment


  • Wealth
  • Knowledge
  • Family
  • Romance
  • Popularity

These, in turn, spawn wants and fears, which are represented by icons


  • Cooking
  • Mechanical
  • Charisma
  • Body
  • Logic
  • Creativity
  • Cleaning

[Tangentially, this list starts to amusingly betray many of the deeply American and, specifically, Northern Californian values in the game. They don't seem to aspire to be great buck hunters or farmers, they carpool; they move house pretty easily; gene mixing is encouraged. They probably vote Democrat. ;-)]

Maxis must have thought about this pretty carefully during game design and it's interesting to see what they came up with. I just started playing the game, but it's already starting to seem like a good list to start thinking about the implications for where to start incorporating these ideas into the physical world. Some things are clearly more difficult than others, but taking a broad view, some interesting ideas emerge.

For example, you can immediately see how instrumenting basic needs with sensors and alarms is already the focus of people working in the medical and geriatric technology fields. It may not make sense for a healthy person to have a piece of hardware worry about their bladder, but in a hospital situation it becomes critical. For a person suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, notification of a need for food may be important (hell, I sometimes need to be reminded to eat.). How do you measure "fun"?

This list is profoundly user-centered. It's not starting with a monitoring technology and saying "well, if we tracked every single person everywhere and tried to identify what they're doing based on Baysian filtering, how could we make money off of that?" Instead, its focus is: here's what people desire from life and here are the wants they try to satisfy, how can we support them with technology that helps them track their progress? How can we help people feel less like pawns and more like Sims? (and I know that that still doesn't make them feel like people, but I feel it's a step in the right direction)

I've gotten several emails recently about comments not making it through to this blog. Comments here get filtered for spam by MTBlacklist and then put into a queue for approval. So if you post a and the dialog disappears without a trace, that's the sign that it's been put into the queue for me to look at. If it's refusing to let you post a comment, then it's probably because you used a word that MTBlacklist thinks is a spam keyword. I try to be careful about the words and domains I put into MTBlacklist, but there are so many at this point that I can't rule out that there are some problems. If you ever have a problem posting a comment, feel free to send it to me in email at blog c/o this site.

In September, Liz and I went to Japan for the Ubicomp 2005 conference. It was my first trip to any Asian country, and like any first-time tourist in Japan, I was overwhelmed by the lights, continually surprised by subtle cultural differences (for example, why are so many restaurants in the basements of buildings in Tokyo?) and enchanted by many aspects of the place (the Great Buddha in Kamakura is awesome).
One thing that struck me about Tokyo is how Modernist it is. By Modernist, I mean more than just "new and shiny" or "made of concrete, steel and glass." Much of it seems to be pre- postmodern (in other words, Modernist), in its design. Unironically minimalist housewares and stationary at Muji and Tokyu Hands. 1920s France- and 1960s US-inspired fashion in Harajuku. Sure the cosplay girls dressed like Victorian babydoll zombie dominatrixes is totally not Modernist, but there were few signs of that attitude spilling over into broader life. Even the current fashion in motorcycles seems ultra-minimal. No more splashy plastic and chrome, it's all about having as little as possible between you and the enormous back wheel on your small-engine 1960s bike.


I'm sure I'm missing the point or misunderstanding a lot of what I see, and people who are more familiar with the cultural indicators can point out where I'm misreading the situation, but what struck me is how the Modernist perspective extends to the way that business of design is managed and handled there. Much of the perspective seems based on a classic Modernist "supply-driven" model, which means that a company produces stuff based on internal gut-level determination of what's interesting (usually done by executives or project managers). Sometimes it sells, sometimes it doesn't. When it sells, they make more. When it doesn't, they don't. You can see the Cohen Brothers' version of this Modernist myth of product design is distilled and presented in The Hudsucker Proxy: Norville has a big idea, everyone thinks it's crazy, but they make it anyway, it's a huge hit, he's a genius. No field research, no usability testing, no focus groups. "You know, for kids!" That movie takes place in a fictionalized 30s/50s past that's the glory era of supply-first thinking. In Akihabara, the big electronics district of Tokyo. I got the feeling that's the perspective that Japanese electronics manufacturers still take. Let's make a bunch of variations on an idea; whichever variation sells more, we'll make more like that. It's a continuous Cambrian explosion of products, with the ideas sorted out by the pseudo-evolutionary forces of market adoption.

This is in contrast to the philosophy I see at work at large American and European companies that have enthusiastically adopted end-user research methods taken from marketing techniques and pioneered by the social sciences (see my discussion with Anne recently about the bumps that this adoption is causing in both the academic and corporate spheres). On the one hand, this is great, and the core of my "demand-driven" philosophy of product development. Too many companies are still doing no end-user needs assessment and research at all. Further, I'm certainly not going to say that user research is ever bad ;-). However, the Japanese way of making and marketing made me rethink my stance about the need to always make decisions based on a priori user research. Maybe, just maybe, the current capabilities to prototype, engineer and distribute product variations on a core idea allows for ideas to be tested, and markets to be primed for the acceptance of new ideas, without conclusive documentation from end-user research. Thinking that there's a single product and a single answer, and that research should continue until that's determined, is an equally Modernist idea, from a time when retooling was incredibly expensive. Now, as one hardware designer in San Francisco told me, it's possible to sketch some ideas on a piece of paper, fax it to China, and have a working prototype designed and engineered in a month, and to have production samples soon thereafter. I'm sure this doesn't work for revolutionary ideas, but ideas based on technologies that the engineers and designers are comfortable with--but that's probably where most hardware designs are.

With technological and design possibilities like this, maybe a hybrid approach is appropriate. One that's not based on the idea that the user research is useless ("they don't know what they want" and all that) and also not based on the idea that only deep, exhaustive field research can produce insights that lead to product features. Maybe the hybrid approach is an iterative one based on iteration between rapid research and feature experimentation. What's an appropriate iteration cycle? The Japanese companies have already settled on a release cycle that's nearly quarterly, with a new version of whatever product released every 3 months. However, the feature set in these seems to be still nearly arbitrary, probably determined by product managers in engineering groups based on what the engineers have developed. Maybe the right hybrid approach is a quarterly release cycle of multiple variations on a product idea coupled with both field research to identify new behaviors that can guide innovation and fairly rigorous evaluation of the popularity and actual use of product features. It can be a kind real world conjoint analysis.

Yes, this would screw seriously with the idea that a company needs to put all its marketing muscle behind a single product and promote it as if no others exist. But maybe it's amenable to another approach, one that markets a product line as a single product, but with options. This is the classic automobile model, though one that's fallen out of favor (as I understand it, most Americans buy cars off the lot these days, rather than custom ordering them and waiting, as they did in the old days; Germans, I believe, still prefer to wait and get just the car they want). Maybe a configurator could narrow the options to just the variations that were built and there wouldn't actually be any customization, just assistance in getting the features you want, while follow-up research figures out what you actually use.

Anyway, the thought that struck me as I saw the rows of nearly-identical MP3 players and phones was "There is great research waiting to happen here, if the people making the stuff and the people obsessing about research could only join forces."

On November 16, Nadav Savio of Giant Ant Design and I did a presentation for Knowledge Management World - Intranets in San Jose. My part of this presentation covered much of what I discussed in the case study ("Guidelines as tools") I presented at DUX, but Nadav, as my collaborator on that project, added his perspective on the information architecture and interaction design of it.

The PDF of the presentation (350K PDF) has our notes, which narrate what we talked about pretty well.

Last summer, Andrew Sears and Julie Jacko asked me to contribute a chapter to the next revision of their monumental Human-Computer Interaction Handbook. It was an honor I could not refuse, but their stated topic for me, the consumer experience, was a difficult one to define, especially since there was 1000+ pages covering the fine details of human-computer interaction from ergonomics to visual design. With that kind of detail, what aspect of the computer user experience remained? I decided that it was everything that defined the user experience that was not the human-computer interaction, many of which were ideas I learned working as a consultant independently and for Adaptive Path. I spent most of October and November writing the chapter, which I delivered in rough form to Andrew and Julie last week. It's far from ready, but I wanted to share the introduction and the outline, as a teaser.

User Experience and HCI

The goal for this chapter is to introduce concepts and techniques that help structure the application of HCI in a real-world environment by examining the larger context in which human-computer interaction happens and by using that context as the basis for the design of user experiences.

Understanding the broader factors that influence the user experience is as important for creating successful Human Computer Interaction systems as thoroughly understanding the cognitive science behind the user's actions. Company goals, economic relationships, emotional responses and social interactions can overwhelm behavioral and perceptual responses of consumers. Although intensive research is currently investigating some of these ideas, the majority of firsthand experience of and thinking about designing experiences under such pressures has happened in the consumer marketplace as documented in popular business and marketing literature. In bringing these ideas and experiences to this volume I hope to introduce the process of Human Computer Interaction as part of a broader activity: specifically, the development and creation of user experience in a consumer economy.


Section 1: the boundaries of user experience

  • UX is context
  • Garrett's Elements

Section 2: the organizational experience

  • The 1927 Ford Model T
  • A children's art product manufacturer website

Section 3: the user view

  • The user experience of products
    • Affect
    • Value
  • The user experience of organizations
    • Brand
    • Relationships

Section 4: Examining the user experience

  • Identifying organizational goals
    • Identify stakeholders
    • Collect stakeholder goals
    • Prioritize organizational goals
    • A rapid technique: project history
    • Field observation
    • Find key informants, schedule research
    • Narrow the focus
    • User interactive observation
    • Use multiple researchers and analyze collaboratively
    • Validation
  • Focus groups
    • Prepare
    • Make a schedule
    • Pick an audience
    • Develop discussion topics
    • Write a discussion guide
    • Analyze results

Section 5: Manage with user experience

  • Agile user experience development
    • Iterative development
    • Risk-driven and client-driven
    • Timeboxing
    • Adaptive development and evolutionary requirements
  • Introducing user experience into an existing process
    • Get a senior manager champion
    • Work within existing processes
    • Make small, but well-publicized changes
    • Make developers' lives easier with user experience



Business 2.0 asked me to suggest a technological holiday gift wish and I asked for the thing I always ask for, a walking robot.

I asked for this one:

from Lynxmotion.

Someday, I'll get one and will be bored with it 15 minutes later, but for now it remains the most elusive of all gifts (bar world peace and a gun that zaps mildew smell).

Also interesting is the appearance of an ambient display device in the list:

The Money Bunny, from Nabaztag, which appears to be a robotic, wifi-based version of the Ambient Orb from ambient devices, but simpler and more animist.




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

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

Giant poster, suitable for framing! (300K PDF)
Full text and explanation

Recent Photos (from Flickr)

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

By me!
ISBN: 0123748992
Published in September 2010
Available from Amazon

Observing the User Experience: a practitioner's guide to user research

By me!
ISBN: 1558609237
Published April 2003
Available from Amazon

Recent Comments

  • Katherina: Information not just material. In our days it is a read more
  • Hi Mike, totally agree on building the IoT in a read more
  • Mutuelle: Man is the reflections of his thought, some name it read more
  • Amanda Carter: You obviously placed a great deal of work into that read more
  • Molly: You might find it interesting to connect with return of read more
  • George: You might want to change "Size" to "form" for terminal. read more
  • Mike: Thanks for the reminder, Robin. I'm aware of that article, read more
  • Robin: It's a slightly different argument (it predates most work in read more
  • Tim: This reminded me of the Pleo video Mark posted awhile read more
  • michael studli: i was wonting to know is the game fun to read more

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2005 is the previous archive.

January 2006 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.