Category Archives: e4a8bf95-f967-4a45-9a0b-3b74fc2dc138

Delight

When the Windows Phone 7 ad campaign started airing, I unfortunately  misunderstood the message.  I thought the point of the campaign was that Microsoft was coming out with a new device that would captivate consumers so thoroughly they would abandon their quotidian activities to use it.  I was also moved by Microsoft’s apparently willingness to make fun of themselves about how good their product would be – a product so wonderful it would stop traffic and so sexy it would pull men away from their lovers.

The final voice over, however, thoroughly confused me.  “A phone to save us from our phones.” 

It actually took me a few weeks before I realized that Microsoft was making a completely different kind of play.  They were claiming to understand smartphones while their competitors, Google and Apple, did not.  Smartphones, it turns out, aren’t supposed to enchant, bind and compel.  They are, according to Microsoft marketing, primarily functional devices intended as content delivery systems.  They are, in effect, the hardware equivalent of Sharepoint.

For me this is a problem with Microsoft messaging and not with Windows Phone itself.  These are delightful commercials that spread an insidious and misguided philosophy emphasizing functionality over experience. 

But isn’t that the Microsoft philosophy that was supposed to have died when Windows Mobile was replaced with Windows Phone? Windows Mobile was an expensive tool.  Windows Phone is an expensive toy.  And the most successful smartphone toy is the one that a room full of children want to pick up and play with because it enchants them, it binds them, it delights them.

I don’t claim to fully understand the experience of delight but I have a strong instinct that Microsoft marketing does not appreciate it despite the lengths to which they go to talk about it. 

Delight, for me, is not about utility but rather concerns itself with superfluity.  And while there is a current trend against “distraction” in the UX world, something delightful should at least make us tarry.  Even better it should make us wonder.  It should have a minimum of functionality but a vast degree of intricacy.  It should emphasize this with depth rather than magnitude – that is, it should be small and rich rather than provide a long feature list of things it can do.

Most of all, something delightful shouldn’t have to be explained.  This is, nevertheless, what I will attempt to do in this post – to explain what delight is. 

I will do this, however inadequately, by culling examples from various arts: food, film, poetry, and tactile art.  I won’t try to tie any of this directly to the design of smartphone devices or the development of smartphone apps, but all the same expect that these analogies will be apparent to the reader.

My main thesis is that there are four important elements to delight: superfluity, delicateness, enchantment and intricacy.  These are all, moreover, elements completely within the grasp of the Windows Phone developer and which the Windows Phone Metro style will support, if used correctly.

It might be more straightforward to say, however, that these are some of the things that delight me and I’d like to share them with you.

 

Superfluity

Something which delights is received as a gift.  It is given freely and nothing is expected in return for it.  It also has no purpose other than itself.  The scent of a flower does not delight because the smell is useful to us or because it enables us to smell.  The delightful thing does not enable anything.  It is purposeless. 

Even Aristotle, as practical as any philosopher can be, said of the origins of the useless arts,

“… as more arts were invented, and some were directed to the necessities of life, others to recreation, the inventors of the latter were naturally always regarded as wiser than the inventors of the former, because their branches of knowledge did not aim at utility.”

Useful things always serve another purpose.  Useless things are an end in themselves and are just for us.  This sense of our own specialness is essential to the experience of delight.

 

Delicacy

In finer restaurants around the world, there is a course known as the amuse bouche.  It is typically a one-mouthful dish selected by the chef and delivered to his guests.  It also will typically not ever appear on the bill.  It is a gift intended simply to “delight-the-mouth” as well as the mind.

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Presentation is always impeccable.  The game for the chef is to pack as much visual and flavorful complexity as he can into a small package.

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One of the finest I’ve ever had was a fresh oyster in a half-shell with a tiny square of green, absinthe jello placed on top.

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The miniature size is essential to the effect not only because it establishes a rule within which the chef must operate (only a single mouthful of food) but also because of the inherent delight we experience when we encounter the small.  Large meals make us full.  Large pieces of art evoke a sense of the sublime.  Large works of poetry stay with us and cannot be shaken.  The amuse bouche, on the other hand, simply leaves behind a sense of happiness and gratitude.

 

Enchantment

Enchantment has become an overused word, as have all the synonyms we might use in its place: magic, uncanny-ness, wonderment.  The purpose of enchantment is to lift us out of our own sense of being.  For just a moment time stops, goals are put aside, and we are allowed to simply be.  The delightful object puts the real world aside and provides a space for us to rest from it.

This notion of enchantment was at the heart of the 19th century Romantic movement in poetry.  In his preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote of the new poetry he and Coleridge were devising,

“The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.”

One of my favorite film-makers, Jean Cocteau, was himself a poet and novelist who – almost uniquely – brought this unique sensibility to his movies.  The techniques of visual poetry he improvised have over time become part of the common idiom of filmmaking.  No one, however, has ever quite been able to replicate the sense of the uncanny he created in films such as La belle et la bête or Orphée.

Watch, for instance, the arrival of Belle to the Beast’s castle. 

The techniques are simple – people with their arms poked through a wall, slow motion filming, and a rolling palette upon which Josette Day is pulled forward.  By pulling all these effects together, however, Cocteau was able to create something light and otherworldly.

Here is another effect Cocteau originally attempted in his film from the 30’s Le Sang d’un Poete but didn’t get right until Orphée.  It is an adult play on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.  My favorite line: “It is not about understanding.  It’s about believing.”

 

Intricacy

A key notion in UX is discoverability.  Something should always be left to the end-user to discover on their own.  Discovery is a way for users of an experience to make the experience their own.  They form an emotional connection with devices and experiences that are discoverable and achieve a sense that the object of delight is for them because they are the ones who figured it out.

Dan Ohlmann is an artist whose works are exhibited at the Musée des miniatures et des décors de cinéma in Lyons. 

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His talent is not just in mastering the art of the small, but in perfecting the attention to detail needed to enchant his audience and keep them riveted to one spot.

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I feel like I could step into one of these dioramas at any time and will find a full world in miniature simply by stepping through the door at the back of the piece.

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Dan Ohlmann’s art always hints at there being more just around the corner – a whole new world yet to be discovered.

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A Silverlight CSI Challenge

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One of the peculiar things about Silverlight applications is that, while SL provides the tools to create new and interesting user interface paradigms, most Silverlight apps currently being written look like revamped winforms or web form UIs.

This smells like a missed opportunity.  The problem, of course, is that it is difficult to come up with new ways for people to interface with their computers.  Developers and designers tend to fall back on the metaphors they are familiar with.

If you want to find interesting UIs, you need to look at your TV or the movie theater.  Movies like The Minority Report, while even more confusing than the Philip Dick story it is based on, succeeded mostly on its ability to show us what the future would look like.  Shows like the various CSI franchises succeed in making that future look like it is available today.

At the office, we get a big kick out of recounting the latest weird, impossible software being used on last night’s procedural drama to catch the bad guy.  What we rarely examine, however, is the fact that we can use Silverlight to build apps to look like – if not actually function like – those fictional software programs.  So why don’t we?

If we want to find new metaphors for the UI experience, it makes sense to go to the experts – television designers.  They have already done the hard creative work.  All we, as software developers, need to do is copy them and see what actually succeeds. 

So put on your Horatio sun glasses and build something from CSI, or Bones, or Criminal Minds, or The Minority Report, or any other technologically fictional world and see if you can make it real.  And when you are done, you can peer over your shades and drop a cheesy line like “Looks like his XAML finally got rendered.”

David Carradine

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As with many people, the passing of David Carradine has left me quite shaken.  David Carradine, after all, was the reason I got into consulting in the first place.

Kung Fu, the Ed Spielman TV series in which Mr. Carradine played Kwai Chang Cane, a parapatetic Shaolin monk in the American Old West, left a lasting impression on me.  If you are unfamiliar with the series, it revolved around a half-Chinese half-American man trained in Kung Fu helping people out as he travelled from town to town searching for his American relatives, all the time pursued by the Chinese Emperor’s assassins.

It may be hard to believe, but when I found out about the world of Software Consulting, I realized that it was my opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream of living the life of Kwai Chang Cane.  It’s a bit of a stretch, but think about what a consultant does. He travels from company to company assisting them with difficult technical issues they desperately need help to resolve.

Let me say that the reality has been as good as the dream.  In the past year I’ve managed to:

05/08 – 07/08

Upgrade a billing application for a national furniture chain located just off of Jimmy Carter Boulevard from VB6 Forms to an ASP.NET 3.5 application with limited ajax functionality.  In the process, I helped out a group a beleaguered shopkeepers being extorted by local thugs.

08/08 – 09/08

Gather requirements for a POC Silverlight project while investigating why a beautiful roller derby skater was killed.

10/08 – 11/08

Assist in the data migration of an insurance company’s legacy data – horribly denormalized, unindexed and lacking referential integrity – from a Paradox for DOS system to SQL Server 2008.  At the same time I was able to rescue the office manager’s cousin from a Turkish prison where he was incarcerated under trumped up drug trafficking charges.  I was able to do this with some help from friends who are Vietnam vets in hiding from the US government for crimes they didn’t commit.

12/08 – 03/09

Design a reporting framework for a mortgage company going through hard times that heavily leveraged third party charting tools while also arranging a new life for a protected Federal witness — who was testifying against his mobster brother — and help him to visit his sick mother before she died.

04/09

This was a fairly quick gig.  I had to design and build a WPF point-of-sale application for a cruise liner.  During installation of the software I teamed up with a consultant from a rival firm to defuse two sophisticated bombs aboard the cruise ship while overcoming our mutual animosity and learning to work together and ultimately develop an abiding respect for one another’s abilities.

05/09

I had some down time in June, so I reminisced about my adventures to my colleagues clip-show style while preparing for a certification exam.

If this makes consulting out to be something glamorous, I want to make it clear that this is not always the case – for instance the time I had to scrub crystal reporting data for a client or the time I had to hunt down oversized alligators in the sewers because they were eating neighborhood pets.  But between those times there can, indeed, be quite a bit of excitement. 

Consulting is definitely not for everyone.  It takes a certain mentality, a certain desire to not have the same routine every day, and of course it never hurts if you have the ability to make plastic explosives out of a matchbox and a stick of spearmint gum or can deploy a multi-tier application with only a command line utility and the spring from a ballpoint pen.

At least I look forward to coming in to work each day knowing that there will be something new and unexpected to make it different from the day before.

And I have David Carradine to thank for setting me on this path.

The Lees and Scum of Bygone Men

 

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The following is a parable about the difference between theory and practice, which Michael Oakeshott frames as the difference between technical and practical knowledge, found as a footnote in Michael Oakeshott’s essay Rationalism In Politics.  I find that it has some bearing, which I will discuss in the near future, to certain Internet debates about pedagogy and software programming:

Duke Huan of Ch’i was reading a book at the upper end of the hall; the wheelwright was making a wheel at the lower end.  Putting aside his mallet and chisel, he called to the Duke and asked him what book he was reading.  ‘One that records the words of the Sages,’ answered the Duke.  ‘Are those Sages alive?’ asked the wheelwright.  ‘Oh, no,’ said the Duke, ‘they are dead.’  ‘In that case,’ said the wheelwright, ‘what you are reading can be nothing but the lees and scum of bygone men.’  ‘How dare you, a wheelwright, find fault with the book I am reading.  If you can explain your statement, I will let it pass.  If not, you shall die.’  ‘Speaking as a wheelwright,’ he replied, ‘I look at the matter in this way; when I am making a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but it does not go deep.  The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart.  It is a thing that cannot be put into rules; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my son.  That is why it is impossible for me to let him take over my work, and here I am at the age of seventy still making wheels.  In my opinion it must have been the same with the men of old.  All that was worth handing on, died with them; the rest, they put in their books.  That is why I said that what you were reading was the lees and scum of bygone men.'”

Chuang Tzu