Scaffolding

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, & 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…

Information Scaffolding

Here’s another way of thinking about crisis mapping as an ecosystem or a cell with a membrane allowing certain information to enter while keeping other out. Some data has data “receptors” in the organization and thus “gets in”. But some information doesn’t and some just doesn’t have the right format: wrong language, incomplete information, time delay, low quality, etc. Please let me know your thoughts on the communicative value of this illustration. Thank you! And here’s how Ushahidi can help.

Remarkable Design

How does one design a remarkable product? “Well, it depends on a product,” some would say. But couldn’t we say something general? Why do we feel passionate about some products but not others? Consider conversations: some are fun, some are boring; some engage lots of people, some not so much; some result is heated exchanges, some are more neutral. Note that you can be very passionate about a topic, but don’t consider it fun: rape, genocide. Politics engages lots of people, but the details leave most bored. Some conversations generate sustained interest, and some fizzle out without a remark. What’s required for a conversation to be remarkable? That depends on the audience. To be engaged in a discussion, you have to find the topic interesting to you. And what’s interesting to you, might not be to me. Thus the topic of conversation is a variable of the targeted audience. Even if you find the topic amusing, you might not have the time to participate in the conversation. “I would love to talk to you about quantum space time, but the plane leaves in 5 minutes.” And it is so noisy on the plane that you can only hear every other…

Toilet Games

If you have small children…boys, you are undoubtably familiar with things like: “My Wee Friend”; “Piddlers Toilet Targets for Potty Training”; “Potty Training Targets – Look like real targets!”; “Tinkle Targets for Boys”; “Wee Wee Pals”; or “On Target Infant Toilet Training Balls” from Amazon. Problem: boys have to learn to aim; boys attention span is shorter than the time it takes to empty their bladder; Solution: make going to the bathroom fun; design an activity that extends the attention and improves aim; The conceptual design is pretty straightforward: align the goals of the parents (teaching bathroom skills) with the goals of a toddler (have fun) to improve the toilet experience for all concern–basic goal alignment! Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t seem to go away as these boys grow up. Product design to the rescue! The Urinal Lips design uses the same product design strategy: make aiming fun! What sign on the walls of the bar’s men’s room couldn’t achieve, a playful design did–these men’s room stay clean. One Step Farther… While attention controls might lag during a long bathroom break, video games seem to have a tighter control over attention. So welcome to the future of urinals: These are the…

TSA: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There has been a lot of stories lately about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and most have been less than flattering (to say the least). How can an agency that was designed to “serve and protect” the citizens of the United States from harm evoke such wrath from ordinarily shy and non-vocal travelers? This blog is about product design, and so my analysis of the situation will treat this as a failure of product design. Where are the failures? Mistake #1 TSA Conceptual Design: Blocking There are bad guys out there that want to do us—citizen travelers from US—harm. There are the box-cutter carrying terrorists, the shoe-bombers, the liquid explosives bandits, the underwear-bombers, the printer cartridge explosives engineers. TSA installed airport security measures that would counteract each of these threats as they revealed themselves. The basic conceptual design strategy here is blocking: identify a threat and find an effective block. This is a strategy based on hindsight: if we knew that people could sneak bombs in their underwear, then we would have had a way to block it. We didn’t know, but now we do, and so we created systems to block this threat in the future. TSA Game Plan: Escalating…

Cheating by Design

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions. This year, the Metropolitan Transpiration Commission introduced the new Clipper Smart Card. Public transit riders all over the Bay Area can now use a convent piece of plastic to pay for their BART trains, buses, MUNIs, etc. Just swipe the Clipper Card past one of the little readers, and the gates open to let you in and out of the station or pay for the bus. The cards could be purchased in stores and vending machines all over the area—$2 cards are the minimum value cards. More money can be easily added to these cards at all BART train stations. The designers of Clipper Card envisioned happy riders and happy transpiration authority. “We’ll make it easy,” the designers said. “Easy to use, easy to fill up. And if the passengers accidently run out of money on their cards, we’ll allow them some small negative balance so they can leave the train station and pay for their rides later.” In the Bay Area, the cost of public transportation is pretty high and it’s highly dependent on how far you want to go: travel from City Hall to Airport, pay $8.10 for a…