My youngest son, who is 6, said to me, “I want to show you my Busy Book”. “What’s your Busy Book?” I said. “It’s for half work and half not. I’ve got some drawings in there and some maths.” I love the half not bit.

Apparently the teacher gives them a notebook at the start of the term and says that they can use this when they’ve done all their other work. As most teachers do. But the thing that’s brilliant is that she calls it their Busy Book and so it’s the thing that they put all their busy-ness in.

So I got my own.

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New places open your eyes. I went to Bethnal Green and this is what I saw. Mostly big stuff, monsters.

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As of today I’m going to be lecturing in Design part-time at Hallam University in Sheffield. It’s two days a week of something that I tasted last year as an associate lecturer and I enjoyed. There are a few things that have led to this decision:

  1. Learning and being creative. Tom Stafford recommended a book to me last year, Impro. It’s about engaging people and using the techniques of improvisation to be creative. It’s a brilliant book that led me to other resources about how to get people working and thinking creatively, some of which I used in my lectures last year. I want to experiment with other strategies to try and become a good teacher, hopefully influencing some students to learn effectively in that way that some of the best teachers I had helped me to learn and think critically (thanks, Mike Smith and Prof. Adam Tickle). And I’m also fascinated by doing design, by strategies that help us to invent ways to make us act and think differently (“cultural invention“) and having admired the work of people like Anne Galloway who embrace the possibilities of new technologies in academia, this job will hopefully give me space to think about design in a way that running businesses on a day-to-day basis doesn’t.
  2. Higher Education. I tweeted a while ago that Higher Education “was screwed” and I have good reason to think that large swathes of HE are indeed screwed (applications for degrees are down this year by approximately 8% and art and design courses by double that), not only because they are becoming expensive and less relevant to employability and consequently offer less future value, but because top down approaches to innovation in large institutions is really really hard. However, I think this is possibly  the most exciting time to be in HE because of the challenges it faces. There are more opportunities to be radical at a departmental level and I’d like to be involved in radical things, things that DEMOS started to talk about in their excellent paper The Edgeless University. One thing in particular I’m keen to explore is how a student body could, with support from a University / mentors, run a business as a co-operative or social enterprise where they offer design services to clients and learn by doing. It’s raw, but I believe a potentially more risky, more exciting and more rewarding way to learn.
  3. Branching out. David Hieatt, the chap behind howies and now Hiut Denim ran a course earlier this summer about business. It had quite a profound effect on me. He talked with real conviction about the things necessary to make good businesses. This included the importance of looking after yourself and one of the many references he drew on was Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. I found it liberating. And I realised that having run a couple of businesses (in Rattle and Folksy) for the last six years I had forgotten about looking after me and what I wanted. Taking this job is part of looking after me; satisfying that bit of me that wants to teach and research whilst still having a hand in the businesses.

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A diagram of cause and effect where the concept of risk is implicit; a lovely way to sell investments as it brings out the game and sense of play. It would be interesting to draw out news events in a similar fashion, rather than most of the infographics produced for news, which more-often-than-not don’t tell a story, but help interpret a system.

Chromaroma tries to facilitate a game-like behaviour on traveling from one part of London to another, something that you’re able to affect only to a limited degree (you’re dependent more on the transport network). It tries to do this by focusing on teams as much as individuals and in this sense it runs up against existing embdeed behaviour, which just doesn’t work like that. Skiing on the other hand tends to be done in small groups, or teams, you decide where to ski and more-often-than-not there’s a value in getting down the pistes as quickly as you can. Moreover, there’s a social value in seeing your activity in map form, with stories about where you went, who was quickest (and slowest), distance traveled and check-ins to hard pistes (via the chairlift or bubble or poma) being a principle way in which your peer group story their vacation. A beautiful dashboard of yours and your groups activity would be social object gold.

Because of the sparcity of information and the social value inherent in knowing, a version of Chromaroma in ski reports could effect behaviour change, by driving people to under-utilised pistes, improve on times taken to make it down a piste, or perhaps just see where you’ve been. It’s basically supporting the inherent gameiness of the group sport. And as the industry is estimated to be worth around 6 billion Euros annually in France alone, you can see potential for local classified revenue through the game, “beat today’s distance traveled on the Lac Bleau piste and win lunch at La Raclette”.

Designing around existing behaviour and values is easier than trying to create them anew. Just a thought.

I did a talk at Interesting North back in November 2010 on my favourite two subjects; cities and bikes. Here it is:

James Boardwell from Interesting North on Vimeo.

“To create successful animation, you must understand why an object moves before you can figure out how it should move. Character animation isn’t the fact that an object looks like a character or has a face or hands. Character animation is when an object moves like it is alive, when it looks like it is thinking and all of its movements are generated by its own thought process. It is the change of shape that shows that a character is thinking. It is the thinking that gives the illusion of life. It is the life that gives meaning to the expression. As Saint-Exupéry wrote, “It’s not the eyes, but the glance – not the lips, but the smile… “John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, from his Siggraph course on animation.

I’ve been thinking about how technologies manage our attention a lot recently, and I’ve found this quote from John Lasseter and particularly the reference to Saint-Exupéry helpful in designing technologies and interfaces that are more attention aware.

We’ve been stuck in a phase of designing ‘shouty’ things, things that don’t take into account how contexts change, and that our attention shouldn’t be assumed. Technologies have been designed, in large part, around having our sole attention, anytime, anywhere, when, this full-attention mode is actually the exception rather than the rule. The side effects of this are that we struggle to find strategies to manage our attention, creating what has been term an “attention deficit”, an inability to focus or “continuous partial attention”. Heavy users of email, Twitter and Facebook are no strangers to such poverty of attention and notification services like Growl only heighten this now, now, now design imperative.

An economy of gestures by “users” is well understood now, and gaining widespread adoption (‘swipe’) mainly thanks to Apple, but technologies haven’t been so good at their own gestures, at ways of feeding back. Sound sensitive car stereos that change volume depending on ambient noise and / or if you take a call, is one fairly mainstream example of a context sensitive feedback loop. But I’ve struggled to find examples of software doing this. It’s either “on” or “off”, full power or no power, all your attention or none. Using human gestures we’re programmed to understand, such as a ‘glance’ or eye-contact when talking, provide possible cues to design. Creating focal points which change the more we engage with an application, perhaps? Creating friction in the form of delays to an app responding after it’s been left for a long time, or perhaps if it is continuously opened that mimic the kind of responses we’d get from social contact could create more useful ways to manage attention. To return to the original quote, maybe we’re focusing on the lips, the UI, when we should, perhaps, be looking at the smile.

One of the things we’re doing at Rattle are once a month ‘hackdays’. We’re doing hackdays to rapid prototype ideas we have, learn new technologies and have some fun.  Previous hackdays have produced things like Wordr, Social Scoreboards, Pretend FanOpen Plaques and the Job Box.  This month we created We Watch: a way to see what your friends’ are watching on the telly tonight. You’re probably coming here having played with the web app. If not then it’s probably worthwhile doing that first.

This post sketches out our design process and thinking on this mini-project.

The Itch

To find out, at a glance, what’s on telly tonight and what other people are watching.

Context: The Living Room Problem

There are a heap of people innovating in this space, trying to create more sociality around media consumption, and yet the living room is still a loosely coupled set of technologies. We don’t see that changing for a while, mainly because of our learnt behaviours and perceptions about this space. Rather we think the way to join up our experience is through existing lightweight solutions (why try to force new behaviours through a TV?) that build on second screen use.

The Use Case

Assumptions We Made

  • The TV schedule is still an important means by which people structure time and what they watch, and especially tonight’s TV.
  • Original programming is more likely to create “appointment to view” behaviour than repeats (with the possible exception of repeats of classic programmes on Christmas Day).
  • Watercooler moments happen more with programmes with stronger “appointment to view” behaviour.
  • Twitter enables us to flag shared TV experiences in appropriate, lightweight fashion, through second screen behaviour.
  • Intention to view is just as important for recommending programmes, as actual consumption.
  • Having original TV programming you can consume at a glance is useful when faced with the paradox of choice the modern EPG presents us with (both on TV and also in daily newspapers).

These assumption are based on past research we’ve done as well as anecdotal accounts we’ve heard and documented. But they are also, essentially, what we’re concept testing with We Watch.

Why “Intending To Watch”?

This behaviour borrows from the “like” behaviour on Facebook, that is to say it’s not intended to convey anything other than “I would like to watch this”, much as “like” says “I like this”, and not “i’ve bought one of these or I’ve been to this place” etc.  The intention to watch has been practised for years by people circling programmes in listing guides:

Our belief is that this ‘circling’ has value, and acts as a flag to others to consider watching it. And like all good recommendation engines, this is not based on altruism but rather is based on selfishness: the tool is first and foremost useful to you and then in turn it becomes useful to others.

Many recommendation engines are based on the premise that you actually ‘consume’ media. However, this requires effort: you have to actually watch the media! Metabroadcast’s Test Tube Telly project was based on people having consumed the programme and then recommending it.  But for original programmes upcoming on TV tonight you can’t have seen them, so you can’t recommend them. So, how to create a useful service for finding worthwhile things on telly to watch?  We think “Intention to View” is good enough.

Now plenty of other services capture intentions to view, not least the Sky (or Freeview) EPG and it’s bookmark service which reminds you when a programme is about to start. But the Sky EPG doesn’t support viewing “at a glance” and it presumes you’ve already sat down and decided to stay in tonight to watch TV. When actually many people look at the TV guide in advance to decide what, if anything, is worth watching. Pushing back from the ‘now’ toward the future is something that enables sociality, and planned social TV experiences. This got me interested in time…

Structuring ‘Time’

Matt Jones in his talk All The Time In The World highlights the importance of time in designing experiences and, crucially, how time is culturally constructed. He uses the light cone to show an observer’s relationship to space time and how there is no ‘now’, ‘now’ is constructed, from the different measures of when ‘now’ is to the events that now essentially refers to. Rather than perpetuate linear time, Matt and the Dopplr team, sought to work with cultural time and “create a system that increased the happy little co-incidences in your life as you travel through the world”. I like that.

And with We Watch we aimed to create a similar effect, happy coincidences.  TV is different from travel but the principle of increasing the coincidences in the future are the same. So, with We Watch we aim to show what friends and strangers are planning to watch, to enable you to act on those coincidencies, through discussing the programme with them during or after transmission.  As we know from using Dopplr, few plans actually result in a meeting with a friend or contact (in my case one), but can lead to a stronger sense of relatedness and social cohesion.

If We Could Have…

This web app was done in a day (and a bit).  And is intended as a proof of concept.  Of course there are lots of things we’d love to do including:

  • Have a more comprehensive broadcaster / programme catalogue (We Watch only uses BBC programme data as other terrestrial and digital TV data has rights issues preventing their reproduction).
  • Improve Twitter integration: add a background job where we decouple the retrieval of friends from the main Rails process and then use an ajax progress updater to indicate friends retrieval progress on being returned from Twitter.
  • Enable you to save programmes you plan to watch as calendar events (e.g. iCal files).
  • Have a page per ‘user’ to see all the programmes they planned to watch as an archive.
  • Experiment with other ways to promote programmes based on past decisions (e.g. by TV strand like Storyville, or programme brand or director e.g. Adam Curtis) or popularity (geography e.g. “Popular in Sheffield” or friends of friends).

If you have any suggestions of what you’d like to see or just want to tell us what you think of it do please let us know via @we_watch

Next

We review feedback from people using it and market viability in the New Year and based on this we’ll decide whether to make it into a proper product.