Alexandra Lange | Essays

ISO The Digital Sidewalk Critic

Apple iPad

Last week Slate ran an example of the design criticism I am missing: "I hate my iPad," by John Swansburg.
I admit that I bought my iPad for the wrong reasons. I got one because it seemed like everyone I knew had gotten one for Christmas and, well, I felt left out. I didn't think about how it would fit in with the gadgets I already owned (laptop, Kindle, iPhone), and I didn't borrow a friend's and take it on a test drive. Now I just feel annoyed, having spent $600 on a device that hasn't done anything to improve my life. A salad spinner would have been a better investment, and I don't even eat that much salad.I don't think the iPad is useless.

There's no question that it makes browsing the Web while sitting on the couch easier. Though I have a relatively svelte laptop, it's kind of a pain to tote around the apartment. But am I the kind of person who pays $600 to save the effort of detaching some USB cables from time to time? I don't want to be that kind of person.
And so on. Swansburg disusses the tablet's browsability and readability, distractions of the internet and requests for payment from iTunes. Then he gets into an IM duscussion with his tech-loving colleagues, and wins a few points.

Last semester I was looking for examples of interaction design criticism for my D-Crit class and came up short. Reviews I read were either in love with the idea of the app, never mind the execution; or too tecnical for the lay reader; or too focused on the device and not the experience. I've seen the iPad reviewed as fetish object and as tech advance, but never before the whole user experience. What Swansburg provided was what I have been missing: a walk-through of how a regular person might use the device. It is sidewalk criticism for the digital world, and we need more (a lot more) of it.

The fact that this review is "late" is part of its beauty. I've often considered starting a column called The Late Adopter, to talk about what is surely my shared experience as someone who can't and won't rush out and buy the latest thing. I don't have the money for much of it, but more to the point, I like to see what people say a new thing is good for, and whether that's something I need to do. But so few reviews go there, since the tech critics have to review immediately and move on. And most real people, once they have spent $600, are loath to admit they can't actually do anything new and better on their latest purchase. Sounds a lot like some architecture criticism, no?

So, let's backtrack. If there are other pieces of design/tech criticism you love, please send links (maybe I'll assign them next fall). And I will continue to hope for more Mumfords of the digital realm.

Posted in: Technology, Theory + Criticism

Comments [9]

There's just far too little criticism in general - tech, architectural, cultural, etc. Everything feels like one big huge PR push for whatever is the latest thing to hold the public's attention for a few minutes. I like your idea for "The Late Adapter." I've been considering starting a site that I want to call "The Crank." It would be all criticism all the time of anything that the world was currently gushing over. And yes, it would be a reference to my current state of annoyance at most things. I think the world could use a few more cranks! Ha!
Andrew Wagner

Funny. My other idea for a blog is letsgetcritical.com, a collection of links to the best piece of criticism of whatever that I read in a day. Inspired by longform.org and other sites that collect journalism of 2000 words plus, but mostly pieces under 1500 words.
Alexandra Lange

If you want to see a really good "Crank" blog, check this out:


It is full of people writing criticism of tech, architecture, and culture.

I think it was created because people thought it was too hard for everyone to start their own 'zines.

How are things like the iPad sold? With short, cheery, possibility-packed commercials. Those create an almost immediate gut-reaction of "yea" or "nay." I think that no amount of criticism (especially long-form criticism) can force long-term mindfulness into a reader, because ultimately the person already approaches the review knowing whether they want the thing or not. I think this is especially true in the case of "luxury" items like the iPad.

In addition, a "late" or "delayed" review will just lose efficacy once the new version of that object appears. As it is, Swansburg's article ran last week and a new iPad is rumored to be announced March 2nd. I just don't believe the "sidewalk consumer" would actively seek criticism like Slate is delivering because their mindset is already on the aforementioned sidewalk, outside the Apple store, waiting to buy a new iPad.

In 5 to 10 years, I think the iPad will be an important object for many of us. We (designers) will eventually develop utilitarian apps that enhance the quality of life. But right now, a lot of us are unwilling (or unable) to buy an expensive toy that still has kinks and lacks many useful functions.

Unfortunately, many of the first to buy the iPad were hardcore Apple enthusiasts -- they already owned an array of tools that essentially do the same thing, rendering the iPad more or less useless. Quite a first-world problem, isn't it?


I don't think the iPad is aimed at early adopters - those of us who already have Macbooks, iPhones, maybe even an iMac - we're not the target audience.

The premise of John's article hits the nail on the head, whether or not he realizes it - the iPad is not really designed for him. Not everyone owns an Apple laptop, let alone *any* laptop. There are even still plenty of people without smartphones and broadband access in this country.

There's a big opportunity for Apple to sell the iPad to people who've never owned any sort of computer. It's simple, you can hold it on your lap, read books on it, watch shows, and even work on it (check out the Writer app). What more do *most* people need?
Keith Harper

@alexandra – As Keith already pointed out: the part of design criticism that is missing from the design criticism that you are missing ;-) is to clarify and reflect upon its underlying assumptions (and cognitive biases). Okay – we are still able to apply methods of e.g. discourse analysis to bring them out. But then, it is not until there appears some kind of meta-criticism that the criticism gets really useful.

But basically I violently agree: we *dearly* need both more and better design criticism – not only but especially in the IxD/UX/CX/… field. And I would rather like to see that criticism be authored by people with a solid grasp on design processes etc. Which currently mostly means: designers themselves.
Sascha Brossmann

I've long advocated for user-centric architectural and design criticism, based mainly on narratives that discuss and show what it's like to actually live in or work in particular buildings (or what it's like to live in a neighbourhood affected by such buildings), or what it's like to actually use a designed artifact -- and how all that relates to the original aims of the designer or architect and other factors such as the more easily critiqued aspects such as form or aesthetics or historical precedents, etc. I don't see many examples of such criticism -- not even here at Design Observer -- so I can't give any good examples here, unfortunately.

Having said all that, while I think Swansburg's review approaches the user-based approach I'd like (minus the narrative), he really isn't a very good example of "of how a regular person might use the device" -- he already has a lot of the tools the iPad would give him, and he doesn't have the sort of need that (e.g.) I have for being able to show clients videos and images out in the field, etc. It's just not the tool for him -- and it'd be interesting to see an ordinary user narrative of a day's iPad use with someone the iPad *did* suit.
Hamish Reid

Funny, "Let's Get Critical" is precisely the title of a talk I gave earlier this month (http://www.arch.umu.se/english/news/) in which I argue that criticism needs now, more than ever, to demystify architectural rhetoric. Let me know when you launch letsgetcritical.com!
Rafael Gomez-Moriana

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