Tag Archive for problem solving

2013 Think Tank Presentation on Socio-Technical System Design

I’m about to leave for Washington D.C. for a Think Tank on Citizen Engagement in Biomedical Research. I have only five minutes to talk during the introductory speed geeking event, where all of us get to know about each other and each other’s projects. I’m going there to talk about our lessons learned from designing complex socio-technical systems that required intense participation from their users. I’ve been working on designing such systems for many years now. Some projects were/are very successful, some not so much. I’m not sure I will be able to give a full account of what we’ve learned, so I’m putting up a long(ish) version of my presentation here — if I had 15 minutes, this is what I would say to our very interesting group of participants. I chose these four complex socio-technical systems because all of them were in some measure educational ventures and all required outside users to contribute large amounts of data. I will start with Ushahidi. Ushahidi was born during the 2007 Kenyan election. That election was bloody and the violence, in many cases perpetrated by the government, was not being reported. Ushahidi was a grass-roots effort to tell their countrymen and…

Culture, education, language, and thinking

How we think about problems depends in part of how we are taught to do so. And that education is seeped in our culture and language. Metaphors, mnemonics, analogies, riddles, word choice for explanations are tightly interwoven into our language. Just like it was probably impossible for Romans to invent calculus given their numeral system, it is difficult to think clearly about some problems in some languages. I’ve learned advanced physics and mathematics in English and find it very difficult to express thoughts in those domains in Russian (my native language). But when I first came to New York, I marveled at how poor my cohorts’ geometry proofs were — their presentations took a lot of space and too many steps to achieve what I was taught to do in minimal configuration. I was taught to jump and bound from concept to concept (in geometry), while the students in America were taught to crawl through ideas. I found that maddening! But it was a different math language, and as such it allowed for a different set of affordances… It is difficult to easily show the differences in thought process that language makes in this short blog. But here’s a bit…

Ambiguity of Natural Language and Computer Language Interpretation

Bad Cop Good Cop Language Abmiguity

In his book “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature”, Steven Pinker gave the following defense of language ambiguity: Imagine you are stopped by a traffic cop for a violation. You would rather not get a ticket, and consider offering the cop a bribe. You have options: no bribe and definitely get the ticket; try a bribe and hopefully the cop will accept and let you go free this time. But what if the cop is an honest cop and doesn’t accept bribes? Then you just bought yourself a trip to jail for bribing an officer! That’s the worst possible outcome — a traffic ticket is better than a trip to jail AND a traffic ticket. But what if you just “sort of” offer the officer a bribe? Wave a wad of cash without actually offering it to the officer? A dishonest cop might take you up on the offer and let you go without a ticket. An honest cop could ignore the whole cash waving and write a ticket; or he could ask for clarification: “Are you trying to bribe me?” “On, no, officer. Of course not!” And you are left with a traffic ticket…

Task Analysis and Product Design

Kids from India and Vegetable Choices

Imagine your were given an assignment to develop a product that could help people eat healthy. How would you go about creating such a thing? What would you need to learn/understand? What is the right medium or technology vehicle for such a product? How would you even start? Below is a very brief outline of how to get started and the key tools necessary for the job. Project Goals The first order of business is figuring out the business needs and goals: What is the product really supposed to do? You have to ask this even if you are the one who is the client on this project. But, most probably, you are working for someone else — the client — and you have to start by understanding what your client really wants to do. You can do that in several ways: Analyzing the Request for Proposals: On many such projects, there will be an initial document, something like an RFP, that outlines the business goals and desires of the client. While some RFPs are very detailed and fully fleshed out, most are not. There are many reasons for this. Some clients are worried someone will “steal” their ideas and…

Same Desire, Cultural Shift in Solution

Give cigarettes for christmas

Over time, some desires have stayed constant: an aversion to pain, a wish for health, a longing to be loved, and a craving for wealth, power, and youth. But desires are susceptible to cultural shifts, and so they shift with the whim of fashion: the need to be thin, the hope to fit the norms of current beauty, the yearning for popularity, an aspiration for fame. Each generation comes up with solutions for their desired that are based in the cultural soup that nourished them. What is a cultural soup? Well, it’s a heady mixture of the following: anxiety — each generation has their own issues that they loose sleep over. In addition to the ones that their parents experienced, each generation can choose and pick and invent their own worries. affordances — affordances are available actions that are mired in context and situation. As context changes, affordances evolve. Each generation sees a unique subset of problem solutions. emotional design — each generation is stirred by issues and fashion that are uniquely their own. Emotional design is by definition tied to a particular group of people, be they joined in time, cause, or geography. Social value, user satisfaction, and emotional…

RE: Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving

Article:  Carey, B. (2010). “Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving.” nytimes.com. Visited on October 29th, 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/science/07brain.html Summary:  Puzzles come in a wide variety of formats. They are appealing to people both because of the dopamine rush of arriving at a solution, and also because they shift the brain into an open, playful state. Puzzles are solved in two main ways — either through insight thinking or analytical thinking.  Insight thinking is when an answer comes to a person suddenly, seemingly out of the blue. Analytical thinking involves employing a systematic approach of testing available possibilities. Both types of thinking are typically required to solve challenging problems. The differences between the two approaches have been debated by scientists, but current experiments and brain-imaging studies indicate that they are separate abilities requiring truly different brain states. Test subjects are more likely to solve puzzles using insight thinking when they display brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. This activity is associated with the widening of attention, making the brain more open to distraction and to detecting weaker connections. Positive mood appears to shift the brain towards the state required for insight thinking. In experiments where subjects are shown a humorous video…

RE: Deadline Pressure Distorts Our Sense of Time

Article:  Herbert, W. (2011). “Deadline Pressure Distorts Our Sense of Time.” scientificamerican.com. Visited on October 9th, 2012: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=looming-deadlines Summary:  The perceived difficulty and deadline pressure associated with a task alters our perception of time. In an initial study, subject were presented with a series of tasks of varying difficulty and asked how far away the day of completion felt to them. The tasks that were more complex and work intensive were perceived as being further in the future. To arrive at this result our brains are translating effort into time, assuming that the more difficult tasks must be further away since they will require more work to complete. An opposite effect is encountered when deadlines are associated with the tasks. If subjects are presented with either an easy or difficult task that they must complete by a set date in the future, those with the more complex and effortful task report that the date feels much closer to them than those with the simple task. This effect may sometimes cause us to feel overwhelmed as multiple complex tasks pile up on us, but our skewed perception of time also ensures that we typically complete necessary tasks within the actual amount of time…