What you’ll like for dinner

Or: How persuasive design saved my lunch

While I was on route to Amsterdam for IXDA14, something struck me about the way the dinner options were presented to passengers. Here’s what was happening. The flight attendant delivered the menu in the same way to each row:

“Would you like barbeque chicken, beef strip, or vegetarian?”

I’ve been a vegetarian for twenty years now, and I’m a little sensitive to these moments. At first, my identity hackles were raised. “Hey!” I thought, “Why wouldn’t it be ‘Chicken, beef, and spicy red-beans-and-rice?’ We eat food, not a category of food! Those options should be presented as equals because we’re equals…Blah blah blah…ramble ramble…”

Fortunately, as is my habit, I caught myself mid rant, and tried to consider what was good about it. And sure enough, on reflection it’s the exact right way to present these options. Cooper’s been paying more attention to persuasive design of late, so let me explain, because that’s exactly what’s going on. The flight attendants are using choice architecture to keep vegetarians fed.

You see, one of the problems that vegetarians encounter when eating buffet-style with omnivores is that when there is a veggie option present, if it’s too good, there’s a risk that the omnivores will eat all the veggie stuff before we get to the front of the line, leaving us poor suckers with empty plates and sad-trombone bellies.

If the attendant presented “chicken, beef, and spicy red-beans-and-rice,” that’s exactly what’s at risk. An omnivore hearing that might think, “Hey, I’m a huge fan of spicy red beans and rice! Cajun spice is awesome. Bam! Let’s kick it up a notch!”

But when hearing a menu consisting of two easy-to-visualize options and the category of “vegetarian,” omnivores are more likely to be turned off by that third option. “Vegetarian? Screw that. I’m not a vegetarian. I like my meat heaping and with a side of meat. Meat me up, attendant, with the finest, meatiest meatings you have!” They’re less likely to ask after the actual contents of the vegetarian option, as they’re busy thinking about whether they’d like chicken or beef.

Meanwhile the vegetarians (even if their delicate identities are a bit bruised) are relieved when they hear that their needs have been considered. The unlucky ones in the very back of the plane (who failed to arrange a special meal in advance) might even get to eat.

descriptive option categorical option
omnivores Might choose :) Less likely to choose, still :)
vegetarians Less to eat :( More to eat :)

It’s not foolproof, of course, but I’ll bet if we could do a plane-by-plane comparison of “vegetarian” vs. “red beans and rice”, the categorical option would result in much more of everyone being happy. And that’s one of the powers of well-done choice architecture.

Amber Alert: The Tragedy of Bad Design

If you live in California or New York and you own a cell phone, you probably recently experienced the new Amber Alert capabilities. And by “capabilities,” I mean “the government’s newfound ability to disturb your sleep with non-actionable information.”

In California, the alert that set all this ablaze was in reference to a man, James Lee DiMaggio, who may or may not have killed his friend and her son, burned his house down with them in it, and fled with her daughter. Not that you would have known that from the Amber Alert: “Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.” Certainly, Twitter has been all a-buzz about the alerts, and there are dozens of articles on the subject (my personal favorite headline: “Shaquille O’Neal: Yeah I Got That Amber Alert”).

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UX Boot Camp with Marketplace Money

Old School Radio Meets the Digital Age

Take a look inside Cooper’s June, 2013 UX Boot Camp with American Public Media’s Marketplace Money radio show, where students explored the next horizon of audio programming—a paradigm shift from broadcast to conversation-based platforms.

The Challenge
Students rolled up their sleeves to help the show respond to the trend away from traditional radio by finding the right mix of alternative distribution platforms. Marketplace Money came equally ready to take a radical departure from their current format in order to create a new model that redefines the roles of host, show, and audience in the digital age. To reach this goal, students focused on designing solutions that addressed three big challenges:

  1. Engage a new, younger audience that is tech savvy, and provide easy access to content via new platforms, such as podcasts, satellite radio shows, and the Internet.
  2. Inspire audience participation and contribution. Facilitate conversations and inspire people to share their personal stories so that listeners can learn from each other.
  3. Design ways for the host to carry an influential brand or style that extends beyond the limits of the show and engage with the audience around personal finance, connecting with listeners in ways that are likeable, useful, and trustworthy, making the topic of personal finance cool, fun and approachable.

At the end of the four-day Boot Camp, student teams presented final pitches to Marketplace Money, and a panel of experienced Cooper designers offered feedback on their ideas and presentations.In the following excerpts from each day, you can test your own sensory preferences for receiving content as you see, hear and read how design ideas evolved at the Boot Camp, inspiring new relationships between people and radio.

Marketplace Money Class

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Explore New Interaction Paradigms at UX Boot Camp: Wikimedia

Advance and apply your UX design skills to a meaningful real-world problem in this intensive, hands-on workshop


This September, join Wikimedia, Cooper, and design-thinkers from around the world as we find new ways to spread knowledge through mobile Wikipedia. In this four-day workshop, you’ll use new UX skills to make mobile content contribution more approachable, intuitive, and less reliant on traditional input methods like typing. If you’ve wanted an excuse to explore new interaction paradigms and stay ahead of the design pack, this is your chance. Best of all, you get to do all of that in the creative classroom setting of Alan and Sue Cooper’s 50-acre ranch in Petaluma, CA.

Register now: UX Boot Camp: WikimediaSeptember 17-20, Petaluma, CA

What’s in it for you?

  • Learn new interaction techniques and approaches under the guidance of industry leaders, including Alan Cooper
  • Learn how to think through a problem from both a design and business perspective, rather than blindly applying methods by rote.
  • Energize your practice and make new connections by working on a real-world challenge with peers from around the world.
  • Beef up your portfolio with a smart, new design concept
  • Pick up leadership and collaboration skills that will help you better navigate your work environment.

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UX Boot Camp Goes to Europe

Guest post by Francesca Di Mari at Sketchin, a Swiss user experience design firm based in Lugano.

At  Sketchin we strongly believe that design can improve lives and foster social good. We first heard of Cooper’s UX Boot Camp when we visited Cooper in September, 2012, and we fell in love with their idea of using design to educate and foster social good by bridging design students with non-profits. This idea was conceived of and developed by Kendra Shimmell, the Managing Director at Cooper U, and it launched our determination to be part of a design revolution for social good.

Our first step was to create our own UX Boot Camp modeled after what we experienced at Cooper. So in May of 2013, together with Talent Garden Milano and Frontiers of Interaction, we organized the first Italian UX Boot Camp in Milan, modeled after the Cooper UX Boot Camp. Here is a look back at what we created and discovered in the process.

UX Bootcamp Milano 15

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Telling visual stories for science

The other night I attended a presentation/panel discussion about visual science communication. Well, I should say I had a terrific dinner at Wexler’s first, then attended a presentation/panel discussion. These panels are better with a cocktail in you.

The event took place at swissnex. I think they like their name uncapitalized. I’m still a bit unclear about what swissnex is. The name struck me as delicious-sounding, like something you’d pair with Nutella in the morning. Swissnex. Your Toast’s Best Friend.

I read their annual report and sat in their event space, so I know that they are a non-profit, they are staffed by lots of competent Swiss people, and they like to underline text. I’m guessing it’s some kind of quasi-governmental Swiss cultural mission. Anyway, they host presentations about art and science, and do fun things like get Swiss kids to think about what 2023 will look like. All very wholesome.

The speakers at this event were a motley crew, and some are doing truly interesting work designing things to communicate science to the public. There was Michele Johnson, for example, a “public affairs officer” for the Kepler mission at NASA Ames. Kepler is a space telescope orbiting the sun, looking for Earth-like planets. She talked about how they manage to create a huge beautifully-rendered picture of a distant planet using only 6 pixels of image data. Obviously, it involves making a lot of assumptions. (I think the Kepler people are a tad jealous of Hubble, pumping out eye candy for the public, no need to emblazen “artist rendering” all over them like a Barry Bonds asterisk. I’d be jealous, too. It’s the difference between a webcam from 1995 and a telephoto DSLR. But they do impressive work, despite their constraints.)

Another interesting panelist was Ryan Wyatt, the director of the planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences. He showed us the visualization his team created for their EARTHQUAKE!!! exhibit. Pretty sweet. And kind of mind-bending, because they’re designing this uber-animation for the domed ceiling of the planetarium, projected with at least a half dozen overlapping light systems. They are an active and talented bunch, it seems. Six full-time staff work on science visualizations at the museum. (Edit: over-estimated the size of the team. Thanks, Ryan!)

There was also Joe Hanson, who does a PBS Youtube show called “It’s OK to Be Smart.” His main point: that creating engaging video content (about science, or drunk make-up tips, or whatever) is easy, can be done on a shoestring budget, and please please please release your stuff to Creative Commons so that other people can re-mix and re-use for free.

It ended late, so I wasn’t in the mood to hob-nob too much. Plus that cocktail was beginning to weigh on my consciousness. But I left with a feeling that the problems the UX community face aren’t so different from our compatriots doing science visualization. Sure, science viz is less concerned with usability and affordance (museum exhibits being a big exception). But we both have to synthesize input from subject matter experts. We both juggle the demands of clients and users and resources. We both strive to create artifacts that engage our users, drawing them in, immersing them in an experience, distilling complexity into its essential pieces. Our two communities, seemingly distinct, have a lot to learn from each other.

Interaction13 – Day 4 Recap

Ah, the final day of IxD13 has come to an end. Day 4 was comprised of panels, debates, and rapid ingenuity cycles. It was a blast to cover this conference. If you missed any of the other days, check out our recaps from Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. Can’t wait to meet up again next year in Amsterdam!

Interaction Design Education Panel: Report Back

Dave Malouf, Haig Armen, Kristian Simsarian, Dianna Miller

IxDEdu ColorCheck

Demand for Interaction Designers has grown, but because IxD is so new, education programs are being developed independently. With no single organization curating a design education program, there is little chance for design educators to share information and techniques. This panel was brought together to discuss patterns in design education, and as a platform for designer educators to connect with each other.

How do we make IxD training more widely available?

Lots of small design shops don’t have budgets to send people to conference or for extra training. And a lack of guidance can lead to people to seek other employment. At the IxD13 Education panel, these were some of the ideas discussed to build skills without breaking the bank.

    Apprenticeship programs: (younger person paired with a senior designer) The junior designer would do smaller tasks and begin learn through doing.
    Partner with universities: Students gain real-world experience by working on client projects.. Design studios get fresh ideas and build relationships with future recruits.
    In-house training: How do you evaluate people’s aptitudes when they apply to an organization? Studios need better evaluation of applicants because people come with such mixed backgrounds.

There is a disconnect amongst what students think they are prepared to do, what they can actually do, and what employers want. Grads are not prepared to do high-level strategy. Many think they are, but it takes time to build that skill set.

Design fundamentals should be taught in middle and high schools, but if we can’t teach design curriculum in schools, we can host junior conference or 1 day UX Camps. Design principles are valuable to students of all ages. Design can teach people how to fail and how to take risks early in their development

How do we start to informally formalize where and how to find good teachers, mentors, programs, and studios?

We can spread good design education through our current network. Go to schools and give talks. As your relationship develops, schools will start to see you as a resource, and you can spread your design philosophy to new generations of movers and shakers.

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The wrong projection

On a recent flight from Amsterdam to Houston, I turned on the “moving-map system” in the in-seat entertainment system and was surprised to see that though we were halfway through the 10-hour flight, the map made it look like we were minutes from landing in Texas. Sure, I had dozed the delightful doze of the jet lagged international flight, but had I actually passed out? Or had time slipped by that quickly? Shouldn’t we be somewhere over Greenland? That looks about halfway.

Then I realized that it was the map itself that was to blame. The arc was being true to the plane’s path across the map, but with a map as distorted as this one, it was bound to be confusing.

Like most cool things, this gets nerdy quick. See, when you try and take something that’s pretty much a sphere (the Earth) and fit it to a rectangle (the in-flight entertainment screen) you’re going to run into some deformation. There are many, many ways to crack this mathematical nut (the awesome site Radical Cartography lists 30) and each optimizes some things at the costs of others.

The designer of this system had chosen to use the familiar Plate Carrée projection of the Earth. It’s ancient, and quite familiar to travelers. It’s used everywhere. So certainly, it optimizes for initial use. At a simple glance, the traveler knows what he’s looking at.

But this projection, in forcing the longitude and latitude lines into tidy squares, severely squashes areas that are closer to the poles. The result is that—unless you’re traveling from one point on the equator to another—an actual straight line across the surface of the planet will appear on this map as oddly arced. What’s worse is that the arc won’t mean the same thing across its length. Nearer the poles it will be stretched and closer to the equator it will be squished, resulting in the weird, jarring experience of watching the plane zip to Ontario, and then crawl to the Gulf Coast.

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Searching for a better home screen

It is very rare indeed when designers eagerly anticipate a release from Microsoft. This October’s Windows 8 release will see a new Windows Phone, the second version of the Metro UI for mobile devices. But more significantly, Windows 8 will bring the Metro interface to the desktop.

'Metro' style on phone and desktop
Metro on mobile and on desktop.

Metro, which won over designers, developers, and users with its colorful, transit-inspired, and minimally geometric interface, was first bundled with the Windows Phone 7 package. It was a risky – but undeniably insightful – move. Rather than simply playing catch-up to Android and iOS, the gridded interface stakes a dramatic new claim on how an OS should function on a mobile device. Rather than presenting a “home screen” where a user launches applications – an idea borrowed directly from the desktop – Metro uses the blocky launch icons to directly display the latest information and updates from within the apps themselves.

In other words, rather than launching your news app to check for the latest headline, Metro would feature those headlines right on the home screen. You’ll click on an app once you already know something of interest lies beneath. But Metro’s most striking implication is that you might not even open those apps as often anymore.

However, Microsoft’s approach to the home screen was not the first attempt at a radical departure from established mobile home screen norms. In 2010, an Android app called SlideScreen was on a similar mission, and its untimely demise shows the complications of innovating on the home screen in an environment where the handset makers and the creators of operating systems make the rules.

The SlideScreen app on Android.

SlideScreen, developed by Larva Labs, cleverly replaced the Android home screen with snippets of content you depend on the most. Get the gist of your inbox, absorb the latest headlines in your feeds, and check in on the churn of tweets and Facebook updates every time you idly flash on your phone. It was space-efficient without looking cramped – austere, but with personality.

Many early Android users (this author included) grew dependent on the immediacy: there was no need to navigate to an app or pull down a pane. The phone stopped being another media channel and became a tool again.

But in August of 2011 it was over. An ill-timed security update prevented the app from reading data from Gmail. SlideScreen could no longer “hot-wire” you straight to your messages. Developer Matt Hall begrudgingly admitted: “As of right now there appears to be no workaround as this is an intentional change to restrict access to the data. [..] As of this morning we’ve removed the app from the market.” SlideScreen was dead.

It’s a shame. SlideScreen was an important counterpoint to the prevailing norm on phone operating systems: the home screen as a list of apps you can launch. It’s a limiting norm that makes phones less useful. The “app-launcher-approach” to home screens essentially traps information and functionality in digital “lockboxes” that can’t be accessed without starting an app.

SlideScreen’s story highlights how apps themselves can’t innovate without the alignment of vision with the creators of the operating systems, consumer services, and information providers. Apps also depend on digital lockboxes that are stable and supply open data. But these conditions weren’t present in 2011, and they are even less so today. And when software ecosystems become more closed, apps like SlideScreen can’t flourish. That is likely why the Apple iOS home screen paradigm has been remained largely unchallenged.

Five years ago, the launch of Apple’s first iPhone in 2007 popularized this paradigm of precious, “gemstone” app icons. Instrumental in the phone’s success, the icons simplified access to functionality and made it obvious to novice users what a smartphone could actually do. But simplicity comes at the cost of information density and efficiency. Apart from the occasional push notification, there are precious few hints at what relevant information might be behind each icon.

iOS home screen. Image via Scrappble.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, and in spite of the efforts of the Larva Labs and the Windows phone team, there’s a real possibility that the gemstone paradigm becomes this decade’s default mobile navigation system. Why is this worrisome? Interface paradigms tend to die slow deaths.

On stationary computers and laptops, the same antiquated metaphor has guided interface development since the early 1970s. The “desktop metaphor”, as it is called, treated the computer screen as an imaginary desk, where objects like “files” and “folders” could be put. Despite some valiant efforts (at Cooper we took our stab with the Litl netbook, and Google attempted to bring the beast down with their Chrome OS), this concept has displayed a frightening resistance to technological progress and user needs.

The same thing can happen on our phones. We are facing the risk that inarticulate gemstones could become the primary way you operate your phone, even when new technology begins allowing for far superior ways to interact with smartphones. A smartphone’s ability to predict and automate actions has massively improved alongside the evolution of its impressive stack of sensors, cameras, microphones, and touch screens. Based on this knowledge, there are many ways a phone can tailor a home screen to the needs of the situation or time of day. The phone can begin to guess what I might need to know. Wouldn’t that be nice – a home screen with information I care about, rather than a list of the apps I have downloaded?

As Metro seeks to demonstrate, the main purpose of smartphones should not be to launch apps. Smartphones have a lot of impressive functionality, but not all functions are equally important. Not all functions need an icon. Home screens should facilitate important functions, and hide trivial ones. It should make it easy to communicate, help me be aware of time and place, and anticipate common information needs. The standard home screen as we know it today is not up to the task, so let us look for better ways. Let us leave the familiar behind. A better home screen is out there.

Sketchnoting is the massage

Sketchnoting is catching on at Cooper for all the reasons that it’s catching on in a lot of places. It’s a way to pay deep attention and do active sense-making of a lecture in real time. (And one that produces a fun and memorable document to share at the end.)

In the spirit of getting better at it, Cooper designers took a lunch break to give themselves a massive challenge: Try sketchnoting the 1967 audio recording of The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore. If you’ve not heard the audio recording, it’s a pastiche of clips from his lectures on the subject, blended with Laugh-In like radio theatre sounds and sound effects, which chaotically and repetitiously illustrate some of his main points.

It’s challenging because the material is meant to be a mind-expending blast of ideas, akin to the visual design of the book. There’s no linear flow to the material. It’s hard to know what is meant to be most important. Many things zip quickly and it’s dense with big meaning. (It’s prescient and still surprisingly insightful, even if the “massage” part is clearly of its time. I’d recommend it to designers heartily.)

On the other hand, it’s awesome because it forces you to let go of the temptation to be a transcriber while sketchnoting. You can try, but you quickly learn the limits of treating a sketchnote like that. You just can’t keep up. Instead you learn to relax, pick up what interests you, illustrate it, structure it, and let go the rest. Ultimately, we’re pretty happy with the results of the stress test, but will still be doing our next practice with a good old linear TED talk.

In the meantime, here’s our invidividual results. Jump here to play some of the audio while you feast your eyes and before you let us know what you think.

[Thanks to our sketchnoters. In order of their drawings in the gallery above: Chris Noessel, Glen Davis, Jason Csizmadi, Jenea Hayes, Kendra Shimmell, Kim Applequist, Nate Clinton, Nick Myers, Nikki Knox, Pamela Sisson (guest sketchnoter visiting from Thomson Reuters), and Teresa Brazen!]

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