Better UX to fight volcanos

Eyjafjallajökull, the icelandic volcano that has put Europe upside down, has also shaken the almost unshakeable rules of the business game. Deprived of air commuting, due to airspace closure over most of Europe, many professionals† have turned to the internet to remedy their fate, and it turns out that they are enduring the challenge quite successfully. What we are witnessing is the beginning of business air travel getting downsized and the rise of alternative online channels for business.

Money is thicker than lava

We keep hearing reports that the ash cloud will clear “in the next 24 to 48 hours”, but what few want to accept is that Good-Old-Earth is spitting fire ash all over our continent. Trying to control or predict this kind of violent behaviors is a fallacy. Inevitably with this and future uncontrollable natural outbursts humans will have to get busy in order to keep our infrastructures in place.

Even if Eyjafjallajökull closes tomorrow and goes to sleep for another hundred years, there is a larger than a volcano reason to believe that this telecommuting evolution will happen: we are a capitalist society and telecommuting is immensely cheaper.

All we need is better UX

There are numerous practical reasons to prefer traveling to telecommuting, but none of those reasons are inherent of the medium.‡ They are, rather, a consequence of the current limitations of human-machine interfaces. Cumbersome workflows, non standardized tools and platforms, video and audio quality restricted by bandwidth limitations, and in general many physical limitations of distant interactions across groups and locations.

So, in order to overcome these barriers, it’s not so hard to see how better design and better technology will facilitate the tools that will enable conferences across oceans just as transparently as some of us make VoIP calls instead of calls over line lines. As computing power and broadband increases workstations will specialize on telecommuting, teleconferencing and collaboration.

Money will go from roads and planes to fiber optics and wireless routers; travelers and bag-packers will reclaim traveling; we’ll see fewer and fewer suits and ties on planes and the business class will be rebranded as prosumer, premium or simply first class. And, in the process, we will be happier with better work-life balance and more free time to enjoy living outdoors in close contact with those we care about. That’s, of course, until the next volcano.

One of those professionals would be the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who is reportedly running the government via his iPad.

Almost none, a handshake is still a handshake.

The Future Obsolescence of Human Voice

We depend greatly on voice but as new technologies arrive we are discovering new efficient channels for transmitting the same data. I dream of a day when I won’t be interrupted by voice. Unless I’ve tacitly agreed to have a conversation I do not welcome the demands that voice imposes.

Why voice is overrated

  • Voice is intrusive. While we communicate with phones, webcams, and so on, we are also interfering with those present around us (who most likely do not appreciate this intrusion of space.)
  • Voice is demanding, it requires both participants to be present at the time the communication takes place (for best results.)
  • Voice is public and unsafe. It is basically screaming your secrets all around you. Think buses, parks, offices, bus shelters, waiting rooms, ticket lines… all of them places where spying can be easily done. Banks, service providers, etc, constantly ask for sensitive information to identify users on the phone. Credit Card numbers, Social Security numbers, even if it is as simple as name and address, it is still data that you wouldn’t volunteer to strangers.

Obsolescence or Death

Many are speculating about the “death of the written form” and meanwhile voice is also becoming obsolete; it is both slow to produce and to listen to. Other mediums such as text or image (static and moving) are more quick and efficient. When measuring information density voice is at the bottom of the scale with the smallest amounts of data transmitted per time unit.

Fortunately for many of us, more and more communication channels are making voice a secondary option. Ironically, Google Voice (the giant’s attempt at becoming a wireless provider) is actually reducing our dependency on voice with alternatives such as voice messages sent as text via sms or email.

Obviously this is not the death of voice (yet) but a shift on its use from highly functional towards more entertaining: social connections, education and entertainment among other might always depend on verbal communications. We want closeness and ease of communication but we don’t want to be forced to human interactions beyond our control.

The New “Now”: Time in the Age of the Progress Bar

The existence of the progress bar has changed our perception of time and made us hyper-aware of time change. This, in turn, has killed the uniqueness of now. The bar points up the exact instant in time we occupy, but it also emphasizes the easiness of change and how unattached to the moment we are.

Time Matter

The progress bar has materialized time: time needed to load a website, time left to buffer a streamed video, time since a song started playing, etc. Originally intended just for visualizing time, the Progress Bar has, literally, turn time into bits and pixels.

Finally, we can see time, measure its speed and perceive its change. For the first time, we can also locate future events in the “space” of time.

Controlling time

With faster speeds of broadband, the old Preload Bar is dying in favor of the Seek Bar in playback controls for streamed content. Again users are given context for time, and what’s more, now they are given control.

We are becoming more and more sensible to the perception of time. This is consequence, not just of this “materialization of time”, but also of our increasingly high levels of external stimulus and multitasking abilities.

The New “Now”

The static immutable “Now” is dying and a new perception of time is taking its place. As technology evolves and our senses grow more accustomed to the new order, we will embrace multiple scrubbing possibilities: pausing, skipping ahead, and replaying the times that we so choose to. Some might say that scrubbing and skipping ahead are skills that will prove invaluable.

We might not be able to travel in time in the literal sense, but we will be in greater control when managing information and dealing with linear processes in the future.

Hi-Def History: The rise of the “Hyper-Real Past”

So far we have no hi-def hyper-real portrait of the past, but this fact is irrevocably going to change really soon.

Prehistory is defined as the “period before recorded history”. It’s been long since we’ve have more sophisticated tools than mere writing, but the exponential growth of technology is increasing the quality and quantity of High-definition recording devices that seem to challenge the distinction between reality and copy (realitee & realiter)

The past is a blurry memory

I always remember when I was kid, thinking back about my parents and the stories they told me of their youth. All those memories recreated in my mind were always some black and white image. All the photos my parents had were faded sepia images, all the footage of Spain before Franco died were mostly filmed in black and white.

When I think about the 60s and 70s in San Francisco —where I now live— I always think about those images filmed in 8mm with that unique color, where Peter Berlin strolls silently down Castro St. Event further back in time, the Victorian era in SF brings to my mind images of stiff couples siting still for minutes to get their photo, women with corsets and men in tailored suits and hats.

The past is an image in our mind. It is not an accurate representation but more of a mouth to mouth dream that has been mutated and idealized each time it’s told. Everybody seems to agree: New York was way better in the 70, and so was Ibiza and San Francisco.

In some degree, nowadays we are somehow aware of the inaccuracy of History. One has to wonder how much longer this perception will remain.

The HD revolution

These are the times that will bring affordable HD to our daily lives, and the times when we’ll make effective use of it, recording immense amounts of data. New parents are photographing their kids at 10Mpx, filming them at 720p, creating a hyperreal portrait of their kids. When browsing online photo sites it feels almost like every corner of the world worth of attention has been recorded from every angle.

Welcome the High-Definition Hyper-Real Past where recording devices will let us capture “reality” (image, sound, voice, text) in the greatest accuracy. (And still, a question will remain: what it is this so-called “reality” and how can we claim that we can record it accurately?)

The Changing concept of “Past”

We are making the physical world a smaller place with advances such as the “information superhighway”, interconnected societies in the web, cheap airfares, mass marketing of tourism, etc. Similarly we are shortening distances with the past. For better of for worse, years from now, humans won’t have to guess, imagine, fantasize or idealize all of their past, for this present period will be a perfectly sharp rendition of the people and places of our days.

The Past won’t be a legendary territory no more, but a different part of a system (call it “web”) where you will want to lurk around but not join in.


Times before our HD devices will still be a nebula of mystery and, therefore, centuries from now we will most likely make another differentiation in human history: HiDef-PreHistory, and HiDef-History. If History is defined as “period since recording tools“, HiDef-History will be defined as “period in history since HD recording devices

Notice the term HiDef-History, not to be confused with HiFi-History. Beware of those who will claim that we have a high-fidelity view of the past when we don’t even have it now of the present.

The ethics of consumption

If you feel strongly about what direction technology should go, you should put your money where your mouth is. For your own good.

Tech Consumers

As a consumer you have the opportunity to not support a company if you feel that such company is sabotaging the free growth of new standards, open source projects, universal technologies, etc, . Buying products from a business falls in the same category as investing on it (except that you get your dividends right away when you walk out of the store).

Tech Professionals

Professionals should also think twice about their platform of choice. Jumping on the wagon of opportunity to create new apps for an emerging market can be rewarding in the short term. In the long term, though, we should consider what’s the impact to the product design landscape as a whole. Are we undermining our future if we support proprietary technologies and platforms that put restrictions in to our creations and products?

Think of it as buying products from China -aside from quality and price- you are sending your money to a very “particular” market. In other words, you are investing in such ideas, you are supporting and promoting the policies of that organization and you are directly influencing the job market imposing strict conditions in work and salary.

Use your money to help grow the technologies that you support and, if nothing else, invest in yourself.