Category Archives: Interaction

Royal Mail Games

Really liked this project by Harriet Russell testing the capabilities and, to some extent, sense of humour of the Royal Mail. She sent 130 envelopes each of which represented an address in some cryptic way, from crosswords (see below) to anagrams. Only 10 didn’t get through.


“Despite fears of a Royal Mail backlash, Russell found the system more than willing to play her game.  The crossword edition was returned completed with the comment “Solved by the Glasgow Mail Centre”

Mail Games: Testing the System | PSFK – Trends, Ideas & Inspiration

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Lovely example of real world user interface use, this time to vent against unsightly street advertising.

“Through their blog, the leaders of the movement (which started in France) give instructions on how to order the little red “X” boxes, designed to look just like the click-out boxes in the corner of pop-up windows. Participants are encouraged to stick these pop-down stickers on posters, billboards, vehicles – basically on any advertisements or otherwise unsightly items in the public space that they wish they could control-W out of. Pictures of successful pop-downs are then shared on the blog.”

Pop-Down Project: Closing the Window on Real Life Pop-Ups | PSFK – Trends, Ideas & Inspiration

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Should we stop designing for purpose and use?

This sentiment from Lebbeus Woods, on the meaning and purpose of architecture really resonates with me when it comes to thinking about technology. He’s talking about how people should adapt to space, rather then space be totally pre-conceived with use and purpose in mind. I think the same can be true with technology.


“One of my earliest statements about the meaning and purpose of architecture was: “We should make our buildings first, then learn how to live in them.” Born into a world we did not create, this is always the task facing us: to adapt ourselves to the world as we find it, or the world to us.

Why should we find only architecture limited to some assigned purpose? Why should architecture limit its potential to create space to satisfying the demands for the already known, for some normal ‘program of use’? Architecture should be freed to follow its own rules and ways to its own spatial, and spiritual, conclusions. Architecture should awaken in us new understandings and knowledge, and inspire us to embrace previously unimagined experiences. It should demand from us a level of invention of our own lives at least equal to the level of invention that brought it into being.”

We tend to think that the correct process for the design of software and hardware experiences is with a specific use or situation in mind, with a pre-imagined scenario of how people will interact with a “thing”. But many of the technology tools and objects that we use every day didn’t come with those pre-conceptions in mind. They may have come with SOME pre-conceptions, but invariably they didn’t match the real way in which the technology has ultimately come into everyday use.

SMS (texting) is a classic example, as it was designed as a general broadcast technology rather than for one-to-one communication:

‘According to Cor Stutterheim from CMG, “It started as a message service, allowing operators to inform all their own customers about things such as problems with the network. When we created SMS (Short Messaging Service) it was not really meant to communicate from consumer to consumer and certainly not meant to become the main channel which the younger generation would use to communicate with each other,” added Stutterheim.’

I’d argue that the Internet is shifting our design processes from those with purpose and use in mind, to those that are open and free for interpretation. We’re presented daily with a stream of services that we don’t quite know what to do with, at the outset. Use becomes emergent.

Flickr emerged like this – initially intended as the photo repository for a massively multiplayer online game, it’s value as the public repository for the Internet’s photos (which is what you could argue it is becoming) is unexpected. It’s value comes through the choice to make photos visible publicly by default, rather than private, going against the grain of many other photo sharing sites. Public photos create their own value, as a source for shared experiences, shared themes and the collaborative documentation of the world at large.

Services like Twitter and Facebook are in the middle of the throes of this process, where patterns and etiquette of use are still being developed, much like e-mail in its early years, and even the core purpose of the services has still to emerge.

It’s cheap to try this process online – fairly straightforward for an individual or small group to knock together the notions of a site, and put it out there in the public domain to see what sticks. I wonder what the equivalent is for hardware? Maybe we’re already seeing purposeless hardware happen through sites like Make, which put out recipes for hardware that invites reinterpretation, and new, componentised hardware sensors and devices, that allow us to interpret use for ourselves.

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A sort of philosophy

A year ago Richard Harper asked me to put together a short document on how I thought we should approach our work in the Socio-Digital Systems, from a design point of view. Recently, a colleague who was visiting us in Cambridge at the time asked me to post the document somewhere public because he’d mentioned it a couple of times to others, and he wanted to be able to cite it more specifically. So here it is.

In some ways it’s more about what I DON’T believe about the design process as much as it is about what I DO believe. It’s a draft still, and something I’d like to keep on working on in one of those spare moments that we so rarely get at the lab.


I’ve been asked to write a little on the potential processes and methods of design that might be brought to bear on the research themes that we are thinking about at the moment, such as Domesticity 2.0 and Propinquity.

To be honest, I’m not one to write about what I do as a designer. I tend to draw things more then write. And I don’t believe strongly in methods in any defined sense. But, maybe outlining some things that I DO believe about the design process would be useful. Here they are:

  • I believe that the design process is unique and adaptable to any given situation. Part of the designer’s job is to be open to that adaptability.
  • I believe that the design process is rarely formed of discrete phases, but overlaps and loops back on itself in unpredictable ways. Part of the designer’s job is to embrace and even encourage that unpredictability.
  • I believe that the design process relies partially on certainties but primarily on intuitive steps into the unknown. Part of the designer’s job is to hone and gradually learn to trust their intuition and instincts.
  • I believe that the design process is about making abstract concepts real. It’s never too early to do this, although how real or unreal you make things can radically change the conversation. Part of the designer’s job is to learn, develop or even invent new ways to create the appropriate level of reality.

For me, design is primarily about understanding a context; seeking inspirations from which many ideas can spring as solutions to that context; visualizing and testing those ideas in both informal and formal ways; making choices for which ideas to prune; and then repeating this process until the last idea is standing. The last idea isn’t necessarily the best idea. I’m not sure I believe in best ideas.

So in the context of this document the questions I’d ask in developing a design approach to our themes are:

  • What do we know, and how do we better understand any of the contexts for the themes that are described?
  • What sources can we use as an inspirational springboard for the development of many ideas for the themes?
  • How best should we represent those ideas?
  • How should we test and then select from those ideas?
  • Then how shall we go about iterating on those ideas that we’ve selected in order to build one or two examples?


Fig 1. The Inspiration process
Above is a simplistic visual of the way in which I think of the design process. Many sources of inspiration, whether technological, cultural or even political, lead to a multitude of ideas, which, through iteration and pruning lead to artifacts which help with testing and selection.


Taking the topic of Values of Space and Place from the Domesticity 2.0 theme as an example, a rough outline of a design process might include:

1. Context: Understanding what we mean by values in the home, and looking for situations in which we might develop ideas that add value to these spaces, by revisiting research work that we’ve done to date, as well as instigating a new round of field research. Once we have an understanding of what we do or don’t know about what we’re interested in we can set up a new set of field research, perhaps even revisiting previous subjects, with a new set of questions in mind.

2. Inspirations: I’m a strong believer that inspiration comes from many sources, any of which can lead to strong ideas. My goal here would be the generation and recording of MANY ideas, though. We have a tendency to sit around as a team and chat until ideas emerge, and we often have strong pre-conceived notions of what ideas we are already fans of. I’d like to see us make a more concerted effort at pushing ourselves, in a more typical brainstorming fashion, to go for a breadth of new ideas, rather than fixating on the details of one or two existing ones.

We should see ideas as a resource, as a sign of the creative output of our team. Instead, we tend to let go of our ideas and lose them once they are no longer of interest in our current work. Instead, I imagine making a concerted effort to record our ideas so that even if they don’t work out and apply for our current theme they provide some fodder for future inspiration. Ideas are an investment for our team.

It’s likely that any review of prior work described in the previous section on context will already throw up inspiration for a set of ideas for design work. Some other sources of inspiration might include juxtaposing our theme with unrelated work. We might, for example, review content from the Trends website looking for technologies and their social uses whose compliment or contrast with our theme provide some interesting new ideas. We might also look for inspiration in purely visually-stimulating content. One way of doing this might be to search a stock photo website looking for images associated with particular concepts and keywords.

3. Visualizing I’d like to see us go through a slightly more participatory process for visualizing our ideas earlier on. We have a tendency to talk about ideas in the abstract, and often the process of visualizing them helps bring clarity for everyone. We can do this by having me sketch during reviews of our ideas, but ideally there’s no reason that the team as a whole doesn’t draw what they mean as they say it. As we develop our ideas, we may chose to visualize them in different ways – as abstract 3D models made from found items, as simple thumbnail sketches, or as highly rendered items.

4. Testing and choosing: At this point “testing” really means discussing the pros and cons of different ideas in order to prune. Depending on how our ideas have developed, and what we may be more or less excited about, we may chose for this choice-making part of the process to include family members. Again, we’re not particularly rigorous about this part of the process. I’d like to see us go through a more structured, choice-making exercise, in the style of a design crit, at different points in the project.

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Getting your hands dirty

I did my undergraduate degree in Industrial Design at Brunel University in West London. I call it a jack-of-all-trades in which we did masses of hands-on as well as theoretical work. In the workshops we did welding, sand casting, jewellery, plastics, woodworking, metal work. In our electronics labs we designed and built our own PCBs, programming them in Assembly language through old BBC B computers. We learnt how to do product renderings with markers, and engineering drawings using Autocad.

Once I got my serious day job in the software industry I dropped most of that. It’s fair to say I’ve spent my last 12 years with a mouse as my only tool. But I’ve found myself getting my hands dirty, dusting off some of those old shop skills, since I started working here in Cambridge. Judging by this New York Times article I’m not the only one loving the energy and satisfaction that you get from building physical things, and how that feeds back positively into the way you think about virtual things.


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Pathfinder watch

I heard this object mentioned the other day on Radio 4, and I know it’s got a lot of other press attention, but now that I see it “in person” I can’t help but blog it here. What a lovely idea, and a lovely object, pre-dating GPS by some 70 years (according to MSN). The owner of the watch would load it up with one of a number of pre-printed, linear maps of their journey, and as they drive along in their automobile, they scroll the watch along to see where they’re going.

It’s on display as part of the Weird and Wonderful Inventions exhibition at the British Library in London. Other objects are in MSN’s photo gallery.


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Platform 12: Radio Active Presentation

Students on the RCA‘s Design Products course chose a “platform” on which they want to focus from pretty much the beginning of their two years at the college. Each has it’s own philosophy, process, set of tutors and so on. It’s a pretty big decision for them to make, as far as I can tell, since it helps dictate much of the way they work until they graduate.

Platform 12 stands out for me mostly because one of the tutors is Durrell Bishop, a graduate from the same course as me at the college, and a design star. He’s famous for emphasizing the connection between virtual and physical items through his marble answer-phone project, now 16 years old (see the Ideas section of Durrell’s site).

At the RCA’s interim show earlier in the year the students presented a the results of a project called Radio Active. Their brief was basically to disassemble and reassemble a radio, rethinking it’s interactions. I was really struck by the diversity of output by the students and was happy to find this page with shots of each of the resulting projects.

Mikael Silvanto developed his “08 Radio” from this project to something that he ended up showing at the final degree show, and which got quite a bit of attention in the press.



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Microsoft Design Expo 2008

I’ve been really impressed by the student output from the design courses at Dundee University in Scotland. I saw work from the Innovative Product Design (IPD) course at New Designers a couple of years ago and was really struck by the fact that they encouraged visitors to their booth to play with their creations. Most other booths contained beautiful models with "Do Not Touch" notices all over them. Not Dundee’s.

I was asked by Lili Cheng to find a design school in the UK to participate in this years Design Expo at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond. This is an annual event that we’ve been holding for five years as part of the Faculty Summit. We invite 8 or 9 design colleges from around the world to participate. We set a brief for their students who are broken up into teams. At the end of the project the "best" of those student groups is sent to Redmond to present to an audience of Microsoft Employees and visiting faculty.

I immediately thought of Dundee as possible participants in the event. They have a really strong faculty, both on IPD and its "sister" course, Interactive Media Design (IMD), with a really great emphasis on building objects and software with a great deal of sensitivity.

So I’ve been working with Polly Duplock, John Rogers and Graham Pullin at Dundee who took Microsoft’s brief, which was broadly about education and learning, and reinterpreted it as an exercise in understanding the dynamic between generations, particularly grandparents and grandkids. They split their 2nd year students into 10+ groups of four, each with two members from IPD and IMD. Each student got a role as either a "designer" and "builder" for software or hardware, depending on their course. Based on this role each student spent the Christmas holidays talking to one of their grandparents about their history and their collections of things. They might look into their grandparent’s photo collections, for example, or make audio recordings of them.

Each team then picked one of their four grandparents to focus on for the design of their project. They sketched, developed concept videos and built proof-of-concept pieces of hardware using Pure Data and Arduino microprocessors. We had a review of all the work in April. I have to say that I was pretty blown away by the quality and sensitivity put into all the work, and the fact that the students had been so creative in their production of smoke-and-mirror or in some cases fully working prototypes. They’ve produced a really compelling website that summarizes all of their work.


Unfortunately, we had to pick just one of the student groups to go through to the presentations in the US. After some debate and negotiation we settled on the Storymaker, Storyteller project, a pair of devices, designed specifically for Donald, the grandfather of one of the students, Neil. He had been a teacher in Iran, and had a large slide collection and a lot of stories to tell. One of the the two devices that the team designed, the Storymaker, allows Donald to tell his tales using his huge slide collection through the familiar form of a slide viewer. As he speaks it captures the current slide and his story digitally. The other, a digital projector (the Storyteller), allows Neil to listen to those stories in his own time and environment. It’s a really great example of bridging the generational divide using forms that are comfortable and appropriate to each person.

I hadn’t actually seen the project between the review in April and when the students arrived here in Redmond on Saturday. I was totally stunned by the amount of work that the team (Joanna Montgomery, Neil Dawson, Natalie Montgomery and Lee Murray) had obviously put in in the interim. The two objects had gone through this dramatic transformation. They’re beautiful, harking back to the 60s and 70s, with some touches of Dieter Rams.

The Storymaker & Storyteller

You can read a lot more about their efforts on the project’s site.

The presentations were yesterday. There were 9 teams from across the world and Dundee went last. Their presentation went flawlessly, and they came across as very confident. I was really impressed by how they presented using just images in a slideshow, as well as the two objects, as prompts, rather then using their slides as a crutch. Their project was also the only one in which they demoed their items live, which is always a risk. We were nervous about this after some hiccups during the rehearsals, but the Storymaker and Storyteller devices worked effortlessly. The simplicity and elegance of these devices, and their appropriateness to Neil’s grandfather really came across.

Congratulations and thanks to these four students, to all the students who participated in the original brief, and to the faculty up in Dundee for all your hard work. A lot of the employees here in Redmond that I’ve spoken too were blown away by the quality and emotive properties of the project. Well done!

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