37 posts about design

How Much Do You Trust Your Own Network?

Sep 26 2009

Some time ago, I joined Twitter as @unthinkingly, and I loved it. Then, something felt wrong, and I deleted a bunch of followers. First I went down to 200 people, then 100, then 50, and it still was somehow wrong, so I quietly slipped out the door. Nobody really complained. I think many people have experience this burnout. Twitter is kinda hard. There's just so much happening. To me, what was exciting became overwhelming. Serendipity curdled into distraction.

When I left I was incredibly relieved. I could stop listening and start kicking ass.

So, I took a break, moved away from the ever-intense San Francisco bubble, worked in Cambodia, wrote a bunch of code ... and now, hey look! I'm back on Twitter. But, just to confuse you, I've setup not one but two Twitter accounts: the old @unthinkingly is back for professional stuff, and now @cgblow for more private personal observations.

Turns out, it's such a simple and healthy solution; I don't know why more people don't do it. It's not a complicated hack or anything, you just have to use a separate email account. (A tool like Seesmic Desktop lets you stay signed into both at the same time.)

Now, please don't misundersand me: I strongly believe in living a principled, genuine life. Naive as it sounds, I try to never ever say anything that I would not say to someone's face. Life is too hard that way. I'm an incompetent liar. I don't maintain multiple personalities — I have a single, genuine and faceted personality. Just like most people I know.

Back in the Day

As an application designer, I keep spotting architectures that expect, and in some cases force, me to have a single, monolithic expression of my personality. I take offense to this because we, as humans, are all multi-faceted. We speak to our parents differently than our coworkers. We lower our voices a bit in a crowded coffee shop. We stand up straighter when we give a presentation. And, again, these are not about secrecy or duplicity, but rather, indications of maturity, and a uniquely human sophistication.

Back in the day, we did this better, probably by accident. We didn't have ways to prevent you from creating multiple accounts. We didn't really need to — there were no zombie spammers. From an application design perspective, the geography was totally different because of this difference. We had tiny little awesome communities. Your importance was judged more by what you said than how many "friends" you had.

Back in the day, you were expected to have a short pseudonym, a handle, that you could use (or not use) across any bulliten board you wanted. And on IRC in particular, you can (still!) register dozens of pseudonyms if you wanted to, and express yourself appropriately in different contexts. You can whisper, lurk and rant, all at the same time. Just like you can in real life.

The Test

In thinking this through, I realized that the most irritating thing wasn't really about the information overload thing. That's still there.

What I found on Twitter, the way I was using it, was a lack of trust. And, get this, — not other people trusting me, but me actually trusting my own network.

So, I created a test for @cgblow. In order to set the bar a little higher, and really give myself a break from some of these frustrations, I have simple, but hardcore, criteria for who I'll follow with @cgblow: I could give you the root password to my computer. In fact, I'll Twitter it right now. Done.

How much do you really trust your network? What can you say, and what is off limits because you have to say it to everyone? How does a sprawling, Facebook-style personality portal limit your experience of genuine community? How much do you trust your own network?


May 7 2009

For the last 5 months I've been working with friends at Ushahidi and Meedan on a project nicknamed "Swift."

Our goal with Swift is to provide a crowdsourcing platform for "data triage." Imagine something like Mechanical Turk used only for tagging news, photos, microblogging and videos. There's no business model or anything like that — it's strictly Open Source Nonprofity Goodness(tm). Meedan and Ushahidi are partners in hacking it out.

As a user of Swift you can sit down at an "assembly line" of news and tag it. Swift gives you a straightforward aggregator for news (say, news about earthquakes in california) then asks you to tag all of the people, places and organizations in that firehose of data. With a little bit of effort (collecting a few rss feeds and marking up all the content) it becomes possible to put a very bright light on an emerging part of the web. You can, for example, tag violations of electoral code in an election, as we are doing with Vote Report India, which uses Ushahidi and Wordpress as a platform for grassroots reporting in the month-long Indian election.

I'm especially interested in knowing how much we can actually do with the public data that emerges in realtime during a crisis. From a journalistic perspective, it seems like there is an opportunity to understand more concretely what the hell is going on.

For Ushahidi, Swift is an extension of their exisiting SMS reporting cycle. By "listening" to the "outside" web in a more structured way, the hope is that we can provide more relevant alerts to people on the ground in a crisis.

For Meedan, Swift is a tool for a team of editors who need to produce interesting content for their digital newsroom. Because it is an aggregator, Swift serves naturally as a listening post as well as a tagging workbench. Rope in a few feeds (such as Twitter search results feed for "election" ) and then do location extraction for the Middle East with Calais on that feed, and you have a pretty cool stream of entities.

Today we had a great meeting at InSTEDD, with a crazy good crowd of people — everybody was in town for the conference at Berkeley. Thanks to everyone for their ideas and support!

Here's my presentation from today:



All of the photos and links can be found on my Flickr page.

Swift seeks to publish all of the entities that concerned communities publish about crisis, both hot flash and slow burn events. The core use case is for the period immediately following a disaster or crisis, during the hours and days of confusion.

One thing that is always interesting about Swift is that it is a very unusual use case. The tragedy of a crisis creates a temporary period of great social empathy during which many "rules" of interaction design break down. This is a design opportunity. Many people are willing to match their #have to someone else's #need, but they don't have a medium for volunteering, or a network of supporters who can contextualize and respect their work. We just watch CNN and feel powerless; we would love a way to help, as an individual, from across the world. An improved marketplace of volunteerism is possible if we can design the appropriate interactions.

Dealing Lightning with Both Hands

Dec 3 2008

ah doug

On December 9, 1968, Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart and the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute staged a 90-minute public multimedia demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. It was the world debut of personal and interactive computing: for the first time, the public saw a computer mouse, which controlled a networked computer system to demonstrate hypertext linking, real-time text editing, multiple windows with flexible view control, cathode display tubes, and shared-screen teleconferencing. It changed what is possible. The 1968 demo presaged many of the technologies we use today, from personal computing to social networking. The demo embodied Doug Engelbart's vision of solving humanity's most important problems by using computers to improve communication and collaboration.

In the Bay? Buy a ticket already.

Eleventy Million New Flickr Posts

Nov 13 2008

Including lots of fun sketches for my new job. Working on a translation + foreign affairs + journalism + social project called Meedan. Back to the nonprofit world. Still in San Francisco. Fun stuff!

New stuff on flickr is here: UI and design stuff ... and interface sketches.

flickr sketches

Kermit: bonafide-trueblue- guarantee- your- money- back visual thinker

Oct 9 2008

Somehow Kermit managed to skewer the woo-woo hippie hype surrounding visual thinking 40 years ago.


But then of course he really gets to the truth of the CA design scene: "You really have to let go, you unwind into the cosmic infinity of things."

via http://iatelevision.blogspot.com

suspicious infoviz of the day

Oct 9 2008


Just found out about Political Streams.

I really do like this idea, but reinventing the pie chart with those desaturated squares is not a good start. I'll be checking it out to see how they iterate on representing the concept, which is fascinating.

It mines information from all the blogs and Web sites out there, and all on one screen, lets you see the relative popularity of any given story, whether it's trending up or down, and tracks the number of mentions of the people and places mentioned in the story.

The graphs, by contrast are wonderful and straightforward:

oh and cf. Microsoft Blews (TM) which has similar data (and infoviz problems).

While typical news-aggregation sites do a good job of clustering news stories according to topic, they leave the reader without information about which stories figure prominently in political discourse. BLEWS uses political blogs to categorize news stories according to their reception in the conservative and liberal blogospheres. It visualizes information about which stories are linked to from conservative and liberal blogs, and it indicates the level of emotional charge in the discussion of the news story or topic at hand in both political camps. BLEWS also offers a 'see the view from the other side' functionality, enabling a reader to compare different views on the same story from different sides of the political spectrum. BLEWS achieves this goal by digesting and analyzing a real-time feed of political-blog posts provided by the Live Labs Social Media platform, adding both link analysis and text analysis of the blog posts.


Ushahidi for the iPhone

Sep 18 2008

Update: The Ushahidi team has released a strong new open source iOS codebase.

After a few months of work, we have gotten a new wireframe of the mobile app running on the iPhone.

[http://www.ushahidi.com/images/buttons/ushahidi_button4_170.gif "Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information"]

Lately I've been volunteering a little bit for Ushahidi. Ushahidi is an open source tool for monitoring crises and disasters. It recently won the the NetSquared challenge and was called one of the top startups to watch in the MIT Technology Review. Man, I really don't have to give up anything to work on this one — it's really a top notch operation going on. Other nonprofit and open source teams could learn a lot from the Ushahidi project.

Some of the amazing things about the Ushahidi project include:

Anyway here's the latest mockup. Here's the latestsource PSD. It's v0.2 and still has a long way to go. We did the iPhone app first and will be using lessons learned from this one to port the project to other platforms.


I did most of the sketching and developed the concepts that were flying around, and then my man Joe Jones did all the real work in Photoshop. It's been a really fun time so far and I am looking forward to implementing some of the changes being discussed on the Ushahidi blog.

Also make sure you check out some of the geniuses behind the project:

Kenyan Pundit

White African



Mozilla, The AP Aurora Concepts, and Open Source UX Design

Aug 6 2008

Today Adaptive Path, the godfather company of the interface and experience research industry, released the first of some amazingly high quality concept videos about the web browser of the future.

I'm really impressed, even though I spent most of the day grousing about some of the details of the interface they showed — my nitpicking is really just evidence of how much detail there is in the video.

Anyway, the real importance of the videos is not specific to any of the UI details — it's about what's happening at Mozilla, and the new inclusive approach they are taking to visual and experience design.

I couldn't put it better than Dan Harrelson did this week:

Joining an open source software project usually requires one thing: the ability to cut code. If you live in the world of functions, methods, Git, SVN, and SQL, you'll find many a friend in open source. If you instead work with Photoshop, wireframes, sketches, and stickies, you'll find it is a bit of a challenge to join an open source project. The community of developers has a history of shunning anyone who is a not programmer. Plus, open source software projects are not heavily promoted in the design community.

UPDATE: My buddy Andy pointed me to the Mozilla call for participation, which does a great job of summarizing the initiative.

Today we're calling on industry, higher education and people from around the world to get involved and share their ideas and expertise as we collectively explore and design future directions for the Web. You don't have to be a software engineer to get involved, and you don't have to program. Everyone is welcome to participate.

Thursday Morning TV

Jun 26 2008

Actually this is better than Thursday morning TV, which, in my hometown at least, was pretty weak. This stuff is amazing.

  1. First some of the best nonprofit advertising I've ever seen.
  2. Second a great bike water filter pump.
  3. Lastly a favorite app redesigned.


(more type video if you're into it)

And the bike:


The wacky bike was designed by IDEO people — I'm also impressed with their recent riff on the magazine quiz (maybe think madlibs): A Rockefeller sponsored guide to creating social impact with your design firm.

And the App:

FrontlineSMS is a thoroughly wonderful idea in many ways ... I mean, if you're into international rural research with mobile phones. A tool worth watching very closely, it's what I think is the leading platform of the mobile research "industry". (if there is such a thing.)

They just released a major new milestone and have bunch of great new branding. Great work, Ken!

frontline interface

Book of the Month Club for Interface & Design Geeks

May 31 2008

It's been a good book month for interface geeks and IXD/UX people. Congrats to AP on the new book and kudos especially to upstart publisher Rosenfeld for the innovative stuff they are doing, including user testing of their 500-page, large font digital versions. Rock on, you madcap publishers you. You're gonna make it big working like that.

All of these are worth buying (plus extra to give to clients):

Agile Engineering vs. Interaction Design: Pissing money away and leaving scar tissue

May 22 2008

I was never super into Alan Cooper (of Inmates are Running the Asylum fame) until I read this hilarious argument with Kent Beck, the godfather of Agile programming. ... it's pretty depressing that this doesn't exist anywhere except for the zombieweb.)

Here's a couple of the best bits.

Oh, and it's all about Agile programming and Interaction Design. If you don't care about such things then this is all really boring probably.

It might be boring regardless.

When an architect begins to define a building, he or she works very closely with the people who are buying the building to understand what the requirements are, and translate those requirements into a sketch of a solution. Then there's a lot of give-and-take between the occupants of the building and the architect in coming up with a viable solution. Usually, the architect at the sketch level will know enough not to design something that's an engineering problem. And if the architect does detect that there might be problems, he or she will consult with an engineer to make sure that he or she is not painting himself into a corner, technically speaking. At a certain point, the architect and the customer are going to achieve common ground. At that point, the architect turns those sketches into detailed drawings. Now, during the detailed-drawing phase, there's a lot more intense interaction between the architect and the engineer. The architect, you know, draws a span and calls in the engineer and says, how big a girder do I need to support this span? And there's a lot of detailed interaction between the two. This is precisely what happens in the world of good interaction design.
I think XP has some really deep, deep tacit assumptions going on, and I think the deepest tacit assumption is that we have a significant organizational problem, but we can't fix the organization. Essentially, the crap rolls downhill and ends up rolling right into the programmer's lap. When the product or the program turns out to be unsatisfactory, the fingers point to the programmer. XP is very well-intentioned; it's the software-development community beginning to say, "Hey, this is not only unfair to us, but it's not productive as a discipline and we can do a lot better."
"I applaud that sentiment and I agree with that sentiment, but then XP says, "OK, so, I can't change the organizational failings, so, I'm going to build my own internal defenses." I suppose this is probably better than nothing, but I'm interested in changing the way organizations are constructed. I believe that in order to create quality software, you have to change the organization. We can change the organization, and it strikes me that the assumption underlying XP is that the organization's structure is a given."
Building software isn't like slapping a shack together; it's more like building a 50-story office building or a giant dam. Beck: I think it's nothing like those. If you build a skyscraper 50 stories high, you can't decide at that point, oh, we need another 50 stories and go jack it all up and put in a bigger foundation. Cooper: That's precisely my point. Beck: But in the software world, that's daily business. Cooper: That's pissing money away and leaving scar tissue.

Poverty, Phones and User Experience Meetup

Apr 16 2008

['http://farm1.static.flickr.com/62/217338309_49a8181e6a.jpg by meanestindian via flickr']

Just a quick open invitation, if you are in San Francisco this weekend:

UPDATE: Changed the time to 4pm.

I'm meeting with designer-researchers Niti Bahn and Dave Tait on Saturday, April 19th, at 6pm 4pm at Atlas Cafe in San Francisco (in the Mission). Come have a beer with us! We're talking generally about designing and researching technologies for the poorest people in the world (the "bottom of the pyramid"). Africa, Asia, mobile phones, sustainable change, environmental technologies, research methodologies, product design, application development, user experience ... lots of stuff.

Niti is a researcher, strategist and international rock star; Dave is an award-winning product designer and researcher based in South Africa. Developing world cell phone geeks, too. Check out this article they co-authored for a feel for what they are into: Design for the Next Billion Customers.

If you're interested, email me, or just show up!

Oh and, we're doing some planning for a BarCamp unconference of the same themes this summer. Let me know if you would be interested in attending or supporting an event like that. Probably Late June or July.

Photo by meanestindian via flickr.

Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty? (Readers' Digest Version)

Apr 12 2008

So I went to this Street Hacks talk 2 nights ago is here: http://www.janchipchase.com/ (it was awesome, you missed it. Clam Pizza.) And then it turns out Chipchase just got all famous this week, seriously: First a rad video in the Economist.

And then in the New York Times.

Here's my Reader's Digest version, since I know you are graphing how much time you spend on blogs.

About Chipchase, who really is a super-nice guy:

"To an outsider, the job can seem decidedly oblique. His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company, to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia. ...

About getting over your hatred of your cellphone (cursed device efficiency-obsession). This bit hit a nerve for me:

Understanding [stuff] requires forgetting for a moment about your own love-hate relationship with your cellphone, or iPhone, or BlackBerry. Something that's mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal — land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. ... Jan Chipchase and his user-research colleagues at Nokia can rattle off example upon example of the cellphone's ability to increase people's productivity and well-being, mostly because of the simple fact that they can be reached. There's the live-in housekeeper in China who was more or less an indentured servant until she got a cellphone so that new customers could call and book her services. Or the porter who spent his days hanging around outside of department stores and construction sites hoping to be hired to carry other people's loads but now, with a cellphone, can go only where the jobs are. Having a call-back number, Chipchase likes to say, is having a fixed identity point, which, inside of populations that are constantly on the move displaced by war, floods, drought or faltering economies can be immensely valuable both as a means of keeping in touch with home communities and as a business tool.

On the incredible value that can be provided by something so simple, like SMS:

"... public health workers in South Africa now send text messages to tuberculosis patients with reminders to take their medication. In Kenya, people can use S.M.S. to ask anonymous questions about culturally taboo subjects like AIDS, breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, receiving prompt answers from health experts for no charge.

On Microfinance and the bottom of the Pyramid:

... A cellphone in the hands of an Indian fisherman who uses it to grow his business which presumably gives him more resources to feed, clothe, educate and safeguard his family represents a textbook case of bottom-up economic development, a way of empowering individuals by encouraging entrepreneurship as opposed to more traditional top-down approaches in which aid money must filter through a bureaucratic chain before reaching its beneficiaries, who by virtue of the process are rendered passive recipients.

Now you have to read the whole thing.

Zimbabwe Election Watch Map

Apr 11 2008

The Zimbabwe Election Watch is doing a pretty amazing job of aggregating media reports about the Zimbabwe elections and using Google Maps to present the results. I'm both impressed and depressed about it.

zimbabwe election watch

Personal metrics, infoviz porn & productivity obsession

Apr 11 2008

I've recently been reading quite a bit about "personal metrics" (aka "attention data", aka your "information wake"). Pictured are some examples from Last.fm, Nike+ and RescueTime (which I used for a few days this week! My Saturday computing is visualized below.)

As an infoviz junkie, I have to say that I have always adored this stuff. But the tonight I heard a very smart person say that, prior to Nike+, collaborative running was impossible.


LastFM data


Wait, really? How did we get to the point that we need a website, an RFID chip, and an iPod to coordinate running with friends?

And, perhaps more importantly, when did we start to forget it was possible otherwise?

Information visualization of this kind exudes authority and direction — it gives you clear goals, measurable output, definitive results. It facilitates competition, reward, efficiency and progress. Sexy, sure. But so does fascism.

In these graphs, I see a kind of quiet aplomb that says, "look, buddy, this infoviz shit clearly says that I know so bloody much about what I'm doing, and it's very likely that I'm doing it all twice as well as you are, sub-aware urchin."

There's indeed an air of inevitability about it all, but why?

Is it inevitable that, just because it is possible, that we must practice self-surveillance?

Are we really doing it for ourselves, as a form of personal empowerment? When I use Last.fm to track what I listen to, how much more do I become socially self-conscious, using my playlist for competitive leverage among my peers? Can I become more socially invested in the metrics than emotionally invested in the music?

When I use RescueTime to track everything I do on my computer, how much more efficiency-oriented and self-conscious do I become? Can I become more passionate about my productivity than my job?

And with Nike+, does my daily run become more compelling just because it is more competitive and metrics based? Can I love the satisfaction of the graph more than the outdoors? Is it possible to be satisfied by the graphs alone? Is it possible to be more concerned with your attention data than to the stuff you're actually paying attention to?

The Future of Money

Mar 21 2008

If there is anything I hate more than cell phones, it's money.

I mean, of course everybody likes money, but seriously, who wants to actually deal with it? Going to the bank, cutting checks to the landlord, saving receipts, budgeting, negotiating salaries, calculating the tip, trying to find stuff on sale, thinking about taxes ... man, I have so many more interesting things to do. It's all just exhausting, if you ask me.

But. As usual. I'm griping.

Imagine a world without access to banks and the services they provide - baseline services such as credit, money transfers, savings. For many of the world's poor this is the everyday reality and it's a space where in part due to the spread of mobile telephony there are disruptions and innovations.- Jan Chipchase

So, ok, reality check. When it comes down to it: A) Thank Allah I've got enough to live on and B) Thank Jesus that I have some sort of infrastructure to deal with it in the first place. As in — literally — I'm thankful that I have a bank, and receipts and all that crufty stuff that makes it all actually work.

Because a hell of a lot of people don't.

Here's Chipchase on it earlier this week: "Imagine a world without access to banks and the services they provide - baseline services such as credit, money transfers, savings. For many of the world's poor this is the everyday reality and it's a space where in part due to the spread of mobile telephony there are disruptions and innovations."

And, Hey! Look! there they go again, those damned Cellphones! :)

Since this money stuff seems to have some potential influence on the future (who knew!), I'm actually really excited to be heading to BarCampBank San Francisco next weekend, to talk about cell phones and money. With a bunch of finance geeks. The point of this unconference is to dig into some of the newest, craziest ideas in finance technology, to "foster innovations and the creation of new business models in the world of banking and finance."

I'm hoping for some discussions about peer-to-peer lending a long with a bunch of talk about the future of mobile currency exchange. In general I'm hoping that there are some folks there who really grok the reality that mobile phones are the most important platform for application development in the developing world.

In this context, I don't care about iPhones, I don't care about web apps; I'm talking about paying your rent via SMS. I'm talking about currencies and payment methods that aren't defined by a government or even a bank!

Or something. This stuff is all so crazy I get the feeling nobody really knows what's obviously essential vs. obviously stupid as hell.

Anyway, I hope it will be a good conference that gets to some of the more important ICT4D issues. You really never know with unconferences. If we all want to talk about Baudrillard and Obama, that's what we'll do. (They're exciting that way. Who knows, maybe I'll lead a session on user-centered design, like I know anything. It would be better than the Baudrillard and Obama session at least.)

Here's to some exciting innovation at BarCampBank on Saturday ... maybe I'll see you there.

Kestrel update.

Feb 20 2008

Things are looking great so far with this hairbrained project of ours.

Fabulous, actually: Bolt | Peters is super interested in the project and wants me to work on it for some percent of my total time at work. Which is fan-freaking-tastic! Thanks BP!

If you have no idea what I am talking about, check out my last post about it.

But, in short, these are the three things that I love about Kestrel already:

Kestrel is a web application for farmers. Kestrel is a participatory design project. Kestrel is an open source project. Kestrel is a user-centered project. (Deeply so; as in, we won't build it if it doesn't solve real-people problems.)

Ok that was four. Anyway, I've gotten so much great feedback already by email phone and comment — and I am now setting up interview dates. Let me know if you would like to talk on the phone for about an hour. We'll be gathering feedback about the initial concept and looking at some first drafts of first drafts. Basically, we're gabbing on the phone for a bit and I'm taking some notes.

You can participate in a number of ways:

Please leave a comment or email me at unthinkingly at gmail if you want to participate. You know you wanna. Research is fun!

We're conducting real live conversations, not just email exchanges, though email is also a great way to give feedback. Also, note that, as much as possible, we'll be recording interviews; part of the point of this project is that the methodology will be completely documented. We record stuff partly just part of the public nature of participatory design, partly because we want to get as much informed criticism as possible, but also because we want to teach other communities of practice to create a web app!

Dammit, if we (as a very small, active team) can build something that work really well for 50 farmers, then we probably have created something that will work really well for 50,000 farmers.

Thanks to tes, Andrea, Beck, Mary, Chris R., Rick, Ben, Mike, Nate and Anne for commenting already on the previous post; we already have strong support in San Francisco, Portland and Central NC.

Kestrel: A Simple Web App for Community Supported Agriculture

Jan 3 2008

I'm just getting started on a new project nicknamed Kestrel.

The basic idea a simple and user-centered web app that helps facilitate ordering, billing and member management for CSA's. Things are JUST getting started and I am soliciting help in doing some feasibility research as well as a basic evaluation of existing CSA management applications.

A CSA, (for Community Supported Agriculture) is a way for the food buying public to create a relationship with a farm and to receive a weekly basket of produce. By making a financial commitment to a farm, people become "members" (or "shareholders," or "subscribers") of the CSA. Local Harvest

So far were in stage zero: Over the holidays I was brainstorming with some of my agri-geek friends in North Carolina, notably tes thraves. (I like to say that tes is to poverty + agriculture issues as Jay-Z is to hip-hop — a badass producer who just makes things happen.) :) So far there's been a lot of excitement about it from both consumers and producers.

The Joy of e-waste

Jun 18 2007

Recently I've been really worked up about all these computers in the closet. It's a bunch of junk.

Monitors in the office. Akk.

A bunch of dot-com-bubble bullshit that never needed to be purchased in the first place. I've been stressed out about that festering backwater of old computers since I got my job here 16 months ago.

For 16 months, I worried that it would all be super expensive to recycle.

For 16 months, I worried that it wouldn't be recyclable at all.

More crapola.

I worried because it was all crappy Pentium II processors and Pre-OSX Apples and janky Sun workstations. Stuff our design and programming team would never touch (nose upturned). Not to mention the 105-pound rack-mounted servers. All of it full of toxic heavy metals. Not to mention the steaming pile of three button Sun mice and a giant nest of serial cables. And the 39 (!) keyboards.

Seriously, this stuff has been sitting around for years. It obviously must be some sort of corporate psychic baggage. Worse, I'll bet most everyone reading this blog also has some secret e-waste laying around. We're a web design shop, but every office I've ever worked in has at least one generation of 'puters laying around.

Taking a clue from Ecoiron, a great blog of green hardware issues, recently bought the book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America by historian Giles Slade. It has been pretty great so far, mostly string of amusing primary sources.

"Americans threw out 315 million computers in 2004, and 100 million cell phones in 2005. Most were still usable, and all contain permanent biological toxins (PBTs). Electronic trash, or e-waste, is rapidly becoming a catastrophic problem. To understand how we ended up in this alarming predicament, Slade recounts the fascinating history of American consumer culture and the engineering of our "throw-away ethic." - Booklist on Made To Break


Perhaps a real review will be in order if I ever actually read the entire thing, which is rare these days. For now perhaps I will just note that this book was one of the primary reasons for not getting an iPhone. One less Blackberry that has to die in a desk drawer.

Anyway, about all those computers in the office. I was really just nervous about taking it all to the dump and feeling like a complete earth rapist or something.

But in the end, what did it take to get rid of them?

Well, it turns out, not a three-day excursion to the landfill. And we didn't have to participate in some ill-conceived plot to ship it all to the developing world.

We just took pictures and listed it on Craigslist.

And 90% of it was gone in 24 hours. To people who were delighted to have it.

The moral of the story: give it away now. Even if you think it is too old to use, give it away. And then think twice about that new gadget. There is joy to be had in your ewaste. Reuse is cathartic.

Genocide vs. Gadgets

Jun 15 2007


I've never seen gadget hype reach the levels that have been achieved by the iPhone. And I've never been so caught up in it myself. After visiting eyesondarfur.org I've decided that I'm giving my iPhone budget to Amnesty International: $50 a month over the next year.

In the culture jamming spirit I spliced an iPhone ad into one of the arresting images from the book Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan. I'm not anti-iPhone in particular: I just want to remind folks (especially myself) that there are more important things to focus on than the gadgets being thrust in your face.

If you have the luxury of a budget for consumer electronics, why not consider putting just a percentage of it toward something like an anti-genocide campaign?

[image: The Kalma Camp, Darfur, by Pep Bonet/Panos Pictures and the iPhone by Apple Inc. Used without permission: Please don't sue me.]

Wanted: An open-source, user-centered touchscreen platform

May 13 2007

There has been a lot of excitement recently around a couple of developments in touch screen interfaces: First there was the insane presentation at TED 2006. Secondly, of course, the iPhone made everyone all hot in the pants for it's touchable goodness.

In Malawi, the NGO Baobab Health Partnership ... adapted Linux to $100 touchscreen Internet appliances, then wrote a program for Opera to run in full-screen kiosk mode. The resulting terminal can easily manage the nation's health data and is scalable wherever a web connection can be made. J. Goodman at Vestal

Fundamentally I think that touch is intimate and intuitive, and clearly touchable interfaces have incredible potential, especially for the folks that haven't been brow-beaten into adapting to 20th-century conventions of computer interfaces like the QWERTY keyboard.

(i.e., the billions of people that will be introduced to "desktop" computing the next decade. See the OLPC, just launched for reals in Uruguay.)

So I'm excited about a new project at work that involves designing a web application for use with a touch screen interface. When I first heard about it from the client I was coffee-though-the-nose excited because I have been infatuated by a recent project I read about on Vestal: Malawi, Linux, & The Fight Against HIV. I knew immediately that I was going to rip off the idea. (In the best open source sense, of course.)

Baobab clinic.Unfortunately the iOpener touchscreen used in the project is no longer for sale (it had a lovely $100-$200 price tag b/c it came with some money-making software — there's a funny story about the linux hack), so I was hoping someone might have some idea about how to implement this as cheaply as possible.

A few criteria:

Basically I want to avoid wire splicing and flaky homegrown drivers in favor of something that is replicable and extremely flexible. I want to be able to develop a web application with an appropriate UI and let it rip. (Which will be greatly facilitated by the work of the Baobab programmers' "touchscreen toolkit"). This might not be easy given the limitations of cheap machines.

So far I've got an EboxPC in the office (a nice, fanless machine with CF and VESA mounts for the back of the monitor) with some form of embedded Linux (we've built a tiny Linux distro for our rural wireless network that might be usable if we can get the drivers to work with the touch screen). Looks like we can get screens for about $100 and then we'll have to put a touch screen on top. Regardless, this is still in the brainstorming phase, so that's all likely to go out the window.

Anyway, what good is a touch screen like this?

Well, combined with the right software, I think you can really leverage usability to do a hell of a lot:

I think there are lots of possibilities given that the interface could just be so much more usable. Just looking into it briefly I found an open source POS system for use in cooperative markets. Brilliant. This is software that could really benefit from an inexpensive stable touchscreen implementation.

Does anyone have any experience or ideas?

I'll be posting my findings here, along with the software design considerations that I run into.

The Panopticon. Now With An Improved Menu!

Jan 20 2007
"When I go to a restaurant, and look at leftovers on my plate, I don't see food, I see information. If the restaurant were Google, they wouldn't just take that plate and scrape it off into the trash. There would be a camera in the kitchen, photographing every plate coming back, with analysis of what people liked and disliked, and what portions were too big, helping to optimize future servings."Jon Orwant,
on O'Reilly Radar

A recent post on O'Reilly Radar describes a "pervasive culture of measurement" which is touted as an example of how "smart" web companies these days are maximizing their use of data from their consumer's "leftovers."


Waitasecond. Photographing my leftovers? You're totally creeping me out. I mean, I get the point, but is that really the direction that savvy Web-2.0-aware businesses take these days? The overtone of pervasive surveillance makes me feel a bit ill. Minus points for O'Reilly implying that this will lead to Web 2.0 apps that are constantly improving themselves based on user activity. Of course the corporate world has always wanted to know as much about me as possible. But what do they usually do with it? Banner Ads.


The Darfur Wall

Dec 17 2006

Darfur Wall

The Darfur Wall is a beautifully executed charity project that fills a very simple, traditional purpose (collecting money) using an innovative and stark interface. The black and white, no-images design reinforces the tragedy of the situation without being overwhelming. I think this is a great example of online design serving a progressive cause — which is not so easy to find.

The Foldaway Emergency House and Other "Afrigadgets"

Dec 11 2006

Rajan Harinarain, a South African entrepreneur and inventor has come up with a temporary foldaway house for use in emergency situations complete with electrical wiring and fittings, doors and windows that can be erected by a small team in 5 minutes.
Afrigadget is a great site (though with irregular posts) about a bunch of interesting developing-world-inspired inventions and tinkerers. Their most recent post covers a new type of emergency shelter. (Via Ndesanjo on Global Voices.)

Foldaway House

Design for Maximum Constraints

Dec 6 2006

flashlightJohn Maeda writes thoughtfully about simplicity and design at his MIT-based blog. He just posted a great bit about Paul Polak's design for a low-resouce flashlight. Design under difficult conditions can lead to the same creative insight as design on a limitless budget.

"... this prototype flashlight that is completely solar powered (recharged in sunlight), easily constructed from common off-the-shelf parts, and can last for well over a decade of use.

Truth in a Home Page

Jan 31 2006

Great advice on crafting a home page from A List Apart. In short: build it last, and work first on the details (the smallest, ubiquitous elements of your site). A great homepage with poor search results or product page will only lead to disappointment. So if your site is shallow and ugly on the inside, make sure your homepage is too. Also:

If a first time visitor to your site's home page does not understand what it is within three seconds, you've failed goal number one, so feel free to skip the rest. The only people who will use the site are the people who already know what it does. Or, ya know, masochists.

While I'm in a website-improvement mood, there is also a handy post today from Alt Tags, summarizing the Five Steps to a Better Website in the New Year (via the ever-useful 456 Bera St.). In short:

Technicolor Tools

Jan 23 2006

ColorsWow. Steve at Slayeroffice.com has an amazing color palette generator based on the design technique of Andy Clark.

You enter a hex code value for a color, then another to mix it with, and out comes a beautiful png graphic of the color scheme. Extremely nice work, Steve. This is a great resource for brainstorming color schemes. I've used a number of other methods, but this one gets the prize.



Ok, so the color palette generator at wellstyled (shown) is even better.
I still recommend one extension of the techniques: take a scheme you like and use Photoshop to adjust the hue locally, and generate as many versions as you need (perhaps for clients or your boss). Then it's even easier to get ideas. If your'e a new web designer, that's a good enough reason on its own to downlo ad a trial of Photoshop, I think.

Web Developer's Handbook: developing web-sites, exploring own imagination | CSS, Color Tools, SEO, Usability etc.

Jan 6 2006

The reason I love web design so much is that anyone can do it. The web is just full of tutorials, examples and geeks on call.

Here's a massive resource of good links. It's well organized and through, but it also manages to focus on reputable sources of information. Put this one in your bookmarks if you want to learn about putting your information on the web:

Web Developer's Handbook: developing web-sites, exploring own imagination | CSS, Color Tools, SEO, Usability etc.

Web Developer Toolbar Reaches 1.0 Release

Jan 3 2006

R. Johansson says it best. This is the single most important tool any web developer can have.

Web Developer Extension 1.0 for Firefox, Flock, and Mozilla has been released. There are many new features and bug fixes, so upgrading is highly recommended. The Web Developer Extension is a definite must have for any web professional, so if for some reason you don't already have it, download it now.

For more info and comments, visit Chris Pederick's blog post Web Developer 1.0.

Mobile Web Design: Tips & Techniques (Technical)

Dec 20 2005

Web Designers everywhere are taking a break.

Sometime about 5 years ago people began to realize the frustrating limits of web development because the existing standards were so poorly followed by existing browsers. It was something like what Frost said about "poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net."

Which is to say, no fun at all. Online communication has progressed steadily since then, and now we have wonderful fruits like "AJAXy goodness" and other Web 2.0 technologies to reap. So take a break from griping about Netscape vs. Internet Explorer.

But Google Maps (etc.) being accomplished, we're looking for ever greater technologies. The next frontier of web development is the mobile browser — the web in a cell phone.

The concept of the mobile web has been huge this year, and it is now taken as a fact that most internet users in the next 5 years will be getting online for the first time through their cell phones.

And so, with that in mind, here's a great series of articles from designer Cameron Moll that looks at the background of the mobile web and explores the specifics of developing +designing reliable, readable sites for really, really small screens.

How do we designers and code slingers cope with the current state? What slings and what doesn'? This article attempts to present technical advice on a superficial level.

Mobile Web Design: Tips & Techniques ~ Authentic Boredom

The Digital Dashboard: Graphing ICT Change

Dec 19 2005

Here's an interesting feature from a nonprofit organization called the gov3 Network, which appears to be a kind of ICT government consultancy. They have a interesting feature on their website that dynamically draws data comparing a country (of your choice) to other countries with regard to their ICT-sector growth.

Put a country and comparison region into this Digital Dashboard, and the result is a data-dense graph that is intended to give governments a sense of how quickly they are moving in the right (or wrong) direction for growing their tech sector.

I think this could be a useful tool, but I'm wary of private organizations seeking (lobbying?) for "more proper" regulation of the ICT sector as being a thin veil for simply giving opportunity to industry, not people. That said, they have a stated interest in promoting "a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society.Also, they've recently won an award at WSIS for DirectGov, a website that brings together a mess of information about UK government services.

Combatting Poverty (and ICT fads)

Dec 15 2005

I've been reading an excellent report from Eldis (an incredible clearinghouse of development information) about the implementation of ICT programs in developing countries. In part the report seeks to question some conventional wisdom about the necessity of trendy technologies. On the whole it is a great synopsis of practical research with a clearheaded focus on poverty elimination. I recommend the full text pdf, and here's a bit from the executive report:

Man with radio This report reviews the evidence on how (or if) ICTs should be used in support of poverty reduction exercises. There is one characteristic that is common to most of the ICT-related poverty alleviation programs. It finds that the most effective ICTs used are typically basic ones‚ telephone and radio are most common, and when computers or the Internet are involved, they are for restricted, targeted uses. It finds several common characteristics of successful projects: * the focus is on poverty alleviation and not on ICT use * ICT components are kept as simple as practical * ICT practitioners are involved in the design of the ICT components * there is significant community involvement * there is a focus on training to ensure success and sustainability * there is consideration of a plan for success; how to replicate and scale project if it is successful

View the original page: Eldis - ICT for Development

More accounts of the 1-Laptop-Per-Child Laptop at MIT

Nov 12 2005

Here's another update on the laptop debate/idea from Ethan Zuckerman, the ICT-blogger-fellow at Harvard. He usefully recounts the point of the new prototypical $100 laptop as being a radical step toward computer-aided learning in developing countries. I appreciate his skepticism about the project, especially his explicit reference to the late, not-so-great simputer idea, which bombed because of economics.

You know, that pesky money thing. Always a problem when dealing with poverty.

here's a bit:

"After peppering Negroponte with two hours of questions, I’m fairly convinced that this laptop won’t suffer the problems the Simputer did - I believe it will get produced and distributed and that the software will enable e-books, web browsing, word processing and programming. As much as I enjoy the geekery of challenging Negroponte and others on the fine points of hardware and software design for the developing world, I’m convinced that some extremely smart people are working very hard on the hardware and software side of things. While I might question some of the decisions made, I don’t know that my second-guessing is helpful at this point.


Read it: One Laptop Per Child - a preview, and a request for help

(Found on:Ethan Zuckerman.)

Participatory Design

Oct 3 2005

I am currently researching a field of design known as "Participatory Design" that has a fascinating history (dealing with Scandinavian labor unions) and a very promising future. In short, PD is about incorporating the user in the design process from day one. The resulting ideas and workflows are, in my mind, incredibly powerful tools for working on any project. My focus is web development.

Most of my interest in this concept comes from my day job at a nonprofit evaluation firm — we do "collaborative evaluation" to help programs develop. The concepts are largely the same, and I'm just trying to apply them to web design and the development of usable, useful online tools.

This process is intimately involved with many of the same user-centered concerns that preoccupy other ICT-development folks, such as the advocates of free and open-source software.

The center of the world for PD is the organization Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. They have a site dedicated to PD resources.

Add A Simple Slideshow To Your Webpage

Feb 17 2005

If you need to easily display slideshows online, there are a couple of options that I have recently run across. The simplest, though not as sophisticated, process is to use a site called Flickr, which was recently acquired by Yahoo! and can be a lot of fun. You just upload your pictures and folks can link to them to form online picture-sharing communities. The best feature is that it can export to your blog or website, though the format is not as customizable as I'd like.

The second, more complicated, option, is to go with javascript. For our purposes here, we'll assume you don't want to write a bunch of javascript yourself. Instead, BarleyFitz studio will take care of that. Just go there and upload your pictures on their site, and you'll get very straightforward instructions for inserting the resulting code in your site. Customization can make it look especially good (here's a fantastic example posted to a recent css forum. The fade in is especially nice). I have used BarleyFitz's javascript in some forprofit work with greta success, but is rather convoluted javascript in use, so be ready to sit down with it for a while if you want it to look really nice.

This type of slideshow would be good for nonprofits that need a way to showcase their activities on the web. There are other, more expensive solutions, but they are often overdesigned (with noises and animations at every click of the mouse).

Stop Making Crappy Ads

Feb 4 2005

Stephen Pinker writes in his book How Minds Work that "the emotions are mechanisms that set the brains highest-level goals." This, it seems, is a good description of why small, mission-driven nonprofits exist despite the innumerable difficulties of keeping such an operation afloat. It's also an essential idea to consider when advertising your organization.

People are drawn to imagery and emotions that inspire them to work for a cause. If you have ever been saddled with the task of creating ads or promotional material for your organization, you would do well to keep these emotions — not facts about your job or accomplishments — at the front of your mind.

This concept is just one idea among many in an immensely useful e-book published a couple of years ago by Cause Communications called Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes. It should be in every nonprofit office (unless you have the luxury of an ad department to think about such things). It covers broad ideas like the above, but it also goes into detail about using layout and text to keep people reading and engaged in your message. And it has great reviews of nonprofit ads over the last 10 years. It is, in short, an eminently readable advertising textbook for nonprofits; check it out before your next ad deadline.

JavaScript Goodies

Jan 17 2005

Even if you're new to web design and Javascript spooks you, you'd do well to look into some of the techniques that are described in the attached article.

My Favorite Javascripts for Designers: Blakems.com

Here's a bit of the article:

Are there certain javascripts that you seem to always use from project to project? Lately, I have seen javascript being used more and more effectively on websites. For example, Gmail's user interface and Mike Davidson's sIFR technique. How we use javascript on a website can certainly make a website experience better and more enjoyable. I will never proclaim to be a javascript expert or even write javascript from the scratch. On the other hand, I do excel at the copy, paste, and tweak method.