The Timeless Way of Building Software, Part 1: User Experience and Flow

Posted in interaction design on May 31st, 2012 by Samuel Kenyon

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander [1] was exciting. As I read it, I kept making parallels between building/town design and software design.


We’re not talking any kind of architecture here. The whole point of the book is to explain a theory of “living” buildings. They are designed and developed in a way that is more like nature in many ways—iterative, embracing change, flexibility, and repair.

Design is recognized not as the act of some person making a blueprint—it’s a process that’s tied into construction itself. Alexander’s method is to use a language of patterns to generate an architecture that is appropriate for its context. It will be unique, yet share many patterns with other human-used architectures.

This architecture theory includes a concept of the Quality Without a Name. And this is achieved in buildings/towns in a way that is more organic than the popular ways (of course there are exceptions and partially “living” modern architectures).

User Experience

Humans are involved in every step. Although patterns are shared, each building has its own appropriate language which uses only certain patterns and puts them in a particular order. The entire design and building process serves human nature in general, and specifically how humans will use this particular building and site. Is that starting to stir up notions of usability or user-centered design in your mind?

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UX Conference 2012: Design Studio

Posted in interaction design on May 11th, 2012 by Samuel Kenyon

One of the particularly good presentations at the UPA Boston 11th Annual User Experience Conference (#UPABOS12) was called “Design Studio” by designer Adam Connor.

The main points are:

  • Why brainstorming is usually implemented wrong.
  • How to properly generate ideas and consensus (the “design studio”).
    • Charrettes (are used by the design studio process).


Going from many concepts to one good one

As a super condensed version of the presentation, the main aspect of the design process that concerns us here is how to go from lots of concepts to the best single concept.

At the beginning of a project, or perhaps when some major failure has happened, some companies might try to throw people into a room for a “brainstorm” session. But…

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User Experience Conference 2012: Link Blast

Posted in interaction design on May 7th, 2012 by Samuel Kenyon

This post lists tools and websites I learned about today at the UPA Boston 11th Annual User Experience Conference.

Tools for Mobile Prototyping and Usability Testing

Although I’m familiar with wearable computers, especially for the military, and have developed for PDAs back in the day, I am fairly new to the current popular commercial mobile platforms like Android and iOS. So here is a blast of links taken primarily from Vijay Hanumolu’s UPA presentation “Whirlwind Tour of Mobile Usability Testing Apps & Services.”

Responsive Design

Vijay (who works at Mobiquity) mentioned Responsive Design several times, which means crafting a website/app as a single source of content that can automatically display in many types of devices/screens. The term assumes HTML with CSS3, although I suppose there could be other technologies used/tested for the same goals. Here’s a website that lets you test responsive design.

Detailed Design

  • Adobe Shadow (Chrome plugin)
    Inspect and preview web workflows on iOS and Android devices.
  • Blueprint for iPad
    iOS UI Design app.
  • AppCooker
    iOS mockups/prototypes app that uses the actual Apple UI. It can’t port to XCode yet (i.e. converting the mockup into the beginning of the working program) but they are supposedly working on a Mac application to do that.
  • Nokia Flowella
    Prototypes/mockups (apparently just for Symbian)

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The Seed and the Flower

Posted in artificial intelligence, robotics, transhumanism on December 30th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Right now I’m reading an architecture book from the 1970s called The Timeless Way of Building.  So far it has to do with theories of how towns and buildings and other things seem more “alive” than others, and how to achieve this quality—the “quality without a name”.

This of course goes far beyond merely architecture; indeed this book was brought to my attention not by an architect but by people in the UX (user experience) design community. Anyway, this blog post only covers a couple pages out of the book.

The author, Christopher Alexander, says that we have come to think of buildings, towns, and works of art as “creations.” And that “creation” is thought of as a monumental design task, “brought to birth, suddenly, in a single act, whose inner workings cannot be explained, whose substance relies ultimately on the ego of the creator.”

I would interject that the creator might understand the inner workings, but even then, for a complicated project attempted in a process with this mindset, the end result would probably not be completely understandable by the creator. More on that in a minute…

As Alexander writes:

The quality without a name cannot be made like this.

Imagine, by contrast, a system of simple rules, not complicated, patiently applied, until they gradually form a thing. The thing may be formed gradually and built all at once, or built gradually over time—but it is formed, essentially, by a process no more complicated than the process by which the Samoans shape their canoe.

And if you’re thinking that this sounds very much like how biology works, then you have predicted the next key statement on the same page:

The same thing, exactly, is true of a living organism.

An organism cannot be made. It cannot be conceived, by a willful act of creation, and then built, according to the blueprint of the creator. It is far too complex, far too subtle, to be born from a bolt of lightning in the creator’s mind. It has a thousand billion cells, each one adapted perfectly to its conditions—and this can only happen because the organism is not “made” but generated by a process which allows the gradual adaptation of these cells to happen hour by hour….

And Alexander claims that there is no other way. Of course, as a transhumanist and a roboticist and an occasional cognitive architect (oh, maybe there is architecture here after all!) I want to be able to create and modify life forms. I want to make artificial organisms, and interfaces between the organic and the non-organic.

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