Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Idea #16: Tactile Vision

Ever since Microsoft announced their revolutionary Kinect system a few months back, every geek and hacker has been tripping over themselves for a the slick little 3D interface. The excitement was compounded when the user community immediately hacked into it upon arrival in the market. If you haven't had the chance to check it out yet, it's incredible. Using the interface is an intuitive, fun, and almost surreal experience, but what's really shocking is the fact they're doing this with reasonably common technologies in a lightweight package for an accessible price. The performance isn't perfect (like Oblong's $500k G-Speak system), but it's close enough, especially when you consider the price tag and lightweight hardware. Add the wave of user innovations from the hacking community and it's like a lesson in technology evolution in real time. Time will tell how quickly and effectively these interfaces evolve beyond the gaming world, but I'm sure it will happen.

So if 3D interfaces are going to integrate into the technology landscape, where does it happen first? Our kitchen appliances? Our entertainment systems? Our cars? Maybe all of the above, but I don't think that's an interesting enough challenge as a design experiment. How can 3D interfaces bring real value to people? How can they solve real problems for regular people without the means for accessing the latest technoloies. The rest of the entry to going to walk through a simple ideation experiment.

First, we're going to combine 3D interfaces with another technology from the gaming world: haptic sensors. These sensors allow users to experience haptic feedback when a virtual object has been collided with, giving the user a more tangible impact experience. So who needs a better sense of touch of a virtual object? Perhaps no one, but what if you made one simple word change, swapping out "virtual" for "nearby". Determining who has a need for a tactile feeling of a nearby object and you have a whole range of people.

For starters, over 300 million people worldwide suffer from visual impairment, many using physical canes to feel around in their environment. I would need to research this market further to truly understand their needs, but I'm curious if they could benefit from a concept of an "invisible cane" in ways that could go beyond the current tools. It could be a wearable device, such as a glove, vest, or belt that could receive progressive haptic feedback of nearby objects. The 3D interface system would essentially be built in to the glove. In other words, as the person walks closer to a doorway, vibrations on the sides of the device would grow increasingly stronger in intensity. If implemented correctly, I believe a person wearing this type of device could learn the feedback language to the point where it could become an extension of their senses. On the whole, this system could promote public safety and freedom for the visually impaired of the world.

Beyond visual impairment, I could see opportunities where people need to train the coordination of their muscles, such as the physical rehabilitation process following a stroke. I'm curious if someone would benefit from the ability of "feeling" objects around them from a short distance away. This may enable them to have a better understanding of the location of their hand, thus improving their hand-eye coordination. Taken one step further and one could imagine applying this concept to performance measures. The system could allow an athlete to feel an oncoming pass, a shot on goal, or feel the rotation and projection of a oncoming pitch.

We developed and discussed this "Tactile Vision" concept in my Tangible Interfaces team at the MIT Media Lab. This team includes Birago Jones, Phil Salesses, Nick Pennycooke, and Laura Janka. We may or may not be developing this concept in the near future, so please do not hesitate to comment or contact me if you have any feedback or want to get involved.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Design Principles - December 2010

The following document contains my personal principles for designing a system. They have been guided by the MIT Professor Ed Crawley's System Architecture framework, but they are also a result of a decade of professional experience as a Human Factors Engineer and User Experience Designer. I expect to evolve these principles as I progress in my professional life and learn from real world experience. In the meantime, the following are the principles which will guide my design process: 

Good system architecture is the intentional, accurate, 

and repeatable transformation of concept into reality.

Find a purpose, craft a vision for fulfilling it, and holistically 

advance it until the architectural objective is met. 

To architect an improved state, one must begin 

with accurate comprehension of the current state.

Take great measures to develop a rich 

understanding of your stakeholders and their needs. 

Great ideas are not created from empty space. 

They are in hiding, waiting to be discovered and given new life. 

Embrace the patterns in which ideas are developed.  Create an
environment in which ideas can be discovered and evolved. 

An idea is not fully understood until it can be seen.

Establish an experimental process for prototyping, 
understanding, and evolving ideas

A well-architected product conveys its purpose and function.

Utilize form, structure, and interface design 

patterns to visually communicate the utility of a system 

Simplicity is not a matter of less, it’s a matter of fit.

Avoid unnecessary excess at all levels of an architecture, from unused elements
on the user interface to low-value parts in the architecture.

The greatest feature serves no value if the system is not adopted. 

Don't show people how great your system is;
show them how great they’ll be with your system.

Sustained existence is impossible without the ability to adapt to change.

Design architectures that enable graceful evolution without diminishing value or altering intent. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why Products are Like People (Aka: My Dear Friend, The Toaster)

I'm endlessly fascinated by the study of why people love one product more than another (or choose, or adopt, etc).  It's not that complicated or erratic really. In fact, I think there's a fairly predictable set of patterns and principles inherent in the products that people love, and it's likely going to be included in my masters thesis next year. For now, this entry is just a variation on that concept. This is just a hunch that I would really be interested in getting feedback on. The hunch is that people seek out the same qualities in products as they do in people.

If you think I'm crazy, consider knowing a person with the following qualities:

  • good communicator
  • enjoyable
  • accommodating
  • accessible but gives you free space 
  • trustworthy
  • flexible to change
  • well-kept appearance  
I imagine this would be a person that you would like. Now, consider a product with the following qualities: 
  • easy-to-understand
  • enjoyable 
  • useful
  • accessible but non-obtrusive 
  • dependable 
  • adaptable/customizable 
  • nicely designed
Much like the person, I expect this is a product that you would enjoy owning and using. The commonality between person and product affection is probably not very shocking in any way. And of course, I wrote this list with this hunch in mind, so it's extremely self-fulfilling. However, it's worth considering what's not included in that list to get an understanding of the implications this concept may have on product design and development. Specifically, I'm thinking about performance...

There's something exciting about a product with all the bells and whistles and performance measures way beyond your needs. Just the same, it may excite you to know the best athlete in school, the best looking girl, or the smartest person you know. For both the product and the person, these things are great and potentially useful in some circumstances, but for the most part, they aren't the reason you like them. The basic common principles above are essentials for truly liking a person or product, while unnecessarily high performance and other high-level attributes are not. In fact, one could argue that these non-essentials even become a detriment as they hit a certain level. After all, do you really want to be friends with the smartest person you know? 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Idea 15: Disruption Leads to Twitter Concierge

For this week, I would like to focus on the Disruptive Technology paradigm. This concept, evangalized by authors and MIT professors Clayton Christianson and James Utterback, explains the phenomenon of technology or product concepts that enter a market and completely change the business model as a result. I won't attempt to explain the whole concept, here but the idea is that a market can grow and shift in such a way that it opens up the opportunity for a disruptive product, often centered around price, novel technologies, and "good enough" performance.  Corresponding attributes of the products in the new market could include improved accessibility, design simplicity, and ease-of-use. Disruptive Technologies often appear in a mature market environment where the existing firms have been competing on high performance measures, carrying high prices along with them. The opportunity for disruption is heightened when the competing level of performance has actually exceeded the need of the average user. (For more on the exceeding of user expectations, read up on the invaluable Kano Analysis method.)

So how to identify opportunities for Disruptive Technologies? This is obviously a real challenge but the idea is to seek out markets where product features and performance may be hitting expectations but exceeding needs, which is a signficant distinction. What markets feature users that may soon become overwhelmed with information, confused by features, and seeking simplicity? Personally, I think Social Media is a target.

To scope the exercise, let's talk Twitter. Now I use Twitter far more for consumption than for production of information. I do Tweet, maybe a few times a week, but mostly, I really like Twitter as a means of following interesting people and companies related to design and innovation, just to keep up on any interesting happenings that may be going on. I also happen to follow a dozen or so sports writers that cover the NFL and the Boston Red Sox.  Twitter for me is really about saving me time by simplifying the vast array of available information by distilling it down through people I have trusted to do the filtering for me. The product is fine - part useful, part interesting distraction, part time-saver. It's generally valuable, but it's an endless fire hose of information that I can't possibly keep up with (my own fault for configuring it this way, of course).  

What if you could create a simpler version of Twitter? More assistance, more templates, less consumption... no tweeting, targeted at a less technical audience that has no use for tweeting but does want up-to-date information. No searching and browsing for information sources. Simply type in a topic that interests you (e.g. European Business, World Cup, etc.) and the system dynamically determines the most relevant Twitter sources tied to the topic (I'm talking Twitter "Concierge" not Twitter Search). This is about competing on a simple, high-quality user experience, not on quantity of information. Could even consider implmenting this in a whole new form factor, like a counter-top device, appliance display, etc. I think I know a whole range of people who would be interested in this, and I wonder if you do too...

Ideation by Design

If you've read "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson, you would be sold on the idea that most (if not all) great ideas are simply connections or new applications of existing constructs. It's such a simple insight yet endlessly interesting when you consider the deep repository of evidence that spans time and domains. So if Johnson's hypothesis is true, why do we fail to apply to our ideation methodologies? For some reason, idea generation tends to be left to the design department, or the creative manager, or some other "idea guy" that's expected to sit in his office and wait for the perfect idea to appear in a mystical image. So, in many entries to come, I will focus on developing an ideation process that proactively leverages known patterns observed in natural idea development. Please provide feedback as I would love to work together on developing these ideas...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

LegoLive Concept

New concept for Hiroshi Ishii's Tangible Interface class...

LegoLive (which has no connection to Lego..yet?) allows kids to continue to play with their creations by adding them to a digital world and playing with friends online. Games and activities can challenge kids and their imagination.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Top 10 Websites - What Do They Allow Us to Do?

Yesterday, I stumbled across a list of 50 most popular sites on the web according to Compete, an online analytics firm ( The top twelve sites, in order, were Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia,, Amazon,, MSN, Bing, Ebay, and Blogspot. The results here are not surprising, but I'm intrigued by the implications of them. Specifically, what are the most popular sites enabling us to do?

At risk of starting my masters thesis a semester too early, I started to attempt to break down each site into the fundamental needs they are addressing. (note: for my thesis, I plan to do this breakdown across a wide range of domains and product types, and then apply the patterns from that analysis into a framework for developing needs-based products).

In regard to this Top 50 list, beyond the Like's, Playlists, and Recommendations, what are these products really doing for us? In other words, we need to shift our thinking from the product does to what it allows us to do. What needs to do the meet, particularly compared to other options on the market? Are there common needs addressed that come up more often than you would expect? This is really just an initial thought exercise to build some foundation for this concept, but I think it's worth doing. The point is that we don't choose products for their features or their performance. Generally speaking, we choose products because of what they do for us or or enable us to be. Let's play around with that Top 10 list...

Top 10 Sites and the Usage Patterns (September 2010) To discover new information, To find something, To learn, To be connected,
Yahoo!: To discover new information, To find something, To learn, To be connected,
Facebook: To be connected, To feel popular, To be entertained
YouTube: To be entertained, To learn,
Wikipedia: To discover new information, To learn
Ask: To discover new information, To find something, To learn
Amazon: To buy, To make money
Live: To be connected,
MSN: To discover new information, To find something, To learn, To be connected,
Bing: To discover new information, To find something, To learn

So, what do we make of this? Just a few thoughts and then you can draw your own conclusions...

- Clearly, the fact that 5 of the top 10 are search engines (Google, Yahoo, Ask, MSN, Bing) indicates that people primarily see the web as a mechanism for finding information, which can lead to buying products, answering questions, finding people, and a countless other destinations. This isn't particularly interesting, but the disparity between search sites and more information-browsing sites (Wikipedia, non-search portion of MSN) show that saving time and reducing information clutter/complexity could probably each be added to the "needs addressed" of the search sites. If we had to abstract this exercise out to the web itself, one could clearly state that the web's primary need addressed is for finding information.

- Not surprisingly, the social capability of the web is also a primary function. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Live all over email clients, enabling people to stay connected from a social perspective.

- Next up is consumerism, which to be honest, is not as prominently features as I might have guessed. After all, being able to purchase products online is a tremendous time saver, and "To Save Time" is probably one of the best features a product can offer. Nonetheless, Amazon cracks the list, and Ebay (#11) and Craigslist (#13) just missed the cut. I would be curious to learn whether there is a trust factor at play here, where Amazon might simply be the most trustworthy site to purchase from.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Idea #14: Artificial Constraints and the "Wake Agent" Alarm Clock

An often valuable exercise in the ideation process is the approach of identifying products or services that have gone unchanged, questioning long-standing assumptions, and looking for opportunities for improvement. This is a common but fairly ambiguous challenge and may be too vague to instigate targeted innovative ideas. Instead, I believe the most effective way to do this is to decompose the system into a set of sub-parts,  understand how they come together and interact, and then questioning them on a part-by-part basis.

Now here's the trick... when it comes to redesigning a product or service that has gone unchanged, I suggest you prompt new ideas by creating a series of artificial constraints for each of the sub-components. For example, experiment with the sub-components by removing them, replacing them, "de-technologizing" them, resizing them, or whatever other action you would like to take to generate fresh ideas. Keep in mind, before you do this, it may be valuable to write down the high-level intent of the product to ensure that whatever innovations you design at the sub-levels do not alter the whole point of the product. 

Let me demonstrate by analyzing a common household product: the alarm clock. While you may wake up to your phone every morning like I do (highly recommend the first few bars of Karma Police for this), this doesn't mean that there is no longer a place for the trusty traditional alarm clock. So, let's just abstract out and consider the intent of the alarm clock, which is simply to "wake someone from sleep at a pre-defined time". In order to meet this intent, there will need to be a timing mechanism, an easy way to set it, and a means for waking someone up. A great deal of products have been created that utilize light, vibration, and other methods for waking sleepers up, so I'm going to try out a different direction for sake of this exercise. 

In order to instigate new perspectives, I'm going to create an artificial constraint for myself. That constraint is that the alarm clock cannot be placed on the nightstand (or next to the bed). This restriction should instigate new ideas for alterations in alarm clock form factor. Now, we move from intent to concept generation. We could come up with a range of alarm clock concepts that are built into the bed, such as flattening pillows or escaping blankets, but I would suggest avoiding the suggestion of any alarm clock concept that may risk the quality of sleep of the person during the night. With the nightstand and bed off-limits, what's next? My answer came from the sky... 

Consider a small spherical alarm concept that is about the size of a golf ball. During the night, it sits fixed in the ceiling far above you as you sleep. When the time comes for you to wake up, the alarm slowly drops down on a zip wire, like a secret ops agent dropping in for a mission. The alarm wakes you up with audio, direct light, or some combination. Since the length of the alarm drop could be pre-defined, it could drop to a close enough point where only soft audio would be necessary. Once the sleeper wakes and reaches for the alarm, it detects movement and pulls itself back up towards the ceiling. The sleeper is not able to turn the alarm off until they are sitting up in bed. Once the alarm is turned off, it returns to its original place in the ceiling to await the next day's wake-up call. Concept sketches to come...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Idea #12 (Revisited): Cue

The following is a set of design concepts for something I've been working on for Prof. Hiroshi Ishii's Tangible Interfaces course at the MIT Media Lab. This is a Cue, a system for leaving digital artifacts in the physical world. As you'll see from the images, the basic premise is that it enables people to leave physical or virtual pointer to digital content (video, pictures, audio, messages) in specific points in time and space and for specific people in the real world.

UPDATE: My project team of Birago Jones, Nicholas Pennycooke, Phil Salesses and myself presented the CUE concept to Hiroshi Ishii's Tangible Interfaces course last Thursday, the 21st. The class was mostly lukewarm about the concept, but interestingly, Hiroshi was pleasantly excited and receptive to it. We'll call that validation for now! Thanks to the team for the great work. Development to continue on CUE....  

Presentation slides here...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Idea #13: Misdirecting Motivations - Getting Past "Should"

This week's concept is much more a methodology or idea-generation principle than an actual product or service. It's a pattern that I've seen come up on the market but I don't think it's been utilized to its fullest potential. It's concept of tweaking a product or service so that it taps into an unexpected human need or motivation.

For example, take the activity-tracking bracelet offered by startup Switch2Health ( With traditional activity-tracking devices, users are motivated to exercise for their own health and long-term well being. With Switch2Health, your activity level becomes a direct driver for discounts at local businesses, thus misdirecting the motivation of physical activity from health to financial gain. Both money and health are what I like to call "should" motivations. We know these "shoulds" are important, but their level of motivational influence is considerably weak on a day-to-day basis (e.g. "I should save money, but going out for drinks tonight sounds like a good time"). Switch2Health banks on the fact that two combined "shoulds" produce one meta-motivation that just might push you to get up off your couch.

Motivations can also be misdirected on a time scale. Take my personal budget system, for example. I use to track my spending (great service - highly recommended), but I've added an extra hitch to it that misdirects my own motivations. Everyone has the looming feeling that they should be saving money, but why don't we do it? Frankly, it's boring and it's in complete conflict with my current motivations - I care much more about Present Reily getting a snowboard than I care about Future Reily having $400. So, how to solve that problem? Design a system that meets long term goals first and attainable short-term gains second. In other words, whatever I can save beyond the monthly allocated savings is mine to spend on whatever I want. The motivation becomes much stronger because I'm saving  for something I'm going to enjoy right away, and the long-term savings is simply a bi-product of the system. Boring Future Reily gets his money, while Present Reily gets a new snowboard. Motivations were misdirected, and everybody wins.

The takeaway? Examine the human motivations you are addressing in your product or service. It they don't appear strong enough, look for opportunities to combine, replace, or misdirect them. You'd be surprised how motivating it can be.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Idea #11: The Connected Athlete

GameSpeed is a concept that I've been working on for quite a long time but it just resurfaced as I learned about how far along the enabling technology has come. The goal is to create a community around spirited competition, shared goals, challenges, and training programs for current and former athletes. Users will have a lightweight necklace (similar to a Phiten in form factor) that automatically transfers data to their computer (and corresponding online account) as they pass near their base station, likely after a workout. A couple key requirements here: (1) Product must require very minimal effort to upload data and that (2) data should be presented very simply, with opportunity to explore for greater detail.

As a former college football player at Tufts University, I can say first-hand that the players and coaches will work for any possible edge they can get, from offseason training to in-season game preparation. However, athletic performance improvements are still measured by coaches with stopwatches, the same technique that's been used since Vince Lombardi was on the sidelines. Instead of that, this "Connected Athlete"  system would allow coaches to create gameplans that are optimally strategized for the strengths and weaknesses of specific players. For instance, certain pass patterns may be perfect for one player with exceptional agility but poor top speed, while another player with better top speed and poor footwork should get a different pattern. Sure, this is an obvious example that is possible through traditional coaching and evaluation, but in many cases it's not. How do you keep track of a player's performance trends during a game? or during a season? This type of system would enable all of that.

- Current Athletes (Youth, High School, College, Beyond)
- Former Athletes
- Coaches
- Scouts
- Personal Trainers

Recommended Capabilities: 

- Track speed, acceleration, and endurance
- Compete in challenges for prizes
- Compete against teammates
- Compete as a team
- Scout and compare future players
- Evaluate current players
- Work remotely with personal trainers
- Monitor off-season training

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Idea #10: MediPlate

As part of Hiroshi Ishii's Tangible Interfaces course at the MIT Media Lab, I have spent the past few days studying home healthcare and the opportunities for new technologies. I have been specifically interested in learning about the perspectives of the elderly in this country and their views of home care and supporting tech. Here's my first concept of a tangible interface to support home care..

Monday, September 27, 2010

Idea #9: Searching for Conflict and Finding Greener Water

This past spring, while taking Professor Eric Von Hippel's User-Centered Innovation course at MIT Sloan, my class was lucky enough to learn from a fascinating guest lecturer, Continuum CEO Harry West. One of the key lessons I took from Harry’s presentation was the critical importance of discovering contradictions or conflicts in a market. By studying customer behavior and the various ways they interact with products, one can identify if there is a mismatch or conflict between what industry has provided them and what they really want. This identification of latent needs through conflict recognition is a powerful concept that enabled Continuum, on behalf of Procter & Gamble, to discover the contradiction of people wanting their floor clean but not wanting to deal effort do it. This insight (along with the insight that people were spending more time cleaning their MOP than their floor) led to the design of the Swiffer, a widely successful home-cleaning product produced by P&G. Not surprisingly, it also tapped into the fact that people will give up some level of quality or performance if a product helps them save time or makes their life easier.

So, this brings me up to today where I had a great conversation with an entrepreneurial friend of mine from college, Josh Glicksman. Glixy’s idea, which we quickly hashed out together, taps into a set of conflicting insights in American society today: (1) Water is beneficial for your health and should be consumed throughout the day, and (2) Production and disposal of plastic bottles is harmful to the environment. Now, knee-jerk reaction would be that everyone should just use water bottles and fill them at the water fountains or taps, right? If filling up on tap water is such an easy solution, then why did the global rate of water consumption quadruple from 1990 to 2005? On top of that, it’s estimated that people will consume 174 billion liters of water in 2011, a 51% increase from 2006. ( Consider that, an industry worth billions that banks on the fact that people will pay for a product that they can get a slightly warmer and slight less quality version for free. Sounds like an opportunity…

What if we could promote the healthy habit of drinking water while simultaneously reducing consumption of plastic bottles? Is there is a way to capture market share between no-cost tap water drinkers and the high-cost bottled water drinkers? To capture the tap water market, you would need to provide water that is as convenient as tap water but at a higher quality (e.g. colder!). Meanwhile, you would have to provide the bottled water drinkers with a product at comparably high quality, much cheaper price, and a heavy helping of guilt for what their plastic bottles are doing to the environment. After all, why are we paying for the bottles if all we want is the water?

Thus, an innovative water service concept is born (nice work, Glixy). Consider a water kiosk set up on campuses that is hooked into the tap water system, but utilizes refrigeration and a reverse osmosis system (after wall, temperature may be the biggest factor in perceived water quality). Students carry a pre-purchased water bottle that features a barcode associated with their student ID. Students may have purchased a premium water bottle for a high cost (say $40) that gives them unlimited water or use a “pay as you go” system where the kiosk charges their student account a very small amount (e.g. $0.40) every time they fill up their bottle. You could even imagine the simple addition of flavor packets available at the kiosk at a small price (e.g. $0.10).

An interesting aspect of the ID-to-bottle connection is that it would tap into the growing trend of people tracking their life statistics (e.g. FitBit, every iPhone running app, calorie counters). This system would enable someone to track the water they are drinking, say on a mobile app, as they move around campus throughout the day, filling up at different kiosks. Perhaps you could even add incentives for people hitting certain individual or collective water-drinking goals. For people who are averse to paying for water, this service might actually be a worthy benefit.

With this system, we would add a measure of convenience and cost-savings to the water bottle drinkers (no more waiting in line in the store), add a level of quality to the tap water drinkers (cold filter water), and most importantly, offer a service that is mutually beneficial at the personal (health) and global (environment) levels, thus eliminating the contradiction in the market.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Idea #8: Circle of Life

An MIT classmate of mine, Matt Harper, presented an interesting concept to me over a beer at The Muddy a few months ago called "Circle of Life". We discussed and matured the concept over a couple beers and I think it's worth sharing here. The concept is about using technology and digital computation to enhance our lives in the real world, a theme which I have been driving towards in my posts lately.

The concept is this.. we're all walking around every day with device in our pocket that can help sense, record, photograph, capture, and geolocate the world around us and our activities within it. What I would really enjoy using is a simple "invisible" smartphone application that is purely about capturing a moment into a digital timeline of a life. By invisible I mean that you wouldn't have to spend a second of time interfacing with the application - just take the picture and continue with what you're doing.  What I'm talking about here is much less Facebook and much more a location-aware time capsule. It's about utilizing technology to enrich the memory of our experiences, and not using it for a distraction from them.

Consider leaving an audio message from a kid every year on his birthday, something that persists across devices and does not get lost in the clutter of comments and drunken photos. Or, what I think is even more interesting, capturing an important event at a specific location and it only gets discovered when your family or friends (real ones, not Facebook connections) passes through that spot. Consider what that would mean to someone 20, 30, or 100 years from now. I could see wanting to develop a range of visual narratives for the different phases of life, such as work, school, etc.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Idea #7: The Art of the Game

I would like to continue on a theme from my previous entry and develop further concepts that can be defined as "ambient" interfaces. Specifically, I've been thinking about ambient interfaces and the implications they have on product development processes. So, the method is this: Think about your critical informational needs and develop and "invisible" interface to convey them.

Step 1: Determine your information need
So there's the easy ones, like weather, traffic, and of course, the time. after that, you have personal quantifiable informational needs, such as savings account totals, calories consumed, calories consumed, energy consumed, time worked across projects, or a million other like these. however, I'm going to push off all of these important informational needs to stick with a favorite of mine: baseball scores

I'm a devoted Red Sox fan and love tracking the team throughout the course of a season. However, watching every pitch of all 162 games of a season is just not practical when I'm busy or there's other things going on. I would love the ability to simply track the Sox score on a given day via a glanceable interface. If it looks interesting, say a 2-2 game in the 7th, that will prompt me to turn it on. So, here are the info needs: inning (with top or bottom), runs/hits/errors for home and away teams, and a attempt to show runners on base.

Step 2: Develop an "invisible" ambient display of Step 1 results

The challenge here to create a product that presents information into an environment in a subtle and non-intrusive manner. In the words of legendary designer Hiroshi Ishii, these ambient interfaces should be "calm" and "seamless with the environment". it should be glanceable from a distance, and almost invisible if you did not know what it was.

In regards to our baseball concept, I would like the form of the product to be inspired by baseball, but not explicity use any cues from the game. For instance, it would be too easy to have a scoreboard, a diamond, or a ballpark. It should look like a normal piece of art hung on a wall that changes in subtle ways as the game progresses. I would like to use some of the materials, textures, or colors from the game, but that's a real challenge because I want to avoid it looking like something that belongs in a cheesy sports bar.

Concept sketches to come soon...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Idea #6: See Me Outside

Just last week, I began taking a Tangible Interfaces course under the legendary Hiroshi Ishii, head of the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab. We spent our first class period learning about the concept of "ambient interfaces", products that augment an environment by unobtrusively conveying information, often with abstract visual representations. Many of the concepts created by those in the Tangible Media Group are endlessly fascinating and beautiful.

During our group breakout sessions, we needed to develop as many concepts as we could that could be designated as ambient. One idea that I'm particularly interested in is this "See Me Outside" concept.

The idea of the product concept is to have a photo frame that dynamically displays your photos that map to the corresponding weather of the day, or even the current level of daylight. There's an interesting meaning to the product as it taps into your emotional memory that already associates current weather conditions with past experiences. While photos themselves are nothing novel, using them to convey information about the weather just might be. After all, do you care about the specific weather details or just whether you'll need an umbrella?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

TReil & Error Design Principles

1.      A product’s design cannot be defined as simple until the user perceives it so. 
2.      Allowing user complaints and recommendations to drive new requirements will only lead to minor improvement, not true innovation
3.      Forget the debate. Form and Function should be seamlessly integrated. 
4.      A product's perceived primary function and overall purpose is put at risk as the complexity of the product's architecture is increased.
5.      The design and development of a product will always extend longer and contain more errors than expected. Plan accordingly.
6.      Prediction of the future is impossible. It is necessary to plan for a range of potential adjustments that align to plausible future states.
7.      People are self-interested by nature. Don't show them how great your product is, but instead show them how great they'll be with your product.
8.      Once people progress beyond basic needs, they seek out meaning in the products they purchase. Showcase the purpose within a design.
9.      Where there is redundant form or function across a product line, there is opportunity for modularity in the architecture.
10.  People inherently reduce pain, discomfort, or uncertainty. Create natural and intuitive user interfaces if you want people to use your product. 
11.  Technologies are almost always combinations of, improvements upon, or re-applications of other technologies. They are rarely invented.
12.  The product’s life extends beyond its original use. Design for recycle, alternative use, or decomposition.
13. Prototype, prototype, prototype... you can't truly understand your ideas without making them tangible first.
14. Good design is useful (credit to Dieter Rams for this one).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Idea #5: Sketchbook and the Drawing of New Ideas

As I've discussed in previous posts, I've become increasingly interested in the intersections of products and disciplines and the incredible opportunities that come from them. I could write a hundred posts on it, but I'll save myself the effort (and you the pain) and just point you to an expert on the topic, Fran Johansson, author of The Medici Effect (, with a great corresponding blog as well (

Now, here's a hitch that I'm specifically interested in... Clearly, the "Medici Effect" is most prominent when a product, behavior, or discipline is abstracted enough that one can make the connection between it and something else that was previously perceived as unrelated. Doing so often requires the stripping out of "minor" details that stand in the way of innovation-inspiring connections. So, what if we took one step further in the stripping out of abstraction-preventing details? What if you had an open forum of shared hand-drawn, visual, product and business concepts, completely free of text? Personally, I think it would be highly beneficial, especially as it would lead to the always interesting phenomenon of developing great ideas via misunderstanding, a process which they might as well name after me since I take part in it so much.

Idea: Sketchbook
Enable designers, artists, and concept developers to take greater advantage of the Medici Effect through the power of social web platforms. It would be an online site where people could discover and post sketches of new products, characters, and business models. Before you react and think "hey, no one will want to just give away their ideas!", just wait.. the focus will be on "idea pieces" - just the random sketches and half-baked business models that don't have a use to you, but might inspire some idea from someone else.
Sketch created by Ben Arent

Like a Facebook or Twitter, users would be able to subscribe to other artists, innovators, or others idea-makers that interest them. I could see it being great tool for helping people out of creative ruts. In fact, you could even see patent images being posted on here as long as they were properly attributed.

While the focus would be on the visual, people would be able to have side conversations to discuss and form communities around the new ideas.  An interesting aspect here is that I could see it being just as valuable to entrepreneurs developing new business models to illustrators developing new storybook characters.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Idea #4: "Like Groupon for Product Design"

Lately I've found myself particularly interested in the processes by which new ideas are developed. The "Like X for Y" process is one of my particular favorites. It's a a methodology that instigates new ideas by creating unexpected combinations.  More specifically, it is the application of a business, product, or service model applied to a different domain or purpose. If you've read The Nature of Technology (W. Brian Arthur) or Thinkertoys (Michalko), you'll know re-purposing is an incredibly powerful technique for developing innovative solutions. 

X = Groupon
Consider Groupon's business model. If you're not familiar with Groupon, it's a one-deal-per-day site that utilizes a mechanism from game theory called an "assurance contract". In english, they offer a daily deal, but the deal does not become a reality until a certain number of people sign up for it. 

Now how can we apply Groupon to another domain? Consider the fact that company that's offering the deal essentially says "It's not worth it for me to offer this deal to one customer because I don't make enough on the sale, but it is worth it for me if a large number of customers take the deal because of the high quantity of small profits (and the positive exposure that comes from it)." 

Y = Niche Product Design
I don't think it's a coincidence that Groupon deals tend to come from restaurants or service providers, such as spas. I assume it just isn't economically feasible to offer incredibly low price-points on tangible products. However, what if you just focused on the buying power of the assurance contract model and applied that to the purchasing of custom products. If I want a translucent snowboard at a specific custom size with a particular graphic set designed by a specific local designer, I may not be able to get it as it may be too much of a niche product for snowboard manufacturers to build a market around. Or, perhaps I could get it custom- made, but it would be far too expensive to do so.

In steps the Groupon model.. What if I could socialize my niche product idea and build a tiny market of people who also want one. At what point is it worth it for us and for Burton? 10 people? 40? 200? I'm sure every market, product, and manufacturer has their tipping point where it's beneficial for both the producer and the consumer, but this space is worth exploring as "mini markets" could enable people to get their own custom products without the traditionally exorbitant costs. Plus, from a manufacturer's perspective, this is a nice little market research mechanism. Personally, as a product designer, I love this idea as a platform for showcasing and "selling" (designers would have to make commission) their designs. Now where's my custom-designed translucent snowboard!!?!?

by the way, if you're interested in clear snowboards, check out what Makboard has brewing:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Idea #3: Tell me what you see...

Challenge: How do you utilize existing technology to enhance the life of someone who is visually impaired?

Solution: This challenge dates back to this past January while studying System Architecture under Ed Crawley, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. I'll be back in Prof Crawley's classroom come this September, so this idea came back to me today. Put in simplest terms, Prof Crawley's methodologies involve the analysis and design of the overall structure, key components, and interaction between the components of a system. Systems can be anything from a pencil to an aircraft, or better yet, an organization of people.

In the process of breaking down a system, you begin to think about the function and meaning of each individual component, which a fascinating exercise that forces you to contemplate the overall purpose of a product. For example, is the purpose of a digital camera to create digital images or it to capture a scene? If it's the former, then digital cameras have likely reached their dominant design and the impact that a designer/architect can have is minimal. However, if you consider the latter "scene capture" purpose, the possibilities for innovation are expanded...which brings us to the proposed challenge of enhancing the life of the visually impaired.

Imagine if you disassembled a digital camera into all its functional pieces and parts. One could imagine analyzing each individual component to determine its purpose and importance relative to the overall function of the camera. As you work your way through the components, consider the visual display that is present on the rear of most cameras. Clearly this feature is useful to give the user a preview of the captured image, but it's certainly not required as a camera is still able to capture a scene and produce a digital image without it. So, we have an opportunity here....

What if the display was not visual, but it was audible instead? Given today's image recognition technologies (Google, Apple, HP) and the endless supply of user-generated content (Yelp, Flickr), it's reasonable to believe that a device could capture a scene, analyze it for recognizable objects, and then dictate a description of that scene using simple text-to-speech capabilities.

The resulting experience would be one where a visually impaired person may have a richer understanding of the world around them. The audible (or potentially Braille-based) output would provide the user with the ability to build an accurate mental depiction without the need for assistance from another person.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Idea #2: You Better Listen to Me

People often listen to music when they run to enjoy the relaxing effect it can have. As an alternative, they may also enjoy the social experience when running with someone else. Unfortunately, going for a run with someone else without music on often amounts to you running behind (or in front) of them just listening to yourself breath, which can really diminish the quality or effectiveness of the run.

Consider a small broadcasting adapter for an iPod - essentially the existing iTrip works as a good model. One person would attach that their player while another person wears headphones hooked to a tiny receiver (instead of a music player). The result would be a shared listening experience that could enhance the social exercising experience. Clearly, this could be used in a range of situations, and for that matter, may already exist, but I like the concept nonetheless.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Idea #1: Showing a Digital Pulse

A great deal of today's technologies claim to enable a more social experience, but they're often just providing a distinct social experience that is disconnected from the real world. How do we design better technology that bridges the gap between the digital and physical worlds?

Imagine if you had a wristband that features a very soft, white, low-power LED that pulsed to the beat of a heart. Except, it's not your heartbeat. It's the heartbeat of a spouse or loved one, a friend, or perhaps someone else who you care for. Meanwhile, that person wears the band that's displaying your pulse as well. The result is a unique experience that brings that person closer to you in your mind. Mothers keep their children "with them" wherever they go, spouses keep each other close while traveling on business, high school couples wear them as a sign of affection, friends run an app on their tablet to see when their friends are awake at night. With today's technology, the connection may have to be made using bluetooth and a phone in the pocket, but eventually, the bands will be able to make a direct connection.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Week 1: Kicking Off the T.Reil & Error Project

"To have a great idea, have a lot of them" -Thomas Edison

My name is Todd Reily and I'm the creator of the TReil & Error project. I'm a User Experience Designer and Human Factors Engineer working in the public sector. I'm also earning a Masters from MIT's System Design & Management program. This project is associated with MudLab, a collaborative innovation group based in the SDM program.

The idea for this project came to me when I realized that my absolute passion is for understanding the problems that people have and conceptualizing new solutions for them. For me, it's more than just throwing out random ideas, but maturing them to a point where can be considered feasible form a business and technology standpoint. As part of the TReil & Error project, I'm going to post new product and service concepts every week, complete with the problem, description of the solution, and concept sketches

Quite simply, my goal here is to solve problems. Since I was a kid, running a magazine and building a mini baseball stadium, I've realized that I never get a greater satisfaction than turning a great idea into a tangible reality. If TReil & Error results in a thousand terrible ideas and one great solution that I turn into a reality... well that's completely fine with me. The point here is about playing the numbers game in search of truly innovative ideas. If nothing else, it's good practice for me as a product designer.

One last important note: One of my motivations for this project is to find people to team up to create new products and businesses. I invite your feedback, positive or negative, in the comments section. If you want to contribute or team up on an idea, please comment or write me at

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Applying Pareto's Principle to Product Design

It's been a while, but I realized this is a good place to start putting down product designs and ideas again...

so I just went out for a run and I was thinking about the value of product features (I really need to get out more). I was thinking about all the products and services I use day-to-day and considering all the "assets" that they provide. 

For example, my car stereo offers FM radio, AM radio, CD capability, a clock, and a handful of audio controls. when I consider the usage of each of the assets, I realize that the CD is a completely wasted asset for me. If I had paid for the stereo, I would have wasted my money on an under-utilized asset. If I had to rank all the possible assets and draw a line where I don't want to pay for them anymore, the only ones that would probably make the cut would be AM, audio controls, and a currently missing set of assets, mobile phone and iPod integration. Perhaps this isn't the best example to pick, but there's something to be said for completely stripped-down, well-designed products that nail the primary asset and restrain themselves from doing anything else. 

In many ways, this restrained approach to design is what Apple does best. The iPad could have done more, but it doing to might have diminished its meaning as a product (see: Roberto Verganti's Design Driven Innovation). I believe that this is also the type of thinking that drives the netbook and tablet trend in general. Over 80% of computer users don't use the vast majority of all the product's bells and whistles, so why not create something that offers them just what they need (and do it really well)? The Flip Mino video camera and Boston-based Litl Webbook are perfect showcases of this concept. By only offering the "80% case" features, they were able to reduce the price dramatically and offer a more simple user experience. Why should the average consumer pay more for bells and whistles that they don't need?

The point is that people are overloaded with complicated technology and crave simplicity. It's human nature. Unfortunately, it's much easier for product firms to sell new features and performance capabilities than it is to sell simplicity. However, I like to think that consumers are starting to send the right messages with the success of the Flip, iPad, Kindle, etc.

So.. I'm going to begin development of a process for systematically creating inexpensive products that people enjoy using...

Here's a ROUGH draft of my steps to this point:

1. Pick a product category
2. List all the candidate product assets (these can be functions, components, whatever)
3. Define a single primary asset
4. Rank assets by frequency of usage (this may reveal latent user values)
5. Aggressively apply Pareto's Principle to the assets, drawing a hard line at the 80% assets that are only used 20% of the time
6. Engineer the primary asset to be at the "very good" level in the asset category
7. Design the product architecture and form to showcase the primary asset while logically integrating the supporting assets in a way that is complementary and suitably accessible

An inexpensive, simple, easy-to-use product that does the most important thing really well

- Streamlined product architecture and design leads to a more efficient development and manufacturing process with less ambiguity and rework
- Simplified products will be perceived as easier to learn, more enjoyable to use. More likely to become a product that people love to use.
- Smart and scaled back design minimal features reduces costs, and as a result, enables a competitive price point

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Dula Labor & Delivery System

Recently completed a project in an MIT design course for Rochester Mexico. Worked with Guillermo Aguirre Esponda, Director General of Aguirre Innovacion, and his incredible design team led by Alberto Soto Marin. The team set out to create a "luxury obstetrics table" and ended up learning more than we'll ever need to know about the experience of labor and delivery. The final result was the "Dula", a comforting labor and delivery system that takes into account the entire timeline of the birthing process, from the time the mother-to-be walks in the room to the time she is sitting with her newborn ready to go home. If you're wondering where the name comes from, a dula/doula "provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth". 

The Muddy Charles Pub Redesign

Recently took second-place in a contest to redesign the Muddy Charles Pub in Cambridge. a couple of concept designs...



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