Design Internet of Things Talks Technology

The Shape of Things

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at Webstock in New Zealand in February 2016, lightly edited to remove many terrible jokes. For more information about Webstock, New Zealand, the artwork in this piece and more more, skip to the bottom of the page to the unnecessarily long transcript. It’s also a repost of an article I posted to Medium. See the talk in its original context.

What I’m going to be doing today:

Today I’m going to be talking about the thinking we’ve been doing at Thington about the right and wrong ways to interact with a world of connected objects, and some of the problems we’ve been trying to solve.

In particular I want to talk about the relationship we’re starting to build between physical network-connected objects and some kind of software or service layer that sits alongside them, normally interacted with via a mobile phone.

And I’m going to talk a bit about how there’s a push in the design community to find a different model, dissolving the top layer here into the object itself through (a) tangible, physical computing, or through (b) metaphors of enchantment or magic:

I’m going to try and argue that both of these models are kind of wrong! And I’m going to be chatting about a few ways that I think we could and should be a bit nicer to the software or service layer (with a nice long digression about tangible computing on the way).

This is, by all accounts, a pretty deep, weird and nerdy talk, through which I hope to expose to you some of the insane depths of computer history and the weird arguments designers have.

But first a little history…

A brief history of computing in the Twentieth Century:

We’re going to start with Thomas Watson — the gentleman founder of IBM — and a statement that he is alleged to have made in 1943 that sounds crazy and entertaining to modern ears. That statement is:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”

There’s actually very little evidence he made this statement at all, but at the time it wasn’t a particularly unusual statement to make. For example, Charles Darwin’s grandson — who was slightly unfortunately also called Charles Darwin — said in 1946 of the UK:

“It is very possible that … one machine would suffice to solve all the problems … demanded of it from the whole country”

And then there’s this chap, early computer pioneer and telepathic supervillain Howard Aiken, who said:

People genuinely didn’t think there were going to be many computers in the world! Even after twenty years — maybe because of twenty years — in the tech industry I find this a super weird thought. I find this a really hard idea to get my head around.

So how did this match up with the actual reality? This following picture is me in the late seventies in my favorite Disney Winnie the Pooh t-shirt, in Norwich in the UK, not looking very cool. This is about thirty-five years after Thomas Watson from IBM’s statement, coincidentally roughly halfway between that statement and today:

In terms of computing, where are we? From the four or five computers that Thomas Watson thought we’d have, we’re already up to the massive 50,000 units of computers sold each year. That’s quite a shift!

Skipping forward another fifteen years or so, here I am again:

Here I’ve finished primary and secondary school, and I’ve gone to University and I’m starting grad school and I’ve popped over to the US to have my photo taken on top of the Empire State Building with my tongue out. At this point in the world there are in active use something like 150 million computers.

Here are pictures of me in the early 2000s (one billion computers have ever been sold) and the mid-2000s (two billion computers have ever been sold).

And then of course this happened:

I think we all forget how quickly things can change, but I think it’s fair to say that the era of the modern smart-phone starts with the iPhone, and it’s really important to remember that only launched a little under nine years ago. This by the way, is the very first advert for the iPhone which essentially replaced single use telephones with general purpose computers connected to the phone network.

Three years after the iPhone launched — so about six years ago now — in addition to all of the desktop and laptop computers we were buying, we were also buying 150 million smart phones a year.

Five years later — 2016 — and it’s projected that 1.6 billion smartphones will be sold. In one single year, one smart phone will be bought for every five people on the planet.

But what happens next? A world of connected objects.

Now the reason I’ve taken you through this little adventure is to just remind you that within a human lifetime, we’ve gone from essentially zero computers sold per year to billions. It’s been a period of an extraordinary increase in the availability of computation — with processors shrinking and becoming more powerful every day. And not only has it been growing at an extraordinary rate, that rate itself is accelerating. The last decade has seen a massive expanse in available computation and it shows no sign of slowing down. We can expect a world of hundreds of billions — trillions — of computers distributed around the world around us within a few years — embedded absolutely everywhere they can make even the slightest incremental improvement.

I’m talking of course about the Internet of Things, and this is where I make my first grandiose assertion of the day:

It’s a time of tremendous change. After years of design experiments and academic discussion, the cost and availability of components and the ready availability of smart phone interfaces means that the Internet of Things is finally rapidly approaching.

In fact, I’ll go further and say that within a decade almost all new electrical appliances and devices that we buy for the home will have some kind of network component — to say nothing of our offices or public spaces. Quite seriously, the world of tomorrow is dripping in objects that belch out information or can take commands, or both…

But don’t take my word for it. This is Samsung’s CEO at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he made the Internet of Things their major focus:

“By 2017, all Samsung televisions will be IoT devices, and in five years, all Samsung hardware will be IoT devices”

By the way, CES is an amazing event too. After years of it being something that internet people didn’t really attend, it feels like that’s finally changing as software and computation starts moving into devices.

When I went last year, there were smart dishwashers, heaters, smart air conditioning units and humidifiers, smart lighting, smart garage door openers, things to open curtains, check if your house was on fire, smart ovens and kitchen scales, smart vacuum cleaners and smart security systems. If it could take a battery or plug into the mains there was a smart version of it… And they were being made by companies like Samsung, Polaroid, Canon, Panasonic, Quirky, Sony, Belkin, Parrot, Honeywell and many others.

But how do people access the power of these devices?

Honestly, however good the hardware was at CES and however much of it there was, often the the benefits that thetechnology seemed to bring people just did not seem to be as good as I might have hoped. The power of the internet was just not present in these devices — the networked parts of the product were effectively little more than app-based remote controls.

To me, it was still clear that they were going to be able to offer tremendous power to us all to control and understand the world around us, but there was little sense of how a normal person might harness or grab that power in comprehensible ways.

Now some of you might be even more suspicious and say that there’s little or no power to be discovered in a world of connected devices. I think that’s wrong, but I also think it’s an understandable statement. Some of these devices have been crazy and lurid and wasteful in their use of technology and bring no obvious benefits to their users.

But today, I’m going to focus on those devices that (when enhanced with the internet) get better. This statement from my friend Matt Rolandson from Ammunition Group in San Francisco sums up this category for me:

“You should use the network to amplify a tool’s core purpose, not to be another web browser or Twitter client”

I really think this is one of the most bluntly useful and apparently obvious things that anyone has said about the Internet of Things as it manifests in devices and appliances. The Internet can and should be used to amplify a devices core purpose and if it does so, it makes that device better and more useful.

But surely there are better ways for us to amplify the purpose of things than just giving them a remote control?

There now follows a brief guide to Tangible Computing — and thanks to Doctor Who and Rick & Morty for the examples I’ve used here.

Merging the physical and the digital

Okay — so this is the pattern that I mentioned earlier — essentially there’s an object — here an oven — and it comes with an app that runs on a mobile phone. The app is essentially a remote control for the main object, one that potentially has a few rule making components with it that make it a little more interesting and useful.

This is a model that actually enhances the object it’s attached to — it makes it easier to control or check up upon from a distance, but it seems a bit simplistic and on the nose. Can this really be the extent of the future we’re looking for? And is the reason it feels a bit dull an interaction problem?

One direction that designers have traditionally been very keen to explore is dissolving those two parts together — merging the service layer and physical objects to make something seamless and more powerful, that a user might interact with in both the ‘data’ environment and the ‘physical’ environment at the same time. Essentially the goal here is to break down the distinction between the two parts of the ‘thing’ (actual vs virtual) to make something new and hybridised.

There are so many people making these arguments in the (perhaps more cerebral) parts of the design community that it sometimes seems inevitable that this is the direction that we should be moving in. Let me give you some examples:

This is a quote from Josh Clark (from Connected // Disconnected), who has been talking around IoT on the design side for a while now and is a very sharp guy:

“The potential of the internet of things is to improve on what mobile does so well. Instead of availability at the point of inspiration, IoT lets us shift to interaction with the point of inspiration. Add sensors and smarts to an object or place, and you no longer have to pull out your phone for a digital interaction.”

And this is a quote from Matt Webb in the UK from a piece called ‘Waving, Not Designing’ that he wrote a few years back:

Why use just your fingers to select what’s on a display when you can use your whole body? It’s often easier, and makes more sense. Like, when you use a hammer, you don’t key into system to say “hit at point X with force F” and then stand back and let it happen, you just pick up the hammer and hit with it, using your body to judge strength and your eyes to judge position.

I could genuinely list a hundred other people making this argument. And they’re some of my favourite people in the design community too — people who are looking around, reaching for something truly new and interesting and more intuitive.

This is literally a screenshot from an argument I had on Twitter with a super sharp friend of mine, who is clearly pining for something a bit beyond the model of “phone + thing”.

Designers are looking for a new natural vocabulary for the next generation of devices, and they’re looking towards embodied interactions and tangible computing.

A brief guide to Tangible Computing

Much of this thinking is inspired by the ground-breaking work of people like Paul Dourish, David Rose, Durrell Bishop, Natalie Jeremijenko and Hiroshii Ishii.

Now I have to apologise here because for brevity I’m going to have to wildly over-simplify their positions (you should go and read and research their work online at least — it’s great stuff) but essentially they want to blur and even dissolve the distinction between the digital and the physical. They think rather than have a differentiated service layer, the magical intelligence should merge with the physical object. And that, in the doing of this, they believe simpler, clearer, more powerful, magical objects emerge.

Their argument is fundamentally that the world of screens and icons is too abstracted and separate from the world around us and the ways in which human beings understand that world.

Let me give you an example — David Rose in his book “Enchanted Objects” talks about four visions of the future. The most awful one he describes is called, “Terminal World”.

“It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils and paintbrushes, all are gone. The artifacts, tools, toys and appliances we love and rely on today have converged into this slice of shiny glass, its face filled with tiny, inscrutable icons that now define and control our lives…”

Now unsurprisingly, David doesn’t want this world to happen (or for phones to eat his children) so he presents an alternative view that he called “Enchanted Objects”. He describes it as ‘technology that atomizes, combining with the objects that make up the very fabric of daily living’ and the examples he provides are really lovely.

Glowcaps helps people remember to take their pills

One particular example he worked on himself is the Glowcaps system, which beeps and flashes with increasing urgency if you forget to take your pills on any given day. And he talks about many others, including Nest Thermostats that predict your temperature needs, umbrellas with lights upon them that signal up when it’s going to rain that day and many more.

These are genuinely useful and interesting things and there genuinely are more of them every day coming into the world. The Glowcaps alone have a huge impact on people whose drug regimens have to be strictly adhered to.

The metaphor here, as I’ve said, is ‘enchantment’ — magical interactions — bringing the intelligence into the object itself as you would with an ancient sword, rather than believing in the presence of a separate, service layer.

Diamond Pickaxe + Enchanted Book = Enchanted Pickaxe

Leaping back in time quite a long way for a moment for illustrative purposes, here are two classic examples from the early nineties of the blurring of the physical and the digital — bringing the virtual representation and the real object so close that they become one definite thing.

On the left we have Durrell Bishop’s answering machine. This pumps out a little marble when you have a message, and you place the marble on a sensor tray to play it back. Natalie Jeremijenko’s dangling string simply indicates the amount of network traffic in a space by twitching a string in a room, giving people an ambient awareness of activity.

I bring these up because they are classics of the field — almost foundations of the field — of tangible computing and were first to articulate some of these goals that we’ve talked about so far..

Paul Dourish, in fact, went a step further in his seminal book ‘Where the Action is’ around 2001, suggesting not just that things would be better if the physical and the digital were closer together but that such a path was effectively inevitable and natural.

He framing our interactions with technology as a series of approaches that build one upon the other, each employing a skillset that more closely reflects how human beings understand and instinctively interact with the world.

Paul Dourish’s “The Stages of Human Experience of Interaction with Computers”

And it certainly does seem like there continues to be a lot of ways in which more tangible interactions with enchanted objects could provide a lot of power in the world. It’s clear we’ll see a lot more of this kind of approach — the focusing on the invisibility of the technology, dissolving in the use of the object. It promises a certain seamlessness of interaction.

Some problems with merging the virtual and the actual

But is it the ultimate answer to how we interact with a world of connected objects? There’s a desire by people using these guys as inspiration to try and make every object self-explanatory, self-evident, complete and seamless and separate from other things. And that seems like a flawed enterprise to me and it seems to miss where quite a lot of the power of connected objects might be… That is, in the connections.

In the first place, I think there’s a bit of a category mistake going on here. For Hiroshi Ishii and Paul Dourish, for example, the work they’re doing is more concerned with using physical interfaces to manipulate data, rather than bringing computation into devices. Their focus seems generally in making the manipulation of digital objects more intuitive by bringing it into the physical, a space that we have dedicated millions of years of evolution to understanding intuitively.

The internet of things, however, is much more about enhancing the physical with the digital, making the objects make more sense at a distance, or drawing out information from them and bringing it into a virtual space where we can do stuff with it.

In some ways, you might argue that the fact that the two merge the physical and the digital is a coincidence — and that in all the ways that count, they are actually opposites of one another.

I’d also add that one of the thing I think contemporary designers miss is that these thinkers were very focused on the environment surrounding the object and the abstract information about who owns it, who can use it, what information the object needs in order to be able to do its job most effectively.

Dourish is very focused on the environment around the things, Rose very focused in the services around the objects. I think it’s a mistake to think that their focus on better objects means less focus on better service layers.

Another example that complicates this tangible vision — in my home, I have various smart lights connected to the Internet but it doesn’t really make sense to me to think of them individually — they’re part of a larger system which is ‘My environment’. What is it specifically that I connect with or touch or interact with to make them act in the world? The objects are definitely acting independently, but it feels like there’s something that connects them.

Again, it feels like something that isn’t situated in the object, it feels like there’s something between them. My intuition is that I’m communicating with or manipulating something beyond the level of an individual object, and it feels like that’s the intuition that in this context we should build interfaces around. Perhaps then the power simply doesn’t come from dragging the network down into the physical thing, but with embracing the network and the object as complementary but separate parts of the same system…

In fact it’s this problem of what’s most intuitive that gives me most pause for tangible computing generally. The assumption from many of these thinkers is that making an interface that’s physical makes it inherently more intuitive.

But I don’t buy that physical affordances alone will make it immediately obvious what a smart connected object is for. Sure, you pick up a hammer and you immediately want to hit something (or maybe that’s just me) — but is that true of a smart hammer?

That seems to me to also be dubious — for every good product that makes more sense when embodied or made tangible, it seems another is likely to pick up some strange magical interaction metaphors that are less intuitive, or even counter intuitive. It’s quite possible that in taking something that is ‘natively’ digital or abstracted and merging it with something else with physical affordances, we create a thing at war with itself. Not more intuitive at all, but just much more confusing.

Are we making things that are effortless, or are we simply creating a whole new vocabulary of interactions that people have to get their heads and hands around?

Our cousins in computer engineering talk about General Purpose Computing — whereas as designers we’re often tempted by the quest to find the ultimately specific interface for the thing in front of us. But each slightly different interface creates an extra cognitive load that when multiplied across every object in the world may be wildly less intuitive than a General Purpose Interface on a phone, or smart watch or computer whose abstracted rules we learn once and can then apply everywhere.

In this quick diagram I knocked up, the green stuff is the thing that is immediately intuitive and doesn’t require learning. The red stuff are the bits that you have to learn to use. My argument here is perhaps a slightly harder to learn ‘General Purpose’ UI might have less cognitive load than a whole bunch of nearly intuitive devices where there isn’t any transferable knowledge.

So if the solution isn’t merging the physical and the digital, what is it?

Maybe we could do more with the service layer instead?

Towards a stronger service layer?

Personally I think the solution of how the physical and the digital should interact is not to bring them closer, but instead try make the relationship between the two clearer and then push the power of the service layer far beyond where it is at the moment. And I think when you actually look at the problems that confront people when they use IOT devices, you end up essentially defining the properties of what that service layer should be.

In a moment I’m going to tell you a bit about what I think that picture looks like, but first — if you’re a designer who is in any way uncomfortable with this idea of the point of interaction and the device being separated from one another — I have a quick example for you from history which might help you relax.

This is the evolution of the light switch. Lighting started with controls directly next to the kerosene, oil or electricity light and gradually moved away from the object itself to the places they made most convenient sense — by the door that you walk in through.

You shouldn’t doubt it took them a while to get there — I love the one with the cord in the middle that uses a sort of pulley system to put the interaction where it makes most sense — but in the end we all decided that we understood that the right place for a light control is just where you want to turn on the light. The light is the thing. The service layer is the switch. And the service layer sits wherever it makes most sense for the person, with the relationship between the two clear and simple.

Here’s a more up-to-date example. Zipcar has cars parked in garages and parking structures across the World. And you can book them online or from the app and open the doors and drive off with them at any time with a simple RFID card.

But the hardware here is trivial — it’s just an RFID reader and a couple of switches, allowing the engine to start and the doors to unlock.

It’s in the service layer that the value of Zipcar truly lies — you probably book the car from home, so you’ll probably book it via your phone. And then you’ll use all those brilliant features of the internet that cars don’t naturally have — an understanding of identity, payment and a sense of location. It’s from that interplay a beautiful and powerful service is born that makes thousands of cars in thousands of locations yours to spin up as a software engineer might spin up an EC2 instance.

So what is the ideal service layer for the Internet of Things?

Here are the six things that I currently think are the core features of an enhanced service layer for general smart things.

Number one is nice and simple — the ideal service layer gives you control. It should give you the ability to control an object locally (even though it may be easier to do it through a physical interface) as well as from a distance.’

This is so obvious I’m surprised I have to mention it, except that advocates of embodied interaction always seem to miss that it’s actually a core attribute of a smart device that you don’t need to be physically present to control it or find out information from it. The exciting part of the Internet of Things is the Internet! And the Internet has been about collapsing distance and making the world accessible wherever you are. It’s no different with the Internet of Things.

Number two is about how a service layer lives with you over time. The ideal service layer supports you from initial set-up to the day you decide to recycle it.

This is one of the things I think is most bizarrely missed out on in most IoT products. Owning a piece of hardware is a relationship with a beginning, middle and end. You start off researching something to buy, you choose it, install it, use it, try and set it up to meet your needs, you buy supplies for it, you clean it, occasionally it breaks down and you throw it away, or you get it serviced and fixed. Eventually you decide to upgrade it.

Having a service layer transforms a thing from something a manufacturer sells to something that forms an ongoing relationship between manufacturer and consumer. There’s so much potential there it’s startling.

Number three is a huge one for me and again brings in some of those features that we saw with Zipcar (and interestingly come naturally to light switches). The ideal service layer understands that the device will be used by multiple people.

Again, these are things that if you look at almost other part of the Internet are obvious and baked in. Loads of services build on the Internet have concepts of identity. You can log in as someone and get access to various features. Different people can have different permissions. But for most IOT devices this is still completely absent. (This is a subject I’ve written about before in a piece about Thington: Why people are the most important part of a world of smart things…)

A quick example if you buy a nest thermostat first you install it in your home, then you create an account so that you and the thermostat are karmically connected. Then for every other person who lives in your house, or may come and visit and who you think might have to have some control over the temperature while they’re there, you simply sign in as you on their phones too.

This, I might suggest, is crazy. It makes it effectively impossible for it to react differently to different members of your family! It makes it impossible to know why a room is the temperature it is.

It also makes it possible for someone to come and stay at your house and then once they’ve left your house somehow continue to control the temperature in your house at long distance with you having no way to stop them! This has happened to me and it simply shouldn’t be possible. We should know better. This is easy to fix!

Number four is where all the promise of the Internet of Things lives and yet sometimes feels like the farthest away from coming into reality. The ideal service layer is able to work easily with all the things you have.

A smart light switch is great, but even better if it can coordinate with motion sensors in the house and with the geofences triggered by your phone to turn off precisely when you want them to. A sprinkler system works particularly well if it knows not to turn on when the windows are open, or when it has recently rained, or if you’re just about to walk through the garden.

But even if you have number four, then you still need number five for this power to be even trivially available for people. The ideal service layer does not expect you to become a programmer.

To create the kinds of coordinated responses I just talked about, someone has to somehow encode the expectations and the relationships and string them together. And at the moment there really aren’t any good ways to do this.

One way to stop you having to become a programmer is to make all the decisions automatically for you. This is the way that Nest attempts to do things — it’s just supposed to observe how you live your life and intuit what you want to do next.

I’ve interviewed dozens of people who have the nest and with a few exceptions they’ve all turned its magical learning features off. It just wasn’t doing the right things at the right time. I should add that they all loved their nests and found the ability to warm up the house on their way home really really useful. But the predictive things were making assumptions about their activities that were not immediately comprehensible by their users. And when the learning features were on the devices felt inscrutable to them, confusing and alien.

Nest thinks you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

But if Nest’s interfaces aren’t perfect, at least they’re vastly superior to the other end of the spectrum:

Yahoo Pipes

This is an example of the UI from Yahoo Pipes, but honestly it’s the visual equivalent of what a lot of programmers I know are doing in their homes with IoT devices. It’s pretty clear this can’t be the direction.

It’s possible to simplify this kind of interaction with services like IFTTT (If This Then That), which let’s you set one ‘trigger’ and then ‘one response’ in a pretty simple way. But while it’s simpler to assemble, to make any complex situation you end up making lots of simple rules instead of one complex one. It doesn’t really make things much better. And that’s because even the simplest requests a person might make actually end up being much more complex than the first appear. For example, people say they want this:

“When I get home, turn on some lights”

But when you actually dig into what they actually want — when you take into account the various devices, people and contexts that impact how you’d like your home — you end up with something a bit more like this:

I genuinely think giving people all the power of a complex rules system, without bombarding them with UI complexity, is the hardest problem in the Internet of Things at the moment and the one most deserving of extraordinary mental effort trying to fix. All the power of these devices hides between interfaces and metaphors that are totally incomprehensible to normal people.

Finally, we get to number six. The ideal service layer communicates clearly and politely in ways that are timely and familiar. And this is I think super important, because at the moment a whole bunch of devices that we use are pretty much totally inscrutable and we don’t know why they did the things they did. And when they do decide to tell us things they do so by aggressively beeping or sending us notifications by the truckload. Finding the model that makes these communications humane and polite is one of the other largest challenges we face.

Personally I think the answers here lie in the work we’ve been doing to make communication between people comprehendible — our social streams might be a great metaphor for a world of communicative devices. But more on that shortly. In the meantime, here are my six principles again:

These are the principles that we’ve been working with when we’re building Thington — but I think they’re equally applicable to almost any software layer for a connected object you can imagine.

They are a set of ideas that I think represent a service layer way beyond the simple idea of a remote control — a service built with them could follow you across devices, across contexts, across the world. I really think this is the way that we should be working, the direction we should be pushing in.


So I’ve talked at length through this piece about the core directions I see in front of us now in trying to make a world of connected devices comprehendible to normal people. One is a common refrain among talented designers — that interaction should be embedded more into the physicality of the things themselves. The other is my own position, that this world at scale only really makes sense — can only really be intuitive — if we accept that a service layer exists, has to exist, is useful and important. I’ve also argued that we should push the service layer forward away from being something bland and slight like a universal remote control towards something deeper and more interesting.

With Thington in particular we’re experimenting with a couple of metaphors that I think really embody these principles and push them further in interesting ways.

Firstly we’re treating the way your objects communicate with you the same way that Facebook treats your friends communicate with you — with human readable chatty, social media-like streams of information.

And secondly we’re trying to replicate the feeling of a butler or assistant suggesting things he can do to make your life better. In doing so we’re trying as much as possible to take the complex rule-making systems away from the general user.

Obviously, I’d love it if you went to and had more in depth look at what we’ve chosen to do, but if you don’t have a chance to do that, here’s a way of representing what we’re doing that is pretty fun (even if it does make it look super ridiculous).

Thington as a home for conversational devices and for the Thington concierge (or robotic butler)

These are just our attempts to live up to the principles we’ve put together and build an experience that takes the service layer way beyond what exists at the moment.

This may resonate with you, or it may not. I hope it does. But even if you don’t agree with me on the specifics — even if you think that tangible interactions and embodied interaction are the future of every device on the planet — the one thing I really need you to believe and take away with you is that this world of connected devices one way or another is coming.

Every day more devices, appliances, sensors and actuators, homes and cities are coming online in one way or another, and this is going to have a transformative effect on the world.

I personally believe that the company that creates the service layer for the Internet of Things could be as significant, powerful and large as Amazon, Google or Facebook — only they’ll not be the way you interact with your friends, but with the entire physical world that surrounded you. We’re on the brink of a new service layer for the physical world that operates at a truly planetary scale.

And the design patterns and interactions for this world are being formed right now, by people just like us. And if we don’t get involved and design and think about the complexities of the world, then other people will, and when they do they’ll encode in them ethics, belief systems, views on privacy and intrusiveness, a sense of the role of network in the life of the individual that may be very different from the world we’d like to live in.

This has been a long piece, so it might be difficult to stretch your memory right back to the beginning, but if you remember, I referred to this alleged misquote by Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”

When I read his line, I’m always reminded of Clay Shirky’s response, referring to the Internet.

“Thomas Watson predicted that the world would not ever need more than five computers. We now know that he overestimated that by four” Clay Shirky

To which I would add only add that every day, more and more, this one computer in the world is the world in which we live.

It’s massive, wild, distributed and it’s starting to break free of the browser and the app and permeate every aspect of our homes, offices and public spaces.

So this is the time to get involved, to explore this space and find better patterns, better interactions, better models of how the future will work. This is the moment where we as designers can have the most impact, helping to define a User Experience, an ethical, powerful, transformative UX at quite literally a planetary scale.

The world of tomorrow could be transformed for the better if we work to make it so, and I believe very strongly we have it in us to make it truly extraordinary. And that’s all I have.


If you’re interested in trying out Thington, go to to find out more and download the app. If you have any questions or comments, ping us on our Twitter account @thingtonhq or e-mail us at and we’ll do everything we can to help you out. There’s a list of Frequently-Asked Questions on the Thington website too: Frequently Asked Questions.

If you’re a manufacturer or potential partner and you’re interested in Thington integration or want to find out more about what we’re doing, then e-mail us at

If you’re a member of the press and would like to talk to us then e-mail us at — there are also some resources for you available at

As I said at the beginning of this article, this talk was given originally at Webstock in New Zealand in February 2016. In this version I’ve removed a few of the jokes that only make sense if you know Webstock orNew Zealand very well. Having said that, if you haven’t been to New Zealand or to Webstock then you are really missing out and you should make an extra special effort to do so. It is my favourite event on the planet, the country is stunningly beautiful and the people are completely amazing. As always, thanks enormously to Tash, Deb, Mike, Ben and the Webstock audience for being incredibly welcoming and brilliant in every way.

The artwork in this piece was mostly drawn by Tom Coates in Adobe Illustrator, but the visual style of the whole thing comes from a beautiful piece of illustration by Chris Martin for Wired UK about setting up a smart home and my own efforts with the House of Coates twitter account. I loved the piece so much that I found a way to contact him online and I have two copies of it printed and framed — one in the office, one at home. My own efforts in this article are a bad pastiche of his extraordinary work, and I hope are received with the spirit they were created — as a statement of enormous respect to his creativity and a love of his style.

The typeface in the illustrations to this piece was made by Tom Coates in a weird little app for the iPad called iFontMaker. It is — as you might expect — based on a slightly stylized version of my handwriting. If you want to get your hands on it, please reconsider! There are much better typefaces in the world with a similar aesthetic. If I still can’t persuade you otherwise, I’m still working on all the special characters, and when I’ve done enough of them I’ll think about putting it out in public.

This material is in part based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (1621491). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Design Technology

An extremely quick and rough attempt to explain design and designers to people from other disciplines… V0.2

Warning: This is rough as a bucket of spanners, but I’m trying to summarize a whole bunch of stuff quickly. Feedback is appreciated. Work in progress etc.

Watching someone collide with some of the various ways that designers tend to describe themselves and how their job titles have shifted and changed over time, I tried to write up a quick summary of how I understand design practice, particularly focused on people working with products that have digital components. I’d love to get any feedback or thoughts that any of you might have — feel free to add a comment on the side or query stuff, and at some point in the future I may attempt to write it up in a more coherent form.

A particular problem I’ve noticed is an absolute brain fart that I’ve sometimes had from people who can’t get past that designers are fundamentally about making things ‘pretty’.

Well for a start — yes we are. A huge part of design is working out how to communicate a product, sell a product, make the experience of using a product evocative, emotionally enriching and pleasant. But there are other skills that are lumped under ‘design’ as a discipline and any individual designer you meet will have strengths in one area or another to a greater or lesser degree.

This piece is just an attempt to summarize some of the things that people who operate under the title of ‘designer’ might focus on, or be good at. Some designers are very flexible across the spectrum, others focus in on one area or another and are deeper in that one as a result.

At a first approximation in a primarily digital environment these are the kinds of things that designers are focused on:

Look & Feel / Visual design:

Does it look and feel appealing / professional etc?
Do you have an appropriate emotional reaction to the thing that makes you want to use it more?

Communication design
(in the context of internet products):

Does a user know what the thing you’re making is for?
Can they tell what kind of thing it is from looking at it?
Does it reveal how it’s supposed to fit into your life?
Is the language used clear and unambiguous?

Interaction Design
(and a bit of information architecture):

Can you tell how to use it, does it make sense?
Does it work like you expect it to?
Does it make it easier to do complicated things?
Do you get a sense of how everything fits together?
Would you know where to find a particular feature you wanted?

Experience Design, Audience Research & Invention:

What are the moments in the lifecycle of the thing that you’re making that are opportunities for it to explain itself or communicate with users?
Does an existing product match with the needs you have in your actual life?
Do users have needs that are unmet by existing products and services that you could meet with a new idea.
Is there a way to communicate an idea or a concept that reveals something about the world through an object or a project.

This is a bit of an arbitrary arrangement roughly arranged to go from details of execution through to the concept —or from the concrete to the abstract.

In this arc, the ones nearer the top are focused less on the guts of the project and more about improving and enhancing it. The ones at the bottom are more about the very idea at the heart of the thing, that will be expressed in the crafts higher up the ‘stack’…

Generally the more clarity you have about things nearer the bottom, then the easier and more focused the thing will be as you go up the stack towards the visual layer.

It’s easy to say that the visual layer, therefore, is less important — ‘just coloring in’ — but I’d protest about that. The coloring in is the thing that people respond to first, the first thing they see, the first experience they have of your product, and something that can frame and color every experience they see with the product. Plus it’s bloody difficult and hard to do well. A designer who can make an evocative product but can’t think through the deeper issues systematically is no worse than a great structural thinker who can’t communicate their ideas well. People have strengths in different areas, and you hire to try and balance them.

would say though that beautiful design that expresses the essence of something probably has to understand that essence, so some knowledge of what’s going on in the guts is fundamental. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those people have to be working intensively on the core idea. Sometimes they just help you refine your thoughts and digest them into a simple narrative that they can express visually.

And yes, you’ll notice lots of overlap with other disciplines, particularly ‘Marketing’ and ‘Product’. Unsurprisingly, if you’re going to build something, then you can’t just split up decisions between the disciplines. There just IS overlap between disciplines, and if there isn’t, all it really means is that design or marketing or product is taking on responsibilities that are normally (but not always necessarily) shared or split.

While these are the things that designers are there to do, there are loads of different techniques and strategies for how they can do them from card sorting to interviews to paper prototypes to personas to wild drug-fueled ecstatic dance binges, through to wireframing, mood boards and a billion other things. Quite a lot of design conferences are about the specific techniques people use in different areas of the design stack and how useful they are, ways to be faster at the process, or more thorough on the process, or how to integrate design practice and engineering or product in various effective ways. They’re also about how the various shifts in context that happen as devices become more powerful, more flexible, change shape and interaction patterns effect the practice and the techniques you’d choose to employ. etc. etc.

The titles that people use are, at some level, attempts to articulate what part of the design spectrum the person feels their strength is, or what particular design need a company has. Do you want a designer who can make your product clearer and simpler to use? Then you’re looking for an interaction designer above everything else. If you want a designer who can figure out how to make a billion dollar product fit better into people’s lives to assert your dominance in an area, then you’re looking for someone who will do interviews, research, ethnographic studies and usability testing. If you want your product to resonate a bit more with people emotionally, and for people to get a bit more of the feel of a relationship with it, then a visual or communications designer is probably where you should be starting.

One thing designers do a lot which I think confuses other disciplines is talk about what design is. I think this is mainly because almost everyone in tech products spends a bit of time doing some level of design work to a greater or lesser degree. If you build an interface for something, or a web page that connects to other web pages in a way you’re doing design work, in the same way that if you learn a bit of HTML you’re doing some software engineering. There’s a job of work for designers in continually re-explaining and re-marketing what they do that’s different from — and ideally more professional than —the work that other disciplines do in these areas. This article probably falls under that remit a bit.

After all there are engineers (mostly in tech start-ups and large engineer-led companies) who consider some of the things I’ve listed above as part of their discipline and only let the designers come in to do the work of polishing the front-end to a singular shine. On the other hand there are designers (mostly in agencies) who don’t let engineers do anything other than implement their work and wouldn’t listen to them in any area that has a connection to design. There are product people who are focused on marketing and metrics and leave all this other work completely to designers, and there are others who are much more involved, or own the product definition stuff completely and contribute to the way the design unfolds. And all of these approaches are perfectly legitimate ways to work and build things, if you’ve hired the right people for the job you want done, and if across your company you’re covering the range of skills that you need to make a product well.

A particular weakness of mine is visual design and branding. I’m far from awful at it, but I never feel like the visual layer of a product I design represents the thing I’m making as clearly and effectively as I’d like. There are people who are much, much better at that stuff than me, and I like to work with them very much indeed. The intelligence and skill a good graphic designer or brand expert can bring to a problem is a much undervalued skill in the tech industry.

My particular sense is that different disciplines lead different kinds of companies but that the best products emerge out of an interplay between business (looking for money-making opportunities), engineering (representing the space of all possible-to-make products) and design (whose focus is on translating between the code/business and members of the public).

In the end for me, design work is fundamentally focused on the form something takes and how that connects and communicates to the people who are going to use or engage with that thing. But form isn’t separate from function, or business or material science or computing or any of the other things that influence what the product or object or made thing is and how it works in its wider context and so you can and should expect a practicing designer to have some varying interest or engagement with those areas if they’re going to do their job effectively.

Design Internet of Things Technology

In praise of boring objects

This piece was originally written for the Things conference in Berlin in May 2014. It was originally posted on Medium.

Unlike the moral universe, the long arc of technology curves not towards justice, but boredom. And—at one level at least—it’s boredom that we aspire to.

We might initially thrill at a world of new functionality, new abilities and new super-powers, but we also want and expect that initial strangeness and magic to be gradually digested down into the substrate of our lives — becoming a part of the infrastructure and background of our world, barely visible, unacknowledged, almost natural.

It only takes a moment to see how uncomfortable we are with the insane, sustained complexity of the world we inhabit. Simply look around and attempt to imagine the origins and histories—the family trees—of all the products, services and objects that you can see. When you do, the spiralling complexity of it all is enough to give you vertigo.

Each thing you glance towards started with the mining of minerals in far-off lands, the harvesting of crops, the breeding and culling of animals, the processing of materials, complex machinery that grids and boils and melts and refashions. In parallel, each object has an intellectual history – reaching back across the creative labour of two thousand years worth of thinkers whose work brought us to steam, electricity, resistors, computers. Material history and scientific progress are brought together in designs on computers or sketch pads, with human hands and minds stretched across the planet, co-ordinating a collision of components from which emerge functionality, form and colour. Still more diverse people across the planet are involved in the polishing, packaging and distribution of these things, before the great ships cross the seas or trace lines across the sky, carrying these objects and materials to new homes. Finally, these objects are arranged in all their staggering overlapping complexity on the street in front of you, or the office in which you work, or the home that you love — by thousands of interconnected yet independent individuals — each object bringing new abilities into the world and into your life, making things possible that were never possible before.

So why don’t we choose to live in this world of magic and wonder all the time? Why don’t we choose to be continually surprised and stimulated by the intricate patterns formed in every direction, stretching off into the distance? Why instead do we let that complexity disappear, dissolve into our daily experience? The answer is simple — because it would be overwhelming. There’s only so much space for magic and weirdness in our lives and we reserve that space for the immediately strange, or dangerous or novel.

The small amount of drama that we’re able to deal with each day is just a sliver, shiny brightly on the water. The great invisible iceberg under the ocean is the realm of the useful, of the everyday, of the objects that don’t continually push themselves front of mind, and that’s where products and services must eventually aim if they are to be fully integrated into our lives.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the Internet of Things. It’s been almost thirty years since people started hypothesizing about a world of ubiquitous and pervasive computation, and twenty since the first toasters and coffee pots were connected to the internet. Over that time we’ve seen endless playful experiments and explorations of how objects might connect to each other and to us in thrilling new combinations of object + computation + network. But almost none of this work has reached the general public.

Only now is that starting to change, and fundamentally that’s because evolving technologies and interaction patterns have reached a sufficient level of maturity to finally let the potential unfold. You can see it everywhere — in the pervasive internet access that now spreads across the airwaves, in cheap networking components, in tiny computers stamped out by the millions and available for pennies, and in new interfaces in everyone’s pockets through which devices and appliances can be better controlled and understood. The world of the near future now looks like a place where every object can be connected to the network cheaply and easily. Finally it seems like the Internet of Things is ready to go mainstream.

More interestingly, this new generation of Internet of Things ideas seems qualitatively different from those that came before – they’re more in tune with the deeper affordances of the Internet. One very significant move has been the layering of the concept of multiple user accounts onto physical items — a now banal element of most web services is transformative when layered onto physical objects or spaces. Zipcar alone shows how some of the affordances of web services have the power to change how we interact with physical objects completely. A car is no longer an object that is owned, but a service that you can commission or spin up as needed.

And instead of adding great chunks of immediately out-of-date hardware into appliances with decade-long replacement cycles, much more of the intelligence is being abstracted out onto the network. To use a biological analogy, the objects themselves increasingly contain only eyeballs (sensors) and muscles (actuators). The nervous system and the brain are now elsewhere, abstracted out into the cloud, where they can be built upon and enhanced over the lifetime of a product. This service layer is becoming ever more as important as the physical object itself.

But for me the most important change is the move from IoT concept cars and interaction design experiments to a new world where the things we’re building are simply, cleanly useful. This latest generation of objects no longer ‘perform’ the internet—they’re not laden with touchscreens or web browsers or e-mail clients. They are instead just using the network to make better light switches, fridges and dishwashers — things that just make people’s lives a bit better.

Nest’s smoke alarms and thermostats are among the first of this new breed of products that are not simply concerned with showing off and instead are fundamentally concerned with making better objects using the network as a material. And other manufacturers are starting to follow in their wake, with large companies that produce every kind of appliance in the home, office or wider world starting to wake up to the possibilities. This is new, and as far as I’m concerned it constitutes the largest and most significant shift that we’ve seen in IoT for years.

These companies are looking for simple life-enhancing benefits from connected objects — whether it’s the tumble drier that turns on when you leave the house, the lights that turn down in any room you’re not occupying, or the fridge that informs you if it’s malfunctioning and schedules a service automatically. They’re looking at the clear value in the more effective management of energy across smart grids. They’re looking at ways to protect users from theft by making objects that simply stop working when they are stolen. And they’re looking at the new business models that become possible when you find new ways to share objects — whether it be the local home improvement tools that can be used by people only when they need them, through to appliances that you don’t buy but pay for by the use.

It’s everyday things like this that will get the Internet of Things out into the world. But it won’t happen by itself. Large appliance companies are no more able to turn their appliances into services than web technologists and service designers are able to assemble fridge-freezers out of JSON and iPhone apps. As never before, manufacturers and online service designers need to collaborate to build something collectively that is genuinely new — simple, useful, networked products that bring genuine value to people’s lives. And we need to help that collaboration happen, reaching out to each other as we do so, if we’re really going to make a world of useful, networked smart objects.

And that is the goal — a planet of objects writing and responding to the network, knitting themselves together in a new pervasive infrastructure that opens up endless new possibilities for all of us. That may sound like a leap for a discipline currently focused on super-evolved toasters and conversational light-switches, but think for a moment about where we go next.

The stage beyond this one is full of latent burgeoning potential that we cannot tap—or potentially even understand—until the network is pervasively woven into the world. Just as the social network couldn’t happen until enough people were online to make it interesting or useful, so new categories of services will start to appear as more and more objects come online.

In the near future, the world we’re building together is fundamentally about ovens and dishwashers, parking meters and water pumps. But the services we build today for our cars and phones and robot vacuum cleaners are together forming the bedrock for a tomorrow that (from here) seems much less predictable and far more exotic. The smart thermostat and the car-sharing services you use today are test-beds for the next fifty years, and the ideas we build into them now will unfold in fascinating ways that could have huge implications on everything from public space to the very concepts of ownership and sharing. Fundamentally, in our work today we’re starting the process of blending the physical territory of the world and the digital map of the world into something that becomes better than either could be by itself. Perhaps even one where the distinctions between the two no longer seem relevant or useful.

By the time we get there, it may all seem very obvious, prosaic and — grudgingly we can admit — probably profoundly useful. But for the moment this sliver of light on the water is unknown, untapped, unprocessed and fascinatingly weird and new. And we have time to appreciate that wonder, to taste it, to bring form and shape to it, to dream and argue about it, even as we day by day build towards it. The future, at its best, is a site of endless potential and change. And while in the end, technology might tend towards boredom, the creative joy is getting there.

This piece was originally written for a free publiction given out at the Things Conference hosted in Berlin in May 2014.

Design Personal Publishing Radio & Music Social Software

Visualising your listening…

I’ve been having enormous fun playing with Lastgraph over the last week or so. You tell it your username and it runs off and plots you a nice colourful graph that visualises your listening behaviour.

I’ve been with for a very long time (since 2003, when it was still really audioscrobbler) and have scrobbled a good 50,000 tracks. As a result, my graphs are pretty nice. You can get them visualised in various ways, but I would recommend using the ‘rainbow’ style and allowing it even to plot artists that you’ve only played once. That gives you the greatest detail and most beautiful results.

The most important thing about any visualisation is that it should give you another perspective on a dataset you already knew, and these graphs certainly do that. You really can get a sense of what kind of listener you’re dealing with. When you look at mine you’ll see a hell of a lot of thin lines. I listen to a lot of different artists, normally as part of ‘Most-played Five Star’ playlists and stuff like that. But alongside those classics there’s a decent and consistent injection of new albums and artists that are played more consistently. If you compared it with one of Cal’s graphs (download / pdf) at similar levels of detail then you’d see a very different picture. He listens to albums–only albums–and he listens to them over and over again until he gets bored of them. Then he sticks another album on. This is because he is from the past and hasn’t worked out that it’s all about disaggregation and stuff like that. Foolish boy.

The graphs that lastgraph generates are pretty enormous and full of detail, and because they’ve been generated as vectors, you could quite easily get one printed out onto canvas and put it up in your sitting room. I’m thinking about doing that now. I quite like the idea of decorating my home with beautiful infographics about my behaviour. When people visited they’d get all this extra easy-to-parse information about me, just as if I were a variety-sized packet of Fruit’n’Fibre. I’m a little concerned that it might seem self-involved, but not quite concerned enough not to do it. Perhaps we should make it obligatory for people to put up information on their electricity usage in their sitting rooms and see what impact that had on global warming.

If you want to see my whole graph then I’ve put up a decent-sized jpg of it that you can download and move around. It’s pretty beautiful and interesting, although I have no doubt your graph would be more interesting to you.

And if you’re interested in knowing more about the music that I’ve listened to over the last few years then my Overall charts on artists will reveal my love of Beck, Goldfrapp, The Arcade Fire, Nina Simone and Pixies. Meanwhile my most played tracks would reveal Goldfrapp’s Number 1 and Utopia, The MFA’s The Difference It Makes, Orbital’s Halcyon + On + On, Nouvelle Vague’s Friday Night, Saturday Morning among many others. It’s nice to be able to see the soundtrack of the last four years. I wonder what it’ll be like four years from now.

Design Photography

On the IA Summit, Vegas and the Leica D-LUX 3…

Tomorrow I’m going to be talking at the Information Architecture Summit in Las Vegas on a panel about Information Architecture beyond the level of the individual site. Myself, Margaret Hanley, Matt Biddulph and Lisa Chan will bet talking about the web of data, building data for reuse and all that kind of thing. You can read more about it in the IA Summit’s description of the panel: Real information architecture ‚Äì new mighty deeds. If you’re around at the event, I hope you’ll consider keeping us company and asking lots of scary questions.

In the meantime, I’m split about 50/50 between immersing myself in the conference and getting lost around Las Vegas with my new camera, the Leica D-LUX 3. I chose it because since I bought my first camphone I’ve been taking pretty terrible quality pictures, but I’ve also felt very little (if any) compulsion to take my IXUS around with me. The difference in quality between the phone and the IXUS just wasn’t significant enough to justify the extra space it would take up in my pocket. The Leica is a whole other story. It’s sufficiently good quality for me to take pictures that are dramatically superior to my phone and sufficiently powerful for me to learn about aperture and focal length and all of that stuff without having to carry around a huge SLR all day.

Which brings me to my photos. Being in Las Vegas is affording me some interesting opportunities to take some interesting shots. Here are some of the pictures I’ve managed to get together so far. You can see moreas usualon my Flickr stream:

Design Social Software Technology

Methods for the social archiving of mailing lists…

Imagine you’re on a mailing list that archives URLs that people share in some form, and that this creates indirectly some kind of archive or directory. Imagine that this archive has generally been maintained by hand and in a formal taxonomic structure. Imagine that the weight of maintainance started to get the list owner down and they decided they could no longer justify the time they’d need to spend on it. How to distribute the work effectively? How to maintain the utility of the directory without killing the people upon it? What follows are some freeform, stream of consciousness-style notes written off the top of my head. Better out than in.

Your most obvious territory for thought might be the categorisation scheme and how to dismantle the formal structure in favour of something lighter and less complex to maintain. The most obvious direction change you could make here would be to move towards a folksonomic tagging approach. But a true folksonomy must emerge from the overlaying of many people’s efforts otherwise what you’ve got is a personal, informalor just plain badtaxonomy. So straightaway you may end up having proliferated the work rather than reducing it. It may be more distributed, but is it any more likely to get done? That’s a difficult question to answer.

Skipping away from the question of annotation for a moment, let’s look for a moment at how to get the first order objects (links) in the database in the first place. one approach would be to put every unique URL sent to the list directly into a database. Conceivably you could organise those URLs by tags imported from other locations – for example you could just go and get the folksonomic information for that URL from

There are problems with this approach of course. For a start, you have then a repository of information about links that’s completely editorial free and doesn’t necessarily represent the context in which the URL had originally been shared. That is to say, you don’t have any of the original posters thoughts on the link, just the link and some tags. You could apend the whole e-mail to the URL, but then you you’re stuck with what happens if the list is private. Obviously then you’d be stuck.

An alternative: when an e-mail is sent to a list containing a URL, why not get the server to reply immediately to the original poster with a post containing a link to the place they could annotate or categorise their link to be added to the directory. That way the link originator could take responsibility for their particular piece of maintenance and the directory could grow through the individual actions of multiple individuals. Conceivably, links could be added to the database immediately they’re sent to the list, but not made ‘public’ until they’ve been annotated by either the link originator or the list owner. Because you’d be able to track the originators of the e-mails, you could then easily create a queue of URLs to subsequently annotate or approve.

There’s still a problem here, although it’s not a big one. If you take the folksonomic approach to categorisation then you’d have to rely on the individual’s personal taxonomy rather than on the wisdom of crowds bubbling up ‘correct’ categorisations. So then you have to ask yourself whether there were ways that you could usefully allow other people to enhance these URLs with more information after the originator or site owner has done the initial work. One option is to mine or another social bookmarking site as I proposed above. The other might be to allow other users in the mailing list to add their own annotations and tags to the link concerned. A server could usurp all e-mails containing links and add in additional link to a place where they could be annotated subsequently. The readers would automatically see the original link and then a link place where they could annotate the item. My big concern here is that individuals would be compelled by the software to move the conversations about links off-list and thus deform or split the conversation more than necessary.

One sideline… Of course you don’t necessarily need to get people to follow a URL to add in their information about a link – particularly if they’re the originators. Another approach might be to send the originator an e-mail (as above) with an identifiable string in the subject. Then simply replying to that e-mail with a message only containing a paragraph of text or a few Flickr style tags could add those tags and that annotation to the database. One anxiety there might be people incorporating accidentally great tracts of their previous e-mail into their annotations. Not ideal. Too fragile.

On the other hand, instant messaging in the Twitter model might provide some good options. Imagine if all users on a mailing list added their IM details to their profile, and added a bot to their IM friends charged with handling their mailing lists. When a message was sent to the list with a URL in it, the originator could be sent an IM request to describe the URL and everyone else on the mailing list could be sent the URL without comment. Once they’d observed the link, they could simply reply with their own comments or annotations which would then be saved to a database. Easy. If they didn’t want to keep getting URLs, a simple ‘off’ command could cease the flow…

The most obvious problem there would be if another URL came in as you were typing or if there were substantial communication delays, but I suspect these could be resolved one way or another.

Another option: individuals could choose to categorise URLs within the mailing list by hand using a third party service like which could then be aggregated by a local piece of software. They could either use their own personal accounts and mark things ‘for:{name of list}’ or they could use a shared account. This way you could bootstrap off other tools rather than build everything yourself. The most obvious problem: Is this work that people would want to do? If it is, would using (and conceivably then having to change accounts if you were already a user or having to mix in other people’s links with your personal linkstream) be a greater impediment than another approach? Tricky one.

A few other approaches leap to mind, but I think I’ll leave it there. If anyone has any other ideas, I’d really appreciate hearing them. A good way to think around the territory would be to think about which groups of people could do the various tasks associated with saving or annotation. In some models it’s likely to be the posting user who does everything, in others their peers take on spotty bits of work and all the annotation. In still others you can imagine a dedicated admin doing all the work, and in others still, people off list completely could be categorising and annotating what people on-list are doing. Finding the correct approach will rely on working out where the motives for contributing might be for each group of people and how to build something that meets that particular groups needs. Any thoughts?

Design Humour Life

On Space Art in Sebastopol…

This is so much fun. Where to start? Okay. So in September last year a few of us went to the O’Reilly FOO Camp. It’s an invitation-only event in Sebastopol in California where everyone’s expected to present what they’re thinking about or working on and where lots of fascinating conversations happen. It’s an honour to be invited and my favourite event of the year. I wrote about last year’s experience extensively with this post in particularMaps, Invaders, Robots & Throwiesbeing the most directly relevant to what I’m about to show you.

Anyway, one of the fun things that happened over the weekend was that Chris DiBona announced that Google were going to be doing a flyover of the campus and that we should take the opportunity to make some interesting art projects that would subsequently be visible from Google Maps and Google Earth. So we did.

The rumour is you’ll be able to see this in context on the sites and services concerned sometime in the middle of February, but Chris has been gracious enough to send me a Creative Commons-licensed snapshot of the entire campus showing both the project that Cal, Simon, Paul, Heathcote, Suw Charman, Biddulph and I put together (with help from lovely people like Jane), and the competing project that Chris and Jane masterminded themselves. So here they are. First off the Space Invaders that Cal, Biddulph, Simon, Paul, Heathcote, Suw, Jane and I put together:

And next up the Cylon raider created by Jane, Chris and their team:

You can see the whole photo here for the moment (be warned, it’s a couple of meg in size) and here below are some pictures of the building process as it happened. All photos are from Julian Bleecker’s FOO Camp set.

Design Mobile Science Technology

On Wattson and Electrisave…

Thanks to a fascinating conversation on haddock the other day, I’m now completely obsessed with a brand new class of personal lifestyle gizmos – a class that is very much in sync with the emergent energy puritanism that I find myself unexpectedly interested in after An Inconvenient Truth. The class of objects is ‘things that help you develop an understanding of your personal energy consumption’, and thus give you a handle by which to control it.

My boss at UpMyStreet had a line he used recurrently about statistics”Everything measured goes up”. Specifically, he meant that the act of measuring itself creates an impetus for change and competitiona pressure to move a figure towards whichever extreme is (sometimes arbitrarily given the absence of context) defined as ‘better’. It’s a comment on the nature of observation, feedback loops and the selection of the criteria by which you measure success.

The energy-tracking gadgets that have come to fascinate me hope that by exposing these figures, a pressure will manifest that drives energy consumption downwards, and that these actions will justify the expense to the earth spent in making and powering the trackers themselves.

This beautiful object is the Wattson available from It’s a handmade object that costs a significantly alarming 350 of your Earth Pounds. You attach a sensor near to your elecricity meter and can then place the object itself pretty much anywhere in the home where it will communicate with the sensor wirelessly. It will then display in real time both an ambient and a digital numerical display of the amount of electricity being used in your house, so you can see the benefits of turning off a light or microwaving a meal or having a shower. It can alsoapparentlyconnect to the internet via your computer and broadcast data about your energy consumption to online social environments. But more about that stuff in a minute.

Of course you don’t have to go quite this extravagent to get this kind of functionality. The wooden sides and iPod-like white of the display are clearly designed to fit into some hybrid modernist but environmentalist minimal aestheticand I suspect that it’s really the visual or artistic appeal of the object that really floats my boatbut you can get cheaper and less ridiculous devices that do similar jobs.

The Electrisave Meter is a very different-looking beast – it’s all grey plastic and LCD displays and cables. But then again it’s also the rather more manageable ¬£80. But somehow it doesn’t appeal to me in the same way.

There are two particular things that occur to me about these devices and my own (and potentially other people’s) reactions to them. The first is back to the nature of scoring and measuring. I went to see a rather introductory talk by Judith Donath when I was last in the US around signalling theory and she talked a bit about what signalling actually referred to in particular cases. She talked about the man who buys a fast and flashy car, who probably thinks that he’s communicating in some ways that he is virile and manly and exciting, where in fact in pure signalling terms he’s communicating no more and no less than that he can afford to buy a fast car. Still, being able to buy a fast car actually may be a good thing to advertise. She also talked a bit about the controversial Handicap principle which talked about why there might be advantage in reproductive terms to develop completely impractical or ridiculously showy traitslike the tails on peacocks. The proposal of this particular controversial theory was that the generation of these costly attributes might actually be designed to indicate genetic health and vigour, since only particularly strong and healthy candidates could afford to be so wasteful.

Anyway the thing that leapt to my mind when thinking about this stuff was that anything that’s scored can have at least two positive states. Behaviour that is good is often rewarded, but the inability of all people to be the best on these grounds creates a space where bad behaviour can be viewed as revolutionary or cool or subversive. Lowering energy consumption might be viewed in positive ways by many people, but giving people an easy way to display their own patterns may just as easily lead people into showy conspicuous consumption and indications that they can afford to be wasteful. Metrics are always troubling, conflicting and often uniquely vulnerable to any forms of interpretative activity.

The other thing that occurred to me was that I’m noticing an increasing instinct in my own life towards trying to capture and track as much information about what I’m doing or what I have done as possible – and to be able to get it out somewhere on the internet where I might be able to do things with it. From my playcounts in iTunes and my profile through to my web stats and geotagged Flickr photos all the way to my sudden almost overwhelming fascination with tracking/displaying my energy consumptions and getting programmatic access to my Oyster card data, over and over again I’m finding myself interested in capturing and making sense of the activities of my life in an ambient and backgrounded way. I want to know what I’ve watched on television, how many days of sunshine I’ve experienced this year and how well my mood as correlated with them, how much I’m sleeping, how much I’ve drank, how much bandwidth I use up in a week and how loud my neighbourhood is compared to the average.

Or more specifically I don’t want to know this stuff, I want to be able to capture it invisibly so that it can be knitted together and sense made of it and data made discoverable and searchable at some point in the future, when the urge or need takes me. This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware – not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects. The citizen of the future will have some of their personal fuzziness removed as the sharp data edges of their lives are captured and tracked for personal use. And I’m not sure what I think about it. Except that it’s fascinating.

Do you know about any more products like this? Things that display in interesting ways the energy consumption or patterns of consumption around your home? What do you think of these ones in particular? Should I get one?


The visual identity of the Future of Web Apps…

One thing you can say about Ryan Carson is that he knows how to make something look and feel ultra-sharp. You only have to look at the way he packaged up the Future of Web Apps conference to see that. I don’t know quite what the concentration on branding says about these events, except that they’re probably about appealing to very different audiences to the O’Reilly round of conferences. Or perhaps it just says that Ryan’s got more of a sense of drama? The pictures below don’t really do the whole thing justice. I’d very much recommend looking at the video: Future of Web Apps Visual Identity (Quicktime movie).


Get your own tiny Flickr cards!

A few months ago I posted a picture of my new beautiful tiny little fun sort of business cards and since then I’ve been giving them out and every time I do so people sort of go, “Ooooh! Where can I get some of these?” Until now I’ve had to tell people just to wait a little bit longer, but now I’m delighted to say that I can direct you to and the beautiful new site that they’ve just created.

I’m afraid I’m going to gush a bit about this one – it’s such a lovely service. You can go to their site, tell them your Flickr username, and then it’ll load up all your photos. You can then choose up to a hundred different images, crop them all to a size that you like, add your name and address on the back and they’ll print them on high quality card in full colour and send them to your door for $20. The experience of up to a hundred unique and different little business cards is pretty bizarre and awesome. Because you took all the photos, they feel really personal and like each one has somehow captured a memory. It makes the whole experience of giving people cards more fun as well – they get to choose the card that they like the most. And they’re completely expressive. Cal has a set of cards that are all of his bizarre Blinding Flash series of photos. I’ve got a set coming full of all my favourite photos from the last few years. It’s all really good fun.

Now I’ve got a sort of vested interest in the project in as much as it’s a little start-up that’s full of high quality friends of mine, including Stefan Magdalinski and Dan Burzynski who I worked with at and the wonderful Denise Wilton who I worked with (also with Flickr’s Cal Henderson) at emap. But don’t let that confuse you – it’s a lovely little project and well worth exploring in more depth. And just in case you haven’t noticed yet, if you’re a Flickr Pro user, you can get ten cards delivered to your door for free! Every single one of you! That’s pretty cool, huh?