Presenting three great people

February 23, 2009


I’ve been spending a lot of time this week at London’ largest literary festival,  Jewish Book Week, and I’ve heard some great speakers. I wanted to share three which struck me for different reasons, and I urge you to listen to the podcasts. 

Each of these people were very interesting and a privilege to listen to, but there was a particular takeaway in each talk that has been an inspiration to me in life and design.

Amos Oz (podcast): powerful focus and brevity

Amos Oz is both one of the world’s most respected fiction authors and one of the most incisive writers about the arab-israeli conflict.

His drive is neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian – it is pro-peace, and peace now (see Peace Now for more). This is admirable in itself, but what got me was the way he expressed his thoughts.

It isn’t uncommon for a preternaturally smart person to speak at length about their subject. It is less usual to have someone respond directly to the question they are asked, and so concisely, expressively and powerfully that the answer is like a strike to the solar plexus. 

Any person should aspire to this level of precision, and any design that can capture this spirit in answering the user’s needs will stand above the rest.  

Jonathan Miller (podcast):  “making the negligible considerable”

Jonathan Miller started as a doctor and training in neuroscience but then went on to do great things, I kid you not, as an actor, satirist, broadcaster, writer, theatre and opera director and recently sculptor and metal welder. Describing him as multidisciplinary is an understatment.

The common thread in all his work is this beautiful idea that art is “making the negligible considerable”. He credits his medical training with giving him the ability to spot the small details and behaviours that make his acting and directing believable. In his talk, he explained why he thought his version of Hamlet had worked so well (it received rave reviews). He put it down to one thing – making his characters believable by not shying away from the way real people act.

For example, when Hamlet holds up the skull of his dear Yorick, he doesn’t solemnly chant his famous speech. No one would – skulls and dead people are smelly, grotty and deeply unpleasant, and to get a performance which really connects you have to show a realistic reaction. More importantly, it’s in these details that you communicate something fundamental about people. It’s in these details – the negligible – that you get art.

The exact same thing is true of design. A good design feeds off the most negligible details of our behaviours to create a considerable experience – though if done right we hardly realise how seamlessly the design fits the task we need it for. The designer’s job is to spot and take care of the little details before the user even becomes aware that they are in the way. 

Susan Greenfield (podcast) : choosing betwen living in context or living in the present 

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist by trade and generally a phenomenally busy person (she is the Director of the Royal Institution in London and has managed to receive 24 honorary degress from around the world). Interestingly, she was originally trained in the liberal arts. She is one of those rare scientists to be both extremely insightful and able to express those ideas in popular writing and broadcasting (as an aside, it’s a pity that the scientific community looks down on popular science writing, which is why it was so good that Paul Krugman won his Nobel prize).

On Tuesday she spoke about her new book, which lays out her view on the consequences on society and the brain of growing up surrounded by screens and “literal” experiences rather than books and imagination. Here’s the big idea:

  1. The brain makes sense of the world by making connections between neurons, which link up concepts. Everything we perceive can only make sense in terms of everything else. Meaning comes from being able to relate our experiences to each other and to abstract concepts.
  2. The more connections you make the more sense you can make of the world. Books are great for this – you have to somehow conjure up an entire world based on glyphs on a page. Complex bodies of knowledge and environments where the way things work is not immediately obvious force us to work out those connections, which then allow us to see where these experiences fit into the bigger picture. 
  3. The problem comes when you are surrounded by screen based experiences. Technology makes it easier to create experience which are too literal and easy to consume (such as simple computer games and movies or oversimplified educational software). In these kinds of cases, you spent far too long immersed in a narrow environment where your mind doesn’t have enough material to make wide ranging connections. In these cases you move away from constructing a web of meaning and more towards living in the moment.

Disturbingly, living in the moment is something that compulsive gamblers, obese people and Phineas Gage (another good link here) know all about; Susan Greenfield’s theory is that there is a danger that the wrong kind of stimulation might lead to the same kind of impaired frontal lobe behaviour in large chunks of a generation raised on overly literal experiences.

The fascinating thing about the talk, however, is that rather than bashing these new technologies, she focuses on how to make the most of them. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be possible to design rich, meaningful software and games which stimulate and educate. This is a call to action for designers, and an area I hope to study in the future.

The book festival runs until the end of the week and there’s some great stuff coming up – i’ll be checking out Jon Ronson and Alain de Botton, both on Sunday.


Philanthropic judo

February 23, 2009


In Tanzania, five out of every six hectares of potential arable land goes unused through lack of irrigation (sources 1, 2). I met this woman back in 2005 at her farm in Arusha, at the base of Mount of Kilimanjaro, and even though the land around was parched, she was surrounded by greenery.

There is a fascinating story behind this, with design at its very heart.

Teach someone to fish…

0012345-R6-045-21Her water was drawn from a groundwell 20 feet deep, efficiently pumped up by her husband using this treadle pump: the Super MoneyMaker.

The pump is the brainchild of Martin Fisher and Nick Moon, the former an engineer and the latter a craftsman and entrepreneur, who together founded Kickstart in 1991 (formerly ApproTEC). Their aim was to create products which allow poor people in the developing world to start successful businesses.

The logic is working; by investing $35 to $100 in a pump, the average farmer can increase his income from $110 to $1,100 a year.

The result?

So far, 80,000 business have been started in Kenya, Tanzania and Mali. That means over 400,000 people lifted out of poverty. Astonishing, and based on a simple insight:

The Number One Need of the Poor is a Way to Make Money

“The Poor are Not Victims”

“To define people by their conditions rather than their qualities is dehumanizing. When you look past the poverty, you see abilities, resources, and desires. The poor are extremely hard-working and entrepreneurial–they must be just to survive. They don’t want or need to be rescued. They want an opportunity to create a better life for their families.”

From the Kickstart website’s lessons learned.

Right on. Often, the best way to help is to realise that the person in trouble has the will and the capacity to help themselves if given the right tools. The Kickstart website is very clear, concise and full of insights (particularly in explaining what they do), so I won’t go into too much detail here. I have nevertheless picked out three clues on how to make a lasting difference:

1 – Make sure everyone can get stuck in

Aid is commonly seen as a one way street, but it can be provided by creating a supply chain in which everyone involved benefits. On top of increasing the farmer’s income tenfold, the Super MoneyMaker pump (and replacement parts) also provides revenue to the factories that make them the distributors who transport them and the local traders who sell them. Everybody wins.


This takes care. When I visited in 2005 we were shown around a factory where half a dozen workers were assembling pumps using comparatively rudimentary equipment. Production has mostly moved to China now that Kickstart have improved the design and employed higher tech materials and techniques, but I am struck by the simplicity of a design which could be manufactured in a workshop like the one below. 

Just an aside; in this case the economics pointed towards lower cost, higher tech China, but what other designs could enrich a local economy by letting it produce them?

2 – Sell, don’t give

Kilimanjaro 160

By making the Super MoneyMaker a commercial product which costs up to a year’s salary, Kickstart provided a strong incentive to use it properly.

There is strong evidence that the price of a product affects how we perceive its quality (apparently, expensive wine tastes better). The purchase also acts as a form of commitment to the idea that the farmer will use this pump.

Kickstart say that “less than one-third of pumps given away are used to create a new enterprise.”

It is not easy to start a successful business. The cost of the pumps selects farmers with the entrepreneurial will to actually use them to lift them and their families out of poverty.

3 – Measure!

According to Kickstart, every buck invested leads to $15 of profits and wages on the ground. How do they know this?

“Every product comes with a one-year guarantee and every buyer fills out a guarantee form when they buy the product. The guarantee reduces the perceived risk of buying the product, and the forms give KickStart a database of all pump owners.”

“From this database, we select a statistically valid sample of recent purchasers. These customers are visited within a month of purchasing the products, before any impacts have been realized, then again at eighteen months, and again three-years after purchase.”


They then send teams of two (a man and a woman) to track down these customers. This is difficult as most farmers don’t even have addresses.

I can’t stress enough how crucial these measurements are.

In my last post I mentioned a story from Atul Gawande’s great book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. There is another remarkable story, about measurement. My brief paraphrase:

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease. It affects only a fraction of the population but is devastating if untreated, as it screws up the body’s ability to manage chloride; those affected cannot properly digest food and their lungs are slowly made useless by a thick, hardening mucosal sludge. Fifty years ago the average life expectancy for a child with this disease was a paltry 36 months – patients now live into their 40s (and perhaps longer).

The change was catalysed in the 1960s by a young pediatrician from Cleveland, called LeRoy Matthews, who claimed an annual mortality rate ten times lower than his peers. In response, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation commissionned a survey of every patient in the 31 treatment centers active in 1964. This confirmed the difference, and pushed other centers to follow his methods and eventually set up strict, national standards, leading to the dramatic improvement described above.

The monitoring has continued ever since, and in 2006 the field of cystic fibrosis became the first in medicine to fully open up the results of the 100+ centers who treat the disease in the US. Disclosing the top centers has allowed the others to improve yet another notch.

Designing careful measurements of success is one of the most easily overlooked aspects of the design process. It should not be as it forces you to ask the question: what does success look like?

The fundamental tenet of design is iteration, which is impossible unless you measure outcomes.

A bigger thought: problems can be their own solution

Kickstart should be studied for many reasons, but the main one is this: they transformed a system, charitable aid, which is draining and unsustainable for most involved, into one which feeds off itself. They saw the poor not as a black hole of necessity but as an engine for growth.

What other areas could benefit from this counterintuitive approach? Where else are we pouring energy into a system which could fuel itself?

  • Instead of seeing kids as antagonists to the teacher’s attempts at engagement, can schools find tools which make them the drivers of their own education?
  • How can communities harness the entrepreneurial abilities of their criminals to reduce crime?
  • How can we use people’s tendency to waste energy to solve our impending energy crisis?

Sometimes all you need is a great design to allow people to make the difference themselves.


We can all help – I didn’t know this until recently, but the MoneyMaker pump was originally designed by IDEO was involved in their original deep lift pump and is helping design the next generation MoneyMaker. Check out this TED talk by David Kelley from back in 2002 for more.

Another point: Kickstart is one of many great businesses in this space. Read about some of the others in the Design for the Other 90% exhibition site.

Designers should also check out Design Can Change, which looks at a few ways graphic designers in particular can make a difference.


Medicine has long been one of the most fertile areas for design because of the stakes – life or death – and because the insurmountable burden of care placed on doctors and nurses means any help is a godsend. 

There are wonderful examples of innovation in high tech medical equipment, from IDEO’s insulin pen (this is how it works) to the many great entries in competitions like the International Design Excellence Awards and the more specialised Medical Design Excellence Awards.

However, it is small, low tech changes that can make just as much of a difference. There is a great passage in Atul Gawande’s wonderful book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, about exactly this. One of the big problems in medicine is the spread of infections through hospitals – according to the US Centers for Disease Control, two million Americans catch these every year and 90,000 go on to die from them. The good news: all doctors and nurses need to do to slash this number by an order of magnitude is to wash their hands. The bad news: they don’t, because it would occupy about a third of their working day if they did.

Maybe there were smarter ways: 

“A few years ago, Paul O’Neill, the former secretary of the Treasury and CEO of aluminium giant Alcoa, agreed to take over as head of a regional health care initiative in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And he made solving the problem of hospital infections one of his top priorities. To show it could be solved, he arranged for a young industrial engineer named Peter Perreiah to be put on a single forty-bed surgical unit at a Pittsburgh veterans hospital.

“When he met with the unit’s staff”, a doctor who worked on the project told me, “Peter didn’t ask, ‘Why don’t you wash your hands?’ He asked, ‘Why can’t you?'” By far the most common answer was time. So, as an engineer, he went about fixing the things that burned up the staff’s time. He came up with a just-in-time supply system that kept not only gowns and gloves at the bedside but also gauze and tape and other things the staff needed, so they didn’t have to go back and forth out of the room to search for them. Rather than make everyone clean their stethoscopes, notorious carriers of infection, between patients, he arranged for each patient room to have a designated stethoscope on the wall. He helped make dozens of simplifying changes that reduced both the opportunities for spread of infection and the difficulties of staying clean. He made each hospital room work more like an operating room, in other words. He also arranged for a nasal culture to be taken from every patient upon admission, whether the patient seemed infected or not. That way the staff knew which patient carried resistant bacteria and could preemptively use more stringent precautions for them- “search-and-destroy” the strategy is sometimes called. Infection rates for MRSA – the hospital contagion responsible for more deaths than any other – fell by almost 90 percent, from four to six infections a month to about that many in an entire year.”

“Two years later, however, despite encouragement and exhortation, the ideas had spread to only one other unit in the hospital. Those other units didn’t have Perreiah. And when he left the original unit for a different project elsewhere, performance for that unit began to slide, too. O’Neill quit the project in frustration. Nothing fundamental had changed.” 

Every single company and individual should look at ways they can improve – Kaizen is not just for car manufacturers.  Atul puts it with great eloquence:

“Ingenuity is often misunderstood. It is not a matter of superior intelligence but of character. It demands more than anything a willingness to recognize failure, to not paper over the cracks, and to change. It arises from deliberate, even obsessive, reflections on failure and a constant searching for new solutions. These are difficult traits to foster – but they are far from impossible ones.”

Though beautifully put, this ignores one thing. It’s not just a question of character and personality. The methodology of design contains all the tools to help anyone on this path.

Yet another reason why design thinking is so crucial.

When accounting is fun

February 16, 2009


Xero is a web application which describes itself as “The world’s easiest accounting system”. Jakob Nielsen’s alertbox agrees, and goes further:

“But Xero might be a more interesting example, simply because it targets the traditionally dry domain of accounting. One of its main features lets users automatically reconcile bookkeeping entries with bank account transactions. As a match is made, the 2 matching entries are removed from the list of stuff to be reconciled. Users compared this interaction to playing Tetris and described it as fun and addictive. Come on, making accounting fun? That’s an award-winning design.”

It really is lovely. Check it out here.

What if all productivity software took its cues from classic games?


Human centered design teaches you to optimise like crazy for the user of your product, but is there a situation where this leads to a design which puts off the person paying the bill?

I spotted this review of one of Dyson’s high tech and rather stylish hoovers. Is this user happy that some of his/her clients have paid a considerable amount more to acquire one?

“I´m out in the field, hoovering for my disabled clients in their own homes, amongst other duties a carer has to do. Everytime I know there is whatever type of Dyson in the household, I simply bring my own hoover along. I mean, a 12GBP one from Tesco, made in China. Oh yeah, you don´t need a NASA training to use such a thing. It´s got two buttons. The ON/OFF one and the other that coils the cord in a flick of a second (unheard of, Mr.Dyson?). I mean, not cutting and “eating” it by the front. And guess what? I can lift the whole thing with my little finger, put it inside a small backpack and catch a crowded bus with it, if I wanted to. See, hoovering itself is annoying enough so I don´t really see the point in battling a StarTrek ship to make it easier on you! Or is using Dyson suppose to be Fun? Well, it CERTAINLY is not the quality of the job it leaves behind, that would make me buy it. In fact, I have never came accross a less effective hoover. So the only reason for Mr. Dyson still not going out of bussiness I can think of is that people buy his products because ITS SAID TO BE GOOD and all other marketing and status tricks, but in the end it´s their au-pairs, cleaning ladies and people like myself that have to put up with about 8times as much of job then SIMPLE HOOVERING.”

From PocketLint

This review raises a very important question: should you compromise your design if it will get it into the hands of more users?

Who are you designing for?

The best place to look for examples of this problem is enterprise software.

One of my favourite applications by far is Tableau. I use it every day and am stunned by how simple it is to create clear visualisations of large datasets. It’s blazingly fast to use and defaults to an elegant visual style which puts the data first – check out the nicely put together product tour here. It makes it easy to create dashboards like this:


Its main competitor is Crystal Excelsius, which sadly makes it easy to create awful dashboards like this:


This is not a post about data visualisation, but in a nutshell the problem with Crystal Xcelsius is that it focuses far too much on the cosmetic aspects which add nothing (and often detract from) the data behind the dashboard. I will let Jorge Cameos and Stephen Few explain its problems in more detail (both of these blogs are mandatory reading for anyone dealing with large amounts of data, incidentally).

The question is this: how many of Tableau’s sales have been taken by Crystal Xcelsius because of its fancy effects? 

Another example in the same area is the difference between Excel 2003 and Excel 2007 charting.  Check here, here and here for some closer looks at the problems; here’s one simple illustration.

This is Excel 2003:


Excel 2007. Notice how some of the most important options have been moved from radio buttons (1 click) to dropdowns (2 clicks) and how its most important sections (e.g. scale and patterns) have been partially lumped together to leave more room for irrelevant 3D and formatting effects. 


Who is Microsoft trying to appeal to?

There is a clear disconnect between the needs of the user, who would likely benefit from simpler chart creation and the buyer, who may be swayed by the additional features (“What harm could they do?”). On top of this, the user of the software is not the ultimate user; that place goes to the person trying to make sense of the final chart.

A few thoughts:

  • How can you make sure you are designing for the right person? Sometimes the ultimate user is not who you think they are.
  • This conflict between user and buyer does not necessarily mean two people or departments. It is within us all.
  • Can you tell whether you are selling to the user or the buyer? Perhaps you can show different aspects of your design to each.

What other examples of this are there?

A framework for flow

February 8, 2009


A few years ago I read a massively important book called “A Theory of Fun” by Raph Koster, master designer of massively multiplayer online worlds and responsible for Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies.

Buy the book. Seriously. But before you go any further spend five minutes reading the presentation that inspired it, which you can get here on his blog.

Its main thesis still blows my mind with its simplicity:

“Games are puzzles – they are about cognition and learning to analyze patterns. When you’re playing a game, you’ll only play it until you master the pattern. Once you’ve mastered it the game becomes boring

To keep the game fun the game designer has to delay this point for as long as possible, but if the game is too hard nobody will play it. A perfect balance between the ability of the player and the game’s difficulty must be reached.

Get that balance absolutely right and you get flow, possibly the most important feeling designers should try to induce in their users.

Not just for games!

From Raph again:

“Flow doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it feels pretty darn wonderful. The problem is that precisely matching challenges to capability is incredibly hard. For one thing, the brain is churning away and might make a cognitive leap at any moment, rendering the rest of the challenge trivial. For another, whatever is presenting the challenges doesn’t necessarily have any sense of the level of understanding posessed by the player.”

“As we succeed in mastering new patterns thrown at us, the brain gives us little jolts of pleasure. But if the flow of new patterns slows, then we won’t get the jolts and we’ll start to feel boredom. If the flow of new patterns increases beyond our ability to resolve them, we won’t get the jolts either because we’re not making progress.”

Flow is so important that designers should consider it in everything they work on, whether it is as simple as a folding chair or as complex as an operating system. But it’s hard, very hard to implement, particularly as you move away from games towards less intrinsically entertaining tasks.

Why is it so hard?

There’s plenty of factors. Here are two.


  • The designer’s control over the system. In a closed system where the designer has full control over the rules, he can tune the level of challenge to better match the skills of the user.
  • Users. Even the most cleverly designed closed system will find it harder to match challenge to skill when more than one person is involved. The obvious reason is that the two players will have different levels of skill. More subtly, when you inject more people into even the simplest system you also inject their foibles and psychology, drastically increasing the complexity and making it harder to reliably create flow.

This should give a clue to what a designer needs to be aware of when designing for flow.

If the world is yours.

Gaming (1 user). “On the rails” games such as the astonishingly successful Guitar Hero, House of the Dead and to a lesser extent Mirror’s Edge are perfect examples of designed flow.

The gameworld and challenge is completely under the control of the designer, and the player can generally adapt the difficulty to better match their skills, with progressively harder content unlocked as they improve.

Dancing (2 users). A perfect example of this from outside gaming is dancing, particularly ballroom dancing. In this case the “design” is the type of music, which usually fits within a set rythm and tempo, and the dance, which consists of a set of rules and moves.

The additional complexity someone designing a dance would have to take into account is the interaction between the two dancers; flow is achieved by creating a common language through the music and the rules of the dance.

Driving (Many users). The driving environment may seem complex but its elements are relatively fixed: the road, the traffic signals, the highway code.

Within these constraints, billions of people with different destinations, priorities and frames of mind drive safely every day.

What if you can’t control the challenges?

This is where the most difficult problems still lie. In all these cases, the designers have only control over a limited part of the environment and must hope that they can exert enough influence to improve the whole.

Productivity software (1 user). Operating systems and productivity software are both tools which help their users achieve some end, whether writing a paper, analysing financial performance or… designing something. The problem is, Microsoft can perfect Word, for example, until it is a masterpiece of writing and page layout, but if the writer is uninspired they will still be blocked.

What can it do to help (Clippy, go away!)? Once it has the basic usability and is out of your way, what patterns can the software introduce to kickstart the user’s thought process and get them back into flow?

Dating (2 users). Stepping away from software for a second. Imagine you are designing a restaurant which in which two people will have the perfect date.

Obviously you cannot control the biggest element of all: the chemistry between them, but you can control enough elements of the environment to smooth things along. What food to serve? What lighting? What cutlery? What furniture? What music?

Civilisation (Many users). Here the problems for designers become monumental. How do you design tools which can help teams of tens, hundreds, thousands of people to effortlessly work and build something together.

How do you design a city so that it’s inhabitants experience flow?

And most colossaly of all: how do you design a society so that its members can experience flow? How do you direct them to flow in tasks which built the next layer of civilisation?

Apart from being associated with fun and satisfaction, if flow is the perfect match between challenge and abillity it is the quickest way to achievement.

How can we flow more?

PS: Never thought i’d write the sentence: “Civilisation (Many users)”


February 4, 2009


Really nice quote within a quote by Ash Bhoopathy (Yakshaving).

“Dave introduced me to this money quote the other day by Yves Behar: “Advertising is the price you pay for being unoriginal”.

“The price in Microsoft’s case, $300 million. fail.”

On a different note, it’s interesting how long Apple’s campaign has been running (via PBMai):






I’m intrigued by Ash’s project, Bettr@ (currently in private beta), which aims to: “[help] anyone who is motivated to improve themselves get better at the things they are passionate about. This ranges from hobbies that people do in their spare time, to their career, and to classes that people take.”

Web app by web app we are slowly getting closer to computing which augments us, perhaps this can be another piece of the puzzle. I look forward to playing with it.