Viewing entries tagged
UX Design

Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)


Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.

Pioneering Urban Experience Design (The New Scale of UI/UX)


For the last 10 years I have worked in some of the world's most brutal conditions.  Along the way I've made and lost friends, witnessed miracles and tragedies, and have immersed myself into every moment of it.  But I've always known that this is not a sustainable or necessarily healthy way to live.  In my desire for a full life, I cannot always live and work in war and violence.   So a few years ago, just at the same time I took up residence in Afghanistan, I began laying the foundation to one day take all the lessons hard-learned from the battlefield into a different direction.

Shifting the Terrain at HSpace
At the beginning of 2014 I transferred my practice from Kabul, Afghanistan to Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is famous for its poetic ruins and tragic rate of decay.  I have also continued to work abroad - in fact, I am posting this blog post from downtown Mogadishu at this very moment.  And in the meanwhile I have experimented with new methods to engage urban environments and to create technologies that shift the way we experience the world around us.

Today today my work is a fusion of deep theoretical understanding of complex urban environments and cutting-edge experiments in physical computing and design strategy.  Although it has not been featured online, much of my time since January has been heavily occupied in a partnership with a global technology giant to develop a new technology to monitor events in Syria.  Those who were present for my talk at the School of Visual Arts in New York City got a sneak-preview of the work we have undertaken.

In my off-hours, I've also been bashing out an array of prototypes and design mockups, primarily in the realm of augmented reality, experimental cartography, and drone-based design.  Here is a sample.

Choose Your Adventure - The Mobile AR Experience
Problem: I've never been a fan of video games.  There is nothing wrong with them, but my sense has always been - why play a game when you could live it?  In fact, I recently discovered that playing a video game will satiate my desire to explore the more challenging environments in the world.  But playing a video game also imposes tremendous limitations.

Concept: What if we combine geo-caching exploration with AR gameplay?  What if we use our existing mobile technologies, gps positioning, social networks, and user-generated rating systems to refine the games?

Below I've put together two brief concept videos to show how this can work.  The first video presents how such a game could be organized. The second video presents some screenshots of how such a game would function.

The cool part:  This is an entirely new way to engage our cities and communities.  Your city is no longer just an environment, but it is also an interface, stacked against a digital interface, so as to participate in the construction of new narratives.  The natural syntax of our urban environment shifts, opening new interpretations of space, time, and meaning.  Consequently the identity of the city is no longer what you see in the street, but also how it is constructed in the cloud.  Like your online digital identity, cities can have a digital self, to be pushed-probed-and-hacked.  We've had this digital infrastructure for years, but we lack sufficient methods to maximize its potential.


(Best enjoyed with headphones or decent speakers)



Created in 2014 by Mitchell Sipus

The GIS Interface I Always Wanted


I have a love-hate relationship with geographic information systems.  I use these systems frequently and have been thrilled to witness a recent explosion of interest in mapping across various disciplines.  But overall, I have always hated the software.

Part of this is the fault of GIS software UI/UX design.  Current GIS software is designed for a user to work with a database or data tables, and by generating a final set of data, the software will produce a visual product - the map.  Many GIS packages do providing CAD-like drawing or design tools, however application of these tools does not modify existing data.  They may allow one to create a new and empty shape file layer, but it is necessary to then attach data to that shape file.  If I want to make changes to a cartographic layer that already contains data, then I have limited options from the graphics side, and more options from the data side.

The outcome is that seemingly simple goals in GIS contain many steps to achieve and are not intuitive to a new user.   I recall when I was a new student to GIS that the strategy I created to learn the software was "right click at all times,"  otherwise it was impossible to know how to proceed.  Of course anyone who is a frequent GIS user finds all these smaller steps as intuitive because they have used it for a long time.  Consequently many GIS professionals have adapted to the logic of the system and have difficulty to see its flaws.

The other problem with current GIS platforms is the way they are taught.  When learning GIS, students are  introduced to the vocabulary of geography and cartography as the theory component, much of which focusses on the the map, not the data.   In the meanwhile they must undertake assignments and exercises focussed on the software.  The theory and the application remain separate most of the time.  A better GIS class would start with explaining and exploring databases without maps.  Once the student is comfortable with a database, geographic coordinates would be introduced (all using a common projection etc), maps would be generated, and finally the class would begin to explore geographic concepts.  In this manner the teaching is attuned to the system and moves forward in a simple and linear fashion.  

Over the last few years GIS has exploded with options.  When I was first introduced to these tools in 2006, the only options were ESRI products and GRASS as the open source alternative. Today we now have tools such as QGIS, TileMill, Open Street Map, and maps are frequently created tiles for a base map.  Yet I believe there is still plenty of room to reinvent the GIS interface.  I believe we can create a better GIS interface and user experience design to expand versatility.  

An ideal software package would provide each user with 2 options for user interaction.  One option is the same as the current approach, in which a technician works with the data to generate a visual outcome.  The alternative is software that allows one to create a visual modification which will also shift the underlying data accordingly.  This is a step beyond existing products, such as TileMill, which provide the means for designing beautiful maps, but do not allow one to conduct data analysis.

In the above image I rendered an ideal GIS interface, based strongly from Adobe photoshop, on account that photoshop is highly intuitive many users.  This interface features layers in the right corner like photo layers, but the most significant feature is the ability to work across Tables - Drawing/Selection Tools - CARTO in a fluid system.  For example, a user could click on physical elements of a map to select them in a table, then change the look of those items in the CARTO window. 

The array of GIS options today are phenomenal.  Yet I continually am working across different systems because there is no ideal platform for working with data, styles, and design in a fluid manner.  Perhaps we don't need a single platform for all that, but if anyone ever develops a method for underlying data to shift in response to graphic decisions, I suspect we will encounter an entirely new era of cartography.