Pinger – Voice-based Twitter?


Pinger is doing the rounds of Twitterland at the moment. It’s a service that allows you to send voice messages to one or a group of people anywhere from a local number. It’s not new to be able to do this on some networks and some phones, but they’ve made it easy and cross-network and country.

They’ve presented it as a kind of voice-based text-messeging, but I can imagine it might get used like Twitter too.

On the plus side, I can imagine it would be very useful if you were trying to organise some kind of gathering, either impromptu or making changes to a previously organised one.

On the negative side I can imagine an increase in voice spam from either your friends or marketing baddies.

Any thoughts?

Google isn’t making us dumb, but ‘smart’ is changing


It started with Asi’s comments on Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? article. Forty-five minutes later I had Googled through laterally-related sites, read several blog posts – one or two both considered and longlistened to a lecture and found a book I hadn’t known about but will probably read.

Has any of that made me dumber? No. Does it conform to what we have been taught to consider smart? Probably not. And there’s the problem. Carr is looking through the telescope from the wrong end. It’s not that Google is making us dumb, it’s just that what we used to think of as ‘smart’ probably wasn’t that smart after all.

The main thrust of Carr’s piece is that the web encourages us to skim and is re-wiring our brains so much that we’re unable to read and concentrate deeply anymore. Moreover, this fuelled by Google’s desire to earn click revenue from this kind of behaviour – this was the conspiracy theory aspect that Asi felt was a step too far, whilst he identified with the skimming behaviour.

Carr draws upon the work of developmental psychologist, Maryanne Wolf, to explain that, “Reading is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is.” Except that speech probably isn’t etched into our genes in that way. According to Steven Pinker and others, the form of language arises from the way with conceive of and perceive the world, not the other way around as Linguistic Determinism would have us believe.

Carr quotes a study from University College London that examined how users use a database of journal articles, e-books and other written material:

“Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”

(Carr doesn’t provide a reference, by the way, but you can find a PDF of the report from the British Library and download the full study from UCL).

Underlying all of this is the notion that deep reading of long passages is inherently ‘smarter’ reading than skimming, browsing, clicking and hopping. This goes hand in hand with the idea that retaining information makes us smart. It’s no wonder – the way we are educated places great emphasis on the ability to regurgitate information in exams, but that, as many educators know, tends to encourage surface as opposed to deep learning.

Very crudely, surface learning is about learning facts and ideas uncritically and deep learning is about tying ideas and concepts together and making links between them. Which one of those sounds more like reading online? (In case it’s not obvious to you ‘dumb’ people out there – I’m suggesting it’s the latter.)

As Asi points out, is a kind of repository of stuff that I may never go and read again, as is the “To Read” folder permanently on my desktop. But these are like über notes – rather than my scrawled lines, I have a link to the original material, some of which makes it into my own personal databases.

As is often the case with notes, I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now. The act of saving the article or posting it to helps me remember that it exists at all. Not only that, but it helps me find other links to material I never knew about, which is largely Steven Johnson’s point about serendipitous learning (the ultimate in serendipity has to be StumbleUpon).

Bear in mind that the study Carr quotes was in partnership with the British Library and that studies often ‘find’ what you are looking for in the first place. This part of the report that looks at the truth in the ‘Google Generation’ myths stuck out for me:

They prefer quick information in the form of easily digested chunks, rather than full text

Our verdict: This is a myth. CIBER deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, `?icking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.

Hang on. It’s quite a leap to say that ‘power browsing’ means society is dumbing down. Do they really mean that all those students, postgraduates and professors are dumber? It’s not easy to get a professorship or a postgraduate degree (which tend to be the most research intensive). My experience and impression is that it is often much harder than it used to be.

Could it not be that the ‘older researchers’ research differently because that’s simply what they are used to? Or maybe they haven’t ‘smarted up’ yet. The study notes this ‘pre-digital’ memory as being a factor in the different styles.

I think people use Google not just because it’s easier, but it fits the way with think better than most research library databases, which tend to have dreadful interfaces and force researchers to think like a database programmer, not like a person.

The ‘smart’ that the study defines is really about knowing the foibles of these systems; it’s got little to do with actual learning. The study notes this: “young people do not ?nd library-sponsored resources intuitive and therefore prefer to use Google or Yahoo instead”.

The problem isn’t the dumbness of the searchers, it’s the dumbness of the interface. Academic databases are really quite rigid and linear as research tools and they don’t encourage much in the way of joined-up, linked and network thinking.

Knowing how to apply and connect knowledge and information is a much more important (and future-proof) skill than simply knowing the information, but most educational institutions are used to being guardians of knowledge and information, which is why they’re panicking. What we used to think of as smart may not be anymore (and it’s probably why hot-housing your kids doesn’t work).

Ironically, given Carr’s reading of Google through the lens of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s industrial efficiency, it is precisely this Industrial Revolution style of thinking that we’re moving away from. Pat Kane argues the point in The Play Ethic:

“[F]or the culture of industrialism, in which an individual’s submission to routine is what is most valued, a network society is something of a disaster. The industrial mindset is too brittle to cope with the way that networks operate.”

What we are seeing in the transformation of media, advertising and marketing, learning and teaching, and culture in general is that the way we used to measure the value of any of those things no longer works the way it used to. It’s not that those things suddenly have less value or are dumbed down, but that we’re not measuring them fairly or correctly. (For a brilliant treatise on this, see Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You.)

Reading a book is a different experience than surfing the web, but you’re in dangerous and murky Andrew Keen territory to make the qualitative judgements Carr comes up with, as Asi notes. Reading a long, linear book is no guarantee that it’s automatically a deeper, more learned experience. (Have these people ever read John Grisham?).

So, I’ve just spent nearly two hours putting together this post – reading lots of material and becoming aware of a great deal more that I’ll look up when I need it, just as Einstein did. I’m reasonably sure he wasn’t that dumb. Am I?

Play as you go – hijacking public spaces

A quick reblog of Pixelsumo’s post about Bruno Taylor’s work hijacking public places to make playful spaces, which explores the notion that play is being designed out of the public realm.

“71% of adults used to play on the streets when they were young. 21% of children do so now,” says Taylor.

The above video is a nice guerilla take-over of a bus stop to turn it into a swing. I’m amazed, and pleased, that nobody stopped them. This is London right? You can hardly take a photo without the police stopping and searching you. But I often feel these kind of childhood playthings have a way of connecting to some deep feelings of dissatisfaction with what our adult lives have turned into and make people much more accepting of them.

Chris has some nice pics on Pixelsumo and you’ll want to check out the rest of his playgrounds postings whilst you’re there.

SVA to offer Interaction Design MFA


New York’s School of Visual Arts has just announced that they’re offering a Masters of Fine Arts in Interaction Design as of Fall (or Autumn as we Brits quaintly like to call it) 2009.

It will be chaired by Liz Danzinco who co-conceived the course with Steven Heller. The impressive faculty line-up includes: Christopher Fahey, David Womack, Jason Santa Maria, Karen McGrane, Khoi Vinh, Paul Ford, Matt Owens, Rachel Abrams, Jeffrey Zeldman according to Liz’s post about it.

Zeldman alone is worth signing up for. I wonder if they’ll be uploading them to the SVA iTunesU account? (Account? Site? Podcast? Station? – What do you call it?).

Design is Money – ATM Design

ATMs in Germany are lame, I have to say. They’re slow and clunky and appear to be designed by software engineers rather than UI designers.


So I wish interaction designer, Holger Struppek, Design Director of Hot Studio, was working here. He has written a explanatory piece for Physical Interface about the re-design of Wells Fargo’s ATM machines by Pentagram (where he was at the time of the design).

It’s quite a nice example of a classic interface design process for an interface that has a lot of pressures on it: multiple locations, different hardware, security issues, time pressures, accessibility, broad audience.

The jury in the comments seems to still be out about how successful it is – I find the grid of buttons a bit visually cramped – but it’s much better than the previous version. However, this part of the article about the colour-scheme favourites during user testing caught my eye:

Blue seemed to be a color that was genuinely pleasant to look at, and even though it was “off-brand”, everyone could live with it. It provided great contrast to the red Return Card button and the yellow alert boxes. During user testing, we presented participants with our color choices and got the same results: “It’s calming”, “I like the blue sky”, … and so we went with it.

Surprisingly, Wells Fargo recently switched the UI to the current tan color scheme. I don’t know what prompted that decision, but it does bring it back in line with their brand.

Surprisingly? Not really. Some brand managers will always want their brand colours to be in your face however ugly they are. Note to brand managers/marketers: If your brand colours are important enough to throw user testing out the window and infiltrate the UI, remember to choose some decent colours for your brand in the first place.

Maybe ATMs should look like this:


Prototyping and WIreframing on paper


There are a couple of great shots of prototyping on paper over at at Cultured Code’s blog for Things, their task manager app that they’re bringing to the iPhone and iTouch.

Kudos to Cultured Code for putting these up online. It’s really great to see how other people go about it and I really like Chris’s use of hand-made stencils to draw out the various buttons and layout in pencil, pen and marker.

Much as I love OmniGraffle it’s somehow gratifying to see that an app for the most sophisticated mobile device on the market is still designed with low-tech tools. I hope my students believe me now.

p.s. In the comments there is a note from Todd Zaki Warfel who is writing a book a book on prototyping.

p.p.s. For those of you who really, really don’t want to leave the womb of OmniGraffle, GraffleTopia has a nice set of iPhone Stencils to download.

Why Good Looking Error Messages Matter


Almost anything involving computers falls over once in a while, but it’s how you handle it that makes all the difference.

I spotted this in Newcastle airport the other day. I see a crappy broken Windows system almost every time I travel. I imagine travellers going through Heathrow’s Terminal 5 saw quite a few too.

Now, not only could someone have done a better job of handling the error on the application coding side, it’s also such shitty branding for Microsoft. Every time I see one of these I think: “Microsoft products can’t run enterprise systems without falling over – I wouldn’t let them near any project of mine.”

Given the massive wads of cash companies spend on those inane glossy business-management-enterprise-big-dick-corporation ads you always see in airports, this would seem to unravel the band promise it all pretty quickly. With all the new tech, it’s only going to get worse.

(Sorry about the crappy picture – I wasn’t too sure about taking photos in the airport. You know, just in case I got shot by the British Police or something).

Keep Thelonius Monk Off Your PowerBook

Since we’ve got a couple of MacBooks now I noticed my old 2GHz iMac G5 gathering dust, which seemed to be a shame with that lovely screen. Jon Hicks’s post on setting up his Mac Mini as a media centre prompted me to convert the iMac into a PVR/TV combo (plus it’s still handy as a computer).

The key is the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid tuner stick, which also comes with their great EyeTV software. Although digital coverage is rubbish where I am, we do have analogue cable, so the Hybrid is future-proof-ish.

One of the things that Jon uses is Syncopation, which keeps iTunes libraries in sync across different machines. I don’t really need this as I’m using Airfoil to send audio anywhere, and in any case the iTunes library is shared and my network isn’t that fast to be pinging movies around the place.

But the thing that made me smile was this bit of the blurb on the Syncopation web-site:

Syncopation also allows you to control which files are replicated. Suppose your husband loves Jazz, but you’re not a fan. You can set up a Block List that will keep his Thelonious Monk off your PowerBook.

Hypercard lives again


Hot on the heels of my post about Director 11 there’s now a web-based version of Hypercard called TileStack. It’s still in beta (aren’t they all?), but you can sign up to test it out or check out the video of it in action.

The original Myst was released as a Hypercard stack and, until the Sims came along, it Myst was the best selling computer game of all time. I’m not just being mysty-eyed (sorry…), for many Hypercard was the forerunner of all that Director and Flash goodness.

(Via Slashdot).