Still here

Secret product with Dymo tape lettering

Apologies for the lack of posts for the last week-and-a-bit; I’ve been very busy with projects (design, research, building prototypes, testing, etc) for a number of clients and, as always, things take longer than you expect. I said before that I didn’t want to write posts on here when my mind is elsewhere (it tends to show), hence I haven’t, but many thanks to everyone who’s been in touch with suggestions and comments.

Above: Part of a recent project; can’t tell you what it is, but this prototype used plenty of Dymo tape labels. The production version won’t!

Who serves whom

Joel Johnson:

Stop buying products that serve any other master than you.

(via Boing Boing )

Bruce Schneier also wrote something along similar lines last year, though the context was different:

When technology serves its owners, it is liberating. When it is designed to serve others, over the owner’s objection, it is oppressive.

I mentioned before that to a large extent, that’s what architectures of control are: features of products, systems and environments designed to serve someone other than the user:

Now that ’someone else’ might be ‘the good of society’, but in more cases than not, the someone else is a company [or a cartel] wanting to enforce a business model on the user, or a government wishing to enforce an ideology or mode of behaviour.

For all the hoo-hah about ‘user-centred design’, there’s a very simple way of saying what it should be: design which serves the user and helps him or her do stuff. Something can serve two masters (e.g. BitTorrent serves the user, and the community of users) but in too many cases technology is expressly created not to serve the users, but to further someone else’s agenda.

Friday quote: Precedents (the flipside)

'The Briton' door closer.

As a flipside, perhaps, to the quote on precedents from a couple of weeks ago:

If there is something really cool, and you can’t understand why somebody hasn’t done it before, it’s because you haven’t done it yourself.

(From Lion Kimbro‘s fascinating How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think.)

The way I interpret that is that every previous person who has come up with the idea has been dissuaded by the same thought, viz. ‘Why hasn’t anyone done that before?’ and thus this is the problem.

When you come up with an idea, whether as a designer, engineer, scientist, thinker, writer, programmer, educator, anything, two of the biggest objections you’ll face are:

a) I bet that’s not original. Therefore, it’s no good.
b) Why hasn’t anyone done that before? It can’t be any good.

But in an abstract sense, we shouldn’t be put off by the existence or non-existence of precedents. It can be useful to learn from others’ success (and failures), of course, but independent thought and development (even if unknowingly following others’ work) so often seem to be at the heart of genuine progress.

Image: ‘The Briton’ door closer, from an era when it was considered worth branding and having pride in the design of a product such as this.

37signals: Control vs Communication

Johan Strandell kindly lets me know about a discussion of ‘Control vs Communication‘ at 37signals’ Signal vs Noise:

Every once in a while we get an email from a customer asking about how permissions work with our products. They’re almost always asking how to prevent someone from doing something. “How do we prevent someone from posting a message or adding a to-do or downloading a file? How can we make our project site read only except for a select few?”

Simply communicating with people about your expectations of their behavior is often the simplest and most effective solution. It’s respectful, it’s kind, it’s fair. And if someone does something you didn’t want them to do just remind them politely that they weren’t supposed to do that. They’ll almost always get it the second time.

[N]ext time you are looking for more control, consider more communication. It may surprise you.

While the specific context of the discussion is setting permissions, etc, in the Basecamp collaboration software, some of the comments expand the scope to the idea of control and trust within organisations and in society generally – e.g. Neil Wilson comments:

Everybody always wants to try and control behaviour via technical means when by far the most powerful mechanism is via social means.

Useful terminat-ology

Image from
Image from Black Flag website.

Sometimes there’s very useful terminology in one field, or culture, which allows clearer or more succinct explanation of concepts in another. In the UK we don’t have Roach Motels. There are doubtless similar products, but they don’t have such a snappy name, or one which can be repurposed so easily.

Reading about DRM, file format incompatability and lock-in, I’d come across the term a number of times without necessarily thinking through exactly what it meant when used in this way, not being familiar with the actual product. “You can check data in but you can’t check it out” (possibly in conjunction with some kind of superficially attractive bait) is a good explanation, derived from the actual slogan used on the front of the box. I’m assuming (possibly wrongly) that ‘roach motel’ isn’t especially familiar to most UK readers – do we have an equivalently neat alternative term? Are there equivalents in other languages?

Objects in mirror are wider than they appear

Robert Kilroy-Silk, mirrored

This is an interesting story. Robert Kilroy-Silk (above) currently an independent MEP, has raised the issue in the European Parliament of intentionally distorting mirrors in clothes stores, specifically Marks & Spencer:

Marks and Spencer has said it is mystified by a claim by MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk that it uses “distorting” mirrors in its changing rooms.

Mr Kilroy-Silk has accused the store of misleading women with mirrors that make them look slimmer in its clothes.

He made the allegation in a written question in the European Parliament.

An M&S spokesman said: “Our mirrors are perfectly normal, standard mirrors. We are at a loss as to what he might be referring to.”

In his question, Mr Kilroy-Silk asked if it was “conceivable that within the millions of EU regulations covering virtually every aspect of life in the EU” there was not one that made it illegal for M&S to have mirrors that “deliberately distort women’s shapes”.

Now, whatever you might think of Kilroy, and M&S’s denial, it’s surely not that unlikely that intentionally distorting mirrors have been, and probably are, used in some shops, and maybe some homes too. (As the distorting M&S mirrors are apparently in the Windsor and Maidenhead stores, which are pretty local to me, I should probably go and check.) Do cosmetic surgery clinics ever have a different set of mirrors on the way in to those on the way out?

If, when designing a retail environment, you could a) increase sales and b) make customers feel better about themselves by using a ‘slimming’ mirror, why wouldn’t you? How ethical is this? It’s an underhand method of persuasion rather than physical control, but it could make a significant difference to sales, in the process making shoppers feel more positive, even if ultimately it’s deceitful. Hewlett-Packard already produces digital cameras with a ‘slimming’ mode. If it helps you modify your self-image, and you like that, then I’m not sure it’s unethical per se. It’s just part of the great embedded architecture of delusion that fuels modern consumerism. Vanity sizing – another method of persuasion in clothes retailing – is an additional aspect of this.

Mirrors are a useful persuasion and control tool for retail designers anyway, whether distorting or not. People stop or slow down when they encounter them. Sometimes it’s vanity; sometimes it’s simply useful for people to see how they look. As Paco Underhill says in the excellent Why We Buy:

Stand and watch what happens at any reflective surface – we preen like chimps, men and women alike… Mirrors slow shoppers in their tracks, a very good idea for whatever merchandise happens to be in the vicinity.

And, of course, Lawrence Lessig actually mentions the use of mirrors in an ‘architecture of control’ example, in the chapter ‘What things regulate’ of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace:

A large hotel in an American city received many complaints about the slowness of its elevators. It installed mirrors next to the elevator doors. The complaints ended.

What other uses of mirrors, or vanity devices/techniques in general, can be designed into environments to affect consumer behaviour?