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.
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.
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.
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.
I wasn’t feeling especially opinionated this time around, so I thought I’d present an innovative company in a different format than my usual posts: cheesy rhyming couplets. They’re fun! And so, it seems, is clothing designer, retailer, and manufacturer Frank & Oak.
Does the thought of shopping make you squirm,
the process, when ventured, your aversion affirm?
How do women pretend that this torture is fun
when all you can stand is to grab items and run?
Maybe your fashion sense is a little bit iffy
from snatching only what you can spot in a jiffy.
If only the stores didn’t follow tradition
and make each purchase a grueling expedition!
Now there’s a web store to save you this grief
by letting you stay home and shop in your briefs.
Frank & Oak explains what is trendy and why,
and ships you your favourites to give them a try.
You send back the ones you don’t want to keep,
and start looking like you didn’t dress in your sleep.
Fashion sense is no longer in question
with an inbox filled monthly with clothing suggestions.
Who says you can’t be cool and a geek?
Find your style and be effortlessly chic.
Though shopping online is hardly something new,
rethinking the process makes it easier for you.
What do you think? Is Frank & Oak’s model different enough to qualify as innovative? Is it really that significant a change? They certainly seem to have streamlined and personalized the process. Their clothing is versatile and affordable, I expect they’ll have a really strong start. Even if they aren’t completely revolutionizing online shopping, they’re making it simpler and more convenient to fit into busy customers’ lives.
My only question: who’s going to do this for women too?
Since I haven’t argued with any ragey individuals this week, it’s going to be all ramble and no peril this time. Apologies! Some other time I will go poke an angry badger with a stick and see what happens.
On the upside, maybe I can address innovation a little more directly this time. Let’s talk about a subject dear to my heart: Klout. People have asked me to explain Klout to them in the past, and I have failed miserably. These failures often ended in me flailing my arms and saying “Just join, it’s fun!”. Fun just might be a key factor here.
Klout, if you’re not familiar, is a site made of rainbows and unicorns  that scores you according to your involvement and influence online. You connect, say, your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, YouTube, and other accounts, and it gives you a number, calculated by their algorithms. This is your “Klout score” and it is now the simplest quantification of your online impact. This single number will now rule your life.
Visit Klout every day, and weep quietly into your coffee when your score drops a point. Feel incredibly validated when your score climbs. You are now an internet boss, free to feel superior to everyone whose Klout score (a kind of “internet cred”) is lower than yours. Shake your fist at those who outrank you, knowing they are somehow beating you at this internet game.
Whoa whoa whoa. Game? Like gamification? That’s right, Klout is more than just a monitoring tool. You tell it who you find influential in certain topics, and in turn you get achievements for engaging with the system. Every time something changes, you get a happy little notification. And every so often you unlock some of these babies:
Every day you visit the site, you get 5 “+K” points, which you can give freely to others in “influential topics” of theirs. You cannot have more than 10 +K at any time, so it’s a use-it-or-lose-it kind of thing. 5 +K will buy yourself or another person an influential topic (Klout will also assign you some periodically according to your content, and you can remove the ones you don’t like) but you cannot increase your influence in your own topics. Give +K away to people you think are awesome. If they think you are awesome and influential in your topics, they will give you +K.
These are the parts that Klout graphs for your viewing pleasure to influence your score:
- True Reach: How many people you influence
- Amplification: How much you influence them
- Network Impact: The influence of your network
These factors are explained rather fantastically here.
Some people hate on Klout because it’s such a mysterious, seemingly arbitrary thing. It’s glitchy, the algorithms are always being changed/improved, and it’s not often clear why some people are scored higher than others. But it’s the first real quantification of social influence across online platforms, and the largest. Deal with it, Klout is here to stay until they seriously screw something up or we all get bored of being validated (pfft).
So sometimes Klout is glitchy, or the algorithms change and your score goes up (jubilance!) or down (ego = crushed!) significantly, but otherwise it’s just a fun way to keep track of who your messages reach. It’s usually a good indicator of whether you’re slacking in some aspect of your social media engagement. It graphs how your influence and online behaviour fluctuates. We all have different niches on the internet, different places where we’re more established and have more pull. Klout tries to equalize this and score us all on a level playing field. It’s great for competing with your friends and classmates, encouraging each other to stay involved online in order to outdo one another.
Don’t forget to support each other with +K, of course!
And sometimes you get free stuff on the off-chance you might tell people about it, thanks to the awesome addition of Perks.
How can you not love a company with a cardboard cutout of Justin Bieber in their group shot?
Is Klout innovative? Let’s go back to the super-simple definition from my intro post. Innovation as significant positive change. At over 100 million users, it is significant. From my classmates and I gleefully +K-ing each other at a bar, it is positive. Since no one else is cornering this market, it is a change.
I think that’s a yes.
To clarify, because I feel guilty about my hasty phrasing, what I meant in this post about a lack of “individuality” in Apple products (namely the iPhone and iPad) is that there are very few style options to choose from and little visible difference between models. Admittedly, Samsung has gone a bit extreme with this by launching eighty billion (approx.) versions of the S and S2 series. Though Malcolm Gladwell notes the merits of giving consumers lots of choice (at least when it comes to spaghetti sauce), there has got to be a happy medium in there somewhere. Other companies making iPhone clones definitely does not fit into my happy little diverse gadget world.
I felt like I wasn’t representing both sides fairly, so I needed to get that out there. Android fangirl though I may be, I aim to treat all sides with respect. I salute you, Apple, your products just aren’t my bag.
I feel that drawing inspiration and useful functions from other companies isn’t a crime. But I also feel that not putting (enough of) your own spin into said inspired things makes it really difficult for consumers to view your company as innovative. So flaunt your differences, Samsung, because the world already has one Apple.
It all started one fateful night when I made a very, very big mistake. I poked a troll. Okay, he wasn’t a troll, but he was bordering on Rageface territory, so he generally didn’t seem like a great choice to have a reasonable, sane debate with.
In fact, I was a bit afraid there were going to be Molotov cocktails hurled through Samsung’s windows if I didn’t get to the bottom of what this Apple fan was so spitefully raging about. Had Samsung killed his parents?
Admittedly, I did consider trolling him myself. But then I remembered that my dad, who’s not yet on Twitter (he would just review craft beer anyway) but is just getting the hang of saying “epic” and using “fail” as a noun, checks my Twitter page to see what I’m doing. He is definitely not familiar with the concept of trolling. I’m not anonymous enough to be a jerk on Twitter. So instead, I strayed dangerously close to white-knighting on behalf of this brand that I had only recently bought into. GREAT PLAN.
Behold the hate! Do you see why I was afraid he might stab me, or worse, yell at me?
That part seemed reasonable. I felt like I’d gotten to the source of the hate. It was like having a civilized conversation where we represented our fandoms with some fairness and didn’t result to flaming-
Well, crap. That genuinely offended me, not as a Samsung user but as a human being. I spent 20 minutes debating how best to flame him before I put my civil pants back on. He’s not REALLY talking about cancer, calm the hell down, Dodge.
It got pretty unexciting after that, since I was being super-polite, assured him he was right about some things and mostly dropped the conversation when he told me to Google things instead of just giving me links. Dude, I’ve been researching this brand all week, I know what stories are out there. Give me articles and we’ll talk. Fine, let me give you articles! I will pester you out of existence!
But right after, below, is where the breakthrough happened. Can you spot it? In the next few exchanges I go from lip service to epiphany. (Reads bottom to top.)
I started off a little wishy-washy, thinking it’s totally cool to rip Apple’s designs as long as there are some distinguishing traits. No one’s gonna start designing something without that great big front touch screen and a grid of apps, because it’s what the consumer wants right now. Apple getting ripped off? That’s good for innovation, it’ll kick their butts into maybe not holding back quite so many features for the next release. It’ll push them harder. Apple shouldn’t have a monopoly on quality mobile devices, and they don’t! And blah blah blah lawsuits and patents and bears, oh my.
But then it hit me. Everything will look the same. People identify my Samsung Galaxy Captivate as different (and it gets passed around the room to try) because it doesn’t look like an iPhone (and definitely not like a BlackBerry). It’s a little boxier, definitely bigger, completely different buttons, and definitely not the same phone. But most of the S2s I keep seeing just look like big iPhones with some Androidy goodness bells and whistles. Since when did all consumers want the same-looking thing? Maybe this is killing innovation in the industry, if only in Samsung. Apple’s not likely to change their look. But everyone else, can we have our personalities back? An argyle gel case can only do so much to differentiate a clone.
There ended my most riveting Twitter debate to date. Thanks, respectfully blurred-out dude, for letting me bounce some thoughts off you only to realize that I feel strongly about the design of my phone and how it doesn’t resemble the one you’re trying to defend. Turns out we’re sort of on the same side.
Look at that beauty. Mine’s customized completely differently. Widgets everywhere. I love to use it, I love Android, I love Samsung and their quality hardware. But when I saw that one of my best friends has the Galaxy S2, the next model up, my jealousy faded the instant I handled the device. Better specs are always awesome, but it was rounded and typical. In shape alone I felt it had none of the personality that my more irregularly-shaped Captivate does.
I was ready to don the white armour for you in front of that scary not-sure-if-he’s-joking-or-going-to-burn-down-a-factory man, Samsung, but the truth is, your designs are coming very close to Apple’s and that’s bad for both of you. I salute you for taking them on directly. I salute you for having extremely competitive products. But it’s time for something I never see much of in Apple products: individuality. Neck and neck with the greatest rival the mobile world has ever seen, I think this is the time to flash some innovative design, and really show the world you can do better than just follow in their footsteps.
Do you ever keep doing something difficult out of habit, without stopping to realize that it could be done differently? That it doesn’t have to take so many steps to complete?
Now apply that angle to all of technology, everyday objects, things we’ve learned and normalized, like browsers, hard drives and chairs. Yes, even chairs. There are new, updated versions of all these things coming out all the time. But there is real innovation out there too, drastically reinventing the things we know and love, discovering ways to meet our needs in ways we didn’t think of before.
Innovation is difficult, because we’re so stuck on how things have been done up until now. This is especially difficult to nurture in large businesses and institutions, because they are under the impression that what has always worked will continue to always work. I can smell them getting barbequed by their competition already.
Here I strive to engage with the concept of innovation and continue to remind people to think differently about everything around them. For the purpose of this blog, and because the word “innovation” gets bandied about a lot, I will primarily be relying on the definition of “significant positive change” to define what is innovative.
Innovation = significant positive change.
What have you seen lately that was innovative?
Come on then, let’s get thinking! (And I know you’re just dying to Google some pictures of wacky chairs.)