CES 2016: From the Fringes

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is the premier trade show for tech product previews and release announcements, going as far back as the VCR in 1970 to Driverless Cars in 2013*. This year the CES featured about 3800 exhibitors, spanning 2.47 million sq. ft. spread out over 3 locations** visited by 170,000 media and industry professionals — and I was privileged to count myself amongst them. Featuring keynote addresses from Intel, Netflix, IBM, Samsung, nVidia, Volkswagen and other big names, a lot has been written, presented and shared on mainstream as well as social media about the 4 day event. This chart sums it up the hype pretty well:

Source: BuzzRadar.com

Source: BuzzRadar, CTA

I decided to share some of my views from the fringes, rather than the trenches — there is no point in rinsing and repeating what is already out there, nor do I have any delusions about the value of my personal opinion about tech that enables your car to count how many oranges are left in your fridge (yes, it was demoed, with voice control).

Oculus_c

The Oculus Rift demo was by far the hardest to get into — there was a line, a line to get in the line, and a third holding area. Eventually I made it on the last day, and it took me about 20 min to recover from the simulator sickness caused by piloting EVE Valkyrie’s spacecraft from a living room chair. I still felt there were rough edges and the HTC Vive was by far a more refined, immersive and truly flawless experience. The new Sony PlayStation 4 VR was quite impressive as well: I could lean out of a moving car and look behind me, and the granularity of control was so good I could rotate knobs on the car stereo. OSVR.org based devices were quite popular too, and some others that caught my eye were Virtuix Omni active VR platform, AntVR’s Holodeck concept and ICAROS‘ EUR 10,000 gym equipment that lets you fly around in a virtual world powered by your own body. Certainly beats playing first person shooters wearing VR googles on a treadmill, or riding a virtual horse on a exercycle.

There were tons of clones (mostly based on Gear VR) and drones. Augmented Reality seems to be gaining ground, but despite solutions like the Sony SmartEyeglass and Daqri Smart Helmet, VR seems to be more popular of the two. It’s worth noting that virtually every VR or AR demo was running on Unity3D content, including those at NASA and IEEE’s booths.

I also tried my hand at racing simulators of various scales: from small VR setups, to actual cars mounted on motion platforms, to a massive 4×4 grid of 55″ OLEDs in front of a force feedback seat rig. There were several interesting display technologies on show: 3D without glasses, transparent (scaling up to entire walls), curved and Samsung’s modular, edge-blending display tech straight out of a sci-fi movie. Avegant’s Glyph might turn the display industry on it’s head, though, much like the way it’s worn.

SamsungModular_c

 

On the automotive side, voice, gesture and intent based user interfaces seem to be gaining ground. Also making an appearance were adaptive user interfaces and improvements in sensor fusion, self-learning and self-driving techniques. There were tons of wearables, 3D printing and home automation booths. The two core themes seemed to be a maturing of the ecosystem (just about everything built on top of something else, not too many technologies solving problems from scratch) and apps for doing things that don’t need apps, like locking your front door. You’d think we would stop there, but no:

On the social innovation side, I found GrandPad, Casio’s 2.5D printing and the Genworth R70i Aging Experience very thoughtful. Besides these, I liked Mixfader‘s idea of an MVP slider for mobile DJs: after all, the crossfader is the main thing that requires precise tactile control, everything else can be relegated to the screen. Also impressive was Sony’s line of 409,600 ISO see-completely-in-the-dark cameras. And this is now a thing:

LifeSpaceUX_c

You’d also probably be able to find a lot of beautiful photos of Las Vegas on the Internet, so let me leave you with this video of a not-so-common Las Vegas activity that I squeezed in on the last day, courtesy of DreamRacing.com (very fringe-y because I picked a Nissan over a Ferrari). Thanks for reading!

* Apple, Google and Microsoft have their own tech events and despite the Xbox (2001) and Android devices (2010) being unveiled at CES, these companies tend to keep their product announcements exclusive to their own events. So no Hololens at CES.

** „Tech East (Las Vegas Convention Center), Tech West (Sands/Expo at the Venetian,  The Palazzo, Wynn and Encore) and Tech South (Aria and Vdara)

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Prezi’s 7 Year Itch?

This has been a really hard post for me to write, because some of the brilliant engineers and designers at Prezi are my professional acquaintances and/or good friends. And that’s the very reason I’m writing it – real friends tell it like it is. I’ve been putting this off since I first started using Prezi almost a year ago. But now that I have experienced it in free, Edu and Pro flavors, and created some pretty complex ones, the initial tiny niggles now seemed to have, let’s say, zoomed in (pun intended). So Prezi people: please consider this well-intended motivation.

Prezi was founded in 2009, and I imagine at that time it must have felt something like Wolfenstein 3D: technologically ground-breaking and in some circles, controversial (you may recall Microsoft tried to acquire id Software). Powerpoint needed to be killed, because it enforced linear thinking – and Prezi was the answer. Yet, 6 years later, linear thinking is still popular:

With 60 mn users (and 160 mn -/+ 18% Prezis created, depending on which part of their website you refer to), obviously they’ve got something right. Right enough that they are able to sustain an international presence on a single product. That rarely happens at this scale, and I suppose it is something to be admired.

The Platform

The in-browser experience is brilliant. Works well and virtually eliminates the entry barrier.  I tried using the desktop variant, Prezi for Mac, once. Just once. I found that it in terms of usability, it didn’t offer any major advantages over the website. But the real problem was that it kept false-flagging sync conflicts between the “local” and “cloud” versions. Eventually I decided the fake stress wasn’t worth it and switched back to the browser.

You may not have this dilemma if you would like to use the free power of Linux to share your ideas – Prezi doesn’t support it. (To be fair, they more than make up for this by actively promoting the tech and open source community in Budapest, by regularly organizing/hosting events, meetups and conferences).

There is an iPad version that “enables users to pan, and pinch to zoom in or out of their media” (That’s perfect, because that’s pretty much what an iPad is good for, anyway).

What I really wish for is the ability to resize the slide view pane on the left, so I can identify and jump to specific slides. And multi-select, especially for reordering (use the Force of the Shift Key). I would also like to mark some sections so I can focus on certain areas for preparation. Or even skip straight to one depending on how the conversation is flowing.

I mentioned stress earlier. You can quite easily recreate it by using 2-finger zoom gesture on a Mac. It’s not very precise and often ends up being a lot more than you’d expect. I once had to spend hours fixing my slides when a select-move-zoom operation didn’t go as planned. I learnt the hard way to stick to the zoom buttons and not use gestures.

And finally, it all runs on Flash. Yes, even now.

Features

The undo/redo feature also has a bit of a mind of its own. For simple operations it usually works fine, but when you’re in the flow and make a mistake, it often does the thing you’d least expect. Infinite undo/redo shouldn’t be that hard to implement either, considering everything is an object with attributes, anyway. What would be really nice, though, is some kind of checkpoints — major versions that you can roll back to, branch out of, or share with someone (e.g. numbered drafts). Because, 2015.

The guides when moving stuff around are hard to see. Too often they blend into the background, especially e.g. if the background has a grid. Get those ants marching again!

I also miss the ability to add notes, although what I would really expect is a more modern way of representing “prompts”, in a way that would be intuitive for presenters.

Warning: Brutal Honesty Ahead

Try this test, Prezi folks: create a new Prezi, single slide only, and export it to PDF.

  • Number of pages expected: 1
  • Number of pages found: 2.  The first page is always duplicated during export, regardless of number of slides.
  • Test result: FAIL.

Really, nobody noticed this in all these years?

Or that the image borders provided by the Aviary plugin are too thick and can’t be adjusted? (I trust you when you say my “private”, potentially proprietary/copyrighted images are truly private, even though there seems to be no obvious ToS or protection mechanism).

I’ve had Aviary and PDF export error out on me on a couple of occasions. I can live with that. But must you call them IO_ERRORs? That sounds more like the server ran out of disk space or something. And to non-programmers like my Dad, it probably looks like “ten errors” misspelt.

Nice to have: compressed PDF, with lowered quality. Try printing a 60 MB PDF some time, or re-uploading it — when just a link would have sufficed.

For that matter, why limit social sharing options to only to Facebook? How about Twitter, LinkedIn and dare I say, SlideShare integration as well? (PS: Do people really share presentations on Facebook? How about a good old “Email this” shortcut?)

There is tremendous potential to use Prezi as a content generation tool if it allowed exporting to video, or directly to YouTube (and/or Vimeo). Think tutorials, troubleshooting guides, walkthroughs and just plain not having to talk over and over again — present it, record it, share it. Other people seem to have the same idea, too.

And if only there was a way to present to the second screen, so in a presenter view (or just Edit mode) I can see what’s coming next and how I’m doing with my timing.

Use Your Imagination

sod2

Animated GIFs are still the quickest way of demonstrating processes in action, for example. Importing Google Spreadsheets and converting them into graphs within the editor. Powerful timelines like TimeGlider. Simple maps like OpenHeatMap. Leveraging the zooming and object hierarchy features to build a MindMap mode (which may even serve as a foundation for the final Prezi). And why limit the zooming and rotating to 2 dimensions only? I would love to make a Prezi with 6 slides, each represented on a face of a cube which can be rotated in 3D space. After all, the future of storytelling is going to be virtual and immersive.

(Here’s an idea: API and plugins).

Prezi is great, but that’s no reason to not be even greater.

(Or just release the Kraken: make it open source, let us fork it and watch how people use the platform to build even more clever ideas for telling their stories).

 

 

 

Amuse UX Conference, Budapest

Last week, I had the privilege of being part of a group attending the first edition of AmuseConf on behalf of our company. Amuse is “an international conference for anyone interested in how to design and develop successful products that users love”. It’s organized by the same good folks that bring us the outstanding CraftConf year after year, sponsored primarily by Prezi and UStream (and SAP in case of Amuse). They did a near-perfect job, with only minor glitches with the seating and catering on the first day. Considering that the Big Data oriented CrunchConf was also literally next door, the event was practically flawless. Fast, uninterrupted WiFi and no food options for vegetarians/vegans remained a hallmark this organizing team (even though Tom Illmensee, event MC is himself vegetarian 😉 ).

(BTW, if you’re wondering why so many tech conferences are being hosted in Budapest, the event’s WiFi password should give you a hint):

20151103_083708867_iOS

510 attendees from 32 countries (as far away as Australia) made Amuse a roaring success, as did its impressive lineup of Speakers27% of the speakers were women, which is great for a tech conference — I hope next year we have even more!

Below is a summary of the talks I found the most relevant to my work. But by no means does that mean you should skip the other talks… depending on where you are and what you’re doing, you might be interested in some of the eclectic topics covered such as:

  • Designing web interfaces for children by Trine Falbe
  • Conducting research outside “sample of convenience” by Bill Selman from Mozilla Foundation
  • Design Thinking by Tobias Haug of SAP (my favorite quote: “Innovation = Execution x Creativity”)
  • How to get your dream UX job by Andrew Doherty of Google (worth checking out just for his mad presentation skills)
  • The Ethical Designer by Cennydd Bowles
  • Storytelling in a multidevice landscape by Anna Dahlstrom

Design Equilibrium

By Jonathan Lupo

Jonathan opened the conference with a very engaging talk drawing parallels between businesses and ecosystems: a “balanced exchange of value between Actors, Enterprise and Brand”. He gave practical examples citing the application of Lynn Shostack’s work on Service Blueprinting to a transformation in the healthcare industry. I strongly encourage viewing his inspiring talk on YouTube.

His core suggestion is a separation of Product Design from Service Design. The latter “fills in whitespaces between points of [rich] engagement provided by products”, helping to restore balance to the overall experience, and hence the business ecosystem. This is the real intangible value of services, as opposed to products.

He also proposed the concept of an “Engagement Model”: a framework to contextualize all the data a business collects.

UX: Design as a Science

By Joel Marsh, author of the UX Crash Course

Joel’s key message was that “Scientific UX Design is reproducible”: essentially drawing on the principles of the Lean Startup and applying them to the UX domain. His presentation was one of the most popular and engaging ones, and his quotes and examples garnered a lot tons of positive feedback. One thing that struck me was his exposition on the two types of creativity: Creative expression and creative problem solving. He noted that an over-applicability of creative expression can make you feel good as a designer, but result in an over-designed and bloated product:

ArtVsDesign

Another talk I would highly recommend watching when it comes out on UStream.tv.

Making Dog Food a Part of Your Balanced Diet

By Toby Sterrett

Toby used his work at Simple Bank to highlight the pros and cons of “eating your own dogfood”. The initial employees used the app themselves, and one of the downsides was that the missed revelation that users of such a smooth app had to deal with a paper form-based process to close their account, which took up to 20 days.

Another inspiring talk that you should definitely check out, full of quotes of wisdom like:

  • “Delight is design’s superpower”
  • A past discussion on Leadership strategy: “Build a shared vision, get the **** out of the way”
  • “UX is not about throwing technology at a problem, but throwing people at a problem”

On the other hand, Simple A/B tested as many as 16 variations of their login page (for more examples, check out UserOnboard.com).

Live posters being created by @remarker_eu

Live posters being created by @remarker_eu

How We Built Hotjar and Onboarded 50k Users in a Year

By Dr. David Darmanin

David used practical examples from Hotjar to support his model of “Drivers, Barriers and Hooks” when dealing with site visitors. He also put a quirky twist on some timeless wisdom:

The two most amazing insights for me were:

  • Hotjar captures every single customer interaction on a Trello board, and uses that feedback to prioritize their features.
    • They also make their roadmap public, which demonstrates their commitment and at the same time reduces enquiries about feature requests
  • They use the income from their paid customers to fund the creative freedom to build features for their free customers

The Invisible Interface: Designing the Screenless Experience

By Avi Itzkovich

Avi, founder of UXSalon, opened with a discourse on recent editions of Microsoft Productivity Future Vision. From there he led the discussion on towards a future without bigger and wider screens (which wouldn’t require “superhuman arm strength”):

  • “The most profound technologies are the ones that become invisible” 
    • Like automatically opening sliding doors
  • “Voice UI is the future”
  • “Gesture control is here to stay, but not on screens”

The Best Interface is No Interface

By Golden Krishna

Golden surmised that we are all “chipping away at digital chores”, and we don’t have to be “slaves to screens”. He has laid the foundations of the #NoUI movement with his book“The Best Interface is No Interface”. His excellent talk (slides here) was supported by book reading and real examples. Also, don’t forget to check out his accompanying toolkit on “how to create elegant solutions with no screens”.

For further inspiration to join the movement,  take a look at his Producthunt collection of “interfaces that require little or no time with screens”.

Magical UX and the Internet of Things

By Josh Clark

Josh opened with an announcement of his book release: “Designing for Touch”. His presentation was literally magical, complete with a wand, to the point that he managed to tie in together excerpts from preceding talks and put the whole conference in perspective. I found a similar slidedeck from one of his previous talks here, and I highly recommend taking a look at it while we wait for the official conference videos to come up on Ustream.tv. It was a treasure trove of out-of-the box examples like:

  •  Augmented REality Sandtable (ARES), which literally turns dirt into a high-tech, military-grade user interface… using not much more than a Kinect and projector
  • Grab Magic, which brings superpowers to data transfer
  • Propeller Health, which connects Asthma inhalers to phones for health monitoring

Josh’s key message was “interaction at the point of inspiration”: that we should think of “the whole world is an interface, just like it has always been”. He proposed “thereables” instead of wearables: bits of smart technology in the physical space where we would expect to interact with them, not something we burden ourselves by carrying or wearing all day long. To this end, he suggested that “the smartphone is Magic Wand 1.0 for everyone” and we should start thinking of it as just more than a screen.

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Regarding user interfaces, he had 3 bits of advice that I found remarkable:

  • “Technology should amplify our humanity”
  • “We shouldn’t educate users on how technology works, unless we really *have* to”
  • “Honor intention, don’t assume it”

Josh ended with a call to action:

Like this one.

 

 

 

 

 

Craft Conf 2015, Day 3

Continued from Day 2, here is a summary of talks I attended on Day 3:

From the Monolith to Microservices: Lessons from Google and eBay

By Randy Shoup | Video | Slides

Another eye-opening presentation with valuable insights, such as the fact that [a big organization like Google] doesn’t need architects, it just needs standardized communication and standardized interfaces. And that one of the biggest mistakes people make with microservices is reflecting the provider’s model instead of the consumer’s model. I highly recommend his talk, because it is based on the analysis of several Silicon Valley giants, successful either in the past or the present.

Interaction Driven Design

By Sandro Mancuso | Video | Slides

Sandro’s presentation was full of real examples rather than just theory. I had never heard of the Walking Skeleton before. It was an interesting intersection of DDD (Domain Driven Design), MVC-type architectures and SOLID principles, leading up to a pragmatic way of structuring and packaging software projects. Other advice from Sandro included modeling behavior, not state and not necessarily representing repositories as first-class citizens.

WebSocket for the Real-Time Web and the Internet of Things

By Peter Moskovits | Video | Slides

Not only was it an amazing presentation with live demos, Peter was also fully prepared with a backup plan for everything – including a PDF version of his presentation. After a historical perspective & technical explanation of how WebSockets work, he jumped into Kaazing demos which you can also experience online here. The most interesting was a kind of MVP for disseminating airline telemetry data (here).

Why Is An API Like a Puppy?

By Ade Oshineye | Video | Slides

RESTful APIs are not the solution to all of the world’s problems: Ade was short, succinct and insightful. The title of his talk reflected the fact that an API is an expensive long term commitment, it’s not just about the initial cost of software development. He got a lot of attention when he revealed that Google’s most successful API is AdWords, and it’s SOAP, not REST. Although REST is theoretically good, it doesn’t usually fit well with the real world consumer’s way of thinking. Another one of his gems was that if your [public] API is not being spammed/abused, then either no one is using it, or it’s happening and you’re not aware of it.

Implementing the Saga Pattern

By Caitie McCaffrey | Video | Slides

There wasn’t anything interesting to me during this time slot, so I decided to go with this one just for the Halo reference. There was just one picture of Halo. And a lot of “so” and “like”.

Techniques and Tools For a Coherent Discussion About Performance in Complex Architectures

By Theo Schlossnagle | Video | Slides

Theo decided it would be a good idea to plaster all his slides with huge pictures of steak. Anyway, after establishing that User Experience is measured in milliseconds, and that performance is also about the time spent between service layers, he covered distributed tracing systems such as Dapper and Zipkin.

IMG_3480

Great Engineering, Failed Product

By Marty Cagan | Video | Slides

Marty drew on decades of experience in Silicon Valley to summarize why great products and companies fail over and over again. I highly recommend watching his inspiring and insightful talk. Some of the things he touched upon while comparing successful and poorly performing teams:

  • Customers and company executives are a bad source of product ideas, because they don’t know what’s technically achievable
  • Developers are a good source, and so is Data (analytics, metrics, usage)
  • Multi-billion dollar projects are not based on a Business Case accurately predicting future revenue
  • Roadmaps are not a good indicator because Customers have other options available to them
  • Think Time to Money, not Time to Market – which means more than one iteration is involved
  • Product Managers are not mere [user] story writers – they need to have a deep understanding of the business, industry, customers and constraints
  • Most teams work in a way that gives them probably 20% of the benefit of Agile Methodologies
  • Value outcomes over output; think in terms of results, not projects
  • Successful teams run as many as 20 MVP experiments in a week – even if it involves hardware
  • Successful companies use an OKR approach to measure progress
  • The four product development questions:
    1. Will the customers choose it? (Customer Validation)
    2. Will they be able to use it? (User Experience)
    3. Can we build it? (Feasibility)
    4. Can our stakeholders support it? (e.g. Legality)

______________________________________________

Craft Conf 2015, Day 2

I had the privilege of attending the second year of CRAFT, a tech conference in Budapest focused on software craftsmanship. The last year (which was the first time it was held) had completely blown my mind. A year later I still keep referring back to the talks and haven’t finished fully absorbing them and putting all those inspiring ideas into practice.

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In short…

Craft Conf 2014 was better. The speakers came from a more diverse background, the talks spanned a multitude of unrelated topics and I remember it being very, very hard to choose from talks happening in parallel. Each minute spent there was a revelation.

This year, though, many of the talks seemed to be plug for a company or a product, in disguise. Certainly there were brilliant takeaways, but not at the same scale as the previous year.

In my opinion, 2014 was also held in a better venue, although the 2015 venue was outstanding too, as far as tech conference venues go. But the rooms were too far spread out (the map was inaccurate), the acoustics were bad everywhere except the Main Room and unlike 2014, the WiFi was not flawless. Lastly, there were far fewer food choices, longer queues, no bottled water (even for the speakers) and therefore a lot of glasses clanking.

On the positive side, the schedule was followed down to the minute, the live video streaming was smooth and considering the scale of the event (1300 attendees), everything was beautifully organized. I’m not complaining – it’s just that the first CRAFT had set a pretty high standard.

(Video and Slides links will be updated by next weekend, when they become available)

Agile Engineering in a Safety-Critical World

By Nancy Van Schooenderwoert | Video | Slides

“Instead of freezing the ocean, learn to ride the waves” – Nancy’s talk was mainly about how our need for predictability for effective coordination is at odds with our need for fast learning to handle unknowns. She pointed out that in the agile context, “Architecture is any design decision that you cannot easily change”.

There was the customary reference to WikiSpeed to dispel the myth that hardware changes can’t fit within 2-4 week iterations. And an interesting one to a paper called TIR45 from AAMI: Guidance on the use of AGILE practices in the development of medical device software.

Coding Culture

By Sven Peters | Video | Slides

Sven’s talk was both informative and inspiring. Some of the key takeaways:

  • Innovation needs time
  • Stop and celebrate wins, however small they may be
  • Balance your passion for code with your passion for customers
  • Turn your passion into product
  • Value trust, autonomy and transparency (Atlassian achieves this by using chat over other communication means)
  • Products come and go, culture stays

Take a look at Atlassian’s Mood App and Stash Reviewer Suggester.

Building Reliable Distributed Data Systems

By Jeremy Edberg | Video | Slides

This one was good, until we went deep diving into the NetFlix Simian Army, which was also good but could have been summarized in just one slide. One thing that stood out from Jeremy’s advice was to “build for three”, because if you can overcome problems there then the solution can be [more] easily scaled up to n.

Don’t forget to check out NetFlix Open Source Software Center.

Oh! You Pretty Tools

By Andrew Bayer | Video | Slides

Andrew gave an interesting talk about the role of internal tools and their developers in the organization, covering both the pros and the cons. For example while making the build or buy decision, consider the fact that people are more expensive than software. And some thoughtful insights, like how Integration Tests can double-up as the roadmap to your tool’s usage. He also revealed that Cloudera runs ~2000 Jenkins CI builds every day(!)

The rest of it was basically about, and lessons learned from, CloudCat.

Testing and Integration (The Remix)

By Ines Sombra | Video | Slides

Ines entertainingly summarized everything we know so far, and topped it off with new insights for a good measure.  She emphasized:

  • The importance of lightweight short-lived branches so that CI is not overlooked
  • The more likely a test is to fail, the sooner you should run it
  • The testing of provisioning systems, such as Chef Recipes, too
  • How test setup time and parallelization are the key factors in minimizing the testing cycle time

She recommended this talk about the Google Build System.

Her punchline was that CI is a predictor of professional maturity at the organizational and individual level, and she ended with a “rantifesto” about building a culture of quality.

Beyond Features: Rethinking Agile Planning and Tracking

By Dan North | Video | Slides

From Cutting to Curing: Dan presented the powerful and inspiring idea that maybe software engineering is more like surgery than the civil engineering principles that we currently use to manage it. Agile methodologies essentially optimize for predictability, and this not necessarily a good thing. He mused on how a 2-week sprint is just enough time for a mini-waterfall, and thus we are all basically whitewater rafting.

After reviewing where the Agile Manifesto has brought us, he set an ambitious new goal to sustainably minimize the lead time to business impact. 

He ended with:

  • The role of Features, Delivery and Kaizen
  • Schedule, Measure, Track, Showcase
  • How Value Stream Mapping can reveal surprises like typically a piece of work spends upto 90% of it’s time waiting for dependencies

How To Save Innovation From Itself

By Alf Rehn | Video | Slides

For me, Alf’s talk was the highlight of the event. It was so good and so inspiring that I won’t even summarize it here. Go watch it!

______________________________________________

The day ended with a party thrown by EPAM, which included free beer, a DJ-saxophone duo and a surprise flashmob.

You may also want to read my review of Day 3 of Craft Conf 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Driverless Cars?

Jetsons

Image Courtesy: Ludie Cochrane, Flickr

In case you’re late to the party, it all started with the DARPA Grand Challenge more than 10 years ago. Then Google got serious about it. Then Audi. And Audi on a racetrack. How could BMW be left behind? Then Tesla brought autopilot to it’s cars. And Apple decided to improve the experience of accelerated transportation. While Volvo decided to converge the phone and the car. And others attempt to use smartphones to augment the automobile’s current capabilities.

Meanwhile, other advancements were happening, too. Inertial navigation from Jemba. Shape-shifting cars from BMW. Augmented Reality in cars. And in Supercars. The convergence of video games and race cars, which started with instrument cluster design in the Nissan GT-R. Analytics in race cars. Infrastructural innovations, outside the car itself. Convoys of robot trucks in war zones. And some others that didn’t do so well.

There is also talk of remotely driven cars from Ford. Although clearly the poor level of software quality we have come to terms with on our desktops needs to be addressed before we scale it up to our cars. Maybe open source cars will come to the rescue.

Impact on jobs and economy aside, there are some fundamental problems with this whole “autonomous vehicle” thinking. Allow me to point out the elephant behind the SUV in the room:

  • #1: Cleaner, greener energy is a much more serious problem to solve than eliminating monotony, fatigue and accidents
  • #2: The 21st century problem is not with drivers or cars, it is with the infrastructure
  • #3: Driverless cars still need to be sturdy enough to support human life
    • It makes sense to make aircraft unmanned (whether for war, commercial or humanitarian purposes), because an aircraft without a human being in it can be lighter, cheaper and more efficient (it doesn’t need windows and safety equipment, for example). Contrary to this, passenger cars, regardless of whether they are driverless or not, will always need to carry the same level of safety and comfort equipment (maybe even more) as they do now. So making a car driverless in a sense just makes it more expensive.
    • Already, about half of the cost of a modern car is software, lest you be tempted into thinking that adding more software will make cars cheaper
  • #4: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link
    • As long as software is written by humans, there can and will be disastrous and potentially fatal mistakes. Not too long ago, the good folks who write software that puts shuttles in space acknowledged that we are still in the “hunter-gatherer stage” of software development. Although we have made advancements in leaps, there is still a lot we don’t yet fully understand.
    • Airline pilots have been dealing with a dangerous phenomenon known as automation dependence for years. It’s a problem we don’t have on our roads… yet.
  • #5: We don’t really need cars any more
    • At least not in our cities. Even though we’re driving less, there are more of us driving. And more of us driving even bigger cars than ever before. But what are the use cases?
      • Commuting to and from work? At approximately the same time every day? With tens of thousands of other people like you? To approximately the same physical location? Sounds like a classic opportunity for optimization. How about jumping into a more efficient mass transit vehicle with all the others?
      • Public transport not clean or safe enough? It would cost a fraction of the money to improve and optimize our public transport systems, compared to what it would cost to spam the planet with billions of driverless cars
      • Going shopping? Running errands? Consume less, walk (or bicycle) more and support your local grocery shop 🙂
      • Going out after work? You can’t drink and drive, anyway!
    • The only reason we need cars any more are for inter-city travel, emergencies, last mile connectivity and motor sports (because no one wants to see a bunch of algorithms racing each other). We need to fix our infrastructure and our way of life, not our cars.
    • Peak Car. It’s a thing.
  • #6: We are reinventing the wheel. Literally.
    • Given the problem statement that driverless car manufacturers have set out to solve, wouldn’t it make more sense to make cars that can fly themselves, rather than be constrained to the limits of 2 dimensional roads? After all, that’s already a solved problem.

Update 2015-05-25: More food for thought: Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck

Such UI, Much Refactoring

As the entry barrier to developing software gets steadily lower, as agile development practices (release early, release often) gain popularity and as the success stories coming from continuous and/or early feedback become industry legends, we find ourselves in a world where perfection is no longer a differentiator, it is an unspoken expectation and an implicit requirement. This applies even to products and services that are virtually free for the consumer. When was the last time your social network was down? Or your maps app crashed? Or you discovered a bug in your favorite (modern) web browser? For that matter, do you even know (or care) which “version” of software you are using?

Welcome to the new reality of iterative perfection.

But iterative perfection brings with it the cost of iteration: the cognitive load on the user having to continuously re-learn, re-orient and re-familarize. I’m not referring to the the step change introduced by MS Office Ribbon UX, or desktop apps migrating to Web UI interfaces… But smaller, mostly less disruptive tweaks and updates (usually referred to as “minor improvements”). While many of these affect the inner workings or performance, a seemingly high proportion directly affect user experience. In the spirit of the development process they hatch from, these changes are small & frequent, and are sometimes even rolled back if found to be unpopular. A fashionable “iteration” these days seems to be changing the colors or shapes of icons or other UI elements.

Making a product faster, more stable or more secure is one thing, but is tweaking the user interface of a product that is already in production a good thing? Does familiarity breed contempt, or confidence? There was a time when building a great product was given due recognition – success had been achieved, the job was well done, lessons were learned and everyone moved on. These days we change things – partly because we are expected to, but mostly just because we can.

mib_look_good

Think about it. Once an idea has been commoditized by a company, what is the motivation for further innovation? The trend these days in web products is to keep revamping the User Interface every few months (sometimes weeks). To me, that is a reflection of a bigger issue than vying for the often limited attention span of modern consumers (through brighter and shinier objects).

What I think really happens is this: A bunch of smart people are hired, they build something great together, but now neither does the company want to let go of them (they’re smart, committed employees) nor do they have a plan for what ought to be built next. So, they resort to iterations and improvements (often poorly made choices to emulate a successful but unrelated product) to keep the “resources” or “talent” busy. Maybe sometimes the boredom gets so much that the only way of injecting vitality into what was once an awesome startup is to acquire one (which seems to be happening a lot these days, at atrocious values).

Secondly, having a continuous release schedule [perhaps subconsciously] puts pressure on the development team to deliver some tangible change with each release. After there is nothing left to add or take away, well, there is still the user interface.

I think as engineers, UX practitioners, software developers, product managers and builders of things, we all ought to learn how to recognize perfection when we have achieved it. We need to iterate less and progress more.

Update 2015-02-18: What Happened to Apple Design? by Jose Berengueres mirrors some of these thoughts.