The War on Self-Understanding

by Dirk on July 17th, 2014 - Comments (0)

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has been a recent target of attack. From the thoughtful-but-over-the-top Huffington Post article to the recent hit piece from Vox, online publications with high visibility are taking aim at the MBTI. While some of the criticisms of the MBTI in these pieces are valid, their inflammatory conclusions are not (“totally meaningless”?!?! Really?) This divisive approach serves to create a chilling effect of embarrassment and self-doubt for the people who use tools like the MBTI to augment their journey of self-understanding.

Since 2010 I’ve been deeply immersed in studying behavioural aspects of the human condition. A good part of that learning has occurred in applied business tools like the MBTI. In fact, I’ve become certified in a variety of tools including four of the most popular: the MBTI, the DiSC, the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), and the Hogan System. I did not get these certifications to start a consulting business and leverage the methods for cash; it was part of a massive process of learning about models of human understanding to put into my own, broader work.

What I like about methods devised for a professional environment is that they are designed for acceptance and adoption. Yes, inevitably there are people who don’t want their personality to be examined. But the design of these tools is generally geared toward framing constructive and productive conversations about (depending on the tool) behaviours, skills, values, and preferences. Yes, of course people misuse them. Whether the product of a poorly administered assessment, or poor communication around the results, or treating the results as scientific truth as opposed to a guideline, or even the employer over-emphasizing the results and making foolish judgments, any attempt to characterize and make decisions about people can lead to harm. We have all heard stories of a personal vendetta, or a manager who doesn’t pay close enough attention, or any other number of incompetencies. The problem in these latter examples is not the very concept and presence of managers, it is how those managers actually do their jobs. So it is with personality tools like the MBTI, tools with tremendous potential to do good, yet also hold the potential to instead do harm.

“Personality tests” have their strengths and weaknesses. In getting educated in so many methods I quickly identified patterns and problems—things I thought were more or less true, that worked better or worse. Ultimately there was no one that I liked best, even if cherry-picking aspects among them. These tools do not represent some scientific truth from on high, nor should should they be treated as such. Yet they certainly have the potential to be valuable in ways that, say, astrology (to use something compared to the MBTI) does not. This should be obvious on its face as the MBTI, for example, claims to reflect the inherent preferences that each of us has. I think we can all agree that we are each born with inherent preferences, regardless of our respective beliefs about the nature/nurture balance in who we finally become. However I think almost all of us can likewise agree that the notion that the pillars of our behaviour and personality being the product of the time of year we are born is ridiculous on its face.

The biggest problem facing our species is not global warming, the world economy, or third-world genocides. It is a lack of understanding of the self and one another. This, indeed, is the root from which the seemingly more pressing problems begin, as we ignorantly and animalistically fail to harness technology we’ve developed but lack the ability to responsibly use, or to harmoniously co-exist in a multinational world with over 7 billion people. While the hard sciences have enjoyed an orgy of investment, attention, and progress since Copernicus shattered the vanity of our Earth, only minimal time and effort have gone into a “science” of human understanding. One of the more notable examples is the work of Dr. Carl Jung, who was one of the primary targets of the Vox piece. So little work is being done around human understanding and, instead of trying to glean insight and grow from that work, these publications simply burn it to the ground without providing an alternative.

Now, the HuffPost piece did attempt to be constructive in mentioning the “Big Five Personality Traits,” which is the scientist’s proposal of a correct model for human personality. I’ve studied this as well, and I agree with the basic premise that, through the lens of hard science, the “Big Five” is more generally correct. The problem is that it is entirely unusable by people in their everyday lives. The “Big Five” offers five dimensions of personality traits each of which is on a continuum from most to least desirable. Very few people will be willing to accept this sort of a personality assessment. Rather than give people language to understand themselves and engage with others in a more aware and meaningful life it puts people on the defensive. As might be expected, most people are low in one or more of these measures. Some people are low in ALL of them!

I wonder how the inherently judgmental nature of the “Big Five” would translate to a professional setting? I wonder whether it could lead to productive conversations about how people work and live together? The “Big Five” may be very useful for secretly evaluating and making decisions about people, judging one more or better than the other. It may be very useful for a totalitarian government to ruthlessly structure its society around. It may be very useful for a eugenics agenda, to weed out those deemed inferior. But it offers little to help solve the biggest challenge of all: helping each of us understand ourselves, and provide a language and framework with which to navigate the complicated world that we share.

That’s where the MBTI is useful. Its four binary characteristics do have a relationship to human preference and behaviour. Is it clean and perfect and “scientifically valid”? No. Is it better than simply following our ignorant human impulses, with no attempt to understand what is going on inside us, or who other people are and how they might be wired as well? Yes, yes, infinitely yes! However, instead of trying to advance the conversation, to evolve from our current generation of personality frameworks into something more complete and correct, writers choose to throw around “utterly meaningless” and “astrology” and claiming it has equivalent merit to a Buzzfeed quiz.

It is hard enough for people to feel comfortable looking at who and what they are, doing the work to understand themselves, put language around it, and feel safe engaging one another in open, honest dialog. The MBTI, for better or worse, is one of the few tools that has some degree of wide adoption and use. It is based on the ideas of Dr. Carl Jung, one of the foundational figures in the field of psychology, and has been developed over more than 70 years. Many people often have some notion of their MBTI type specifically and the model in general, even if over time it has been reduced to “I’m an E-something-something-something.” By simply dropping a nuke on the MBTI and reducing it to the level of snake oil you discourage people from taking an interest in who they are. The whole activity becomes unsafe. The fact that people saw truth and insight via the MBTI framework is being used by cavalier columnists to make them feel foolish. We already feel insecure enough sharing our essential selves without the few tools doing a reasonable job at providing understandable language and concepts being reduced to a joke or humiliation.

The hard sciences use a very specific, systematic, analytical process for figuring out the world around us. There is a search for truth and fact that is seductive in its seeming promise of certainty. That is not the correct process for every endeavour; just ask people who are terminally ill how they feel about waiting for FDA approval on treatment that could save their lives. Exploring the self should be an active, ongoing process, one that at this stage in the process is seen as both experimental and emerging. There may come a time for hard science but, like the pioneers in those fields centuries ago, we must encourage openness and participation. We remain at or near the starting blocks in this endeavour and, given the complexity of who and how we are, new approaches should be encouraged to help drive toward solutions that are considered more acceptable through the traditional lens of science.

It just might be that we are afraid. It’s the same fear that people often show when getting the “results” of a personality tool like the MBTI. Most of us are insecure. We are scared the rest of the world may realize us for the pretenders that we fear we actually may be. We are afraid of not measuring up to the Jones next to us. That’s why the tentative efforts of tools like the MBTI to help work through questions of personality, behaviour, and preference are easy and frequent targets. Science proclaiming understanding and thus dominion over the natural world makes all of us feel a little bigger. Endeavouring to lean into deep specifics of who and what we are in some real and intentional way taps into our fears and insecurities. So it is that looking for ways to assail the modest tools that are available is so seductive and, ultimately, easy.

I believe that nothing offers greater potential to improve our world holistically, and make the most of our lives individually, than a deep understanding of ourselves and each other. It is the missing link in a world where drones fulfill orders, satellites orbit the Earth, and a majority of first-world people can go from making the decision to record a video to sharing it with a friend on the other side of the planet in under a minute. We know how to make the magic but we still don’t know how to intelligently use it.

I know the MBTI isn’t perfect. But the shallow criticisms being popularly made draw erroneous conclusions from incomplete information and analysis. It should be tested and it should be critiqued, but in a constructive way. There is no common language for personality. Even if the language we have now is incomplete, or imprecise, it represents building blocks toward something more comprehensive. That something isn’t here yet, but we should not be cowed into stopping our exploration and attempts to learn and grow in the meantime. Bombastic—and inaccurate—attacks have just that bullying effect: to push our society farther away than it already is from the important and elusive objective of real human understanding.

Give me the author who is critical, but is looking to build and move the conversation forward. Give me the explorer who sees the urgency of human understanding and wants to help pioneer the next and better thing. Give me people with an open mind and an interest in truly understanding themselves. Of all the many things our world “needs,” none is more important than this.

About Dirk Knemeyer
Dirk is a social futurist exploring the intersection between technology, society, and the human condition and a founder of Involution Studios. He has written over 100 articles for publications like Business Week, given over 50 speeches and presentations including keynotes in the United States and Europe and at venues like TEDx and South by Southwest, and served on 15 boards spanning media, healthcare, and educational organizations.

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On The Digital Life: Health Axioms and Designing for Behavior Change

by emily on June 11th, 2014 - Comments (0)

Recently on The Digital Life podcast, Involution’s Jon Follett sat down with Creative Director Juhan Sonin to discuss the Health Axioms card deck and designing for behavior change.

The Health Axioms are 32 recommendations that put you in touch with habits to improve your health, life, and well-being. The sometimes surprising, always practical axioms nudge you toward the healthiest life possible. These are one small part of a global movement to shift the health care system to one of: non-invasive personal diagnostics, highly specialized clinicians that work closely with patients and their families, and self-monitoring, self-empowered patients. Getting there is equal parts smart technology, healthcare reform, and everyday common sense.

Sonin describes how personal experience launched his involvement in healthcare design and technology, when he realized that his health was not as perfect as he’d thought. Despite his own fascination with the latest gadget, however, he reminds us that simple behavior change still plays a vital part in our health. The Health Axioms “help people cut through the BS and focus on clear actionable advice that will hopefully have impact on how we interact with the healthcare system and our bodies. … Each card has a single idea on it. One specific behavior that we should concentrate on like ‘Move more,’ or ‘Get more sleep,’ ‘Take baby steps,’ ‘Exercise is medicine,’ ‘Food is medicine.’”

Juhan has distributed hundreds of decks nationally (and internationally) over the past few months and shares some of the feedback and ideas coming in, along with plans for the future (and a sneak peek at a few of the new card topics).

So, blend up that green smoothie, tie on your walking shoes, and listen while you move!

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Utopia in Our Pocket

by emily on May 5th, 2014
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Utopia in our Pocket
Watch this presentation.

This past March, Involution’s Dirk Knemeyer spoke at TEDxDenisonU as part of a series entitled “Real Utopias: From Dreams to Practice.”

In “Utopia in our Pocket” Dirk proposes that, thanks to the proliferation of the smartphone, we can start to think about radical changes that will fundamentally shift the way we live for […]

The Different Postures Of Knowledge-Work

by emily on April 30th, 2014
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Jen stands and Dirk sits

Designer Jen Patel stands to discuss a workflow diagram, while post author Dirk Knemeyer sits deep in thought.

As far back as I can remember, when it was time for my mind to think, it was time for my body to pace.

Not just any thinking, mind you: hard thinking. When a conversation required me to incorporate important […]

Involution’s Health Axioms Featured on NPR

by emily on April 10th, 2014
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NPR Health Axioms Story

Involution’s Health Axioms are grabbing the attention of the health innovation community.

NPR Health Blogger Nancy Shute posted her impressions of the Health Axioms recently in If A Picture’s Worth 1,000 Words, Could It Help You Floss?

After getting her own Health Axioms in the mail — with a personal note — Shute called Involution’s Juhan […]

Involution Studios Sponsors 2014 GET Conference

by emily on March 28th, 2014
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GET Conference Logo

GET Conference
April 30, 2014
8:30 AM to 5:30 PM (EDT)

Ballroom at the Hotel Marlowe
25 Edwin H Land Blvd
Cambridge, MA 02141

Involution Studios is a sponsor of this year’s GET Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts next month. Organized by, the Conference is planned each year to coincide with […]

Open Humans Project Wins Knight Foundation: Health Award

by emily on February 4th, 2014
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How did a workshop with Involution take the Personal Genome Project from “a bunch of ideas” to the creation of the award-winning Open Humans Network?

The Knight News Challenge: Health asked innovators to present solutions that harness the power of data for the health of communities, with a strong focus on civic participation and solution building. Among the seven […]

Guiding EHR Design

by Jen on September 30th, 2013
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A truly powerful electronic healthcare record (EHR) encompasses more than just passing information between the physician and the patient: It should be a tool that benefits the physician’s efficiency and, most importantly, the patient’s health.

Involution Studios is working with the University of Missouri, with Jeff Belden, MD as project lead, to design and write an eBook that offers insights […]

Involution Principal Discusses Design for Emerging Technology on O’Reilly Radar Podcast

by Jon on September 12th, 2013
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Involution Principal, Jon Follett, editor of the upcoming book “Designing for Emerging Technologies” recently spoke with Jenn Webb, O’Reilly Radar’s online managing editor and Mary Treseler, editorial strategist, on the O’Reilly Radar Podcast. In the podcast, the group discussed the challenges of understanding the disruptive power of emerging technologies — such as genomics, robotics, synthetic biology, and connected environments. […]

Invo’s Scott Sullivan Tells Designers: Learn to Code! in Fast Co.Design

by Danielle on May 29th, 2013
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“Have you ever been punched in the face?” That’s what Scott Sullivan, User Experience Designer at Involution, wants to know. In his Fast Co. feature article, Designers: Learn To Code! Here’s How to Start, Scott assures young designers learning to code isn’t that bad. “The fear of getting punched in the face holds you back from […]

Governor Patrick’s Misguided Tax on Software Design and Development

by Jon on March 19th, 2013
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Under a provision in Governor Deval Patrick’s fiscal 2014 plan for the state, a “modern products” Massachusetts sales tax of 4.5% will be levied on the design and engineering services that create the digital world. Massachusetts is filled with software development companies — with verticals from mobile to healthcare to enterprise. It’s a key innovation sector that drives the growth […]

Involution’s hGraph featured in Wired and Health IT Buzz

by Jon on February 25th, 2013
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Involution’s hGraph, an open source health metrics visualization, was recently featured in Wired Magazine online, highlighted in the article, “How Restyling the Mundane Medical Record Could Improve Health Care.” The Wired spot discusses hGraph’s strong social component: By tracking the data for entire families hGraph illustrates how some conditions, like obesity and heart disease, can be affected by collective […]

hGraph Selected for National Patient Record Redesign Showcase

by Jon on January 18th, 2013
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The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), challenged designers across the United States to re-imagine the presentation of the medical record in order to create a better patient experience. The objective of the Health Design Challenge was to create a usable, beautiful medical record enabling patients to more easily […]

Rethinking the Patient Medical Record

by Jon on December 3rd, 2012
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The Health Design Challenge, sponsored by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), is encouraging the UX design community to rethink the presentation of the medical record in order to create a better patient experience. The objectives are to design a usable, beautiful medical record that […]

“Always on” will start to turn off

by Dirk on September 30th, 2012
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Each day, more and more people go thru their lives with their head tilted downward and their thumb manipulating a handheld computer. This is not class-based behaviour: these expensive machines and/or the data plans that govern them are being accessed as readily by the cashier at Burger King as the corporate CEO or suburban soccer mom. The prevalence of these […]

Get Your Design Axioms Card Deck Today

by Jon on September 5th, 2012
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We’re excited to announce the debut of our Design Axioms card deck, which encapsulates essential software design wisdom from industry luminaries including Andrei Herasimchuk, Luke Wroblewski, Dirk Knemeyer, and Juhan Sonin.

Four years in the making, the first card set has been published as a physical deck, available via Amazon, and as digital art […]

The decay of good products

by Dirk on September 3rd, 2012
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Remember when Spam was just meat in a can? I’m not quite sure when “spam” became a daily and often painful reality of my life – sometime after 1994 but before 2000 – but if it wasn’t for spam filters I suspect email as an online tool would already be obsolete. If you create something good, that people pay attention […]

Designing Business Collaboration for a Knowledge Economy

by Jon on August 22nd, 2012
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The age of information is upon us, and much has been made of the great improvements to communication, collaboration, and business process efficiency as we transform from an industrial- to a knowledge-based economy. However, despite all the rapid technological changes of the past 20 years, we are still at the very beginnings of the knowledge work era. At the dawn […]

Understanding Our Virtual Connections

by Jon on August 15th, 2012
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One of the great challenges of knowledge work is in understanding how to integrate virtual tools into the oftentimes tricky realm of human communication and relationships. We take for granted that the constantly evolving toolset available to us is ultimately helpful to our productivity and ability to complete our day-to-day tasks. How did work ever get done without mobile phones […]

The University: A Catalyst for Boston’s Innovation Economy

by Jon on August 1st, 2012
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The university system is critical to the Innovation Economy in Boston. Not only do schools supply the region with well-trained creative class workers in fields like engineering, science, design, and architecture; they also serve as R&D labs, generating new technology research; and as catalysts for the marketplace of ideas that fuels entrepreneurialism and a growing ecosystem of start-up companies. In […]

Energy and Software

by Jon on July 23rd, 2012
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Energy is the industry that IT forgot — or at least until recently. While sectors as varied as finance and healthcare, entertainment and communications have roared ahead with digitization, automation, and analytics, the energy industry has not evolved as rapidly. Despite this fact, it’s clear that the future of energy lies in software. In both conservation and sustainability, software offers […]

Microsoft Surface and the Unified User Experience

by Jon on June 18th, 2012
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Today, Microsoft fired a significant salvo in the war for a Unified User Experience, with the debut of its Surface tablet. Taking a page from the Apple playbook, Microsoft is creating both the hardware and software for the Surface, a strategy it once executed successfully, with the Xbox 360 gaming console; and twice not so successfully, with the Zune […]

The Software Revolution Will Be Televised

by Jon on June 6th, 2012
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Last year, Internet luminary and entrepreneur Marc Andreessen wrote a significant essay in the Wall Street Journal, outlining the many ways in which software has become absolutely vital to our world. Software allows us to extend our reach even further than we did before, automating processes, accelerating the rate of change, and providing the sinews between people and data. […]

Rethinking Work

by Jon on May 21st, 2012
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We’re at the very beginnings of a significant evolution in the way we work — not just in from a technical perspective, although that’s a significant driver — but in the culture and nature of work and organizational relationships. The way we work today is markedly different from the way our parents worked, and even more distant from the way […]

Health, Technology, and Design

by Jon on April 8th, 2012
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At the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center last Wednesday evening, software innovators came together for a series of presentations and conversation about the opportunity for technology and design to effect positive change in healthcare.

The program, “Linking Healthcare, Technology and Design”, explored aspects of the changing face of the industry, and how digital solutions could provide the […]

Nine Principles of Great Companies

by Jon on March 28th, 2012
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At Involution, as a part of our commitment to learning and growing as a company, we conduct semi-regular studio critiques. This kind of critique is important to our ongoing evolution as an organization and helps everyone, from leadership to staff, understand the broad vision and values of the studio. As a part of that ongoing discussion, we’re drafting a set […]

Crowdfunding and Common Sense

by Jon on March 25th, 2012
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On Thursday, the US Senate passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act (73-26), which allows start-up companies for the first time to solicit early stage investments from the general public. The Senate version added some protections and requirements to the original bill previously passed by the House on March 8. For instance, in the Senate version, the Securities […]

Discovering Boston Innovation, Globally

by Jon on March 22nd, 2012
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One of my all time favorite books on innovation and the ecosystems that support it is Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class”. Using census and economic data, Florida examines the factors that make Creative Class jobs — in science, engineering, technology, architecture, and the arts — primary drivers for economic growth. He also identifies a number of Creative […]

Infovis Breakdown: Predicting Major League Baseball 2012

by Jon on March 16th, 2012
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Earlier this week, we released our Predicting Major League Baseball 2012 interactive information visualization with our picks for the playoffs this year. The visualization made its debut in the inaugural post on our recently launched channel on BostInno.

After the heartbreak of the Red Sox collapse last year, at Involution Studios we felt that, in order […]

What the iPad Retina Display Means for Designers

by Jon on March 7th, 2012
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Today Apple revealed the third generation iPad with its Retina screen, bringing the most powerful mobile visual display to market with a whopping 326 ppi in its 9.7 inch space. Print resolutions typically range from 300 – 1800 dpi, which means that Apple has effectively brought mobile computing into that same realm, a significant step to say the least. […]

Five Ways to Make Learning a Part of Your Company Culture

by Jon on March 2nd, 2012
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I don’t think there’s any question that the creative class jobs that drive our innovation economy — designers, engineers, scientists, architects, entrepreneurs, writers, etc. — are all positions that require constant learning and evolution. In a larger sense, our economy, the companies that survive and thrive, the types of jobs in demand, and the skill sets required to successfully compete […]

The Internet of Things, Seeding Boston Start Ups, and One User Experience for All

by Jon on February 22nd, 2012
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Here’s what we’re reading online, this week at Involution, on design, tech, and the digital life, in our links round up.

The Internet of Things Will Rise in Boston
With the advent of the mobile revolution, we’re now living connected lives, where our day-to-day activities are closely tied to the digital products and services that we carry with us everywhere […]

Big Data in Boston

by Jon on February 16th, 2012
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The Mass Technology Leadership Council held its annual Big Data Summit yesterday at the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center in Cambridge, MA. The sold out event was attended by a broad cross-section of the Boston tech community with engineers, designers, venture capitalists and business managers all coming together to discuss the future of Big Data in […]

The New Frontiers of Interaction Design: Understanding Ourselves and Culture

by Jon on February 6th, 2012
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Last week, the IxDA’s Interaction12 conference in Dublin, Ireland brought together the professional interaction design community from around the globe for four days of inspiring talks and workshops.

Involution Studios was well represented with two of our leadership team speaking. Involution Founder, Dirk Knemeyer examined the complex, cross-disciplinary question of how people understand themselves and each other, in his […]

The UI is the Hero

by Jon on January 26th, 2012
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Is the age of ubiquitous computing is upon us? We may not be living yet in William Gibson’s plugged-in future, but there’s no doubt that we’re absolutely dependent on the digital realm. From tablets to smart phones to laptops to car navigation systems, we always seem to be connected. The digital life is everywhere we go, and software is […]

Software Design is a Team Sport

by Jon on November 4th, 2011
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I’m a big Boston sports nut. And, as cliched as the sports metaphor may be for discussions on teamwork, there are lessons to be learned from the collapse of the Red Sox, which was the worst in baseball history and has ongoing and transformative consequences for the organization. There were, of course, many reasons for the losing streak that took […]

Authenticity and the digital life

by Dirk on September 2nd, 2011
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The “It’s (so-and-so’s) birthday” feature on Facebook is simultaneously one of the best and worst examples of how social networks can impact our digital lives. Best, in that it lets us know when something important and personal is happening to people we are connected to, and makes it easy for us to connect with them in that context. Worst, in […]

From the Archives – Working Virtually

by Jon on August 28th, 2011
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In this blog feature, we highlight articles from the past, written by our Invo colleagues that have stood the harsh test of Internet time and still have something to say to us today.

Four years ago, I wrote two pieces on the advantages and disadvantages, the ups and downs, the quirks and peccadilloes, of working on virtual teams for online […]

On Open Work Spaces

by Jon on August 20th, 2011
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The space in which we work defines us, both as individuals and as teams. Sometimes we’re unaware of how important our office environment is, but the fact remains that it’s key to our every day mental health and our ability to perform. Our work space effects whether we’re able to get our work done and whether we enjoy doing it. […]

Five Reasons to Sketch Your User Interface

by Jon on July 14th, 2011
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At Involution, when we design software, we draw upon a process akin to industrial design, where—after we engage in an initial product architecture to understand the feature grouping, flow, and functionality—the next step is often sketching.

If you haven’t done it before, sketching concepts for a software user experience may seem like a daunting task located in foreign territory: […]

Challenges present opportunities: innovation in Africa

by Dirk on March 8th, 2011
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This series on technology in Africa is written by Involution friends and emerging markets experts Niti Bhan and Muchiri Nyaggah.

Early last week, rolling blackouts across most of Nairobi interrupted daily life for the better part of two days. Intrepid Data Systems, a local systems integrator who had just moved into brand new office space, found out the hard way […]

Someday soon, your OS and browser will be the same thing

by Dirk on November 10th, 2010
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This week’s much-ballyhoed launch of RockMelt is again getting the tech intelligentsia in a lather about a potential new browser. What they seem to be ignoring is that the battle has already been won and lost: the best case scenario for RockMelt is, romantically, they become a plucky cult favourite like Flock before running out of steam and sinking […]

Facebook’s ascension reflects general ignorance of the web today

by Dirk on March 17th, 2010
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For the week ending March 13, 2010, and for the first time in its spectacular ascendancy, Facebook became the most visited site on the Internet. Already, analysts and experts are hailing this as a momentous event, one that validates the power of social networking in the rapidly evolving universe of the World Wide Web.