Designer Nicholas Felton is known for his interest in data. With his famous Annual Reports, he established a reputation for creatively visualizing information to present a novel, illuminating, non-narrative recapitulation of a year:

 

 

While a primary source of popular interest in these reports was the ingeniousness of the visualizations (and later the trendiness of the theme), what remains interesting throughout the years are the ideas of

  1. apprehending a life in a more reliable and explicable way,
  2. understanding ourselves more accurately and more deeply, and thus
  3. being able to change and improve ourselves through clarity of insight and comprehension of cause and effect.

As it happens, this theme of much of Felton’s work anticipates what looms as the next major field of technological consumer innovation: wearables, as a category, offer few features more important than their sensors, which promise to tell us more clearly how we sleep, how we eat, what drives our moods and feelings, what gives us energy, how our pulse and blood sugar look, how far we’ve walked (and how far we should walk), and more.

How much more? What will start perhaps with watches and eyewear and iBeacon-type spatial sensors seems likely to extend to implants and disposables one day. Thanks to cameras, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and sensors still not commercially common but soon enough to be everywhere, we will know what we want to know and measure what we want to measure. The point: in designing for data, Felton is designing for resource in which we’ll soon be drowning. 

 

His new app is called Reporter, and it has been developed in part from his own use. Reporter is a tool for collecting and visualizing various kinds of data:

  • A few types of sensor data from your iPhone
  • Random sampling: infrequent push notifications ask you to check in and report on whatever you’re tracking

Reporter visualizes the forms of data it knows what to do with (and one can hope it will add additional visualization formats and data types in time) and captures and presents back in a fairly handy way whatever it doesn’t graph.

What makes Reporter most interesting is that it recognizes that it has a general function and attempts to solve the very difficult design problem introduced by generality —how to make it useful to the task while still appropriate for most or all forms of the task— in a neat way: by being designed around customizability.

Reporter is made for users to enter the questions they want to be asked and the things they want monitored; to choose how they want to enter answers and data (Y/N, multiple-choice, text, etc.); to have easy access to their habitually-entered names; to control how often they’re surveyed; even to change the interface’s main color.

 

That customizability is a compromise is an idea accepted uncritically by the zeitgeist, but while bail-out customizability reflects poor design, Reporter is like a multi-tool, or a meta-tool: its optionality is not bolted onto edges where the designer couldn’t make up his mind; it’s a core element of the app.

Over time, I’ll be especially curious to see how the customizability is enhanced or reduced; as use-cases become known, it may be less valuable (or its cognitive cost on users may seem less “worth it”). On the other hand: it may be that given how variable what we want to track is, Reporter is really more of a “general app-sized platform for data collection and management,” in which case its customizability (and the design challenge of keeping it simple and intelligible amidst the options and structural variability) might grow.

Reporter is most fascinating to me personally in its pragmatic and non-ideological solution to the problem of qualitative data. As someone concerned with mental health and worried that both the psychological lives of individuals and the broader mentality of the public receive too little attention due to their vaporous, qualitative nature, I’m excited that Reporter collects surveys in addition to figures from sensors. It’s worth noting: as sexy as “big data” is, it remains impossible to capture much of the human experience in numbers; that mood, morality, purpose, and so on cannot be charted doesn’t mean they’re not important, and Felton deserves credit for not ignoring the importance of the non-mathematical. The temptation is always to dismiss what doesn’t measure in our paradigm, but pragmatic design acknowledges the limitations of all solutions. I hope to see more experiments in easily capturing ignored forms of important information.

I told my non-technical girlfriend about Reporter and she was excited by the thought of tracking how she felt, her energy levels, and how we’re doing as a couple. One needn’t be technical to desire self-improvement; all of us are familiar with the sense of being “stuck” battling the same tendencies or frustrations endlessly. The promise —and at present, it seems in my opinion to be no more or less than that— of apps like Reporter and sensor technologies in general is to release us from stagnation: to show us what drives how we feel, where we self-sabotage, when we’re at our best or worst and why so that we can change, develop, grow. This app is especially exciting because

  • It’s an attempt at a general software solution to data collection: especially impressive at iPhone-scale
  • It acknowledges the import of both quantifiable and qualitative forms of information
  • If it works, it will help people know themselves more accurately in ways we cannot predict: it is a creative platform

Felton was recruited to Facebook in part on the strength of his interest in and innovative work on what we might generally call the problem of capturing and re-presenting human life in software. He’s partially credited with the development of Timeline, and it’s worth contemplating how both Timeline and Reporter reflect the same desire, the same theme. That Timeline needed to be fully automatic (that is: no surveys, no data entry, made from Facebook activity only) and sensible to about 1B users accounts for its reduced complexity, of course. Reporter seems both less and more ambitious: obviously for far fewer users and thus more complex, more demanding; but also extensible, flexible, general. If Timeline was for users to know their Facebook self, Reporter is for you to know the self you care about, the details that matter to you.

The last thing to note about Reporter is that it is, in keeping with that focus, utterly private: it is not a network; you don’t sign into an account; data stays local, on your device only. It does not seem to be a “play” at something and doesn’t monetize you; it is a tool for self-knowledge.

It is a salient feature of our age that we have access to increasing loads of data but with no attendant increase in our self-knowledge or confidence in our ability to set goals and achieve them; Reporter thus seems not only useful now but reflective of a promising path in the future. Designing for data is just beginning; solving the problems introduced by combining data types, different sorts of intervals, visualizing sensor information, and so on is only going to get more important. Reporter reflects Felton’s many years of work in this area, and as such is worth examining, critiquing, and improving: all characteristics of important design.

Mills Baker