GHOST IN THE MACHINE
THE ARCHITECTURE OF INFORMATION SPACES
UX POLAND 2014
Last summer I flew Qatar Airways all the way to
Melbourne, to speak at UX Australia: a long 24hour
haul across most of the globe that took me first from
Copenhagen to Doha, Qatar, where the company has their
main hub. We had our wheels down around 10:00pm local
time in 40 degrees heat and I was off for Melbourne a
couple of hours later.
The trip was comfortable, uneventful, positively
unremarkable. The major thrill being how to avoid to
spill chicken pomodoro all over my pants and shirt. I
failed, if you really want to know.
My boarding passes were remarkable tho. They came in a
brightly colored yellow folder, with instructions to
have them visible and handy when leaving the plane in
While we have become generally good at managing the
large amounts of information we have to move around to
make commercial flying a sensible proposition, flight
connections can be tricky, and Doha is not only an
entry point to Qatar, but also a 21million
passengersperyear exchange point for many who travel
East or West.
A complex choreography moves travelers from one flight
all the way to to their next connections. With such
numbers, staying on time, avoiding potentially
disruptive mistakes and keeping customers happy is not
an easy feat.
All signage within Doha airport is routinely
bilingual, using Arabic and English and working swell.
Still, the major friction point travelers encounter
comes before even entering the terminals.
Travelers move between planes and terminals on buses,
and airport buses are not the best of places for
signagespotting. Paying attention to detailed
explanations is difficult as well: we are tired, we
are distracted, we are irritable after hours of
immobility tortured by uncomfortable plane seats.
We also might not know what we have to look out for,
or simply care in the least. “I’ll mind my business,
sooner or later someone will take care of me and move
me where I have to be”.
Buses in Doha make it even worse, as all windows are
darkened to prevent overheating. Being on the lookout
might be difficult, impractical, or plain impossible
if you are standing mid of the bus. Usually trying to
prevent someone else’s solidsteel backpack buckles to
mark you with possibly interesting but absolutely
impractical permanent scars takes most of our
So Qatar Airways devised a simple solution to help
people move around the airport that works pretty well
because it is implemented systemically and because it
begins way before you get to Doha: you start to learn
about your terminal and what you have to do on the
ground when you checkin and you either print or
receive your boarding passes.
If you are printing your pass home, you get a standard
A4 page sporting a very evident colorcoded area:
yellow, blue, or green. If you checkin at the airport
or drop your baggage, you will receive standard passes
in a similarly colorcoded folder, and coordinated
tags for any hand luggage you might carry.
Same thing on the website. These colors correspond to
the different terminals and activities involved with
your trip when you hit Doha: yellow is for transfers,
green is for shortrange transfers between planes,
blue is for people entering Qatar. Business class is
handled separately and colorcoded purple.
When the plane begins its descent into Doha, you get a
reminder. A video details what is going to happen, and
how the folder containing the boarding passes (or the
passes themselves) is going to be an important element
of identification. You are repeatedly told to keep it
visible, and the tags on your bags reinforce these
visual clues: not only they allow you to know what is
your color, and what group you belong to (a strong,
nofuss message: if unsure, flock. Stay with your
color), but they allow airport personnel to catch the
occasionally straying or unaware bird before anything
potentially disruptive happens.
When on the bus, a recorded message plays in the
background reminding you of how the system works. At
this point it’s visual, aural, and using every means
to get to you.
When you arrive at the terminal, you find out that
this colorcoding is applied to the building
themselves and that staff awaits at the doors waving
facsimiles of the right boarding pass for that stop,
and that they actively check that nobody who should be
getting off the bus remains onboard.
If you exclude the video played in flight, most of the
technology involved here amounts to “paint something
in different colors, explain people why, and stick to
it”. But the basic value of consistency and of
delivering an unequivocal message that does not rely
(only) on any spoken language cannot be stressed
In all, this is a brilliant information architecture
deployed across many different channels through a
number of touchpoints, systemically.
There's layer upon layer of possible choices and paths
intersecting at each nodal point.
A TAXONOMY OF TOUCHPOINTS,WITHA NOD TO P. MORVILLE
Products today are services. This is not really news:
I wrote about this ongoing transformation together
with Luca Rosati in 2009, and Don Norman, who sure has
much more clout than us when it comes to user
experience, wrote a similar piece for Interaction in
the same year by the title “Systems Thinking – A
Product is More than the Product”. And honestly, we
weren’t really saying anything new at the time either.
But the trend is keeping up, steadily, and it’s worth
a little attention: products are services, and those
which are not are turning fast.
Even those who might seem at first to be reasonably
immune to this epidemics, think your favorite cereals,
are really not. They are pieces of a complex
machinery, an ecology of products where every single
element is a gear of a larger system.
A few months ago, Ferrero, the Italian brand that
produces Nutella, went through a social media
They suddenly decided they wanted a longtime self
declared Nutella fan, American journalist Sara Rosso,
to stop organizing World Nutella Day, a fansof
Nutella conference she had been hosting since 2007. As
soon as the news hit the Internet, outrage got
In a matter of days the online backlash became was so
fierce that Ferrero retreated quickly and generously
changed their minds, allowing Ms Rosso to continue
spreading (literally) her passion for years to come.
This is still an ecosystem. An open, participated
ecosystem. Ferrero just didn't see it and suffered the
consequences. The change is of course much more
evident where products lend themselves more easily to
such a systemic change. The entertainment industry is
a case in point.
Products are services, but it does not end there:
users, customers, consumers, actors, you choose the
name, are also cocreators. They are wranglers, as
Bruce Sterling called them back then in 2005 in his
“Shaping Things”: actively remixing, creating and
harvesting content and meanings. Facebook and
FourSquare are only possible because we provide the
goods that they use to fill up their empty shelves and
THE WALKING DEAD COMICS
(The Walking Dead as an example of a recent, crossmedial
franchise. Originally a comic book series by Robert
Kirkman, it spawned a successful multiseason tv series,
interlaced videogames, and plenty of zombie merchandise.)
Narratives do not seat easily within one channel.
Through these continuous narrative, services become
Now, if you are thinking this is nothing that should
interest anyone with a design or business perspective,
nothing that really matters much in the grand scheme
of things, you’re missing the point. Services is where
the money is going to be. You also have probably not
paid the necessary attention to said entertainment
industry, of late.
Like, say, GTA V, a videogame by multinational company
Rockstar Games ...
... making $800 million in 24 hours. That's more than
most Hollywood blockbusters, right? (And those are
still entertainment, aren't they?)
Now, you might not be interested in games anyway. You
might also have decided that music really died with
Janis Joplin. If that is the case, you are probably in
the wrong line of business, trust me. But here's a
I do have a little collection of vinyl LPs in the
house. Whenever my teenage daughter brings in
friends, they have a laugh at them. Not surprising,
Old man in the house, right. But the interesting
part is that they laugh at the CDs as well. I asked,
and I was told that yes one might be black and
larger and the other one smaller and silvery, but
they are really the same thing. Boring. Old. Not
needed. Music is immaterial, comes in links, pokes,
shares. It's in Spotify, Pandora, a friend's
playlist on Youtube. It's a service you access from
a mountain top and not certainly something you buy
spread over a thin plastic wafer.
Now, if you buy music, what is that you are buying,
where exactly is your money going today: to your
tablets or smartphones? That wouldn't be much of an
innovation, would it? We already had this.
It was called the Sony Walkman. A personal device you
could use to carry around your music. You are not
really buying this.
What you are putting your money into is the service
that allows you to get that song through the store
through the application to your devices. Compatible
with crazy DRM regulations and general greediness, all
Smartphones, tablets, mp3 players.
Music is a service, an experience.
Value does not reside within the song itself (after
all, I could probably get it for free somewhere else),
but in the service I receive, and that includes quite
a lot of moving parts that have nothing to do with the
company I’m dealing with.
For example, recommendations from other users, or, in
the case of Nutella, Ms Rosso.
What is driving behavior change is not an artifact, but
the ecosystem, the architecture behind the artifact.
These changes bring along a certain uneasiness. It's
the uneasiness that comes with the visible shift from
authorship to conversations, from central control to
remediation, the alternate and complementary
strategies of dismissal or denouncing as a threat, and
the impact this has on society.
From Google is making us stoopid on the Atlantic ...
... to economic disruption and chaos on the Huffington
... all the way to denouncing the cult of the amateur
that is supposedly killing our culture.
ANIMAL COPS: HOUSTON
If you think this is some kind of bad news, consider
that within the realm of traditional media this is
what gave us reality tv.
These narratives, literary in nature and quality or
not it really does not matter, are only possible in a
scenario which is radically different from the
previous authorial context.
The radical change is the absence of authors. Think
Facebook, the billion individual voices becoming
Facebook. Texts are not merely observed. Texts do not
last asis very long either: they are located within
the space of participation and continuously
This is not necessarily a good thing, and while some
of us might find “Animal Cops Houston” mildly
entertaining, “Breaking Amish” has substantially fewer
redeeming qualities in my book.
Let's not even mention the phenomenon of Russian car
cameras, right? Still, can we just close our eyes and
make these go away? Or dismiss them as “bad”?
This vibe, this refusal, is clearly discernible in
David Byrne’s recent piece for the Guardian on how the
Internet (better, music streaming services) will be
the death of music. Byrne is honest. He paints a dire
picture in which the Spotifys and Pandoras of the
world will in the long run force musicians to find
some other jobs, but states also that he has no
solution to offer.
Still, Byrne doesn’t seem to see the tide coming. What
he really means there is that streaming seems to
suggest to him we are approaching the death of music
as we know it, that is, a specific business model for
music production and consumption, and the one that
Byrne has interacted with for the length of his
career. He just happens to think this is the harbinger
of doom, which is legitimate, but a trifle
http://www.flickr.com/photos/16801915@N06/5982168522/ READING TOM - SUN STUDIO, MEMPHIS
There is nothing necessary in the idea of the
recording industry as it is. Rather, its business
model is a legitimate product of the 20th century and
its industrial processes: streaming services are
simply early instantiations of different business
models, more in tune with this century.
Both labels and artists will have to either adjust (or
adjust the process), or they will definitely be out of
work. It’s not going to be the first time that
something like that happens: let me tell you that
scribes were not that happy about the printing press,
and neither were blacksmiths when bicycles came along.
It seems we still read books. And last time I checked
horses are still around. Scribes, on the other hand,
are hard to find and paid their weight in gold.
It's like observing New York from the top of a
skyscraper. You only see streets and walls and
boundaries, the structure placed there to constrain,
but you don't see the crowd freely crisscrossing
their individual paths through the city. Where others
see a thriving multitude of voices, they see abysmal
dumbness and panoptical surveillance. Which of course
are there, both the dumbness and the risk of
surveillance. Twitter is a human artifact, certainly
no different than anything else.
But it makes little sense to argue with the David
Byrnes of the world. In tactical terms, they are
right. Shortsighted, but right. Twitter does not make
sense if my perspective is shaped and informed by the
filter first, publish second lens of traditional
authorship. Streaming is impacting individual sales of
songs. So did the phonograph, right? Some jobs could
go extinct, or end up somewhere in the shallowest
parts of the long tail, which might not be a bad thing
at all. But music does not mean record labels.
All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned, or
vigilant, that we shouldn’t design better processes or
work out socially acceptable compromises, it's just that
the second coming of Cthulhu is still a few years off.
These processes are nothing new.
If you consider the bicycle, it went through a very
similar cycle of elitism, disruption, and acceptance. A
very nonlinear process, I might add.
The aptly named bone crusher you see here was the first
thing resembling a bike. From here, we don't have a
steady series of improvements along a winning line, but
rather a delta of many different tentatives, obeying
different societal and cultural imperatives.
Highwheelers or pennyfarthings were not allpurpose
machines. They thrived around a subculture that valued
risk, velocity, and broken bones.
These were very dangerous contraptions from which
falling with catastrophic results was too easy. They
were mostly used by young men trying to impress young
women through their riding skills, or for
competitions. Think of skateboarders, or free
climbers, or freedivers, and you'll have suitable
examples of what it meant to be riding one of these.
Women and respectable adults were not supposed to be
When cultural and social norms started to change
around the bicycle, the most bizarre solutions emerged
to allow their use and make them safer and more
FRIESE JOHN F. -FARM BLACKSMITHING –THE-SAVOISIEN.COM
This was a long, contrived process with plenty of
deadends, and with unexpected enemies. Blacksmiths
were fiercely opposing the bike: after all, it was an
industrial artifact that was bound to take horses off
the streets, right? Byrne would understand.
Unfortunately, all radical innovation is systemic and
disruptive. It changes the playfield.
In strategic terms, this is a huge part of this
paradigmatic shift: a disruptive move not only from
products to services and experiences, ...
FROM AUTHORS TO CONVERSATIONS
... but from authors to conversations.
And while it's easy to embrace the cynical side of
things and dismiss the selfreferential echo chambers
that very often social media for example
... Facebook is still commanding enough attention that
arguably one of the most powerful offices in the
world, that of US President Barack Obama, needs to
have a presence there.
Recent european statistics place the average European
citizen online for some 25.9 hours per week. These
hours are by and large not spent in front of a
computer in the office, battling spreadsheets or
typing away: they are spent checking mail and chatting
on smartphones, watching videos on tablets while
comfortably sitting on a sofa, engaging friends and
perfect strangers in online gaming, or following up
the latest meme on social media.
We still approach what we do and the design of
information spaces as we used to do 20 years ago. Like
ghosts in a machine, our body in front of a screen and
our mind projected beyond that screen.
COMPUTER ROOM, SANTA BARBARA – HTTP://IS.GD/H4ME67
We used to do computing at a desk, in the office, or
in the home.
When you were done, you switched it off and you left
all of cyberspace behind. There was closure, and clear
Now it's not that way anymore. The ghost and the
machine are one, and we compute constantly,
personally, through mobile phones ...
Activities and artifacts merge in complex experiences.
If there’s any take away from the World Nutella Day
debacle, is that services turn products into some
common property of sorts that can be easily remixed,
remediated, and manipulated in ways the original
producers most surely didn’t think of.
Everything that can be connected will be: everything
that will be connected will be part of an experience
residing largely out of the corporate control we
normally assume a company has over its offerings.
I want you to stop one second here. The point is not
just that we are jacked in into cyberspace all of
the time, without the fun of zerogravity kung fu:
there is a subtler but much more momentous change
happening here. Our perception of digital and
physical is changing because of this. Our perception
of the boundaries between the two is shifting. Our
perception of the very existence of a boundary is
getting blurrier by the minute. Computers, places,
and people are on the same side of the mirror, and
they are all connected.
Or people working on all sorts of ways to turn you and
your personal info into more ads and money
Or your friends, maybe. I don't know these people, btw.
What it really is is the bad pub in your neighborhood.
Bad beer, uncomfy chairs, the owner tries to cheat.
But all your friends are there, so you just go there.
For the stories, for the narratives.
Take late Millennials for example, those who haven’t
yet hit adulthood and who have little or no memory of
a world without the Internet as they were too small,
and Generation Z kids, those born after the year 2000
and who actually didn’t get to see how it was before:
the Telegraph reported last summer that when on
holiday they still manage to spend roughly two hours a
day on social media, connecting back with friends,
sharing the high and lows of their vacation, liking
and plussing and favoriting.
In a most comprehensive study conducted in the USA,
the Kaiser Family Foundation reported a substantial
increase of the time spent consuming media in kids
between the ages 8 and 18 between 1999 and 2009. What
is most interesting is not the 7+ hours a day spent on
TV, games, music, and social media, but the fact that
while TV time shrinks constantly, interactive digital
content keeps going up. Even music, still a major
player, means largely iPods, Spotify, or YouTube to
this demographic, with a large component of
consumption being reliant on social mechanisms and
personal, multiple devices.
These, Millennials and Generation Zers, are the people
you often see dubbed “digital natives” following a
seminal article written by Marc Prensky in 2001,
implying they were born into a world where digital
technology was readily available from the get go, and
hence possess a native understanding of it.
But so much in this conversations in the mainstream
news seems to be misaligned, either calling up to the
end of the world by social media or praising superior
skills that are not really there. To me, it seems we
are constantly missing the major point: there are
definitely signs of the emergence of what Clive
Thompson calls in a wellwritten piece on the Guardian
“a new teenage sphere that is conducted digitally”.
ADAPTED FROM WÄLJAS,M., SEGERSTÅHL, K., VÄÄNÄNEN-VAINIO-MATTILA, K. & OINAS-KUKKONEN, H. (2010). CROSS-PLATFORM SERVICE USER EXPERIENCE
The only thing, it’s not digital for them. It’s not
“virtual” (a note here: can we retire this word,
please? We retired grunge, right? Virtual calls up
more or less that same Seattle garage imagery. Let’s.
Please.). It’s not different, or alien. This is what
being “native” amounts to, and what Prensky outlined
in his article back then.
It's a smooth move into a world of crosschannel
activities that span the digital and the physical with
little distinction between the two.
ADAPTED FROM WÄLJAS,M., SEGERSTÅHL, K., VÄÄNÄNEN-VAINIO-MATTILA, K. & OINAS-KUKKONEN, H. (2010). CROSS-PLATFORM SERVICE USER EXPERIENCE
Where services sit at the intersection of many
different, selfcentered ecosystems.
As such, this being digital has very little to do with
competencies, or with being geeks, or with technical
Technology is fun, liberating, but also part of the
fabric of reality, just like bikes or footballs. We
could easily say the same for every generation: we
would just have to use a different technology. My
grandmother grokked electricity and what it could do
for her in a way her farmer parents who were born in a
world of oil and candles couldn’t, and I had to
explain TV to her more than once as a kid even though
she’d been seeing it for some 20 years at the time.
But using really does not equate mastering, in the
larger possible sense of the word. Technical,
personal, social mastering. It shouldn’t be even
implied. I could explain TV to my grandma, but that
didn’t make me capable of broadcasting my own show. Or
of making a successful one, for that matter.
Similarly, digital natives are immersed in digital,
but that doesn’t make them great hackers or Internet
experts from the day they are born. That takes time if
it happens at all, and a learning process, which
should really be no surprise.
What being a digital native means is that digital
technology (though I would argue connectivity is the
key element and the key differentiator here for real)
is simply a part of everyday life. There is no
reconversion, there is no updating of predigital
analogies, no idea that “mail is like writing a
letter, but a bit less formal”, or that “songs are
really pieces of that thing we call a CD or LP”. In
this sense, they are much more digital naives that do
things naturally, almost unaware, rather than digital
What is different is not the fact that digital
na(t)ives have an innate understanding of how the
Internet works (they don’t), that they can finetune
your iPhone (they can’t), or that they should be
listened to when it comes to trends in the industry
(they shouldn’t). They are simply not considering
digital as something different from real.
No Millennial business owner will ever pause for a
moment to consider if they should invest time money or
energies in this Web thing we have. No Generation Z
customer will assume that live chat you offer to
clients is really just there for show and that you
have to ring up customer care during office hours.
It is a huge shift with profound implications, some of
them connected to the crosschannel nature of any
service that is provided or will be provided to this
demographic. These people, they see things in
different ways, to put it as Bruce Springsteen put it
What changes can we expect? What changes should be
design for? What will they expect, or desire, when
interacting with the tax system? What will be feasible
communication channels? Will any hospital ward better
have a Whatsapp account? Should they?
CHESS, MUFFET (http://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/5347237755/)
Let me conclude with a question to you all. Suppose we
wanted to play chess. Could we play chess right here
I suppose we could. If anyone has pen and paper we
could create our own board and pieces, right? Any
(someone says “on a computer”)
Right. Or a phone. And what about ...
.. saying you all on the right are the white pieces
and you on the left the black pieces? Line you all up,
and then call out bishop in G4 and so on?
CHESS IN HARRYPOTTER
We could take it further if we had magic of course,
but let's stick to being plausible. Why could we do
After all, the interfaces and interactions we just
described vary wildy. Picking up a marble piece on a
chess board to move it is a totally different thing
from shouting “H2!” and seeing people squirrel across
the room, let alone trying to grab Mr Parks here and
carry him from A2 to B4. Right?
The thing is, what would be in place would be the
architecture of chess. Its rules.
While the interfaces would change, the rules wouldn't.
That's why we could play a game of chess here, now.
That's why I urge you to work on the system, the
architectures, and consider that you are providing the
rules for structuring conversations, between people
and artifacts, people and systems, and people and
other people, that happen in a postdigital world,
where digital and physical are becoming one and no one
cares for any difference there might be between the
Make the rules visible, you will make them actionable.
Be agents of change: rather than worry about the shade
of lipstick it’s wearing ...
RETHINK THE PIG
... just rethink the pig altogether.