The circle as the king of flat design

Unlock screen in iOS 7.

Flat design, a major trend in user interfaces, basically consists of discarding any visual excess of the interface components, either widgets or icons. We may take it as a sort of going back to the swiss graphic style from last century applied to the case of user interfaces. Flat design utilizes lines and shapes as visual units, diminishes the use of texture and shadows, and employs color to cue. Moreover, shapes change form and color through time in order to indicate the current state of the system. One interesting aspect that we can notice about this type of interface is the recurrent use of circular forms. When circles and circumferences—either complete or fragmented—are employed to compose interface widgets, they seem to express time effectively without the necessity of more visual information.

Wordpress circular indicator of progress on saving changes.
WordPress circular indicator of progress on saving changes.

For instance, to indicate the progress of saving changes, WordPress incorporates a circular indicator composed of two circles. The big one is filled with a gray color, whereas the small one is filled with the same color as the background—a lighter gray. Rotating in a clockwise fashion, the small circle indicates that saving is still ongoing.

Whatsapp widget that shows the progress when a video is sent.
Whatsapp widget – 1st snapshot.
Whatsapp widget that shows the progress when a video is sent.
Whatsapp widget – 2nd snapshot.
Whatsapp widget that shows the progress when a video is sent.
Whatsapp widget – 3d snapshot
Whatsapp widget showing a video has been sent.
Whatsapp widget – final stage.

Whatsapp, the instant messaging app, employs a circular widget to indicate the delivery status of a video. This widget is composed of a circle with a shape within. At the beginning the circle is presented with a transparent dark gray that changes to a transparent white once the video is delivered. In the meanwhile, the line that circumscribes the circle is displayed progressively to indicate the current status. In turn, the inner shape indicates the available action. First, it has the form of a square to indicate the capability of interrupting the process. Once the video is delivered, it transforms into a triangle, the universal icon for play. An interesting feature regarding this widget is the double communicative function achieved with its design. On one hand, it shows the progress of delivering the video. On the other, it communicates its affordance as a button.

Google voice circular widget that displays the intensity of the person speaking.
Google hangout widget – snapshot 1.
Google voice circular widget that displays the intensity of the person speaking.
Google hangout widget – snapshot 2

When there’s no video input in a Google hangout, as occurs when it’s used to make phone calls, the interface displays a big circle with the phone number, the duration of the current call, and the cost per minute. Below, two other circles are collocated—as buttons—to dial a number or hang up, respectively. When a person on the other end speaks, the big circle modifies the thickness of its circumference in a wavy fashion according to the intensity of the voice. By means of this visual cue, the user sees when the other person speaks and the intensity of the voice.

Rewind widget for Paper app.
Rewind widget for Paper app.

The sketching app for iPad named Paper introduces a undo functionality consisting of collocating two fingers over the screen and rotating them in a counter clockwise manner. They call it rewind. Before the user starts rewinding her actions, the widget displays a full circle in dark gray. As the user rotates her fingers, the filling decreases counter clockwise. There are two interesting aspects regarding this widget. First, the way the undo function is interpreted by gestures—since we are accustomed either to employ a menu or to press the keys CTRL + Z. The second aspect is that a user can perceive the amount of work she has put on the sketch so far. That is, the circle’s filling decreases in proportion to the number of actions carried out by the user.

Unlock screen in iOS 7.
Unlock screen in iOS 7.

In addition to the functional aspects observed above, we can notice several examples where the circle is more related with aesthetic value. It’s employed to compose buttons, to indicate scales, or even to clip images—as in some profile pictures. There’s no functional value added in these cases. The circle takes the place of rectangular shapes employed in the past.

Notwithstanding, this approach implies a compromise regarding the communicative aspect of the interface. For instance, in iOS 7, the increasing bars originally employed in the widget to display the strength of the signal have been substituted by row of circles. By comparing the differences of size among the original bars, the user could (visually) read the widget in terms of physical magnitude. The different sizes contributed to the metaphorical construction in the user’s mind. By observing the smallest bar, the user could depict the weak presence of waves in the air. Conversely in the case of the biggest bar, the user may depict the environment flooded of invisible waves. This is not the case of the row. The circles are not associated to any physical magnitude—they’re the same diameter. The user only evaluates the strength of signal according to the number of filled circles. Thus, the circles are perceived as units of a scale; a part of a whole. Consequently, the user faces a more abstract understanding of the concept of the strength of the signal. That’s the core of flat design in user interfaces: increasing the level of abstraction and breaking with the strong metaphorical association with the real world. 

Circle-based widgets produce effective results because they encapsulate affordance and time. When the circle is employed as a unit of composition, its basic quality to represent a whole allows the user not only to comprehend the current status of the system, but also to infer future outcomes. For instance, a whatsapp user will know that something went wrong when sending a video if the circumference never completes. On the other hand, a circle also corresponds to a reliable bi-dimensional mapping of any spheroid objects we’ve been interacting with since we were born (e.g. knobs). Because of the latter, a user may easily know how to interact with circle-based widgets in an interface. Although the circle-based widget cannot escape from its metaphorical nature, it certainly entails a more abstract visual representation; perhaps, more easy to dissociate from its origins in the real world.

The aforementioned matters regarding the effectiveness of the circle in flat design correspond to a situation of shaping and composing a visual/multimedia usable message, in other words, of information design. Moreover, the ongoing consolidation of ubiquitous computing, gesture-operated interfaces, and the forthcoming incursion of flexible displays represent a challenge for information designers. Although the visual principles and design principles will practically remain the same, the signifiers attributed to interacting with technology will depend on the context of use. Different types and levels of literacy, sociocultural and socioeconomic factors, the development of technology, among other circumstances, will foster the reinterpretation of ways to visually code information. Since proper information design underpins a pleasant user experience, taking care of visual coding is a matter that goes beyond aesthetics or fashion. Information design as shaping the content is not enough. Information design participates in shaping the context as well.

We cannot escape from the metaphor

Omar Sosa Tzec sketchnotes - Notes from one of my classes

My personal taste for taking notes is based on a regular sketchbook, a needle point gel pen, and a brush tip marker for shading. Since I’ve seen one of my colleagues using his iPad for taking notes, I’ve wondered how convenient is carrying your information in a single artifact, and how natural the sensation is.

Omar Sosa Tzec sketchnotes - Notes from one of my classes
Example of notes I’ve taken in one of my classes

I discovered that paper is the app for creating sketchbooks à la moleskine in the iPad. Further, I saw that pencil, a stylus to work with this app, was released. It reminded me some of the thick sketching pencils I’ve had, in fact. This is the promotional video of both working together:

I should remark that I have no intention of making any type of advertisement in this post. However, since the app is called paper and the stylus pencil, I couldn’t avoid having some quick thoughts in relation with design and HCI:

  • The metaphor is a great way of naming/advertising a product. Calling an app paper and a piece of technology pencil gives you pretty much idea what to expect and how to interact with.
  • Since technology is constantly evolving, it’s more easy to refer to concepts we have already implanted in our minds. Metaphors operate as smooth means for coming up with innovative designs.
  • However, translating something that we already have/use into a new technological form is easier if the metaphor doesn’t loose meaning in the translation. I think this is the case of paper and pencil.
  • Metaphor-oriented design for HCI involves the conjunction of other designs (or other design thinkings). For instance, designing pencil involves thinking as an industrial designer (in terms of the materials and ergonomics), and paper involves thinking as a graphic designer (in terms of the different visual signs within the interface).
  • Metaphor-oriented design for HCI allows to bring new styles of interaction, and hence more metonymies. For instance, paper has an interesting undo feature: moving (two) fingers in a counter clockwise fashion to rewind within the current sketch.

Since it may look that current HCI designs are more related with creating and enhancing people’s everyday, rather than accomplishing systematic tasks, I see complicated to get rid of metaphors and metonymies for a while. They represent a bridge between what we perceive as technological and not technological. Then, I wonder how current metaphors in combination with new styles of interaction will settle the basis for future metaphors/metonymies of that technology we haven’t designed yet.

 

Design and agency

I’ve heard once that a good design is a transparent design. In HCI, I’ve also heard that a good design is one that uses computer imagination. In our eagerness for bringing a friendly interactive design to users, we seek for features that make user’s life easier. Sometimes we conceptualize designs capable of collecting and processing data from the user, and hence inferring some possible actions. Thus, we attempt to give our designs some sort of agency.

The other day I had the intention of publishing in Facebook a snapshot of a Skype conversation with a colleague and friend. Also, I was planning to tag him on the picture. Of course, the two of us were aware about disclosure matters in relation to Facebook. Surprisingly, Facebook recognized and tagged my friend’s face automatically. What if I wasn’t considering to tag my friend? Was Facebook rude in this sense?

Facebook auto-tag feature. Do we have any control on how our image is used?
Facebook automatic tagging for pictures.

As we can observer as Facebook users, it also decides what to show and what to advertise in our news feeds. The Facebook algorithms are supposed to be smart enough for providing us a pleasant user experience. For informing us about the people we could care most, regardless of physical distance and/or time zone. However, I have the impression that sometimes my  news feed looks stuck and not fresh. Particularly, in the advertising part.

I might assume this situation is generated in part because we don’t feed Facebook enough. In my case, I should confess that every time I’ve seen a request for updating my profile data, I’ve skipped most of it. I feel that having a quick access to information has converted me into a lazy user. A passive one. It’s not that I believe that Facebook should decide for me, but I think I already do that. Nonetheless, I’m aware that not feeding Facebook properly will lead to a poor information output on my news feed.

Sometimes I would like to be more than a filler of data-oriented placeholders for Facebook. Sometimes I would like to refresh my news feed based on other qualitative aspects–for instance, my mood. But then again, we return to the data-oriented approach for setting the user experience. However, I still claim that considering a more person-qualitative-awareness approach for feeding this type of systems will contribute on breaking this passiveness and bringing back a sense of agency to their users.

 

Art vs. Design. Should we stop asking that?

The Academy of Art University in San Francisco received to John Kolko and Donald Norman –two of the most known theorists in the field of [Interaction] Design. The first question they were asked was to point out the key differences between art and design. I really do believe that making this question in this context is more than reasonable, particularly for the new students. In fact, it’s not hard to notice that trying to answer this question is a pivot in many basic discussions around design. Nevertheless, I believe this question loses its validity eventually. At both levels, research and practice.

Affinity Diagram. Photography by Sam Xia.  http://mypointofview.info/
Affinity diagram.
Photography by Sam Xia.
http://mypointofview.info/

If we consider the case of scholarly research, we can notice that as we go forward in the study of design, the latter becomes into an abstract concept, where art is just a small piece within all the lenses with which design can be studied. I’m not talking about diminishing the value of design whatsoever, but other fields like psychology, philosophy, anthropology, or communication studies can also provide foundations, tools, and methods applicable to the discipline. By being involved with scholarly research, I’ve been witness of my colleagues’ attempts to amalgamate knowledge from other fields with the field of Human-Computer Interaction Design in order to reinforce both our understanding and discussion about design in a broad sense. As Paul Rand said, “design is everywhere.” It’s a human activity, and that’s why we can find it in every [academic] field, in one way or another. Humans cannot scape from design. We design just in the moment we intentionally decide to transform reality. Thus, any design activity would occur in fields like mathematics, chemistry, physics, business, and others that we would not relate to design. The interesting game here is to discover and analyze what design is for these disciplines, and how their approaches to design can affect what we could call “designerly disciplines” like architecture, industrial design, interaction design, and so on.

On another hand, from the research that my colleagues and I conduct at Indiana University about [interaction] design practice, I’ve noticed that design professionals clearly stop paying attention about the relation of art and practice. This is somehow obvious. In the [interaction design] practice, they have to pay attention on how to success in every project,  and this discussion (about design and art) is apparently  left aside. What my colleagues and I have noticed is that practitioners actually care about knowledge that can be applicable to their everyday practice –somehow similar to what scholars do. This doesn’t mean a rupture in the relation with art. But it’s true that practitioners want to employ [design-related] knowledge that makes them more competitive.

Indiana University HCI/d students testing a prototype.  Photography by Sam Xia.  http://mypointofview.info/
Indiana University HCI/d students testing a prototype.
Photography by Sam Xia.
http://mypointofview.info/

So, we should stop discussing about the relation or differences of art and design? Obviously, the answer is no. However, we should recognize that design is more than answering this question. Since the moment we wake up, we face ourselves with designed products, designed services, designed spaces, designed information, and other designed products. Hence, design becomes and involves more than aspects of art. Design needs to consolidate as a discipline that [effectively] gathers knowledge from diverse disciplines, but that stands by itself –as it happens with other disciplines, Computer Science for instance. In this sense, [design] knowledge should be digestible so practitioners can apply or adapt it in their work contexts, in addition to straightforward ways of communicating it to non design practitioners.

I think no one is closed to design. It’s obvious that we’re exposed to a design explosion nowadays. But it’s in the moments when design is transparent (in the everyday) that design is not viewed as art but as design itself. It’s when design is recognized as it is, as another human discipline with its own knowledge set, values, tools, and methods. Education becomes critical for this mind shift. Although design is commonly taught in art schools (or related with art somehow), we should recognize that a current design discourse is quite complex –it should gather and synthesize all these efforts to expand and compact
[design-related] knowledge from scholars and practitioners respectively, and it also should find a way to permeate the mainstream easily, with the intention of reaching out the non designers. This task is not easy whatsoever. However, early stages in design pedagogy –wherever it’s carried out, either named art/design school or not– should transmit this broader perspective of design, so the students’ mindset will evolve and mature with this ideas.

 

 

Drawing, Memory, and Reflection

Drawing is a skill associated with design, and other creative disciplines. I consider this should not be the exception for Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Design. Drawing is a way for synthesizing and engaging into reflection. Crucial skills for an Interaction Designer or User Experience Designer.

Wireframe and Ideation
Doodle made in a lecture about ideation and ellaboration of wireframes in the Interaction Design Practice course at the HCI Design program of Indiana University

The basis of a systems-oriented thinking is analysis. Although when a strong skill for analysis is needed for designing technology-driven solutions, amalgamating all the information [chunks] in order to create a new and feasible design is complex task. Hence, synthesis plays a crucial role in HCI Design. However, not everything is about synthesizing. Abductive reasoning is in essential design thinking. In fact, the three of them –analysis, synthesis, and abduction– practically occur in a non-linear almos-simultaneous fashion during the design process.

From my experience as a designer and teacher, drawing is a powerful tool for supporting memory and reflection. Talking about the relation of drawing and memory is quite straightforward. Drawing allow us to materialize our thoughts and archive them for future references and inspection. That’s why I’ve decided to focus on drawing again. I realize my memory is kind of bad, and this flaw needs to be beaten by the use of some artifact that connects me back with previous thoughts. I found drawing as a pleasant way for creating this artifact. Of course, I don’t deny the power of writing whatsoever. That’s the reason of this blog’s existence in first place. That implies another post, though.

Bits of life
Cover of my personal journal of micro-drawings and written notes for not forgetting things from my experiences I want to reflect upon in the future.

Drawing is also a tool for reflection. Particularly in Schön’s terms –Reflection-in-action and Reflection-on-action. From my perspective, drawing is one way of pushing through all the complexity –expression said by my advisor, Marty Siegel. While drawing, analysis, synthesis, and abduction happen. It is inevitable to reflect in the actual drawing decisions –Reflection-in-action. However, from my perspective, the magic occurs when reflecting upon past experiences, concepts, ideas, or even knowledge during the act of drawing. In this sense, composing becomes more complex than determining which components to draw, their representation, their position, and their relevance. Synthesis and abduction combine during the overall process. They contribute on the creation of meaning around a drawing.

Now that I’m conducting research on Interaction Design practice, and being involved with a HCI Design graduate program, I’ve decided to keep drawing. Of course, it’s also a hobby I really enjoy. Though, it’s a mental and physical activity that connects and disconnects myself from the realm of Design and Human-Computer Interaction.

What I want to remark is that drawing doesn’t require drawing skills. From this perspective where one gets connected and disconnected from the [design] world, it’s more relevant to keep going on drawing. The importance is in externalizing ideas that make sense when you see them time later. I believe it’s a bottom-up process every time. The reflection involved, and the types of reasoning, really will influence your future drawings. That’s why…

Keep calm and carry on drawing.