curiosity and diverse interests

One of the challenges that I find myself coming up against every now and again has to do with which interests to pursue and which to abandon. Looking up at the whiteboard near my desk I see the following list of papers that are in  various stages of completion:

  1. quals
  2. scientific theories
  3. most read/most cited theory
  4. interactivity clutter
  5. big questions
  6. knowledge claims

All of these papers (and some that aren’t listed) are really interesting and important. But there are other topics that are interesting and important to me too: curiosity, memory, particle physics, isaac newton and richard feynman, innovation, asking questions, non-fiction narrative, and research. Each of these is a huge topic. And they’re all interesting. And I don’t want to abandon any of them. But  some are more important personally or professionally than others.

So, what to do?

In addition to reading books, chapters, articles, etc. that are relevant to the six papers listed above I decided to start reading at least two other nonfiction books on topics of interest and a work of fiction. I started a few weeks ago with these books: Moonwalking with EinsteinCurious, and  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

So far I’ve spent 60-90mins per day (between pomodoros, during meals, or at the end of the day) indulging extracurricular interests, which as it turns out has been something of a boon to my research and writing. I’ve been seeing new connections and opportunities within existing content and experiencing increased motivation and moments of sudden inspiration.

Designerly Ways of Listening

I’ve been thinking for the last few months about listening. How can I be a better listener? What does it mean to be a good listener? How would I describe the feeling of being listened to? These are questions whose answers are important for the sake of personal improvement. If I believe that being a better listener will improve my overall quality of life then it behooves me to spend a bit of time thinking about such things and formulating answers.

The questions are applicable to design practice, too. In parallel with these personal questions, we could ask what (if anything) might be the difference between the way designers and scientists listen to clients, colleagues, friends, family, etc. Could we distinguish a designerly way of listening? Maybe the answer is yes. Could we then distinguish expert design listening from novice design listening?

Writing Personal, Authentic Text

I help lots of folks write personal statements, research statements, grant proposals, letters of intent, etc. I enjoy it quite a lot. But more often than not, the first draft that’s brought to me lacks personality and authenticity. If 500 submissions come in, this one is going to sound like 479 of ’em.

There is a lot of writing that seeks to say what (they think) a particular audience wants to hear. This almost never works. The audience matters, for sure. But there’s a difference between what your audience wants to hear and what you think they want to hear. And this difference is maybe often blurred or ignored.

Instead of spending time reflecting, sketching, and organizing a text that is a personal and authentic representation of the applicant, writers try to think of the things they can say that will win the audience. The irony in this case is that the audience wants to read something personal and authentic, and they are savvy enough to tell when they’re reading a text that has been written to win them over.

A Short Story About Interactivity Clutter

A few weeks ago, I acquired a Myo armband. Myo is a muscle-movement sensor worn around the forearm. And on the basis of a series of hand gestures, the person wearing it can control anything from a slide presentation or a cursor to an r/c car or drone. You can read more about it and watch some neat videos of it in action on the Myo website.

As an input device, it takes some getting used to. When I set it up to control the cursor I found it so difficult to use that I almost immediately resorted to using the trackpad.

And here is where the interactivity clutter became obvious. A quick note: interactivity clutter is a term coined by Lars-Erik Janlert and Erik Stolterman to describe possible consequences of the increasing number of (co-existing) interactive artifacts in our environments. This definition doesn’t do justice to their work but it suffices for my purpose in this post. You can read more about it and get the citation information here. I will just finish telling my story to illustrate a simple way clutter can impact daily life.

I was wearing the Myo around my right forearm. And I was the using my right hand to manipulate the trackpad. The cursor began shakily darting around the screen in response to the slight but apparently detectable tension created by the direction of my arm/hand movements and my finger movement on the trackpad. I grew frustrated and a little more stressed than I had been moments ago, and I took the Myo off of my arm after several failed attempts to expand a ‘file’ menu.

I shudder to imagine what would have happened if I had tried to use the wireless mouse…

Theory and Theory Building

I’ve been puttering my way through a lengthy reading list I put together toward the end of the summer. Gathering the list is one of the things I did to fulfill the requirements of my PhD qualifying exam. The other requirements: writing a paper and presenting/defending the content of the paper to my advisory committee.

Anyway, the list is a fairly extensive collection of publications (conference, journal, book sections, and books) on theory and theory building in human-computer interaction and design research (… readings from information systems and management studies are also well represented).

And  as I work my way through I find myself thinking about many potential inroads to the ‘theory’ discourse. In all of these readings it’s quite common to read about the theory-practice gap, which describes the space between theory building in academia and professional hci/design practice.

One of the ways scholars seem to be responding to this issue is by proposing models and frameworks for building theory with practical utility and scientific utility. Examples include Kuechler and Vaishnavi 2012, Gioia and Pitre 1990, Zimmerman, Evenson and Forlizzi 2005, Gregor and Jones 2007. And there are others.

One thing I am curious about is whether these models and frameworks are used (?) and, if so, to what extent they are useful to researchers? Also what are their similarities and differences? I have found fewer examples of papers that compare these different models and frameworks or speak back to them in a meaningful, significant way.