Interaction10 finally happened last weekend. I have barely blogged in a year. This is not a coincidence. A+B=C.
It’s hard to even know where to begin. Less than 100 hours ago, I completed the most significant accomplishment of my career (so far), a year-long project that filled all the nights and weekends outside my day job. Words fail. Holy crap, I just co-chaired a conference.
Interaction10 rocked. Our amazing team pulled off a 4 day event with over 500 people, 11 workshops, 40+ sessions, 50+ speakers, 30+ sponsors touching 11 venues. Crazy complex stuff. But damn, it worked. Completely humbling that many designers are saying that this is the best designed conference they’ve been to, and we’re a critical crowd. Thank you.
The feeling is utterly undescribable to host 500+ people for a weekend, have them all happy and inspired, to see dozens of people that I know and enjoy (sadly in brief bursty minutes), to provide high value content and quality food, all for a reasonable price and still make money for IxDA. But at the same time, I’m relieved it’s over.
Endless thank you’s to Jennifer Bove, Samantha Soma, Ben Fullerton, Todd Zaki Warfel, Will Evans, Jonathan Knoll, Dave Malouf, Jody Medich, Ryan Freitas, Izac Ross, the list goes on and on of all the people who contributed to its success.
I need to reflect on it. I need to share stories. I need to watch all the session videos, every damn one. I need to thank people in depth more than the ridiculous few seconds on stage Sunday afternoon. I need to capture this all before it leaves my head. This is not a conference; this is a body of work.
So this will get me writing again, and that’s a good thing. Stay tuned.
Here’s a mini-diatribe on how simple phrasings in an interaction can confuse the interaction. Or, yet another fun example of pointing out silly technology. In this case, paying for airport parking and turning in your receipt so you can leave the parking area, and questioning what the machine says.
Plus, you can see how much my eyes wander while I’m driving. Safety first!
Earlier I in June, I was fortunate to be speaking at From Business to Buttons 09. It was a great event, hosted at Malmo University in Sweden. We got to see a lot of insightful student presentations as well as some great talks put on by the various speakers, include Garr Reynolds, Scott Berkun, Matt Jones and Dave Malouf.
I switched gears a bit from talking about buttons. I focused instead on words, writing and voice. How products and services need to reach people at an informal level instead of the formal voice put out there by so many companies. I encourage you to watch and let me know what you think!
This is my tribe of people. Some call themselves interaction designers, some call themselves information architects, some have other variations. But really, they’re all intelligent, curious, kind people with a fascination for how people interact with technology, and improving it in their own way. Just being around them inspires me.
Every time I attend a conference or event like this, I get to see my old friends and spend some time with them. Then I get to meet new people as well, trade stories, and end the evening at the hotel bar with everyone. The sense of community is incredible. And with many people connecting this year via Twitter, it’s bound to border on family reunion.
Oh yeah, it’s a conference!
The keynote speakers are incredible. John Thackara from the Doors of Perception will talk about the sustainability challenges that interaction designers face. Fiona Raby from the Royal College of Art will speak. Genevieve Bell from Intel’s Digital Home Group will speak. Dan Saffer will fire us up to seize our opportunity to shape the 21st century. Marc Rettig will talk about changing the big stuff, like the world. And to close the conference, Kim Goodwin from Cooper will talk about delivering on the promise of interaction design.
In the end, it’s all about the people. You’ll meet great people, learn a ton of new things, gain inspiration for the new year, and it’s in Vancouver BC, one of my favorite cities. Go skiing at Whistler afterward!
Last weekend, I attended and spoke at CyborgCamp. It was a helluva thing. It’s incredibly energizing to get a bunch of smart and thoughtful people in a room together for a day to talk about the intertwinement between people and technology. Ward Cunningham was a joy to watch and see how he visualizes massive data. Lia Hollander spoke passionately about her bond with her insulin pump. And I could watch Hideshi Hamaguchi diagram on a whiteboard all day long. The biggest thanks of all go to Amber Case, Bram Pitoyo, and way more for conceiving CyborgCamp and pulling it off. When’s the next one?
My own talk surprised me. It came together frankly in the few previous days, but I like the angle. However, it led to a discussion that I really loved and had not expected: how various people use the symbols of our common punctuation to mean different things. And the possibilities for what else they can mean.
For some background on what led to this conversation, here is the essence of my talk, titled “Is Machine Language Extending Human Language?” The characters that we use in written language had been evolving for thousands of years, from pictorial drawings that represented the simple nouns of our prehistory lives to the abstract letters of our various alphabets and character sets that we have today. But technology halted this evolution. The printing press constrained the evolution of written letterforms. The typewriter chose winners and losers of our symbols, essentially saying some letters and symbols are more important than others. The computer forced a standardization of the character set. The ASCII table fixed this character set in place. We will never have a 27th letter (in the English alphabet). Can you imagine the infrastructure overhaul required in all the software and keyboards?
However, language always wants to evolve. It has to. We communicate so much that language must mutate over time. But we were hampered a bit by the fixed character set we were forced to use from the computerization of communication.
So we found ways to evolve language by adding new meaning to existing symbols, either individually or in combinations.
A classic example takes two dry punctuation symbols and mashing them together to get something new. On their own, the : and ) serve utilitarian purposes. But mash them together to :) and you have an entirely new meaning, a smiley face, happiness, etc. Joy.
The two major symbols I spent time on tracing their history were @ and #.
The @ sign through most of its history meant Each at. It was a commerce term. “Apples 10@.49″ It survived the typewriter cut by being placed as a shift above the 2, a position it still holds today.
Then the Internet showed up. In 1971, when Ray Tomlinson was writing the first email system and needed an addressing system to send a message between two computers in the same room (but via Arpanet). He needed a separator between the name and the location. Oh, @ works perfectly. The @ symbol then adopted a new meaning: Location.
Then Twitter showed up. Because Twitter is simply an unthreaded long list of messages where you can’t easily track a conversation, people early on adopted a convention used in discussion groups to target a reply to a specific person, as in “@billder That joke wasn’t so funny.” But then a subtle twist occurred. People began to use the @ convention to simply refer their username as their identity. “I really wish @billder would lay off of the snowman jokes.”
In fact, the @ symbol is so strongly identified with Twitter identities that only saying “@billder” is enough of a way to contact somebody. The @ symbol then adopted its current meaning: Identity.
Pound sign, number sign, hash. The main two meanings of the # sign prior to the Internet were either number or pounds. Essentially, # meant Quantity.
But again, Twitter provided a way for this symbol to evolve. Early on, people recognized that people talked in topics and desired a way to track certain topics. Chris Messina then proposed using the # symbol to mean “topic.” It worked. People used it, and software developers responded to this organic evolution of the # sign and built tracking functionality. Voila!
# means Context.
Then the discussion opened up to, what would you do with the following symbols? Do you use these symbols already? What do they mean to you? What potential uses do you see for them? I was blown away by the creativity of responses, both how they currently use them or could potentially use them. I wish I could credit everybody with their suggestions, but I didn’t know everybody and the conversation was moving fun and fast. Here are the ideas we came up with. Of course, some are simply funny, but some had some serious meaning packed into them. Would you use any of these in your writing/communication?
The tilde (~) started it off. Normally it’s a diacritic above characters to indicate change in pronunciation, mostly commonly in Spanish and Portuguese. But it’s mathematical sense of approximation seemed to be the theme, i.e. ~50 means “about 50″.
~ To indicate dating. Bob~Mary means that Bob and Mary are sorta dating, just hanging out. Of course, Liv=Mel means they’re married. Was engaged ~~?
~ When writing a list of things to do, ~ indicates something started but not quite finished. ~clean office. ~write this blog post. It’s approximately done.
~ In Unix, it means home. My first webpage was www.nowdefunctdomain.com/~billder
~ means Approximate. I am ~French-Canadian. It is ~raining.
The exclamation point (!) or “bang” didn’t generate much interest. It’s already used to mean emphasis, dammit! It did used to mean “route” in early Unix UUCP days, used similarly to @ today.
The typical wow! usage of the exclamation point is a bit opposite from its mathematical sense of “not” or “false”. It goes from extremely positive! to !negative.
The Earth is !flat. George Bush is ~!President.
! means Opposite.
The caret (^) is another diacritical used in a lot of languages above vowels to indicate different pronunciation. Way too many examples to dig into. It also has the math meaning of power. 2 multiplied by itself 3 times is 8, 2^3=8. All math symbology is highly condensed shorthand to convey complex relationships.
One person in the crowd uses ^ to conjoin disparate ideas to see what happens. Take any two words. Digital. Vegetables. Now conjoin them, digital^vegetables. It’s a way to invent ideas. In fact, it’s similar to a great sci-fi book called The Futurological Congress from Stanislaw Lem wherein futurologists combine words to discover new ideas to predict the future.
The caret even looks like it’s joining^words. It’s two little arms connect each word and then points up to ask, this + that = what?
^ means Conjoin or Juxtapose. Belgian^piston. Wool^clock. Symphony^party. Touchscreen^cat.
I then brought up five obscure symbols found in the extended Unicode character set. This part of the discussion was meant to be a throwaway. All I did was, the night before, dig into Special Characters in Keynote, thought “this one would be funny” and inserted it. In fact, I had the animation set up to automatically display each one for a couple of seconds, which wouldn’t have allowed discussion. On a whim, half an hour before my talk, I killed the animation. Glad I did, because some interesting stuff popped up.
In math, ⊄ means “not a subset of”, paired up with ⊂ “a subset of.” Pugs ⊂ dogs. Oranges ⊄ lizards. But others had some great ideas for ⊄
I cut my finger. “Oh frack, I ⊄!”
Don’t go back there. “⊄ that dude. He’s no good for you.”
Not magnetic. I love this one. “This orange is ⊄”
But the best idea was to represent a wall plug. In airports, cafes, ⊄ indicates “electricity here.”
^ means Power Available.
Snowman with a Fez probably generated the most hilarity. And why not, it’s a snowman with a fez, or at least that’s what I saw. Somebody else saw Spicy Food for Gringos.
In general, it’s a wtf? Ever seen a snowman in the desert? This this really isn’t possible. So, it’s an oxymoron, a non-sequitur, a wtf?
“Dude, you’re being a snowman with a fez.” Can it be a symbol of sarcasm, maybe even replacing <sarcasm> HTML tags?
The knight is a chess symbol, indicating, well, the knight. First idea, transportation. Sure, but a bit literal. “Condoms available here.” Wow.
But then somebody threw out the gem. It’s a threat. A classic Mafia I’m going to leave a horse head in your bed threat. Perfect.
So maybe being knighted isn’t such a good thing anymore?
The musical symbol was generally a happy symbol for most people. It’s music, song, singing.
There were a few downer ideas. Painful like a tooth nerve? A redundant person, because they’re a one noter?
But it’s a happy symbol. It’s sometimes used with statements to add a Wheeee! quality to it. Wheeee! The sun is shining!
Finally, a hand holding two fingers up. It’s simply the number two. Or most commonly, Peace. I’m not a crook. Breeding like a rabbit.
But with two of them, used in pairs to surround a word or phrase, AIR QUOTES.
Did you ever think that punctuation can be interesting? Everything surrounds us has a story. Even the most common symbols of our language. Especially them.
BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a 40 minute audio documentary on The Human Button, (today Dec 2) including interviews with the people who would’ve lived in the underground bunker, running the British government in the event of a nuclear war.
Recently, I played pinball and went bowling in the same week. The two games will always be linked together for me because that’s where I first really experienced interaction design: the bowling alley.
I enjoy saying that I grew up in a bowling alley. There’s tiny me camping under stinky shoes, scrounging stale nachos for dinner, and sniping smokes from the ‘dults. But in truth, from roughly the ages 7 to 13, my mom, aunt and uncle were all in bowling leagues, so I went once or twice a week to the Valley View Bowl down in Garden Grove, in the land 25 years later would be branded The OC.
During the recent bowl, I indulged a flashback of my very first job: keeping score on league nights. I’d sit in the center seat while the ten adults would all give math boy a dollar to keep score for a series, three games. The math came naturally, I just had to dodge the beer and cigarettes. Never thought about until just now, but I earned my first dollars doing math. That’s a comforting notion. Eventually my job got buggywhipped and crappy machines now do the job where a grease pencil and basic math is enough. Seriously, have we became so lazy that adding 68 and 17 requires automated machinery? Hell, entering your initials into the game recorders is more difficult than adding 68 and 17.
Like in every other bowling alley, there was an arcade. They weren’t called video arcades yet because video games hadn’t arrived. Just the arcades descended from carnivals and midways. The main attraction here was pinball. Fireball. Captain Fantastic. Wizard. Eight Ball. Gorgar. Six Million Dollar Man. Evel Knievel. The sounds intoxicated. The blinkings lured. The quarters fed. This was one of the golden eras of pinball, when machines began to be digitized. The fresh microelectronics of the early 1970s that miniaturized calculators and other gadgetry found a home in pinball. Games now had memory. Sequences of interactions could create a story. Targets were not just targets. They were stepping stones to further levels of challenges. Pinball transitioned from shooting gallery to game.
To this day, pinball still provides me a rush that I can’t get from video games. Part of it is the live physics. I don’t care how elegantly or intricately designed a video game is, it still can’t touch the flow of keeping a steel ball in play, defying gravity, and aiming with precision, sequence and finesse. But the other angle of pinball is how you interact with the rule set of the game. Video games are typically linear. You are placed in a situation, you deal with it, and you are presented with a new situation, typically a little more challenging. The set of the things you can do in each situation is necessarily limited. It’s a bounded subset of the overall possibilities of the game.
In pinball, the entire possibility of interaction is available to you, freshly with every single ball. You start from scratch every damn time, and what you make of it is up to you. All of the rules are laid out on the table every single time. Knowledge of the table helps, of course: You need to hit the magic trunk three times to start the next illusion. But you never know what will happen next. A ball could last ten minutes and hit several multiballs or it could drain in five seconds through a fluke carom. Unlike video games, there is zero ability to memorize what happens next. You just have to be ready.
I sometimes use pinball to gauge how relaxed and calm I am. It’s all about the flow. Like other great bar games such as pool, thinking too much will kill the game. Overthinking is outrunning the moment. Tension dampens instinct. But letting it just happen, letting instinct take over, finding your flow unlocks the world of surprise. Like this post for example. I had no frickin idea I would end up in this place, but I’m saying some really weird shit that makes a bizarre sense. And now I’m overthinking it and have killed the flow. Just like the third game of shooting pool. That’s life.
To brag, in my recent pinball adventure with my primary pinball partner Jon, I had my best game ever on my favorite game ever, Theatre of Magic. Real names be proof:
So how the hell does this relate to interaction design? You want the people using your product to find their flow. Doing with success without thinking leads to flow which leads to enjoyment and satisfaction. Accomplishment. That’s the reward.
Make the interaction rule set clear. Make the reward attainable. Allow for graceful failure.
My mind is blown. Your mind is blown. Anybody who watched the Opening Ceremony at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics had their mind blown. Spectacular. Big. Incredible. Historical. No verbs can be found.
I’d go as far to say that this was the most incredible experience ever designed. The scale, the coordination, the inventiveness, the low-key yet over-the-top use of technology. We’ve never seen anything like this before.
The Bird’s Nest is the new iPhone.
Every year or two, something comes along in the design world to reset the design barometer. iPod. Minority Report. iPhone. Everything after is compared to that barometer, wants to be like it, wants to emulate its success. The Opening Ceremonies is that new barometer, and we’ll just simply call it the Bird’s Nest. From the opening drummers to the use of massive screens to the incorporation of history and message to the incredibly tight coordination to the stunning image of Li Ning running around the stadium scrim to light the torch, the Bird’s Nest is the experience to reference, emulate, and beat. A perfect blend of story and engineering.
I’m not the first to say this, nor will I be the last. But that is partly the part of the overall theme of the ceremony, or as Dan Saffer said: “The human being as pixel.” As much as we love to highlight the individual, the One, in the West, we need to remember that we are also part of a community, the Many, as highlighted in the East. Neither belief is 100% true, yet both are true. We are both one and many. The symbolism was everywhere. The drummers. The human printing blocks. Yes, the individual can accomplish a hell of a lot when the mind is set, but look at what can happen when many minds are set on the same thing. Even though much of this imagery came from the mind of director Zhang Yimou, he could not have built this on his own. One can’t live without Many, Many can’t live without One. The central paradox of life?
The Times (London, not New York) has recently opened its entire archives from 1785-1985 to the public, an incredible trove of history. So naturally, I search for “push-button”, since “button” returns too many bits about clothing.
The first mention of “push-button” in The Times is from March 9, 1887 on page 5. The title is “A New Telephone,” but upon reading it, what is this thing?
A NEW TELEPHONE PARIS, March 8
I was invited to be present to-day at some telephone experiments between Paris and Brussels with a new apparatus known as the “micro-telephone push-button.” These experiments, which were made on behalf of the two telegraphic administrative departments of France and Belgium, produced a very lively impression on those present, and I believe the new apparatus to be the most perfect yet produced.
Is this type of an event a lost art? The inventor toils away in their laboratory, achieves some success, and invites a select group of colleagues to witness this success. Or is this event what we now call a “public beta”? Let’s invite all our colleagues to see this thing we have made.
As its name indicates, it has the form of an ordinary electric push-button.
This phrase stopped me cold. An “ordinary electric push-button.” First of all, calling it “ordinary” means that the device has been around for a while, people take it for granted, it’s just a part of everyday life. But this is 1887! What was an ordinary push-button in 1887? Notice also the name of this device: micro-telephone push-button. The noun, the essence, the identity of this device is a push-button. A button to us in 2008 is just a component of another product, which could be a radio, an alarm clock, or a telephone, but here the 1887 device itself is a “push-button.” A button on its own doesn’t do anything. It only acts as a trigger to make something else happen. But in 1887 this concept must have been so novel that the push-button itself became the identity of the device. Yet, it was also “ordinary.” Odd.
When the button has been pushed in, and has made a sound at the other extremity, it is taken out, and is found to be attached to a long electric wire. There is thus exposed the telephonic plate, which is extremely sensitive, so that where it is necessary to speak at short distances it is not necessary to come close to the instrument. For communications in the same street, or the same house, the operator places the upper part near himself, and without changing his position he can speak with the correspondent at the opposite extremity. He is not obliged to put his ear to the part which contains the button and brings back the reply. Thus for short distances those who make use of this apparatus speak in their ordinary tone, without changing their customary attitudes. They may sit or walk about, and speak just as if those they are addressing were present. When great distances intervene, as in the experiments performed to-day, in which the speakers and hearers were separated by 200 miles, it is necessary to come nearer to the apparatus, but without being obliged to speak quite close to it.
This isn’t quite a telephone. Sounds more like an intercom or walkie-talkie. Or, speakerphone.
Notice also: “without changing their customary attitudes,” an early shout-out to the notion that new technology is better when adapting or enhancing existing patterns of behavior, rather than forcing changes in behavior.
But what makes this apparatus the most successful of telephonic instruments is, that it can be made for half-a-crown, that is to say, for not more than the price of the ordinary push-button. Now, as it can be fitted to the electric wire of the ordinary ringing apparatus, it follows that it introduces a complete change in our ordinary modes of intercourse.
Lots of “ordinary”s. Oh, but now it’s about to change our ordinary modes of intercourse. I assume this refers to how we communicate with each other, rather than other forms of intercourse.
At front doors, in the interior rooms of houses, everywhere in short, where the ordinary electric buttons are used, the telephonic button may be introduced.
Sounds more like an intercom or speakerphone.
It will by this means be possible to give or receive instructions, to know who is knocking at the door, to communicate in short, by speaking as well as by ringing. On the advantage of this in everyday life it is unnecessary to dwell. The railway companies are making experiments with this apparatus as a means of communication between compartments of carriages. It is being fitted up on trial in hotels. I have seen it at work at the door of a private house, where I was replied to by those within without their having stirred from their places, and without the door being opened. Between Paris and Brussels, this instrument, costing half-a-crown, worked with admirable precision, and it was not altogether without an eerie feeling that I listened to a voice with a slight Belgian accent coming to me from a distance of more than 200 miles.
It’s incredible how many of our technological inventions are based on the human need to connect with each other, from the telephonic button down to Twitter. The forms change, the methods change, even the synchronous nature of conversation changes, but it all boils down to communication and connection.
On the advantage of this in everyday life it is unnecessary to dwell.