I’m Reuben Stanton. This is an intermittent blog of relatively random things: thoughts about technology, reflections on my life and work, and some historical stuff.

My ‘real’ website is here, and I tweet intermittently @absent

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Little windows

As K and I are preparing for a long holiday in Spain, we decided  to watch a slideshow of K’s parents on a road trip around Europe in the late 1970s. It was the real deal: magazines of slides, stored in metal and plastic boxes, labelled in pencil, the whirrr of the fan, the heat from the globe, the k-clunk-click of the slide advance. Not to mention some awesome 70’s fashion. Watching slides in a projector is a considerably different experience to browsing digital photos. Sometimes I look through my Lightroom catalogue at the thousands of photos that I have taken during overseas travel over the past few years, but looking at a photo on my computer screen never evokes the feeling of a slide projected in a dark room from a tungsten globe. It’s not that I don’t feel nostalgic looking at my photos – of course I do. Looking at the images can’t help but force me to remember details of the travel experience – but there is something in the physicality of a slide that makes it different. Each slide is a unique object that can be held up to the light – a miniature window to another time and place. Each little window is “real”. Each little window says: “this is proof”. Slides degrade over time, and the damage and disintegration is a clue to it’s age – older slides feel old because they are old. Even the technological limitations of photo processing in each era – the colour balance, the roughness of the edges, the sharpness of the image – mark each photo as from that particular time. The audible click and visual shift from one slide to the next marks a space in time – like the gutter in a comic, this gap between images says: “then this happened”. Digital photos have none of these qualities – they are clear, sharp, clean, ageless. You can’t hold them up, hand them around, flip them over to look for a note on the back… let alone store them in a box to be found accidentally years later by curious grandchildren. I think this partly explains the recent popularity of “vintage” photo apps – by digitally adding the trappings of analogue technology – borders, scratches, vignettes, light leaks, scratch marks – you also add a level of (albeit contrived) “reality” to digital photos that isn’t inherent to the medium. Watching a slideshow is not a simple as just flicking through a series of photos – it is a shared experience, full of stories, questions, sometimes arguments over a shared history. This storytelling is part of what makes the slideshow special. It is not a passive activity of watching and remembering – it is an active experience of re-remembering (or sometimes mis-remembering) and retelling. This really struck me about the way that we look through old slides: the element of surprise. Even if we travelled to those places, lined up the viewfinder, took those photos – our memory is malleable and unreliable and forgetful enough that it isn’t until we see the slide projected on the wall that we recall the details. This is not inherent to slides of course – it applies equally to photo albums, diaries, journals, even digital archives. But there is something about the discreet nature of a group of slides arranged in a magazine that adds a level of excitement to the experience: you’re never 100% sure what comes next. Slides are old technology now – like black and white photography before it, the slide’s time has past. There will always be enthusiasts, but photographing on transparency is becoming less and less economically viable (not to say impractical). This isn’t something I really worry about – technology moves on, and I certainly wouldn’t want give up the convenience of digital photography. But perhaps there are things that we can learn from the emotional experience of the slideshow in the design of image storage and presentation technology.

Interactions and questions

My frequent collaborator Jeremy Yuille is off at Interaction 11 in Boulder this week, where he’ll be running an activity focused on interaction design fundamentals. Over the last few months, Jeremy and I have been working on a new iPad app… which I’m not going to write about here (at least, just yet).

I do want to note down something about our process that struck me as interesting though – there was very little “visual” design involved at all.

We did almost nothing in the way of sketches and wireframes, and the only visual work I did in photoshop was a few png files for shapes that were a little harder to draw in code. There was very little documentation other than some notes taken down after meetings or recorded sketches (which, incidentally, I never referred to).

Instead, we worked almost entirely with interactions and prototypes: Jeremy would establish a scenario or use case, and we’d develop a prototype – through discussion, a “test” (usually no more than pointing at pieces of paper or a post-it on a wall) – then I’d code a quick demo to check the interaction and performance on the iPad.

Each step of the design process had two basic questions:
1) What is the desired outcome (for the user)?
2) What is an interaction that will achieve that outcome with a minimum of friction?

This approach seemed to free us from traditional design patterns and solutions (though we did use traditional patterns where appropriate to the outcome) – by sticking to the pattern of “interaction supports outcome” you stay focused on the user experience in a way that other design approaches don’t always afford.

In fact, when we didn’t ask these questions we tended to get stuck. When we asked ourselves “how will we implement groups?” (a question about a specific information structure) we spent a long time trying to solve complex implementation details. When we instead reconfigured the question: “what is the outcome we want when we use the word ‘group’?”, we discovered that “groups” weren’t actually what we needed at all – we needed a different interaction altogether.

It was very important that this was done collaboratively. We would do thinking and coding separately, but all the “design” happened through discussion – this way questions could be asked, interpreted, and designs modified on the fly. The design happened through constant rethinking and questioning.

The process was iterative – each demo that I coded was tested against the outcomes and modified – so our finished alpha is essentially just a sum of the interactions that we kept from each demo.

The interactions are the interface

So what does all this mean in terms of a design outcome? It means that the visual design of the app is nothing more than a set of interactions that facilitate specific actions. Any visual “flair” either arose from an informational requirement (user feedback – a highlighted state), or a hierarchical need (size, position, object delineation).

Now, the app that we’re working on is unusually suited to an “invisible design” – it is a visual thinking and presentation app designed to work with a variety of user generated content, and designed to keep out of the way of the content wherever possible (much, much more on this when it is ready for the public). But I do think this process could easily be applied to all sorts of product development, and it is one that I’ll be using regularly in the future.

A little bit of meta.

The format of this blog has been holding me back a little – something about it makes me feel like I need to write long, involved posts for them to be worth putting up – so I’m trying something new – notes: shorter thoughts that I think should be recorded here, but don’t warrant full post just yet, formatted just like this…

A physical history

As part of my preparation for my PhD I’ll be spending a fair amount of time over the next few months thinking about and observing how people create, record, interact with, various types of archives and histories. An almost ubiquitous sight in Australian family homes (and possibly around the world?): The Height Chart. Usually on a door frame, usually in or near the kitchen (which is an interesting space in its own right for the interactions that it encourages). A record of the family’s physical development – sometimes including guests, friends, even pets – the height chart feels temporary – written in pencil (because pencil sticks to paint? Or because it can be removed easily?) , each entry is temporary – soon to be superseded, out of date as soon as it is made. It seems as much about the act of creation and comparison as it is about keeping a record: who even looks at the chart when they are not adding a new entry? What makes the height chart interesting is that it is one of the few places where you can see a singular record of someone’s development (albeit on a very specific metric) – from childhood all the way through to adulthood. I can’t think of another. (Maybe photo album collections come close). It is a specific and personal kind of history, attached to the frame of the building itself. You don’t take the chart with you when you move, in all likelihood it will be painted over, ready for the next family to record their progress.