Here’s a cool little clip of an old radio that can sneeze to blow the dust out of its front grills.

And here’s one of a floppy drive that jumps up if you have a coffee accident on your desk. Once the coast is clear it sits down again.

The way the floppy drive sits back down slowly and carefully  just like my grandma is kind of endearing, and I wouldn’t think of these two everyday household objects as Scary or Evil.

These concept videos, created by James Chambers, explore how we can become quite attached to household products if they show emotional or lifelike characteristics, particularly in the way they move. The items he uses are quite retro too, adding a nostalgic element. The idea being that attachment might sway us away from ditching them as soon as new models are released, and maybe even help the world cut down on the waste it produces each year.

What if rather than displaying emotions, products could read our emotions?

The next video, created by Bernhard Hopfengartner, introduces a few interesting concepts, including at the end (5:45) a scene where a vending machine automatically makes a selection for you by first flashing all its products on a screen before you and measuring your initial emotional response to each product. Based on this it gives you the product it thinks gave you the best reaction.

Watch it here.

Is this now starting to get a little bit more scary and a little bit more evil? Bernhard’s video raises the question of control. Are the bad machines helping us or controlling us?

So what about this video, which is designed to make us think about how we make use of animals today and in the future.

Is integrating animals into our life support machines in order to help keep ourselves alive OK from a moral or ethical point of view? We use them for their meat, dairy produce, skin etc, so is this that big a deal?

And this next video explores how we might soon be creating our own materials from living matter.

Creating synthetic materials from living matter means we’d be able to give them all sorts of magical lifelike properties. Playing God, if you like. Synthetic biology is going to be huge and you don’t have to be a futurologist to see that soon we’ll be embedding the human body with computer chips.

That was quite a random selection of videos, but one thing that all those videos have in common is that they were created by students of the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London in the last few years.

I went along to an open day at the RCA a couple of weeks ago not really sure what to expect, and the whole afternoon was eye-opening. Rather than running a traditional course in Interaction Design, the department is instead focussed on conceptual design and exploring how people and technology will perhaps interact in the future.

There was an interesting discussion of what ‘future’ means, which Department Head, Professor Anthony Dunne discusses here:

… Last year, the futurologist Stuart Candy visited the department and showed us a wonderful diagram he used to clarify how we think about futures. Rather than one amorphous space of futureness it was divided into Probable, Preferable, Plausible and Possible futures. One of the most interesting zones was Preferable. Of course the very definition of preferable is problematic – who decides? But, although designers shouldn’t decide for everyone else, we can play a significant role in discovering what is and what isn’t desirable.

To do this, we need to move beyond designing for the way things are now and begin to design for how things could be, imagining alternative possibilities and different ways of being, and giving tangible form to new values and priorities.

The course is very much about conceptual design, which is different to traditional design, as described by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator at the MoMA.

By its most commonplace descriptions, design should solve problems, match form with function, produce artifacts, and make people secure and comfortable.

Conceptual design does not share the same immediate goals. Like good classic design, it cuts to the core of the issue at hand, wipes away excess hype, zeroes in on claims of innovation, provides a healthy dose of reality check, and uses vision to marry new ideas and old behaviours. However, it is not always warm and fuzzy or ergonomically reassuring, it is pointed and critical, sometimes even dark, awkward and pessimistic. It does not always come under the form of a traditional object, but because conceptual designers need to communicate concepts — and being designers, they want to make sure that these concepts are approachable and understandable — their work often makes for outstanding, visually arresting art.

Although students at the RCA work on projects and have deliverables, the deliverables can be developed in any media from fine art pieces to 3D models to computer programs to videos. The focus is on being creative and having ideas. But it was made clear that ideas must be backed by rigour. Students quickly get used to having their ideas and design decisions critiqued and validated – because projects, as well as being creative, require a real, tangible and relevant output.

After the talk I had a look around the studio where the current crop of about 40 students were working and it was like being back in art class at school. The students were cramped together around rough worn desks covered in all kinds of arts and crafts bits and pieces – although almost everyone had a Macbook too.

What a way to spend two years of your life, immersed in hyper-creativity with talented and like-minded individuals, producing nothing but ideas and thought-stuff. From what I gathered it was an intense two years for the students, but the course is so highly regarded around the world that the likes of Don Norman and Bill Moggridge are guest lecturers and even industry heavyweights like Intel and Yahoo! run projects at the RCA.

Being a technophobe and proud, I’m one of those people who need to be dragged from the past kicking and screaming into the present. Rather than looking to the future with any imagination or insight, we technophobes prefer to reminisce about the good old days when things were so much better (it doesn’t matter that I was born in the 80′s when most things were actually quite shit).

But after this visit to the RCA, I could see value in looking into the future and seeing more than what I usually see which is just me sitting on a sofa with everything the same except I’m old and holding a mug of tea.

Professor Anthony Dunne finished by describing the ideal candidate for the course – someone who’s passionate about technology, people and culture. Someone who’s interested in exploring ideas through design as well as their technological implications. Someone who’s interested in shaping our future. And last but not least, someone who despite having a passion for technology, can hold a certain degree of scepticism towards it too.

Now if only we hadn’t screwed our economy and caused tuition fees to treble.

Do what again?

The simple to-do list. It’s one of the best ways to help you remember stuff and get things done.

And in this era, the Information Revolution, with information coming at us from several jabillion directions, keeping track of all the things you need to do gets complicated. Here’s another list:

  • Gmail inbox
  • Gmail tasks
  • Gmail drafts
  • Gmail calendar
  • Facebook messages
  • iPhone notes
  • iPhone apps
  • Work to-do list
  • Work inbox
  • Twitter feed
  • Hotmail inbox
  • Delicious bookmarks
  • Google reader
  • DropBox to-do list
  • Sketch pad
  • Work note-book

That’s a list of all the places where I might have written down or made a note to remember to do something. That’s right, I had to make a dedicated list to help me remember to check them all every now and then. A meta list.

But the simple checklist is extremely powerful, as per Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto. Dr. Gawande describes how while working as a surgeon, he got thinking about how he might be able to reduce the  likelihood of complications arising in surgery. Most of these complications were the result of human error, be it the surgeon, nurse, anaesthesiologist, or someone else. And he asked the question – why do people make mistakes performing simple tasks that they’ve already carried out successfully many times.

Dr. Gawande, decided to research how other industries tried to prevent mistakes. In particular, two industries where making mistakes could have catastrophic consequences: skyscraper construction and commercial aviation.

In both industries, he found that the key for managing mistakes and solving problems was use of checklists.

In skyscraper construction, checklists are essential for ensuring tasks are completed regularly and consistently by all of the many cross-disciplinary teams involved in such a large, time-sensitive project.

And pilots really do have a pilot’s checklist in the cockpit on each flight, outlining how to react to any possible scenario that might occur 10,000 metres in the air while flying a plane.

Dr. Gawande took this information and was able to trial a suitably short (7 or so bullet points) but effective checklist in a variety of hospital environments all over the world, and the results were extremely positive. One of the points on the checklist was for everyone in the room to introduce themselves to everyone else before surgery – this simple act turned out to occasionally provide crucial information. As a result of Dr. Gawande’s work, many countries including the UK introduced a similar checklist, and thousands of lives have been saved as a result.

And you can make lists about anything. Life itself is a checklist if that’s how you want to think about it.

  • Birth
  • First steps
  • First words
  • First pet
  • First love
  • First job
  • Getting married
  • Having a baby
  • Kids first day at school
  • Becoming a grandparent
  • Retiring
  • Death

Crossing items off lists has a certain feel-good factor about it. Except maybe that last one.

Since reading The Checklist Manifesto, I’ve been thinking about how I could be using lists to better effect at home and at work. There are lots of tools out there for keeping lists and notes. Aside from the ones I’ve already listed:

  • Remember the Milk
  • ToodleDo
  • EverNote
  • Microsoft OneNote

Some of these are very popular, but I feel like they’ve over-solved what should be a simple problem. At the other end of the road, lots of people prefer to stick with good old .txt files, or even pen and paper because of the flexibility and simplicity they offer.

None of these quite do the job for me though. Ideally I’d like:

  • one central location where I can make all my lists and notes, both for work and home
  • the ability to edit whenever and wherever I want, whether I’m at home or on the go (-lf course)
  • complete privacy
  • complete protection against losing any data
  • the ability to structure the list however I want, so that I don’t have to look through the whole list all the time
  • to share parts of it with other people, who could then also edit it

Lists are simple in theory, but in practice, lists get quite complicated and messy. Especially when they grow. Sometimes you might want to keep track of the things you cross off the list, and sometimes a list might not be a list of things to do, but a list of ideas, or a list of things to try one day, or maybe just something that had to be written down right there and then. Some lists you might want to run through every morning, or day, or week or month or season or year.

We have files for documents and spreadsheets and databases and presentations, but there isn’t really a specific file type for lists, and I started thinking that a good list document could revolutionise the way people work, manage projects and manage their own lives. Particularly something that could include all of the above, and let you show and hide certain sections to help you focus.

I thought I was on to a winning idea, and was on the verge of suggesting it as a potential product idea at work, but last week I discovered someone had just released a web app very close to what I had in mind. If not even better :-(

It’s only in beta, it doesn’t tick all the boxes yet, and the developers are busy adding in some of the more obvious missing functionality such as https, an editable mobile version and a search bar [EDIT: these have now all been added!], but having used WorkFlowy for a week, it’s an incredible piece of software, and totally free from bells and whistles. The interaction design is clean and uncluttered, with speed and simplicity at its core and a lot of thought has been put into usability. It even has functionality to export the list as plain text, which is handy for .txt file loving old timers!

But maybe WorkFlowy at its core is more powerful than it might first appear. The WorkFlowy tagline “Organise your brain” is something I’d like to explore further.

Almost 30 years ago at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre, Thomas Malone wrote a fascinating paper titled “How do people organise their desks?” It was a small study making a couple of simple but profound observations.

The first was that people organise their desks and surrounding work areas to make it easy to find information when necessary.

The second was that information is laid out in a way that reminds people what they actually need to do per se when at work.

Information architecture is about organising information / data / stuff to make it work for you better. Peter Morville is the author of the book Information Architecture, and he talks about how in this age of information, we all need to become better information architects so that we can better manage our lives as more of our stuff moves from the physical world into the digital world.

The flexible nested structure of Workflowy, combined with drilling down to just see the bits you want is what makes it so useful. It allows you to organise information exactly how you want with simple drag and drop, and see what’s relevant at that point in time. How you organise it determines how well it works for you.

If you think about what is involved in learning a new or breaking an existing long-term habit, particularly an addictive habit, you’ll know it can be quite difficult to do. Your thought processes make you who you are and these are down to the physical structure of your brain. If you want to break or make a habit, it can take a week, a month or much longer before the neurons in your brain have formed or degenerated appropriately – your brain is very slightly changing shape.

Imagine in theory how if you structure such a list document around your motivations and goals in a smart manner and apply a touch of discipline, such a document could do more than organise your brain and help you remember to do stuff. You could design it to help you change the way you think and to help you get what you want out of life. Then it starts to get interesting.

WorkFlowy could soon be sitting on a data goldmine.

It’s been quite a while since the last blog post back in June. Last week was a pretty cold week here in London and this photo reminded me of the first ever post on this blog made back in January.

The UK (Nov 2010)... made me ill for a week.

If you live in England, you’ll know that England is probably better at preparing for war than it is at preparing for a snowy winter. Alas. At least it hasn’t been as bad as winter in Siberia.

There haven’t been many posts on scaryevilcomputer.com in 2010. I’ve had loads of ideas for posts, but have been too busy diving into the different areas of UX and Interaction Design, reading every book I could get my hand on. I’ve learned loads and it’s probably been the most creative and idea generating (apparently ‘ideating’ is a word) year I’ve ever had. Nowadays the sketchpad is always in the bag to scribble stuff on even on the daily London commute.

This is all Boris's fault.

There has been a lot to learn, and only 24 hours per day. This post talks about how UX is broadly split up into 5 main areas, and this one talks about how getting good at them all is a lot of work. UX and Interaction Design require a mixture of technical and artistic skills such as coding, information architecture and design, graphic design, typography, business strategy, psychology, human factors, ethnography and subject matter expertise in a range of industries.

It’s a bit like architecture in the real world. In his book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Matthew Frederick wraps things up with:

Most architects do not hit their professional stride until around age 50!

There is perhaps no other profession that requires one to integrate such a broad range of knowledge in history, art, sociology, physics, psychology, materiality, symbology, political process, and innumerable other fields, and must create a building that meets regulatory codes, keeps out the weather, withstands earthquakes, has functioning elevators and mechanical systems, and meets the complex functional and emotional needs of its users. Learning to integrate so many concerns into a cohesive product takes a long time, with lots of trial and error along the way.

If you’re going to be in the field of architecture, be in it for the long haul. It’s worth it.

UX is similar to architecture on this note. For sure, UX is currently not as highly regulated a profession as architecture and it takes years to learn architecture regulations. But it is very cross-disciplinary, and what gets displayed on a computer screen is limited only by the imagination, whereas architecture is limited somewhat by the laws of physics. It’s also worth considering how the pace of change in the digital world is many times faster than in the physical world, which makes keeping up with the latest trends in the field of UX even more challenging.

Sometimes, impatience is a virtue, and it got me thinking about how people learn and how one can learn faster. Ironically, after years of studying at school and university, I bought The Good Study Guide, which was “good”, and has a “good” section on how in an ever-changing world, the best thing we can all do is invest in our ability to learn, because we’re all life long learners now.

Hopefully more posts from now on…