Oops

WordPress stats say I still get pageviews now and then, so I guess I should mention, this blog isn’t dead, it’s just moved to my own website

Because obviously people googling “bluefish color picker” are interested in the reading responses I post for my Human-Robot Interaction class.

“Design”

So this program I’m in is called Human-Computer Interaction Design. Last semester I took a class called Interaction Design Practice, this semester I’m in a class called Experience Design. I read Design blogs, I seek out articles around the internet about Design.

I am growing to hate the word Design. It means something different to everyone who uses it. “Design” all by itself is incredibly vague and unhelpful. I mean, aside from the fact that what “design” is, at its most general, is incredibly broad in scope, hardly anyone who says “design” really means design at its most general. No, they almost always mean the particular kind of design they are familiar with. But graphic design != web design != industrial design != interior design != software design != whatever the crap I am supposed to be learning. Hell, even when people say “interface design” or “user experience design” usually what they really mean is traditional usability work, which is only a little piece of what I’m doing here. I’m certainly not reading John Dewey or discussing hermeneutics for the sake of running a usability lab.

Plus, it seems like many of the people using the word on the internet, at least, are writing from outside of whatever “design” profession they’re talking about, which means that what they think design means is very likely not at all what the people within said profession think it means.

So then you get articles written by people who think ‘design’ means making a pretty logo (hint: a major design firm is going to be able to do a lot more for you than hand you a logo and hope you like it. But only if you understand the value they can offer). Or taking offense at a quote like this one. I’m sorry, since when is it “snooty” to say that a person who is trained and experienced in a very particular and very difficult to pin down sort of skill, is going to be better at that skill than someone who has very different training? Does anyone call software developers snooty for believing they can write better code than the average bear? No, because code always looks hard, but the best designs look obvious.

For those who still don’t know what “design” is, the wikipedia page is actually decent, though I disagree with it very strongly in certain places. For example, the very idea of including a “typical steps” section on a page about design-in-general strikes me as nothing but misleading, no matter how many qualifiers you stick in front of it.

I also disagree strongly that “design is a more rigorous form of art” and “engineering is a more rigorous form of design.” Ok, this is an “encyclopedia” article that is supposed to be “NPOV” and all that, but at least cite some friggin sources. Who views design as “a more rigorous form of art?” Probably not designers. Certainly not me. I especially take issue with the phrase “art with a clearly defined purpose.” Like art doesn’t have a purpose. Art can have all kinds of purposes! Personal, expressive, emotional or entertainment purposes. Sometimes art has a very clearly defined didactic or moral purpose. Art can even have a purpose defined by someone other than the artist! It’s called working on commission. Or having a patron. Art has one set of purposes, design has another. The same with engineering.

It may be closer to the truth to say that design and engineering are both about problem-solving, but only a little closer. My professor likes to say that design is not about problem-solving, it’s about problem-setting. Engineering starts with a set of well-defined specifications. A material implementation needs to meet those specifications. The problems engineers work through are highly specific to matching particular materials to specifications. Well, in an ideal world. If engineers have poorly-defined specifications, they will need to make design decisions, and chances are the engineers will not be equipped to make them successfully. Much like how I am not equipped to make successful decisions about how to manufacture an alarm clock.

Design, on the other hand, starts with dissatisfaction. Something in the world is not right, and the design process is a process of exploring ways to make it better (maybe all the alarm clocks in the world were designed by engineers and are covered in rows of tiny identical rectangular buttons and no one can set their alarms properly). While an engineer has a plan for how the world needs to be, and wrestles with the problems of making that plan real, a designer has many ideas about what the world might become, and wrestles with choices between them.

I’m not gonna lie, pre-design-school me is looking this over and shaking her head. When I started this program, I read all kinds of ridiculous stuff about what it means to do design, and it barely made sense to me. But now here I am trying to explain, and I’m producing all the same ridiculous stuff. Except now it makes perfect sense. I think the only way to understand what it means to design something is to do it yourself. But not in isolation – no one would imagine that you could learn to write good poetry without reading it. Playing around in photoshop without ever looking at the work of others is not going to turn you into a good graphic designer or artist, just someone who knows a lot about photoshop.

But looking at the end products of someone else design process won’t help you to learn design either. Because so much of design is about making decisions, you have to be able to see the decision-making process of others, too. And no one can really help you understand that except another designer.

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to see design as “snooty.” Good design is almost invisible to the untrained eye, and successful training depends on the guidance of another designer. So it all looks very mysterious and closed from the outside, while the process of de-mystification almost inevitably turns you into an insider and therefore marks you as suspect.

But as I am the foremost expert on suspicion of self-congratulatory insiders’ clubs, let me assure you: design is hard. design is important.

And to return to my original problem, unless you really freakin know what you mean when you say “design,” TELL ME WHICH KIND YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.

Trying to Write More

I don’t have new years’ resolutions so much as new semester resolutions. I always start out the first week of classes with big ideas about how I will organize my life better and be more effective in the things that I do. I’m no more successful than anyone else, of course.

Last semester was a strange exception. It was my first semester of graduate school, my first real introduction to the world of design, and I consciously tried to avoid forming expectations, but I did still have some tentative ideas about what my experience would be like, most of which turned out to be wrong. It was an intense experience.

And now, I have a little better handle on what this whole grad school thing is about, I think I have some some perspective on what this semester might be like, and I think it is really time to follow through on some of these resolutions. I survived last semester, but parts of it were pretty darn painful. I’d like to do a little more than survive the next three.

One of my professors strongly suggested that we write as much as we can. I immediately thought of my poor neglected blog. I did write last semester, but for a required class blog, and for my recipe blog, so not here at all. But I think it is a really good suggestion. Writing a blog about my experience means I’m telling a story about it, which means fitting pieces together and arranging and connecting, and I already know from experience that this is a useful process for me. I just need to make time for it.

So I’m going to try.

test post

this post isn’t going to be very interesting, it is mostly a test of a thing.

I am about to start my second week of classes in grad school. Everything’s a little overwhelming at the moment, but I may have some “very” “exciting” blog-related news soon.

new feature!

I have nearly as many half-finished draft posts as I have actual posts on this here blog, and not a lot of excuse for it since I’ve had quite a bit of free time this summer. I just haven’t been spending it doing bloggy sorts of things. But one thing I have been doing a lot of is cooking, and also searching for recipes, and as long as I’m here, I might as well share. This also marks my first use for “categories,” since I expect the recipe posts to be just about the food, and not about much of anything else.

The first recipe I want to post is the one I’ve used the most this summer, for homemade granola. The original recipe is here, if you want something conveniently printable. This is my modification of it:

Ingredients

4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup pecans
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup honey
2 cups mixed dried fruits

Preparation

Preheat oven to 325°F.

In a large bowl stir together oats, nuts, and spices. In a small saucepan melt butter with honey over low heat, stirring occasionally. Pour butter mixture over oat mixture and toss to combine well.

Spread granola evenly in 2 shallow baking pans and bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, stirring frequently and switching position of pans halfway through baking, until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Watch carefully during the second half of baking, to prevent burning. Add dried fruit to granola and mix. Leaving the mixture to cool without stirring will produce chunky granola, stirring as it cools will make the chunks much smaller.

Notes

I changed the oven temperature to 325 because the granola was burning at 350. The extra honey makes the finished granola form more chunks, as does leaving it to cool without stirring. I prefer chunky granola. I especially like this recipe with greek yogurt and fresh fruit.

The best two minutes of your day

I have this idea for a post that was born in a comment I made about RSS readers last week, and I told myself I’d make a real post with something interesting to say about an actual topic, soon.

And then I saw this video. It was recommended to me as “possibly the best two minutes of your day” and I have to say, it was absolutely the best two minutes of mine.

makes having to play all Sousa’s ludicrously high formerly violin parts on my clarinet in high school band entirely worth it.

and while I’m at it, hedgehog launch is both adorable and addictive. Launch hedgehogs into orbit!

Go read other stuff

I’ve been running around all over the place the last month or so, doing this whole graduating and then preparing for (delaying via grad school) the rest of my life. I finally had about a week to sort of decompress, if you can call unpacking/repacking/getting rid of useless Stuff I’ve accumulated decompressing, and my laptop couldn’t connect to my home LAN.

Anyway, I made it Seattle, where I’ll be for the rest of the summer, and right away had to take care of a pneumonia patient. Now of course I’m sick too, but with a little luck I won’t have anything worse than a rhinovirus sapping all my energy. And while I am sleeping it off, you my numerous and loyal readers can amuse yourselves elsewhere.

Interaction-Design.org is new to me, and I haven’t spent a lot of time exploring it yet, but it looks like a place to keep your eye on.
web accessibility checklist – a checklist is no substitute for serious attention from an accessibility specialist, but it’s a starting place when that’s just not practical.
physical interface: touching considerate design – I especially like the seat control. I eagerly await the day when industrial designers are done slapping rows of identical rectangular buttons wherever seems convenient (to the manufacturer, of course, not the user).
Microsoft’s Being Human report was released a couple of months ago. Probably you’ve heard of it by now, but if you’re me you still haven’t really read it yet. Worth a look.

Hardy Herons and Cheesy Europeans

EDIT: so uh, when I said Gutsy Gibbon, I meant Hardy Heron. I even corrected myself in a draft of this post that subsequently got eaten, and then forgot again when I rewrote it. Oops.

I upgraded to Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon Hardy Heron a couple of weeks ago, and I keep meaning to write something reasonably substantial about it. I don’t know that I’d consider myself qualified enough to give an authoritative review of it, but I could record my experiences for the sake of posterity. Not sure I’m there yet, but I do want to say that the one really noticeable problem I’ve had is that, between firefox 3 beta 5 and rhythmbox, only one seems to be able to handle audio at a time, and it’s whichever one I opened first. So if I’ve been listening to music and want to watch a youtube video, I have to close firefox and rhythmbox, and open up firefox again. This is…annoying.

I haven’t tried yet with any other music players–my search for something that could successfully communicate with my ipod was traumatic, and I’m still a bit gun-shy. I did have the pre-release of Songbird for awhile, but it just wasn’t stable enough for me. Every so often after I’d had it open for awhile I’d lose sound altogether and have to reboot to get it back. I haven’t tried it on Gutsy yet, but I don’t expect that the problem was entirely on the OS end. I’ll keep a lookout for 0.6 and give it another shot. I think Songbird has a lot going for it and I am really looking forward to the first official release. Assuming they get their searching and sorting issues worked out by then…I mostly listen to my music by building playlists to fit a mood, and I do an awful lot of searching and sorting during that process, and I need them both to be fast and reliable.

Basically I still haven’t found a piece of software that lets me do exactly what I want with my music as seemlessly as iTunes. It’s pretty much the only thing I miss about Windows. Which, well, you know.

Rhythmbox does have one feature I wish iTunes had: automatically downloading lyrics. Lyrics are a lot of what I respond to in songs, and I like being able to see them and follow along, and refer to them for quoting and such. The downloading means I spend a lot less time on those evil lyrics sites. Speaking of which, Lyrics Directory is the best at being not evil. I wish there were some way for individuals to contribute lyrics, since they definitely don’t have as much as some of the big spammy sites. On the other hand, if I want to correct something or paste in my own lyrics, I have to click some “edit” button. This is dumb. There’s no reason for the program to get in my way like this. It’s even dumber that there’s no real visual clues to it. The lyrics display looks just like a text entry box, and in fact it looks exactly the same once I click edit (and again, when I’m done and click save). if I can’t just edit whenever I want, make the display clearly different from editable text entry!

But rhythmbox has bigger UI problems, like the fact that the play button turns into a pause button during playback, without any visual feedback. It still says play, the icon is still a little triangle. You just have to infer from the complete lack of any pause or stop button that you click on it again to stop the music. It’s especially annoying when things are getting slightly buggy, and I can’t tell whether no music is happening because the song is quiet at the beginning, Rhythmbox is trying to play the song but is just taking its sweet time about it, or something really is wrong and playback is just not happening.

Always give visual feedback. Obvious visual feedback. And always test to make sure it’s obvious to people who know nothing of your design, because you know way too much to be able to evaluate it yourself.

Anyway, time to restart firefox so I can listen to the 2008 Eurovision entries.

Radical Trust

International No Diet Day was yesterday, and I failed at it, thanks to trying to avoid the internet in the interests of getting my last week of undergraduate work actually finished. And then when I did return to the internet in the evening, I didn’t know how to approach the topic. Resisting diet culture is related to so many other things that are so personal to me. But it’s ok that I missed yesterday, because any day could be no diet day (and every day should be no diet day…) and I have come up with a focus: trust yourself, and trust food.

For one day, think about what you want to eat, not what you think you should eat. Give yourself permission to want what you want, and to enjoy what you want. Think about what would taste good and then eat as much of it as you actually enjoy. Give yourself permission to want food. Any food, not just the “good” stuff you’re “supposed” to eat. Resist moral judgments about your desires, or about the food you eat. Just enjoy it.

Make peace with food. For one day.

“possible” relevance

Today (or I guess yesterday, by now) wordpress added a new feature: possibly related posts. Basically an algorithm compares my blog post to other indexed blog posts and news stories, and if it thinks they might be related, inserts links at the bottom of my post. The brilliant Kate Harding over at Shapely Prose is not happy about the change. While I am not as categorically opposed to the feature as Kate is (maybe because I had fair warning before seeing it suddenly appear on my own blog? And maybe because the links I’m getting are mostly just plain irrelevant, rather than almost uniformly the exact ideas my blog is dedicated to opposing…), I definitely think making it opt-out was a bad choice. And in my opinion, simply sticking the words “automatically generated” next to the heading of the section is not enough of a distinction from the content that is actually mine. Maybe if it were a widget to put in the sidebar, clearly marked, I’d feel better about it.

But really, I think the idea is just not as exciting or revolutionary as the wordpress people want it to be. They mention youtube, and I’ll admit, youtube’s related videos feature is pretty great. But blog posts are not youtube videos. They exist in a different ecosystem, and they are consumed in a different way. The biggest difference is that, without the “related videos” feature, there just isn’t another handy way to get to other interesting videos directly from the one you’re viewing. With blogs, there is. It’s called hyperlinks. And if you’re on the internet without using those, you’re doing it wrong.

Very few of the blogs I read do not regularly link to other places already, and if they don’t, it’s because the nature of subject matter and its treatment simply do not invite links to lots of other places. For example, personal blogs. If I’m reading a blog a friend of mine is writing about her life, I don’t want to see a bunch of news stories, or other personal blog posts by strangers, I want to see more of my friend. Same with celebrity blogs like Wil Wheaton or Neil Gaiman. I’m reading their blogs because I like their writing. Automatically generated links would be pointless. On the other hand, for a blog like Overcoming Bias, generated links would probably be irrelevant because other people just aren’t doing what’s going on there. If someone writes something thoughtful in response to the ideas being put forth there, they can leave it in the comments or a post a link to their own blog, and a community discussion develops that way. But it’s not the sort of thing you can just look for news stories about.

The kind of blog I can think of that might benefit from this feature would be one where the majority of posts have a relatively narrow, impersonal and common topic. And the blogs I read like that…already link to other blogs. And those links I know I can trust to be relevant and thoughtful. Even if every post is not chock full of relevant outside links, there will often be a blogroll where I can go explore high-quality blogs dealing with similar issues. That ease of linking to other places is one of the fundamental structural differences between internet and print media, and just about every really good blogger (you know, the ones I’m interested in) I read understands that and takes advantage of it. And I trust them more than I trust some template-matching algorithm. Hell, the whole point of a blog like kottke or swissmiss is that they’re out there looking for interesting things on the web, and the reason I read them is because I trust their judgment and know that I’ll find something interesting.

So really, this feature seems more attractive as a source of traffic for the blogs being linked to than to either the blogger (who has no control over the links and so can’t check them for relevance or quality) or the reader (who, because of that lack of editorial control, can’t trust the quality). Or maybe for lazy bloggers who don’t spend much time finding or linking to other interesting things. In other words, Kate was right, and this is basically spam.

Even if I am totally wrong and this goes over like gangbusters and six months from now we’re all saying “how did I live without this,” well, they should have made it opt-in. At the very least, they should have provided more warning and explanation, and made changing it more transparent. Plenty of people using wordpress don’t pay the least attention to the official blog. And judging by the questions being left at that blog, plenty of people who do pay attention don’t really read it.

I think the take-home message here is that it’s time for me to expand my blogroll.