Our Way: The Ingenuity of Unintended Uses

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No matter how hard we try to create designs for certain uses, people will always utilize them in their own way. These unintended uses can be strange, even brilliant. In the end, you have to tip your hat to the ingenuity.
To welcome 2008, the B&A Staff digs into our collective experience to tell a few stories of misappropriation of both the real (things you can buy) and ephemeral (ideas and thoughts) that we misuse for our own devices.
We hope you find some inspiration and add stories of your own ingeniousness to the comments.
Happy New Year,

Unintended Uses and Innovation
Very often, people use things in ways never imagined by their inventors. The makers of Excel probably never envisioned IAs one day using their application to create wireframes for web site, for instance. (Some IAs do use Excel for wireframes, you know).
Just consider the trash can propping open a door or that stack of books holding up the end of a broken shelf or the refrigerator door used as a bulletin board for the family. Examples of unintended use are all around us. I’ve even heard of double bass players using their large, soft-shell instrument cases to nap in between rehearsals like sleeping bag. Odd!
Here’s one thing I do: I use my browser bookmarks to manage passwords. After bookmarking a site that requires a password, I go into the properties of the bookmark and append the password to the title of it. (Not the most secure thing, I know, but there are worse things you could do, like having passwords on sticky notes all around your desk, which many people do). Did the makers of IE or FF intend that? Probably not.
Improvising and re-purposing the objects around us is common. In the ethnographic research for my company, we try to focus on is unintended use. Where do people find work-arounds to the tools and software they normally use? Where do people find hacks? The answers to these questions often point to places where a system breaks down, where people need a better mouse trap. And this is where there is potential opportunity for innovation and where product developers can bring real value to their users.
But unintended uses are also something that usually don’t come out in things like questionnaires or even usability tests. Instead, you have to go out and observe people in the natural setting to get this type of insight. Observing unintended uses first hand is an important source of inspiration and ideas for innovative design, I believe.
Take a quick look around your home. What things are doing that fall under “unintended use”? You probably don’t even realize that you are using many things in an unintended way. Most people don’t.
James Kalbach

Real: Paper Airplanes
My grandfather was an aviator as a young man, and a printer in later life. A considerable part of my childhood was spent making paper airplanes in his print shop. I was obsessed with making and flying them; there was something fascinating about transforming an inert object—an incredibly simple one, at that—into something that could soar.
My brother and I created hundreds of paper airplane designs. The first were very simple: one folded sheet of paper. Later ones incorporated other materials: glue, tape, balsa wood, metal clips, electric motors, even small Hot Wheels cars. We learned basic principles of aeronautical engineering: how to balance the plane’s weight around the wing, how to shape wings for optimal lift (or speed, as need be), the functioning of the diverse control surfaces, etc. We challenged ourselves to make planes that could fly smoother, faster, higher, or just look (or fly) unusual. Our paper airplanes were more than mere toys: they were a basic design education.
Fast-forward thirty years. I hadn’t made a paper airplane in a long time… until my nephews came along. They seem fascinated by paper planes! And their uncle knows how to make lots of them. So what was originally my plaything and obsession has become a bridge that helps me connect with a new generation in my family.
You can’t buy paper airplanes, but you can make them easily enough. Here’s a basic plane for you to try out…


Ephemeral: Bachelor of Arts, Architecture
When I entered architecture school, I expected to spend the rest of my life making buildings. However, I wasn’t too clear on what this actually meant. I’d known a few architects, but only had a very vague notion of what they did day-to-day. I was in for a shock.
The first couple of months in architecture school were among the most important in my life: I now had to think about and through design. My colleagues and I worked hard; the educaton of an architect is primarily a studio-based affair that entails long hours (“all-nighters” were common) and brutal group critiques. The objective seemed to be to understand (and exploit) the relationship between meaning/purpose, technology, and “human factors”. In the process I acquired many practical skills, ranging from arc welding to Photoshop. I was also exposed to concepts that changed my outlook on life: “Design Thinking”, Modernism, Derrida and those other nutty French post-structuralists.
Then something happened that would derail my plans: during my last semester, a friend from the Computer Science department showed me the internet. I was intrigued. Later—a year into my professional practice as an architect—I got on the web for the first time. It was clear to me that it was going to change the world, and that creating stuff on this medium would require an understanding of the relationsip between meaning/purpose, technology, and “human factors”—exactly what I’d been trained for. I dropped the drafting pencil and bought a book about HTML.
—Jorge Arango

Real: Here’s Thinking of You, Kid

forlorn bowlMy sister and I get on incredibly well, belying the fact that our experiences have been so different. Starting early on the family track, she still lives in myhometown with her two kids and will probably be there for a long while. On the other hand, I have traveled the world, lived in San Francisco, and now reside in Montreal with me, myself, and I.

She gave me some nice black earthenware bowls last year for Christmas. Being somewhat a minimalist, it can be difficult to find gifts for me. I receive a lot of small art and kitchen gifts. I appreciate them immensely, but my entertainents rarely feature multiple courses (or sorbet), include 15 people, or require serving vessels. As a result, I didn’t use the bowls for about six months. They sat in forlorn neglect on my kitchen shelf, poking little pins of guilt into me on regular occasions. Sigh.

One thing I do like is small rituals. One day while burning stick incense messily on a totally inappropriate incense burner, it dawned on me that the bowls would work amazingly well with some sand I had on-hand. The white sand stood inlovely contrast to the bowl and proved a perfect resting place for ash incense remnants.
Having expanded the use somehwat, I now enjoy the bowls quite often, thinking of my sister all the while.

cb bowls
Ephemeral: Do As I Do

I always have a mentor, sometimes several, as I like to ask people about how they got to be so great at x or y, try out his or her method myself, and come back for a bit of discussion.
My first mentor found me* way back when I was fresh out of college, thinking I would go immediately become an uber-consultant at Andersen (now Accenture) or Deloitte. Instead, I ended up as a temp on the phones at a mortgage servicing company. Talk about a reality check. The trainer at that job was amazing. He made the class fun even among some of the most boring raw material ever conceived. A few days outside of class, he pulled me aside and asked me, "What are you doing here? You can do more than this." Well, now it’s obvious that I was there to meet him.
Starting at that moment, he mentored my career for years, even helping me slough off some social awkwardness as I shifted from a suburban to a city resident. During this process, he helped tune my observational skills in ways that still benefits me every single day. One of his big themes was "play the game better than anyone else." I always had a hard time with this idea, as I was constantly amazed (and still am) at how organizations communicated in one direction (from top to bottom). It wasn’t until I ended up in San Francisco that I finally found a game that I wanted to play – to change the game!
I feel like my work is to find ways to help people listen to each other. It turns out that one-way communication is just a symptom of people not understanding context. Most of the time my suggestions manifest themselves as an interface, but others end up as changes to business plans, communication policies, and relationships between people inside and outside the organization.
To this day, he still makes fun of me on occasion, grousing that I never listen to him. But I did, really! I just had to apply his advice in the exact opposite way of how he intended. I can never thank him enough for sticking with me.
*Yes, I realize that this, too, is the opposite of how it normally works. Welcome to my world.
—Chris Baum

Real: Contact Lens Holder
As someone prone to headaches, I learned the hard way that having some remedy with me at all times is crucial to my personal and professional sanity.
The problem is that most packaging for headache medicine is either too bulky (and loud, carries in a purse) or hard to open (and struggling with super-hard plastic packaging is definitely not an option when faced with a headache), so using a contact lens holder is just perfect.
A free lens case is included with online lens orders, so it’s nice to find a perfectly good use for one of those seemingly useless extra cases that would otherwise end up in the trash. Besides, a contact lens case has two compartments—one for a simple headache remedy and the other for a major disaster. And that makes for a great, though unintended use of a real everyday thing.
—Natalia Minibayeva

Real: Skills Transfer
My first job after university was at a forensic psychiatric centre. We assessed the whole range of mentally disordered offenders: crime. mental disorder, and myriad combinations. Working there required patience and compassion as these people were not, um, at their best considering their mental state or legal situation. One time the only thing that kept me from getting a severe beating was my refusal to break eye contact with a six-foot-four screaming, angry patient. I did this kind of thing for 14 years as my wife and I raised our kids and I went through graduate school.
Time went on and I finished graduate school and began teaching. One of my first thoughts was "that’s 14 years of experience successfully binned". Was I wrong! The very skills of compassion and patience that I learned in the mental hospital (loony bin, nut factory, pick your euphemism) were precisely those needed with my students and (from time to time) my colleagues. While they have never threatened me and rarely yelled at me: they still have required a similar understanding as they pick their way through new territory. While the reasons for being there are different (pick a crime and I have worked with someone charged with it) the anxiety and fear are all too similar. This has also encouraged me to not dismiss any experience and try and fit it into my bag of tricks.
—Bernie Monette


Ephemeral: Holiday Potty
As a Chicago suburbanite, it is inevitable that my family will visit the German Christmas Market at Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago. There’s also a pretty good chance that I’ll be walking around that little village-like setting drinking from a mini-boot mug of hot spiced wine or Dinkle’s hot chocolate, momentarily transported to that tiny village.
As the father of a four-year-old, it is also inevitable that my daughter will find the least opportune moment to have to go to the restroom. Since my wife is 30-odd weeks pregnant, that generally means that there isn’t even a chance to roshambo to see who the fortunate one is that gets to accompany the mostly-adorable child to the facilities to take care of this business.
Don’t get me wrong–I can handle Daddy-duty just fine and can deftly change a diaper or wipe a nose with my sleeve on a moment’s notice, but sometimes it can be fun make a sport out of it.
After perusing the various overseas goodies from a variety of the shops, getting our pictures taken with the giant tree and with Mr. Clause, my daughter determines that it was time. THE time.
I feel a brief moment of pure, unadulterated terror as I consider my options until I feel a tug on my gloved hand and hear, “Daddy, I’ve really got to goooooo!” My focus returns and we head out in the direction of the restrooms that people within earshot kindly point out to me with knowing smiles.
The dread sets in as I realize that the “restroom” at Daley Plaza is nothing more than a plastic teal Port-A-Potty. The last time I checked, Port-A-Potties aren’t exactly made for more than one person, yet alone 1.5 people in full-on winter garb. The terror returns as I have visions of shuffling around clothing while trying to get my daughter into position.
We round the corner and are met with the surprisingly pleasant view of a couple of tents, each surrounding its own Port-A-Potty on one side and a table on the other. A very sturdy glass door provided entrances, and we quickly placed the coats, etc. on the table and got down to business. The rest is pretty uninteresting, and I am sure you’re thankful for that.
However, somewhere out there in a planning committee is a person who, when placing squares on a layout plan for Daley Plaza, considered that the freezing cold was not the ideal place to use a Port-A-Potty. That UX genius on a committee somewhere may a small–but very significant–change that kept our pre-holiday festivies… Festive!
—Russ Unger

Real: Alarm Clock Muffler
The oldest everyday-use thing I have in my home is my alarm clock, it’s a small digital green Casio clock that I’ve had since I was in primary school, think the size of half an ipod, or a small cell phone.
I have a sensitive ear, and a rather light sleep. Regular alarms are too loud for me and when they ring I wake up in shock, clinging from the ceiling and with an over-revved heart: not a good way of starting your day. So, since my alarm clock is so small, I place it under my pillow every night, with the speaker facing the mattress. This dims the beeping alarm substantially and wakes me up in a much less traumatic fashion.
Ephemeral: Communication Architecture
Darrin Stevens (of Bewitched) was one of my childhood heroes; he introduced me to the world of advertising, which fascinated me. Later on, I would copy corporate logos on my notebooks at school and take notes on my history class in a medieval font.
Upon leaving high school I went directly to a school of communication that had great reputation in the local advertising industry. I deeply enjoyed my years at the communication school. We were taught the basics of visual design and worked hard on copywriting. We had creativity and non verbal communication workshops, and, of course, theory on communication, advertising, and social sciences research methods. We worked on practical campaigns, always with tight deadlines. At that time I did not have strong presentation skills, yet I was always the intellectual author behind the scenes.
One day during our communication theory class we came up to McLuhan; the teacher explained how he said that all media are extensions of our senses, like cameras being extensions of our eyes, but I was mesmerized by his statement that electronic media are direct extensions of our nervous system. At this point – the early nineties – the Internet was becoming popular. As the son of an IBM employee, I’d long been an early adopter of technology, and I had a strong interest in the Internet. If McLuhan was right, going online meant having your nervous system directly connected to the whole world: to potentially anyone anywhere, or maybe to everyone at once. I was intrigued and decided to focus the rest of my career on the Internet.
Leaving school, I taught myself web design, as there were no schools ready for it yet here, and later I would become my country’s first information architect. During my years of IA practice, I’ve found the skill set provided by the communication school to be very useful for an IA, and I’ve always looked at the Web as a communication media: where computers are just the canvas and the key is allowing people to interact with each other. The recent expansion of the web to the masses, with millions of people forming online conversations, is proving me right.
—Javier Velasco

Real: Necklace art
necklaces.JPG About 12 years ago I got a job in an antique store that sold jewelry. Up until then, I usually found a necklace I liked and wore it constantly, even in the shower, for months until I got bored with it. But my boss wanted me to wear the jewelry so that the customers could see what it looked like on someone and be more likely to buy it. The more I wore it, the more I wanted it. And she gave me a good discount.
Years later I found myself with massive amounts of jewelry. The earrings and rings were easy enough to store but the necklaces got tangled and I never knew what I had when I put them in drawers.
One day at Ikea, I saw three packs of cheap wood and glass 3×5 photo frames for $1.99. I bought a couple of packs then got myself some tempera paint, brushes, and a bunch of little nails. I went through all my magazines and picked out great photos of pearls and red paint and shoes. I painted the frames, put the magazine photos in the frames, and hammered the little nails into the top of the frames. Then I stuck the frames to the wall over my bureau and hung my necklaces from the nails. My necklaces were both organized and very lovely art on my wall.

Ephemeral: Book of love
I was hired to write a book about online dating. I’ve been a writer since I was 12 and it was my dream to be published. I didn’t care what the subject was. I knew I could write about it and I hoped that it would finally be my big break into the writing world. I hadn’t actually dated for four years. But that seemed like a moot point. I never actually intended to date; I just figured I’d post my profile on a bunch of sites to see how each worked and what kind of responses I got and that would be enough research.
Then, I got a response from an interesting guy. I gave in and went out. Suddenly I was dating. I was also writing my second book about online dating while working full-time at an office job. I never intended to date anyone seriously—who had the time? But once the second book was done, I found myself still surfing the online dating sites. And after several duds, I found myself out on a date with someone cute, funny, and really interesting. And he liked me, too.
Two years later we’re engaged to be married. The books did nothing for my career, but they found me him. And my life is infinitely better for writing them.
—Alyssa Wodtke

Real: Alumninum teapot
I am slowly, reluctantly accepting that toothbrushes available on the market today will never, ever fit in the built-in toothbrush and cup holder of my 1929 bungalow.
When the thing I’d been using to contain brushes and paste finally rusted out, I went looking for a replacement. I wanted something funky and vaguely retro, but also something that could survive the inevitable fall onto the tile floor. I found a sweet, two-people-for-tea-sized brushed aluminum teapot, sans lid, at a junk shop.
The handle still sticks straight up in the air and is a neat divider between brushes and toothpaste tubes.
Ephemeral: Landscape design
In the fall of 2001, I had a service come to my house to see what could be done about my wacko yard. She talked, showed me pictures, asked me questions, and did a sketch. Only after the guys stopped digging, tidied up the mulch, and left did I realize: That sketch she’d done was a wireframe, and I though I’d thought I knew what she had said, it wasn’t until I saw the finished project and the consultants had all vanished that I realized I didn’t know how to read the wireframe or the specs.
Two epiphanies came from that experience:
One, that I need to be much more gracious and careful with my own commercial consulting clients, because my own fluency in wireframes is really an esoteric skill, and it’s not fair to expect them to understand me. I have to take time to teach.
Two, once I went back and reviewed my conversation with the designer and looked at the plants she’d chosen to put where, I knew I could do a better job than she’d done.
So, I started the landscape design professional development/certificate program at George Washington University. Twenty-some courses later, I’m doing landscape design as an occasional freelance gig. I thoroughly enjoy the pace and educating clients about native plants—but mostly I enjoy a living, tangible outcome from my efforts that smells nice, too.
—Cinnamon Melchor


Real: Office Supplies

small paperclip ornamentI love office supplies. When I’m on my own, I miss them, when I’m in a big company I hoard them. Many make their way into my life.


A paperclip can be twisted into an ornament holder for a office tree.

binderclip-sm.jpg A binderclip holds recipes in place (and out of the line of fire) while cooking. You see another reuse—a simple S-hook bought at the hardware store. These are used all over our house; our pans hand from them, belts in the closet, plants from the ceiling… the S-hook is a miracle of design elegance.

postit-sm.jpg Finally, post-its provide the volume of paper a two-year-old needs to express herself, and the stickiness needed for momma to display it.

Ephermeral: Waiting Tables

For a long time I’ve joked that everything I learned about people, I learned waiting tables. There are many lessons you get seeing people interact with one of their three primal needs. You are all that stands between them and food; in fine dining you are what stands in the way—or stands behind—a good night out. In fine dining, the price is even more tangible. A fifty-year-old in a tuxedo can become a two-year-old in a second, and if you don’t feed him while stroking his ego, the de-evolution can go much farther.

For example, I know now that no matter how busy you are, the customer must feel like they are the only people in the world. That means looking them in the eye and explaining slowly and patiently truffle risotto is not made with chocolate, even when your perepheral vision tells you one table doesn’t have water, another is waving at you desperately, and hot food is on the line with a rabid chef giving you the evil eye. The illustion of complete attention must not be broken! In the office, this translates to really listening to people when they talk to you, and not answering the phone or reading email. Humans don’t like to think they are the least interesting thing in the room. If you consider it, you probably wouldn’t like that either. Have you waited while your boss IM’s, or a coworker takes a call in the middle of you explaining a complex problem? Have you done this?

I also learned that no matter what happens, you can save or ruin the entire effort in the last few things you do. Give perfect service and then bring the check slowly, and the tip goes down the drain. I swear you can lose a percentage point for every minute past when the diner wants the check they have to wait. The same goes for everything else in life. You can do a perfect IA but have sloppy design or poor writing, and the IA doesn’t matter much to the overall usability. You can design a great shopping experience but a lousy cart, and there they go! Off to buy at Amazon! You can do a perfect spec for a brilliant product, but deliver late out of disorganization and no kudos for you … or worse, someone else beats you to market. An experience isn’t a good one unless it’s good from start to finish, and finish is the lasting impression.

Finally I know from experience, "I’m sorry " can change everything. If you’ve messed up, forgotten an order, you gotta own up and apologize. Even if the kitchen overcooked the steak, it doens’t do to explain or or excuse: say you are sorry. You are the face of the restaraunt. Giving away a free dessert doesn’t hurt either … after all it’s the last thing they’ll remember. And in the office, no matter how tempting it is to blame it on the other guy, apologize. If your team messes up and you are design lead, you must take responsibility as well.

Of course, a free dessert doesn’t hurt either.
—Christina Wodtke


  1. All stories click, and for me the last post is the best:
    “Give perfect service and then bring the check slowly, and the tip goes down the drain.”
    I agree 120%, and I haven’t realized this myself as a customer until now.
    Thank you for posting this issue, reminding me that real-life experience can never be trivial.

  2. One of the more inspiring pieces I’ve read on B&A. What a great series of thumbnail lessons in establishing empathy with our users. Thanks for providing this!

  3. Funny thing. I was just reading a Forbes article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”)

    “Things, it turns out, are all too often discovered by accident–but we don’t see that when we look at history in our rear-view mirrors. The technologies that run the world today (like the Internet, the computer and the laser) are not used in the way intended by those who invented them.”
    “You Can’t Predict Who Will Change The World”: by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Forbes.com, 10/15/2007

    Maybe this is how we should do our product development!

    Book: http://www.amazon.com/Black-Swan-Impact-Highly-Improbable/dp/081297381X/boxesandarrows-20

  4. In the Netherlands anybody can report information -tollfree- to the police anonymous (M as in dial M for murder).

    To my surprise this method was used to ‘launder information’. Investigators from the police who obtained information in an llegal manner used M. They called in the information anonymous and by doing so made the information legal!

  5. Great read!

    My computer measures room temperature. I didn’t hook up the little element that measures cpu temperature, so now it just measures and displays room temperature. Unintended but much more useful (I live in an old apartment without thermostats).

  6. Good one, Guy! I like the tennis ball ear protection. Similar story…
    At firing ranges when a cadet had forgotten to bring ear protection, we would stick spent 9mm cartridges into their ears to dampen the sound of prolonged gunfire. The nice black rings their ears had for a day or two were a good visual reminder to them to bring their issued hearing protection the next day.

  7. Really nice article!

    We once made an application where users could upload a photo and put cartoon elements on it, like different animals, funny hats, speech bubbles with text and similar items.
    However, one use that emerged, which we hadn’t thought of, was the users starting to combine speech and thought bubbles, which where intended to be filled with text, but instead combined them with the other objects.
    I.e. a thought bubble with a pig in it was of course somebody thinking of a pig.

    So obvious in hindsight, but we didn’t see it coming.

  8. Fun article! I love this kind of stuff.
    As an inveterate (though currently lapsed) curbside trash-picker, I managed to find some amazing things easily repurposed to fill a college graduate’s first apartment. One thing my wife and I still have 20 years later is a highly ornate stone birdbath bowl and base. The bowl had a hole in the middle and was worthless for holding water…but with an inexpensive round glass top, it became our small breakfast cafe table! It’s just the right height and the designs around the rim are visible through the glass. It’s still in daily use in a corner of our kitchen.
    Another “curbside inspiration” was using an old foot-powered cast iron sewing machine base I found and building a potting bench on top of it. It looks interesting and is never likely to tip over.

  9. Christina–way to hit one of my pet peeves about wait staff on the head. It actually pains me to not leave a good tip, but it pains me even more to have a great meal go to rot because I’m left feeling as if I’m held captive when all I really want to do is leave and move on with my life.

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