Augmenting humans with social media

Figure borrowed from http://www.cs.washington.edu
My first job back in the early 90’s was as a systems analyst. I was really excited about automating boring bits of peoples’ tasks so that they could get creative by accessing the extra brainpower of a computer in some wonderful human-computer collaboration.

Inspired by Doug Lenat’s AM (Automated Mathematician), where the computer was discovering mathematical proofs, I wanted to find a way to create some sort of integrated system with the computer discovering things and the human adding information to represent their feel for a given situation.

Of course, in the Accounts Department where I was ‘helping’ accountants, the reality was very different. Computers weren’t the powerful, easy to use machines they are today. So, by introducing technology to various user groups, I was actually telling people to do their jobs differently. I wasn’t making the world a better place, I was hampering everyone with computers. And elsewhere in the company I worked, computers were replacing people altogether. No wonder, computers were not popular. How times have changed.

For me, human-computer interaction was and still remains Gestaltian: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, by this I mean, that the collaboration of a human and a computer should be more than a human typing numbers into a computer and then waiting for the solution.

When I looked up Gestalt Theory, I learnt that Kurt Koffka’s original phrase was The whole is other than the sum of the parts, which works just as well. And did, when I was captivated by AI research, in particular constraint theory.

I loved the idea that if you had a space of solutions, you could explore it computationally by changing variables which represented specific design objectives such as the limit of the cost of the project, and then create other and varying solutions.

But, how often do we need something other and varying? The majority of users I have worked with love their jobs and have specific end goals for which they use computers.

When I was working alongside engineers my job was to interpret the massive data sets generated by fibre optic sensors on the bridges they monitored. I created GUIs which employed the terminology and symbolic language engineers are trained to use. The GUIs sat onto top of well-known models to interpret data. And to reflect this specific nature of engineer-computer interaction, I actually called it a sub-set of human-computer interaction. The engineers were doing something newish – monitoring bridges- but they were using the way they were trained because of the laws and health and safety when looking after the infrastructure society depends upon.

The engineers would only use something they could trust.

And that got me thinking about the whole creativity computational collaboration. Do we really need super extra powerful computers to have a creative collaboration? Or do we just need something trustworthy?

When I began this blog post – a long time ago – I had a first sentence which said: How to improve the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being.

Now, I can barely remember what I was going to say. But googling the phrase produces millions of articles and Doug Engelbart, who was a pioneer in computing. He invented the mouse and was very much into harnessing computational power to help humans and augment their capacities. This side steps the issue of trust, because ultimately the augmented human would decide whether the collaboration of computer and human produced the right solution. And humans normally trust themselves.

Steve Mann has been augmenting his capacity for over 20 years with wearables which overlay his world view with lots of information taken from the Internet. Stelarc augmented his reality by having an ear surgically attached to his arm so that he could hear random people’s conversations again via the Internet.

Their solutions don’t involve vast computational power and they are not really solving anything. They are looking differently at augmenting humans. But both use two things:

  1. Connectivity
  2. Other people

And this is what social media does, but in a quick and easy way. Via social media, it is so easy to access a) random conversation like Sterlac, or b) information about a new town you are in like Steve Mann.

But it is not just information we want, which was what clever computers and AI realised. We want intelligence and the expertise of someone else, who is constantly updating and refreshing their world view.

Social media gives us that in a way a clever computer cannot – yet!.

This morning alone, I tapped into three experts to help me do yoga, meditate and feel more at peace:

Those experiences augmented and enriched my life and left me more peaceful and happy. I could not have done without the help of those experts or social media unless I took time off and went off to find these experts.

So, it seems that social media is one amazing way of augmenting humans. And when I think of me back in the accounts department evangelising about how computers could transform our lives, I had no idea how right I was, just not at all in the way I imagined.

We live in amazing times.

Ambivalent web design

websketch

Lately, it seems that I have come full-circle and am designing websites for small organisations which is, in part, how I began thinking about HCI, nearly 20 years ago. So, with all that experience, I am astonished to find that I have been making the same mistakes I used to make way back when. This leads to what I call ambivalent web design.

Ambivalent web design is when you are excited about creating a cool website to showcase your clients’ products and services as well as your skills as a designer. However, because you are unfocused, you keep changing your mind and then because it’s not looking as good as it could, you promise to deliver more to get it up to resemble the beautiful thing you now have in your mind. This can lead to you feeling annoyed at yourself and then resentful because the whole project is taking longer than it should for less money than the effort you are putting in.

In order to avoid ambivalent web design it is important to remember the following:

Don’t let casual interactions influence your work

You may have picked up the contract incidentally. Perhaps, it began with a conversation on the school playground, or you got a vague email from someone, but that doesn’t mean that you should behave in a casual, vague manner. Be professional. Organise yourself a plan of action and set clear milestones.

If you are not ready, say so. Explain to your potential client that right now is not a good time, and begin at a later date. Give the client a list of everything you might need, and get them to pick out sites they like so that you both have a clear idea of what you are aiming for during the design process.

Be realistic about your clients’ input

In general, clients who want you to design a website are not interested in website design. They don’t care about WordPress, nor have they desire to tinker with colour schemes, graphics, html and css. That is your job. If they wanted to spend time tinkering then they would go to WordPress.org download the software and do it themselves.

Consequently, it is important to be realistic about what they will do to maintain the solution that you give them, once you have been through the design process together.
Some questions that you need to discuss with the client:

  • Who will maintain the site?
  • Will they be able to do the necessary updates?
  • Will they be able to add to the website?

Alternatively,

  • Will the website be static until the next time it gets an overhaul?

Know your limits

With a content management system or blogging tool, such as WordPress, all things are possible. And that is great. However, things take time, especially if you need to go away and learn new stuff in order to fulfill your clients’ desires.

It is ok to say that you don’t know how to do something, and that it will just take more time and money to find the right solution. Bear in mind though, this is a tricky route, and potentially one way to resentment and ambivalence. So, you have a choice:

      Don’t attempt to do the extras.

Or

      Deliver a first solution (Stage One). Do some research and then calculate how much time and money it will take to do the extras. Then go ahead (Stage Two).

Have a price structure

You may have promised mates-rates, but you still need to calculate exactly how long it will take you to deliver what you have promised. One way of doing this is to have a price/time structure which you can show to clients so that together you have a focused way of discussing the work to be done.

You can structure your pricing according to time e.g, £X per day, or by output, e.g., six pages= 6 x £Z. And so on: personalised graphics will be £X, and some stock photos discounted down to £Y. A bit of social media will cost this, a little seo will cost that. In this way, the client can see exactly what they are spending their money on.

Have fun

Creating websites is a great way to spend your days, but, if you find yourself gritting your teeth during every project and feeling ambivalent, then perhaps it’s time to dust off your guitar and get back to busking.

Social media security: Sharing is caring?

social media pic

Recently, YouTube prankster Jack Vale searched the closest posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to his current location and introduced himself to the people behind them.

The resulting video is really interesting. Most of the people were amazed that a random stranger knew so much about them and one man even felt threatened enough to say he would call the police. Yet, all of the information Vale had ‘on’ this man had been put into the public domain by the man himself.

The dicotomy of people wanting to keep their personal life personal whilst posting it all online shows that we are still on a learning curve when it comes to sharing via social media.

In the past users may have been posting and inadvertently geotagging their location, but as Wikipedia says, enough celebrities have been mobbed at a specific location after posting online and, ebay sellers have had stuff nicked whilst on holiday, to make even the most security unconscious user turn off the location tagging on their smartphones.

When I lectured IT Security, I would use Jose J Gonzalez’s example of teenagers not practising safe sex as analogy for users compromising system security. Everyone wants to practice safe interaction but when the moment arrives, circumstances, time pressures, and the thought that others are getting on down without worrying too much about the consequences, causes safe practice deviation.

The teenage sex comparison was useful when we were worried about users inadvertently breaching security systems. Nowadays the worry is more about users themselves becoming the target of a security breach. What is a useful analogy for that?

I have given many a lecture saying don’t share your address, your phone number, date of birth, place of birth, mother’s maiden name, favourite pet, first job, etc., all things that are asked by systems and are used to create user accounts online. This information is often used to hack accounts and in a worst case scenario, identity theft. But today, in the brave new world of social media this advice seems quite quaint. A quick Google+ about and how much of this info is revealed?

The problem with social media is that we are sharing and caring with our friends who know all this information already, so why not have it online? Facebook is always telling me that I won’t forget another birthday if I use the relevant app and let others know when I was born too. Great! It only gets a little weird when complete strangers come up to you in the street and wish you ‘Happy Birthday’.

We are human, we want to be heard, we want to bear witness, we want to share. I know. When my daughter was born with kidney failure and it was super difficult for a very long time, I kept a blog to explain things to friends and family, and to myself. One day she might not thank me for the overshare. But hopefully, she will acknowledge that I stopped well before I typed: ‘Today, J got her first bra.’
And also, before each post, I thought carefully about an older girl reading her history online. I vetoed some media coverage of her which to me was insensitive. My imagined perception of her comfort with what was shared was more important to me that day than the help someone might have gotten from reading that article about her. Who knows though? As someone growing up in a social media world perhaps she won’t feel about privacy in the same way I do. I have blogged before that information is power but it only becomes powerful when you wield it. And you might ask why would anyone? And how could they use certain information? If people know things about you, so what?

When I had breast cancer, a few of my friends said: ‘Oh Ruth, why don’t you keep a blog about breast cancer?’. But, I didn’t want to share. I didn’t want anyone thinking about my breasts. I didn’t even want to think about my breasts. Even now typing ‘my breasts’ makes me blush (my breasts, my breasts, my breasts). But at the same time, reading other peoples’ blogs on breast cancer helped me in so many ways. Their sharing was caring. Some of those people were so candid and funny, they brightened my dark days. Did they overshare? I don’t think so, they shared what I wasn’t willing to, but that wasn’t oversharing, to me that was bravery.

The boundaries online are as fuzzy as they are in real life, except, as I have blogged before, in real life we know exactly who our audience is, and online it is hard to know to whom we speak and even more difficult, is being conscious of what exactly we are putting out there, if we are not at least a littlebit tech savvy.

The psychological acceptability that has traditionally accompanied system design, especially in IT security, which involves good usability, feedback, system transparency, and a sense that users are responsible for what they do, seems to be intentionally blurred on social media.

In an article on www.national.ae from 2010 Mark Zuckerberg is described as ‘Dr Evil’ for encouraging the thinking that privacy is an old fashioned concept. It mentions too that the Facebook privacy settings change all the time so that users have a hard time keeping information private. In contrast, Zuckerberg’s quotes on thoughtcatalog.com, make him sound completely naive and just idiotically ignorant of the need for user safety and security.

Knowing ourselves what to keep private can be a hard call and can change from day to day. However, not empowering the user to take personal responsibility for feeling safe and secure (the base level in the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) is irresponsible. Social media moguls have a duty to make this really easy for everyone so that when a user presses that post button, they know what they have posted and who is reading it.

Until that happens, Jack Vale has definitely got me thinking about what I share on Facebook, and I have changed a few settings so that I feel more comfortable.

Sharing is caring, definitely. But, in the heat of the moment, a deep breath and a little bit of safety compliance never did anyone any harm.

Web design (0): The science of communication

Orlando-Web-Design

A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.- Tim Berners-Lee

[ 1) story, 2) pictures,  3) users, 4) content, 5) structure, 6) social media, 7) evaluation]

Today, we have the technology to design websites that do justice to Berners-Lee’s vision without getting bogged down in code and pixels. Web design is communication and there is a science to communicating well. (Which is not the same as science communication, that’s another blog altogether.)

Communication: What’s the story?

At heart, humans are storytellers and a website is a place to shape a narrative, tell a story, and create an experience. Fictional journalism and creative non-fiction exist because we have long recognised the power of a story to move us and influence our behaviour. Charles Dickens would read out parts of his novels to the wealthy as entertainment whilst raising money for Gt Ormond St Hospital for Sick Children.

But, Napoleon Bonaparte was right when he said a picture is worth a thousand words.
The Illustrated London News was created in 1842 and had 60,000 subscribers in that year alone, after someone realised that newspapers sold more copies when they had pictures in them, especially ones which showed a face or place.

Moreover when we can change our focus and present data visually or, we rearrange museum artefacts according to an alternative plan, we create new insight. Investigating the patterns of our world can further our understanding of anything we choose to focus on.

Hitler might not have invaded Russia if he had taken a close look at the Minard Map showing how Napoleon’s invasion went badly wrong. Nowadays, Minard would have produced a computer simulation, or BBC drama to convince Hitler that he was not invincible.

User experience: Finding the tribe

Once we have a story to tell. We have to find the right audience. It is no good telling a medical tale of blood and gore to an audience who wants to know when the next My Little Pony conference takes place. The golden rule of user-centred design for websites is: Know your user.

One way is to create case studies of users, and user profiles, so that when we design our My Little Pony community website we know that Lucia, a 25-year-old male who works as an electrician and lives in a duplex in Pasadena is typical of our audience. Thinking of Lucia makes the design more specific and relevant to the intended user group.

We can also learn about our users, the main factor in our design process, through the field of cognitive science. We need to understand user motivation. What makes a user happy? We need to manage user perceptions and responses to fulfill user desires. We need them to join in and love what we do.

Another way is to just ask the user, with focus groups, and questionnaires, which is less exciting but just as useful. Whilst we are there we could even give them a card sort, so that they can tell us where they expect to find information and facilitate our content strategy.

Content strategy = Digital publishing + information architecture + editorial process

Content strategy has a Gestalt feel to it, like website design itself, which leads to the sum above becoming more than its parts. Information architecture may say where content lives. Content strategy says when content lives, and editorial process is more than just spell checking.

Questions to ask:

  • Does the website need to have great usability which is measured by being: effective and efficient; easy to learn and remember; useful and safe?
  • Can a user ask and know: Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?
  • Is the content better presented by the no-function in structure principle? (Pinterest anyone?)
  • How do we guide users to our key themes, messages, and recommended topics?
  • Do we wish to grow our audience?
  • What type of search engine optimization is best for attracting visitors?
  • Do we wish to analyse the market online to check we are reaching our segment?
  • Which content-management system is best for us?
  • Are we web standards compliant?
  • Is the content working hard enough for our users?

These questions can be used to analyse content gaps and plug them so that the user is getting what he or she needs and feed that back into beautiful content, before running headlong into our social media campaign.

Social media: Sharing and caring

During Oprah Winfrey’s 25-year TV series, she created a community. Her message was: You are not alone. Oprah knows that we all want to feel that we matter. We want to be included a community and to be heard in conversation. We want to feel connected, so that we can be open and participate in life with others.

At its best, social media offers this, but all those Instagram selfies and tweets about what you had for breakfast can make even the nosiest among us ask: What is the point of twitter?

Oprah and her network OWN reach out to its audience via social media and networking and give us all a masterclass in how these tools should be used.

Evaluation: Is it working?

How do you know your web site is working? The cultural probe of course. This is when you give your user a way to give feedback whilst going about his or her daily business, in the form of a diary, in order to capture user context. Other ways of evaluation include the usability laboratory with questionnaires and exercises, or click capture software or business style web analytics.

Each method has its own pros and cons, but is ultimately useful.

Humans are fascinating creatures and will always find new and interesting ways of using whatever you create either by necessity or by not understanding what the designer intended in the first place. This is known as serendipitous design which in itself is another exciting field which needs to be communicated – scientifically, of course.

[Part 1]

Emerging Technologies: What’s the story?

pic borrowed from maltatimes.com

Deepak Chopra defines social media as the extension of our brains. He believes that we are all creating and contributing to the collective unconsciousness, or global brain, every time we Tweet, Facebook, and share online.

It is an exciting thought and a digital extension of the sentiment expressed by personal development author Jim Rohn when he said: You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

With social media, it is so easy to pick five inspirational voices with which to create new neural pathways in your own brain. With our portable devices, these people can be with you wherever you go, ready with a wise word anytime you want to think something different. And you can be the inspirational voice in someone else’s brain.

And yet! Sunday, was International Friendship day. Some twitter users marked the occasion by having a day of #twittersilence. The tag and silence was used as a protest against the online abuse certain high-profile women have been subjected to on twitter. Other users felt that by having 24 hours silence, the trolls would win, so they carried on tweeting using #shoutingback or #inspiringwomen tags.

Online abuse and web-based hate crime is the dark side of social media and indeed, of humanity. In the Guardian, Police Chief Andy Trotter called on social media companies to crack down on crimes committed on their platforms, saying they have the ingenuity to come up with solutions.

Trotter’s solution is a good one. Social media platforms could automatically police online hatred. It is common enough in the workplace to bounce back email when it contains unacceptable words. Couldn’t social media do the same and train users to be kinder to each other?

After all, uses who engage in this sort of behaviour are breaking the law. Do users need to be educated about the legalities of using social media? Attacks on individuals such as politicians and celebrities have long been common, even applauded in traditional broadcast media, so the line between ‘righteous’ commentary and plain old abuse has been blurry for a while.

In June, the Daily Mail published an article claiming that Hilaria Baldwin was tweeting during James Gandolfini’s funeral. The Guardian has a full outline of the events here.

The first question when looking at this ‘news’ item has to be: What’s the story? Is it news to report someone’s tweets with an intent to criticise? Wasn’t there enough news that day already? The funeral of a great actor, the continuing crisis in Syria, the violence in Egypt.

With everyone now having the tools to delivers ‘news’ and provide commentary, a lot of it doesn’t go through the standard filters of veracity, ethics, and media law that used to happen when newspapers and trained journalists did all the publishing. Even before the change in the broadcast landscape there was a thirst for celebrity news, which was gradually changing from admiration to criticism.

Is this a good use of our global brain? Chopra believes that we should form a community of humanity so that we can use social media as a tool to spread love, wisdom, and positive transformation rather than hatred and abuse. It is easy to criticise but hard to provide solutions.

We are all capable of wielding great power for good and for bad with the social media tools we have at hand. As Peter Parker‘s Uncle Ben said, mangling up a bit of Voltaire as Peter Parker got used to his spidey-powers:

With great power comes great responsibility.

We must teach ourselves to take responsibility for our actions and our words and think carefully about the effect they have on other people. If we created an environment where everyone felt valued and heard, perhaps the need to attack others online or in print would diminish. And in that space who knows what we could achieve?