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Posts in category 'Social change'

22 October 2013

Book: Status Update by Alice E. Marwick

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Last year, I posted about the very interesting PhD dissertation by Alice E. Marwick (downloadable here). Based on ethnographic research of the San Francisco technology scene, she explains how social media’s technologies are based on status-seeking techniques that encourage people to apply free-market principles to the organization of social life. She has now rewritten the material – and added new interviews, new material and an extra chapter – for a book that was just published:

Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age
by Alice E. Marwick
Yale University Press
2013, 368 pages
[Amazon link]

Social media technologies such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook promised a new participatory online culture. Yet, technology insider Alice Marwick contends in this insightful book, “Web 2.0” only encouraged a preoccupation with status and attention. Her original research—which includes conversations with entrepreneurs, Internet celebrities, and Silicon Valley journalists—explores the culture and ideology of San Francisco’s tech community in the period between the dot com boom and the App store, when the city was the world’s center of social media development. Marwick argues that early revolutionary goals have failed to materialize: while many continue to view social media as democratic, these technologies instead turn users into marketers and self-promoters, and leave technology companies poised to violate privacy and to prioritize profits over participation. Marwick analyzes status-building techniques—such as self-branding, micro-celebrity, and life-streaming—to show that Web 2.0 did not provide a cultural revolution, but only furthered inequality and reinforced traditional social stratification, demarcated by race, class, and gender.

Alice E. Marwick is assistant professor, communication and media studies, Fordham University, and an academic affiliate at the Center on Law and Information Policy, Fordham Law School. Previously a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research, she regularly speaks to the press on various social media topics and has written for the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and the Guardian. She lives in New York City.

18 October 2013

What behavioral economics is not

 

Essay:
The Nature of the BEast: What Behavioral Economics Is Not
10/16/13
Matthew Darling, Saugato Datta, and Sendhil Mullainathan

People are complex; they defy easy summary. Like Walt Whitman, we all contain multitudes. As a discipline, economics has been successful in part because it has ignored this complexity. Instead it has focused on explaining the institutions in which decisions are made — with institutions ranging from capitalism to communism, from perfect competition to monopolies, and from rock-paper-scissors to the prisoner’s dilemma.

Behavioral economics differs from standard economics in that it uses a more realistic (and more complicated) model for people; it differs from psychology in that it maintains the focus on institutions and the contexts in which decisions are made. Behavioral economists study how the context of decisions interacts with our expanding understanding of human psychology. By combining the insights from these two very different perspectives, behavioral economists have been able to reveal new depths in ourselves.

The short 4 page essay can be downloaded for free from the website of the Center for Global Development, an independent, nonprofit policy research organization “dedicated to reducing global poverty and inequality and to making globalization work for the poor”.

3 October 2013

Dancing to silent algorithms

 

More and more, we live our lives according to the unknown auspices of machine codes, writes Frank Swain.

“Our lives are influenced by technologies not simply as objects but invisible systems that surround us, and whose architecture shapes the patterns of our lives. To live inside these invisible systems, whether they be insurance forms, loan requests, job applications or dating websites, we consciously adjust ourselves, providing the information we think is most suitable — or the least open to misinterpretation by the system.”

29 September 2013

The Qualified Self

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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)

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!

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”.

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).

11 September 2013

Design, innovation and government

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Last week Joeri van den Steenhoven, attended the How Public Design? conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was organized by MindLab, the Danish design lab that has been an inspiration to many in social and public sector innovation.

MindLab had gathered a small but global crowd, from countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands and Canada, most of whom were running innovation labs, such as Nesta27th RegionKennislandStanford ChangeLabs and DESIS Lab at Parsons the New School for Design.

The conference looked at design-led approaches to innovation in government, and here are some of the lessons Joeri took home.

6 September 2013

Selected videos from “The Conference” in Sweden

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Media Evolution The Conference is an international conference organized annually in Malmö, Sweden. The event focuses on factors that are affecting our society, with a media industry angle to it, exploring who sets the agenda, what changes the playing field and how we all can shape society from now on.

The main themes are “Human Behavior”, “New Technology” and “Make it Happen” with sessions that look into topics such as big data, learning, non visual communication, online harassment, responsive web design, boredom, change making and tactility in a digital world.

Here are some selected videos from the August 2013 edition. There are 56 in all online (just from 2013), so I invite you to explore them as well.

Suzannah Lipscomb – Opening keynote [41:19]
Suzannah Lipscomb is Senior Lecturer and Convenor for History at New College of the Humanities. She also holds a post as Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. Suzannah opened The Conference by looking back and talked about what we can and can not learn from the past.

James Bridle – Naked Lunch [43:07]
The world is shaped by new technologies, but perhaps it is shaped more by how we understand those technologies, how they impact our daily lives, and the mental models we have of them. James Bridle, who coined the term “New Aesthetic”, talks about architectural visualisation, online literatures, contemporary warfare and contemporary labour, in an attempt to articulate new ways of thinking about the world.

An Xiao Mina – The Internetz and Civics [12:54]
An Xiao Mina is an American artist, designer, writer and technologist. She explores the disruptive power of networked, creative communities in civic life. Dubbing memes the “street art of the internet”, she looks at the growing role of meme culture and humor in addressing social and political issues in countries like China, Uganda and the United States.

Golden Krishna – The Best Interface Is No Interface [16:25]
Golden Krishna, Senior Designer at Samsung, speaks about how “The best interface is no interface”.
Many people believe that the future of design is on screens. But what if we can design communication that doesn’t involve screens.

Mike Dewar – Seeing From Above [18:25]
Mike Dewar, Data Scientist at The New York Times R&D Lab, will talk about how we can build tools to let us see behavioral phenomena from a heady new perspective with big data and data science. In an increasingly complex and networked world, tools for recording, filtering and visualising data is powering a new breed of storytelling.

Petra Sundström – Digitals [13:52]
Petra Sundström is a leading researcher within the fields of Human Computer Interaction and Interaction Systems Design. She is Lab Manager for the Crafted Technology and Experiences lab at SICS and Mobile Life.
We all know how paper feels and that we interpret things by touching them But how does digital features feel, and how can we better understand “digital materials” to design augmented digital experiences.

Tricia Wang – The Elastic Self [17:23]
Tricia Wang is a global tech ethnographer who researches how technology makes us human. She advises organizations, corporations, and students on utilizing Digital Age ethnographic research methods to improve strategy, policy, services, and products.

6 September 2013

Thoughts on clever cities

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The multiplexed metropolis
Enthusiasts think that data services can change cities in this century as much as electricity did in the last one. The Economist – in a piece written by Ludwig Siegele, online business and finance editor, argues that they are a long way from proving their case.

The role of the citizen in the smart city
Technology has changed how we look at city infrastructure, raising the possibility of smart cities. Could it now change how city governments and citizens interact?
(With contributions by Dan Hill, Saskia Sassen, Usman Haque, William Perrin and Rick Robinson)

“Against the smart city” teaser
The smart city pretends to an objectivity, a unity and a perfect knowledge that are nowhere achievable, even in principle, argues Adam Greenfield.

6 September 2013

Rebecca Solnit on the downside of social and mobile technology

 

Rebecca Solnit writes – in an excellent piece – that she feels as though she is in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway.

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.” [...]

Getting out of it is about slowness, and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labour practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labour. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

Rebecca Solnit is the author of Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, about technological change in the 19th century. She lives on the edge of Silicon Valley.

5 September 2013

Pew: 86% of USA adults make efforts to hide digital footprints online

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Pew Research Center found that 86 percent of surveyed adult Internet users in the U.S. have made efforts to obscure their “digital footprints” — which could include simple measures like clearing cookies in your browser or something more involved like encrypting your email, writes Ingrid Lunden on TechCrunch.

Some 55 percent have taken this one step further by trying to block specific people or organizations — services like Disconnect.me, for example, have built an entire business on creating these tools.

These efforts are not directed solely at state or government groups — despite all the recent attention from the PRISM revelations and the government’s role in gathering data.

“[Users'] concerns apply to an entire ecosystem of surveillance,” writes Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and one of the report’s authors. “In fact, they are more intent on trying to mask their personal information from hackers, advertisers, friends and family members than they are trying to avoid observation by the government.”

> See also this Fast Company article

23 August 2013

The UK’s Behavioural Design Lab

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The UK’s Behavioural Design Lab is a new collaboration between Warwick Business School and the Design Council, uniting behavioural science with design-thinking. They help organisations transform a better understanding of people into innovative solutions that improve society.

Our Belief
The biggest issues in society, from obesity to climate change, are due to behavioural and lifestyle factors people embrace on a daily basis.
Most attempts to change behaviour rely on the outdated assumption that people are governed by a rational self-interest. The result is a range of programmes with a firm rationale but minimal impact.
We believe the best way to solve these issues is to not only research how and why people actually make decisions, but use the design of products, services and places to help us all make better decisions.

Our Approach
Innovation requires two things. The ability to generate creative ideas and a way of testing them.
Our approach uses design-thinking and behavioural insights to reframe problems as an opportunity for enterprise, providing a platform for creative ideas.
We then use our network to bring teams together to tackle the briefs, supporting them through development. As ideas become real, they are tested and refined using experiments.

19 August 2013

Social scientists find story in data to attract more customers

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Social scientists say that tech companies are showing an increased interest in their skills, especially with the rising importance of social networking and big data, and that their roles within those companies are changing. A report by Janet I. Tu, the Seattle Times technology reporter.

In the past few years, with the rise of social computing and social media, tech companies have come to understand that, “It’s not enough to understand the individual user,” said Donald Farmer, a Seattle-based vice president of product management at QlikTech, a software company. “You have to understand them in a social context.” [...]

Tracey Lovejoy, a senior user research lead for Office, has used her anthropology training at Microsoft as a user experience researcher and an ethnographer, researching how technology is embedded in people’s lives.

Recently, she and her team conducted a field study of about three dozen people, talking to people and observing them in their environments to understand the kinds of work they do on their tablets and how those tablets fit within their wider technology ecosystem.

One theme that emerged was that many tablet owners used their devices for more “casual productivity” and in more relaxed positions, such as reclining on the couch — information useful for future iterations of Office.

These days, Lovejoy observed, it’s the researchers themselves who are more embedded into product teams, “becoming more impactful, and influencing decisions at the strategic level.”

17 August 2013

What’s lost when everything is recorded

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Who wouldn’t delight in hearing Lincoln at Gettysburg in the same way we can go back and witness President Obama on the campaign trail? But with so much data capture and storage, which is preferable for our hearts and minds, the theater of politics or deference to the algorithm? Quentin Hardy, the deputy tech editor of the New York Times explores the matter on the newspaper’s Bits blog.

“While we fret about losing privacy and other dangers of the digital revolution, one sad change is happening with little notice: Our technology is stealing the romance of old conversations, that quaint notion that some things are best forgotten.

Remember the get-to-know-me chat of a first date or that final (good or bad) conversation with someone you knew for years? Chances are, as time has passed, your memory of those moments has changed. Did you nervously twitch and inarticulately explain your love when you asked your spouse to marry you? Or, as you recall it, did you gracefully ask for her hand, as charming as Cary Grant?

Thanks to our near-endless access to digital recording devices, the less-than-Hollywood version of you will be immortalized on the home computer, or stored for generations in some digital computing cloud.” [...]

“That quintessential American trait, self-reinvention, may well be threatened in the hard world of video and audio documentations and the chase of objective truth.”

17 August 2013

Lessons from monks about designing the technologies of the future

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Our technologies are designed to maximize shareholder profit, and if that means distracting, confusing or aggregating the end-user, then so be it.

But another path is possible, argues Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his new book The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul (Amazon link).

Pang calls the idea “contemplative computing,” and Techcrunch’s Klint Finley reflects on his book:

“Pang’s notion of mindful, or contemplative, computing is useful, but ultimately it’s just a way of coping with a world of applications designed without our best interests at heart. Just as meditation, prayer and weekend retreats can help us cope with the harsh realities of the modern world, so too can it help us cope with flame wars, feral inboxes and the non-stop rush of social media. But just as citizens can demand safer cities, more humane governments and even economic reform, we can demand a new class of technologies.”

7 August 2013

To get users to make smarter choices now, show them their future

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Design can be used to introduce users to the future now, so they can act in ways that will benefit them in the future, writes Nikki Pfarr, researcher and strategist at Artefact.

“What [designers] don’t often do, is think of the future as a tool for persuasive design. But it is–and it can actually be quite powerful. When people get a peek at what’s in store for their health, their pocketbooks, and the environment, they tend to make better decisions–such as saving more money for retirement or going for a jog instead of watching television.

By making users’ futures–25, 35, or even 50 years from now–more salient in the products and services we design, we can nudge them toward future-oriented choices. A good place to start is by helping users feel more connected to their future selves.”

24 July 2013

Ph.D thesis: Design with Intent

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Brunel University London has posted the Ph.D dissertation of Daniel Lockton, entitled “Design with Intent – A design pattern toolkit for environmental & social behaviour change” (download link).

“This thesis describes a systematic research enquiry into influencing more sustainable behaviour through design, which has produced communicable new knowledge in the form of a design pattern toolkit, called Design with Intent, developed and evaluated through an action research process. The toolkit aims to help designers create products, services and environments which influence the way people use them, primarily for environmental and social benefit; it brings together techniques for understanding and changing human behaviour from a range of psychological and technical disciplines, illustrated with examples, with the aim of enabling designers to explore and apply relevant strategies to problems.

`Design for behaviour change’ has grown significantly as a field in the past few years, to a large extent due to recognition of the contributions that user behaviour makes to the environmental and social impact of technology and designed systems in general. People’s behaviour is inevitably influenced by the design of the systems which they use, and it is not a great leap to consider that design could be used intentionally to influence behaviour where some benefit would result.

This thesis starts by identifying the need for a guide for designers working on behaviour change. It extracts insights from reviews of perspectives on influencing behaviour from different disciplines, inside and outside of `design’, which could be usefully applied in a design context. Through an action research process of iterative development and workshops with design practitioners and students, these insights are incorporated into a toolkit for designers, which is applied mainly to environmental and social behaviour change briefs. Versions of the toolkit are made publicly available, and feedback from early users in different contexts is analysed and implications for continuing development discussed.”

14 July 2013

Why behavior change apps fail to change behavior

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“Too many well-intentioned products fail because they feel like ‘haftas,’ things people are obligated to do, as opposed to things they ‘wanna’ do,” writes Nir Eyal on Techcrunch.

“When faced with ‘haftas,’ our brains register them as punishments so we take shortcuts, cheat, skip-out, or in the case of many apps or websites, uninstall them or click away in order to escape the discomfort of feeling controlled. [...]

Unfortunately, too many companies build their products betting users will do what they should or have to do, instead of what they want to do. They fail to change behaviors because they neglect to make their services enjoyable for its own sake, often asking users to learn new, unfamiliar actions instead of making old routines easier.

Instead, products that successfully change behavior present users with an implicit choice between their old way of doing things and the new, more convenient solution to existing needs. By maintaining the user’s freedom to choose, products can facilitate the adoption of new habits and change behavior for good.”

6 July 2013

Cities are being redrawn according to Google’s world view

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In the second of two columns exploring the impact of digital culture on design, Sam Jacob looks at how Google Maps is reshaping cities while Apple, Facebook and Amazon are reshaping the natural landscape by building their own headquarters as self-contained ecosystems.

“Over the last year or so, many of the key digital behemoths have unveiled plans for new headquarters: the grand edifices that they choose to erect for themselves. These are the physical ecosystems inhabited by our digital ecosystems, and in these habitats we can read technology companies’ own ambitions and their own self images, and perhaps glimpse something of the distortions that digital culture brings to the world around us. [...]

In designs for both the Apple and Facebook headquarters, the idea of nature is at once highly present and highly synthetic. It’s a level constructed above vast parking garages, quoted as experience and presented as mission statement. In both, there are echoes of the hippy pastoral techno-utopias of the 1960s, washed together with management theory and marketing. These are ideologies made glass and grass. [...]

Proximity and loss of hierarchy are, in this headquarters, core issues. These reflect both the nature of digital work culture and the nature of the digital too. The absence of distance and constant adjacency is at once both the liberation that digital culture brings and the springboard for loss of liberty that Prism suggests. In architectural terms, we might understand this problem in terms of openness: the open plan and the curtain wall are simultaneously things that give us spatial transparency and a condition of panoptic surveillance.”

(If this topic fascinates you, also check out this fascinating piece by George Packer in the New Yorker on how Silicon Valley is transferring its slogans — and its money — to the realm of politics.)