Errors

Community of Practice and Knowledge Propagation Circle

This summer my family and I travelled to Rome. While the temperatures didn’t reach the usual astronomic heights, it was rather warm. But we, and other visitors, didn’t have to worry about thirst. Rome has the best network of public drinking fountains that I have ever seen. Every few blocks, there’s a beautifully-designed basin with a spigot of continuously running water (I know, being from California, the never-ending stream made us very uncomfortable, too). There are two bits of information that have to be passed on to the first-time visitors of Rome: the water is potable—safe to drink, and how to use the fountain—there’s a bit of a trick to them. Above is my son demonstrating a little secret interaction. There’s a small hole on the top of the pipe that can serve as drinking fountain if the main hole at the end is plugged up (with a finger). While we learned about the great drinking water in Rome from many traveling guides (books, online sites, etc.), we obviously didn’t know about the trick until we watched a pro do it. Knowledge Propagation Circle Information propagates through communities. When we first encounter a novel bit of data, it tends to…

Lost in Translation: Cultural Differences in Advertising

“Lost in Translation” was a wonderful movie by Sofia Coppola, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. It depicted the delicious confusion of Western tourists in total Japanese cultural emersion. In particular, the scenes where Bill Murray shoots a liquor commercial for the Japanese market are simply priceless. In retrospect, I see where Ms. Coppola got her ideas. Her cousin, Nicholas Cage, have been making wonderfully odd (to our sensibilities) commercials for years. He clearly had stories to share. Here are a few of his gems, courtesy the World Wide Web: and But it’s not only Japan that surprises our/my cultural biases. This morning, my husband and I went to a local grocery store in Rome, Italy. In the cheese section, there was a little paper bottle of parmesan cheese with a mouse of the package. The mouse didn’t work for me at all! So much for cultural differences. Here’s a small collection of ads for McDonalds from all over the world. Please compare it to the packaging and menus for this restaurant chain that I’ve posted here in the past: “Cultural World Domination”. Notice all of the anchoring errors, metaphor mistakes, cultural biases, mirroring errors, and general cognitive and cultural…

Empathy on the Brain

Empathy is a necessary component of product design. To design and make something that is comfortable to use for someone else, requires the maker of the product to imagine how another human being would feel while using it. This is a hard thing to do. Medical students have to take “bed side manners” classes that explicitly teach empathy for the patient. Some design schools do the same (check out this video in Product Design Resources). Fortunately, humans come equipped with a special region in the brain whose job it is to help us see the world from another’s point of view. Here’s a short introduction by Rebecca Saxe, “How we read each other’s minds.” So when we go to the movies, we relate to the characters and feel what they feel, and cry when they are sad, and laugh when they are happy, and cringe when things get awkward, because we have the Right TPJ (or RTPJ) region in our brain just behind and above our right ear. We aren’t born ready to use this part of our brain, as the experiments described by Dr. Saxe in the video show. It takes a long time for this social problem solving…

Entropy & Design

Entropy is the measure of a system’s disorder and it increases with time (as dictated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics). Once the egg is cracked open, it’s impossible to make whole again: “Humpy Dumpy sat on the wall, Humpy Dumpy had a great fall; all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpy Dumpy together again!” We are taught the second law of thermodynamics from a very early age! So what about design? Surly, we steadily progress to a better and finer product, right? Unfortunately, in my experience, the steady progress is rarely the case when dealing with big company, large products, or long time frames. Big, large, and long spell out entropy in design. Let me walk you through it. We Need A New Product! It all starts with a call: “MegaCorp needs a new product!” Well, the words are sometimes different, but it is all the same—there’s change in the air. With luck, this means that various departments of the MegaCorp Inc. scramble to do some market and internal research to come up with some ideas: What does the market need? What resources do we have? What can we develop? (given time, people, budget,…

Knowledge, Context, and Expectation Part II

I first came across this image years ago in our pediatrician’s office. It made everyone who saw it laugh. The young boy—less than a year old, probably—has very limited world experience. But somethings he knows well—food comes out of those! The boy recognized the imagery, but with his limited background knowledge of art and contextual experience, his expectations of milk were quickly dashed (to the complete amusement of his mother). While we enjoy the boy’s predicament, it is good to keep in mind that the products we create can put our users at a disadvantage. The product’s audience can similarly have limited background knowledge, misinterpret the context, and be left with unexpected consequences. And a loving mother might not be there to console them…

Knowledge, Context, & Expectation

These are three necessary components of any product design: Knowledge: the background information that forms the foundation of product design Context: the ecosystem in which the product will be used Expectation: the alignment of goals between product creators and the users for which it was designed A failure to fully understand any of the above variables results in errors that propagate throughout the product system. But what if the product is disaster preparedness? Consider the design of an evacuation plan ahead of a disaster. You would need to understand the what kinds of damage the disaster is capable of wrecking; the probabilities for each outcome; the people and the ecosystem in which the disaster will occur; and expectations of all the participants in the evacuation plans. Tsunami and The Zoo A few years ago, I was teaching a fifth grade science class where we were discussing the possible damage from a tsunami in San Francisco (we just visited the Bay Model). The problem I posed to the students was to design a reasonable evacuation plan for The San Francisco Zoo animals. The Zoo lies on the tsunami flood plane, and as far as we knew there was no plan for…

Cultural Differences or Child Abuse?

Sometimes, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Consider the images below: Is this child being physically tortured? The little girl is the photo is about 5 or so. The temperature of the air around her seems to be about the same: 5 F°. The temperature of the water is below freezing. The child is freaking out and is in serious danger of hyperthermia. So how do we judge the adults in this photo? The winter-coated men dunking the girl into the ice-cold water think they are doing good by this child! This is the right of Epiphany–a religious act meant to help the girl. How do we evaluate the social value of such act from the comfort and warmth of our computer lit rooms? How do you feel about this photo? If you’re not sure yet, follow this link: http://video.mail.ru/mail/mimozachina/2688/2690.html My personal feeling is that if zoo keepers saw this kind of behavior in the primate house, the baby ape would have been taken away due to its mother’s lack of parenting skills. But then again, I’m just imposing my cultural views and norms on someone else…or am I? The Call of Mother Tigers, Mother Grizzlies, Mother Dolphins… There…