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.


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.

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.