Sjors Timmer designer

October 28, 2012

Exploring eternal questions through interaction design

This is a write-up of a talk I gave at Geeky

Thanks to a side project on  time mapping I became interested in the design implications of a set of questions that are collectively known as the eternal questions.

1. What are eternal questions?
Eternal questions are concerned with meaning. They arise from people’s experiences with the world, and have no definitive answer. Famous questions are: what is the meaning of life? What is a good life? What makes a good person? What is beauty? What is love?

Although they cannot be answered definitively, this doesn’t mean that they cannot be productively discussed. Through the centuries countless people have come up with answers. Some believed they answered a question once and for all, others were more modest and saw their answer only as one of many possibilities.

Many of us are familiar with Douglas Adams’ answer from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: “42″, the answer to life, the universe and everything. But there are many others:


Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Inspired by the simple and colourful life of Tahiti, Paul Gauguin wondered: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And came up with a surprisingly colourful answer.

In what turned out to be his final work, Dostoevsky created The Brothers Karamazov  a story about  three brothers and a father with very different ideas about what makes a good life.

Inspired by a poem about friendship, Beethoven wondered: what would happiness sound like? And penned The Ninth Symphony a piece of music that still makes the loudest death metal bands shiver in fear.

Closer to our time, Haddaway wondered ‘what is love?‘ and apparently still hasn’t found the answer yet.

2. Why should you explore eternal questions?
You already do. Every decision shows something about your values. Why are you reading this text? Perhaps because you find education important. Why do you find education important? Maybe because you want to understand more about the world? Why do you want to know more about the world? Because you believe that only an informed life is worth living. Why do you believe so? And so on. Exploring eternal questions allows you to examine your life in more detail and from that make better-informed choices of what you should do with your time.

Also, it’s fun. Eternal questions are like maths problems where the solution becomes harder the more time you spend on solving them.

Although you might not be a mathematician, painter, musician or writer, this doesn’t mean you should miss out on the fun of contemplating meaning. If you have the skills of digital tool-making, you have the opportunity to start exploring meaning in ways that no one has done before. And even better, you can make the tools that form the basis for other people to explore eternal questions in their own way.

The easiest way to go from an eternal question to a project idea is by adding a little design thinking to the mix. Tim Brown of IDEO proposes to start design exploration by asking ‘How might we?’. Since the web is very suitable for creating digital tools that help people do their own thing, we can imagine the questions to become: how might we help people to explore what a good life is? How might we help people to explore what beauty is?

How might we explore what beauty is? Perhaps Pinterest is a good place to start. Although the taste of most users might not reflect your idea of beauty, there’s nothing stopping you from starting your own collection.

How might we explore what makes a good life? This is already a Quora question. And if you have a question that no one has thought of yet, it’s easy to add it to the list.

How might we help people explore the meaning of love? Judging by the statistics, we can say that OkCupid does a good job in helping people find out for themselves what love could be.

3. Long-term explorer
For a few years I’ve been a fan of Steward Brand’s The Long Now Foundation, which runs a monthly lecture series (available as podcast) addressing the past and the next 10.000 years. As a designer I wondered how I could help people to think more long-term. In design-thinking terms: how might we encourage people to think about the long term?


Long-term explorer

What I’ve got so far is the long-term explorer, an idea for an application that allows you to explore your next 60 years in as much detail as you’d like.

Testing this on people has already gained some strong negative feedback: ‘using this would mean you can clearly see your whole life unfolding as a big failure‘, ‘if I would use it, death would be the only thing on my mind‘. But also some positive ones: ‘If it did financial calculations, I could plan buying a house, a car and a motorcycle‘, ‘this could help me not to forget that I should do some fun things too‘ or ‘I could use it to see how my thoughts about the future have changed over time‘.

If you have some ideas on this topic I’d be very happy to hear them.

4. How to get started
The great thing about eternal questions is that they never run out of possible answers. If you take a few of the concepts: good, art, beauty, happiness, justice, fairness, and add them after the ‘how might we?’, you can easily come up with plenty of opportunities to start designing and prototyping.

If you also add a human-centred design approach as part of your question, your project is ready to go. For example:
How might we encourage people to explore [beauty]
How might we facilitate discussion about [art]
How might we think about [happiness]
How might we improve the understanding of [fairness]
How might we […]

I’ll leave it up to you to take it from here.


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September 14, 2012

dConstruct 2012 – a review

The digital world has no shortage of big ideas: the social revolution, ubiquitous computing, exponential growth until we hit singularity, to name a few. In his talk Jason Scott warns programmers not to be too light-hearted with their creations. Although the twenty-something creators of Facebook might think that time is of no consequence, and take no particular interest in the history of their site, by being the world’s largest photo archive they have a responsibility to their users to care for this data. It’s not just a cost on the balance sheet that has to be kept under control, it is real memories of real people that we are talking about. And although start-up fans might admire the phenomenal success of a certain gaming start-up, when you build a game that “scoops the brain right out of little children” that doesn’t make it OK. Furthermore, if you create a service that allows users to save things, they give you their trust. Respect this trust and treat them and their data with respect.

James Burke warns about the opposite problem, too much focus on the details. In the centuries since Descartes wrote down his second rule of science “to divide each of the difficulties [...] encountered into as many parts as possible” science is now broken up into ever smaller compartments knowing less and less about the world as a whole. This approach brought the Western world a living standard previously unimagined, but, Burke believes, has run its course. We can no longer expect radical innovation by devoting ourselves to even smaller areas, even smaller tasks. We need to go broader, higher and wider, “innovation will come from the no man’s land between the divisions.

It seems to be a human tendency, that, in our aim to be as exact as possible we either go too abstract or too detailed. Italo Calvino wrote about this quest: “[it] was branching out in two directions: on the one side, the reduction of secondary events to abstract patterns according to which one can carry out operations and demonstrate theorems; and on the other, the effort made by words to present the tangible aspect for things as precisely as possible. [...] I continuously switch back and forth between those two paths, and when I feel I have fully explored the possibilities of one, I rush across to the other, and vice versa.”

By connecting the tangible aspect of playing with the abstraction needed for toymaking, Tom Armitage, proposes a solution of understanding through discovery. Each toy is a little pocket universe, a small concept that can be played with, a way that allows you explore abstraction through play. His idea sounds similar to the idea of the hermeneutic circle, a reading concept where the reader admits that: “neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another.” Armitage continues: “Toys are a fertile ground for creators to work in. They offer a playful space to experiment and explore. They are a safe ground to experiment with new techniques, skills, or ideas. [...] Toymaking ranges from making realistic simulations of life to producing highly abstract playthings.” Just like design challenges, toys are both defined by that what they highlight and that what they leave out. We cannot understand the world through abstract theories, nor through an endless series of tangible details. The only way is to understand is to take all that is abstract and all that is tangible and mix it in a never-ending process of creation, discovery and reflection. As Armitage ends “through toy making you end up playing yourself” and that might be the biggest opportunity we have.

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March 7, 2012

Create high fidelity prototypes in hours – 6 simple steps

When you’re working with mockups to test your ideas, speed is crucial. You don’t want to spend days working before you can gain valuable feedback. For that reason Photoshop is often ignored in favour of sketches and wireframes. Using Photoshop, however, to create high fidelity prototypes doesn’t need to be time consuming. Many of the components graphic designers use are freely available on the web and can be quickly remixed to create almost any interface. In this article I’ll walk you through a process that enables you to mock up high fidelity prototypes in a matter of hours instead of days.

Before you begin
To make this work you need:

  • A basic understanding of Photoshop.
  • Photoshop (in case you don’t have Photoshop you could give Gimp a try).
  • A few sketches of the pages you want to make.
  • An idea of the ‘feeling’ you want to communicate.

Step 1: Grid and baseline

Grids make it easy to make decisions on what to place where. One of the most popular grids in the 12 column 960 grid that you can download from Pick the psd file from the zip and use it as a starting point for your document.

Opened the grid and added a baseline – available for download in the mock-up template.

Bonus: Marc Boulton wrote a lot on designing with grids.
Bonus: Teelax has created a psd file ready with columns, baseline and some text.

Step 2: Background pattern

Add a little more character to your mock-up by using one of the quiet patterns from Subtle patterns.

Added wood pattern – this one and 5 others available in the mockup template.

Bonus: how to make a pattern in Photoshop.

Step 3: A typeface with character

Use Font Squirrel to find a typeface that will give your site a bit of extra character. You can use it for the logo and important headers. The rest of the copy can be in Arial or Helvetica and you can use Lipsum to quickly generate some copy.

Added these typefaces: Bebas, ChunckFive, CabinSketch, Josefin and Pacifico – all 5 typefaces are available  in the mockup template.

Bonus: more on selecting typefaces.

Step 4: Add the interface elements you need

If you look at Dribbble you see that some people are obsessed with creating interface elements. Luckily a group of these people has made their work available for free. You can find many of these elements on

Added navigation and button

Bonus: the web is obsessed with icons, here’s a good set, and a blog post with more.
Bonus: there are some attempts to create a complete sets, here are some examples.

Step 5: Add some bold photography

If you’re looking for some great photos to add to your mock-up, the easiest thing you can do is go to Flickr’s advanced search and check the ‘search in Creative Commons’ photos box, for example these landscapes.

Combined the video player plus a spices image.

Step 6: Make a clickable prototype

By using a service like InvisionApp you can easily connect  your screens and click together a prototype.

Linked two screen together in the Invision app, you can try it here.

Bonus: a free option to connect images is connect a sketch.
Bonus: If you plan to use the mock-ups in a presentation instead, here are links to an iPhone template and a MacBook Air template.

Finally you can download one zip with the grid, 5 backgrounds and 5 fonts via this link:
Download the mockup template zip here

Let me know how it goes, and leave a comment if you know more great resources.

February 10, 2012

Jeff Gothelf at London IA February 2012

This post originally appeared on in February 2012

Lean UX – getting out of the deliverable business by Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf, formerlly director of UX at the Ladders and currently principal at Proof, an innovation studio in New York, has already made some furor with his concept of Lean UX. In the past we had only his slide deckto rely on, but last Tuesday Jeff finally made his UK debut at London IA.

Jeff’s Lean UX story starts with a retrospective. If Lean UX is such a good thing, then why aren’t we all practising it? Jeff states that long, long ago, there was a world with very young information architects, where every trade had their own deliverables –some had reports, some had code and others had excel sheets– but the young discipline of IA had nothing, nothing but wireframes. In order for IA to claim a seat at the table, the wireframes were used to represent IA. For a while this approach was successful but the good times didn’t last. Web projects became more complex, and in line documentation kept on growing and growing. We now have reached a point where projects are so complex and situations so unpredictable that it becomes impossible to describe them with documentation. Something has to be done.

As a remedy Jeff proposes Lean UX, where real experiences are continuously tested and where people work together towards great experiences in a shared understanding of the problem.


Jeff explains Lean UX in 5 points:

1. Solve problems together. Business, marketing, development and design should start actively collaborating on solving business challenges. Working collaboratively leads to a shared understanding and more motivated and invested people.

2. Sketch. The common language, the thing that everyone gathers around, should no longer be spec documents but sketches. They can become the initial artifacts that spark discussion and create a shared understanding. And because they are easy to make, no-one is too invested in their own ideas, and they can be easily thrown way.

3. Prototype. In line with the Lean Start-up concept, prototypes are seen as a great way to create validated learning. Due to their interactive nature they allow for easy validation, and quick iteration.

4. Pair up. Cross-functional pairing is another pillar to the method. When designers work directly with developers they both start out with a shared understanding of the problem. Developers can start working on the things that are hard for them, whilst designers can focus on the more complex interaction challenges. Pairing creates mutual trust and deeper investment. Jeff mentioned using firebug as a tool that allows developers and designers to work together in an agile way.

5. Style guides. In order to live without massive specs, some documentation cannot be avoided. Jeff opted for the idea of a living, breathing style guide, that allows developers to quickly look up which style comes with ‘main call to action’ and designers to check if there are existing code patterns that could be reused.

(Agile 2011) Lean UX: Getting Out of the Deliverables Business

View more PowerPoint from Jeff Gothelf

Jeff continued by dealing with some of the critiques and challenges of the Lean UX approach. In order for it to work we need to get rid of this idea that designers should get it right the first time and it should be the designers and not the spec document who are in control. To create buy-in and shared understanding it’s important that everything is open and visible. For people who are used to working towards a certain amount of perfection in their deliverables the Lean method will at first feel a little uncomfortable, but as Jeff stated, how can you aim to make the best product when you don’t know if you are working on the right product? It’s successfully solving problems and creating value for our clients (and users) that should be our focus and not the creation of beautiful deliverables.

Q&A and Discussion
The second part of the evening was a panel discussion with Johanna Kollman, Leisa Reichelt, Jeff Gothelf, James O’Brien and Mark Plant, and Jonty Sharples as the host. Based on questions from the audience, they discussed how it’s possible that while everyone agrees with the premises of Lean/Agile –less waste, shared understanding, focus on the end results– a more lean way of working still seems to be far from common practice.
Several reasons were discussed.


Economical: many of the larger agencies are actually in the deliverables business and get good money for delivering wireframe decks. Also there’s an initial cost of changing to a new method. This might only change after clients themselves become more agile too; to achieve this, Johanna argues, there need to be internal stakeholders or embedded teams.

Trust: to become more agile people have to trust each other, Leisa argues that it’s almost impossible to do Agile in a situation with 3th party developers. If you haven’t build up a relationship with your client they will most likely go with a competitor who claims they can deliver on a fixed deadline and fixed budget, and will see your agile approach as too risky.

Technical: creating a living and breathing wiki style guide takes time and effort. How do you integrate such a thing in your organisation? Jeff suggests choosing someone as the owner of the wiki, and if it also includes code snippets, to co-own it with development and have a dev-owner too. James argues that instead of using a wiki, patterns should be printed out on the wall, and a css-preprocessing language can be used to store all the default styles.

Social: getting agile to work means spending more time talking and explaining things to colleagues, not everyone is up for that. Also here it is possible to start small, make some of your process or some of your team more agile, and let everyone slowly get used to shared responsibility and shared ownership.

Experience: no-one would argue getting agile to work is easy, it’s best done by people who know a rich set of tools and methods to adjust their process to the problem (and not the other way around). Mark argues that it’s impossible to force people into an agile way of working, they must want to work that way, and Johanna wonders if mentoring and show’n’tell is a good way to distribute Agile knowledge.

Psychological: Agile can be a painful process for perfectionists. Visual designers in particular  protest against losing their time and ability to do large pixel-perfect design upfront. James argues that the agile process forgets quiet places and time for reflection. Developers have refactoring time, where they clean up old code, and designers should claim this time for themselves too. Another element that Jeff brought up is that designers are used to being applauded for the beauty they bring into the world. Agile, and its focus on the end product, however, has no room for individual heroes and only works well as a team sport.

Somewhere towards the end, Leisa wonders if we’re just finding endless new ways – Agile, Lean UX, goal directed design – to rename what should be known as good design? And this sentiment also resonates with others, was this evening just another version of our yearly agile versus waterfall debate or is there something new under the sun? What is certain though, is that we are moving towards a more complex and uncertain future, and that we need all the ideas we can get to stay in control of our technology.  This evening at the Sense loft was therefore an evening well spent.

(More photos)

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February 7, 2012

Rem Koolhaas – designing the design process

Prize-winner and starchitect-in-denial, Rem Koolhaas and his studio OMA have created a method and practice that is uniquely capable of dealing with an ever more complex world. Interested in what this could mean for digital designers I started digging into their design process, in this article I’ll discuss my findings.

When asked once what his goal with his practice was, Koolhaas answered: “to keep thinking about what architecture could be. What I could be.”¹  And it is this ‘could be’ that plays a defining role in Koolhaas’ career.

0. Introduction
Rem Koolhaas studied scriptwriting and architecture and is heading OMA/AMO, an office he co-founded in 1975. You might know him from his books Delirious New York or S, M, L, XL and his practice from the CCTV HQ, Casa da Música in Porto or the Central Library in Seattle.

It is not easy to define Koolhaas. Although his buildings can be found all over the world, it’s hard to recognise a typical Koolhaas building by visual appearance alone. To define Koolhaas you have to move to his realm, leave the world of bricks and steel, and enter the world of images, models and processes, a world of ideas. Not what is, but what could be.

His buildings and his books do, however, have something that makes them recognisable as a product from OMA. A product that is very much influenced by the process of creation, a bottom up, labour-intensive, research-lead way of questioning everything. His products are assemblies, where Koolhaas refuses to give any easy answers, and instead reveals a selection of evidence and demands from spectators to form their own interpretations.


OMA Idea Machine

Koolhaas’s greatest achievement is therefore not a building or book, but a system that is capable of harvesting, questioning and producing ideas. What Koolhaas has built is a very large version of himself, a system that, through a method of researching and building, is capable of reliably creating beautiful and intelligent ideas on how the world could be. In this article I want to discuss the system that Koolhaas has built to get in that position and how he manages to remain at the forefront.

1. Observation
The easiest way to uncover new ideas is to be in areas where life is being transformed fast. Koolhaas and his team have been working on a structure that is capable of searching the world for opportunities where change is happening faster than anywhere else, where certain breakthroughs can be made. Some places like the historical centres of European cities have hardly changed through the centuries, whilst others like Beijing, Dubai or Laos seem to redevelop themselves within years. As he states: “We define an agenda, and then we look at the current moment and see where and in what way we could make certain breakthroughs and that is completely independent of making a constant sequence of architectural projects.“²

In 1998 OMA made their research and create approach more explicit by creating a specialised research department and think-tank, which deals with architecture in its unbuilt form. AMO is focused on research, publications and exhibitions. Through this research OMA manages to be present on the scene before the scene appears.


Research and Create

Long before Koolhaas the builder arrives, Koolhaas the writer was already there. In his role as professor at Harvard he explored the Pearl Delta before being asked to build for CCTV. Before proposing an infrastructure plan in Dubai, the manual was already published. Before working with Prada his research on shopping was already available in book form.

New ideas are most easily created in an environment of young ideas. It’s no wonder therefore that AMO’s and Koolhaas’ research projects can be found in many emerging economies of the world.

2. The studio practice
Another way in which Koolhaas differs from his competitors is in how his studio is run. Koolhaas doesn’t come up with the masterplan that is then refined by his architects. On the contrary, his practice defines itself by an enormous freedom, in materials, in methods and in working hours. One might say that at OMA it’s avoided at all cost that answers are given based on no other ground than authority. What Koolhaas therefore provides are questions and not answers.

As Koolhaas puts it: “What the OMA process focuses on is not the creator but the critic. In our way of working, the important person is the one who is shown various options and then makes a critical decision. The result is better architecture.”³

This practice of avoiding ready-made answers runs deep at OMA, it can be found in the way they source their materials. Kunlé Adeyemi states: “Of course it’s easier to use materials from the shelf, from the catalogue, but we can’t be on the cutting edge if we do that. So, we develop our own materials, we develop new structures.”4

Another aspect of this freedom is the way employees are allowed to manage their time, so they can be productive without being constrained by fixed working hours. As Mark Veldman states “You can walk out or you can stay the whole night and you can work here. You have a freedom to continue to work.5

Lastly, the fear of becoming predictable and stagnant even reaches into their hiring strategy. As managing director Victor van der Chijs mentioned “We really want every year at least 25% of our people to be new. And we want them to be young, bright people.6

In order for Koolhaas to have the greatest chance of uncovering new ideas, OMA is created around renewal and regeneration. Although Koolhaas himself, with his 30 years’ service, is a  constant factor, it is his continuous work of critiquing himself and the outside world, whilst at the same time also creating both of them, that becomes the key to the design process.

3. Models
Models play a crucial role at the OMA design process; produced in large quantities, they function as a container for ideas and constrains. Because of their shape they create an immediate impact, there is no need to go through long documents, a model is an entity to makes experiments easy. As one of their architects states: “[w]hen you have  creative minds you get a lot of ideas. The luxury product is in the fact that we can actually test all of them. Of course, it’s wasteful but that is what makes it a luxury.7 Dozens or even hundreds of ideas are turned into presentations, diagrams and models which through a process of constant critique, slowly turn into a final plan. As a journalist noticed: “[p]ast reception [...] is a meeting room filled with smaller maquettes. At first glance there appear to be perspex and foam models for dozens of projects – but close up you see they’re all clearly the same site, a masterplan in Moscow, modelled over and over again, with different arrangements and relationships of buildings.8

One of OMA’s accomplishments is therefore also that they manage to run a profitable business whilst allowing for an enormous amount of ‘waste’ to be created. This way of working also allows to blur the distinction between the research, concept and design phases. In these worlds the information that came from outside slowly grows into a plan that could transform the future. As Albena Yaneva writes, “Manhattan, Seattle, Cordoba are brought into the office; their life is re-enacted in the studio practice.9 The playground of ideas is constructed through mixing client demands, the environment, laws and budgets, but also opportunities, ideas, and dreams. In an endless circulation, ideas turn into shapes and shapes into ideas.


Round after round

Model-making allows the office to play with often contradictory constrains of client demands, the time pressure and the environment for the building. Models and books turn constrains and ideas into visual and physical representations that can be used as building blocks to create new worlds. “Erez Ella: Every model has one or more things. You cannot really say what is that – a composition of few things, of materials, of whatever.’ As such, they accommodate a contested assembly of conflicting demands, restrictions to demolish, constraints of history, programme, zoning, typologies, structure and roof, mechanical and electric systems as well as a variety of human concerns– users’ experiences and client’s demands, all translated, transplanted into and accommodated by one entire – the model.10

In this way Koolhaas’ practice is able to create and maintain many representations of possible futures that can be tried, altered and questioned. Round after round these representations run their courses, is neither affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its contents. This is a safe-cache copy of the original web site.