Tag Archives: designer

How Not to Disintermediate

image

With traditional media on the rocks, there are lots of opportunities for companies and organisations to  disintermediate: to project themselves directly to the public. Indeed, in some ways, this is the future.

But here’s how not to do it: to put a guy from the PR department in front of one of the senior folks and let him babble. The result is always awkward half sentences linked rehearsed (and usually quite obviously, and badly) lines from some media training session that ooze jargonish phrases that a real journalist would never let pass.

Things like these (with their translations alongside) from the Nokia Booklet 3G interview with John Hwang, its designer.

“nokia’s all about connecting people” = we make mobile phones

“further strengthening our device portfolio” = we’ve got a lot of different models. You’re confused? Try working here.

“mobile heritage” (repeated by the interviewer, as if it’s a phrase we all use in our daily lives: “honey, could you look in the drawer at our device portfolio and see if there’s something there from our mobile heritage we could lend the kids for sleepover?”) = we have to acknowledge we mainly make mobile phones, but we’re trying to make it sound like that’s our past. Just like our “tree-felling heritage”

“connected services” = the Internet

“all day performance” = the battery won’t give out on ya

“mobile design language” = we design mobile phones. Well we used to. Now we want to be thought of as computer manufacturers

“launched from our mobility statement” = I have no idea what this means.

(And the PR guy keeps saying “we” and then correcting himself to say “nokia”.)

If you’re going to do this kind of thing, do it right. PR guys should not be afraid of asking questions real journalists would ask, including tough ones. (Interestingly, the only tough question here is one the interviewee asks himself.)

How To Infect An Airport

Could it be possible to use Radio Frequency ID tags, or RFID, to transmit viruses? Some researchers reckon so. Unstrung reports that a paper presented at the Pervasive Computing and Communications Conference in Pisa, Italy, the researchers from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, led by Andrew Tanenbaum, show just how susceptible radio-frequency tags may be to malware. “Up until now, everyone working on RFID technology has tacitly assumed that the mere act of scanning an RFID tag cannot modify backend software, and certainly not in a malicious way,” the paper’s authors write. “Unfortunately, they are wrong.”

According to The New Scientist the Vrije Universiteit team found that compact malicious code could be written to RFID tags by replacing a tag’s normal identification code with a carefully written message. This could in turn exploit bugs in a computer connected to an RFID reader. This made it possible, the magazine says, to spread a self-replicating computer worm capable of infecting other compatible, and rewritable, RFID tags.

An RFID tag is small — roughly the size of a grain of rice, the New Scientist says, and contains a tiny chip and radio transmitter capable of sending a unique identification code over a short distance to a receiver and a connected computer. They are widely used in supermarkets, warehouses, pet tracking and toll collection. But it’s still in the early stages of development. Which leaves it vulnerable. Until now, however, it was thought the small internal memory would make it impossible to infect. Not so, say the researchers.

So what would happen, exactly? RFID virus would then find its way into the backend databases used by the RFID software. The paper, Unstrung says, outlines three scenarios: a prankster who replaces an RFID tag on a jar of peanut butter with an infected tag to infect a supermarket chain’s database; a subdermal (i.e., under-the-skin) RFID tag on a pet used to upload a virus into a veterinarian or ASPCA computer system; and, most alarmingly, a radio-frequency bag tag used to infect an airport baggage-handling system. A virus in an airport database could re-infect other bags as they are scanned, which in turn could spread the virus to hub airports as the traveler changes planes.

So how likely is this? Not very, Unstrung quotes Dan Mullen, executive director of AIM Global, a trade association for the barcode and RFID industries, as saying. “If you’re looking at an airport baggage system, for instance, you have to know what sort of tag’s being used, the structure of the data being collected, and what the scanners are set up to gather,” he explains. Red Herring quotes Kevin Ashton, vice president of marketing for ThingMagic, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based designer of reading devices for RFID systems, as saying the paper was highly theoretical and the theoretical RFID viruses could be damaging only to an “incredibly badly designed system.” Hey, that sounds a bit like a PC.

But he does make a good point: because RFID systems are custom designed, a hacker would have to know a lot about the system to be able to infect it. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and it doesn’t mean it won’t get easier to infect. As RFID becomes more widespread, off-the-shelf solutions are going to become more common. And besides, what will stop a disgruntled worker from infecting a system he is using? Or an attacker obtaining some tags and stealing a reader, say, and then reverse engineering the RFID target?

My instinct would be to take these guys seriously. As with Bluetooth security issues such as Bluesnarfing, the tendency is for the industry itself not to take security seriously until someone smarter than them comes along and shows them why they should do.

Hong Kong’s Unseen Icon

Hong Kong is a very practical city — you’ve got to be, with everyone living on top of each other — but sometimes I wonder whether it’s also an overly conservative one. For example, the other day I was very impressed at how one restaurant, which only accepts cash, brings the change in anticipation of what bill you’ll pay with. Put a HK$500 down on the bill wallet, and with a flourish worthy of a magician, the wallet is opened at another page with the change already there. Charming, and practical, saving time, and footleather.

But that’s the only restaurant I’ve seen this at. Maybe there are more, but you would think an innovation like this would quickly catch on elsewhere. So far, it seems, it hasn’t.

Jak0310(41)To me the biggest area that is ripe for some innovation like that is the Hong Kong cart/trolley. It’s ubiquitous, and as long as I’ve been visiting Hong Kong it’s been here. For those of you haven’t seen one, it’s a very simple design: four small wheels, larger than a baby-buggy, but smaller than a child’s bicycle, overlaid with a metal frame and sometimes a wooden board. The handle is a simple iron rod bent at the top. That’s pretty much it.

Now, these things are everywhere. Out to grab a coffee this morning I spotted about 30. They’re so commonplace they’re invisible, which is tricky in a place where pedestrians or cars cover every inch of spare sidewalk or road. Somehow, the folk that use these things manage to navigate their way through the throng without any ankles removed, people upended or worse.

And they are used to carry everything. I started snapping a few, but quickly ran out of space on my cellphone before I could capture the full range:

Jak0310(40)

‘A yellow-booted guy transporting live fish’

Jak0310(37)

‘Dude Unloading Boxes’

Copy 2 of Jak0310(34)

‘Guy Shovelling Sand Into Baskets’

Jak0310

‘Man (Or Woman) Pushing Chair Backs Down Lee Garden Road’

Jak0310(19)

‘Gas Cannisters Locked To A Tree’

Copy 2 of Jak0310(31)

‘Guy Pushing Water Containers With Reading Matter in Hip Pocket’

Jak0310(01)

‘Woman Pushing Pile of Crap Down Lee Garden Road’

and the rather poignant ‘Elderly Woman With Empty Trolley Heading Off to Times Square’:

Jak0310(43)

OK, you get the idea. They’re multifunctional. They’re used by a wide swathe of age-groups and users. They’re also good for parking on Hong Kong’s many inclines:

Jak0310(03)

Indeed, you can park them more or less anywhere, secure in the knowledge that no one looks at them twice:

Copy 2 of Jak0310(32)

Clearly these trolleys are useful. But to me they’re still badly designed. You can see as much from the various customizations that their users have introduced. In the picture above, for example, you can see the classic ‘One Rope Across the Handle Bar’ hack which helps stuff not fall off the back. Variants on these include the ‘Multi Rope Web’ which does a better job, basically by tying as much rope or string across the back of the handle as possible. Those without rope can try the ‘Piece Of Cardboard Across The Handle Kept In Place By Tape Hack’:

Jak0310(30)

All of these look aesthetically awful, but have endured as long as I’ve been coming to Hong Kong, which is 16 years. Then there’s the problem of the handle itself. Not much you can do with it, except try the “Bag Hanging Hack” which is illustrated thus:

Jak0310(21)

Or the street-cleaners (yes they use them too) “Bag Hanging Hack + Bamboo Pole with Warning Red Flag On”:

Copy 2 of Jak0310(35)

But to me all these hacks cry out for a better design. There must be a better way of transporting stuff around in Hong Kong. Of course, there are other methods, from the old delivery bicycle:

Jak0310(18)

(I love the Chinese handwriting and telephone number painted on.) There’s also the smaller two-wheeled trolley concept:

Copy 1 of Jak0310(36)

But the four-wheeled trolley is by far the most popular. To me it’s an icon of Hong Kong and a testament to the grit and attitude of its people that they are still as common as they were a decade or so ago. I imagine that without these trolleys, Hong Kong would grind to a standstill:

Jak0310(39)

Still, I’m no designer, but I would have thought that these trolleys could be better designed, or some of the common hacks one sees on existing models could be built into future models? Or would that ruin the Unseen Icon of Hong Kong?

Building Social Quirks Into Design

At my Mum’s house, and my childhood home, we have this quirk in the kitchen where the dish washer door comes down and pretty much blocks the kitchen entrance. To a designer, or someone carrying a heavy tray past, this might seem like a flaw. I’ve realised it’s not, and that designers, if they’re not already, should consider this kind of thing a feature they should intentionally include in kitchens, or indeed anything. Let me explain.

That bottleneck has created some interesting moments in our family history. Nothing major, but nothing brings people together like having to negotiate a hazard. Folk have to give way; folk have to pass trays over; folk have to try to keep the dish washer door shut. Dogs get stuck; people learn to sidle past each other; people meet in the bottleneck and fall in love. (Well, OK, not the last bit, but you get my drift. In short: A design flaw creates an interpersonal space that helps to bring people together in a quirky way.

So good kitchens (and good design) should not just be about function, form and beauty. They should include quirks, annoyances, absurdities — elements that somehow precipitate social interaction, or at least force users to behave a little differently. I wonder how many times an awkward relationship or bit of family distance was altered for the better by that bottleneck next to our dish washer.

Update: More Tungstens To Go

 Amazingly, Palm are releasing another batch of Tungstens. It seems only yesterday they were doing the same thing. (Actually it was two months ago.) Anyway, The Register got a scoop by scanning local stores’ websites, which mistakenly posted details of the products before their October 1 release date.
 
In short, we have two models, the Tungsten T3 and E: the E is a 32MB device containing a “fast” ARM processor. The accompanying photo reveals a Tungsten T-style metal case without that model’s familiar slide mechanism. The T3 contains a 400MHz Intel XScale CPU, 64MB of RAM, Palm OS 5.2.1, Bluetooth and the kind of software bundle you’d expect from such a PDA. It does have a slider mechanism, to cover the Graffiti area, but with this Tungsten T, the applications buttons are curved around the central, oval navigator button. Prices? About $550 for the T3 and the E for about $280, in the UK at least.

 
The site doesn’t mention the Zire 21, the third PDA Palm is expected to launch next week. It’s possible the company’s UK wing is not releasing the 21 just yet, preferring to focus instead on the enterprise/executive-oriented products. Certainly details of next week’s local product announcement suggest such a high-end focus.
 

I know this is awful of me, but I can’t get excited about all this new stuff. I’m happy with my Tungsten T, and I can’t understand the need to sell new models every couple of months. Or am I missing something? Certainly the Pocket PC seems to be overshadowed by all this publicity. Perhaps that’s the point. Push out new models all the time so anyone who is thinking of swapping out their PDA has a brand new, just off the designer’s couch unit to go for. Are we that fickle? Probably.