This is an Urbanscale News titled “Week 13: Too much is never enough,” written by Adam Greenfield in on the 1st of April 2011.

Week 13: Too much is never enough

Adam Greenfield on 1 April 2011

A quiet-ish week in the studio, with the relative calm camouflaging continuing (and indeed, intensifying) work on the array of projects we’ve got in the shop at the moment:

- M spent the first part of the week over at Makerbot, where he’s been fabricating props for the PERRY video, our first piece of design fiction. He’s making a dummy RFID-reader surface for us to mount on a subway turnstile, as well as a companion piece for the MetroCard vending machine. The challenge here is to avoid imposing our own designerly tastes on these artifacts; if we want them to be convincing at that all-important subliminal level, we have to try and imagine them as an extension of the MTA’s existing graphic vocabulary.

And that, in turn, means capturing a certain kind of municipal badness in the design of type and signage: inapposite font selection, clumsy kerning and so on. It’s an odd and demanding kind of discipline — especially for us, with our marked preference for the Vignelliesque.

- We’ve also been forging ahead with the basic information architecture for the insanely ambitious Urbanflow, an operating system for cities, with Nordkapp, our partners in Helsinki.

We intend Urbanflow to be nothing less than a new way to experience, understand, make use of and participate in the co-creation of urban places — both something that people will engage through public screens as well as tablets, mobile devices, and conventional computers, and a clear contrast to e.g. Cisco’s notion of smart cities. (Yeah, this flies in the face of the standard, and eminently wise, advice that start-ups concentrate on relatively tactical and granular propositions that they have a reasonable chance of nailing…but you know I’ve always believed that too much is never enough.)

The folks at Nordkapp have done tremendous work already in understanding how people might reasonably engage content and functionality via situated touchscreens. Such screens, as we well know, have in practice tended to fail and fail badly; for all the technical bravura that’s frequently enough bound up in their design, it seems like the industry has put relatively little effort into understanding the ergonomic, practical, social and psychological reasons why people might not want to use them. Which ought to be surprising, considering the nontrivial investment involved in deploying these things.

I’m reminded of something Nurri and I saw last year in Oulu, when we ran a walkshop there: a middle-aged, and self-evidently slightly disoriented, couple making a beeline across a pedestrian plaza toward a bright, shiny interactive kiosk, only to veer off and consult a sun-faded, seagull-shit-spattered conventional map instead. Anybody who’s genuinely interested in providing municipal touchscreens as a service to the public needs to be asking what it was about the Oulu screen that was so off-putting to those people, to the point that the weathered and frankly gnarly map presented them with a more appealing alternative.

Of course, that requires the application of ethnographic method, to say nothing of perspective and humility. I know how resistant the designer’s mind can be to the notion of deferring to the user’s needs, but if ever there was a context in which it made sense to do so, it’s this one. In our design of the public-screen facets of the Urbanflow experience, we’ll start with the fundamentals and work outward from there.

- Quick heads-up to anybody reading this in Ottawa: I’ll be in town in a few weeks to speak before the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada on public objects, public space and the plausible expectation of anonymity. If this is your kinda thing, why not join us? Beyond that, I’ll be in town for a good forty-eight hours, and entirely susceptible to offers of pub grub and the like.