In general, we should want good ideas to be copied. If you’ve got a Samsung phone, be grateful that the engineers at Apple helped design the dialer. Yes, inventors need incentives to invent. They need to know that their ideas can make them money and that building something brilliant can make them rich. And in some industries—particularly ones, like pharma, with huge research costs—you do need strong patent protection. But technology doesn’t work like drug development. The industry evolves quickly, and you need to try to be first, whether you get patent protection or not. Enforcing patents can help you lock in profits; but patents won’t change your approach to research.
Moore’s Law of the Mind: How Technology is Changing the Way We Think for the Better
Around a year and a half ago my Pre-AP English class was assigned a culminating project. This graduation requirement consisted of a 2500 word paper as well as a short presentation. We were prompted to choose a point of contention in the modern world, pose it as a question, gather arguments from debates and other sources, and format it as an essay to convince the reader of a certain position.
I chose, “is technology making us stupider?”
This is the paper I wrote in my junior year of High School, unedited from its original form.
This is definitely worth a read if you’re worried about the Internet frying your grey matter, or if you’re concerned that the generations to come will be dumb as bricks. There is hope! I’m not so sure they’ll be able to spell, but the world of the web is training people in a different sort of intelligence.
A product is not a set of screens — it’s the stories those screens enable.
this is good.
Story-centered Design: Hacking Your Brain To Think Like A User is a great story by Google Ventures partner, Braden Kowitz. In it, he outlines his process for managing the complexity inherent in interaction design projects, and describes how he has moed away from a screen-based approach to one that focuses on narrative and storytelling. Easier said than done, of course, and the four ways he outlines aren’t the only ways to think about this issue, but it’s an important topic that more would do well to think about seriously. After all, the impact of a more holistic approach to design can be profound.
[Story via Erik Van Crimmin]
These days, we spend a lot of our day (and, let’s be honest, sometimes a hefty chunk of the night) staring at screens. And if you’re a computer-lover, it comes as no surprise to hear that computers are keeping people up at night. No kidding.
But would it surprise you to hear that your monitor is partly to blame?
Studies show that blue light makes us feel more awake. Our screens are calibrated to look good during the day, mimicking sunlight. Exposing ourselves to blue light after sunset tells our brains that it’s still bright out and we don’t have to gear down for sleep any time soon.
A bright screen at night isn’t exactly wonderful for your eyes. Especially not a very, very blue one. Which, if your computer isn’t a decade old, it probably is. We don’t notice, but the latest screen technologies emit a lot more blue light. They’re gorgeous, and you shouldn’t stop using them, but they could be ruining your sleep.
“I’ll turn down the brightness,” you say. Well, good for you, but what matters here is colour temperature. And, it turns out, there’s something you can do about it that doesn’t involve manually recalibrating your screen every time the sun goes down.
There’s an application called f.lux that does that for you, adjusting your screen to warm light according to sunset times in your area.
It runs in the background of your computer or other device. The PC version looks like this:
You can change the colour tones for day and nighttime, as well as disable it temporarily to do graphic or other colour-sensitive work. It may look excessively orange at first, but if you set it to transition slowly, you’ll hardly notice the difference.
You’re at the right color when your monitor screen color looks like the pages of a book under your room lights. We’re all used to monitors giving off a 6500K glow, which is even bluer than sunlight. If the default settings of f.lux feel too extreme to you, try setting it to fluorescent, and once your eyes adjust, set it to a warmer temperature. Some studies indicate blue light is beneficial during the day, but late at night it can negatively affect your sleep pattern. Our unofficial study indicates that f.lux makes your computer look nicer in a dark room.
What do you think? Is this a step in the right direction? Will the next generation of screens eliminate the need for this kind of calibration in flux? Is this completely unnecessary even now?
I’ve been using f.lux for over a month now, and I think I’ll keep it. I never really had much trouble getting to sleep, so I haven’t noticed much in that respect, but my screen is certainly easier on the eyes in low lighting.
The crux of the problem is that building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s job.
Be happy about interesting “mistakes”. If you are doing something new, it cannot go well the first, second, or possibly fiftieth time. This is OK.
Death of the manual, icon literacy
Sort of a two-part post this time, but I’m jamming them together because they fit in the same category in my brain.
Death of the manual
It intrigues me how we learn to use technology these days. As a kid, I would at least give instruction manuals a quick flip-through out of respect. Now I barely even acknowledge its presence in the box. It’s just packaging, some annoying piece of nothing getting in the way of glorious glorious gadget time. Many of us prefer to just start pressing buttons and figuring it out from there. And with good, intuitive design, it usually doesn’t take us too long to figure it out.
Then I started to notice, sometimes there wasn’t any instruction manual at all.
When you purchase a laptop, you’re lucky if you get as much as a pictograph showing you to insert the battery, plug in the machine, and press the power button.
No manual. Why? Because most of it is obvious to those of us who have learned the codes and conventions of design. Buttons, links, navigation control, we know to look for these things. We expect a keyboard for text. We expect a scrolling mechanism to view an entire page. What isn’t immediately self-explanatory is learned behaviour. You pick up a digital camera and you know what to look for. Your grandmother does not.
And hey, if you get stuck on anything, there’s always the internet to help you figure it out. Why even bother printing instruction manuals anymore? We just look at the buttons and, most of the time, we know what they’re for. Intuitive design and learned behaviour preclude the need to explain expected functions.
I feel like this shift in learning is completely disregarding people who don’t “speak icon” the way most internet- and gadget-savvy people do. I’m not sure if this is a good thing. On the one hand, the process is streamlined and less wasteful, shaped to the sensibilities of the relatively tech-familiar majority. On the other hand, it means that people who don’t regularly use technology are going to struggle even more to adapt. I guess seniors don’t occupy a large enough chunk of the market to be accommodated. Then again, I suppose it’s expected that they have someone younger who’s a natural at the flailing-around-blindly-and-eventually-getting-it-right method of learning technology. They’re usually right; there are young translators at hand. And maybe this is a language they need to learn.
Part 2-ish: Icon literacy
Another thing along this line of thought that intrigues me is the use of text icons and non-text icons. The use of image/icon links instead of text links falls under this subject as well.
I’m just not sure why people use icons in place of text. I’m quite possibly being an idiot about this. Sure, icons take up less space. They’re prettier. But when I say “LOL USE THE PEN TOOL, NOOB” people only have any idea what I’m talking about if they’ve actually used the function in question.
Just look at all these Photoshop icons and tell me you can name them all and explain their function without checking:
It’s okay, I’ve been using the program for five years and I can’t quite do it either. You’re lucky I left the bottom section out; I don’t think I’ve ever used those.
The icons help you guess at their function, and you can read their names by mousing over them, but ultimately Photoshop takes a lot of learning because you have to learn which functions to associate with the icons.
Tumblr, on the other hand, includes text with their icons to clarify their function. However, it has a much simpler range of functions and doesn’t have to cram 20 icons onto the page. When there are more icons, like in forum post forms, eventually there are too many to completely understand them all.
What the heck does that C in a box do? What’s the arrow for? The typewriter? What?! And this is the part where you start experimenting (or your brain explodes) to figure out what these things are, or you ignore them because you don’t expect to need those things.
Just so I’m not being ludicrously unfair by comparing the almighty powers of Photoshop with websites, here’s some nice use of text and icons in Microsoft Word:
I’ve never had to create a visual tutorial to explain to someone how to do something in Word. But in Photoshop, explaining which tool is where is quite the challenge without using visuals. Go ahead, try to explain the Crop Tool icon to me right now. Don’t know which one it is? It’s the one in the top section, above the eyedropper, that looks like two pointy boomerangs overlapping and a thin diagonal line. Okay, that was awful.
To be fair, Word focuses on text, and Photoshop on image manipulation, so what works for one may not be appropriate for the other. I just really like text! Maybe I should be telling people to mouse over all their Photoshop icons until they find the one they’re looking for.
We have a very limited ability to convey functions through symbols. But through learning, we gain the ability to interpret more and more of these icons. For example the four touch capacitive buttons/symbols at the bottom of my darling smartphone. A list, a house, a reverse arrow, and an hourglass. This is my first smartphone. I instantly knew that these meant Menu, Home, Back and Search. I didn’t mourn the lack of text (though I am grateful for the text in the Menu options that pop up).
These symbols are being ingrained into our culture, if we consider culture in anthropological terms as “the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols”. Will our symbols grow simpler or more complicated? Whatever the case, intuitive design is tapping into learned links between symbols and actions. Think of how many different kinds of arrows you know how to interpret. These learned associations become instinct, and this helps streamline our technological experiences.
What might be the future of icon design? Will it become more accessible, or more exclusive? Are our grandparents well and truly screwed when it comes to learning how to use the tools we know and love?
Visual literacy is becoming more and more important. I wonder if we’ll soon be teaching symbol classes in elementary school alongside English and Math.
Idea reuse is so easy — in the form of products, machines, websites, and services — that people are enabled to go for years without finding ideas on their own.
Swype: turbo typing for lazy fingers
This week I’d like to introduce you to something I’m annoyed to ever have to go without. Once used, going back to regular typing on a touch device will feel choppy and slow. You’ll want to whine about it. Clearly that’s what I’m doing.
Better yet, maybe you’re using it already and would like the opportunity to mock your peers for having to - oh, the shame - touch all the letters when they type.
I’m talking about Swype, an alternative keyboard with a few extra bells and whistles. Many Android devices come with it pre-installed, and all you need to do is flip one keyboard setting and - bam - you’re ready to get sloppy.
Other Android devices require that you download Swype yourself. Sorry iPhone users, there’s no official Swype for you yet. But do not despair! It has been unofficially ported for iOS devices, so you can enjoy most of its functionality and get some super-speedy swiping done. Hold out hope that the new purchase of the company may bode well for getting a more official full-fledged version.
To type, all you have to do is trace your finger over the letters in a word, and its predictive software helps it determine which word you meant. Instead of tapping each letter, you save time by not lifting your finger until you’re done. No hesitation! Short words can be problematic if you have to pass over many other letters en route, but it’s a glorious feeling to swipe out a deliciously long word in a matter of seconds and have it pop up perfectly. Swype is surprisingly accurate, and may or may not have been engineered by unicorns. It takes a little getting used to, but not much. The only real learning curve is getting comfortable enough to be super sloppy while still getting the words you want. That’s right, you’re encouraged to learn less finesse.
See how sloppy that is? How it goes over the letters, and doesn’t even stop on the “k”? And yet Swype gets it right, allowing you to charge ahead into word after word after word without pause. Spaces between words are automatic. The line shows you where you’ve been, and you can even swipe over the apostrophe to throw one in the middle of a word like “you’re”. Scribbling on one letter signals a double letter in the word, though it often figures out doubles (and apostrophes) by itself. You can easily break 40 words per minute on a mobile device with Swype.
I’m learning more about it in their tips section for so-called Advanced Users. (Not linking that, because new users would be tempted to click and then confuse themselves and get put off.) But most of what I needed to know, I figured out just by using it. Heck, I had no idea what Swype even was when I enabled it on my phone. I just started messing around, it told me to swipe out my words, and I was off to the races. Magical unicorn races. I guess I’m only an Intermediate User so far, or Intermediate-Advanced, from what I’ve learned naturally. I’m happy with that; it gets the job done without making me think about how to do it. It’s very intuitive. I haven’t felt that I was lacking any functions. However, it looks like the bounce gesture may help with my less-than-accurate short words! My scribbling may reach new heights yet.
I never turn my phone sideways to type anymore. I don’t need the space, it doesn’t matter if I fat-finger the letters, and I can Swype extra fast with the smaller portrait-oriented keyboard. Everything is within easy reach. It’s so convenient that I shake my fist at the technology gods when using a device that doesn’t have it.
Can you see now why tapping each letter feels like a huge pain to someone used to zipping across the general vicinity of the letters for the same result?
For speeding up the typing process, reimagining the touch typing experience, and bringing us back to some good old-fashioned fun scribbling time, I hereby label Swype an awesome innovation. One I’d really really rather not have to go without. Ever.
Our unique advantage on this planet is the inventive capacity of our minds. We even make tools for thought, like writing, so that when we find good ideas […] we can pass that knowledge to future generations, giving them a head start.