The Web and Beyond report – day 1

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Over 400 enthusiastic designers gathered in Amsterdam for the 2010 edition of The Web and Beyond. The theme of this year was Proximity and the slogan of the day ‘How close do you want your web to be?’ We had a wonderful day filled with (mostly) interesting talks. And especially for you we wrote this overview.

Proximus Maximus: Design Imperatives from the Roman Empire to the NASA Space Program and Beyond – Michael Meyer

The day was kicked off by Meyer. He starts with a great story about the creator of color changing glasses. Meyer isn’t sure if the story is true or where it comes from, and actually he doesn’t care. What he does care about is that there is a hero in the story we want to believe in. And Meyer says that everybody can become a hero in a his or her own story, as long as we truly understand what we can do.

While writing this piece I find it very hard to summarize the keynote. The entire talk is so connected to beautiful stories that I am certain that this summary will never come close to the talk, but I’ll do an attempt anyway. The essence of Meyer’s talk is that we must completely understand the product or service we work with. As long as we don’t understand every little detail we’ll never be able to create superb solutions or understand the consequences of our design decisions. When you are controlling a nuclear plant you have to have an understanding of what water wants to do. If you work in a financial institute you need to understand what makes money flow. The same is true for design. And this is what Meyer calls empathy.

In total he says that there are three things a designer focus on:

  • Empathy. An emotional closeness. A deep, intuitive understanding of the materials you work with is important to get the most out of your work;
  • Core. Each person (but also object and service) has a certain core. This is essential material that you have available to craft the product, service, experience. Discovering and understanding this core is really important when working together with other disciplines. There are (for example) often frustrations when engineers and user experience designers work together, this is because they have a different core. When you start not just understanding your own, but also the other cores, you’ll be able to work together in a situation where everybody can be a hero of his core.
  • Proxy. This is the thing that represents the sum of your knowledge, to communicate your understanding and ability.

The Human Interface – Christoper Fahey

The bottom line of Chris’s talk is: “We make better products if we think of them as human beings”

We people being Natural Born Cyborgs ourselves (“Yes, I too wear glasses”) tend to attribute human characteristics to non-human objects. We respond to a face, or a perceived face. We respond to computer interaction as if they were human. That’s why crude error messages trigger such a negative emotional response. It’s our old brains. Thinking in humans only, seeing faces everywhere. So we should start designing everything to look like a human face? To act and talk like a polite human being? No.

First of all Fahey states that interaction design is a creative form to create deeply human experiences. And secondly: change is in the air, with technologies that finally permit more compelling interactions. These technologies like touch, voice recognition, image recognition and gesture are not so new as we think but are only now coming into full swing. We should be really happy with this development, but also take good care of how we use the technologies. The lessons Fahey wants us to learn are:

  1. don’t replace humans
  2. don’t replicate humans

Nothing you design can ever come close to an actual human being, so it’s probably better to not even try it. And even if it is possible, what’s the use? We shouldn’t try to mimic, but try to enhance and support. He then shows us ‘the uncanny valley’ by Masahiro Mori. A graph that plots our emotional response to the system, plotted against how much it resembles a real human being. Fahey states it’s better not to aim for the top because we are not there yet (future dreams) but to go for the peak before the valley. But how do make the perfect human interface, the one just before the valley?
Most importantly: it should not be mimicking but reflecting human behavior. 
Twitter is great example of this. Think of a cocktail party, where everybody is chitchatting away, mostly about nothing. Twitter mirrors this behavior online.

The human interface…

  • is about persuasion and seduction 
  • is smart and has awareness;
  • is physical, embodied;
  • is linguistic, poetic and narrative;
  • is emotional and feeling;
  • has a name and an identity
  • has a personality.

Personally I really like the idea of designing our interfaces with human behavior in mind. I too often design only with the users human behavior in mind. It helps me to look at the interface and ask myself “if it where a human, what is it saying to me”? I can easily see how you could fall into the uncanny valley here, so beware of that. But trying to make our systems a little more humane, a little more polite, nice, praising and personal is definitely a good thing.

Managerial Implications of a ZIP-filed World – Jemima Gibbons

Most of us are active social media users, being able to pick and use the tools we need in our daily workflow, but a lot of companies struggle to figure out how they can use social media in their benefit. In her book Monkeys with Typewriters, Jemima Gibbons talks about how 21st century companies embrace social media. During the research for her book she interviewed 50 people like Tim O’Reilly, Craig Newmark and Jason Fried. The number one concern is being afraid to open up from a personal perspective. Surpisingly nobody mentioned the security aspects of social media.

So what can these companies do? According to Gibbons they need to start by becoming more web oriented. In order to become successful users of social media they can follow these six steps:

  1. Cede control. Management should actively persue the use of social media without trying to influence this. IBM did this by allowing employees to become poster boys and girls for social media tools. Best Buy created their own network for communication: the Blue Shirt Nation. At one point Best Buy management wanted to reduce staff discount which resulted in a lot of complaining on the Blue Shirt Nation network. The discount remained but the network eventually got replaced by a system their management can control better, something most Blue Shirts didn’t appreciate.
  2. Be passionate. An example Gibbons used to illustrate what being passionate is all about is Lauren Luke, better known on Youtube as panacea81. She is a classic example of someone who turned being insecure about her body around into a great youtube hit where she shows viewers how they can apply make-up in the same way the Hollywood stars do. This resulted into Luke getting her own make-up line. Gibbons explains that being passionate is all about great storytelling.
  3. Use the network. Luis Suarez, a social media evangalist at IBM hated his job untill at 2008 he moved back to Gran Canaria and stopped using email all together. Currently he loves his job and is the only IBM employee living and working from Gran Canaria. He is able to do his job only using social media and phone.
  4. Open up. Gibbons believes that on the internet people should just add data even if they’re not an expert. Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford is a very engaged and open Twitter user. During the Ford bail out a lot of people complained about the management using private jets while having funding problems. Monty publicly questioned these action on Twitter allowing others to talk to an actual person about their frustrations. According to Gibbons sometimes its not an option to be silent.
  5. Listen actively. Not only listen to your customers but listen to all stakeholders and most importantly listen to people who have critique and show them that you are listening. When the United Kingdom had it’s Parliamentary expenses scandal, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to address the issue by posting a message on youtube. Although this might work, the people who actually uploaded the video made a big mistake, they disabled the comments. Soon afterwards someone not from Browns staff uploaded the video again this time allowing comments to be made. Anyone using social media should realize that any kind of content can be reused and remixed.
  6. Be generous. During the interview Gibbons did with Andy Bell, Chieft Creative Officer at Mint Digital, Bell told that all their employees are made (tiny) shareholders. They also go on weekend trips with the entire team where they create web apps together. Gibbons mentioned that by open sourcing your apps you allow others to continue to build. Being generous isn’t always about giving away free swag.

Social Interaction Design for Augmented Reality – Joe Lamentia

People As Content – Anton Nijholt

Anton Nijholt is professor of computer science at the University of Twente. His main research interests are multi-party interaction, multimodal interaction and entertainment computing. Nijholt showed a lot of examples from his field of research while at the same time expressing uneasiness about it.

Nijholt starts his presentation by asking a couple of questions: Can humans become computable? In 1982 Time Magazine chose the computer as Man of the Year, only to reverse that statement in 2006 when they made “you” Man of the Year since you are in control of the computer. Nijholt questions this, as he states, we are molding humans into ambient intelligence situations. According to Nijholt our daily life interactions as humans are different than the Gricean paradigm. As humans it is in our nature to show emotions like teasing, lying and joking. Computers aren’t able to do this very well and since people become more and more embedded with internet it is important to research how this can become better. Most of the apps Nijholt demonstrated during his talk are used in situations without a mouse of keyboard, turning the app into a mixed reality environment with virtual humans, social robots and environments.

Most of Nijholts research consists of hundreds of hours of looking at videos where people perform tasks while listing all visible emotions like blinking, confusion, frustration and provocing. During the first example we see four webcam feeds, one person tells a story, three others listen. The listeners see the storyteller but he can only see one person. It’s interesting how body language like mimicing isn’t possible in this situation. Techniques used in this demo are also shown in the Microsoft Virtual Receptionist.

Another demo showed how you can measure all body movement from a single person. During the demo a fitness instructor can check positions and correct them but also notice when someone starts becoming tired even before this person might actually notice it himself.

In games this kind of research can be worth a lot. Hungarian researchers from the Budapest University for Technology and Economics can measure skin signals that betray a person’s move before the move is made, allowing gamers to react a lot faster. One of Nijholts own projects takes place in World of Warcraft. By measuring alpha waves he can tell when a gamer is acting angry. In-game this adds a Hulk like feature allowing the gamer to morph from an Elf into a strong angry Bear.

When Data Gets Up Close and Personal – Stephen Anderson

In today’s world we are used to the constant availability of statistics. We’ve become addicted to them and especially the ones about ourselves. This has caused the growing popularity of personal informatics, generating tools and sites like Dopplr, Klout and Hunch.

In his talk Stephen explores this world and wonders if it would be possible to turn e-mail into a game that will make life easier and happier at the same time.His talk is based upon a Johnny article he wrote earlier this year.

Proximity Wormholes: How the Social Web Enables Initmacy at Scale – Lee Bryant

Lee Bryant gave a presentation about proximity wormholes and how this metaphor can add intimacy to the social web. He wrote a detailed article about this topic last week on Johnny. During his presentation Bryant added that if we haven’t seen it yet we should defenitly watch the TED Talk by Stefana Broadbent about how internet enables intimacy. Specifically the part of the Brazillian family (at 3:30).

Photo credits: Chi Nederland

Louise Roose

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