This is my view only, and there’s a certain amount of thinking out loud / lack of checking / potentially high bullshit level.
Yesterday I was asked to comment on a Radiodan doc and this popped out:
Radiodan is a radical new way of putting audiences at the heart of media device development using imaginative forecasting / design fiction, participatory design, concurrent standards development with user testing, and user testing of new radio features on real devices.
1. Design fiction: building real-ish physical devices make possible media devices futures more realistic for people and thereby enables the exploration of more of the radio (and potentially TV) user-need-space (and its mapping to “product space”).
2. Radiodan enables Digital Creativity: the explosion of ideas generated by the Radiodan Creative Process©®™ shows that familiar media devices are a very productive area for generating new ideas by experts and audiences.
3. Concurrent code-and-standards development: most radio (and TV) standards are made without testing on users or running code – implementation comes afterwards. This means thousands of engineer hours invested before knowing if anyone wants the features. Testing devices and features on users stops this incredible waste.
4. Real user input into real radios: new real features, pre-tested on users on realistic devices, to get genuine feedback, for inclusion into new or existing digital or physical products.
All these require fast, iterative, flexible, cheap but robust development, so that behaviour is known and testing can measure the difference. Techniques from web development applied to devices offer a way to do this. Research suggests that people make better decisions when shown product features embodied in devices in this way , regardless of whether the end product is physical or digital.
This morning I’m wondering how much of that is true, so I thought I’d develop some of the ideas a bit further.
Design Fiction / Scifi and Radiodan
I’m becoming increasingly interested in design fiction and also scifi (thanks mainly to Richard Sewell) as a way of expanding our imagination about what future possibilities there could be (here’s a discussion about the relationship between design fiction and scifi).
I think that a great many products, services and the like get stuck at local maxima and it’s hard then to think about possible alternative futures. Richard Pope has an interesting take on this area.
What’s become clear to me is that (a) silly or surprising or unusual things make people think about alternatives more creatively (b) their thinginess is an inherent part of that …er…surprisal. I don’t know why it’s the case, but making unusual physical things that embody new possibilities and features is a great way of getting people – us – to think more imaginatively about future possibilities and so expand the space around which products can be built.
Radiodan is great for that, because it enables us to make peculiar new new radio-like things very quickly (like this one) and hereby trigger one of these digressions into a different part of product-space or user-need-space. It frees up your brain to think about what you want to make, rather than how.
This second point is also about expanding the possible space but in a different way. The “Radiodan Creative Process©®™ has no ©®™ at all (those are a joke!) and is not really a process because it’s so simple: start talking about radios and everyone says “oh I want one that does …”. Give someone a postcard with a rough drawing of a radio on it and some stickers representing buttons and dials and similar things, and ask them what they want their radio to do and almost everyone will start drawing or writing something on it about what they want from a radio.
Once you’ve got over the idea that radios could be different, then ideas pop out of people so easily – and it’s so nice to experience that. This is the beginning of participatory design I think, and it’s amazing when it works.
The “process” works for other things too (we created our own avatars using a similar idea and a simple sketch of a robot: that’s me in the middle).
I’ve headed this section “Digital Creativity” because that’s the term the BBC is using for its work around getting people to code. The BBC rightly sees it as broader than coding, but for me what’s missing is this (horrible phrase) elicitation of requirements. Finding out what a user needs and describing those needs. Coding (or anything else that’s “digitally creative” for most people has to be for a reason. For those who don’t need a reason, they’re probably already coding….
Concurrent code-and-standards development
I’ve been peripherally involved in the W3C for many years and so it feels completely natural to me that standards work will have running code associated with standards while the standards are being made (also, often tests, and detailed usecases; and many standards are based on existing products). Similarly, the IETF has as a “founding belief” “rough consensus and running code“.
As I understand it, that’s often not the way that radio and TV standards work (but this is the part I’m least confident about, so please do comment). Instead, there are some broad usecases that the group has in mind when it starts, then some engineers create very precise specifications about the features to be implemented, and then implementation starts. Of course the engineers know about the capacities of their technologies so they can be fairly confident about what’s technically possible. But the missing part for me is whether anyone actually wants the thing that’s being specified.
These kinds of standards seem to be built on the principle of “build it and they will come”: make a technology that’s interesting and flexible enough and people will build interesting applications on top of it and the end users will be happy. But it’s a risky strategy – overlap between technologies that are sufficiently flexible to enable a profusion of interesting applications but are also sufficiently precisely specified to make interoperability practical – happens very rarely. But this is the only strategy available, because it’s so difficult and slow to develop for Radios (and TVs).
IRT are doing some very interesting work in making a hybrid radio from a Pi, which could enable concurrent standards and code – which I think would be be a massive step forward; but I’m talking about something different: to test using prototypes before standardisation starts to see how and whether people will actually use the features enabled by the standard.
In one sense this is simply paying more than lip-service to usecases, but Radiodan and things like it for TV can speed up this pre-standards process. I’d argue that you can get a long way with paper prototyping to get feedback on new products and features, but there’s nothing like putting a working device in front of a human and seeing what they do with it, and that’s what we can now do with Radiodan. Suddenly we can find out if people want the thing. Risk is reduced without reducing creativity.
Real user testing of novel real radios
Then this is the final thing we could do – but haven’t yet – with Radiodan. Make a “living lab” of people who could test radios such that those features could go into a radio product. Whether it is appropriate for an organisation like the BBC is quite a different matter, but we can at least see how it might be possible to do it, using deployment and development tools from the web applied to devices.
The most interesting part
I love the participatory design part (I suppose this is why people become teachers) but the most interesting piece of the puzzle is that what seems to happen is that people can better visualise features when they form part of a physical object than part of a digital one. Maybe it’s something to do with affordances and the intuitions we get when we interact with something physically – and I’ve found no academic evidence so far – but it’s a real effect. What’s more, it applies even when you get people to think about physical objects, which is both amazing and also much quicker.
I put at the start “Radiodan is a radical new way of putting audiences at the heart of media device development…” which just shows you what clichéd bullshit can flow out of my typing just to get things moving, but I do, truly, think it is a radical way of thinking of, testing and making new devices. I hope I’ve managed to explain why I think that, finally.