An intelligent car that can’t communicate with its driver is a dumbass car.

(image from https://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20141116/spectrum/motor.htm)

Let’s talk about body language.

DogBodyLanguage.1jpg.jpgA key property of body language is that it is almost always unconscious to both giver and receiver.

Image from: https://talbotspy.org/but-his-tail-was-wagging-understanding-dog-body-language-part-1/

This is not a problem in itself – in fact, it’s actually really good that body language happens mostly unconsciously. Body language is necessarily unconscious. The flood of signals from a talking body is vast, high-bandwidth, high-rate, and highly-parallel. It must bypass the higher-brain in order to do its work. The higher brain is too busy making decisions and trying to be rational to be bothered with such things.

The problem with the backchannel nature of body language is that it is often in competition with explicit, linear verbal language, which is a pushy tyrant. There are too many pushy tyrants in the tech industry that are poor at social signaling. Body language tends to be relegated to a lower priority in many areas of digital technology, including the design of software interfaces, productivity tools, kitchen appliances…and cars. This is just one symptom of the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

High tech culture is obsessed with metrics; seeking to measure as much as possible, to be data-driven, to have tangible results and ways of measuring success. This obsession with data is a mistake. Tossing out what can’t be measured or converted into data is a very big mistake. And the digitally-designed world we live in suffers as a result. Let me try to explain what I mean by all this….

A computer on wheels

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The automobile was invented in the industrial age – an age defined by energy, force, mechanics, chemistry, electricity, and physicality.

We are  now fumbling through the information age.

Apple Inc. has managed to reduce the thickness of laptop computers – they have become so thin that you can cut steak with them. But it should come as no surprise that the surface areas of laptop screens and keyboards have not been reduced, compared to the degree that computer chips have been miniaturized. There is a simple reason for this: human eyes and hands are still the same size. This will never change.

The same applies to communication. The more digital our machines become, the more we have to communicate with them, and they, in turn, have to communicate with us.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 2.15.32 PM.pngAn old-fashioned industrial-age car comes with natural affordances: communication happens simply as a result of the physical nature of knobs, wheels, wires, engine sounds, torques, and forces. There are many sensory stimuli that the driver sees, feels, hears and smells – and often they are unconscious to the driver – or just above the level of consciousness.

Driving is a very different experience now. It is turning into a video game…a simulation. There is a disconnect between driver and car that seems to be growing wider.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s the problem:

Body language between driver and car has become an arbitrary plaything, mediated by cockeyed displays and confusing controls. It is up to the whims of user interface designers – too many of whom have their heads up their asses. Idiots who call themselves designers live under the illusion that they can invent visual language on the fly and shove it into our long-lived lives, expecting their clever interfaces to fall naturally into use.

Or maybe they don’t actually think this – but don’t care anyway, because they are paid well. I’m not sure which is worse.

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According to Matt Bubbers:

There’s nothing wrong with the volume knob. It does not need reinvention, nor disruption, nor innovation. The volume knob is perfect the way it is. Or, rather, the way it was.

Get into a new car in 2018 and you’re faced with a multitude of complicated ways to adjust the stereo volume: buttons or dials on the steering wheel, voice commands that rarely work, fiddly non-buttons on the centre panel, touchscreens that take your eyes off the road, even gesture controls that make you wave your hand as if you’re conducting a symphony.

Cars are too complicated. The volume knob is indicative of the problem. Call it feature bloat or mission creep: Cars are trying to do more, but they’re not doing it all well. These infotainment features can be distracting, therefore dangerous, and they cost money.

A new generation of digital designer is out of touch with nature. It is infuriating, because here we are, fumbling to bake a cake, turn on the AC, or change a channel on the TV: “Now, which of these 2,458 buttons on this TV remote do I need to press in order to change the channel?…”

“Oh shit – no wonder I’m confused: this is the remote control for the gas fireplace! Is that why it’s so hot in here?”

Driving under the influence of icons

Britania Rescue, a firm providing a breakdown service in England, conducted a survey, interviewing over 2000 drivers. The revelations are quite startling. It revealed that more than 52 per cent of drivers cannot correctly identify 16 of the most common symbols.

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Interpreting a bunch of unfamiliar icons invented by out-of-touch dweebs is not how we should be interacting with our technology – especially as technology sinks deeper into our lives.

Just this morning, my 87-year-old mother and I spent about a half-hour trying to figure out how to set my sister’s high-tech oven to bake. To make matters worse, my mother, who is visually-impaired, can’t even feel the controls – the entire interface consists of a dim visual glow behind slick glass. We eventually had to read a manual. WE HAD TO READ A FUCKING MANUAL TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TURN ON AN OVEN. How long must this insanity go on?

A car’s manual should be the car itself

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Dan Carney, in the article, Complex car controls equal confused drivers, quotes Consumer Reports:  “You shouldn’t have to read the owner’s manual to figure out how to use the shifter.”

He says, “The BMW iDrive had a controller for functions like the radio and air conditioning that was so baffling that it forced drivers to take their eyes off the road.”

My Prius experience

services.edmunds-media.jpgMy first experience with a Prius was not pleasant. Now, I am not expecting many of you to agree with my criticism, and I know that there are many happy Prius owners, who claim that you can just ignore the geeky stuff if you don’t like it.

I don’t like it, and I can’t ignore it.

I have found that most people have a higher tolerance for figuring-out technology than I. It’s not for lack intelligence or education; it’s more that I am impatient with stupid design. It makes me irate, because these fumblings are entirely unnecessary.

We all suffer because of the whims of irresponsible designers, supposedly working in teams which include human factors engineers and ergonomics engineers, whom I assume are asleep on the job.

I place the blame for my impatience squarely on Donald Norman, whose book, “The Design of Everyday Things” implored readers to stop blaming themselves for their constant fumbling with technology. The source of the problem is irresponsible design. He converted me profoundly. And now I am a tech curmudgeon. Thanks Don.

I once had to borrow a friend’s Prius because my Honda Fit was in the shop. I liked the energy-saving aspects and the overall comfort, but the dashboard was unfamiliar. My hippocampi threw up their hands in despair. What’s worse: after parking the car in a parking lot, I put the key in my pocket and decided to check the doors to make sure they were locked. The doors were not locking. Why? I tried locking the doors many times but every time I walked around to the other side, the opposite door would unlock. I called the owner, and told her that I am not able to lock the car. She said, “Oh – that’s because the doors automatically – and magically – unlock when you walk up to them. Smart, eh?”

Hello? Discoverability? 

Thank you Prius for not telling me about your clever trick. You are one step ahead of me! Perhaps I should just stop trying to understand what the fuck you are doing and just bow to your vast intelligence. You win, Prius.

My Honda Fit is relatively simple, compared to many cars these days. But it does things that infuriate me. It decides that I want the back window wipers to turn on when the front wipers are on, and I happen to be backing up. It took my car mechanic to explain the non-brilliance of this behavior. Thanks Honda for taking away my choice in the matter. My car also decides to turn on the interior light at night after I have parked the car. I have to wait a long time for the light to go out. My car knows how long. I am not privy to this duration. What if I don’t want strangers to see me – because I’d like to finish picking my nose before getting out?

Whether or not strangers can see me picking my nose is no longer my choice. My car has made this decision for me. Sure: I could reach up to the ceiling and turn off the light – but then I will forget to turn it on again when I actually need it. This never used to be so complicated.

Another gripe: sometimes my door locks when I’m driving, and then I have to unlock it to get out – but not always. There is no rhyme or reason (that I am aware of) for when and why this happens. Yes…I know – some of you will probably offer to enlighten me with a comment. But the fact that this has to be learned in the first place is what bugs me. I would prefer one of two things: (1) My car makes it apparent to me why it is making decisions for me, or (2) it stays out of the way and lets me be the decision-maker.

Am I old-fashioned? If wanting to be in charge of basic things like locking doors and turning on lights makes me old-fashioned, then…yes, I’m old-fashioned.

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(image from http://www.thehogring.com/2013/07/31/10-most-ridiculous-dashboards-of-all-time/

Confessions of a MIT luddite

People confuse me for a techy because of my degree. And then they are shocked at how critical I am of technology. The truth is that I am a design nerd rather than a computer nerd. I have nothing against information technology – after all, I write software – and love it. I just want the technology that I rely on to be better at communicating. For example: why do gas pumps still have a one-word vocabulary? ….

Beep.

Okay, I’m a neo-luddite. There, I said it. And I will remain a neo-luddite as long as the tech industry continues to ignore a billion years of evolution, which gave us – and the rest of the living world – the means to generate signals and interpret signals – the body language of the biosphere that keeps the living world buzzing along.

This natural flow of communication among organisms is a wonderful thing to behold. It happens on a level of sophistication that makes ovens and VCR’s look like retardation in a box.

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But then again, the evolution of information technology is extremely short compared to the evolution of natural language, which has kept the social ecosystems of Homo Sapiens running for a very long time.

Perhaps I am thrashing in the midst of the Singularity, and I should just give up – because that’s what you do in the Singularity.

But I would still like to understand what the future of communication will look like. This is especially important as more and more communication is done between people and machines. At the moment, I am still a little hesitant to call it “communication”.

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Anorexic Typeface Syndrome

As a design thinker of the Don Norman ilk, I place ample blame for human error on negligent or arrogant design from trend-setters who seem to be more intent on presenting slick, featureless interfaces than providing the natural affordances expected by human eyes, brains, and hands. Take typefaces for instance.

As the pixel resolution of our computer displays becomes higher, the arrogant designers who get hired by trend-setting corporations find it necessary to choose typefaces that are as thin as possible, because…thin is in!

Well, I have something to say about that: Anorexia Kills!

How about people’s ability to fucking read? I kind of like it when I can read. And I don’t like it when I am made to feel like an 87 year-old who needs a magnifying glass (like my mother – who is especially challenged when she has to actually read words on an iPad).

And it’s not just the rapidograph-like spiderweb of fonts that are becoming so hard to read. Designers are now fucking with contrast:

“There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.”

—Kevin Marks WIRED: https://www.wired.com/2016/10/how-the-web-became-unreadable/

Sarah Knapton: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/10/23/internet-is-becoming-unreadable-because-of-a-trend-towards-light/

I was in Boulder, looking for the Apple store so I could by a new MacBook Pro. I had a hard time finding the store because the symbol I was looking for was barely visible from a distance, or unless I was looking straight at it.

Apple is becoming less interested in helping us be productive than they are in being the most slick designed thing in the room – or the mall. Apple originally earned a reputation for good user-interface design. But the capitalist engine of unlimited growth and the subsequent need to differentiate among the competition has created a pathology. It has created a race to the bottom. At that bottom…our senses are being starved.

I have similar thoughts on the way physical Apple products have become so thin as to be almost dangerous – in this blog post.

It may be my imagination, but since buying my new MacBook, this very blog post seems harder to read. Did WordPress go on a font diet? Or is Apple the culprit? Check out this screenshot of this blog post as I am seeing it on my MacBook:

You may have heard the saying: “good design should be invisible”.

“Design should help people and be a silent ambassador to your business. Good designs are those that go unnoticed, that are experienced, that are invisible; bad designs are everywhere and stand out like a sore thumb.”

To say that good design should be invisible does not mean eliminating as many features as possible from a visual interface – causing it to become a wisp of gossamer that requires squinting. The human senses naturally rely on signals – we are accustomed to a high rate and high density of signals from our workable environments.

Okay, the trend away from serif to sans serif was reasonable. But I have a request of Apple and other design trend-setters: please stop eroding away at what few features remain.

Anorexia Kills!

Do tech companies really need more vaginas, dark skin, and gray beards?

We need to get to the bottom of the issue about diversity in the software industry.

It’s not that software companies simply need to hire more people who possess vaginas, dark skin, or grey beards…to reach some kind of quota, or to make their About page look hip. It’s that software companies need to embrace diversity in ways of thinking, life experience, socio-economic backgrounds, ways of building things, and ways of setting priorities. This might result in some outwardly-visible diversity, as a by product. But in my opinion, that’s not the point.

Software increasingly runs our lives – EVERYONE’S LIVES – including people who possess vaginas, dark skin, and gray beards. One should not assume that all those young overpaid white males who would sooner send you a Slack message than look you in the eye are going to know how to build the tools that are running more and more of our lives….

…in a country that is becoming more diverse, not less – a fact that the United States Bollocks in Chief is clearly not happy about.

Building Diversity Where it Matters

Sure, there tends to be more diversity in design, business, and marketing departments, but these aspects of a tech company generally get established after the DNA of the company has been forged. The DNA of a software company is typically established when wealthy white male venture capitalists invest in wealthy white male programmers who (sometimes) become more wealthy, after which time they start new companies using their wealth. They hire their wealthy white male programmer friends (who can work without salary in exchange for shares – thereby becoming more likely to acquire more wealth).

Follow the money.

A slightly more diverse company is then built around this core of wealthy white males. Then a slick, mobile-friendly web page is erected, featuring high-res photos of gleeful African Americans and Chinese women. Maybe an Indian. And (occasionally) the token graybeard.

Dynastic Privilege

It’s the same phenomenon that drives wealth inequality in our country. Unchecked capitalism is fueling an oligarchy that is inhibiting the American Dream for those who find themselves on the losing end of financial opportunity.

Did I just change the subject from tech company diversity to wealth inequality in the United States? No: it’s the same subject.

“I believe dynastic privilege is one of the major contributors to the lack of diversity in tech” – Adam Pisoni

So, instead of talking about skin color, gender, and age, we should be talking about the deeper underlying cultural and economic forces that make it so hard for tech companies to change their DNA.

Please reply with your comments. Agree or disagree. Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Having sex with robots to save the planet

Long long ago, there was an accident in a warm puddle. A particular molecule – through some chance interaction with the soup of surrounding molecules – ended up with a copy of itself. Since the surrounding soup was similar to the original, the copy was more likely to replicate itself. And so it did. The rest is history. We call it evolution.

It is possible that similar accidents happened elsewhere around the same time – not just in one single puddle. One could also say that variations of this accident are still happening – only now at a massive scale.

Every act of every living thing can be seen as an elaboration of this original act. Self-replication is the original impetus of all life. We share a common ancestor with amoebas – who replicate asexually. The invention of sexual reproduction boosted genetic creativity. More recently in the scope of Earth’s history, creativity escaped the confines of genetics. We humans are the primary hosts of this creative engine.

Human beings have contrived all of the resulting aspects of survival to an art-form. This includes – not just the act of sex – but also the act of preparing food (cuisine), the act of making sounds and speaking (music and singing), and the act of altering the environment to create new structure (visual art). The abstractions and representations of the world that the brain generates via the body are derivations and deviations from the original acts of survival. It’s a form of self-replication.

The emergence of abstractions, mental models, and representations is increasing in complexity. This is an inevitable one-way blossoming accelerated by the emergence of the animal brain. The human experience is conflicted; we are oriented toward achieving escape velocity from Original Nature, but we also long for Original Nature. How can we resolve this conflict?

The original act of self-replication has powerful repercussions – billions of years after the original accident – it has taken on many forms. It is the reason we humans have strange phenomena like orgasm. And selfies.

Warming

We are at a crossroads in the history of life on Earth. The current era of global warming is almost certainly the result of the overpopulation and hyperactivity of humans, who have released – and continue to release – too much carbon into the atmosphere. One effective solution to global warming would be to reduce the primary agents of the fever…to reduce human population.

And so, converting that original act of replication into works of art is not just creative and exciting: it may be necessary. Humans must transcend the Earthly act of self-replication in order to preserve the health of the planet.

The future of sex will be…let’s just say…interesting. Every cell in our body contains the blueprint of a desire to replicate. Nature and society are structured around the elaborate machinery that has emerged to ensure self-replication – of human bodies and culture. This desire has made its mark on every aspect of society – even if we don’t recognize it as such. We cannot escape it. And so we need to virtualize it, because self-replication of human beings (physically) has become a threat to the planet that sustains us. It’s our duty to Mother Earth.

I am a living organism and so I have to contend with this crazy desire to replicate. Note: I am childless. I have never replicated my genes and have no intention to do so at this stage in my life. But I am passionate about replicating ideas, art, words, and software.

Now, what about the title of this blog post? Will people eventually start having sex with robots? It will certainly be more subtle than that. In fact, it has been said that by the time we get to that point, WE will be the robots.

Is this the kind of future I want? Strangely, yes. Because I will have long returned to the Earth – my molecules will have been handed down through generations of living things. I will be a part of Earth’s physiology. My tribe will be bigger than humanity.

One of my molecules may even end up in a warm puddle somewhere.

The Miracle of My Hippocampus – and other Situated Mental Organs

I’m not very good at organizing.

pilesThe pile of papers, files, receipts, and other stuff and shit accumulating on my desk at home has grown to huge proportions. So today I decided to put it all into several boxes and bring it to the co-working space – where I could spend the afternoon going through it and pulling the items apart. I’m in the middle of doing that now. Here’s a picture of my progress. I’m feeling fairly productive, actually.

10457290-Six-different-piles-of-various-types-of-nuts-used-in-the-making-of-mixed-nuts--Stock-PhotoSome items go into the trash bin; some go to recycling; most of them get separated into piles where they will be stashed away into a file cabinet after I get home. At the moment, I have a substantial number of mini-piles. These accumulate as I sift through the boxes and decide where to put the items.

Here’s the amazing thing: when I pull an item out of the box, say, a bill from Verizon, I am supposed to put that bill onto the Verizon pile, along with the other Verizon bills that I have pulled out. When this happens, my eye and mind automatically gravitate towards the area on the table where I have been putting the Verizon bills. I’m not entirely conscious of this gravitation to that area.

Gravity Fields in my Brain

What causes this gravitation? What is happening in my brain that causes me to look over to that area of the table? It seems that my brain is building a spatial map of categories for the various things I’m pulling out of the box. I am not aware of it, and this is amazing to me – I just instinctively look over to the area on the table with the pile of Verizon bills, and…et voilà – there it is.

Other things happen too. As this map takes shape in my mind (and on the table), priorities line up in my subconscious. New connections get made and old connects get revived. Rummaging through this box has a therapeutic effect.

The fact that my eye and mind know where to look on the table is really not such a miracle, actually. It’s just my brain doing its job. The brain has many maps – spatial, temporal, etc. – that help connect and organize domains of information. One part of the brain – the hippocampus – is associated with spatial memory.

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User Interface Design, The Brain, Space, and Time

I could easily collect numerous examples of software user interfaces that do a poor job of tapping the innate power of our spatial brains. These problematic user interfaces invoke the classic bouts of confusion, frustration, undiscoverability, and steep learning curves that we bitch about when comparing software interfaces.

This is why I am a strong proponent of Body Language (see my article about body language in web site design) as a paradigm for user interaction design. Similar to the body language that we produce naturally when we are communicating face-to-face, user interfaces should be designed with the understanding that information is communicated in space and in time (situated in the world). There is great benefit for designers to have some understanding of this aspect of natural language.

Okay, back to my pile of papers: I am fascinated with my unconscious ability to locate these piles as I sift through my stuff. It reminds me of why I like to use the fingers of my hand to “store” a handful of information pieces. I can recall these items later once they have been stored in my fingers (the thumb is usually saved for the most important item).

Body Maps, Brain, and Memory

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Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.03.46 PMLast night I was walking with my friend Eddie (a fellow graduate of the MIT Media Lab, where the late Marvin Minsky taught). Eddie told me that he once heard Marvin telling people how he liked to remember the topics of an upcoming lecture: he would place the various topics onto his body parts.

…similar to the way the ancient Greeks learned to remember stuff.

During the lecture, Marvin would shift his focus to his left shoulder, his hand, his right index finger, etc., in order to recall various topics or concepts. Marvin was tapping the innate spatial organs in his brain to remember the key topics in his lecture.

My Extended BodyMap

18lta79g5tsytjpgMy body. My home town. My bed. My shoes. My wife. My community. The piles in my home office. These things in my life all occupy a place in the world. And these places are mapped in my brain to events that have happened in the past – or that happen on a regular basis. My brain is the product of countless generations of Darwinian iteration over billions of years.

All of this happened in space and time – in ecologies, animal communities, among collaborative workspaces.

Even the things that have no implicit place and time (as the many virtualized aspects of our lives on the internet)… even these things occupy a place and time in my mind.

Intelligence has a body. Information is situated.

Hail to Thee Oh Hippocampus. And all the venerated bodymaps. For you keep our flitting minds tethered to the world.

You offer guidance to bewildered designers – who seek the way – the way that has been forged over billions of years of intertwingled DNA formation…resulting in our spatially and temporally-situated brains.

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bodymapping.com.au

We must not let the no-place, no-time, any-place, any-time quality of the internet deplete us of our natural spacetime mapping abilities. In the future, this might be seen as one of the greatest challenges of our current digital age.

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Failure and Recovery – an Important Concept in Design..and Life

I have observed that good design takes into consideration two important aspects of use:

  1. Failure Rate
  2. Recovery Rate

Well-designed products or software interfaces have low failure rates and low failure amounts. This is related to the concept of fault tolerance. A well-designed product or interface should not fail easily, and failure should not be complete.

“If its operating quality decreases at all, the decrease is proportional to the severity of the failure, as compared to a naively designed system in which even a small failure can cause total breakdown.”

A well-designed product or interface should also be easy to recover from failure.

81oCqPfe5wL._SX522_I recently bought a set of headphones. These were good headphones in most respects…until they broke at the complicated juncture where the ear pieces rotate. Once these headphones broke, there was really nothing I could do to fix them. But I decided to try – using a special putty that dries and holds things into place.

 

photoIt took a long time to figure out how to do this. When I finally repaired the broken part, I realized that the wires had been severed inside. There was no sound coming through. I had no choice but to put them into the garbage bin where they will contribute to the growing trash heap of humanity. Bad design is not just bad for consumers: it’s bad for the planet.

While most people (including myself) would claim that Audio Technica headphones are generally well-designed, we are usually not taking into account what happens when they break.

13687716887463pSometimes the breakdown is cognitive in nature. There’s a Keurig coffee machine at work. It uses visual symbols to tell the user what to do.

As I have pointed out in another article, visual languages are only useful to the extent that the user knows the language. And designers who use visual language need to understand that natural language includes how something behaves, and shows its internal states, not just what kinds of icons is displays on its surface.

The Keurig coffee machine is a nice specimen in many respects. But I had discovered that if I apply the necessary actions in the wrong order, it fails. Namely: if I add the little coffee supply and press down the top part before the water has finished heating up, it doesn’t allow me to brew the coffee.

So…after the water finished heating up, I saw the buttons light up. “Cool” – I said.

But nothing happened when I pressed a button to dispense the coffee. “WTF” – I said. Then I decided to open up the lid and close it again. That did the trick. The lights started blinking. But I was not satisfied with the solution. The discoverability of this bit of behavioral body language ranks low on my list.

Hint: “Blinking Lights” Means “You Can Press a Button”

I have to say, though: I have experienced worse examples of undiscoverability with appliances – especially appliances that are so simple, sleek, and elegant that they have no body language to speak of. This infuriates me to no end. It is not unlike the people I meet on occasion who exhibit almost no body language. It makes me squirm. I want to run away.

Now, thanks to YouTube and the interwebs in general, there are plenty of people who can help us get around these problems…such as this guy who has a solution to a related blinking light problem:

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I realize there are not many people who are bringing up this seemingly small problem. But I bring it up because it is just one of many examples of poor affordance in industrial design that are so small as to be imperceptible to the average user. However, the aggregate of these small imperceptible stumbles that occur throughout our lives constitutes a lowering of the quality of life. And they dull our sense of what good design should be about.

Tiny Rapid Failures and Tiny Rapid Recoveries

148159580_GeneralBicycleNow consider what happens when you ride a bicycle. When riding a bike, you may occasionally lose balance. But that balance can easily be recovered my shifting your weight, turning the wheel, or several other actions – many of which are unconscious to you.

Think of riding a bike as a high-rate of tiny failures with a high-rate of tiny recoveries.

Taken to the extreme: a bird who is standing on one leg has neuromuscular controls that are correcting the balance of the bird’s center of gravity at such a high rate and in such tiny amounts, that we don’t even notice it (and neither does the bird).

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Natural Affordance: Perceived Signifiers

User interfaces (in computer software as well as in appliances) should use natural affordances whenever possible so that users can make a good guess as to whether something is about to fail, whether it is failing, how much it is failing, and how to recover.

The best design allows for rapid, and often unconscious correction while using the product. Good design is invisible!

Donald Norman brought some of these ideas to the fore when he wrote the Design of Everyday Things. We still have a lot to learn from his teachings.

Design is a way of life. If you design your life with resilience in mind – with the ability to recognize failures before they happen, and with the ability to recover from those failures, you will live a better life. The same goes for designing the technology that increasingly fills our lives.

Why is it a Color “Wheel” and Not a Color “Line”?

This blog post was published in May of 2012 on EyeMath. It is being migrated to this blog, with a few minor changes.

I’ve been discussing color algorithms recently with a colleague at Visual Music Systems.

We’ve been talking about the hue-saturation-value model, which represents color in a more intuitive way for artists and designers than the red-green-blue model. The “hue” component is easily explained in terms of a color wheel.

Ever since I learned about the color wheel in art class as a young boy, I had been under the impression that the colors are cyclical; periodic. In other words, as you move through the color series, it repeats itself: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet…and then back to red. You may be thinking, yes of course…that’s how colors work. But now I have a question…

Why?

Consider five domains that can be used as the basis for inventing a color theory:

(1) the physics of light, (2) the human retina, (3) the human brain, (4) the nature of pigment and paint, and (5) visual communication and cultural conventions.

(1) In terms of light physics, the electromagnetic spectrum has a band visible to the human eye with violet at one end and red at the other. Beyond violet is ultraviolet, and beyond red is infrared. Once you pass out of the visible spectrum, there aint no comin’ back. There are no wheels in the electromagnetic spectrum.

(2) In terms of the human retina, our eyes can detect various wavelengths of light. It appears that our color vision system incorporates two schemes: (1) trichromatic (red-green-blue), and (2) the opponent process (red vs. green, blue vs. yellow, black vs. white). I don’t see anything that would lead me to believe that the retina “understands” colors in a periodic fashion, as represented in a color wheel. However, it may be that the retina “encourages” this model to be invented in the human brain…

(3) In terms of the brain, our internal representations of color don’t appear to be based on the one-dimensional electromagnetic spectrum. Other factors are more likely to have influence, such as the physiology of the retina, and the way pigments can be physically mixed together (a human activity dating back thousands of years).

(4) Pigment and paint are very physical materials that we manipulate (using subtractive color), thereby constituting a strong influence on how we think about and categorize color.

(5) Finally: visual communication and culture. This is the domain in which the color wheel was invented, with encouragement from the mixing properties of pigment, the physiology of the retina, and the mathematical processes that are formulated in our brains. (I should mention another influence: technology…such as computergraphical displays).

Red-Green-Blue

Consider the red-green-blue model, which defines a 3D color space – often represented as a cube. This is a common form of the additive color model. Within the volume of the cube, one can trace a circle, or a hexagon, or any other cyclical path one wishes to draw. This cyclical path defines a periodic color representation (a color wheel). A volume yields 2D shapes, traced onto planes that slice through the volume. It’s a process of reducing dimensions.

But the electromagnet spectrum is ONE-DIMENSIONAL. The physical basis for colored light cannot yield a higher-dimensional color space. The red-green-blue model (or any multi-dimensional space) therefore could not originate from the physics of light.

DID HUMANS INVENT PURPLE IN ORDER TO GLUE RED AND VIOLET TOGETHER?

An alternate theory as to the origin of the color wheel is this: the color wheel was created by taking the two ends of the visible spectrum and connecting them to form a loop (and adding some purple to form a connective link). I just learned that Purple is NOT a spectral color (although “violet” is :) Purple can only be made by combining red and blue. Here’s an explanation by Deron Meranda, in a piece called…

PURPLE: THE FAKE COLOR – OR, WHAT REALLY LIES AT THE END OF A RAINBOW?

And here’s a page about how purple is constructed in the retina: HOW CAN PURPLE EXIST?

Did the human mind and human society impose circularity onto the color spectrum in order to contain it? Was this encouraged by the physiology of our eyes, in which various wavelengths are perceived, and mixed (mapping from a one-dimensional color space to a higher-dimensional color space)? Or might it be more a matter of the influence of pigments, and the age-old technology of mixing paints?

Might the color wheel be a metaphorical blend between the color spectrum and the mixing behavior of pigment?

Similar questions can be applied to many mathematical concepts that we take for granted. We understand number and dimensionality because of the ways our bodies, and their senses, map reality to internal representations. And this ultimately influences culture and language, and the ways we discuss things…like color…which influences the algorithms we design.