Failing to See Money Hiding in Plain Sight

October 4, 2010

I’ve discussed ethnography, especially digital ethnography, several times here taking note that, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers. Ethnographers research settings, situations, and actions, with the goal of discovering surprising relationships. The most surprising relationships though are often hiding in plain sight, right under our noses.

I was recently pointed to a video from a link in the Yahoo Group Anthrodesign. The video, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, provides a unique example of insights about people we can glean from designing situations that transgress established sociocultural practices. I actually watched it three times, and not because Time listed it in the top five viral videos of the week…kind of like people (at least some people) did when the moonwalking bear video came out. Rather, my interest in it was how the mere observation of the actions taken by pedestrians leads us to experience surprise. More on this below. For now, let’s consider the video itself.

After sticking labels on 100 one dollar bills, with a unique message written on each, and clipping those dollar bills to individual leaves on a tree, Ben, Brian, and Amy video recorded how people respond to money hanging on a tree as they walk by it on a street.  The narrator, Amy,  indicates no crowds showed up to grab all the money they could get, though a few did take more than one dollar at a time. Most people who took money, a minority, pulled a couple of dollars, or one, and moved on.

(UPDATE: You will need to click on the Watch on YouTube link to see the video. Some proprietary thing I’m sure) ;-)

Amy offers two lessons learned from the Money Tree:

  1. That people routinely walk by a “tree filled with free money” without even noticing
  2. That people can look at a tree filled with money and not even see it

The Money Tree offers an example of what social psychology, but especially ethnomethodology, refers to as a breaching experiment. Breaching experiments typically involve a researcher breaking a rule about everyday life and then analyzing other people’s response. The Money Tree exemplifies a situation designed to break a tacit understanding about money and sidewalks.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees”, is a phrase most people in Chicago (the location of the Money Tree) probably know. We don’t routinely see money hanging from a tree along a sidewalk. It is certainly more common, as the bicyclist’s experience in the video shows, to see money on a sidewalk. And, I’d wager, most of us just think someone lost it. In other words, merely by setting up the situation to violate the pedestrians’ tacit knowledge of what walking down a sidewalk entails, the videographers show us something about people.

At the same time that the video offers us a surprising experience, it sure would be interesting to know what people who failed to take money were thinking. Anyone else find this interesting?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Video Analysis for Experience Design: The Video Card Family Game

July 12, 2010

From "A Journey Round My Skull's" photostream on Flickr

 Digital ethnography is an increasingly feasible research technique as smartphones decrease in cost and more people carry them around. The photographic capability of smartphones is an important resource in making digital research ubiquitous, giving people the ability to capture images and record observations as they go about their everyday lives, and characterize those observations for ethnographers. 

Of course, taking photographs and sharing them online as part of a diary or journal for ethnographic research predates smartphones. Smartphones simply increase the likelihood that an everyday experience is recorded as a representation of the moment in which it occurs. Nevertheless, the video recording capabilities of smartphones afford collaborators an opportunity for representing experience in a manner previously unavailable to ethnographic research. 

I’ll discuss the range of implications for ethnography posed by the ubiquitous access to video recording capabilities by ordinary people in another post in the near future. For now, my discussion focuses on how to use video in ethnographic research to inform product/service design. 

Video of people using products or services is one of the most challenging data resources used in ethnographic research. Playing and replaying video segments for review is time-consuming and, depending on the number of people involved and the type of activity recorded, difficult to distil into agreed-upon insights. 

I recently read several chapters from Sarah Pink’s Visual Interventions: Applied Visual Anthropology, thoroughly enjoying all of them. One chapter in particular though, Video Ethnography Under Industrial Constraints, by Werner Sperschneider, really caught my attention. Werner spells out a technique (the Video Card Game) for analyzing video in design research that I remembered reading about several years ago but, at the time, didn’t really give a lot of thought to.   

The Video Card Game draws from the “Happy Families” childrens’ card game, a game in which players collect families of four cards as they ask one another in turn for cards of a particular archetype. The goal of “Happy Families” is to collect a family of four cards, forming a stack. Collecting the most stacks makes you the winner.  

Werner provides an overview of how researchers in user-centered design at the Danish industrial manufacturer, Danfoss A/S, initially created the Video Card Game as a method for combining ethnographic and visual research methods using video. Design researchers, Margot Brereton, Jared Donovan, Stephen Viller, at the University of Queensland, as well as Jacob Buur and Astrid Soendergaard, of  the University of Southern Denmark, and the University of Aarhus, respectively, also provide case studies of its use. 

Family Resemblance and the Video Card Game

The Video Card Game’s design provides a collaborative space of interaction for researchers, designers, and design collaborators to co-create insights for product and service design, using video as a primary source of insight. The rendition of the game offered here refers to it as the Video Card Family Game for the explicit purpose of making it clear that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance is a key criteria in the gaming process for deciding to which themes a video card belongs. Using the concept of family resemblance to analyze video enables design researchers to organize, prune, and interpret actions taken in their research with collaborators in the field, providing actionable ideation outcomes.  

When playing the Video Card Family Game the key is remembering that, even though the cards give the video a tangible mode of expression, the images remain on relatively small cards, whether on the surface of a table or attached to a poster on the wall. One can imagine an interactive wall display like Microsoft’s Surface that minimizes the legibility problem. Short of such a solution however it is important to keep in mind the spatial limitations imposed by rendering video representations of action onto tangible video cards arranged on tables or walls. 

Keep reading if you are curious about how the Video Card Family Game is played in the context of video analysis for design research. 

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Experience Design and the Intelligibility of Interfaces

February 16, 2010

Created by Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze

As I noted in a post on Peter Morville’s Findability several years ago,

“Interfaces are not what they used to be. The computer-human interface is both more and less than it was a few years ago. Interfaces are not only, or even primarily, a screen anymore. Yet, screens remain important to most design efforts, even though interfaces are increasingly part of the environment itself. As John Thackara and Malcolm McCullough both recently pointed out, entire cities are developing into user interfaces as ubiquitous computing environments expand.”

Caleb, over at MobileBehavior, recently observed that mobile phones do not yet provide users with a graphic language for touch interactions. Caleb’s post points to an early visualization of a standard graphic language offered by Timo Arnall of the Touch project, which researches near field communication. Caleb makes his point by talking about the confusion that consumers experience when faced with a visual tag (v-Tag), or 2D Barcode, and does so with the following Weather Channel forecast that offers viewers an opportunity to interact with a visual tag using their mobile phones (wait until about 45 seconds into the video). The forecast fails to indicate to viewers what the v-tag does. 

The user experience team that developed the v-tag for that particular forecast must have assumed viewers would know it represented an invitation to interact. A search on the Weather Channel website fails to return any information on the use of v-tags in their media programming though.

In a previous discussion of Dan Saffer’s book, Designing Gestural Interfaces, I made a similar point about mundane gestural interfaces in public bathrooms, a setting with fairly established graphic language conventions. Yet, even such mundane gestural interfaces can pose difficulty for users. As I noted,

I remember the first time, a few years ago, when I tried to get water flowing through a faucet in a public restroom that used sensor detection. Initially, it was not obvious to me how the faucet worked, and I suspect others continue to experience the same problem based on the photo I took during a recent visit to a physician’s office.

gesture_water

Among other observations, it is important here to note that these examples provide clear instruction for why experience design encompasses user experience. Specifically, people only experience a user interaction if the interactive capability of an artifact is intelligible, if they recognize the artifact as an instance of that kind of thing, i.e. an invitation to interact with media or machinery. Who knows how many people noticed the Adidas logo embedded in a v-Tag on their running shorts, or shoes, and failed to see it as an invitation to a user experience?

People can’t use an interface if it is not recognizable as such or, as the Palcom team coined it, palpable to their use. Otherwise, the invitation to experience, what Dan Saffer calls the attraction affordance, fails. Consider the more telling example of the symbol at the top of this post. It represents an RFID signal environment for devices using the Near Field Communication (NFC) standard. Indeed, Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze’s recent work for the Touch project demonstrates the spatial qualities of an RFID device’s signal, the shape of its readable volume.

Dan Saffer, in Designing Gestural Interfaces, touches on the fact that we are currently missing common symbols for indicating when an interactive system “is present in a space when it would otherwise be invisible,” or when we just wouldn’t recognize it as such. Adam Greenfield’s Everyware made a similar point a half decade ago.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Ethnography and Ubiquitous Digital Research

February 4, 2010

Ethnographers are traditionally known for immersing themselves in the everyday lives of people and paying attention to the details and context of their activity. Anthropologists after Malinowski considered extended participant observation in the lives of the people they studied a prerequisite for analyzing culture. However, in the last few decades of the twentieth-century ethnographers began to consider their analysis increasingly as a challenge of interpreting cultural phenomena rather than explaining their variation.

With the increasing availability of the Web, researchers using computer-mediated communication, i.e. digital, devices in their projects label their work under a range of categories. I’ve discussed ethnography several times before, the first taking note of the trend toward virtual anthropology and the next talking about the significance of Tom Boellstorff’s ethnography of Second Life, followed by a couple of posts about ethnography’s relationship to empathy and globalization.

In 2003, Cheskin’s Davis Masten and Tim Plowman characterized digital ethnography as the next wave in understanding the consumer experience in Design Management Journal. To my way of thinking they were correct in asserting that, “Digital Ethno enables participants to convey the real-time richness of their own lives and environments.”

Along with any new wave in understanding people’s experience comes a range of neologisms intended to clarify the multiplicity of research options that emerge. Kozinets recently suggested that the use of ethnography in computer-mediated research activities is best described as Netnography, a neologism he dates from 1996. He argues for the use of the term, netnography, in the following way:

Netgography differs from other qualitative Internet research techniques in that it offers, under the rubric of a single term, a rigorous set of guidelines for the conduct of computer-mediated ethnography and also, importantly, its integration with other forms of cultural research (p. 15)

However, as Kozinets suggests, the 2008 survey of Intenet users done by the Annenburg Digital Futures Project found that 56% of the members of online community members meet other members of their online community face-to-face. And, as Kozinets further notes, the Annenburg research did not include social networking sites, making the figures conservative ones since, as Brian Solis recently noted, social networking combined with geo-location and augmented reality applications is bridging the online and offline interaction. Kozinets insists that this simply means research must blend ethnography and netnography to study the intermix of online and offline activity.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think Kozinets thinking on the relation between netnography and ethnography fails to persuade. Suffice it to say that, to my mind, as Web 2.0 increasingly permeates peoples’ everyday lives, the term netnography fails to sufficiently describe the way ethnography works in a consumer environment where digital devices are  ubiquitous.

As people increasingly access the Web and engage online communities on the go, the notion that this is happening on the net seems quaint. If any term is needed other than ethnography, I’d suggest digital ethnography remains the most fitting. When we consider mobility as part of a ubiquitous computing environment, defining the relationship between space and place increasingly requires analyzing social practices rather than simply distinguishing a time and location for an activity.

As Johanna Brewer and Paul Dourish observe, “space is not simply an ‘inert container’ for the places of everyday experience; rather, space itself is the outcome of particular ways of reasoning about and representing the world.” Brewer and Dourish note, for example, that research on mobile messaging used to coordinate meet-ups or other rendezvous allow for people to show-up using a proxy form of participation before they get to the physical meeting. Additionally, the recent research by Hope Jensen Schau, Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Eric J. Arnould, How Brand Community Practices Create Value from the Journal of Marketing explicitly approaches brand communities using a range of qualitative techniques, including netnographic, to study participants across several years both online and off.

My inclination regarding ethnographic methods is to endorse the point of view offered in Sunderland and Denny’s Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. They note,

…ethnography is not a method per se, but rather a collection of methods…In commercial consumer research circles, one sometimes hears various rules, on the order “it is only ethnography if there is observation,” or “video,” or “multiple meetings,” or “sufficient time,”…or…(filled in with any number of favorite and idiosyncratic rules. But what seems most accurate about ethnography as a companion mode of discovery in cultural analysis is that as a methodology it must be viewed through, and seen as permeated with, the sociocultural. (p. 50, my emphasis)

In other words, the specifics of the methodology matter less than its purposive application. Following Geertz, Sunderland and Denny contend, the methodologies employed, whether participant observation, focus groups, in-depth interviews, diaries (online or offline), village censuses, surveys, or maps, “are not ‘ethnographic’ per se, but…are made so by the intellectual framing of the task” (p.52).

The purpose of ethnographic research is as important as the methods used, as long as the sociocultural context remains in focus. For example, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers.

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Future Home Interfaces: Beautiful Seams for Everyday Life

February 25, 2009

An earlier post, Metaphorical Refrigerators, Design, and Ubiquitous Computing, pointed to the need to go beyond the desktop metaphor in thinking about he design of interfaces in the connected home.  The video below offers a clear example of the direction such a transformation in thinking about interfaces must take. It starts off slow, so give it some time to see the point. I particularly like the implicit control that the user retains over most of the interactions, though the zany, intelligent agent is a little far-fetched.

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Posted by Larry R. Irons


CABA’s Connected Home User Interface Project

November 14, 2008

cabaI received an email alert from the Contintental Automated Building Association’s (CABA) Connected Home Research Council indicating it is initiating a new project on the Connected Home User Interface. Our last post discussed these issues in the relation to Whirlpool’s CentralPark Connection and questioned designs that depend on a single user interface to “intelligent” appliances and, by implication, homes. CABA’s Connected Home Research Council’s research agenda on the Connected Home User Interface characterizes the issues in the following manner.

The evolution of the digital home lifestyle has been, in part, created by consumer demands that are driving tremendous industry change and opportunity. The connected home offers various promises to simplify interaction and engagement of consumers with family, entertainment, career and home system solutions

Two of the open questions that have yet to be answered is (1): How do product developers and managed solution/service providers best aggregate data into potentially, one single user interface that is both intuitive and adds value to the holistic connected home? And (2): How does the user interface solution support the delivery of the digital lifestyle promise?

CABA’s Connected Home Research Council (CH-RC) is sponsoring a consumer research study that will define the specific attributes or baseline criteria of a ‘connected home user interface’ for consumers when managing the connected home.

Current Steering Committee members seek answers to some of the following questions:

  • What type of information and/or control do consumers really want (passive versus interactive data)?
  • What type of access, convergence of services and data set to home service content is desired?
  • How can the whole home solution enhance the digital lifestyle?

What do you think about the questions posed by the Connected Home User Interface project?

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Metaphorical Refrigerators, Design, and Ubiquitous Computing

November 11, 2008
centralpark_frig

Whirlpool CentralPark Connection

I’ve been meaning to write about Dan Saffer’s Masters Thesis since reading it a couple of years ago. A recent post by Mike Kuniavsky provides an opportunity to do so. Also, it appears that Dan left his position at Adaptive Path to found Kicker Studio, a product design company. In The Role of Metaphor in Interaction Design, Dan noted that metaphors help users/customers understand new products and services by providing cues that orient and personify the experience of the familiar with the new.

In other words, metaphors help us understand one thing in terms of another by highlighting similarities between the two, while at the same time implicitly recognizing differences. Dan also added that metaphors introduced to facilitate adoption of a new product can also limit its innovation in other ways. He specifically pointed to the Workspace is a Desktop metaphor, which conceptualizes the computer as an office tool primarily. I would add that the metaphor contributed to the myth of the paperless office by obscuring the differences between desktops and graphical user interfaces. Specifically, Dan contended that,

it could be argued that the desktop metaphor has hindered the development of ubiquitous computing as much as some hardware factors (p.22).

At the same time, he observed that the desktop metaphor was much more effective in gaining the widespread adoption of computers when compared to the previous metaphor, i.e. computers as programming environments. He recommended that whenever designers use a metaphor in a new product they need to begin with what is new, the subject of the metaphor, rather than what the metaphor refers to. In other words, don’t force functionality into a metaphor. Use the metaphor to support a concept rather than the other way around. The point builds on the design principle of Cooper, Reiman, and Cronin in About Face 3.0 to, “Never bend your interface to fit a metaphor” (p. 279).

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Web 2.0, Digital Signage, and Ubiquitous Computing

October 20, 2008

The image on the left was used by Paul Dunay over at Marketing 2.0 in a recent post on digital signage. Paul notes that a recent Razorfish survey ranked digital signage (32 percent) as only second to mobile (51 percent) in importance as an emerging media channel. He also takes note of examples of new media channels that combine the two, mobile and digital signage.

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Call them Visual Tags (v-Tags), not 2D Barcodes

August 13, 2008

A vTag for Skilful Minds generated with Google Chart API

For those who think discussions of semantic value and meaning are pointless, with no relationship to technology adoption, you may want to skip this post. 

We first discussed visual tags in 2006. Many people today refer to them as 2d barcodes. However, a crucial difference exists between what things are like and what they in fact are. Calling visual tags (v-Tags) 2d barcodes is like calling YouTube a video database, Flickr a photo database, or Del.icio.us a favorites list.  Literally, the description is accurate. Functionally, it is meaningless. Read the rest of this entry »


A function, a seam, or a point of control?

January 9, 2007

I know, I know, you are probably saying “Can’t he talk about anything but seamful and seamless design?” Well, I’ll get off that topic soon. Yet, in the meantime, here are a couple of examples of how a seamless interface to the user of a device is a seam for control by someone else. One basic point of those arguing for seamful design is that the user of the device, rather than the developer, is the agent whose control over the device needs maximizing by designers. Those who contend the goal of a seamless interface is a well-intentioned effort to relieve those using ubiquitous mobile devices from information overload often fail to mention up front that all connected devices provide seams of control. You might say that proponents of seamful design are the Libertarians of experience design, contending that control over the agency of any device belongs with the person who uses it, especially if they own it. Read the rest of this entry »


Everyware, Findability, and AI (Part 3)

January 7, 2007

As Part 2 in this series indicated, my interest in ubiquitous computing started with the sort of issues raised by Lucy Suchman’s initial research on artificial intelligence applications, specifically expert systems. I’ve been waiting to read Lucy’s second edition of Plans and Situated Actions, titled Human-Machine Reconfigurations before finishing this series of entries. It is an interesting read, and I think several themes introduced by Suchman’s most recent work nicely highlight the contributions in Adam Greenfield’s Everyware.

Everyware offers a number of interesting and provocative insights into the phenomena of ubiquitous computing. The most sensible, and provocative, insight offered by Greenfield relates to whether the design of ubiquitous computing needs to aim for seamless interaction with people using connected devices, or whether a rigorous focus is needed on how to make seamful interaction the guiding design practice. Read the rest of this entry »


Everyware, Findability, and AI (Part 2)

January 3, 2007

Part 1 promised that Part 2 would discuss Greenfield’s Everyware. However, before we get to that discussion, a few considerations on Moreville’s Ambient Findability are needed. The discussion of Moreville’s book will make clear the contributions offered in Everyware.

Greenfield and Moreville express skepticism about the ability of artificial intelligence to solve basic problems related to ambient findability and Everyware, what Greenfield terms ambient informatics. As more and more ordinary devices are available for people to engage as they go about routine activities, the sheer challenge of finding the right device among those available to support an activity promises to develop into a significant hurdle. Both authors recognize the challenge. Yet, Greenfield and Moreville both fail to discuss straightforwardly the challenges faced by attempts to manage relationships between connected devices. Read the rest of this entry »


Tangible Information Exchange

September 29, 2006

Yanko Design  just showcased an intriguing design for a futuristic ring that exchanges information.

This product is designed to exchange basic information with new people in the first meeting by shaking hands….When people first meet and shake hands, the rings on the fingers get close enough to operate. The rings exchange their users information and stores them while they are shaking hands. So, the more people they meet, the more information they have. When the users browse through the people they meet, the card displays their basic information that was stored in the ring. The power source is provided from human temperature, so it doesn’t need any plug.

Treat yourself and go on over to look at the full-size images in Hideaki Matsui’s design.

It is worth the trip!


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