Category Archives: Week 2

The Ecology of Twitter

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Its interesting to learn that the misuse and frustration of everyday items is not due to incompetence of the user but the lack of design thinking in the development of the item. In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman discusses the initial challenges of naming his book and how the content of the book could be misinterpreted or misclassified based on one word. This knowledge leads me to think of both the way that apps like Twitter can be classified as well as the ways that it can be used and misused.

Twitter is a platform where essentially any topic and any tweet goes. From a twelve year old gamer to the President of the United States, Twitter is a technology that is used to broadcast thoughts, ideas and everything in between. The Twitter ecology is a concept that I am interested in digging deeper into due to the vast communities and sub communities that utilize it. The different uses of twitter is clearly a result of the unique design, openness and the flexibility of the site. This is also related to the idea that technologies are combinations of other preexisting technologies. Twitter is combination of both a blog, a news source and an entertainment platform.

This understanding of combinational design has caused me to re-evaluate the way my peers and I utilize Twitter. It is a blatant example of a social-technological system in which we as users both use and contribute to a system. With each tweet we shape the way Twitter functions and is used by the entire ecosystem of the site and the popular media.

Lidwell, Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Rockport Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Speculating on Snapchat Spectacles

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“…when we lack understanding, we are apt to err.” – Donald A. Norman

Given that this course is “Leading by Design”, I would think of any technology or “blackbox” using the design principles as an “architecture” or socio-technical system. Within the architectural system are series of nodes and networks, “designed to do certain kinds of functions and take in and pass on what they do to other modules in the system” (Irvine, p. 2). Smart technologies such as our phones, computers, even glasses now (Snapchat Spectacles) all have a universal design that allows us humans to enhance or amplify our ability to act or perform. For example, a computer enhance how we research, write and think. I think looking at a newer artifact would be helpful in this explanation. The Snapchat “Spectacle” is essentially a GoPro in sunglasses. In 10 seconds, they capture the world as you see it in front of you. The sunglasses therefore creates a system of nodes that maps the function of the sunglasses and ability of the product to enhance our experience of the seemingly mundane world.

The spectacles is a good example of combinatorial design principles, combining the functions of the GoPro with the design of sunglasses. Brain Arthur looks to anthropologists to understand the human tools and technologies within a cultural continuum that inevitably creates a “ratchet effect”. Ultimately “ratchet” describes “a memory function in technology development that enables a society to use the “mental models” of already developed technologies as the starting point of new developments” (Irvine, p. 4).

I would love to further explore or “de-blackbox” the Snapchat Spectacles as a design principle at play in our current society. 

Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. Excerpts from Preface and Chap. 1.

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Design Thinking: Systems and Architectures (Intro essay)

AirPods and Embracing Absurdity

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The last time a new piece of technology – at least consumer technology – shocked me in a way as if it were magically created was when Apple released AirPods. Granted, I was probably convinced of this magical technological conception in large part due to the way in which Apple markets its products as such magical, revolutionary ideas.

Now, I see with stunning clarity the long history of mechanical evolution that led to the invention of AirPods. Obviously, to allow for the creation of the AirPods, headphones, wireless communication, and efficient batteries needed to be invented first.

Paradoxically this idea that Arthur and others raised of “combinatorial design” and mechanical evolution concurrently creates both a clear, concise and a monumentally complex history of new technological developments. Clearly, AirPods combine three key technologies: headphones, wireless communication, and efficient batteries. But, when one begins to think of all the “ratcheting” evolution of each component and material that went into the creation of the singular technology that is the AirPod – the plastics that go into creating the shell, the internal mechanisms that create sound within the headphone – the history of the AirPod seems rich and convoluted.

With this new way of thinking about combinatorial design, each piece of technology that I see suddenly has a branching family tree. In a way, this new vision of technology reminds me of the existential concept of embracing the “absurd.” The absurd is the paradox “between our impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer,” and – at least according to Camus – realizing this paradox allows one to view the complexity of life without getting too frustrated at how infinitely complicated life can be. I view this realization as comparable to the realization that each new, seemingly simple invention embodies a world of past invention and artifacts.

Thus, the magic of AirPods and viewing technology as ever-evolving combinations is that we can appreciate the complexity of technology while viewing it in an easily digestible, modular fashion.


Apple. Holiday — Sway — Apple. Accessed September 12, 2018.

Aronson, Ronald, “Albert Camus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Weekly Essay – Week 2

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This is the first time I deeply observe the principles and essence of normal things in our daily life and transfer my understanding into this short essay. Wish we can communicate with each other and progress together.

Considering the “smart” TV connected to a cable service and the Internet, the most distinct design feature is combination. As Arthur said, “All technologies are combinations.” Obviously, the technology of “smart” TV is the technological combination of cable television and wireless Internet. These two parts function in a dynamic of balance and interaction, which is another feature of “smart” TV—architecture. The invention, or so to speak, the evolution of “smart” TV was not appeared from nothing. It deeply rooted in human need and contemporary development. For example, as digital age coming, the demand of using Internet to watch TV series or play video games at home increases, thus the born of “smart” TV became natural, which also demonstrated that all new technologies fuse older technologies and place each technology into modules to work as a whole function to meet human purpose.

Recent years, public sharing bicycles are prevailing in China. It combines old technology—bicycles with artificial intelligence. As for design principles, first of all, affordance. Most of big cities in China are located in plain, the demand of public transportations has been massive. Hence, the big environment gave impetus to public sharing bicycles to solve the “last mile” problem. To unlock a bicycle, a user needs to scan a QR code. Next, users can either enter a 4-digit password or link the Bluetooth of the bicycle to unlock. The password cannot be too long or too short, which relates to the second principle—chunking. Designer set the digit to four to allow users get a short memory to enter the password. Thirdly, hierarchy is also involved in the unlocking action. A user needs to verify the identification (current location, availability, etc.) of the exact bicycle to make sure the bicycle is not broken before they get an access to unlock it. Fourthly, forgiveness. After successfully unlock the bicycle, there will be a celebrity’s sound to remind users to ride safely, which help users to avoid potential danger. Finally, feedback loop. After finishing using the bicycle, the user gets a digital map route, riding time and amount of money to pay. Users can report for repairs of the bike or any problems they have met during the ride. It forms a positive feedback loop to help the bicycle providers to improve their service.

Obviously, there are a lot of things public sharing bicycle needs to improve itself, such as simplifying the unlocking progress, enhancing the comfortableness of riding, etc. Also, the prevailing of public sharing bicycles has led to unexpected problems, such as parking bicycles at random, which results in public order disarrangement.

Hence, I think it is important and necessary for every designers to jump out of a designer’s mind and view the products from others’ position (in this case: users, government and competitors), constantly and thoroughly. In this way, they can improve their products in a better way to meet the demand of market.

P.S. There is a claim in Arthur’s book that I do not understand, I wish we can discuss together.

“Technology, once a means of production, is becoming a chemistry”.


Lidwell, Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Rockport Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Arthur, W. Brian. The Nature of Technology. Penguin Group, 2009.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2013.


Weekly writing assignment #1

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Before taking this class, I always see our daily use apps and smart phones as a “general thing”, instead of a combinations of modules and designs that related to not only technology but sociology and more.

As mentioned in Professor Irvine’s essay, we should not see or analyze anything as “an isolated fact”, or “in an interdependent system” (Irvine).

An app or a smart phone can not simply to be described as “a thing” because it seems to be, it has theories, systems and rationales behind it, which then created it to be easily understood as “a thing”. For example, Uber is an private driver hiring app. But if you think behind the use of the app, you can see it combined different technologies in different area to make it what it is. For technical level, Uber needs the GPS feature to guide the driver and the customer; the system for “calling” for available driver nearby; or the smallest thing, such as the system of monitoring “start and end of the trip”. And for psychological level, we need the rating system evaluate the service, which aims to maintain good user experience; the contacting system for better communication between the drivers and the users; or even the profile system of driver where users can learn more about the driver, designed for more interaction between people, which again, aims for better use experience. It’s never just “a thing”.

Although I now changed my mind, I believe that there are still a lot of people out there, thinking that “okay Uber is just an convenient app that will get me a car whenever and wherever I need it”, but would never paid attention or even think about the rationale behind it. I don’t say that is bad to think in this way. But why is it? As Norman and I shared the same idea: that even when technologies behind the object is complexity, a good design can “tame the complexity” and make less confusion (Norman 2010).The idea of “a thing”, in my opinion, is actually one of the goals of a good design. Hiding the “blackbox” part can provide better understanding and easier customer experience, which is a key part of a good design.


Martin Irvine, Introduction to Design Thinking: Systems and Architectures (Intro essay)

Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010. Excerpts.

Weekly Writing – Week 2

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Huazhi Qin

To analyze something I take for granted in daily life is the most interesting part in this week reading. Any product easy to use and seemingly simple is supported by a complex design. As Arthur said in The Nature of Technology, “a technology is a combination of components to some purposes”. (Arthur, 2009) Every component should be elaborately designed and organized in a system in order to achieve the purpose of design.

Take translation apps as examples. Many current translation apps provide the such basic translation functions as text search and analytics and text-to-speech conversion but also the image analysis (scan and recognize text in image) and social function (share, comment). In order to achieve these, it should build up a database and connect closely with audio system, video system, camera and also other apps like social media.

Meanwhile, a product should also be a component of a larger design or system, for instance, what Apple did to make iPod a successful welcomed product in the world. Apple produced music player itself but also dealt with the relevant service including music copyright. (Norman, 2010) It made iPod a service ranging from getting, listening to and sharing the music.

Furthermore, the design world now is concerned with function and operation, with fulfilling fundamental needs, with delivering positive, enjoyable experiences. (Norman, 2010) It is not only about whether a design works but also whether that design brings enjoyable user experience. It means people do not mean to encounter difficulties when using a device or app, multiple functions though. They can press “play” to start a music and press “share” to share the music to social media.

In order to achieve that goal, designers should stick to the design principles including conceptual model, visibility and mapping. Thinking about operating stoves. There are four stoves in my home. The switches are rotary and each one controls one stove. There is also an obvious sign alongside each switch showing which stove it manipulates and which direction leads to “low” or “high”. These make clear instruction.

However, thoughts about one things not only between designers and users but also among designers are always far from the same. For instance, the original setting of the scroll direction is totally opposite in IOS and Windows system. At least to me, it usually gets me confused when I switch the system.

This also brings two questions to me. The first one is that how to effectively implement the principle of mapping when concerning different experience and culture standards? Another one is in consideration of different people display distinct experience about and ability to understand a new technology. e.g. the young might be more easily to master a new app than the old. How to determine the design criteria and standard?

Besides, there are two more small questions about the reading:

  1. Does the design with default (or nudge) a little bit conflict with the principle of visibility? For instance, complicated design with no signifiers and clear “not allowed” signal.
  2. Does a design with nudging and defaults continue working when once violated or broken by someone?



Brian Arthur (2009). The nature of technology: What it is and how it evolves.New York, NY: Free Press.

Norman, D. A. (2010). Living with Complexity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weekly Writing

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People like me, who were born with technology, have already been used to take it as a tool to deal with routine troubles. I feel that searching a restaurant to feed myself by using smartphone is just same as eating the salad with a fork. I called laptop, camera and electric toothbrush as technology but never thought through what the definition of technology is to summarize and to explain all these products. W. Brian Arthur (2009) gives his three definitions of technology, highlights that technology is built by itself, and further extends to the function of element combination. However, if the technology is built by itself while being combined by elements, where are those elements from (p.24)?

Donald A. Norman (2010) holds a similar idea towards the definition of technology. At the same time, he illustrates that although technology itself is complex, it should not complicate user’s life. The designer is responsible for reducing the redundant complexity for a complex service (p.4). An example immediately comes to my mind. As a student, I visit the website of Georgetown University (GU) every day. Since I was admitted by GU, I’ve created three accounts under different departments in the same website. It seems like the designer has never tried to navigate the website. If not typing the keywords of a page I would like to visit in the search bar, I will be trapped into endless clicking. Opposite to it, the website of my undergraduate school, UW-Madison, is a great role model. Only one account includes all the information of a student. Almost all the links related to the purpose a person visiting this website are listed on the upper right corner.

Many readings for this week stand on the view of a designer and emphasize on how to create a good design. Donald A. Norman (2002) mentions that designer and user should have different angles to review a service or a product. In addition to that, a designer should understand his/her users. From my perspective, it means a designer should think as a user first, learns the insight of the user’s need. And then follows scientific procedures to make a technological design.


Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002.

Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010. P.4.

W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York, NY: Free Press, 2009. P.24.


Weekly Reflection-1

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This week’s readings are quite dense to me since they are talking about something I have been long time curious about but known little at all. As a beginner, though I am not confident about my “gains”, I would still try my best to illustrate some of them in the case of smart TV step by step.

What makes a smart TV “smart”? The first idea flashed into my mind was that a smart TV is Internet embedded but a regular one is not. As we can notice, most of us spend more than half of our waking time sticking to smartphones or smart other things and consuming the internet. The very birth and rapid evolution of smart technology largely might be driven by this dramatically increasing demand for internet (which could bring more sources of entertainment).

Smart TV is just a small branch of “smart” technology which is expected to combine TV and the internet. To meet users’ need for entertainment, smart TVs are equipped with more applications, contents, intelligence services and operating platforms. According to the first principle of technology–combination principle, all of those mentioned above certainly combines thousands of high-tech components containing assemblies of TV hardware and software technologies. Those components are put together structurally for the purpose of actualizing some cutting-edge features where the main difference between a smart one and a non-smart one lies in.

Specifically, special functionalities of a smart TV might include motion control, face interaction, social networking, photo and video sharing etc.. What users need to do is picking up remote controls and switch from ESPN to Netflix, to Angry Birds, and to Facebook. These functions will be realized by human-computer interaction technology and software application technology in a form of modular design. Modules are like cells with different functional purposes and they are fundamental units that build up the architecture inside a smart TV. One module functions as a system element, and “identifies functional clusters of similarity, and clearly define relationships with other system elements”. Also, a user-friendly graphical interface is important to suggest its functions. Here can be explained by the affordance of design, which intends to enhance a product’s usability and efficiency. Like a three dimensional button printed with an arrow stands for moving to the next page. Or a speaker icon is represented by a megaphone shaped with a big opening for the sound to come out. Besides,  considering that different people possess different control levels which are decided by their proficiency and experience using the system, a smart TV can accommodate various groups of users by offering multiple choices of performing the same task. Those people who are first-time users and have no ideas about what to watch tonight might swap channels over and over again to select a favorite one like they normally do in the old way. But an experienced smart TV user could enjoy the convenience of TV’s “smart” suggestions based on social behaviors and history preference with a simple click on the remote control.

A smart TV is just a product. It is an individual technology. Whereas television technology is another thing. It is a domain–a toolkit of useful components, a constellation of technologies like cathode ray tube, Plasma, digital television, high definition, 3D, LED, etcetera, which are mutually supporting each other.


Credit to:

Lidwell, Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Rockport Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Arthur, W. Brian. The Nature of Technology. Penguin Group, 2009.

Martin Irvine. Introduction to Design Thinking: Systems and Architectures (Intro essay)

Reflection on the Week 2 Reading Materials

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Week 2

Tianyi Zhao

Sept. 11, 2018

This is my first time to get access to the knowledge of design, and the materials in this week have refreshed my way of perception to the world greatly. The principles of design have instructed me to theorize and organize things that I thought as “common sense” superficially in an academic view.

To begin with, the electronic device in our hand seems like black boxes, but it can be broken down to subsystems and dealt with independently. For example, an iPad Pro 2017 with Apple Pencil. It is a complex cluster of various functions, especially with the usage of an Apple Pencil. There are numerous modules inside it, like camera lens, power supply, speaker, storage chip, processor, etc. The application of modularity enables consumers to customize or upgrade any of them easily. The consumers can change choose different memories of iPad before purchase. There are more examples that Apple encouraged consumers to change the iPhone power supply by setting a low price in early 2018. When a customer is going to purchase a laptop, he will have an opportunity to expand the memory and to upgrade to the latest processor. (Sorry for the incomplete analysis. I try to give an application based on the discussion questions, but I’m a little confused that I should analyze a device or an APP for the device.)

As software is “the engine of contemporary societies,” (Manovich 6) I would like to take a leading software system as an instance and try to analyze with design principles. Firstly launched in 2011, Office 365 has been a featured product by Microsoft after upgrading from the traditional version. By leveraging with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and AI, Office 365 has created a sturdy network with a set of interconnected components. The application of affordance theory is quite clear and various. There are Word, Excel and PowerPoint for editing and writing; Outlook and Exchange for socialization; Skype for communication and conference; also, Power BI and MyAnalytics for report and analysis. For another level, the different application suites for person, home, student and enterprise are available as well. Even Office 365 for US Government showcased in March 2018. From these it is effortless to find out that Microsoft keeps reorganizing and synthesizing for a better suit for the distinct functions and demands. Inside each application, the method of constraint is embodied almost everywhere. For instance, when you open Word, there are amounts of icons on the toolbar. It is quite easy to edit font, underline, highlight, creating tables, adjusting paragraph, etc. by several clicks. Each icon symbolizes a function, which simplifies usability and minimize errors to a great extent.

Furthermore, the concepts of combinatorial evolution and cumulative combinations raised by W. Brian Arthur in his book THE NATURE OF TECHNOLOGY propose a new view on the production of novel technologies. Besides external factors, it is possible and feasible to invent new technology inside itself. Based on Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s fist realization of combination and American William Fielding Ogburn’s cumulation theory, Arthur sees more and expands that technology is produced not only through the combination of existing ones, but also through “the constant capturing and harnessing of natural phenomena.” (Arthur 14) Albeit it perfectly explains many inventions like lighters, compasses and technologies in clean energies—including the solar, wind and hydraulic power— as far as I am concerned, the natural phenomena’s inspiration on technology is limited, which can be used in the creation of a new field only. For example, most technologies in our smartphone are inherited from the previous versions so that it is hard to discover any direct relations to the nature.


Works Cited

Lidwell, Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Rockport Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Arthur, W. Brian. The Nature of Technology. Penguin Group, 2009.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2013.