I’m referring to the much-publicized spat between Apple and Adobe over Flash. By long-standing, I’m referring to the mutually-beneficial relationship Adobe has shared with Apple since the early days of digital graphic design.

As an iPhone user and a Flash developer, nothing was more painful than knowing I wouldn’t be able to use flash-based tools to create my very own farting machine. So it was nice to hear that Apple has recently loosened it’s application development restrictions, as stated on drawlogic’s website.

Sadly, the lightened restrictions only apply to application development. This means that iPhone users will continue to surf the web without Flash. Developers will, however, be able to develop applications for the iPhone using Flash. Is this a good thing?

Flash Developers  – definitely yes

iPhone Users more cool & dumb stuff to waste time and money on than ever before

The Guys who approve submissions to the Apple App Storeused to be a fun job, may get a bit annoying now

An enormous spider web made with 117,000 feet of packing tape installed at Odeon, a former stock exchange building in Vienna. It was created by Viennese/Croatian design collective numen / for use. Fast Company was there. Wish I could have been. It puts me in mind of Bob Cassilly and his City Museum.

I believe it was Craig Venter whom first said that, “If the 20th century was the century of physics, 21st century will be the century of biology.” The direct read is clear enough; the discipline of biology is where the interesting stuff is happening. What I think may be even more interesting is the implication that perhaps the epistemic models that inform physics are giving way to epistemic models informed by biology.

Packing Tape Art Installation
Tape Vienna / Odeon

Marshall McLuhan‘s renown aphorism that, “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us,” would seem to have a related, but inverted principle. For our tools are shaped after us. How can they not be? The only models we have are ourselves and the biological systems that surround us. What is a wrench if not an abstract extention of the hand?

In this way, all design could be said to be necessarily user-centered. That said, the kind of models that inform the enlightenment paradigm, while powerful, are not the apotheosis of our ability to model the natural world. In other words, top-down hierarchies aren’t the most accurate recreations of the systems we encounter in the world. In other other words, machines don’t feel natural. I think it should be sacrosanct to the designer, that we should not be made to conform to our tools; our tools should be made to conform to us.

That’s why I love design like this packing tape thing. I think it’s maybe an important goal for designers to model organic systems. Their creations are the tools that thereafter shape us, and our models.

Has anyone seen the newish online stop-smoking program campaign becomeanex.org? It’s a program designed to help you “re-learn life without cigarettes.” I was drawn to it through banner ads containing quirky line art animations of smokers in trigger situations – i.e., out drinking, after a meal, celebrating…

In each 10-second animation, there’s a surprising reveal of the cig behind the situation: the “celebrating” girl is surrounded by confetti and blowing a party horn. After a few honks you realize it’s actually a lit cigarette she’s blowing. The “after a meal” guy finishes his food and belches up a cigarette. Kinda weird – I like it!! 

Problem is, the animations aren’t a lead-in to anything; they’ve generated some angst by reminding me I want to smoke, but now they’re not following it up with any reasons why I shouldn’t want to. Where and when does the relearning begin? The “get started now” link is similarly frustrating – takes me to a heartless and disengaging sign up form.

Meh. Too hard. Too depressing. Too futile. I didn’t want to join your stupid program anyway.

The site does a clever job of nailing smoking behavior, but it seems nobody paid enough attention to understanding quitting behavior. I’m not a smoker, so maybe this approach works in a way I can’t see. But I suspect that by not dangling the benefits of not smoking and only reminding me of what I will have to give up, quitting still just sucks.

That was the question that popped up during a conversation about the Sang Han thread on the St. Louis Egotist. I was having the conversation with a certain creative director person who shall remain unnamed on account of I expect she wouldn’t want to be in the middle of something like this. We were discussing my post about the post about Sang and she said something like, “Since user experience seems to be so heavily informed by this idea of mental models, how does good UX design differentiate itself?”

Actually, she may have said nothing like that at all, but I heard something like that and since I’m not divulging my source, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The question is an interesting one I think. So much of the inquiry that informs the UX design process is designed to get at what the user expects based upon their previous experience. The goal then is to give those users what they expect. Now I realize the UX community is not a monolith, so I’d imagine there are many different explications of the “goal of UX design” floating around out there. That said, I haven’t really heard any what you might call “mainstream UX people” saying things what would radically depart from my above formulation.

Perhaps it is easy to see where I’m going with all this. In the pantheon of marketing theories, there is this thing what is known as positioning. In “The International Encyclopedia of Communication,” positioning is described, in part, as follows:

“Positioning is an essential concept in communication management, Public Relations, and Marketing communication. The process of positioning includes identifying, defining, and managing the perception relevant audiences have of a particular organization, product, person, or idea.”

The two men most responsible for the popularization of positioning are Jack Trout and Al Ries. They wrote a book what is generally regarded as a lot seminal, called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” In it, they define positioning as “an organized system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances”. As the wikipedia entry for positioning notes, in Mr. Trout’s initial considerations of positioning, he asserts that “the typical consumer is overwhelmed with unwanted advertising, and has a natural tendency to discard all information that does not immediately find a comfortable (and empty) slot in the consumers mind.”

Good positioning helps a brand to stand out so as to occupy an empty slot in the consumer’s mind. Good user experience helps a brand to comply with the consumer’s presuppositions and biases. At first glance, it would seem you could drive a truck through that one. Anyone who has used any of the 37signals tools, in all their usable glory, would probably be willing to cop to the similarity of the experience with that of Facebook, or the WordPress admin interface, or any of a number of other very usable tools. In many ways, my own experiences with these tools do seem to run together in my mind as it were.

So there’s the question: Does the practice of user experience undermine the practice of positioning? I don’t think the answer set is bivalent. I think there are nuanced answers, but I do think the question is worth asking. What do you think?

I know a good many people what might fit that description actually. But this one person I’m thinking of is named Sang Han. None of the others I know are named that. I’ve never had the pleasure of working with him, but we’ve had some few interactions here and there, and I’ve seen a lot of his work. It’s really a lot of beautiful stuff I think. Well, I mean, go look at it. He has that certain something, yes?

I recently wrote a post that discusses the way in which the specialists that meet at the intersection of creativity and technology are often carping about how others “don’t get it,” and how the different specialists mean different things when they say it. Yesterday, my friend Skye sent me a link to a post on the St. Louis Egotist featuring Sang’s work. In the comments, this “you don’t get it” theme presented itself. (To be honest, some of the commentary is merely inside baseball soap opera stuff which is not a lot germane to my post, but it’s there to read if you’re into that kind of stuff.) The point is that this kind of intellectual siloing is rather a lot a common thing and you don’t have to go looking very far to find it.

Anyway, here’s John Nance in the comments:

“This is the very personification of clueless adverting people bastardizing the Web. They didn’t get it ten years ago, and they don’t get it now. Sang, you get an A in art, and an F in producing anything that anyone cares about.”

I don’t know John, so, let’s ignore the inflamed rhetorical maneuvers because he’s also trying to make a point here. He’s saying Sang doesn’t “get it.” And to be fair, Sang wields the “you don’t get it” theme as well (he’s talking to a particular anonymous commenter, but it speaks to what would appear to be his bias regarding UX as well):

“you just gave up on being an art director cause you suck at design and now are preaching the ux; usability angle”

It turns out that in their social networks, people generally have high homophily bias. This is to say the people that most people know, all tend to know each other. This would appear to be especially strong among experts (or aspirants) within a given domain. What this creates are clusters of people that all know and regularly interact with one another. Generally, this also means that they’re not, for the most part, regularly interacting with people from other clusters. In this way, homophily also means that these people all tend to hold much of the same knowledge and presuppositions. Again, specialization (reductionism) would seem to encourage homophily.

There’s this rather a lot smart guy named Ronald Burt who is Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago. He wrote a book called “Brokerage and Closure” in which he points out that the people that make the most money, get most promotions, and have the best performance reviews, have the lowest homophily bias in their networks. Put another way, brokers create value.

One might think that only, well, brokers can be brokers. As in, the salespeople. But anyone can be a broker. At the ictus of creativity and technology, brokers are needed. As I said to Skye, everyone’s work is important. Sang is an exemplar of a set of understandings and abilities that comprise a significant potential value. This is equally true of the understandings that inform and attend the discipline of user experience.

There are important conversations to be had. There is knowledge to be brokered. The importance of this is derived from the fact that there are decisions to be made, some of which are rational, and some to which no formula can be applied. And in essence, the power to affect outcomes is a function of the willingness to be a broker. So, y’know, be powerful.

Update 11:13 AM, 5/21/10: The perspicacious Brad Nunnally has, as usual, a link that is apropos. This time it’s “The Psychologist’s View of UX Design” by Susan Weinschenk at UX Magazine. To wit:

“A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the elephant that others are experiencing.”

But yeah, go read the whole thing.

I found this piece about “Flow – public lighting” at Industrial Design Served. Go check out the whole thing because it’s clever and interesting and beautiful. I’m especially interested that my user experience designer friends see it.

When I first saw it, I was first struck by its elegance and beauty. The whole green angle is clever as well. But right after that, I immediately wondered, “do these things put out enough light?” And that got me to wondering about the whole project. Did the green aims of the designer distract them from other more pragmatic concerns? Is there some visceral value to be derived from the aesthetic that makes up for its lack of usable light? Was significant illumination necessarily a part of the project requirements? Should it have been?

I don’t have satisfactory answers, but I think this kind of design can often bump up against some of the sensibilities of the more technically minded people I’ve known. I wonder how user experience designers might look at this question. I would imagine they might recommend some kind of anthropology be done. I imagine they would suggest best practices for adducing the knowledge needed to make decisions. But what is your gut reaction to this project, UX peeps? Does your gut tell you the outcome is satisfactory?

You’ve probably heard it. I know I’ve heard it in various contexts. It usually goes something like this:

“He doesn’t get it. You can tell; he just doesn’t get it.”

It seems to me that there are basically two worldviews from which this kind of thing emanates. One is what Robert Pirsig would call the “classical” worldview. This view looks at how things work—what you might call underlying form—and the people that tend to hold it seem to have an intuitive understanding of systems, their workings, and their inputs and outputs. The other worldview is what Pirsig would call the “romantic” worldview. This view looks at experience—the esoteric—and the people that tend to hold it seem to have an intuitive understanding of people, relationships, and other organic structures.

When my friend the IT pro tells me someone doesn’t get it, I’m pretty sure I know what he means. He means that person doesn’t understand the causal chain that holds the system together. He means that person doesn’t know how it is that they managed to turn that box into an open SMTP relay. He means they don’t understand what inputs to deliver to the system to get the desired outputs. He means they don’t understand some or all of what happens to the inputs once they’re inside the system.

When my friend the advertising creative director tells me someone doesn’t get it, I’m pretty sure I know what he means, too. He means that person isn’t grooving. He means that person isn’t able to perceive the subtle elegance of human desire. He means that person is uninitiated into the arcane college of the storyteller. He means they lack a sensitivity or familiarity with the archetypes and other patterns that speak to something that is profoundly constitutional about the human being.

This particular creative director I’m thinking of has said things to me before that expose his bias regarding the approaches taken by people like my IT friend. And the IT friend has said things that expose his bias regarding the approaches taken by people like my creative director friend. They don’t know each other, but I’m sure they’d like each other quite a lot. But when considering how to approach some problem, they would employ significantly different strategies. And they’d probably be, at minimum, skeptical about the other’s strategy.

What is interesting to me is that my creative director friend—and the understanding suggested by his approaches—has a value that is extremely difficult to quantify. It’s also difficult to demonstrate. There is a reason why Shakespeare resonates through the centuries in a way that his contemporaries do not.  This reason is accessible only to those that “get it.” But this getting of it is something that happens in an esoteric way. Systems aren’t like that. That you do or do not understand how a system works can be empirically demonstrated; that you do or do not understand Shakespeare’s endurance cannot.

I think that when a creative says, “they don’t get it,” there would seem to be a special significance. The creative is trying to address some tangible goal, but the tools she wields are subtle and arcane. These tools hold the power to affect many, including those who won’t or can’t acknowledge their value.

BUT HERE’S THE PROBLEM I THINK:

Creatives can’t go around bitching about this and act like that is tantamount to a solution. Creatives can and should learn about and create new tools for demonstrating their value. Creatives need to learn more about systems and earn some respect. But they also need to experiment with and champion new kinds of systems that are consonant with the creative worldview. They need to work to introduce creative approaches into the decision making processes that otherwise go generally unaddressed by creative firms.

Managers, engineers, executives and other systems thinkers can’t go around bitching about people not getting their systems and act like that’s tantamount to a solution either. They need to try to learn a little something about art and its relationship to volition. They need to mentally provide for the possibility that something they don’t understand and can’t quantify really can be powerful. And they need to reach out and collaborate with creatives around the question of where and what to measure.

I don’t think I’ve adduced some profound solution here. I think it’s really rather a bare minimum. Because for both parties, “they don’t get it,” can just be a big cop out. It gives rhetorical cover to a sense of superiority and most importantly, it justifies apathy in the face of creative challenge. If “they” are going to “get it,” it won’t be because “we” complained that they don’t.

Update 4/27/10 2:45pm CST:

Friend and smart person, Brad Nunnally, notes a far more compelling post than mine what seems to have some connection. It is written by a Mr. Andrew Hinton, and entitled, “Why We Just Don’t Get It.” This bit seemed particularly salient:

Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues about why certain industries or professions seem stuck in a particular mode, unable to see the world changing so drastically around them. For example, why don’t most advertising and marketing professionals get that a website isn’t about getting eyeballs, it’s about creating useful, usable, delightful interactive experiences? And even if they nod along with that sentiment in the beginning, they seem clueless once the work starts?

Or why do some or coworkers just not seem to get a point you’re making about a project? Why is it so hard to collaborate on strategy with an engineer or code developer? Why is it so hard for managers to get those they manage to understand the priorities of the organization?

And in these conversations, it’s tempting — and fun! — to somewhat demonize the other crowd, and get pretty negative about our complaints.

While that may feel good (and while my typing this will probably not keep me from sometimes indulging in such a bitch-and-moan session), it doesn’t help us solve the problem. Because what’s at work here is a fundamental difference in how our brains process the world around us. Doing a certain kind of work in a particular culture of others that work creates a particular architecture in our brains, and continually reinforces it. If your brain grows a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if it grows a set of jumper cables, everything looks like a car battery.

You should, y’know, read the whole thing.

Pasta&Vinegar, a blog by Nicolas Nova, introduces us to a project by beste miray dogan called mapenvelope. The mapenvelop seems like an ordinary envelope, but the inside is lined with an image of Google Maps that highlights the location of the sender.

The receiver not only sees the address but sees the surrounding area with the help of Google Earth. Pretty awesome I’d say. Our visually demanding imaginations are fed with a view of the world from the sender, in a far off land or right down the street. We love to see paths connecting and the mapenvelop allows us to do just that.

Useful mailing + enticing imagery + connections + whydidntithinkofthisbefore = golden

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