Archive for the ‘ Thoughts & Opinions ’ Category

Reverse metaphor: Dropbox



I saw this in a building the other day and thought to myself: Dropbox?! Oh, I know what this is, it works just like the online service Dropbox.

Then, of course, I realized that it’s the other way round.


But there are so many metaphors we use on the screen that have become outdated, because we do not use their physical analogues anymore – floppy disks? paper calendars? tabbed folders?

The metaphors are becoming divorced from the very objects that used to help us understand how they were supposed to help us understand how the computer features work.

They are becoming stand-alone signifiers. We know what “tabs” are even if we’ve never worked with tabbed folders before (imagine explaining to your children where this comes from!).

So, what are we to do? I see 2 options:

  1. Keep the metaphors and use them with their newly acquired meaning. They are not metaphors anymore, they don’t stand for something else. They stand for themselves.
  2. Move away from the metaphors that make reference to physical objects and embrace the digital world for what it is, and create its own language and signifiers. I think this is one of the main pushes behind flat design – it’s a move against one of the most fundamental metaphor, the button.

I agree with this philosophy. I do not like things that pretend to be something they’re not.  They remind me of the cheap plastic bowls that are made to look like grandmother’s expensive china. In the physical world, we call them kitsch.

This doesn’t mean, however, that flat design is without pitfalls. By doing away with metaphor, which has an important role in learnability and communicating affordances, flat design invites usability problems. I guess the devil is in the implementation details – but look at Pinterest. It uses flat design and seems to get EVERYTHING right. So it can be done. 😉

Cell phones & the fear of being alone

While I’m a technology lover, I do agree with the point of view that by using technology (especially cell phones) so much we miss out on or plain avoid the opportunity to be alone.

There is a lot of self-knowledge to be gained from being alone and free of incoming information. But it often hurts and is scary. So we avoid it by reaching for connection (aka cell phone). Sherry Turkle argues that the kind of connection we get this way is not always authentic and satisfying. It is a cheap replacement, like a cheap “nutritional” drink is a replacement for a healthy, nourishing meal.

Anyway, arguments like the one above are boring. But this comedian explains it much better on Conan:

Can you try to pay attention and notice when you are using your phone to avoid being alone? Can you try practicing being alone, just sitting there, without music or any other stimulus, for maybe 5 minutes every other day, and see what happens?

Snapchat: Critical design?

Although Snapchat has gained a reputation for silly uses, I would like to argue that it could actually be a piece of critical design:

Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method (Dunne & Raby).

Assuming Snapchat works as advertised, and ignoring the NSA, I think the impermanence and stated privacy features of Snapchat could make people reflect on the permanence of other content posted online. Another website, Justdeleteme, serves a similar purpose of raising awareness about how difficult it is to delete various online accounts (sometimes, it is impossible!).

Products that get people to reflect on something, raise awareness about issues, or suggest new possibilities, would fall, by definition, in the category of critical design – even if their creators did not have that intention.

On a broader level, this post is about taking a second look – not dismissing something immediately because you think it’s silly or people think it’s silly. As a designer (as a creator), I invite you to imagine possibilities that others have not. – Have you encountered any situations where you see possibilities that maybe others do not? Where a second look reveals a completely new picture? When, once you go beyond the taken for granted and really see, the world is much more interesting than it seems? (btw, this is what makes a photographer or painter good)


A design review of Snapchat’s interface will come in a later post.


Please remember to interact with this post somehow (comment, rate, like) to let me know you saw it.

Apple doesn’t do user-centered design

I heard that in the first or second class and have been meaning to write about it but I forgot.

Well then, why are they hiring Experience Designers? Take a look at these two positions open at Apple right now:

Note that you will learn some of the required skills in CGT 512 😉

Let me know if you apply.

Dare to create

One of the things I love most about Purdue (and makes me feel at home here) is that I get to work with so many people from all around the world. I can’t help but notice the legacies of various educational systems leave on students. These are just my observations, and I’m most probably over-generalizing here, but here I go:

We often hear complaints about the American education system: kids don’t learn the fundamentals; they can’t spell; critical thinking suffers. People coming from educational systems such as China, India, and (I’d say) Romania do learn the fundamentals. They can understand and synthesize ideas. Their work endurance is much higher. They simply put in more hours without expecting to have as much fun.

And then I saw in the news this story about a 17-year old girl who built a neural network that diagnoses breast cancer that’s 99.1% sensitive to malignant cells, in her trials.

And then I stumbled upon this company that makes plush toys from your dog’s photos in order to generate funds for animal shelters. It began with a little girl’s idea and her insistence, and, of course, parents who went along with it. 

My observation is that people like me, who come from the Romanian, Indian, Chinese educational systems (they must have some things in common) are really good at learning, understanding, explaining information. But we are afraid to create. I know in Romania at least, we are told that we first have to master all that came before us before we can start creating. It is a daunting task, and by the time we’re done, it’s often too late. We have this reverence for the “great thinkers”… I remember how shocked I was when I first started grad school in the U.S. that you could argue with Aristotle. “What do you mean, question Aristotle? He is ARISTOTLE!” I am still amused, outraged, and in awe of American irreverence and the freedom people take (even people who don’t understand Aristotle well) to just argue – to improve, to innovate, upon Aristotle’s ideas (and by “Aristotle,” of course, I mean any big name).

Creativity and innovation cannot be attributed solely to the educational system. Culture and economy inform entrepreneurial spirit. And yet, the question has been bugging me, What kind of educational system does it take to foster creativity and innovation? What are some practices that we should include in the way we teach and learn, that will encourage and foster creative, innovative thinking?

I leave you with a TED talk by IDEO’s David Kelley on building creative confidence. It doesn’t answer my question, though, so please let me know. What have been your experiences in school that you feel have helped foster your creative, innovative thinking?

User-centeredness in file naming

Do you ever think about the user – the receiver of your files when you send attachments? You should.

Let’s say you are submitting an assignment – say, UsabilityReport1. For you as the student, it makes sense to name the file CGT512UsabilityReport1.pdf. But if you all do that, I, the receiver, will end up with a bunch of identically named files, which I have to painstakingly rename as I save them in my file manager.

So, from now on, when you send a file attached, consider how you will name it – in a way that makes sense for the receiver.

On my computer, my resume is resume.doc. But when I email it to someone, the file name will always start with my last name: Vorvoreanu….

I change the file name depending on where I send it. In some cases, it may make sense to include Purdue in the file name. In some cases, it may make sense to include the topic, or area of research. It really depends on the user.

In any case, you want to begin the file name with the identifying information. So, Vorvoreanu_UsabilityReport1.pdf is better than UsabilityReport1_Vorvoreanu.pdf. Why is that?

Do you think about file names when you send attachments? Will you from now on? What are your rules for naming files you send attached?

Hey, Facebook: Relax

[cross-posted from PR Connections]

Facebook has a pattern of innovation by (knee-jerk) reaction. The newest Facebook feature? The Subscribe option.

Here is why it sucks, and here is why innovation by knee-jerking is a bad idea, and unnecessary, especially for Facebook.

Facebook is, by far, the SNS market leader.

SNS adoption

As market leader, it is unnecessary to freak out and patch-up your product with random features, in an effort to compete with Google+, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, etc. You’re in no danger. You can afford to think and be strategic about what features you add. You’re not going to lose market share to Google+ overnight. SNS migration is slow, and for so many people, FB is mainstream, it’s become a habit. Early adopters may migrate, but the majority will stay put.

Speaking of the majority: All these new features confuse them. They don’t know what Google+ is. They have heard of Twitter, but it is more foreign to them than Romania. They know exactly what they use Facebook for, and they are happy seeing what the crazy cousin is up to, and sharing photos of the baby with extended family. I bet you the majority, which form Facebook’s biggest market and ARE its strategic advantage, can’t keep track with all these innovations and don’t even understand them. So, by adding new, confusing, features, you’re confusing your main market. Bad idea. I do informal research whenever I present to student groups. I ask them if they’re aware of and use certain (new) Facebook features. They’re not. And these are your Digital Natives. If they can’t keep up, how about auntie Mae?!

As MacManus points out, Facebook started off as a private social network. This IS was Facebook’s strategic advantage. As Facebook adds Google+ and Twitter-like features, it loses its strategic advantage and its definition. What is Facebook these days, exactly? What does it want to be – besides “the biggest, most popular SNS in the Western hemisphere”? A product without a unique proposition is diluted, confusing. Rather than trying to be everything to everybody, I think Facebook should step back to search and find its soul (too late for that) defining, unique proposition. The danger of knee-jerk responsive innovation is that you dilute a product and forget its strategic advantage and position in the marketplace. Rather then be Google+ AND Twitter AND Foursquare AND Instagram, Facebook should figure out what it is and what it is not – and how it is different from all of the above. From the market leader position, it can afford to relax and think strategically.

* Image captured from a slideshare presentation about social media adoption and uses around the world: