Design of Understanding 2012 – a review

It is clear that our old model of the world as a complicated (but classifiable and ultimately comprehensible) system no longer matches the things we see happening around us. Where did the economic crisis come from? Why are there riots in the streets? No amount of logic seems to bring the answers. Luckily a new model is in the making: the idea of the world as a complex adaptive system, where small things can have big implications and where large things can have hardly any implication at all. Welcome to the world where, as Kevin Slavin suggested, we can no longer read the algorithms we’ve written.

Within this new world, Design of Understanding tried to answer two questions:
1. How do we begin to understand our current world?
2. How do we begin building our future?

1. Understanding the world.
Gill Ereaut of Linguistic Landscapes proposed an interesting method of understanding the inner workings of an organisation: through looking at the internal language of a company. How are departments called? What job titles do people have? Which words are used in emails? All these small signs create a rich insight into the hidden ways of corporate thinking. If this internal language and these silent assumptions are not addressed, a change of corporate strategy is guaranteed to fail. Ereaut mentioned that in many cases companies came back to her every five years because they had managed to recreate their own problems. If you want to change a company’s path, if you want to follow a beautiful new strategy, you need to address the unspoken rules and the silent assumptions. In short, you need to look at the language, because it is language that constructs the world.

Tom Armitage offered a different way of creating models of the world. In his talk on game design he explained how games can serve as a model for the world at large. If we want to understand a game, we often just start playing it, thereby testing our assumptions against the unknown rules of the game. It’s only through playing that we slowly uncover the rules within the black box. Well designed games are unstable games where not all rules align; for every two rules that reinforce each other there is a third one that creates friction. It is this friction that makes it fun to play.

To understand our current world therefore it is not enough to come up with new theories. To understand it, we must play and keep on playing. Because only through play we will able to slowly reverse engineer the process in the black box and discover opportunities for new approaches.

2. Building the future.
Timo Arnall of Berg made a case for the use of film as a medium to bring the future closer. Film, if done well, is powerful in unpacking actions over time and allows insight into complex emotions. More than any other medium, film gives you a bodily experience of what you see. This makes it a powerful medium for testing ideas before they are made. The touch screen in Minority Report is a good example of a cinematic interpretation that made touch screens look desirable long before they were commercially possible.

The challenge of making people enthusiastic for new technology is also something that Alan Patrick dealt with. He sees hypes and bubbles as unavoidable, and even as a positive phenomenon for new technology to cross the chasm between early adopters and early majority. It’s thanks to the madness of crowds that so much money was pumped into ICT, the Internet and social media, and although much of this money evaporates, in the end we do manage to have better technology.

For me Dan Hill‘s talk was the best of the day, he took all that was good from the previous talks and pushed it forwards. In his work as strategic design lead at Sitra, the Finish organisation for innovation, he deals daily with the challenge of changing the country for the best, whilst avoiding all pitfalls that come with change. He used Wouter Vanstiphout‘s idea that the only way to change cities is by changing the system that governs them, and used the metaphor of dark matter to explain this. Like the universe, our world consists for 90% out of dark matter, a thick layer of rules, regulations, ideas, habits and codes that, although invisible, make our 10% visible world possible. To start changing this invisible world of dark matter, Hill proposed the usage of Trojan horse strategy. A Trojan horse or a McGuffin is a token that is built not for its own existence, but for the sake of understanding and changing the world in which it has been brought to life. Through cycling this new object round after round through the dark matter, slowly the invisible starts to reveal itself (also a theme Tim Arnall and James Bridle). Once the outlines of the dark matter have revealed themselves, experiments can be created to explore the possibilities of altering these lines.

It’s here that the world of games and the world of dark matter start to come together and make a clear statement: the only way to start understanding complex adaptive systems is by starting to play with(in) them. And the only way to change them is through many rounds of slow iterations.

More reviews:
The Unpacking of Complexity by Lulu Pinney
The Design of Understanding by Aden Davies
Sketch notes by Amanda Wright
Sketch notes by Eva Lotta Lamm
Lanyrd page 


dConstruct 2011 – a review

At dConstruct 2011 cyberspace was declared dead. Gone are the days when we dreamed about walking in second life, uploading our brain to the net and leaving our bodies behind to float forever in an infinite virtual space. Now we’ve abandoned the long stairway to cyber-heaven, where do we find ourselves? After scaring people for too long, technology has begun to hide itself. First it shrunk clunky boxes into shiny objects, then it transformed winding cables into waves of air. Suddenly it was behind our walls, underneath our floors and our offices and kitchens, and one day, without anyone taking notice, it jumped into our pockets and has not left us since. How do you design for a world where not life, but technology has become virtual, something that can do and be anything you can imagine, but that in itself has no particular shape or place? The answer is both complex and simple. It’s a lot like living in the old days: we share stories and create memories, we hang out with our friends and family and try to make sense of the world in which we live. But it is like living in the new days too, every object has its virtual doppelgänger, every move turns into data that can be tracked and traced, at any place we can connect with anyone and anything else. In a way technology has become more like ‘the force’ – an omnipresent faceless power that can be tapped into at any moment to use for… to use for what?

Uxdo writing workshop – a short overview

Inspired by Will Myddelton’s post on the open UX university I got the idea for a series of workshops that could help people become more active in the UX community. Posting the idea on the London IA message board resulted in many positive replies. Attendees, speakers, co-organisers and hosts all came forward. After the initial post it still took a few months to connect all the dots, but on 7 July the first Uxdo took place.

The theme of the workshop hosted at Fortune Cookie was writing and featured Martin Belam and Cennydd Bowles. Martin shared great tips on getting into the blogging habit and optimising your posts and Cennydd made it clear that editing is as important for a good piece as writing itself. At the end of the evening everyone agreed to write a blogpost and two weeks later the majority lived up to it.

Here’s a list of all the posts that were written after the uxdo workshop:

Martin Belam – Cennydd Bowles on the value of editing
Tim Caynes – Writing to be read: a workshop on being a better writer
Heidi Blanton – Who has rights to your Twitter photos? TwitPic updates TOS.
Sally Smith – Copywriting and interface design: five unifying principles – UX Sleuth
Lucy Hughes – Interactivism
Francis Rowland – Science, stories and better design
Will Myddelton – The Story Of How I Got My Name
Tyler Tate – Learning Styles: The Cognitive Side of Content
Martina Schell – UX in startups: 6 tips from the frontline
Simon Doggett  – The London UX Job Pool – A Guide for Candidates
Jason Mesut – The Portfolio Rant (part 2)
Cennydd Bowles – Simple Harmonic Motion

These posts form a wide and rich collection of stories and ideas, which I think is an amazing result! And I hope that everyone feels inspired to keep on writing.

Rumour has it that the next Uxdo will be on workshop facilitation and might take place in mid-August, be sure to follow @uxdo on twitter to find out when the next one will be.

What I learned at UXLondon 2010

As the field of UX is growing and we have to tackle more and more challenges, we can no longer reach out for our old tools and methodologies. Jesse James puts forwards a concept to see UX design for the web as one of the many forms of experience design that exist. Liz comes at it from another angle and states that we should rethink how and what we design, we shouldn’t limit our users by our choices, we should enable them to use our designs and run with it. We are only the makers of violin bows, a useless artifact if it wouldn’t be used to create something beautiful.

Jesse James Garett
We also have to look at the experience that is being delivered outside the medium that we delivered it in. Our work is not done when we deliver it, it’s done when it is used by our customers. An experience is (always) the outcome, but our goal should be to engage our users in it. We can speak about engagement in two different dimensions, the perception-action dimension and the cognition-emotion dimension.

Liz Danzico
Not only should we redesign the language and concepts that we are using, we should also alter what we design and how. We should bridge the gap between creator and consumer and meet in the middle, where the consumer can use and reuse what the designer made. We should also understand that to give room for improvisation we should be much more clear about the few rules that we keep in place. To enable improvisation we should design for three things: the present – it has to happen in the now, detectability – it must be understood at at least some level (see rules) and responsiveness – there should be a short feedback loop to keep people engaged.

Michael B. Johnson
We build bows for violins, useless in themselves, but essential to create beautiful things. Quality is the best business practice. We layer our films in three levels: the world in which the story is set, the people who live in that world and finally the individual. Beauty is not merely a side product. Making beautiful products makes people happy and enables them to be more productive.

Joshua Porter
If we want to have a bigger seat at the board table, then we should account for our work. Data-driven design might seem to be the answer but is not. There is a problem with the current divide between data-driven and intuition design. Intuition design might come a long way but leads us into endless discussions. Data-driven design might be clear but could cause us to optimise a sub-optimal peak without ever getting to the much higher mountain a bit further up. We should therefore set up a culture that takes the best out of both worlds. Data doesn’t design, designers do.

We can’t solve the problems with the same tools that created them. – Einstein

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. – Einstein

What is the next web?

Last Friday I attended to the Next Web, (although i was very luck to been able to speak with some people on the night before) Because a lot of websites already did great coverages of the day, ill stick to the things i learned.

So what is the next web?

The next web is wireless (not mobile)

Although a lot of people and businesses are really betting on the mobile platform, I think a mobile phone is just some kind of small laptop computer, and that is only a matter of time before we will use it that way (or it’s already been used if you count all the blackberries at the next web). Off course there are different demands when you are wireless, location based services will really grow the upcoming years. But things like sms, mms, and paying extra for calling for long distances will (hopefully) soon be gone.

The Next Web isn’t a web
The web still refers to something static as the spider web. There is probably a need for a new metaphor. Something that is everywhere, always chancing, and always on. It’s a life and it’s about us and the world around us. (Thanks to Tapan Bath’s slide.)

The Next Web is about being connected.
Deborah Schultz already mentioned it, she has about 3000 connections, not all friends, not all a people on one platform like myspace or linked in, but just connections. I think although in lesser extent for me it’s the same. I have many connections, friends from the early days, classmates, ex-colleagues, people i’ve met, people I’ve never met etcetera. The more important a connection is, the more places I use to connect with them. We are probably becoming like star treks the Borg, but without a leader.

The Next Web is de-central
Although the web is in it being de-central, there will be more nodes and the size these nodes will be (relatively) smaller. It is really about the connection, the days of the portals are gone. It’s a headless organisation (like the starfish). The fact that the web is the biggest human invention that has never been out of order since it was build is a big proof of concept. Of course there will be small central places, smaller and bigger spiders will arise, but it wont be big companies any more, it will be people. Who those spiders are? They are the people you first visit and connect when a new social network arises.

The Next Web is about love
This Kevin Kelly quote from last years Next Web is still true I think, thanks to the transparency of the current web (and world) those who are only in it for the money will be discovered very quick and die a silent dead. Those who are however passionate about their work and their life, and are willing to share as much as possible will be the new big spiders of the future.

The Next Web is a social prison
Thanks to it’s structure the web will work as a modern version of the panopticon. With the difference that there is now a two way structure. Everyone will be able to see everyone else, but no-one will be sure if they are being watched. Misbehaviour will be punished, and only a honest reaction will save your ass.

The Next Web will be transparent
As mentioned above, thanks to to speed of information, the multi-connections and the possibility to read and write everywhere. it’s impossible to keep secrets on the web. If you suck, everyone will know it, if you rock everyone will know it too.

As a whole I liked the 2007 edition of the Next Web, I still think it’s one of the best Dutch events we have (together with Picnic) it gave me the opportunity to meet many old friends, to connect with new people and to learn and discuss about the current state of the web. And even been shocked that people knew who I was without ever meeting them before. A big Yay Hooray to Boris, Patrick and Arjen for making this thing happen.

For the next Next Web I would love to see some good science fiction writer or movie maker. Bruce Sterling or William Gibson would be high on my list of recommendations.

Check out some other reviews on BlueAce, MarketingFacts, Mashable, Upstream, Frankwatching, Marketing-podcast and DutchCowboys as well as the photos on Flickr, the videos on YouTube and of course the posts on the web itself.

3 easy steps for an European Silicon Valley

In the morning session of the Next Web there where two more interesting presentations from the venture capitalists Jeff Clavier and Saul Klein. Their presentation gained a lot of sceptical criticism, nevertheless they got me thinking. So first a summary of their talks, and than I’ll look a bit deeper in the discussion they created.

Saul Klein is missing the right mindset
Saul Klein asks the audience “Why is an area, hardly half the size of the Netherlands, the most successful tech-innovation area in the world”. What Silicon Valley has is a tight connection between VC’s, start-ups and universities, and the ecosystem to commercialize what’s next on on the web.

Europe does have the right ingredients for the formula. It’s level of education is higher than in the States. There is a lot of old and new money, and people are working on technology everywhere. The thing missing according to Saul is the right mindset to make it work. As someone from the audience said “Europeans are educated to be employers instead of entrepreneurs” And from personal experience, i can’t do anything but agree with him.

Leafar wrote an excellent post about Saul’s presentation

Jeff Claviers shares many of the thoughts of his colleague, but first gives us a broader insight on what he thinks is going on in the current world. A vision of people “The previous web was about math, the next one is about people” And although I think he is right about the people, I do have some doubts that the previous one was about math. Yes Google has huge render machines, but what they do is looking for patterns into what humans do. I think the math won’t disappear in the next web, it will probably go bellow the surface where it always was.

Another point he made in which I think he is more right is that thanks to broadband the difference between the representation of the self online and in the real world is shrinking, mixing up, matching and becoming one big bricolage. “The distance between the us and the online us is shrinking” thank to the up going speed from broadband. If Jeff didn’t do it already I would advise him to read two classics The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – Erving Goffman and the Life on the Screen – Sherry Turkle. Besides his more social vision of the next web he also has some VC wisdom to share with us.

Tips and tricks to make technology innovation work in Europe:

  • Success creates self-fulfilling prophecies. If one company has success, it can fund and help many other companies afterwards.
  • Europe needs an VC equivalent of Kleiner Perkins a VC that invested in more than 300 (!) tech-startups
  • Europeans should focus so much on their local market, and from the start build applications that are build for world domination (ehm scalable)
  • Stop building local clones, go for the throat, forget the knock off’s
  • Culture shift. Success should be celebrated, failure accepted and risk taking promoted.
  • More sharing, networking and supporting.

I would add to that, more open coffee’s, more Next Web, and hey: We need an European Techcrunch!! But still one of the European problems is the big differences between languages and cultures.

The good things already in Europe

  • Broadband access, faster and cheaper than whole of the us (Thank you KPN-Quest, you haven’t died for noting)
  • Cellphones and mobile are here much better than in the US (Thank you Nokia and Eriksson) (We just leave Japan out of the picture here)

Herbert Blankenstein as an radio interview with Jeff online

Lessons to be learned

  • Take risk, Start up, It’s ok to fail
  • The Next Web are the people, contact is king (so go out and talk to people)
  • Think big, don’t clone, forget the country and go for the world

Interesting is the reaction on some weblogs

According to Read/Write web it’s just the same old talk over and over again, Life of a Coder declares Jeff the first Frenchmen to like. Gary Reid thinks that Saul and Jeff should put their money where there mouth is, and actually invest in some risk taking European start-ups.

So I’m left with the question, are we really that bad in Europe, is there a need for change, and if so, what should we do?