Reading

design, design thinking, education, knowledge production, learning, teaching

James Baldwin is a wonderful writer. I’m working my way slowly through The Fire Next Time, and the following passage just punched me in the chest:

Here was the South Side – a million in captivity – stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. Ands they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either – they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes. (Baldwin, 1993 p. 61)

Never have I ever felt so nailed by a critique. Have I ever really read to learn? Or has it always been to learn new attitudes? What’s the difference between learning [x] and learning a new attitude? What sorts of books is Baldwin talking about? And how does Baldwin distinguish between learning and learning new attitudes?

This last question seems to me to be a consequential one, and I would love to know how Baldwin makes the distinction (and if he is on record explaining it anywhere, I would love to read/watch.. so please leave a comment if you know).

I quoted from the First Vintage International Edition of the book, published in 1993.

Questions Designers Ask

design, design research, design thinking, HCI/d, interaction design, Interaction Design, knowledge tools, research, writing

We can probably all agree that questions matter in designing.

I’m a firm believer (along with many others) that ambiguity is a key characteristic of design problems, which means that posing good questions to clients isn’t just important. It’s essential. It’s these good questions that will bring clarity to the problem and help designers make judgments about how to frame/direct their subsequent design activities.

Good questions are a compass.

And yet, as important as good questions are in the early stages of designing, I haven’t had any luck finding good literature either (1) reporting studies that specifically examine question-asking during the design process or (2) exploring the issue of “designerly questions” in a more abstract way.

I’m not saying that there is a complete gap in the literature. I just need to spend some more time looking. But there does not seem to be as much as I expected there would be when I got interested in this topic.

UPDATE: I found an interesting article whose name I swear I did not rip off when I titled this blog entry. I didn’t even know it existed. Questions Architects Ask by Robert Gutman

 

Demarcating Design Research

design, design research, design theory, design thinking, HCI/d, karl popper

I’ve been thinking over these last few days about just what we mean when we say “design research.” Does saying we do design research or that we are design researchers imply that we do a different kind of research? Does it mean that as design researchers we make a unique intellectual contribution to the realms of scholarship and practice that couldn’t be made by psychologists, sociologists, linguists, or cognitive scientists?

I want to make sure I’m not being misinterpreted here, and so I need to clarify that when I say “design research,” I do not mean, “design inquiry.” I think these are two different things. Design inquiry is unique. It is distinct from other kinds of inquiry. If design researchers practiced design inquiry, then perhaps their contributions (in terms of methods or methodics) would be a unique contribution to the intellectual landscape.

But to my knowledge doing design inquiry is not part and parcel of design research. In fact, it’s maybe only essential to research-through-design, which currently enjoys a kind of pariah status (at least informally) in the design research community. So, is design research writ large just a lot of scholars working “on a common theme but [from] different disciplinary perspectives” (Gibbons et al. 2006 on p.28)? A cursory look at the TOC of some design conference proceedings might support an answer in the affirmative. And if so, then what are the implications for the field?

Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (2006). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Knowledge Claims in Design Research

design, design research, design theory, design thinking, HCI/d, karl popper, philosophy, philosophy of science, theory, Uncategorized

One of my summer research projects has to do with knowledge claims in design research publications. The question stems from an interest in understanding the similarities and differences between how knowledge claims are formulated in design research publications as opposed to natural and/or social scientific research. One would expect there to be some overlap as there is scientific work done in design research. In fact, there are lots of different kinds of researchers publishing in design journals so one might expect to see a variety of kinds of knowledge claims (claims with different ontological and epistemological underpinnings) being made in a given journal or conference. But what (if anything) sets a knowledge claim in design research apart from knowledge claims in the natural and social sciences? A preliminary observation is that within some articles there are a variety of different kinds of knowledge claims that have conflicting epistemological and ontological underpinnings. How do we account for this variety? And what are its implications for publishing in design research?

Summer Research Projects

design, design research, design thinking, HCI, HCI/d, Interaction Design, philosophy, philosophy of science, science, theory, writing

The academic year is over, and after having taken a few days off, today is the day I launch into several really exciting and interesting projects.

Following are summaries of each major project. Hopefully, writing about each of them on the blog throughout the summer will provide (1) a modicum of accountability to the anonymous readers who may be checking in with me and (2) an opportunity to play a bit with the ideas in a public forum. This latter provision stems from a perceived need to achieve a greater comfort level with playing with ideas “out in the open” instead of waiting to share them in a more final, polished format.

For each project, I provide the “framing question,” and some amplification.

  1. What form do knowledge claims take in design research? This project is a comparative analysis of three different kinds of research publications: design publications, natural science publications, and social science publications. Random samples of each type (e.g. papers from Design Studies, Nature, and the American Sociological Review) have been preliminarily analyzed in order to gain a deeper understanding of the practice of making knowledge claims in design research by comparing a sample of its claims against other kinds. This is part of a larger project aimed at explicating the practice of design research.
  2. How do design researchers cite Donald Schon? Schon is probably one of the most frequent citations in design research. When researchers cite Schon, how are they citing his work? Are they demonstrating their familiarity with the “canon,” or does the citation have broader implications for their research questions or analysis? This paper is a first step towards a broader project of understanding the practice of design research. This project is being done in collaboration with Laureline Chiapello, from the University of Montréal.
  3. How is theory used in ToCHI publications? A similar study currently in review for publication in Design Studies asks how design researchers use theory in their texts. We distinguish between theory use in a written texts and theory use in a research project. We make no claims about how theory functions in the broader research project–only about how it functions in the text. This paper asks the same question, but focuses on publications in a leading HCI journal: ToCHI. **Another paper follows this same pattern in analyzing papers published as CHI, the leading HCI conference.**
  4. What possible (presents and) futures does the design research community imagine for itself? One way to approach this question is to inquire as to how we characterize it now. When I say “design research,” I mean “research through design,” as opposed to the scientific, humanistic, and historical (among other) kinds of research being conducted in the field. I use discourse analytic techniques to explicate a lengthy discussion on the PHD-Design listserv in order to suss out the generative metaphors that writers use to (1) characterize the current state of design and (2) imply (particular) possible futures.
  5. How have design theories progressively deepened our understanding of designing? Building off of a current project that adopts methodological falsification as an analytical lens, this project departs from Lakatos’s notion of sophisticated falsification and asks how a sub-set of design theories (theories about design) have deepened our understanding of design. In Lakatos’s words, referring to scientific theories, “… a theory is ‘acceptable’ or ‘scientific’ only if it has corroborated excess empirical content over its predecessor (or rival), that is, only if it leads to the discovery of novel facts.” (Lakatos and Musgrave, 1970) Using CK theory, the FBS framework, Figural Complexity, and Bounded Rationality, we ask what “novel facts” each theory provides.
  6. Can there be scientific theories that do not scientize design? This question served as the foundation for a paper recently presented at the European Academy of Design conference in Paris. It uses Karl Popper’s criteria for scientific theories as an analytical framework to argue that there can be scientific theories of designing and, importantly, that these theories do not “scientize” the design process, which is to say that they do not provide us with an understanding of designing as a scientific activity. We are in the midst of overhauling the paper in order to submit it for publication in a leading engineering design journal.

Aside from preparing for my qualifying exams in the fall, this list describes how I’ll be spending my summer days (save for a week off in August before the semester begins). Now the only thing left to do is get started…

Writing | Quality as a Function of Utility

design, design thinking, interaction design, Interaction Design, learning, online learning, pedagogy, teaching, writing

Everybody writes. Emails, blogs, papers, journal articles, book chapters, theses, dissertations, books… So at the draft stage of writing, how do you know enough is enough? This question popped into my head today as I was sending a draft of a section of a paper to my co-author. I wrote to him via email something along the lines of, “… I’m glad that I wrote something; that I gave us material to work with. but i also don’t know if what i wrote gives us enough.”

I regret having wrote that because all I was doing was qualifying the quality of the writing. In other words, “This draft sucks, so prepare thyself for a slog…” This is a crumby way to frame any writing.

Stuff just “is” for better or worse no matter how you choose to measure it. Would it be better if I got closer to “final draft” quality the first time around? Maybe. But, among other things, that assumes the goodness of badness of writing is a function of quality and speed.

See any standardized test for examples of how this assumption surfaces in reality. “Write 500-700 words in 25 minutes… etc.” Don’t mistake this as a criticism of touting speed as a key factor in the quality of writing. It may very well be important.

I want to put forth a different assumption about writing, which, in and of itself, is not incommensurable with speed as a component of quality, but which emphasizes another aspect of writing. The goodness or badness of writing is a function of its utility and its utility is inextricably linked with its context. 

I’ll try and explain with a design analogy.

We talk about iteration a lot in design. Sketch quickly. Sketch often. And always be in dialogue with and about your sketches. The same principle can be applied to writing. Write quickly. Write often. And always be in dialogue with your writing. A designer doesn’t have to be great at sketching. They don’t even need to be good at it, whatever “good” might mean to you. They need to be an adequate sketch artist, meaning that when someone else looks at their sketch they need to be able to be able to converse with it (even if the designer-creator of the sketch isn’t there). In other words, their sketches need to be useful given their spatio-temporally constrained role. Sketches need to be different things at different times in the design process. And maybe the same is true with writing.

I’ve read some pretty bad writing and been able to converse with it, and at the early stages of writing perhaps we all need to relax the “selection criteria” for what gets out of the brain and onto the page. You’ll write something useful. Guaranteed.

If you sketch a lot, you’re going to get better because you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level (1) what it means for a sketch to be good and (2) how you can improve as a sketch artist. I think the same is probably true of writing.

If you write a lot, you’re going to get better because, through your own dialogue with your writing and through your dialogue with others about your writing, you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level what it means, to you and to others, (1) for writing to be good, and (2) how to get from where you are to where you want to be (as a writer).

Normativity and Design

design, design research, design theory, design thinking, philosophy, theory, Uncategorized, writing

Story: During a debate about the future importance of design–but not Designers–an audience member raised her hand. She was a designer from Peru. “I have to interrupt,” she said, “because I sense that you’re ignoring the degree to which design is already happening in a substantive, vibrant way in, for example, Peru. Peru doesn’t need the West to come in and ‘save it,’ because its capable of saving itself.” The audience broke out in applause.

There’s something unappealing about the perspective that the developed world has the means to enter a problematic situation in the undeveloped world and generate otherwise unattainable solutions. The Way of the Developed World (hereafter WdW) is thought by many to be a kind of magic bullet. It has the brains, money, time, power, etc. at its disposal which the rest of the world lacks. How could rural villagers in Turkmenistan possibly come up with a solution for showering without indoor plumbing to rival that from a team of thinkers from IDEO or Frog Design? They’re outmatched.

It’s not atypical to hear this sort of thinking challenged. Things that resemble imperialistic thinking tend to invite dissent, which is a good thing. Much less often, one might hear that it would do those Turkmenistani villagers well to consider the WdW rather than write it off in an attempt to maintain the integrity of their ways of thinking and doing. This perspective accuses those who would challenge the WdW of the very thing that it has become so well known for: remaining closed off to other ways of thinking/doing and idolizing its own.

Recall the Peruvian dissenter. She presses on the suitedness of the WdW to “save Peruvian design from itself.” The perspective described in the previous paragraph frames her dissent as (1) unwilling to acknowledge the potential value of the WdW and (2) stubborn in its adherence to local ways of thinking and doing. Why shouldn’t she at least consider that the developed world has something to offer? This is a rhetorical question. I’m not seriously asking it because I see in it some fundamental flaws.

  1. It implies social and/or economic equality which is, in reality, nonexistent, and
  2. It implies that the developed world is willing to hear dissent/challenges and, in the unlikely event that valid opposition manifests, it is willing to recognize superiority from an(other).

Multiplicity of perspectives matters, but cultural hegemony should give us pause. Science is dependent on the scientist. Philosophy on the philosopher. Logic on the logician. And interpretation on the interpreter. Objectivity is chimerical…

[Work in progress. To be continued…]

HCI and Slow Theory

design thinking, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, philosophy, theory, User experience, UX

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.

New Research Questions | New Books

design thinking, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, Uncategorized, UX

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.

Some Thoughts About Design

design thinking, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, philosophy, Uncategorized, writing

I’ve been thinking about a question put forth by people smarter than me about Design. John Heskett articulates it best:

[Why has design] never cohered into a unified profession, such as law, medicine, or architecture, where a license or similar qualification is required to practice…? [1] 

I’m wondering if an answer to this question isn’t veiled in another widely argued–if not accepted–truth about design. Namely, that it is a basic human activity.

It is our very ability to design that determines our humanness. [2]

Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human. [1]

I don’t have a fully formed answer, here. So if you’re expecting something more articulate, now would be the time to recalibrate your expectations. But consider this: law and medicine are not basic characteristics of what it means to be human, nor does our ability to practice these things determine our humanness. Since these are not basic characteristics of what it means to be human, it seems to me that the licensure/qualification procedures, the governing bodies, and the gaining of entry through “regulated procedures” [1] are necessary whereas the same cannot be said of design.

Nelson and Stolterman state that “everyone is designing most of the time,” which implies that licensure/qualification need not extend beyond birth. Is design, then, a birthright imposing no prerequisite knowledge or skills or tools in order to act (as a designer) other than the possession of life? Echoing the sentiments of the aforementioned authors, Klaus Krippendorff articulates it perfectly with the claim that, “Design is intrinsically motivating and a constitutionally human activity, it is not the privilege of a profession.” [3, emphasis added]

This does not mean that a design profession categorically does not, should not, or cannot exist in the same way as Law or Medicine. But it may have interesting implications for what that profession looks like and how we might go about licensing (or qualifying) individuals in order to be part of it. It may have implications for regulating procedures for admitting designers into the profession. It may have implications for using a term like “unified” to describe the profession.

What if Law or Medicine were constitutionally human activities? What if they were not the privilege of professions? How would they change?

Sources:

[1] Heskett, J. (2005). Design: A very short introduction. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.

[2] Nelson, H., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world. (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[3] Krippendorff, K. (2000). Human-centered design; a cultural necessity. Unpublished manuscript, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.