Category Archives: Design


Ethnography and the design of new media

More and more anthropologists are doing research on new media technologies like mobile phones and social networking sites. Some of them are even being hired by companies to do ethnographic studies to gather the sort of “actionable insight” that can help a better understanding of how these technologies are used, and help inform how new products should be designed.

Some of these anthropologists presented their work at the recent LIFT conference in Geneva.

Another one is danah boyd who does research on Social Networking Sites such as Myspace and Facebook. Recently, she posted an interesting interview where she talks about her research findings.

danah also did an interview with Mimi Ito, yet another cosmopolitan anthropologist researching new media. In that interview, the following exchange takes place:

DANAH: Can you tell me more about what how you see anthropology being relevant to design?

MIMI: I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps of the design process. But of course I would say that. Anthropology can help inspire new designs by providing profiles of users and stories about contexts of use. Anthropologists can play on design teams as designs get developed to sensitive designers to culturally and context specific issues. And finally, anthropologists can evaluate the effectiveness of designs through studies of actual use in context, either prototype, pilot, or after product roll-out.

DANAH: So what advice would you have to young aspiring anthropologists who want to study socio-technical practice and get involved in designing new technologies?

MIMI: Advice? This one is tough. Be prepared for some blank looks from people in your discipline – but a lively audience of practitioners and technology designers who are eager to hear stories from the field. The challenge is to be multilingual and interdisciplinary while also maintaining commitment to ethnographic perspectives and methods.

As an anthropologist just starting out in this field professionally, that really isn’t much help. Luckily, I’ve accepted that I’ll be finding my own way as I go along.

Design for a sustainable planet

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a very clever and well-executed film about our relationship with our planet. You should go watch it now. Come back afterwards and read the rest of this post. It’ll take 20 minutes, but it’ll be worth it. It may come across as a bit preachy at times, but the points it makes are too important to let that you stop you.

Go. Now.

.. so, you’ve seen it? I hope you liked it. What seems to be a long time ago, I posted my review of a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It was a very worrisome read about the state of the planet. It made the same argument as the Story of Stuff film: That we are too many people on the planet, using too many resources too fast, and that it is ecologically, economically and socially unsustainable. Ishmael suggested the solution was that we should live “as if man belongs to Earth rather than Earth belongs to man.” This basically involved accepting that human life isn’t as precious as we like it to be, and that we should accept plagues and other acts of God in order to stop over-population. It was a very sinister outlook.

Since then, I’ve found that other people have a more positive outlook on these issues. Like the designers Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart who’ve written the intriguing book, “Cradle to Cradle“. They make the point that we’ll never get where we want to go if we only act from our bad conscience. We need a more positive outlook that just having a “sustainable” impact on the planet. Why shouldn’t we go even further, and seek to have a positive impact on the planet?

For a good example of how to do this, McDonough and Braungart suggests ants:

Consider a community of ants. As part of their daily activity, they:

* safely and effectively handle their own material wastes and those of other species
* grow and harvest their own food while nurturing the ecosystem of which they are a part
* construct houses, farms, dumps, cemeteries, living quarters, and food-storage facilities from materials that can be truly recycled
* create disinfectants and medicines that are healthy, safe, and biodegradable
* maintain soil health for the entire planet.

Individually we are much larger than ants, but collectively their biomass exceeds ours. Just as there is almost no corner of the globe untouched by human presence, there is almost no land habitat, from harsh desert to inner city, untouched by some species of ant. They are a good example of a population whose density and productiveness are not a problem for the rest of the world, because everything they make and use returns to the cradle-to-cradle cycles of nature. All their materials, even their most deadly chemical weapons, are biodegradable, and when they return to the soil, they supply nutrients, restoring in the process some of those that were taken to support the colony.

Now, people really don’t like to be compared to ants. Ants are mute, boring, tread-mill workers with no individual identity at all. Nobody wants to be an ant, certainly. But it seems that we have a lot in common with ants when we compare ourselves with them on a community-level. Ants collaborate, they harvest and gather, they build and repair, they live in hives, and they communicate. With huge Internet projects like Wikipedia, we have even begun to collaboratively in a fashion which previously has only been seen among ants and other insects.

So, I figure that the positive challenge to solving many of this world’s problems is to find a way of building communities which take and use the best designs – environmentally, technologically, socially, politically, even aesthetically – from nature and from our own history.

I suppose in saying this, I am framing these problems as wicked design problems to be solved. But that’s not really my idea. I picked it up from Bruce Mau, a Canadian designer and the man behind the Massive Change exhibition, which posed the question:

“Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”

That is a question which is no longer science fiction.

Making design research useful

I found Dan Saffer’s presentation on “How to lie with design research” on Nicolas Nova’s blog today. A User Experience researcher, Nova posts a lot of blog posts of varying insights on interaction design and user experience and such buzzwords.

The talk is a tongue-in cheek discussion of ethnographic design research, which appears to annoy a fair part of the designers. As Saffer puts it, “don’t bother going out into the field, it’s too hard.” In particular, it is about avoiding being “uncomfortable or embarrassed or feel stupid” – experiences that are integral to an anthropologist’s fieldwork, but which designers feel little need to expose themselves to.

In this way, Saffer touches upon this annoyance in a very dead-pan fashion by massaging the imagination of the audience: What would be the alternative? How you can avoid doing research and simply present other people’s photos and anecdotes as your own, and still have the credibility of having done proper research? Nova cleverly connects this dilemma with the ??armchair anthropologists? of yore building their analyses on the data of others.

Others, such as Jan Chipchase does do his own research, but worries about how useful and worthwhile it will turn out, when he is constantly on the road doing tour bus ethnography to gather data, never staying in one place for long, and never seeming to have time to digest and fully reflect on what he experiences.

Reflecting on this problem of speed, another design researcher, Anne Galloway, notes:

So when Jan gets concerned that he may be doing “nothing more than tour bus ethnography” and admits that “without sufficient time for reflection what could be meaningful data is just noise” he’s pointing to very real concerns in the practice of anthropology outside academia.

If armchair anthropology was a product of colonialism, then design ethnography is a product of capitalism. Both suffer similar political and ethical issues, but it seems to me that “tour bus ethnography” additionally suffers a crisis of time that was lacking in the era of armchair anthro.

In a cultural era often characterised in terms of speed, Jan asks:

Given the constraints – what is an optimal and what is a sufficient amount of time to spend in the field? And if your project involves cultural comparisons – how much time is enough to rest, reflect and analyse between field trips?

[…] Where is the questioning of the constraints that bring about these crises in time? Where is the challenge to the cultures of speed?

With cultures of speed, she refers to the work of French philosopher Paul Virilio, who argues that the 20th century has seen a constant acceleration of Western culture, through cheap flight, digital communication and neo-liberal capitalism. And increase in speed which only becomes apparent with the spectacular crashes – whether financial, political or environmental.

Without delving into whether or not this acceleration is a good thing or not (I’ve already presented various points of view regarding that in my essay on the Western Perception of Time), I find it worth discussing according to what criteria design ethnography can be evaluated. As Anne Galloway has noted, design ethnography cannot productively be evaluated according to the criteria of academic anthropology. But which criteria then, and who decides?

Design anthropologist Anne Kirah tackled some of these issues in her talk at the Index Design conference recently [talk audio, slides]. She focused on how designers and concept consulents when appropriating ethnographic methods often fail to realise the importance of the anthropological mindset behind these methods.

Her central point is that anthropology is more than just a toolkit. It is a mindset – a stance that takes as its point of departure a clear awareness of personal pre-assumptions and thus an open-minded notion that “I’m not the expert.” This includes:

  • A willingness to go out of your comfort zone
  • A willingness to learn with these people
  • A willingness to build with these people
  • Being humble and practicing the art of humility
  • A willingness to be flexible and adapt to any given context
  • A willingness to ??live?? in the question

Naturally, many designers don’t really want to do this, since it is hard work which requires a lot of empathy and humility. Kirah’s point would be that that’s why there ought to be a great need for design anthropologists who can do such research and keep a focus on the needs, interests and motivations of people, rather than simply faking your data or using the anecdotal material of others, as Saffer jokingly suggests.

But under what criteria can such ethnographic design research be made so as to both get beyond the initial preconceived assumptions of the researcher and at the same time be developed within the short time span required by the design studios and consulting companies involved in such research?

The Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup remarks that being in the field is about “accepting the empirical unreality.” That is, to recognize and admit the infinity of cultural translation, and instead focus on the ethnographic transubstantiation of lived experience into text, images, film – life communicated: “The empirical data is felt through experience, but it is created and rendered probable through stories.”

Thus, ethnography is produced in the negotiation of experience after the fact. Hastrup notes, much like Kirah, that it essential to set aside your own preconceived assumptions, to continually exoticize the field and in order to get the most out of this experience, and gain new perspectives on your observations.

In relation to design, the most important part of ethnography is gaining a concrete sense of the situation for which you’re attempting to design. To sum up the situation with all its levels of un-comprehended and fuzzy reality. The design anthropologist’s job is thus to present as much of these fuzzy experiences as possible for the designers to relate to and build their design upon.

When I talked to Anne Kirah after her talk, she noted the importance of the design anthropologists bringing the designers and engineers into the field with them. To give them that real experience of the situation and to support the anthropologist’s ethnographic findings.

Recently, I also discussed this problem with Joachim Halse, another design anthropologist, and he recommended bringing the informants to the engineers and recreate the key design situations within their comfort zones, where they couldn’t transgress the cultural norms of the informants.

Either way, the central goal of design ethnography is finding, understanding, and conveying such central situations in such a way that designers and engineers can build upon them without feeling forced out of their own comfort zone, allowing them to focus on the work they do best. As Donald Schön notes, design is a conversation between designer and situation. The design anthropologist’s job is to introduce the designer to such a situation. Not to leading him and telling him what to do, but to guide him and make him aware of the intricacies of the situation.

So how much time would a design anthropologist need to find, experience and understand such situations well enough to convey and present them for the designers and engineers to build upon?

Well… that still depends on the situation. And the anthropologist. Much like it has always been for anthropology. But at least with these criteria in mind, it does not have to take months or years to come up with interesting or useful research.

Dropping knowledge

One of the entries for the Index design award was the Dropping Knowledge website. It’s a fun, if somewhat difficult concept which lets anybody ask a question, and gives anybody else the opportunity to offer their answers.

It is an attempt to use the new sort of participatory culture to find or reach contemplative answers to difficult questions, and thereby highlight some of the many political, social and cultural issues of the day. Just how well it achieves this is open for discussion, since most of the questions asked are so open-ended that it is difficult to answer them without much exposition.

This is perhaps best illustrated by “The Table of Free Voices” event, which brought together 100 thinkers from around the globe to sit around a table in Berlin and answer 100 questions asked on the website. Among the participants were people like Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, Mongolian author Galsan Tschinag, and German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr. This has resulted in a huge databank of the recordings of each participant’s 100 answers, which each viewer then can watch and contemplate as they see fit.

It’s an interesting experiment, but I cannot help but wonder whether these questions and answers actually help much, or if they just create more confusion and indecision.

Does design equal quality ?

Following the INDEX conference, I got to thinking a bit more about how the designers posited design as an unquestionable good to be used to solve the many problems of the 21st century.

But what is good design? How do you know when you’ve found it?

Well, this summer I read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and he discusses that exact question with regards to technology: What makes good technology? What is quality – not only in design and technology – but in all fields of use and application of such? And how do we come to appreciate it?

Pirsig’s book was a big “cult classic” in the 1970s, and some consider it to be the most widely read philosophy book ever. It seeks to find the answers to the questions above both in Western philosophy, represented by the logic of the motorcycle, and in Eastern mysticism, represented through the Zen Buddhism also mentioned in the title.

But today I suspect that only a few members of my generation have come across the book, and even less have been convinced by Pirsig’s style of narration.

For while I really liked some of his insights, I was frustrated by the way they’d been hidden within a 400 page auto-biographical narrative which at times confused rather than illuminated the main points around the nature of quality and the influence of technology on our lives.

So I set out to remix the book to highlight the questions of technology, quality, and design and the interrelations between them. I found an on-line version of the book and turned 400 pages into around 60, which I have gently formatted and made available in html.

I find the way we relate to technology and design fascinating, and I hope that this remix will help to show some of the ways we think and imagine technology and quality. Please have a read and add your comments.

Design to improve life

2 weeks ago, I went to the INDEX design conference, which is a prelude to the Aspen Design Summit – a design meeting which takes place in June, and is considered something akin to a design world summit ever since its first instance in 1951. The conference was part of the INDEX design awards, the world’s biggest design award event, drawing interest and participants from all over the world. So it did indeed have a bit of that world summit feel to it.

The overall slogan for the event was “Design to improve life,” and it was soon evident that all of the design specialists had gathered with a belief and agenda in common: That design is the magic ingredient which can solve many of the problems which the world is facing today. As one of the panel moderators, business journalist Alan Webber, put it, “Design creates the world.” It is through design that we shape the processes, the ways in which we live in it.

In this way, the majority of the discussion was centered around what good design is, and how to use it to solve our current issues of growing population, climate change, humanitarian disasters, urbanization, the growing number of elderly, and many more of the official Millennium issues recognized by the UN. It was like everybody in the room had been brought together by their affinity with this force of good called design, and they sought to discuss how best to wield it.

Now, the audio from the talks and some of the slideshow presentations have been put on-line on the INDEX website, so I won’t have to go into great detail about the actual presentations. But what fascinated me was the way that all of these people framed the issues as design problems to be solved.

Ric Grefé, CEO of the Aspen Design Summit, opened the conference by quoting the Roman architect Vitruvius’ classic three tenets of good design: Firmness, Commodity and Delight. Firmness is a good structure that holds up a building under all manner of conditions — during high winds, earthquakes, fires and snowstorms. Commodity is what makes a building comfortable — things are the right size, the heating and cooling systems work and you don’t have to climb too many stairs in the course of the day. But Delight is what makes the building worth being in — Delight is what makes the building more than just a shelter. It may be an intellectual delight, a visual delight or even a delight to be in to listen to music, but it brings something more to the building than just functionality.

Grefé then combined this with science fiction author Bruce Sterling’s aphorism: “hot enough to imagine a future, and cool enough to make it happen.” Again hitting on the theme that they as designers need to combine old values with new, innovative courage to make change happen.

The next speaker, Ged Davis from the Global Energy Assessment initiative spoke about the many challenges for the planet. And he summed up the design problem as: “How can we sustainably manage what currently requires the resources of two to three planets with just the one we got.”

It is a challenge that increases as the population, industrialization and urbanization continues to grow and spread, and Davis argued that it would require designing new large systems such as governance systems, civic solutions, cities and eco-systems based on inspiration from 21st century forms of organization such as Al-Qaeda, the Open Source model of development and the global market economy to design and build a sustainable future.

One example of designing such a large system from the ground up is the British Engineering company Arup’s project to build an ecologically sustainable city to be part of Shanghai. The city, called Dongtan, is to house 500.000 people and it is fascinating to see all of the design concerns to be incorporated in solving the many issues of sustainability involved. I really recommen listening to chief architect Alejandro Gutierrez’ talk and having a look at the slides. The whole room heaved with wonder at what human ingenuity can do. This was what they were here for.

Another example was Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ attempt to influence public policy in Copenhagen by offering a design mock-up for a housing project to solve the problem of affordable apartments in central Copenhagen. In doing this, Ingels sought to show that architects and designers don’t have to wait for politicians and bureaucrats to agree on what needs to be built, but that the experts themselves can take the initiative and enter with constructive suggestions on what needs to be built and how. Though, as he was quick to point out, the design mock-up caused huge discussions all the same.

Perhaps the most eloquent exposition and definition of the design problems to be solved came from Arnold Wasserman, the dean of human centered design with a past at Xerox leading the effort to use the ideas and inventions coming out of Xerox PARC to help reshape that company based on human centered design. He argued for the need for a philosophy of “Deep design” similar to the emergent “Deep ecology” which posits humankind as an integral part dependent on the global eco-system, or “deep economy” which challenges the notion that more necessarily is better.

Deep design takes the same precepts into practical application. It is a matter of taking the converging design trends of the past 30 years and combining them with what we know we need: sustainability – both ecologically and ethically. According to Wasserman, these trends are specifically the multidisciplinarity of humanities and social sciences inspiring new methods and ideas within the design industry (he mentioned his own company, the Idea Factory, as a good example of how this multidisciplinarity is coming alive), and the growing participatory culture that is emerging globally: Wikis, blogs, massive multiplayer games, on-line communities, the creative commons which offer informal learning and sharing.

In short: “Collective generativity is replacing individual creativity. Everybody can do design. Everybody can use those tools.”

Thus, it is not just design anymore, but people-centered design. And in this way, Wasserman sums up a new design problem:

Here’s what we’re struggling with: Design grew up selling stuff. Now it has to focus on improving life – sustainably. We need to ‘design like you give a damn! We need to find the clients to go there, but it is possible.

Again, everybody is nodding, agreeing about the importance of design thinking. The question is how to convey this to the world. How to get the message through to the policy makers, politicians and corporate leaders actually making the decisions necessary to get such design projects funded and underway. Here the discussion stalls.

Ged Davis used a very clever image in his talk to convey this problem:

Getting good ideas and having good intentions isn’t necessarily enough. But the passion is there. Having worked with the Ubuntu community and its new forms of participatory culture and organization driven by clear ethical motives, I see how far that passion can get you. And I see more and more instances of people like Mark Shuttleworth with Ubuntu or the unknown Chinese benefactor behind Dongtan, people with vision and the economic power to make such ethical and sustainable projects happen.

But though these philanthropists can break new ground, it will still require even more from the traditional businesses and nations so singlemindedly focused on growth. Perhaps redesigning these entities to incorporate the interests of all of its stakeholders and their quality of life might be the way to go.

Pervasive Healthcare revisited

Listening to the radio this morning before biking into town to work sitting at my newly-acquired thesis writing spot at the Royal Library in the centre of Copenhagen (nice), I heard a segment from Danish IT-news source, Harddisken, on Pervasive Computing and the hospital which sounded oddly familiar.

The segment was called “Et hospital i din krop – perspektiver for pervasive healthcare” and featured head of research at the Centre of Pervasive Healthcare, Jacob Bardram (now a full professor at the IT University of Copenhagen – apparently what I heard this morning is a re-run from last year) talking about his latest project: RFID chips to track patients and employees in the hospital through digital whiteboards.

It sounded uncannily like the idea that my group developed at the ITU in the Autumn of 2005, so I guess that it is true that good ideas are developed simultaneously in different places. I hope that the Pervasive Healthcare people at least made more of it than we did.

Design work

Some time ago, Anne Galloway posted an excerpt from a talk by designer and HCI theorist Brenda Laurel on her concept of culture work which caught my interest.

Laurel’s main concern is design which focuses on the bottomline, the way that most of the products we buy are designing with buying and consumption in mind, not necessarily use. She suggests Culture Work as the means for designers to inject their own positive values into the capitalist and consumerist products they design:

Here’s what I want to say. Consumerism demeans us. Nobody wants to be a consumer. The power relationship implied by the term should be unacceptable to everyone, if they were able to understand it. I picture a “consumer” as something like a giant slug, a simple tube through which stuff passes from retail to landfill.


In the 18th century, 80% of the populace read Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Today, we do a better job of teaching kids to be consumers than citizens. And so there are fewer and fewer young people who believe that their votes can make any difference the gross malfunctioning of our government the underlying dismemberment of our Constitution. Many, like I, are ashamed of the dim, corroded lamp we lift as we hold up our way of life to the rest of the world.


I propose that each of us actively redefine the success criteria for business to include the cultural and material costs and benefits of the product, as well as what we currently think of as “the bottom line.” I’m suggesting that we find ways to help both kids and adults have access to this material and the means to understand it. I want every person in this country to know the unauthorized biography of every single thing they buy.

At its best, commerce can be sustainable, if it is based upon the free and fair exchange of value with respect and common sense. By contrast, consumerism consists in the creation and fulfillment of desire, regardless of the actual value of the product to the individual or to society. And who decides what value is and which values are to be put forward in the design of experiences and things? Designers do. We do.


Design gives voice to values. Design suggests what is useful or beautiful or pleasurable or good or true. The affordances of a design suggest desirable actions. A design that has not engaged the designer’s values may speak, but with a hollow voice. We know the rules of good design. But it often comes as a delightful revelation to young designers that brilliant design not only permits but requires the designer’s personal voice.

And so we arrive at the happy confluence of responsibility and power. We are only the victims and servants of business as usual if we choose to be. This work of transformation – which I have come to think of as “culture work” – must be approached mindfully and with great conviction and effort. The strategy of culture work is not straight-ahead revolution; rather it is to inject new genetic material into the culture without activating its immune system. By intervening in the present, we are designing the future.

One of the central elements of the STS academic discipline is exactly focusing on the implicit values which designers and engineers infuse in their products, and now one of the designers themselves cry out to use this in a positive, ethically viable way.

Internet theorist Geert Lovink comments on this in the following way in his review of Laurel’s book on the topic:

Fair enough. She wants to get rid of the “great machine of consumerism,” a strategic cause many share. However, this goal hasn’t made much progress over the last twenty odd years — and Laurel will be the first to admit this. Laurel says: read my advice and keep on trying. I would counter this “will to action” and instead call for a break. It is time to stop and take time to go through some fundamental questions. For instance, I would like to call into question the implicit equation between utopian entrepreneurism and the very specific techno-libertarian agenda of the venture capital class.


As soon as you start to reflect on the inner dynamics of Silicon Valley, you seem to be out. Instead of calling for the development of a rich set of conceptual tools for those working ‘inside,’ Laurel reproduces the classic dichotomy: either you’re in (and play the capitalist game), or you’re out (become an academic/artist/activist, complain and criticize as much as you can). There is no sense here of a possible support line of an ‘organic’ virtual intelligentsia (in the Gramscian sense) which could cross borders between in and outside. The implicit anti-intellectualism is widespread amongst Californian New Age- infected fifty somethings. The mutual resentment between those involved in technology and business and the ivory tower humanities on the other hand seems higher then ever.

Lovink argues that the ethically positive, reflective stance of designers and researchers and the ‘anything goes’ attitude of those wanting to create instant fortunes in places such as Silicon Valley cannot be aligned at all. Maybe this is part of the reason why veterans from failed Silicon Valley start-ups are so reluctant to talk with researchers about why their venture failed.

Basically, Lovink denies the possibility of doing culture work within a clear capitalistic context in that it would require cooperation between people who deeply distrust one another. How can anti-consumerist products be designed without capital? How can anti-consumerist product ever make any money?

Indeed, this leads onto the whole question of the ethics of creating and designing new technology and Anne Galloway has found another excellent quote on this issue in her dissection of the Engineering Ethics Curriculum at Texas A&M:

Technology makes such a profound impact on a culture that there is always a question whether a particular technological artifact should be created at all. Some technological innovations have clearly been more destructive than constructive…The question about the ultimate value of a technological innovation is often difficult to answer, but it is one which an ethically sophisticated designer should consider…

She suggests that it would be relevant to have a sort of Engineering or Design code of ethics – maybe even something like a hippocratic oath? – for makers of new technology to swear to. This won’t solve the problem above between capitalist interests and ethical concerns, but it will offer some guidelines which may relate to.

Meanwhile, Geert Lovink argues that if you really want to do ethically viable design you need to get off the capitalist bandwagon all together and refers to the utopian Oekonux project which seeks to take the ideas of Free Software and use them in a wider economic and societal context. Which is curious, considering that all of the Free Software projects I’ve encountered all work with or to some extent receive sponsorship or goodwill from various IT-companies who want to use or provide support for the Free Software they produce.

Most are concerned with corporate entities taking over the direction of their projects as it has happened with Novell taking over some GNOME projects, and they may not like being dependent on corporate money but most are pragmatic enough to accept it for now. Maybe more of those ethically conscious designers should try a similar approach..?

Installing Ubuntu 6.10

So with the release of the new version of Ubuntu, 6.10 (6 for 2006, 10 for October) I decided that rather than merely upgrading my system from 6.06 to 6.10, I would wipe clean my hard disk, wipe all my desktop settings and try to start afresh to see how long it would take me to get a clean, default install into a position where I’m happy with it.

One of the main reason for starting afresh was to separate my personal files onto another partition so that I easily could reinstall the system another time without risking all of my settings which I find to be such a sane idea that it might be considered for the default.

It worked very well. All I had to do was to create a third partition after the standard 2 (root and swap) and choose that as home in the installer. Easy.

So the installation went without a hitch, until I tried restarting the system without the CD-ROM in the drive and got the dreaded “Hard disk boot sector invalid” error. The system worked fine booting from the CD-ROM and I could then figure out how to reinstall GRUB and make the root partition bootable.

Then I could go on to adding all the extra software I use which isn’t in the default installation, and it for the most part worked really well, partly because I knew exactly which obscure names the applications I wanted were hiding behind, partly because the GNOME application installer just works really well. In general, Ubuntu is reaching the point where it is not just the best Free Software desktop out there, but the best desktop period. Much kudos to the hard working developers – especially those who managed to fulfill their hard work despite of my anthropological nagging and random visits. 🙂

The only issues (apart from the rather unfortunate boot sector debacle) arose when it came to the multimedia bits. With all the licensing issues surrounding the various formats, you’ll need to through a few hoops (and a lot of packages) to get all of it working. It will be nice have some centralized way to do multimedia codec installation in Ubuntu. Though installation of the installation of the kind of proprietary software that is fundamental for Internet use has become a lot easier by making most it available through the GNOME application installer, I really hope that we can make it even easier to make ready by creating a meta-package for it.

All in all, it took me a couple of hours to bring the system into a state where I felt that it was *my* desktop. Another few hours if you include the backing up and the downloading and burning of the CD-ROM. Not bad, but there’s room for plenty of more polish.

Note that all of this is in the “nice to have” category, and that it is the sort of thing that won’t bring developers out left and right to remedy this. But it is the kind of polish that will give people that positive surprise that will make them fall in love with their system. It’s the kind of saying “oh, we know you’d most likely want this as well. So we made it easy for you to get working” that evokes trust in the user. She will think “If they’ve thought about this as well, they must really have spent a lot of time making sure everything is works well.

Designer Emeritus Don Norman has written a wonderful little book on “Emotional Design” which sums up how this emotional relationship between the user and the used object (in this case an operating system) is created. Among other things, he asked people he met about their favourite things and their most positive experiences with technology. One answered:

I still tell people about my experience, years ago, at the Austin Four Seasons Hotel. I checked into my room to find a TV-Guide on the bed, with a bookmark placed on the current date.

Which exactly sums up the kind of positive surprise that good design should deliver. The kind of forethought that makes it a joy to use. For me, when installing Ubuntu 6.10, the surprise came when I saw the new default wallpaper:


There has been a lot of discussion about the new Ubuntu artwork, and the SABDFL has been working hard to impose his vision of a glitzy, saturated look. But this is actually pinkish. And too bright as well. What happened to the proper brown? Hoping for alternatives, a simple right click on the desktop brought up this wonder of chocolate loveliness:

Choc love

And I felt that positive surprise: “Ah! They thought about that after all.” To whoever did that wallpaper: Thank you! I’ll buy you a beer next time I meet you. It is almost edible in its chocolate love!

And that’s the conclusion of Norman’s book as well: Good design not only fits the user’s needs, it also enables the user to make the technology their own, to customize it to their own needs. As Norman quotes Harrison and Dourish:

A space can only be made into a place by its occupants. The best that the designer can do is put the tools into their hands.

This is especially true with computer programs where everything is potentially customizable, and the machine itself has so little emotional value attached to it to begin with. One recent example of appropriating this new space and turning into something personal was on Planet KDE, the aggregated communal blog for the KDE desktop project where a developer wrote about receiving and customizing her new laptop.

There even seems to be a whole F/OSS subculture focused on making the desktop look nice and glittery with all of the latest eye candy, sharing screenshots of their desktops, where people have a place to utter the essential words of Emotional Design: “I want this.”