Category Archives: discourse analysis

Why are Japanese lunches so beautiful?

I am a big fan of MUJI, the simple Japanese housewares company. So I was quite interested to read a post by their art director Kenya Hara on the New York Times’s “Room for Debate.”  Hara argues that Japanese people have

…a special ability to focus fully on what’s right in front of our eyes. We tend to ignore what is not an integral part of our personal perspective. We ignore that our cities are a chaotic mess, filled with ugly architecture and nasty signage.

Hara believes that Japanese simplicity is a function partly of this narrow focus. Beautiful designs are better appreciated because of this focus, in Hara’s opinion. (Well known design guru John Maeda also weighs in and argues that the dearness of Japanese food is the primary issue).

A Beautiful Japanese Lunch: New York Times

Philosopher Dennis Dutton argues, interestingly, the American lunch box is of the same instinct: Americans have attempted to make their lunch beautiful but in distinctly different ways. Dutton leaves the symbolic interpretation of these competing “lunch beautifying” methods up to the reader’s imagination.

This reader thinks that by using exterior packaging instead of the food itself, Americans are not beautifying lunch as much as they are obscuring it. Indeed, they even commodifying it by making each lunch, regardless of content, look similar. The content of the lunch itself is irrelevant; whether it is fresh, healthy food or rotting, cheap, fast food, every lunch looks the same in a lunch box.

Perhaps this is indicative of the American spirit if industrialization. Mass production in the Fordist tradition (“You can have whatever colour car you like, as long as it’s black”) is an American value that has been spread around the world. Forget about the content of the thing, instead focus on its packaging, its marketing or its uniformity. This is what Ritzer means by the “McDonaldization of Society.” When the content of a thing matters less than how much of it is sold or how efficient it is to sell it, this is the height of capitalism — and perhaps of American culture.

This is perhaps the essence of why Americans can accept truly horrible food, while the Japanese and the French famously reject it. But it doesn’t explain why Hara thinks Japanese aesthetics are ruled in part by the ability to “focus” on one thing.

Is the Japanese form of capitalism less in need of obscuring and masking than the American? Is ugliness more tolerated by Japanese society and therefore, less of a threat to its form of capitalism?

Designers are from Venus, Six Sigmas are from Mars

DT has a great post over at Design Sojourn that discusses Six Sigma methodology and how it relates to design. He cites Tim Brown at IDEO who argues that Six Sigma is essentially Newtonian, while design thinking is quantum. In his own design work, DT expressed doubts about using Six Sigma:

After studying the Six Sigma process, I point blank said: “There was no way any of my designers are going to be judged on the quality and success of a design based on how many sketches or iterations we did before we deliver it.”

Both Brown and DT cite Sara Beckman, who recently discussed the topic in the New York Times. Beckman reviews how Six Sigma focuses on incremental improvements, while design and design thinking focuses on big changes. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Six Sigma, it’s a method pioneered by Motorola, which aims to reduce the number of errors to 3 in one million. The “six sigma” refers to six standard deviations. The number of errors should be at the extreme end of the normal curve, or between + or – 3 standard deviations, represented by the Greek symbol sigma.

I argue that design is more complementary to the “interpretivist” paradigm of qualitative research while Six Sigma is positivist. Interpretivists don’t believe the world is a static place. They see reality as being continuously created by you, me and other social actors. There is no such thing as “The Truth” in interpretivist approaches, just different versions of the truth. Typical methods of interpretivists are ethnography, in-depth interviewing and discourse analysis. Positivist research, on the other hand, assumes that reality is static. Positivists believe that “The Truth,” is out there to be discovered. Typical methods would include quantitative surveys.

Designers should focus on interpretivist methods, therefore. They should uncover different versions of the truth using observation and interviewing, as well as deep reflection on symbols and their meanings. Surveys and other quantitative methods are more Six Sigma in that they can measure improvement over time. Designers ought to consider measuring improvement, but starting with qualitative approaches is best.

The Difference Between Analogue And Digital Part II: Time

In an earlier post, I examined how text is transformed when it is created and shared in digital form. In this post, I argue that time itself is transformed when it is represented in digital format. To illustrate, consider my experiment with my Filofax.

Yes, I said Filofax. I still have one. I haven’t filled it with inserts in years, even though that was actually one of my favourite end-of-year rituals. I would make a special trip to the stationary store, just to buy the next year’s worth of calendar. In the process, I would review last year’s appointments, marvel at how much I had gotten done and how fast time had passed. I would linger over favourite appointments, which seemed, at the time, inconsequential, as recorded in my scribbled hand.

I bought a 2009 insert for my Filofax and inputted only two weeks’ worth of appointments. It took me 20 minutes.

Analogue time "reckoning"

Analogue time "reckoning"

The time it took me to enter in all these appointments was more than just scribbling. It was reviewing, remembering, considering. I could not physically enter overlapping appointments. There simply wasn’t room!

Now compare this to the same amount of time, as rendered by my iCal:

Digital Time "Reckoning"

Digital Time "Reckoning"

There are overlapping appointments, my husband’s appointments easily inputted into mine, meetings from people I barely know, all dropped into my life automatically. Worse, I carry this around, automatically updating it, second by second, through my iPhone.

Sociologists use the term “time reckoning” to describe how we collectively understand time and make it intelligible to ourselves. There was a great hullabaloo about “clock time,” when clocks came to replace the seasons as our primary way of time reckoning. We forgot we didn’t know how long a minute actually was — we actually now think we can tell how long 23 minutes and 42 seconds is (spoiler: we can’t, especially when we’re enjoying ourselves!).

Now we have “digital” time reckoning, which bears almost no resemblance to how we actually experience time. If you have the misfortune of using time tracking software like TimeControl, then you will likely recognize this fantastical, farcical, FrankenTime:

Screenshot from Microsoft's TimeControl

Screenshot from Microsoft's TimeControl

According to this, a mythical interaction designer named Joseph Gardner spent 8 hours and 20 minutes on Sunday “design interface.” Ignoring the assault on proper grammar for a moment, let’s take a step back and understand what this means. First off, Poor Old Joe was working on Sunday. Notably, TimeControl allowed this kind of time use, despite the fact that it likely broke overtime laws. But secondly, how long is 8 hours and 20 minutes? Did Joe forgo the need for bathroom breaks? Was he glued to the chair for precisely 8 hours and 20 minutes? How long did he actually spend in that chair anyway?

Digital time allows to represent time in impossibly tiny fragments, and to work impossibly long hours. This kind of time would never be recorded in one’s Filofax — there simply isn’t room for all those hours. Moreover, the time it takes to record one’s time in a Filofax also requires one to contemplate the implications of 8 hours and 20 minutes of work on a Sunday.

In short, the difference between analogue and digital time is that digital time is even less like cognitively experienced time than “clock time.” Digital time can be schedule effortlessly, without any thought to the physical need for sleep, food, or relaxation. Digital time is a faster, manifold version of clock time, one that makes it possible for use have multiple, synchronous events.

Designing for conversations: the critical importance of turn taking

Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro had a great post on Interactions magazine about designing for conversations. They propose to use how a conversation actually works to make interactions better. They rely heavily on Claude Shannon’s conversation model to help guide the conceptual model of interaction designs.

In Shannon’s model an information source selects a message from a known set of possible messages, for example, a dot or a dash, a letter of the alphabet, or a word or phrase from a list. Human communication often relies on context to limit the expected set of messages.

I applaud Dubberly and Pangaro’s attempts to use rigourous theory to support interaction design. But I’d have to agree with Peter Jones as he wrote in the comment section, that other philosophically informed communication theories are more robust when it comes to designing for conversation. Peter specifically mentions Winograd and Flores’s “conversation for action model” which relies on Habermas’s contention that you are acting when you communicate.

I’ll add to Peter’s critique. Garfinkel’s ethnomethodological approach gave way to “conversation analysis,” which posits that speakers use “indexical expressions” (or phrases that are fraught with meaning but are meaningful to the participants through unspoken means). Where in Dubberly and Pangaro’s article is the discussion of such expressions?

Where also is the notion of turn taking? Turn taking is a very significant component of a conversation. Try to have a trans-atlantic mobile phone conversation and you’ll see how important smooth turn taking is to meaningful conversation.

I would exhort interaction designers to continue to read and integrate theory into their mental models. But I would also discourage them from taking the short route; theories are debated for a reason. Interaction design ought to be a robust digital representation of those debates, and include all aspects.

The difference between analogue and digital Part I: Text

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the transformative effects of digital phenomena (See an earlier post I wrote about music on cell phones).

Digital text differs greatly from analogue text. For example, see my text below.

Analogue Text

I wanted to complete this post entirely in analogue format but I found entirely too labourious. So add that to my list. Analogue text is:

  • Not searchable
  • High fidelity
  • Full of personality
  • Able to be hidden
  • Labour intensive

Designers might wonder what this post has to do with design or with design research. Ask yourself: how do you share your work? How much of your work is a mashup? How much of it is findable? Would you rather it be hidden or out there for the world to Google?

Discourse analysis and design: reading “texts” for design purposes

Designers are already discourse analysts, they just don’t know it. These designers can produce more innovative ideas by adopting a more systematic approach to their intuitive discourse analysis.

Discourse analysis the practice of deciphering the meaning of “texts.” Anything can be a “text.” Television commercials, Us Weekly, a trial transcript — these are all “texts.” Famous discourse analyses include Michel Foucault’s analysis mental illness, in which he traces how we collectively think about mental illness through “texts” of it, such as “patient charts,” or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
Designers intuitively analyze “texts” all the time, especially designers who work in advertising. They obsessively collect imagery and copy they find interesting. They innovate on this copy or imagery by re-tooling some of the subtle messages in them.

How to systematize discourse analysis “lite” for designers:

  1. Collect more than one genre of “texts”: instead of a single medium, try collecting several media of the same theme. If you’re designing a new toy, for example, gather a TV commercial, a print ad, and a fan’s tribute Web site. These differing “texts” may tell you what is missing in toys, or what toys are unintentionally doing to the parents who buy them.
  2. Look for the “silences” in texts: If you’re designing an online advertising campaign, compare texts on a single theme and ask yourself, “What is not being said?” For example, if you’re targeting women with small children, maybe you’ll find that these women are never painted as actually having personal preferences only “mother preferences.” This is a silence that you can speak to.
  3. The obvious meaning is the tip of the iceberg: If you want to know what an object means in culture, you must look more deeply than the obvious. Most designers understand this intuitively, but sometimes you must make a concerted effort. When you see the famous “Diamonds are forever” ads by De Beers, the obvious meaning is one of romance, but what is the subtle meaning? Romance is fleeting but diamonds? Diamonds are forever. The ad’s brilliance lies in its ability to leverage the symbolism of the world’s hardest substance (the diamond) with the most coveted but ephemeral experience (romantic love).

The other day I was tutoring an adult learner (a highly educated one) about discourse analysis. She complained to me that she well understood quantitative methods, variables, and counting. But she saw discourse analysis as “mumbo jumbo.”

On the surface, discourse analysis looks like mumbo jumbo. But in practice, it is a tool to see both culture and the “reality” we have constructed.