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Putting People First

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September 2013
29 September 2013

The problem with big data correlations

 

“The people using big data don’t presume to peer deeply into people’s souls,” argues David Brooks in the New York Times (in an April 2013 column). “They don’t try to explain why people are doing things. They just want to observe what they are doing.”

“The theory of big data is to have no theory, at least about human nature. You just gather huge amounts of information, observe the patterns and estimate probabilities about how people will act in the future. [In other words,] this movement asks us to move from causation to correlation.”

While this approach has yielded some impressive results, he says, one should be also aware of its limits and goes on to list four of them:

  • The challenge of discerning meaningful correlations from meaningless ones
  • People are discontinuous and the passing of time can produce gigantic and unpredictable changes in taste and behavior
  • The world is error-prone and dynamic
  • The distinction between commodity decisions and flourishing decisions

Interesting too, his conclusion: “My worries mostly concentrate on the cultural impact of the big data vogue. If you adopt a mind-set that replaces the narrative with the empirical, you have problems thinking about personal responsibility and morality, which are based on causation. You wind up with a demoralized society.”

29 September 2013

The Qualified Self

qualified-self

Looking at yet another tweet and another post about the Quantified Self, I started reflecting this morning on the Silicon Valley-driven fascination with the quantification of one’s own activities, body and habits.

The Quantified Self movement is portrayed as the nec-plus-ultra of objectivity that will help us live a better life. But something big is missing, and Jenny Davis PhD, a sociologist who teaches at James Madison University, seeks to address the fundamental issue of “why”. She argues (in a March 2013 blog post) that the reasons why people quantify themselves are entirely qualitative, with all that this implies:

“Self-quantification has a really important, prevalent, and somewhat ironic, qualitative component. This qualitative component is key in mediating between raw numbers and identity meanings. If self-quantifiers are seeking self-knowledge through numbers, then narratives and subjective interpretations are the mechanisms by which data morphs into selves. Self-quantifiers don’t just use data to learn about themselves, but rather, use data to construct the stories that they tell themselves about themselves. […]

Self-qualification is present from the beginning, as decisions about what to measure and how to do so are highly subjective, and rest upon subject narratives. […]

Self quantification is a process bookended by self qualification. Yes, the numbers are important. Self-quantification is, by definition, self-knowledge through numbers. Those numbers, however, take shape qualitatively. They become the code with which self-quantifiers prosume selves and identities into being. They are the bits with which self-quantifiers make sense of their atoms. ”

(My emphasis)

29 September 2013

The science behind using online communities to change behavior

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Sean Young, a behavioral psychologist, a family medicine professor and director of innovation at the center for behavioral and addiction medicine at UCLA, addresses the challenge of technology entrepreneurs on how to engage people and change behaviors.

Fortunately, he says, “there is a science behind how to change behavior, and the answer to engagement and behavior change lies in understanding people’s psychology.”

“By addressing people’s psychological needs and reasons for not changing behavior (including their social environments, cultural values, and emotions), we can be more effective at behavior change. Once we understand people’s psychologies, then technologies — online communities in particular — become really useful as platforms to rapidly change behavior.

Although social media and online communities might have been developed for people to connect and share information, recent research shows that these technologies are really helpful in changing behaviors.”

Dr. Young argues that newly created online communities can change people’s behaviors by addressing the following psychological needs:

  • The need to trust
  • The need to fit in
  • The need for self-worth
  • The need to be rewarded for good behavior
  • The need to feel empowered
28 September 2013

Ethnography and speculative fiction

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Two new articles on Ethnography Matters:

Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?
Laura Forlano (@laura4lano) is a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and she was a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012-2013.
Her research is on emergent forms of organizing and urbanism enabled by mobile, wireless and ubiquitous computing technologies with an emphasis on the socio-technical practices and spaces of innovation.
In her contribution, Laura describes the lessons ethnographers can learn from Science-Fiction and a sub-domain of design referred to as “speculative design”.

Ethnography and Speculative Fiction
In this third post in our “Ethnography and Speculative Fiction” series, Clare Anzoleaga (@ClareAnzoleaga) from Fresno City College discusses the potential of fictional accounts of ethnographic work. In doing so, she complements the piece by Anne Galloway and the article by Laura Forlano: this time it’s less about design or design fictions and more about writing. More specifically, she highlights the rhetorical possibilities of such approach for understanding knowledge and shared meaning.

28 September 2013

Book: People-Centered Innovation

OliveiraCoverWeb

People-Centered Innovation: Becoming a Practitioner in Innovative Research
by Pedro Oliveira
Biblio Publishing, 2013
194 pages
[Amazon]

Written with a general audience in mind, People-Centered Innovation focuses on innovation research in corporate settings. Starting with a biographical standpoint, it describes the author’s transition from the fields of psychology and anthropology into the fields of business anthropology and innovation. Through a rich description of case-studies of corporate work, the author takes us into a fascinating journey across different ways of observing relations between consumers and corporations and generating new ideas based on that observation.

Pedro Oliveira is an anthropologist and an ethnographic research consultant.

Some other papers by Pedro Oliveira:

27 September 2013

An ethnography of interaction design practice (PhD dissertation)

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Delivering Design: Performance and Materiality in Professional Interaction Design is the title of the PhD dissertation Elizabeth Sarah Goodman defended last year to obtain the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Information Management and Systems at UC Berkeley. It is now available online.

Abstract

Interaction design is the definition of digital behavior, from desktop software and mobile applications to components of appliances, automobiles, and even biomedical devices. Where architects plan buildings, graphic designers make visual compositions, and industrial designers give form to three-dimensional objects, interaction designers define the digital components of products and services. These include websites, mobile applications, desktop software, automobiles, consumer electronics, and more. Interaction design is a relatively new but fast-growing discipline, emerging with the explosive growth of the World Wide Web. In a software-saturated world, every day, multiple times a day, billions of people encounter the work products of interaction design.

Given the reach of their profession, how interaction designers work is of paramount concern. In considering interaction design, this dissertation turns away from a longstanding question of design studies: How does interaction design demonstrate a special form of human thought? And towards a set of questions drawn from practice-oriented studies of science and technology: What kinds of objects and subjects do interaction design practices make, and how do those practices produce them?

Based on participant observation at three San Francisco interaction design consultancies and interviews with designers in California’s Bay Area, this dissertation argues that performance practices organize interaction design work. By “performance practices,” I mean episodes of storytelling and narrative that take place before an audience of witnesses. These performances instantiate — make visible and tangibly felt — the human and machine behaviors that the static deliverables seem unable on their own to materialize. In doing so, performances of the project help produce and sustain alignment within teams and among designers, clients, and developers.

In this way, a focus on episodes of performance turns our concerns from cognition, in which artifacts assist design thinking, to one of enactment, in which documents, spaces, tools, and bodies actively participating in producing the identities, responsibilities, and capacities of project constituents. It turns our attention to questions of political representation, materiality and politics. From this perspective, it is not necessarily how designers think but how they stage and orchestrate performances of the project that makes accountable, authoritative decision-making on behalf of clients and prospective users possible.

25 September 2013

Mobile mastery

MM-brain

Lauren Pope of Nokia writes that there are three things to think about if you want your devices and your brain to sing in unison: mindfulness, attention and metacognition.

The video is cute and well-done, but doesn’t match the three things in the text, as the three things are: mindful, purposeful, and playful.

The thing comes with a free ebook.

25 September 2013

Simon Roberts (EPIC chair) reflects on Big Data, business and ethnography

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Simon Roberts, the highly engaging, smart and easily approachable chair of the EPIC conference last week, was so absorbed with all the logistics that he didn’t find the concentration to speak his mind during the conference. Now that the conference is over (and well organised it was!), it took him less than a week to type out a long blog post to position his thoughts on Big Data. It’s a long read but very much worth it, and it starts off exactly with the right criticism:

“The discussion at EPIC 2013 disappointed me a little. It was either constrained by simplistic oppositions (big data good / nothing to fear vs. big data bad / end of our profession as we know it), impoverished by a general lack of ethnographic specificity and illustration, or absented to discuss the power relations that big data entails.

Most worrying for me of all of these was the lack of specificity in the discussion and the absence of discussion about power. “

Exactly my thinking as well. There is an asymmetry in power relations that requires serious reflection and analysis, and it was dearly missing, sometimes even actively sidelined – as if irrelevant for ethnographers. There is an ethical and even political side to Big Data, that we have to very aware of, as user researchers and as designers (i.e. the professionals that mediate the relations between corporations and people).

Very helpful are Simon’s four dimensions of Big Data which articulate this power imbalance in more detail:

  • Quantified self vs. Monitored Self — the difference between me assenting to monitor myself vs. being monitored
  • Asymmetries of exchange — the uneven nature of the exchange between provider and analysyer/reseller of data
  • Asymmetries of feedback — the importance of balanced feedback systems
  • Asymmetries of judgment — the difference between the big data creating ‘fact’ and being used to create value judgements

He uses the example of the driving style tracking device that an insurance company installed in his car to raise some very good questions.

His three challenges (on incentive structures, interaction design and business risks) are spot-on. Read, read, read!

24 September 2013

When does quantity become quality? How to navigate big data

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While “Big Data” is causing excitement in the IT and business sector, the practice and concept of data analysis is not unfamiliar to those coming from a UX research background, writes Michael Lai in UX Magazine. The intersection of business intelligence and user-centric design therefore creates both demand and opportunity for UX professionals with specialist knowledge in user research to create more impact with their work.

24 September 2013

Can Smarter Cities improve our quality of life?

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Can information and technology improve the quality of life in cities?

That seems a pretty fundamental question for the Smarter Cities movement to address. There is little point in us expending time and money on the application of technology to city systems unless we can answer it positively.

Rick Robinson, Executive Architect at IBM specialising in emerging technologies and Smarter Cities, argues that the answer is yes in a long post on his blog, that is structured around Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”.

23 September 2013

Does digital age overcomplicate design?

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Alice Rawsthorn, design critic of the New York Times, argues that too many products use complexity to mask their flaws.

“Designing self-explanatory products is even more important — and more challenging — in the digital era, when devices like phones and computers are becoming ever smaller and more powerful as the public faces of unimaginably complex networks of cloud clusters, supercomputers, data centers and cell towers. Accident-prone though Apple has become, it has continued to design objects that look — and feel — uncomplicated, despite their extreme complexity. Nokia has done the same in the admirably lucid operating software of its cell phones. Yet too many companies continue to produce unjustifiably complicated designs with opaque instructions that render them more perplexing, rather than less so.”

21 September 2013

Online time can hobble brain’s important work

 

While you are browsing online, you could be squandering memories — or losing important information, according to Swedish research.

Contrary to common wisdom, an idle brain is in fact doing important work — and in the age of constant information overload, it’s a good idea to go offline on a regular basis, says a researcher from Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
Erik Fransén, whose research focuses on short-term memory and ways to treat diseased neurons, says that a brain exposed to a typical session of social media browsing can easily become hobbled by information overload. The result is that less information gets filed away in your memory.

Nice, the phrase at the end of the article: “Share this story on Facebook, Twitter, and Google”.

21 September 2013

Financial Times on EPIC conference

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This week, business anthropologists from all over the world descended on the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference at London’s Royal Institution, the historic site where Michael Faraday first demonstrated the power of electricity, reports Emma Jacobs in the Financial Times.

Over three days, practitioners discussed applications of anthropology in the business world, covering such issues as big data and clinical trials. Addressed by such luminaries in the field as Genevieve Bell, who has worked at Intel for the past 15 years, the event is an opportunity to meet kindred spirits.

In the US, anthropologists have been hired for more than two decades by technology groups including Intel, Apple and Xerox. Microsoft is said to be the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world, behind the US government. Technology groups descended on anthropology in order to understand the diverse markets they operated in.

19 September 2013

How Public Design? A conference at Mindlab

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MindLab, a cross-ministerial innovation unit in Denmark, hosted the seminar titled ‘How Public Design?’ for the second time on 2 and 3 September.

This event gathered a distinguished group of decision-makers, researchers, experts and consultants of social change. As the previous event, the theme itself was subject to continuous reflection: what was ‘how public design’ actually referring to? Most of the participants could agree that we were talking about a particular kind of ‘human-centered design’ approach. But was it a specific kind of thinking, process or method? Was it about exploring and characterizing a specific mentality or even personality as a ‘public designer’? Or was ‘public design’ perhaps a way of reframing ‘public sector change’ or ‘public policy’?

A reflection by Jesper Christiansen.

> Other reflections by Joeri van den Steenhoven (Mars Solutions Lab) and Sarah Schulman (Kennislands).

19 September 2013

Is design still about making things?

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The future of design is a broad and slippery subject, one examined number of designers and critics at the recent Alvar Aalto Design Seminar in Jyväskylä, Finland.

“With a distinct focus on product and furniture design – as befitting to the festival’s namesake, Finnish architect, Artek-founder and furniture designer Aalto – it’s interesting to see that the overarching conclusion is that design is moving away from creating ‘stuff’, to creating solutions. […]

Stephen Burks, industrial designer and founder of studio Readymade Projects, draws a definite distinction between the 20th and 21st Century attitudes to objects and design, and as such, the emerging new role of the designer.

In the 21st Century, says Burks, the designer’s role is as collaborator and conduit – as ‘stuff’ becomes less important to people the designer is increasingly someone who finds solutions to problems with less tangible end results than someone who creates physical things.”

19 September 2013

How robots can trick you into loving them

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The secret to robots with better social skills? Exploiting human nature. Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor of BoingBoing.net, explores “how [designers can make] robots trick you in loving them” for the New York Times Magazine.

“In the future, more robots will occupy that strange gray zone: doing not only jobs that humans can do but also jobs that require social grace. In the last decade, an interdisciplinary field of research called Human-Robot Interaction has arisen to study the factors that make robots work well with humans, and how humans view their robotic counterparts. […]

H.R.I. researchers have discovered some rather surprising things: a robot’s behavior can have a bigger impact on its relationship with humans than its design; many of the rules that govern human relationships apply equally well to human-robot relations; and people will read emotions and motivations into a robot’s behavior that far exceed the robot’s capabilities. As we employ those lessons to build robots that can be better caretakers, maids and emergency responders, we risk further blurring the (once unnecessary) line between tools and beings.”

19 September 2013

EthnographyMatters on the relationships between ethnography, fiction and design

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This month’s theme of EthnographyMatters, edited by Nicolas Nova, is about the relationships between ethnography, speculative fiction and design.

“In design circles, the current interest in “design fiction” is geared towards exploring how prototyping and storytelling can benefit from each other. Design fiction use standard objects and media conventions as a way to express ideas about the future: a fake product catalogue, a map of a fictional area, a journal, a short video showing a day in the life of a person, etc. One can see design fiction as similar to science fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, as well as speculating about the course of events… which is obviously close to what a certain kind of ethnography is interested in. This ability to flesh out the details of alternative futures can be seen as an intriguing form of speculative ethnography with a specific focus on original format.”

This month’s contributors are:

  • Anne Galloway, an ethnographer interested in material, visual and discursive aspects of technology, will give her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction.
  • Laura Forlano, from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, will address what ethnographers can learn from science fiction and speculative design. Based on examples from design and popular culture, she will explore the generative and analytic potential of “design fiction”.
  • Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas Rowland, both sociologists at TU Berlin, will address post-ironic ethnography, reportage style and David Foster Wallace.
19 September 2013

Two recent reports by Pew Internet

 

Both studies are about the USA market.

Location-based services
(Released on September 12, 2013)

The role of location in digital life is changing as growing numbers of internet users are adding a new layer of location information to their posts, and a majority of smartphone owners use their phones’ location-based services.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project sheds light on three major aspects of how location figures in digital life:

  • Many people use their smartphones to navigate the world: 74% of adult smartphone owners ages 18 and older say they use their phone to get directions or other information based on their current location.
  • There is notable growth in the number of social media users who are now setting their accounts to include location in their posts: Among adult social media users ages 18 and older, 30% say that at least one of their accounts is currently set up to include their location in their posts, up from 14% who said they had ever done this in 2011.
  • There is a modest drop in the number of smartphone owners who use “check in” location services: Some 12% of adult smartphone owners say they use a geosocial service to “check in” to certain locations or share their location with friends, down from 18% in early 2012. Among these geosocial service users, 39% say they check into places on Facebook, 18% say they use Foursquare, and 14% say they use Google Plus, among other services.

Interestingly, “Among adult cell phone users ages 18 and older who have downloaded apps to their cell phone, 35% have turned off the location tracking feature on their phone at some point because they were worried about other people or companies being able to access that information. This works out to 19% of adult cell phone owners overall as of April 2012. […] Almost half of teen cell or tablet app users have turned off the location-tracking feature on their cell phone or in an app.”

Cell Internet Use 2013
(Released on September 19, 2013)

63% of adult cell owners now use their phones to go online, a figure that has doubled since we first started tracking internet usage on cell phones in 2009. In addition, 34% of these cell internet users say that they mostly go online using their cell phone. That means that 21% of all adult cell owners now do most of their online browsing using their mobile phone—and not some other device such as a desktop or laptop computer.

“A majority of the public now owns a smartphone, and mobile devices are playing an increasingly central role in the way that Americans access online services and information,” said Aaron Smith, a Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project. “For many, such as younger adults or lower-income Americans, cell phones are often a primary device for accessing online content—a development that has particular relevance to companies and organizations seeking to reach these groups.”

19 September 2013

A Manifesto for Smart Citizens

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We, citizens of all cities, take the fate of the places we live in into our own hands. We care about the familiar buildings and the parks, the shops, the schools, the roads and the trees, but far more about the quality of the life we live in them. About the casual interactions, uncalled for encounters, the craze and the booze and the love we lost and found. We know that our lives are interconnected, and what we do here will impact the outcomes over there. While we can never predict the eventual effect of our actions, we take full responsibility to make this world a better place.

Therefore…

19 September 2013

Book: Design Anthropology

9780857853691

Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice
Editor(s): Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, Rachel Charlotte Smith
Bloomsbury Academic, 2013
304 pages

Design is a key site of cultural production and change in contemporary society. Anthropologists have been involved in design projects for several decades but only recently a new field of inquiry has emerged which aims to integrate the strengths of design thinking and anthropological research.

This book is written by anthropologists who actively participate in the development of design anthropology. Comprising both cutting-edge explorations and theoretical reflections, it provides a much-needed introduction to the concepts, methods, practices and challenges of the new field. Design Anthropology moves from observation and interpretation to collaboration, intervention and co-creation. Its practitioners participate in multidisciplinary design teams working towards concrete solutions for problems that are sometimes ill-defined. The authors address the critical potential of design anthropology in a wide range of design activities across the globe and query the impact of design on the discipline of anthropology.

This volume will appeal to new and experienced practitioners in the field as well as to students of anthropology, innovation, science and technology studies, and a wide range of design studies focusing on user participation, innovation, and collaborative research.

For all of us who work, think, teach, write, and dwell in this exciting interdisciplinary space, these essays will be of tremendous value.” – Paul Dourish, Professor of Informatics, University of California, Irvine, USA