Lock box density/clustering

The interesting repurposing of a previously ornamental architectural element into a newly functional one. Equal parts creative and ingenious, Boston.

Consider the motivations behind this density of key lock boxes (five are attached to the grate, and there’s another on the right frame of the doorway), and the degree to which such density (and similarity of form factor of lock boxes) calls for unique identification protocol to be followed (the red ribbon around the upper left box). What might explain such a clustering?

Also, in what other technologies beyond the seldom-considered key lock boxes can one witness such a colorful mix between analogue and digital versions of a product (besides in-store grocery scales, analogue for customer-facing and digital for vendor-facing, says B)? “Analogue” cigarettes and e-cigs, too. Does one version present itself as more “hack-able” than the other? 

Wear points, pain points

What can be inferred from how users have previously interacted with this public wayfinding element? This route map shows the potential journeys for passengers of Boston's rapid transit system, the T. Although only one of many in-car maps, note what visible wear patterns might reveal (or conceal) about customers' journey experience(s). Who might be interacting with this map (positioned above one of the doors at a height of about seven feet / two meters)? Why use this, instead of one's phone, for example? Where might these passengers be coming from, and where are they trying to go? Do they touch this particular wayfinding artifact for comfort, or for help in explaining a route to a fellow passenger? 

Finally, as wear patterns begin to erase relevant information on this map, think: when increasingly trends are to touch the "interfaces" around us (be they screen-based or wall-based, static or not), how can this best be designed for?

See also: Here-ish


Much ink has been spilled, conferences convened, and marriages dissolved over humans' ability (or lack thereof) to converse. The foundation of much of our daily lives takes place through conversation - increasingly, a digitally-mediated one. That said, it still took me a puzzled minute to piece together what this advertisement for a "Conversation room" (聊天屋) was all about: a place one can go and, for a fee, be engaged in pleasant conversation by someone of one's preferred sex over drinks (for which the client also pays, natch).

To what end does one's paying for the conversation enable one's comfort within it? If you've ever felt anxiety around striking up smalltalk with strangers, how would the fact that you were paying for it influence your confidence? Unlike other conversations in a bar-like atmosphere, what if you knew that regardless of the content of your conversation and how many drinks you had bought for your host(ess), your encounter would not veer into the sexual? Sort of kicks the metaphorical legs out from beneath someone for whom in their native/most familiar cultural context, "bars" equal "mating grounds" (hence the "extreme rarity" of seeing a Westerner engaged in such a service, as mentioned in the above linked post).

Zooming out, what would a "conversation as a service" look like in your context? How would it work, and how much would it cost? How would the existence of a market for casual, pleasant conversation change the "value" of such conversation in the many other service interactions that already include it for "free" (barbering, manicuring, sit-down dining, etc.)? Would this change other "expertise-driven" conversation-centered interactions (psychotherapist session, check-up appointment with a doctor, etc.) in your context? How would this influence garden-variety, non-paid-but-still-alcohol-lubricated conversations (and their range of potential outcomes)?

Finally, to circle back to the original impetus for this post, what does this advertising medium imply about the service? Does it "fit"? In the increasingly crowded digital conversations and interactions that define our everyday, consider the economic/comedic value of advertising something through designing and printing a four-sided illuminated vinyl sign, placing it on the back of a tricycle, and paying someone to pedal that tricycle around various neighborhoods known for their bustling nightlife scenes. Where is the line between a "novel" communication channel, and an "outdated" one? How would you advertise a "Conversation room" in your context? 

Touchpoint teardown: yardstick

Quite a brilliant little analog object, this.* On a basic level, yes, this is indeed “just" a yardstick. With proper use, though, it can also be a means for increasing revenue through selling more “things for painting”, and deepening a customer’s relationship with the store (Lowe’s, in this case, the second largest chain of hardware stores in America). Of course, if Lowe's service in a particular store is not up to said increased demand, whether through poorly laid-out merchandise, too few or improperly incentivized staff, too-long lines at checkout, or a myriad of other potential hiccups in the service journey, at the very least it means lost revenue for Lowe’s, and it likely also means revenue to one of their competitors.  In that way, there’s also an intriguing amount of “goodwill” built into this yardstick (perhaps not by choice). The information on it could just as easily be used to make a shopping list to visit any physical (local hardware store, Home Depot) or digital (Amazon, Home Depot) retailer of paint and paint accessories. You get a good deal of knowledge (and potentially give a good deal of business to a competitor) for a mere $0.98, plus tax, for as long as the yardstick remains functional, legible, and in one piece.

Still, this remains a very much non-digital object that is packed with useful information, and that serves as a guide not only in one’s journey towards “preparing” to paint, but extends the relationship into the painting process itself through chunking various tasks into categories, from “Job Prep”, to “Paint”, to “Clean Up”. This is not merely a tool for painting or measuring, but (with some interpretation by customers) a means of actually changing (and even teaching) painting behaviors. By trusting the object (and, by extension, the designer of the yardstick and the Lowe’s brand itself), the customer can get far more out of a visit to the store than they otherwise would have without the help of this yardstick. Placed in the context of the Lowe’s store, this object might cause customers to second-guess which of these supplies they’ve got at home, and in turn may "nudge” them towards purchasing more in-store. This yardstick is, in fact, the physical equivalent of this window that appears on Lowe’s website:

However, the analog version has the digital version beat in at least one key respect; while the customer will probably remember what they’ve bought (or be able to easily glance in their actual, physical shopping cart) during their time in the store, the algorithm on this site simply spits out the same items along with its desperate plea to “Wait! Don’t forget these…”. For example, add a paint tray to your cart and it will remind you to pick up some paint tray liners. Add the liners as well, however, and… you guessed it: it asks you to add (yet another) paint tray to your cart.

However, while it may outperform its digital equivalent in this respect, the yardstick’s creators made a few risky assumptions. Removed from the store (or the opportunity to easily purchase needed paint supplies), this yardstick may become, somewhat annoyingly, a reminder of all those important things you either 

a) didn’t think you truly needed, but in fact actually did need, or
b) didn’t know what/where they were, and were too embarrassed/rushed to ask 

There are ways to rectify the mistakes these assumptions might cause, though, before they lead to the unwanted outcomes of both customer frustration and more revenue for competitors,

Potential improvements
Include a guide next to each listed object, indicating precisely where in the store the object is located. (Might this be a good chance to use QR codes? If in the US, probably not (but if in China, possibly!). While you’d need to standardize item placement and aisle numbering across stores, this might already be something Lowe’s practices, making things simpler for them - not to mention simpler for someone trying to check off all the boxes on their shopping list yardstick. Basically, after this object asks the question “did you remember this item?”, a pretty fair follow-up question if they answer “No”, is “would you like to know where this item is located?"

When trying to better serve customers who don’t know what one of these items is, and, by extension (or due to a lack of time) doesn’t end up picking up a key item, good news: 1) I see lots of extra whitespace on that there yardstick, and 2) you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you how many icons of paint rollers there are. A thoughtful and well-designed icon next to each item could impart a surprising amount of information around what that item is, what it looks like, and why it is necessary. Finally, placing a small picture of the item next to each word is also a big help If someone’s reading ability is impaired, either through illiteracy or dyslexia.

Ways to test those potential improvements:
An improvement is only an improvement if it actually “improves” things, and the only way to find that out is through testing it. One testing strategy is to put out buckets with a different type of yardstick in each (this would also require visually distinguishing the different types of yardsticks so that they could be easily told apart from each other at a distance).  Place them alongside one another, and assign each type of yardstick an individual SKU barcode. From there, see which ones are purchased most frequently, and, equally importantly, what items are  purchased along with them. How do these objects influence the behaviors of their customers, if at all?

To better understand actual on-the-ground usage behaviors around the yardsticks, have employees subtly follow and observe customers who choose the redesigned yardsticks to see how they use them, how they carry and consult them, how they hold them or place them on their carts, and so on. A change in the information displayed on the yardstick may also require a reconsideration of the yardstick's form (or the form of Lowe’s baskets or shopping carts, for example).

If you do decide to go ahead and use a QR code anyway (or a truncated bit.ly web address, even) as a means of guiding customers, it would probably make the most sense to have it launch them into a lightweight mini-site that combines both a list of items and checkable boxes next to them, and also a physical guide to where things are located to make them easier for customers to quickly find. In this case, a count of the number of visitors to said mini-site would be easy to keep, and there might be additional insights to be gained from seeing the order in which objects are checked off on the site, and which objects most often remain unchecked. I know the temptation is there to make an app. Consider this, though: when rushed for time (and, like me, constantly facing a shortage of phone memory), by asking users to sign in with their Apple ID, download an app, wait for the download to finish, and then have them create a User ID and password for the app the best use of their time?

Good question, yardstick

* My thinking around this post came partially from an extended conversation/argument over Twitter yesterday with @Anthropunk about analog vs. digital touchpoints in service design. Turns out we weren't really arguing, but that tends to be what Twitter turns into -  extremely constrained, unpunctuated and brusque bursts of conversation causing you to entirely misinterpret what the other person is saying. Ah, well.

Desire paths and daily life

In snowbound New York back in March, while looking at a rooftop across the street I found myself thinking about “desire paths” and the environments and contexts across which they reveal themselves. While desire paths are made primarily with one’s feet (and therefore upon the ground), there are many other kinds of desires paths (although there’s a brilliant repository of the primarily foot-based variety here, for those interested). You’ve probably seen these other desire paths inscribed upon the “close door” button of an elevator, or a patina upon the rightmost of a pair of door handles. Basically, a desire path is the visual expression of an enacted desire. 

see inside the arrow


In the parlance of international development and other fields, there is a separate but related term: “positive deviancy”. Positive deviants are those who, despite having similar or fewer resources than others in the community, display behaviors that increase or protect their wellbeing or wealth. Such “positive deviants” - the individuals in a group “whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers.” They are those who are working against the oppressive sameness of daily life, trying the untried and breaking the tyranny of routine (and not always by choice, as with the original case that inspired “positive deviance”).


In urban planning, a “desire path” arises from the combined effect of cumulative footfalls of individuals as they travel over a surface that both a) lacks a “formal” (that is, paved or otherwise affording foot traffic through preventing wear) path, and b) reflects over time the passage of pedestrians through a change in physical appearance. For example, one becomes acutely aware of desire paths after a fresh snowfall, when any deviations from the obscured walkways beneath said snow are clearly reflected by pedestrians’ passing footprints. I like to think of the ethnographic method as that blanket of fresh snow – a lens through which interesting human behaviors reveal themselves for deeper exploring. Seen in this way, behaviors contain the potential for influencing the others by showing them a path or behavior they didn’t previously consider or think possible.

This act of searching for positive deviance within a population is what fascinates me. How do you find these interesting behaviors to unlock and understand their roots? The catch with the metaphor of “snowy” desire paths is that they are visible to even the most casual observer. What if one is searching for, say, behaviors that point towards new ways to design street-level infrastructure?

 The right perspective is key; upon encountering someone in the act of an interesting non-standard behavior, one’s reaction will vary depending upon the frame one happens to be using at the time. Someone familiar with ethnographic methods might consider such a behavior worth understanding in greater depth. Tom Hulme, formerly of IDEO, spoke of seeking out such behavioral “desire paths” as a metaphor for the need-finding stage of the design process. With the right perspective, someone sitting upon a pile of police barricades isn’t just acting upon their fatigued feeling – they’re perceiving an affordance that was unanticipated by the object’s designer, something that wasn’t there before to anyone else. So too with the person who places their belongings on a sidewalk’s standpipe – while not designed for that purpose, standpipes afford the momentary storage of one’s belongings.

seeing a seat where others do not

This is where the qualitative ethnographic method could benefit from a dose of quantitative know-how. In searching for interesting street-level behaviors, understanding where the greatest concentrations of the sorts of people in whom you are most interested would be valuable. Municipal datasets, GIS data, and even Google Maps can reveal demographic data, the presence of sidewalks and public spaces, and, by extension, the richest areas to center research. As Jan Gehl wrote in his seminal text, “How to Study Public Life”, “Making a qualitative assessment by counting how many people do something makes it possible to measure what might otherwise seem ephemeral: city life… The question of how many or how few comes in several varieties in public life studies, such as before and after urban improvement projects.”

­As cities are driven to become increasingly “smart”, it is easy to simply listen to the advice see solely through the frame of those who rely entirely upon analytics, rather than asking questions like “What is smart?”, and “For whom is the city becoming smarter?”, striving to understand more deeply both the usefulness and the fairness of such a process for citizens. In his book "Against the Smart City", urbanist and designer Adam Greenfield identifies the goal of these merchants of “smartness” as, “[making] every unfolding process of the city visible to those charged with its management; [rendering] the previously opaque or indeterminate not merely knowable but actionable; and ultimately, to permit the “optimization” of all the flows of matter, energy and information that constitute a great urban place.”

The Ciscos, IBMs, and Siemens of the world would like you to believe that there can be a universal urban API of sorts, apparently not aware that this would mean relegating citizens and the urban services they rely upon to the sorts of behavior that programmers typically reserve for lines of code and link libraries – things that prioritize speed above all other things, that behave uniformly, and that approach all situations with the same (knowable and predictable) perspectives.

This methodology must be tempered by ethnographic and qualitative methods. There must be an analysis of the banalities of “daily life” to understand the directions to advance the cities of tomorrow, which feeds into the larger dialogue of making things meaningfully “smarter”, rather than simply infusing each aspect of daily life with sensors and technology.

a wall-mounted display indicating occupancy (and other things) of restroom stalls in a women’s restroom in a subway station in Taibei, Taiwan


This is easier said than done, however, and it speaks to the sometimes massive difference in approaches to the question of what makes a good [urban] life. The Big data frame, with its predilection for all things “sense-able”, often looks to simply toss away “outliers” of human behavior, rather than seek to understand why they came to be that way. This points to why the approach Jan Gehl outlines in his foundational textbook “How to Study Public Life” A/B testing things like an urban environment reveals superbly well-supported data that reveals which urban layout attracted and was used by more people of a particular gender, age range, or group size. Using behavioral mapping supported by deductive content analysis, observations may be made about the daily life activities that unfold in that area: “broadly speaking, the primary activities in public space are walking, standing, sitting and playing…In general, public space activities can be divided into two categories: necessary and optional.”

With the output from these observations and analyses, one could even make claims around which element of public infrastructure was more “usable” or “inviting” to citizens. The risk of all these answerable questions is that they can be mistaken for being all of the questions that one could possibly ask about how a city is used. These data-supported questions, grounded in perfectly sound methodology, supported by concrete numbers gathered by researchers or sensors, would not in themselves be able to answer why people did something.


Why leave a bowl of water out for dogs at this particular location – a crowded sidewalk in New York City? Why have a receptacle for receipts as part of an effort to support elderly and disabled individuals – in a back alley of Taibei, Taiwan? In both cases, consider the level of trust necessary for this – why do both of these things work here? Why trust that the water is clean, or that the receipts are actually going where the donation box claims? What makes these things work? We can count them, but ethnography will allow us to understand them.


Ethnography is one of the most promising avenues for framing and understanding interesting behaviors. There may be value in some cases in seeing an individual as a logical line of code in an “urban API”, or coding someone recorded in an observation as “playing” in a park (or carrying out an “unnecessary” activity). Such frames might surface data that could lead to creating a more pleasant urban environ or piece of infrastructure. However, these two frames of analysis are seldom kind to outliers. Their perspective does not seek “desire paths” so much as find out where the masses are going and attempt to increase the quality of their experience incrementally. Through observing people’s behaviors on an individual basis, by looking not only at the paths and choices of the masses but studying the positive deviants, one can follow a set footprints off in a direction that calculated iteration and incremental nudges would never be able to point one towards.

Service details: Otafuku x Medetai

Otafuku x Medetai is a closet-sized restaurant with few menu items. I was struck by the density of endearing service details packed into both the restaurant’s limited space, and the short amount of time needed to deliver an order.

The first touchpoint one encounters in the service journey is an understated one – the paucity of external signage exudes confidence that borders on cockiness. Otafuku’s trademark, the beaming visage of Okame, the goddess of mirth, is mounted to an oblong cut of wood. 

This is in sharp contrast to stepping inside, where a customer’s senses are immersed in the service-delivery process as grill jockeys hustle behind an all-glass counter. Upbeat J-pop mingles with foot-tapping Gramatik and Nightmares on Wax, and the various shapes of grills designed to cook takoyaki (rows of hemispherical impressions to form perfect spheres) and taiyaki (miniature fish-shaped sockets) are on full display and constantly sizzling away, radiating the smells of frying batter.

Custom-made signage cheekily imparts choking and allergy information, a detail that would be handled with a hastily hand-scrawled sign or generic sign at a less detail-oriented locale.

Bottles with faces peer out from the counter, containing the relevant sauces for putting the finishing touches on the grilled creations. Adjacent to them are the bananas used to create the filling for the taiyaki. Each of these grant additional transparency to food preparations through keeping and preparing ingredients in plain sight.

Although the range of menu items is narrow, the range of possibilities within them is broad, and another intriguing service touch is involving customers in both experimentation and limited runs of an unusual flavor combination. For the shop’s devoted followers (and yes, a closet-sized taiyaki/takoyaki joint indeed has followers), the ten-minute wait for a food otherwise traditionally seen as “colloquial” and made to be served quickly is insignificant when compared to the chance to have one of the only 25 of a day’s edition of “berry choco” taiyaki. With scarcity and lengthier preparation time comes greater prestige in consumption.

Finally, order placed, a patron is given a receipt and order slip. Where once more a generic thermal printed receipt would do, O x M offers a pixel-perfected combination order slip and receipt that includes the enterprise’s two logos.

Jiufen micro/macro

Struck out to from Taibei to Jiufen, home of the teahouse that inspired Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Enchanting textures and vistas abound as well.

Repurposed styrofoam cooler gardens lined the city's steep footpaths

Sunlight was also cleverly used - glass-embedded tar roofs provided natural illumination indoors

residential palette

mountain palette

wheels for the day

tatami for the night

the teahouse

midnight on mountain roads

Service familiarity

When I arrived at this restaurant in back alley Jiufen, Taiwan for breakfast, I walked across the threshold and pointed myself towards a table. Once seated, the server approached, brandishing a distinctive pink paper pad, having taken it from the collection of them hanging off a basket by the door. This gesture was somewhat moot in my case, as I had initially chosen the restaurant based upon the smell of a hearty-looking vat of soup over a roaring burner placed near the door that was being carefully tended to by the cook. Stating that I’d like a bowl of whatever he was making, the relevant pencil mark was made on a pink piece of paper, which was then torn off and left on my table.

As I sat observing over the course of breakfast, other customers trickled in. Some, with bulky DSLR cameras suspended like so many albatrosses around their necks, entered and began asking for the menu, at which point the server would direct them to be seated and would bring them over a pink pad to record their order. Like me, these were other amateurs on this particular service journey.

Other parties would walk in from the alley and, without breaking stride, snatch a pad off of the basket, tick the relevant boxes, and hand over the order to the cook before seating themselves. This action would typically be accompanied by a greeting from the proprietor from behind his desk.

I only saw the most intimate and familiar level of service engagement once, though: an older gentleman, as he shuffled across the threshold and towards an unoccupied corner table, inspired the proprietor to stand, personally prepare a bowl of soup and a grab a deep-fried dough twist still glistening with oil, and walk them both over to the man’s table as he sat down and oriented himself. Banter ensued.*

The flexible procedure around ordering food reveals both a diner’s degree of contextual/procedural savvy in general (how ordering is accomplished), and the level of familiarity between the customer and the restaurant in particular (how entry and ordering are reacted to by the service providers).

* While I could be conflating this elderly customer’s “familiarity” with his “status” in this case, I took it as a notable observation nonetheless that his arrival so tangibly reshaped the delivery of the service, essentially eliciting a service journey unique for him.