A year of two crashes

A year ago today I was in Bali.

We spent the better part of December 2015 there. It wasn’t really a holiday, but we weren’t really working either. I was wrapping up a few final Hubbub things back then. But for the most part life was quiet. Very quiet. We would get up really early. We would buy some vegetables and things from a lady who would drive into town every morning with a load from the market.

I’d swim, exercise, meditate, have breakfast and do some work. Writing and reading mostly. By the end of the morning we would cook lunch. The major meal of the day. In the afternoon we wouldn’t do much of anything because of the heat. December is rainy season in Bali and it gets incredibly hot and humid. Towards dusk we would often take a walk. We would have an early light dinner and entertain ourselves with the antics of tokay geckos. We would turn in early.

Now I am writing this back in our home in Utrecht. In many ways my life has returned to the way it was before that month in Bali. But in other ways it has changed. I used to run a small agency and would be in the studio almost every day. Now I am freelancing and I split my time between working on site at clients, working from home and meeting up with people in town. I enjoy the variety.

I used to be in the business of designing games and playthings for learning and other purposes. Now I am back to my old vocation of interaction design and in theory I can and work on anything.

Towards the end of Hubbub’s run I felt boxed in. Now I feel like I can pursue whatever interests me.

Right now, under the banner of Eend I am helping the Dutch victim support foundation develop new digital services. I spend about three days a week working on site as part of cross-disciplinary agile team made up of a mix of internal and external people. It’s good, important work and I can contribute a lot.

The time that remains I divide between the usual freelancer things like admin, networking and so on, and developing a plan for a PhD.

I’ve been blogging on and off about intelligent design tools this year and that is no coincidence. I am considering going into research fulltime to work in that space. It is still early days but I am having fun reading up on the subject, writing, making plans, and talking to people in academia about it.

In between this ‘new normal’ and those quiet days in Bali was a year of two crashes. I basically started from scratch in many ways twice this year and I feel like it has helped me get reoriented.

Crash one.

In January we moved to Singapore. We would end up spending seven months there. In that time I joined a startup called ARTO. I helped build a team, develop a design and development process and acted as product manager and product designer. We launched a first version of the product in that period and we pushed out a couple of new features as well. The last thing I did was find a replacement for myself.

In between working on ARTO I taught a two-part engagement design workshop with Michael and helped Edo and his team build ArtHit. I got into running and ate my way through the abundance of amazing food Singapore has to offer.

Of all the things I enjoyed about Singapore, its cosmopolitanism has to be the absolute highlight. I worked with people from Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam and India. I made friends with people from many more places. Discovering the things we have in common and the things that set us apart was a continuous source of enjoyment.

And like that, just when we were getting settled and had gotten into a routine of sorts and started to feel at home it was time to go back to the Netherlands. (But not before spending a couple of weeks exploring Vietnam and Cambodia. More great food and gorgeous sights.)

Crash two.

It is weird to have culture shock in a town you’ve spent most of your life in but that was what it felt like for about the first month back in Utrecht. September felt very similar to January. I had no work and was networking like a madman and just playing the numbers game. Hoping I would bump into something. And of course, as it always does eventually, things worked out.

I consider myself blessed to be able to take these risks and more or less trust things will turn out okay. I know that if they don’t there are always people around me who will support me if worse comes to worse.

2017 looks to be a year of more stability although one can never be sure. World events as well as occurrences in my personal circles this year have shown me once again there are no guarantees in life.

But I plan to build on what I’ve started these past few months and see where it takes me. It is time to shift from orienting to deciding and acting. And for the foreseeable future I plan to keep the current ‘system’ running.

So no more crashes for the time being. Although I am sure there will come a time when the need for it arises again.

Waiting for the smart city

Nowadays when we talk about the smart city we don’t necessarily talk about smartness or cities.

I feel like when the term is used it often obscures more than it reveals.

Here a few reasons why.

To begin with, the term suggests something that is yet to arrive. Some kind of tech-enabled utopia. But actually, current day cities are already smart to a greater or lesser degree depending on where and how you look.

This is important because too often we postpone action as we wait for the smart city to arrive. We don’t have to wait. We can act to improve things right now.

Furthermore, ‘smart city’ suggests something monolithic that can be designed as a whole. But a smart city, like any city, is a huge mess of interconnected things. It resists topdown design.

History is littered with failed attempts at authoritarian high-modernist city design. Just stop it.

Smartness should not be an end but a means.

I read ‘smart’ as a shorthand for ‘technologically augmented’. A smart city is a city eaten by software. All cities are being eaten (or have been eaten) by software to a greater or lesser extent. Uber and Airbnb are obvious examples. Smaller more subtle ones abound.

The question is, smart to what end? Efficiency? Legibility? Controllability? Anti-fragility? Playability? Liveability? Sustainability? The answer depends on your outlook.

These are ways in which the smart city label obscures. It obscures agency. It obscures networks. It obscures intent.

I’m not saying don’t ever use it. But in many cases you can get by without it. You can talk about specific parts that make up the whole of a city, specific technologies and specific aims.

Postscript 1

We can do the same exercise with the ‘city’ part of the meme.

The same process that is making cities smart (software eating the world) is also making everything else smart. Smart towns. Smart countrysides. The ends are different. The networks are different. The processes play out in different ways.

It’s okay to think about cities but don’t think they have a monopoly on ‘disruption’.

Postscript 2

Some of this inspired by clever things I heard Sebastian Quack say at Playful Design for Smart Cities and Usman Haque at ThingsCon Amsterdam.

Playful Design for Smart Cities

Earlier this week I escaped the miserable weather and food of the Netherlands to spend a couple of days in Barcelona, where I attended the ‘Playful Design for Smart Cities’ workshop at RMIT Europe.

I helped Jussi Holopainen run a workshop in which participants from industry, government and academia together defined projects aimed at further exploring this idea of playful design within the context of smart cities, without falling into the trap of solutionism.

Before the workshop I presented a summary of my chapter in The Gameful World, along with some of my current thinking on it. There were also great talks by Judith Ackermann, Florian ‘Floyd’ Müller, and Gilly Karjevsky and Sebastian Quack.

Below are the slides for my talk and links to all the articles, books and examples I explicitly and implicitly referenced throughout.

Adapting intelligent tools for creativity

I read Alper’s book on conversational user interfaces over the weekend and was struck by this paragraph:

“The holy grail of a conversational system would be one that’s aware of itself — one that knows its own model and internal structure and allows you to change all of that by talking to it. Imagine being able to tell Siri to tone it down a bit with the jokes and that it would then actually do that.”

His point stuck with me because I think this is of particular importance to creative tools. These need to be flexible so that a variety of people can use them in different circumstances. This adaptability is what lends a tool depth.

The depth I am thinking of in creative tools is similar to the one in games, which appears to be derived from a kind of semi-orderedness. In short, you’re looking for a sweet spot between too simple and too complex.

And of course, you need good defaults.

Back to adaptation. This can happen in at least two ways on the interface level: modal or modeless. A simple example of the former would be to go into a preferences window to change the behaviour of your drawing package. Similarly, modeless adaptation happens when you rearrange some panels to better suit the task at hand.

Returning to Siri, the equivalence of modeless adaptation would be to tell her to tone it down when her sense of humor irks you.

For the modal solution, imagine a humor slider in a settings screen somewhere. This would be a terrible solution because it offers a poor mapping of a control to a personality trait. Can you pinpoint on a scale of 1 to 10 your preferred amount of humor in your hypothetical personal assistant? And anyway, doesn’t it depend on a lot of situational things such as your mood, the particular task you’re trying to complete and so on? In short, this requires something more situated and adaptive.

So just being able to tell Siri to tone it down would be the equivalent of rearranging your Photoshop palets. And in a next interaction Siri might carefully try some humor again to gauge your response. And if you encourage her, she might be more humorous again.

Enough about funny Siri for now because it’s a bit of a silly example.

Funny Siri, although she’s a bit of a Silly example, does illustrate another problem I am trying to wrap my head around. How does an intelligent tool for creativity communicate its internal state? Because it is probabilistic, it can’t be easily mapped to a graphic information display. And so our old way of manipulating state, and more specifically adapting a tool to our needs becomes very different too.

It seems to be best for an intelligent system to be open to suggestions from users about how to behave. Adapting an intelligent creative tool is less like rearranging your workspace and more like coordinating with a coworker.

My ideal is for this to be done in the same mode (and so using the same controls) as when doing the work itself. I expect this to allow for more fluid interactions, going back and forth between doing the work at hand, and meta-communication about how the system supports the work. I think if we look at how people collaborate this happens a lot, communication and meta-communication going on continuously in the same channels.

We don’t need a self-aware artificial intelligence to do this. We need to apply what computer scientists call supervised learning. The basic idea is to provide a system with example inputs and desired outputs, and let it infer the necessary rules from them. If the results are unsatisfactory, you simply continue training it until it performs well enough.

A super fun example of this approach is the Wekinator, a piece of machine learning software for creating musical instruments. Below is a video in which Wekinator’s creator Rebecca Fiebrink performs several demos.

Here we have an intelligent system learning from examples. A person manipulating data in stead of code to get to a particular desired behaviour. But what Wekinator lacks and what I expect will be required for this type of thing to really catch on is for the training to happen in the same mode or medium as the performance. The technology seems to be getting there, but there are many interaction design problems remaining to be solved.


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

Generating UI design variations

AI design tool for UI design alternatives

I am still thinking about AI and design. How is the design process of AI products different? How is the user experience of AI products different? Can design tools be improved with AI?

When it comes to improving design tools with AI my starting point is game design and development. What follows is a quick sketch of one idea, just to get it out of my system.

‘Mixed-initiative’ tools for procedural generation (such as Tanagra) allow designers to create high-level structures which a machine uses to produce full-fledged game content (such as levels). It happens in a real-time. There is a continuous back-and-forth between designer and machine.

Software user interfaces, on mobile in particular, are increasingly frequently assembled from ready-made components according to more or less well-described rules taken from design languages such as Material Design. These design languages are currently primarily described for human consumption. But it should be a small step to make a design language machine-readable.

So I see an opportunity here where a designer might assemble a UI like they do now, and a machine can do several things. For example it can test for adherence to design language rules, suggest corrections or even auto-correct as the designer works.

More interestingly, a machine might take one UI mockup, and provide the designer with several more possible variations. To do this it could use different layouts, or alternative components that serve a same or similar purpose to the ones used.

In high pressure work environments where time is scarce, corners are often cut in the divergence phase of design. Machines could augment designers so that generating many design alternatives becomes less laborious both mentally and physically. Ideally, machines would surprise and even inspire us. And the final say would still be ours.

Engagement design worksheets

Engagement design workshop at General Assembly Singapore

In June/July of this year I helped Michael Fillié teach two classes about engagement design at General Assembly Singapore. The first was theoretical and the second practical. For the practical class we created a couple of worksheets which participants used in groups to gradually build a design concept for a new product or product improvement aimed at long-term engagement. Below are the worksheets along with some notes on how to use them. I’m hoping they may be useful in your own practice.

A practical note: Each of these worksheets is designed to be printed on A1 paper. (Click on the images to get the PDFs.) We worked on them using post-it notes so that it is easy to add, change or remove things as you go.

Problem statement and persona


We started with understanding the problem and the user. This worksheet is an adaptation of the persona sheet by Strategyzer. To use it you begin at the top, fleshing out the problem in the form of stating the engagement challenge, and the business goals. Then, you select a user segment which is relevant to the problem.

The middle section of the sheet is used to describe them in the form of a persona. Start with putting a face on them. Give the persona a name and add some demographic details relevant for the user’s behaviour. Then, move on to exploring what their environment looks and sounds like and what they are thinking and feeling. Finally, try to describe what issues the user is having that are addressed by the product and what the user stands to gain from using the product.

The third section of this sheet is used to wrap up the first exercise by doing a quick gap analysis of what the business would like to see in terms of user behaviour and what the user is currently doing. This will help pin down the engagement design concept fleshed out in the next exercises.

Engagement loop


Exercise two builds on the understanding of the problem and the user and offers a structured way of thinking through a possible solution. For this we use the engagement loop model developed by Sebastian Deterding. There are different places we can start here but one that often works well is to start imagining the Big Hairy Audacious Goal the user is looking to achieve. This is the challenge. It is a thing (usually a skill) the user can improve at. Note this challenge down in the middle. Then, working around the challenge, describe a measurable goal the user can achieve on their way to mastering the challenge. Describe the action the user can take with the product towards that goal, and the feedback the product will give them to let them know their action has succeeded and how much closer it has gotten them to the goal. Finally and crucially, try to describe what kind of motivation the user is driven by and make sure the goals, actions and feedback make sense in that light. If not, adjust things until it all clicks.



The final exercise is devoted to visualising and telling a story about the engagement loop we developed in the abstract in the previous block. It is a typical storyboard, but we have constrained it to a set of story beats you must hit to build a satisfying narrative. We go from introducing the user and their challenge, to how the product communicates the goal and action to what a user does with it and how they get feedback on that to (fast-forward) how they feel when they ultimately master the challenge. It makes the design concept relatable to outsiders and can serve as a jumping off point for further design and development.

Use, adapt and share

Together, these three exercises and worksheets are a great way to think through an engagement design problem. We used them for teaching but I can also imagine teams using them to explore a solution to a problem they might be having with an existing product, or as a way to kickstart the development of a new product.

We’ve built on other people’s work for these so it only makes sense to share them again for others to use and build on. If you do use them I would love to hear about your experiences.

Doing UX inside of Scrum

Some notes on how I am currently “doing user experience” inside of Scrum. This approach has evolved from my projects at Hubbub as well as more recently my work with ARTO and on a project at Edenspiekermann. So I have found it works with both startups and agency style projects.

The starting point is to understand that Scrum is intended to be a container. It is a process framework. It should be able to hold any other activity you think you need as a team. So if we feel we need to add UX somehow, we should try to make it part of Scrum and not something that is tacked onto Scrum. Why not tack something on? Because it signals design is somehow distinct from development. And the whole point of doing agile is to have cross-functional teams. If you set up a separate process for design you are highly likely not to benefit from the full collective intelligence of the combined design and development team. So no, design needs to be inside of the Scrum container.

Staggered sprints are not the answer either because you are still splitting the team into design and development, hampering cross-collaboration and transparency. You’re basically inviting Taylorism back into your process—the very thing you were trying to getting away from.

When you are uncomfortable with putting designers and developers all in the same team and the same process the answer is not to make your process more elaborate, parcel things up, and decrease “messy” interactions. The answer is increasing conversation, not eliminating it.

It turns out things aren’t remotely as complicated as they appear to be. The key is understanding Scrum’s events. The big event holding all other events is the sprint. The sprint outputs a releasable increment of “done" product. The development team does everything required to achieve the sprint goal collaboratively determined during sprint planning. Naturally this includes any design needed for the product. I think of this as the ‘production’ type of design. It typically consists mostly of UI design. There may already be some preliminary UI design available at the start of the sprint but it does not have to be finished.

What about the kind of design that is required for figuring out what to build in the first place? It might not be obvious at first, but Scrum actually has an ongoing process which readily accommodates it: backlog refinement. These are all activities required to get a product backlog item in shape for sprint planning. This is emphatically not a solo show for the product manager to conduct. It is something the whole team collaborates on. Developers and designers. In my experience designers are great at facilitating backlog refinement sessions. At the whiteboard, figuring stuff out with the whole team ‘Lean UX’ style.

I will admit product backlog refinement is Scrum’s weak point. Where it offers a lot of structure for the sprints, it offers hardly any for the backlog refinement (or grooming as some call it). But that’s okay, we can evolve our own.

I like to use Kanban to manage the process of backlog refinement. Items come into the pipeline as something we want to elaborate because we have decided we want to build it (in some form or other, can be just an experiment) in the next sprint or two. It then goes through various stages of elaboration. At the very least capturing requirements in the form of user stories or job stories, doing sketches, a lo-fi prototype, mockups and a hi-fi prototype and finally breaking the item down into work to be done and attaching an estimate to it. At this point it is ready to be part of a sprint. Crucially, during this lifecycle of an item as it is being refined, we can and should do user research if we feel we need more data, or user testing if we feel it is too risky to commit to a feature outright.

For this kind of figuring stuff out, this ‘planning’ type of design, it makes no sense to have it be part of a sprint-like structure because the work required to get it to a ‘ready’ state is much more unpredictable. The point of having a looser grooming flow is that it exists to eliminate uncertainty for when we commit to an item in a sprint.

So between the sprint and backlog refinement, Scrum readily accommodates design. ‘Production’ type design happens inside of the sprint and designers are considered part of the development team. ‘Planning’ type of design happens as part of backlog refinement.

So no need to tack on a separate process. It keeps the process simple and understandable, thus increasing transparency for the whole team. It prevents design from becoming a black box to others. And when we make design part of the container process framework that is Scrum, we reap the rewards of the team’s collective intelligence and we increase our agility.

Prototyping is a team sport

Lately I have been binging on books, presentations and articles related to ‘Lean UX’. I don’t like the term, but then I don’t like the tech industry’s love for inventing a new label for every damn thing. I do like the things emphasises: shared understanding, deep collaboration, continuous user feedback. These are principles that have always implicitly guided the choices I made when leading teams at Hubbub and now also as a member of several teams in the role of product designer.

In all these lean UX readings a thing that keeps coming up again and again is prototyping. Prototypes are the go-to way of doing ‘experiments’, in lean-speak. Other things can be done as well—surveys, interviews, whatever—but more often than not, assumptions are tested with prototypes.

Which is great! And also unsurprising as prototyping has really been embraced by the tech world. And tools for rapid prototyping are getting a lot of attention and interest as a result. However, this comes with a couple of risks. For one, sometimes it is fine to stick to paper. But the lure of shiny prototyping tools is strong. You’d rather not show a crappy drawing to a user. What if they hate it? However, high fidelity prototyping is always more costly than paper. So although well-intentioned, prototyping tools can encourage wastefulness, the bane of lean.

There is a bigger danger which runs against the lean ethos, though. Some tools afford deep collaboration more than others. Let’s be real: none afford deeper collaboration than paper and whiteboards. There is one person behind the controls when prototyping with a tool. So in my view, one should only ever progress to that step once a team effort has been made to hash out the rough outlines of what is to be prototyped. Basically: always paper prototype the digital prototype. Together.

I have had a lot of fun lately playing with browser prototypes and with prototyping in Framer. But as I was getting back into all of this I did notice this risk: All of a sudden there is a person on the team who does the prototypes. Unless this solo prototyping is preceded by shared prototyping, this is a problem. Because the rest of the team is left out of the thinking-through-making which makes the prototyping process so valuable in addition to the testable artefacts it outputs.

It is I think a key oversight of the ‘should designers code’ debaters and to an extent one made by all prototyping tool manufacturers: Individuals don’t prototype, teams do. Prototyping is a team sport. And so the success of a tool depends not only on how well it supports individual prototyping activities but also how well it embeds itself in collaborative workflows.

In addition to the tools themselves getting better at supporting collaborative workflows, I would also love to see more tutorials, both official and from the community, about how to use a prototyping tool within the larger context of a team doing some form of agile. Most tutorials now focus on “how do I make this thing with this tool”. Useful, up to a point. But a large part of prototyping is to arrive at “the thing” together.

One of the lean UX things I devoured was this presentation by Bill Scott in which he talks about aligning a prototyping and a development tech stack, so that the gap between design and engineering is bridged not just with processes but also with tooling. His example applies to web development and app development using web technologies. I wonder what a similar approach looks like for native mobile app development. But this is the sort of thing I am talking about: Smart thinking about how to actually do this lean thing in the real world. I believe organising ourselves so that we can prototype as a team is absolutely key. I will pick my tools and processes accordingly in future.

All of the above is as usual mostly a reminder to self: As a designer your role is not to go off and work solo on brilliant prototypes. Your role is to facilitate such efforts by the whole team. Sure, there will be solo deep designerly crafting happening. But it will not add up to anything if it is not embedded in a collaborative design and development framework.


Running the bay

I have started running. I never thought I would. I think I was put off running in high school when during physical education they would occasionally force us to run 5k out of the blue. I remember it was torture. I never did particularly well and was sore afterwards so I came to associate it with failure and tedium and so on.

When we moved to Singapore I decided I would do some more exercise and at some point read this thing about how running is a cheap and easy way to get some exercise in and that it is particularly fun to do with your partner.

My wife has always been a runner so I suggested we started running together. She was surprised I think but agreed it would be a good idea. The next weekend I went and got a pair of shoes and that same day we were off to our first run.

In the beginning it was a hard to find good routes. I could not manage much more than 3k which did not help. But 3k turned into 5k. Around that time we found a field in the neighbourhood we could do laps around. When that became boring we decided to switch to the bay, a very popular spot, and we started doing 6–8k runs there. We’ve been sticking to that ever since.

Now we run roughly two to three times a week. Sometimes we try one of the parks and run some trails. I find I enjoy trail running even more because it is less about speed and more about awareness. And there is more to see so it never gets boring.

We were on holiday on Bali the other week and I brought my gear and ran some trails through rice fields and along the beach there as well and it struck me that this is possibly the greatest thing about running. You can do it anywhere you go, and once you build up a decent amount of stamina, your legs will take you wherever it is you want to go. It is an incredibly liberating feeling.

It took a bit of doing to get to that point. But now that I’ve reached it, I’m hooked.