Addressing needs with unusual tactics: What if we had to use postcards?

This is a deliberately silly exercise, in the vein of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. A method of throwing out all the seemingly obvious things you should be trying to solve a (service design or interaction design) problem, and looking at it from another angle.

With ‘what if we had to use postcards’, it’s a bit more about trying something in order to reveal all the ways that it would be a bad idea. Not to see if postcards would actually work. Twitter: What if we had to use postcards? Managing Temporary Accommodation within a Council: What if we had to use postcards? Even suggesting the idea starts to reveal the issues, and therefore the most critical requirements, and the things that are most important to improve.

I’ve come to write about this trick today by way of thinking about one of my current favourite apps, Arc:

Automatically keep track of the places you visit, how you got there, and what you did while you were there. With a learning engine that gets smarter and more accurate the more you use it.


To give a bit of history, this is effectively the second version of this app that I’ve loved. The first was called Moves, and I wrote about the demise of that in 2014. I wrote then how I was disappointed that I had to stop using it, and how the exported data felt kind of useless.

Amazingly though, Arc has totally turned that around, both by feeling safe to use (it’s not owned by Facebook, and seemingly designed with privacy first), and by allowing my old data export to be imported. I’m back where I left off (with an 8ish year gap).

As stated above, Arc, like Moves before it, tracks your daily movements. It records everywhere you go (with your phone), and then figures out what modes of transport you take and what places you stop. At first glance, I bet that seems incredibly invasive and risky. And I suppose it it, but for some reasons I trust that the developer is genuine about his stance on ensuring the app is seriously privacy focused, and that he’s not skimming or selling my data in any way.

For the sake of this post, assume that’s correct, and that the app is completely safe. With that comfort in hand, let’s return to what I’m getting at.

This geo tracking app is my diary. The best diary I’ve ever kept. It’s the app I open in idle moments. It’s what I use to remember where landmarks are. It’s what I use to review how far I’ve walked or run or ridden when I’ve forgotten or not been bothered to actively track or ‘start an activity’ beforehand. It’s also an odd type of external backup memory, but an even better memory than the one I’ve got.

I would never have thought of a geo tracking app if I was going to design a dedicated app for any of those benefits. And I like how that makes me feel. Almost a bit daft. Or maybe just aware that what we think of as creativity is usually just about following patterns and practices that we’ve already seen.

Take just the diary part for example. I bet if you briefed 10 designers to ‘design a diary app’ that they’d all come up with something you write into. Or maybe take photos with, and add notes to. Obvious. And practically default thinking.

It makes me wonder how many things we do are possibly ineffectual methods at achieving the goals we’re after. As if we’re trapped in the inertia of convention. Which goes back to my post about doing things wrong in a way. The steadfast focus on ‘this is how it IS done’ and ‘this is the RIGHT way’.

It’s another train of thought that’s excited about new ways of doing things. Even if they’re utterly unknown and hard to reach. It’s just nice to think they’re out there I suppose. And findable by looking in less obvious places.