Ambient Intimacy

LastFM IRC

I find myself talking about Twitter quite a lot. I’m not the only one. The behaviours that Twitter has made more visible are tremendously interesting.

I’ve been using a term to describe my experience of Twitter (and also Flickr and reading blog posts and Upcoming). I call it Ambient Intimacy.

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise? There are certainly many people who think this, but they tend to be not so noisy themselves. It seems to me that there are lots of people for who being social is very much a ‘real life’ activity and technology is about getting stuff done.

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.

Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch. 

As Ian Curry at Frog Design writes: 

It’s basically blogging reduced to what the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin called “the phatic function.” Like saying “what’s up?” as you pass someone in the hall when you have no intention of finding out what is actually up, the phatic function is communication simply to indicate that communication can occur. It made me think of the light, low-content text message circles Mizuko Ito described existing among Japanese teens – it’s not so important what gets said as that it’s nice to stay in contact with people. These light exchanges typify the kind of communication that arises among people who are saturated with other forms of communication.

I came across this research when I was doing my Masters a few years back and it’s continued to fascinate me (and yes, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit whilst considering, and defending, Twitter).

Here’s an observation from some Japanese ethnographic research into the use of camera phones by young people undertaken by Daisuke Okabe (2004):

intimate sharing / presence – sharing intimate photos on the handset when talking face to face with people. Photos that fall into this category would be photos of partners, family, pets, etc. However, this can also be very every day stuff… eg. what I’m having for dinner. It is sharing ongoing mundane visual information with intimates, creating a sense of presence in other peoples lives without needing to talk or be physically present.

I think that the simplicity of Twitter is key to it’s success. The messages must be short and they’re simple text.  I’m starting to think that the level of stimulation is key to the success of these ‘osmotic’ communications (as the guys from LastFM referred to the IRC channel they use internally).

We’ve been trialling some options for a similar kind of osmotic backchannel to use at Flow. One of the first things we roadtested was Skype Public Chat. Amongst some other problems (including that there is no Mac version of the current release which supports the Public Chat function), it seemed that the flashing and noises and animated emoticons were too stimulating… the conversation wanted to leap to the front of the screen continually demanded attention.

IRC on the other hand (ah, what a flash back to open up mIRC again after all these years!) reminds me a lot more of Twitter. There’s none of the flashing and animating and carrying on. The humour is in the text (it took about 30 seconds for the first trout related comment to emerge… old habits…). To me, IRC seems to be a much more effective tool for a back channel, for supporting this osmotic communication within a company. (Assuming we can reduce the barrier to ‘log on’… it’s not a friendly experience for not-geeks).

What does seems clear is that, for a lot of people, this ambient intimacy adds value to people’s lives and their relationships with others. I think we can expect to see a lot more of it… but if I was building a tool to support it, I’d be keeping it very simple and unobtrusive. Osmosis is one thing, hyper-stimulation is quite another!

Twitter Me

Image credit: Slide used by LastFM in their presentation at FOWA

Reference: Okabe, Daisuke 2004, Emergent Social Practices, Situations and Relations through everyday camera phone use, presented at Mobile Communication and Social Change, the 2004 International Conference on Mobile Communication in Seoul, Korea, October 18-19 2004

What are you doing about diversity?

The old debate about the lack of women on the speakers rosters at conferences is doing the rounds again. Jeremy Keith has a good round up if you’ve managed to miss it.

For me, I’m going to think local for now. I’m going to put my hand up, I’m going to say yes when asked, I’m going to try to do a good job, and I’m going to keep looking for other great chick talent and to do what I can to make people who make the decisions know about the talent that’s out there.

What are you going to do?

(If you’re in London, you can come along and be a friendly and supportive audience member at the NMK Event ‘Usability: Whose problem is it anyway’ on Monday night (26/2) and witness my local action for diversity in action!).

Design Consequences: A fun workshop technique for brainstorming & consensus building

Design Consequences

For my recent BarCamp session I shared a design technique that a colleague and I developed quite recently that we’ve found to be quite successful in both generating great design ideas and developing consensus about the design approach for projects within a multi-disciplinary team.

We call this technique Design Consequences, due to the similarity it has with the similarly named childrens games. We tend to use it in the earlier stages of the design process, although it can be used for more detailed interface design problems.

So, how does it work? It’s pretty simple really.

What you need:

  1. a clearly articulated design problem and design goal(s) - for the BarCamp exercise our design problem was to design an electronic version of the BarCamp session wall where people could add their own session and choose which sessions they were going to attend. 
  2. some design ideas or components – when I do this in a client context, we do this by spending time beforehand looking at our specific challenges and seeing how other people have approached them, and trying to understand design techniques or principles that work (as well as those that don’t). This gives people access to a much greater repoirtore of ideas to draw in the Design Consequences exercise.
  3. a multi-disciplinary team - try to get the entire team if you can. The exercise works best with no more than 8 people involved, but it can be done with more if required. Get management to the table, bring all kinds of designers, bring the product managers and marketers, bring your developers. Bring everyone you can, as long as they’re familiar with the project and the design problem.
  4. lots of paper and markers and post its – make them as colourful and fun as possible. Make it look like a crafting session. A sense of play and enjoyment is key to this exercise.
  5. some examples of the type of output you’re expecting – anything that starts with the word ‘design’ can be very intimidating and scary. Lots of people ahve been told throughout their lives that they can’t draw, or that they aren’t creative. I have some *very* scratchy samples that have been created by people who design for a living. I show these before we get started so that people realise quickly that pretty drawings are not part of the equation.
  6. A bundle of energy – you need to be just a little bit hyper to run this exercise :)

What you do:

  1. Round One – everyone has seven minutes to design, individually, the the first page that users would see when confronting the ‘design problem’. So, a typical example would be a website homepage, but it could be any part of an application or website or even, say, an email. The faciliator(s) should participate, but keep an eye on the clock and give some warnings with a few minutes to go, and again at about 30 seconds.
  2. Round Two – here’s the consequences twist. Everyone picks up the page they’ve designed, then passes it on to the person on their right (or left, it doesn’t really matter). Everyone then has to review the page they’ve received (ask for clarification from the original designer if it’s a little sketchy in places), then decide – if you were the user, what would *you* interact with, and what would happen next. You have seven minutes to draw ‘what happens next’. (Don’t tell people about Round Two before Round One, it’s much more fun when it’s a bit of a surprise).
  3. Show and Tell – we then go around in a circle and each person describes the page they received, what aspect they chose to interact with and why, and then describes what they designed next. Discussion is encouraged.

What do you get? Lots of great data, and lots of great conversation fodder.

It’s a good idea to capture as much of this as possible as you go around the group. Of course, the best way to do this is to write up ideas onto post it notes as you go and stick them on the wall. There should be an ‘in’ section of the wall and an ‘out’ section of the wall. (‘In’ means that the idea has legs for this particular design problem). Affinity sorting on the run also helps to draw out the key themes or ideas that have emerged from the exercise. You should be leading the group discussion, helping the group to gain consesus and make decisions as to the design approach to be taken in solving the design problem, and trying to document these decisions as you go.

This process can be quite time consuming and intense, but more often than not there will be a few key ideas that the group is particularly enthusiastic about and that really propels the decision making.

By the end of the session you should be in a position where everyone is in agreement about *what* will be included in the wireframes that comprise the next phase of the design process.

Why would you use this approach?

  • It makes a great change from the talk-fest of meetings
  • It generates lots of ideas – and often some really great ones 
  • It stops people getting to attached to their design ideas and makes evaluation and critiquing more effective
  • It helps get all the team feedback and ideas into the pot (in particular, it’s great to get management and technical input at this stage)
  • It drives buy-in, involvement and consensus
  • It pulls in cross-discipline scills (for example, developers are often really great at quickly identifying great ID approaches for Rich Internet Applications)
  • You’d be amazed what you learn earlier rather than later by involving the entire team at this early stage
  • Getting lots of brains involved in the design process can uncover some really creative gems
  • It makes the design process faster
  • It’s fun!

So, there you have it. Some quick notes on a technique that’s been quite useful for me lately. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it and if you try it, to see if you too find it useful.