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You are what you do

May 12, 2009

Words of Jack Shulze being interviewed by design consultancy Kicker:

“No one cares about what you think, unless you do what you think. No one cares what you do, unless you think about what you do. No one ever really cares what you say.”

“Here’s another. You get the work you do. If you want to do something else start doing it.”

Wonderful advice.

192021

Richard Saul Wurman, prolific explainer and the creator of the TED conference, is back with a 5-year project called 19.20.21 to try and work out what makes urban environments tick. This is long overdue:  over half the world’s population lives in cities, rising to 2/3 by 2050. By analysing 19 supercities with more than 20 million inhabitants, the project:

“will lead to a common means electronically, in print and real time, to comparatively describe the demographics , economies, health data and environmental data as it relates to the urban world.” (from 192021.org)

The powerful idea at the heart of this is that whereas the world used to be thought of as power struggles between countries, it  is now “A Globe of Cities”:

“today, people think of the world as a network of cities – not a network of countries. We visit London, Paris or Rio de Janeiro, rather than England, France or Brazil. The world is now linked through mass channels of communication and transportation, managed by a patchwork of public and private interests.”

So what?

Cities grow organically and are the product of their host cultures, so it is no surprise that there is variation – in sanitation, transport, health, education, quality of life, crime etc… But how do you describe these differences? The words “crime”, “quality of life”, “public transport” may have literal translations in the languages of the world, but subtle variations in meaning are too much for a simple dictionary entry.  

To understand these factors you need to have lived in both cities long enough to have experienced the right things. Worse, even people who have been fully assimilated in several cities would mostly have experienced them in a deeply personal way. If you spent your primary school years in London, secondary school in New York and university in Mumbai, could you really comment on their respective educational systems?

And even if you could explain the differences on a completely objective level, you’d still have to consider the perspective of the other culture. The exact same meal, maths lesson or knee operation might be seen as fantastic, adequate or deeply disappointing depending on expectations.  

That’s why it’s so hard to answer the question asked by someone from a different city or country: “What it’s like where you’re from?”

19.20.21 = a common yardstick

Getting to the point where applicable lessons can be drawn from the world’s largest cities may take longer than 5-years, but the findings should be fascinating. Hopefully, the outcome will be a set of concrete design patterns which city planners can use to improve the lives of their citizens while reducing the environmental burden of urbanisation. These must do two things. 1) create an objective way to measure the success of a city’s elements, 2) make it possible to transfer these elements elsewhere.

Finding a common scoring system can kick start progress: take the introduction of the Apgar scoring of a newborn’s health, which slashed the mortality rate of babies in childbirth:

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.
The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.
Around the world, virtually every child born in a hospital had an Apgar score recorded at one minute after birth and at five minutes after birth. It quickly became clear that a baby with a terrible Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated—with measures like oxygen and warming—to an excellent score at five minutes. Spinal and then epidural anesthesia were found to produce babies with better scores than general anesthesia. Neonatal intensive-care units sprang into existence. Prenatal ultrasound came into use to detect problems for deliveries in advance. Fetal heart monitors became standard. Over the years, hundreds of adjustments in care were made, resulting in what’s sometimes called “the obstetrics package.” And that package has produced dramatic results. In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)—and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number).

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.

The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.

Around the world, virtually every child born in a hospital had an Apgar score recorded at one minute after birth and at five minutes after birth. It quickly became clear that a baby with a terrible Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated—with measures like oxygen and warming—to an excellent score at five minutes. Spinal and then epidural anesthesia were found to produce babies with better scores than general anesthesia. Neonatal intensive-care units sprang into existence. Prenatal ultrasound came into use to detect problems for deliveries in advance. Fetal heart monitors became standard. Over the years, hundreds of adjustments in care were made, resulting in what’s sometimes called “the obstetrics package.” And that package has produced dramatic results. In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)—and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number). (Atul Gawande in the New Yorker – also a story in his incredible book, Better)

Without a common yardstick, how can you know who has gone the farthest? 

Or what about the impact on trade and industrialisation of common standards for railway gauges, shipping containers or even the metric system itself. In The Box, former finance economics editor for The Economist Marc Levinson explains how “an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.” From the first chapter:

Some scholars have argued that reductions in transport costs are at best marginal improvements that have had negligible effects on trade flows. This book disputes that view. In the decade after the container first came into international use, in 1966, the volume of international trade in manufactured goods grew more than twice as fast as the volume of global manufacturing production, and two and a half times as fast as global economic output. Something was accelerating the growth of trade even though the economic expansion that normall stimulates trade was weak. Something was driving a vast increase in internationl commerce in manufactured goods even though oil shocks were making the world economy sluggish. While attributing the vast changes in the world economy to a single cause would be foolhardy, we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the extremely sharp drop in freight costs played a major role in increasing the integration o fthe global economy.   

What are the equivalent costs of interaction between cities? What stops cities sharing more ideas on how to make urban environments fit both for people and for the planet?

I hope that this project will help identify the ideas which have worked best, and somehow explain them clearly enough that cities of any culture will be able to apply them. As many people as live in the entire planet today will live in cities in 2050. That’s why 19.20.21 matters, and I hope it succeeds.

david-goliath

Another thought provoking article from Malcolm Gladwell – how can you be completely outgunned, outmatched and outnumbered and still win?

If you are willing to break with the unwritten rules of your business, your sport or even your social circles, you can beat opponents who are ten times more powerful than you. 

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

However, taking a different path is usually incredibly hard work. Even worse, you may be ostracised, as those unwritten rules are also those which bind people together.

The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider. Why did the Ivy League schools of the nineteen-twenties limit the admission of Jewish immigrants? Because they were the establishment and the Jews were the insurgents, scrambling and pressing and playing by immigrant rules that must have seemed to the Wasp élite of the time to be socially horrifying. “Their accomplishment is well over a hundred per cent of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition,” the dean of Columbia College said of the insurgents from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. He wasn’t being complimentary. Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.

In design, it’s always worth knowing the difference between a real barrier and one that so many people take for granted that it hasn’t been challenged. Take this example from the blog of Josh Kopelman (First Round Capital) on how Paypal managed to get acquired by eBay after beating their own payment service, Billpoint:

eBay understood everything that was needed to build a great payments product.  They were just unable to do so given the risks involved.  Specifically, I believe that PayPal had a better product than Billpoint because they were willing/able to take risks that Billpoint/eBay was not.  For example, when PayPal first launched, it was pretty clear that their product violated the operating rules for Visa, Mastercard and American Express — and violated banking regulations is more than 40 different states.

Man made rules are ripe for picking apart. Sometimes, the most important thing is knowing when to cast them aside.

 

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windosillface-thumb-550x397-20037

More inspiration for interaction designers: Windosill, the Flash creation of Patrick Smith a.k.a. Vectorpark. The game’s sole goal is to find a simple cube in each level which opens the door to the next screen. The point and click puzzles get increasingly creative, making you discover by trial and error the rules and foibles of each little world so you can hold of the key to the next one. The sense of exploration and discovery is brilliant (and well worth $3)

Only have one minute (and 9 seconds) – this video review will show you the premise.

As for why this is worthy stimulation for interaction design, Offworld puts it best: 

…that exploration wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding were it not for Smith’s ability to somehow have teased out (with the aid, I can only conclude, of some dark, black magic) easily the greatest sense of physicality Flash (still, remember, an essentially 2D toolkit) has ever produced. Everything has such a well defined heft and tension, everything responds to your prodding with just the right amount of ‘squishiness’, that even its most surreal concoctions feel fantastically alive.

It’s amusing to think that there are “serious” user interfaces out there that manage to make it both less fun and harder to accomplish your task than Windosill.

operation-f

As I’ve said before, games can do a lot more than just entertain. They can can make accounting fun, help kids learn, teach valuable lessons in design and suggest new interactions with the world around us.

In that context, here are two more examples of game design techniques in two of the least frivolous areas imaginable – health and wealth. Both from Raph Koster’s great blog (which is essential reading for people creating anything that another person will use/experience). 

Games for Health

Coming up June 10-12th is the Fifth Games for Health conference which looks at all the ways that games can act as a positive disruptive force in healthcare. For example:

  • games used for rehabilitation and therapy
  • “exergaming” (exercise gaming) which exploded onto the scene with Wii Sports and is here to stay 
  • improving doctor patient communication by using virtual environments
  • games to raise awareness of issues like STDs (“Catch the Sperm”)
  • game environments to train surgeons and rapid response teams
  • where games help kids to develop (and where they might be a problem)

Games have two things to offer healthcare. Firstly, they are engaging and can bring an addictive reward structure to just about anything. This is valuable for us all, as we tend to live our lives less healthily than we should due to the  of the delayed benefits. Using game mechanics to make the rewards more immediate could revolutionise our attitudes to our health.

Secondly, they can be very realistic simulations. Games can educate and train healthcare professionals in more engaging ways, which ultimately makes the learning more effective. They can also simulate things which are hard to otherwise experience (see Burn Center below).   

Here are some of the sessions that caught my eye (full list of sessions announced so far is here):

Mindless Eating Challenge
In the game, players are tasked with caring for a virtual pet or plant, similar to the popular Tamgotchi.  Pet care requires the user to follow a variety of health and eating recommendations and verify their actions with photos taken with their phone’s camera.  For example, the recommendation “Eat a hot breakfast” would require the player to submit a photo of him/ herself eating a bowl of oatmeal.  Photos and compliance are then judged either by judges or peers.  Based on compliance to these recommendations, the pet or plant changes its appearance and gains features or accessories–a tree might grow taller or grow more leaves or fruit in response.  Alternatively, leaves might fall off if the player’s performance is poor.  A social portion of the game allows the user to see various depictions of their performance in comparison to the performance of others in their group, as well as of their group in comparison to other groups.

Case Study : Burn Center
This session covers the design, development, and rollout of Burn Center by 360ED an award winning training game covering a mass casualty burn-victim event. Burn Center not only provides the immersive experience of a full-scale, chaotic triage situation, but it also features an extensive resuscitation mode that follows patients over the course of 36 hours of treatment on an intensive care unit following a disaster event.

Case Study : The Skeleton Chase, A Healthy ARG
SThis session covers the development, rollout, and results of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) titled Skeleton Chase that was developed to serve as an intervention for college students who studies show routinely dial down their exercise activity upon arrival at college which in turn sows the seeds for bad health habits and outcomes later in life. (more at this link)

The Coming Age of Sensor Based Health Games
Increasingly, games are using a new generation of sensors that can detect movement, haptics, proximity, global position, light, audio, visuals, brain waves, emotional states, and physiological states, to name a few. These sensors often transmit their data to games without requiring players to transmit the data themselves, such as through an accelerometer attached to the player’s belt throughout the day, or a GPS system that inputs the player’s physical location into the game state.

Advances in sensor technologies and affordability are giving health game designers new gameplay options. This session will cite research findings and case-study examples to provide an overview of the many types of sensor systems that exist today or are just around the corner, and their potential integration into the research and design of games for health.

A Conversation with Richard S. Levine : Developer of Microsurgeon
 One of the first games about health ever debuted for the Intellivision video console. Microsurgeon featured incredible graphics for its day and detailed gameplay where you guided a nanobot through a human patient helping them battle a variety of ailments from cholesterol build-up in arteries, to bacterial infections, kidney stones, tapeworms, and tar deposits from smoking.

The YouTube clip of this 1982 game is a must see.

Games for Money

Personal finance sites like Mint and Rudder have been springing up to help us save money and make sense of the hundreds of options out there. They have incredibly useful tools which aggregate all your accounts in one place (so you don’t get fooled by your own mental accounting) and allow you to set budgets and send reminders when you go over. Mint has been a great success, and now reports over a million users.

Despite the zillions of products out there to do this, we still managed to wheel, deal, and borrow ourselves into a financial crisis (that is still ongoing, though swine flu may be eclipsing it just now). Clearly, something was lacking in the appeal here, for if said product category were truly successful, we wouldn’t be in this fix.

Now, Mint is in closed beta on a feature that turns personal finance into a game, complete with points earned for doing things like socking away some cash into the savings account each month, or switching to a credit card with annual rewards. Get enough points in a sustained way, and you too can be a Financial Guru.

This seems like a fairly straightforward harnessing of game-style incentive systems towards a laudable goal (though I should note that said credit card with rewards is likely from one of Mint’s partners). But honestly — money is points anyway, isn’t it? Why is it that we value the cash less than the flat-screen TV?

Raph goes on to wonder at the kind of game mechanic that would nudge us to try and save as money in the same way that WoW players go nuts over experience points.  

It may be that one reason why we used to be thriftier is simply because the money we hoarded was more tangible… gold coins trigger the brain’s systems in a way that a bank balance does not. This is what the Mint point system is designed to supplement: by creating a non-fungible point system, the game is giving you something other than real-world stuff onto which to displace your acquisitiveness, a “virtual stuff.” It would do even better, perhaps, if the points were gems or something else more “stuff-like” in terms of its representation.

Go read it the whole thing. It’s a powerful point. As with health, we save too little because the tangible reward comes in the future, and we massively understimate our future wants. Using game mechanics to bring that value forward can only help.

Grain silos (1984)

Should form equal function? If something is to work well it often must, but that tells you less about what it should look like than you’d think.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the amazing photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, a German artist couple who spent the last fifty years taking pictures of industrial architecture:

The Bechers first collaborated on photographing and documenting the disappearing German industrial architecture in 1959, and had their first Gallery exhibition in 1963 at the Galerie Ruth Nohl in Siegen. They were fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. In addition, they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design. Together, the Bechers went out with a large format camera and photographed these buildings from a number of different angles, but always with a straightforward “objective” point of view. The images of structures with similar functions were then displayed side by side to invite viewers to compare their forms and designs. These structures included barns, water towers, storage silos, and warehouses. (from Wikipedia)

Looking at these pictures it’s fascinating to watch different shapes emerge in the designs of each type of building. Even though they are utterly functional and mostly have the same constraints, they still vary considerably. More evidence that, as with the Chords Bridge, creativity can be born out of thinking not outside but *inside* the box.

Here are a few pictures of their works. More here (from their book Typologies) and in exhibitions worldwide.

Gravel Plants (2006)

Gravel Plants (2006)

Framework Houses (1970)
Houses

Grain Elevators (1985)
Grain Elevators (1985)

Winding towers (1983)
Winding Towers (1983)

Cooling Towers (1976)
Cooling Towers (1976)

Bonus for photography lovers: the photography of Edward Weston.