“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.

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This talk was given at Lovebytes on the 12 Feb 2010.  Thanks to Lisa for the invitation.

Tom Armitage gave a talk a few years ago about manners and etiquette which has stayed with me and which, with the recent meme around playfulness and Russell’s talk at Playful last year, got me thinking about how we ‘design’ engagement.  I want to argue that ‘social’ as it’s conceived by people designing a lot of web applications and services isn’t very helpful and I want to suggest through a series of half baked thoughts, that we think of it differently, in terms of friction.

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This is a very broad question and somewhat meaningless, in that people think of the social in lots of different ways I’m sure.  But it’s a word that’s used a lot to describe what we do and what we design.  So it might be useful to have some common ground. From my work social is that which deals with generally accepted norms of behaviour, a coming together of behaviours; patterns.

And behaviours change.  You can go from a football loving student to…

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… an ageing  biker dude and in the process see your behaviour and outlook change.  But it’s not just relationships and behavioural norms that ‘social’ encompasses.  Technology is central to our behaviour which is just as well because that’s what we design and play with, right?  I don’t mean technology as anything with a plug, but the codes, signs, materials, that enable effects and enable us to behave as we do.  Bruno Latour is probably the person I’ve found to be most influential on my own view of social, where the social is made up of more or less durable networks of things and these networks ebb and flow (much like the notion of desire in the work of Deleuze) and power and agency are effects of these networks, rather than networks being the effect of will or agency on the part of the individual. It’s a compelling argument, though not always a comfortable one with humanism still a dominant belief in the West.  My notion of friction draws on the notion of the relationships between things emanating out of Latour’s work..

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Anyway, I digress (which I do a lot).

Back to social and what it means to be social online.  A lot of this is, I believe, down to accepting the ‘norms’ of behaviour we take for granted.  And those are bound up in manners and etiquette.  Increasingly web apps, services and sites understand that manners and etiquette matter and we’re building good manners into what we make.

The poster child for a lot of development in social manners has to be flickr.  It pioneered a friendly and more nuanced approach to how it dealt with its audience that we now see replicated in lots of web services. The “hello” in different languages is still polite and thoughtful…

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Another, more recent example from a smashing man selling lovely newspapers, is this screen where you’re deposited after buying one of his newspapers.  It’s very thoughtful, and playful.  And a lot of retail folk could learn from this thought rather than presenting yet more ‘related products’ back to you.

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So increasingly web apps are understanding the control, communications and context required to foster stronger ties with the audience and build trust.  In the talk I reference Google Buzz as one example of a service that had got this right (but I’d failed to see the privacy backlash occurring in the last 12hours before I talked), where the more granular control over ‘publicness’ of content was a welcome development over the blanket public / private profile that twitter offers.  But I like the thought that went into Buzz if not the execution, particularly the greater visibility afforded friends of friends (which should go hand in hand with the ability for you not to be seen as a friend of a friend, doh!).

However, I still think that Buzz represents a means through which to break out of the address book paradigm that most social web apps and phone companies end up perpetuating.

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And this is important because research we’ve done shows that teenage peer groups are
relatively impervious; there is little osmosis.  The peer groups are grounded in offline
networks anwith them…

And this is important because research we’ve done shows that teenage peer groups are relatively impervious; there is little osmosis.  Online peer groups closely mirror offline networks and yet whilst our peer networks evolve the design of online social networks is relatively static.  Once a friend or contact, always a friend or contact, barring some cat fight or major faux pas.

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We see a rather clumsy acceptance of our changing relationships in this Facebook notification, which is polite and pleasant, gently suggesting that I’ve not been very communicative with Louise and I should “catch up” but it doesn’t give me a ‘hook’ around which to start the conversation (such as her recent status update).  It might be more engaging to say…

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You know, just being a bit more direct.  Now, this isn’t particularly polite and I’m not sure guilt is the best place to start in fostering a friendship, and it could well be that I’ve just been away for a while, or perhaps I communicate with Louise regularly in some other context, but the simple thought remains: relationships evolve and we’re not doing much to reflect that with what we build.

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I’m thinking that we should perhaps build in a half-life to relationships, like we develop character ‘engines’ in games.  Because some relationships do decay don’t they?  Some ebb and flow.  Perhaps we should create a sort of transparency over their avatar around some basic algorithm for relationships, like frequency of contact, type of contact etc.

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Anyway, I digress. So, with the exception of Teenage Boys we don’t mix well.  Many teenage boys over the age of sixteen (and er, some social ‘outliers’) are willing to risk the embarrassment and awkwardness of contacting and introducing themselves to strangers in the context of social networks for the potential reward it offers.  You know.  From research we’ve done we also see that playing platform games with strangers online also increases boys social confidence (and it is primarily boys that play online with strangers).

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What was interesting about this research was how the boy’s forward-ness caused friction amongst girls in the peer group. They’d discuss and debate this boy – class, taste, values, looks, communication.  He’d be a “play thing”, virtually tossed around and tested.  The unintended consequence was that the girls talked a lot more; he was their ‘social object’, if only temporarily.

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If you’re not a teenage boy then the only time you’re likely to extend your network and mix is on joining School, Uni, getting a new job, travelling or going clubbing.  These are the touchpoints for mixing and engaging with strangers, when we are receptive to new patterns, new behaviours, new ways of doing things. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that our social networks are now more stratified and impervious than ever (no, not necessarily the well educated geek community, I’m talking more generally).

So, what’s the value of mixing, of having more varied peer groups and communities? Well, there’s the possibility of better recommendations, greater serendipity, and of being more tolerant and understanding (and there must be other less worthy and more fun stuff too).

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I’ve mentioned mixing between peer groups and communities being very limited but there’s far far more fluidity within peer groups.   Relationship status changes very frequently, especially amongst younger people (we grow more tolerant and more risk averse as we age). Amongst a study of instant messenger we found that girls especially have quite sophisticated category systems (taxonomies) for representing their relationships with others.  They change daily, as “cute boys” become “bleurgh” and “BF” (best friend) changes to “bitch”.  Whilst this seems extreme, it’s just a more explicit and amplified representation of the way our own relationships evolve and change.

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But this fluidity isn’t represented in the way we manage relationships online.  There’s little negotiation.  These are “auto-friends” or “auto-contacts”.  Plugged in.  Always there.  The address book paradigm again.

Designing in friction and negotiation may not be something you’d want in spaces with high rules and norms. For example banks.  It’s not going to work well for traditional banks, or even market lending sites like Zopa. It’s just a bit wrong. Ecommerce sites may also be unsuitable… the product to checkout process flow is sacrosanct. But in creating new services for our internet enabled world of things, we’ve got an opportunity create better relationships and interactions and some of this thinking has about friction in the urban context has already been documented by Nico Nova, amongst others.

Where do we look for examples of friction, negotiation and playfulness that could act as stimulus for designing better services?

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Folksy is an offshoot from Rattle (the company I work for). It’s a craft marketplace.  One of the unintended consequences of allowing lots of people to come together is that they choose what they want to do and in the last week they’ve been doing a swap, a like a secret santa, only around Valentines and mainly female to female.  I’m not sure there was any underlying reason other than surprise, serendipity, group reciprocity and being pleasant.   This type of thing builds trust in behaviours and communities. Surrendering control. Good Friction.

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Taking this idea of surrendering control into more intimate zones, and rather than try and make recommendations, just use ‘fuzzy’ recommendations of others to state the obvious.  Wouldn’t this be so much more interesting than just seeing who was watching what?  You’d have some room for negotiation, for engaging.

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I’m sure you’ve seen tweenbots. Alien-ness, getting lost and asking for help:  “Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal. [...] As each encounter with a helpful pedestrian takes the robot one step closer to attaining its destination, the significance of our random discoveries and individual actions accumulates into a story about a vast space made small by an even smaller robot.”  Fab.

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Clifford Nass from Stanford Uni has found that when things appear to behave in even slightly human ways, we assume they are human-like.  So, when we know something is a dog, we know it’s a dog.  When we see something that isn’t from a species we know about but it exhibits some human trait, moving for example, or has a rudimentary face, we’re polite.  We have manners!

Disorientating people and networks has all sorts of benefits, as any fan of JG Ballard will be aware, and it could take many forms, but exposing relationships to being reliant on others to complete a task is really interesting.  What would we be willing to do that for?

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I want to suggest that humans actually just like dumb stuff more than clever stuff (the paperclip!) for lots of reasons but mainly because it gives us a point of negotiation, we can project, we can imagine.  The implication here is that the mechanism that drives engagement and friction can be dumb, like the cardboard ‘robot’.

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Some relationships are really brief and seemingly inconsequential. But they’re actually really quite significant in providing a sense of the social, of the community and of norms of behaviour.  We come up against people and things every day. They offer points of friction. I know that the waitress in my local cafe knows my name.  I also know she’s unlikely to ever be my friend. That’s OK. Ephemeral relationships offer the chance to engage with people without any expectation of it having to progress.  What can we do with this?  Perhaps place specific contacts then become significant, bounded by near field technologies or other boundary defining tech?

The queue offers a similar offline example of friction.  Queueing is interesting because of the manners, the explicit sense of politeness that it signifies.  It’s also bloody annoying.  But it offers the chance to have conversations with other people and we can glean as much intimate information from a stranger in 15 mins as from a friend in 15 years.

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Of the back of that, we build up a knowledge of others’ by seeing their patterns.  Of the people I know quite well (i.e. I communicate with fairly frequently) I know where they will be, at least city they’ll be in.  So my consumption of Dopplr is laregly about confirming what I already know. How could we introduce friction here?  How could we create negotiation and engagement from this?  For example, try and ascertain where your friends will be going next, see how existing patterns of behaviour are replicated going forward.

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This is an experiment in engineering engagement. A team of artists created LED gender signs on the bathrooms of a bar and changed the signs over frequently.  It created socially awkward situations, a reason to talk, a reason to engage with someone.

It’s quite radical and only suitable for a context that is already quite playful (the bar), but nonetheless disorientating people could create some interesting forms of engagement.

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And this is the “obligatory diagram” to create a scene of pseudo scientific endeavour… I feel like Charlie Brooker.

A lot of the examples I’ve just pointed to are not necessarily appropriate, they’re just cues, but you get the idea of how you can start to think about friction as the basis for ‘social’, about how you can start to question existing patterns of behaviour, and play with our manners and our etiquette.

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My kids watch a lot of content through the iPlayer and one of the things that I’ve noticed is they use Google to search iplayer: Google is their default way in to web content.  Fine. However, Google returns urls for programmes that are beyond the 7 day window, whereas searching from iPlayer itself brings back only those programmes within the 7 day window.

Searching for “iplayer (programme name)” you get the most ‘relevant’ search results, in this case an episode of the programme rather than say, the series, as it turns out there is no concept of a “series” as the model for iPlayer is based on pips (programme information pages), now pids (programme IDs), the key thing there being ‘programmes’:

google search.gifAnd, this is the view when following that top link for “something special” a cbeebies programme (which my eldest son finds for my youngest):

something special google.gifThis is the view from iPlayer for the same search:

something special iplayer.gifTo make matters worse when you land from Google the programmes that are presented back as “similar” are not from the series “something special”, they’re not even from the same strand, cbeebies (they’re from cbbc).

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It can’t be difficult to resolve the out of date programmes displayed when coming from Google to those within the seven day window can it? 

 

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Pic via agiledogs
 
One of the things that frustrates me about recomemndation engines, but particulaly last.fm is how bad they can be. How the slightly off-kilter recommendations are magnified a thousand times.  Part of this magnification is I believe because of the fact that we’ve become atuned to believing that the software is somehow “automagic”.

Whenever I speak to people about last.fm the general feedback is “yeah, but it’s quite patchy”. The algorithm is always to blame, or the underlying music data (and publishers they’ve got on board) but rarely the user.  During a conversation last week with Tom it struck me that the experience of presenting relevant music should feel far more involved than it is, in other words the emphasis on training the software to perform better for you should be more central to the experience (and not reserved for technical criticism). You get the music you deserve.  This has all sorts of potential gains too.  I mean you can start to record how active you are at training and report back how well the dog software is performing by seeing how many times you *love* a track and how often you skip.  in order to make this work you need to show what success looks like.  If you go to dog training you know you get a good dog, a dog that behaves (i.e. it does what is expected and / or what you want).  For last.fm you could to present back:

1. “just discovered <blah track> ” -> i.e. trial -> recommendation

2. purchases in the last <time period>. Purchases being a good proxy for how well the service is delivering trial -> conversion

The current recommendation system doesn’t work effectively because it’s based on an un-selfish act.  The act of recommendation is conciously, thoughtfully delievered and potentially comes with lots of baggage like wanting to be seen to be cool.

And we can perhaps learn another thing from training dogs.  People take puppies to be trained.  However, a lot of people take dogs that need remedial training.  Lazy dogs (and even lazier owners) who need a quick fix. Last.fm could perhaps provide that quick fix.  This could be a ‘remedial’ training of the software.  I can’t be arsed to play 100 Fall tracks to weight my music playback in a certain direction.  And I want to ban mediocre guitar bands for ever, so no Elbow please. You know, quick fixes. This then represents a scale of emotions and different user neeeds, but more importantly it puts the onus back onto the user which as a piece of social software makes the service potentially all the more interesting.

Lynetter keeps up the good work finding that 3 accounts for 20% of all UK digital music sales, second only behind iTunes.  Considering 3 is one of half a dozen mobile service providers [others being Orange, Vodaphone, O2, T-Mobile, Virgin], I’d say that’s a hell of a lot of 18-24 3 users buying downloads.  Students perhaps without a broadband connection in rented accommodation using mobile to mange their music collection? Odd, Interesting. 

Do people not mind having their music ‘stuck’ [getting tracks off the 3 network phone isn't easy - I've tried]?  How is the experience shared, if at all?  What are the cues for buying if, as she says they’re travelling when most of the downloads are bought at around 10pm: public radio, noise, boredom, communications [txts from mates, referrals]? And it points the way for 3 to design a service that exposes some of this mobile consumption data for friends, buddies etc. to create systems around, or perhaps create an app that ties into lastfm and work with them to create playouts for music trial or ping friends with 30sec promo tunes [30 sec are deemed to be promos and you don;t pay royalties, which in this instance is a nice way to kick of short almost synchronous comms]. 

Moreover, if 18-24 audiences are you audience on public transport, then that offers some great opportunities for the brand to communicate… perhaps by exposing most popular downloads in a given area or in another area – i.e. give it a geographical dimension to push navigation into the 500+ tracks; have a location based system of tracks ["you've just entered ** service area and the recommended tune is **** based on what others have downloaded here"] which would be great if, as we’re led to believe downloads are on public transport routes – nodes of music consumption.  The route to Chelsea vs the route to Holloway?

Went to the games exhibition at the Science Museum yesterday.  Tremendous stuff.  Aside from making me nostalgic for the nascent gameplay of Pong and Space Invaders I discovered the art of Ocean Quigley, designer of The Sims aesthetic who had some really moving pieces that reminded me of some of the artwork around existentialism and the novels influenced by that movement, where the bodies were often ‘blank’, bodies as vessels and yet more moving and affecting because there was nothing else to the form.  Freaky.  Odd.

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The other was the work of  Koichi Sugiyama who unbeknown to me introduced classical music into gameplay.  Listening to some of his work was wonderful and you can see how some of the more ambient soundscapes in new games is influenced by this work.  Compare that to Roy Hubbard’s Warhawk for the N64, a brilliant early piece of new wave in games [see this top ten games tunes from the time].  I’d never thought much about the importance of audio in gameplay but hearing the history and then playing some of the games on display made me realise how utterly central it is to the experience, it sets the whole tone for how you interact, your mood. So, well worth going for these two things alone. 

But then tucked away at the end of the exhibition is a great piece on the making of GTA IV, complete with Post-Its representing different narrative threads interspersed with sketches of pimps and their cars.  Wonderful stuff.  Didn’t have time to see what the different colours represented and how the post-its mapped out to my knowledge of the game which would have been good.  Haven’t seen anything like this since the Pixar exhibition, again at the Science Museum, and the making of amongst other things, Toy Story and the characterisation and storyboarding behind that which was so full of insight around the way in which the toys themselves would ‘behave’, how their materiality affected their character.  No such character craft in GTA where the  effort and thought seems to reside in the ‘environmental’ factors and geography where the action is played out.

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The geography is just fab… so envious.  I’d love to try and create some sort of psychogeography of GTA, mapping our navigation, movement, the cues we use from abstracted navigational signifiers [roads, signposts, the 'map' in game itself!] etc. loosely based as they are around Miami, San Fransisco or New York and our experience of navigating the space through our senses.  Someone must have tried to do that already… or at the very least done work on the geography of gaming ‘environments’?

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