Designing flexibility into habit frameworks

Reading a recent blog post by Peter Janiszewski made me think about designing flexibility into habit frameworks. For instance, Peter proposes a plan to increase his daily activity level by taking a mini exercise break several times a day. Each break consists of 3 sets of 30 repetitions. He never performs the same set twice in one day and selects the sets in a given break so that he exercises core, upper body, and lower body. Thus, he has a general structure in place to minimize the risk of overexercising specific muscles, but he does not plan out the sequence of exercises he is going to do in advance. By relying on a core set of exercises he already knows well and these self-made guidelines, he can exercise on autopilot if he feels less motivated. For the times when he wants to make things more interesting, he can mix up the sequence or improvise a new type of exercise. Establishing a framework for habitual behavior while making room for variation and invention seems to me like a good idea for sustaining behavior change over time.

Redesigning our lives

This article is in line with my thesis work, and it seems fitting to share as people start in on their new year's resolutions:

The exercise described in the article prompts individuals to document their impression of the current state of their lives. Such reflection can lead to a redesign goal, such as, "My life is dominated by work. I should shift my focus to include more personal growth." It seems like a good first step to identify priorities and visualize goals. In doing so, people may realize they want to spend more time on things that are truly important to them, like skill-building, and less time on other things, like commuting. 

I think the reflective activity would have even more value with the addition of supporting data. For example, many people underestimate much time they spend on daily activities such as Facebook, TV, and e-mail. Tracking their time for a week and then reflecting on a breakdown of their actual activity, not what they thought they did, would increase their chances of identifying significant design opportunities. 

Once they identify these opportunities, what kinds of tools can they use as individuals to address them in a systematic fashion? What role should technology play in these efforts? These are the questions that will occupy my mind and influence my work in 2011.


I spent the afternoon in the digital fabrication lab in Margaret Morrison and got to see models being created in 3D modeling software and carved by machine. So cool!

How to build a paper pop-up piano

As a mini-project in the course Making Things Interactive, I created a prototype of a pop-up piano with six keys. When a key is pressed, the corresponding musical note plays through a speaker. A pull-tab can be also be pulled or pushed to dim or brighten an LED by means of a paper variable resistor.


  • 4B or 6B graphite pencil
  • Arduino
  • bristol paper
  • copper eyelets (metal findings for jewelry making)
  • copper tape
  • cutting mat
  • glue
  • metal ruler
  • needle
  • piezo speaker
  • LED
  • tape, nonconductive (artist or scotch works)
  • wire, beading
  • wire, insulated
  • X-Acto knife

Step 1: Pop-up keys

Measure, cut, and fold six pop-up piano keys along the mid-line of one sheet of bristol paper; this will be the top sheet of the pop-up. Fold another sheet of bristol in half; this will be the backing sheet of the pop-up. If desired, cut the silhouette of the top half of both sheets into an interesting shape.

Construction Notes:

Paper piano keys pop-up
Paper piano keys pop-up

I hadn't made pop-ups before, so I practiced with regular paper before I started using the (more expensive) bristol paper. Based on my first trial run, I reduced the height of the piano keys from 1 inch to 0.5 inch. The lower key height reduced the amount of bowing the paper did when pressed down, which helped it spring back to its original form when released.

Drawing piano keys on bristol
Drawing piano keys on bristol

I did a second trial run of the pop-up with bristol paper. The bristol was thicker than regular paper, and based on my results, I decided to reduce the key height further, from 0.5 inch to 0.25 inch, to improve the key-press action with this particular material. For my final prototype, I also drew and cut the keys before folding the paper in half, so that I avoided having a fold line across the top surface of the keys (faintly visible in the next photo of my second trial version).

Pop-up keys - second version
Pop-up keys - second version

Step 2: Key switches, side #1

On the bottom sheet of bristol, lightly mark with a pencil where the underside of the piano keys will be and coat the area with an adhesive conductive material such as aluminum foil or copper tape. This area will be one side of the switch mechanism that will activate when a key is pressed. Using a needle, poke one hole in the mid-line fold of the paper and stick a copper eyelet through it so that the round part is sticking out from the back side of the paper and the rod is on the front side. Tape the rod of the eyelet to the conductive surface area of the paper with copper tape.

Construction Notes:

Pop-up backing sheet
Pop-up backing sheet

Originally I had each key switch wired as an independent circuit, as shown in the above photo. Later in the construction, I changed this so that they tied together on the bottom with copper tape because all the switches connect to +5V through this bottom layer. Making this small change enabled me to remove all but one of the copper eyelets that extended through the fold line and simplified the wiring in the back. I used aluminum foil to increase the conductive surface area under each key because I only had about 10 inches of copper tape at my disposal and wanted to make it last.

Step 3: Key switches, side #2

To make the other side of each switch, lay the top sheet on top of the backing sheet so that you can see the backing sheet through the gaps the pop-up keys make in the top sheet. Using the needle, poke a hole through the backing sheet beneath the surface of each key and stick a copper eyelet through the hole so that the round part is sticking out from the back side of the paper and the rod is on the front side. Tape the rod to the underside of the piano key with copper tape so that when the key is depressed, the rod makes contact with the conductive surface on the backing sheet, closing the switch.

Step 4: Paper variable resistor

To make the paper variable resistor, cut a narrow paper strip out of a sheet of bristol and demarcate a strip about 0.25 inch wide. With a graphite pencil (preferably 4B or 6B), scribble like mad in this area until the surface is completely coated with graphite. Calibrate using a multimeter and two paper clips, attaching one paper clip to one end of the graphite-coated strip and moving the other paper clip along the strip while measuring the resistance across the clips. Glue the strip (graphite facing up) to the lower half of the backing sheet along the left or right edge or, if you feel like throwing caution to the wind, repeat the scribbling/calibration procedure directly on the backing sheet itself.

Paper variable resistor construction
Paper variable resistor construction

Step 5: Pull-tab

Using a needle, poke a hole through the mid-line fold of the backing sheet where the graphite strip meets the backing sheet and stick a copper eyelet through the hole so that the round part is sticking out from the back side of the paper and the rod is on the front side. Attach the rod portion to the graphite strip with a piece of copper tape. Cut another paper strip out of bristol that is 1 inch wide and slightly longer than half the length of the backing sheet. This will be the pull-tab that changes the resistance of the paper resistor. In the area of the top sheet of the pop-up that lies directly over the graphite strip, measure and cut a long narrow slot such that the pull-tab can slide along it and make a 1-inch slit perpendicular to the slot near the edge where the tab will be pulled. Thread the pull-tab through the slit and attach to the slot with a piece of bristol so that it slides easily. (See The Elements of Pop-Up by David A. Carter and James Diaz for more detail on constructing the pull-tab mechanism.)

Using a needle, poke a hole through the mid-line fold of the backing sheet where the pull-tab meets the backing sheet and and thread a length of beading wire through the hole. Attach the beading wire to the underside of the pull-tab with a piece of copper tape, making sure that it does not contact the piece of tape on the graphite strip.

Step 6: Wiring

Wire up the switches and variable resistor to the Arduino using the beading thread and copper eyelets that are extending through the backing sheet. Wire up a piezo speaker and LED for outputs. Adhere the Arduino and breadboard to the back of the backing sheet.

Construction Notes:

Originally, I had a 220Ω resistor between the speaker and the output pin on the Arduino (the smallest resistor I had). The sound coming out of the speaker, however, was very quiet. When I removed this resistor, the notes played at a better volume for demonstration purposes and, more importantly, the speaker did not burn out.

Step 7: Code

I referenced Tom Igoe's Tone Output example and used the Arduino Tone library to play the musical notes.

See the code for the Pop-up Piano.

Gong Whacker 3000

Behold my latest masterpiece for Making Things Interactive, a dazzling demonstration of mechanical movements.


circuit driving the DC motor


4-bar linkage


pivot point made of pipe cleaner twisted and duct-taped to my rapid-prototyping rig (aka my desk)



string harness holding wooden dowel

Unrelated to the final device, this is an earlier attempt at creating a Geneva drive out of bristol board, Q-tips, and foamcore. When the disc turns, it moves a pin affixed to its surface. That pin threads through a slot in the wheel, turning the wheel intermittently. However, on the next disc revolution, the pin doesn't quite line up with the next slot on the wheel. When it comes to making wheel and gear mechanisms, precision is important.


Making a footswitch

For the course Making Things Interactive I am taking this fall, I had an assignment to make a switch. I decided to make a footswitch, which you can see in action here:

To make the footswitch, I used two cutting boards that were laying around the house. To the bottom board, I taped a sheet of aluminum foil and made a border of foam tape around the edges. On top, I stuck the second cutting board with a wire taped to the underside. The foam tape created separation between the two boards, yet was springy enough that when a person steps on the top board, the wire taped to its underside comes into contact with the aluminum foil on the bottom board, closing the switch. When pressure is removed, the top board springs up again, opening the switch.




Respecting your audience

In a recent talk at Carnegie Mellon University, American statistician and professor emeritus Edward Tufte said "Respect your audience." Pithy advice, but what does it mean? Tufte goes around the U.S. conducting seminars on information design, so presumably he directed these words at information designers, people whose primary goal is the effective communication of information. He went on to say that, in many cases, the audience knows more about the content than the designer does. For instance, designers tasked with communicating information about the federal budget to lawmakers and economists are really designing for people who (we hope) know a great deal more about the deeper meaning of all those numbers.

Respecting your audience, then, means making an effort to understand what your audience will find obvious, and what it won't. It means using a level of explicitness that is appropriate based on that understanding, rather than assuming your audience a) can read your mind or b) has no specialized knowledge of the domain. It means using language that your audience finds familiar and mental models that it recognizes.

Don't worry that your work will become less accessible to a general audience. There is no general audience, just as there is no such thing as a family with 2.5 children. Faced with the choice of being unhelpful to a lot of people or being helpful to a few, opt for the latter. If more than one specific audience must be addressed, figure out what each audience wants to get out of the information and create a design tailored to each.

Below are some examples of information design I found related to the federal budget. Just for fun(?), guess who their audiences are.

Death and Taxes

What does the federal budget freeze look like?

Data visualization with cookies


Federal IT Dashboard


I think I am now addicted to inspiration.

Today's TEDxCMU event featured speakers ranging from entrepreneurs to artists to musicians to writers. Actually, most (if not all) of them fell into more than one of those categories. In order of appearance:

Jonathan Fields A former attorney turned author, blogger, and entrepreneur, his talk (according to my own informal poll) was a audience favorite. The three questions he says to ask yourself when considering whether to pursue something you want yet fear:

  1. What happens if you fail, and how will you recover?
  2. What happens if you do nothing?
  3. What happens if you succeed?

Hint: the second option most often leads to a life of quiet desperation and lifelong regrets.

MK Haley A 16-year Walt Disney Imagineer, she recently joined the faculty at the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU. Apparently, she got tired of working for The Mouse. Key takeaways from her talk:

  1. Nap your way to success!
  2. What would happen if we all supported each others' ideas instead of shooting them down to stoke our own egos? Innovation, that's what.
  3. Never eat lunch alone.
  4. Thank your role models.
  5. Be a role model.

Jackson Chu This Carnegie Mellon freshman studies design (woo!) and gave a stirring performance playing two pieces on a Chinese violin-like instrument called an erhu.

RF Culbertson An entrepreneur and professor at the Tepper School of Business at CMU, he gave a  valuable and entertaining talk on the importance of personal investing. His closing remarks, delivered in rap form, ended with this parting advice: Don't "should" all over yourself.

Nathan Martin This punk/metal rocker turned suit-wearing CEO of Deeplocal Inc. delivered some of the best messages of the day:

  1. Think like an amateur
  2. Think like a deviant
  3. Solve problems without technology if possible

Yes to all three!

Chris Guillebeau A traveling writer, he is living the dream, as far as I am concerned. His talk was great, but I confess I spent much of it trying to figure out how to pull a John Malkovich on him so that I could live his life. I think he said not to pet crocodiles, but if you do, be sure to download a permission slip first. Err, I probably should have paid closer attention.

DS Company Carnegie Mellon student organization Dancers' Symposium entertained the audience with a modern dance number that involved a lot of arm waving and hairography.

Stacey Monk The founder of nonprofit startup Epic Change, Stacey shared a very personal life lesson that changed her trajectory from that of a power-seeking corporate leader to a proud follower - I want to say empowerer - of people who are doing amazing things in their communities with few resources.

Chase Jarvis This photographer, director, and social artist has an impressive body of work that speaks for itself. His main message: share your ideas. You benefit from implementing others' ideas anyway, so help the symbiosis happen.

For more detailed info, see the live notes posted by a blogger who was sitting next to me in the media room. (In case you're wondering, my media job was to take photos during the breaks for the school paper.)

I also enjoyed getting to know my seat neighbor, who is a traveling yoga DJ. He drives all over the country, booking gigs at studios and building his own business from the ground up. Talk about fearless!

Spring break update

Spring break has come and gone without really being. At least, that's how it felt as I spent all week in Pittsburgh, reading and writing for school assignments and thesis preparation. I am glad I got things done, though, especially when I consider all that lies ahead. A quarter-long mini course I had been taking, Adaptive Service Design, has just ended. On the bright side, that means I'm only going to be taking four classes for the rest of the semester instead of five. The sad part is that it was a course with really interesting readings and classroom discussions that flowed freely, buoyed by a natural enthusiasm and curiosity that's rare to find. This was the first time the course was taught, as well, so I feel lucky to have had the experience. For my final project, I created a service blueprint for an adaptive campus dining service, which I will discuss in greater detail in a later post.

Also this week, I finished reading an excellent book called Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. It's full of entertaining anecdotes about food psychology experiments conducted at Cornell, one of the most memorable being a comparison of how much soup people would eat out of a normal bowl versus a covertly self-refilling (aka bottomless) bowl. The finding: people use their eyes, not their stomachs, to gauge when they are full. I won't give anything away, but there are some asides specifically about that study that made me laugh out loud.

I'm halfway through another book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. This book's about choice architecture - the design of environments in which choices are made. It's not as funny as Mindless Eating but still thought-provoking. Some of it reminds me of the material in my Information Design and Rhetoric course, the takeaway being that no design can be neutral. Beatrice Warde's crystal goblet may be an aspiration, but it is also a mirage, ever unreachable. And since design always influences, the designer has a responsibility to influence with intent.

I Spring break! WOooooOOooOoo!

Lecture day

I just attended a university lecture by Chuck Klosterman, journalist, pop culture philosopher and author of books such as Eating the Dinosaur. In a self-aware storyteller style reminiscent of a stand-up comic, he talked about a variety of things, including Why are things the size they are? How are a blues club and a zoo similar? What is the relationship between reality and realness? How is the Unabomber's Manifesto relevant to society today?

These kind of lectures remind me why I enjoy the university environment. Not only was the talk entertaining and interesting, the students in the audience asked questions that were equally thought-provoking. I especially liked the debate that sparked over whether new media creates a low ceiling for creative thought - whether the images we see in television and movies limit our ability to imagine things outside our own experience.

Earlier in the afternoon, I attended a talk hosted by the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. Ezio Manzini, founder of the DESIS (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability) Network, described how designers are harnessing social resources to tackle sustainability issues. Citing examples from urban vegetable gardens to co-housing, the smiling Italian emphasized four characteristics of successful projects in this area: small, local, connected, and open. The Q&A session afterward for this talk provided additional food for thought.

What kind of foundation is today's generation laying for future generations? Are designers becoming a professional field without an industry? What is the relationship between sustainability and resilience?

I look forward to pondering these questions further, in between the bursts of concentration I will, of course, devote to my course work and thesis topic musings...


I turned in a first draft of my paper entitled "What is interaction design?" this morning for seminar, churned through the weekend's trend analysis findings with my studio classmates this afternoon, went home, took a nap, and arose groggily an hour later feeling like I just came out of a weekend-long design bender that I can't quite remember. Scraps of paper litter my desk, covered with the fragmented ramblings of a deranged design philosopher in my own handwriting. An avalanche of articles in varying states of annotation clutter my virtual desk. I sweep them clear with a single Command-Q and begin reading the assignments for this week. Highlight, summarize, synthesize, repeat. I shall be insane by spring.

Help Hammy: an interactive composition

I just finished making an interactive composition in Flash for my Computing in Design class entitled "Help Hammy." My concept was inspired by the Lucas Arts puzzle adventure games, in which a player explores and interacts with the environment in a spirit of playful discovery. "Help Hammy" was my first serious foray into Actionscript, which happily, has syntax very similar to Java. Learning how to animate in Flash was a bit trickier for me, and as you can see, artwork is not my specialty! However, I learned quite a bit in the process and hope you enjoy the result. original-sketch

Future Generations

One of the instructors in my graduate design seminar related a reaction that someone once had during a class exercise years ago. It went something like this: "Why should my work serve future generations? What have they ever done for me?" He brought it up as an example of the egocentrism he wishes designers to  purge from their mindsets. But I think a serious consideration of these questions reveals a very compelling answer in favor of a future-oriented approach in design.

What have future generations done for us? Well, their very existence validates that the present generation will have survived successfully enough to propagate our species. We won't have blown ourselves into oblivion or rendered our environment otherwise uninhabitable. In short, future generations signify that we won't have screwed up humanity beyond all hope. Naturally, future generations can't communicate this comforting revelation to us. The fruits of our labor will be realized in their lifetimes, not ours.

So, getting back to the original question, why should our work serve future generations? In the spirit of being audience-centered, I shall address this question from a self-interested perspective. Future generations will be more affected by our actions than we are, just as we are more affected by the actions of past generations than they were. You can call it the butterfly effect, compounding, or whatever you like. Our work affects future generations whether we intend it to or not.

If we work either without regard to how our actions will affect future generations or suspecting that our actions are likely to cause harm to future generations, we  decrease the likelihood of their existence. The grosser our negligence, the fewer future generations there will be. If the number of future generations goes to zero, then our generation is the end of the line. We end humanity. Do you want to take credit for that? No? Then get to work and stop bitching. The future is waiting.

Of course, if you are really, really successful at eliminating all future generations, there will be no one left to blame you. So I guess the takeaway message is, do whatever you like, but do it well.

Interaction Design Jargon

I am learning new words, and some new meanings for old words, in the course of my graduate education and thought it might be helpful to start compiling a list for my own reference. Keep in mind that these are the definitions I have pieced together from various readings and, as such, they may be incomplete, wrong, or atypical interpretations of their use within the design discourse.

affordance noun invitation to a particular action

A rubber sheath of a suitable diameter on a kitchen gadget, for instance, may be an affordance to grip that spot.

feedforward noun relating to control design (buttons, knobs, touchscreens, etc.), communication of the purpose of an action

The iPhone's "slide to unlock" message, as a feedforward mechanism, communicates the purpose of the sliding action.

inherent feedback noun feedback strongly coupled to the action

The audible click when one presses a mouse button signals that the mouse has registered the action.

teleological adjective the philosophical study of design and purpose

Sometimes academics casually strew words throughout their papers that I've never heard of and can't find in a standard dictionary. I've included a few below. Please comment with their meanings if you know them.

inforced verb

heterarchical adjective

" fails when applied to problems that involve people as informed agents, in heterarchical forms of organizations like markets."     - The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design

praxiographic adjective

This one, I suspect, is rooted in the word "praxis," which refers to practice as opposed to theory.

A Layman's Reading of "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning"

Reading #2:"Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" Working Papers from the Urban & Regional Development Horst W.J. Rittel & Melvin M. Webber

Bitch bitch bitch. Whine whine whine. Suddenly everybody's an expert, and nothing's good enough, despite the fact that we have well-trained professionals in countless fields. Well, if you think the situation's bad now, just watch while we tackle issues that are actually hard! Goal-formulation, problem-definition, and equity issues are going to weaken the professional's support system in a serious way.

In the 1960s, professionals in the U.S. were asked to consider the systems they dealt with more actively, what they do and what they should do, rather than what are they made of. This "goal-finding" turned out to be difficult. Boo. Meanwhile, people began protesting the systemic processes of contemporary American society left and right. Think the civil rights movement, the student movement, the anti-war movement, consumerism, conservationism, etc. Planners had to pay more attention to end-results, because obeying The Man was no longer a valid excuse for screwing up.

In the face of discouraging complexity, planning and policy sciences have been regarded as potentially viable means of improving society. But are social professionals up to the enormity of their task?

We have learned to question not only the efficiency but the appropriateness of a given solution. We have also become more sensitized to the interconnectedness of systems and, thus, more apt to realize that a targeted action may have undesired consequences.

Problems no longer appear as straightfoward as they once did. Defining and locating the problems turns out to be as difficult as outlining their solutions.

Creating a planning/governing system is difficult for one gigantic reason: we can't see the future! It doesn't help that societal problems do not have a steady state solution. They are less like science and engineering problems and more like Whack-A-Mole. We call them wicked problems in reference to their tricky and difficult-to-describe nature. Also because we've always wanted to see how many times we could use the word "wicked" in a scholarly paper. 49.

Even the task of describing wicked problems appears to first require identification of their solutions. If that doesn't blow your mind, consider this: no matter how good a solution we find, there could always be a better solution. There is no way to tell for sure, so we just stop working when we get hungry or sleepy.

Also, there is no do-over for solving wicked problems. The system cannot be reset, and we can't tell how long the effects of a particular attempt will last.

Come to think of it, we don't even know what our end goal should be. Crap.

Posted via email from corinna's posterous

A Layman's Reading of The Design Way: "The First Tradition"

I am in design school, but I am not a designer. As I plow through stacks of assigned readings, my non-designerly brain is straining to distill erudite works into comprehensible nuggets. And entertain itself late at night. Here goes... Reading #1: The Design Way Chapter 1: The First Tradition

Everything kickass in human history that someone did on purpose should be considered design. And the geniuses who achieved these things should be called designers but probably weren't because the world has never fully appreciated the awesomeness that is design. (Note to future-designer self: Create an experienced reality to fix this!)

Imagine something that doesn't yet exist, then make it: that's design.

Designers can't know the full impact of their creations ahead of time. They're not God, duh. But their creations can still have large-scale impact, either good or bad.

Why do we design? To survive, to improve, to develop, to create. And because we can. Designing gives us a sense of control over our lives and an opportunity to move closer ourselves to perfection.

Back in Plato's day, thought was hot, and manual labor was not. This situation didn't bode well for design, which unites thinking and making. The situation today isn't much better. Consider: we still distinguish between blue-collar and white-collar work. Does maintaining this distinction serve us?

The pre-Socratic era had the idea of design broken down into useful chunks, but by the middle ages, it had become oversimplified to the point where people mostly abandoned design as an answer as they struggled to deal with the changes taking place around them.

Nowadays, people react to problems in their lives by trying to solve them. But some problems cannot be effectively solved with a problem-focused mindset. They are part of a larger system that cannot be optimized by ignoring all but one or two of the revelant variables.

Design wisdom combines reason with observation, reflection, imagination, action, and production. Being design-wise means you can shift from an analog experience of life, to a digital or analytic perspective of the world, and back again.

Agents of change: chance, necessity, and (design buzzword...) intention.

"Design utilizes a process of composition, which pulls a variety of elements into relationship with one another, forming a functional assembly that can serve the purposes and intentions of diverse populations of human beings." (pulled verbatim because this sentence did interesting things to my brain)

A designer should critically analyze the nature of design. Think and practice with intention. Spread the word.