Confusing Information with the Form

Information from MAYAnMAYA on Vimeo.

Lovely video from design and research consultancy MAYA on the difference between information and the form we give it.

I came across this on David Sherwin’s ChangeOrder blog in a post about moving beyond words for better brainstorming, which is also and interesting article. He asks why it is so hard to break people out of their regular ideation habits. Words are one problem, but it is also an issue of corporate and company culture, even within design agencies.

The rules of brainstorming are pretty much the opposite of what a usual business culture is. Working in a company that has a traditional hierarchy encourages sniping, competitive, uncooperative, pressured and role-based behaviour. It’s the way people “fight to the top”, create “creative competition” and so on.

It’s very hard to convince people to take suspending those habits seriously if they’re not taken seriously at a company culture level and we have come to consider that the normal way of working. Companies like IDEO or Pixar spend a lot of time and effort on not working this way. It’s no surprise that they are successful in this area and why so many other companies fail to bring ‘innovation’ into their culture, despite bringing in consultants who specialise in ‘innovation training’ or whatever the latest business buzzword is. The consultants, of course, are temporary blips, outside the main culture of the company, so easily dismissed after they have gone.

Much like MAYA’s video, you have to re-think what it is and means to work together, what the purpose and idea of a company is to really change its culture. A company is the form given to a group of people working together, but it is by no means the only, nor the best, form.

The Little Man in the Box

Hi from Multitouch Barcelona on Vimeo.

All of us anthropomorphise our machines, perhaps no more so than the car and the computer. Hi, A Real Human Interface from Multitouch Barcelona (an interaction design group that explores natural communication between people and technology) is a charming example of how we think about computers and interfaces from a human perspective.

Whatever we might know about the technology and how it works, we talk about the “server having some trouble” or our computers “having a bad day” or “going crazy”. We’re so biologically programmed for interaction to be with other beings, it’s very hard not to think of the little man in the box.

(Via @LukePittar and all the little people who run messages back and forth in the intertubes.)

Schematic and Public Multitouch Social Interaction

Touchwall Demo from Joel on Vimeo.

Joel Johnson’s exclusive (on Vimeo?) video and interview with the folks at Schematic about their new touchwall shows them dealing with some interesting public multitouch issues. I hate the marketing crap that goes with it and the inevitable Minority Report reference (please, stop making that reference multitouch people), but the idea that what they’re really interested in is “the social interaction in front of the screen” is spot on.

Apart from the fun of playing with what looks like a giant iPhone screen, the key thing about large multitouch screens is that more than one person can use it at once. If it just replicates a bank of individual screens it’s missing the point of having one big one. Connecting people together in social play and interaction can be really engaging and it will be interesting to see what developers and designers explore in this area.

The other issue that they talk about in the video is how to solve the identity problem on such a device so that you don’t have to walk up to it (or “into it” as one of the interviewees says) and type in a log-in. RFID tags come to the rescue, which means the wall knows who you are as soon as you’re close enough to use it.

If we’re going to make comparisons to Minority Report, that screen was an individual experience operated alone by Cruise’s character. By contrast a multi-user multitouch screen feels to me to be much more Star Trek or James Bond to me and about using collaborative workspaces with the added layer of data feeds.

Social Play

I’ve just finished up a chapter in my PhD about social play. Most of it is about online interaction, but quite a bit is about how to bring strangers together to make connections in public spaces.

Serendipitously, Iain just posted this clip thanks to Knotty’s. If you don’t get why social networks work, watch this:

Don Tapscott on the Demise of the University

Don Tapscott has a piece in Edge today called The Impending Demise of the University. In it he takes the same line that I have been for some time in Designing Education’s Future, The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be as well as the idea that Google isn’t making us dumb, smart is changing. (Not that I’m saying Tapscott nicked my ideas, of course, but rather than great minds, etc., etc.)

The basic issue is that traditional education is broadcast – you tell a group of people to be in a certain place at a certain time and spray information at them. This is something that really hasn’t changed since the Victorians stopped beating kids and putting them down mines and stuck them in classrooms instead. The dressing has changed, but the pedagogy hasn’t. The culture of students has changed radically, however.

From the Edge piece:

Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning, as the web inexorably becomes the dominant infrastructure for knowledge sweeney both as a container and as a global platform for knowledge exchange between people.

Meanwhile on campus, there is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University — the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn.

The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It’s a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.

When my colleagues and I wrote a paper about dispelling some myths of online education we touched upon some of this and it has guided our views ever since. I always had the feeling my other colleagues were mildly interested before mildly dismissing it as a fad and moving on. But a set of converging issues – declining student numbers, rising fees, an aging population, private institutions and more – are a very real threat to universities who are already closing down large departments and becoming ever more mainstream and homogenous. Although many academics scoffed at the idea of McDonald’s offering A-Levels the danger for them isn’t a dumbing down of education, it’s that McDonald’s end up doing it far better.

Many universities are already looking pretty empty on campus because they simply don’t offer a decent learning environment. Instead they’re intent on building grandiose teaching spaces, which nobody turns up to.

My prediction is that it is a race between two generational shifts – the student body and the faculty either expiring or retiring. Universities are notoriously slow at cultural change and tend to promote the dead wood. The prognosis doesn’t look healthy.