The Life of Interfaces

What type of thinking informs the collective impact interfaces of cities, devices, products, spaces, services and product packaging have on people’s lives?

There is an informed realization from collaborating UK, Ireland and Africa cities based networks that the imaginative application of design is defining behaviour and visceral responses to physical or digital products and their interfaces. All one has to think about is the cumulative complexity that increases the value of a service’s ecosystem. For example anyone with an iPad mini or similar could share, create or use valuable data with other ‘interfaces’ either at a local or an international location.

Across African cities outside of South Africa, from Marrakech, Lagos to Nairobi, games design courses such as this Masters' Degree course by the UK's National Film and Television School are almost non-existent. Funding is also a challenge.

One potential solution is the hands-on practical and immersive learning experience provided by Mozilla’s games workshop, which involves exchanges between hubs in Africa and the rest of the world.

The process involves a lot of self-learning. In Nairobi Strathmore University’s mobile application programme is a response to growing demand for screen-based thinking. In my view, the marginal edge comes with practical exposure to how peers pushing ‘people-centred approaches’ work and think. Particularly beyond screens and towards the internet of things.

Hands-on practical and immersive learning experience provided by Mozilla’s games workshop between exchange hubs in Africa and international peers would be helpful.

User Experience Strategy Work Sessions at Digital Media Innovation Consultancy Ravensbourne UK

To fill this gap across Africa there is an emerging ‘maker-culture’ trend at creative exchange quarters such as Cchub in Lagos, London’s General Assembly and Google Campus, Ravensbourne UK’s Digital Media Innovation Consultancy Project with Mozilla, Brunel’s Co-Innovate programme, iHub Nairobi’s Africa UX event, Dublin’s Proudly Made in Africa and the facilities of London and Nairobi based weareasila.

Infographic, courtesy Google Campus London

What they have in common is they are enabling clients and practitioners figure out how to keep catching the mood of the time. As well as link people’s emotion to services and products by design.

Some user-interfaces are designed to, make complexity easier, enhance experience value of products or re-frame how people experience cultural content (e.g. @ ‘museums’)

These are the engines of start-up enterprise, commerce, professional services, fast moving consumer goods, white-goods, child care and child friendly products, entertainment, education, healthcare and organizational productivity (anyone whose business depends on Microsoft’s word or Adobe Photoshop’s user interface might appreciate this point).

For anyone reading this who might consider taking a peep into the life of streaming music apps or testing out tunes trending for Xmas, you may find using Rdio, to stream music to your phone, computer or an iPad a useful distraction. I have seen so much of Michael Buble advertised across London’s public transport system, I audio tested his tunes as I wrote this piece. Be warned it could become a healthy addiction. You might find you are able keep tracks offline for some other time. Assuming you like to kick back and share alternative styles with loved ones and friends you could connect with other music listeners, share playlists and see what your friends are snapping their fingers and tapping their feet to.

For the mobile application album covers are used as signpost displayed across the screen like a curated gallery of visual thumbnails. Letter forms on signs take a leaf out of type design for sign panels. It is highly likely a multi-stepped multidisciplinary process of involving user research, typeface selection, letter-form scaling and panel layout, usability testing and prototyping preceded this creative output. From a broader perspective the process is similar to that used to address patient-centered strategies by design in the UK healthcare sector

Wordbook by Madebymedic.com is another interesting interface developed by NHS medic Dr. Michelle Teo and her colleagues. They identified ‘vital task logjams’ with paper based patient records, within some hospitals in London, particularly in emergency situations. With her team of developers and user-experience specialists with support from Google Campus London, they are looking at ways to “improve communication and reduce human error in hospitals”.

The influence of creative exchange quarters as ideation spaces (online and physical) on entrepreneurs to expand innovation economies in Stockholm Nairobi, Tel Aviv, New York, Silicon Valley or London cannot be overstated. Connections between interdisciplinary know-how, maker investment vehicles such as collaborative market and creators of ideas and experiences are catalysts. They are stimulating economic development within the cultural and creative spaces across these cities.

Inside the offices of Tumblr in New York. Photo courtesy Daniel Goodman from Business Insider Photo:Inside the offices of Tumblr in New York. Photo courtesy Daniel Goodman from Business Insider

Weareasilia’s Lulu Kitololo and her colleagues in Nairobi and London run a cloud based hub where “non-linear approaches’’ to narrative processes, learning resources and various data communication models are informed by client participation. BlackWhiteandSimple is a Weareasilia service product for smes looking to position themselves online. By default how international clients learn about and participate in the creative process is shaping this business model.

Lulu Kitololo speaking at “Ladies who L-Learn” a programme run by London based YouMakeItLtd. Photo Courtesy Asilia FaceBook Page

To begin to grasp these approaches as a strategic craft It is important to interprete ‘user-interface’ in a much wider sense beyond screens, games and handheld devices. Varied creative outputs propose interfaces that enable interactions ranging from screen-less variations; people to city, people to people, people to stories, people to work, people to food & drinks, people to environment and people to services.

Femi Longe is a founding member of Cchub’s project in Lagos. He says “we are a social innovation driven project with a remit to respond to a variety of infrastructural challenges peculiar to our environment’’. It is a thinking attitude that has led him to continue looking out towards London’s creative quarters as possible partners to fill various capacity gaps: user learning research, ethnographic issues, critical design thinking and creative protocols underpinning them.

Take Ebay’s recent appointment of John Maeda to its advisory board. This is a demonstration of what is trending in terms of design strategy. Moving from computer screen, consumer product interaction, swipes and taps to sensors and mobile computing, spatial, transactional and transformational interaction is merging into fluid experiences. This approach, where creative integrators play a critical role at board level, is inching its way to become the norm as innovative start-ups in parts of Africa are benchmarking themselves with international ideas, to compete on a global scale.

Trendy footwear maker Sole Rebels from Addis-Ababa is an interesting example to watch out for in this respect. This business started as an idea to bring jobs to a local community. Inimitable artisanal talent make comfortable casual footwear ranging from loafers, ballet and boat shoes, sandals, lace-ups and boots. They are hand-made with locally sourced eco- friendly materials and recycled tire soles. A vegan line is in the product mix. This ethical provenance is translating internationally. Provenance, expressive of Ethiopian hand craft techniques infused with liberal aesthetic sensibilities resonate with the ethically conscious from Barcelona to Taipei. This project has its heart in Addis-Ababa supported by a collective of international creative and strategic design minds.

SoleRebels retail presence in Barcelona. Photo courtesy SoleRebels FaceBook page. SoleRebels retail presence in Barcelona. Photo courtesy SoleRebels FaceBook page

Design strategy, located within creative knowledge exchange, is a way of thinking, building and emotionally connecting people in advance of the experience. Co-creative ideation is integral to the process by which feedback is provided to critical users whilst informing creative outcomes for experiential impact.

This was the motivation behind learning about better ways to improve client participation in project development for myself and my colleague Angela Lyons. We worked recently with a session of colleagues looking to learn, about user experience strategy at Ravensbourne’s DMIC.

This enhancing session offered direction, design methods and hands-on guidance. I imagine similar sessions designed around local nuances offering design thinking and support to help people develop products and services in Kampala, J’Burg, Lagos or Accra in order to respond to opportunities in Nairobi or vice versa.

Although this is changing, a few of our project commissioners in Lagos have been hyper-focused on ‘making interfaces’, while not understanding the larger context of the issue. This approach generally leads to tangled and inconsistent interfaces. They focus on continued re-iteration by referencing subjective components — “warm colours”, “symbols”, “typography”, “logo”, “form”, “motion graphics” — that they can toy with, at the expense of a compelling philosophy with practical application, which informs design emphasis.

“A brand is not a logo or ID system, its a gut feeling people have about your products or services. When two or more people have the same feeling you have a brand. You get that feeling via thoughtful design, which creates the experiences people have with the brand. Everything you do creates the brand experience” - Robert Brunner (Do You Matter: How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company)

There is a tendency for people to project their desires on to others. There is nothing wrong with this approach, however we take a view that these desires are secondary to that of real community of users, in terms of interfaces. Our view is this, real user oriented issues are addressed properly with clients at the get go. However given the ‘experience disparity’ between people making interfaces and clients who tend to project their desires onto their users, outcomes leads to a large number of disconnected items that may not work cohesively. Generally it leads to a lot of configuration and re-configuration to arrive at a client’s uncertain destination.

This is the reason why thorough user analysis is required to determine which requirements are real as well as mitigate ‘experience disparity’. So is the need to pre-empt interfaces with false requirements, by prototyping, before they become real. Learning processes and usability labs are worth their weight in terms of well spent money.

Billy Gacheru drives a matatu plying the Umoja-City Centre route has Vuma Online on his vehicle as a value added service and has seen an increase in the number of customers that he services daily “I have seen increase in passenger traffic", Billy says. "Having Wi-Fi in the matatu is a crowd puller… previously I used to take 30 minutes to fill up the matatu but nowadays it takes 10 minutes on average,” Billy Gacheru.

I find it difficult to imagine how Billy would have found Safaricom’s Vuma Online service good for business, had the project not been informed by requirements of Matatu drivers and passengers whose daily commute depend on matatu trips.

By the way these ideas — automated travel — translate across borders, transnationally and internationally, after appropriate testing protocols have been established.

“As technology gets better, economics will have to become less abstract. Economics used to be about the patterns of results that emerged from rules that influenced human social behaviour. It focused on the way policy engendered outcomes. But with every passing year economics must become more and more about the design of machines that mediate human social behaviour. A networked information system guides people in a more direct, detailed, and literal way than does policy. Another way to put it is that economics must turn into a large scale, systemic version of User Interface Design”

Is the jury out? The jury’s behaviour is highly likely to be influenced by mental frameworks. Overcoming blind spots of our old mental frameworks whilst we introduce new ones might just be determinants of the jury’s response.

This is a useful reference point for thinking about what informs the collective impact devices, products, spaces, services and product packaging have on people’s lives.

Exposure to other cultural ‘mental frameworks’ and design strategy approaches builds awareness of other ‘Life of Interfaces’. The more reason why collaborative and creative exchange quarters might enhance client capabilities and cultural core of interface-makers to evolve experiences that are relevant to real people.

Cover Image by Stefan Magdalinski

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