Chat as an important new platform for user experience

Talk about this is increasing all around us (see this piece by Cennyd) and I think it’s time for me to share some of our recent thinking on the topic as well. We believe that conversational user interfaces will be the way that most people will interact with digital systems from the near future on. That can be chat or voice or something else constrained to offer only specific responses or fully freeform. Natural language processing has improved to a point to make this workable and will continue to improve further.

Chat apps are the sine qua non of mobile devices. They are essential, they are everywhere and many of them are cross-platform. People use chat to connect to people but increasingly chat applications are used to interface with non-humans. Chat apps can offer a flat channel to a digital system or facilitate any and all kinds of persistent bots and application logic to be deployed. A great example is this a16z piece on the wide applications of WeChat in China.

The fact that chat apps are cross-platform creates a new smallest common denominator on which you can build applications that are guaranteed to work on all the devices the app runs on. This is a new OS. That people are used to these interactions and normally use them to connect to other people also creates a convenient habituation.

I argue that the bits of conversational logic deployed through chat can be called applications and do most things that apps do.

Most apps allow you to retrieve information or to perform an action. This is glued together with some chrome filled with awkward ever-changing (hamburger menu in or out?) architectures. They need to conform to stringent visual design guidelines while looking recognizably the same across lots of different devices.

Information retrieval and performing actions can be done via chat as well where an AI/bot counterparty will keep track of your context and give you the right cues at the right time. “Slackbot give me a GIF.” “Domoticz turn off the light.”

I am the purveyor of a small app to find good coffee called Cuppings. There is no reason why that same experience could not be delivered through a chat interface. No reason in fact why it could not be delivered better through a chat interface.

Add to that that making good apps is becoming an increasingly difficult endeavour because of device proliferation (mainly on Android), API bloat (on all platforms) and increasingly high visual and interaction design standards. Increasingly making a pixel perfect app that feels nice and works well is something that only larger companies can afford.

Most of the effort we spend right now into user interfaces could be moot if the experience would be delivered through a chat interface. That every app has a different UI and information architecture and that it has to be learned anew is a huge impediment to its adoption. We have recently built several chat based apps & games inspired partially by Lark. During testing we found that users don’t need to be explained anything because they are so familiar with the paradigm.

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Chat is here to stay and I’m incredibly excited to see how far we can push this new medium.

Understanding the Connected Home

The great Peter and Michelle have written a book called “Understanding the Connected Home” based on current developments around the topic and both of their professional interests.

I talked about the topic with Peter a bit and thought it to be a natural extension of his work in the connected devices spaces and their recent visit to Casa Jasmina in Torino.

I hope to get around to reading it soon since right now I have no desire or opportunity to live in a connected home. The housing stock in Berlin is old and does not lend itself well to connectivity. Our current house has a central water heater but even then most faucets are heated locally using electricity. Internet connectivity (let alone Fiber to the Home) is hard to find in many houses and you can count yourself lucky if you can get a Kabel Deutschland connection.

I think I would like to take the best of what these technologies can bring but they probably only make sense if you innovate in the other layers of a house as well as in what is built and the way it is built.

6S

If you look at the six Ss, connectivity consists of things at the manufactured level of Stuff (cheap consumer grade electronics from China). It latches onto the Space Plan and I would guess it has considerable effects on that and would benefit from changes in that plan. More problematically it pierces these layers and as such deteriorates the structural integrity of the house further. Connected things need to either interface with the Services layer or call for new Services to be deployed throughout the house. These move from the inside out but also from the outside —Skin layer— in when it comes to things like solar power and geothermal connectivity.

It seems an interesting though complicated time to be an architect. The API and expectation surface of a house is exploding while the margins and expertise of your average architecture practice leave a lot to be desired.

What would then seem obvious is that we need systematic and generative ways of creating our dwellings in which the inhabitants of a house are participants as much as the traditional experts are. It seems like connected homes will make more sense and sense made of them when you consider the movements of self-built buildings and open source dwellings.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Yesterday I saw the documentary on the Nakagin Capsule Tower by Rima Yamazaki as part of the DOKU.ARTS festival here in Berlin. I wasn’t aware of this landmark during my last visit to Tokyo though I must have passed close by while cycling through the city. I’ll make a point to see it when next I visit if it still stands because that is exactly the topic of the documentary.

The tower is a prime example of Metabolist architecture by Kisho Kurokawa. Metabolism is a hard to define but influential strand of architecture that is described in the documentary as an architecture without timelag. It turns out that the tower by now, though charming with its tiny rooms, is outdated and unmaintainable. Most of the owners want to tear it down and have something new built there that makes more economic sense. Among architects and historians there are voices for preserving it as a monument to an important movement in Japanese architecture and other who think it could indeed be torn down.

Lindenstraße

The main reason why I wanted to see this movie is because next week I’m moving into a building in Berlin designed by a metabolist architect Arata Isozaki. He appears in the movie as a member of the metabolist movement and as an proponent of conservation. I found his reasoning to be somewhat incoherent and overly sentimental. I’m not sure what that means for the building I will be living in but we’ll see. I’ve only been there once, but I absolutely love the building pictured above. Time will tell whether that is justified.

Another architect Toyo Ito who expressed a disillusionment with metabolism was in favor of tearing it down. His reasoning is that buildings just like people are finite and that if they have fulfilled their purpose they should be allowed to disappear to be replaced by something new. This is a way of thinking about architecture that is mostly alien if you live in Europe but that I find to be extremely refreshing. I think our local hangups on history and current efforts to construct buildings in a historicized fashion are morbid but this is the way we do things in Europe.

All along during the documentary I had to think about some William Gibson I read about Tokyo but which I cannot find right now. So instead I’ll post this from My Own Private Tokyo that I came across.

The Japanese, you see, have been repeatedly drop-kicked, ever further down the timeline, by serial national traumata of quite unthinkable weirdness, by 150 years of deep, almost constant, change. The 20th century, for Japan, was like a ride on a rocket sled, with successive bundles of fuel igniting spontaneously, one after another.

Breaking into the English speaking world

Last week we finally got featured with Bycatch on Boingboing and Fast Company thanks to our invitation to the XOXO festival. It is amazing to see what that attention does and what kind of effect that has on sales.

Now that we have finally arrived in the English speaking world we can relax a bit and keep pushing out the marketing we had planned all along. I would be curious to see whether something similar happens at some point for Japanese and Chinese speaking online communities.

The redesign of Moritzplatz roundabout

This is turning into a traffic blog more than anything else. After taking stock of the plans for the new Maaßenstraße which is very slowly nearing completion, now let’s take a look at another place close to my heart: Moritzplatz. The square is right underneath my office and as such I cross it several times daily both on foot and by bike.

Cyclist get hits on MoritzplatzA couple of weeks ago week an accident took place there where a cyclist was touched by a car. No big deal in his case, but it could have been worse considering the way motorists behave here. I have to pay close attention every time I cross this roundabout otherwise this could happen to me as well.

Redesign

Two weeks ago they started marking what is to be the revamped Moritzplatz. I had my hopes up that it would be a serious improvement but judging from the plans it is mostly going to be a new paint job.

New lines on MoritzplatzThe paint job will separate the bicycle lane with stripes from the car lane narrowing the space the cars get and widening the space the bicycles get. The cycle lane itself will be painted bright red. New lines on Moritzplatz

Cycling on the new markings and adhering to the new situation is a bit weird but it does feel like it’s going to be an improvement. It is however not going to fix the most important problem with the square.

Redesign Moritzplatz

The new situation for cyclists

Cyclists get their lane doubled in width and protected by markings. Whether that protection will mean anything in reality remains to be seen. Cars in Berlin will drive anywhere they please. What is a bigger problem on this roundabout and what will remain so in the new situation is that it is unclear who has precedence on the points where cyclists and cars have to cross each other. The angle with which the two cross has also remained the same so you really have to pay attention not to hit a cyclist and not to get hit by a car. A real solution would have been to mark the roundabout with Sharks’ teeth and maybe even to elevate the cycle path. That way cars entering and leaving the roundabout notice that they do so physically. Physical separations on the road make the power dynamic a little less unbalanced like you can see in this example from California. They are of course also expensive. There are roundabouts in the Netherlands that are laid out this defensively even though that usually is not necessary. Schermafbeelding-2012-07-03-om-13.52.56-480x309

The new situation for pedestrians

Pedestrians around Moritzplatz have really been shafted and they are getting a tiny improvement in the new situation. For a pedestrian there is no safe way to cross the square. The underground crossing through the U-Bahn station does not count. Going down and up stairs isn’t an option for disabled people and it’s too much effort for most people in general. Traffic should be safe for its weakest participants so that it benefits everybody. Let’s take a look at the various options to cross Moritzplatz. Keep in mind that you will often have to cross at least one arm of the roundabout to get anywhere. West – There is no way to cross the road here except for the traffic light at Stallschreiberstraße. This traffic light feels broken for pedestrians because during rush hour it gives you about 12 seconds to make the crossing. Almost nobody makes it across during the green phase and everybody knows that the red phase takes forever so people also cross when it’s already red. The traffic light is not an option for crossing Moritzplatz since it is 50m away. That is too far. North – On this side there is an island in the road where pedestrians are relatively safe so at least they don’t have to make the entire crossing in one go. It is still unsafe because there isn’t a zebra crossing but it’s better than nothing. East – There is no way to cross here except for the pedestrian crossing 50m down Oranienstraße. South – A new pedestrian island is planned here. Unfortunately it is 15m off the main arm but that is better than 50m. Just like at the other islands, there won’t be a zebra crossing there which makes any pedestrian trying to cross still a potential victim. Redesign Moritzplatz

It doesn’t matter if there is no way to cross the road, people still do of course. Even if you pay attention and cross the road when there is no traffic, incoming cars expect to be able to push you off the road. At which point you are forced to run across or be killed.

The main flaw here is that people shouldn’t be forced to walk ten or fifty meters more to make things more convenient for motorized traffic. People are more important than cars.

Update: The work is nearing completion and actually the new markings do not seem to make that much of a difference except to cause everybody on the square to be fairly stressed out.

I guess this adequately describes all of us.

Encounter Zone Maaßenstraße

Berlin is rebuilding the Maaßenstraße into the first Begegnungszone (‘Encounter Zone’) of its kind in the city. Works are underway now after a public consultation was finished last year or the year before. I looked around a bit but I couldn’t find the plans for what they are actually building there. A quick e-mail to the senate solved that problem and I got a PDF of the plan.

Redesigning Maaßenstraße

The most important bit of that plan is the layout of the new street which is dramatically different from what we have right now. Maaßenstraße is a street in Berlin saturated with cafes and restaurants where people from far West Berlin will go to go out on weekend nights. It also touches on Motzstraße which is a popular gay going out area and there are tons more bars and restaurants littered about. On Saturdays the market on Winterfeldtplatz is brimful of people and blocks most of the traffic on the South side.

The quantity of establishment is deceiving since the gastronomy on Maaßenstraße is of such a low quality that I wouldn’t regularly visit any of the places there except the two Turkish kebab places Hasir and the Keb’up House (for the late night döner box).

Traffic wise there used to be bike paths on the pavement but because of the heavy use by pedestrians and the fact that the bike path was level with the walking area, these caused dangerous situations. The road itself wasn’t a great alternative as it was used mostly for parking, double parking and the ostentatious display of muscle cars at night. All in all the usage of the street was thoroughly out of whack with how space was distributed between the various groups.

The new plan removes parking altogether which may or may not work depending on the enforcement level. Cars can park anywhere they want in Berlin and receive a fine that is so low nobody really cares about it. Cycling and driving are integrated on the remaining piece of road that is a lot more narrow than it was and lots of space is allotted to pedestrians walking and hanging out on the street. I have no idea what that is going to do to the noise levels in the street but I don’t live on a popular party street for a reason.

I’ve annotated what I think is noteworthy about the plan below (in a 13MB image file, click for big). All in all the plan looks solid and is bolder than I could have hoped for. It remains to be seen how it will be received by drivers and whether the police enforces the zones that are on there with vigour.

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Jumping to the end by Matt Jones

Matt Jones: Jumping to the End — Practical Design Fiction from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Matt Jones gives an overview of the kind of work he used to do at BERG and then talks about the process of his creative work at Google. It’s refreshing to see that practice is shifting towards media that is readily consumable and deliverables that actually do something.

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Product design focused on user wants

This post was previously published on Medium and is now archived here.

There’s some recent writing about the decomposition of apps into either thin slivers of single purpose functionality per app or even breaking out of the traditional app domain entirely and delivering their functionality through for instance the notifications screen.

I think both of these are onto something but that the trend itself is more fundamental. I think there are three things happening.

1. Apps can be decomposed into high-level user wants.

A want starts with “I want” and is followed by getting or creating something often accompanied by some social intermediation. Such a want could be “I want to send a message” or it could be “I want to read (and reply to) my messages” or it could be “I want to find a place to eat.”

These are not utilities. Most interesting apps these days are lifestyle apps. Focusing on a single want does not mean the app becomes easier to make. Implementing a want with its very specific functionality, appropriate context, user interface and communication may be even more difficult. A want is a summary of what used to be called ‘user stories’ but focused on what people want to do not on what people are supposed to do. At the risk of sounding obvious: people don’t want to do things they don’t want to do. The exception to this is work where people do things they don’t want to do. People want apps that bring them entertainment, social connections or self-actualisation.

2. Apps cannot support more than a couple of wants well.

Any app that tries to cram in more than a couple of wants from different domains starts to creak and feel cluttered. This looks like the main reason why Foursquare unbundled the totally disparate wants of local discovery “I want to find a good restaurant now” and that of social broadcasting “I want to tell my friends where I am.”

Such unbundling is becoming the norm because an app cannot do everything well without containing multiple apps. Just think back of Facebook’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink app with its own homescreen. The Facebook app itself is becoming more and more bare while wants are increasingly delivered by apps that don’t show they belong to Facebook.

This is a good indicator of what the future holds for these apps. I would for instance be surprised if complicated list management features would be a significant part of the future Foursquare mobile app. Lists do support local discovery but they will never have the mass appeal the app is focusing on.

3. Wants can be fulfilled anywhere you want.

This ties into Naveen’s piece about the notifications becoming the app. I would take this further and say that the app will be wherever people interact with a connected device. Building an app becomes a matter of translating a user want into the interaction affordances of a medium.

You could indeed read and reply to messages in a notification screen if that is where you spend your time. But soon you might do the same thing using the same app but on your connected watch. In a somewhat more distant future you might send a Yo! by slamming two IoT enabled rocks together.

The medium through which a want is fulfilled has become flexible. What matters is the want itself and appropriateness. A talented designer will figure out whether a translation makes sense and how to best implement it.

All in all this is a great development. Digital design is breaking out of screens enabling it to find us where we are and offer us the things we really want.

The Selim Varol Collection

Last Saturday I made it out to the penultimate day of the exhibition of the Selim Varol Collection in the me collectors room here in Berlin. I’m glad I did. This was one of the most complete and stunning collections of contemporary toys and subversive art on display anywhere.

Most of the fun is in the sheer completionism of certain walls and cabinets. Acquiring everything past the point of simple fun. Add to that trying to recognize what everything is about, what the references and twists in the various works are.

What adds to the power of a well done private collection such as this one is its lack of fear. It doesn’t need to be backed up artistically, there’s no curator hedging their bets or trying to cultivate relations, it isn’t afraid not to be taken for full and in short: it isn’t uptight (modern art take note).

One room of the Selim Varol collection. Striking, subversive and contemporary stuff. Thanks for the tip @thewavingcat!

Obey Atatürk (‘o bey’ also means ‘that gentleman is’)

Selim Varol collection - toys

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Pane

Toys

Room

Batman

Nude

Fairey

dConstruct on the future, progress and play

I didn’t make it out to dConstruct which I’m a bit torn about. I’ve been to the conference some three times and htis year other priorities trumped it and going to conferences in general. But the program this year was even more stellar than regular years. Seeing either Ben Hammersley, Tom Armitage or James Burke (!) present would be worth the ticket price alone without exaggerating a lot.

When the theme ‘Playing with the Future’ was announced I was already thinking that Paul Virilio should feature in it. Can somebody confirm to me whether he has been referenced at all? Too often designers put their belief wholesale into the notion of progress and a heavy-weight counterpoint to that thinking would be more or less essential.

And best of all was hearing from a distance about Tom Armitage’s presentation which seemed to be really good and focuses on the same things we do in our practice: play and making.

As fellow game makers that very notion is at the heart of many of the things we do and it is a talk I will definitely be catching on the conference recordings which are already online.