How my watch taught me about Design

I have a confession to make. I eavesdrop into any conversations that happen around me. Eavesdropping is a bad habit, I agree,  but as long as it is there to dissolve the communication barrier between any two entities and if data can be extracted and converted to information it’s worth it.

As part of my whole eavesdropping habit, this time I eavesdropped  into a  conversation that was unfolding between me and my neglected H.M.T. watch. The conversation was insightful and taught me all about information and interface design.

In general if one were to ask anyone what information and interface design was all about, you would probably learn that it was all about making wireframes or paper prototypes that conveyed the ideas of a designer into what he or she believed was “practical” and “usable” – terms that are generally borrowed off the shelf and placed meticulously  where the usual “er” or the ” you know” would be placed.

This is my take at explaining what information and Interface design  is all about. To start with it’s beautiful.

Let us look at that product that we all own, be it a person from Antarctica or from NewFoundLand, a product which dictates terms to us, a watch or a clock  that we all see on a daily basis. We use this device to  help us remind ourselves of  the time at every given point of time(ironical!).  Let us for a while try and understand the kind of information it feeds us with. To a person living in North  India,  mornings are at 8 A.M. and he or she will be able to get out of his or her house at noon, only when the fog has cleared. The watch dictates when it is safe to go out and when it is not. To a person at south India 4 A.M. is the best time to wake up and start the daily activities. The simple watch reminds him of the mystical “Brahmamuhurtham”(ideal time). To a person who is in the east and the west of India, he probably is fishing for the best time when he could go fishing. The watch helps him determine when these schools of fishes will ne nearer to the coast.

All these data patterns are complex in nature and have therefore been analyzed over the years(and across generations) to convert them into simple information stacks. That’s Information Design through an interface we call Ghadhi.

All these sets of complex data are conveyed via a simple interfaces which we neglect in our daily lives. This simple interface has found its solace in 3 hands and 12 digits. Yes, it’s the watch or the clock that we all see on a daily basis.

Could 12 roman numerals and 3 hands tell us the time without the interface they were bundled into ?

The answer is surprisingly – no. I can’t imagine a watch minus these 12 numbers and 3 hands (considering digital watches are for dummies). To me the ultimate form of information design is having 12 numbers and 3 hands dictating to me what I should do all through the waking hours of my day. And if these 12 numbers and 3 hands were not arranged in the way they have as of now to make the watch, the whole concept of interface design  would be lost.

Information and interface design is an integrated theme and cannot exist without each other. Just as the 12 numbers and 3 hands cannot tell me the time if  not  arranged in the fashion they have been (interface). On an extremely “holistic” level anyone can gain inspiration and insights about  information and interface design just by reading the time.

How can one define the best interface ?

In my definition, an interface that can be easily understood by a 5 year old to a 90 year in the same way old  is a good interface design, perhaps even the best Interface design. Something that crosses all boundaries and ethnic groups to such an extent that it ends up uniting them is a good interface and interface design to start with. Communication design also finds its roots somewhere here. Almost jumping and trying to make its presence felt.

What is an interface that communicates across boundaries, races, gender and  across all those biases societies create ? A single product that is so well hidden and yet extremely essential . If there had to be a perfect, age old, time tested design, it has to be the watch/clock that we find ourselves looking at everyday. Period.

Complicating Simple Designs

The other day, on my way back home I couldn’t help but eavesdrop to  this drama that was unfolding rite above the elevator door. A family of 4. I could “see” was in a tight situation. The  cause of this situation as usual was their Son. The situation was a little difficult to comprehend considering the family dint seem to be speaking to each other, only the son was full of questions and had no one to answer. Frustrated to such an extent that drawing a question mark on his head would seem just right.

Questioning the nature of a “complication” could be useful in this scenario. A complication is that which could have been explained in a simple way but having been trained to always elaborate things to such great lengths that one has lost his or her audience in the 10th second can result into a complication.

Avoiding any further complication

Complicated fact  =  simple fact + unnecessary details.

Signs and symbols are necessary to explain complex data in a simple way. Looking at a service used on a daily basis, a simple elevator as such does not need an elaborate signage. Moreover if the argument led to  what if a person does not know this is the elevator, maybe explaining to  him what an elevator was, would make more sense. Moreover let’s preserve a  strong heart. The signage here is a little confusing for the simple reason it forces me to look at it for more than a few seconds, and if that was ok, it even generates questions and certain emotions which could have been avoided .

Coming back to the situation this family had found itself in, the young son ( not the daughter, she seems to be obedient) does have a question in his head. Maybe a “why am I here?” “I want to be with my friends a little longer .” there could be a lot of these daily situations which can be associated with what has been portrayed here.

Looking at this sign, what was the maker of this signage thinking when he made this ? Did he have a son who asked too many questions ? Or was his son asking these questions re when he was designing it ? If this became the universal sign for an elevator, does the fact that boys ask to many question also attain universal status ? Why do young boys ask questions ? The questions are endless.

If a simple sign that guides a person to an elevator can result into this blog post, it sure is a complicated one.

Designing for a Persona

Persona is a name given to a certain set of behavior patterns. Suppose a 60 year old man and a 25 year old man arrive at the city bus station. This is the first time they both have come here and are thus equally lost. They both consult the enquiry, and then the bus driver. They both behave in the same way in that particular situation. Let us call this behavior “the lost One”. Here emerges a persona.  And see what happened. The age of the person or the background of each did not play any role in our data collection. Suppose we had to design a signage system for “the lost one”, all those who came in this category would be benefited. I push myself to say that a visually challenged persona and an abled person who arrives at this city station for the first time behave in the same way. Personas don’t depend on demographics.

Now if we were designing a product, the general notion is to design for “the General public”. Designs  for the general public is no design at all as to start with there does not exist a general public. There are  certain exceptions to this which need to be understood with care eg. Google. The entire public does not behave in the same way and will thus not use the product in the same way as the other.

Demographics such as age and economic conditions don’t play an important role when designing a product. Call it the audience, call it a Persona, it’s the behavior that is taken into consideration while designing a product.

Now If the research is structured, one will get structured answers. Data thus gathered can be well analyzed  and one can be certain that this happened and this did not happen at the scene. Gathering a moderate number of data points puts the researcher in such a place that one can be certain that if there are no cases in the data points  then it may probably not exist unless it’s a very special case.eg  If a bomb blasts at the observation field the situation has changed and thus the behavior changes. Once data points have been gathered, patterns emerged. Our main aim was to find out how people gathered information, where they looked, was it  the platform signage or the timetable or the conductor, ask the co passengers etc. We were able to understand a certain behavior. We categorized these behaviors and thus emerged a persona. If questioned about the personas, we have data to prove it. We have numbers to prove how who behaved. Next we moved into the designers shoes. Looking at the way these personas are we were able to see the problems they faced there and found design solutions in them. Our solutions dealt with finding how to lessen the time taken for a specific persona to reach his bus.

User research, I have thus learnt, is very important when it comes to designing a product.  Better the research, more effective the product.

The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple was the most beautiful place to be in on Gurupurab ( Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti).

This is a panoramic view of the entire temple complex.

World Usability Day 2009

Now that was the first actual conference I attended. The topic this year was “Designing for a Sustainable World”.

At the end of the conference there was a competition where each team had to come up with a sustainable idea for one of the following topics. Sustainability of Lifestyles, Sustainability at Home and Sustainability at Work. We were given 20 mins to ideate and come up with concepts. The three best concepts would be felicitated.

My team( Angeline,Kanchana and I ) chose to ideate on Sustainability at work and came up with a concept initiative which would deal with 3 concepts.

  1. Integrating Landscaping with actual Cultivation
  2. Eat your food and feed a plant rite after
  3. Gain veg points which can be exchanged with food coupons
  4. Eat judiciously, the food you are eating may have been cultivated by your neighbor.

Our concept was well appreciated ( well, we won!)  and we were asked to further explain how we would convince the management to adopt this ideology.

additional pictures

As we Discuss  http://www.flickr.com/photos/amitpande/4127611782/in/photostream/

Sketching the system http://www.flickr.com/photos/amitpande/4126840299/in/photostream/

The presentation http://www.flickr.com/photos/amitpande/4126847295/in/set-72157622859223056/

Thoughts on User Research

The human memory is not reliable. As long as it is triggered for a specific incident the information obtained cannot be relied upon. If asked what one generally has for breakfast the information thus obtained would be unreliable but a better question would be asking someone what they had for breakfast today or yesterday. One would probably have a better answer to the latter question compared to the first one.

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what if Beethoven was a Graphic Designer ?

This thought came to me one particular day when I was listening to moonlight sonata. what if Beethoven was a graphic designer and a the thought of writing The moonlight Sonata conjured ?

The moon in a monologue tries its best to nudge this being far away trying its best to make this being look at it. All the excitement and emotion if to be captured using type has to be in the devanagri script considering the flow the typeface has.