Status update

This is not exactly a now page, but I thought I would write up what I am doing at the moment since last reporting on my status in my end-of-year report.

The majority of my workdays are spent doing freelance design consulting. My primary gig has been through Eend at the Dutch Victim Support Foundation, where until very recently I was part of a team building online services. I helped out with product strategy, setting up a lean UX design process, and getting an integrated agile design and development team up and running. The first services are now shipping so it is time for me to move on, after 10 months of very gratifying work. I really enjoy working in the public sector and I hope to be doing more of it in future.

So yes, this means I am available and you can hire me to do strategy and design for software products and services. Just send me an email.

Shortly before the Dutch national elections of this year, Iskander and I gathered a group of fellow tech workers under the banner of “Tech Solidarity NL” to discuss the concerning lurch to the right in national politics and what our field can do about it. This has developed into a small but active community who gather monthly to educate ourselves and develop plans for collective action. I am getting a huge boost out of this. Figuring out how to be a leftist in this day and age is not easy. The only way to do it is to practice and for that reflection with peers is invaluable. Building and facilitating a group like this is hugely educational too. I have learned a lot about how a community is boot-strapped and nurtured.

If you are in the Netherlands, your politics are left of center, and you work in technology, consider yourself invited to join.

And finally, the last major thing on my plate is a continuing effort to secure a PhD position for myself. I am getting great support from people at Delft University of Technology, in particular Gerd Kortuem. I am focusing on internet of things products that have features driven by machine learning. My ultimate aim is to develop prototyping tools for design and development teams that will help them create more innovative and more ethical solutions. The first step for this will be to conduct field research inside companies who are creating such products right now. So I am reaching out to people to see if I can secure a reasonable amount of potential collaborators for this, which will go a long way in proving the feasibility of my whole plan.

If you know of any companies that develop consumer-facing products that have a connected hardware component and make use of machine learning to drive features, do let me know.

That’s about it. Freelance UX consulting, leftist tech-worker organising and design-for-machine-learning research. Quite happy with that mix, really.

High-skill robots, low-skill workers

Some notes on what I think I understand about technology and inequality.

Let’s start with an obvious big question: is technology destroying jobs faster than they can be replaced? On the long term the evidence isn’t strong. Humans always appear to invent new things to do. There is no reason this time around should be any different.

But in the short term technology has contributed to an evaporation of mid-skilled jobs. Parts of these jobs are automated entirely, parts can be done by fewer people because of higher productivity gained from tech.

While productivity continues to grow, jobs are lagging behind. The year 2000 appears to have been a turning point. “Something” happened around that time. But no-one knows exactly what.

My hunch is that we’ve seen an emergence of a new class of pseudo-monopolies. Oligopolies. And this is compounded by a ‘winner takes all’ dynamic that technology seems to produce.

Others have pointed to globalisation but although this might be a contributing factor, the evidence does not support the idea that it is the major cause.

So what are we left with?

Historically, looking at previous technological upsets, it appears education makes a big difference. People negatively affected by technological progress should have access to good education so that they have options. In the US the access to high quality education is not equally divided.

Apparently family income is associated with educational achievement. So if your family is rich, you are more likely to become a high skilled individual. And high skilled individuals are privileged by the tech economy.

And if Piketty’s is right, we are approaching a reality in which money made from wealth rises faster than wages. So there is a feedback loop in place which only exacerbates the situation.

One more bullet: If you think trickle-down economics, increasing the size of the pie will help, you might be mistaken. It appears social mobility is helped more by decreasing inequality in the distribution of income growth.

So some preliminary conclusions: a progressive tax on wealth won’t solve the issue. The education system will require reform, too.

I think this is the central irony of the whole situation: we are working hard to teach machines how to learn. But we are neglecting to improve how people learn.

Singapore

I am back in the Netherlands for over seven weeks now but I am still busy running around the country reconnecting to people and telling them about my experiences in Singapore.

It was great.

I really did manage to reconsider a lot of things and got reoriented, about which more later.

Learned a lot about myself and others by meeting and working with lots of new people from different backgrounds.

And I do miss the city already. The iron-clad guarantee of sun and warmth. Many places to explore offering lots of surprising experiences. And on every street corner, amazing affordable food.

I will miss Singapore, and I am thankful for all it has done for me in the brief period I got to call it my home.

Below are some photos. More are over at Flickr. Happy scrolling and maybe don’t look at these if you’re hungry.

Continue reading Singapore

ARTO

Time for a status update on my stay in Singapore. I have already entered the final three months of my time here. Time flies when you’re having fun eating everything in sight, it turns out.

On the work front I have indeed found the time to do some thinking about what my next big thing will be. Nothing has firmed up to the point where I feel like sharing it here but I am enjoying the conversations I am having with various people about it.

In the meantime, I have been keeping busy working with a local startup called ARTO. I have taken on the role of product designer and I am also responsible for product management of the user-facing parts of the thing we are building.

That “thing” is about art. There are many people who are interested in art but don’t know where to start when it comes to finding, enjoying and acquiring it. We’re building a mobile and TV app that should make that a whole lot more easy and fun.

When I say art I mean commercial, popular and contemporary art of the 2D variety. So painting, illustration, photography, etc. Things you might buy originals or prints of and put on your living room wall. Others are doing a fine job on the high end of the art market. We think there are parts remaining that have been underserved to date.

There are many moving parts to this product, ranging from a recommendation engine, content management system, mobile app, TV app and more so I am never bored. There is always something to figure out in terms of what to build and how it should work and look. For the past couple of years I was always too busy managing the studio to really get into the details of design but now I can totally focus on that and it really is a pleasure.

On the people side we have a small but growing team of brilliant individuals haling from various parts of the region including Vietnam, Myanmar and India. This lends an additional layer of fun challenge to the goings on as we constantly negotiate our differences but also discover the many commonalities afforded by the globalised tech industry. I also get to travel to Ho Chi Minh City regularly which is a nice change from the extreme order that is Singapore.

It is early days so I not only get to help shape the product from the very start but also the company itself. This includes figuring out and maintaining design and development processes. For this I find my Boydian explorations quite useful, paired with what is now more than 13 years of industry experience (how did that happen?) I have also conducted more hiring interviews in the past few months than I did in the ten years before.

In a month or two a first version of the product should be in the market. When we’ve gotten to that point I will do another of these updates. In the meantime just know I am up to my armpits in thinking-through-making about art discovery and enjoyment on screens small and large. If you have anything related to share, or would like to be one of the first to test-drive the thing when it arrives, let me know.

My plans for 2016

Long story short: my plan is to make plans.

Hubbub has gone into hibernation. After more than six years of leading a boutique playful design agency I am returning to freelance life. At least for the short term.

I will use the flexibility afforded by this freeing up of time to take stock of where I have come from and where I am headed. ‘Orientation is the Schwerpunkt,’ as Boyd says. I have definitely cycled back through my meta-OODA-loop and am firmly back in the second O.

To make things more interesting I have exchanged the Netherlands for Singapore. I will be here until August. It is going to be fun to explore the things this city has to offer. I am curious what the technology and design scene is like when seen up close. So I hope to do some work locally.

I will take on short commitments. Let’s say no longer than two to three months. Anything goes really, but I am particularly interested in work related to creativity and learning. I am also keen on getting back into teaching.

So if you are in Singapore, work in technology or design and want to have a cup of coffee. Drop me a line.

Happy 2016!

What I’ve been up to lately

You might be wondering what’s been going on at the Leapfrog studio lately, since I haven’t really posted anything substantial here in a while. Quite some stuff has happened — and I’ll hopefully get back into posting longer articles soon — but for now, here’s a list of more or less interesting things I have been doing:

This happened – Utrecht

We had our first This happened – Utrecht on November 3. I think we succeeded in creating an event that really looks at the craft of interaction design. I’m happy to say we’re planning to do three events next year — all at Theater Kikker in Utrecht — and we’ve got lots of cool speakers in mind. If you want to make sure you won’t miss them, subscribe to our newsletter (in Dutch).1

Teaching

My students are nearing the end of their project. They’ve been hard at work creating concepts for mobile social games with a musical component; they came up with 20 in total. Now they’re prototyping two of them, and I must say it’s looking good. They’ll have to present the games to the project’s commissioner — a major mobile phone manufacturer — somewhere the beginning of January 2009. I hope to be able to share some of the results here afterwards.

Office space

Since December 1 I am a resident of the Dutch Game Garden’s Business Club. That means I now have a nice office smack in the centre of Utrecht. The building’s home to lots of wonderful games companies, some, like me, operating on the fringes — like FourceLabs and Monobanda. If you’re curious and would like to drop by for a tour, a coffee and some conversation, let me know.

Brainstorm

I was invited do help compose one of the cases for the ‘Grote Amsterdamse Waterbrainwave’. A one-day brainstorm in which 45 students from various institutions were asked to come up with water-related innovations that would make the Netherlands a significant global player once again. It was organised by the Port of Amsterdam, Waternet and Verleden van Nederland2. I also attended the day itself as an outside expert on games and the creative industry in general. Read a report of the event at FD.nl (in Dutch).

Book

Dan Saffer’s book Designing Gestural Interfaces has been published by O’Reilly and is now available. Turn to page 109 and you’ll find a storyboard by yours truly used for illustration purposes. That’s the first time any work of mine is featured in print, so naturally I’m quite proud. I have yet to receive my copy, but got a sneak peek this weekend and I must say it looks promising. If you’re a designer needing to get up to speed with multi-touch, physical computing and such, this should be a good place to start.

That’s about it for now. There’s a lot of exciting stuff in the works, the outcomes of which I will hopefully be able to share with you in 2009.

  1. The creators of This happened in London have been nominated for a best of the year award by the Design Museum, by the way. Well-deserved, I would say! []
  2. A cross-media campaign aimed at increasing awareness of Dutch national history. []

Goodbye DK, Hello NL

A photo of the Oude Gracht in Utrecht, the Netherlands taken by Josef F. Stuefer

And that was it. After exactly one year in Copenhagen I am back in Utrecht. I enjoyed my time in Denmark tremendously, it has proven to be a great place to start my new life as a freelance designer. Now I will continue my practice over here. Different city, same international outlook.

The final period in Copenhagen consisted mainly of me speaking at a lot of conferences. First there was The Web and Beyond, then came From Business to Buttons, NLGD Festival of Games and finally Reboot — I could not have wished for a better going-away party.

There is not much time to catch my breath, however. I have client projects happening throughout July and of course there is also plenty of unpacking and merging of the old and new life to be done. I hope to publish the NLGD and Reboot stuff shortly, but it might take me a while.

Now that I am back in the Netherlands, I can also move forward with some small plans I’ve had for some time: one being a local design event and the other a ‘different’ kind of office space. I am also still looking for a creative technologist to partner up with on potential future projects. If any of this piques your interest, do drop me a line.

Photo credits: Josef F. Stuefer.

Moving, speaking

It’s final days for me. In Copenhagen, that is. July 1 I will exchange this lovely city for my home town of Utrecht, the Netherlands. The plan is to continue work as a freelance interaction designer. So if you’re interested, but physical distance has been putting you off so far, get in touch.

Between now and then, most of my time will be spent at conferences. Here’s the rundown:

  • First up is From Business to Buttons, June 12-13 in Malmö, Sweden. My talk is titled More Than Useful. I will attempt to show that for a certain class of products, playfulness is a vital characteristic. The idea is to introduce the IxD crowd to some game design concepts.
  • The week after that I will be at the Festival of Games, June 18-20 in Utrecht, Netherlands. My presentation is titled Playing With Complexity. I will introduce the game design audience to some interaction design thinking and suggest data visualization might be an interesting area to team up on.
  • Last but not least is good old Reboot, 26-27 June in Copenhagen. I have submitted a proposal titled Playful Activism in the Real-Time City, which I hope will be selected to be on the program.1

If you will be at any of these conferences, do drop me a line or say hello at the event itself.

  1. If you’d like to see it too, don’t hesitate to vote it up. []

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.

Background

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.)

Process

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.

Outcome

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.

Work with me in Copenhagen (or where-ever)

Panorama of Copenhagen harbour

Now that I’m over three months into my stay in Copenhagen I thought it would be good to post a short update. Here are the facts, bullet-wise (with apologies to Mr. Tufte):

  • I have been in Copenhagen, Denmark since July 1st 2007
  • Until now I have mostly been working on Playyoo, doing interaction and game design
  • I also presented on Playful IAs at the Euro IA Summit in Barcelona
  • No later than July 1st 2008, I will return to Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • Yes, I intend to continue freelancing when I get back (I officially left Info.nl on October 1st 2007)
  • I am available for freelance interaction design gigs that involve social media, mobile technology and/or gaming
  • You can also invite me to speak at your event or company, particularly on the topic of applying game design principles to the user experience of products and services

Oh and of course, if you happen to be in Copenhagen, don’t hesitate to drop me a line when you feel like going out for some drinks!