Emergence

23Dec12

Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergent structures are also a common strategy found in many animal groups: colonies of ants, swarms of bees, schools of fish and the flocking of birds. Ant colonies, for example, exhibit complex behavior and have even been able to demonstrate the ability to solve geometric problems. How can they do that? They don’t have a top down manager telling them what to do. Their queen does not give direct orders, instead each ant reacts to stimuli in the form of chemical scents and leaves behind a chemical trail, which in turn, provides a stimulus to other ants. Here each ant is an autonomous unit that reacts depending only on its local environment and the genetically encoded rules for its variety of ant.

Can we humans also show emergent behavior like these ants? Of course we can! It happens all the time. When walking on a crowded street we don’t bump into each other. We easily adjust our walking path in anticipation of the people around us. We don’t think about it. Or think about ‘elephant tracks’ in your local park. People constantly take the shortest path to their destination and take visible shortcuts over the grass. And this collective intelligence can take other forms too. We actually make use of this all the time! It’s called Google. Google tracks every website to learn about their page rank. And this page rank is essentially powered by you. Every time you click on a link or open a website google learns something. It learns which sites are popular and through is complicated algorithm is can return these findings in a search engine. Through our collective independent behavior google is getting smarter and smarter.

But other companies are also making use of our online behavior. Recommendations engines, used in most web shops, give intelligent suggestions on stuff you might like. They learn from past browsing history of likeminded people. If I’m buying a book, and another customer also bought that same book including second book, I might also like this second book. If enough people perform the same action, buying the same both books, it becomes a suggestion. Just like ants we can become smarter when we use independent information from a large group of people. Luckily we don’t need a manager to tell us how, just some smart nerds figuring out how the algorithm should work.


Lately I’am highly interested in infographic design work. I see lots of infographic posters and illustrations. And a few months ago I also saw some resume’s build up like an infographic. From that point on I always wanted to make one of those visual resume’s for myself. And I finally did it! Check it out and let me know what you think!


The amount of information a human being consumed in the 18th century in his whole life is the same as a week worth of information in a regular newspaper. This bizarre fact let me to the question if people did in fact adapted themselves to an ever growing information overload in our modern society.

Adaptation is one of the basic phenomena of biology, and is the process whereby an organism becomes better suited to its habitat. Also, the term adaptation may refer to a trait that is important for an organism’s survival. For example, the adaptation of horses’ teeth to the grinding of grass, or the ability of horses to run fast and escape predators. Is this change in information consumption enough reason for our brains to adapt? It appears our brain is in fact capable to easily adapt itself. Blind people reading braille use the area of a human brain normally allocated to visual input. From another research it appeared that the area that gets activated when we listen to piano notes is approximately 25% larger in musicians than non-musicians. Did two centuries of ever increasing information consumption had the same effect on our brains?

Sociologist James Flynn might has an answer to this question. In 1980 he discovered in a routine check of historical IQ scores that these IQ scores were rising in a linear way. Flynn compared more that 7500 IQ tests between 1932 and 1978 and it appeared that the average IQ rose with three points per decennia. Off course could this rise in IQ scores be the result of a better education. But in that case the biggest improvements should have been in language and general knowledge and far less in problem solving skills. Problem solving is often seen as a cultural and education independent skill. The biggest improvement however wasn’t in language and general knowledge, it was in problem solving.
We could conclude that the increasing complexity in our environment accompanied by a growing information overload had a positive effect on our problem solving skills and resulted in a growing IQ score. Our brains adapted and will probably keep doing this in the future. But will this linear change in IQ scores be enough when information appears to be increasing in exponential ways?


The simplest designs are often the most cleverest, this is definitely the case with the Eko Stoplight from designer Damjan Stankovic.

Designer Damjan Stanković came up with a concept where a timer is added to stoplights. Stanković promotes this stoplight as an eco solution in the following ways: If you’ve got the amount of time you’ve got to stop in front of you, you can shut your engine off, wait, be calm, and turn it back on again when the time is almost up. This not only lessens the amount of gas you use sitting still, but it lessens the amount of crazy madness you have wondering if the stoplight is stuck, or just really, really long.

When you think about it, you don’t need this information counted in seconds, you just need to see the speed of the progress bar to give you an estimate of the time.

Oour innate desire to see the bar creep forward runs deeper than our slow entanglement with computers. I wrote about this topic in another blogpost: The Psychology Of Waiting


When we make decisions we think we’re in control, making rational choices. But are we? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, has some interesting examples of irrational decision making.

Decision making

We are always looking at the things around us in relation to others. We don’t just compare things but we actually compare things that are more easily comparable. If given the following options for a honeymoon – Paris (with free breakfast), Rome (with free breakfast), and Rome (no breakfast included), most people would choose Rome with the free breakfast. The rationale is that it is easier to compare the two options for Rome than it is to compare Paris and Rome. Ariely also explains the role of the decoy effect in the decision process. The decoy effect is the phenomenon whereby consumers will tend to have a specific change in preference between two options when also presented with a third option that is asymmetrically dominated. This effect is the secret agent in more decisions than we can imagine. Back to the example with the honeymoon options, Rome without free breakfast is the decoy. It makes Paris look inferior when compared to Rome with the free breakfast.

In another example from the economist.com you have the following three subscription options :

economist 1

When Ariely did a little test with this ad, these where the results:

Picture 2

As you can see, most people would choose the ‘combo’ deal. And nobody would choose the inferior option. But when we remove the second options the results were quite different:

Picture 3

Thanks to the useless option in the middle the combo deal looked like a fantastic deal and most people choosed it. But in fact it wasn’t the option we really wanted. The general idea is that we don’t know our preferences that well. And because we don’t know our prefereces that well we are easily manipulated by external forces.


A few weeks ago Boy van Amstel and I had funny idea for a twitter mash-up. We would basically measure your twitter popularity in the form of a giant penis. Better know as the e-Penis. Funny enough? Well in order to see if we really created something to talk about we registered a URL: www.epenis.nl and we uploaded the e-Penis app with a few ‘share-this’ buttons. The first button was to post it on Twitter, and the second one was to Digg it. Would people share this site with their friends? How fast would it spread? All question a marketer would like to know when creating a viral marketing campaign right?

picture-2

In our first day we managed to reach about 100 of our own friends on twitter. But for it to be really successful we needed to reach some people on twitter with a huge following base. We used our own share this button a number of times on all sorts of people. And after a few tries @michielveenstra, 2500 followers, picked up our message and reposted our website on his own twitter stream on a friday night. Overnight we reached 1500 hits. But as it turned out our biggest traffic came from a porn-blog! Apperently a webmaster from this well know porn-blog picked up our site after seeing it in the stream from @michielveenstra. In the weekend we managed to get around 8000 hits from this porn site. But on monday morning it really took off. Hordes of time wasting desk workers measured their body part. From that point on it really became a trend on twitter. Our ‘twitter this’ button was used a few times every few minutes now. Because people often measured the popularity off well known people they eventually couldn’t help but brag about it too (Cough @stephenfry, 336.599 followers). This caused Great Great Brittian to swarm our website and spread it even more. At this point North and South-America just woke up.

Btw the website was at this moment stll being hosted on Boy van Amstel’s server, placed at his parents’ home. Utilizing almost all of the “massive” 1Mbit bandwith. Thank god his little brother didn’t complain. The reason this was even possible is that epenis.nl has no server-side scripts. It’s all jQuery, HTML, CSS and (small) images. We actually reduced the size of the website by half, by grabbing jquery.js from google.com.

At monday around 4 pm, CET, we finally managed to get the word Penis into the Twitter trending topics. A huge success because now people twittered about why the word penis was even in this list. Generating even more traffic to our site when they found out we were causing it.

image001

Some people saw a connection between Spring Break, which probaly helped accepting the fact the word penis was a part of the list. Twitter however didn’t agree with that. After a few hours we saw some messages from people who were complaining about their posts disappearing, not much later penis wasn’t trending anymore. Did Twitter screw with us here? We can’t be sure. But the damage already had been done, we had already spread to the American continent. A couple of big American Twitter users like @MrsKutchers, thats Demi Moore (257,150 followers) posted it later in the evening, that really generated lots of traffic and added a large amount of females to our users.

The next morning we had almost 40k hits. At this point we called our viral a success, we expected it to die out rather soon. But we were wrong! To our suprise it kept on going steadily. Around 14:00 there suddenly was a huge spike in our traffic. As it appeared, @Guykawaski (92,399 followers) was giving a keynote during SES New York about ‘Twitter As A Tool For Social Media’. Lots of people posted live messages during his talk and as it turns out also about our little project…

@Searchcowboys: Guykawasaki shows epenis.nl and says it’s more powerfull then twittercounter :) #sesny’

Some other stuff made us laugh too:

@PaulIAm: Darwin just backed the car up to his grave, connected a hose to the tailpipe and took a deep breath…http://www.epenis.nl/’

‘@Retecool: There’s lots of stuff out there that figures out your Twitter ranking, value, mojo, etc. But let’s cut the crap it’s all about who’s has the big swinging dick, right?’

@Vatikan: Scheiße, @satan ‘s ePenis ist länger als meiner http://www.epenis.nl/’

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At this moment we’re still trying to figure out what the hell we’re are going to with it. To conclude, here is a list of the things we learned:

  1. Use Sneezers, find Twitter users with respect and high amounts of followers. (Seth Godin’s Purple Cow)
  2. Post your viral at the right time. We had Spring Break, the SESNY Keynote by Guykawasaki and the usual monday morning boredom going for us.
  3. Maximize sharability. Our ‘Post on Twitter” button was used extremly well.
  4. Make it simple. There are no lists, links, pages. It does only one thing verry well. (KISS: Keep it Simple Stupid)
  5. Sex Sells

Thanks for reading,
Barry Borsboom & Boy van Amstel


Apparently, the ‘close doors’ button on most lifts does not actually work. It is there mostly to give passengers the illusion of control. We press it but the lift control mechanisms decide when the doors should actually shut according to their pre-programmed cycles.

doorclosebutton

Human brains are finely tuned belief engines. Millions of years of evolution have honed our grey stuff to spot causation in the world and form beliefs about what causes what. It helps us survive when we notice that certain events always follow other events. Such knowledge helps us reliably find food, mates and shelter. But our brains are taking efficient shortcuts. We filter out and ignore failures and remember and reinforce successes. And most of the time this works. But beliefs formed in this way can lead to mistakes. My pressing the lift button may well be a false conclusion drawn from my experience because I have failed to spot hidden causes and alternatives to the obvious. Maybe it really is just the lift closing the door without my intervention.

This all is related to the illusion of control psychological effect studied by Ellen Langer and others, where people are shown to believe they have some control over things they clearly don’t: in most cases, a button does afford us control, and we would rationally expect it to, and if we’re used to it not doing anything, we either no longer bother pressing it, or we still press it every time “on the off-chance that one of these days it’ll work”.

By now you should be wondering why the hell lift makers should install the close door button in their lifts if it doesn’t work appropriately.
There are a few options:

  • The button really does work, it’s just set on time delay.
    Suppose the elevator is set so that the doors close automatically after five seconds. The close-door button can be set to close the doors after two or three seconds. The button may be operating properly when you push it, but because there’s still a delay, you don’t realize it.
  • The button is broken. Since a broken close-door button will not render the elevator inoperable and thus does not necessitate an emergency service call, it may remain unrepaired for weeks.
  • The button has been disconnected, usually because the building owner received too many complaints from passengers who had somebody slam the doors on them.
  • The button was never wired up in the first place.

But thinking about this more generally: how often are deceptive buttons/controls/options – deliberate false affordances – used strategically in interaction design? Are there any examples of products (other than, say, children’s toys) deliberately designed with fake controls to make the user feel in charge even though he/she isn’t?


I’m a sucker for simple but intelligent logo’s. Logo’s that can communicate their name in simple way are often the most powerful. Take a look at the following examples. All masterpieces in my opinion.

Wiesinger Music
music_m

Zip
logo-zip

KingFish
kingfish

FoodWriters
foodwriters

Objectified
objectified

Climate group
picture-21

Curious
11

Schizophrenic
10

Health & Rehabilitation
9


While traveling through Schiphol Airport a month ago I couldn’t stop but notice how clear all the signage was. I remembered having an college about a few years ago. Mijksenaar has been responsible for signage at Schiphol Airport since 1990.

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When designing signage for a Airport or a other public building you have to take a good notice of the visual surroundings the signage will be placed in. The backgound colors of walls and windows, the amount daylight let in the building, the lighting and more environmental elements are important when designing signage for a aiport. In a visual crowed environment it is important that signage design stands out to its background, for a maximum effect. Use a color system with not to many variations and be consistant with the color usage. Think about using illumnated signs to enhanche the readability of the signage.

Colors are coupled to certain types of information. Yellow signs provide information on arrivals and departures, for example, while blue signs refer to shopping and restaurant-café facilities, anthracite to waiting areas, and green to escape routes.

Mijksenaar used the following Principles for designing the signage:

  • Good contrast of bright yellow and green colored signs in a neutral environment
  • The use of circular black arrows in a white circle, which contrast with a colored background
  • Illuminated lightboxes placed throughout the area
  • Consistency of highly visible suspended signs viewable from a great distance
  • Signs located in the center of the flow and not to the side
  • Signs perpendicular, rather than parallel, to the flow

Mijksenaar stressed that font, color coding and pictograms should be considered only after research has been completed, and the system has been mapped out in the most efficient, sensible way possible. He suggests the following for effective use of design elements:

  • Color coding: Color should make sense and clearly communicate an information category.
  • Terminology: Assume that visitors know nothing about the facility and use terminology that is easily understandable to everyone.
  • Fonts: Don’t use more than one font, and stick to such sans-serif typefaces as Frutiger, Clearview, Gill or Meta.
  • Pictograms: Don’t rely too much on pictograms; supplement with text, especially with less familiar functions.

In a recent paper by Donald Norman about the psychology of waiting lines Norman discusses the experience people have while waiting in line. How can designers make this experience better?

waiting-in-line

The paper made me think of this classic story about a building where tenants were complaining about long elevator waiting times.

In a multistoried office building in New York occupants began complaining about the poor elevator service provided in the building. Waiting times for elevators at peak hours, they said, were excessively long. Several of the tenants threatened to break their leases and move out of the building because of this…

Management authorized a study to determine what would be the best solution. The study revealed that because of the age of the building no engineering solution could be justified economically. The engineers said that management would just have to live with the problem permanently.

The desperate manager called a meeting of his staff, which included a young recently hired graduate in personnel psychology…The young man had not focused on elevator performance but on the fact that people complained about waiting only a few minutes. Why, he asked himself, were they complaining about waiting for only a very short time? He concluded that the complaints were a consequence of boredom. Therefore, he took the problem to be one of giving those waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that those waiting could look at each other or themselves without appearing to do so. The manager took up his suggestion. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped.

Today, mirrors in elevator lobbies and even on elevators in tall buildings are commonplace.

Donald Norman gives eight design principles for waiting lines:

    1. Emotions Dominate
    2. Eliminate Confusion: Provide a Conceptual Model, Feedback and Explanation
    3. The Wait Must Be Appropriate
    4. Set Expectations, Then Meet or Exceed Them
    5. Keep People Occupied: Filled Time Passes More Quickly Than Unfilled Time
    6. Be Fair
    7. End Strong, Start Strong
    8. The memory of an event is more important than the experience itself.

The story about the elevator used rule number 5. Keep people occupied. Some other lessons can be learned from theme parks. Theme parks regularly make the line turn corners, so that at any point, the line looks only as long as the distance to the next corner. Deceitful? Yes, but still helpful. Disney theme parks provide entertainers to engage the people in line, ensuring they are enjoying themselves.
It helps if lines move quickly, so a long, fast-moving line can be preferred to a short, slow-moving one, even if the actual waiting times are the same in both cases.




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