Tag Archives: design

The interface and the illusion of control

Most obviously, in using [smartphones] to navigate, we become reliant on access to the network to accomplish ordinary goals. In giving ourselves over to a way of knowing the world that relies completely on real-time access, we find ourselves at the mercy of something more contingent, more fallible and far more complicated than any paper map. Consider what happens when someone in motion loses their connection to the network, even briefly: lose connectivity even for the time it takes to move a few meters, and they may well find that they have been reduced to a blue dot traversing a featureless field of grey. At such moments we come face to face with a fact we generally overlook, and may even prefer to ignore: the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.

(Ordinarily, and also purposefully; Clarke’s Third Law is an implicit and nigh-ubiquitous directive in contemporary interface design, and in that enduringly popular branch of genre fiction known by its practitioners as “technological forecasting”.)

Beyond the satellites, camera cars and servers we’ve already identified, the moment-to-moment flow of our experience rests vitally on the smooth interfunctioning of all the many parts of this infrastructure—an extraordinarily heterogeneous and unstable meshwork, in which cellular base stations, undersea cables, and microwave relays are all invoked in what seem like the simplest and most straightforward tasks we perform with the device. The very first lesson of mapping on the smartphone, then, is that the handset is primarily a tangible way of engaging something much subtler and harder to discern, on which we have suddenly become reliant and over which we have virtually no meaningful control.

Adam Greenfield. The screen is the site of the Spectacle.

The designer’s prestidigitation

As Apple’s chief designer Jony Ive recalls, when he and his team sat down to redesign the iPhone operating system in 2012, it did away with many of the classic skeuomorphic elements: “We understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits. So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.”

From here. This is an act of deceit on Ive’s part, but it is the same act of deceit in which all designers engage, which is the same deceit as that of the stage magician: the appearance of disappearance. Design wasn’t “got out of the way” at all; indeed, its invisibility only underscores the ubiquity of its influence over the user’s experience.

New client sites: Chris Beckett and James Lovegrove

I’m starting to settle into a decent working routine up here in the chilly yet hospitable Northlands. In something of a lifestyle shift, I start work at about 8am and finish around 6pm, and I actually have weekends, just like normal people. Well, sometimes… book reviews and such are being shunted into leisure time, for example, but they’re more like a leisure pursuit anyway, so that’s all good.

But this post is all about the results of the work… in this case, some fresh new website designs for some of my clients. Launched last week (after some merry japes with domain name servers), here’s the jade-and-marble art deco confection ordered by James Lovegrove:

James Lovegrove - author

And here’s Chris Beckett‘s new site, too; this one was actually finished back at the end of October before the house-moving chaos began, and it appears I was remiss in not announcing its launch here at the time. So, better late than never:

Screenshot of Chris Beckett's website

Both sites are full of free fiction to read, by the way, and both are new to using WordPress (and fully-interactive blogging in general), so why not pop on over there and say hello in the comments? Writers like to know people are reading them, after all… 🙂

New client site launched: Tim Lebbon, horror and dark fantasy author

Well, I’ve just sent off the invoice, and all but a last few lingering (and, frankly, very perplexing) aesthetic bugs have been squelched, so I think it’s time to announce formally that Tim Lebbon’s new website is open for business.

Tim Lebbon's website - screenshot

It’s been quite the learning curve, for an assortment of reasons that – seeing as very few of you give a crap about the internal workings of WordPress – I shan’t bother going on about here. But learning is good, and Tim’s is the first site I’ve built from scratch rather than hacking about example themes, so I was expecting to hit a few snags. Maybe not quite so many, though…

But any way – take a look, let me know what you think. I should take this opportunity to thank Tim for his patience with me, too – he’s a super gent, and no mistake. Buy one of his books. 🙂

“Don’t make me think” – science fiction, ubiquitous computing and human interfaces

OK, you’re going to need roughly an hour, so bookmark this post and come back later if you don’t have the time right now. But I promise that sixty minutes of invested time will be of huge benefit to you, whatever sort of creative work you do. SRSLY.

First of all, you should read this New York Times article about Jan Chipchase (and consider subscribing to his Future Perfect blog while you’re at it). Here in what we used to call the First World we often talk about “revolutionary technologies”, but from our position of privilege we misunderstand the term completely; Chipchase is out there in the dust and monsoons of developing nations discovering how mobile phones really are revolutionising people’s lives in small but tangible ways, and trying to discover how to make them do so more effectively.

“This sort of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering is central to what’s known as human-centered design, a business-world niche that has become especially important to ultracompetitive high-tech companies trying to figure out how to write software, design laptops or build cellphones that people find useful and unintimidating and will thus spend money on.”

It’s a fascinating piece, and I seriously suggest you read it – especially if you’re a fiction writer. It’s about a lot more than just market research, and there are the seeds of a thousand stories in there.

But that’s just your appetiser. The main course is the following video of Bruce Sterling giving the closing talk at an interface design conference in Germany last year. [via BoingBoing]

Even allowing for my fanboy filter amplifying the impact, I think this forty minutes of thinking will blow the top of your head clean off. If you can watch it as a writer of science fiction (or an artist, web developer, or pretty much anything else) and then email me afterwards and tell me honestly that there was nothing there you needed to know, I will give away all my worldly possessions and take up an itinerant lifestyle as your devoted disciple, spending my days sat in the dust by your feet hanging on your every word.

Basically, bad science fiction makes the same mistake made by bad design – it fails to take into account what people actually want. And people want to not have to think.

Watch … and take notes. You’re going to need them.