colorless green ideas sleep furiously

Can design change the world?

Definitely so.

If you really think about it—the socratic way—, design (like almost anything else) can definitely change the world.

The degree, the direction and the ethical value of that change might vary, so perhaps the accomplishment of what the phrase “change the world” usually means (as in “make a difference”) might not happen almost all the time, but change as the abstract concept of “making something different” is inherently what design does, so just by existing design is by definition changing the world.

I’m even compelled to argue that design is by definition “the process of changing the world”. So when design happens, there’s a change in the world.

If you’re not confortable with these arguments, perhaps it is because you’re thinking of a much more defined interpretation of “changing the world”. That, as with many design problems, is due to a poor definition of the problem to be solved.

Perhaps we, instead of uttering short, emphatic, compelling phrases like “design can change the world” should dedicate more time to really defining what we mean with it, as in “can interaction and visual design make a large part of the world population live a better life?”. The answer to such question being a rotund “Not at all. It requires much more than those disciplines to create a solution that can achieve such goal”.

(Inspired by A New Yorker walks into a San Francisco start up…)

August 16, 2015

It’s not the hamburger, it’s the menu

I read The Hamburger Menu Doesn’t Work.

I thought the article a very interesting one hinging on a topic that requires more discussion and thought. However, I found the title rather misleading. Here are my thoughts.

I think the point is not about the “hamburger” menu (and implicitly the icon being responsible of the misusage) not working, but any catch-all drawer menu not working (by hiding actions under a drawer) including those drawer menus we start seeing in larger-screen implementations, albeit properly labeled “Menu”.

A similar issue happened years ago with the prominence of drop-down and pop-up menus. It happened for the same reason: trying to crunch a crap-load of sections in the smallest space possible. In my opinion, drop-down (and pop-up) menus are useful when they hold items of the same category (I.e. A list of countries, a list of references, a list of sharing services) since then the content might be easier to understand by labeling appropriately (like the aisles of a well-organised supermarket). But when those same menus hold items of varied (and dubious) provenience, they lack the power to suggest and thus effectively hide content from users. And user behaviour and focus being as flimsy as it can be, visitors ends up not being suggested on options they might as well like to explore but just aren’t aware of. Imagine arriving to a supermarket where there are three sections such as “dairy”, “produce” and “drinks” and then a big sign that reads “other stuff”, would you be tempted to go to such an overwhelming, under-appealing area? Who knows. And wouldn’t you get more customers to buy more by showing them more products and guiding them to more suggesting aisles? Probably so.)

It makes sense even in desktop, where for example research we did (at an AOL property, on a big bunch of the iOS/Android top segment of the US population) showed that bringing sections to the main menu (and thus making them visible) improved engagement.

A recent Don Norman article (defiling the new Apple user experience) on why Apple products are confusing so many, he mentions three core principles of good design amongst which there is “discoverability”. Arguing that discovering (and then remembering) what an interface does is of vital importance for users, I’d say “hamburger” menus do the disservice of hiding content, and thus miss the opportunity of suggesting users what to do next or where to go next.

To me after many years, the truest definition of IxD/IA/UX is “helping people make the next decision”. Showing them useful stuff instead of hiding it is hence better since it helps them make the decision on where to go and what to do next.

August 14, 2015

Should everyone learn to code?

The big problem with the case for or against everyone learning to code is the word “everyone”.

“Many of us”, “most of those involved with design”, “an increasing amount of people”, “a growing number of the world population”, perhaps.

Just not “everyone”.

January 7, 2015

On writerbots and machine writing

Machine writing will exist, sooner than we think.

Algorithm-driven writerbots, clumping together predefined phrases (or dissected ones from previous writings) spiced with words that computer-driven testing and big data crunching have found to enhance “catchiness”, headed by titles that extensive testing have proved engaging and “click-worthy”.

(To be honest, current headlining for sites like buzzfeed, huffpost or upworthy already feel created by a bot, almost undiscernible from each other)

June 6, 2014

The distance between phone icons and phones

Recently a friend asked:

“Imagine a phone…. Now tell me why does a phone‬ icon still look like a landline headset?”

I said:

Icons as visual abstractions that refer to a specific concept, come from an old paradigm, that of the mechanical (mail envelope) and electronic (landline phone set) era, where object’s looks and shapes came from their use and function.

Now we’re in the digital paradigm, where objects are impervious to function and don’t need a defined shape or, worse, as pure digital, they don’t even have a shape anymore. So most give images that are more vague and less recognisable that those of their mechanical counterparts.

So symbology has to take from the physical recognisable world, and thus from old shapes derived from old paradigms.

If you think of it, a phone is really no longer a “phone”. “phone” is one of its functions, but my iPhone is more my personal computer (I work and play through it) than my phone (I hate talking on the “phone”).

April 8, 2014

Myspace might unthrone Facebook

I bet you all that in 5 years, give or take, Myspace might unthrone Facebook. Not kidding.

Think about it: teens and tweens are leaving facebook, and they need (could use) a place where to hang out. Myspace is a hangout place about music. music unites people, creates tribes. teens hang out in tribes, not personally but socially. Myspace is the perfect place where to hang out with people “like you”.

I saw it with Fotolog and argentinian flocks of thousands gathering to talk and dance “Electro” online, and then even offline through the connections created in Fotolog. Myspace is perfect for supporting that social behaviour for teens and tweens everywhere.

Teens and tweens (in my experience) tend to be the most forgiving when it comes to uneasy interfaces, so they make great early adopters. They tend not to flock to empty sites, and places where their friends are are much more attractive, but the idea of getting to know new friends is also an enticing for them. Think IMVU with music as an avatar.

I really think there’s room for Myspace, as much as I feel Facebook cannot be the only place, the only online social network place. I feel there’s also plenty of room for other ways of socialising.

My bet is on an era of specified, specialised online social network places, where different people can have different, and several social needs covered more specifically.

Note: I specifically left undefined what “unthroning” means in this context. Let’s for now say that it means for Facebook not to be the only significant online social network service.

September 29, 2012

Unified Conundrum Of Web Design Intention

More and more, I find myself wondering, and lately pondering, about what’s wrong with my job. More and more the feeling points not to the job itself, but at the way it is managed. More and more I find that reassuring, as I know my job, that of a ‘User Experience Designer’, as my work business card says, is, more and more, a necessity within my realm, that of ‘Web Designer’, as my personal business card says.

There’s something that I can still find valid on that User Experience title, and every time it gets closer to what I always felt Architecture was about: creating experiences. (I won’t talk directly about the ‘experience creation’ paradigm validity, as I already explored in a previous article, and I would assume to an extent it is what we web/experience designers, and architects, do).

As anyone that has sat with the dare intention to create a set of rules that try to satisfy a wide possibility for mindsets, the most crucial point is to maintain credibility within the user. Credibility in this case is often conveyed by repeatedly signaling directions in a concise way, for the user to be able to read them as signs, like in motorways and hotels, and be able to decide which paths will stimulate or satisfy their own experience.

In order to create these directions, anyone that is involved in the project needs to be pointing at the same goals, and, moreover, be talking the same language, not amongst each other, but with the user, the persona, the customer, you name it.

Lately I’ve found the biggest potholes in this road to fulfilling a coherent, unified user experience framework to be a lack of agreement from various team members on the project’s main goal.

Our (the company I work at) structure, as many others I’ve seen, is divided into disciplines each tackling a different piece of the project. We have executives, visual designers, media strategists, interaction designers, developers, testers, marketers, account managers, technical producers and project managers.

All of these departments have a different history that trails and defines their approach to the project. Thus, oftentimes, each of these departments have a different personal objective: social media wants people to connect and share value, interaction designers want to make it easy, visual designers want to engage and enjoy, developers want it to work, testers want it to be bulletproof, marketers want it to sell, account managers want it to please the client, and executives want it to stand out and bring more clients towards a company that delivers and satisfies every possible need the best way possible.

After a thorough look, one can realise those agendas don’t necessary collide. A great project might satisfy each and every one of those premises. So then why sometimes (oftentimes) too many do not?

I’m inclined to think there’s lack of an overall vision that unifies them all. Or to put it in geek enough terms, the lack of  “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”<a href=”#quote1″><sup>1</sup></a>.

Oftentimes, what projects lack is an unified, agreed upon main objective. It is here where I see the user experience being brought out and exposed to the user. There has to be a place in the process where a goal, a set of objectives to be met by every proposition have to be defined.

I know by experience in the architectural world, that role is covered by the head architect for the project. This person takes care of the group bringing the project under one solid unified vision (in the best of cases, of course). However, in the architectural world, any head architect is a laureate of architecture that has made his road up through the architectural ladder. I know this head architect is a person that roughly knew how to lay pipes, calculate structure and place standardised windows and doors, define parking lot spaces while deciding column situation, and define how the façade should look like. This person knows the trade enough to assert a continuum of all these disciplines into a unified vision for a project, while being directly advised (and admonished) by a team of experts in each category and industry.

I know by experience that in the nascent conglomerate of what we humbly call web design, all the concurrent disciplines come from different realms and backgrounds, and were circumstantially summoned. Hence the differing agendas.

That explains to me the (scaled) success of small shops and studios in tackling better than anyone else the complexity of the task with a most coherent vision and delivery.

There comes now the point where I’m utterly jaded about this line of thought, as I don’t find myself but in the position to state that what we need is more web designers in an unifying, strategical position. Unfortunately, even by being a fine extrapolation from architecture, it doesn’t seem as the right strategy, as it is retrograde and propelled by hindsight.

If you have an opinion, I’d love to hear it.

<blockquote><a name=”quote1″>1.</a> This quote from <a href=””>The Lord of the Rings</a> is particularly fit as “in the darkness” well exemplifies what user experience design might be about: a shot in the dark at what people will enjoy and use.</blockquote>

October 17, 2010

Designing experiences

Some people (IxD/UX designers) think experiences cannot be designed. Wrong. People experience by navigating flows, and we can define those flows, making them easy(er).

Experience does not equals to perception, though perception informs it. Experience is about doing something (and learning from), which requires a path, which we design, e.g. by creating a scenery path through a forest or canyon, we can optimise flow and goal achievement, thus enhancing the experience.

As gothic cathedrals emphasised a sensation of “smallness”, design can emphasise an intended experience, with a goal in mind. Thus, though experience cannot be determined, perceptions, paths and collection of them, and consequently the creation of a memory for a site (in both meanings as space and web property) can be guided.

If we visit the Sixtine Chapel, in Rome, and we decide to hire a Guide, we’ll end up with much more information, given to us in the proper context, that if we just roam the space by ourselves, depending only on perception and memory to map all the information the space offers. Similarly, we can provide the proper cues, inflections and comments, and even the right turns, in order to inform and enhance comprehension of the vast, complex amount of artwork the chapel offers us.

In web design, there’s also the notion of goal, or what the person intends to achieve, guided by their current desire or need (e.g. “learn about the artwork of Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, and Sandro Botticelli”), and to do, guided by their mental model (e.g. “by visiting the spaces and viewing the real artwork in context I can understand it better”). These goals and processes can be guided and informed by a contextually-aware strategy that maximises contact and absorption of information, thus satisfying the goals better while enhancing the process.

By defining it so, we can thus conclude (I presume) that the experience (the “visit”) has been elevated to a different level, as two persons, one with the guide and another without it, could argue.

Is that what I refer as to “designing the experience”.

September 23, 2010

the (very near) future of online information, part one

we live in an overwhelmingly online world. every new system, service, platform and framework means a new set of data that will be bombarded to us, incessantly.

facebook, twitter,, the new york times online, google buzz, the guardian, venturebeat, techcrunch, the huffington post, chatroulette, tumblrs, the myriad of blogs we follow, foursquare, gowalla, and even im, email, sms, calls, have become open channels of data, and their model is that of throwing as many bits as they can physically produce. no wonder people still decide to keep themselves to the outskirts of the web.

it be stated that when i say people i mean all people from all the corners of the world, not the sleeve of internet-savvy geeks or the information-thirsty folks that don’t have a problem being attached to a monitor for hours, perusing screen words and photos posted by others like them.

the web is an overwhelming world of stuff thrown to our faces, and everyone and their mothers are trying to make a living on creating more, or as they’ll say, better content to be hosed to you, every minute of every hour of the live of the servers that will pump the data blood all around the open arteries of the internet.

i’d risk to say that the huge success of facebook was (and might not be anymore in a short while) that of giving a concentrated, aggregated way of consuming that huge amount of information, but even facebook, can becomean unsurmountable amount of other people’s lives.

even with the success of some services like twitter and foursquare can be calibrated against our incapacity to digest more data: the former making that data so ephemeral and transient it does not transcend but the glimpse of casual browsing on a lost, idle moment for one too many a user; the latter promising a physical encounter in the best of cases, or channeling it through the idea of it related to our movement through cities and spaces, thus describing something less ethereal than just a thought.

if that was not enough, recently facebook announced a scheme where it’ll support the totally indiscriminate sharing of everything online. it has received many critics, and most of them of a very high level of harshness. i personally see it as an eye opener: the one fact that will show us one factor, one side, one missing perspective about the web: we own the internet, but it is not of much depth, and sometimes even use for us, as like a tsunami of diluvian proportions it might, it will wash us away from all we could grasp, get, understand and process, and will substitute it with just more status, more quizzes, more lines of shared articles and photos and rubbish and pics of what i’m eating right now; just more information.

i say there has come the time for one thing i’ve been thinking, envisioning for a while, one thought i’m sure i’m not alone in fostering and hatching, one thought that has to make sense for once and for all: the internet of mediation, or much better: the mediation of the internet.

May 4, 2010

the cigarette, the rabbit story, the experience, the land of opportunity

so i came home, started a movie on netflix called “vodka tonic”, and served me a vodka tonic.

then 45 minutes later, i had the need of a cigarette. i did not have any, so i felt like going out, for one. so i did get out  in search for one. i had to walk 5 blocks since it was past midnight. so i did.

while i was walking towards the convenience store, i thought of convenience. why not, it was a matter of convenience. i thought of the fact that i did not get cigarettes before, and i could have, but i did not feel like. a bad experience.

then i got to the store, got me a nice mozzarella, to go with the convenient vodka i had. and the cigarettes, sure.

on the way back, i thought of a story of a rabbit in a fence that felt alone, and for being alone, without friends, he felt lonely. he decided to have fun by himself. and he did. and suddenly he had some other rabbits jumping outside the fence, asking him to let them in to play. by being alone and playing with himself he attracted all the fellow rabbits, which became friends soon.

the united states are the land of opportunity, sure. but for anyone that has lived here, coming from abroad, and mostly from europe, canada, australia, it is not because opportunity happens. it is because opportunity can happen.

after living in europe, i found myself restrained, constrained, suffocated while being here. recently i discovered it was because my quality of life was inferior to my expectations. how can that be if i was doing the same as before, as when in europe? it happened that when i was in milano, wien, london, i used to do exactly what i do now. it also happened that once out of the door, life would happen to me. any corner hold the fact of a new wonderful experience. no matter what. life in the outside was guaranteed as good, as vivid, as adapted and great.

here in new york city, life is not guaranteed. your pocket is the measure, and your imagination, and search capabilities, the thermometre. life is what you make from it here, in the united states. the land of opportunity is so as long as you make those opportunities happen, every day, every minute, every second. nothing is for granted, and nothing is for free.

i then thought about the whole story, the diatribes i just told you. they made sense on my mind, but once written, it was just pieces, like a giant puzzle in the table, with lovely, colourful pieces around, untied together.

i couldn’t make sense of all those thoughts.

once my father told me the quality of a garment is not only on the fabric, but mostly on the sewing, on the seams. it is the seams that make the garment stand well for years, stand against wind and rain, stand against the weather, what a garment is for.

like garments, stories are not only the pieces we all find in life that by themselves make sense and are beautiful. a story is not the happenings, the diatribes of mundane life, the assessments  of now and then on a busy day, no matter how interesting, incidental and colourful they are. a story builds from the seams sewn together among those pieces, those bits of fantasy and quotidian, the chunks of information, of happenings to come and to go.

a story is not the pieces, but also, and foremost, the way those bits are sewn together, patched into a story that transmits the integrity of it, a perception of life, an idea, a moment, a human condition.

a story is not only what happened, but how it happened, and the difference is in the unions. it might be in the details where god is, but it is in the threads where the story of god comes alive, for us.

January 27, 2010