Brief Film Review: I’m Not There

On Thanksgiving, we took advantage of the holiday mellowness to see I’m Not There, the Bob Dylan “biopic” known best for having 6 people play different aspects of Dylan’s character and career. I’m no Dylan aficionado (I don’t own any of his albums), but I’m definitely aware of him and his milieu — raised middle class Jewish in Minnesota, remade himself into a Woody Guthrie-like folkie in the West Village (and squiring Joan Baez), then remade himself again as a plugged-in rock-and-roller, before flaming out, finding Jesus, etc. etc.

Unfortunately, such general knowledge doesn’t seem to be enough. From what I can tell, I’M NOT THERE is a treat for aficionados, packed with references and allusions to Dylaniana, but as an “interested layperson,” it struck me as a very ambitious film whose reach exceeded its grasp. Todd Haynes clearly had distinct ideas as to how he wanted to express Dylan’s life, and he should be commended for attempting something poetic and challenging, but it simply doesn’t come together as a good, engaging, lose-yourself-to-it film.

The disjointed nature of the narrative renders the film as a series of set pieces, some fun and/or interesting (particularly those with Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger) and some not (Christian Bale, Richard Gere). As a view, this narrative approach also kept me at arm’s length from the story, making me an observer, as opposed to a member of an audience, which limited my ability to engage emotionally… You get too caught up in the way Todd Haynes is telling the story that you don’t get caught up in the story itself.

Anyway, I would say for most folks, they can simply pass on this film — you’re not missing out on anything major or important from a cinematic standpoint.

Kindle and the Form of the Book

The blogosphere is all het up with talk of Kindle, Amazon’s new e-reader, and most of what I’m reading, in the design and tech blogs, is not positive.

What I find most interesting is all the hype around Kindle, as if e-readers are new. Like, does it really warrant the cover on Newsweek? (And, hey, look familiar?)

I’ve been working near “e-books” for nearly 15 years. In 1994, when I joined the Voyager Company, they had “Expanded Books,” a line of electronic books on floppy disks. They were remarkably well suited to reading on the initial Mac laptops, particularly the PowerBook 100. We had stories of people curling up to their laptops in bed. The Expanded Books also included much of what makes “e”-reading worthwhile — searchable text, bookmarks, annotations, etc.

In the early days of this blog, I wrote a lot about the form of the book. On September 14, 1999, I wrote a long-ish passage on what makes a book a book (before I had permalinks). An excerpt:

Just what makes a book a book? It’s not its form–magazines and other periodicals often match a book’s physical properties, but would never be labelled “book.” And electronic books, which have no physical form beyond the device through which they’re viewed, still qualify as books.

Is it the content? To some extent. Unlike a magazine, a book’s content has an aura of permanence and timelessness, and delves into more involved thoughts.

Still, though, the form is important, and electronic books highlight this. I could take the exact same content, and present it either in a form like a Voyager Expanded Book, or in a single long scrolling Web page. The latter would not be called a book. The notion of page-turning is essential to the category of book, again, even if that page-turning is only being done metaphorically on a computer screen.

So, a book, at it’s core, is an object containing content of permanence presented in a page-turning medium.

And there’s this passage from John Updike’s review of the book The Book on the Bookshelf:

Our notion of a book is of a physical object, precious even if no longer hand-copied on sheepskin by carrel-bound monks, which we can hold, enter at random, shelve for future references and enjoy as a palpable piece of our environment, a material souvenir of the immaterial experience it gave us. That books endure suggests that we endure…

Materiality is central to our relationship with books. And I think this gives a clue as to why Kindle (nor any e-book reader) will never resonate the way iPod has. We’ve been able to move from analog to digital to and from atoms to bits with music because music is ephemeral, and because we don’t lust over the plastic discs (we might lust over their covers/jackets, but that’s a different manner). Whereas people *lust* over their books, smell, hug, annotate, manipulate, and that’s key to the “book experience.”

What I find my dispiriting about the discussion around Kindle is the focus on books. The Newsweek articles spends the bulk of it’s time talking about what it means to read books on a screen, though it mentions

“The Kindle is not just for books. Via the Amazon store, you can subscribe to newspapers (the Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Le Monde) and magazines (The Atlantic). When issues go to press, the virtual publications are automatically beamed into your Kindle. (It’s much closer to a virtual newsboy tossing the publication on your doorstep than accessing the contents a piece at a time on the Web.) You can also subscribe to selected blogs, which cost either 99 cents or $1.99 a month per blog.”

I find the promise of that far more intriguing. For many, if most people, books require some degree of permanence. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs do not. If you think of the world of documents, books comprise a very tiny portion of that, but such readers could really change our relationship with those documents.

I’m also excited about the opportunities that such readers have for hypertext (no e-book reader matches the hypertext capabilities of the original Voyager Expanded Books), and comics (easily portable infinite canvas!).

Quack! Some thoughts on DUX07 and the State of User Experience

Earlier this week I attended DUX07, a conference for discussion on designing for user experiences. Forthwith, some thoughts:

“Innovation” is a plague

I had the odd fortune of being the very first speaker at the conference. While I’m only partly pleased with my talk (forming a clear, concise thesis escaped me), I’m (perhaps smugly self-) satisfied with its effect. See, in my talk, I railed against “innovation,” and encouraged the audience to throw things at speakers who used that word. (Why? Because “innovation” has become well-nigh meaningless in its overuse, and it’s the word that designers latch onto in order to be relevant in a business context.) Over the next two and a half days, numerous speakers caught themselves as they uttered the term, and I felt that this really pointed out a challenge in our discourse.

I believe it’s productive to question the term “innovation,” because it forces people to say what they really mean.

Perception is reality

Well, I don’t know about that, but a surprising number of talks dealt with the power of visualizations and ambient interfaces to help us manage the “information firehose,” as keynoter David Pescovitz put it.

Academia just ain’t getting it

My biggest frustration with DUX07 is that it is largely a paper-based conference. As such, it’s beholden to what is submitted. The folks with the most time to submit are academics. However, as I twittered mid-conference, “The moment an academic takes the stage, the conference screeches to a halt.” This wasn’t 100% true, but it was often true, and easily all of the worst presentations were from academics.

But perhaps even more off-putting than the badness of some of these presentations was what that pretty much all the academic research shown was simply irrelevant. The matters at the heart of experience design are simply not being addressed by academics, or being done so in a useless manner. I don’t know if its because the subject is too squishy, multi-disciplinary, subjective, or what, but it was definitely a waste of time.

The conversation is worth having

Perhaps the best “content” of the conference, at least in my personal experience, was a lunchtime roundtable led by Ted Booth from Smart Design, on the topic of what makes a great hardware-software product experience. Around the table were folks from Palm, Schematic, Accenture, Motorola, and a gentleman whose consultancy works on Roomba (I forget the consultancy’s name), and we had a great discussion on the qualities of good products (Ted called out the Roomba and its delightful animal-like sounds); the challenges for delivery (mostly organizational, mostly caused by the siloing of the hardware and software folks); and the need for an articulated vision. We tried very hard to mentioning products from That Fruit Company.

In general, the break-time conversations were great, and I was in awe of the sophistication and savvy of the audience.

This audience deserves more, and better

Speaking of that audience, in my discussions with people at breaks, I got the sense that while they appreciated the spirit and purpose of the event, they wanted more. I know that conference team did their best given the material they had to work with, but I felt the event fell short of its promise (and in talking to other participants, I wasn’t alone.) “User experience” ended up meaning “design of interactive media,” which strikes me as incomplete. There was nothing about environments or services, nothing about coordinating multiple touchpoints or components. (I wrote about this over two years ago: “User experience should not be just about interactive systems — it’s a quality that reflects the sum total of a person’s experiences with any product, service, organization. When I walk into a store, I’m having a “user experience.” When I call an airline to make a reservation, I’m having a “user experience.” And innumerable elements contribute to affect that quality of experience.” And even then, all I was doing was recapitulating Don.)

What surprised me was that, contrary to things I’ve written in the past, user experience is very much not dead, and there are people passionate about the concept. But the passion resides not at the level of point interfaces solutions (websites, mobile, devices) — in my discussions, it felt that the passion was about how these things can be brought together so that the coordinated whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Apart from Adam Greenfield’s product/service ecology keynote, this bigger picture was pretty much never addressed.

(To my friends who were involved in organizing the conference, please take this criticism in the constructive mode it is meant. I know you poured your heart into this event, and I in no way mean to diminish your good work.)

The State of User Experience

After attending numerous design events this past year, I’ve realized that they’re all evolving to a similar place, free from the specifics of their particular domain, and towards a shared “big D design” understanding. The IDSA event, nominally for industrial designers, dealt with many of the same issues as the Information Architecture Summit, the AIGA annual, DUX07, and even Adaptive Path’s UX Week.

And while all these design disciplines have distinctions in their details, what they all share is an emerging orientation to serving the user’s experience. And while DUX07 began to speak to that shared space, it’s interaction-design orientation left it falling short. There’s a huge opportunity to bridge practitioners from across all these design disciplines, to weave their various approaches and challenges into a larger experience design braid.

The User Experience field is still crying out for leadership. Currently, all activity is coming from the bottom up, from practitioners doing work in their various fields and recognizing that they’re working toward some interesting larger challenges. I think we need a bit of top-down leadership, though — people who aren’t simply reacting to what they’re given, but establishing a coherent vision for experience design, a vision that people from across these creative disciplines as recognizing as relevant to them, and helps them orient their work toward a larger purpose.