Design Fiction Workshop: Getting the Story Out

This afternoon I had the opportunity to take part in a Design Fictions workshop organised by Nottingham University’s Horizons workgroup. There was a strong Newcastle connection, not only through Newcastle Uni organiser Abigail Durrant but also through Northumbria University researcher Malcolm Jones and his storienteering tools.

For those that aren’t aware, “design fiction” is a term coined by Julian Bleeker and

…is making things that tell stories. It’s like science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, speculating bout the course of events; all of the unique abilities of science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations about alternative futures. (2009)

(One participant suggested that design fiction doesn’t necessarily have to mean science fiction as even historical fiction and other genres may investigate technologies in just as interesting ways, albeit looking backward or sideways rather than ahead).

Horizon is “charting the digital lifespan”, and the workshop focused on creating design fictions around the idea of bereavement. In order to create said design fiction, we used a number of Malcolm’s tools to orient the group towards the story and then make it. His set of resources to do so included a scenario to kick it off, a resource table, and a mapping exercise. (However, he has a lot more of them available on his site).

What is interesting about events such as this is just how much work it takes to get a story out, but also how the people in the room can make a big difference. The skillset of the people taking part ranged from usability to fashion communication and literary theory, and yet somehow the personalities worked together in a very improv-like way to easily build on or circle back on others’ ideas. While it can feel as if you’re going around in circles at first with very obvious ideas or just not getting around to the actual story, somehow it seems to come right in the last few minutes (let’s just say it all got a bit of a weird twist at the last minute … not quite Sixth Sense but somewhere in that region).

That said, one thing that wasn’t got to in the timeframe of the workshop was how the story would be presented (which was a shame). Similarly, there’s nothing like mapping out a story with a strong tech/service base to make you realise all the opportunities for technological things to go wrong  (what would happen if you got the wrong company?). Still, design fictions appear to be by their nature exploratory, so in that respect the exercise was still (I assume) a resounding success).



Newcastle Mozilla Maker Party

This afternoon I mentored a group of young people as part of the Newcastle Mozilla Maker Party at the Centre for Life.

These events are happening around the world, and are a means for people (in this case young people) to have a jump start at making the web (or being ‘web makers’ as the slogan goes) using Mozilla tools.

I was part of a group of several adults (Steve Boneham, Tristan Watson, David EastonChris Wilde as well as Mozilla organiser Doug Belshaw) helping out on the day.

I’d messed around with the Mozilla web tools a bit before, but was reminded as to how easy they are to use.

  • Hackasaurus is a saveable Firebug or Chrome dev tools in that you can edit any page on the web and make your own link of it. Fun if you want to mess around a bit with news pages!
  • Popcorn maker is basically iMovie meets tumblr as you can pretty much mash up anything available on the web.
  • Thimble is a very nice online web editor (no JS, but very good HTML and CSS including error reporting). However, the power of it (as well as popcorn maker) is that you can remix existing sites, like a very user friendly github fork.

The dozen or so young people at the event ranged from 6 years old (OK, that was Doug’s son Ben) to their teens. I was happy that there were a few girls in the group!

While a couple had done coding at school (Jamie, who I helped, told me that it involved road-tripping from Word … which to be honest terrified me a bit) most hadn’t, which made the ease with which they picked up coding more impressive. I also showed a few of them some tricks with Google Fonts (though it was a bit buggy at times) and CSS3 effects.

The full list of hacks and general course of the day is available over at the Mozilla Etherpad.

One curious thing that I noticed was that a lot of them weren’t that comfortable with using laptop trackpads, particularly right click … which made selecting image URLs difficult. (While a lot of us dev people get around that with keyboard shortcuts, they didn’t use them and to be honest most designers I know don’t either). Certainly what I took from that is that events like these need lots of mice as well as laptops available. I suspect that laptops are starting to be edged out these days between big desktops and tablets.

All in all, I think that the Web Maker project looks to be a particularly powerful way to get people up and running with making the web rather than confusing it. I’d be the first to say that my taking up the web was due to being able to sit next to people who were good at it and learn from them. The ability to remix sites hopefully allows more people to be able to do the same.

(P.S: special mention has to go to Sheela Joy and the team at Centre for Life. After too many years of developer events with terrible pizza, my heart sank when I heard we were to get that as afternoon break food. I was wrong. BEST. PIZZA. EVAR.)