The usability of everyday things

I’m taking a class on “Web Usability”, and our first assigned reading is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. This is a very readable tour through design principles that can help us create devices and systems that are easy and even enjoyable to use.

The book is peppered with interesting examples of bizarre or cryptic designs. Norman seems particularly fond of talking about light switches (such a simple device, and yet so many are hard to use!). As a pilot, I also enjoyed the frequent examples he cited from the world of aviation, where a bad interface can mean the difference between life and death. However, he also says that his personal rule is to avoid criticizing unless he has a solution to offer. Now there’s a high bar!

Norman identifies “discoverability” (can you figure out what actions are possible?) and “understanding” (do you know what the controls/displays mean?) as key components of good design. He also emphasizes the importance of a user having a good “conceptual model” of the device – even if that model is inaccurate in a technical sense. A successful model is one that allows the user to operate the device successfully.

I also found his discussion of the balance between “knowledge in the head” (memory and learned skills) versus “knowledge in the world” (objects, signs, instructions) to be thought-provoking. It makes sense to try to strike a good balance between how much advance training/prep the user needs versus how much they’ll have to read/learn/absorb while using the device. Going too far in either direction makes things harder to operate.

One of the biggest takeaways for me was his encouragement to remove the concept of “error” from an interface. He points out that when we don’t understand something another human says, we don’t say “You made a speaking error.” Instead, we interact and try to figure out what meaning was intended. Similarly, devices (and computer programs) could shift from “error” feedback to help or guidance that aids the user in specifying their intent in the form that is needed. He suggests that we think of a user action as an approximation to what is desired, and help the user to improve it. Great idea!

Chapter 5 is devoted to an analysis of errors: different types, different causes, and different remedies. I like the suggestion to treat errors as learning opportunities (for the user and for the designer); we can brainstorm ways that the error could be entirely precluded in the future. I will be on the lookout for ways to apply this in my ongoing flight training.

Some quotes I enjoyed or found insightful:

  • “Machines require us to be precise and accurate, things we are not very good at.”
  • “We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we wish it to be.”
  • “We use logic and reason after the fact, to justify our decisions to ourselves (to our conscious minds) and to others.”
  • “How can the designer put knowledge in the device itself?”
  • “Expert [users] minimize the need for conscious reasoning.”

Sibling dynamics in picture books

This week for my History of Youth Literature class, we were tasked to pick out three picture books, written in different decades, that portray family dynamics, and compare them. Here are the three picture books I chose, spanning 1964 to 2008:

1. A Baby Sister for Frances (by Russell Hoban, 1964)

This is a story about the challenges of a new sibling entering into the family (in this case, a skunk family). Frances feels left out and unimportant; her dress doesn’t get ironed before school, and there are no raisins for her oatmeal. “Things are not very good around here anymore,” she says, and decides to run away. She packs her things and runs away to the dining room. Her parents talk about how much they miss her, so as to be deliberately overheard. “A family is everybody all together,” they say. She comes back and her mom makes a chocolate cake.

2. Rosie Runs Away (by Maryann Macdonald, 1990)

This story about a rabbit family has almost the exact same plot as A Baby Sister for Frances. Rosie struggles to compete with baby Mat for Mama’s attention. Rosie tries to help by shushing Mat, then taking him outside to play, but she gets in trouble for this. She packs her things and runs away to sit under a tree, far enough to see her house but not be seen. She reflects how even if Mama doesn’t miss her, Mat and dad will. She comes back and bakes pies with Mama.

3. Kitchen Dance (by Maurie J. Manning, 2008)

This story begins with a mystery; the children wake up to strange noises coming from the kitchen. They investigate and find mother and father dancing around while washing the dishes. When they are discovered, their parents pull them in for some whole-family dancing, then gently put them back to bed. There is a strong atmosphere of love and acceptance. There is no sibling rivalry or competition.


In all three books, children are indulged. Frances is allowed to “run away” and then provided with affection that compels her to choose to come back on her own. She negotiates for a higher allowance because she’s a big sister now. Rosie also runs away and is welcomed back with hugs and pie-baking. Rosie does get reprimanded for taking Mat outside by herself (and getting him dirty), but the feeling is exasperation rather than anger. These messages can help children work through their own feelings of frustration and sibling competition for attention without fearing punishment.

The children in Kitchen Dance are not chastised for getting up at night, but instead embraced and included. The magic in this book, I think, is the fascination kids have with the mystery of what adults do, once the kids are in bed, and the feeling of being drawn in and loved and included in that special time.

For the first two books, from 1964 and 1990, the gender roles are very traditional. Frances’s mom feeds the baby (from a bottle, not her breast), gets Frances ready for school, knits, and bakes a cake. Rosie’s mom bakes and tends to the baby. Frances’s dad (literally) reads a newspaper, smoking a pipe, in a comfortable chair. Rosie’s dad only appears on the last page, when he comes home (with groceries), and in a fond memory Rosie has of telling him jokes when he “comes home tired”, presumably from work. (In the picture, he too is sitting in a very comfortable chair with a newspaper on his lap.)

Kitchen Dance departs from the traditional view in that both parents share the domestic duties equally – washing dishes and putting the children to bed. They are equally domestic and nurturing. We don’t get to see what they do for work or childcare during the day.

All three families are two-parent families with a mom and dad. No extended family are present. The first two books have animal protagonists, but they feel very “white.” Kitchen Dance is explicitly hispanic. The father sings “Cómo te quiero,” a phrase that is repeated multiple times in the book. The family members all have dark skins rendered with beautiful colors.

The theme of conflict between a single child and a new sibling is one with enduring appeal and relevance. Still, I was surprised to see almost exactly the same plot in books written 26 years apart. Kitchen Dance portrays sibling dynamics in a subtle way; when the narrator (the youngest child) wakes up, she wakes her older brother to include him in investigating the noise, rather than seeking out parent time for herself.

There is also a consistent theme about food providing comfort. At the conclusion of the first two books, the family celebrates being back together by baking a cake or a pie. Kitchen Dance occurs in the aftermath of (presumably) a family dinner.

From this small sample, I would conclude that traditional family structures and gender roles continue to appeal to authors, illustrators, and readers. Our lecture notes for the week discuss the 1980’s and 1990’s as a time when working mothers were more recognized and social issues like divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy began to be portrayed, but these books don’t touch on any negative aspects. Overall, I enjoyed having this chance to dive into the world of picture books!

What I Learned about Maker Spaces

In my class this semester on Maker Spaces, we covered topics that ranged from how kids and teens use media to interact and learn from their increasingly digital world to how to create a physical space that invites participation and increases in value and interest as more people interact with it. What stood out to me was the variety of ways to make learning hands-on, interactive, and participatory. Hanging Out discussed how kids (and people) spontaneously seek out resources and guidance to improve their skill at a favorite hobby, and the Internet provides that access with historically unprecedented ease. Invent to Learn provides pedagogical motivation for hands-on learning and covers today’s new tools and technologies that enable easy physical prototyping of ideas and inventions.

The biggest gold mine of new ideas, for me, was The Participatory Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all of the creative and interactive exhibits people had designed for a wide variety of topics, from native cultures to a voyage to Mars. This book opened my eyes to what is possible, going beyond the interactive style of exhibits to those that enable new kinds of participation. The primary difference is that a participatory exhibit changes as visitors interact with it; they leave some trace. This might be a vote, an opinion, a comment, a creation, an artifact, or some other tangible evidence of their interaction. Further, as more people use, it becomes more interesting and informative. Visitors gain something by seeing what other visitors have contributed. As Simon notes, not every exhibit needs to have these properties. But I have found this idea to expand my sense of what is possible.

I also found the course assignments to be fascinating and challenging. They really made me stretch. In the first project, I had to choose a type of game that I’ve never played before, then play it for a few hours and analyze my learning experience.

In the second project, I sought out a social media conversation and analyzed the structure of the conversation as well as participant behaviors. It felt like I got to put on a sociologist’s hat and study a native population.

In the third project, I took a trip to the Science Center and analyzed their interactive displays from the perspective of The Participatory Museum.

In the fourth project, I had to find a maker project that gave me the chance to make something I’d never made before. The cardboard automata I made was a lot of work but very rewarding!

The final project for the class asked us to design our own maker space, using everything we’d learned over the course of the semester. I had a lot of fun designing a creative space for the Monrovia Public Library that integrates a topic of local interest (the Gold Line Metro extension) and computational thinking principles. The project had us write this up as a proposal, so the space isn’t yet a reality — but I’d love to discuss it for real with the library.

Overall, this class was a lot of work, in terms of reading and doing, but it also provided a lot of learning. And that’s why I’m here taking these classes in the first place!

Craftivism and DIY politics

Elena Solomon wrote a paper titled “Homemade and Hell Raising Through Craft, Activism, and Do-It-Yourself Culture”. This paper, published in the Journal of PsychNology (that is not a typo), begins with the interesting claim that while crafters and DIY-ers tend to take pride in the self-sufficiency demonstrated by their crafts and projects, this stands in seeming contradiction to their common dependence on DIY gathering spaces (real or virtual). In most cases, we learn to craft from others (in person, from tutorials, from examples, from books, from videos…), and even after gaining skill, we seek to share the results with other people, or sell them to other people, or get feedback from other people… Witness,, etc. Do It Yourself might in some cases be better phrased as Do It Yourself With Others.

Or at least that’s the argument I think the author wanted to make. While this was the teaser, and that’s what the article claimed to be focusing on, the paper then veers off into an analysis of “craftivism,” which I gather is when you use crafts to make political statements.

My first thought was, of course, of Madame Defarge.

Solomon first describes existing craft websites as “jarringly apolitical” (I am not sure what she expected to find), a phenomenon she attributes to “the DIY movement’s highly political ties with consumerism.” I think this is trying to say that craft sites are not political because they are created? controlled? motivated by? businesses selling craft supplies. It’s not quite clear.

The same sentence then asserts that

“the apolitical masquerade reveals, upon closer analysis, neoliberal ties to a more conservative capitalist agenda.”

I read that excerpt at least five times before admitting defeat. I have no idea what this is saying.

The paper then meanders into “retrograde postfeminism” and makes some actually plausible statements that a lot of crafting and DIY projects are marketed toward white, middle-class folk, who may participate without even seeing it as so. It guess that group of people would include me, but I don’t think I’d go as far as ascribing it to “the underlying political force that actively works to maintain a racialized and middle class market of consumerist individuals.”

Much more entertaining is the list of “craftivist” activities in this article. While Defarge doesn’t make an appearance, Chilean women who were imprisoned and oppressed do. These women sewed arpilleras to tell their stories and ask about missing loved ones, while living in fear of punishment.

Barb Hunt knitted a series of anti-personnel land mines to protest their use worldwide.

Kirsty Robertson designed a knitting pattern that encodes the Code Red Virus and made it freely available. Anyone can knit this computer virus (purl = 0, knit = 1) and transport it anywhere in the world… or encode their own favorite program into a new scarf. (Of course, the scarf-code is only meaningful if associated with an interpreter, compiler, or a computer that can run it.)

I can’t claim to have performed any acts of craftivism myself. What’s your favorite example?

Cardboard automata

Cardboard automata are machines made out of cardboard. They are often operated by a hand crank or dial to initiate the motion. As the primary axle turns, cams attached to it cause cam followers to rise, fall, or spin, depending on their geometry.

Just based on that description, who could resist diving in immediately to make one?

Not me.

Plus, I had an assignment from my Maker Space class to “make something you’ve never made before.” Bingo!

I discovered an excellent set of instructions, with pictures, created by The PIE (Play – Invent – Explore) Institute. I decided it would be a fun challenge to make as much of the project as possible out of “found” (available) items in my home.

box-cornersI cut a cardboard box in half, then reinforced the corners to prevent it from collapsing sideways. I cut a hole in each side of the box to connect an axle across it. The instructions suggested using skewers for the axle and cam shafts, but since I didn’t have any, I instead used some wooden dowels I had lying around. I thought they might create a more sturdy result. However, I didn’t have a dowel long enough to span the box, so I temporarily taped three dowels together to build my first prototype. I cut out some cams out of craft foam and slid them onto the axle at different positions.

cam-followersI also created three cam followers by cutting circles out of the foam and inserting more dowels into their centers. Then I cut three holes in the top of the box for the cam followers and connected everything together.

I chose three different cam designs for my three units. The middle cam is round and centered, which generates rotation in the cam follower. The left cam is egg-shaped, which generates rotation and vertical motion. The two right cams are round but off center, and they are positioned to be 180 degrees out of phase. Therefore, they alternate in their contact with the cam follower, which goes up and down and alternates between clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation.

tubesAt this point, when I turned the axle, the dowels wiggled back and forth and sometimes moved themselves off their cams. I consulted the instructions, which advised inserting drinking straws into the top holes so the skewers have a strong guide to keep them aligned. My dowels were far too thick for straws, so I cut up a cereal box to get a firm yet shapeable cardboard sheet. I rolled this cardboard to create tubes that were just slightly larger than the cam shaft dowels. The machine’s performance improved dramatically, and I decided it was time to glue everything down: the tubes in their holes, the cam followers to their shafts, and the cams to the axle. And it worked!

Once I had a working machine, I was free to add whatever design elements I wanted. Extending the cardboard design theme, I found instructions for how to make flowers from toilet paper rolls as well as a sprout/palm-like plant for the middle cam shaft. I glued green paper and brown felt onto the top to give it a nature-inspired look, added some paper flowers, and cut out a paper backdrop of twisting grass shapes to accentuate the feeling of motion. Finally, I used colored markers to decorate the cam followers so that their motion (and its direction) is more visually evident, since the mechanism is a focal point of the project.

Here is a longer video that explains the parts of the machine.

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