Denver Design Week keynote: Designing Within Our Species

Following up on the “humans” theme from my recent Bluetooth World presentation, in my keynote talk at Denver Design Week last week I spoke about design and humans. Questions I posed during the talk included: Why is design so difficult?, Why are females so difficult?, Why are we so bad at math?, and Why are we so bad at music? In addition, why we should stop booking conference rooms. And finally, coinciding with the baseball playoffs: What’s up with the Infield Fly Rule?

The central part of my talk focused on design and behavior. Based on my decades-long experience in usability I organized influences on behavior in a hierarchy. At the top of the list is instinct. We have approximately a 50,000 year history of “modern human behavior.” Universally, we will first react according to instincts acquired over that time. Where possible, it’s advisable to design to our instincts – for instance, using of red as a sign of danger. However, there are no instincts for the majority of our design-related actions today. We haven’t been driving cars or using smartphones for 50,000 years.

Next in line for the determinants of behavior are preconceptions. These are difficult or impossible to predict, vary according to the individual, and can result in the most odd and unexpected behavior in a person, despite our best design efforts.

As designers, we have no control over these first two. Our design influence therefore entails, in descending order: 3-dimensional design cues, 2-dimensional design cues, complex graphics, extended text, quick reference guides, and as a final resort, the instruction manual. Or at some point in the sequence, sound or voice cues. Or someone may check Google, YouTube, or call a friend for help. In the big picture, external factors will of course also have an impact on how we behave (economic, social, etc.) – I focused this talk specifically on design and interaction.

Max Burton, at Fjord, gave a great talk just ahead of my presentation on Tuesday: “The Personalization of Everyday Life.” On Thursday Surya Vanka, formerly Chief of Staff of Microsoft’s User Experience Leadership Team, spoke about his experience at Microsoft, and his current work: “Win by Design: Lessons from the Frontlines.”

The weather in Denver was great.

Opening keynote at BluetoothWorld: The Problem With Humans

It was fun to open the BluetoothWorld conference last Tuesday morning in Santa Clara, California. In a two-day conference that was apt to be filled with presentations discussing tech, I opted to talk about humans. More specifically, our 50,000 year behavioral history, and the limited impact we have as designers on the way people react as we try to integrate new products and technology into our lives. Understanding human instinct, preconceptions, design and behavior represents a frontier in design. Considering the rate at which new tech products are being created, and the rate at which we are willing or able to adapt, it’s inevitable that we’ll need to get a better grasp on these basic, human-centered topics as we continue to move forward.

Robopsych podcast: Designing with Gender in Mind

Here’s a link to Episode 70 of the RoboPsych – a podcast on robots, AI and the future – hosted by Dr. Tom Guarriello and Carla Diana. The topic we discussed centers on technology, design and gender. The opportunities for companies and organizations to better address females are vast. This includes not just producing products and services that click with women, but questioning whether the internal cultures we’ve developed in the fields of design and engineering are male-centric. While many females have historically dropped out of these professions, feeling somewhat uncomfortable in those environments, the situation is bound to change, as more and more influential women are working in the AI/robotics world.

Ep. 70 – Dr. Dan Formosa on Designing with Gender in Mind

The podcast was recorded on September 20, 2018.

Thoughts on the Future of Design, Archives of Design Research

After spending September and October as visiting lecturer at KAIST in South Korea, (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), I was invited to write an article for the Archives of Design Research. The journal is published by the Korean Society of Design Science. The issue has just been published (and I’m happy to see that my entry, Thoughts on the Future of Design, is the opening article.

In the article I reference Richard Buchanan’s 2001 article that identified three “levels” of design research. Clinical research (arguably the most prevalent) is conducted for a specific project. Applied research looks further, applicable to a number of projects in a specific category. Basic research is designed to acquire fundamental knowledge in design, with wide application.

A problem with understanding design is that Basic research is a rare event. Or maybe I should say it’s a huge opportunity. There’s a lot left to know about design and how it can or should impact our lives.

Journal of Health Design podcast, Melbourne

Improving health through design: The podcast recorded last week with Moyez Jiwa, Editor in Chief of the Journal of Health Design in Melbourne, Australia, is now online. At just over 5 minutes, topics include design and behavior, and the need for better design in healthcare for both patients and healthcare providers. Thanks to Moyez for inviting me.

The Journal of Health Design‘s podcast can be heard here on SoundCloud.

My 2012 TEDx talk a Drexel, on math and music (everyone calm down.)

I was surprised last week (an understatement) to see that my 2012 talk at Drexel University, on the visual communication of math and music, has received more than 250,000 views – or at least partial views. Many of them, I think, are recent.

That may sound like a good thing, but there’s a major problem. People are watching it out of context. And some of them are really angry. If you came to the video without any background, here are some things that may calm you down.

  • This is a talk to 75 or 100 designers, mostly undergraduate design students, about visual communication and low literacy in math and music – which starts at an early age. It’s a day-long TEDx event about design, with a “Why Not Admit” theme. I’m proposing math and music education to the students as a design problem.
  • In the video segment that some people are up-in-arms about, I am NOT giving a music lesson. I am discussing things about notation that are confusing. To explain it, as I do in the earlier discussion about learning math, I’m speaking from my grammar school experience – speaking in first person, present tense. Which, seen out of context, may sound to some like a music lesson.
  • Reading flats and sharps, visually mapping the music scale to a piano keyboard, and understanding the difference between E# and F, were difficult. (I personally understand it, years later, which is why I chose music as a topic that day.)
  • I am not presenting the Nashville number system as a replacement (not sure why some people think I’m saying that.) I’m only showing it to the students as an alternative that some musicians have found useful.

If people came to the video expecting a solution, that wasn’t the purpose. I’m discussing the impact of visual communication on our ability to learn.

The like/dislike ratio for the talk is around 3:1, which is pretty good. And I have been receiving email messages from adults who are saying “thanks, I thought it was just me” and are going back to give music notation another try. But some of the hostile, mob-like reactions I’m seeing, made without any understanding of the context, and feeding off of each other’s misinterpretations, are making me feel like I’m in politics.

(I’m trying to get the TEDx organizers to update the YouTube description of the video. I may also add more to this post later.)


Rethinking Time: Ergonomics in Design Journal

Rethinking Time, a commentary I wrote on our attitudes toward time, has been published in Ergonomics in Design Volume 26 Issue 2, April 2018. Discussing things such as why I set my microwave to 33 seconds instead of 30, the consequences of applying an education-instilled factory-based mindset to virtually everything we do, and why we downplay the fact that our best ideas come to us while taking a shower.

Rethinking Time, Ergonomics In Design, April 2018