Networked Objects HCI 2017

On July 17th, 2017 I was asked to present my research about Designing Networked Objects at HCI 2017. I spoke about my involvement with Emily Carr University of Art + Design’s Health Design Lab and my project with Vancouver Coastal Health organization on a project to encourage more hand sanitizer use in their hospitals. With my colleague, Jonathan Aitken and students Grey Vaisius, Jill Southern and Brandon Visser we created a ‘smart’ hand sanitizer that was installed in the foyer of the Vancouver General Hospital and recorded data on how it was being used and produced a colourful visualization that was then presented back to people in the hospital’s foyer in realtime. The results were immediate and the use of the sanitizers grew with each iteration of the prototype. Here’s the slides from my presentation.


MetaCube Paper

MetaCube: Using Tangible Interactions to Shift Between Divergent & Convergent Thinking

A research Paper submission By Haig Armen, 2015

For many decades, we have observed and studied how people create, what the characteristics of creative people are and what the process of creativity is. Many of these studies have focused on the cognitive abilities of individuals – what happens in our minds when we are creative? This paper describes a research tool for building a better understanding about how creative teams move between divergent, exploratory and convergent ways of thinking. With the proliferation of embedded technologies, there are emerging opportunities for employing tangible or embodied interaction within the creative process. In this paper, we make the case that the creative process can be augmented, observed and supported by metaphorical interactions via a hand-held tangible computing device.

Author Keywords

Interaction design; Tangible user interfaces; Embodied interaction; Design research; People-centered approach; Metaphor; Creative Process; Divergent-Convergent Thinking

ACM Classification Keywords

Human-centered computing, Interaction design theory, concepts and paradigms, Human-centered computing, Collaborative and social computing devices

General Terms
Design; Human Factors; Theory

Today’s contemporary design teams have a wide array of tools to aid in the design process and even the most digital savvy teams still use tangible tools like whiteboards to help in the brainstorming sessions. There has been a great deal of studies in the area of creative process in the context of design and

brainstorming, predominantly about the varying exercises in divergent (generative), exploratory (connecting & combining ideas) and convergent (analytical) cognitive modes. Yet how teams or individuals transition between these modes of thinking relatively unexplored. This project explores how a tangible object might emphasize meaningful gestural interactions not as a departure from, but rather as an integrated part of the creative process. We propose that a tangible user interface will help in the creative process by shedding light on the transitions between modes of thinking. Tangible analogical interactions can be a powerful way to support modes of cognitive activity and ultimately provide a better understanding of when different strategies may be most effective. In this paper, we call to question the connection between tangible gestural interactions as analogical mappings to abstract modes of cognition by way of a conceptual prototype called the MetaCube.

To best understand how a tool could improve the creative process we first observe that creative teams are most productive when shifting between divergent and convergent modes of thinking. The ability to efficiently shift between modes may be an important feature underlying the capacity to be creative [12], and possibly, of particular importance in professions such as design [8]. There are a wide variety of creative activities, exercises and games that have been categorized into divergent and convergent categories [7] that act as useful frameworks for creative thinking and conceptual development. Physically interacting with an analogical concept makes the abstract become more concrete.
Building from the theory of embodied interaction we propose a tangible computing device that helps to bring a clearer collective understanding of how we shift cognitive modes using tangible interaction. Beyond embodied interaction, this case additionally considers the importance of flow within creative sessions as well as their collaborative nature. We hypothesize that by building a better understanding of how, when and why we shift our cognitive modes in creative sessions we can begin to create frameworks of knowledge around the collective creative process. The MetaCube project revolves around the following research question: Does rotating a tangible computing cube help creative teams better observe and gain insight into shifting between divergent, explorative to convergent cognitive modes based on specific time intervals?

Case studies of this type are important at this juncture in the area of tangible computing; as designers strive to understand what the most natural gestural affordances are for tangible user interfaces (TUI). Discovering ways of encouraging people to interact using analogy are crucial for the Interaction Design field to create a vernacular around these gestural interactions. Does turning an object towards you imply ‘inward-looking’ convergent, logical and critical thought? Does rotating an object to the right signify thinking into the future or conversely the act of rotating an object to the left representing thinking about the past or precedence of a problem space?
Although cognitive modes in the creative process have been well documented, it is unclear that there are best practices in the frequency and periods in which to transition from one mode to another. Furthermore, though there are many generative and analytical activities, little has been discovered about whether certain combinations of activities are better or worse than others, or whether randomization of activities fosters effective creative thinking. Furthermore, flexible thinking involves the ability to shift cognitive functioning from common applications to the uncommon; namely, breaking through cognitive blocks and restructuring thinking so that a problem is analyzed from multiple perspectives.[12] Yet “Most do not easily switch divergent and convergent thought, but they need to do so because continued learning that blocks ideation is not helpful to the overall effort, and neither is continued ideation that blocks solution choice [2,9].
By decoding the transitions in cognitive mode we can begin to understand where we have trouble shifting and can address and improve our abilities to move easily between cognitive modes. The MetaCube aims to demystifying these mode transitions by employing theories in embodied interaction. Using tangible tools to help in brainstorming can prove to be extremely effective. As Lakoff and Johnson [10] point out, metaphor and analogy are more than mere language and literary devices, but rather conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior profoundly. For example: you may recognize that Shakespearean tragedies have a similar structure: a phase of increasing conflict between opposed sides or characters, a major confrontation between the opposed characters, and a phase in which the opposition is worked out and resolved in one character’s victory and the other’s defeat. It may then occur to you that this structure is very like the shape of a pyramid isosceles triangle, which rises from a baseline to a central point and then falls back to its baseline. You have then perceived an analogy between a temporal phenomenon and a spatial one. In the case of the MetaCube, the device represents a noun, in the context of a brainstorming session this may be the problem at hand and the act of rotating the cube is analogous to seeing the problem from another perspective. In another case study Antle [1] elaborates: Gestures may lighten the cognitive load because they are a motor act; because they help people link words to the world (e.g. deictic gestures); or because they help a person organize spatial information into speech (e.g. iconic or metaphoric gestures).
Along with modulations in cognitive modes, flow is a crucial aspect of the creative process, specifically in brainstorming sessions. In Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal book, Flow [4] is described as a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. When exploring the requirements of our MetaCube, we must consider the flow of the individuals in the creative team. The momentum and immersion can only be achieved with the absence of interruptions from the creative team. Achieving momentum in a creative brainstorming session requires time management. Commonly time is blocked out and a facilitator is tasked with being timekeeper. A number of questions arise; what should the time period between cognitive modes be? Should each mode take the same amount of time? One of the widely adopted time blocking methods for focused periods of concentration is the Pomodoro Technique [3], which suggest 25-minute increments of activity followed by 5-minute breaks. The research on collaborative creativity is extensive and widely varying based on the type of creativity and field. The most relevant conclusions that can be draw are that shared engagement fluctuates with changes in activities within creative teams. This finding suggests that careful consideration must be taken in designing a device that will keep people’s attention on brainstorming and topics of discussion rather than on the tools being used. It is clear that a device for collaborative creativity will require the affordances of many to interact with it, not just an experience for an individual. The device will require the capability of providing a feedback mechanism that will communicate to a number of people within the context of a room and not necessarily one person like most computing devices.

Related Work
Although there are no examples of work directly related to this area on inquiry, there are a few good examples of conceptual design projects that are at all related that we may draw possible considerations from. The research project, “A cube to Learn” by Terrenghi, Kranz, Holleis and Schmidt [10] describes a Learning Cube as a novel tangible learning appliance used as general learning platform for teaching vocabulary and 3D views to children through gestures and test-based quizzes. In 2001, Terry [11] outlines a project called Task Blocks that employs blocks as the tangible interface representing computational functions for creative exploration within the programming context. The design of the system encourages hands-on, active experimentation by allowing users to directly insert, delete, or modify any function in the computational “pipeline”.


The goal of the device is to aid creative teams to collectively shift modes of thinking without losing their momentum as well as regulating the frequency of the mode transitions. The MetaCube has the potential to become a powerful tool for facilitating creative sessions by providing users with gestural affordances that create analogies while modulating through various creative thought modes. The design of the prototype must reflect the collaborative nature of creative problem-solving teams. When providing feedback to the user/team it is important that the device is able to communicate to more than one person. If color is the main mechanism to communicate the cognitive mode, it is imperative that the color be visible from all viewing angles if the team is sitting around the cube. Although seemingly unimportant, the shape of the cube is instrumental in implying specific gestural affordances. Unlike a sphere a cube’s physicality suggests rotational gestures on the X and Z-axis. Additionally, the device could possibly communicate the changing of cognitive modes using sound or wirelessly transmitting information but these options were shelved to concentrate on the core of the study, opting for a subtle non-digital form of user feedback.


By creating MetaCube – a small hand-held tangible prototype capable of measuring its own rotation, we are able to address our research question. Participants use the MetaCube by rotating its orientation to mark the transition from one way of thinking to another. Imagine the scenario where a member of a creative team in a brainstorming session is prompted to pick up and rotate the MetaCube tool. The MetaCube’s orientation triggers a new glowing color that marks the transition between one way of thinking to another. The team has been told in advance the following light mappings:

1. Blue glow indicates divergent (generative) thought mode
2. Green glow represents exploratory mode
3. Red glow signifies convergent (analytical) thought mode
4. Flashing light of any color prompts rotating the cube
For example rotating the cube in one orbit would yield divergent thought mode and rotating the cube in another orbit indicates that participants proceed with convergent activities. The working prototype will be able to detect rotation and its own orientation. Once rotated on its X-axis or Z-axis the object is triggered and communicates its new cognitive mode to the team. The cube will utilize an Inertia Measurement Unit (IMU) – 5 Degrees of Freedom IDG500/ADXL335, which is essentially a combination integrated circuit board with both accelerometer and gyroscopic sensors to sense orientation and rotation. An important key feature of the MetaCube is the specific time intervals that prompt the members of the creative team to interact and change cognitive modes.

In the initial stage of exploration the modes will be communicated by use of contrasting colors and later iterations by include broadcasting activities via web applications served by the cube to surrounding computers. With a built-in web server the MetaCube could dynamically creates activity cards that are served to the client-side browsers of the team connected to the cube via a wifi network. These last features were not included in the original prototype as it was beyond the core research question.


To begin to validate the hypothesis of this study the MetaCube prototype acts as a proof of concept. The basic prototype was assembled and programmed to test amongst participants in a number of informal settings. The purpose of the cube is first explained to participants prior to their brainstorming activities. A simple creative process will be facilitated and the use of the cube will be observed and captured to later reflect upon. During the session participants’ reactions were observed, anything they said and their facial expressions, we tried to capture. Participants were then asked the following types of questions: Did the cube help or distract the team’s creative flow? Did rotating the cube strengthen the idea of shifting modes of thinking? Did the colored light help users understand the shift in modes? Could this method of observing shifting cognitive modes be useful for creative teams? We were able to informally test our assumptions by putting the prototype into a brainstorming session and explaining how the team could use it to help them shift between divergent and convergent creative activities. Our observations were generally positive but further formal studies would be necessary to draw definite conclusions.

The people within the observation session welcomed the idea and felt it was an intriguing idea in the context of creative problem solving. The interaction paradigm was easily understood and the team was able to integrate the MetaCube into their flow. The following findings were discovered from our informal study: 1. The cube helped the team creatively once the members of the team all understood its purpose. 2. Rotating the MetaCube did indeed strengthen the idea of shifting modes of thinking both for individuals and for the team as a collective. 3. The colored light did help understand the mode changes but a legend mapping the colors to mode was frequently glanced at. 4. There was a great deal of agreement that by observing shifting cognitive modes both teams and people would become more effective during creative problem-solving sessions. Additionally, we observed that although the cube was able to indicate the change in cognitive mode, the team still broke their flow by having to discuss which creative activity they would proceed with. This suggests that there is the opportunity for the device to communicate an activity.


After creating MetaCube and later presenting and explaining its purpose to various designers and writers the response was generally of interest and many began to think of other analogies to apply to the rotational interaction. Ideas were generated about ‘hinging’ from one way of thinking to another and using the metaphorical expression of “taking a 180 degree turn” to represent a pivot in direction. There was a slight cognitive disconnection between the six sides of a cube and the three cognitive modes. This added an element of unpredictability to using the MetaCube, which not all participants understood. Although this research tool was created primarily to experiment with ideas for the creative process, the prototype and its reception act as an informal validation of a possible product. In the initial conceptualization of the MetaCube it was decided that not having the cube display any digital information to minimize the perception of a computing device was in retrospection, a good decision and any further exploration of this idea will be to continue following this same line of reasoning.


In this paper we present a short study that investigates the benefits of a tangible computing device that enables hands-on interaction to help creative teams while brainstorming. Our contributions include a concept-driven design project and prototype. We concluded that the MetaCube shows promise as a unique tangible non-disrupting way of conducting collaborative creative brainstorming sessions. The physical interactions gave the creative teams a concrete way of thinking about when and how to transition from one way of thinking creatively to another. We concluded that effective Tangible User Interfaces (TUI) design can result in epistemic, exploratory, collaborative and cognitive benefits within the context of collaborative creative contexts.


1. Antle, Alissa N. Exploring how children use their hands to think: an embodied interactional analysis. Behaviour and Information Technology (2011)

2. Brophy, D.R. Comparing the Attributes, Activities, and Performance of Divergent, Convergent & Combination Thinkers. Creativity Research Journal. 2001

3. Cirillo, Francesco. The Pomodoro Technique FC Garage GmbH 2013

4. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial (2007)

5. Gray, Dave, Brown, Sunni and Macanufo, James. Gamestorming. O’Reilly. 2010

6. Hatchuel, Armand. Le masson, Pascal. and Weil, Benoit Teaching innovative design reasoning: How concept knowledge theory can help overcome fixation effects. Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing, Cambridge 2011

7. Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. The university of Chicago press. 1980

8. Pringle, Andrew J. Shifting between modes of thought: a mechanism underlying creative performance. 8th ACM conference on Creativity and Cognition, 2011

9. Sak, Ugur and Maker, C. June. Divergence and convergence of mental forces of children in open and closed mathematical problems. International Education Journal, 2005

10. Terrenghi, Lucia, Kranz, Matthias, Holleis, Paul and Schmidt, Albrecht. A cube to learn: a tangible user interface for the design of a learning appliance. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing April 2006

11. Terry, Michael. Task Blocks: Tangible Interfaces for Creative Exploration. CHI ’01 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2001)

12. von Oech, R. (1992). Creativity Whack Pack, Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, Inc


Where the Wild Things Are: Research Paper

Seeking Improvisation on the Open Web Platform

Haig Armen – Emily Carr University of Art & Design
John Maxwell – Simon Fraser University
Kate Pullinger – Bath Spa University

Teaching creativity in digital media comes with its challenges. Obvious questions arise: what is the most effective creative process? what tools should be used? what is the right format? As Maslow’s Hammer reminds us, if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail; perhaps the challenge is that of perception. In this article we reflect on an experimental digital fiction workshop that took place in the summer of 2014. The workshop aimed to explore the boundaries of digital fiction using open web technology. The article discusses how process and tools forge the pathways and ultimately shape our outcomes. As we work to establish fully digital workflows and widely-adopted tools for creating digital narratives, we inadvertently limit our possibilities and fall into producing the same formats and modes of interaction over and over. In this nascent form, digital fiction requires efforts aimed for the fringes, to explore the boundaries of medium and genre. Today’s software authoring tools are designed for carefully composing and organizing content, not collaboratively improvising to create new forms of content, navigation and experience. Without a better understanding of the materiality of digital media gained through code proficiency and improvising on the form, we are limiting our ability to achieve more sophisticated forms of expression.

The universe of improvisation is constantly being created; or rather, in each moment a new universe is created… At any moment, an event may occur for no reason at all, with no relation at all to the preceding event… In this universe each moment is an entelechy, with both its cause and its end contained in itself.
In June, John Maxwell, Kate Pullinger and I ran a week-long digital fiction workshop hosted by Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. The experimental workshop was billed as a way to explore collaborative writing and production of digital fiction, inspired and directed by Kate Pullinger, a pioneer of the form.

Inspired by a conversation we had at Books in Browsers 2013 and a mutual admiration of Adam Hyde’s BookSprints , the idea of collaborating on a digital book workshop was born. Apart from gathering people together for an intensive limited timeframe to produce an outcome, this workshop had little resemblance to an actual BookSprint. We liked the idea of creating a framework – planning the activities and the technologies we’d use around creating a piece of digital fiction in a tight, high-intensity collaborative environment.

Setting the Stage
As the Digital Fiction workshop became a reality in the spring of 2014, we prepared by establishing the structure, content and technology for the event. Months before the scheduled workshop John and Haig discussed establishing a structure for the week of the gathering. Yet not knowing exactly what type of people the workshop would attract made it difficult to forge a strict structure. We wanted to bring together a group of interested authors and creators to participate in a real-time collaborative effort, writing and designing a multi-modal work over a short period of time. So we needed to carefully scaffold things to allow our workshop participants to move forward quickly.

John and I saw eye to eye about the kind of tools to provide to our workshop participants. For perhaps the first time in the history of publishing there is a common platform and software ecosystem that is free and open to all. The wildly popular technologies underpinning the Open Web Platform act as an alternative to the specialized, expensive toolsets that have dominated publishing (Linotype, InDesign, even Flash), the open web lets the finely tuned skills and sensibilities of authors, designers, and producers be decoupled from the exclusivity of proprietary tools. We both see Open Web technology as the only probable and preferable way forward.

In the weeks leading up to the workshop, we created a workflow that began with a wiki as a central collaborative writing hub where participants of the workshop were able to write in plain text, markdown, and HTML markup: markdown for formatting text and HTML to specify code for differentiating data types and insert media elements.

The next step was to find a way to generate HTML from the wiki. After a number of attempts John settled on using Pandoc, John MacFarlane’s free command-line tool for converting just about any flavour of markup and markdown. The final piece of our workflow was our target production framework, Caleb Troughton’s excellent Deck.js, a jQuery library designed for slide presentations that proved to be both flexible and extensible. The Deck.js library gave us the ability to create visual transitions from slide to slide, trigger html elements to animate across the screen and control audio/video—all of this, in an elegant, full-screen presentation that was compatible across multiple browsers and platforms.

Our Plan
Our intended workflow was to have our workshop participants begin sketching and storyboarding on sticky notes, index cards and whiteboards, then move onto laptops, from writing in markdown on our wiki to HTML5 via Pandoc. In the wiki, we could write a “script” for each story segment, including not only the text, but the images and audio as well. The wiki allowed everyone in the group to edit, make quick changes, create new segments, and quickly see and click through their results in a browser window.

John and I worked out extensions to Deck.js to facilitate audio and video triggers at different places, a global navigation system, and some custom effects for builds. The idea was to keep the gory details of the HTML5 production contained in an iterative production pipeline, in order to o facilitate a group of writers working out the story and how to tell it, letting them work through it in an agile, iterative way.
We gathered 12 people in June 2014 for the workshop: Kyle Carpenter, Alexandra Caufin, Jodie Childers, Jennifer Delner, Bob Fletcher, Rochelle Gold, Nicola Harwood, Inba Kehoe, Shazia Ramji, Kaitlyn Till, Jessica Tremblay. They were mostly graduate students and academics, but also writers, editors and photographers.

As Adam Hyde has pointed out, to run a successful Book Sprint you need: good people, a good venue, good food and an experienced facilitator. We had just two of these: a good venue and good people. We didn’t have the budget for catering and we were certainly not experienced at this sort of engagement!. What we did have was 15 hungry people in a room with lots of computers and technology on tap, and paper of all sizes.

Over the space of a week we came together on a storyline, a script, imagery, and ideas for animation and audio. Our workshop goal was to create, experiment and discover new tools, to explore new methods, to collaborate ‘digitally’, to forge new territory. Collectively we called what we created The Last Cartographer, a ‘neo-diluvian’ tale of love and loss, set in near-future Vancouver. By the end of the week-long session, we had a five-part, not-quite-linear narrative, mostly created using text and images, but with audio, video, and animation elements as well. (fig-0-LastCartographer.png – “The Last Cartographer’s opening screen”)

As a separate effort, The Last Cartographer was later further developed by my 3rd. Year design students and I at Emily Carr University of Art & Design in September. There are now 5 versions of the Cartographer story, based on the same story, but differing in visual and interactive treatments.

Working on paper
We liked to say that The Last Cartographer was produced entirely using free open web technologies. That was our intention but the reality is that this piece was produced mostly on paper. (fig-1-Collaborating using paper)

Our participants largely worked on paper, whether on stickies, flipcharts or index cards and whiteboards. They drew and talked, wrote and talked. In fact, probably the bulk of the week was spent sketching on paper. Why? Because paper affords extremely quick, easy, social development of ideas.
(fig-2-cardsorting.jpg – “Moving story fragments around on paper”)

It’s also worth mentioning that the workshop attracted people who identified as writers, not designers, nor coders. But despite that, they mostly produced sketches and storyboards, rather than any amount of text. They thought primarily in terms of a small bit of text in the foreground and a background image, much like a picture book. Where did this model come from? Was it from Kate’s influence via Flight Paths? Or perhaps presenting my work on CBC Radio 3 magazine during the week? Or something else?
(fig-4-sequencing.jpg “Storyboarding, sequencing and visualizing”)

We’ve all read our fair share of picture books. Could this pattern be so ingrained that it seeps into our thoughts of onscreen fiction inconspicuously enabling us to fall into the patterns – the modes of storytelling – that are most comfortable and familiar to us? John and I provided a straightforward production workflow but it wasn’t fluid enough to really allow our writers to work creatively within it. The ideas were being generated outside of the tools.

Jamming it out: The Wolf
In the weeks before the workshop, while John and I were working out how we would scaffold things together, and while we were evaluating frameworks, we threw together a little story about a lonely wolf, using Deck.js. The idea was mostly to test out what we were doing: image, text, placement, backgrounds, masking. John created a few screens, I created a few, John added more, etc. We bounced a story back and forth between us. It was a jam session, akin to two musicians tuning up our instruments and warming up. Between the two of us we have something approaching 40 years of web development experience; we improvised our Wolf story, in markdown, raw HTML, CSS, jQuery, while ‘tuning up’. In contrast, in our June workshop, we improvised using paper: on stickies and flipcharts, in words, in sketches and in arrangements.

With hindsight we are now able to look critically on our Digital Fiction Workshop experience. We see three main points of reflection. First, the role of proficiency in creating digital fiction. Second, how profoundly the tools shape our outcomes. And third, the important distinction between composing and improvising in the context of creating digital media.

The Role of Proficiency
Our workshop participants mostly defaulted to creating on paper and pencil. Although they were all proficient with digital tools, when it came to creating collaboratively, paper simply didn’t get in the way of their ideas and creative process. Paper does a surprisingly good job of enabling fast, iterative idea development—something not lost on designers, nor software developers.

We also put software in front of our writers: easy to use tools like wikis. Yet software only gets out of the way of one’s creative inspiration when you know it intimately. This is something that John and I were able to do, jamming through our improvised Wolf story, because of many years of coding, designing, and web development. Chimero puts it well, “Let’s talk about making tools. The things we make should either reduce pain, increase pleasure, or do some mix of the two.” Yet this was not an experience open to our workshop participants. Fortunately, they found ways around it, photographing their storyboards and sequencing their narratives in a variety of crafty ways that often approached but perhaps never quite reached final resolution.

In our talk at Books in Browsers 2013, we spoke about the craft of publishing and the importance of understanding the grain or materiality of digital media. With a better understanding of materiality we are able to craft with nuance in mind. Taking advantage of the idiosyncrasies of the medium, to create more sophisticated forms of expression, forms that are appropriate for and unique to digital narratives.

In the workshop, there was a comfort with exploring and experimenting with characters, setting, themes and plot. This is where most of the improvisation occurred. Our group was less able to experiment with the presentation level with software. We believe that with a stronger understanding of the possibilities that come with digital media and some solid coding skills, our group would have been able to jam out some amazing concepts directly in the digital realm.
Tools & Frameworks
In our workshop we gave our participants tools that we thought would be open and malleable in shaping a digital piece of work. Yet even these loosely connected open web tools implied a very specific way to present content. To move beyond the prescribed way that, for instance, Deck.js wants to be used requires a level of comfort and proficiency with software of that kind. It appears that the tools we chose clearly dictated the type of narrative that would be produced. Many of the commercially available software tools for creating digital books are just as limiting.

My colleague Celeste Martin at Emily Carr University of Art + Design has catalogued the various interaction patterns that a majority of electronic books follow . Each pattern clearly details a style of navigation & content delivery – essential learning for designers with digital books. Yet these rudimentary patterns are directly linked to specific software platforms. Each platform is optimized for a specific interaction pattern and we are not easily able to push beyond the prescribed navigation and content presentation paradigms.
(fig-6-ebook-patterns.png – Celeste Martin’s Book Patterns)

Software can transcend mere utility when it allows its user to simultaneously think expansively while providing abstract constraints that help organize and build mental models. Consider how Jazz musicians use the harmonic structures of standard jazz repertoire as a shared foundation to improvise upon:

Many of the most popular jazz compositions — the standards — are repeatedly transcribed and compiled into Real Books and often used as learning tools. Real Books, as well as their many variations (Fake, Latin Jazz, Jazz Rock and, latterly, iReal Books), provide conventional harmonic sequences and phrase components that are acquired and employed as parts of each new musician’s improvisational complex vocabulary.

Just as Haftor Medbøe explains the importance of creating frameworks for Jazz musicians to build shared understanding and foundational structure for improvisational collaboration. Liz Danzico also described how designers of software could approach improvisation as a goal:

“Just as Miles Davis created a new form of jazz that allowed a new generation of musicians to play beyond themselves, so do we have the opportunity to create frameworks for audiences to create in realtime.”

Apart from iBooks Author, all the other platforms require a dual mode of creation: compose then preview, compose then preview, and repeat. This switching of modes is slow and tedious and makes the tools too opaque. Where as the visual (direct manipulation) tools are the ones that seem to melt away, becoming transparent and allowing for improvised moments. How can we seriously approach creating digital fiction without having (a) a mature, visual, Direct Manipulation toolkit, or (b) ten years or more experience with the code so that you can visualize what your code will produce before you see it rendered? The latter seems to be what experienced web developers do, thinking in code but imagining what appears in the browser. It’s a mode that clearly works, but it seems to limit creative engagement.

Composing & Improvising
Composing, in music, requires that same kind of abstract sense, where you can imagine the orchestra playing the notes you write. In the same sense, coding with web technology requires you to imagine how the browser will render your code. Most of the software we use on our personal computers today are designed for composition not improvisation. Yet improvisation is critical if digital fiction is ever going to be art.

As Alan Kay puts it,

There is the desire of a consumer society to have no learning curves. This tends to result in very dumbed-down products that are easy to get started on, but are generally worthless and/or debilitating. We can contrast this with technologies that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow users to become experts (for example, musical instruments, writing, bicycles…)

We seem to be always striving to improvise with consumer level software but unable to reach interesting results because those tools support general patterns and conventions rather than the deep engagement that facilitates improvisation. Alan Kay urged us to improvise on the early generations of the personal computer. He wanted us to build our own tools that would allow us to put things together dynamically.

Designer Bruce Mau also suggested we make your own tools in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth: “Hybridizing your tools in order to build unique things. Even simple tools that are your own can yield entirely new avenues of exploration.”

Creating small open tools for publishers to build their own unique platforms will amplify our capacities, allow the improvisation and fluid ideation that is necessary in creating new works of digital fiction. Even though software companies urge us toward fully-digital workflows, we are reminded that creative people collaborate well using plain paper. We aspire to carry the spirit of improvisation and brainstorming through the entire creative process and not compartmentalize it within the early pre-digital phase of a project. Improvising throughout a project has the potential of introducing media experimentation along with conceptual ideation.
Media researcher Paul Nemirovsky argues, “in order to facilitate this kind of exploration, (1) computational tools must actively participate in the creative process and (2) the interaction framework must allow structural exploration of media. This leads to our main claim: improvisation should be considered a valid and appropriate paradigm for media interaction.”

We might ask ourselves how might Stein, Woolf, Vonnegut, Burgess, Burroughs or Dahl have approached digital fiction narratives? How would they have found ways to experiment with media and create experiential narrative structures? It is not until we forge our own tools that allow us to engage deeply and fluidly with media, and meaningfully explore creativity and new genres.


Creating Social Books

Written by Haig Armen and Lucinda Atwood

In this paper, we describe a new approach to digital textbooks: The textbook as a participatory and social experience. By meshing reader-generated commentary with the original text the textbook becomes a dynamic documentation of the course material and the discussion around it.
The author or teacher maintains control over the narrative by approving and promoting important comments to integrate into the original text, and by deciding the location and frequency of comment-enabled areas.


Social media is everywhere, yet books are still understood to be static, unidirectional documents, and reading them to be a solitary activity. This does not reflect current expectations of dynamic information and new approaches to collaboration, nor does it take into account the importance of discussion and group learning in education. This project explores the pedagogical potential of social books. We want to graduate students from being passive consumers of textbook content to socially engaged participants who create, collaborate and contribute.

The key points are:

  • The textbook as a participatory and social experience.
  • By meshing reader-generated commentary with the original text the textbook becomes a dynamic documentation of the course’s text material (multiple texts could be compiled into one textbook) and the discussion around it.
  • The author or teacher maintains control over the narrative by approving and promoting important comments to integrate into the original text.

Ebook formats have emerged that let users place comments in the book, but only relegated to a sidebar near the referenced text. The comments in these ebooks are either private or shared to external social channels and lack their original context. Additionally these marginalized comments clutter and limit the reader’s interface and impede an uninterrupted reading experience.

This article explores the possibility of integrating shared reader commenting directly within a textbook and discusses the design considerations made to accommodate presenting what the author or teacher considers important and relevant comments without
disrupting the reading experience.


While marginalia notes and comments are acknowledged as useful to readers and essential for learners (Wagstaff 2012), most current ebook formats don’t allow for shared comments, remaining essentially static, one-way documents. If the author wishes to develop a community around the book, they create online communities (Facebook and Twitter, for example) that the reader must locate, join, and sign into, in order to participate in the discussion. (Biňas, Štancel, Novák and Michalko 2012)

Once online, the problems don’t stop there. Current ebook formats make it difficult to cite the exact locations of passages (Richardson and Mahmood 2011), so comments are often untethered to the text they reference.

Annotations can be an essential part of an ebook textbook; the platform should be able to incorporate comments and additional content to the original content (Wilde and Glushko 2013). Ebook formats have emerged that can place comments in the book, but only relegated to a sidebar near the referenced text. This still separates comments from text, limits the interface design to boxed frames, and makes the book’s reading area smaller.


In order to clearly describe our ideas about the evolution of the digital textbook we’d like to present you with a case study. Our social book framework was originally created to hold a book called “50 Years of Life Online” by Alexandra Samuel. The book discusses the history of the Internet as juxtaposed to her own history, and is structured in articles on a timeline broken into decades and years. We present screen captures of interfaces from the “50 Years” book to illustrate a number of concepts throughout this article (see figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. “50 Years of Life Online”
Figure 2. “50 Years of Life Online” Table of Contents

This book’s central interactive metaphor is a continuous scrolling page that unfolds at key points to reveal a threaded social commentary relevant to that specific content. The unfolding is facilitated by the familiar reverse pinching gesture, which reveals a deeper layer. (Although almost ubiquitous, the reverse pinch has not yet been used in this context.) This reinforces the metaphor of digging deeper, creating an interaction where readers can find more information or become participants in the book itself.

We designed the platform to exploit tablet technology, specifically network-enabled tablets. They allow a mobile book application to communicate with its online comment repository via an Application Protocol Interface (API). The API seamlessly sends contributors’ comments back to the server and syncs the book app to include the latest comments (see figure 3).

This social book framework is ideal for school texts. The original authored text remains, while the book becomes a living learning network. Students can work at their own pace, self-evaluate (test) when they think they are ready, return and review as necessary, add to the class discussion, and support co-learners. Teachers can tell from the comments and questions in each lesson or pedagogical area where to apply clarifications, individual assistance, or further group teaching and/or exercises.

Students support each other’s learning and cement their own knowledge acquisition by adding examples and insights that helped them understand or retain concepts and facts. This supports the variety of learning acquisition types in group learning situations.

Right now, most ebooks support only highlights or private annotations. Social ebook platforms hide comments away in a sidebar. In our model, the most insightful or useful comments—as determined by the teacher or author—are promoted to the top of the list. (See figures 4 and 5.) A number assigned by the teacher determines whether the comment is displayed as a prominent pull quote or a concealed (folded away) comment. This provides extra value to the book, and offers an opportunity to engage with the discussion surrounding that portion of the text.

Readers are able to see both public comments and their own private comments in the same dedicated areas. The two types of comments are differentiated by colour. In the high fidelity wireframe (see figure 6), all the public comments are marked with the colour red while private comments are indicated with blue.

Figure 4. “50 Years of Life Online” showing promoted
Figure 5. “50 Years of Life Online” showing comments

After tapping on the comment in the previous slide, the comment has expanded and is shown in a list of all the comments on a particular section of the text. From there, the thread of replies can be viewed or a new comment can be added.

Original content is still the primary element of the book, so the majority of public comment areas are not presented like this. Instead, they are “collapsed” with the opportunity to visually and conceptually “dive in” to the discussion. This is done using the reverse-pinch “zoom in” gesture on touch enabled devices.

As a prototype our Social Book System was built using some existing open source software tools. Here’s a breakdown of how one would build a social book.

  • Install WordPress on a web server—a relatively simple task if you’re web savvy.
  • Install the JSON-API plugin for WordPress (
  • Determine the Book’s information structure and build sections accordingly.
  • Input text from the book into WordPress, broken down into comment-able segments.
  • Specify Social Book App’s configuration file to include API address and WordPress segmentation labels.
  • Save original JSON file from WordPress and include into Phonegap package with SocialBook files.
  • Style your book using CSS and images.
  • Compile Phonegap software into desired mobile platform: iOS, Android, Windows or Blackberry.

3.1 Benefit One

Ease of use by the reader. “50 Years of Life Online” complies with the invocation that navigation should be simple and effortless(Mod 2012). We followed basic information architecture principles of breaking content down into understandable categories with clear ways of visually communicating the content structure. Because comments remain inline with the associated content, navigation is simple and intuitive, creating books that are easier to use.

3.2 Benefit Two

Granularity of commenting. In our Social Book Framework we use WordPress as the content management system for a book. This allows the author to determine which passages of text can be commented on. The big innovation here is the granularity of commenting—the author or teacher has the ability to control exactly where in the text comments can be added, whether it is at a sentence, paragraph, section or article level. Each commenting area can be individually set; there is no global setting that must be conformed to.

3.3 Benefit Three

The ability to promote comments that the author/teacher sees as especially valuable, insightful or useful, and give them prominent status within the original text, for example as pull quotes.

3.4 Benefit Four

Ease of administration. At the end of the course, semester, or school year, the instructor is able to wipe the slate clean, if desired, for the next batch of students. This can all be done without much technical knowledge on the part of the author/teacher/administrator.

3.5 Benefit Five

The book as a micro network. As opposed to crowdsourcing textbooks, the author or teacher controls who can participate and contribute, and can invite readers to participate in the book in early stages of development.

3.6 Benefit Six

The book can be output to multiple formats. When a book is contained within an online digital repository (WordPress as a content management system) there is the opportunity for the content to be distributed in a number of formats. From WordPress we can output to the web as a “Book in a Browser,” a Social Book application, a standard eBook format, and even a printed document via PDF that is output and sent to a print-on-demand system. (see Figure 5).

3.7 Benefit Seven

Ease of bookmaking. Building a social book will require only a basic understanding of WordPress and standard web technology like HTML/CSS. The flexible structure of the platform allows authors to easily add tiers (chapters or sections—the author chooses the label), to choose where comments are included, and where the promoted comments are placed.



The final project will include documentation for building a social book using a number of open source software tools. Creating a social book using these tools will require only a basic understanding of WordPress and standard web technology like HTML/CSS. Once set up, an author/teacher can use the same framework for a number of books without any coding skills at all.

There are a number of aspects of the Social Book project that can be developed further and were only touched upon within the project yet were taken out of our goals for this phase of the project and this paper. Here are the components that could be refined:

  • A clear navigation system—The gestural folding navigation points to a new way to interact with a book, yet in its current iteration needs refinement to make it more intuitive and easier to use.
  • Place-holding and bookmarks—Helping readers understand where they are in a digital book has become a challenge for digital book design. Many of the ways of understanding where in a book someone is are based on the physicality of a book—new visual affordances must be established to help communicate this important aspect of book reading.


We are just beginning to think of a book in terms of a larger ecology of content, authors and audiences. This project represents the first step in engaging the audience of a book through their participation as commenting contributors. The idea could be taken much further by having a book’s audience contribute other kinds of relevant content, for example maps, images, audio or video. Additionally, audiences could be asked to participate in activities within a book, and their results presented back to the larger book’s audience. Teachers will be able to see and manage students’ participation and contributions. As textbooks become able to incorporate the discussions and contributions of select collaborators, learners will be able to participate more fully in their education.


Our thanks to: Jonathan Aitken, Celeste Martin, Alexandra Samuel, Kenneth Ormandy, Katherine Pihl


[1] Seton Hill University. Discover, Create, Communicate: Learning Transformed. 2012.

[2] Giunta, C. iPad and Web 2.0 Pedagogic Innovations In Marketing: Utilization of Entrepreneurial Skills. Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness vol. 6(5). 2012.

[3] Biňas, Štancel, Novák, and Michalko. Interactive eBook as a Supporting Tool for Education Process.
ICETA 2012 10th IEEE International Conference on Emerging eLearning Technologies and Applications. November 2012.

[4] Richardson, John V. Jr., and Mahmood, Khalid. eBook Readers: User Satisfaction and Usability Issues. October 2011.

[5] Wilde, Erik and Glushko, Robert J. Bridging the Gap between eBook Readers and Browsers. Position Paper for W3C’s eBooks Workshop. February 2013.

[6] Wagstaff, Kiri L. The Evolution of Marginalia. November 2012.

[7] Mod, Craig. Subcompact Publishing: Simple Tools And Systems For Digital Publishing. November 2012.

[8] McGuire, Hugh. Book as API. Feb 2013.

[9] Maxwell, John W. Dynabook: The Once and Future
Platform. 2013.


A Bird in the Hand: Index Cards and the Handcraft of Creative Thinking

A Paper by
John W. Maxwell
Publishing @ SFU
Simon Fraser University

Haig Armen
Faculty of Design & Dynamic Media
Emily Carr University of Art and Design

John Maxwell and I presented this paper at Congress 2013 in Victoria in June 2013. In fact, we wrote a lot of index cards and stuck them on the wall in front of a projector as our presentation. The talk was part of a session called Mediating Creative Practice that was put together by Frederik Lesage and Ben Woo.

* * *

The humble index card (and card index) has a rich history. It is the precursor to the electronic database. Its role in many a writer’s practices has been celebrated. Cards and card sorting are popular too in design research and agile software methodologies. Cards are protean artifacts in that they are indexical, iconic, and textual; different card practices privilege these aspects differently. This paper looks into personal and ephemeral uses of cards in creative practice. We explore cards as “personal dynamic media” in both individual and collaborative settings, and question the extent to which these practices can be modeled in software.


This paper is about paper–and its role in the creative process. It is easy to think of paper in superficial terms: it is the traditional home of the written word and it provides a convenient and wonderfully portable storage medium for text. And yet paper has become so cheap and ubiquitous in contemporary life that it is easy to take it for granted. Indeed the advent of the ebook in recent years has cast the role of paper in particular relief, and we are ironically reminded of its physical qualities, its relative permanence, and its centrality to literary practices. The book’s traditional manifestation on paper at times seems almost poised for a renaissance, at least in bookish circles (Bosman 2011). And our stubborn tendency to print out electronic drafts for editing, articles for leisurely reading, and even correspondence for filing speaks volumes on our inability to leave it behind (See Sellen & Harper 2001). But, easy as it is to imagine so many sheets, sheafs, and codices that we often overlook the subtler ways we use paper beyond the obvious document forms, and underestimate the complexity of our relationship to paper. As Ian Sansom points out in his remarkable book, Paper: an Elegy, “We are … paper fanatics and paper fundamentalists: even when it’s not there, when it has been shown to be unnecessary or not to exist, we continue to imagine it, to honour it, and to wish it into being.” (Sansom 2012, xvi)

One of our favourite paper forms is the index card. We (the authors) have been interested in the culture of index cards for some time. Index cards – ubiquitous and wonderfully low-tech–have a long and complex history that extends from the beginnings of organized print culture right into the midst of digital media. The extent and details of cards’ role in the mediation of creative practice is woefully under-represented; like the blind men and the elephant, cards and card practices look very different depending on whom you talk to. Writers tell a certain set of stories about how they use cards (e.g., Nabokov 1967; Benjamin 1928); researchers tell another (e.g., Niklas Luhmann; see MK 2007a); designers and software developers still more. To a certain extent, we have found a number of recognizable traditions of practices with cards, but it is also true that individual card practices can be very idiosyncratic. UBC English prof Janet Giltrow even suggests that note-taking and such “supplementary practices around research and writing” are, by and large, not taught; they are not “craft practices” that are deliberately passed on across generation of scholars (Giltrow 2012). And yet card practices persist; every university bookstore is well stocked with decks of lined and unlined cards, not to mention blocks of similarly sized sticky notes. Cards and card practices turn up again and again when we look at creative practices. So what are we doing with them?
Our study—into cards and card practices on the threshold of the digital revolution—is only in its embryonic stages. We have yet to present quantities of empirical data on card use, we have yet to create new prototypes for card use in the digital age; though we intend to do both. But even a general survey of card use in recent history, which this paper does present, reveals interesting patterns in how people move thoughts, ideas, and chunks of information between their minds and their hands. Much of the more practical fundings presented herein are drawn from our first-hand practices with cards, as researchers, scholars, designers, and software developers. We have approached this initial report as “reflective practitioners.”


Card play (including note taking, sorting, shuffling, etc.) is one of a variety of high-level methods creative people use to organize thoughts and generate ideas. The card practices we focus on here can be compared with a number of other organizational strategies which include the production of conceptual sketches or diagrams (including mind-maps), writing in Moleskine notebooks, compiling big (non-)linear MSWord documents (whose structure may be opaque to all but the creator), and even spreadsheets–not of numbers, but words and thoughts.1
What distinguishes cards from other kinds of documents (whether paper or software) is that cards can be and are used in at least three distinct modes. First, a card is a textual document; a writer could compose a novel on a deck of index cards (as Nabokov did) and you could read that novel by reading the cards as if they were pages in a book (or, presumably, as hypertext). Second, a card can be indexical–hence the “index card”, and even more so, the “card index” that forms the backbone of all library catalogues (even though the cards are now electronic). In the indexical mode, a card stands in for another object, providing a means of storing, sorting, and random access much more easily than manipulating the collection itself. The indexical mode of card practice is, we argue, the very prototype for the software database.

But a third modality of card practice is an iconic mode, in which the visual (not to mention handy tactile) characteristics of cards make possible arbitrary arrangement in two or more dimensions—on a table, say, or a cork-board. Here, cards are manipulables. This is the modality that makes possible most card games, from Tarot to Solitaire,2 and also a good deal of contemporary card practice in design and software development. Icons work differently than both text and index in that they are immediately recognizable; they work visually rather than linguistically (see Peirce 1955). The visual/iconic aspects of card practices allow us to move ideas around in physical space in an almost unique way. This is also, ironically, the piece that almost all attempts to mimic index cards in software miss.


Card play, then, is multifaceted. We look at cards in one or more of these modalities: we can read them textually, like a document, by attending to the words written on the card. We can read them indexically, as in a library catalogue. We treat the cards iconically, as visual stand-ins for their concepts, and we are able to push these around a surface, organizing thoughts as though they were baseball players on bubblegum cards. Not surprisingly (Bruner 1966, 10ff), different people (and different practices) put different emphases on different parts of card play; perhaps no two people do it exactly alike.
The history of card play is a long one. Evidently, its origins are in playing cards – as games (like Poker, Hearts, Solitaire, etc.) and as cartomancy (like the Tarot). Cards allow both sorting and randomizing (pick a card, any card); they often have two sides: a presentation side and an anonymous side, and thus can present as visible or hidden. Random access to cards is a key idea in card play. It makes games possible, obviously, but also allows a single card to take focus from the rest of the deck. There are myriad variations on this theme. An example is the card deck created by famed producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt. The cards featured printed aphorisms, and were used as a means of breaking creative blockages. Eno apparently played these cartomantic games in the recording studio with David Bowie in the 1970s, encouraging lateral thinking. Bowie, for his part, apparently wrote lyrics by the “cut-up” technique of arranging snippets of text on cards—a technique initially popularized by William Burroughs.3
Markus Krajewski’s 2011 book, Paper Machines traces the history of cards and card catalogues from the 16th century to the 20th. Krajewski credits Swiss physician Konrad Gessner with the earliest published method for card play in organizing information; Gessner’s book Bibliotheca Universalis published in 1548, presents a system of copying out excerpts and ideas, one per line, cutting them into individual slips, and organizing them in small boxes. (Krajewski 2011, 12–13). Krajewski pays especial attention to the kind of boxes Gessner used, and compares them to the wooden type-cases developed by Gutenberg and other early printers. The suggestion is that the card index is part of the re-organization of knowledge and expression that print brought about (and the “segmentation” that Marshall McLuhan noted). Later, the development of a national bibliography and unified catalogue of French books in the swirl of the French revolution in the early 1790s led to the standardization of the cards themselves, as uniformly sized and formatted cards rather than mere slips of paper—drawing directly from the example of playing cards (p45ff).
Krajewski goes on to trace two subsequent historical threads. The first is the development of a somewhat standardized set of practices around what he calls “the scholar’s box,” a means of organizing and filing notes, references, and excerpts by an individual scholar. Within a collection of cards emerges a set of cross-references, and Krajewski points out that the value of an individual card is nil, but an inter-connected collection becomes something like a book, if not hypermedia itself (64ff). Through the 17th century the practice of keeping massive card indexes flourished. And yet, this practice was oddly curtailed by other cultural movements. Krajewski writes:

In their time, men like [18th-century lawyer Johann Jacob] Moser could proudly refer to their index cards as a text-generating technology, contributing to the Enlightenment with an almost uncanny production rate. yet around 1800, with the blossoming or the European idea of genius, the light dims, and production aesthetics undergo a fundamentalk change. From now on, painstakingly produced drafts go unmentioned, veiling the writing process in the darkness of a productive sleep. Darkness keenly protects the trade secret of textual genius. (62)

Krajewski’s other interest is the development of card-based filing systems in library catalogues, a practice with its roots in the French Revolution, but which comes of age in Melvil Dewey’s masterful standardization of the American Library Association, (87ff) which gave rise to the card catalogue boxes that still grace many libraries today (or which are nostalgically missed by those of us old enough to remember them).
But Krajewski’s focus is on systems of organization, whether individual or institutional; the role of the card here is primarily indexical, and his vision of cards is in stacks or carefully constructed filing boxes. Krajewski’s purview does not include spreading cards out on a table and grouping and sorting them visually, though it would appear that card-sorting practices have roots in the same playing card traditions that gave rise to the index card itself.
“Card sorting” as a non-recreational practice is traceable, according to the Interaction Design Foundation, to the use of playing cards in experimental psychology. Card sorting was a means of measuring memory and cognitive functions (Hudson 2012). Later, card sorting because used in various methodologies for qualitative data analysis. Interaction & usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen wrote about using card sorting in the design of Sun Microsystems’ website in 1994 (Nielsen 1994), possibly the first published account of the technique being used in service of a design methodology.
Today, card-sorting practices of a wide variety are part of a good deal of contemporary design methodology: as a research technique, as a strategy for increasing end-user engagement, and as a way of conducting the design process collaboratively. Card sorting is widely used by information architects and designers to gather and understand structure for a variety of purposes. A typical use of cards might be to map the information for a website onto cards, and the sorting—a process in which many different people may participate—helps create categories for navigation and the overall architecture. Interaction designer Dave Gray and colleagues distinguish between card-sorting and other common design research tasks with cards or post-it notes:

The applications of card sorting are numerous, and in use it works similarly to Post-Up and affinity mapping. Card sorting can differ from these methods, however. First, the cards are generally prepared in advance, although participants should be allowed to create their own while sorting. Second, the cards are a semi-permanent artifact and can be used as a control over several exercises with different participants to find patterns among them. (Gray, Brown, & Macanufo 2010)

Contemporary software design methodologies similarly employ card play. In particular, the Agile method features cards and card sorting as a collaborative design technique, in which the various parts of a overall system—whether human, software, or infrastructure—can be arranged and manipulated by a team of designers. One such practice, the “CRC Card” modeling technique (Beck & Cunningham 1989) specifies a set of formats and mechanisms by which a team can work out the complex interrelationships of software modules; a form of structured brainstorming by a group, around a large workspace. Interestingly, the CRC Card technique was originally implemented in software, using Apple Computer’s HyperCard. However, the authors note,

we were surprised at the value of physically moving the cards around. When learners pick up an object they seem to more readily identify with it, and are prepared to deal with the remainder of the design from its perspective. It is the value of this physical interaction that has led us to resist a computerization of the cards. (Beck & Cunningham 1989)


How then do we work with cards—physically moving them around, writing on them, having them stand in as ideas in play? The ways in which cards can be manipulated in space are myriad. Organizational schemes include linear (or sequential); grouped (like affinity diagrams); structured as grid, tree or radial, stacked; fanned (like a hand of playing cards, as a horizontally splayed a stack); and, more generally, laid out arbitrarily across a table.
Related to these kinds of organization are ways of working within a card: colour coding (paper colour, and colour tagging) and a variety of structured formats for how and where to write on a card. Card play often involves the general practice of “jotting”—that is, fast, impermanent, and small/constrained by the size of the card. Only a few words will fit, especially if they are to be readable from any distance; many practitioners recommend the use of a heavy marker (e.g., a Sharpie).

Two-dimensional card-play provides a macro view, however they may be organized. The macro view persists even when examining or focusing on one card—and herein may be the unique quality of index cards (often 8x13cm or thereabouts) over other common paper forms. In their small size, they share available space on a surface more easily than larger documents. They are easily handled at this size, and so one’s attention can be shifted from one individual card to the larger arrangement and then to another individual card without requiring re-arrangement. This practice seems harder to achieve with letter-sized paper or books. We may indeed arrange multiple books or documents in order to peruse them in concert and shift our attention from one to another, but not with the same facility as small cards.

The affordances of the workspace are critical. Visual-spatial arrangement requires a relatively large surface, be it a desk or table (for index cards) or a wall (if sticky notes are used in place of cards). A stack of cards lends itself to easy manipulation in the hands, or in one’s lap. Interestingly, software incarnations of card systems tend to assume the stack as the primary organizing form, as computer screens are rarely as big as a desk or table, and therefor limit the macro view of a card arrangement (unless the cards are shrunk in size). Screens afford an excellent micro view of an individual card, and of course computers allow all manner of sorting operations, but screens—at least at contemporary sizes—do not deliver the macro view that seems essential to a great deal of card play.

In practice, the arrangement of cards is messy. Mess is not a bad thing in and of itself; it speaks to complexity. The bigger problem is noise in a complex arrangement, that which prevents one from seeing either the details or the patterns of arrangement. Interestingly, though, index cards provide us a set of ‘manual’ tools for sorting through, or for getting out of the mess, and reducing the noise. By moving cards around on a surface, making and unmaking groupings, we gain topsight on both the details and the possible arrangements. We are reminded of Ariadne’s thread, which allows one to go into the labyrinth and return.

Cards are also collected, piled, sorted into stacks. A stack of cards is an encapsulation of the cards in the stack. It is an abstract representation of the cards, for their order or logic is no longer visually accessible. There may be a significant order to the stack–it is sorted in one way or another–but that order is black-boxed, abstracted away when the cards are stacked. In contrast, the cards on the table are ordered in an immediate, visual sense. We might think of stacks and spreads of cards as ‘closed’ and ‘open’ arrangements, respectively.

So, there is a two-dimensional arrangement or cards on a table or a wall, and there is a different arrangement in a card stack. By putting these together, we—potentially, at least—get three dimensions. But regular card play rarely goes to three dimensions. We say rarely, because most of the obvious card processes are in one or other of these basic modes. But we do sometimes go to three dimensions. A good example is in the game of Solitaire, where we move from a two-dimensional arrangement to a set of stacks. By building stacks, we win the game.

In design practice (e.g., Hudson 2012), card sorting takes a generic sequence: see, sort, and distill. The modes are divergent and exploratory thinking (like brainstorming or requirements capture) and then convergent thinking (grouping, sorting, culling, distilling), and the cycle is often repeated. What follows is called “ideation,” where the thinking that is synthesized by the divergent and convergent modes produce insight (or at least provoke) new ideas (Rutter 2010).
Indeed, we “win the game” of creative or design practice when we go to the ideation stage. At this point the thinking seems to move off the two-dimensional surface and hinges toward a new plane. This is the goal, the point, the culmination. Often, this means moving the practice to another mode or medium entirely: to a diagram or sketch, to a written composition (like this one).


Index cards have long been represented in software. In fact, the stack of cards is one of the oldest metaphors in software design. One one hand, the library card index is a direct ancestor of the electronic database; punched cards replacing hand-written ones. On the other hand, the index card is also an appealing metaphor for user-interface design. In the early 1980s, a software tool called Notecards was developed at Xerox’ Palo Alto Research Centre (Halasz, Moran, & Trigg 1987). Much more famously, Apple Computer’s HyperCard software (distributed freely with Macintosh computers in the late 1980s) provided the first ‘mass-market’ exposure to hypertext and hypermedia, via a staight-forward index-card metaphor. While HyperCard came well before the World-Wide Web, one of the Web’s most successful applications, Wikipedia, derives directly from it. Ward Cunningham, who wrote the first wiki software in 1995, reports that his design was taken directly from HyperCard and card-play more generally (Cunningham 2003).4

Almost all card-inspired software mimics the individual card as an interface. A ‘stack’ of such cards can then be sorted, re-arranged, and accessed randomly. Such interfaces have repeatedly proved successful for note-taking and other information collection practices (see MK 2007b). Software-based card decks connected to the Web can then be used collaboratively by small or even large groups of people. Again, Wikipedia is the easy example to point to. Today, scores of software products feature a card-like metaphor for managing and filing short documents.

Software design has primarily succeeded in representing the individual note card in a sortable stack, however. Less successful is the multidimensional, visual sorting aspects of card-play.5 To a great extent, this is the result of screen limitations in contemporary computer interfaces. Rarely do we have access to a computer screen much larger than a letter-sized sheet of paper. As laptops replaced desktop machines, the majority of available screens became smaller rather than larger. And, as tablets and mobile devices proliferate, screens get smaller still. While there is some chance that large (tabletop-sized) touch-screens may become popular in the future, prevailing trends are towards portability.

The trend in consumer electronics may indeed result be the continued popularity of the lowly index card. For now, nothing electronic seriously challenges the combination of facilities card play presents: the immediate, tactile, visually dynamic, and collaborative manipulation of ideas in space. Cards are inexpensive, emphemeral, portable, and satisfying to use. The study of cards and card play in creative practice is a fresh new field. The present paper has served as only an introductory framing of the directions of our research, and we would invite contributions and interested collaborators in this work.

Beck, K. & W. Cunningham. 1989.“A Laboratory For Teaching Object-Oriented Thinking” In Proceedings of the OOPSLA 1989 Conference, New Orleans.

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R. Friis Dam.

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MK. 2007b. “A Faithful Electronic Version of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten.” TakingNoteNow blog, Dec 16, 2007.

Nabokov, V. 1967. “The Art of Fiction No. 40” The Paris Review. 41. Winter/Spring 1967.

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Scrivener writing software. See

Sellen, A. J. & R Harper. 2001. The Myth of the Paperless Office. Cambridge: MIT Press.

David Straker. 1997. Rapid Problem-Solving with Post-it® Notes. Boston: Da Capo Press.

Trello task-management software. See

The use of spreadsheet software to organize ideas–not just numbers–is, in our experience, widespread in today’s office culture. Microsoft Excel is a powerful data-processing tool installed on vast numbers of personal and office computers. Indeed, shy of going to the trouble of developing an actual database, Excel is the tool at hand when people need to organize things. Hence, schedules, duty rosters, content inventories, and so on are often found in the rows and columns originally designed for calculations and bookkeeping.

The pioneering chemist Mendeleev, it is said, played “chemical solitaire” on the way to developing the Periodic Table of the Elements. He wrote the names and properties of known elements on cards and sorted and re-sorted them on his way to discovering the schema we know today as the Periodic Table. See Scerri 2012

The Eno/Schmidt card deck is still available. See Oblique Strategies: See also
Interestingly, software designer and Agile Methodology pioneer Ward Cunningham is the common force behind both the “CRC Card” modelling technique and wiki software. Both draw inspiration directly from card play; both were originally implemented in Apple’s Hypercard. See Cunningham 2003.↩

Some notable examples of writing and personal organization software attempt to provide a visual sorting mode. The writing software Scrivener features a “corkboard” mode in which snippets can be dragged around onscreen like so many cards. The web-based task manager Trello works on a visual sorting metaphor, moving card-based tasks from one column to another.


Cracks, Crevices and Canyons

Various interpretations of the term ‘digital divide’ and the causes and consequences of such divides

In the following article I would like to make a case for how to best interpret the term “Digital Divide”. The term has been used widely since the late 1990’s and has grown to include a variety of meanings. While describing these various types of interpretations I will also point out the possible causes and consequences.

The term ‘digital divide’ can be understood in a variety of ways, the most common and initial meaning is ‘the differential access to and use of the Internet according to gender, income, race and location’ (Rice 2002). As the technological digital divide is quickly decreasing between those with access to the internet and those without, the meaning of the term digital divide is expanding.

This new expansion of the term gives us many angles in which to view the topic of digital media and our relationship to it. Although I will categorized these meanings into three different perspectives, there is a great deal of overlap and one meaning of digital divide may influence the degree of different type of digital divide. For example, if a person’s level of connectivity is fairly low this generally causes the person to have a lower level of fluency in digital media.


The divide can be categorized in three ways of understanding the access to, use of and knowledge of digital media:

  1. Connectivity:
    Who’s connecting, How are they connecting and what are the factors effecting their connectivity
  2. Media literacy – how sophisticated is their usage of digital media, are they consuming, producing or both
  3. Social acceptance – why are they connecting to digital media


Although diminishing, there has and, arguably may always be a gap between those that have access to the Internet and those that don’t.
There are a great deal of causes for the connectivity gap that usually stem from economic inequality or socio-economic factors such as income, education, age, and geographic location to name just a few. The divide is decreasing due to the growing ubiquity of networks around the world as well as the proliferation of affordable mobile devices and laptops. This year (2013) mobile usage of the internet will surpass laptops according to Pingdom.

Mobile share of web traffic

2010 2012 Increase 2010-2012
Africa 5.81% 14.85% 155.59%
Asia 6.1% 17.84% 192.46%
Europe 1.81% 5.13% 183.43%
North America 4.71% 7.96% 69.00%
Oceania 2.88% 7.55% 162.15%
South America 1.46% 2.86% 95.89%
Worldwide 3.81% 10.01% 162.73%

In Canada the connectivity divide is primarily between people within urban and rural settings. The digital disparity has become such a concern that the CRTC has called for a public hearing in the fall to consider whether a new “regulatory framework” is necessary to “ensure all Canadians have access to affordable broadband service.” Globe And Mail, 2010

Despite incentives and the CRTC ruling there still remains a great divide when it comes to rural Canadians connecting to the Internet. The consequence of this lack of connectivity will lead to businesses staying in urban centres and possibly issues in urban density in the future.

Media Literacy

While the connectivity divide has been steadily decreasing a more pronounced gap seems to be increasing between those that are literate, proficient and fluent in digital media and those that are not. The undeniable cause of this gap is that a large percentage of the interfaces for digital media are designed by people that are already fluent digitally and make assumptions about how their target users will learn using these new interfaces. Although, generally usability of interfaces has greatly improved over the past decade there is still an immense difference between designing interfaces for digital natives in comparison to baby-boomers.

A so-called ‘second-level’ digital divide, also referred to as the production gap, describes the gap that separates the consumers of content on the internet from the producers of content.
Last year a survey conducted using 80,000 Canadians by online statistics company, Vision Critical that shows that on Facebook 68% of users create only 25% of the user contributions. That seems to be a huge divide between those that are considered ‘sharers’ in comparison to those considered ‘lurkers’. – Invisible Audiences

Although the hardware and software tools seem to be more accessible and usable, there are people between 40-70 years old that find themselves baffled by using these devices and graphical user interfaces.

Social Acceptance

Over the past 5 years two distinct camps seemed to have formed, those that want to understand and want explore the potential of digital media and those that criticize digital media, fear its’ long-term consequences and perhaps feel left behind. The whole Cyberpunk movement seems to reflect the growing sentiment that technology and the Internet are creating more dysfunction, emotionless communication and general detachment from the world around us. The psychological divide can be seen from both a social and individual level and breaks down into the following areas:

Privacy Divide

These factors compounded with our increasing concern for the privacy of our loved ones will bring about even more of a divide. The consequence will be a poor unbalanced representation of our population as they many live there lives online and others avoid it.

Fear Factor

As computer viruses become more sophisticated and traditional media outlets present doom & gloom scenarios of the not-so-distant future many late adopters of the web are fearful and apprehensive to dive in and learn.
“32% of non-internet users cite reasons tied to their sense that the internet is not very easy to use. These non-users say it is difficult or frustrating to go online, they are physically unable, or they are worried about other issues such as spam, spyware, and hackers. This figure is considerably higher than in earlier surveys.” – Non-Internet Users

Data Divide

We are now entering the age of Big Data, an era when what ever can be measured and digitized, will be. There will become a new divide between those with access to and tools to understand digital data and those without. As Vision Critical describes “Assuming you have access to the data and an analytical process in place, you can collect digital data in real time, rather than waiting to draft a questionnaire, field a study, analyze and report on results. You can fail fast and often, innovating on the run” Vision Critical’s New Digital Divide


It is now becoming clear that the technological gap is rapidly decreasing mainly due to the spread of mobile phones around the world. IDATE, a consultancy, reckons that the number of people accessing the internet via mobile devices will overtake the number using fixed-line connections in mid-2014. – Economist 2013

As technology races forward, the crucial aspect of the divide is the human component not the technological one. The concept of a digital divide is extremely important to help us understand how our ever-evolving relationship with technology and digital media is ultimately shaped by societal, socio-economic and psychological factors as much as technology itself. The consequences of these divides can have far-reaching damage to our lives and how we interact with others, not to mention the haves having more and the have-nots having less.


Mobile share of web traffic in Asia has tripled since 2010, Pingdom. May, 2012

Sharers and lurkers, your invisible social media audience

New Digital Divide, Vision Critical blog

Live and Unplugged, Economist Magazine, Nov 2012

Who’s Not Online and Why, Pew Internet, 2013

All images created by Digital Glitch Generator by Pixelnoizz