Kikk Festival: beauty, context, machine learning & some crazy inspirational talks

For the third year in a row, I visited Kikk Festival in Namur. And every time it gets more inspiring! (Seriously, how do they do that?) The festival is a mix of art, technology and design. Some talks are applicable to our daily work, while others are more artsy. This post will be a mix of straightforward learnings and beautiful discoveries.


1 / Why beauty matters

Stefan Sagmeister (website/twitter) talked about “Why beauty matters”. He started off by looking at architectural examples. Medieval castles had a purpose: defend their inhabitants. But still: they were beautiful! Since in 1910 Adolf Loos argumented that wasting your time on ornaments is a crime, the focus has shifted to functional-only buildings.

(Probably vacant) soviet apartments

This has resulted in mass produced soviet apartments, of which many have already been taken down (less than 100 years later), because no one wants to live in them.

in the 19th century, beauty was still as highly appreciated as truth and goodness. But after World War I, where many artists fought as soldiers, the art world also removed aesthetics from art. A period started in which Marcel Duchamps presented a mass-produced urinal as art, and Warhol and Liechtenstein started projecting soup cans and comics into art.

So what is the problem? And why does beauty matter?

According to Sagmeister, people have been making beautiful things for a long time. The half-apes that made their hand axes had no functional reason to make them symmetrical (and thus beautiful), but they did so anyway. Probably to impress the girls 😏

He also argued that we all (somewhat) agree on what is beautiful. Psychologist Chris McManus has experimented with altered Mondriaan paintings, to see whether people could separate the real Mondriaans from the fake ones. And they did!

Can you tell which one is the real Mondriaan?

An example of how beauty changes our mindset, was found by the New England Complex Systems Institute. They compared Twitter messages sent from two different train stations. And they found more positive messages being sent from a beautiful train station, while significantly more negative messages were sent from an ugly one.

Even more significantly, this ‘sense of beauty’ remains, even with people who have Alzheimer’s. Researchers found that people can still consistently order paintings in the same order of beauty week after week. Even when they can’t remember their children’s names…

So what does this mean for us? Since it does not seem so subjective after all, we should be able to talk about beauty to our clients, and not avoid the topic “because everyone has different taste”. Stefan also wants us to put more care into the digital objects we create because they have a stunning impact on the business. The Design Management Institute (Boston) analyzed the S&P 500 and found that companies most committed to beauty had 224% better stock performance. As a final note, he argued that most often the issue is not that someone purposely wanted the product to be ugly, they just did not care enough to make it beautiful.

2 / What you can do with machine learning

Gene Kogan (Website/Twitter) gave a very interesting talk about machine learning, and adversarial nets. He gave examples of how a computer (Deep Generator Network) can “hallucinate” and generate new images from millions of images. So if you show it a large number of boat house pictures, it will be able to create a new image of a boat house based on what it has learned a boat house should look like. Every generated image is different, because it learns when you overlay a new image.

Different generated boat houses

Continue reading Kikk Festival: beauty, context, machine learning & some crazy inspirational talks

Emotions, interactions, words and workshops: Highlights from EuroIA 2016

Together with my UX-colleague Sjoera, I visited the EuroIA conference in Amsterdam some time ago. I dedicated some time to write up the most fascinating learnings I took home:

The Koepelkerk, an old church that is transformed into conference location, with an impressive chandelier.
The impressive Koepelkerk was where most of the magic happened (Photo: Peter Vermaercke)


1. It’s (more than) OK to be emotional

Users register their interactions with technology through their senses. And there are more senses than just touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Alastair Sommerville taught us about senses  we didn’t know we had. For example proprioception (kinaesthetic sense) enables us to touch our nose with our eyes closed. This sense also ensures that, without looking, you know where the buttons are in a car. Of course, some people have developed this sense stronger than others.

Another example is chronoception, our sense of time. As it turns out, our perception of time is not constant or objective. Do you know the feeling that minutes seem like hours, when you are waiting for a train? This is actually good news for designers: because it is not objective, your sense of time can be manipulated. For example in a train station, an architect can choose to use large windows to make time flow seemingly faster.  The effect is obtained because you can look outside, into nature, and subconsciously notice the subtle changes in sunlight as time passes.

People’s emotions also influence their interpretation of their senses. That’s why it is important to mirror the emotions of a user. You don’t want to have a cheerful, colorful UI filled with witty puns, when users are tweeting about the death of a loved one. But in other situations, it might be perfectly acceptable, so make sure your UI can handle the wide spectrum of emotions (or clarify it can only be used in a specific emotional state).

Sjoera and Tine practicing blind-folded.
Sjoera and me exploring how you can create empathy and design for blind people in Alastair Sommerville’s workshop (Photo: Peter Vermaercke)

In another talk, Ellis Neder suggested capturing emotional data as well, but to enrich sensor data. He gave the example of Uber asking you to rate a ride. When your experience is a negative one, they can compare that to sensor data from your phone and find out whether the driver was speeding, or it was a particularly bumpy ride. In this case, they have to take action and confront the driver with his behavior. But it might be that you were just having a bad day, and the driver couldn’t help it. So by using this combination of sensor data and emotional data, this way Uber can act in an appropriate way to feedback they get from their users.

Natacha Hennocq also gave us new insights in the human brain. Apparently, the same area of the brain (hippocampus) is used for space and memory. Think for example about remembering where you left your keys, by walking through your house and re-tracing your steps. Very helpful!
But for futuristic VR-experiences, this might be troublesome. While wearing a VR helmet, your space and memory will get disconnected. You don’t physically move through the space, and therefore your brain will not make this wonderful connection. Let’s see how this turns out…


2. The Internet of Things might mean the disappearance of the screen, but user interactions still require UX work

When talking about the Internet of Things (IoT), people often proclaim that “no UI at all” is the future. Claire Rowland criticised Zero UI-advocates, claiming: “Zero UI is not feasible, nor desirable.” She explained that we shouldn’t hide the complexity, but instead be transparent in what is going on behind the users’ backs.
This is probably not the easy way for us as designers and coders. Like Larry Tesler already proclaimed: every application is inherently complex. It is either complex for the user to use, or for the designer/engineer to build.
Another challenge when creating experiences for IoT systems, is that  user’s expectations of IoT devices (or “things”) is different from other software. We don’t (yet) expect things to behave like software. We don’t expect our interactions with physical things to have flaws like latency (delay between request & response) or intermittent connectivity (sync periodically to save power). If you push a button on your coffee machine, you don’t expect it to start working with a delay, or it to be temporarily offline, causing you to have to wait another minute for your precious coffee. Continue reading Emotions, interactions, words and workshops: Highlights from EuroIA 2016

Gamestorming with a tree

Yesterday, while most Belgians were watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic play his last international match, a few lovely ladies and myself traveled to Deinze  for a Belgian Girl Geek event: a workshop on Gamestorming. We were welcomed at the Point Virgule offices with a glass of cava (to get our creative juices flowing?). Julie and Simon from Julie’s Lifestyle also provided us with plenty of healthy, colorful and delicious treats (even vegan cheesecake!) so the alcohol didn’t get us too tipsy.

Raw Vegan Cheesecake by Julie

Annelies from Co-Learning introduced us into the concept of Innovation Games. We could choose between a workshop on the Empathy Map, one on Impact Mapping and one called “Prune the Product Tree“, facilitated by Annelies’ male (!) colleagues.
I knew empathy mapping already, so I chose the last one, which seemed most playful. This technique is usually used to map out product features in branches. As potential new features are added to the tree, it becomes very visual whether they are balanced well.

Our first, shrub-like version of the tree

During the workshop, we created a tree to map out a communication strategy for Point-Virgule, across multiple (digital) channels.
First everyone worked hard to fill as many post-its as possible with ideas. They varied from involving famous chefs in the promotion of their kitchenware, to using pandas highlight their bamboo product range. Then we arranged the post-its into a tree. I’ll admit that first it looked more like a shrub, but after some skillful gardening, branches took shape.

Post-its in a tree-like shape
The final tree, with each branch representing a communication channel.

Of course the people from Point-Virgule were very interested in the results, and categorized them into New, Useful and Feasible ideas. I’m curious to see which one’s they will implement, but I guess we’ll find out soon!

Post-its in 3 colums: New, Useful and Feasible
The selection of New, Useful and Feasible ideas

What we can learn from people with different UX backgrounds

Did you ever wonder how to become a UX designer? I often get asked this question by clients or (non-designer) colleagues. And my answer is: there are many different paths to UX. I’ve had colleagues with a background in psychology, languages, communication sciences, but also developers. Each path has its own pros and cons, but in the end: we can learn a lot from each of these disciplines.

The UX ecosystem

In our office we use Slack as a communication tool. We recently also integrated Howdy, an Artificially Intelligent bot, into Slack. You can use Howdy to ask team members questions, whether for SCRUM/daily standup purposes, or to ask who wants what for lunch.

Howdy has great functionality, but a great personality as well. This is thanks to Neal Pollack. He used to take the stage as a comedian, but now he is working in the product-design department at Slack. He uses his writing skills to create the user experience (UX) of the bot, not through shapes and colors, but through text.

To me that is both scary and awesome. As technology advances, I sometimes wonder: where is this going? Will my skills be sufficient in the future? Will there be more competition in the UX-market from people with even more diverse backgrounds? But it is also awesome that companies are open to think beyond “traditional” designers. And I would love to have a comedian like Neal on the team!

The UX skillset has always included a wide variety of skills, such as: information architecture, visual design, animation, writing, analytics, etc. To this list, a few more exotic ones can be added as well, such as (but not limited to): architecture, art history, film, business, psychology. Here is a visualization of the user experience ecosystem, based on Nathan Shedroff’s diagram:

Visualization of the different UX disciplines, adapted from Nathan Shedroff
The UX Ecosystem

Each of these are separate disciplines in their own right, but also useful skills to have as a UX designer.

What we can learn from…

I will now discuss 8 different disciplines from the wide range, and dig a little deeper into what we can learn from them.

1. Architects

The great Buckminster Fuller once said: “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” Does that sound familiar? I know I also trust on my feeling to know whether something needs more work.

Photo of Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller

But there is also a scientific basis to this. Beautiful things are perceived as more trustworthy; they make people happier. And you can for example see this in action in banking websites. Which bank would you trust with your money: the one with a beautiful website, or the one with an ugly website? (provided that the other service aspects are similar)

“When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” — Buckminster Fuller

And there is more we can learn from architects. We have a similar design process, that includes research, ideation, prototyping and testing. But architects’ responsibilities also include overseeing construction.

Continue reading What we can learn from people with different UX backgrounds

5 things you need to know about Digital Transformation

Skyline of Brussels at dawn, with The Hotel
The Hotel in Brussels

My colleague Jarco and I represented iCapps at the Digital Transformation Forum. The event took place on the 27th floor of The Hotel. With the inspiring view over Brussels, came inspiring talks about the challenges, opportunities and the impact of digital transformation for companies. Twelve speakers, who represented Belgian companies of all sizes and industries, shared their experiences and struggles.

We learned that technology is not the difficult part, leadership is. Your digital vision needs to be embedded in your employee’s souls. They can create useful products for your customers when they focus on user experience. Not convinced? Read how we learned that…

1. Digital leadership is key, not technology

Many people seem to think that it’s all about technology. But it is not. According to Jo Caudron, author of the book Digital Transformation, it is not a technology challenge. He claims technology is the easy part. Changing how people operate however, that is the difficult part. That makes Digital Transformation more of a management & people challenge. This implies that a successful Digital Transformation requires digital leadership. You’ll need someone to manage this transformation. Someone who draws up a vision for the future, and someone who develops a roadmap that will get you there.

The digital leader of a company understands what the impact of digital is on their business models. He doesn’t necessarily need to know and understand all the technical details. Many influential companies have appointed a digital leader as their CDO (Chief Digital Officer). These CDOs are constantly questioning the current business models and how these models can be adjusted to tackle future digital disruption waves.


2. Company-wide employee alignment is a must

The digital strategy of a company can only be effective when everyone within the company is involved, and not just a small group of converted natives. Tom De Ruyck from InSites referred to a US study that found that “only 13% of the employees in the average company is passionate enough to change/get the company forward”. This number has to go up!

So, how can you achieve this? A sensible way to start, is by giving employees information on the company strategy, but also on its customers. When every employee can identify himself with the customers, they know how to serve their needs. This will lead to better decisions on future products and services, that are aligned with the company’s strategy.

Secondly, it is important to give employees responsibility and the freedom to make decisions (For managers: Let it go!). When self-managing teams are empowered to do what they think is right for the company, they are more motivated and more involved. It’s also important to have diverse teams consisting of of business/technical employees, juniors/seniors, and people with different expertise.

The digital strategy of your company should be top of mind for everyone, every single day. Tom used Newton’s First Law of Motion as a metaphor: A body that is in motion wants to stay in motion. A body in rest wants to stay in rest. So persist. Keep on going. And most of all, keep the company in motion!


3. The company structure will (probably) have to change

Traditional organisations are built on hierarchical structures, in which decisions have to be approved by multiple committees. This takes time. A lot of time. In a digital world that is rapidly changing, time is of the essence. Thus, for faster decision-making, the organisational structure has to be flattened. Less talking, more doing.

Take Bolero for example, Bart Vanhaeren, CEO of Bolero, explained how they focused on being the first to launch an Apple Watch app (iCapps played a crucial role in getting the app developed in time). Bart didn’t have approval yet, but he went along anyway, there was just no time to wait for a sign from above.

Jo Caudron proposes to go for small teams, pitches, spin-offs within a larger company. He mentioned Adobe Kickbox, a box filled with a $1.000 pre-paid credit card, instructions, innovation tools, caffeine and sugar. Any employee can get one, and do whatever they think is needed to improve the lifes of their customers and move the company forward. This way they explore lots of potential ideas, and mini-startups form within the company.

But it is not all about money. Having a budget is nice, but Jo warns that these teams also need a licence to change. Sometimes a new project cannibalises part of the existing business, but don’t let that be a reason to drop that project, on the contrary. If you don’t change your own business models, someone outside of your company will do so, which may cause your company to fail. Think of some big companies like Nokia, Kodak… who failed to get off their cash cows and innovate. Where do they stand now?

You need to have the guts to take risks. Don’t focus too much on KPIs. Don’t be afraid to fail! Failing means that you are trying, and the knowledge you gain by doing so is priceless. Not every story has/will have a happy ending. In some sectors, margins will go down, as explained by Truvo’s Marketing Manager Wim Vermeulen. It is better to have a shrinking company, than a company that is disappearing completely.

Or as Andrew McAfee formulates it: “We have to protect the future from the forces of the past”. So don’t hesitate to change something, even when it endangers jobs that were created in the past.


4. You’ll have to get out of your comfort zone

It is possible that your next business unit won’t be a part of your traditional market. You need to look further than what you are comfortable with. Explore new markets, new partnerships and look for opportunities outside the company’s traditional market, Wim Decraene explained. Take Visa for example, who collaborated with car manufacturers to allow drivers to store their payment information in their car. This enabled car drivers to pay for something, like a pizza, with their car.                                                           

Another example is General Electric. GE entered a new market of selling predictive maintenance software for connected turbines, something they had very little expertise in. By doing so, GE made itself a structural part of the future. Also, Wim Decreane explained not to be reluctant to take advantage of the existing network of the company, such as GE did by selling its predictive maintenance software to customers in its existing network.


5. You need to focus on the User Experience

If you want to know where your company should be heading in the digital future, just ask your clients! Your clients are the users of your products and/or services, so they should steer the innovation process and make sure you are on the right track.

In the digital age, not everything is digital. So don’t focus solely on building apps and the likes. The customer journey is about more than just digital interactions. In the old days, the only way for a customer to reach out to a company was by phone, during office hours. Even though digital communication makes 24/7 communication possible, 75% of all people still prefer personal interactions. Bolero, for example, organises events, business trips and 1-on-1 meetings to maintain a certain level of personal interaction with their clients.

At iCapps, our Concept & Design team involves users through interviews, workshops and other sessions to define user journeys and customer needs. By involving users early on, and not just at the stage of user testing, we get instant feedback that tells us whether or not we are on the right track. This is where Google’s Pretotyping-Principle comes in: “Make sure you are building the right ‘it’, before you build it right”.


(This post previously appeared on Medium)

I went to Namur, and this is what I saw…

I don’t often visit the southern part of Belgium, but when I do it is always mountains of fun. Last Friday, I visited the Kikk international digital festival in Namur, Belgium. As it is only in its third edition, the festival is still relatively small and unknown.

They describe it themselves as “an International festival of creativity in digital cultures, that explores the economic and artistic implications of new technologies”. To me this sounded a lot like the work I’ve seen at Resonate in Belgrade last April,  so I just had to visit Kikk to have a look at what these digital artists produced.

My favorite talk was by Zach Liebermann, one of the founders of OpenFrameworks (a C++ based toolkit for creative coders). He creates stunningly beautiful visualizations, such as this dynamic painting of a runner’s movements based on Nike+ data.


But he also created an eye-tracking drawing tool for ALS-struck (and thus paralyzed) grafitti-artist Tempt. The drawings he made were then projected on buildings, in order to give the artist back his ability to express himself.


Also intriguing was Pablo Garcia (whose talk I missed in Belgrade). I guess he is mainly known for his collaboration with Golan Levin on the NeoLucida drawing aid, which was funded through Kickstarter. But he also gave us a short history of drawing, including the first ancient Greek shadow-tracing and for example Albrecht Dürer’s mechanical drawing aids. pablo-garcia

Soon, he will be launching, where you will be able to see more examples (and maybe try to build them yourself as well, if you are feeling ambitious).

Then there was Carlo Ratti, the director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, who gave a talk about how data could be analyzed and visualized, such as this “Signature of Humanity”, visualizing mobile data across the world, in a timeline:


Also beautiful, but maybe less “profound” was the work of Sonice Development. They use self-constructed machines such as the Vertwalker or Facadeprinter to leave traces of paint on walls and create beautiful imagery.


So that were, in short, my highlights of the Kikk festival. I was surely inspired by all the wonderful projects I’ve seen, so maybe I’ll get my hands dirty in Processing/vvvv/OpenFrameworks/… somewhere in the near future.

Anyway, in case you missed it or you want to see more, you can view the recordings on the Kikk website. Or if you are patient enough to wait for another year, you can join me for Kikk 2015!

Thank you, Wubbo!

Former astronaut and advocate of sustainable energy technology Wubbo Ockels has unfortunately passed away yesterday.

I’ll remember him as the passionate Nuon Solar Team advisor and Superbus-inventor, who used his fame to promote a sustainable future of “Spaceship Earth”.

Thank you, Wubbo.


Wubbo Ockels, astronaut of spaceship Earth (28/03/1946 – 18/05/2014)

Edit: Wubbo left us with a final message, a few days before he died. You can view it below or on YouTube:

Infographics are like fast-food

Last Wednesday, the nice people at CHI Belgium organised their first episode in the series “Hangouts with interesting people”, with the main speaker being Moritz Stefaner. I was really excited to see his presentation, as I missed his talk at Resonate, and he did not disappoint.

The title of his talk was “Beyond the bar chart: data visualization off the beaten track”. He showed us his recent work, as well as a more general discussion of data visualization and the trends surrounding it.

In case you missed it, the talk is available on YouTube.

Now let me highlight two of my favorite projects. First of all, he talked about the emoto project in which they visualized the social media response around the London 2012 Olympics. They analyzed tweets and categorized them based on positive and negative emotions and visualized them into graphs.

Then they also CNC-milled these graphs into a data sculpture, on which through light projections specific events could be highlighted.

The second really interesting project he mentioned was Data Cuisine. In this research project, he and his colleagues organized workshops in which they visualized data through food. One example was a map of alcohol consumption across Finland, where the glasses were filled to symbolize the consumption levels.

What I learned:

  • According to Moritz, infographics are like fast-food. They are quick, bite-size snacks, but they lack the depth of a slow-cooked, well-prepared meal. They are loud and messy, and you don’t learn a lot from them. For him, data visualization is the opposite. Instead of offering pre-digested stuff, they offer you the possibility of learning through playful exploration of the data.

  • Data visualization is similar to journalism. There is always a form of authorship involved when you are giving shape to abstract words and numbers. You should always evaluate how well the visualization captures the essence of the data.

  • Data visualization doesn’t always have to be a digital image, it can take many forms. Moritz showed an example of a data sculptured, but you can also think about sonification (turning data into sound), haptics, or even data visualized as food.

Rebuilding my little space on the web

Yay! After a few years of having a static website showing old projects, I decided to rebuild my little space in the digital world. From now on, I’ll post blobs of text here about things I’ve seen, read or experienced that I think are worth sharing.

From now on, this site is also responsive (more yay!) and the style is a little cleaner. Usually I am not fond of things that are too minimal, so I’ll try to spice it up with funky images and not too much text. Anyway, enjoy!