Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Predictions are Hard, Especially About the Future"

I was listening to a talk recently when this was said by a someone with unquestionable technical expertise. Given that I know what he meant to say as opposed to what he actually said I will protect my source. The point is of course, that you can guess, you can calculate, you can run all the statistical models in the world, and you might be wrong anyway. After all, the future is a result of lots of moments of now, and my now and your now and other people's now and the now that comes after the next now and the mere fact that I give you a clue about a possible direction might change your behavior and hence that direction.

The stuff science fiction is made of. Did you know that it is not at all science fiction that DARPA is funding a design project to see if we can develop a propulsion system to get us to Alpha Centauri in 100 years instead of the current 65,000 years? (Perhaps the goal is 1000 years - I may have misplaced a 0). Think about the development of a backbone array of receivers stretched across the galaxy. A different set of interplanetary protocols are needed. TCP/IP wasn't designed to store data (why should it have been?) so when there are delays....whoops, lost a packet. In trying to beam Dr. McCoy from Planet Earth to Alpha Centauri, we seem to have misplaced a few of his body parts. Just as Bones predicted would happen. I gather, then, that the idea is to develop interplanetary protocols with a store and forward capability that will withstand episodic disruptions and delays.

Not so far in the realm of the future, in fact, in the here and now, is an internet enabled surfboard. And it has been around for a decade. At least in prototype that is, because I can't find anyone, including Intel who created it, selling it (see one news article here) . I confess to having mixed feelings about a wifi ready surfboard anyway. Surfboards are a dime a dozen here in Southern California. On any given day, unless the ocean is flat as a pancake, you are likely to find the dedicated out on the waves. More often than not, they are just sitting there, hoping for that perfect swell. Assuming proper conditions, a good time to find them is between 7:00am and 8:00am on any given weekday. At 8:00am they pile out of the water, strip off the rubbery outfit and put on their suits over their sandy selves. Off to work. Last week, I was driving down the freeway at about this time, when a bright green surfboard came bouncing along - it must have come loose from someone's car as they boogied to the office at 80mph.

Speaking of high speed, I wonder what data rates you can get on a surfboard? Is the surfer more likely to miss the perfect wave if they are busily updating their status on Facebook? Personally, I prefer to leave all that behind when I don the rubbery outfit. Maybe others do too. Maybe that's why I don't find the internet surfboard for sale even in my local high end surf shop. (Excepting perhaps Los Angeles and vicinity, I can't think of any place in the continental US where a wifi surfboard would be more likely to make an appearance).

Then there is IPV6. You  techie nerds out there heard of it? It held it's world launch in 2012, yet to date, penetration is at about 1%. I agree with Vint Cerf (see that link two sentences back): we should stop making excuses and implement it.

It is super cool that as of last fall, non Latin domain names were approved. Cyrillic anyone? Speaking of the future, at the time I located that article, it was dated tomorrow (i.e. one day ahead of the day I am functioning in). Of course this has to do with time zones in Europe vs. San Diego, but it seems very in the spirit of things that there is a post made in the future about a futuristic tech topic in a post about the future of technology.For just a blip in time I can see the future.

Have a wonderful now.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What is the Future of Design? (Part 2)

What should we be pursuing in mobile design right now? That question was the beginning of yet more interesting and sometimes bizarre conversation at last week's UX Speakeasy meeting (see the previous post for Part 1 of this conversation). An innocent question and a sincere one, given that in 2010 mobile sales
surpassed computer sales and this year mobile devices in use are predicted to surpass the number of computers in use.

I was interested to hear Phil Ohme state that the future of mobile is not in apps or touch screens but in the extension of those items. In other words you don't need to carry it to use it. Just what is "it"? This is where it gets interesting. You can, for example swallow something and carry it around with you. Reputedly in prototype, the idea is not at all far fetched. After all, little medical cameras that travel around in your body have been used for some time, and then there was that guy who was featured years ago in a well known technical magazine after he implanted a device in his arm and used it to open doors, turn on lights and, if I recall correctly, to somehow enhance sex? Or perhaps he was just planning to do that or hypothesizing about that. (I'm not making this up.)

Where was, if we develop the ability to swallow a little computer of sorts, and it sits inside your body somewhere on a more or less permanent basis, what kinds of interesting things will result? Packaging itty bitty highly sophisticated sensors is quite possible; packaging those little sensors in such a way as to survive the human gut is already being done. We know how to send signals through the human body - piece of cake. People already swallow pills that monitor if they have taken their medication during the course of the day.

Will we someday hear our phone ringing from our stomach? (Tap your belly button once to take the call)

Amber Lundy proposed a really fascinating idea. What if someone designs the ability to swallow a news event. For example, in the morning, as you are heading out the door, coffee in one hand, bagel in the other hand (dripping butter between your fingers), you pause to swallow the morning news.

As the day wears on, the news automatically streams into your brain. Perhaps you receive the morning news; the equivalent of having picked up and read the paper. Alternatively, you have plugged into a live stream, and are updated throughout the day with headlines, breaking news, entertainment.

If you are being streamed the news, will it be entirely cognitive or will it also be experiential? Amber suggested that it could be both. Cognitive: you get the knowledge. Experiential: you get the experience. But...then...what do you think about being experientially tossed into a story about the civil war in Syria? Is that a good idea? From a societal perspective perhaps it would be. If we really understood what was going on in war zones, in natural catastrophes in remote parts of the globe, in the developing world, would we make different decisions?

Design customization will be a key component of product success or failure. One of the big topics at the meeting, mentioned in the last post, was a growing demand by consumers for customizable micro-niche media. People want to hear, see, experience, communicate on their own terms. One of the panelists commented that Facebook is experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The power of the internet and our ability to search, dig, refine, and, an often narcissistic need for instant gratification, are driving consumer demand for "I want it my way". Whether you consider this good or bad (there are valid arguments on both sides) product development is increasingly having to listen to what all the "me"s out there want.

Greg Zapar was an optimistic voice throughout the meeting, as he kept pointing out the potential for designing for "better and efficient, not just more". Something very important to keep in mind. Those of us in who work in the technical world have the opportunity to have an impact on how all this deluge of data is gathered, presented and used.

We haven't even begun to talk about ethics. Designers and developers make choices with societal impact all the time - experiential product design is, and will continue to be, no different. Someone asked if we should approach design from a "science is for science's sake" perspective and let someone else worry about how our products and systems are used. One fatalist in the crowd suggested it was pointless to think about such things because we are just small cogs in a big machine.

You probably know by now what I think about that.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What is the Future of Design? (Part 1)

I know by now that when the UX Speakeasy San Diego group gets together to discuss an issue, bizarre things will inevitably come up. We had a panel of three speakers last night (Phil Ohme from Intuit, Amber Lundy from Websense, Greg Zapar from Tenfold Social Training) and an enthusiastic audience who jumped right in to ask the tough questions and make some ... um, interesting... suggestions.
But first, I want to pass on an observation. There was a balanced mix of men and women at the event which is always a nice thing in a technical setting. At one point I was looking around and realized that in general, the men dressed super casually (lots of jeans and tshirts, rumpled collared shirts, and our trusty moderator was wearing his usual s**t kicker boots) and the women were dressed more, shall I say: stylishly? A few months ago I wrote a blog post in Global Tech Women about technical women and clothing in response to a New York Times Op Ed on the subject. Hence my alertness to this contextual issue. Everyone in the room last night was a designer of  one sort or another - what do you think their clothing choices mean? What messages were being transmitted?

Which brings us to one of the big themes I heard last night. As Phil Ohme put it, the future of design is going to be about "sharing our life bits" i.e. we share, and will be sharing more and more, what our body wants to say. Not just what we choose to say, or choose to do behaviorally. It's what we unconsciously say and do and it's going beyond the usual subliminal cues we may think of. It's not going to be just the people in the room with you who pick up on your current mood, or what pheromones you are exuding.

Whether you want to or not, you will be porting wearable computers. We are evolving at breakneck speed in the direction of global sharing of The Personal.

Think about it - we already share a ridiculous amount of information, either intentionally or otherwise. We use that GPS feature on our smartphones to check-in and alert our entire online community that we: had a cheese steak in Philly, landed at the airport in Sydney, went shopping at a mall in suburban Colorado. We use Google Wallet to buy things and at the same time share a lot more than that one purchase with Google. As Ben King (panel moderator, from Qualcomm) pointed out, both Google and our banking institutions know about our financial purchases because we do everything online, but they have completely different motives for obtaining and analyzing it.

If you decide to wear Google Glass, it will be like having Google Street View on your face (suggests Phil). Soon, will everything you see, hear, and perceive, become archived and searchable in the Cloud? Now that's a scary thought. Who owns, has rights to, can use, that information? Privacy is going to be an even huger design issue than it is now, according to Amber Lundy. People will want to turn it OFF - to pull the plug. Will products and systems be designed to allow this? Easily?

On the other hand, here is a really cool, more positive design direction suggested by Amber. As micro niche networks continue to increase in popularity - a big conversation topic in itself last night - how about creating the ability to package a .tar file of your social world and ship it to someone? Let's say you want to share with your lonely friend in Argentina a slice of your life. So you pull together a variety of information, images, data, conversations, and video into a living digital collage. Without needing a Master's degree in anything to do so. And off it goes to your friend. Customize it slightly differently and send it to your mom. Design that I say!

Chew on these ideas for a while.

There were many other mind bending topics and I'll share more of them next time.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Should We Disgust People into Learning?

If you have 30 minutes to spare I suggest you listen to this podcast from about a year ago. A friend and  colleague pointed it out, saying it has implications for computing education. You will decide for yourself what
Appealing to Your Better Nature
the real take home message is. (Subject Matter Hint: germs and money)

I have been reading a lot lately about global and national trends in technological development, global infrastructure and how different nations are investing in R&D, and STEM education to support it. Fascinating, because although you may be aware that certain other countries are leaping ahead or behind, some of the data is mind blowing. China for example is plowing so much funding into technological infrastructure and the education to produce a workforce to support it that I almost choked. Want to get your mind blown too? Read just the Overview section of these Science and Engineering Indicators for 2012 . Russia, meanwhile, is on more of a slide than I realized. Interesting...

Of course there is the looming environmental disaster in China (poisonous smog, pig carcasses in the water) that seems to be growing as fast as their infrastructure investments.

One of the points made in that podcast about germs and finances in relation to American bad habits, might or might not have something to say here. In the podcast, it seemed that people are effectively shamed, tricked and frightened into doing the right thing for health and the environment. Change was more effective via those routes than through education about why they should do the right thing.

Part of the reason, not discussed in the podcast, was likely the emotional as opposed to cognitive aspect of being shamed and publicly embarrassed. It is well established that, in spite of what people say and think they will do sometimes they don't do it - until they have an emotional reason to do so. It is easy to think your way around a tough issue or to just shelve it for later, thus effectively not addressing it. On the other hand, if you don't want to show your face because of the reaction you will get from others, then you are more likely to alter your behavior.

But...does this mean we should put more focus on behavioral change through shaming, tricking and frightening people? In classroom settings, in work settings, in global politics?

Before you reach any decision, you should also check out this book, just to make sure you are fully informed of all the ways people might think about the issues: "Theories of International Politics and Zombies". I read this almost without stopping and found myself educated in great depth political theory. Something I would not likely have ever considered putting time into, much as I like to be well informed about what is going on in the world.

Combine what you learn about Zombie politics with what you know about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and then add in what you know about deep vs. surface learning, and then add in what you know about effective longitudinal behavioral change.

Then you tell me: will shaming people into doing what you want, will humiliating them, will berating them or just plain embarrassing them, lead to deep learning and long term change?

I almost completely stopped drinking cow milk after learning about federal guidelines listing how much pus is allowable in cartons of milk, organic or otherwise (gross, gross I wish I could get that out of my head!). But have I really lost interest in milk? Have I really changed? What have I really learned (aside from a truly disgusting factoid)?

You can disgust me out of cow milk in my tea and cereal, but I'm already subliminally looking for ways to subvert the problem.

Zoom back out to bigger issues of education, business and politics. What have you learned?