Artificial intelligence as partner

Some notes on arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, tech­nol­o­gy as part­ner and relat­ed user inter­face design chal­lenges. Most­ly notes to self, not sure I am adding much to the debate. Just sum­maris­ing what I think is impor­tant to think about more. Warn­ing: Dense with links.

Matt Jones writes about how arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence does not have to be a slave, but can also be part­ner.

I’m per­son­al­ly much more inter­est­ed in machine intel­li­gence as human aug­men­ta­tion rather than the oft-hyped AI assis­tant as a sep­a­rate embod­i­ment.

I would add a third pos­si­bil­i­ty, which is AI as mas­ter. A com­mon fear we humans have and one I think only grow­ing as things like Alpha­Go and new Boston Dynam­ics robots keep hap­pen­ing.

I have had a tweet pinned to my time­line for a while now, which is a quote from Play Mat­ters.

tech­no­logy is not a ser­vant or a mas­ter but a source of expres­sion, a way of being”

So this idea actu­al­ly does not just apply to AI but to tech in gen­er­al. Of course, as tech gets smarter and more inde­pen­dent from humans, the idea of a ‘third way’ only grows in impor­tance.

More tweet­ing. A while back, short­ly after AlphaGo’s vic­to­ry, James tweet­ed:

On the one hand, we must insist, as Kas­parov did, on Advanced Go, and then Advanced Every­thing Else

Advanced Chess is a clear exam­ple of humans and AI part­ner­ing. And it is also an exam­ple of tech­nol­o­gy as a source of expres­sion and a way of being.

Also, in a WIRED arti­cle on Alpha­Go, some­one who had played the AI repeat­ed­ly says his game has improved tremen­dous­ly.

So that is the promise: Arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent sys­tems which work togeth­er with humans for mutu­al ben­e­fit.

Now of course these AIs don’t just arrive into the world ful­ly formed. They are cre­at­ed by humans with par­tic­u­lar goals in mind. So there is a design com­po­nent there. We can design them to be part­ners but we can also design them to be mas­ters or slaves.

As an aside: Maybe AIs that make use of deep learn­ing are par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to this part­ner mod­el? I do not know enough about it to say for sure. But I was struck by this piece on why Google ditched Boston Dynam­ics. There appar­ent­ly is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between holis­tic and reduc­tion­ist approach­es, deep learn­ing being holis­tic. I imag­ine reduc­tion­ist AI might be more depen­dent on humans. But this is just wild spec­u­la­tion. I don’t know if there is any­thing there.

This insis­tence of James on “advanced every­thing else” is a world view. A pol­i­tics. To allow our­selves to be increas­ing­ly entan­gled with these sys­tems, to not be afraid of them. Because if we are afraid, we either want to sub­ju­gate them or they will sub­ju­gate us. It is also about not obscur­ing the sys­tems we are part of. This is a sen­ti­ment also expressed by James in the same series of tweets I quot­ed from ear­li­er:

These emer­gences are also the best mod­el we have ever built for describ­ing the true state of the world as it always already exists.

And there is over­lap here with ideas expressed by Kevin in ‘Design as Par­tic­i­pa­tion’:

[W]e are no longer just using com­put­ers. We are using com­put­ers to use the world. The obscured and com­plex code and engi­neer­ing now engages with peo­ple, resources, civics, com­mu­ni­ties and ecosys­tems. Should design­ers con­tin­ue to priv­i­lege users above all oth­ers in the sys­tem? What would it mean to design for par­tic­i­pants instead? For all the par­tic­i­pants?

AI part­ners might help us to bet­ter see the sys­tems the world is made up of and engage with them more deeply. This hope is expressed by Matt Webb, too:

with the re-emer­gence of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (only this time with a bud­dy-style user inter­face that actu­al­ly works), this ques­tion of “doing some­thing for me” vs “allow­ing me to do even more” is going to get even more pro­nounced. Both are effec­tive, but the first sucks… or at least, it sucks accord­ing to my own per­son­al pol­i­tics, because I regard indi­vid­ual alien­ation from soci­ety and com­plex sys­tems as one of the huge threats in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

I am remind­ed of the mixed-ini­tia­tive sys­tems being researched in the area of pro­ce­dur­al con­tent gen­er­a­tion for games. I wrote about these a while back on the Hub­bub blog. Such sys­tems are part­ners of design­ers. They give some­thing like super pow­ers. Now imag­ine such pow­ers applied to oth­er prob­lems. Quite excit­ing.

Actu­al­ly, in the afore­men­tioned arti­cle I dis­tin­guish between tools for mak­ing things and tools for inspect­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty spaces. In the first case design­ers manip­u­late more abstract rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the intend­ed out­come and the sys­tem gen­er­ates the actu­al out­put. In the sec­ond case the sys­tem visu­alis­es the range of pos­si­ble out­comes giv­en a par­tic­u­lar con­fig­u­ra­tion of the abstract rep­re­sen­ta­tion. These two are best paired.

From a design per­spec­tive, a lot remains to be fig­ured out. If I look at those mixed-ini­tia­tive tools I am struck by how poor­ly they com­mu­ni­cate what the AI is doing and what its capa­bil­i­ties are. There is a huge user inter­face design chal­lenge there.

For stuff focused on get­ting infor­ma­tion, a con­ver­sa­tion­al UI seems to be the cur­rent local opti­mum for work­ing with an AI. But for tools for cre­ativ­i­ty, to use the two-way split pro­posed by Vic­tor, dif­fer­ent UIs will be required.

What shape will they take? What visu­al lan­guage do we need to express the par­tic­u­lar prop­er­ties of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence? What approach­es can we take in addi­tion to per­son­i­fy­ing AI as bots or char­ac­ters? I don’t know and I can hard­ly think of any good exam­ples that point towards promis­ing approach­es. Lots to be done.

Playful street tiles, artful games and radioscapes at the next This happened – Utrecht

After a bit of a long sum­mer break Alexan­der, Ianus and I are back with anoth­er edi­tion of This hap­pened – Utrecht. Read about the pro­gram of the sev­enth edi­tion below. We’ll add a fourth speak­er to the ros­ter soon. The event is sched­uled for Mon­day 4 Octo­ber at The­ater Kikker in Utrecht. Doors open at 7:30PM. The reg­is­tra­tion opens next week on Mon­day 20 Sep­tem­ber at 12:00PM.

The Patchingzone

Anne Nigten is direc­tor of The Patch­ing­zone, a trans­dis­ci­pli­nary lab­o­ra­to­ry for inno­va­tion where Mas­ter, doc­tor, post-doc stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­als from dif­fer­ent back­grounds cre­ate mean­ing­ful con­tent. Ear­li­er, Anne Nigten was man­ag­er of V2_lab and com­plet­ed a PhD on a method for cre­ative research and devel­op­ment. Go-for-IT! is a city game cre­at­ed togeth­er with cit­i­zens of South Rot­ter­dam and launched in Decem­ber 2009. On four play­grounds in the area street tiles were equipped with LEDs. Locals could play games with their feet, sim­i­lar to con­sole game dance mats.

Ibb and Obb

Richard Boeser is an inde­pen­dent design­er based in Rot­ter­dam. His stu­dio Sparp­weed is cur­rent­ly work­ing on the game Ibb and Obb, sched­uled to launch for Playsta­tion Net­work and PC in August 2011. Ibb and Obb is a coop­er­a­tive game for two play­ers who togeth­er must find a way through a world where grav­i­ty is flipped across the hori­zon. Play­ers move between both sides of the world through por­tals. They can surf on grav­i­ty, soul­hop ene­mies and col­lect dia­monds. The game is part­ly financed by the Game Fund, an arrange­ment that seeks to stim­u­late the devel­op­ment of artis­tic games in the Nether­lands.


Edwin van der Hei­de stud­ied sonol­o­gy at the Roy­al Con­ser­va­to­ry in The Hague. He now works as an artist in the field of sound, space and inter­ac­tion. Radioscape trans­forms urban space into an acoustic labyrinth. Based on the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of radio each par­tic­i­pant is equipped with a receiv­er, head­phones and an anten­na. Fif­teen trans­mit­ters each broad­cast their own com­po­si­tion. Inspired by short wave sounds, they over­lap to form a meta­com­po­si­tion. By chang­ing posi­tion, the inter­pre­ta­tion of sound is changed as well.

A big thank you to our spon­sors, Microsoft and Fier for mak­ing this one hap­pen.

Announcing This happened – Utrecht #6

Last week we announced the sixth edi­tion of This hap­pened – Utrecht. The pro­gram was up on our Dutch site already, here’s the pro­gram in Eng­lish (soon avail­able on our inter­na­tion­al .org site, too). As always I am very excit­ed about the line-up. Can’t wait to hear what sto­ries these peo­ple have to share about their work. Doors open on Mon­day 10 May at 7:30PM. The reg­is­tra­tion starts on Mon­day 26 April at 12:00PM. See you there!

Keez Duyves is one of the cofounders of PIPS:lab, based in Ams­ter­dam, NL. Archie and the Bees, their newest the­atri­cal con­cept, links the pri­ma­ry col­ors red, green and blue to the pri­ma­ry ele­ments of rhythm: kick, snare and hi-hat. In this hybrid of mul­ti­me­dia per­for­mance and instal­la­tion, PIPS:lab demon­strate their rev­o­lu­tion­ary Radar­funk machine — allow­ing them to gen­er­ate sound from col­or. A light paint­ing or the col­ors in the audi­ence serve as musi­cal basis over which PIPS:lab impro­vise and amaze with their oth­er self-devel­oped instru­ments: the Bash­blender, the Grinder and the LCDC video gui­tar.

Matt Cot­tam is the founder of Tel­lart. Wood­en Log­ic rep­re­sents the first phase in a hands-on sketch­ing process aimed at explor­ing how nat­ur­al mate­ri­als and craft tra­di­tions can be brought to the cen­ter of inter­ac­tive dig­i­tal design to give mod­ern prod­ucts greater longevi­ty and mean­ing. It is only in the past decade or so that the com­mu­ni­ty and tools have evolved to the point that design­ers can sketch with hard­ware and soft­ware; which before that was the sole domain of engi­neers and com­put­er sci­en­tists. This project seeks to com­bine seem­ing­ly dis­so­nant ele­ments, nat­ur­al, mate­r­i­al and vir­tu­al, and explore how they can be craft­ed to feel as if they were born togeth­er as parts of a uni­fied object anato­my that is both sin­gu­lar and pre­cious.

San­neke Prins and Berend Weij are co-founders of Mijn naam is Haas, a com­pa­ny that pro­duces a range of edu­ca­tion­al prod­ucts aimed at pri­ma­ry edu­ca­tion. These prod­ucts are all sit­u­at­ed in the world of the main char­ac­ter Haas. The range con­sists of illus­trat­ed children’s books, CD-ROMs and an online learn­ing envi­ron­ment, in which the vocab­u­lary of tod­dlers is increased through game prin­ci­ples. Chil­dren cre­ate the world of haas by draw­ing. All draw­ing actions direct­ly influ­ence the unfold­ing sto­ry, so each play ses­sion is unique which makes the game con­tin­u­ous­ly engag­ing. In this cre­ative process lan­guage ele­ments are pre­sent­ed in a play­ful man­ner. The first ver­sion of the game was cre­at­ed by the founders dur­ing their atten­dance of the EMMA pro­gram at the HKU.

Sebas­ti­aan de With is an inter­face and icon design­er work­ing under the name Cocoia. He designs, teach­es and runs a pop­u­lar blog on inter­faces and icons. Sebas­ti­aan is eas­i­ly rec­og­nized in Dracht­en wear­ing his Explod­ed Set­tings Icon or Bricky shirt and tot­ing an iPad. Clas­sics is one of the first pop­u­lar e-read­ers on the iPhone, offer­ing pub­lic domain books in a well-designed expe­ri­ence. The project was ini­ti­at­ed by the Phill Ryu, (in)famous for MacHeist and his sup­port of the Deli­cious Gen­er­a­tion. Clear­ly the Clas­sics app is a feat of design dri­ven devel­op­ment, com­plete with an inspired wood­en book­shelf, curl­ing page turns (both now also avail­able on the iPad), mar­velous icons and a col­lec­tion of lov­ing­ly designed book cov­ers.

We wouldn’t be able to pull off this edi­tion with the sup­port of the Utrecht School of the Arts and Microsoft Design Tool­box. Thank you!

A third This happened – Utrecht coming this way

Around this time, an email to the ever-grow­ing This hap­pened – Utrecht mail­ing list will be sent to announce our third edi­tion, which will take place on Mon­day 29 June at The­ater Kikker in Utrecht.

This happened – Utrecht #3 collage

Clock­wise: Trompe L’Oeil, FluxFloor, Swarm and Hyper Human.

As always, I am super excit­ed about hear­ing the sto­ries our won­der­ful speak­ers will tell about the things they’ve made. Here’s who’ll be there this time around:

  • Aldo Hoeben of field­OfView will dis­cuss his work on Trompe L’Oeil; a panoram­ic pro­jec­tion in the alcove of one of Utrecht’s old­est church­es.
  • David Kouse­mak­er and Tim Old­en of Blendid will give us an inside look at the work behind their lat­est inter­ac­tive light instal­la­tion called Swarm.
  • Lucy McRae will go into the details of her Hyper Human project, which con­sists of explo­rations of fash­ion that is grown on the human body.
  • Anouk Randag of 31Volts, final­ly, will talk about FluxFloor, the sus­tain­able dance floor she designed while grad­u­at­ing at TU Delft.

We’re going to open up reg­is­tra­tion in two weeks time on Mon­day 15 June at 12:00. I expect space to fill up real quick again as usu­al. So mark your cal­en­dars and set an alarm!

Mashing up the real-time city and urban games

Yes­ter­day evening I was at the Club of Ams­ter­dam. They host events cen­tred around pre­ferred futures. I was invit­ed to speak at an evening about the future of games.1 I thought I’d share what I talked about with you here.

I had ten min­utes to get my point across. To be hon­est, I think I failed rather dis­mal­ly. Some of the ideas I includ­ed were still quite fresh and unfin­ished, and I am afraid this did not work out well. I also relied too heav­i­ly on ref­er­enc­ing other’s work, pre­sum­ing peo­ple would be famil­iar with them. A mis­cal­cu­la­tion on my part.

In any case, thanks to Felix Bopp and Car­la Hoek­endijk for invit­ing me. I had a good time and enjoyed the oth­er presenter’s talks. The dis­cus­sion after­wards too was a lot of things, but dull cer­tain­ly isn’t among them.

What fol­lows is a write-up of what I more or less said dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion, plus ref­er­ences to the sources I used, which will hope­ful­ly make things clear­er than they were dur­ing the evening itself.2


(This is where I did the usu­al intro­duc­tion of who I am and what I do. I won’t bore you with it here. In case you are won­der­ing, the title of this talk is slight­ly tongue-in cheek. I had to come up with it for the abstract before writ­ing the actu­al talk. Had I been able to choose a title after­wards, it would’ve been some­thing like “Growth” or “A New Biol­o­gy of Urban Play”…)


This gen­tle­man is Jean-Bap­tiste Lamar­ck. He is said to be the first to for­mu­late a coher­ent the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion. His ideas cen­tred around inher­i­tance of acquired traits. So for instance, a black­smiths who works hard his whole life will prob­a­bly get real­ly strong arms. In the Lamar­ck­ist view, his off­spring will inher­it these strong arms from him. Dar­win­ism rules supreme in evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, so it is no sur­prise that this the­o­ry is out of favour nowa­days. What I find inter­est­ing is the fact that out­side of the nat­ur­al domain, Lamar­ck­ism is still applic­a­ble, most notably in cul­ture. Cul­tur­al organ­isms can pass on traits they acquired in their life­time to their off­spring. Fur­ther­more, there is a code­pen­den­cy between cul­ture and humans. The two have co-evolved. You could say cul­ture is a trick humans use to get around the lim­its of Dar­win­ism (slow, tri­al-and-error based incre­men­tal improve­ments) in order to achieve Lamar­ck­ism.3


You can think of cities as cul­tur­al meta-organ­isms. They’re a great exam­ple of nat­ur­al-cul­tur­al co-evo­lu­tion. We use cities as huge infor­ma­tion stor­age and retrieval machines. What you see here is a map of the city of Ham­burg cir­ca 1800. In his book Emer­gence, Steven Berlin John­son com­pares the shape of this map to that of the human brain, to illus­trate this idea of the city being alive, in a sense. Cities are self-orga­niz­ing cities that emerge from the bot­tom up. They grow, pat­terns are cre­at­ed from low-lev­el inter­ac­tions, things like neigh­bour­hoods.4


Games are this oth­er thing nature has come up with to speed up evo­lu­tion. I’m not going to go into why I think we play (you could do worse than have a look at The Ambi­gu­i­ty of Play by Bri­an Sut­ton-Smith to get a sense of all the dif­fer­ent view­points on the mat­ter). Let’s just say I think one thing games are good at is con­vey­ing view­points of the world in a pro­ce­dur­al way (a.k.a. ‘pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric’ as described in Ian Bogost’s book Per­sua­sive Games). They pro­vide peo­ple with a way to explore a sys­tem from the inside out. They give rise to ‘sys­temic lit­er­a­cy’.5 The image is from Ani­mal Cross­ing: Wild World, a game that, as Bogost argues, tries to point out cer­tain issues that exist with con­sumerism and pri­vate home own­er­ship.


Mov­ing on, I’d like to dis­cuss two trends that I see hap­pen­ing right now. I’ll build on those to for­mu­late my future vision.


So trend num­ber one: the real-time city. In cities around the globe, we are con­tin­u­ous­ly pump­ing up the amount of sen­sors, actu­a­tors and proces­sors. The behav­iour of peo­ple is being sensed, processed and fed back to them in an ever tight­en­ing feed­back loop. This will inevitably change the behav­iour of humans as well as the city. So cities are head­ed to a phase tran­si­tion, where they’ll move (if not in whole then at least in neigh­bour­hood-sized chunks) to a new lev­el of evolv­abil­i­ty. Adam Green­field calls it net­work weath­er. Dan Hill talks about how these new soft infra­struc­tures can help us change the user expe­ri­ence of the city with­out need­ing to change the hard stuff. The prob­lem is, though, that the major­i­ty of this stuff is next-to invis­i­ble, and there­fore hard to “read”.6 The image, by the way, is from Sta­men Design’s awe­some project Cab­spot­ting, which (amongst oth­er things) con­sists of real-time track­ing and visu­al­iza­tion of the tra­jec­to­ries of taxis in the Bay Area.


Trend num­ber two. In the past decade or so, there’s a renewed inter­est in play­ing in pub­lic spaces. Urban games are being used to re-imag­ine and repur­pose the city in new ways (such as the park­our play­er pic­tured here). Con­scious­ly or sub­con­scious­ly, urban games design­ers are flirt­ing with the notions of the Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tion­al, most notably the idea of inner space shap­ing our expe­ri­ence of out­er space (psy­cho-geog­ra­phy) and the use of play­ful acts to sub­vert those spaces. Park­our and free run­ning can’t real­ly be called games, but things like SFZe­ro, The Soho Project and Cru­el 2 B Kind all fit these ideas in some way.


So I see an oppor­tu­ni­ty here: To alle­vi­ate some of the illeg­i­bil­i­ty of the real-time city’s new soft infra­struc­tures, we can deploy games that tap into them. Thus we employ the capac­i­ty of games to pro­vide insight into com­plex sys­tems. With urban games, this ‘grokking’ can hap­pen in situ.


Through play­ing these games, peo­ple will be bet­ter able to “read” the real-time city, and to move towards a more decen­tral­ized mind­set. The image is from a project by Dan Hill, where the shape of pub­lic Wi-Fi in the State Library of Queens­land was visu­al­ized and over­laid on the building’s floor-plan.


Ulti­mate­ly though, I would love to enable peo­ple to not only “read” but also “write” pos­si­ble process­es for the real-time city. I see many advan­tages here. Fore one this could lead to sit­u­at­ed pro­ce­dur­al argu­ments: peo­ple could be enabled to pro­pose alter­na­tive ways of inter­act­ing with urban space. But even with­out this, just by mak­ing stuff, anoth­er way of learn­ing is acti­vat­ed, known as ‘analy­sis by syn­the­sis’. This was the aim of Mitchel Resnick when he made Star­L­ogo (of which you see a screen­shot here). And it works. Star­L­ogo enables chil­dren to make sense of com­plex sys­tems. A real-time urban game design toolk­it could to the same, with the added ben­e­fit of the games being jux­ta­posed with the cities they are about.


This jux­ta­po­si­tion might result in dynam­ics sim­i­lar to what we find in nature. Process­es from these new games might be spon­ta­neous­ly trans­ferred over to the city, and vice ver­sa. The image is of roots with out­growths on them which are caused by a bac­te­ria called Agrobac­teri­um. This bac­te­ria is well known for its abil­i­ty to trans­fer DNA between itself and plants. An exam­ple of nature cir­cum­vent­ing nat­ur­al selec­tion.7 A new sym­bio­sis between urban games and the real-time city might lead to sim­i­lar accel­er­a­tion of their evo­lu­tions.


(I fin­ished a lit­tle over time and had time for one ques­tion. Adri­aan Wor­m­goor of Fource­Labs asked whether I thought games would soon­er or lat­er become self-evolv­ing them­selves. My answer was “absolute­ly”. to get to ever high­er lev­els of com­plex­i­ty we’ll be forced to start grow­ing or rear­ing our games more than assem­bling them from parts. Games want to be free, you could say, so they are inevitably head­ing towards ever high­er lev­els of evolv­abil­i­ty.)

  1. Iskan­der Smit has post­ed a report of the evening over at his blog. []
  2. If you’re inter­est­ed, the slide deck as a whole is also avail­able on SlideShare. []
  3. I first came across Lamar­ck, and the idea of nature and cul­ture co-evolv­ing in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Con­trol. The black­smith exam­ple is his too. []
  4. All this flies in the face of large-scale top-down plan­ning and zon­ing, as Jane Jacobs makes painful­ly clear in her book The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities. []
  5. Eric Zim­mer­man talked at length about the need for sys­temic lit­er­a­cy at Play­ful 2008. []
  6. For more on this have a look at anoth­er blog post by Adam Green­field titled Read­ing, writ­ing, texts, lit­er­a­cy, cities. []
  7. As Kevin Kel­ly writes in Out of Con­trol, evo­lu­tion with sym­bio­sis includ­ed is less like a tree and more like a thick­et. []

Looking back on a second This happened – Utrecht

Some more catch­ing up with things that occurred recent­ly; on Mon­day Feb­ru­ary 23 we1 had our sec­ond This hap­pened. I am quite sat­is­fied with how things went.

For one; we had some unplanned cohe­sion2 amongst talks.3 Three out of four talks dis­cussed the use of field research (to use the term broad­ly). It was good to have some dis­cus­sion of how this is put in prac­tice, as I often find ethno­graph­ic tech­niques being pre­sent­ed as some kind of sil­ver bul­let, but with­out any clear demon­stra­tion of its appli­ca­tion. It was also cool to see field research being applied effec­tive­ly in such dif­fer­ent con­texts (pri­ma­ry school, the elder­ly, South Africa).

To my relief, a sig­nif­i­cant­ly larg­er per­cent­age of the audi­ence (com­pared to last time) was female.4 This was some­thing we had worked con­scious­ly towards, since the first edition’s testos­terone quo­tient was a bit too high. In my opin­ion, a more diverse audi­ence is con­ducive to the kind of relaxed, open and hon­est atmos­phere we are pur­su­ing. The main way we tried to draw in a more bal­anced mix of peo­ple was by invit­ing more female speak­ers. Three out of four talks were by women. All of them were great. It seems to have worked.

I love that This hap­pened seems to be a venue for the kind of unas­sum­ing and hon­est pre­sen­ta­tions we some­how stop giv­ing once we leave design school (or at least I have). I can’t think of oth­er events where I am treat­ed to such won­der­ful war sto­ries from the front-lines of inter­ac­tion design.

The dis­cus­sions after each ses­sion were good again as well. Lots of thought­ful ques­tions, crit­i­cal, but fair. Alper was kind enough to keep min­utes, and has blogged the most salient parts over at his site (in Dutch).5

Our friends in Lon­don launched a new web­site that now con­tains videos and slides of all talks from past events. The Utrecht ses­sions are on there too, so go have a look. It already is an amaz­ing col­lec­tion of high-qual­i­ty con­tent. Some of my cur­rent favourites are Troi­ka, Crispin Jones and Schulze & Webb.6

The next This hap­pened – Utrecht (num­ber three) is set for June 29. Hope to see you there.

  1. Alexan­der, Ianus and I []
  2. Iskan­der spot­ted it first, this is a blog post in Dutch dis­cussing the par­al­lels between the talks []
  3. Hon­est­ly, this was not some­thing we had aimed for before­hand. []
  4. I real­ize in the tech scene this has once again become a hot top­ic, see for instance this dis­cus­sion over at Chris Messina’s blog. []
  5. I’ve col­lect­ed more posts on our sec­ond edi­tion over at Deli­cious. []
  6. While you’re there, why not vote for This hap­pened in the Brit Insur­ance Design of the Year 2009 awards at the Design Muse­um? []

On sketching

Catch­ing up with this slight­ly neglect­ed blog (it’s been 6 weeks since the last prop­er post). I’d like to start by telling you about a small thing I helped out with last week. Peter Boers­ma1 asked me to help out with one of his UX Cock­tail Hours. He was inspired by a recent IxDA Stu­dio event where, in stead of just chat­ting and drink­ing, design­ers actu­al­ly made stuff. (Gasp!) Peter want­ed to do a work­shop where atten­dees col­lab­o­rat­ed on sketch­ing a solu­tion to a giv­en design prob­lem.

Part of my con­tri­bu­tion to the evening was a short pre­sen­ta­tion on the the­o­ry and prac­tice of sketch­ing. On the the­o­ry side, I ref­er­enced Bill Bux­ton’s list of qual­i­ties that define what a sketch is2, and empha­sized that this means a sketch can be done in any mate­r­i­al, not nec­es­sar­i­ly pen­cil and paper. Fur­ther­more I dis­cussed why sketch­ing works, using part of an arti­cle on embod­ied inter­ac­tion3. The main point there, as far as I am con­cerned is that when sketch­ing, as design­ers we have the ben­e­fit of ‘back­talk’ from our mate­ri­als, which can pro­vide us with new insights. I wrapped up the pre­sen­ta­tion with a case study of a project I did a while back with the Ams­ter­dam-based agency Info.nl4 for a social web start-up aimed at inde­pen­dent pro­fes­sion­als. In the project I went quite far in using sketch­es to not only devel­op the design, but also col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly con­struct it with the client, tech­nol­o­gists and oth­ers.

The whole thing was record­ed; you can find a video of the talk at Vimeo (thanks to Iskan­der and Alper). I also uploaded the slides to SlideShare (sans notes).

The sec­ond, and most inter­est­ing part of the evening was the work­shop itself. This was set up as fol­lows: Peter and I had pre­pared a fic­tion­al case, con­cern­ing peer-to-peer ener­gy. We used the Dutch com­pa­ny Qur­rent as an exam­ple, and asked the par­tic­i­pants to con­cep­tu­alise a way to encour­age use of Qurrent’s prod­uct range. The aim was to have peo­ple be more ener­gy effi­cient, and share sur­plus ener­gy they had gen­er­at­ed with the Qur­rent com­mu­ni­ty. The par­tic­i­pants split up in teams of around ten peo­ple each, and went to work. We gave them around one hour to design a solu­tion, using only pen and paper. After­wards, they pre­sent­ed the out­come of their work to each oth­er. For each team, we asked one par­tic­i­pant to cri­tique the work by men­tion­ing one thing he or she liked, and one thing that could be improved. The team was then giv­en a chance to reply. We also asked each team to briefly reflect on their work­ing process. At the end of the evening every­one was giv­en a chance to vote for their favourite design. The win­ner received a prize.5

Wrap­ping up, I think what I liked most about the work­shop was see­ing the many dif­fer­ent ways the teams approached the prob­lem (many of the par­tic­i­pants did not know each oth­er before­hand). Group dynam­ics var­ied huge­ly. I think it was valu­able to have each team share their expe­ri­ences on this front with each oth­er. One thing that I think we could improve was the case itself; next time I would like to pro­vide par­tic­i­pants with a more focused, more rich­ly detailed brief­ing for them to sink their teeth in. That might result in an assign­ment that is more about struc­ture and behav­iour (or even inter­face) and less about con­cepts and val­ues. It would be good to see how sketch­ing func­tions in such a con­text.

  1. the Nether­lands’ tallest IA and one of sev­er­al famous Peters who work in UX []
  2. tak­en from his won­der­ful book Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences []
  3. titled How Bod­ies Mat­ter (PDF) by Kle­mer and Takaya­ma []
  4. who were also the hosts of this event []
  5. I think it’s inter­est­ing to note that the win­ner had a remark­able con­cept, but in my opin­ion was not the best exam­ple of the pow­er of sketch­ing. Appar­ent­ly the audi­ence val­ued prod­uct over process. []

The 2nd Dutch ‘This happened’ is coming this way

We’re less than four weeks removed from the sec­ond edi­tion of ‘This hap­pened – Utrecht’. As you may know, this is an event I am orga­niz­ing and curat­ing togeth­er with Alexan­der and Ianus. We’re try­ing to offer an alter­na­tive to flashy prod­uct-focused (and fuzzy the­o­ry-based) ses­sions that are preva­lent in the inter­ac­tion design event land­scape. ‘This hap­pened’ pre­sen­ta­tions are short sto­ries about how a project came to be, warts and all. Think of them as the DVD extras for inter­ac­tion design.

This happened – Utrecht #1

On Mon­day Feb­ru­ary 23, we’ll return to The­ater Kikker in Utrecht, the Nether­lands for #2. Our first edi­tion was a suc­cess, and I’m real­ly look­ing for­ward to con­tin­u­ing the exper­i­ment. Here’s who we’ve invit­ed this time to come and shed light on one of their projects:

  • Niels Kee­tels, a game design researcher at the HKU, will be talk­ing about Soft­body. A game that is inter­est­ing because of its lush expres­sive visu­als, as well as the clever bal­anc­ing of open-end­ed and goal-direct­ed play. Oh, and how many games fo you know that had their mechan­ics inspired by hon­est-to-good­ness field research?
  • Sanne Kistemak­er of Muzus will present Piece of Fam­i­ly, which was devel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Voda­fone. It’s a com­mu­ni­ca­tion device designed for the elder­ly, com­posed of a sketch­pad and a scan­ner, which instant­ly posts whatever’s writ­ten to a blog. The design won a pres­ti­gious Dutch Design Award.
  • Irene van Peer, a cel­e­brat­ed prod­uct design­er, will talk about the Mahlangu Hand-wash­er, which was fea­tured in the New York Times 8th Annu­al Year in Ideas. It is both a prod­uct (devel­oped as part of a san­i­ta­tion project in Africa) that involves con­vert­ing the cap of an emp­ty bot­tle into a home­made tap, as well as a set of instruc­tions that can be passed on from per­son to per­son.
  • Final­ly, we have Nao­mi Schiphorst and Mieke Vullings of MIMOA, who will show how their free and open online guide to mod­ern archi­tec­ture came into being. The site is aimed at a broad audi­ence, not just archi­tects, and aims to build a durable com­mu­ni­ty.

Head over to the This hap­pened – Utrecht web­site for expand­ed descrip­tions of the talks (in Dutch). The reg­is­tra­tion will open on Mon­day Feb­ru­ary 9. I hope to see you there!

A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

A while ago I was inter­viewed by Sam War­naars. He’s research­ing people’s con­fer­ence expe­ri­ences; he asked me what my most favourite and least favourite con­fer­ence of the past year was. I wish he’d asked me after my trip to Play­ful ’08, because it has been by far the best con­fer­ence expe­ri­ence to date. Why? Because it was like Toby, Richard and the rest of the event’s pro­duc­ers had tak­en a peek inside my brain and came up with a pro­gram encom­pass­ing (almost) all my fas­ci­na­tions — games, inter­ac­tion design, play, social­i­ty, the web, prod­ucts, phys­i­cal inter­faces, etc. Almost every speak­er brought some­thing inter­est­ing to the table. The audi­ence was com­posed of peo­ple from many dif­fer­ent back­grounds, and all seemed to, well, like each oth­er. The venue was love­ly and atmos­pher­ic (albeit a bit chilly). They had good tea. Drinks after­wards were tasty and fun, the tapas lat­er on even more so. And the whiskey after that, well let’s just say I was glad to have a late flight the next day. Many thanks to my friends at Pix­el-Lab for invit­ing me, and to Mr. Davies for the refer­ral.

Below is a tran­script plus slides of my con­tri­bu­tion to the day. The slides are also on SlideShare. I have been told all talks have been record­ed and will be pub­lished to the event’s Vimeo group.

Per­haps 1874 words is a bit too much for you? In that case, let me give you an exec­u­tive sum­ma­ry of sorts:

  1. The role of design in rich forms of play, such as skate­board­ing, is facil­i­ta­to­ry. Design­ers pro­vide tools for peo­ple to play with.
  2. It is hard to pre­dict what peo­ple will do exact­ly with your tools. This is OK. In fact it is best to leave room for unex­pect­ed uses.
  3. Under­spec­i­fied, play­ful tools can be used for learn­ing. Peo­ple can use them to explore com­plex con­cepts on their own terms.

As always, I am inter­est­ed in receiv­ing con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, as well as good exam­ples of the things I’ve dis­cussed.

Con­tin­ue read­ing A Play­ful Stance — my Game Design Lon­don 2008 talk

Collaboratively designing Things through sketching

So far, Ianus, Alexan­der and I have announced three of the four peo­ple who’ll be speak­ing at the first Dutch This hap­pened. They are Fabi­an of Ron­i­mo Games, Phi­line of Super­nana and Dirk of IR labs The final addi­tion to this won­der­ful line-up is Wern­er Jainek of Cul­tured Code, the devel­op­ers of Things, a task man­age­ment appli­ca­tion for Mac OS X as well as the iPhone and iPod Touch.

When I first got in touch with the guys at Cul­tured Code, I asked who of the four prin­ci­pals was respon­si­ble for inter­ac­tion design. I was sur­prised to hear that a large part of the inter­ac­tion design is a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort. This flies in the face of con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in design cir­cles: You’re not sup­posed to design by com­mit­tee. Yet no-one can deny Things’ inter­ac­tion design is sol­id, focused and cohe­sive.

Things touch still life by Cultured Code

Wern­er and his asso­ciates col­lab­o­rate through vig­or­ous sketch­ing. Some­times they pro­duce many mock-ups to iron out appar­ent­ly sim­ple bits of the appli­ca­tion. A prime exam­ple being this recur­ring tasks dia­log. Just look at all the alter­na­tives they explored. Their atten­tion to detail is admirable. Also, take a look at the pho­tos they post­ed when they announced Things touch. I’m sure that, if you’re a design­er, you can’t help but love care­ful­ly exam­in­ing the details of such work in progress.

Wern­er tells me he’s been busy scan­ning lots of sketch­es to share at This hap­pened – Utrecht #1. I can’t wait to hear his sto­ries about how the design of both the desk­top and mobile app have hap­pened.

Wern­er com­pletes our line-up. Which you can see in full at There, you’ll also be able to reg­is­ter for the event start­ing this Mon­day (20 Octo­ber). I hope to see you on 3 Novem­ber, it promis­es to be a love­ly filled with the sto­ries behind inter­ac­tion design.