Design at Linux Tag 2014

Going to a Linux conference as a designer might sound like an exotic idea on first sight. While this should receive a second thought (see later), I have to admit that I had a special approach, too, when I went to this year’s Linuxtag at Station, Berlin: I went there as part of the SaSER research team at IDL which is (on the top most level) concerned with defining new more efficient, reliable, and secure communications on the internet. So we were in the sys admin domain already (although Linux is far more than for admins but that might be what you think of).IMG_9091

Visual Analytics for Security Admins

We gave a talk on our interim results, which are visual analytics tools to investigate huge log files (i.e. text files): Opening Treasure Boxes. Exploring log files with visual data analysis to detect security breaches (slides). As part of the “Tracing and Logging” track, we talked to system administrators and security analysts and everyone else interested. It was a great opportunity for us to extend our contact with users, get feedback, acquire new use cases. We assumed that we would also “evangelize” a little in favor of visual analytics and visualizations beyond bar and line charts. We were quite right with that: our ideas were partially seen as strange and  unusual but we also received quite some thankful feedback by analysts who said our ideas opened new opportunities for them.Screen-Shot-2013-10-31-at-3.45.06-PM___elasticsearch-org

A view of the Kibana interface (image from Elastic Search)

A view of the Kibana interface (image from Elastic Search)

But I also want to point out that a couple of tools in the same track provided a very decent user interface and good visualization support. This is especially remarkable as log files are abstract things and enormously large, which makes providing a grip on them a real design challenge. Lennart Koopmann of Torch presented greylog2, with an interface to query large logfiles, get an overview over values in the file, and also get visual support for results in the form of time lines. Even more dedicated to a graphical user interface was Kibana (which builds on logstash and ElasticSearch), presented by Bernd Erk of Netways. I was impressed by the visual support for building and modifying queries, the ease of building graphs, and the clean overall interface. In many regards it reminded me of Splunk, which is also a great but not an open source software. As we found during the preparation of our talk, also the event monitoring system Icinga2 starts including interesting visualizations – Markus Frosch (of Icinga) just didn’t put a huge focus on the new interface.

Design for Open Source Software (needed!)

Coming back to the (suspected) design – Linux repulsion or even design – open source repulsion: open source software gained a bad reputation for having ugly or “just enough” user interfaces, with little help for users to find a workflow or just please the eye (things like Firefox or Fritzing are an exception, of course, but they are also rather recent offsprings). It seems as if open source is much more appealing to developers than to designers. I have no instant explanation for that – if you do, please let me know! I have to admit that a lot of the software I saw during Linuxtag unfortunately confirmed this prejudice. The more delighted I was when I saw how well crafted things like Kibana were.

It might be worth noting that Edna Kropp and Nicole Charlier of akquinet gave a basic introduction into user centered design and how they work as “on-site UX consultants“. While it was pretty basic for a designer, it was probably new and remarkable for many of the developers (hopefully) listening. I think much more talks like this are necessary to get to a common understanding between developers and designers in the open source scene.

Further notes

The bare crypto stick (it has a modest but nice casing in the final version)

The bare crypto stick (it has a modest but nice casing in the final version)

For the real paranoid cautious people, there is a Crypto Stick: looks like a thumb drive but actually hosts a micro-processor, a smartcard, and an SD card. You can use it to establish secure connections from untrusted systems (like internet cafés), store your passwords, and other things. You can even transport documents “plausibly hidden”, e.g., in case you get searched at an airport – and you don’t have to think of Snowden to understand how relevant that can be. I liked the idea to have a “security thing” that is really strong but also makes it easier for people to stay safe online/digitally.
Btw: it’s open software and open hardware, so you can build it at home (although the small form factor makes it complicated)

UDOO: Standard PC interfaces for the "Linux part" seen at the front here, with pin headers in Arduino due format at the back

UDOO: Standard PC interfaces for the “Linux part” seen at the front here, with pin headers in Arduino due format at the back

Even physical computing was a topic and the only other presentation given by an interaction designer: Michelangelo Guarise presented UDOO, which combines an Arduino Due-derived board with a Linux system running on a powerful quad-core ARM chip. This “natural” combination pops out in various flavors at the moment, combining the sensor-friendly, real-time interaction capable Arduino architecture with high-performance computing. I hope they will soon add their platform as a part to the Fritzing library and I’m curious about the projects building on that single board computer!

And I got a trusted certificate from CAcert to (soon) sign my email and ssl server connections – yeeha! I was impressed by how serious they take the process, with several people checking my ID cards separately. Trust on the internet is a delicate thing and digital signatures can help a lot here.



USB surgery

ad hoc soldering place

So, after a long break I heated up my soldering iron again. My USB hub had a broken cable and I decided to fix, and at same time extend it. Also, I wanted to solder some USB cables for a long time, since it is rather simple on the technical level but an important and omnipresent item in the computer ecosystem.

Close look at ugliness

There was a little challenge built in, too, since my hub offered the cable colours blue, green, red, and transparent (USB standards would have been black, green, white, and red). Everything looks fine now.

Of course, the effort was in no relation to the monetary value of the device – but reparing is not about money but about curiosity and autonomy, as laid down in the Repair Manifesto (PDF).

New hub with just the cover plate missing


TEDx Berlin Review

Stephan Balzer moderated TEDx Berlin

Stephan Balzer moderated TEDx Berlin

TED conferences became famous for the inspiring and inspired talks, originally on “Technology, Entertainment, and Design”. The recent TEDx conference brought this model to Berlin for the first time (the “x” indicates an “independently organized” event). The organizers around Stephan Balzer really deserve a huge amount of respect for bringing this high class conference to Berlin, and for providing perfect infrastructure and support throughout the show.

Among the outstanding speakers were Veterans like Peter Eigen (from transparency international) and Bernard Lietaer. One could add Hans Rosling, whose groundbreaking statistics presentation from a couple of years ago was shown as a video (a pitty that he wasn’t available for questions afterwards).
Peter Eigen had no problems in making his points compelling and clear without any slides: Corruption by large companies is one of the main causes for poverty in so-called developing countries. He called it a problem of bad governance, not only in the bribed states but at least as severly in the bribing states where governments fail to efficently ban and punish bribing (note that you could get tax reductions for bribing abroad as “extraordinary selling expenses” until a couple of years ago).

Reto Wettach talking about "Bodies and Secrets"

Reto Wettach talking about "Bodies and Secrets"

Bernard Lietaer, as a monetary expert, argued against an economic system purely built on efficency: one could learn from ecologically sustainable systems that resilience is tremendously important to cope with surprising events (such as a storm or a financial crisis, background eg. in Berkes et al (1998)). Monoculture is highly efficent but also extremely vulnerable and has very poor potential for adaption.In retrospect, a series of design research talks connected perfectly to Lietaer’s pledge for more diversity: Reto Wettach argued that the invention and development processes of electronic devices must open up for electrical non-experts. If more people would pursue and realize their ideas for new hardware, innovation and more human friendly machines would happen more quickly. He presented Fritzing, a software targeted at making exactly this easier. He was framed by two speakers who delivered impressive examples: Fabian Hemmert investigates haptic and form-changing mobile phones. And Christophe F. Maire already explores the upcoming market for eBooks with his company txtr.

Social and ethical projects were another huge topic, such as empowering a civil society with sports (Boxing Girls). Other talks presented “third world aid” projects and often showed an undercomplex approach while dealing with complex issues. These talks seemed to follow the idea that “we Europeans need to help those poor Africans down there”. What these underpriviledged countries really need, in my opinion, is an end of European (or Western) arrogance, implicit in talking about just Africa (“the dark continent”, source) and explicit in trade barriers (such as import taxes and subsidies in Europe).
Despite being years old and just dealing with statistics, the ingenious TED video with Hans Rosling managed far better to bring fundamental issues to light, like (lacking) equal terms of trade and resepect for the diverse developments of African countries.

In the end, however, each talk delivered valueable starting points for discussions during the luckily extra long breaks. It was sometimes hard to imagine that all those well-suited people in the luxurious environment of the Grand Hyatt were really interested in groundbreaking changes, but I was happy to get proved wrong by a couple of personal conversations. There are by far enough ideas, talks, and people to get back to and that’s of course the success of TEDx Berlin.

Watch out for the videos!



Breadboard view of Fritzing (more recent version)

Fritzing is an electronic circuit design software focused on makers and enthusiasts, rather than engineers. For this, it takes special care to explain electronic circuits and to make them accessible, e.g. by a dedicated view that reflects the physical appearance of electronic parts. At the same time, it contains everything to design and document a full project and make it production ready.

Initiated at FH Potsdam (Reto Wettach & André Knörig), it was built for but also heavily with the maker community. Its open file format allows easy documentation and sharing of electronic projects, enabling and boosting open source in the hardware area. It’s widely used in the community for presenting open source projects, for feedback, and for learning.

I contributed as a UX and visual designer, mostly in the area of the “Parts Editor”, that helps users modify or create parts, modify their internal logic such as connection points to wires, and provides a taxonomy for the parts library. I also explored user interfaces for potential new features, such as electrical rules checking.

  • Parts Editor: Error messages for connectors

Remarks on Service Design

You can even order a professionally produced circuit board from within the application. This is a remarkable feature from an interface and service design perspective: From the user’s design, the software creates the necessary production files, shows prices directly within the app, collects information for shipping, and sends everything to a factory. The user doesn’t have to deal with file formats, production standards, researching a production facility, or negotiating contracts. All of this is taken care of through the application and the Fritzing Fab server. Considerable technical and commercial coordination has to be negotiated and operational in the background but it doesn’t come to the user’s attention.

Besides its merrits for advancing the open source ideas in the hardware sector, Fritzing has also explored a number of business models around an open source core software.


User Testing

paper prototype

interacting with paper prototype

sketches after testing session

. .

Social Button – my first paper on stage

The paper Larissa and me wrote a couple of months ago got finally accepted at the NGMAST conference in Wales this September! This is pretty exciting news, it’s my/our first step into the serious (official?) world of science.

The full title reads

Social Button – Mobile Technology Supporting Social Interaction.

Our project is about a small wearable display with a pin, that can be attached to your clothes. It gets your address book from your mobile phone and checks for matching entries on other SocialButtons that might be in the area. The Buttons indicate a match by displaying each participants personal symbol – a twist, that makes it much easier to find others and protect your privacy at the same time. Larissa’s animation explanes it far better:

So we went to the wonderful city of Cardiff (Wales, UK) some weeks ago to present our work. We got very encouraging feedback and some helpful critique there, and had some interesting face-to-face talks in the City Hall where conference took place. (Our slides come in at 8MB)

The city of Cardiff

NGMAST was the first conference on “Next Generation Mobile Applications, Services, and Technologies”, so it was rather tiny (compared to the very well known ones), but also quite personal, with a very warm chair, and easy to get in contact with the other participants.

With this event it became clear that our idea is promising yet only partially finished – so we are open for your comments!

(There is also a corresponding workspace at our University’s site for internal communication, incom)


Inbox Expo

discussing art people

at the exhibition of inbox artspace


cat food made from protesters?

To everyone who wants to know a little bit more about Russia, its political disposition, and the daily life there, I strongly recommend Ben Bidders Russenblog. He tries to work as a journalist, for sure one of the most exciting and often enough uneasy occupations to find there at the moment. How the press, independent press in particular, and all kinds of critical citzienship is handled by official representatives is a pure scandal.

A link in one of his posts led me to the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, which published some photos (with frightening content). It was not on purpose, most probably, but at the time of my visit (07-05-26) the fotos got accompanied by a large ad, almost the size of the pictures themselves. While this is questionable enough, the picture’s caption establishes another link, describing the scenes as raw violence (“rohe Gewalt”). At least for me, raw is somehow associated with meat (> cat food).

screenshot from Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger

That really made me think.


autonomous assistants

[edit 080223] There is a new and English abstract![/edit]
[edit 071129]With my thesis I want to explore what role machines can play in our interaction with extended social networks.[/edit]

here comes the latest version of my proposal that will be the basis for my master thesis at FH Potsdam.

Please do comment as much as you can and like, everything is appreciated!

Get proposal pdf 230 kb, text in German only


. . . .

Analytics by Semiotics

When talking about virtual and real worlds it soon gets difficult to determine what we consider as virtual and real. Our thoughts and imaginations are not technically enhanced or otherwise mysterious but they are not part of the actual, material world, either. They do shape our perspective and our plans and actions.

Public Buildings are solid environments but their particular determination, they way we perceive the building and select a proper behavior is not built-in but a system of signs and codes that we read permanently.
With the means of Semiotic Analysis I investigated on the relation between (real) buildings and our interpretation, that means our (virtual) reconstruction. The results are presented by an interactive documentation that reflects the subjective process of decoding (unfortunately, texts in German only). It is the fruit of the Master Class in Design Theory, led by Prof. Dr. Rainer Funke.

As a first example, I examined the Berlin Central Railway Station as a hub of public transport on the one side and I discovered an interference with the mixed-in shopping mall concept on the other one. Having travelling in mind initially, a passenger has to cross the shopping sector. This changes the context for his decoding of sign systems, so he misses the guides to the trains easily.

Berlin Hbf Identitaetskrise - Titelbild flash, 3.4 MB

For the second example, I was wondering which signs and features render a church into a somewhat mystic room with a very special atmosphere. Although one could still call it a house by its primary features it makes people whisper and feel different. Featured buildings include St. Hedwig, St. Paulus, Sophienkirche, and Maria Saal (Kaernten, A)
mythosraum kirche - title flash, 4.6 mb