A Chiang Mai massage as a narrative for experience design

I was in Chiang Mai on vacation and had planned on visiting my favourite spa in the evening after a day of walking. I called the spa at about 1pm and was greeted with a friendly voice who spoke great English. I enquired about having an appointment that night and she said that it would be no problem and that she would have someone pick me up at my guest house and take me to the spa. That way I would save the trouble of finding a tuk-tuk or taxi.
A driver arrived at the guest house at about 8pm and drove me to the spa which was about a 10 minute drive away. I opened the door and entered the spa where I was greeted by a beautiful young lady wearing traditional Thai costume, who invited me to have a seat and served me tea. All the while making small talk and continuously showing the smile which Thailand is so famous for.
At this point I began to notice the environment of the waiting area. The furniture was comfortable, the room temperature was cool ( a contrast to the night air), the lighting was dimmed, the decore itself could be described as Thai. modern with warm earthen colours. The environment was designed to put you at ease.
My masseuse came out about 5 minutes later and greeted me with a ‘wai’ and asked me to please follow her to where she was going to give me the massage. At this point we were walking through a small secluded garden, it was dark outside and because the sky was cloudy there were not a lot of stars. Along the pathway there were lit candles guiding the way and you could smell the subtle scent of jasmine in the air. At the end of the pathway was a small, covered area, quite secluded and quiet and lit only by candlelight.
My masseuse asked me to please have a seat while she poured me a fresh cup of tea and turned on some very light relaxing music. Always speaking in very soft, soothing tones she preceded to give me a wonderful massage. During this massage, a very light rain started to fall, creating an interesting cascade of sound on the leaves in the garden further enhancing the overall experience.
At the end of the massage, the greeter came out to the massage area with an umbrella and took the masseuse and I back into the small building that housed the waiting area. I then paid a very reasonable fee and was given a drive back to my guest house where I preceded to have the best sleep of my life.
I like to use longer versions of this story to help illustrate how we can create wonderful experiences for our customers and though a leap this can translate to both online and offline interactions.
Creating a quality experience is conscious, not accidental. It can be designed, architected, engineered, crafted. Attention to detail is essential, as is empathy to your customer.
Experiences have an attraction, engagement, and a conclusion. They have a beginning, middle, and an end much like the experience I related above.
The spa in this story has long since closed. Great experience design unfortunately doesn’t always translate into long term business success. I met the proprietor, Khun Kitima, by chance at a Bangkok restaurant years ago and she stated that she was opening a ‘eco-friendly’ range of guest houses in the North. I haven’t looked them up yet but if they are anything like her spa, which was frequented by Angelina Jolie no less, it would be a worthwhile place to stay.

It’s oh so quiet shh shh

In a country where people revel in clatter above 85db the relative silence I experienced when walking in Siangshan this morning is something of a revelation. I had forgotten that it could be so quiet in Taiwan.
At some point today I am sure someone will start lobbing firecrackers, deploy fireworks, race around on their hot rod scooters, or perhaps the contractor next door will start drilling into the concrete again. Until the ordinary happens I’m enjoying the quiet.

[Bits] Fear and American Politics

Identity, Policy & Character in Politics – America Idol Trumps All.
Deep down millions of Canadians and Americans “know” that something terrible is on its way. Middle and working class know that they in particular are going to be in the eye of the hurricane. No Golden Parachutes for them. Like Germans in 1931, they want to feel safe. Like Germans in 1931 they seek a Father and a Mother figure who will make it all go away. They want simple answers even if they know that they are wrong. Also, Why do the working class want to vote Republican or Conservative here in Canada?
The Palin-Whatshisname Ticket.
But race is just one manifestation of the emotion that defined the Palin rollout. That dominant emotion is fear — an abject fear of change. Fear of a demographical revolution that will put whites in the American minority by 2042. Fear of the technological revolution and globalization that have gutted those small towns and factories Palin apotheosized.
And, last but hardly least, fear of illegal immigrants who do the low-paying jobs that Americans don’t want to do and of legal immigrants who do the high-paying jobs that poorly educated Americans are not qualified to do.
From Hype to Fear in American Politics.
When the economy is doing reasonably well, the debate is dominated by hype — by the claim that America’s prosperity is truly wondrous, and that conservative economic policies deserve all the credit.
But when things turn down, there is a seamless transition from “It’s morning in America! Hurray for tax cuts!” to “The economy is slumping! Raising taxes would be a disaster!”
But there’s a powerful political faction in this country that understands very well that any real change will create losers as well as winners.
American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety.
Why, then, are twenty-first-century Americans more fearful than their counterparts sixty- five years ago or across the Atlantic? The “roots of American fear,” Stearns suggests, lie in traditions extending back to the colonial period of “fears attached to race and Evangelical fears associated with God’s wrath” (p. 74). He also invokes the post–World War II proliferation of science fiction scenarios of alien invasion and global annihilation, along with “the contemporary American sense of the strangeness of death” (p. 88). But the underlying cause is a “new fear culture” that began to take shape by the 1920s and that manifested itself most powerfully in childrearing advice and practices (p. 93). No longer taught to master their fear through courage, Americans were now socialized to avoid it or, when avoidance was not possible, to vent it. Meanwhile, an earlier sense of fatalism gave way to beliefs that most risks are preventable (as seen in changes in tort law and insurance practices)—beliefs that heightened Americans’ fears “when their expectations are contradicted” (p. 137). They were “left less emotionally prepared than desirable for unexpected intrusions” of fear and “more open to manipulations that either prolonged fear or promised decisive remediation” (p. 110). This “new socialization” combined with “decades of war-level alerts”—Stearns retraces the red scares, the nuclear threat, and a series of Cold War crises—to produce a populace prone to emotional overreaction (p. 198). Too much fear, in turn, has generated distorted psyches and policies. Via The Journal of American History.
Update 09/16: Jeffrey Zeldman’s A modest proposal is worth linking to. Imagine, discussing the the real issues and weighing each candidates resume and views on these issues. Revolutionary! Excerpt: “If you’re selling toothpaste, your claims must be vetted by legal and medical professionals. But not if you’re selling a candidate.
If you’re selling a candidate, not only can you lie about his record, but more to the point, you can lie about his opponent”.

The Aesthetic Hypothesis – Clive Bell

This essay is an excerpt from the book Art, originally published in 1914. It is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that. It is certain, however, that about no subject with which I am acquainted has so little been said that is at all to the purpose. The explanation is discoverable. He who would elaborate a plausible theory of aesthetics must possess two qualities – artistic sensibility and a turn for clear thinking. Without sensibility a man can have no aesthetic experience, and, obviously, theories not based on broad and deep aesthetic experience are worthless. Only those for whom art is a constant source of passionate emotion can possess the data from which profitable theories may be deduced; but to deduce profitable theories even from accurate data involves a certain amount of brain-work, and, unfortunately, robust intellects and delicate sensibilities are not inseparable. As often as not, the hardest thinkers have had no aesthetic experience whatever. I have a friend blessed with an intellect as keen as a drill, who, though he takes an interest in aesthetics, has never during a life of almost forty years been guilty of an aesthetic emotion. So, having no faculty for distinguishing a work of art from a handsaw, he is apt to rear up a pyramid of irrefragable argument on the hypothesis that a handsaw is a work of art. This defect robs his perspicuous and subtle reasoning of much of its value; for it has ever been a maxim that faultless logic can win but little credit for conclusions that are based on premises notoriously false. Every cloud, however, has its silver lining, and this insensibility, though unlucky in that it makes my friend incapable of choosing a sound basis for his argument, mercifully blinds him to the absurdity of his conclusions while leaving him in full enjoyment of his masterly dialectic. People who set out from the hypothesis that Sir Edwin Landseer was the finest painter that ever lived will feel no uneasiness about an aesthetic which proves that Giotto was the worst. So, my friend, when he arrives very logically at the conclusion that a work of art should be small or round or smooth, or that to appreciate fully a picture you should pace smartly before it or set it spinning like a top, cannot guess why I ask him whether he has lately been to Cambridge, a place he sometimes visits.
On the other hand, people who respond immediately and surely to works of art, though, in my judgment, more enviable than men of massive intellect but slight sensibility, are often quite as incapable of talking sense about aesthetics. Their heads are not always very clear. They possess the data on which any system must be based; but, generally, they want the power that draws correct inferences from true data. Having received aesthetic emotions from works of art, they are in a position to seek out the quality common to all that have moved them, but, in fact, they do nothing of the sort. I do not blame them. Why should they bother to examine their feelings when for them to feel is enough? Why should they stop to think when they are not very good at thinking? Why should they hunt for a common quality in all objects that move them in a particular way when they can linger over the many delicious and peculiar charms of each as it comes? So, if they write criticism and call it esthetics, if they imagine that they are talking about Art when they are talking about particular works of art or even about the technique of painting, if, loving particular works they find tedious the consideration of art in general, perhaps they have chosen the better part. If they are not curious about the nature of their emotion, nor about the quality common to all objects that provoke it, they have my sympathy, and, as what they say if often charming and suggestive, my admiration too. Only let no one support that what they write and talk is aesthetics; it is criticism, or just “shop.”
The starting-point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion. The objects that provoke this emotion we call works of art. All sensitive people agree that there is a peculiar emotion provoked by works of art. I do not mean, of course, that all works provoke the same emotion. On the contrary, every work produces a different emotion. But all these emotions are recognisably the same in kind; so far, at any rate, the best opinion is on my side. That there is a particular kind of emotion provoked by works of visual art, and that this emotion is provoked by every kind of visual art, by pictures, sculptures, buildings, pots, carvings, textiles, etc., etc., is not disputed, I think, by anyone capable of feeling it. This emotion is called the aesthetic emotion; and if we can discover some quality common and peculiar to all the objects that provoke it, we shall have solved what I take to be the central problem of aesthetics. We shall have discovered the essential quality in a work of art, the quality that distinguishes works of art from all other classes of objects.

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Books to help you beat insomnia

Though on many recommended reading lists for designers of all types, the following list of books are sure to clear any bad case of insomnia you may have. If it wasn’t for the fact that I actually believed I was learning something I may never have finished them. For some reason many books written about Information Architecture tend to turn out dry and far less exciting than the discipline itself.
5 books for designers to help you sleep:
Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things – George Lakoff
“Its publication should be a major event for cognitive linguistics and should pose a major challenge for cognitive science. In addition, it should have repercussions in a variety of disciplines, ranging from anthropology and psychology to epistemology and the philosophy of science. . . . Lakoff asks: What do categories of language and thought reveal about the human mind? Offering both general theory and minute details, Lakoff shows that categories reveal a great deal.”—David E. Leary, American Scientist
Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Inside Technology) – Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star
Is this book sociology, anthropology, or taxonomy? Sorting Things Out, by communications theorists Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, covers a lot of conceptual ground in its effort to sort out exactly how and why we classify and categorize the things and concepts we encounter day to day. But the analysis doesn’t stop there; the authors go on to explore what happens to our thinking as a result of our classifications. With great insight and precise academic language, they pick apart our information systems and language structures that lie deeper than the everyday categories we use. The authors focus first on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a widely used scheme used by health professionals worldwide, but also look at other health information systems, racial classifications used by South Africa during apartheid, and more.– Rob Lightner
books-meta.jpgMetaphors We Live By – George Lakoff, Mark Johnson
The now-classic Metaphors We Live By changed our understanding of metaphor and its role in language and the mind. Metaphor, the authors explain, is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are “metaphors we live by”—metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them. Perhaps I’m unduly harsh on this one, I loved this book.
books-semiotics.jpgA Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics) – Umberto Eco
‘Eco’s very erudite and provocative book draws on philosophy, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and aesthetics and refers to a wide range of scholarship, both European and American. It raises many fascinating questions which merit considerable probing.’-Language in Society
Like Roland Barthes, Eco starts from the foundations of semiotics in Saussure (Course in General Linguistics: who developed the idea of sign-systems and the sign/signified distinction, as well as the distinction between langue/parole – language and speech) and Claude Levi-Strauss (Structural Anthropology). Yet Eco surpasses this tradition to move into new territory, recognizing the limits to structuralism and Saussure’s ideas. He recognizes, for example, that meaning is not merely governed by structure, but also interactively constructed by the reader/interpreter, who often inserts or fills-in missing meaning to construct a coherent picture. – Nessander
books-task.jpgUser and Task Analysis for Interface Design – JoAnn T. Hackos, Janice C. Redis
User and Task Analysis for Interface Design helps you design a great user interface by focusing on the most important step in the process -the first one. You learn to go out and observe your users at work, whether they are employees of your company or people in customer organizations. You learn to find out what your users really need, not by asking them what they want, but by going through a process of understanding what they are trying to accomplish.

Principles of Successful Navigation

Navigation that works should:

  • Be easily learned
  • Remain consistent
  • Provide feedback
  • Appear in context
  • Support users’ goals and behaviors
  • Offer alternatives
  • Require an economy of action and time
  • Provide clear visual messages
  • Use clear and understandable labels
  • Be appropriate to the site’s purpose

Bullet points provided by Jennifer Fleming’s old but still relevant Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience (1998). I wore that book out reading and rereading on the bus ride to my main gig then.

Hell’s highway

I had an ‘altercation’ on the highway this morning with a van load of dick heads. In order to make my exit while driving on highway 1 (3 lanes of which were occupied by slow moving trucks) I squeezed in front of this van, safely though perhaps too close by Canadian standards. My mistake and I berated myself for the maneuver. Unfortunately I somehow made the driver lose face in front of his tribe, who instead of simply cursing you silly f*** decided to take action. First came the repeated horn blaring, then the speed quickly past maneuver, followed by the dumping of garbage out the window in hopes of hitting me tactic, and then the rapid slow down whilst in front move. And I had my two kids in the car. No doubt they wanted to follow me to a stop light in order to give me a ‘talking to’ but I made the light and they didn’t.
Sadly this didn’t phase me as it’s a common occurrence on the highways around Hsinchu.
Too bad I’m not more like Alec Baldwin who in a profile in the New Yorker said:

He recalled a day, a few years ago, when he was driving through L.A., saw a car run a red light, smash into another car, and keep moving. Baldwin gave chase and, eventually, blocked the culprit in a cul-de-sac. Before the police arrived, the driver got out of his car — “Typical drug-addict, alcoholic, fuckhead look on his face. He was, ‘O.K., what? What? You’re chasing me. What?’ This nineteen-year-old kid, his eyes blazing. I’m thinking, I’m going to come over there and knock your teeth down your fucking throat just because you’re asking me ‘What?’ You know what, you little fuck? I saw you. I’m a pretty liberal person, but my liberalness comes from what the government should be doing with its excess of wealth. That doesn’t mean I’m not a law-and-order person. I’m the kind of person — you catch the kid who’s drunk and high and he almost killed a girl, let’s take him in and beat the shit out of him for a couple of hours. Then he’ll learn.” He laughed. “I believe that!”

In fact too bad there weren’t a few dozen like him driving the roads around Taiwan. We have no police so this might be a good substitute.

6 laws of simplicity

From John Maeda’s original 16 (-3) laws of simplicity come my 6 favourite:

A complex system of many functions can be
simplified by carefully grouping related functions.
The positive emotional response derived
from a simplicity experience has less to do
with utility, and more to do with saving time.
The more you know about something beforehand,
the simpler it will ultimately be perceived.
In order to “feel,” you gotta have noise.
Too much noise, and all you’ve got is noise.
The more care, attention, and effort applied to that which is less, the more it shall be perceived as more than it really is.
A pure and resonant experience
is only as simple
as the greater context
where it is appreciated.
– John Maeda

Characteristics of tangible interfaces

Two proposals seem most promising for an understanding of the characteristics of tangible interfaces. Both are relevant. Ullmer and Ishii stress seamless integration of representation and control.

There are 4 characteristics concerning representation and control:

  1. Physical representations are computationally coupled to underlying digital information.
  2. Physical representations embody mechanisms for interactive control.
  3. Physical representations are perceptually coupled to actively mediated digital representations. (visual augmentation via projection, sound…)
  4. Physical state of tangibles embodies key aspects of the digital state of a system. (TUIs are persistent: turn off the electrical power and there is still something meaningfull there what can be interpreted)


  • Tangible interfaces rely on a balance between physical and digital representations.
  • Digital representations are needed to mediate dynamic information.
  • The elements of TUIs are spatially re-configurable (in contrast to tangible digital appliances) (Ishii, H., and Ullmer, B, 1997).

Whereas Ullmer’s characterisation focuses on issues of representation and its computational coupling, Brauer’s perspective is one of human-computer interaction, comparing GUI interaction with graspable interfaces. Brauer defines as special qualities of graspable interfaces the following two key characteristics:

  • a) Physical spatiality describes the co-presence of user, objects and other users in one interaction space. This space is a hybrid. Physical objects have a double affiliation to real/physical and virtual/digital space, but must still obey laws of the physical world. Real and virtual parts are each enhanced by the other. Because of co-presence of users and objects, interaction takes place IN the user interface. Therefore input and output space coincide. The user experiences a bodily shared space, his/her body is in the same space as the interaction objects. Following [17, 22, 35, 41] physical spatiality, by preserving physical laws and sharing of space, results in well-understood visibility of objects and of gestures. Strictly speaking this characteristic is a prerequisite for the next characteristic.
  • b) Haptic directness denotes direct manipulation where the physical, graspable objects themselves are the interface. The user has direct contact with the interface elements and has an embodied experience of manipulation, using his/her hands and body movements. Interaction is unmediated and intuitive, leading to ‘direct engagement’. Because hands interact directly with interface elements, two-handed or parallel interaction is possible. Unmediated, direct manipulation results in isomorphic and structure-preserving operations.

A motivation for the Tangible Media Group is that our ancestors developed in the past a range of specialized physical arifacts with different functionality, for instance to measure the passage of time, to predict the movement of planets or to compute. By grasping and manipulating these instruments, they developed rich languages to interact with real physical objects.

Newly arrived and quite ignorant of the languages of the Levant, Marco Polo could express himself only by drawing objects from his baggage-drums, salt fish, necklaces of wart hogs’ teeth-and pointing to them with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder or of horror, imitating the bay of a jackal, the hoot of the owl… Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

But many of these artifacts disappeared and were replaced by the most common of devices: the Personal Computer. In consequence, human computer Interaction is currently limited to the use of a screen (desk-mounted, head-mounted, hand-held, etc.), a mouse and a keyboard. The Tangible Media Group wants to reject this traditional way of HCI and wants to use real physical objects for representation and control of digital information instead.
Most research on tangible interfaces has been focused on implementation. This concentrates on defining concepts, building category systems (B. Ullmer and H. Ishii, 2000), evaluating usability (M. Fjeld,et al, 1999) or potential interaction metaphors. The focus is on single user interaction, with questions of cooperative use largely left out of consideration. As requirements for cooperative use are not identical with usability requirements for single user settings a deeper understanding seems essential in order to deliberately design for cooperative use.

I did some elementary investigation into cooperative use as part of the tangible work I was doing about 3 years ago.
Ishii, H., and Ullmer, B. “Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, Bits, and Atoms”, Proc. of CHI’97, pp. 234-241, ACM 1997.
Emerging Frameworks for Tangible User Interfaces Brygg Ullmer and Hiroshi Ishii.