Instructional dialogues

Posted in all posts, education, stories by coleman yee on September 26, 2007

Professor Zo: I’d like to talk about this interesting way of teaching. The best thing about it is that it can work in a lecture or classroom setting, and it can work online as well. You don’t even need to be a computer nerd to do it online…

Alice: Use a story?

Prof Zo: Hmm you’re right actually. But I was thinking of something else, which is somewhat related to stories. In fact, you might say it’s a type of story. Anyone?

Bob: You’re gonna have to give us a hint – we still haven’t mastered the art of mindreading.

Prof: Okay here’s a huge hint. Plato used this technique frequently. While I’m not sure if he was the first, he’s probably the most well-known…

Cindy: Dialogues. He’s known for his Socratic dialogues.

Prof: Do tell us more…

Cindy: Well, Plato wrote a great number of works in the form of dialogues – usually two or three people discussing about a matter. They’re called “Socratic” because the main character of the dialogues is usually Socrates.

Alice: So by “listening in” to their dialogue or conversation, we actually learn something?

Prof: You got it. If you’re interested, you can check out Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a very well-known dialogue between Socrates and someone else. It’s one of his easier ones too.

Bob: Prof, any modern examples to show us?

Prof: Certainly. How many of you have read or heard of Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach?

Prof: Nobody? What a shame. Anyway, it covers philosophy, mathematics, music, art.

Bob: Philosophy again!

Prof: It’s fascinating! Anyway, every chapter of the book starts off with an entertaining dialogue, usually between Achilles and Tortoise.

Achilles: What is that strange flag down at the other end of the track? It reminds me somehow of a print by my favorite artist, M.C. Escher.

Tortoise: That is Zeno’s flag.

Achilles: Could it be that the hole in it resembles the holes in a Möbius strip Escher once drew? Something is wrong about that flag, I can tell.

Tortoise: The ring which has been cut from it has the shape of the numeral for zero, which is Zeno’s favorite number.

Achilles: But zero hasn’t been invented yet! It will only be invented by a Hindu mathematician some millennia hence. And thus, Mr. T, my argument proves that such a flag is impossible.

Cindy: I’m not sure if I get it…

Prof: That’s only an excerpt – too short to be very comprehensible, but long enough to give you an idea of what a dialogue could be like.

Alice: Okaaay… but can we have one more example, please? And something that I can understand?

Bob: And not on philosophy?

Prof: Hah! I was expecting this. You’re in luck – just the other day, I was surfing around and found this blog on typography. It’s called “I love typography“.

Bob: Typography? You mean about fonts and all that? Maybe we shoulda stuck with philosophy…

Prof: Believe me, typography is not just about fonts. It’s a fascinating subject. In fact, I know of this book on typography and some philosophy as well…

Bob: It’s okay Prof!

Prof: But do let me know if you’re interested in the book. Anyway, I read this post in I love typography where the author used a dialogue in the form of an interview to teach about serifs.

Cindy: Serifs are just little hooks at the ends of some letters. You don’t need a dialogue to learn about serifs!

Prof: Perhaps not. But it certainly helps if you want to learn about adnate or abrupt serifs. Or the difference between Egyptian and Humanist serifs. Or…

Cindy: Okay I get the point. Show us that post already!

Prof: The post is The Return of the Serif. Type Terminology. That blog is worth reading – the blogger John D Boardley uses many interesting techniques to teach the reader about typography.

Alice: Prof, could we have just one last example of an instructional dialogue?

Prof: Alice, we’ve just been participating in one.

Can we afford to design in a vacuum?

Posted in all posts, design by coleman yee on September 14, 2007

I came across an article in a recent New Scientist issue (4 August 2007), where they interviewed 2 retired Apollo programme engineers from Grumman Corporation. (Grumman built the lunar module for the first manned moon landing 38 years ago.)

The engineers’ reply to the first question stood out to me:

Q: How closely did you work with the Apollo astronauts?

Gerald Sandler: Very closely. They would continually come into Grumman and they were on the inspection teams for the vehicles. Everyone who was working on the lunar module saw them personally and recognised that their lives depended on what we were doing. Having the astronauts involved and very visible played a key part in ensuring that people felt personally responsible. That was one of the reasons why the quality levels where so high.

Joe Mulé: Whenever a problem wasn’t getting attention I had a guy working in my group who used to say: “Are you going to tell the widows?” It was something we always kept in mind.

This reminds me of what I said in a recent post on intranet design and governance:

As part of the research, we had to conduct many interviews with different staff, to understand their work habits, their informational needs, and so on. As of now, we’ve interviewed close to 10% of all staff.

Personally, those interviews weren’t just to find out what problems needed to be solved or even to understand the users – what was more important was that those interviews gave me an opportunity to have personal contact with those who will be using the intranet that I’m redesigning, to actually care about them. I’m not redesigning the intranet for some faceless silhouetted entity called the user; I’m doing it to help make the lives of these nice people a better.

The longer I’m in the field of design, the more I see the importance of first-hand interaction with the clients and final users.

More so because I’ve also seen instances where the designers were “designing in a vacuum”.

I know of this web project done by a large web design company where the web designer never got to meet or have any contact with the client. Everything went through the project consultant.

The designer was simply asked to create the design based on a given layout, and so they did, to the best of their ability.

It was obvious from the design that the designer didn’t grok or have an understanding of what the client the final users needed.

So, that marked the beginning of a long and frustrating process of redesigning and rejecting and re-redesigning and re-rejecting.

Perhaps, that web design company wanted to save costs – it is costly to get the designer involved in attending meetings with the clients and the final users.

But it’s even more costly for them not to do it. Costly not just in terms of the effort in redesigning, but even more in terms of branding, where the client becomes displeased with the whole experience.

Rather than asking if we can afford to let the designer spend time meeting clients and users, we should be asking if we can afford not to do it.