Stay the F home

by Dries De Roeck on March 12, 2020

I posted this as an impuslive post in LinkedIn, just copy pasting it here for future reference. Unsure why I posted it on LinkedIn actually, but I think it was something to do with the hidden slap in the face to capitalism at the end of the message.

An interesting observation. When the Belgian health minister states [translated] ‘stay the fuck home’ it turns into a joke (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Idc2mkS-QLk). However, when a grassroots initiative states ‘stay the fuck home’ the message powerfully resonates in online communities (staythefuckhome.com).

I wonder what mechanisms are at play here, for sure it has to do with who brings the message and what is in each context percieved as ‘acceptable’ language. Online community mechanics versus top down dominance.
Additionally, staythefuckhome.com manages to deliver a well argumented message in a very clear way. The choice of words is used to provoke, but they immediatley show there is reasoning and deeper thinking behind it (basically clickbait, but in a good way?).

All in all, it did get me thinking about how the initial momentum created by the Belgian minister could have been used differently. Unfortunately, the blijfinuwkot [dot] be domain has meanwhile been claimed by capitalist thinkers … which is a shame and a missed opportunity.

My thing with gaming

by Dries De Roeck on December 10, 2019

I’m writing this while being partially ill. Although I’m supposed to be writing up my PhD, I tend to be coughing and blowing my nose more than hitting keys on my keyboard. So I’m briefly writing up some thoughts about games and gaming, which requires a little less mental effort compared to writing academic articles … it seems to be more compatible with my mucus filled sinuses at the moment. </justification>

So, what is the deal with games and gaming? I think this post will be an interlude to a longer piece on the adoption of e-sports which I’ve been crunching on for a while. Recently I’ve been experiencing some odd issues about the perception of gaming in my social circles. There are 3 things I’d like to touch upon:

  1. The word ‘game’
  2. The social aspect of gaming
  3. Games and story

1.

First of all, I love games. I love boardgames, computer games, outdoor games, … anything really. Over the last months, it struck me how culturally loaded the word ‘game’, ‘games’ or ‘gaming’ is in Belgium. Over here, we mostly use the word ‘game’ to talk about a digital game. This can be a PC game or a console game. When we talk about a non-digital game, like an outdoor game or a boardgame, people are more likely to use the Dutch word for game (spel, bordspel). This quickly leads to assumptions that ‘games’ are things for nerds, mindlessly hitting buttons on controllers deep into the night. I always feel like I need to justify for playing computer games, often resulting in very awkward discussions. I’m sure that people like Ian Bogost or Bob De Schutter have plenty of research to back this up. We should stop assuming that games are linked to nerds, everybody games. #homoludens
Example: I recently received an invitation to join an open area VR game with headsets and fake guns. The invitation stated : “you don’t need to be good at gaming”. While the intention is not bad at all, the wording gives me the creeps as it’s indirectly judging ‘gaming’.

2.

A common misconception is computer games being perceived as anti-social because you’re just starting at a screen. In contrast, for example, boardgames are social because you spend time with real people in the same room. Statements like this drive me mad. I have been in super social contexts when playing computer games, either whilst playing the game itself as well as outside of the game. Computer games are super social, just differently social than what we’ve been used to. The popularity of platforms like Twitch is just a confirmation thereof, people enjoy being part of a community … which in this case is virtual. As with everything, it needs to be taken into moderation. We should stop calling out people playing games for being anti-social.
Example: I meet up with friends every monday night in-game. Instead of going to the pub, we talk over discord about the same things you’d talk about in a pub, it’s just the activity that we’re doing is endeavouring in dungeons together. Yet, when I tell this to people who don’t play computer games, I’m regarded as anti-social and weird.

3.

Lastly, something I love to get to when having a discussion on games is all about narrative. When I played Firewatch, I didn’t have the idea I was ‘playing’ a game at all. I was experiencing a story, a progression of events in which I could steer what happens. I wanted to know the ending of the story … I didn’t want to complete the game. I’ve been a long time supporter of initiatives like the, gone but not forgotten, house of indie (screenshake in particular) and AMAZE festival. It are these places which, I believe, show the richness of the gaming medium. Where boardgames get mashed up with open area games and blended with screen based games. We should stop refrain from thinking games are blunt entertainment. People I enjoy following in this domain are JoonSokpopKlondikeDevillé.
Example: Talking about series and movies over lunch is perfectly fine and tends to be socially accepted. Try to do the same about your first time playing through Firewatch or the experience you had when playing No Man’s Sky. Frowns and odd looks guaranteed. Same goes for talking about sports, debating football scores is ok, talking about yesterday’s overwatch game is odd.

Some final points:

  • Refrain from using words like ‘gaming’ and ‘gamer’ just to refer to playing computer games. Be conscious about terminology.
  • Computer games form an enormously rich cultural medium and go beyond being an entertainment thing. Explore like any other form of art.
  • It is not because physical interaction is not happening in the same room, games should be called out to be anti-social. Things are not what they seem.

To close, I don’t want to offend anyone here – I merely want to put forward some points on why I love games and how I would like people to engage with and talk about them. As with everything, there are types of games I like and dislike … whether they involve a computer screen or not. Just like I like or dislike movies, series, paintings, music,…

In a next post on the gaming topic, I want to dive into the tipping point of e-sports and how I’ve experienced this over the years. It starts from the same frustration regarding gaming prejudice as the ranty stuff above, but I want to show that e-sports is the type of thing which is super huge in a very invisible way.

To be continued!

Deprecated car parts

by Dries De Roeck on December 8, 2019

Some weeks ago it struck me that when electric cars were to get widely adopted, a glorious part of language would get deprecated. I live near Antwerp in Belgium, we speak Flemish (Dutch with a twist). While there are Dutch terms for car parts, every local car mechanic tends to use, at least some, French terminology. The nice thing about it is that they are French words, pronounced in a Flemish way. Some words are not French at all, but look French in some way.

Because of this part of language about the fade out, I decided to already start compiling a list. Maybe I’ll use it for something sometime. Thanks to all contributors who replied to my tweet, to be honest – I learned a lot just looking up the terms I didn’t know myself!

  • Vis platinées
  • Joint de culasse
  • Carburateur
  • Catalysateur
  • Chappement
  • Bougie
  • Embraillage
  • Villebrequin
  • Vitessenbak
  • Amortisseur
  • Piston
  • Démarreur
  • Alternateur
  • Bobine
  • Boîte
  • Bielles

Under debate whether they’d actually go away when EV’s get adopted (they probably won’t) but mentioning them anyway:

  • Silentblokken
  • Jantes
  • Intercooler
  • Radiateur

I had this list lying around for a while, but reading Anab Jain’s tweet motivated me to put it online.

I could imagine an exhibit about future mobility where I’d be crying over the loss of local language and heritage … obviously recognising that the combustion engine was never a good idea in the first place.

The handshake and the touch

by Dries De Roeck on November 27, 2019

A little incrowd social media storm was triggered by @aliekens posting an image of the original 1990’s ‘Flanders’ Technology’ artwork. I think it’s safe to say that most people who grew up in Flanders in the 90’s (like myself) have probably seen the artwork somewhere. My personal memory mostly relates to the image being used on cultural information boards near the motorway as well as it being linked (I think) to the ‘house of the future’ project which truly fascinated 12 year old me.

The original 1983 flanders’ technology poster

However nostalgic people might get because of this, it was very interesting to read the reaction from a non-Flemmish person on the image. Marc Steen (NL), who once introduced 10-year younger me to Science and Technology Studies, commented something along the lines of …

“But basically this image has now been redone and can be found on so many stock photo sites.”

A shutterstock search result for human robot handshake

It got me thinking about some specific things about the original image, compared to available stock photo imagery:

  • It’s a handshake, not a touch or intention to shake hands. It signifies technology and humans collaborate. Other images base their visual reference on Michelangelo’s fresco painting ‘the creation of Adam’, in that case it immediately becomes clear who is intended to be superior to the other ie. the human There is an unspoken hierarchy, as it links to the old testament bible story.
  • The human hand is most prominent. The image shows the human hand in the foreground, again highlighting the human role in the relation. There is, however, no dominance in the relationship – there is no actor taking explicit control by giving a power handshake or using a dominant handshake.
  • It’s a manually drawn image. This might seem obvious, but the very specific aesthetic and feeling the image conveys is important. It is more along the ‘vintage’ 1960’s futurism drawings, which makes it rather analogue and rough compared to more recent renditions of the same handshake where the image is digitally produced. Because of this, in my mind, it sparks hope and forward looking positivism instead of a cold, automated and machine focussed world.

So to me, even if the image is as old as I am, it still makes sense anno 2019. It seems like in the ‘80s people greeted computerised systems in order to start getting acquainted with each other. In recent years, I’ve personally been fascinated by how technology has impacted society and how we seem to be trying to ‘reclaim’ technology and make it more human again. In my opinion, the human dominant side of technology is something we need to keep pushing for in order to stay conscious about our own agency as individuals in a data hungry world. This idea is, in my mind, still conveyed in the OG Flanders’ Technology ‘robot handshake’ image.

Or … maybe I’m just trying to justify why Flemish 35+ nostalgic nerds like this image. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reflecting on the image a bit deeper.

tl;dr: playdate fanboy reporting.

by Dries De Roeck on May 23, 2019

During my morning commute I spotted a tweet by Cowly Owl’s Chris O’Shea about play.date. Upon seeing the playdate device, I was totally sold. Love at first sight, for sure. Finding out that the swiss army knifes of Panic (Firewatch and more) and multimedia hardware crème de là crème Teenage Engineering (OP-1 and more) are behind it made me even more excited.

The reason I love the device so much already is not because of the crank or the fact that Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy) will make games for it. It is the service oriented model behind the whole thing that I look forward to most.

Playdate is the perfect example of what I refer to in my ongoing research as a hybrid product service system. Meaning that it consists of a piece of hardware (in this case a wonderfully designed handheld gaming device) which is inherently linked to an intangible, digital, service component. Upon launch, the company will be releasing a game every week for at least 12 weeks. What I find interesting about that, is that you buy ‘future’ or ‘potential’ value. At the same time, you know that the product will always hold some value. Even without the network connection or without the service components, you will be able to keep playing games.

The product will be connected to the internet through wifi, which makes it possible for the creators to update the firm/software along the way. Interestingly, we’re now taking this for granted but in essence it is a very disruptive ‘potential’ business model. I’ve been refering to this as taking care of ‘future implications’ in my value framework model.

Another exciting aspect of playdate is its openness to the game development community. Although Panic hasn’t said too much about it yet, I’m imagining they will offer some kind of SDK or other tools (I’m thinking PICO-8 style) for a wider community to create experiences with the device – most likely not limited to the default interpretation of ‘games’.

Lastly, playdate has a monochrome screen. In times of ultra 4K and 5G broadband mobile networks it shows that getting back to basics and focussing on the essentials is more than good enough. It’s about tapping into a market segment and creating a meaningful product for a specific audience.

Bye 18, hi 19.

by Dries De Roeck on February 11, 2019

#2018inreview

The first month of 2019 came and went, it’s been an intense end of December and an evenly intense start of the new year. As I’ve been doing these looking back and ahead posts for quite some years now (and like looking back at them every so often – 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017) I’m pushing this out before I forget all about it. I had my 2018 highs and lows written down for a quite a while already, but never took the time to flesh it out a little beyond the bullet points. So here goes!

(Funfact: I drafted this in bullet points during a cold Belgian December day and finished writing this on a 30+ degrees Senegal February day)

Things that stuck with me looking back at 2018

The relativity of it all

It seems as life progresses, this becomes ever so apparent. This year, I once again came to understand and experience the relativity of life on different levels. Firstly, little A. stayed with us for a year. He arrived at our home as a crisis foster child, meaning that there was an urgent need for someone to take care of the child while the social situation around him were to be evaluated and taken care of. After some months it became clear that he couldn’t return home. My wife and I very deliberately chose to focus on short term “crisis” fostering some years ago, so we made the though decision to start looking (together with the fostering organisation in Belgium) for a future perspective for this child. Whilst doing something like that, it always strikes me (this was our 9th foster child) that the value you can offer as a human being to society is worth so much more than any kind of monetary reward, job title or personal achievement.

So as the years fly by, I see my personal values shifting to things that actually make a contribution to society or a community. I should be clear, this is often something I struggle with quite a lot but I think it is important to be aware of ‘the relativity of our lives’.

Ethics in everything

The past year I developed an increasing interest and consciousness about ethics. And although ’ethics’ clearly did turn into a buzzword in 2018, I do follow the train of thought related to the importance of ethics in the work I’m involved in. My own twist on ethics comes down to being respectful on all levels. The past year I probably got into some arguments I would never have gotten into before because I didn’t dare to speak up. Whenever I felt disrespected or when my opinion (I don’t often really have one) was muted I attempted to speak up. Don’t let yourself and your life be fooled or directed by others.

And I must say, it’s really hard to do that. I had several arguments and good chats with my wife on being tolerant and to not judge the behaviour of others. I’m still learning, but that’s how I’m experiencing ‘ethics’ in my day to day life.

First kickstarter & other side projects

Although I should focus on my PhD work, I invested some time in a couple of side projects that brought joy and satisfaction to my mind and were a way to get rid of some creative urges I tend to have. First of all, I had a blast running the ‘don’t complain, suggest what’s better’ kickstarter stickers & artwork campaign. This was the first kickstarter campaign I launched and it was super fun to do. I learned a lot, both about the administrative/logistical side as the social side and ‘expectation management’. It was very fun to get some local artists involved to rework the original quote and being able to pay them for their delivered work.

Besides that, I also enjoyed putting together a workshop/course on how to behave on the internet for parents of our local school in Belgium. Together with two other parents, we created three distinct workshops focussing on ‘privacy online’, ‘mindful online’ and ‘online gaming & entertainment’. The idea behind this was that instead of focussing on our children and their behaviour online, many parents have no clue about the state of the internet these days. So our goal was to inform parents in an interactive way in order to be able to increase our parenting skills with regard to these topics. By understanding and talking about these ‘digital things’ with other parents, we shape our own thinking and become able to question the way we integrate the digital world in our family lives.

Lastly, at the end of the year I pitched a concept to receive a grant in order to create a visual / artwork for an upcoming ‘next generation internet’ publication (supported by Nesta, UK). My proposal was to give children between 6 and 12 a very simple assignment: “Draw the internet”. The idea behind this was to get a glimpse in the heads of the future generations to understand how they experience what we call ‘the internet’ today. I have already done this with a local school in Belgium, and hope to do the same with Senegalese primary school. So far, results are super interesting and I can’t wait to deliver the final piece. This should be available online somewhere in March.

Things that worked out differently in 2018

Finding focus

I had hoped to spend more time on focused, deep work. For about the whole year I had the feeling I was ready to deliver a bunch of project work that I had been chewing on for way too long. But for some reason, everything still stayed quite superficial. I had planned and hoped to publish some cornerstone articles related to my research throughout 2018, but I couldn’t find focus or spend longer stretches of time to get down and do the legwork.

Personal projects

Maybe this is obvious, but the list of personal project I would like to do one day just keeps growing instead of shrinking. Also, every time I read through the list – I get inspiration for other projects.

In comparison to other years, however, I have the feeling I didn’t really develop any new skills or didn’t really improve on skills. I would have wanted to spend some more time on coding and, for instance, getting my community Christmas lights version 2 project up and running. That didn’t happen.

Relationships

I had to give up on some relationships in 2018, in particular there was one very though situation in which eventually the other party (very rightfully) gave up on my ever lasting doubt and fuzzyness. I won’t go into details here, but this has been a major ‘social’ learning for me.

Things I want to do in 2019

Get over the PhD

It’s the final year of funding, if the PhD is to happen – it will need to happen this year. If it doesn’t happen, that should also be clear this year. I’m very grateful to all people that keep supporting me and telling me I should just finish it. I think I’m on the way to finishing, it’s all laid out quite nicely now. And I hope to get some focussed, deep work, done in the weeks & months to come.

What is, however, very clear is that I need to get it behind me. “The PhD” has been this little voice in my brain constantly calling out it needs attention, which I haven’t always put in 100%. It needs to be purged out, in whatever way possible.

Experience Africa

Quite randomly, I’m spending 3 months with my family in Warang, Senegal from January to April this year. It all started out with some chats on temporarily relocating to teach elsewhere. Those discussions ended up in realising that both my wife, children and myself were really fed up with the way a lot of things happen in Belgium. We needed some time to get away from it all, reflect, and return with new ideas and perspectives. Over here in Senegal, my wife works at a local school. Our children go to that same school and I spend time at home where I’m getting writing work done for my PhD. During the weekends and some afternoons, we explore the local region. We decided upfront to pick a stationary spot and explore from there, which would allow us to experience ‘local life’ a lot better. So far this is all going rather well, I have the feeling spending time close to your ‘tribe’ is critical and is something we very quickly overlook in Belgium where everything needs to pay off, everyone is stressed out and social respect is hard to be found.

In conclusion

//I added this section after rereading the whole thing, realising I might have been a little dark and negative

I have the feeling that 2018 was a year in which I maybe didn’t get down to do the “work” I had planned, but I did evolve quite a bit on a mental level. I feel that currently my state of mind is a lot more peaceful, and that I need to be concious about where and when I spend my time and energy. My family’s choice to move to Senegal for 3 months is, to me, a confirmation and very much linked to that realisation and learning.

Top songs of 2018

Makers gonna make! #teamscheire

by Dries De Roeck on November 19, 2018

This post was written as a draft, to eject some thoughts. It is prone to have plenty of language errors, unclear sentences or very ‘dutch’ type of english sentences.

Recently the public broadcaster in Belgium launched a new show, #teamscheire. For those that haven’t been able to make the time to watch an episode, it is about a group of ‘makers’ who solve specific problems or issues for everyday people.
Watching the show has made me think, a lot, about maker culture and its relation to engineering and design. About our society driven by the glorification of the capitalistic belief. About personalisation and the influence of data driven systems. About emotions. About skills in local communities.

In this brief post I want to touch on a couple of these topics, which is mostly part of my ever ongoing journey and interest in being involved in maker culture in general.
Before diving it, let’s be clear about one thing, I love this show. This is not written as a critique on the TV show itself, but more about some elements this show triggered in my brain. Some of the discussions I had with people about the show triggered quite a lot, I will do my very best to write this as constructive as possible. Don’t complain, suggest what’s better. Or as the romans would have said Noli Queri, Suade Melius.

Issue one: market value

When I watch #teamscheire, I do so primarily becuase I love to create things. Sometimes these things have no use at all, but the act of creating is something that I like to do. I keep coming back to an old Yoko Ono quote, all the time:
“I admire most creative people and most creative efforts because I like the idea that they’re doing something. Even if it’s crap, I like the idea that they’re doing something.”
Over the past weeks, I had several chats with people who talk about the work and projects part of #teamscheire as ‘hobbyist creations’ (‘knutselaars’ in Dutch). What vigourously agites me when people use that wording is the implicit assumption that ‘maker’ projects are inferior to ‘industrially produced’ projects. A typical element that pops up in dicussions which focus around this is the hunt for the greater goal. ‘WHY’ would you even spend time on making this, ‘WHAT’ do you get out of it and ‘HOW’ big is the market for this? Typically my point of view in this kind of discussions is that I don’t care about how much revenue such a project might bring – I think it is important to show a larger slice of society that we _are_ able to solve problems ourselves without the need for venture capital, stock markets or dollar signs. Just enthousiastic people willing to help out for the greater good.

Issue two: it has been done

Another quite common type of discussion is the ‘but it has been done’ type of discussion. Probably all projects shown on the #teamscheire show have been done, explored or tried out by others somewhere. A friend of mine, Lieven De Couvreur, has been running design classes since 2009 about creating and documenting personalised ‘solutions’ to very specific problems. This is the perfect example to show how important deep personalisation is, and that perhaps something can look like it has been done – whereas we might miss a small change which makes it a totally different product for a particular person.
So when someone says it has been done, I think that should be regarded as a compliment and it should trigger collaboration, not triggering to notoriously build walled gardens to “protect” intellectual property. That being said, I find it a pity #teamscheire seems exclusively linked to the University of Antwerp and imec when it comes to the involvement of educational and academic institutions.

Issue three: communities

Core to a lot of thoughts this tv show has evoked is showing what local communities can mean for each other. We ‘the people’ can solve so many of our own problems, which we somehow expect organisations or companies to solve through commercial services or products. And if you look around, you often don’t have to look too far. A farmer living nearby who turns out to be a master in welding or a neighbour across the street who is a hero in repairing clothes, a friend who can write software. For sure, the solutions made or ‘crafted’ by our local networks will never work instantly ‘out of the box’. As the #teamscheire show shows very well, iteration and testing are critical to making things. Additionally, this assumes there is a local community or network, which is in many cases does not extend beyond our front doors.

What I actually want to say:

  • I want to see more projects led by enthousiasm instead of money
  • I don’t think every solution should be generalised in order for it to be marketed or marketable
  • I do think creating solutions that can be personalised or adjusted are interesting
  • I believe we should all keep attempting to create resilient local communities, although I have no clue how to actually do that
  • It feels good to watch #teamscheire and be part of, what sometimes feels like, a hippie anno 2018 movement

#IOTMARK London

by Dries De Roeck on July 17, 2018

For some reason I forgot to actually copy this post from my writing notes to the blog. Woops, but still relevant I think.

I’m writing this on the train back home after a day of chatting, reflecting and working on the #IOTMARK initiative. For those not familiar, IOTMARK emerged out of the open IoT definition which was initiated in 2012 by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino and Usman Haque.

Exactly one year ago, the open IoT definition was revisited with the goal to explore the interest and format to create a certification mark or trustmark for IoT product from the bottom up.

Today, June 13th 2018

Alex put in a lot of energy in hosting today’s IOTMARK event. And although I came in rather unprepared, I did take the time to review the last version of the 33 principles that were defined based on previous meetings online and offline with a very diverse range of people. After revisiting the topics and statements and meeting some new and old friends, old and new conversations were revisited and held around the topics.
I believe that right after lunch, Alex dropped ‘the bomb’ – to me this was today’s slap in the face many of us needed.
Paraphrasing Alex :

“IOTMARK is not another manifesto but _must_ go further. Crystallising assessment criteria is essential and critical.”

At least, it made me think about IOTMARK in a different – more profound – way. Most of us, including myself, are very good at ranting about how things should be and what ought to be done. In the final hours of today’s event, we collectively focussed on defining actionable assessment criteria to tackle each of the IOTMARK principles. Because there were quite a few of us there that have been involved in the IOTMARK process for some time now, it was possible to land on some assessment criteria – also for the though points.

Are we there yet?

No, not at all. I’m not even sure if we’ll ever get ‘there’. All I can say is that it was nice to experience how hazy thoughts did start to crystallise into actionable components. Over the next few months, I very much believe today’s event laid a good foundation to further construct the format and structure of the trust/certification mark.

But Dries, aren’t other people or organisations doing this?

Quite a few to be honest. What is nice within the IOTMARK working group is that almost everyone involved has a link to ‘doing IoT’ in the field. Therefore it is a very bottom up activity, which actively reaches out to other related activities.

An important one of such activities is Peter Bihr’s work with Mozilla on a trustmark for IoT, alongside other projects around the world.
So let it be clear that a lot is moving in this space, but I can safely say that the space is by no means competitive (yet?). Everyone involved is looking for complementarity, coming in from diverse angles.

But Dries, it is not resulting in anything.

When I talk to people around me, the above is a common thought that surfaces. From my point of view, however, it results in a lot of things. Investing my time in gatherings like this are investments in the process.

And although there may never be an actual, enforceable, IoT mark, it is about contributing, being present and showing up. The topic of responsible IoT is close to my heart, and however cheesy that may sound, I’m willing to push back other work because of it. #sorrynotsorry

Today was another reminder to believe in process, and hold back on trying to identify outcomes or results upfront. I’m sure they will emerge and right now I want to contribute where I can.

I believe you should too, if you personally and truly care about how internet connected products are impacting our society.

About doing research in a design context…

by Dries De Roeck on July 17, 2018

Disclaimer: I never thought I would write the post you’re about to read. I still don’t feel confident to engage in this debate or discussion. Nevertheless it has been on my mind for way too long, so I might as well give it a go …

This is a reply/follow up post to a somewhat aged twitter conversation earlier this year. I guess I’m now finally taking or finding the time to write down some reflections of mine around the topic of ‘design research’ and the relevancy of ‘focus groups’.

This all started with two (linked) medium posts by Mule Design studio:

I recall that I was very triggered, and perhaps a little offended, by the way @bosmet shared the article initially. It was nice to see @davidgeerts join the conversation, adding some comments from his perspective too. Do note, I ever experienced these comments as a problem in any way, Bo and David are just very good at asking critical questions that have seriously forced me to adjust my own thinking before.

The spark – summarised

First of all, the posts that sparked these conversations are not new at all, they date back to 2014 and 2016 respectively. The points made are, however, discussion topics that surface every so often in design projects – both between colleagues and between clients.

Core to the posts by Mule Design is stressing to conduct user or stakeholder research activities in context. By putting people together in an office meeting room and having them talk to each other about a topic won’t get you anywhere. In the periphery, some critisism is expressed towards doing research in a design setting. We should be wary of not doing research for the sake of research, but always have the larger picture in mind. The point is made that, in fact, we shouldn’t be questioning the ‘relevancy’ of doing research in a design context – as it should in fact be an integral part of it by default.

Some thoughts

Before ranting on, let’s be clear about one thing. I very much believe people in design and development should be talking and immersing themselves in the context of their users or related stakeholders as much as possible. And I would argue that any kind of contact with stakeholders, whether it is on the street or in a sterile meeting room is better compared to no contact at all.

What probably troubles me mostly about the article that sparked the converstation on twitter and this little ranty post, is that it is easy to talk crap about a ‘method’ like focus groups, to talk crap about research and to glorify the greatness of the all inclusive design profession. I get very agitated when people tell me stories about talking to users and they didn’t get anything out of it. In my opinion, if your plan was to get anything out of it in the first place – you’re doing it wrong. The reason you’re engaging with stakeholders is to find inspiration, to look at something from another point of view or maybe just to have a good chat with someone you would otherwise never talk to. From that respect, a stakeholder involvement activity always results in something (thanks @jurgentanghe for this reflection).

Another something that troubles me is the obsession with labelling ‘activities’. When naming something ‘focus group’ the social scientist in the room might have a very different idea about compared to the engineer in the room. (imagine, a social scientist and an engineer in the same room – ohnoes </sarcasm>). To me, I (relatively) do not care if what you do is a focus group, a diary study, a cultural probe, a creative session, a questionnaire, an empathy building excersise, an interview, a structured interview, a prototype test, a usability test, a user experience test, a collaborative design session, or whatever label you like to use. Obviously it makes sense to have these labels in textbooks and stick to them in education and be able to link to them when writing up – for instance – an academic paper. People in design practice, however, should imo be able to bend and stretch these labels in order to fit a project context better.

The crux in all of this is when doing ‘research’ activities, people in design practice should primarily be concerned with knowing what they want to understand better, where the unknown issues lie, and then figure out in which way that knowledge can be uncovered. I think it is part of the design profession to be able to make that translation, to be creative in combining textbook examples of stakeholder involvement methods and by doing so moving towards a more informed design process.

I realise that I might have mixed up ‘research’ with ‘stakeholder involvement’ above. Obviously stakeholder invovlement is just one type of research in a design process. Nevertheless, I think in general the same points apply to any kind of research activity which takes place as part of the design process.

“Stakeholder involvement never got me anywhere, it’s time I could have spent on actually making stuff.”

If you expect user involvement activities to direct or guide the outcomes of your design process, I can accept and follow the above statement. I also believe that exactly that point is where a lot of issues are to be discussed. Involving stakeholders is about understanding contexts of use (as Frouke Sleeswijk Visser wrote about so many years ago), approach and view a situation from a different point of view and developing a different relation with the target audience(s) being addressed.

So, and this has been said by many others before as well, conciously thinking about research in a design process is something you either go all in on or don’t do it at all. If you keep questioning the value of doing a stakeholder involvement activity, or if the focus remains on what you might or might not get out of it, it might be better to just stop debating about it. Increasingly often, when this topic emerges in conversation, I choose to stop justifying. I increasingly think it’s a total waste of energy to try to convice people to conciously do research activities in a design process. Some years ago, I reworked the ‘believe in process‘ poster – which I think still covers the message to be told quite fully.

When not (conciously) doing user invovlement activities as part of the design process, chances are very real you’ll get to the same end result as if you would have done it. Chances are evenly real that, in the end, you did involve stakeholders and you did do research activities – you just didn’t experience them as a separate activity.

It’s all been said before, Dries. This has become a boring conversation. You’re just repeating and preaching to the choir.

Yes, that’s a large part of my frustration. The conversation on whether a focus group is valid or not is probably not the conversation we should be having anymore, but it does seem to come back every so often – so I guess it can be a good cornerstone to keep alive. In the May-June edition of interactions magazine, Jon Kolko wrote an article on that other elephant in the room ‘design thinking’. One of the better statements from that article that somewhat summarises my above ramblings:

To work this way, designers need humility. In a participatory, inclusive, and democratic environment, a designer can’t be construed as the “person with the answer.” Instead, they are a guide or facilitator, one helping apply a foreign creative process.

What I like about that quote, are the first four words of it. ‘To work this way’ tells me that this is not the only way to work. I think we should not expect people in design to work in a participatory way by default, we should not expect designers to be the ones with the lego bricks and the sticky notes, we should not expect designers to be the ones critisising line width or font choice.

Linking this back to the starting point of this post, I could conclude stating:

“When prejudices about what the expected outcome of a stakeholder involvement research acitivity are ditched – only then the research inclusive design process can start to shine.”

The one pixel display

by Dries De Roeck on July 14, 2018

This post is about one of those ideas that my mind keeps coming back to from time to time. Never took the time to try to make this real, but needed to jot it down – perhaps just for my own future reference.

The basic idea

This one pixel display is something super simple. As its name suggests, it’s a square pixel which can either be on or off. It does have an RGB led inside, so it can display different colours. Functionality wise, it has a lot in common with the thingm blink(1) device – which has been around for quite a while.The one pixel display can display notifications, but it focusses on information close to people. For instance, it can tap in to publicly available (open) data streams to show things like train delays, traffic congestion and weather forecast info. Also, a one pixel display can be used to monitor sensor data generated by other devices in the home environment. For example, doorbell pushes, open/closed state of doors and windows, garbage bins, presence of people, sound level, etc …

The design

The one pixel display is designed in such a way that its aesthetic is on par with a higher end media art piece. This means it is created to be placed in highly visible spaces in the house, such as a living room wall, fridge door or radiator front. It can be placed by itself, but also in clusters with other one pixel displays.

A one pixel display can only be linked to one data stream. Pixel displays are not intended to be linked together, although they could be technically designed to form a mesh network. Ideally, a one pixel display communicates data over a mobile network using a simcard and and an nb-iot connection. Inspired by the Particle mesh devices, there could be one pixel which acts as an uplink for any connected one pixel displays.

Meaning

Key to the one pixel display is the way in which people assign meaning to the device. Typically, the owner or people close to a one pixel display will be aware of what it signifies or indicates. For example, when the pixel on the fridge door turns blue it means we’ll be getting rain today. When the pixel next to it turns green, it means the rubbish bins are full and need to be taken out. A pixel on the living room wall could move through the colour spectrum based on the outdoor temperature.

Assigning meaning in this way is inspired by the type of interaction a product like the GoodNight lamp offers. There are no set rules for interaction or engagement nor is there are preset function or ‘best’ way to use the product. A very nice consequence of this is that a visitor or a person not familiar with the ruleset has no idea what is going on or what is being communicated. Ideally a visitor to the house would think the once pixed displays are a digital artpiece or interior design accessory.

What really triggers my brain when thinking about the one pixel display is exactly the shifting levels of meaning it offers. Playing with the boundary between knowledge or meaning in ‘close social circles’ versus ‘distant relations’ seems very interesting. It becomes a way of encyrpting messages or data socially without the involvement of a technological solution.

Issues

There are two main issues (or hurdles) that currently keep me from taking this project further. Firstly, energy provisioning seems very cumbersome. Having mesh network connected illuminating cubes will require some sort of ‘always on’ component which is most likely more battery hungry than expected. Allowing the pixel display to be charged could be one solution, but then again … does the product even make sense to charge? (I came to fully understand why blink(1) chose to go USB-power only)

Secondly, the whole system would need some kind of authoring environment or setup phase. Probably this would be a web based backend system of sorts, where all owned cubes could be managed. Again, this feels very complex to create compared to the potential benefit the envisioned product might deliver. Another option is to preload the one pixel displays with a certain functionality, but that would be totally against the idea of people assigning their own meaning to the device.

So, what’s the plan?

There is no plan, I sometime think this could be a nice crowdfunding project – but to be honest I’m very hesitant about having to provide a centralised digital service over time. Maybe a service like glitch could be interesting here, as I could see people hosting their own little server somewhere … then again, it makes the whole thing a lot more complex for the lay user of this. In case I ever get the time and opportunity to spend a couple of days coding side by side with a more experienced backend person – we could probably come up with a nice prototype.

BUT – In case anyone is triggered, feel free to reach out and explore this little idea further.

Related products

  • Domestic widgets: to some extend, this product does the same using motion instead of light. Using a phyiscal chance in the enviornment is even less attention seeking, which could imply that people not aware of it won’t even notice a thing.
  • GoodNightLamp: I’ve been a long time goodnightlamp fanboy, but in relation to the one pixel display, goodnightlamp already covers a fair bit the ‘meaning’ stuff I mentioned. There is no convention of how the product should be used, a lot of it is based on socially constructed ‘rules’. Turning a lamp on or off does not necessarily need to match 1:1 to a status of being present or away.
  • Siftables / Sifteo: Cubes with a display, they have been around for a while and offer the same possiblity. Seems like the company folded in 2014, which kind of highlights the inevitable ‘temporality’ of such devices.
  • Minut/Point: a home security system using audio as the prime sensor – it’s an interesting device because in a home environment is looks rather ambiguous. As a home owner you know the function of the device, but visitors probably have no clue.
  • Cube world: A set of cubes that can be connected together to form a digital ‘ecosystem’ of stick people living together. These are designed to communicate to each other, and become more interactive the more cubes are connected to each other.
  • Blink(1): Mentioned before, it’s interesting that they choose USB as a default – doing so the device overcomes some technological hurdles. At the same time it becomes ‘tied’ to a computer and is much harder to imagine in an actual home environment.
  • Busylight: Although I’m not entirely sure what I think about this product, functionality wise, it is an excellent example of an existing one pixel display. It’s a little odd that the product was created as a reaction to a social change (the open plan office).