Thought / People-centred Design

It has been a buzz word for some time. It occurred to me that perhaps it is not that new a buzz word, or even a concept.

It came to me that some actors use to research roles they will play, for example, George Clooney being in a real ER before doing ER, and Leonardo DiCaprio hanging out with policemen before The Departed. Stuff like that.

Suddenly it occurred to me that it can be considered people-centred design. In a way, understanding the end user, tailoring an experience, researching the environment, conveying a realistic scenario, isn’t it all happening there?

They’re selling movies to people and they know how to, because they know what appeals to people. How? Knowing what they like, what they care about. They (the people) are in the centre of this kind of movie industry. So they seem to be quite people-centred.

What’s for us to do?

Thought / Mediated content, part 1

We love social networks. Or we don’t.

There’s something interesting about social networks: they put us in contact with information and resources that are indiscernible for us without peer’s mediation.

Until now (in most of cases) peer mediation has existed as a side-effect, as a collateral. Most of social networks don’t let peers mediate information or resources, just share them.

Side-effect I mean since the fact that finding two peers that share the same information might actually influence (and inform) our vision of those resources and bits of information.

Currently some of us can benefit from mediation, as in “if [friend x] would recommend a film, I’d go and see it, cause he shares my taste”. Just an example.

Now, another (real-life?) example: I love TED talks, but I surely don’t have the time to see them all. Some of my friends (colleagues, mostly) have the same lack of time and the same passion for some of the talks. I get some from friends, some from browsing, some from blogs.

What if one could build a social sub-network for TED conferences? then one would have all one’s friends and colleagues that like the TED talks on one group, and they could post all their favourites, and one could browse their choices. Boring. I might not like the ones they like. Boring.

Why boring? Because it is accumulating data, and I think we have the desire and the need for mediated information. Someone that can make the decision for us on what we might like. Sort of a secretary, an agent (or better an intelligent agent)

Now let’s explore a scenario:

I have my facebook community. I select some people and add them to a channel I just created, the TED channel. I get some videos from TED they promote. I vote on every video I see. Voting goes directly to the person that suggest it, but also to what the video is categorised as, suppose “technology, sustainability”, and also (for the TED voting system), to certain keywords such as “dazzling, informative, mind-changing”. Server software analyses it and gives back an answer. The ranking of the person that published the video I voted gets raised or lowered, the keywords are weighted and added to a scrutinized, hierarchy-driven list, the theme gets promoted/demoted, and so on. At the end I start getting the TED videos I might like.

Where’s the magic? In mixing systems. My friends are my choice, and I’ll keep learning from them (“Chris posts too many psychology videos, not what I like” so Chris gets demoted in “TED importance” by the system) and the rest is the algorythms’ choice (user xxx has seen 12 “technology”, 4 “dazzling”, 9 “funny” videos, this “dazzling, technology funny” video might suit him), and video voting (this “dazzling technology funny” video was not that good, “technology and “funny” are still big, let’s keep them and throw “dazzling” down a notch). In the end I might get better choices.

Facebook already has the API, TED is easy to link and rather interesting, we might as well stop doing little “I hug/puke/bitchslap you” applications.

Is it too complicated? Perhaps. Four years ago we might have said the same to a page ranking system like Google has right now. “We’re not google”. Sure. But we might get there, eventually.

Thought / In the end, it has to work

I have not been around for a while. I’ve been busy organising my move to London. It’s not complicated, but it requires my head to be in the details.

I’ve been also working on some interesting projects. Now I can say it, since when I was given the briefs, they did not look so interesting.

I thought they looked poorly designed. They were, somehow. Not designed from the user’s point of view. To me, that’s a big drawback, as it might cause the failure of the project.

However, I was focusing on one aspect of the whole product that did not work as it might, or as it should.

There are many aspects of a project that have to been taken care of: interface design, system development, production, deployment, information management, business plan, and more. In a small company, it comes down to few people managing most of them. I was lucky enough to be involved in the production side as well. That poorly-designed interface design also came with some interesting production issues. The front-end designer wanted to give the client a catchy, engaging interface, and she did. The client approved. Then it came the time to make it work, and it did not work quite. But it had to work.

I, then, realised ‘it working’ is as important as ‘it being designed well’. Because even ugly, poorly designed, dodgy cars do take people from point A to point B, and that might not makes them great cars, but they’re transport nonetheless.

Thought / best new year’s resolutions

first (and only) runner-up

talking about new year’s resolutions:

n) i decided to write a post a day. but then substance got in the way, and i decided to change it to at least a post a week, and to find more inspiration, or just time to get on paper ideas i have every day and then write them down at night. at least one every week stuck.

n) i decided to create an online service. i have the space, i have the bandwidth, i have some programming skills (rusty but steady) and i have the urge. i don’t have the time, bummer. i just want to see if being able is a major motivator, or if you just need a genuine and utter genial idea to start something everybody’s starting these days. conditions: it has to be simple, it has to be limited to ‘three’ pages per person (whether it is navigation, real estate or just reach), it has to be able to go live two weeks after starting developing it (max. a month). and i hope i won’t do it by myself (so i need a girlfriend-programmer).

n) i decided i wanted to do more stuff. so i wouldn’t take that much care of what i do, i wouldn’t be perfectionist about my results and projects, i just want to do more. i’d care to get away with the minimum indispensable not to be fired, or to ruin my reputation (i think i might have a reputation somewhere). the idea is to do more, period.

n) i want to direct/edit/produce a video. a short video, no matter the subject. i guess i’d act on it. i want to explore other narrative environments, that’s all. to see what’s to tell a story in a different format. to expose myself to art or whatever the outcome is.

n) i decided to write a novel. a short novel. a short story. a poem. something. i won’t keep this one, i know.

n) i decided to travel more, and to make my first trip alone, by myself. i still get the impression i’d get bored, but i won’t: it is my brain honking on its fears.

n) i decided i’ll continue smoking. this is such a bad moment to quit. but then, to feel a little better (in fron tof my family at least) i decided to excercise more. no. to excercise.

n) i decided to get me a new computer. i needed one resolution that i could easily accomplish!

n) i decided i want to start studying a career change. i thought i’d love to become a part-time hairdresser, part-time bookstore clerk. or perhaps an MPhil. or maybe to become my own boss. i’d be glad enough not to become ‘like’ my boss.

n) i decided to do something that helps people. something of a humanitarian level. whatever it is, i just have to do something.

and you?

i’m not numbering the resolutions just in case i decide to add more (or, more probable, to take some out!)

Thought / diatribes on application design

i have a pet project that i started almost a year ago. it is an online php/js gallery powered by the buzzy, hype ajax.

and it has brought me happines loads of times. yesterday it brought me my first (and second) donation: $2 and $18 by the same person. i wanted to jump all day long. i felt someone finally got it besides me, and that really made me joyful.

why?

my gallery is a disastrous mix of php and javascript given that i’m not a programmer, so the code looks so amateur sometimes i get lost in it. disastrous is an understatement. changing one thing can break it all completely, that’s the code’s state.

but it extremely simple to use. it is, believe me. if not now, then once i have all the bugs covered. you just have to upload the php files, throw some images in some folders in the directory, change some settings in a config file (no more than 12) and voilà!, you’re browsing your last trip to Thailand!

your galleries are named after your gallery’s folder name, same as your photos. add a date and a dash to the gallery’s name and they’ll order by date. images open in a preview pane on top of it all (à la Lightbox) with thumbnail navigation. there’s a simple slideshow. define number of pictures by row and number of rows in the settings and images are resized automatically to the right width and height. you can set thumbnails to be squared or to maintain aspect ratio. it all adapts to your likings on-the-fly (including image caching) so you don’t have to do the maths.

you might say all galleries do that and more. yes i know. but i’m a lousy programmer, so i’m proud of my achievements.

but there’s a huge error i made from the start: i expected people to notice how wonderful it was not dealing with settings, and to admire the simplicity of it. and some people has admired it. but the majority just does not. they just see the errors, the bugs, the issues. and they tell me so, complain and even argue. did i tell you i give it for free?

but they’re right. it is not about it being simple enough. people want that *and* for it to work, period. and they’re right. it should work, period.

the main problem is that i’m pointing to a very demanding audience: the non-programmers, the code-unsavvy, the fallen angels of the programming world. they cannot see al the work that gallery takes (imagine dealing with platform-dependent directory encoding both in php, javascript and cross-data communication!).

they want it simple and working.

i know i feel very high for the designers and programmers of projects like JQuery, prototype, php, box.net, cpaint, flickr. i can see the beauty of their programmes and frameworks. i can see all the work and hours they have put into those projects. and i can praise them accordingly. but my users cannot see it in my gallery.

and that is a challenge, cause as designers and programmers it is so easy (and stimulating) to design for other fellow programmers and designers. but it is so astoundingly complicated, difficult, extenuating and demoralising to design for the common folk that does not want to handle code and complex issues and processes.

but those are the lot, those are the masses, and those are the ones that need it the most. other programmers can come up with their own library or framework or methods or APIs. but what about the non-programmers? the grandfathers and grandmothers that could use a computer to video-chat with their grandsons and granddaughters that are 3000 kilometres away? the student that has his mother’s computer jammed cross-state and cannot solve it by simply connecting to it for troubleshooting? what about syncing your contacts online? a simple and robust way for a web-illiterate Marketing Manager or an NGO worker to update the company’s site? (sometimes even i cannot find solutions that are simple on those regards[1]).

that’s a huge marketplace, target and whatever you can call it: it is huge. and someone should address it, cause i see a goldmine there. i mean it. just come up with a simple webmail service and you’d got my father’s money, i guarantee it! he’s 60, a medical doctor and don’t like computers that much but needs email to communicate. and he has good money, and is willing to spend it where programmes are to simplify his life. now multiply that by a big number, a very big one.

a goldmine i say!

fn1. there are very good services that solve some of these situations in an elegant way. but i think there could be more. i take the opportunity to praise projects like Apple .Mac, Fog Creek Copilot, Bosco’s Screen Share, Plaxo, Squarespace and others which are, according to me, pointing towards making informatic lives a lot easier.