Things I Read and Learned in 2013

I’m writing this post for my own memory if nothing else. A year is an arbitrary marker of a person’s intellectual growth, yet it works for me. It is useful to go back over notes and recall things I read about and studied earlier in the year. Sadly, I didn’t finish many novels or creative non-fiction this past year. I was deep in transportation and information science more than broadening my attention to anything else. One overwhelming concept that summarizes most of these interests is mobility—the movement of people, things, and data.

Here’s a list of things I read and learned in the year that was. (Perhaps in 2014, I’ll learn how to make shorter and more interesting lists.)


  • The Mobile Frontier: A Guide for Designing Mobile Experiences
  • The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production.
    An outstanding history of mass production manufacturing and how it was revolutionized by Japanese automakers and “lean production”. It is a story much bigger than one nation’s management and manufacturing processes.
  • The Works  – The Anatomy of a City
    This is a beautifully illustrated and written book. A great book for your night stand.
  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
    A radical perspective on industrial design.
  • Make it So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction
    Title says it all. How can designers draw from the imagination of science fiction films and books.
  • Mobile Design Pattern Gallery
    This is a good survey of common mobile UI patterns, but due the nature of the subject, many of the examples are already out-of-date. A book best supplemented by Luke Wroblewski’s blog.
  • A Simple Introduction to Data Science
    Overall, this was a disappointing book that lack authority and completeness, but there were some worthwhile definitions and summaries of technologies like Apache Hadoop and Pig. For example, a Data Scientist = Engineer + Statistician + Analyst + Hacker.
  • Introduction to Modern Vehicle Design
    This is an incredibly comprehensive book about the science and engineering process that goes into the design and manufacturing of cars.
  • Python for Data Analysis by Wes McKinney
    This year I learned how to use Python Pandas for statistical analysis. Wes McKinney (@wesmckinn) created the library and wrote an excellent book on the topic.
  • Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics
    This book is light on theory and quantitative information, but the examples are timely and well illustrated.
  • Facts are Sacred: The Power of Data by Simon Rogers
    A short book about how the Guardian does “data journalism.”
  • Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management
    I read more books on IT management in 2013 than I care to remember, but this one is worth sharing.
  • Ruhlman’s Twenty: A Cooking Manifesto
    A book about the most basic elements used in cooking. 
  • How to Make Wine at Home by Mike Carraway
    A brief book on how to make small-batch wine.

Articles and Findings

Designing User Scenarios for Mobile and Transit Experiences

I’ve been working on a design technique for visually representing user scenarios for transportation and other mobile experiences. When users are in transit or using a mobile device there is a special relationship with both time and space. Such scenarios and use cases could be modeled with flow charts or swim lanes, but such diagrams do not capture important moments in space and geography. Maps and timelines are a familiar and intuitive and visual element for presenting this information.

Sometime users’ goals can be associated with a specific place in time or geography

Before I show an example scenario, I should describe how user scenarios fit in the overall design process.

What are User Scenarios?

Scenarios design is an activity that often used as part of a user-centered design process. Modeling with scenarios is an early steps in a goal-directed design process, which is explained in About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design by Alan Cooper:

  • Research users and the problem domain
  • Model users and product context
    • Create user personas
    • Create persona-based scenarios
  • Define the user, business, and technical requirements
  • Define a design structure and flow or design framework
  • Refine behaviors, form, and content
  • Support development needs

After the creating personas for the design problem or domain, scenarios are used to tell a complete story about the ideal user experience and “describe how the persona interacts with the system”. (Cooper, 2007) Scenarios are a powerful modeling tool, allowing the designer to explore the context of user interactions and not lose sight of the broader user goals. It’s a process that has the added benefit of refining the system requirements and often eliciting new system features and requirements.

Example Scenario: Traveling to a Morning Appointment

Here’s an example of scenario design in action. What I’ve added to a common scenario sequence is a timeline of the user and system behavior. For the primary persona, I would model several different scenarios. Most scenarios will achieve one of the persona’s goals, but their also could be a sequence for a system failure. Our persona will drive to an appointment in a nearby city. The user is somewhat familiar with the freeway system, but is going to a new destination, in a busy part of the city.


The primary persona is a frequent traveler in the same geographic region. The user likes to feel productive while driving. It is a time of day when she plans, thinks, and would like to communicate, when it is safe and legal. She used to enjoy driving but has grown to strongly dislike commuting during the work week.

The following are some of the user’s goals:

  • Arrive on time
  • Make use of spare time— “I don’t like waiting.”
  • Learn about new areas and nearby places
  • Find an inexpensive place to park and charge electric vehicle near destination

“I’m always on time for meetings; I like to plan ahead, but also take a spare moment enjoy the area.”


The following are some basic requirements and system constraints:

  • Use only technologies that are commercially available today.
  • Operating system may be either an embedded automotive system or personal mobile device.
  • Electric vehicle with only 150 miles of range
  • Comply with Department of Transportation guidelines for user interaction and distracted driving.

Success Criteria:

  • Identify the problems and context in the real world
  • Identify “key path” to user goal
  • Shows an end-to-end experience or full story
    Avoid focusing too much on a single interaction or aspect of the system.
  • Show the dimensions of both time and space and how this relates to the user’s interactions.
  • Account for first- and last-mile problems
  • Shows how the experience accounts for unknowns and interruptions.




The scenario shows the relevant activities that comprise a trip or other story. Viewing these activities spatially allows us to judge the user workload. In the scenario above, the car or phone operating system may actually perform some trip planning and determine safe times for certain activities.

First and Last Mile Problems

For transit and mobile users in cities, the end of a trip is often the most complex part of the scenario. These are often called “first mile” and “last mile” problems. Users of cars, for instance, face last mile problems such as detours, finding a location, navigation, parking, and switching to a different transit system. While city and transportation planners work to provide services to reduce the problem, it’s still an important problem for designers to consider. In the example scenario, we zoom in on the last mile, in this case the last 3 miles of a car trip. This could also be considered a separate scenarios.

Last Mile Problems


That’s about it. Any feedback on this idea is appreciated.

Translating Android and iOS 7 Colors

Yesterday, I was referring to the Android design guidelines for color. (Overall, the Android design guidelines are fantastic.)

It struck me that the Android JellyBean and iOS 7 color palettes are quite similar. I created a table that translates the Android colors to their iOS 7 equivalent.


I’ve includes a Adobe Swatch Exchange (ASE) file with the solid Android and iOS7 colors.


The Car is Much More Than a “Smartphone on Wheels”

The car was once the ultimate mobile device but it must change. The message to the auto industry: Consumers find automobiles boring, while always-connected mobile devices are the new objects of desire. Indeed, mobile devices are overtaking the driving experience, despite the sometimes tragic consequences. In response, carmakers have proposed a giant “smartphone on wheels.”

I agree that many smartphone apps like Google Now and Waze hold great potential in the car. Yet the latest car infotainment systems, including “Apple in the Car,” only tweak experiences designed for your pocket. I worry that merely copying smartphone features to the car, misses the broader promise of smart, connected, and user-centered cars.

The following are 10 reasons why car mobility is different and why drivers deserve a better experience.

1. Drivers’ eyes and hands must be devoted to driving

Driver attention should not be divided. Alas, most of us will not enjoy self-driving cars any time soon, so cars must be designed to reduce the time when the driver’s hands are off the wheel and eyes are off the road. A driver should not be looking at an in-car display for more than an instant. Similarly, voice- and gesture- controlled systems can require too much of the driver’s attention.

2. Using a mobile system is always a secondary task

Because the driver’s hands, feet, and brain should all be devoted to driving, any other activities— namely interacting with the car dashboard— are strictly of secondary importance. At high speeds and in unexpected situations, information in heads-up displays (HUDs) and auditory interfaces can demand too much of the driver’s attention. Notifications and alerts might catch the driver’s attention, but they cannot pinpoint a real world incident as well at the driver’s vision.


3. When not driving, people do not use car software

While some of us are a little weird and like to eat lunch or watch movies in the car, most people spend little time in their car when they are not driving. This raises a problem: If managing the mobile ecosystem of Apps and updates on your phone is already an annoyance, how is this going to work for your car. I can guarantee you that system and App updates will arrive at the most inopportune times.

4. People buy a new phone every year, but not a new car

Android and iOS in the car will provide more frequent software updates, but car technologies will always lag behind smartphones and other mobile technologies. Consider current in-car user interfaces, notably luxury Audi and BMW systems. They still work like PDAs of the 1990’s, with drill-down menus and handwriting recognition. Such technology quickly becomes cumbersome and outdated.

Drill-down menu in Audi MMI Touch system.

5. The car itself is already a mobile device

A somewhat obvious point is that cars are mobile in two ways:

  • They provide physical mobility—they move and act as an interface to cities and transportations systems like the highway
  • And they provide “personal mobility,” e.g. access to the Internet. (Smartphones and the Internet have provided this personal mobility to teens, for example, the freedom to communicate with their friends whenever they want—just as cars do.)

6. Driving is not an open-ended activity

Smartphone experiences are often immersive and open-ended. Conversely, using a car is highly directional and goal-directed. That is, the driver needs to go from point A to point B. Therefore, the most important secondary task of the driver is to navigate. For casual drives with an inexact destination and arrival time, I expect that drivers will favor the traditional driving experience.

7. Drivers are less familiar with interactive systems

Interactive interfaces in cars are very new and many interactive experiences will never translate well to driving. By the book, systems such as GPS and OnStar are to be used only when the vehicle is at rest. The most prominent communication technology in cars is the radio, a one-way, broadcast medium.

8. Driving and reading do not go together

Beyond voice-controlled systems, the trend in mobile systems like Windows 8—and now iOS 7— is content- and text- driven interfaces. It’s difficult and dangerous to read and drive at the same time, not to mention interact with more rich media. Take Twitter, for example: While a 140 character Tweet seems terse, Department of Transportation guidelines prohibit the presentation of more than 30 characters at a time.

9. The car is a very complex mobile device

Smartphones are complex products, but they are simple to use. Smartphones are great for downtime: When your friend is ordering a coffee or while you are waiting for the bus. Still these devices also request our attention at inopportune times, like during an important meeting or a movie or while we are sleeping. If smartphones have a Do Not Disturb feature for when the user is busy, then cars most certainly needs one.(Indeed, Ford is working on such a feature.)

The basic mechanics of how to operate a car haven’t change much in 100 years, Yet, over the last 50 years, cars have been outfitted with hundreds of digital components. Some of the information generated by these computers is quite useful to drivers, but most of it is just noise. More rich user interfaces to the car, may improve the driving experience, but this also risks making the car much more complex and challenging to operate.

10. Poor car design leads to catastrophic user error

One final, important point. User error in automobiles causes severe economic damage and personal injury, including death. Intelligent, connected, automated vehicles will help reduce these risk. Yet, in the foreseeable future, the design of cars requires special care and attention to driver safety.

Both cars and smartphones provide us with amazing personal freedom and it’s no surprise why people will demand more powerful Apps and features in their cars. My point in underscoring these differences is that we should have even greater expectations for our transportation experiences and products. With thoughtful and restrained design, driving can be more safe, more convenient, and more mobile.

“iOS in the Car” Looks to Be Just That And Not Much More

Apple will be creating a version of iOS for cars. There are few details, but Apple did show a few screenshots.


I worry that this continues a trend of merely cramming a mobile or embedded operating system into cars. Cars are mobile, yes, but they are so much more.  Your dashboard and the overall driving experience deserves  thoughtful design considerations. Just as traditional desktop or web experience doesn’t translate to phones, so driving requires different and innovative design.

As you would expect, one thing that iOS does well is to reduce the number of features that are crammed into car information displays.  There’s no way to know the full list of features, but here’s what’s been announced and reported so far:

  • Hands-free navigation, SMS, and Music (Siri)
  • Turn-by-turn GPS navigation and maps
  • Integration between iPhone and in-car system
  • Email and SMS (iMessage)
  • iTunes Radio

Presumably, the system will use the same navigation and maps software as the iPhone. And yeah, this software still sucks, even while driving on the freeway near Cupertino.


Apple did hint that the system will know when the driver is coming or going from home. Is Apple designing an experience similar to Google Now, which provides information based upon locational context? That might be a step in the right direction.

The preview of iOS in the Car looks far from complete, so I’ll look forward to seeing the final product when it rolls out in 2014. Apple reportedly has deals in place with Honda, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Ferrari, Chevy, Infiniti, Kia, Hyundai, Volvo, Acura, Opel, and Jaguar.

Unlike the unveiling of the iPhone and iPad which made people exclaim “The Future is Here and it is Real”, last week’s demo just looked like a set of Photoshop mockups (that didn’t match the iOS 7 look and feel). Maybe I’ll just velcro and  iPad Mini over the FM radio of my car.


As Wired’s Autopia blog has pointed out, the timing of Siri Eyes Free is quite unfortunate. Automakers are reluctant to Siri and  recent Texas A&M studies found that voice-activated SMS is no safer than texting by hand.

To be fair, a considerable part of the design problem for Apple is that they don’t have control of the full car experience and hardware. Any software company must deal with vehicle manufacturers and their philistine approach to digital users.  OK, many auto makers are starting to reform, but this just means that they will be creating connected car and infotainment system to rival Apple’s product.

Terrifying vision for the future of personalized, autonomous cars

While I like aspects of this car body and interior design, I find the rest of this concept uncanny and troubling.

Really Flowers on the Exterior?

Toyota’s Luxury Cars More Automated, But Not Driverless

The MIT Technology Review has a detailed summary of Toyota’s most recent offerings in automated automobiles.  The Lexus LS will have number of sensors for automated safety, including oriented GPS, 360-degree laser scan (LIDAR), millimeter-wave radar, several accelerometers, and optical/stereo cameras. Exactly the equipment you would expect in a self-driving car. But Toyota is not marketing this as a automated or “driverless” vehicle:

Toyota is also working to allow a car to understand road and traffic conditions much as a human driver would—for example, by observing traffic signals. “That may, over time, evolve into a fully autonomous car,” said Templin. The research is motivated by a desire to “eliminate future traffic-related fatalities and injuries.”

[D]espite signaling that Toyota’s research was leading it in that direction—Templin added that he didn’t see “autonomous” as being synonymous with “driverless.” Even as successively advanced autonomous features are introduced to Toyota and Lexus vehicles, he said, humans would remain in control. A future car could be considered a “skilled, intelligent, and attentive copilot.”

I thinks it’s great that Toyota is putting the emphasis on the safety of all cars, albeit starting with an expensive model. Such advanced sensing equipment and software may lead to a standard  for safety applications and driver assistance. Then, more robust automation can be added to the same platform. Reducing crashes and human injury should be priority number one.


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