Episode Sixty Six: On Design; New Aesthetic Zeitgeist Bingo; Odds

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It’s 8:30am in the morning, West Coast. It’s stopped raining (for now) and I’m about to head into the office. I hope Skye’s going to be okay.

1.0 On Design

Twitter follower @bamblesquatch pointed me in the direction of this wonderful post on Quora of designers potentially “losing their seat at the table,”[1] by Mills Baker. It’s definitely worth your time. I wish I’d written it. To recap:

– Steve and Jony elevated design’s position in the cultural consciousness to a position it had never done before. Never mind the refreshing carbonated soft-drink enjoyed by homeless people and heads of state alike, now we had MP3 players and phones and laptops enjoyed and coveted by everyone! Also, Apple were (and continue) to make gobs of actual real hard cash that they are now using to be a) good corporate citizens and return to their shareholders and b) occasionally using to buy companies from time to time or whatever it is that their PR team says.

– Well, if design’s going to make money and help you scale, you can get the VCs will be at the table. Funds were raised to invest in designer-founder companies. Noted designers and luminaries are joining at the VC table to advise and guide entire portfolios. And yesterday, a change in mindset for designers was the best shot at creating products and services for social good.

Baker thinks designers, as a whole, are at risk of cocking things up and losing their hard-won place at the table, the reason being that when they *were* given the keys, they produced products like Facebook Creative Labs’ Paper and Dropbox’s Carousel and Jelly, which, well, don’t really answer user needs so much as they scratch itches in a small niche. And there’s always the example of Path of which we don’t really need to say any more apart from, as one wag on Twitter asked this morning: “Path’s still around?”

Of course, it gets even worse when there are the rumours going around that Square is looking for a buyer, that it’s attempts to expand out of the POS ecosystem are faltering (bitcoin is hotter than Square Cash/Wallet, for example) and that it’s losing money.

In all of these cases, each of these products and services are generally agreed to be “well-designed” – they look nice, they’ve got some nice touches to them, but Mills’ point is that they don’t actually solve a problem in an innovative way (and that’s using the Horace Dediu-approved definition of innovation[2].

I’d point to a few examples (you can take it as read that I consider the work of the UK’s Government Digital Service as actually solving problems for people with design), at the very least Google’s Chromecast Photowall experiment[3] solves a problem experienced by *some* people, and while it’s not necessarily a problem that people are calling out to be solved, and it’s not necessarily a problem sufficient to organise a startup around to Change The World, it genuinely is something that I consider to be meeting a (perhaps unstated) user need.

Mills has a good point: design isn’t just taking an existing idea and chamfering the edges off to create something *slightly* better but that fits your corporate, sorry, startup-endorsed culture-approved World Changing agenda. It’s actually having some empathy (and there we have my empathy crusade again) for those we serve, and in the contexts of *most* of us, we serve humans – or, you know, people.

Chris Locke, a good friend of mine, sent a reply to yesterday’s critique of Everyone Deserves Great Design[4]. Chris is the ex-director of the GSM Alliance’s Mobile Fund for Development, now doing predictably interesting stuff at his Caribou Digital outfit. And he articulated something that I think was niggling at the periphery of my thoughts about the manifesto but I don’t think I got down. His point was this: there’s was another fallacy of assuming in a sort of Americano-centric manner that the only people building products for the base of the pyramid are the ones that the West Coast CI-complex are concerned with. But the reality that Chris points out is that *everyone* else already is: from the buckets of Chinese OEMs churning out cheap Android hardware to Indian hardware developers like Datawind[5].

In the case of designing for actual people and design that’s led with some sort of genuine empathy for the people making up the market, Chris sent me five examples, that I’ll happily quote him on:

“1 – [Good design] looks like Nokia’s (sadly, slowly disbanding) team of anthropologists and researchers in countries across sub Saharan Africa and SE Asia. These guys took a phone repair guy and set him up in a shop so they could watch him and note all the transactions he had with his customers to understand what went wrong when people used their phones. This was anthropologists, not designers, and they fed their results upstream. It’s also the awesome pen portraits of base of the pyramid mobile usage that the excellent research company 2CV did for Nokia.

“2 – It looks like all of Jonathan Donner[6] at Microsoft Research’s work

“3 – It looks like Eric Hersman’s BRCK[7]

“4 – It looks like the massive physical ledger book in which every mPesa transaction is logged. These books aren’t a formal part of the process, they don’t hold up the transaction and they’re not necessary for an mPesa payment to be made, but they were introduced when the fantastic team who designed mPesa realised that digitising customer’s money freaked them out, so the ledger process was brought in pretty much as a piece of theater to reassure them (best example of UX design ever)

“5 – Hell, good design for the base of the pyramid looks like all of mPesa, which was built in USSD[8] – a deeply unsexy development platform but one that was used because it was ubuitous, and everyone with any phone could use it.”

This, I think, is an inspiring story of design and projects like mPesa are genuinely impactful in the markets they’re used. Mobile money services like mPesa that peoples’ needs don’t translate over to developed countries because of existing legacy infrastructure and regulatory requirements, and a technology like Bitcoin isn’t necessarily easily adaptable to low-power phones working under a specific set of environmental constraints.

As ever, it feels like we’re at the cusp of Gartner’s Peak of Inflated Expectations and the transition into the Trough of Disillusionment. For every Nest there’s a Fuelband, and the massive about-face investment into design is an over-correction that will play out when everyone gets a bit more reasonable and has a more heterogenous, user-led attitude to design. Which, you know, good designers should be doing. But perhaps this is also where culture plays a big part, and is part of my criticism of the Californian Ideology: I think my position is that good design results from a certain application of humility and empathy, and that feels at odds with the Don’t Fuck Up The Culture-culture of the prevailing Valley movement.

[1] https://mokriya.quora.com/Designer-Duds-Losing-Our-Seat-at-the-Table
[2] http://www.asymco.com/2014/04/16/innoveracy-misunderstanding-innovation/
[3] https://www.chrome.com/photowall/#no-chrome
[4] http://tinyletter.com/danhon/letters/episode-sixty-five-apple-and-nike-critiquing-everyone-deserves-great-design-odds
[5] http://www.datawind.com
[6] http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/people/jdonner/
[7] http://www.brck.com
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unstructured_Supplementary_Service_Data

2.0 New Aesthetic Zeitgeist Bingo

Spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So, Dan Williams, “look away now”.

There’s a few things feeding into this bit. One is a side-conversation I had with Robin Sloan in response to what I wrote about Suarez’s Daemon series. There’s something, Sloan said, in a sort of emerging literary sub-genre, a super-niche, which is interested in exploring *ideas* through fiction and the quality of the actual *writing* doesn’t matter so much, because to the audience they’re tuned to, they’re looking for ideas, not well-written characters and thought-through plot. They’re as much looking for intellectual mental stimulation as strong character-based narrative. Almost a sort of gedanken experiment fan fiction where what you’re a fan of isn’t characters or setting, but being a fan of ideas or concepts.

So with that, there’s the observation that with works like Daemon, you have New Aesthetic-ish tracts pushing forward ideas about society, culture and techonlogy in the form of genre fiction as opposed to in the form of a Kevin Kelly, Ray Kurzweil or, god forbid, a Malcolm Gladwell-style pop-sci tract. Storytelling as mere background to exploration of ideas. Or, even, storytelling as a simulation running on a human brain but where the gedanken experiment is: “assume technologies x, y and z in socio-economic circumstances a, b and c. Execute” running on a substrate of grey matter that’s (sometimes) pretty good at simulating what self-directed agents (er, people) might do in that setting.

Anyway. There’s that. And I still haven’t watched *any* of Person of Interest, which I’m reliably informed is a) some of the best television on at the moment, along with The Good Wife and all that other stuff you’re watching and b) Bu one of the best filmic interpretations of our networked society.

But I have watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And ignoring the plot, let’s play New Aesthetic Zeitgeist bingo, or just take a drink when:

– the greatest generation betrays us;
– a personality can be uploaded and executed on computing machinery and it’s not even explained: it just *is*;
– ubiquitous surveillance is desired;
– compartmentalisation is a bad thing;
– the only way to remake the world is to leak all the secrets, good and bad;
– security apparatus is as interested in preserving the status quo as it is in disrupting it;
– “because algorithms”;
– total information awareness is a side plot-point that only gets around three minutes of screen time, barely enough to understand it because the audience is expected to understand that a) there’s a lot of information about you out there, and b) it can be used to model your entire future;
– precrime;
– pre-emptive military action;
– rods from god;
– satellite targeting;
– USB sticks;
– abandoned 1930s-era military installations;
– cargo ships;
– cargo ships that aren’t actually cargo ships;
– pirates;
– pirates that aren’t actually pirates;
– false flag operations;
– not being able to trust anyone;
– self help groups;
– post-traumatic stress disorder;
– shipping containers.

And there’s probably even more.

What’s remarkable about this is that the film expects its audience to be literate in pretty much all of those concepts. In my mind, any *one* of those concepts could easily be made into a Hollywood Action Blockbuster and at least a half to two thirds of the movie would be taken up with Needless Exposition For The Benefit Of A Clinically Brain Dead Audience.

3.0 Odds

Do you like word games? If you do, then you should play Ludometrics’ new game, dsmvwld, for iOS.[1]

Facebook bought Moves[2]. Honestly I’m nearly all reckoned out when it comes to activity tracking these days. I think I should get a badge, though. I had to take a drink because they used the word “journey”, but at least Moves isn’t being shut down and is being run, like Instagram and Whatsapp, as a separate concern with no planned Facebook integration. Of which: Zuckerberg was apparently serious when he said his strategy was a portfolio of mobile apps. What people are waiting for is how, exactly, all those apps will tie together and where the graph of 1.3bn fits into it all.

I’m going to be at fbf8 next week, so if you’re a) at it, say hi, b) in the area, say hi.

[1] https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dsmvwld/id728308907?mt=8
[2] http://www.moves-app.com/press
[3] https://fbf8.com

So, as ever, please send me notes. I like getting feedback, and I’m pretty good at replying. Or, even, introduce yourself!

Hail Hydra,

Dan