Customization has become de rigueur in the web technology world, and so the trend towards prolific data collection and algorithm-controlled experiences continues unabated. Not to be confused with “big data” in marketing, the data I’m referring to lives in the ecosystem of the product you’re creating to hopefully deliver a better experience. For example, Facebook uses data from whom you interact with most to customize your news feed.
This is rather uncomfortable for some people, and Frog predicted a backlash in their first tech trend prediction for 2014. They announced the rise of products and services that center around user anonymity. Now we’re seeing the massive popularity of self-destructing images with Snapchat, and now self-destructing text messages with startup Confide. These services don’t want your data, and they’re helping you to erase any evidence of it.
However, product designers of customized services are responsible to use the data collected to improve the product on offer. Along this line of thinking I’ve decided to include a “like” option for each creative work featured on Tomorrow and Today, because I would eventually like to create a valuable service for users on the platform… very excited about it and more to come on that.
THE VALUE OF HUMANS
The content you’ll find on Tomorrow and Today reveals the network of creative work and activity happening behind closed doors and on the street. Focusing on places of massive cultural transition, each place featured on the site has its own personality and experience.
We can not rely on a machine to make these connections with elements of chance and synchronicity. A human touch is required.
In a New York Times Bits article analyzing the monetary value of human contact, Quentin Hardy writes, “We’re moving towards a ‘post-automated’ world, where the valuable thing about people will be their emotional content.” The human mind and emotions are incredibly complex and machines have not caught up yet. In the meantime, human analysis, curation and creation will continue to be more valuable.
“Word of mouth” is still the most influential marketing tool. We crave the recommendations from people with the most intimate knowledge about us, and these suggestions rate much higher on the influence scale of what we might buy or do.
This website Not Recommended for You plays with the idea that actual human beings can provide a more intimate recommendation than anyone else. But imagine if you could have this site customized for you by all of your friends and family? SO much better than a robot.
Roland Barthes wrote in his essay “Death of the Author” that it is not about the meaning the author gives to a work – it’s the reader that gives text its meaning. Along the same lines, for my current project Tomorrow and Today my intention is that the varying perspectives of others will give the work its meaning.
The discovery of artistic work happening behind city walls gives a proper sense of the way city inhabitants are recreating the city with every step. Everyone has their own perspective and creates their own experience – artists happen to express it in ways that can be captured and conveyed. Each artwork – whether music, film or painting – combines to form a colorful tapestry of the creative life behind city walls.
When I first moved to London last June, I picked up a pamphlet from Create London who have a rich arts program with events, workshops and community practice. They launched the Create Art Award in 2008, which encourages East London artists to deliver socially engaged projects by working with their neighbors.
They ask questions such as, “What is the value of having an artist in a community?” and “How can an artist uncover and harness the imaginative potential that lies within us all, for positive change?” Artists have a powerful ability to bring new perspectives on ordinary surroundings, and perhaps create commentary or reflection on social and environmental issues through their art.
Three years ago my MFA thesis exhibition was about the history of a building in downtown NYC, but the way the installation was constructed meant that the meaning was interpreted differently by every passerby. Likewise, this is a key component of Tomorrow and Today – that the interpretations of a place are as multitudinous as the history and people of the city.
Tomorrow and Today focuses on areas of massive transition – pretty much the entire East End of London. This project focuses on spaces with multiple layers of cultural transformation, conveyed through the lens of the creative work within and the surrounding network.
The meaning of the artwork, which is in this case the place or neighborhood, is created by the inhabitants. Visitors to the site who will experience the work will be able to add their own perspective, in the same way that Barthes’ reader gives his text his or her own meaning.
Earlier this summer I spoke to my first set of artists and gathered initial thoughts on the site. Something that stands out to me is that artists want a sincere and interesting way to talk about their work that’s not so commercial as many of the current platforms. Attaching their work to a place, and offering the synesthesia of all of the significance of that place – people in their network, music they’re listening to, books they’re currently reading – is a new way to talk about their work. Eventually there will be a platform for artists to have complete control of the experience, to develop a long-form artwork about a particular place, or a list of inspirations related to the work if they are so inclined.
It’s not the death of the author per se, but its allowing the people who gain the most value from your site to create it for themselves.
In the last Elephant magazine, curator Rafal Niemojewski explains his views that the exhibition model is a remnant from an antiquated time. His doctoral studies were on the role the biennal as offering the artist more structural flexibility with which to exhibit art, now imagining the next curatorial phase will take place in the public, with artists more in control of how their work is viewed. This will allow for different forms of art to thrive, including long-duration pieces for example. “…now there’s much more art coming to the street and to public spaces. I think in the coming decades public art will be the most prevalent type of practice.” (Elephant Spring 2014)
With Tomorrow and Today I envision a platform for artists to contribute content in a narrative, long-form or some other way. I’ve talked to a few artists that are interested in how relevant it would be to their work.
My question is how we can learn more about the world around us with technology? How can our bajillion devices provide a deeper (yet nonintrusive) connection to our surroundings, and the cultural and historical significance hiding behind every wall? By connecting the exhibition experience with place-based applications, can artists get exposure to a wider audience? Can digital technologies potentially provide a new exhibition model, where the artist is in complete control of how their work is shown?
A BIT ON TECHNOLOGY
The technology that I will be using to build the MVP will be pretty simple – a mobile web application, but eventually the data points for each place will be available via geolocation so that you receive notifications when you are nearby points of interest.
I explored some of the latest AR apps – Yelp Monocle, Across Air and Wikitude (although eoVision is interesting) – and feel that the experience is still too glitchy to be incorporated into this project. I’m thinking something more along the lines of Google Now or the more recent Field Trip, in which you can look at a view with Google Glass and simple cards pop up with relevant information.
Each place on the Tomorrow and Today map will have a network of people and artworks connected, and the user will be able to scroll through and experience the content randomly. E-commerce links to purchase art prints or concert tickets will also be folded in – what you can do to be a part of this place now or in the future.
Amber Case and the team at Geoloqi are doing really interesting work on location-based services. I’m thinking the Google maps API will be sufficient for this project but I’d be interested to learn more about the capabilities of the Geoloqi system. Case is emphatic that technology can help us improve our lives, but it better get out of the way when you don’t need it. I agree – once technology is no longer in our view and is simply an enabler, integrated into our lives, we will have a much smoother existence.
A friend of mine uses Google Glass to record her painting process, and she uses the phrase “shortening time between intention and action” to describe wearable technologies. It’s a powerful change to suddenly not need to reach for our phone and lower our gaze to search for something, capture a memory, or discover new information. It is a paradigm shift in human behavior.
In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman ponders the most recent technologies and their repurcussions. He writes, “Couple the use of full-body motion and gestures with high-quality auditory and visual displays that can be superimposed over the sounds and sights of the world to amplify them, to explain and annotate them, and we give to people power that exceeds anything ever known before.” Using hands-free devices means that we are much closer to our natural behavior and that much closer to technology easily and fully integrating into our lives. I’m most excited for the possibilities of apps like Field Trip, that can enhance our experience in the city with useful information.
I’m reminded of Marshall McCluhan’s theory that the nature of the media by which we communicate shapes our society more than the content itself: “The Medium is the Message”. McCluhan spoke of the environments of the electronic age as an invisible, pervasive multi-dimensional space. His predictions couldn’t be more relevant in this era of ubiquitous computing. Will behavior changes resulting from new technologies improve our lives, or be a distraction or worse?
On display at Digital Revolution yesterday at the Barbican, (besides Lady Gaga’s flying dress) there were examples of clothing and beauty products embedded with technology to communicate the wearer’s personal data. This really will be “Big Data”, with massive benefits for people selling our most intimate details. Companies with Internet of Things (IoT) products are having trouble creating storage systems to house the treasure troves of data they are collecting from their customers.
However, with great power comes great responsibility. Thinking about the implications of data collection will hopefully help us move past the wow factor. As Bruce Sterling said in his closing remarks at SXSW last year, we must not forget about history in the scramble towards the future. He cautioned, “We don’t just play and experiment: we kill.”
There are people are doing good things with big data. One example is the rapid development of sequencing of the genome, which according to the KPCB report, “will be at the heart of a new paradigm of precision medicine that is evidence based and rooted in quantitative science”. There will be giant leaps ahead in medicine, investment, driving and quantified living, but also giant leaps ahead for marketers and advertisers who will seemingly be inside our brains offering their products at exactly the moment they think we want them. There are even more scary things underfoot as well, such as these nine companies you’ve never heard of that probably know more about you than your closest friends. Big data from IoT will add exponentially to these mounds of personal data that strangers are collecting from us, and that might be enough to make some of us want to run and hide. But this is the future and it’s not going away.
This is also where the money is going. In the tech world recently I’ve noticed a sharp increase in funding for early stage IoT startups.
While there are evident drawbacks to wearable tech and IoT with privacy issues and evil uses of our data, the potential for sincere life improvement is great. Simultaneous, pervasive relationships with technology will allow seamless integration into our lives, informing us of things we didn’t even know we needed to know.
In the near future I’d like to see the Frog prediction come true, “the consumer will own data” – otherwise it feels like we’re getting lots of corporations like Google and Facebook rich with little in return. How do we get there? Well, it’s time put our heads together and figure it out.
I recently realized that I don’t really make websites anymore (captain obvious!). I’ve been immersed in product design and startups for the last year of my life, and have been designing web products that have more requirements than designing a pure content site.
There’s lots of banter about “website vs app”, but one of the main differences between the two is that many web products collect data from users to customize the service over time, while content sites can have thousands of anonymous users and the experience doesn’t change. Now does a website become an app if they add a “like” button? I don’t know, I’ll leave that for people to continue bantering about.
Data collection can be in the form of “likes” or “preferences”. One of my favorites is the sign up process of fashion e-commerce site Lyst. It’s quick and engaging – honestly didn’t want to stop clicking. They get loads of data from me but it improves the recommendations and now I open (and drool over) every email newsletter. They win (but so do I). During the design process, startups like Lyst need to ask themselves what are the main characteristics of users that we need to identify right away when they sign up? The service is built around the core feature of the “stylefeed” so they simply ask users which designers they prefer. It’s so simple but considering they’ve already raised over $20 million from high-profile investors, it’s a powerful concept to give people exactly what they want.
I wonder how Modernist designers would have reacted to these new technologies. What would the Bauhaus have done with these mounds of data? One of the pillars of Modernist theory was “Form follows function”. In the web world, this translates as learning from users to determine the features of a web product. Safe to say, Bauhaus designers would have used customer data to improve their products.
When we customize a human-centered web product it improves the experience for users because, as in the case with Lyst, relevant content is being delivered with no obstruction or distraction. This requires businesses to really think about their offerings and determine priority of content. One of the questions I ask my clients is, “Of the laundry list of features that you’d like to include, what would be the greatest value to the user and most helpful to achieve business goals”. In the life of a developing startup, this is a really hard thing to do!
With fashion B2B startup Sundar I worked on creating a flow through curations and realtime data, to begin to move away from the idea of separate pages for content. We also moved (far) away from the dashboard concept, which is not user friendly for all devices. With a feed, everything is still there on the page but content is prioritized to provide a simplified, integrated experience.
The Internet trends report from KPCB’s Mary Meeker has a great section on the evolution of apps. She documents first the unbundling of apps, then their disappearance altogether to morph into a service layer. Matthew Panzarino of Techcrunch describes these new invisible apps: “They aren’t for idle browsing, They’re purpose built and informed by contextual signals like hardware sensors, location, history of use and predictive computation.” Examples of service layer apps include Foursquare Swarm and Runkeeper Breeze.
We are seeing these early stages of these trends more and more in real life, through human-centered improvements to everyday technologies. Facebook recently began unbundling their service to provide a focused experience for the many elements of the site – messaging, news feed, etc. One of the results being Paper, which I am completely obsessed with – the clean and engaging design, interactions, and gestures will hopefully set a precedent for others.
Meeker’s report also mentions AirBNB, Uber and Spotify among others as companies that have re-imagined the user interface for their respective activities (finding a place to stay, hailing a cab, and finding music). When we talk about improving UI what exactly are we talking about? We’re talking about better user experience. It’s better design because it centers entirely around people’s needs, and that’s a good direction to be going in – the Bauhaus would be proud.
In a recent Fast Company article, artist Olafur Eliasson proclaims that architects are not artists. “I think architects are much too sophisticated to be artists, and they are trained in the great art of making compromises to keep the client happy.”
The subtle dance of the designer/client relationship makes completing a great work of architecture an incredible challenge. Eliasson designed the exquisite glass facade of Reykjavic’s new concert hall with shimmering geometric glass “quasi-bricks”. He has 12-14 architects working for him at any time, so he does have deep understanding of the subtleties of the two fields, however I don’t think its quite as black and white.
When I see architecture such as this designed by Ettore Sottsass, the hard line between art and architecture fades. Starting in 1989 he worked closely with the owners of the property, Adrian Olabuenaga and Lesley Bailey of ACME Studio, to design the space according to their needs. The architectural colors were chosen by Sottsass and reminiscent of a work of abstract modern art. According to many including Eliasson, this is not art because the vision of the architect is compromised by the needs of the people who will be using the space. Working closely with clients to deliver a service is a characteristic of design professions and separates these fields from art, but there are many examples which blur the two.
Eliasson is an artist who finds it fulfililng to collaborate with architects. He describes the art world as self-obsessed, and it’s refreshing for him to work with people who “build real buildings for real people”. Art may not have the same aspect of co-creation as architecture that works within a community with its own social values and problems to solve. Designing architecture requires a sense of pragmatism that the creation of art is liberated from.
In 1970’s London, artist Stephen Willats was on a quest to redefine the role of the art gallery in society. He studied the neighborhoods surrounding Whitechapel Gallery and conducted interviews with local residents. He wanted to find out how they imagined that their world could be different in order to reflect this vision in his work. He maintained these relationships throughout the life cycle of the exhibition at the gallery and community feedback continued to inform the work.
It was quite unusual at the time for an artist to co-create a work with the community themselves, but the idea was to express another model of society, so who better to create that than the society itself?
Willat’s process is an example of what we now know as human-centered design – delving deep into a community to find out their pain points and real needs. The only difference is that the outcome of Willat’s work currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery, seems inconclusive. Although the process set a precedent at the time, I didn’t get a coherent sense of what was gained from the vision of the community that he had painstakingly documented. Check it out for yourself – the exhibition is on until September 14th.
When i was working in spain with Base Madrid my mentor David Cano offered to refer me for another freelance gig with a friend of his. It was mobile design for a telecom.
I told him I had never done that before and he said, “Design is design.” If you can design large-scale (we had been working on a wayfinding system for a large building), you can design small-scale for a screen. The skills you develop as a graphic designer will serve you no matter what field of design you are working in.
Here I am a little more than two years later and I’m designing mobile screens for every project. I would like my independent project, Storywalls, to be compatible with all future technologies, especially wearables. If not Google glass then whatever is next.
Designing across multiple disciplines reminds me of an incredible branding project for Russ & Daughters I discovered today via Dribbble. Graphic designer Kelli Anderson was tasked with rebranding everything for the company from the menu placemats to interior elements to neon outdoor signage. Her entertaining blog post details all of the thinking and process behind her design decisions, and she expresses the excitement when asked to tackle an area of design that she had never tried before.
Kelli did her homework on the history of Russ & Daughters and delved deep into the old New York roots of their visual identity. She created a strong creative direction, which carried over into the various design forms, which she describes as, “pleasingly rythmic disorder”… and “playful, but mostly direct, straightforward and pragmatic.” The discovery of an original paper bag design from the restaurant provided a strong base to guide design for everything from wallpaper to postcards.
In Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman writes, “How can one person work across so many different domains? Because the fundamental principles of designing for people are the same across all domains. People are the same, and so the design principles are the same.” If you have a deep understanding of the task at hand and the people who will be in contact with the work, thoughtful design is possible no matter what the function will be.
One more gem of design advice that my mentor in Spain left me with is from John Morgan’s Vow of Chastity: Design nothing that is not worth reading. Adhere to the rules below and you’ll be in good shape in any area of design.
There is a fascinating correlation between the underlying principles of the lean startup movement and the underlying principles of modernism, regarding both process and theory.
Living in the heart of Shoreditch I have come across many startups and agencies using lean and agile methodologies, and worked for a few. The uncontested bible that these fast-paced companies live by is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Nick Marsh, co-founder of Makeshift, arguably the leader of the London startup pack, describes the moment when everything clicked after The Lean Startupwas published in 2011: “While there was nothing unique about it, it was such a powerful book because it pulled everything I’d already been doing together into this single understanding of how to make new things.”
The lean startup manifesto aims to eliminate waste in the business life-cycle by learning how to solve the customers problem with an experimental “Build, Measure, Learn” feedback loop using a minimum viable product. So instead of spending a year creating a finished product with all the bells and whistles, then rolling it out to customers and discovering they won’t use it, this tactic encourages the introduction of a simplified product to the marketplace in order to test the company’s assumptions with customers and learn how they would use it, if at all.
Lean process looks at design and development as a series of experiments. Interestingly, this is exactly the approach that the original Modernist designers took with regard to their work early in the 20th century, beginning in the Bauhaus and extending the many decades until Post-Modernism reared it’s ugly head.
Bruno Munari was an artist, industrial designer and futurist whose original ideas on modernism and the creative process were seminal works in the mid-20th century. The following description of Munari’s process could easily correlate with the path of an ambitious startup business:
“Munari’s creative process intentionally merged a multiplicity of ideas, techniques and materials. All of his works involve an approach that is never sequential, and hence difficult to describe through linear explanations or reductive definitions, but is rooted in a parallel perspective that manifests itself through the reworking of an idea a kaleidoscope of forms.” –Dr. Margherita Zanoletti
I’m reminded of the work of prolific Cranbrook-trained artist Keetra Dean Dixon, whose work spawns from a process of brazen experimentation. “Urging unexpected response via improper material application is simple curiosity in action; it’s learning, and we love to learn. We begin many studies by posing a simple question: “What happens if…?” and gain knowledge from the results.”
Similarly, experimentation is at the heart of the lean startup methodology. Each assumption within the startup’s vision is an experiment that must be tested in order to learn more about your customers and build a sustainable business. The experiment is your first product.
We are currently in a phase of neo-modernism, in which designers have returned their focus to the purity of form guided by the principle “form follows function”. iOS7 is probably the strongest example of neo-modernism in digital design. Embellishment is altogether eliminated and forms are stripped back to their basic necessities – a style that is now dubbed “flat design”. This new design direction is a reaction to the skeuomorphism of the past, which was trying to make the digital space look and feel like the physical world around us.
Modernism in design allows materials to be what they are, bringing content and function as close as possible to the user. In digital design, we are beginning to explore the possibilities of natural user interfaces based on human gestures. This correlates and complements the work that industrial designers have developed for decades.
Bruno Munari studied the form of bamboo and its various uses and meanings to the Japanese. “They always pay attention to the nature and structure of the ‘tube with knots in it’, and discover in it a great variety of proportions.” When creating tubing or vases from this material, they maximize the capabilities of the natural form.
In 1964, Munari designed the Falkland hanging lamp, which is now in the permanent collection at the MOMA in New York, using two materials: aluminum for the rings and elasticized fabric for the shell. The lamp is five feet high when hanging but placed on a flat surface it collapses to about one inch. There are no struts or rings or other stylistic embellishments; to achieve the form one simply needs to hang the lamp up. In this case the product emerged spontaneously from Munari’s fascination with the minimalism of Japanese craftsmanship and his experiments with materials and tensions.
In the same way that Munari took the core element of bamboo to create a functioning lamp, or takes a basic square of wood to make a complex modular shelving unit, product designers need to find the core idea that will create the most value for customers.
Finding the core element that makes up the whole is essential to create a minimum viable product. Once it is tested, any further complexity can be built around this core feature.
I recently worked with a fashion B2B startup to create an MVP for their Techstars Demo Day, and early on in the process I interviewed a group of potential customers to understand their needs and working process. It was revealed through a number of conversations that they wanted a platform that would “put it all together”, so trends, news and product search and discovery in one place. This led to a simplified design which related trends straight from the runway and fashion blogs leading directly to a product search on the site. Hopefully this core feature will test positively with users and lead to a successful product down the road – will be really interesting learning over the next few months.
Applying modernist principles during the product design process will provide theory and framework for preventing the all too common problem of feature creep, as well as eliminating waste and unnecessary complexity. The benefit of creating a simplified product based on a core idea is well worth the challenge to focus, prioritize, and reduce up front.
Over past two years I’ve had a major pendulum swing from design based on cultural immersion to design based on technological immersion, also from a process guided by a creative director to a process guided by a lean methodology. Even though all of my work is built in code now, my inspiration still comes from architecture and fine art, pop culture and urban design. I’m a graphic designer at heart and my background is in print and branding, but I now call myself an interaction designer.
Interaction design is a discipline with little to no pedagogy. We rely on works by Moggridge, Papanek and Norman – all industrial designers – for intellectual foundations. Digital product designers are not necessarily graphic designers – they are a different breed that grew up immersed in digital, and are well versed in every aspect of technology.
When I think about my approach to work before my foray into product design and user experience, it was governed entirely by the traditional notion of creative direction, originally from the advertising world.
It is essential to have creative pillars to guide the overall concept of a project, however I understand more now about digital agencies and the service we provide to clients. I know what they need to survive and the kind of designers they want on their team. We need to have reasoning beyond aesthetics – thinking about how information has been prioritized, how the design is helping users understand the problem, and how the design is solving the business problem. And confidently answering these questions in the work and when presenting the work is essential.
All of these factors need to be considered when designing a new product, service or website, however it’s the designer’s job to push the creative direction where they feel appropriate. Otherwise we will have millions of websites that look exactly the same (hm we kind of already do).
My process hasn’t changed that much, but this new perspective has elevated my level of thought around my work to think about the organization, stakeholders and strategy. Designers constantly need to be solving a problem, and there is no shortage of problems in the tech world.
My biggest beef with working in an agile frame of mind is with the friction between speed and quality. Quite simply, agile doesn’t put quality first. I’m reading Eric Ries and I get it – I believe in the build/measure/learn feedback loop, but I’d like to see that mentality folded into a strong and thoughtful concept. We need both to create successful products, because there will be enough time up front devoted to research and creative direction to guide the process.
Possibly the biggest takeaway from working in an agile environment, and one that will effect my day to day work forever is that it’s essential to talk to every single person who is involved in the work you’re doing in the early stages and as much as possible throughout the timespan of the project. Know every stakeholder and team member, and cultivate a great relationship with the developers. The devotion and skill of the developer is critical to the success of a project, but if they aren’t brought into the early stages of planning it only makes their job harder.
Working fast with constant iterations has the potential to produce loads of shit work, and some people just aren’t wired to work in that way. Perfectionists, for one. Or creative introverts. Susan Cain has a great TED talk on the power of introverts, and she pleads with people to stop the madness of group work. Introverts need time to work on their own in order to be most productive. I’ve found this to be true – not that I’m entirely an introvert, but with constant meetings and interruptions, my work suffers. It’s best to have long stretches where designers can focus on the task at hand.
Agile gets it done in the end doesn’t it? Things get made, instead of spinning around in the eddies of conceptualization and quality control. My question is how can we marry the rapid iterative approach with strong creative direction to produce even better work?