The Digital Life

Critiquing Infovis, Exploring Behavior Change in UX, and Celebrating BIF10


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The Digital Life

Dirk Knemeyer & Jonathan Follett

Description: Adventures in design and technology

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Critiquing Infovis, Exploring Behavior Change in UX, and Celebrating BIF10

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  • The Transcript
Jon: Welcome to episode 66 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. With me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk: Hey, Jon. How are you doing today?

Jon: Good. We have a great show today. Lots of things happening content-wise, and I want to kick this all off with … You’ve been a critic of information visualizations of all kinds. This week, you took aim at a particularly bad infovis from our friends there at CNN depicting I believe it was food imports to Russia. You improved on that infovis, and you had a few things to say about it. I just want to touch on that very briefly.

Dirk: Sure. I get frustrated so much of how data is presented as clumsy, uninformative, just not very good. I spent an unfortunate amount of time rankled as I’m online and looking at things, but the CNN one, it was just confusing. It was actually muddying the data, and just breaking so many rules, and so I had little mini tantrums and worked with our body Bryan, and whipped something together. It’s just a chronic problem. I mean, the infovis in the world is crummy, crummy, crummy, crummy.

Jon: Yeah, I think there is probably a need for Information Visualization experts to be working with some of these news organizations, which is not to say that there isn’t incredible infovis being generated by the New York Times or other folks who are digging into data journalism or journalism as a consequence of analyzing data.

There’s also the, let’s call it the “Cotton Candy” version of infovis, which is more about the pretty graphics. In this case when they were analyzing these food imports, there was this happy little pig who took up most of the graphic and didn’t actually add any additional information other than, “Hey, it’s a cute pig,” and maybe people will click on it. So infovis as cotton candy or as click bait or whatever you want to call it versus infovis as conveying information.

Dirk: Hopefully, if we call it out and point out what the errors are, and how it could be done better will just up level the conversation, up level the quality of what’s being produced, and make some small change here.

Jon: Just to emphasize, we’re not just critics here. Brian, one of our designers, also did an alternate version of the CNN graphic, which you can check out on our blog at Terrific! Hopefully, the folks from CNN will contact us and say “thanks”, right?

Dirk: I don’t expect that to happen.

Jon: Neither do I. Next on our agenda is the very exciting Business Innovation Factory conference is celebrating their 10th anniversary, BIF10. As you know, you introduced me to that conference four years ago. I got addicted to it the first hit, right? I was totally addicted. Saul Kaplan runs that. He is a really generous person. He attracts a lot of terrific speakers, gets a lot of geniuses on stage talking about everything from neuroscience to building playgrounds for kids, charity playgrounds for kids. He just gets these incredible people from all walks of life, who are innovators and who find ways to solve problems that are unexpected and new and are effective. That in the nutshell is what Business Innovation Factory and the BIF conference is about.

I guess they’ve noticed that I’m an addict because I tweet about it occasionally. I’m also always evangelizing the conference. They contacted me the other day, and said they’d like to know why I enjoy going to the conference and why I found it so important. There’s an interview with me on the BIF blog now discussing those things.

Dirk, I told them part of the reason is I’m really into this idea of cross pollinating different professions, so just bumping into that person from the energy industry, or healthcare, or tech, or non-profit, and having a great conversation about problem solving from a different perspective. That’s why I keep going back year after year.

Dirk: It’s nice that you’ve found your tribe there. I’m looking forward to when we record the show after you’ve gone, so you can tell us all about how it went this year.

Jon: Between that, and I go home, I tell my wife just all about it for days, and really, I’m probably very irritating on a certain point because I won’t shut up. For those of you who are interested in innovation and finding a very collegial tribe, you should check out the Business Innovation Factory. As of yesterday, they had 40 some tickets left, which is not very many. It’s in September, so they are going … They always sell out. They will be sold out fairly soon, but maybe you can grab a ticket while you still can. Looking forward to that mightily.

I want to move on now a little bit to our emerging technology ongoing discussion. We’ve got a lot of things here at the studio that blend into that emerging technology space. Dirk, you had a very unique take on this, which was actually published in Mass High Tech as a column. That’s a Boston Business Journal’s publication, Mass High Tech. It was your perspective on where we’re heading, where humanity is heading. You said, “We’re going to be possibly become cyborgs one day.” Could you explain that a little?

Dirk: I mean, it’s already here. The remarkable thing for me is growing up in the high … I was born in 1973. At that time I grew up, the word “cyborg” meant the Terminator, that Robocop. Cyborg is this big destructive evil, ugly thing, but cyborgs are here now today.

Actually, shortly after I wrote that article, I saw and I read a different article about this guy with this really silly implant in the back of his head. They’re a big wire that came over his head to the front. It was ridiculous, but there is a cyborg.

Oscar Pistorius, who was … when he came to international prominence with an inspiring story, that’s story changed of course. He is cyborg. Cyborgs are already here first of all, but second of all, the ethical questions have already been asked and answered. I mean, Pistorius in the Olympics was celebrated. There were very few people who were saying, “This is not fair. This is not right.” Even though, and I was inspired by the story. I was certainly was in outrage that he was racing, but I was scratching my head. I was like, “A thousand scientists could tell me that this dude gets no advantage from those legs.” He was born without legs. He couldn’t be running in the Olympics if massive expensive technology wasn’t … I don’t know what the … I’m sure it wasn’t grafted, but it was grafted onto his body.

The world was A okay with it. It’s like, “Yeah, rock on. Go for it.” Really, it was Pistorius’ rise that got me thinking about cyborgs in a practical way, and the notion that, “Geez, this isn’t Hollywood anymore. It’s not Sci-Fi books anymore.” Cyborgs are here and real and accelerating. A lot of us at Invo wear different devices to track health data. It’s only a matter of time before that becomes subdermal. That again is a cyborg aspect.

What I was talking about the article, what I find somewhat remarkable is that a) cyborgs are already real and practical, and not Robocop and Terminator, but b) we’ve accepted them, like there might come some line where ethical issues rise their head and people start to back away, but in general, if people can have babies who are more talented, if people can have lives that last longer, if people can perform at a higher level and give themselves an advantage, they’re just going to sign on the dotted line.

Our article was just about putting all of these on the table, and saying, “Hey! While we haven’t been paying attention, the world has changed in a really interesting way.”

Jon: Yeah, I think the evolution of the ethics for that is going to be very interesting, because there is … It’s interesting the Pistorius case, because that is a sporting event with high stakes on an international stage, but you look at the scandals in professional sports and for instance major league baseball with their performing enhancing … performance enhancing drugs that happened through the ’90s. I mean, those were basically hormones that enabled people to heal faster or to grow bigger muscles or what have you. That was seen as cheating. Maybe because it wasn’t quite so obvious that they were using them. I mean, it’s obvious in retrospect, but nobody … That wasn’t right out front the way Pistorius’ artificial legs were. It’s interesting that the lines that exist around ethics and sport in particular, because I think that’s an early … I call it an early adopter case for cyborgism. Honestly, I mean, when we start talking about things like nanotechnology, right? A cyborgism that you cannot see, but there is little nanobots inside you that are rebuilding tissue faster for you or what have you. That seems to me that when that’s not out front quite as much, that may or may not cause people some problems. I don’t know. What do you think about that, Dirk?

Dirk: It’s tricky. I mean, when you talk about nanotechnology, then it becomes things that you can’t see and become more scary and harder to understand. I don’t know. I think, all of that technology, as long as it’s helping people, as long as it’s making people live longer lives, saving people’s lives. Making them able to make more money and to be more successful in what they do. I think, it’s all going to just fall in lock step. I think the ethical dilemmas are a little bit over the horizon line.

Jon: There is another example that I actually saw at the BIF conference. It was of a paraplegic man who had an implant in his head that allowed him to control a robot arm. It was a miraculous piece of technology as far as I’m concerned, because this guy couldn’t lift up a glass so he could drink water. He was unable to feed himself or to even give himself water or take care of himself in that way, and so they had this video of his first experience with this robot arm that was controlled by his own thoughts. He lifts up this glass of water, and you just see him say, “Holy shit!” They bleeped it out, but he was like, “Holy shit, this is incredible.” It was a really great moment in that you could see how delighted he was in that that piece of technology was giving him access to a part of life that had been cut off from him up until then. I think, there’s a certain joy in seeing people achieve those things through this cyborgism.

I think that designers will definitely have a role to play in these very complicated user experiences for these products, which are as you said on the horizon if not already here. That’s actually some of the things that are discussed in my upcoming “Designing for Emerging Technologies” book. Dirk, you’re a part of that as well. We will be continuing to highlight designing for emerging technologies and the design perspective when it comes to integrating some of these very life-changing technologies into our lives.

The last topic for today that I wanted to touch on is what I see as maybe another frontier or a practice area opening up within this giant UX umbrella, which seems to cover more and more stuff every day. I’m fascinated that there seems to be a lot of attention paid now to the idea of behavior change, whether it’s through convincing people to do something to make them healthier or perhaps consume less energy, or to influence their behavior through software.

This idea of behavior change seems to be the hot topic of the hour, and especially when it comes to this intersection where these are experienced. For some reason, I’ve also noticed that card decks at least for designers are the flavored assurer for some thought leadership on this topic.

In particular, I saw a beautiful card deck called “The Behavior Change Strategy Cards” from Artefact group. We’ll link to that on our transcripts so that people can find it. These strategy cards were giving designers … They call it “Ways to Design for the Irrational Mind”. They originated with this academic project created by the Brains, Behavior, and Design Group. Dirk, I know you have some background in human behavior and psychology. What’s your take on the idea of behavior change as a new practice area within coming to the fore within user experience?

Dirk: I think, a lot of it has been driven by the quantified self stuff. People having an awareness of how they behave, people having an awareness of the things that they do and then being interested in leveraging that to actually make change to make their lives betters. I think that’s been a big part of it.

The other part is that research in neuroscience has been advancing really rapidly both from an academic research perspective, but then also to how existing and new knowledge are being translated and socialized in more digestible, in more broadly available ways.

I’m sure there’s of course other factors flowing in, but I think those are two of the important things that are cresting at the same time, and resulting in this focus and interest in behavior change, and making that more formally and more presently part of what we’re thinking and about and creating for.

Jon: Ourselves at Involution, we are not immune to that either. We’re very focus in that, in the area of healthcare. One of the things that Juhan Sonin, our Creative Director, recently produced with Sarah Kaiser, one of our designers, is this. This deck of cards called “The Health Axioms”, which is actually a series of recommendations about precisely what we’re talking about, the behavior change to improve your life as a patient and just as a human being all around your health and the things you eat and the way you interact with your data, et cetera.

I think, the idea that we have the opportunity to shape our lives, that’s part of what comes through in the health axioms. I think, that’s a big driver of course for this behavior change practice area. The last thing I want to mention in that is I know that our local power company, which is NSTAR, has been hiring some behavioral change analysts, because in the mail I get every month, these comparisons of how much electricity I’m consuming versus my neighbors. They pick the top 100 most efficient neighbors. Then they show me, and then they show the least efficient neighbors.

Dirk: How do you rank, Jon?

Jon: I’m a bad neighbor.

Dirk: Oh no.

Jon: I like my air conditioning. I’m sorry. Unfortunately, it’s this … It can also have the opposite effect, because I’m not within the top 100 most … It can either encourage you to go with … to be competitive and reach for your best, or you can say, “Never mind. I’m just going to do what I want.” Sometimes I have that reaction, but that might just be my personality, sort of naturally contrarian.

Dirk: Jon, would you react that way if they were somehow reminding you that Antarctica is in the process of melting as they were giving you this data? “You are accelerating the melting of Antarctica. How do you feel about that, sir?”

Jon: That would make me feel horrible. Thanks for that. Additionally, no, that’s a great point. I don’t care that I’m not as efficient as my neighbors, but showing a little piece of Antarctica, it’s like you made x number of centimeters of the Polar Ice cap melt; you bastard, would have an effect on me? You put it in a frame that I care about, right? You’re a better behavior change designer than the dudes who did it at NSTAR or the ladies who did it at NSTAR.

Dirk: Jon, believe me; they don’t pay me to sit around with pretty hair.

Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to us on the show, you can also follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just go to That’s just one L on the digital life. Go to the page for this episode. We’ve included the links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich-information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. The whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at That’s G-O I-N-V-O .com. Dirk?

Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @dknemeyer. Email me, Read me,, or check out Involution.

Jon: That is it for episode 66 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett. We’ll look forward to seeing you next time.

Dirk: Good night.

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