Filtering by Category: Innovation

"slow" in "slow innovation"

A nice read in the last issue of Design Mind (by Frog Design): "Slow Innovation: Good ideas take a long time to perfect" by David Hoffer. Taking various examples (from Edison’s cylinder phonograph invented in 1877 to its plateau-ed end in 1910 or the 80 years duration of vinyls), the author shows that there seems to be 30-plus year innovation cycles and variations. This topic is of course highly explored in the literature about the diffusion of innovation (see for instance the work by Everett Rogers). The article sums up some of the results from this literature. See for example the discussion about the users' roles in innovation ("echnology may be advancing quickly, but that doesn’t mean humans have the interest or the aptitude to adopt it right away"). But more importantly, it's the implications for business that are the most relevant here:

"For businesses, slow is often a pejorative term, but slow innovation isn’t always a bad thing. Slow change can give entrenched industries a chance to gather their thoughts and respond effectively. Is it possible that a 19th-century buggy-whip company, faced with declining sales, started fashioning steering wheel covers, gearshift handle caps, and leather seating in cars? If not, they should have, thereby turning extinction into evolution. Businesses looking to innovate must always be paying attention to disruptions (and perhaps even doing a little disrupting of their own)."

Why do I blog this? updating the material I use for the courses I will give this semester about innovation, user research and foresight.

Spacewar

Steve russell, quoted by Steward Brand, in the legendary Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums published in Rolling Stones in 1972:

"We had this brand new PDP-l, it was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display. Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-Dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships. (...) I had just finished reading Doc Smith's Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. (...) By picking a world which people weren't familiar with, we could alter a number of parameters of the world in the interests of making a good game and of making it possible to get it onto a computer. We made a great deal of compromises from some of our original grand plans in order to make it work well"

Why do I blog this? various intriguing things here: people trying to find applications for the weird new device that sits in their research lab, the importance of talk-and-try, the influence of sci-fi in the researchers' imaginary realms and game design as random tuning. Of course, there is more to draw in the whole piece. Reminds me of some situations, please replace "PDP-l" by whatever technological stuff you have in mind, and "Doc Smith's Lensman" by any cool sci-fi from either the Zeitgeist or the shiny past we never reached and you may encounter a similar situation.

Externalist, internalists and contextualists

The general attitude wrt to technologies when you read press or overhear café du commerce conversations is that cell phones, the information super-highway, the Wikipedia or the invention of the wheel cause automatic and inherent "impacts". People talk about how X or Z (replace X and Z by whatever tech you might be interested in) is reshaping our cities or creating new neural networks in our brains. Worse this kind of saying also make people think that technology pursue its own goals; in french people are use to say "On arrête pas le progrès" ("We can't stop progress"), as if techniques were some sort of autonomous being, creating its own necessity and leading to its own design outside society. David Nye in his chapter "Technology" gives a very interesting (and quick) overview of theories that concern the relationships between technologies and culture. Although he accounts that old theories by McLuhan which described automatic impacts of technology are passé and fallen into disfavor, Nye highlights how the press and certain engineering researchers make deterministic utopian claims that technology is a "natural" force. In his overview, he describes 3 possibles approaches: externalist, internalist, and contextualist.

"Externalists examine a machine or technology within a cultural system or ambience, including studies of the reception of new machines, examinations of workers' response to new methods of production, comparative work on technology transfer, or studies of how a new machine or process changes hierarchical relations or social practices. In such approaches, the technical characteristics of machines usually are treated as subsidiary matters, and in some cases (but by no means all) technology may again seem a deterministic force.

Internalists reconstruct the history of machines and processes, with an emphasis on the role of the inventor, laboratory practices, and the state of scientific knowledge at a particular time. They chart the sequence that leads from one physical object to the next. (...) In contrast to the general public who often believe that "necessity is the mother of invention," internalists frequently find that inventions were not initially perceived as needed. (...) most technology scholars now tend toward contextualism; they see machines as integral parts of the social world. If technologies are shaped by the concerns of society, at the same time they have a reciprocal, transformative effect on the world around them. For contextualists, technology is not merely a system of machines with certain functions; it is deeply embedded in the social construction of reality. Technologies are not implacable forces moving through history; they are inseparable from social processes that vary from one time period to another and from one culture to another."

I don't know whether this classification is accepted in the field but I found quite convenient to get a summary like this, which makes sense of past readings in sociology and anthropology. Why do I blog this? I have worked in the externalist frameworks in my undergraduate studies, and I've moved from this to more contextualists paradigms during my PhD but it was still very externalist. Especially if I judge form the vocabulary I use, or that I had to use because it was part of an HCI program in which cognitive sciences was important (and cognitive psychology is clearly not contextualist, in its most rigourous inception). Now I have clearly a more complete overview (not only with Nye but the ton of other books and papers by Latour, Simondon and others) and definitely use another vocabulary. And I try to take that into account in my work, be it when writing about locative media, teaching design research, organizing the LIFT conference or working on field studies.

Internet pervasiveness in Peru

Laundry + speedy internet @

The omnipresence of internet cafés and network game shops is incredible in Peru. Even on the Altiplano, around 3800m, far from tourist footprints, you can get fast internet connections. The vocabulary of these is also fantastic: "speedy internet", "speedy veloz", etc.

Internet

Coupled with cafés, laudromats, drugstore, baby clothes and other curious things, it's stuning to see connected areas where people don't even have access to water and sewage.

Internet café in Lima

Thinking about other communication services like the llamadas, it's interesting to note how technologically-mediated interactions are important in that part of South America. I found it more apparent in Peru than in Brasil for example.

Old but still with a future

Not that I am interested by car technology but this article in The Economist tackles how the internal combustion engine, a 100 years old technology, is not dead at all and still has a future. That quote struck me as particularly relevant:

"Old technologies have a habit of fighting back when new ones come along. This is not surprising because they often have an enormous amount of design, engineering and production knowledge invested in them"

Why do I blog this? reading a lot about the history of science and techniques lately, I find interesting to observe the evolution of technologies. Resurgence of certain techniques and services are always intriguing, especially as they force people to think about contextual factors (see the surging interest in coal mine lately caused by rising pricing of energy).

The relevance of "past futures"

"Technological Landscapes" by Richard Rogers is an essay about "relevant past futures", i.e the "past roads not taken", in which he invites us to re-read the history of technological culture "to inform the selection of the technological landscapes of our day":

"Historical comparison with imagery of previous technological landscapes fires the imagination. It is also the stuff of argument and defence for an idea or a project (...) The rationale to looking closely into the early history of current dominant systems relates (...) to challenging the commonplace idea that the marketplace sorts out the 'best' technology and that the consumer and society are the beneficiaries. (...) the 'alternatives paths' or 'roads not taken' historians examine the effects on society (and increasingly the environment) of having lost a potentially viable system - technology opportunity cost.

After mentioning some examples such as FM radio, Rogers goes on with:

"When new and 'better' technological systems are trumpeted, it is worth recalling these and other specific examples of lost battles, from the level of abstractions of craft versus mass production down to that of keyboard layout. In confronting better technologies of the future, the question always remains 'better for whom'?"

And then some more elaborate thoughts about how past futures are used or can be relevant:

"The Nineties [case for space exploration] also shows us how earlier models (relevant pasts) are employed as 'guides' to make current futuristic cases more compelling. To make a case for a futuristic technological project, the promoter often must finds 'usable pasts' or indeed 'usable past futures'. (...) We learn the past futures for at least two reason. They aid us in thinking through the ideals, principles and social relations which have been and could be reflected in and designed into our technologies, bringing within our grasp the ability to 'imagine alternative technological designs' and act accordingly. Secondly, comparison is the stuff of case building. Drawing the right parallel (or spotting the spurious analogy) is one step in proposing or opposing particular cases to be made for new technology and new forms of decision-making on technology."

Why do I blog this? collecting material for a project about technological failures. I am interested in the role of failures in foresight and design. Rogers describes some pertinent ideas about how failed futures can frame design, and the intrinsically political imaginary realm of this practice.

What it takes to organize a conference

Preparing LIFT Asia There's a topic I rarely discuss here: how we work on the program of the LIFT conferences. With 3 editions in Geneva, a small event in Seoul and the LIFT Asia in CheJu next september, a long list of speakers has been booked. Since I am in charge of that part, it's always interesting to shed some light about we handle that part of the conference.

So how does that work? Well, it's not so much of a formal process as it's a combination of the LIFT coreteam daily observation of the Tech world and a discussion with members from our board as well as local advisers. The daily dose of newsfeeds, magazine reads, meetings with researchers, designers, entrepreneurs, public institutions lead us to add names of relevant people in a database we called "LIFT parking". This is mostly coordinated by myself and approved by the coreteam with recommendations coming from the LIFT team, the LIFT board, some partners/friends who reads specific resources (and get a free subscription and LIFT entrance) and of course local contacts who keep us posted about who is intriguing, pertinent and interesting in other part of the world such as South Korea, China, Japan. In the future we'd like to open this to new contacts from other countries in Latin America and of course Africa. Finally, the suggestion part of the website allows people from the community to suggest names and topics.

7-8 month before the event, we start cobbling our notes, potential speaker names and list of topics so that we can discuss the main theme and subtopics for the conference. This allows us to narrow down the list of potential speakers. Board members also suggest speakers at this time.

Why "future perfect" is what it is

Quite enjoyed reading future perfect's rationale in this interview:

"Your blog Future Perfect ("about the collision of people, society and technology") includes a lot of your musings about what you see on your travels, but poses more questions that it answers.

I'm pretty bad at shoehorning life into what amounts to lifeless journal and conference submissions. I mean, how do you take the essence of what's out there, the richness of life, and put it on paper? I don't think you can. The motivation behind the blog is that I do something that totally fascinates me, and I'm lucky to be well resourced and to work with very talented people. I want to be able to communicate some of that. It's not about saying what the answers are; it's about asking the questions and maybe some of those will stick in people's minds and they'll ask those questions in their own contexts."

Why do I blog this? it's always interesting to get people's motivation behind what they're doing... Also, I like the idea of "asking questions" to inform design.

Innovation versus Invention

Innovation vs. Invention by Bill Buxton is short but really full of great insights that sums up lots of interesting ideas about innovation. First about the innovation process:

"the difference between ‘innovation’ and ‘invention’. The closer one gets to Route 128 in Boston and Silicon Valley, the more it seems that people confuse the two. Too often the obsession is with ‘inventing’ something totally unique, rather than extracting value from the creative understanding of what is already known. Too often ,the obsession is with ‘inventing’something totally unique, rather than extracting value from the creative. (...) The key thing to note is that the average time from invention to market was 20-plus years. So much for fast moving tech sector! Which brings us to one of the most insightful quotes that I have encountered, from William Gibson: “The future is already here. It is just not uniformly distributed.” Here is the business lesson: innovation is far more about prospecting, mining, refining and adding value to ‘gold’ than it is about alchemy. Rather than focusing on the invention of the ‘brand new’, one might better strive for creative insights on how to combine, develop and leverage"

Then about design:

"So now we come to the big debate: who is a designer, and who should be a designer? Don Norman.It has an epilogue entitled, “We Are All Designers”. To this I say, “Nonsense!” (...) it was not enough to simply have great ideas.If you wanted the ideas to come to fruition,you had to spend as much time directing your innovation and creativity to fostering a culture of creativity and a receptiveness to innovation within the company, as you spend on the ideas themselves. "

Why do I blog this? preparing a course for tomorrow about foresight and innovation in a french design school.

btw I've a french blog

After 5 years blogging in english, and considering that part of my network (friends, colleagues, clients, etc.) are french, I found interesting to experiment with a blog en français. Since I don't have tons of time, i picked up a tumblr and chose to post short things when I have time, some similar to here, some different depending on my mood. It's called +41nteraction and will revolved around the same thing as P&V.

Keyboard in China, ASCII and innovation

Wandering around the interwebs to look for curious content, I ran across this interesting short paper by Basile Zimmerman: "When the Chinese Teach Us What Technology is Really About" (ESSHRA International Conference 2007, Towards a Knowledge Society: Is Knowledge a Public Good?). The paper uses the example of dedicated software that allows to turn things written on ASCII keyboard in Chinese (See the image above) and employs it as metaphor to investigate the relationships between computer technology and society. Some excerpts I found intriguing:

"To build on Akrich and Latour’s famous model of the door-closer, If a technical object is used, and if its content cannot be modified by its user, its content will be –during its use– imposed on the user. (...) If one is given chopsticks to eat an ice cream, who should be blamed? The waiter, the ice cream, or the chopsticks? For many Chinese today, it is the ice cream. After over three thousand years of use, I hear today’s Chinese computer users, including engineers, confronted to alphabet-encoded difficulties, complain on a daily basis that “the Chinese script is not convenient.”

Fortunately, for many reasons, the Chinese characters will not disappear soon. Attempts to abolish them have been made in the past and failed miserably. Besides, China is currently investing billions in science and technology innovation. Its computer industry is growing at an amazing speed and the first computers with homegrown Chinese processors came out this year. Graphic tablets and competing interface systems, better suited to the Chinese script, are under constant development. How will computer technology look on the day it was re-invented by the Chinese to fit their own needs? "

Why do I blog this? Browsing material when preparing the upcoming LIFT Asia conference makes me encounter intriguing types of research (from Geneva though). Although I am not a great fan of the "how technology impact society" meme (preferring the more complex notion of co-evolution or intertwined relationships), I found this topic intriguing from a more general perspective, beyond current research projects. The same question can be asked for OS or cloud computing apps.

Video game weaponry

The screenshot depicts a GDF Artillery Interceptor Turret from Quake Wars (left) and the original device that inspired it: Raytheon’s Phalanx Close-in Weapon System (right). Both have been taken from an insightful article in Popular Mechanics by Erik Sofge which deals with the design of weaponry in video games and what it means for real weapon design. As the caption in the article says "how long can games mimic reality while still adhering to the balance of their arsenals?". The point the author made is that video game designers are less concerned by sci-fi or real-warfare inspiration than in the game balance.

More interesting IMO, there are intriguing arguments there about the relationship between fictional material and military warfare gear that shed some light between imagination and design:

"If empowering the player by grounding his artillery in the real world is gaming's way of staying current, it's the more distant war-zone style of the alien enemy—ever reliant on their gadgets to do the fighting—that represents gaming's way of building toward the future.

That might explain why futuristic video games—and science-fiction movies and TV shows, for that matter—are such a strange blend of old-fashioned values and forward-looking technology. (...) game developers, ultimately, are almost narrow-minded and self-limiting in their visions of future warfare—not forecasting wars so much as dreaming up cool toy soldiers and tossing them into a virtual paintball arena (where both teams have a fair shot at victory). In our collective fantasy of the wars to come, however, the central fiction of warfare prevails: The fight is ever fair, and clean, and inherently good. Even aliens—the ones that leave plasma mortars behind, not flesh-eating blood stains—have mothers. "

Why do I blog this? as I've already made the case, I am definitely not a fan of weaponry, I just find this article interesting as it uncovers the relationship between a collective imaginary realm (the one of sci-fi warfare) and the design of digital and virtual devices. To some extent, it's a relevant case study about innovation.

Royal McBee interface

interface Another week-end encounter. A Royal McBee computer/typewriter, heir to one of the non-human participant of the "The Sory of Mel".

Why do I blog this? documenting different sorts of interface. There was a time when human-machine interfaces were not so homogeneous and you had both keypads, switches, potentiometers and stuff. I am often fascinated by the proximity between the input and the output (with the green/red switches on the right) and how it can change the task at hand. I don't mean here it's better to have that setting (it's certainly less flexible) but there is strong link between input/output (not to mention the device aesthetic).

Talking with the person who operated this machine, she said there was a pleasure of immediacy when using it and a limited flexibility which was appealing to her. "no diversion" as she reported.

Various resources from a late sunday evening:

  • Thoughts on Interaction Design compiled by Jon Kolko (.pdf, 2.5mb): "a text intended to contemplate the theory behind the field of Interaction Design in a new way. of elements (...) explore the semantic connections that live between technology and form which are brought to life when someone uses a product"
  • The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research by Erik Stolterman in International Journal of Design (Vol 2, No 1, 2008): "The main argument is that this kind of interaction design research has not (always) been successful, and that the reason for this is that it has not been guided by a sufficient understanding of the nature of design practice"
  • About Bill Buxton’s CHI2008 keynote: "Nothing that transforms our culture is brand new. It always takes twenty years. That means that anything that comes out in the next ten years that is amazing has already been around for ten years". Well the power of s-curve ;)

Assumption of seamlessness and cellphone boosters

Cell phone booster/repeater solution seems to be a trendy path lately, as shown by this NYT article which presents devices such as femtocell to extend mobile phone service coverage indoors, especially where access would otherwise be limited or unavailable. What I find interesting here is less the technology than the reasons why these solutions are brought forward (or at least the one mentioned/promoted by companies designing these solutions). Excerpt from the article:

"“Because more and more people are not taking landline telephones anymore, adding a signal booster is becoming much more popular,” said Richard Holtz, president of Infinisys in Daytona Beach, Fla. His firm plans the placement of cellular boosters in high-rise buildings, dorms and offices.

“People are expecting perfect coverage everywhere,” Mr. Holtz said, pointing out that being indoors or outdoors can make a big difference in call quality. (...) Many things get in the way of wireless signals. Trees and intervening buildings can degrade the signal from the cell tower, while brick walls and wallboard supports can block them completely. Sometimes many obstacles will conspire to create a “dead zone” of dropped and missed calls. (...) Of course, boosters require you to shell out your own money to improve a service you are already paying for. Pestering your carrier to upgrade its network is a cheaper — but slower — approach."

Why do I blog this? I'd be curious to know more about the real expectations of people but the seamless coverage might be a need. In our field studies, it's generally the case that people ASSUME wireless coverage (or perfect positioning through LBS) but then realize there are some discrepancies. It's then interesting to see both human and technical solutions to this problem. Technical solutions are boosters and repeaters described in this article whereas human solutions are behavioral adjustments (like sending an SMS instead of calling when you only have 2 bars on the signal reception display).

Delay in technological innovation: the "MS Surface" case

Glenn Derene in Popular Mechanics address the reasons why it took so long for Microsoft Surface to be "finally here":

"Microsoft's initial plan was to put a very limited number of Surface machines in stores and hotels with demonstration software just to show what the thing could do. But now AT&T has come along and leapfrogged over that demo mode to Surface on a larger scale—and in a much more useful way. (...) What struck me at the time was that the hardest part of the project seemed to be complete (...) All that was really left was for partners to design software customizing the Surface platform to their businesses. But that part of the equation seems to have taken forever. (...) What's ironic is that Microsoft has traditionally been a software company (Surface is one of the few pieces of hardware it actually makes), and it has all the necessary programming talent to build generic templates for Surface (...) it seems that Microsoft is more interested in launching what could be a breakthrough product solely with image-conscious partners who want to use the Surface as an attention-grabbing, brand-building device (...) this particular delay was probably more a result of the bureaucracy of complex business partnerships than of any defects in the design and engineering of Surface itself. But the end result is the same: Those of us who get excited about new technologies feel disappointed, and maybe even a bit embarrassed, for our own initial enthusiasm."

Why do I blog this? The article interestingly illustrated the gap between the glamorous projected at first by a technological innovation such as Microsoft Surface and where we stand one year after (" a classic example of how a lot of hoopla followed by a long delay can drain much of the excitement out of a technological innovation"). Especially when examined in the context of other interactive surface projects (also mentioned in the PM article). That's of course a common situation in the tech industry.

Victor Scardigli: the meaning/direction of technique

It's often when reading obscure and never translated european writers that I find the most intriguing ideas, especially when it comes to foresight and innovation. The book "Les sens de la Technique" by Victor Scardigli is no exception to this; the title is a sort of pun since "sens" in french means both "meaning" and "direction". Thus you can read the title as "The Meaning of Technique" or "Where Technique is heading", which reveals the ambivalence of technical innovation. What's intriguing here is that the author, for once, do not distinguish "techniques" and "technologies", rather taking techniques as a whole that encompass vaccines or ICTs. Above all, the book is above the gap between the expectations our societies put into innovation AND the weak consequences of the first change we can notice. After inventions and R&D processes, innovation is expected by some (especially the inventors) to diffuse in society and "impact it" (for best or for worse). Different rationales are at stake here since engineers or biologists expect Sciences to serve Progress, the reciprocal adaption of human beings and techniques and hence measure the "social impact" of their invention. On the other hands, social scientists often more convinced by the prominence of human causalities are more skeptical and think that new techniques are only tools to modify the course of time based on their own objectives.

The author then addresses how techniques and their usage evolve over time, for which he describes 3 phases in his "diffusion model" using a raft of interesting examples that I won't describe here:

  1. Phase 1: The "time of prophecy and fantasy" (enthusiastic or terrifying) where revolutions are predicted and technique is "inserted socially" (right after invention and R&D). It's mostly the time of positivists and the moment where imaginary symbols are constituted. The less objective fact you have, the more imaginary you get, so irrational thoughts are important here. Prophecies (or social actors who promote them) attempt to create a connection between 3 elements: the new technical object, human desire and expectations/fear of the time being. This leads to imaginary representations that you can find in the discourse of companies promoting the innovation, surveys or advertising/media messages. For Scardigli, there are of course constant imaginary issues: power on constraints (liberty of slavery), knowledge, fear of death, social justice, social bounds, economical wealth and global solidarity. There is therefore a discourse around the hopes and fears linked to these issues which are recurring in history. What happen is that fantasy, scientific knowledge and actions are intertwined and even the weakest signal is turned into an excessive hope or fear. Prophecies become necessities and then self-justificated.
  2. Phase 2: The "delusion phase" that suggest how the expected technological revolution does not lead to a social revolution. Positivists' prominence is obscured by skeptical voices who raise the gap between forecasts and realizations/effects. They also reveal how "techniques" themselves are not sufficient to change "society". To some extent, observers realize that science only make progress... in science. It's of course the time where "users/people" enter the scene and begin employing the technique. These small actors transform, invent new uses, hack or tweak the innovation. This appropriation and reinvention of daily life leads to a third phase.
  3. Phase 3: "the side-effect phase": 30 or 40 years after, the real diffusion of the technique is effective and some social and more long term consequences appear but often different from the one expected at first (new social form, new forms of cultures or human activities). He cites an example of a sort of bulletin-board system in the 80s in French that was expected to revive surburbian communities. What happened is that technology vanished (the state program was stopped) but it allowed people to gather, meet and create "mediating" organizations that survived. In the end, the collective imaginary of progress from the 1st phase is articulated with the strategy of actors who promote the innovation. Social change appear as a side-effect of the technical innovation, not because of it. The introduction of the innovation acts as a "analyser" revealing problems, social dynamic, aspirations, needs and above all as an alibi for new forms of sociality. And at the end of the road, it's end-users themselves who give sense to techniques by integrating to their daily life/culture.

Also Scardigli raises the importance of the socio-cultural context of innovation, who often fail without it. He exemplify this with a description of "mediating" persons who are social actors who can promote technologies and make people understand how it will be of interest for their purposes/life. In addition, there is of course a compromise between the Ideal of the project and the economic/user realism. If what happen in the 3rd phase is different than what was expected in the first one, it's because big actors (States, companies) are struggling with each others with different visions BUT also because small actors (users!) modify, change, tweak or slow down the unfolding of these innovation.

Finally, in his conclusion, he discusses some lessons about progress and innovation:

  • Human beings build their own history, sometimes by designing new techniques but often with other means (e.g. organizational). And it's not these techniques that will change or social and daily life.
  • These innovation effort are always carried out over and over, as a sort of Sisyphean curse because new techniques have to articulate both Science (who likes to "discover") and social demand for a better world. Unfortunately, harmonious encounters between both is very rare and needs and innovation are scarcely matching. Technical inventions are always the fruit of a culture and inventors, engineers or users all share the will to have a better world so they try, like Sisyphe.
  • Social appropriation is always slower than technical innovation. 5-10 years are needed to go from the fantasy phase to find a niche of users. 10 or 20 years are then needed so that the innovation is entirely appropriated in daily life.

User Experience of TomTom

Jan Borcher's "ode to TomTom" in the last issue of ACM interactions addresses issues that are relevant to my interest in the user experience of location-based applications. First about usability issues of TomTom:

"City or street names are listed so close below each other that you keep selecting wrong ones—Fitts' law at work. I also got a furious call when my sweetheart first tried using it: Köln (Cologne) wasn't in the city list. It turned out TomTom had left out German umlauts from their onscreen keyboards (...) Oh, and turning it on is a nightmare. Pressing the tiny, half-sunken power button briefly is happily ignored, but keep pressing it a couple times at the wrong moment and it won't turn on at all."

Second, about weird features:

" Feature development doesn't stop at its sweet spot. Beyond the idea of providing reliable, easy-to-use directions, TomTom has since added an MP3 player, live updates through the wireless network, connections to "Buddies" (the use of which has escaped me so far), cooperative street updates, photo slide shows (I'm not kidding), and a stream of other features. Some of these are actually useful, but the original TomTom was the sweet spot"

... which he relies on to discuss the latest phase of product development which is a "baroque" step that "obeys the terrible law of feature creep". The new feature, instead of having a user value, make life more complex... and eventually makes it difficult to use the device in its first and intended use. Why do I blog this? Some interesting discussion about product development and evolution towards complexity (most definitely due to forces that aim at renewing products very often).

Pondering leapfrogging

This week, Tthere is an interesting article in The Economist about the limits of leapfrogging. As you may know, this term refers to technologies that allow to skip another tech generation (for instance cell phone allow to skip the introduction of huge landline infrastrucures). Based on a recent report from the World Bank, the article describes the limits and the pre-conditions needed to have leapfrogging. It shows how the spread of new technologies often depends on the availability of older ones:

"Alas, the mobile phone turns out to be rather unusual. Its very nature makes it an especially good leapfrogger: it works using radio, so there is no need to rely on physical infrastructure such as roads and phone wires; base-stations can be powered using their own generators in places where there is no electrical grid; and you do not have to be literate to use a phone, which is handy if your country's education system is in a mess. There are some other examples of leapfrog technologies that can promote development—moving straight to local, small-scale electricity generation based on solar panels or biomass, for example, rather than building a centralised power-transmission grid—but there may not be very many. (...) it is the presence of a solid foundation of intermediate technology that determines whether the latest technologies become widely diffused. (...) The World Bank's researchers looked at 28 examples of new technologies that achieved a market penetration of at least 5% in the developed world, and found that 23 of them went on to manage a penetration of over 50%. Once early adopters latch onto something new and useful, in other words, the rest of the population can quickly follow. The researchers then considered 67 new technologies that had achieved a 5% penetration in the developing world, and found that only six of them went on to reach 50%. That suggests that although new technologies are often adopted by a small minority of people in poor countries, they then fail to achieve widespread diffusion, so their benefits do not become more generally available. (...) The World Bank concludes that a country's capacity to absorb and benefit from new technology depends on the availability of more basic forms of infrastructure. This has clear implications for development policy (...) Most of the time, to go high-tech, you need to have gone medium-tech first."

Why do I blog this? interesting article in terms of innovationm change and implications for foresight.

Question your tea spoons

A quote by Georges Perec is a good way to start off the year:

"What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Why? Where? When? Why?

Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.

Make an inventory of you pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out.

Question your tea spoons.

What is there under your wallpaper?

How many movements does it take to dial a phone number?

Why don’t you find cigarettes in grocery stores? Why not?

It matters little to me that these questions should be fragmentary, barely indicative of a method, at most of a project. It matters a lot to me that they should seem trivial and futile: that’s exactly what makes them just as essential, if not more so, as all the other questions by which we’ve tried in vain to lay hold on our truth."

(Georges Perec, The Infra-Ordinary, 1973) Why do I blog this? I think this words are a good agenda for now, they nicely show the sort of attitude towards techniques and technologies one can have "to rediscover something of the astonishment that Jules Verne or his readers may have felt faced with an apparatus capable of reproducing and transporting sounds". And as he said "Nothing strikes you. You don't know how to see." Why is this important, maybe first to highlight how the mundane is intriguing. Beyond the descriptive level, it's also curious wrt to innovation and design as it allows to ask question and possibly to nurture near future worlds.