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DigiCrafters: fun, physical computing for kids

One of the last modules I took as part of my MSc at Sussex Uni was Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments, taught by my dissertation supervisor Dr. Judith Good. In a laid-back, “caffeine addicts anonymous” atmosphere, we covered learning theories, learner-centered design and issues of motivation and emotion in instruction. Good fun.

The Fear sets in.

Then our graded project for the module was announced and it was… erm… daunting.

Our team was to visit a local school and, with the help of its students, devise a way to teach kids how to become creative users of technology. For a child-allergic introvert like myself this was as close as you could get to “worst nightmare” territory.

But hey, it’s nice to be surprised – especially by yourself. Over the course of several visits to the Self-Managed Learning College, Marie, Andy and I hung out with a group of 10-12 year old girls, made silly Arduino-based projects and generally had a grand time. In the end, inspired by the fun we had, we made something which I think is pretty cool: DigiCrafters.

DigiCrafters

But… what is it?

DigiCrafters is a handful of basic, color-coded projects which let kids craft cool stuff with circuit boards, lights and sensors. As a “thing”, DigiCrafters is a website and a series of instructional videos – but only for now.

How did it come together?

Wires and circuit boards are intimidating. We wanted to show our girls how easy it was to use a few basic digital components to make crafty stuff. We decided the best way to go about it was to make things that were weird and mysterious – like our Glowing Gremlin Egg project.

Our team’s objectives meandered somewhat at the start, as our intrepid group of girls decided they wanted to use our treasure chest of electronic gizmos to build a musical instrument which responded to their heartbeats. We briefly pursued this, but then realized that, rather than teaching the kids anything, we’d end up making them a toy to play with. So we shelved the idea and focused on small, rewarding projects that slowly opened up the possibilities of wires, circuits and code.

But the idea that 10-12 year olds were keen to design something as amazing and complex should not be dismissed. It showed us that kids are keen to make new and fantastic digital products, even if they don’t yet have the skills to do so. So something may yet come of the musical heartbeat idea – watch this space.

What are you teaching?

Our projects are not aimed at kids who – as many lucky ones already have – had exposure to electronics and basic coding concepts. We wanted to introduce kids to the idea that it’s easy to make something fun and creative with computers and their various components. Along the way, we would slowly be exposing them to the core concepts of digital and analog signal processing, I/O, tangible UI design and of course code.

Why circuit boards and sensors and wires?

We think teaching kids to code is fantastic. But computers don’t just exist as laptops, tablets or smart phones anymore. They’re everywhere! Almost any object can execute code. Almost any object can sense. We felt the idea that the digital and physical boundary has long ceased to exist should be taught.

What’s next? Workshops!

This feels like the first, tiny step in something that could become quite awesome. And while having an Instructables-like website is great, DigiCrafters is more fun when done in a hands-on, group environment.

This is why we’re keen to develop a proper “curriculum” of crafty projects and package them into kits and workshops suited to various interests and skill levels. And then let kids come and make stuff!

To start with, we’re hoping to run a few trial workshops during the Brighton Digital Festival. There’s loads to be done and we’ll need help: volunteers, experts, sponsors. If you want to get involved, please get in touch

Last but not least, epic thanks.

It’s early days but we already have tons of awesome people to thank. Dave, Kate, Jenny, Naomi, Philip and everyone at the Self-Managed Learning College: thank you so much for your support. May you be richly rewarded with kittens and cakes forever.

The value of folly: the UX Camp Brighton talk that (nearly) was

I very nearly spoke at last month’s excellent UX Camp Brighton. My talk was to focus on the user experience merits of cutting edge, high tech tat.

That’s right. I wanted to defend the sorts of gadgets which beg the question: “You made this… why?”

In the end though, I was felled by an epic cold, foiled by the failure of my demo, and distracted by my volunteering duties at the event. Excuses, excuses. Let’s face it: I mostly just wanted to enjoy the day without having to fret about my own talk. Then there was the pressing matter of participating in assorted banana abuse and three-legged bin bag races with Kat.

Besides, there was already a bounty of clever speakers on offer. Jiri’s talk on designing emotional experiences – complete with awesome slides – introduced me to a few qualitative tools I’d not heard about, such as the Geneva wheel. Kat covered some of the methodologies she used in her MSc dissertation on tablet ergonomics in office environments. Louise shocked, SHOCKED her audience with her Pound Shop Personas. Luis chatted to us about cognitive biases – specifically the adaptation bias. Luke took us on a grand tour of monitoring and analytics tools. Calliope lead an interesting discussion which ended up focusing on the UX of new product development. And the pogonolicious Danny had a packed room for his HyperCard demo.

Right, back to my non-talk. During the last Spring term at Sussex I discovered the work of Mark Hassenzahl, whose work explores the underlying causes of our positive experience with interactive products. Mark has shown that: pleasurable dealings with devices are closely tied to the fulfilment of basic psychological needs; and that products are far better positioned to fulfil those needs – such as competence, the need for popularity and stimulation – when they emphasize their “hedonic quality” over their “pragmatic quality”.

Naturally I took that to mean that when it comes to new digital toys “the more fun and pointless the better”. I set out out to blatantly abuse Mark’s research in my slides by defending a kaleidoscope of recently released, wonderfully pointless gadgets such as Olly, the smelly robot and iRock, the iDevice-charging rocking chair.

UXers are famed for bleeting on about products needing to “solve real problems”. But as with everything, it comes down to your definition of a “problem”. Sometimes a “problem” is simply the insatiable craving for something new, useless and fun.

Here are the slides:

Massive thanks to Patrick for organising a great event. Roll on #uxcb13!

Service embedding lessons from a lone UX designer

Earlier this month I wrapped up my stint as senior designer at Fresh Egg. Nervous and excited as I am about my very new role, it’s time for a quick look back at a varied, rewarding and remarkable 16 months with one of the biggest agencies in the South.

It certainly was varied. I worked with businesses of all sizes across a multitude of sectors. I tackled everything from new product development to large scale site redesigns to minor conversion optimization projects. I juggled expert evaluations, user study facilitation, experience mapping, interactive prototyping and A/B testing. Frazzling, but fun.

What about the remarkable part? Despite the strength of its dev and design teams, Fresh Egg’s business tips more towards its SEO and social media offering. To be fair, two years ago they would have fared pretty badly on any UX maturity scale. When I joined FE it was as its first – and sole – user experience nut. Despite this, I was placed in a position of trust and allowed to introduce a bevy of new ideas and practices. I was given free reign to turn meeting rooms into testing labs, plaster everything with postit notes and inundate the reception desk with a stream of study participants. Above all, I was given opportunity after opportunity to integrate UCD practices into new project pitches. For all of this I give Fresh Egg endless credit.

Trust and open-mindedness within the business were key. But what else was it about Fresh Egg’s culture, people and projects which allowed UX to be embraced as a service offering? Here are a few things which seemed to work, offered as tips to anyone who may find themselves in a similar situation:

  • Quickly find a small but rewarding case study. Hoard the results – particularly positive quantitative results
    Shortly after joining FE I worked with the insight team on a series of A/B tests which compared my design tweaks within a client’s key conversion path. A few days’ work translated into some very positive numbers and we had our first case study as well as a justification for future work.
  • Integrate with existing services
    The UX “sell” for Fresh Egg was fortunately tidy and natural. The SEO services brought the right audience to clients’ sites. Once there, the efforts of the UX and insight teams kept them there.
  • Teach and learn – internally and externally
    Sneaking in short presentations into team meetings went a long way in making others understand the nature of my role. But thanks to Nick, FE’s services director, we also hosted a number of evening community events on UX topics, which educated staff and positioned us as a user-focused agency. Attending and sponsoring UX events helped as well.
  • Piggy back on new projects
    New processes don’t have to seem new to new clients, who should have no reason to believe that user focus isn’t the status quo. Similarly, it’s easier to justify new approaches when working with a new domain or technology (say, mobile).
  • Have a champion
    Needless to say, without the support of Ollie, FE’s head of design and Nick, I doubt I would have made any headway at all.

A final note of reflection: I did leave the Egg with a feeling that I hadn’t given it my all. But to be fair I couldn’t have: my MSc took priority and I stubbornly refused to get anything other than the absolute most out of my expensive education. On a personal level, Fresh Egg was also a massive confidence booster. While my assertiveness and ease have some ways to go, I have Adam and Co to thank for letting me find my voice.

Web wearables and tech textiles

All manner of web-enabled, tech-augmented textiles have been cropping up lately, from jackets that hug you when you’ve been liked on Facebook to an app that tracks and pairs your NFC-chipped socks (the app also comes with – wait for it – a “blackometer”).

On the more crafty – and less silly – side of things one can find “soft circuits”: LilyPad Arduino, especially designed to be sewn into various wearables. Go ahead: make awful light-up Christmas jumpers and LED-studded scarves to your heart’s content. Technology’s on your side.

All well and good, but how much closer are we to the ultimate hipster wet dream, glimpsed a few years ago in this Justice video?

If I really wanted that animated, web-ready – and possibly interactive – tshirt, I might consider the e-ink shirt . Or I might invest in the tshirtOS project, brought to us by CuteCircuit, the “future fashion” company.

But of course I wouldn’t. Every single one of these projects is in some way ridiculous or unappealing. But what I love about them is that they all seem to be churning up from a fertile swamp of innovation that may or may not yield something genuinely appealing and useful. The “ooh, how about this?” charm.

So, how about a hat that doubles as storage for my most interesting thoughts?

Summer of seemingly arbitrary pursuits

Summer cracks on at pace. I thought I’d stop and have a think about what it is exactly I’ve been getting up to.

Pursuing higher aims obliquely is something I seem to do naturally. But I’m also aware that doing so often makes it look like I’m simply flailing about. Well, perhaps I am. I’ve been keen for distractions.

A few highlights from the past month follow below.

Organising.

BBC Archives Fieldtrip

At the end of June, I helped navigate 18 Brighton geeks and enthusiasts across London to the BBC Archives in Perivale, where we met our gracious host, Mr. Bill Thompson. Some months previous, Bill had kindly agreed to take us on a tour of the shiny new archive facilities.

While there we marvelled at the climate-controlled vaults where BBC’s carefully curated back catalogue is stored (including part of John Peel’s LP collection); and watched as giant tape robots meticulously transcribed decades of recorded history into a digital format. And we heard from Bill about some of the inventive mashups being created from the archival content already digitized and about Bill’s efforts to bring awareness about the possibilities of the newly created data stores to the wider public.

Naturally, we also had our obligatory Dalek encounter.

UX Brighton – Mobile User Testing Edition

Danny and I held July’s edition of UX Brighton at Fabrica Gallery, where two fantastic speakers, Walt and Raj, covered the practicalities of running user testing sessions on handheld devices. We had a full house and quite a few new faces, including many students. I was a bit daunted by the prospect of being the newbie half of the organising team, but managing the event turned out to be a blast and we’re already scheming the next one.

Big thanks Walt and Raj for their time and effort; and to Laurence Hill, Fabrica’s head of audiences and communication, for letting a bunch of UX types roam amidst the (very beautiful) exhibit of Annemarie Sullivan’s work.

Learning.

Consciousness Expo

On 30th of June, just prior to kicking off an annual academic conference, Sussex University’s Sackler Centre held a public open day about the latest research into consciousness. We went along to play with the exhibits (a fun-filled array of brain computer interfaces, optical illusions and Turing tests) and to say hello to Kate, Sackler’s lovely artist in residence. Later that weekend, we had a chance to trial Kate’s new work, a magical, one-on-one experience centered around one’s heartbeat, sense of presence and body autonomy. It proved very moving and unexpectedly therapeutic.

Future UI

I’ve started a little Tumblr blog of projects, products and prototypes that propose new interaction modes – or attempt to broaden existing ones. Not quite sure what its purpose is yet – possibly merely to satisfy my hoarder’s instinct.

Summer reads

I’ve chewed through a few novels and a couple of UX books, but the gem of my summer reading has been Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. A fundamental text on the absurdities of human thinking.

THE Project

Once the slow, rising tide of cynicsm about my topic of choice reached its ebb, I decided to abandon the idea of writing my masters dissertation on slacktivism. I’ll be changing focus entirely, most likely to tablet apps designed for autistic children.

All this being said, I’m still not sure what all of this is adding up to. I suppose the true highlight of my summer so far has been the concerted effort on my part to see more of the people I genuinely like and admire. I’m very lucky that those whose intellect sparkles more brightly than my own can tolerate my company.

Machines and the music of making

I spent yesterday evening learning about the Happenstance project at the Lighthouse. The agency’s two resident technologists spoke about their efforts to integrate aspects of digital culture into the arts community.

As part of the project, and in an attempt to make the invisible practice of coding visible, the Lighthouse reception area was transformed by James into a “workshop”, complete with printouts and projections of code as it was being written, compiled and committed. “This is a working shop” tried to turn the almost furtive act of writing software into a spectacle of craftsmanship.

But on the way home Jane and I pondered if we – a generation of screen slaves – weren’t romanticising the idea of a workshop. Places of skilled craft were and still are filled with noise, pollutants and dangers. I still remember the gruesome tales of lost limbs, told with relish by the machinists I worked with in a biomedical engineering lab. And I remember the missing fingernails of our neighbour in Poland, who worked long hours in a seamstress shop.

That being said, James’ project made me think back to one of the highlight’s from the Ampersand conference I attended on Friday: the screening of Linotype the Film and what it said about the visible – or audible – aspects of the making process.

The film traced the linotype machine ‘s journey from its invention to its fate on the scrapheap, as told by its “operators”, past and present. Two things struck me during the screening. Firstly, the operators recalled working on the linotype with a fond respect born not only from a lengthy relationship with the machine, but also from the bodily dangers it posed and its intimidating learning curve. For anyone interested in usability this is a bizarre revelation. We no longer form such deep bonds with our making machines. Secondly, the distinct, visceral, mechanical racket of a machine built by a clockmaker made itself known almost from the film’s opening credits. Each of its sounds acted as a direct representation of some aspect of the line casting process. At one point during their story, the linotypists began to wax poetic about the “brass against brass” music of the “linotype symphony”, as if it had been the sweetest, most reassuring melody. It fine tuned them to the machine’s inner workings. It made them feel like an extension of it.

Linotype machine
Image source: Flickr

Perhaps they, too, were romanticising a dreary and dangerous toil. But after last week, I find the silence of my modern “making” gadgets deafening. I want them to sing to me of my efforts.

A designer meets open data

A few of us spent the Friday before last at the Open Data Cities conference, organised by local hero Greg Hadfield. The conference was ostensibly aimed at developers and public servants trying to liberate and transmute data into innovative services for the modern city – for me, however, the day proved filled with ideas for designers who like a challenge. I wish there’d been more of us in the audience.

People don’t think about the concept of “data” – especially not about owning it, generating it or gaining access to it through public services. People think about solving problems, getting things done and meeting their basic and higher needs. Socially engaged UX types who understand this are doing an amazing job of bridging the gap between “your data” and “your stuff” – see, for example, Gov.uk and mySociety.org. We need more of them.

Below are a few highlights from my favourite talks of the day:

Tom Steinberg – mySociety.org
If you’re a good citizen, you’ve probably used one of mySociety.org’s online tools (such as FixMyStreet.org) and know how beautifully clear and intuitive they are. The herculean, near-criminal efforts of people like Tom to source and administer the data stores which underlie them is, as far as the end user is concerned, nowhere to be seen.

The first speaker of the day to wave the flag for user experience, Tom argued the value of open data can only become apparent to sceptics and detractors through tools that meet genuine needs. Case in point, Tom cited data.gov, the shining jewel in Barack Obama’s open government policy. Although far bigger than UK’s own government data portal, data.gov doesn’t begin to match its traffic figures – primarily because the vast data stores it offers have little to do with information people actually want. Tom’s key point: no city can be considered open if it doesn’t readily respond for real people’s requests for information.

Bill Thompson – BBC
Meet one of the great heroes of our age: Bill Thompson, who is leading the efforts to digitise the BBC archives and open them up to you to do with as we please. Bill’s recap of some of his team’s R&D projects sent my geek posse into giddy heights of excitement and we’ve now organised a trip to see the man himself at the BBC archives in June. There are still a few places left – get in touch if you’re interested in joining in.

Emer Coleman – Director of Digital Engagement, Government Digital Service
With open data often perceived as a “hyper-democratic” threat, Emer called for digital disruptors to grab at data stores as they become available and prove the value of shared information by building services that provide for the greater good. Emer’s talk reminded me of the best bit of advice anyone’s ever given me: “Don’t wait for someone’s permission to do something great”.

Anyway, fantastic day. There was also talk of transparency grenades, air quality eggs and Charles II’s Twitter feed.

A snippet of my craptastic sketchnotes below. A gentle reminder to myself that I desperately need to improve my scribbling skills.
Open data cities notes

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