Saturday, April 4, 2009

Objectified Coming to Boston

Finally, Objectified is screening in Boston (got my ticket today), info below.

For those who maybe aren't familiar with the film, I emplore you to check out the trailer

Objectified: A Documentary Film by Gary Hustwit
May 21 & 22
Boston MA, USA
Museum of Fine Arts
8:00pm both nights, post-film Q&A with director Gary Hustwit on 5/21 only
Tickets on sale now

Mind Mapping my Annual Review

One of my favorite blogs to read is Lifehack.  Recently, Dustin Wax had a post on a mind-mapping software called X-mind.

I have heard people to refer to mind-mapping before, but it always seemed too cumbersome.  I never really had any project that made me think "this needs to go on a mind-map.", until about a week ago.

I am coming up for my annual review @ Farm, and as is the case of a consultancy, the past year consisted of a very broad spectrum of projects and tasks.  Knowing fully well that my annual review would one day come, I had taken periodic (read: sporadic) notes, snapshots, etc.  The problem was, those notes were typically done in times of easy, steady work, not in the midst of a mad rush to get deliverables out the door.  This being the case, there are a few gaps in my work history that need filling, enter X-mind.

Recalling the past year was a surprisingly pleasant experience.  There was an organic flow from my meandering mind through my fingers and onto the "mind-map".  I started with a project name, and within 10 minutes I had listed the 10 or so subsystems, the specific areas I worked on, what I learned, the technical challenges, the design intent and so on.  When I was finished, I looked at the map, stunned.  How could I never have used this before?

I should also note that I am by no means gifted with a super-memory, far from it.  Instead, I liken my recollection that of a song coming on the radio that I haven't heard in years.  If you asked me out of the blue to recite the lyrics, I would be stuck.  On the other hand, once that same song is blasting and the first few lyrics are sung, I can remember the next few lyrics, then the next few.  That chain continues until the end of the song, at which point I have recalled every lyric without fail.  It was this type of chain that empowered me to recall details of the project with surprising accuracy, the mind-map just served as a catch for the memories I was throwing out.

After doing the outline for my review, I had an hour or two of downtime at work and checked out some free ANSYS webinars.  As I pulled out my notepad to take some notes, I thought of Xmind and figured I would give it a shot.  What an excellent choice.

I've seen my fair share of training webinars, and many of them tend to have similar structures: An intro, an overview of each section, then details about each section, and a conclusion.  I find that this doesn't mesh well with old-fashioned, linear note-taking.  Your notes on the overview of the first section and notes of the details of the same section are pages apart.  With a mind-map, you can bounce around with the presentation, and export into a nice indented outline.  Nice.

Did I mention it's free?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Geneva Drive

The products we use in everyday life are increasingly becoming plastic clam shells around an an unintelligible (at least to the untrained eye) array of green plastic, components, and LCD displays.  In such a world, I find it refreshing to see a mechanical device like the Geneva drive.  It's relatively complex geometry is perfectly attuned to it's function, and can easily be understood... 

If Gary Hustwit is looking to make another film along the lines of Helvetica and Objectified, might I suggest, Mechanism?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A visualization of the credit crisis

I tend to follow financials somewhat, and I find the current predicament we are in interesting. However, even if you don't find economics interesting you should appreciate the power of a well designed presentation to communicate an otherwise complicated topic

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

-Chris Loughnane

Friday, February 20, 2009

Procrastination and state agencies

Back in October I moved from Boston to Southern New Hampshire. Ever the procrastinator, I put off getting a new drivers license. After being pulled over and given warnings (twice) by the same police officer, I was given a ticket. This is all my fault, and I bear no ill will towards the Hollis police department, but I digress.

Naturally, I put off paying the ticket until the 29th of the 30 days alotted to do so, today. I checked the NH website to see where I could pay, but there was no information. All that was there were directions to mail the ticket and payment. Mail? In 2009? Seriously?

Well mailing was out of the question, so I drove to the nearest dmv (~20 min away) to make a payment. The woman there curtly thrust a piece of paper in my face with a number to call. However, upon calling the number it was busy. Naturally, I hung up and called again...and again.. and again.

I called nonstop for 40 minutes (no exaggeration) before I got through and made my payment.

During this tedious excercise my mind wandered. How much time and money is spent on collecting payments such as these? Wouldn't it be great if officers carried a credit card scanner with them, and I could pay then and there? No lost tickets (did I mention I lost my ticket?), instant punishment (perhaps nudging people to drive safer and not procrastinat), and less support staff required to answer my questions.

With all the talk about improving infrastructure, I hope to see federal/state/local agencies streamline themselves to the point where the processing time is measured in minutes, not months.

-Chris Loughnane

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Culture Shock Down South

I'm from Boston.I have traveled down south, but usually I just take a plane to the nearest airport, and an hour or so later I am at my destination.  This past summer however I made a 5.5 hour drive from Dayton, OH to Gatlinburg, TN.  I was going through my photos and there were some distinctively different sights....

I am sure that some of you will look at these things and think nothing of it.  That is the point I am trying to make.  When we stay in our own comfort zone (emotionally and geographically) we get so accustomed to the way things are that we look sideways at anything that doesn't particularly mesh with our own worldview.  I was definitely surprised to see all of the images above, but i think it was good.  It really just underscores the fact that if you are going to design any type of product or service for somebody, having a personal, holistic understanding of who they are and where they come from can make all of the difference.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

POP Design

I understand that it is popular to associate your brand with a lifestyle, but what about the above image rings true?  There is zero correlation between the product and the lifestyle.  Do POP displays like this really encourage people to buy a nutter butter?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Revamping college education

While reading a seemingly innocuous post by Bruce Nussbaum, I was inspired to write something I've been thinking about for a while regarding the way our collegiate system is set up. Here are my thoughts

As a recent Mechanical Engineering graduate from Northeastern University...

I don't know if I would go as far as to say that admins are trying to prep students for a world that doesn't exist. However, I do think that the method in which they go about educating the students is in a manner that is more conducive to a more rigid, pre open-source era, and less so to the world of today...

The collegiate experience (at least academically) consists of a list of books you should read to become a professional "____", professor's to guide you along the way, and a surrounding of like-minded people.

Of those three, I believe the sense of community one gets from working with people that are passionate about the same subject is the most irreplacable. The curricula for almost any course can be downloaded from an increasing number of universities (MIT Open Courseware and Stanford iTunes are the first that come to mind). The professors (for the most part) can be replaced by online forums and industry professionals who (again, for the most part) are more than willing to discuss a topic here and there with a passionate student.

I think it best if companies ends their love affair with degrees. Why not put the onus of proving competence on the licensing institutions? Engineers have the Professional Engineer Exam, Lawyers have the bar exam, etc. If I did not have an engineering degree, but passed the Professional Engineer Exam (which only ~65% of degreed Mechanical Engineer's have done), who is to say that i cannot practice as an engineer?

I envision a future where Universities offer student's varying packages. On one end you have the all-inclusive, lifelong-debt-incurring programs of today, and on the other end of the spectrum, you have a package that consists of lab usage, library access, career counseling, and an ability to cherry pick which classes you attend (so that you don't have to take say, algebra I, but you have the option to take quantum physics). These students will achieve their learning through MIT OCW, netowrking, etc. At the end of every semester or so, each student has the opportunity to take the same test. These tests will just provide feedback to the students so that they know how well they are doing. As mentioned before, this process is culminated in licensing exams provided by the appropriate licensing bureau.

You want to talk about stifling innovation? The crippling debt so many of us are graduating with prevents the fiscally responsible of us from taking the kind of chances that are required to achieve great things.

-Chris Loughnane

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ideals - from 2D to 3D

If you don't know the name Chris Jordan, you have probably seen his photographic arts.  I enjoy the photos because they so vividly portray that which most of us can barely see: consumerism.  My fondness for these photos is anecdotal; the point I am trying to make is that I am not the only one who enjoys it... they are very popular.

This popularity got me thinking.  It is en vogue (appropriately) to think of products as "experiences", and to give products features that facilitate emotional attachment to the user. To that end, what is more emotional to people than their ideals? Think of anyone you know, I am sure they take pride in being _____.  Urban, religious, thrifty, southern, northern, vegetarian, etc.  The point is that if people enjoy looking at a two dimensional piece of art that reaffirms their ideals (as Jordan's photos reaffirm my anti-consumerist bent), imagine the connection that could be made between an individual and a tangible object whose shape agrees with that person's ideals.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Better World By Design

I was at the "A Better World by Design" conference this past weekend. It was an amazing conference and my hat goes off to the students at Brown and RISD that put this together. I had the opportunity to meet so many passionate, intelligent people from a variety backgrounds in design, engineering, business, environmental relations.

In the next few weeks, after I have had some time to both reflect on my own as well as confer with my colleagues who also attended the conference, I will be writing on where I see design consultancies fitting into "Designing a Better World" .

In the meantime... a few pictures from the conference

-Chris Loughnane

Notes and Queries for the Design of Everyday Things

created at

I know its been a while since I've posted anything of any significance. Work at Farm has been incredibly busy. Aside from the client work, we are expanding into (among other) areas such as research. Our new director of research and usability loaned me a classic, "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald Norman. Like most professional books, it has some very pertinent and useful information... which is unfortunately buried by fluff, redundancy, and unnecessary examples. In any case, I like to take notes when I read or do research. I wish I knew who said it, but trusting the weakest pen over the strongest memory is definitely the way to go. What follows are my notes on Norman's work, complete with page numbers.

I hope you find these notes useful, and encourage you to follow up on any interesting notes with reading the respective section in the book.

Final thought: It really should be called "The Human Factors of Everyday things"


The Design of Everyday Things

Warning Labels are signs of design failure
p. ix

Design of Everyday Things

If you think something is clever and sophisticated, beware - it is probably self-indulgence
p. ix

Design of Everyday Things

Ideally, there is no such thing as human error

A thought during p.2

Design of Everyday Things

Affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used

Design of Everyday Things

When rail shelters had glass, vandals smashed it.  When they had plywood, vandals wrote on it.  Planners are trapped by affordances of their materials

Design of Everyday Things

Fundamental principle of designing things for people
(1) Provide a good conceptual model
(2) Make things visible


Design of Everyday Things

Perhaps the designers thought the correct model was too complex, that the model they were giving was easier to understand.  But with the wrong coneptual model, it is impossible to set the controls.

p. 17

Design of Everyday Things

If a feature is in the genome, and if that feature is not associated with any negativity, that feature hangs on for generations.

Design of Everyday Things

Whenever the number of possible actions exceeds  the number of controls, there is apt to be difficulty


Design of Everyday Things

If you think that a room will heat faster if the thermostat is turned up all the way to the max,  you are wrong.  It is just an on/off switch


Design of Everyday Things

Everyone forms mental models to explain what they have observed [religion?].  In the case of the thermostat, the design gives no hint as to the correct answer.  In the absence of external information, people are free to let their imaginitions run wild as long as their mental model accounts for the facts as the perceive them.


Design of Everyday Things

The Seven Stages act as design aides:

How easily can one:
  • Determine function of the device?
  • Tell what actions are possible?
  • Tell if the system is in desired state?
  • Determine mapping from intention to physical movements?
  • Determine mapping from system state to interpretation?
  • Perform the action?
  • Tell what state the system is in?

  • P.53

Design of Everyday Things

wherever labels seem necessary, consider another design


Design of Everyday Things

Not all of the knowlede required for precise behavior has to be in the head, it can be distributed - partly in the head, the world, and the constraints in the world.


Design of Everyday Things

Constraints reduce the number of options of the assembly of 10 components from 10! (~3.5M) to a manageable number.


Design of Everyday Things

The difficulty of dealing with novel situations is directly proportional to the number of possibilities


Design of Everyday Things

Affordances can signal how an object can be moved, what it will support, and whether anything will fit into it's crevices, over it, under it.  Where do we grab, what parts move, and which parts are fixed.


Design of Everyday Things

Physical constrains are made more effective and useful if they are easy to see and interpret, for then the set of actions is restricted before anything has been done.


Design of Everyday Things

Semantic Constrains rely upon our knowledge of the situation and of the world. [Lego driver must have windshield to protect his face]


Design of Everyday Things

Culutural issues are at the root of many of the problems we have with new machines: there are as yet no accepted conventions or customs for dealing with them.


Design of Everyday Things

Physical, semantic, cultural, and logical constraints constrain our world.


Design of Everyday Things

The results of ANY action should be immediately apparent


Design of Everyday Things

One of the virtues of sounds is that they can be detected even when attention is applied elsewhere.  But this virtue is also a deficit, for sounds are often intrusive.


Design of Everyday Things

When you build an error-tolerant mechanism, people come to rely upon it, so it had better be reliable


Design of Everyday Things

Human thought...seems more rooted in past experience than in logical deduction.

Design of Everyday Things

If there were a thousand similar events, we would tend to remember them as one composite prototype.  If there were just on discrepant event, we would remember it, too, for by being discrepant it didn't get smudged up with the rest.  But the resulting memory is almost as if there ahd only been two events: the common one and the discrepant one.  The common one is a thousand times more likely, but not to the memory; in memory there are two things, and the discrepant event hardly seems less likely that the everyday one.

Design of Everyday Things

To see the relationship between the game of 15 and tic-tac-toe, simply arrange the nine digits into the following pattern:
8 1 6
3 5 7
4 9 2


Design of Everyday Things

Most major accidents follow a series of breakdowns and errors, problem after problem, each making the next more likely.


Design of Everyday Things

Although it may not at first seem to be relevant in design, [social pressure] has strong influence on everyday behavior.  In industrial settings social pressure can lead to misinterpretation, mistakes, and accidents.


Design of Everyday Things

Designers make the mistake of not taking error into account.  Inadvertently, they can make it easy to err and difficult or impossible to discover error or to recover from it.

  1. Understand the causes of error and design to minimize those causes.
  2. Make it possible to reverse actions - to "undo" them - or make it harder to do what cannot be reversed.
  3. Make it easier to discover the errors that do occur, and make them easier to correct.
  4. Change the attitude toward errors.  Think of an object's user as attempting to do a task, getting there by imperfect approximations.  Don't think of the user as making errors; think of the actions as approximations of what is desired.

Design of Everyday Things

Warnings signals, [like labels] are usually not the answer.

Design of Everyday Things

It is important to think through the implications of that cost [of normal behavior, for a forcing function] - to decide whether people will deliberately disable the forcing function.


Design of Everyday Things

The designer shouldn't think of a simple dichotomy between errors and correct behavior; rather, the entire interaction should be treated as a cooperative endeavor between person and machine, one in which misconceptions can rise on either side.

  • Put the required knowledge in the world.  Don't require all the knowledge to be in the head.  Yet do allow for more efficient operation when the user has learned the operations, has gotten the knowledge in the head.
  • Use the power of natural and artificial constraints: physical, logical, semantic, and cultural.  Use forcing functions and natural mappings.
  • Narrow the gulfs of execution and evaluation.  Make things visible, both for execution and evaluation.  On the execution side, make the results of each action apparent.  make it possible to determine the system state readily, easily, and accurately, and in a form consistent with the person's goals, intentions, and expectations.

Design of Everyday Things

One negative force is the demands of time: new models are already into their design process before the old ones have even been released to customers.

[Try to give hard products characteristics of software]


Design of Everyday Things

In the world of sales, if a company were to make the perfect product, any other compan would have to change it - which would amke it worse - in order to promote its own innovation, to show that it was different.  How can natural [Evolutionary?] design work under these circumstances?  It can't.


Design of Everyday Things

Many of the useful refinements are being lost... All the folklore of design has been lost with the brash new engineers who can't wait to add yet the latest  electronic gimmickry to the telephone, whether needed or not.


Design of Everyday Things

Designers often become expert with the device they are designing.  Users are often expert at the task they are trying to perform with the device

Design of Everyday Things

Design is the successive application of constraints until only a unique product is left

Design of Everyday Things

A toaster offers affordances for danger.  The location, the risk of burning a finger, and the narrow slots, all point to using a knife or fork, which can result in electrocution

Design of Everyday Things

When there is a problem, people are apt to focus on it to the exclusion of other factors.  The designer must design for the problem case, making other factors more salient, or easier to get to, or perhaps less necessary

Design of Everyday Things

Whoever invented that mirror image nonsense should be forced to take a shower.  Yes, there is some logic to it.  To be a bit fair to the inventor of the scheme, it does work reasonably well as long as you always use the faucets by placing both hands on them at the same time, adjusting both controls simultaneously.  It fails miserably, however, when one hand is used to alternate between the two controls.  Then you cannot remember which direction does what.

Design of Everyday Things

Each new set of features adds immeasurably to the size and complexity of the system.  More and more things have to be made invisible, in violation of all the principles of design.  No constraints, no affordances; invisible, arbitrary mappings.  And all because the users have demanded features.

Design of Everyday Things

One important method of making systems easier to learn and to use is to make them  explorable, to encourage the user to experiment and learn the possibilities through active exploration

Design of Everyday Things

Design should
  • Make it easy to determine what actions are possible at any moment (make use of constraints)
  • Make things visible, including the conceptual model of the systems, the alternative actions, and the results of actions.
  • Make it easy to evaluate the current state of the system.
  • Follow natural mappings between intentions and the required actions; between actions and the resulting effect; and between the information that is visible and the interpretation of the system state

Design of Everyday Things

Design should make use of the natural properties of people and of the world:: it should exploit natural relationships and natural constraints.  As much as possible, it should operate without instructions or labels.  Any necessary instruction or training should be needed only once; with each explanation the person should be able to say, "Of course", or "Yes, I see".  A simple explanation will suffice if there is reason to the design, if everything has its place and its function, and if the outcomes of actions are visible.


Design of Everyday Things

The principles of design are straightforward
  • Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head
  • Simplify the structure of tasks
  • Make things visible: bridge the gulfs between execution and evaluation
  • Get the mappings right
  • Exploit the power of constraints: both natural and artificial
  • Design for error
  • When all else fails, standardize.

Design of Everyday Things

Actually, increasing the number of controls can both enhance and detract from ease of use.  The more controls, the more complex things look and the more the user must learn about it. It becomes harder to find the appropriate control at the appropriate time.  On the other hand, as the number of controls increases up to the number of functions, there can be a better map between controls and functions, making things easier to use.  So the number of controls and complexity is really a tradeoff between two opposing factors.

 Combine this with using human factors laws to determine size, qty, and number of controls.

Design of Everyday Things

In the consumer economy taste is not the criterion in the marketing of expensive food or drinks, usability is not the primary criterion in the marketing of home and office appliances.  We are surrounded with objects of desire, not objects of use.

Design of Everyday Things

Good design exploits constraints so that the user feels as if there is only one possible thing to do - the right thing, of course.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The retro cop-out

It seems I have been stumbling across designs like this old 1.44" floppy disk-turned-USB lately. It just seems like a tired approach: taking a new technology and putting it in an old housing. It makes for a cheap smirk, but that's all. Raise the bar.

-Chris Loughnane

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hold-open clip for gas.

I am not an old man, but I remember the days when I would go to the gas station, start pumping, and be able to slide in the "hold-open clip" so that I could relax my hand.

There safety hazards are obvious (although I can't recall ever hearing of anyone getting injured at a gas station, was/is it common at all?). However, surely there is a cheap design that can sense (most likely mechanically) that everything is "safe"

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Human Factors in Design

I have worked (and am working) in product design consultancies. For those of you unfamiliar with the general setup, they tend to be made up of Researchers, Industrial Designers, and Mechanical Engineers. These consultancies are responsible for the design of many many consumer, industrial and medical products (Check out Farm, Altitude, IDEO, and Design Continuum to see examples).

Something I have come to realize is that human factors does not seem to get the use it deserves. This is not to say it is completely ignored; some Researchers and Industrial Designers have some exposure to human factors. They will use height charts, design for 5th percentile female to 95th percentile male, and other general best-practices. My gripe is that there are so many studies (See HFES journal, and/or ergonomics in design) containing mounds of data regarding posture, grip force, materials handling capacity, etc. that just get ignored.

I am fully aware that every designer cannot get another degree in human factors, but can d-schools not focus more on it in their curriculum? I had a colleague who got his ID degree from Va Tech, and didn't even know who Karl Kroemer was! (I am sure that most if not all of you reading this don't know either, but if you are interested in Human Factors he is an excellent place to start)

-Chris Loughnane

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Disrupting "waste by design"

The blender and toaster. You will find them in almost any home, and I venture to say that the main reason any of them get thrown away is that the appearance becomes dingy, or simply doesn't match with the owner's new kitchen. Why not design a line of these appliances with interchangable shells of different colors, finishes, and textures? Think of the recycling opportunities!

The cop out is "companies are built around selling completely new devices, so 'reusable' doesn't mesh well". I wonder, has anyone looked deeper than this refrain? Perhaps consumers (ugh) would buy 3 or more of these decorative shells ($$) in the same timespan in which they would have suffered with their old, unisghtly device before throwing it away? That would surely offset the cost.

The first company to incorporate such a model into their business would surely gain the much sought after disruptive advantage

Friday, June 20, 2008

Synergy of design for disassembly and shock

One of the more popular refrains of the sustainable design movement is to "design for disassembly". The (correct) theory being that if a part is too difficult to take apart, and is made of more than one materials (like nearly all products are), it will not be recycled. I am a big proponent of designing for disassembly, but have recently come across a problem...shock.

Just think of all of the different products you use in your life that can experience shock (from dropping?) on a regular basis...

TV Remote
Any other remote control for that matter
Xbox controller
Cordless Phone
Hair Dryer
Calculator (I'm a nerd)
every children's toy ever made (it seems)
Cell phones

Whether dueit is unscrewing half a dozen screws on the small remote or trying to crack open the ultrasonic weld on your cell phone, the disassembly (and consequently recycling) of these products can be prohibitively labor intensive.

We are better than this. I am convinced that it is doable to concot some clever geometry (a variation on the good old snap latch) that enables a device to withstand necessary shock while remaining easily disassembled. It is not a tough balance to strike, it is just that we are used to seeing things fastened with a safety margin of roughly 2 gazillion. We can afford to bring that down.

My remote control has 6 screws keeping the two halves together. These screws assure that the plastic shell will crack from shock before it pops in half. However, it is overkill. This small device doesn't need 6 screws. Think critically, what kind of shock is a remote control going to encounter? It will encounter point forces along its body, but what is the likelihood of it striking in such a fashion that the two halves of the remote attempt to rotate about each other like the hands of a clock? Furthermore, even if this unlikely even happens, surely the forces can't be much greater than 20 lbs (an estimation, but I feel comfortable with it. Slap an accelerometer on your remote if you don't). The point I'm driving at is that with some cleverly designed snaps, a remote control could withstand the forces it encounters in its lifetime while still being able to be twisted apart in one motion at its end-of-life.

So what is the takeaway here? Fasteners and ultrasonic welding are a cop-out. Be clever.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Blacktop Turbine

When people think of harnessing the suns energy, they think of solar panels. However, there are other ways.

Everyone knows that in the summer, blacktop pavement gets unbearably hot. So much that if you were to find yourself in a large parking lot sans the foot covers, you would surely be quickly moving across the blacktop to the nearest patch of grass. Why not try to recoup some of that energy?

One option would be for large complexes like malls and stadiums to (the next time they repave) lay down a network of tubing (aluminum? cheap cost for the thermal conductivity) and pave over it.Then, when the air inside the tubing heats up and expands, it rushes to the exit (most likely located centrally, in the stadium, mall, etc.) and power an engine or turbine. The energy created by this would most certainly not power an entire mall, but would be a nice subsidy that could pay for itself within a few years.

The primary problem I see with this is maintenance. In order to ensure good heat conductivity, the blacktop should be in contact with the tubing. This prevents any easy fixes as the blacktop would have to be chipped away to gain access. (Although like any other problem, this can be dealt with)

"Difficult we can do immediately, but impossible?... that might take a few days"

Increase your fuel efficiency, burn less calories through hypermiling


Hypermiling has been around forever, its just a new name. For those of you who don't want to read the article, hypermiling is just tweaking your driving habits to increase gas mileage. Most of us have already heard of this, and just don't do it. Personally, I never adopted it because slowing down and driving with more patience (especially on the southeast expressway) has not been worth it. But with gas going where it is, the thought of a 35% increase in gas mileage (thats right, 35%) just might be worth it. In reading this however it got me thinking about cycling.

In the fitness obsessed world that we live in, people are always counting calories (energy) so that they look good naked, feel better about themselves, or whatever other personal goals they may have. It is to the point where I'm sure that somewhere, someone has affixed a calorie counter (typically found on stationary bikes) onto an actual bicycle. They are probably doing it to see how many calories they burn while they are working out. But what if burning calories wasn't the goal? For those commuting to work by bike in the morning, they might just want a lackadaisacal ride to work, not a calorie destroying sweat-festival. I say, why not try personal hypermiling?

Also, this form of hypermiling cuts the waste out of the workout, allowing the user to perfect technique. Sounds like an awfully valuable tool to someone training for endurance. Gotta perfect that waste-less cycling motion

Solar Panel System Design

Solar panels keep getting cheaper, and will eventually get to a threshold where it will not only be environmentally responsible to install them, but financially irresponsible not to. For those of us who are not chemically (the film on the cheap solar panels above is cadmium telluride... sounds intimidating) inclined but would like to aid in the expedition of this eventuality, what do we do? We develop a system or package that optimizes the use of the solar panels.

Relative to our homes, the sun moves in the same path every day. Sometimes it is blocked by clouds, but regardless, the angle will be the same. Why then are all of the residential solar panels I see fixed? The only reason I can think of is that the energy required to move the panel itself is larger than the gain resulting from an optimized angle. For a poorly designed system, I believe this to be true.

For a home with a prismatic (triangular) roof, the peak can be used as a fulcrum on which the solar panels can be placed. Stabilizer pistons can attach each end of the solar panel to the roof (by placing the pistons at the end of each panel, the moment about the fulcrum will be maximized, giving us the most bang for our back regarding force). The energy required to move the panel would be minimal as is the nature of a fulcrum.

There are obviously several details to flesh out, such as the orientation of the house, the aesthetic, weather, etc. But giving the cost of energy, having a simple optimized system installed could be big business. It's my guess that the installation of solar panels will eventually be the wheelhouse of your local HVAC specialist or carpenter, and the first company to create a cost effective way to install a simple and efficient system would surely prosper

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Intelligent Smoke Detector

The smoke alarm has been around for... a long time (look it up). Nearly every product comes with an expanded spectrum of functionality. Why then does a product as synonymous with safety as the smoke alarm not allow for the determination of the nature of the smoke(grease and chemical fires do require different techniques to be extinguished). This would be a relatively simple matter of incorporating some sort of filter or other analyzer. While they are at it, it would be nice if this next generation design would allow me to fry chicken or take a hot shower for more than 10 minutes without setting off the alarm in my apartment.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A rant on anthropology in Design

So its been over a month since I have last had the opportunity to put in an entry. Life has been hectic with finishing up my senior design project (a bionic ankle), taking other courses, and looking for a full-time job. Anyway, I am not writing this post to lament my lack of free time, but to give a few thoughts on a report I am writing. The subject of the report is Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research by Patricia L. Sutherland and Rita M. Denny. As the title suggests, it is about the ins and outs of how anthropology contributes to consumer research. I am beginning this report with no preconceived notions about what I want to write (trying to minimize the confirmation bias). I have read 30 or so pages so far, and there are a few thoughts that I want to get down on paper, so here they are.

  • It seems every anthropologist, anthropology student, or book on anthropology I read refers (directly or indirectly) to the stigma that is attached to applied anthropology. As Patricia Sutherland puts it, "the label 'applied' was stigmatic". As an engineer, this irks me. I define engineering as applied science. The physicists, materials scientists, biologists, chemists, etc. do the research that gives the engineers the tools to develop solutions. Correspondingly, those anthropologists who have a distaste for the field of applied anthropology are discouraging the use of the anthropological tools that could affect great change in the world.
  • I had a debate in my ethnography class the other day. It was regarding whether or not "social sciences" such as anthropology are "real" in the sense that natural sciences such as biology, chemistry, etc. are. We debated this for a bit and then it dawned on me, "What a stupid conversation this is". Fighting over a naming convention for a field? It is ridiculous! Who cares if some people call your field a science or an art? Let the results of the work done in your field speak for itself.
  • Lastly, Patricia Sutherland points out that in 1971, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) drafted the Principles of Professional Responsibility that prohibited anthropologists from undertaking research that could not be openly published (read: "Any commercial endeavor"). Imagine if the reigning professional association for any other profession gave a similar dictum, nothing would get done ever.
In summary, the gist of the information I have gathered for my report so far is "Get over yourselves anthropologists, if you don't apply what you know, the world doesn't benefit. There are so many people out there that would benefit from the kind of empathetic view only an anthropologist can provide, and as long as the world runs on money, the best way to affect change will be to operate within the commercial realm.

Thats all I got, hopefully I will write again before the month is out.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Drawing Blood

First off, let me clarify that I have been posting with less frequency lately not because I see no problems with the world, but because my "capstone" (read: Senior) design project is the development of a new technology for prosthetic ankles, and it is a time suck. However, today I find myself on the train, with some time to kill.

My son goes to the hospital with regularity and thus so do I. One of the things he needs to get done frequently is have his blood drawn so that they can run tests. Being the small boy that he is, the nurses can have difficulty finding a vein. This leads them to poke him several times (heartbreaking), and when that doesn't work, they end up calling a "drawing blood" specialist. Keep in mind this isn't a backwater hospital with untrained people, this is Children's Hospital Boston, which I believe is ranked as the 2nd best Children's hospital in the country.

I don't know enough about the fine mechanics of drawing blood to be able to redesign it here, but the procedure of "tying-off" one's arm in order to get a vein to show seems barbaric. If there is currently a better design out there, why is it not being used by the nurses at Children's Boston?

If there is a device out there (which I am not sure of), I imagine the reason it does not get widespread use is that it has too much visible technology or is too intimidating to use properly. What is needed is a device that looks simple (even if the behind the scene technology is complex), has a short learning curve, and takes the "art" out of the science of drawing blood.

Chris Loughnane

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Philips headphones

I recently lost my old pair of headphones that I used to work out and commute with. I was not about to spend a whole lot of time replacing them, so when I saw a few pairs of them at my local CVS, I figured I would just pick up a pair. As it turned out, I could not have chosen a better set if I tried.

I have been using the behind-the-head variety of headphone and there are a few things that have bothered me. I will list philips solutions tothese problems as well as features I didn't even know I wanted

The behind the head band is too stiff. This peeves me in two circumstances. First, when I slide one headphone off of my ear and have I rest below my ear so that I can answer the phone, the stiffness results in the headphone wanting to spring back up, this applying uncomfortable pressure to the underside of my ear. Second, after wearing them for a while they can cause a headache from the constant pressure. (initially I just thought it was my bad luck that I had an enormous head, but my diminiutive wife agreed with me)

The edges of the foam pads that cover each speaker are captured so that they will not wear and rupture. This was a big problem with my old pair as after a while one could slide the foam right off.

The headphone wire is protected by a braided fabric sheath. This likely has little if any effect to the performance, but it looks stronger, and that matters.

There is a supplementary strain relief cord. Again, this might have a marginal benefit, but u feel much more comfortable when I accidentally drop my MP3 player knowing that there is a separate cable ready to take that force.

So that's about it right now. I will update this later with somE stock photos, but I am on my blackberry on the train and I have got a 15 degree 2 mile bike ride ahead of me... Time to bundle up

-Chris Loughnane

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Audio reader

I am an engineering student set to graduate in may. This being my last semester, I have several slots open for any elective I want to take. Some of my friends chose to take nothing clases such as drawing 101 or CAD (which they already know). This is perfectly reasonable seeing as we all have our "captone" projects consuming any free time we thought we had. I however have recently become intrigued with design research and decided to take an ethnography class as well as a class on sociological statistics. So how is it going so far? Well...

I'm only in week two and the amoun t of reading material is a shock to my system. I am reading about 150 to 200 pages a week and it is a real struggle. It isn't that the material is hard or boring (quite the opposite), its that between capstone, my other classes, my family, sleeping, etc. It is hard to find time to sit down and read for an hour or two.

Now I finally get to my solution... I envision a handheld device that can scan text, convert it to readable text, and have a simulated voice concert that text to audio. This way, you could have any material in a print medium converted to a track that you can listen to while you commute, work out, excercise, etc. I know the technology exists to make this happen, it is just a matter of combining them into a usable product.

Perhaps an attachment to the ipod?

Ps... I wrote this on my blackberry so please forgive any typos

-Chris Loughnane

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wipe-Free Glasses

I wear glasses about 90% of the time. They are comfortable, and I like the flexibility of being able to take them off when I read. The problem I get is dust. Over the course of the day, little bits of dust get on my glasses, at some point, the dust has accumulated enough to affect (minutely, but noticeable nonetheless) my vision clarity. To get rid of the dust I typically wipe it off on my shirt. The problem with this is that some shirt materials wipe better than others, you may have touched your shirt with your fingers, in which case the oil from your hands which is invisible on the shirt, will become visible on the glasses. Once there is a smudge from oil on your glasses, its game over until you get to go to the restroom and wash them off with water.

Below are some solutions to this problem, and my explanation why they aren't good enough.

  • Use Contacts
    • When I wake up in the morning (especially after I stay up late, which I do OFTEN), it can be slightly painful to put in contacts, as my eyes have not had sufficient time to "wake up"
  • Get Lasik®
    • I have always been a little hesitant about Lasik®, and it did not get better the other day. I am taking a Musculoskeletal Biomechanics course at Northeastern University, and the professor (a proud glasses patron himself) has done research on the eye, and is thus familiar with Lasik®. He told us that Lasik is not based on any biological sort of equation. It is an art, not a science. As such, its replicability is lower than it could be. In light of this information, my hesitancy regarding Lasik® has turned into a firm opposition
  • Carry around a special cloth that I use to wipe my glasses.
    • There may be some people whom can handle this, but it is not for me. I want a design that does not require me to take anything extra with me.

One idea I have is to use some sort of electrostatic property to make the glasses themselves repel dust. If there is no dust, there will be no wiping. If there is no wiping, there will be significantly less smudges and consistently better clarity.

-Chris Loughnane

Friday, December 28, 2007

Empathetic Design

I'm on the subway on my way to work this morning and arrive and Downtown Crossing (where I switch from the orange to the red line). As I get off the train I can hear the music of some subway performer. As I walk past the musician I recognize him. Turns out he is a guy I used to go to high school with, Andrew. We talked for a few minutes and apparently he still lives in our hometown and when he isn't playing coffee shops and the like, he comes to Boston to make a little extra cash on the side. Interesting, I thought. We talked for a few minutes about trivial things and then I got back on my way to work, and he got back to his.

As I'm waiting for the red line train, I run into my company's administrative assistant (who also waitresses at an upscale restaurant in Cambridge at night), who is also on her way to work. I have talked with her here and there, but never at any great length about anything. We spent the 30 minute journey to work talking about (what else?) work. The interesting stuff came when she started to tell me about why she is working as an administrative assistant there. Turns out she has a degree in teaching and interior design, but wanted to get into product design, and figured that an administrative job at the company would be a great way to learn about the industry. Go figure.

The reason that I am sharing these two encounters is that they display how different people's lives are. I know, "Duh". But for me, I understood this fact only at a macro level, not at a micro level. I mean, I knew our lives were different in some ways and similar in others, but I really couldn't articulate what those were. I feel that many of us fall into the same trap. It's likely considering that 90% of our interactions are with similar people, be they friends, family or coworkers. Stepping outside of this comfort circle of contacts and trying to understand someone different from you requires actual work, but it can be an enriching experience; enriching in the sense that by being empathetic towards others you can see the world through a different set of eyes. Let me tell you, when your profession/passion is designing products, services, or experiences for others, that empathy an invaluable tool. Unbeknownst to me, being my ambivalence towards learning about others lives on anything deeper than a superficial level was wasting a golden opportunity to exercise my empathetic muscle.

Well here is my resolution: make a conscious effort to understand the details of the lives of others, so that I naturally empathize with others. There is no doubt in my mind that this understanding will lead to higher quality designs that accurately addresses the issues that the user faces.

A Critique of the Dyson® AirBlade

I was killing some time at Logan Airport the other day, waiting for my brother's delayed flight to arrive. I had a drink at the bar and (consequently) went to the restroom. After handling my business I noticed something rather attractive on the wall. It was the new Dyson® AirBlade hand-dryer. I had seen some pictures of it on a few other blogs, but was still a little surprised to actually see it in front of me. Needless to say I washed my hands (quickly, as the anticipation of using this thing was akin to a child at 5:00AM on Christmas morning waiting for his parents to wake up) and scooted over to the Dyson®. The following are the takeaways (both good and bad) from my experience.

We'll start off with the good, because I'm a positive guy

  • The device is attractive, a quality that sets apart from most other hand dryers.
  • It uses technology similar to that used in industrial settings (air knives can be used to remove moisture from bottled beverage containers)
  • Its automatic…which is good

Now a few not-so-good notes

  • The device is appropriate for a certain height person. If you are too short you need to cock your elbows to get your hand in the slot.
  • The air-knife is not as powerful as I expected. Thus when compared to a traditional hand dryer, I did not notice an improvement in the dryness of my hand or the time it took to get that way.
  • However, the air knife is powerful enough that its initial burst can cause your hand to contact the appliance. One could argue that all of the hands that use this are freshly clean, but there is still something about touching things in a public restroom that seems unclean.
  • Not incredibly intuitive. This is admitted by Dyson itself by their inclusion of a diagram on top of the device. I don't know who said it first, but they said it best: "Labels/Instructions are indications of design failure. "


  • Make the user interface with the device through the front as opposed to the top. This would mean that shorter people do not need to reach over anything.
  • When you lift your hands from your sides, your palms naturally face each other, not the floor. The design should reflect this, NOT require the user to adapt to the device.

Overall, I was disappointed. What was a great opportunity to redesign something that has been ugly and inefficient for years was squandered by designing something that was pretty and inefficient.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Baby Monitor Volume Control

For once this is me actually lauding a design. There is nothing obviously outstanding about this monitor. In fact, the best thing about it is a simple decision that requires no technological innovation whatsoever. It is the volume control. At first glance, it may just appear to be a regular scroll wheel… because it is! The only difference is that it is set up in reverse, so that when it scrolls down, the volume increases. The reasoning for this is that parents like me hear the baby crying and reach over to look at the monitor. This is an arduous movement considering that its 3:30AM and we're averaging 4 hours sleep over the past week. Often times we won't grab the monitor cleanly, and the hand will accidentally slide down over the volume scroll wheel. Now, if this were a standard volume scroll wheel (which it would be were it not for the designer who came up with this idea), I very well might mute my sons screams and go back to bed. This would be nice initially, but at best I would wake up feeling like crap, and at worst I could be ignoring the screams of a child who is in genuine distress.

Just goes to show that designing around the user's real-world activity can result in the little changes that will make a world of difference.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Problem With Malls

I thought I was alone, but it appears that I am not. I really don't like going to malls.

It is not that I don't enjoy the utility of having so many stores in one place, it is definitely convenient. It's just that it is not an enjoyable experience for me. I don't like all of these advertisements telling me what I need to buy, I don't like the people in the booths trying to sell me something, I just don't like it. I would much prefer to buy things online. The only exception being a big-ticket item such as a thousand dollar TV, in which case I need to see it in person.

On the other hand, there are people who would live in the mall if they could. These are the people who have been hanging out in malls since they were 13. They love buying things, and when they run out of money, they look at things they want to buy.

I believe that these two groups of people make up the majority of a mall's customers. The latter will go to the mall no matter what happens. Thus, malls should focus on making the whole mall experience more enjoyable for the customer who doesn't like what's going on. I'm thinking adding a few cafes or some open sitting areas (instead of the uncomfortable benches).

I am sure there are many things that malls could do to make the experience more enjoyable. Whatever changes are made, the result must be to make the mall a desitnation for people other than the dedicated mall rats. If malls dont make these changes, then one day, after it has become unfashionable for 13 year old girls to spend all day at the mall, they will cease to exist.

Bottom line malls, get better

-Christopher Paul

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ineffecient ATM

So I'm at the bank today waiting in line, and I hear an ATM beeping. I look over and someone had left their card in the ATM, after a few seconds, the ATM ate the card. No the poor guy has to go and get a replacement card, which takes about 2 weeks.

I think they should redesign the ATMs so the money comes out last. Someone might forget a receipt or their card because they do not go to the ATM for the explicit reason of getting a receipt or getting back their card. Whatever the percentage of people who leave their card in the machine is, I would bet that the percentage of people who would walk away without the money (the sole item that they went to the ATM for) would be orders of magnitude less

-Christopher Loughnane

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Observation - Laundromats

So I am at the laundromat today doing copious amounts of laundry (my own fault because I put it off as long as possible). The laundromat that I go to is pretty typical. It has the standard machines stacked on top of each other, a few tables to fold clothes on, and not enough chairs. The place tends to be pretty busy, so sometimes you are forced to use the dryers on the bottom. This is a painful experience. The rollong carriages for your wet (heavy) clothes are yall enough that you need to move this cumbersome pile of wet clothes up out of the carriage, over the carriage wall, down. To the low level of the dryer, and in. It is an awkward, almost painful excercise. I have a few ideas on how it could be fixed, but my clothes are about to be dry, so I must go. How would you solve it?

-Christopher Paul

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Portable Cupholder

I take the commuter rail every day into Boston. It is about 45 minute or so ride. One of the things I noticed today is that about 40% of all the riders have some type of beverage with them. Some of them are in some sort of reusable Thermos, but most are Styrofoam/paper cups from Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. The Thermos owners can just close their cups, and then it doesn't matter if it tips over, but what of the coffee-house patrons? It is interesting to watch them try to unfold the Globe or Wall Street Journal while they balance their cup between their legs, between a leg and an armrest/wall, or on top of a bag (it seems almost everyone on commuter rail trains carries a bag of some sort). This is definitely a problem that people have become accustomed to dealing with, but I believe that it can be solved by design.

I imagine a mechanism, something small enough to be able to fit in your pocket, or the smallest pouch on your backpack/satchel/laptop bag. This mechanism would somehow adhere (suction cups?) to a surface. A pulling motion away from the adhered surface could then secure the adhesive seal while opening up a cupholder.

My mechanism might be (probably is) flawed, but I do believe that there is a need for this problem to be solved. Thoughts…?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

EasyRead Watch

I was flipping through a Human Factors book today. Work was a little slow, so I figure I'd brush up on my wrist-mechanics seeing as handheld products are a big part of our business. The part that caught my attention was the section that went into details about what angles are appropriate for repetitive tasks. This got me thinking about what repetitive tasks do we aside from the much talked about typing, mouse clicking etc.? I am sure you can think of a million, but the one that hits home with me is looking at my watch.

I love my watch. A few times a year I will leave the house in a rush and forget my watch. These days are when I notice my obsessive time-checking habits the most. When I'm wearing a watch, every time I look at it my mind works something like this…

I wonder what time it is, I guess I'll look at my watch. (Rotates wrist)

Ah, 1:34. (Turns wrist away)

This is a pretty mundane, forgettable experience. Now compare to the days when I forget my watch.

I wonder what time it is, I guess I'll look at my watch. (Rotates wrist)


Oh yeah, it's at home.

As you can see that is a much more memorable experience. One of the days that I left my watch at home I counted my mini-freak outs. Over the 12 hours I was away from home, I checked my watch 60ish (tough to keep count all day) times.

Now, I am not sure if 60 times a day is enough to put the "R" in RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury), but for the sake of my idea, I am going to assume it is …

I am not sure how this would be built, but I imagine a watch that displays the time to the user regardless of the position of the user's wrist. I have thought about filling it 90% with fluid, and using the resultant air pocket (which would always stay on top of the water, regardless of orientation) to contain some sort of e-ink display, but that doesn't seem too robust. Anyway, I'll kick the thought around a little bit, and if I come up with anything, it will be up here.

-Christopher Paul

Friday, December 7, 2007

Ergonomic Water bubbler

Ah the ubiquitous water cooler. Its presence has permeated, literally, trillions of offices worldwide. I had used them before, but never really on a regular basis until recently. I began drinking caffeinated tea to kick my energy drink addiction. This resulted in 4-5 trips to the cooler a day, minimum.

I came to realize, I despise the water cooler. You have to stay bent over for (depending on your container) 15-45 seconds. This can cause a little bit of stiffness in the back, especially if you have been spending most of the day sitting in a chair.
I knew there must be a reason that every water cooler in the world had been designed with such a blatant disregard for human physiology.

Luckily , my boss had worked on developing a water cooler for pur. He enlightened me as to the nature of my dilemma. The reason you cant move the dispensers up while keeping the water container stationary is that the dispensers must stay below the bottom of the container as the flow always goes from top to bottom. The reason you cant raise both the container and dispensers is that the higher the container, the more difficult the container is to replace, the more likely spills are to occur.

My solution is fairly simple. Springs. Have the container rest on springs so that as water drains, the container becomes lighter, and the springs displace the container higher (F=kx baby). This way, you can ensure that the water level stays above the higher placed dispensers.

Stupid idea? Please tell me. These things just come and go

-Christopher Paul

Traffic cruise control

I live in Boston. I also commute via automobile. Thus I frequently find myself stuck in traffic. Bad traffic. The kind of traffic that will be stop and go for 45 minutes. I know that there are millions that share my predicament because, well, if there weren't then there wouldn't be any traffic.

There are several perils of the stop-and-go traffic situation. You can zone out and tap the car in front of you, you can just tweak out from stress (have seen it happen myself), or your leg can cramp up from repetitive stress.

My solution is a sort of slow-speed cruise control. You can have a laser distance sensor that can interpret how fast you are closing the gap between yourself and the car in front of you. This data can be transmitted to a regenerative braking system (always incorporate energy efficiency where possible), which will slow you down at the appropriate rate. The data will then be used conversely to smoothly accelerate you to an appropriate speed. The cycle continues all while your legs are resting stationary on the floor

-Christopher Paul

Monday, December 3, 2007

Tupperware is a mess

I can never find a lid that goes with my Tupperware. This is strange because my wife and I make a concerted effort to put the lids on the Tupperware when we store them so that when they are needed, we can just grab one out. I feel that if a usable, cleanable design was employed, millions would have a more organized, effective Tupperware cabinet.

This just came to me today, so I have not put a whole lot of thought into the mechanics or aesthetic of what it should look like. However, a quick web search gave me a picture of what it should NOT look like.

Anyway, just wanted to get that thought out there. Also, the "stackable" Tupperware is no good. I tend to stack Tupperware in my fridge, and they tend to collapse slightly when stacked. There are other complaints on different review boards, but I don't much feel like getting into them. Back to the Pats-Ravens game.

-Christopher Paul

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Cold weather workout

So as I was riding my bike to the train yesterday something dawned on me that I am sure every person who has ever worked out in cold weather has experienced as well. You get out of the house and it is freezing, so you have a coat on. Of course, once you get going, you are all hot and sweaty. The sweat the makes you cold once you have stopped performing at a high level.

It led me to think, why dont they make a heating/cooling patch (much like they put on newborns to regulate their body temperatures) marketed at these outdoor excercisers. This way, they could go from a warm house, to a cold environment to a warm house, all without (literally) breaking a sweat.

-Christopher Paul