Interaction Design, User Experience, and Media Art


Posted on 2013-09-16

TEDxMontreal 2013

Thanks to a great deal of work from local organizers, Montréal was blessed enough to host a TED event. These conferences welcome inspiring speakers of many different fields, and I was lucky enough to attend this edition. Although the presentations ranged from health to personal growth to science fiction to behaviorism, I will mostly touch about those that are relative to the topics which I present on this blog, namely technology.

Justin Tan @ TEDxMontreal

The morning presentations revolved a lot around the health care system theme. Justin Tan’s presentation was quite poignant. He took a personal story, his dad’s partial paralysis, and explained how that lead him to research how technology could help patients recover.

In a nutshell, he presented how recovering patients are sent home with a list of exercises do do by themselves. He went on to explain that oftentimes, patients would lose motivation and drop out of their exercise routine, hurting or voiding their chances for recovery. He suggested that doctors prescribe software/games to help rehabilitation. By creating a social community and challenges around these softwares, patients are more likely to stay motivated. 

There was also this heartfelt plea by Nadim Kobeissi to keep the internet a free and open space for expression. His main argument was that encryption was necessary, after revelations about the NSA and especially in parts of the world where freedom of speech is threatened. However, he elaborated, encryption has failed to reach the mainstream mainly due to its elitist nature of creating tools that are not widely accessible and available to all. In order to remedy part of that problem, he worked on creating Cryptocat, a browser-based encrypted IM client.

I was delighted to discover Jason Lewis, one of my teachers from Concordia University, was also a speaker. Jason is basically the one whom I should thank for my coding career, for he taught me how to code in Processing back then. He was speaking about how the native communities should be more involved, whether by increasing their presence in science fiction, in video game development, or any other endeavors that create our collective future.

On a personal note, I met Harold O’Neal before his talk (sorry for the typo in my tweet), as he was sitting next to me, although I had no idea at first that he was one of the speakers!

There were obviously more presentations, many quite interesting. Whenever I see that they become available on TED’s website, I will post them here.

The takeaway

As the host Olivier Bernard pointed out at the beginning of the event, Montréal is in a unique position where presentations can be given in French and in English. And I must praise the event organizers for creating a logical flow of presentations in both languages through the day. Even the host would switch languages in between presentations.

As I have written before, it is important to consider translation and localization to respect your different audiences. To be honest, TED videos and articles are open and available for everyone to translate, and that is a great thing.

Although, why not make a great thing awesome? (I know you expected a “but” at this point, right?)

If you read me either on this blog or on my Twitter feed, you know that I always try to see how workflows and project can be improved. When I was sitting next to Harold O’Neal, and later next to Sandy Tam, they couldn’t follow the French speakers. And that is a loss, not only on their part, but also on the TED’s part. Harold did not even know that TED’s videos were subtitled, so he will be able to catch up with these presentations when they become available.

However that is not an ideal experience, is it? Nowadays, we designers and technologists shout out loud to every client and project stakeholder that the user experience is key to our project. We analyze, strategize, plan and conceive with that in mind. We came up with words and acronyms like customer experience, CX, user experience, UX, game experience, probably more that I don’t know. Aral Balkan calls himself an experience designer, and rightly so. In the case of the event I was mentioning above, we could even talk about the attendee experience. But names are superfluous really, we should just strive to make our projects better for our audience and clients.

So it got me thinking, how could that experience have been better? Oh sure, attendees and speakers could have been better informed that once the presentations are online, they most likely will be subtitled. But that is not optimal, those people are there, in situ. How can we improve the experience of unilingual attendees?


Let me present you the stenographer. The image above, taken from a BBC article, shows the machine that stenographers use. As the article denotes, “The ‘speed of speech’ is often defined as 180 words per minute (wpm).” That is really, really fast. In a nutshell, stenography is a way to write as fast as human speech. It used to be written with clever ways to shorten words, although nowadays it is more likely that stenographers use a machine akin to the one presented in the photo. Most of us have seen these in courts of law, where stenographers write down all that is said during hearings.

How does that lead to a better experience for event attendees? I believe that with some technological adaptations and training, we could have stenographers that write subtitles live, as the speaker presents his talk. Subtitles are often presented during operas. Many cinephiles see movies in their original language with subtitles. It is not impossible to envision subtitling talks.

Speakers usually have a prepared text which they could provide to the stenographer, in order to help them prepare. By no means do I believe that this is a simple task for the stenographer to translate and type at the same time, however there are already a lot of translators that do that live, on Canadian television for example, or at the UN.

As far as I know, live subtitling doesn’t exist. I strongly believe that the attendees would benefit from such an improvement. Given the opportunity, I would love to work on such a project.

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