Reflections on an Experience

I urge you to follow this link and play the song in a separate tab while reading the rest of this note…

I had an experience last night while sitting in the hotel restaurant/bar at the Scandic Umeå Plaza.

ScandicUmea

I was spending my last night in Umeå with friends, bringing to a close our four days at the Design Research Society’s (DRS) 2014 conference. DRS 2014, perhaps unbeknownst to other attendees, enjoyed a partial overlap with Umeå’s International Choir Festival.

At least two choirs were staying at the Scandic, and we marveled at their habit of returning to the hotel, presumably after a day full of performance and workshops, to continue celebrating their talent by singing in the hotel lobby for no reason other than the sheer joy of doing it.

Last night while we reminisced about our shared histories and speculated our imagined futures, we found ourselves right in the middle of the concert… and then something magical happened.

A second choir showed up.

It was not as big as the first, only eight members. But they had apparently made an impression because members of the first choir began prompting them to “Sing for us!”

After a brief huddle they began a haunting rendition of Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, which, if you indulged the archaism of this blog and followed the link at the beginning of this text, has been the soundtrack for your reading.

They made it halfway through the song, when all of a sudden a small pocket of singers from the first choir buried somewhere in crowd joined in. A vocal wave rushed through the room and the sound embraced everyone and everything.

All members of both choirs were singing.

The crescendo reached its peak and I felt the sensation of free-falling, an exhilaration and tension whose resolution waited in the silence following the coda.

I knew that I’d just had an experience in Dewey’s terms and that, perhaps as all experiences should be, it was profound.

Design | Definitions

This morning there was a fantastic debate held as part of the DRS 2014. What struck me during the debate, but especially during the following comments/questions from the audience, was the importance of defining our terms.

Members in the audience came from a diversity of design disciplines (interaction, graphic, architecture, engineering, product, industrial, and others) and, speaking at least for interaction design, and maybe there are disparate intradisciplinary discourses surrounding the meaning of design and its implications for research and practice. When we come together to talk about an umbrella term that seemingly unites us, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon us to at least acknowledge that we bring a diversity of understandings of design as well as what it means to be a designer.

Is the professions definition of a designer different than the philosophical definition? If so, how? And if not, why not? These are important questions if we’re debating the future of design and the role of the designer. What is the nature of the object of debate?

What does it mean for design to become more important? What does it mean to say that designers are going to become less important? I suggest that before we answer these questions, we have to define our terms.

Defining terms creates the common ground atop which we might enter into more constructive debate.

This should not be taken as an indictment of this morning’s proceedings. Clive Dilnot and Anna Rosling-Ronnlund presented wonderful arguments in favor of and against, respectively, the claim that design will become more important in the future while designers will become less so.

Their debate incited wonderful questions and comments from the audience, and it was clear (at least from the informal hand-raising poll at the end of the debate) that thinking had been challenged and minds changed by the event.

Thanks to the DRS for organizing such an engaging conference programme.

ADDENDUM: In light of a discussion at lunch with Clive and Aseem Inam, I want to add that I’m not advocating for a universal definition of design. I’m advocating for defining our terms explicitly such that our readers, listeners, allies, and opponents (in debate) are in a better position to evaluate our contributions, whatever form they may take.

HCI and Slow Theory

I co-authored an article that was published in ACM Interactions in January of this year. The article presented a conceptual framework that could serve as the bedrock for subsequent, substantive discussions in the HCI community. The title of the article is, “Slow Change Interaction Design: A Theoretical Sketch.”

It was called a sketch in order to draw attention to the nascence of the whole thing. We read more popular literature than academic papers and so we did not connect (nor attempt to situate) our ideas within growing contemporary scholarly discourses on slow design, slow technology, or the slow movement.

There is good reason for this. First, in our discussions with the editors, we learned that Interactions aimed to position itself not as a venue for academic papers but as a more of popular periodical. Second, we wrote in the context of and in response to popular literature in an attempt to react to the type of content a design practitioner or even a user might come across in their attempts to design for or accomplish some kind of attitudinal or behavioral change. We read books like Switch, The Power of Habit, The Slow Fix, Outliers, and a few others. It was great to write and a pleasure to read and re-read.

Of course, it’s a sketch. And so now I find myself gravitating towards questions about what it lacks, where its weak points are, and what is it that distinguishes the notion of slow change from other frameworks about (1) attitudinal and behavior change and (2) slowness, e.g. (the aforementioned) slow technology, slow design, and slow movement. There are wonderful things being researched and discussed in these domains. A cursory, non-curated search of the ACM digital library for “slow technology” yields 98 citations, a search for “slow design” yields 23 citations, and one for “slow movement” yields 111 citations.

Because of the volume and substance of these growing bodies of work, it should be apparent that demarcation is of the utmost importance.

As we move forward, we have to know and be able to articulate what makes slow change different from these other theories, why this difference matters, and how we might collide these theories in order to learn something new about interaction design.

Experience Design | Reward Systems

Rewards may be constituents (but they are not key elements) of experience design.

Let’s say that experience has a beginning middle and end. In my mind, the reward is simply the end of an experience. It is not necessarily the reason why a person would return to experience an experience several times. In fact, many “rewarding” experiences have no “rewards” in what is perhaps the superficial sense of the word. Riding a roller coaster yields no badge. Nor should it. I earn no points for going to Starbucks. Unless I’m participating in Starbucks’ own rewards program…

So why is it that badges, points, leader boards, among other types of rewards, continue to proliferate in interaction and experience design?

Look at how many badges and points I've earned on Khan Academy! All while managing NOT to learn  in a deep way the core principles of mathematics..

I snapped the above photo of my dashboard on Khan Academy. I’ve acquired more than 300,000 energy points and an array of badges. In his TED talk, Sal Khan forecasts this facet of the site when he alludes to gamification as a strategic initiative. Don’t get me wrong. There’s likely papers aplenty supporting the thesis that rewards are effective incentives for animals to do things. If you’ve ever trained a dog, you know how well rewards work. And even if you haven’t you get the idea. It works like this: reward behavior as soon as possible after it happens, focus on rewards (as opposed to punishments), and be consistent in delivering rewards. I’m currently training a puppy

Marbles

…and you should see the change in expression when she doesn’t get a reward for her good behavior. She’s utterly befuddled. And she’s quite willing to perform the behavior again in order to get another savory treat. You might think it a crude analogy. But the same principle underlies badges, likes, favorites, retweets, grades, salaries, titles… I won’t pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of all of the examples of behaviorist rewards at play (at least) in the United States. We’re living in a reward culture. So asking why these things pervade our interaction and experience design could be construed as a naive question. Rewards are a systemic issue.

The problem lies in the observation that rewards are so pervasive in all aspects of our daily lives that we fail to recognize the degree to which rewards might actually devalue the things we do.

  • Rewards alienate us from the activities we perform to achieve them (this is a translation of something Ed Deci wrote in Why We Do What We Do, a great book)
  • Rewards produce gaps between people and their inherent motivation to do things… and inherent motivation is a more satisfying reason for doing than rewards

Speaking from experience, when I think about doing something for a salary or a grade my perspective on that thing changes. My motivation changes. It actually goes down. Doesn’t matter if the grade or the salary is important. I should write papers to get good grades. True. But I should be motivated to write papers because I’m interesting in finding answers to difficult questions. I should be motivated to write because writing will make me a better writer. I should be motivated to write in order to satisfy curiosity or to explore or to feel what it is to create. And I am skeptical as to whether any of these things could be or should be thought of as rewards in the same way as a badge, a point, a like, a grade, or whatever is a reward. They’re different.

The former come from within. The latter from without.

We all know what competence feels like. We know the experience of mastery. These are things that no one else can give us. No one else can “do” for us. I’ve heard the following chestnuts many times: Great job! Great questions! Fantastic presentation. Nice work. You were really good up there. Amazing writing. 

I’m arrogant enough to claim that (much of the time) I know when they’re right and when they’re not. After a presentation, I know if I’ve done well. The same is true of submitting a paper. I know if it’s a good one. And I suppose the key insight is that more often than not, the good ones are done out of a hard to articulate motivation that comes from within rather than from without. I worry not about the grades or accolades. Only about the act of doing whatever it is I’m doing with competence and mastery. So what does all of this thinking have to do with experience design?

There are things that people do for the sheer joy of doing them (e.g. free play, exploration, manipulation, learning, among many others… the list is particular and person-dependent). What is it about these things that make them inherently enjoyable? Where does inherent motivation reside? And is it possible to capture this essence and apply it in the service of something else? It is possible to make a whole host of activities that many people don’t have the inherent motivation to do conducive to the development of that (currently lacking) motivation? I think that the answer is Yes. And I think that we need to devote more energy into finding out how to achieve these ends…

New Research Questions | New Books

I acquired two new books yesterday afternoon. Hooked and Designing for Behavior Change.

NewResearchNewBooks

These are the first books on designing for change I’ve purchased since landing on an interesting (set of) question(s) that I suspect will carry me towards some excellent contributions to the field:

What are the keystone attitudes and behaviors that, once cultivated, might have positive ripple effects throughout other aspects of a person’s life? In other words, which attitudes and behaviors should we cultivate such that our users need not “outsource” change to some magic bullet technology at every turn? How might we design interactions and experiences to engender more self-sufficient change agents?

I’m interested to dive into these two books with such questions in mind, and I’ll be interested to reflect on other work on designing for change as well. I like to think about computers as tools for improving our lives, and I shudder to think that increasing reliance on technological tools to “facilitate” change for us constitutes an improved life.