Eva-Lotta Lammin conversation with Vasilis van Gemert

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Eva-Lotta came to Amsterdam for a meetup at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam, where I teach. In the morning before the meetup she gave a workshop about sketching interfaces for a group of very lucky interface design students. And between these two things she had some time, and more than enough energy to record this podcast with me as well. Incredible.

designers don’t need detailed knowledge about the business of their clients: designers need the knowledge of finding solutions for any kind of new problem.

This conversation goes anywhere. We start out with a simple conversation about the importance of the question why for designers. Then we talk about sketching, and somehow, from there, pretty quickly we talk about artificial intelligence, and the dangers of AI’s that are controlled by businesses instead of communities.

Transcript

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Vasilis: You are listening to The Good, The Bad, and The Interesting, a podcast about quality. In this episode Vasilis van Gemert, that’s me, talks with Eva-Lotta Lamm, world famous sketchnoter, super experienced interface designer, and laid back world traveler. If you don’t like listening to audio, or if for whatever reason you can’t hear it, you can read the transcript instead. These are not free, unfortunately. If you want to you can help me pay for them via patreon.com/vasilis. Your help is very much appreciated. In this conversation with Eva-Lotta we jump from subject to subject quite randomly. It goes from the subject of asking questions to solving world problems pretty quickly. But we discuss some very interesting topics in between. And as usual, we start with the question: what makes a thing good?

Eva-Lotta: The first question is what is the thing, right?

V: Hm.

E: It is different for anything you do. I was actually intrigued when you were telling me you were doing your podcast about the question of what is good quality and what is good. And I started thinking about it and then it is like yeah it is really hard to define what’s good.

V: It is.

E: In the terms of UX you know something needs to work well. It needs to work first and foremost. But it also needs to look good because it is not only about esthetic qualities but the visual quality of something gives so much clues about how something works and how to use it that it is so intertwined that I think you can’t […] The visual aspect of the design can’t be separated from the functional part of the design. So these two go hand in hand and the boundary between when is something visual actually supporting the functionality to when it is just a mere esthetic choice is such a small boundary that is worth exploring.

V: Okay but you are saying so as long as you try to stay on that boundary then it is good. There is also of course […]

E: Oh no, no I mean sometimes esthetic for esthetic sake is exactly what you need. When you talk more about marketing and about branding about selling emotions and feelings then the esthetics become much more important because that is the medium that really plays and influences emotions.

V: Okay. Again then you are talking about it works.

E: Yeah it works. First of all to decide what is good you need to know what your goal is. What do you want to reach, you know. What is the outcome that you want and then you can decide what is it that you can measure to actually say it is working or it is not working.

V: That’s pretty interesting more people have said that. So as long as you don’t know what the outcome should be, when you don’t have a clear goal then it is harder […]

E: Well if you don’t know what you are doing then you are in the dark.

V: Yeah but many people don’t know what they are doing, right?

E: Well yeah that is something that I […] I mean I teach people how to sketch for UX, you know. How do you use sketching as a medium to explore your own thinking and explore problems solutions but also to communicate your ideas to other people. And there the question of what is a good sketch comes up a lot, you know. Is it a pretty sketch or can the sketch be ugly but still be super functional and actually communicate your idea? So I have been thinking about what makes a good sketch, you know. And one of the things that I always say is like when you sketch something either for yourself or for other people you have to be clear about either what is the problem I want to think about and explore, you know. Is it spatial lay out or is it a certain flow or is it the quality of an animation of a certain transition what is it I am actually exploring. Or when you talk to other people what do I want to communicate and who am I communicating with.

V: But this is really something I see in many designers actually don’t even get to that stage where they really understand what problem they are solving. If I look at from what I have seen in the past they don’t really think this structurally. Many.

E: Well I think that needs to be the starting point. It needs to be the starting point that you think about what are we doing here, you know. Which game are we playing? My dad always uses this analogy is that you have to know which game you are playing. Are you playing chess or are you playing checkers? If you don’t even know which game you are playing than you don’t even know which rules apply so you have to start at the beginning of knowing what do you want to achieve and then what is the problem that you are trying to solve and what are the parameters they are playing into the problem that you are solving what influences your decision making. You know, what are the constraints, what are […]?

V: What are the results as well?

E: Yes. But you need to define all these […] you need to define or if they are not defined ask about all these parameters to know the material that you are designing with. Otherwise […]

V: So even before starting to sketch you have to ask?

E: Well yes. You have to ask constantly, before, during and after.

V: Yeah. That’s also something that is not natural to everybody to keep on asking, is it?

E: Yes. It might sometimes be a problem that you think asking a question shows a lack of knowledge and shows that you don’t know what you are doing. You know like why do you have to ask that, you know, don’t you know? But the thing is actually asking questions is a strength and there are no stupid questions. And it is really true, you know, if you don’t know something and if you don’t understand an acronym that a client is using or if you don’t know […] I mean there are so many things that you don’t know. You need to ask. And one of the most important questions you should always ask several times is why.

V: Why.

E: Because something is a certain way, somebody tells you yeah here we do things like that and this works like that. And then you have to ask why. Is that because of historic reasons, because it has been always done like that, or it is just because nobody thought about doing it differently, can it be changed, can it not be changed. Does it make sense to do it that way or is it actually good to change it. So why is a really powerful question and especially if you ask why like four or five times.

V: Yeah exactly, what was it, keep on asking why five times or seven times even, I don’t remember the exact number.

E: Yeah it is somebody who actually […] I don’t know where it comes from but it is a process, I think a Japanese quality assurance guy but basically yeah asking why several times allows you to get to the root of a problem and see if you are actually solving the right problem or if there are more underlying issues that actually you need to solve a deeper problem than what you are actually briefed to do.

V: Yeah. I think it is really good so we had this talk by Jaap Drupsteen; he is a very old designer, 75 years old. He is the last one who designed the Dutch paper money, before we went to the Euro.

E: That was beautiful I remember it was really colourful and very very nice.

V: Yeah it is was beautiful.

E: With sunflowers.

V: But he told us about this process where he had never designed money before. I mean, almost nobody has ever designed money before, so […] and he worked there was all these knowledgeable people who had been printing money all their life. So they are the best printers in the Netherlands. And he started asking and they were just these people who made the money were actually pretty confused because before that nobody had ever asked anything. They were just starting. And here suddenly the reason why the quality was so good for this money because he asked to see what they were making in their spare time. So he used all this input from all these people to create better money and he also said you should always ask why. Why do we need this and never stop asking until you really really understand the problem.

E: Yeah I totally agree. And the good thing is also when you start asking questions it means that you have to start listening to people and as a designer we need to be really good at listening because usually we are coming to a project where we are not in the middle of the project as, how shall I say […] We have a client or we have stakeholders or we have a group of people that actually know a whole lot about the problem or the business area or the product that we usually are new to and we can learn so much by listening to these people. And we don’t have to be afraid to appear to be stupid or somebody who you know doesn’t know what they are doing because we are tapping into their expertise.

V: And it is true you don’t know what you are doing but you just started right?

E: Yes but the thing is also I mean the knowledge that we need to have is not the knowledge about this business area it is what makes us unique and good as a designer is the knowledge of how to take new information and use the process and the skills that we have in order to take a new problem and find solutions for any kind of new problem that we have. So our knowledge we are not required to have all the detailed knowledge of this field. I mean it is part of our job.

V: Yeah, yeah to understand enough and to fit things together and come up with a fitting solution, right?

E: Exactly. Also once you start asking people, asking experts questions in their field usually they are super happy to talk about it because they are experts and people love when you ask them what they are doing and how they are doing it and why they are doing it so usually there is a wealth to discover.

V: Yeah. I know myself that sometimes I am not going to ask them because they are probably busy and […] I know it is not good, you should always ask, yeah. Especially as a designer you have to ask because you have to […] it is also I think it is a good sign right. The client will be happy because they know this designer will go on asking until they get it.

E: Yeah. Also I mean there are […] I remember situations where I haven’t asked certain thing at a certain point. And I remember the situations where like I don’t know two weeks later I thought like damn I really should have asked about that you know. So the way you think like ah man now it is maybe a little bit late but even then you should ask but the situations when I haven’t asked about certain things and I think like ah I regretted it and I thought I should have asked about it.

V: Yeah. Okay, so after asking comes sketching. Is that true?

E: Sketching can come at any point. I mean […]

V: Sketching is good for getting answers as well, right?

E: Yeah. I mean for me sketching is not a particular step in the process. It is just like […] it is like writing you know. It is a way of communicating your thinking. And words are great for linear stories and for abstract concept and for a lot of things words are really powerful. But sketching is just another layer that works very well together with words to clarify and express your thinking just at a different level. So I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between sketching and words. Because we need to help people to sketch sometimes they think like oh now I have to sketch everything and I am not allowed to use any words you know. Like shifting it completely to images.

V: Either one […]

E: Which is stupid, which is like […] no. Actually what I figured out words and images are best friends. They are like two best buddies and they complement each other and they have strengths and weaknesses and when they work as team like as best buddies they are amazing. They can do anything. And you should never ever separate them because then they are just not as good.

V: Yeah. A long article with good illustrations with good captions […]

E: Yes. And then I got interested in the question what are the strengths and weaknesses of images and words and what part should we use images for and what part should we use words for because that’s the next question that arises, right? And I have been analysing my own practice and I have been thinking about stuff and what the conclusion I came to right now is images are really good to show relationship because of we are three dimensional creatures in this world and we walk around the world and we are constantly looking at stuff. And what we are constantly doing to make sense of this visual input is we are comparing the relationship of us to the things that we see. How far away it is, is the thing that I am dealing with much bigger or much smaller than I am, how close is it to me, what is its structure. It is always about the relationship to me and that’s what we generate meaning from.

V: Okay.

E: So using this to express any kind of relationship visually actually does work because so for example spatial relationships are super easy. Instead of writing a text about how to get from A to B sketch a little map. But also hierarchical relationships like you know organograms and you know who is connected to whom, networks. Rather than describing these relationships it is much easier to make a little sketch. Temporal relationship, timelines you know, any kind of abstract relationship can actually be expressed in a spatial way and we naturally get it because we understand relationships by looking at the world around us. So if you have any kind of relationship you want to express visuals are really strong.

V: True.

E: And then the words come in to add detail. If you want to add detail. You know it is easy to see when you draw a timeline oh this is roughly twice as long, the second period is roughly twice as long as the first phase but if it is about you know the exact date and this is like seven days and this is eighteen days then you put a label on.

V: Yeah a label to clarify things?

E: Exactly to put details on there. If it is about you know details, statistics, specific labelling and naming of information or detailed information than you add words because words are very strong at being very clear and for clear concised detailed information.

V: Okay.

E: And if you use these two things together like that your communication gets stronger.

V: Okay. So that actually means that as a designer you shouldn’t be just good at form but also good at language, is that true then?

E: Yeah language is absolutely powerful yes you should be good at language.

V: Yeah, okay, it would help at least, yeah.

E: Well I mean […]

V: On the other hand yeah […]

E: I know when you are designing interfaces I mean the copy that you write is as much of the interface sometimes even more important […]

V: Absolutely.

E: Than the lay out and the visual details.

V: Tone of voice as important as colour, I guess.

E: Yes. And just playing using the right words you know not using jargon and using language that actually the people who use it understand is super important, so yeah.

V: Yeah. That’s in the Netherlands you have there is this login and register they are pretty similar. They can be interchanged. They should find better words for that.

E: One of the things that always kind of surprised me in several companies I worked in is how interfaces get translated. And very often the translators they don’t even have screenshots of the context and they just take it a single word and just translate it without context, not even seeing where it is used. Maybe it is like a button that is underneath a little text and then you already have the context and the text of the button doesn’t have to repeat certain things. It really boggled my mind how you can translate interface text without seeing where it is used. But I think probably companies are hopefully getting better about it but that was […]

V: They are getting better with it but also yeah probably not. I have seen many designs being designed in English and then afterwards we heard that it also has to work in German and in Portugese.

E: Yeah I mean that’s the whole different question about space and length of words it is another thing. But also I mean when you look at copy and look at how many error messages are actually written by developers because they are the last ones to touch the thing and then it is like oh man there are so many edge cases and so many things that can go wrong and if you haven’t thought about it as a designer and put a process into place to actually write error messages and review error messages that come up in the development process. I mean it is totally legit that there are cases you haven’t thought about but then you need to think about putting a process into place with your developers to say okay if there are new cases that you see, that you encounter we need to have a process to get that back, to write proper error messages or even solutions or you know […]

V: Indeed, yeah, true.

E: Yeah.

V: But too many things are left […] are even not considered or not noticed or the happy flow is only designed. And these are actually the more important design problems or the more difficult design problems are left to people who are not trained to design things, right?

E: Well the thing is it is a complex process and we as designers are in the business of trying to take as much complexity as possible away from the users so they don’t have to deal with the complexity. But the complexity doesn’t go away. When we try to take away the complexity from the user because we want it to be easy for them it means that the complexity has to be dealt with on our side. So our systems have to have built in intelligence, they have to deal with very complex logic and solve a lot of different cases. So it means it is more work on our side and therefore there are all these things like you know lots and lots of edge cases that you have think about, lots of copy that you need to think about, stating things in the right way and thinking through and iterating because you discover you haven’t thought about before and then you have to keep improving it.

V: So actually there needs to be a process in place where you acknowledge that you don’t know everything upfront and that you know that you have to fix things during the process?

E: Yeah in the ideal of the process this is how agile works right? You make a first version to the best of your knowledge, the best that is possible with what you know and with the time you have. And the first iteration and then you see how people react to it and you see where things go wrong and you keep improving it.

V: Okay so this is how agile works but is this how all agencies work?

E: No.

V: In my opinion it is not.

E: Well that’s […]

V: Well opinion […] in my […] what I have seen.

E: Yeah I mean it is always more enticing and interesting and maybe promising to kind of work on a new feature, you know it is always like what’s the next feature, what’s the next feature. But it depends on the culture of the company and I think product companies that actually take iteration and improvement seriously are one kind of a company and you see it in their product because their product didn’t turn out like that on day one. It is because they keep shaping it, keep improving it.

V: The most good products they have this in place. They work this way, it is true. Of course. But if you look at design agencies that’s a different thing, yeah.

E: Well the problem with […] I mean I haven’t worked much in agencies I mostly worked in house but the thing about an agency is by the nature of an agency is they have a limited commitment to a project. You know it is always a limited amount of time that they work on a project and very rarely do they keep seeing through a project through several iterations. So usually they do an initial concept or an initial implementation phase and then it stays with the company to kind of continue working with it. And of course then it is much harder to follow through because you don’t have the contract any more you know.

V: Yeah. Well they try more and more long-term contracts.

E: Sure.

V: Yeah yeah it is not almost the case. And of course you are not the company itself right? You are not the product. You are hired, so that’s different of course. So that has to do with the relationship.

E: Relationships are super important any way I mean I think having the right relationship with the people you work with also internally you know between the different disciplines, between the designers and developers, Q&A, Research, Product Management. All these different disciplines I always found that when you work together for a while and you build a relationship and people learn how to work with each other and they trust each other the work always becomes better. Because then it is much easier to ask questions because you don’t think, you know you don’t feel like ah I am showing that I don’t know what I am doing. But you trust each other and also you don’t have to prove that you always find the solution to things. You can find solutions together. It doesn’t matter how had the idea it is just about solving the problem together. And usually that works better in a relationship that has grown and where you trust each other. And that usually takes some time to build.

V: Okay, yeah it takes a lot of time to build and especially when it is not in place and it is really hard to get it so that’s a cultural thing. Yeah, changing a culture or creating a culture is important but a hard part as well of course.

E: Yeah it is the hardest part.

V: I guess so. Okay. And then one means of communication, one means of solving problems is sketching. And where is sketching so tell me a bit more about this sketching. Because there is several ways to incorporate it into a design process I guess?

E: I use sketching every time I need to think something through, understand something. It usually helps me when I want to understand a complex problem just doing a sketch, mapping it out you know trying to lay out things in a two dimensional space means I don’t have to hold everything in my head but I can actually look at it and reflect and see if I can see patterns emerging or if I can see gaps and things like that. So I use it for understanding things, thinking things through and also for developing solutions you know. When you have a first idea before you jump in the computer and spend two hours in Sketch or in Photoshop to kind of make a detailed design I like to kind of clarify my thoughts a little bit by doing some quick sketches and seeing if that works or if there are things that I am missing or play around with it a bit and it is just a very quick and nice tool to support your thinking.

V: The thing you said about isn’t there something missing. You can actually see when sketching was […] when no sketches were made in some design problems. So for instance when we started with responsive design lots of products they sell three different products and they always want you to choose the middle one, right? This works fine on a white screen but three products next to each other is very hard on a small screen. So how do you do that? And this is never solved. It is always left to the […] or somewhere this lay out breaks where does it break. That is always left up to the developer. You can always see when that design issue was not tackled and I think this is a sketching issue. You can easily solve these things by sketching you don’t need any computer for this.

E: Well one of the strengths of sketching - some people would call it weakness - is that it is very low fidelity you know. It is like […] it doesn’t have a lot of […] you can’t solve a lot of detailed problems but it also means it forces you to solve some of the big issues. Like you know the overall structure, the information architecture, the logic, how things hang together. You don’t need a detailed Photoshop design to solve all these hard very high level issues and sketching can really help support you thinking this through. But it also means that these are the difficult issues to solve so sometimes we feel very comfortable to kind of get dragged into you know fiddling about with the detail problem because they are easier to solve and then not stay at solving the […]

V: And it is a quick resolve right if you have a beautiful button it looks beautiful.

E: Yeah and it is not […] I like tinkering around with the details and it is very relaxing and it is nice to play around but sometimes yeah I mean the hard problems have to be solved as well and sometimes they have to be solved first. But I mean sketching for me it can be used in so many different ways and for me it is just a great way to support my thinking and support my communicating. And as soon as you get to a point where you need to make more detailed decisions and you know where you […] usually it is a good point when you find yourself sketching the same thing over and over again and trying very detailed variations and you think like oh I am getting bored because I am sketching the same thing over and over again with slight variations. Very good point to actually go to the computer because you have quicker making these decisions at the computer. But you usually notice that when it is a good time to go. To go and solve things digitally because you are not solving a big problem but you are playing around with slight variations on a theme.

V: Yeah. But it is also a good thing […] I have seen that sketching is a good thing to solve problems together. So it is a good tool […] so it is easier to sketch together than to work on one Photoshop document together or […] right?

E: Yeah working on one Photoshop document together is a hard thing.

V: Yeah it is probably impossible.

E: No I mean I am a big fan of putting things up when you have a big problem that you want to solve with a group to have a big wall and be able to put up different parts of the puzzle and different solutions and different ideas on a big wall so that you can see several different things at once. Because usually you have a lot of different parameters to think about when you have a complex problem you have different inputs, you have different constraints and being able to visually have it all in one place means you don’t have to keep everything just theoretically in your head and thinking about it. So also seeing several design solutions at the same time you are able to compare them. This is just much easier on paper […]

V: And much quicker as well.

E: Because we are just technologically when we get to the point where we have like a digital wall that is the size of a wall and you can you know like effortlessly put all kinds of visuals up there and collaborate on there and like without tools getting in the way of the actual thinking. Until that point I think pen and paper and the whiteboard and people in a room talking to each other directly, making marks on the wall is just most efficient because the tool gets out of the way and the collaboration is the […] the thinking is the important thing it is not the artefact that you create.

V: Yeah exactly yeah.

E: And I mean one of the […] People always ask me what about sketching digitally. You know what about using your tablet and sketching digitally. I think with the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil also the Wacom mobile thing which is similar like you have a pen and you sketch.

V: That’s the other thing where you actually sketch on paper which […] yeah that is Wacom.

E: Oh that’s another thing that they have. Yeah. But actually I mean sketching digitally on a tablet. Technology now for the first time I think technology has moved to be acceptable to sketch digitally because there’s no lack anymore and the pen is pressure sensitive and it doesn’t feel awkward anymore to sketch on a tablet. So this is okay so it is slowly getting somewhere where it is acceptable. So it is all right, it is all right from that point of view. But especially for interface sketching where it still lacks is usually you sketch several ideas about one problem and then also you have a whole flow, you have several elements you know one screen leads to another, one interaction leads to another. So the strength of sketching on paper is that you can take all the papers and put them next to each other and look at different solutions of the same problem and rearrange them and put them next to each other and see what comes first and what comes next. So you can actually see the context and that is super important for interface design like having the context in mind is always important because no element, no screen is without context of what happened before, what happens after.

V: And one tablet is actually one sheet of paper.

E: And unless you have like 50 tablets that you can put next to each other or you have this mythical big digital wall where you can just put things up and you see it all and you can move it around.

V: Would that be better than paper?

E: I don’t know maybe at some point it will be as good as paper.

V: Yeah. We figure out new things we can do with that.

E: And then it will start to be better. But for now it is not as good as paper because it just doesn’t exist or it is too expensive or I don’t know. Give it five to ten years and then we can talk about it again. But for now, I think return and investment wise invest in a stack of paper and some pens and some clever people who can use these tools and it is easier than investing in a digital wall.

V: Yeah, yeah, definitely, definitely. It probably looks impressive but if it doesn’t work as good as the iPad Pro yeah yeah, it is not gonna work.

E: Yeah.

V: So how is it with interfaces in general? Certain people I talked to they say come on we are done with interfaces. We know how they work, we don’t need to design these things anymore, and AI could do it.

E: That AI could […]?

V: Design anything we need.

E: Okay yeah well if that’s the case then […] I am not quite sure I mean maybe at some point artificial intelligence will be better at designing stuff than humans do, I don’t know.

V: Do you really think so? I heard that before but I think these are […]?

E: I don’t know show me […] what is an interface that has been designed by artificial intelligence. I haven’t seen one yet.

V: No. Well maybe not artificial intelligence but there are certain patterns you can actually stack them together and you have a working interface. You can use Bootstrap and you are done.

E: Well yes I mean there are some […] I think there are some problems that are solved to a level of quality that is kind of acceptable that doesn’t necessarily needs to be redesigned and redesigned and solved again. I don’t know maybe a checkout process. There are some good checkout processes I am totally fine with you know taking a good average checkout process and using that and then solve the unique problem of my company that is the unique offer and the unique service and the unique selling point of my company. You know I don’t need to waste time to make the shopping cart maybe 1% better than […] So you have to think about […]

V: So for certain companies, let’s say smaller companies, a webshop, just your average webshop would be good enough?

E: An average webshop is good enough to start with and then you need to think about what is the actual thing that matters to make a difference for your product, for your company. Where is your innovation or where is the point you need to design around? And it is great, I mean I think it is great if a lot of design problems are already solved because then we can start to solve the hard problems. I mean we are not running out of problems to solve in this world. I think when you look around yourself and see what is going on there are enough freaking problems to solve and more important problems to solve than shopping carts.

V: Yeah, yeah, definitely. But also on interface, interface design problems as well?

E: I mean like it is so hard to - it is not hard - but I don’t think, I don’t know, ah […] Now you have to cut off my […] I think the interesting problems to solve are not detailed interface problems but more service design problems, structural problems of how we actually do certain things. I think these are the interesting problems to solve. And sometimes there is maybe an interesting interface detail animation or transitions you can have fun with. But I think for me the interesting problems to solve are much more structural and infrastructural than on the interface service.

V: Yeah, okay.

E: Although with the internet of things and the idea that you can interact with objects and not only with screens and glowing rectangles there are new exciting potential types of interactions that you can think of. But even with the […]

V: Or that you cannot even think of yet.

E: Yes exactly. But with the internet of things when you think about that all these internet of things services it is a lot about the service and about the infrastructure and how do these things work together. And a lot of the interactions they are not visible anymore, they are not explicit and the interesting things are the invisible rules behind how these services work. That has a huge impact on the user experience.

V: Yeah yeah. Okay. There is a lot to design but interface design is changing. Yeah of course it has changed a lot since we started, yeah definitely. We had to find everything out, we didn’t know them yet, there were no patterns and now we have patterns we can just use them. Yeah.

E: I mean it is the question […] I mean interface design when we say interface we think about screens.

V: Definitely, yeah. I don’t think they are going away, screens.

E: No, you know it is like screens have been around for a while and we tried out a lot of different you know layouts and flows and different patterns and types of doing things. And some of the things that work get established so we can move on to more interesting problems. And I think the interesting problems and the hard problems they lay in between. They lie in between the screens and they are more about the logic. Also when we talk about artificial intelligence you know and algorithms. You know what are the rules for these algorithms how do we want these algorithms to work and what are structural questions that arise from that, what are ethical questions that arise from that. I mean the whole discussion about I don’t know self driving cars and how do they decide if the only, you know […] if there is a difficult situation and they have two choices of running over one 60 year old pensioner or a group of school children, which choice should the car take. This is a freaking design decision and there is no screen involved and it is really interesting about you know how do we solve these problems, how do we design the algorithm that actually takes the decisions.

V: I think the harder problem with self driving cars is all the theory you read about self driving cars is they work perfectly in a world which is only populated with self driving cars but once you put people in that world suddenly it doesn’t work any more. For instance here in Amsterdam I don’t see self-driving cars driving around here with all these bikers, people with bicycles that don’t follow the rules.

E: I don’t know enough about […] I am not an expert in self driving cars but the funny thing is I mean at some point, you could imagine at some point artificial intelligence and robots they are gonna be much better at leading an efficient life as any human, you know. Then the artificial intelligences they can have relationships between each other and the question arises why do you need people anymore. They just make a mess, you know. And then the question arises what makes us human and why you know if it is all about efficiency why are we still here because computers can do a better job than we can do.

V: And is it all about efficiency then?

E: No it is not in my opinion. Being human is about having the feeling of having agency and you know having a personality and being yourself whatever that means but it is not about being efficient. If everything is about efficiency I think wait another five to ten years and we don’t need humans. We are not as efficient as computers. Computers will be better at almost anything than we currently do.

V: Efficiently.

E: Maybe also I don’t know […]

V: Emotionally?

E: Well […]

V: Probably not, would they?

E: Well this is I read a really interesting book which is by Ray Kurzweil it is called How to make a Mind I think. And he does all these thought experiments about artificial intelligence and how a brain is constructed and how we take decisions and how at some point a machine and a algorithm that is trained on kind of mimicking how a brain works is indistinguishable from our brain so then the question is […]

V: Did you see the xkcd cartoon yesterday?

E: No.

V: Or yesterday or the day before that. Which was oh we have this really really complex problem and then a developer comes and says oh we just write an algorithm for it and then half a year later this is a really really complex problem the algorithm can’t solve it, right. So sometimes things are really really complex.

E: Of course.

V: And I think a lot of this talk about artificial intelligence solving anything or getting better at everything is looking at the world too easily, seeing the problems as too easily to be solved.

E: Well see you could also argue that actually computers because of the unlimited processing power and you know there is almost unlimited processing power. It is getting more and more […] you know processing power is not the problem. They are better at solving complex problems than humans because we are so freaking limited. I mean look at the limitations of what we can understand and cannot understand. It is like […] I have been thinking about you know there have been so many experiments of artificial intelligence producing art. You know making music and also now creating art like painting pictures and not only like you know filter that something looks like a water colour but actually studying […] an algorithm actually studying and self learning a certain style of painting and then being able to create new paintings based on that.

V: Yeah the music experiment was incredible.

E: Yeah and there is some beautiful stuff, you know.

V: Was it 10.000 hours of nice music generated in one day or something like that.

E: Yeah. And there is really nice stuff. Like stuff that is visually pleasing and that is interesting and if you didn’t know that it has been made by a computer you probably wouldn’t know. And it is still so early in the day. Like imagine in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years things get more advanced. So maybe at some point really I do think that computers will create better art. Then the question is what is good and what is better. Better art than humans, totally possible. But the whole point about creating art is not the output is not the artefact that is in the end. What is important about creating art is the process of making it and what happens to you as a human and as a person in the process of doing it. And how it changes you and what is the feeling that it gives you and what you learnt about it. That is the only difference. And if we only judge things by the final outcome then we can happily eliminate ourselves and just let computers rule the world.

V: Yeah but computers can come up with things, with ways of solving things and this is the process of course that we cannot come up with of course. Yeah. They can do that as well.

E: Well computers will be able to learn and they can generate new things and learn about new things of solving stuff. I am not so sure […]

V: I guess the real problem they should solve is if computers can do all these things how are we gonna pay humans?

E: See this is one of the tough problems. I mean so far since the Industrial Revolution first things have been […] you know robots and mechanical processes have been replaced. Humans have been replaced in mechanical processes.

V: Yeah but there came new work. It is not that because of these automations there was less work. There is always more work for more people.

E: No but now I mean you can see it how jobs are being made redundant.

V: Yeah that has always been the case. But there is also new jobs being created and maybe right now it could be that it is different now but I am not sure.

E: I mean first like simple mechanical jobs have been replaced but now more and more jobs that we think of about brainy jobs. People like accountants, lawyers, doctors at some point designers will not be necessary anymore or not that many. And I am not sure about new jobs that will be created. You know it is like […]

V: Then there is the interesting thing I don’t think it matters because I don’t care about working. Having spare time is fantastic as well. The only thing is spare time is not nice if you don’t have money.

E: Well the thing is the problem is not unemployment the problem is not having an income.

V: So right now the problem is I think if you look at […]

E: The problem is the wrong distribution of wealth you know.

V: Exactly, exactly. So yeah.

E: Yes.

V: All the money that all these computers and algorithms generate goes to a very small group and not to the rest and that’s a problem I guess.

E: That’s a huge problem at the moment. Our society is developing more and more apart and the cracks start to show that actually the middle layer of society that has been built up since World War II you know created the middle class. That was actually the glue of society has been eroding away for a very long time and you can see the cracks showing now that things are breaking apart. And that all these kinds of radicalization and conflicts that are happening right now are exactly because of that.

V: Could be, could be. So should the 1% start focusing on quality of life instead of efficiency? Is that maybe […]?

E: Man we are getting into real deep discussions here about society and about capitalism.

V: We can go back to sketching if you want to?

E: No, no. These are really […] I mean these are the important questions to solve but […]

V: But could it be as easy that you say okay stop focusing on efficiency or stop focusing on luxury products which is something that Silicon Valley has a tendency to do and start focusing on quality of life. Is that maybe a thing that is missing? Because that is I think […] If I look at a lot of the products that are being development, the bigger products. If you look at for instance Facebook or Twitter they are not about quality of life, they are about Facebook, they are about Twitter, they are not about life. Could that solve something? I don’t know just a thought.

E: Well I don’t think that maximizing profit should be the first and foremost goal of a business endeavour. Like I don’t know […]

V: But it is, isn’t it?

E: Yeah it is. It is like by law, like a publicly traded company their duty is to maximize profit for the shareholders and I think that is were a lot of problems start. Because if it is all about maximizing profit then there will always be people who are not part of the profit and they fall through the cracks and these are the people who don’t have health care and tough luck they die earlier. I mean that is not how a society works. A society works by helping each other out and by caring for the people who can’t care for themselves. So the question is how much is enough you know how much is enough. How much money is enough. When do I share my wealth and sharing is not very in any more. I mean sharing social media stuff but not sharing your wealth. Oh we are getting into really difficult […]

V: You said something very interesting. You said this is not how society works. Society is about community but the big companies they don’t work as society they work to generate money for a few people.

E: Yeah.

V: But they are part of society. Facebook is society.

E: Yeah but I don’t agree with this concept being the way the world is run. I mean I think it boils down to I don’t agree with unregulated capitalism ruling the world because I think for a short time it makes a smaller and smaller amount of people really happy, really well off and the rest is just […]

V: Is fucked.

E: Yeah. And I think […]

V: But it is a big difference […]

E: And I think it is wrong.

V: Yeah. And it is a big difference with old capitalism. Well if you compare it to what Ford did with his workers. He said okay I use automation but I am not going to use it to fire my workers I am going to use it to pay my workers more. Make them work less so that they can buy my products. Which I think is brilliant. But somehow that is not what […]

E: Well I am not an expert at how society should work. You know there are lots of different ways of you know communism at least the way communism has been tried to be installed in this world, in reality hasn’t been very successful.

V: That was a horror yet.

E: At creating good quality of life for people either. But this type of capitalism that is completely unregulated is not working either. There must be something in between. And this in between includes that every person ask themselves what […] You know personally the question what is enough, how much money is enough you know. And when does it make sense to share. Even if I don’t have much it makes sense to share and there are always people who are worse of than you are. And then you can say but ah it is their own fault because they are lazy and they don’t do that but it is not. I mean we also have this bias that we think when we are successful it is because we deserved it and we worked for it. But there is also luck involved. I don’t know I don’t have the answers but I think […]

V: Is this something that can be designed or is this too big to design or engineered?

E: It can’t be designed by one person as a master plan but definitely as designers we have to be conscious of these problems because otherwise we contribute to the world continuing to function the way it is. And the way we design things and the questions that we ask and the projects that we take on and the projects that we refuse to take on it is our responsibility to design in an ethical way and ask these questions and also speak up about these things. I mean it is like […] our design job is not detached from our morals and our ethics as a private person you know. So we have to think about these things and act accordingly. I don’t have all the answers but if we feel that something is wrong and going in the wrong direction and we have to speak up and we definitely should not like contribute to the problem. We should resist and do something against it.

V: So should we teach our students to speak up?

E: Hell, yes.

V: Yeah. So that should be part of your curriculum. Speak up.

E: Well speaking up […] I mean questioning the status quo and questioning things that are going on and speaking out when you think it is not the right way that should be […] everybody should do that and that should be taught in any school because it is the basis of any […]

V: Of course I know but I also know that it is as a junior it can be pretty hard to speak up.

E: Speaking up is difficult because you need confidence for it and you need courage for it and I think university is a great place to foster these values. I mean if you don’t learn in university how you speak up, how you ask questions, how you debate, how you have a good discussion about things without anybody feeling like attacked. But just the fact that you talk about things and that you discuss things in a rational way. I mean if you don’t learn that in a protective environment like school or university where should you learn it. I mean or at home. I mean but that’s the time where your character is formed and where like your values are developed and yeah they develop through freethinking, through speaking up and through discussing different possibilities of doing things.

V: Okay.

E: Yeah.

V: Good.

E: Wow we got into […]

V: Some very very […]

E: We got into crazy deep political and societal questions. I hope I haven’t waffled enough.

V: No I really liked it.

E: Too much I think.

V: It was really good. No excellent. We talked about so many different qualities that was fantastic. Do you have anything else you want to talk about?

E: No.

V: No? Okay.

E: I am done for today.

V: Thank you very very much for this conversation. I really liked it.

E: Thanks for having me.

V: This was episode 28 of The Good, The Bad, and The Interesting, with Eva-Lotta Lamm. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to, feel free to contact me about this podcast. You send an email to vasilis at vasilis.nl. Or you can find me on twitter via @vasilis. You can also help me out with paying the bills for the transcripts of each episode. You can find the patreon campaign for it at patreon.com/vasilis. Any help, big or small is very much appreciated. There’s quite a few people who support me with a monthly donation already, like Job, and my employer CMD Amsterdam. I’d love to add you to that list as well. Next episode will be in Dutch again. It will be with my former colleague, the ever brilliant Marieke van Dijk.

This transcript was funded with the generous help of CMD Amsterdam, Job, Peet Sneekes, Peter van Grieken, en Jan Jaap Rijpkema. If you want to you can help as well by donating a (small) amount on this Patreon page.