Why do we design?

I remember when I was in college, studying to become a graphic designer, there was a feeling that we were learning how to change the world. And everyone there thought that we didn’t need to wait until we finish, just for the fact that we were there, we where changing it already. Everything we did had the seed in it to be life changing and thought defying.

It’s been several year since that time. I worked at several types of agencies, some more professional, some less. Every one of them taught me something, even though I wasn’t changing the world at some of them.

Some people, and to my regret some designers too, think we just design things to be beautiful or to sell things. The worst thing is that some agencies think that too, that they are in the business of improving sells on products for their clients. Although there is nothing wrong with that approach, I think we can do better, a lot better.

There is some natural impulse on mankind to design. A few months ago I was lucky enough to be at the British Museum, and there was this really kind old woman behind a little table in one of the museum halls, the one with wooden stands wall to wall and a zillion of objects in them. This table had a little sign with the legend “hands on”. On there were five objects from the museum collection, and for our surprise (me and my wife) we could grab them and hold them in our hands. One of the objects was a stone hand axe of almost 500.000 year old. It was incredible to be able to hold it in my hands, I was trembling of emotion after these almost eternal five minutes that we where there. But it was more incredible that this axe, an axe made of stone by an Homo-Erectus almost half million year ago, was a perfect fit in my hand, it has the perfect weight and balance. This axe was designed that way.

Before I went to college, I had the luck to work in a notorious argentinian design studio, Diseño Shakespear, leaded by Ronald Shakespear. I wasn’t doing any design work there, I started as an errands boy, just going to print shops with zip discs (yeah those old ones) to plot presentations, and things alike. After a month or so, I was promoted to be Ronald’s assistant. I still didn’t do any design work, but I was able to see how it was to do it. I had access to a lot of documentation, I remember specifically reading cover to cover a one thousand pages identity manual like it was a novel. I saw how designs where presented, how you have to play some politics with clients, and how the theory, concepts and caring of the designs are important to protect them from those politics. One of the most prominent projects they did was the sign system for Buenos Aires city. In a recent interview he said: “I like more (signs system design) because i feel useful. Knowing that an old lady found the subway station and came to her home safe”.

When I read that, all my career decisions pass in front of my eyes. How with some kind of unconsciously thinking I tried to stay focused in a discipline that mix all the things that mattered to me. I always loved technology and working with it, and like in college, I still want to change the world bit by bit (pun intended). Is the feeling of being useful, as Ronald Shakespear said, that drives me. But instead on doing sings system design, I want to develop better interfaces for the everyday task we have to do in this highly digital world we now live in. Helping the old lady to pay her taxes online, making the best interfaces so she could do everything she need to with confidence in the least time possible, so then she can keep doing what she likes in the analog world. I think what drives or should drive every designer is the goal of improving life, by enhancing, simplifying and making more delightful every little aspect of our daily tasks.

So the next time we have to deal with any kind of design, a brochure, an online campaign, a mobile interface, a home banking, a spatula, we don’t have to think how to make it more aesthetically beautiful or improve sales as our primary goal, we have to focus on how to make it more useful, how to improve the time people have to deal with it, how to improve readability for the little old lady, how we can improve people lives with our little grain of sand, how to make an stone axe fit perfectly in the users hand.

Responsive Hardware Interfaces

A few weeks ago, Microsoft shows us a Productivity Future Vision, just the typical cinematic hollywood-esque concept show-off of futurology of products (a friend used to call it “hollywood OS”) they probably won’t ever make or do just too late after the competition captures all the market. Ok, that’s a little harsh, but late Ballmer’s Microsoft history tell us that.

Bret Victor on his Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design points out all what is wrong with this video. He says:

” …this vision, from an interaction perspective, is not visionary. It’s a timid increment from the status quo, and the status quo, from an interaction perspective, is actually rather terrible.”

And he is right, all the video shows, are really cool cinematic effects, but you can find a ton of interaction issues on it. But the main problem is that in that future we all still interact with the digital data with on finger over a glass. It’s like if in the late 90’s we envisioned a future where all interaction are done with a 2 button mouse.

Bret even suggest some paths that could enrich the future of interaction where we use our full body to interact instead of just one finger.

As I see this problem, the initial road could be mark with Chris Harrison concept with his 2009 paper Providing Dynamically Changeable Physical Buttons on a Visual Display. He envision a that a thin transparent layer over the glass of touch based devices could adapt to reflect a soft keyboard with volume so you could feel it. I thought that solution was already on the works, but as it looks it just on paper.

But, what if we could expect more adaptable hardware around our software? What if we could have Responsive Hardware Interfaces as we have Responsive website designs. It will be hardware that could adapt its form and function depending of the task we want to do, it can be done with Smart Materials or even nanobots.

Imagine you take out of your pocket your mobile device, launch your favorite game that links to your big display on your living room and then, your mobile device change its form and function to a game pad for a better and more comfortable experience.

This could be applied to a variety of tools. Imagine you won’t need a set of specialized screw drivers, you could have just one that can shift its shape to whatever form you need. Or even a simple task as making cookies for your kids, where you could have just on piece of metal that can change its form to whatever you want, a star a half moon, a man… And all this could be done with software, you can even buy more shapes for this devices on your online app store making them more useful over time.

But not necessarily all interfaces will be tangible or manipulable, there is a lot of room for various type of them, specially for Natural Language Interfaces like the recently introduced Siri Assistant.

One thing is clear, touch based interfaces, or Pictures Under Glass as Bret puts it, are a real advance in interaction, but it is the Now not the future as Microsoft wants us to believe.

The sadness of a fan boy

Steve Jobs
image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/farber/

I always watched with astonishment girls screaming, shouting and even crying, in a kind of mass hysteria at their favorite music artist. I couldn’t comprehend how can they be connected in this way with a total estranger from who they only know their songs and what is published about him.

Some time ago, a close friend approaches me with genuine sadness and told me that Carl Sagan had died. We, as young people as we where, maked jokes about his ridiculous overreaction, Sagan was a notable man, but a total estranger for him. We knew he was a real follower, admirer of his ideas and achievements, but still we cannot understand what he was feeling at that moment.

But today it was different for me. Today I understand those girls on a concert, or my friend sadness. Today Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple. As John Grubber wrote:

This is not out of nowhere, it’s not even unexpected. We could all see this was coming — but it is a shock.

A shock indeed.

It is not sadness for the company he created and managed as a CEO. It is not sadness for that company products. I can enjoy using apple devices and software, but I don’t feel sadness for material things. It is sadness for knowing that this man I admire, this estranger guy who has ideas I can feel related to, this person, its as fragile as any other person. It’s sadness because his resignation as apple CEO is the beggining of a long goodbye.

Visa online checkout experience: a 30 minutes phone call

The other day I started planing a big trip, obviously entirely online. I can’t conceive planing this trip on my own without the internet, it is really useful, easy and fast.

Except when you want to pay for things with your Visa Card. It went like this: found a museum or hotel I wanted, check for availability,  add to cart, put my credit card data, checkout, enter my Verified by Visa password, return to cart, get a rejected by Visa message. Try it again, the same result.

Next step, call Visa. Dial phone, enter my credit card numbers, enter my birthday, enter 9 to talk to a person, wait 10 minutes, explain I want to buy something online and get rejected, get forwarded to the people that can help me, wait 5 minutes, explain I want to buy something online and get rejected, get forwarded again to the people that can help me, wait 5 more minutes, explain I want to buy something online and get rejected, they told me that its true, ask me some questions to verify I’m me, approve the transaction and tell me I have to go again to the website and buy again. Effectively, now I can book the hotel. To be noted, I call them on three opportunities, and in all of them they forwarded me two times to the people that handled online purchases.

But, this it not the whole story. As you can guess, when you plan a trip, you buy lots of tickets, hotels, planes, etc. So, I asked the Visa people if they can unblock my credit card for online shopping, at least for a week, so I can plan my vacations without all this time on the phone and having to buy twice on every site. But I was out of luck, for my security this can’t be done, I’ll have to call EVERY TIME I purchase something online to be authorized by them, even with the Verified by Visa protocol the have online after every purchase.

The estrange thing is, this only happen with one of my cards, I have another from another bank from which I bought things online since 1999 without any problem, both from Visa.

I really don’t understand this procedure. They have several measures to avoid this but I have to make a 30 minute call for every purchase.

If for any chance there is a Visa guy reading this, if you really must add a third verification layer for online shopping, here is an alternative: put a list for user approval purchases on the “Visa Home” website, you know, the one you host with all my credit cards data, so I can go there and verify every purchase without a phone call, can do them in bulk, and I get to use my credit card more securely online with the certainty that no online purchase can be made without my express approval.

Otherwise, you just fucked online shopping for everyone.

Lion + iOs + iCloud: is all about piracy

Apple, with the latest announcement at the WWDC 2011, make it clear it was all about the software. But that’s just a part of the plan. There where two key things that gives us a hint of what Apple is up to.

The first one was the iTunes match. With the ability to, as they say, “store your entire collection, including music you’ve ripped from CDs or purchased somewhere other than iTunes”. The second one the price of Lion, just $29.99 via the App Store.

Who can argue to the advantage of legalizing all your pirated music for $25/year and with the possibility of syncing it to all your iOs devices?

And what about Lion, its not only $29.99, it is also possible to legally install it to up to 5 computers, as all the software on the App Store. Obviously you have to sign in to the Store, and there you are exposed to the “as simple as IOs” purchase and install system of thousands of applications.

They’re are clearly trying to introduce all the people they can to the simplicity of the iTunes and App Store and keep them there. With this strategy they want to duplicate the success with music on the software industry.

They could go to the hard way, use of the anti piracy abilities at hardware level on the intel chips, but thats is not good marketing for Apple and also user will hate imposed things on their personal computers. The strategy is crystal clear: get the user do what you want by giving them simplicity and a big advantage for doing so.

Now with this ecosystem you have a safe, legal, easy and convenient way to get software to all your devices and with the advantage of buy one, install on 5 machines, and with the Apple guarantee that you can reinstall all at any time from the App Store.

And with music, they want to give music piracy the final stroke by legalizing all your music with the hope that you buy the next album you want from the iTunes Store that already holds all your music.

We have been introduced to the future which we know will come with the internet: one place to know, get, buy and store all our digital assets. Internet is the OS. Internet is the business OS.

Web designers are obsolete

Web design as a profession has evolved many times in its short history, and we as designers evolved with it. But today if you talk about web design, you can’t talk about a web designer. It was a common notion that we must be like a design swiss victorinox. And anyone that still thinks that, won’t be in the industry for a long time. Web designers are obsolete.

Nowadays if you talk about web design you must include lots of specialized people, like digital marketers, creatives, information architects, usability experts, Ui designers, graphic designers, action scripters, front end developers, programmers, etc. No designer can longer assume that he can design and develop every step of a website or web application on his own.

We, as designers, can’t know it all, but it is important for us to know how all the areas of web development works. I can’t count how many designers only care about the graphic part of the web. Web Design is a heavily technical profession, and like it or not, graphic designers must have some technical knowledge, know how html/css works, what can be developed with Js, jquery, or what is @font-face, how AS3 is programmed, how a database work, what is Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, etc, what is a video codec. And more important, stay up to date on your profession.

It’s time to let the specialization grows in web design, you are no longer a graphic designer, you are a UI designer, a marketing designer, an information architect, a front end developer, an experience designer and many more aspects of web design that a graphic designer can be.

Our roll on web design has evolved. Today we have the opportunity to be the nexus hub in web development to enrich users experience and integrate our knowledge to all the web design areas. You can’t no longer be an isolated island and you can’t do it all. if you think so, you’ll be obsolete.

The web is 95% reading apps.

On October 2006, Informations Architects wrote a blog entry named “web Design is 95% typography” making an important statement on what web designer should focus on. More than three years has passed and that statement is more important than ever.

So, if 95% of web is typography, the same goes to the interfaces we design for them. All websites are reading applications, you read your bank account statement, your read your friends facebook wall, you read your favorite online newspaper, your read your preferred blog, your read your game portal forum, etc.

The interfaces we design are nothing else than a medium for reading content. With the Wired Magazine for iPad design  buzz , the debate on how a digital magazine should be was open. And the debate is wrongly titled, it should be how digital content should be accessible, manipulable, readable. If we apply all the critics that the wired app received to websites, we face with too many of the same problems.

The majority of websites are crowded with information snippets, ads, different kinds of menus on the same page and little hierarchy optimization. We have serious problems and you can see that on the advent of tools like Readability or Readable, that makes no other thing than optimize content for the screen. They make screen reading comfortable and simple, but this functionality should not be needed. Its our responsibility as web designers to make sure the content comes first, to make online reading a pleasure.

We were designing reading applications for more than a decade now, we learnd a lot of lessons on that time, and we are making the same mistakes over a over again. There should be no need for a magazine o newspaper iPad application, we already have websites, we just need to make them exceptional reading apps.

La prensa en la era digital

La crisis actual de los medios impresos debido al advenimiento de la distribución digital esta llegando a un punto de inflexión donde, debido mayormente a la inacción o incomprensión del cambio. se afronta una situación extrema donde el cierre se esta tornando en denominador común.

Se esta poniendo muy difícil para la prensa adecuarse a este escenario, que ya no es nuevo para la velocidad de los cambios que posee esta era digital. La gratuidad del acceso a la información, uno de los ejes de atracción para los internautas, no fue debidamente interpretada.

En un contexto donde el acceso a la información se ha inclinado mayoritariamente a Internet, al momento de cerrar balances, los medios encuentran difícil sostener la estructura que poseen, ya que el modelo de negocios basado en la gratuidad del acceso sustentado por publicidades en banners no logra equiparar la enorme disminución de ingresos de su área de distribución impresa.

El paso primero que ha tomado la industria fue unificar las redacciones de lo que era en su momento dos unidades independientes. Un intento tímido de reparar el error inicial de tratar a la versión digital como un pequeño hobbie.

Lo que no se han planteado seriamente es generar un plan de negocios que haga de esta unión un proyecto rentable. Se han olvidado de analizar que los ingresos actuales de la versión digital, sumado a la creciente baja de venta del diario en papel, pudiera cubrir los costos de mantener un una estructura que ellos mismos han ampliado y complejizado.

El futuro es digital, no se puede evitar ni luchar contra él. Solo requiere un cambio generacional para que el medio impreso termine de desaparecer. La nueva generación del facebook y myspace, acostumbrados a consumir contenidos de manera digital optarán preferentemente por nuevas tecnologías.

Esto presenta un gran desafío para la distribución en papel. Pero se vislumbran ciertos ápices de cambio en la dirección correcta.

Que tiene de particular leer el diario en papel?

El principal mérito del diario en papel es su comodidad para leer, liviano, plegable, manejable, no requiere electricidad y funciona en casi cualquier condición lumínica. Estos atributos hacen del placer de leer (tanto diarios como libros) una experiencia imposible de replicar en una computadora.

En pos de mejorar la experiencia y comodidad de lectura y el acceso a la información han surgido algunas alternativas. Entre ellas se destaca el rss. Una manera sencilla de que los contenidos lleguen a uno en lugar de tener que navegar por varios sitios. Por medio de una aplicación, tanto de escritorio, online o móvil, uno puede suscribirse a los contenidos de varios sitios, inclusive puede uno solo elegir contenidos particulares, como por ejemplo solo la sección internacionales de un diario y la económica de otro.

Otra solución en esta línea, pero orientada a facilitar la comodidad de lectura en pantalla, es el New York Times reader, un programa que nos presenta las noticias en columnas, en tamaños tipográficos grandes y sin scroll, sino que paginadas. Además guarda de manera local los contenidos pare que funcione en caso de no tener conexión o querer hacer una búsqueda histórica. Lo particular de este servicio es que no es gratuito, su costo esta basado en una suscripción de u$s3 mensuales.

Esta aplicación de nyt no es un intento aislado sino un hito que marca el camino que las publicaciones van a seguir en la distribución digital.

La evolución de la tecnología esta cerrando esta brecha con la tinta digital, utilizado en los ebook readers como los desarrollados por Sony y Amazon. Estos dispositivos han evolucionado enormemente desde su primera aparición. Hoy son mas rápidos, poseen mejor calidad de imagen y conexiones inalámbricas.

La entrada al mercado del iPad marca otro cambió para las publicaciones impresas, se trata de un dispositivo que no solo permite leer libros, sino que permite un nivel de interactividad y flexibilidad que los ereaders no permiten, sumado al ya exitoso iTunes Store, logrará mejorar la experiencia de consumo de información.

Estos ecosistemas cerrados son una oportunidad para los medios impresos, donde pueden lograr sustentabilidad por suscripción, dándole al usuario, como valor agregado, una experiencia de lectura mejorada.

Con estos dispositivos y el modelo de negocios finalmente los medios impresos pueden encontrar un camino a la distribución digital.

Amazon era el indicado para empujar esta nueva tecnología. Y en lugar de depender de un tercero como Sony, desarrollo su propio lector de tinta digital. Utilizo una estrategia comercial similar a la que utilizó Apple con sus ipods e iTunes store, logro armar un ecosistema en el cual controla de punta a punta la experiencia el usuario. Fue una movida muy inteligente integrar conexión inalámbrica 3G sin costo para el usuario en sus dispositivos para poder adquirir sus productos.

Y esta quedando de lado la publicidad, la cual puede integrarse de maneras mucho mas efectivas, originales y menos intrusivas que en la web, pudiendo llevarla a ingresos iguales o superirores a los que se obtiene por los canales impresos.

Pero un dispositivo y un modelo de negocios no basta para tener una publicación exitosa. Estas corporaciones con sus orígenes de hace mas de 100 años deben incorporar la visión joven y moderna para poder adaptar sus contenidos a estos medios. Est estapa no es la misma que el pasaje del papel a la web.

Esta vez se trata no solo de proveer la información, sino de mejorar e innovar en la experienia del usuario al interactuar con la publicación, de la integración con Internet, con vídeos, con la Información de ultimo momento, con las redes sociales, y con la manipulación de esa información.

Es el momento de pensar en el usuario, y por medio de ese pensamiento lograr en cambio dicerenciador en la experiencia de uso de la información en la nueva era digital.

Flash vs html5

Lo importante no es la tecnología, sino la estrategia creativa de negocios.
Lo importante es que llegue el mensaje, el producto.

Con el masivo impacto de dispositivos móviles que comenzó con la introducción del iPhone en el 2007, se ha estado debatiendo la imperiosa necesidad de poder visualizar en ellos sitios basados en flash. En contrapunto están los standardistas que enarbolan la bandera de que todo el contenido de la web debe poder visualizase sin ningún tipo de plugin en los navegadores.

Flash o html, cada uno tiene sus fortalezas y debilidades, ninguno es mejor que el otro, sino que cada uno puede ser mas apto para ciertos objetivos.

Si un dispositivo no soporta algún plugin, se debe buscar la herramienta mas apropiada para que la estrategia creativa llegue a sus usuarios.

La web es una plataforma de negocios.
Si un sitio esta realizado en html, ajax, flash, php, asp, etc, no le es importante al usuario.

La pelea entre html y flash, o mejor dicho Apple y Adobe o plataformas abiertas y cerradas es en realidad una pelea por el negocio de la venta y distribución de contenidos. Y ademas en el caso de dispositivos como el iPhone e iPad por el control de la experiencia del usuario como el rendimiento del procesador y duración de la batería.

Por ello la estrategia nunca debe basarse en la preferencia de una tecnología, sino que esta ultima debe estar al servicio del negocio.

El impuesto al futuro

El conocido y lamentable impuestazo tecnológico que se quiere implementar en Argentina, no es mas que otra medida retrógrada de la cual nos lamentaremos por muchas generaciones.

En argentina ha sido aprobada por la cámara de diputados, y aguarda la correspondiente aprobación por la cámara de senadores, la ley conocida como impuestazo tecnológico, por la cual se reducen cargas impositivas al polo tecnológico de Tierra del Fuego y se incrementa el I.V.A. a todo producto que no sea fabricado allí.

Con esta medida se pretende fomentar la producción y compra de productos de manufactura nacional y hacer mano al dinero de lo que llaman la gente con alto poder adquisitivo y realizar una redistribución de la riqueza y generar planes de ayuda a la gente con menos recursos.

Pero es sabido que no es cuento nuevo, esto se repite a lo largo de la historia argentina, como por ejemplo los temporales impuestos a las patentes automotrices, o el impuesto al cheque, ambos con una lamentable vigencia.

No se discute aquí la necesidad de planes amplios, efectivos y a largo plazo para las clases necesitadas, estos son una realidad innegable. Pero lo que parece inentendible es esa sistemática manera de coartar el crecimiento del país imponiendo medidas para salir de problemas sin medir los verdaderos alcances de tamaña imposición arbitraria.

Unos de los aspectos mas artificiales que se contempla en esta ley es el fomento de fabricación y compra de productos nacionales, cuando en realidad no solo la infraestructura no está ni cerca de satisfacer la totalidad de la demanda interna, sino que los productos fabricados son solo unos pocos en relación a los importados, sin mencionar que muchos de ellos también son inferiores en calidad y prestaciones.

Esta media lo único que logra es limitar nuestro derecho de elección, obligando al consumidor a un catalogo limitado de productos, que ya se sabe, no es tecnología de punta, sino que va siempre varios pasos atrás en innovaciones.

Otro aspecto, mucho mas importante y de fondo, es la limitación tecnológica que se le aplica al país. Después de la revolución industrial, la cual solo hemos visto pasar de lejos, vino la revolución tecnológica que todavía estamos transitando y que se ha potenciado con la aparición de Internet. De lo poco que Argentina había logrado industrializarse, las políticas económicas de los gobiernos militares se encargaron de estancar su crecimiento, y luego la aplicación de políticas neoliberalistas en la década del 90 terminaron de dilapidar. Esta nueva medida, de ser aprobada, va a tener un efecto tanto o mas perjudicial al país que lo hecho con sector industrial.

Las implicancias de este impuesto se verán a corto plazo, en un estancamiento de la renovación de tecnología a nivel empresarial, lo que obviamente perjudicara a la economía que se dice proteger, y a largo plazo esto limitará la capacidad de crecimiento en capacitación y coartará la competitividad que actualmente tiene el país en por ejemplo el desarrollo de software, además de nuevamente hacernos dependientes del desarrollo de países que han sabido tomar medidas que fomentan el crecimiento.

Por esto, lo que se juega aquí no es que la clase alta pague un poco mas por sus juguetes y caprichos tecnológicos, como se quiere promocionar esta medida, sino que nuevamente se sacrifica una enorme posibilidad de crecimiento e inserción en el mercado mundial de la cual se lamentaran muchas generaciones futuras, tal como nos lamentamos nosotros de medidas similares de nuestro pasado.