Category Archives: user experience

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

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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.

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.

#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?

Personas are “empathy tools,” not stereotypes

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We all use personas in everyday social situations. But, like in many design projects, we use to them to typecast instead of to evoke empathy. Personas, like stereotypes, often result in discriminatory behavior. When used in design, personas can create poor design that disempowers and alienate users.

We all like to know how to treat people appropriately. We tend to use what social theorists Berger and Luckman call “typifications” when interacting socially. When we go to the store, to a meeting, to a party — we need to know how to act with people. We genuinely want to make people feel comfortable and we want to feel comfortable ourselves.

But to use a typification often has the unintended consequence of being condescending. Elderly people are spoken to in loud, exagerrated tones. Women are assumed to be physically fragile. Men are considered to be sexually aggressive. These typifications are stereotypes that affect how we, in turn, react. Elderly people may react angrily, for example, at the implied loss of their faculties.

Designers often make the same mistake when making personas. Personas are tools to evoke empathy. But poorly created personas will simply regurgitate stereotypes instead of actually answering real needs. When a site is designed “for women,” it should allow women (and all of its users) to define their experience, according to their needs. Women may have more need to juggle schedules, for example, so interactive experiences should allow them to adopt such features.

An interactive experience should not, however, force me to be treated as a “mom on the go” simply because I’m a woman. And honestly, if there’s one persona phrase that makes me want to vomit/go on a murderous rampage/re-design the design process, it’s the dreaded “mom on the go.” Show me a mom NOT on the go, and I’ll show you a mom who forgets she has children.

Worse, don’t treat me, a childless woman of 38, as a “mom on the go,” simply because YOUR data tell you I should have children. Instead, empathize with me. Allow me to satisfy unmet needs, should I so choose. DO NOT force me to adopt features and functionality that are appropriate for what you think I OUGHT to need.

As a woman, I am frequently “treated” to “gentle” behavior. People will open doors for me, or perhaps allow me to pass first out of a crowded elevator. This is not because I require it, nor because I expect it, but because it is believed that women still are the “gentler sex.”

Defeating the problem of personas as stereotypes is to put yourself in the user’s shoes. In other words, don’t forget that personas are empathy tools. Allow her to choose her experience. Provide her the features and functionality that she MIGHT like, based on your qualitative research. But under no circumstances force her to adopt features or functionality that reproduce what someone “ought” to be.

Forcing people to adopt behaviors is as far from empathy as one can get. Interactive experiences that foist “mom on the go” fantasies onto real people risk alienating their users at best; at worst they perpetuate sexist stereotypes.

Sampling methods in qualitative and quantitative research

Why does sample size not matter in qualitative research? Because of the assumptions that qualitative researchers make, namely, that the social world is not predictable. Qualitative researchers believe that people are not like molecules or other objects; people’s actions are not predictable.

But quantitative researchers DO believe that social activity IS predictable. So when they compare their observations of social activity to what would happen in purely random results, the difference says something. Let’s say you were to research people’s preferences for a particular interactive feature. Say you’re wondering if young people will like a radio button more than older people. First, you model what results you’d expect if you’d just flipped a coin. Then you use a probability (random) sample, and compare those results to purely random results. Is there a difference?

If there is a difference between them, you can infer that indeed, something other than chance (in this case, age) affect people’s preferences.

Qualitative researchers don’t agree that such things can be reliably predicted. That’s why they don’t bother with expensive and involved random sampling. See all these details below from my research design course.