Jenn Webb

Jenn Webb is a veteran of the newspaper industry turned freelance scribe, editor, and researcher. She is a nerd with a passion for technology and cultural disruption. She currently serves as O'Reilly Radar's managing editor and helps to investigate topics in the Design, IoT+, Data, and Emerging Tech spaces.

Defining and sculpting interactions between man and technology

Jonathan Follett on the future of design and designers.

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Editor’s note: we’re running a series of five excerpts from our forthcoming book Designing for Emerging Technologies, a compilation of works by industry experts in areas of user experience design related to genomics, robotics, the Internet of Things, and the Industrial Internet of Things.

In this excerpt, author — and editor of Designing for Emerging TechnologiesJonathan Follett addresses designer’s roles as new technologies begin to blur the boundaries between design and engineering for software, hardware, and biotech.


Jonathan Follett

Author and editor Jonathan Follett, principal at Involution Studios.

Technology extends our grasp, making it possible for us to achieve our goals rapidly and efficiently; but it also places its own set of demands upon us. The fields of industrial design, graphic design, and software user experience design have all evolved in response to these demands — a need for a human way to relate to and interact with our new tools. Graphic design makes information depicted in printed media clear, understandable, and beautiful; industrial design makes products elegant, usable, and humane; and user experience design makes the interaction with our digital tools and services efficient and even pleasurable.

The future of design is to envision humanity’s relationship to technology and each other — whether we’re struggling with fear and loathing in reaction to genetically altered foods, the moral issues of changing a child’s traits to suit a parent’s preferences, the ethics guiding battlefield robots, or the societal implications of a 150-year extended lifetime. Now, more than ever, designers have the opportunity to help define the parameters of and sculpt the interactions between man and technology.

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Podcast: automation and an abundance-oriented economy

Jim Stogdill, Jon Bruner and Jenn Webb discuss James Burke, ninja homes, IoT standards and robots.

What happens if emerging technology and automation result in a world of abundance, where anyone at anytime can produce anything they need and there’s no need for jobs? In his recent Strata keynote, James Burke warned that society is not prepared for scarcity (and the value it brings) to be a thing of the past — an eventuality Burke predicts will occur in the next 40 years or so. This topic kicks off a discussion between Jim Stogdill, Jon Bruner and myself that we recorded while at Strata.

Link fodder from our chat includes:

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Solid-report-cover-smallIf you liked this article, you might be interested in a new report, “Building a Solid World,” that explores the key trends and developments that are accelerating the growth of a software-enhanced, networked physical world. (Download the free report.)

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Democratizing technology and the road to empowerment

BIF9 storytellers share how their work and experiences enrich our world.

Advancements in technology are making what once was relegated only to highly educated scientists, engineers and developers accessible to — and affordable for — the mainstream. This democratization of technology and the empowerment it affords was an underlying thread through many of the stories at this year’s Business Innovation Factory (BIF) summit. From allowing hobbyists and makers to innovate and develop on an advanced level to enabling individuals to take control of their personal health data to using space suits to help children with cerebral palsy, technological advancements are beginning to empower — and enrich — at scale.

With the rise of quantified self, for example, people have begun amassing personal data based on their activities and behaviors. Some argue that QS doesn’t go quite far enough and that a more complete story can be told by incorporating emotional data, our sense of experience. While it’s empowering in many ways to be able to collect and control all this personal big data, what to do with this onslaught of information and how to process it remains a question for many.

Alexander Tsiaras, who founded theVisualMD, argued in his talk at BIF9 that “story gives a soul to the data,” and that it’s time to change the paradigm, to start using technology to create ecosystems to empower people to understand what’s going on inside their bodies as a result of their behaviors.

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The Amazon whisperer, invisible interfaces, FDA vs 23andMe, and robots usher in a new polical order

A backchannel look at what's on our radar.

The Radar team does a lot of sharing in the backchannel. Here’s a look at a selection of stories and innovative people and companies from around the web that have caught our recent attention. Have an interesting tidbit to contribute to the conversation? Send me an email or ping me on Twitter

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IoT meets agriculture, Intellistreets, immersive opera, and high-tech pencils

A backchannel look at what's on our radar.

The Radar team does a lot of sharing in the backchannel. Here’s a look at a selection of stories and innovation highlights from around the web that have caught our recent attention. Have an interesting tidbit to contribute to the conversation? Join the discussion in the comments section, send me an email or ping me on Twitter.

  • Pencil — FiftyThree’s new Pencil tool is a super cool gadget that exhibits interesting technology from a software meets hardware perspective. (Via Mike Loukides)
  • littleBits Synth KitlittleBits and Korg have teamed up to bring DIY to music with a modular synthesizer kit. From John Paul Titlow on Fast Company: “Hobbyists have been doing this for many years, either through prepackaged kits or off-the-shelf components. The difference here is that no soldering or wiring is required. Each circuit piece’s magnetized and color-coded end makes them effortlessly easy to snap together and pull apart … Notably, the components of the kit are compatible with other littleBits modules, so it’s possible to build a synthesizer that integrates with other types of sensors, lights, and whatever else littleBits cooks up down the line.” (Via Jim Stogdill)
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Podcast: the Internet of Things should work like the Internet

A chat about the future of UI/UX design with Alasdair Allan, Josh Marinacci and Tony Santos.

At our OSCON conference this summer, Jon Bruner, Renee DiResta and I sat down with Alasdair Allan, a hardware hacker and O’Reilly author; Josh Marinacci, a researcher with Nokia; and Tony Santos, a user experience designer with Mozilla. Our discussion focused on the future of UI/UX design, from the perils of designing from the top down to declining diversity in washing machines to controlling your car from anywhere in the world.

Here are some highlights from our chat:

  • Alasdair’s Ignite talk on the bad design of UX in the Internet of Things: the more widgets and dials and sliders that you add on are delayed design decisions that you’re putting onto the user. (1:55 mark)
  • Looking at startups working in the Internet of Things, design seems to be “pretty far down on the general level of importance.” Much of the innovation is happening on Kickstarter and is driven by hardware hackers, many of whom don’t have design experience — and products are often designed as an end to themselves, as opposed to parts of a connected ecosystem. “We’re not building an Internet of Things, we’re building a series of islands…we should be looking at systems.” (3:23)
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Podcast: expanding our experience of interfaces and interaction

A chat with Amanda Parkes, Ivan Poupyrev, and Hayes Raffle.

At our Sci Foo Camp this past summer, Jon Bruner, Jim Stogdill, Roger Magoulas, and I were joined by guests Amanda Parkes, a professor in the Department of Architecture at Columbia University, and CTO at algae biofuels company Bodega Algae and fashion technology company Skinteractive Studio; Ivan Poupyrev, principle research scientist at Disney Research, who leads an interaction research team; and Hayes Raffle, an interaction designer at Google [X] working on Project Glass. Our discussion covered a wide range of topics, from scalable sensors to tactile design to synthetic biology to haptic design to why technology isn’t a threat but rather is essential for human survival.

Here are some highlights from our discussion:

  • The Botanicus Interacticus project from Disney research and the Touché sensor technology.
  • Poupyrev explains the concept behind the Touché sensor is that we need to figure out how to make the entire world interactive, developing a single sensor that can be scalable to any situation — finding a universal solution that can adapt to multiple uses. That’s what Touché is, Poupyrev says: “a sensing technology that can dynamically adapt to multiple objects and can sense interaction with water, with everyday objects, with tables, with surfaces, the human body, plants, cats, birds, whatever you want.” (2:50 mark)

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Progressive reduction, Bret Victor rants, and Elon Musk is Tony Stark

A brief selection of articles highlighting UI/UX innovation.

Investigating emerging UI/UX tech in the design space is leading me to many interesting people, projects and innovative experiments. Here’s a brief selection of highlights I’ve come across in my research. Seen something interesting in UI/UX innovation? Please join the discussion in the comments section or reach out to me via email or on Twitter.

Getting users to interact with products in a particular way is hard. On one hand, you have experienced users who are ready for advanced features and interactions, but at the same time, you have new users who might be put off or confused by too much too soon. Think Interactive’s Alison McKenna took a look at a potential solution: Progressive Reduction — what if designers had a one-size-fits-all solution that allowed an interface to adapt to a user’s level of proficiency? She points to Allan Grinshtein’s seminal article, in which he describes how his company, LayerVault, implements Progressive Reduction and defines the concept: “The idea behind Progressive Reduction is simple: Usability is a moving target. A user’s understanding of your application improves over time and your application’s interface should adapt to your user.”
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Podcast: emerging technology and the coming disruption in design

Design's role in genomics and synthetic biology, robots taking our jobs, and scientists growing burgers in labs.

On a recent trip to our company offices in Cambridge, MA, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jonathan Follett, a principal at Involution Studios and an O’Reilly author, and Mary Treseler, editorial strategist at O’Reilly. Follett currently is working with experts around the country to produce a book on designing for emerging technology. In this podcast, Follett, Treseler, and I discuss the magnitude of the coming disruption in the design space. Some tidbits covered in our discussion include:

And speaking of that lab burger, here’s Sergey Brin explaining why he bankrolled it:

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Investigating the state of UX and UI design in tech

As web and industrial design begin to collide, UX and UI design are particularly ripe for disruption.

The last major shift in design arguably occurred in the 90s as print design gave way to web design, and designers suddenly had to deal with web safe colors, alias fonts, and the information design challenges of a non-sequential medium. Two decades later, design is approaching a similarly monumental shift as designers move from designing for the web to designing for systems.

Software developers and hardware engineers are starting to face difficult — and atypically similar — questions in terms of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design as web and industrial design begin to collide. Software developers must now think about designing for hardware interfaces, and hardware engineers must now design with UX and UI in mind. This collision presents an opportunity for a tectonic shift in the design space, with the potential to spread across industries on a larger — and more personal — scale than design has experienced before. That’s why, beginning today, we’re kicking off an exploration of the companies and people experimenting with and innovating in UX and UI design.

We can already see the beginnings of this shift as wearable interfaces, such as Google Glass, Fitbit, and Jawbone, become more and more mainstream. But what about designing for a wearable computing system for assistance dogs that allows an animal to alert or even command its human? Or for a sensor system for your teeth that could monitor what you eat and drink?

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