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September 13 2013

Progressive reduction, Bret Victor rants, and Elon Musk is Tony Stark

Investigating emerging UI/UX tech in the design space is leading me to many interesting people, projects and innovative experiments. Here’s a brief selection of highlights I’ve come across in my research. Seen something interesting in UI/UX innovation? Please join the discussion in the comments section or reach out to me via email or on Twitter.

Getting users to interact with products in a particular way is hard. On one hand, you have experienced users who are ready for advanced features and interactions, but at the same time, you have new users who might be put off or confused by too much too soon. Think Interactive’s Alison McKenna took a look at a potential solution: Progressive Reduction — what if designers had a one-size-fits-all solution that allowed an interface to adapt to a user’s level of proficiency? She points to Allan Grinshtein’s seminal article, in which he describes how his company, LayerVault, implements Progressive Reduction and defines the concept: “The idea behind Progressive Reduction is simple: Usability is a moving target. A user’s understanding of your application improves over time and your application’s interface should adapt to your user.”

Maybe the solution is to look outside the user altogether. San Francisco designer Mike Long wants designers to stop designing for “users” and design for activities, rather than individuals:

“Activity-Centered Design (ACD) focuses on the activity context in which individuals interact with your product. Instead of analyzing specific goals and tasks, ACD focuses on the analysis of meaningful, goal-directed actions supported by tools and artifacts in a social world.”

Long outlines how companies or teams can create human activity diagrams to identify a product’s activity context.

Perhaps we haven’t properly designed for the individual in the first place. Bret Victor produced a delicious rant on the “Future Interfaces For The Future” and how they lack vision, i.e. screens under glass, what he dubs “Pictures Under Glass.” Victor encourages designers to ditch the handheld devices that ignore our hands and embrace human capability:

“Hands do two things. They are two utterly amazing things, and you rely on them every moment of the day, and most Future Interaction Concepts completely ignore both of them.

“Hands feel things, and hands manipulate things. … We live in a three-dimensional world. Our hands are designed for moving and rotating objects in three dimensions, for picking up objects and placing them over, under, beside, and inside each other. No creature on earth has a dexterity that compares to ours.”

Victor suggests paying attention next time you make a sandwich — how your fingers and hands manipulate ingredients and utensils — and, comparing that to your experience interacting with Pictures Under Glass, asks: “Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?” Go. Read.

On the academic front, there’s some amazing design research being done at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia — from centers and institutes focusing on collaborative design innovation across disciplines to smart technology solutions to complex questions around the future of cities to health and lifestyle innovation to climate change and sustainability. Fair warning: do not enter if you don’t have time to lose yourself.

And some might have suspected this before, but it turns out Elon Musk is a real-life Tony Stark. John Koetsier reports at VentureBeat that Musk’s SpaceX engineers develop rockets “at least partially with Iron Man-style 3D immersive reality visualizations that designers and engineers can interact with in real time with natural hand gestures.” They then 3D print the designed components. This story came to me via Mac Slocum, who has awesome ideas on adapting the technology for finger-swipe editing and custom fist-pump publishing.

Here’s a video of Musk demonstrating the sensor and visualization design technology that’s “going to revolutionize design and manufacturing in the 21st century”:

August 03 2012

They promised us flying cars

We may be living in the future, but it hasn’t entirely worked out how we were promised. I remember the predictions clearly: the 21st century was supposed to be full of self-driving cars, personal communicators, replicators and private space ships.

Except, of course, all that has come true. Google just got the first license to drive their cars entirely autonomously on public highways. Apple came along with the iPhone and changed everything. Three-dimensional printers have come out of the laboratories and into the home. And in a few short years, and from a standing start, Elon Musk and SpaceX has achieved what might otherwise have been thought impossible: late last year, SpaceX launched a spacecraft and returned it to Earth safely. Then they launched another, successfully docked it with the International Space Station, and then again returned it to Earth.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule is grappled and berthed to the Earth-facing port of the International Space Station’s Harmony module at 12:02 p.m. EDT, May 25, 2012. Credit: NASA/SpaceX


Right now there is a generation of high-tech tinkerers breaking the seals on proprietary technology and prototyping new ideas, which is leading to a rapid growth in innovation. The members of this generation, who are building open hardware instead of writing open software, seem to have come out of nowhere. Except, of course, they haven’t. Promised a future they couldn’t have, they’ve started to build it. The only difference between them and Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Steve Jobs is that those guys got to build bigger toys than the rest of us.

The dotcom billionaires are regular geeks just like us. They might be the best of us, or sometimes just the luckiest, but they grew up with the same dreams, and they’ve finally given up waiting for governments to build the future they were promised when they were kids. They’re going to build it for themselves.

The thing that’s driving the Maker movement is the same thing that’s driving bigger shifts, like the next space race. Unlike the old space race, pushed by national pride and the hope that we could run fast enough in place so that we didn’t have to start a nuclear war, this new space race is being driven by personal pride, ambition and childhood dreams.

But there are some who don’t see what’s happening, and they’re about to miss out. Case in point: a lot of big businesses are confused by the open hardware movement. They don’t understand it, don’t think it’s worth their while to make exceptions and cater to it. Even the so-called “smart money” doesn’t seem to get it. I’ve heard moderately successful venture capitalists from the Valley say that they “… don’t do hardware.” Those guys are about to lose their shirts.

Makers are geeks like you and me who have decided to go ahead and build the future themselves because the big corporations and the major governments have so singularly failed to do it for us. Is it any surprise that dotcom billionaires are doing the same? Is it any surprise that the future we build is going to look a lot like the future we were promised and not so much like the future we were heading toward?

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