Information Design Watch

January 25, 2007, 12:54 pm

What is in a Name? The New Apple

By Lisa Agustin

Apple logoOn January 9, Apple launched its latest must-have, the iPhone, along with Apple TV, a device for delivering video content downloaded from Apple’s iTunes service to consumers’ television sets. The same day, the company announced a name change from Apple Computer to Apple, signalling a strategic shift that focuses less on personal computers and more on consumer electronics.

The latest issue of Knowledge@Wharton considers the question of whether Apple’s new strategy will succeed, and how well it will do when competing alongside Samsung, Sony, and Microsoft in the quest to dominate the digital living room. Apple’s talent for design will most certainly be a plus in this regard — not only in terms of the cool-looking hardware it’s known for, but also its ability to make technology user-friendly:

Apple’s design skills go beyond new gadgets to encompass softare design. One of Apple’s real design feats was making it easy for consumers to buy music legally wtihout excessive digital rights managment [DRM] software.  [According to Wharton professor Eric Clemons:] “Apple’s iPod and iTunes store are quite tightly coordinated to make theft of content of illicit transfer of content cumbersome.  It’s surprisingly easy for consumers to forget why there are restrictions and where the restrictions came from.”

Ironically, this “tight coordination” may also be a stumbling block for Apple:

…Consumers could eventually chafe at Apple’s attempts to vertically integrate is products–and thereby lock customers in– instead of working with other devices. Vertical integration refers to efforts to own multiple parts of a product chain. For instance, Apple operates its iTunes music sales channel, controls the [DRM] software and sells the devices to play content…It’s unclear whether this vertical strategy will ultimately win out with consumers, who may demand support for multiple standards.

While digital convergence has yet to be achieved, from a consumer’s perspective it will be interesting to see the range of products that are sure to emerge while the battle to rule the digital living room wages on.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Design

January 23, 2007, 9:04 pm

The Future of Gesture UIs

By Lisa Agustin

Without fail, the start of the new year gets people thinking about What Will Be Big This Year.  The latest issue of Digital Web Magazine features an interview with Doug Bowman, a Visual Design Lead with Google, in which DWM asked which apps from 2006 are most significant and what that means for 2007.  Aside from the expected endorsements of Google’s Calendar and Spreadsheets, Bowman had some interesting comments touching upon the themes of selective content sharing (e.g., Six Apart’s Vox) and more consolidation (e.g., Yahoo! Mail).

But what piqued my interest the most were Bowman’s comments regarding “gesture user interfaces,” or UIs that are driven by physical movements of the user.  This is not a new thing, of course–dragging and dropping is something that most users accept (maybe even expect) with the latest applications. But recent offerings like the Nintendo Wii and the Reactrix interactive advertising display are giving us glimpses into what user experience may hold for the future. (Okay, so maybe the holographic screen in that Tom Cruise movie wasn’t completely off the mark?)  What I find most interesting about gesture UIs is not so much what the final user experience will be for gesture-driven apps, but how would you architect and then document the desired experience?  What kinds of description languages will need to be developed to describe the experience programmatically? What kinds of new user input paradigms will emerge moving forward? Stay tuned.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Design, Implementation, Technology, User Experience

January 23, 2007, 6:29 pm

Politically Convenient Misunderstanding

By Mac McBurney

Aircraft noise in your neighborhood could increase by almost 1000 percent! Are you scared yet?

Before: decibels. After: sones.Call it the politics of ear.

Late last year, a map of suburban Philadelphia — using data from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — became a hot topic among citizens and candidates for local office. The map estimates how “noise levels” would change if the FAA approves new flight patterns in the area. Zip Code areas are color-coded on a scale from negative 56% to 925% increase. Not surprisingly, citizens were concerned and politicians made much of the dramatic statistic. What does 925% more noise sound like? Perish the thought!

No one questions the underlying FAA data change in decibels. The issue here is not accuracy, but validity. It turns out that the decibel is not a valid measure of the sensation you or I would call noise. Noisiness is mostly in your head, as much a function of perception as physics.

The student newspaper at Swarthmore College makes the confusion clear:

While the decibel is used to measure the relative difference in power or intensity, the sone is the unit of loudness as perceived by a person with normal hearing. Some people who examined the maps provided by the Delaware County Planning Department erroneously interpreted the projected increase in decibels as equivalent to a linear increase in noise level.

A Swarthmore engineering professor brought the misinterpretation to light a few weeks before election day, but the sensational misinterpretation had already spread far and wide. Plus, “1000 percent” just sounds so much more electable than, well, the truth. When did the map makers finally correct the error? Two days after the county election.

Local parent and partisan Daddy Democrat gives it the sniff test:

Given that [candidate] Tom Gannon had essentially staked his entire re-election bid on his stance on the FAA…he needed that data to be overwhelmingly bad. Rep. Gannon continued to claim that the potential noise increase would be upwards of 1000% — even in the final days before the election. Even though the error had been pointed out weeks before. It just doesn’t get people worked up into sufficient lather if you say that there might be 10-90% increases in noise levels. 90% is not 1000%, even though it may be damned loud.

I don’t want more planes flying over my head. And I expect my representatives to protect our local interests to the fullest extent possible. But I also don’t like flouting the truth about data.

Check out the revised maps on the Delaware County site. If the decibels and sones maps don’t quench your thirst for confusing information design, don’t miss the one called “Percentage Increase/Decrease in Population Already Highly Annoyed by Aircraft Noise.”

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

January 19, 2007, 2:18 pm

The Swiss Army PC Toolbox

By Henry Woodbury

Swiss Army CybertoolIf you’re not sure when or where you might need to service a computer, this may be the tool you need. It features “bit wrenches, hex sockets, torx, hex, and pozidrive bits, screwdrivers, pen, pliers, wire tools, and more”. The corkscrew is for hard drive failure.

In a related vein, Victorinix also sells a knife with a fold-out 1GB memory stick.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Technology

January 8, 2007, 11:07 am

The Secret Weapon of Product Designers

By Lisa Agustin

This month’s issue of Fast Company offers a peek into the DesignAid kit, a collection of twenty inventions with “unexpected properties,” such as impact-absorbing silicon (useful for building a sturdier car bumper) or sound-recording paper (consider a talking postcard).  Created by Inventables, the kit changes quarterly and offers product designers a peek at some unusual technologies along with suggestions for various applications. Kit recipients can decide whether any of the offerings might be somehow integrated into their own products, or just use the kit as a source of inspiration for innovative thinking.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Design, Technology

January 8, 2007, 10:03 am

Inventing Kindergarten

By Lisa Agustin

Paperweave

As a parent researching kindergarten options, most of the prospective schools offer what you’d expect, a combination of play activities and exploration of some “real school” (e.g., reading, writing, and math). So it was with some personal interest that I visited the Institute for Figuring’s “Inventing Kindergarten,” a look at the original incarnation of kindergarten, as developed by German scientist Friedrich Froebel in the early 19th century. The exhibition outlines the underlying principles of Froebel’s approach, which was “based around a system of abstract exercises that aimed to instill in young children an understanding of the mathematically generated logic underlying the ebb and flow of creation.”

Along with physical activities such as singing, dancing, and gardening, Froebel developed a series of mental exercises that revolved around twenty “occupational gifts,” or what might be considered educational toys today. Cutting and folding paper, weaving sticks, and sewing thread into cards were intended to teach the creation of forms in the real world.

Instructional tools for Froebel’s kindergarten included various pattern books, which are remarkable not only for their intricacy and beauty, but also as they are clearly recognizable as predecessors to design systems we take for granted in today’s digital world.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Design

January 3, 2007, 4:23 pm

Paper Cuts and System Interfaces

By Chris Jackson

Visual and performance artist Peter Calleson explores multiple layers of meaning in his papercut works to explore the complexities between 2D and 3D presentation. I’m drawn to the beauty and cleverness of the works, but I’m most intrigued by how these works exist between two opposites or, as Callesen puts it, between “image and reality.”

Peter Callesen's _Angel_ 2006 Detail from Peter Callesen's _Angel_ 2006

I can’t look at Callesen’s papercut works and not think about the intersection between systems and interfaces, how what’s beneath the surface influences what’s above (and vice versa). If you look at one side only, you miss the complexity of the whole. And that’s one of the great challenges in system design.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Design, Information Design, Web Interface Design