Polite, pertinent and... pretty
Polite, pertinent and… pretty: designing for the new wave of personal informatics” was the title of a talk given by Matt Jones (Dopplr) and Tom Coates (Yahoo! Brickhouse) at the recent Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.

Summarising their talk is not an easy thing to do, but I will give it a try. In any case the 81 slides with speaker notes are available on SlideShare.

Jones and Coates start from the premise that information is now becoming so pervasive, omni-present, localised and personalised that we can not only increase our awareness but also constantly use it to our advantage. These data come from big databases, but also from our own behaviours. Our own devices sense, record and sample data, and share these with other devices and with us and other people. They call this “personal informatics”. But this poses a huge user experience challenge, which requires a sophisticated design solution:

“The discipline of informatics is based on the recognition that the design of this technology is not solely a technical matter, but must focus on the relationship between the technology and the use in real-world settings.”

“That is, informatics designs solutions in context, and takes into account the social, cultural and organisational settings in which computing and information technology will be used.”

But what does that mean concretely? How should we design? Jones and Coates propose “three pegs to hang some thoughts off” and they all start with a P.

In defining the concept of politeness (to be thought of as the “softer ying to the hard yang of ‘privacy’), they lean on such thinkers as Adam Greenfield (and in particular his recent book “Everyware“), Mimi Ito, Leisa Reichelt, Matthew Chalmers, Anne Galloway and of course their own practice.

Pertinence is about “disclosing information that is timely and as ‘in context’ as possible”. To define this better, they refer to the ‘movement’ metaphor that Matt Webb of Schulze & Webb recently described in a talk. Webb posits that we are moving from a web of ‘places’ to “something more like a web of organisms or engines connecting and fuelling each other”.

So the issue here is to show small pieces of information in the right context at the right time, “delivered in increasingly pertinent ways, depending on our habits and contexts”.

And finally there is prettiness:

“The vast quantities of information that personal informatics generate need not only to be clear and understandable to create legibility and literacy in this new world, but I’d argue in this first wave also seductive, in order to encourage play, trial and adoption”.

So what is the future of personal informatics? Aren’t we creating our own “participatory panopticon” (Jamais Cascio)? Or are we moving to a world filled with “spimes” (Bruce Sterling)? At the moment it’s often artists who are exploring the boundaries of this unknown future.

In a long post, Alex Steffen of Worldchanging presents his own – excellent – summary of the Jones/Coates talk, but takes their analysis a step further by connecting it with sustainability and adding a fourth P (“Protection”):

“Ubiquity and sustainability could turbocharge each other. Ubiquity enables revealed backstories, observed flows and shared services, making it easier to live well at a minimum of expense and ecological impact. Sustainability, particularly in the form of compact urbanism with bright green innovation, concentrates human interactions with each other and networked systems, making it easier to suffuse daily life with the sort of intelligence that allows data to be gathered, shared and connected. The Net and the public square, as Castells wrote, are symbiants.” [...]

“PSS [product-service systems] offer enormous potential sustainability benefts. Indeed, I’d argue that it will be impossible to deliver sustainable prosperity without the widespread adoption of shared/sharing systems. But they can also have a real downside, for PSS rely on a more intimate connection with their users, and where that intimacy is not backed by protected relationships, real disaster can result.” [...]

“So, I would add a fourth P, “Protection.”

If we are going to interact with companies in intimate ways — in ways that impact our deepest life choices — those interactions ought not only to be held to a higher standard of transparency and public accountability; they ought to be safe-guarded in formal ways as well by having corporate decision-making structures that protect the user rights of the people involved.”

Steffen keeps on surprising me by the depth of his thinking.