Category Archives: product design

Ignite Toronto: Designing for Social Selvess

For those of you who caught my Ignite TO presentation, here are the slides. For those of you who missed it, below is a text summary that goes with the slides.

I’d like to give thanks to my teacher and friend, Dr. Karen Anderson, whose scholarly work underpins many of the ideas in this presentation.

Slide 1:

This presentation about is the self, that it is a social phenomenon not a biological one. Most theories of the self don’t give us a social angle but only a biological one. This has an impact for technology design.

Slide 2:The self is an uniquely human phenomenon. It is the internal private reality of the consciousness. It is not anatomical or physiological. It is not a body.It is only meaningful in social situations.

Slide 3: So we have this internal, private reality, this consciousness. Biological paradigms to explain it are inadequate. Bodies are the containers of selves, not the actual self. Containers matter. But they are not the only thing that matters.

Slide 4: Victor, was a “feral child” found in France. He would not wear clothes. Or Use a bed. He farted. He did not have a social self, but a biological one.His body functioned; his self did not.

Slide 5: HAL 9000 has a self. He is socially competent. Aware of his inner reality. He imagined that Dave and Frank were plotting against him. Victor had no inner reality but HAL did.  HAL understood the social.

Slide 6: All too often we think of the self as a piece of hardware, or an emotion chip. Unfortunately, most of our ideas about the self are really about our hardware.

Slide 7: For example, Sigmund Freud. Freud thought biological experiences created the self. In the form of ego and the superego. We learn about our anus and develop a self, but this doesn’t explain Victor or HAL’s development.

Slide 8: Even psychologist Piaget put biology first. Piaget’s theory of child development relies on sensory experiences. Not social experiences. For Piaget, learning starts with a bodily interaction, not social interaction.

Slide 9: Yet socially successful human beings must master the meaning of symbols. Symbols have fine nuances, depending on the context. Hand gestures are anatomically similar but mean different things at different times, in different places.

Slide 10: Social interaction is built upon symbols, not biological impulses. We are aware of our internal realities by interpreting social symbols. The degree of force in a gesture matters. Who gives it matters.

Slide 11: We interpret symbols, not react to them. We are not Pavlovian dogs who salivate at the sound of a bell. We are not somatically driven beings, but socially driven beings. Our bodies have influence over us but they are not the self.

Slide 12: George Herbert Mead offers us a theory of a social self. The “I” is what Victor has: a purely instinctual consciousness. The “me” is created through social interaction. “I should sit on a chair; it’s more socially appropriate.”

Slide 13: The “generalized other” is when we realize there is a whole world out there. That we then internalize into our own private reality. We begin to imagine what “others” might say about our actions. Our self imagines what other selves think of it.

Slide 14: Often we design technology to be USABLE, not to be SOCIAL. We don’t enable social selves to use technology without an awkwardness, or embarrassment.

Slide 15:  Google Street View. This technology has created a few embarrassing moments. Google’s face blurring does not solve our embarrassment of interpreting this image. Street View is functional, not social.

Slide 16: Facebook continually fails to sense what selves need. This self posted a picture of himself smoking. Unfortunately, his mom recognized the room. This is embarrassing.

Slide 17: If we design for selves, not bodies, we think of everyone’s internal private realities. Bodies need ergonomics, usability, accessibility. Selves need to be shielded from embarrassment, awkward situations, and social breaches.

Slide 18: Technology designed for bodies is like an awkward dinner party. The technology we design should provide a consistent, social lubricant. We must design technology like we design great parties. Where the right people sit in the right seats.

Slide 19: Socially meaningful symbols must be present. This can be discovered through contextual inquiry, Selves also require the ability to control their presentation to others. And finally, the social “place” of technology must be clearly demarcated.

Slide 20: In the end, we design our world for selves. Technology designed for bodies just gets in the way. If technology is designed for bodies, selves change to meet the needs of technology.

I would prefer that have technology adapt to selves.

Thank you

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?

The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

“But how many people did you talk to?” If you’ve ever done qualitative research, you’ve heard that question at least once. And the first time? You were flummoxed. In 3 short minutes, you can be assured that will never happen again.

Folks, qualitative research does not worry about numbers of people; it worries about deep understanding. Weber called this “verstehen.” (Come to think of it, most German people call it that too. Coincidence?). Geertz called it “thick description.” It’s about knowing — really knowing — the phenomenon you’re researching. You’ve lived, breathed, and slept this thing, this social occurrence, this…this…part of everyday life. You know it inside and out.

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

You know when it’s typical, when it’s unusual, what kinds of people  do this thing, and how. You know why someone would never do this thing, and when they would but just lie about it. In short, you’ve transcended merely noticing this phenomenon. Now, you’re ready to give a 1-hour lecture on it, complete with illustrative examples.

Now if that thing is, say, kitchen use, then stand back! You’re not an Iron Chef, you are a Platinum Chef! You have spent hours inside kitchens of all shapes and sizes. You know how people love them, how they hate them, when they’re ashamed of them and when (very rarely) they destroy them. You can tell casual observers it is “simplistic” to think of how many people have gas stoves. No, you tell them, it’s not about how many people, it’s about WHY they have gas stoves! It’s about what happens when you finally buy a gas stove! It’s about….so much more than how many.

Welcome to the world of verstehen. When you have verstehen, you can perhaps count how many people have gas stoves. Sure, you could determine that more men than women have them. Maybe you could find out that more of them were built between 1970 and 80 than 1990 and 2000. But what good is that number? What does it even mean?

When you’re designing, you must know what the gas stove means. You must know what it means to transform your kitchen into one that can and should host a gas stove. You must know why a person would be “ashamed” to have a gas stove (are they ashamed of their new wealth? do they come from a long line of safety-conscious firefighters?). You must know more than “how many.”

So the next time someone asks you, “how many people did you talk to?”, you can answer them with an hour-long treatise about why that doesn’t matter. You can tell them you are going to blow them away with the thick description of what this thing means to people. You are going to tell them you know more about this thing than anyone who ever lived, and then, dammit, you’re gonna design something so fantastic, so amazing that they too will be screaming in German. You have verstehen!

See my discussion about sampling methods in qual and quant research for more insight into the reasons why “how many” is irrelevant in qualitative research.

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.

Organizational culture 101: a practical how-to for designers

My article on understanding organizational culture is now up on the interaction design site, Johnny Holland. The post provides an overview of key factors in organizational culture and how these factors affect an organization’s culture. It’s specifically intended to help designers understand their clients’ business culture and to avoid the all-too-common trap of “missing the social” in a design project.

It’s happened to all of us. We walk into what we think is a Web redesign project, only to find we have unwittingly ignited the fires of WW III in our client’s organization. What begins as a simple design project descends – quickly – into an intra-organizational battle, with the unprepared interaction designer caught in the crossfire.

Read the whole post.

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.

Don’t think privacy, think identity

The digital availability of social information has lead many to think it’s a crisis of privacy. It is not; it is a crisis of identity management. Designers of online profiles should think about privacy as the management of identity, which can be an easily damaged piece of social information. Users who can control access to any “stigmatizing” social information have absolute privacy.

Social theorist Erving Goffman’s work on identity can help us design better and more private online profiles. What is “stigmatizing” social information? This is the tough part: it changes depending on who is involved. For example, a teardrop tattoo may provide status inside a prison, but on the face of a defendant in a court room, it is a stigma. Goffman points out that social actors conceal “stigma symbols” in some contexts, but these become “status symbols” in other contexts.

Designers of online profiles should recognize then that what is “embarrassing” changes depending on the context. There is simply no way to predict all the possible social contexts that any given person will find themselves in, so there is no way that a designer can accurately predict a “privacy breach” of digitally available information. Hence the confusion and hand-wringing over Beacon, Facebook’s privacy-busting advertising system. Instead, designers should create a framework for users to manage their identities.

How is identity management achieved? Designers should offer users the following:

  1. Concealment tools: users should be able to disguise or conceal any single piece of social information. This means that “my interests” should be singular items that can be turned on and off.
  2. Low-burden social network filtering: some social information only becomes embarrassing in particular social contexts. Designers must allow users to sort or filter their social contacts depending on how they know them. Make this interaction easier and low burden, and users will happily sort their friends from their family, their co-workers from their acquaintances.
  3. Reduce the ability to collate social information: Goffman points out that one of the main problems for stigmatized identities is what he calls “know-about-ness.” How much access do people have to the sum total of an individual’s social information? How readily accessible is all of that information? How easily collated is it? For example, if your golf buddies can find out that you like to cook, you take Japanese rock gardening classes AND you take tap dancing on Friday nights, the sum total of that information could be stigmatizing (but only while playing golf). Good designers would make that collation difficult.
  4. Allow quick, effortless and PERMANENT erasure: We are only now learning how embarrasing a decade’s worth of personal information can be. All too often, designers make it too difficult for users to easily delete their personal information. Make password retrieval easy. Do not require people to remember ancient email addresses. Provide 1-800 number access for “identity emergencies.” And finally, put users’ social information firmly in their own hands, not on your servers.