Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the presentation to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for recording this.

In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1

Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:

“…the street finds its own uses for things”

For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…

Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2

Continue reading Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

  1. The website of Gramschap contains a chronology of the Provo movement in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emergence of the vertical style of skateboarding see the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys. []

Storyboarding multi-touch interactions

I think it was around half a year ago that I wrote “UX designers should get into everyware”. Back then I did not expect to be part of a ubicomp project anytime soon. But here I am now, writing about work I did in the area of multi-touch interfaces.


The people at InUse (Sweden’s premier interaction design consultancy firm) asked me to assist them with visualising potential uses of multi-touch technology in the context of a gated community. That’s right—an actual real-world physical real-estate development project. How cool is that?

InUse storyboard 1

This residential community is aimed at well-to-do seniors. As with most gated communities, it offers them convenience, security and prestige. You might shudder at the thought of living in one of these places (I know I have my reservations) but there’s not much use in judging people wanting to do so. Planned amenities include sports facilities, fine dining, onsite medical care, a cinema and on and on…

Social capital

One of the known issues with these ‘communities’ is that there’s not much evidence of social capital being higher there than in any regular neighbourhood. In fact some have argued that the global trend of gated communities is detrimental to the build-up of social capital in their surroundings. They throw up physical barriers that prevent free interaction of people. These are some of the things I tried to address: To see if we could support the emergence of community inside the residency using social tools while at the same counteracting physical barriers to the outside world with “virtual inroads” that allow for free interaction between residents and people in the periphery.

Being in the world

Another concern I tried to address is the different ways multi-touch interfaces can play a role in the lives of people. Recently Matt Jones addressed this in a post on the iPhone and Nokia’s upcoming multi-touch phones. In a community like the one I was designing for, the worst thing I could do is make every instance of multi-touch technology an attention-grabbing presence demanding full immersion from its user. In many cases ‘my’ users would be better served with them behaving in an unobtrusive way, allowing almost unconscious use. In other words: I tried to balance being in the world with being in the screen—applying each paradigm based on how appropriate it was given the user’s context. (After all, sometimes people want or even need to be immersed.)


InUse had already prepared several personas representative of the future residents of the community. We went through those together and examined each for scenarios that would make good candidates for storyboarding. We wanted to come up with a range of scenarios that not only showed how these personas could be supported with multi-touch interfaces, but also illustrate the different spaces the interactions could take place in (private, semiprivate and public) and the scales at which the technology can operate (from small key-like tokens to full wall-screens).

InUse storyboard 2

I drafted each scenario as a textual outline and sketched the potential storyboards on thumbnail size. We went over those in a second workshop and refined them—making adjustments to better cover the concerns outlined above as well as improving clarity. We wanted to end up with a set of storyboards that could be used in a presentation for the client (the real-estate development firm) so we needed to balance user goals with business objectives. To that end we thought about and included examples of API-like integration of the platform with service providers in the periphery of the community. We also tried to create self-service experiences that would feel like being waited on by a personal butler.


I ended up drawing three scenarios of around 9 panels each, digitising and cleaning them up on my Mac. Each scenario introduces a persona, the physical context of the interaction and the persona’s motivation that drives him to engage with the technology. The interactions visualised are a mix of gestures and engagements with multi-touch screens of different sizes. Usually the persona is supported in some way by a social dimension—fostering serendipity and emergence of real relations.

InUse storyboard 3

All in all I have to say I am pretty pleased with the result of this short but sweet engagement. Collaboration with the people of InUse was smooth (as was expected, since we are very much the same kind of animal) and there will be follow-up workshops with the client. It remains to be seen how much of this multi-touch stuff will find its way into the final gated community. That as always will depend on what makes business sense.

In any case it was a great opportunity for me to immerse myself fully in the interrelated topics of multi-touch, gesture, urbanism and sociality. And finally, it gave me the perfect excuse to sit down and do lots and lots of drawings.

Web of data — third of five IA Summit 2007 themes

(Here’s the third post on the 2007 IA Summit. You can find the first one that introduces the series and describes the first theme ‘tangible’ here and the second one on ‘social’ here.)

Typically, IAs have concerned themselves with the design of web sites. The metaphor most suited and used for the web so far has been space. Even the term ‘information architecture’ points to this. Nowadays, besides having to tackle the social dimension (as per the previous trend mentioned) IAs are forced to rethink the spatial metaphor in favour of a new one: the web as platform. This means designing for a web of data, where sites become data sources and tools to view and manipulate that data. This is a far cry from the old hierarchical model. Like design for social software, IAs are still exploring this new territory.

There was an excellent panel on this subject (notes and audio at The Chicken Test), with amongst others Tom Coates and Matt Biddulph (both previously employed by the BBC). Coates’ presentations (Native to a Web of Data and Greater than the sum of its parts) are essential resources. He gave a super short overview of what designing for the web of data is all about. Matt went beyond screen based media into the realm of physical computing (see the first trend) showing some cool examples of Arduino prototypes feeding into Second Life.

Jared Spool talked about the usability challenges of web 2.0 and focussed on (among many things) the shortcomings of RSS and the dangers of mash-ups. RSS as a technology is pretty cool, but no normal user intuitively understands its application. This is a technology still looking for a killer app. Mash-ups are typically made by enthusiastic amateurs looking to combine available data sources or interfaces. This means we’ll see a wave of sites with serious usability issues. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing per se, but still something to look out for.

UX designers should get into everyware

I’ve been reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware on and off and one of the things that it has me wondering the most lately is: are UX professionals making the move to design for ubiquitous computing?

There’re several places in the book where he explicitly mentions UX in relation to everyware. Let’s have a look at the ones I managed to retrieve using the book’s trusty index…

On page 14 Greenfield writes that with the emergence of ubicomp at the dawn of the new millennium, the user experience community took up the challenge with “varying degrees of enthusiasm, scepticism and critical distance”, trying to find a “language of interaction suited to a world where information processing would be everywhere in the human environment.”

So of course the UX community has already started considering what it means to design for ubicomp. This stuff is quite different to internet appliances and web sites though, as Greenfield points out in thesis 09 (pp.37-39):

“Consistently eliciting good user experiences means accounting for the physical design of the human interface, the flow of interaction between user and device, and the larger context in which that interaction is embedded. In not a single one of these dimensions is the experience of everyware anything like that of personal computing.” (p.37)

That’s a clear statement, on which he elaborates further on, mentioning that traditional interactions are usually of a “call-and-response rhythm: user actions followed by system events.” Whereas everyware interactions “can’t meaningfully be constructed as ‘task-driven.’ Nor does anything in the interplay between user and system […] correspond with […] information seeking.” (p.38)

So, UX designers moving into everyware have their work cut out for them. This is virgin territory:

“[…] it is […] a radically new situation that will require the development over time of a doctrine and a body of standards and conventions […]” (p.39)

Now, UX in traditional projects has been prone to what Greenfield calls ‘value engineering’. Commercial projects can only be two of these three things: fast, good and cheap. UX would support the second, but sadly it is often sacrificed for the sake of the other two. Not always though, but this is usually dependent on who is involved with the project:

“[…] it often takes an unusually dedicated, persistent, and powerful advocate […] to see a high-quality design project through to completion with everything that makes it excellent intact. […] the painstakingly detailed work of ensuring a good user experience is frequently hard to justify on a short-term ROI basis, and this is why it is often one of the first things to get value-engineered out of an extended development process. […] we’ve seen that getting everyware right will be orders of magnitude more complicated than achieving acceptable quality in a Web site, […] This is not the place for value engineers,” (p.166)

So if traditional projects need UX advocates on board with considerable influence, comparable to Steve Jobs’s role at Apple, to ensure a descent user experience will it even be possible to create ubiquitous experiences that are enjoyable to use? If these projects are so complex, can they be even gotten ‘right’ in a commercial context? I’m sorry to say I think not…

Designers (used broadly) will be at the forefront of deciding what everyware looks like. If you don’t think they will, at least I’m sure they should. They’re not the only ones to determine its shape though, Greenfield points out that both regulators and markets have important parts to play too (pp.172-173):

“[…] the interlocking influences of designer, regulator, and market will be most likely to result in beneficial outcomes if these parties all treat everyware as a present reality, and if the decision makers concerned act accordingly.” (p.173)

Now there’s an interesting notion. Having just come back from a premier venue for the UX community to talk about this topic, the IA Summit, I’m afraid to say that I didn’t get the impression IAs are taking everyware seriously (yet.) There were no talks really concerned with tangible, pervasive, ubiquitous or ambient technologies. Some basic fare on mobile web stuff, that’s all. Worrying, because as Greenfield points out:

“[UX designers] will best be able to intervene effectively if they develop appropriate insights, tools, and methodologies ahead of the actual deployment of ubiquitous systems.” (pp.173-174)

This stuff is real, and it is here. Greenfield points to the existence of systems such as Octopus in Hong Kong and E-ZPass in the US. Honestly, if you think beyond the tools and methods we’ve been using to communicate our designs, IxDs and IAs are well-equipped to handle everyware. No, you won’t be required to draw wireframes or sitemaps; but you’ll damn well need to put in a lot of the thinking designers do. And you’ll still need to be able to communicate those designs. It’s time to get our hands dirty:

“What fully operational systems such as Octopus and E-ZPass tell us is that privacy concerns, social implications, ethical questions, and practical details of the user experience are no longer matters for conjecture or supposition. With ubiquitous systems available for empirical enquiry, these things we need to focus on today.” (p.217)

So, to reiterate the question I started with: are there any UX designers out there that have made the switch from web-work to ubicomp? Anyone considering it? I’d love to hear about your experiences.