Airplanes in Tiles and Chipmunks in Airplanes

(Response to “The Psychopathology of Everyday Things” and “Emotion & Design: Attractive Things Work Better” by Don Norman)

Since my first semester as an NYUAD student, I’ve been in about 28 flights.

Although this week’s first batch of readings focused on the design of everyday objects, at one point the text reminded me of airline flight safety videos. These videos are not usable objects, nor are they present in most individuals’ daily lives. However, design does play a major role in their development, and unlike the case of many everyday objects, flight safety videos provide information that can mark the difference between life and death. As someone who now flies frequently, I can’t help but dwell on the importance of making them attractive. And, as the airlines I have traveled with have shown me, they tried very hard to accomplish this goal.

This is the problem about flight safety: too many instructions are given at the same time, regarding several objects that passengers have probably never even seen (oxygen masks, life vests, etc.). Many of the instructions might seem trivial or useless (respect the ‘seatbelt on’ sign even if there’s no turbulence, turn off electronic devices during takeoff and landing), while the ones that refer to emergency cases might seem unnecessary (following the “that would never happen to me” fallacy).  These are already too many factors working against the videos: “too many announcements cause people to ignore all of them, or wherever possible, disable all of them, which means that critical and important ones are apt to be missed.”

I think the topic can be compared to Norman’s differentiation between an engineer’s views on design and a psychologist’s. If the former focuses on logic and mechanism, then it is comparable to the first safety videos I ever saw. I remember them being boring (to the point that the intentionally entertaining current ones surprised me), but I don’t remember what they said. I think this is very telling of how they were designed. I imagine they were full of diagrams of the plane, arrows, lists of steps to follow, a restricted color palette… very logical. But not necessarily attractive.

If people tend to ignore the videos, given these reasons, then it’s imperative to find a way to make them look at the screen (whether they’ll remember everything they saw is another issue to discuss). This approach is more on the side of human-centered design. As Norman states, “pleasing things work better” in the sense that they have certain influence in our emptions and behavior. They “are easier to learn”.

Giving safety information at the beginning of a flight is different from showing it during an actual emergency. The levels of anxiety don’t compare (maybe excepting people with extreme fear of flying), and thus the creators of the videos can afford to design with attractiveness and practicality as equal priorities.

The following videos, by Delta and KLM respectively, are the two I had in mind as I read Norman’s pieces.



Ultimate Dolphin Battle Ring

“Why are boxing rings called rings, if they’re squares?”

– The girl who calls her rectangular box a dolphin ring

Following my first project, for which I focused on the concepts of love and hate as symbolized by flamingos, I wanted to create a flamingo battle game. Given that the assignment asked for the use of multiple digital inputs and outputs, as well as code written on Arduino, I thought that two flamingos could serve as one input each, and their participation in the game would be controlled and measured by certain rules; these would be reflected in LEDs of different lights, different blinking patterns, etc., which would let the user know how the game was advancing and what she/he had to do next.

My original idea was to set up two large flamingos (cut out from cardboard, of course) with aluminum beaks and an aluminum wall between them (probably also cardboard covered in aluminum foil). A mechanism (that I never devised) would allow players, one per flamingo, to peck the foil (meaning, to make the beak and the wall come together) by pushing the flamingo forwards. The flamingo and the wall would have formed a switch, and every time the circuit closed with a peck, Arduino would count a point for the flamingo.

Left: Two flamingos and aluminum wall on box. Right: Breadboard with LEDs and RedBoard. Connecting the two: Mess of magic cables.

I wanted to have three LEDs on the breadboard. One of them would inform the players about the game’s rounds. Each time a new round would begin, the light would blink multiple times, and then it would turn off during an interval. Then, the players would peck until the light turned on again, ending the round. During the interval, an LED would turn on with each peck (one color per flamingo), and at the end of the round the winner’s LED would also remain on. I had other ideas, regarding how the game would end and how the intervals would change over time, but didn’t proceed with any; I encountered a major obstacle during the creation process, one too foolish and embarrassing to explain. Thus, I had to alter my idea quickly and effectively.

To begin with, I chose to change the flamingos for dolphins. Given their shape, dolphins seemed to be better pieces to set up and easily manipulate.

Second, I changed the idea of the aluminum wall for a line of paper clips. Again, I have many, many of those. They’re also very easy to use, given that they’re strong and steady enough to support themselves and other pieces, but at the same time they’re sufficiently malleable. One can also create a long chain by interlocking several of them, and shorten it if necessary by removing as many as one wishes. Most importantly, paper clips are good conductors.

Cardboard dolphins and paper clips already set up and integrated into the game. Top: Light blue dolphin. Bottom: Pink dolphin.

Finally, another major change was the logic of the game. Though the dolphins still “peck” the clip chain, the LEDs work differently than originally planned. There are four LEDs on the board. The red and blue ones, each corresponding to a dolphin, blink every time their respective dolphins peck the chain. Each peck still counts as one point for the players. However, there are two extra LEDs: a yellow one and a green one. At least one of these is always on. If the players are tied (such as in the beginning, when both have 0 points), both the yellow and the green lights are on. However, as soon as one player takes the lead, her/his LED turns on and the other one turns off.

Breadboard and RedBoard. Yellow and green LEDs turned on at the start of the game.

The game, thus, infinitely fosters competition (“infinitely” because there’s no way of ending it just yet): the red and blue LEDs serve as evidence of the players’ efforts to beat each other, while the yellow and green lights show the unquestionable truth of who’s winning and who’s losing. Both players are aware of the fact that this could change at any point: one of them fights to achieve just that, while the other fights to prevent this from occurring.

The following is the code from Arduino, which is quite simple:

int redLed = 8;
int redSwitch = 12;
int bluLed = 7;
int bluSwitch = 4;
int yellowLed = 11;
int greenLed = 6;
//digital pins to which each LED and end of a switch was connected

int redCounter = 0;
int bluCounter = 0;
//counter that would keep track of the players' "points"

void setup() {
 pinMode(redLed, OUTPUT);
 pinMode(redSwitch, INPUT);
 pinMode(bluLed, OUTPUT);
 pinMode(bluSwitch, INPUT);
 pinMode(yellowLed, OUTPUT);
 pinMode(greenLed, OUTPUT);

void loop() {
 if(digitalRead(redSwitch) == HIGH){
 digitalWrite(redLed, HIGH);
 //if red switch is closed, red LED turns on and one point is added to red counter
 digitalWrite(redLed, LOW);
 //if red circuit is open, no light and no point
 if(digitalRead(bluSwitch) == HIGH){
 digitalWrite(bluLed, HIGH);
 //if blue ("blu") switch is closed, blue LED turns on and one point is added to blue counter
 digitalWrite(bluLed, LOW);
 //if blue circuit is open, no light and no point
 if(redCounter > bluCounter){
 digitalWrite(yellowLed, HIGH);
 digitalWrite(greenLed, LOW);
 //during the game, if red has more points than blue, the yellow LED will be on and the green one off
 else if(redCounter < bluCounter){
 digitalWrite(yellowLed, LOW);
 digitalWrite(greenLed, HIGH);
 //if blue has more points than red, the green LED will be on and the yellow one off
 digitalWrite(yellowLed, HIGH);
 digitalWrite(greenLed, HIGH);
 //if both players have the same amount of points, both LEDs are on

As of right now, there are many improvements that could be made on the game, in terms of its logic, design, and aesthetics. The most immediate one has to do with the system I used as a switch (with the famous paper clips). The light blue dolphin tends to get stuck on the chain, and when this happens its points skyrocket (if the circuit is always closed, the dolphin receives as many points as loops done by the program –  it’s very easy to cheat in this game).

The following video shows the battle of the Marías… because I’m María Laura… and the classmate who helped me is María Paula… and dolphin battle…

The following video shows the game with two players, and the LEDs working as described above. However, towards the end the blue LED stops blinking when it shouldn’t. I believe this happened because of the angle at which the player is pulling the string that moves the light blue dolphin. The game was designed such that it works best when two players face each other, with the box in between them. We failed to do this when the video was recorded.

Waiting For Universal ATMs

(Response to “What Exactly is Interactivity?” by Chris Crawford and “The Jump to Universality” by David Deutsch)

When considering how the two readings relate to each other, my first thought was that universality leads to improved interactivity (or rather, to more interactivity, given Crawford’s notion of it as a spectrum).

Crawford defines interactivity as a conversation, and thus, it is essential that the two actors that carry it out understand each other. When a system achieves universality, as described by Deutsch, it works in such a way that all the possibilities within that system can be represented. Therefore, any possibility can be communicated and understood by individuals who utilize the system – the “conversation” between two parts goes smoothly, meaning it’s easy for them to interact.

In class, we considered ATMs to be highly interactive. But because different ATMs have different “features”, they also have different levels of interactivity. Does the level depend on how close the ATM’s chosen system is to universality?

A point of analysis could be the buttons that users must press to proceed with an action or to cancel it. These actions are signaled by words such as ENTER and CANCEL, but these can only be interpreted by English-speakers (the same applies for any other language).

ENTER (Green) and CANCEL (Red)

Usually, the buttons are also green (correct) and red (incorrect). However, a user with red-green color blindness, or deuteranopia, might not be able to understand this system.

Normal and Deuteranopia Color Spectra

The green button might have a symbol on it, such as a O (circle), and the red one an X. But what occurs if the user is blind?

O and X

To aid in this case, the O and X are made so that they “protrude” from the keys. An alternative is to have the words written in Braille. But by resorting to language, we’re back to the first scenario.


This analysis assumes that all not-colorblind users will understand the symbolism of green vs. red, or that all users know the meaning behind the O and the X. Yet this might not be the case.

It seems that the lack of a completely universal system will always impose limits on our creations’ abilities to interact with their users.

Lost in Translation: The Case of a World Adapter

Some weeks ago, I purchased a world power plug adapter at Frankfurt Airport. I’m a fan of its design: the plug has several sliders, each one corresponding to one of the many plug standards used around the globe. I would even venture to say that choosing one and pushing it down is slightly fun (I feel as if I was mixing audio, just a bit).


The logic of its use seemed intuitive, especially given how often I use adapters: the cables’ plugs must be connected to the female side of the adapter. The opposite side has variable male contacts, one of which must be connected to the wall socket. However, there was one feature of the adapter that I didn’t understand right away.

Female (left) and male (right) sides

I decided to test this object’s design on other people. I expected the interaction to go quite smoothly, except perhaps for that one more-complicated feature (which I’ll reveal soon enough).

I asked two of my friends, separately, to please connect my computer cable to the wall socket.

Friend 1’s interaction was particularly interesting. She struggled with features I hadn’t predicted, thus making me realize that the design of the adapter wasn’t as straightforward as I thought. She began by attempting to connect my cable to the male side of the adapter; when its plugs are “hidden”, this face has holes which one could assume constitute the female side, particularly if they correspond to different socket shapes. She eventually realized that she was focusing on one side of the object only (ignoring the others), and quickly figured out that the actual socket was in the opposite face.

This adapter has a black button on one of its sides. It looks “flat” on the face, which might make one think that it’s just a part of the design without functionality. When one of the plugs is exposed, an internal mechanism secures it in place so that it can’t be pushed back inside easily. The black button must be pressed to release the mechanism, allowing the user to withdraw the plug and take out another one, if desired. This is the one feature I thought users would struggle with the most (and I was right).

Black button

Because there is no clear indication of which slider controls which plug, Friend 1 pushed down the first slider to check if its corresponding plug was the correct one for UAE sockets. When she confirmed that it wasn’t, she attempted to push it back and the plug appeared to be stuck. She attempted to force it back several times, asked me repeatedly how to change it, and wondered if the object was working properly. When I told her the adapter wasn’t stuck, she looked for a solution in the object’s other faces (once again), and found the black button. She pressed it and released it, then tried again. It didn’t work. She pressed the button a second time, and didn’t release it until the plug was back inside the adapter. That was the last problem she encountered.

Friend 2 managed to push back the plug (when she was searching for the UAE one) by accident. She held the adapter in such a way that her hand pressed the black button the entire time, without her noticing. When I asked her how she changed the plugs, she said she “just pulled it back.” I asked her to show me how, and given that she held it differently, she couldn’t do it.

“But I just pulled it back!

María, really, I just pulled it back.”

Should there be some indication in the adapter of the purpose of the black button? There could be a small inscription beneath it, “Press to…”. However, I can’t come up with anything that’s succint enough to keep the design simple. A vague description could be more confusing than no description at all (also, I like the clean aesthethic, not full of text). Another point to consider is that this is a world adapter; thus, including text in just one language implies choosing some customers (English-speakers) over others. A straightforward design based on shapes and icons might be more convenient.

Would an image like this one be useful, on the button or next to it?

I’m not too sure . It could be as puzzling as the other options I mentioned, and it might be as “intrusive” in the design as text.

Another alternative could be to make the button slightly more obvious, by making it “come out” of the adapter (instead of it being flat on the surface).

Yet again, I’m not too sure. It might be that the best option is to let the users struggle for a while, until they discover the magic button. Once that happens, everything else works like clockwork.

But is it?

Switch Birds: Lightweight, Conductive, and (Supposed to Look Like) Flamingos

One of the great things about Mustache Switch is that the lights turning on and off, as well as their colors, have a meaning. The no-smile turns on the red light (big no no) and the smile the green one (universal symbol of “all good”). I wanted my own LED to stand for something when it lit up (even if vaguely).

And for unknown reasons, I thought about flamingos.

Here’s the thing: flamingos are often portrayed as touching their beaks to form a heart. I carried out a Google search to prove this. Here’s the photographic evidence. Boom, tenth image result, flamingo heart!

How cute (though cheesy) to create two flamingos that light up a red LED when they touch each other. After all, red is the color we humans have chosen to represent love.

It’s also the color for anger, which is a happy coincidence. It turns out, as a learned during my thorough research for this project, that flamingos make cool shapes with their necks when they fight (here’s more visual proof).

Thus, my flamingos are either lovey-dovey with each other, or they want to rip their necks out. Either way, strong emotions are involved, manifested in the red light that turns on when they come into contact.

My idea was to make two flamingos that come together by blowing on them. They had to be lightweight for this purpose, and obviously conductive.

These are some bits of the process:

Bitten chocolate and the aluminum foil I wanted to use.

I remembered I had some aluminum-covered chocolate in my cupboard. I proceeded to eat the chocolate (for the sake of this project, nothing more) and use the foil.I cut out two cardboard flamingo shapes out of a battery package (because recycling!), and covered them with the aluminum.

Flamingo shape cut out of cardboard.

The bases of the flamingos were made with aluminum candle holders and paper clips. This video shows a complete flamingo:

I have an indecent amount of paper clips, so I ended up using lots of those. They turned out to be the best choice for flamingo contact. I guess they provide less resistance than the thin aluminum foil?

This is the finalized switch:

Deep Inside, We’re All “Guys in Tight Pants and Powdered Wigs”

(Response to There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings by Kenn Amdahl)

There are two points made in this reading that I really like (in truth, I like more than just a couple, but this is a short response, so I’ll compromise).

I like the notion of early experiments in static electricity as parlor tricks, because this is what we’ll do with technology as applied to art. We create (hopefully) impressive parlor tricks. But, this said, the next sentence by Amdhal is crucial: “In order to create even neater tricks, people wanted to understand what was actually going on inside that pith ball (p. 12)”, aka how electricity works. This is an aspect of the course that I appreciate: learning how to make cool stuff, but also wanting to learn the basics of how said cool stuff works.

Secondly, I respect Amdahl’s constant reminder that scientific theories are, indeed, theories and not absolute truths. I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but given the centuries-old rivalries between science, philosophy, and religion, it’s worth keeping in mind that they all rely on faith at some level. In the end, despite their predilection for empiricism and exactitude, the hard sciences also rely on highly intelligent guesses, which – yes, though intelligent – are guesses nevertheless (Benjamin Franklin’s flow of electricity from positive to negative serving as one of Amdahl’s examples).