Category Archives: technology 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

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.

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.

Social scientists: the next big thing for business

The technology consulting firm Gartner is predicting that social scientists will be very much in demand by businesses. Eweek summarizes Gartner’s outline of four types of roles for social scientists:

Web User Experience roles that include UI designers, virtual-assistant designers and interaction directors.
Behavior Analysis roles that include Web psychologists, community designers, and Web/social network miners.
Information Specialist roles that include information anthropologists who are expected to play historical Web fact finding and assisting in legal analysis, intellectual property management and where the quality of information is at risk.
Digital Lifestyle Experts roles that include helping senior management understand whats going on and stay aware, and building personal brands and managing online personas for desired online effect

Gartner’s Vice President Kathy Harris appears to have faith in social scientists’ ability to be creative:

Creative, artistic and clever people will develop the early iterations of these new jobs. This will enable businesses and government to take early advantage of new capabilities and develop them into mainstream skills.

I’m in full agreement that social science trains people in the right kinds of skills for the digital age. I was disappointed however to find that sociology had failed to capture Ms. Harris’s specific attention.Interestingly, the report mentions anthropologists and psychologists specifically, but not sociologists.

Sociologists have recently complained that they have not been given a place at Obama’s table. I argue that it’s because they’ve done a poor job of publicizing the great skills they have. Just last night I sat down with two other sociologists, one is a specialist in the sociology of science and the other in the socio-legal implications of changing family forms. Aren’t these the very people we need to help us understand the effects of genetic engineering? Or the potential outcomes of changing same-sex marriage laws?

I personally will continue to proclaim my training as a sociologist, and will convince business people that the “soft stuff” is a differentiator. I will also try to nudge my colleagues into the world of design, where their training in empathy and critical thought is welcome.

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.

#TOEthno: is Twitter a “place”?

I’m currently forming research questions for an ethnography of Toronto-based technology and design workers. I am working through this question: is Twitter a “place”?

In her 2000 book Virtual Ethnography, Christine Hine argues that there are two analytic strategies to see “cyberspace.” First, one can view it as a “place,” where social norms emerge. Or second, one can view it as a cultural artifact. The second view allows us to see the designers behind the technology. Think of it as a hermeneutics of a technology, which allows us to see what assumptions its designers about their users (this is an approach that will make sense to interaction designers).

I believe Twitter to be a place, but one that is heavily influenced by its architects and its users. In other words, its design sets the stage for certain kinds of interactions, just as prisons, malls, and casinos do. The architecture of Twitter, which includes its dozens API-driven applications as well as its simple, Web-based interface, is constantly evolving by its network of users, API application designers, and the company of Twitter itself.

This approach suggests that Twitter has “interpretive flexibility,” which is how technology theorists argue that design is determinant; users decide how a technology will actually be used, within the confines of the material form of that technology.

Do you believe Twitter is a “place”? What kind of place? Or is Twitter a technology or technological artifact?