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


Designerly Ways of Listening

design, design research, design theory, HCI/d, interaction design, learning, Uncategorized

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?

A Short Story About Interactivity Clutter

HCI, Human-Computer Interaction, interaction design, User experience, UX

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…

European Academy of Design

design, design research, design theory, interaction design, karl popper, philosophy of science, science, theory

I’m really excited to have the opportunity to travel to Paris this coming April to present a paper written with Erik Stolterman at the 2015 EAD conference. Our paper is part of the design theory / design philosophy track, which you can read more about here. The paper abstract follows:

This paper asks, Can there be scientific theories of design that do not scientize design? And it answers in the affirmative. Not only can there be scientific theories of design that do not scientize design but also that a scientific lens can potentially reveal important aspects of the design process. We apply Karl Popper’s criteria for the scientific status of a theory to four seminal theories of the design process: Bounded Rationality, FBS Framework, Figural Complexity, and C-K Theory. We demonstrate that (1) some theories about design can be construed as scientific in Popper’s terms, and that (2) these theories do not “scientize” the design process.

I will post a version of the paper to my page for those interested in reading it.

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).

Experience Design | Reward Systems

experiential learning, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, interaction design, philosophy, Uncategorized, User experience, UX

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


…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…

Growth as a Designer

HCI, Human-Computer Interaction, interaction design, Interaction Design

**reblog…I wrote this entry as part of a reflective journal in my first-semester graduate interaction design class at Indiana University‘s SOIC**

Bill Moggridge’s book Designing Interactions was waiting on my desk when I got home tonight.

After taking care of a few lingering project 4 tasks from the day — and after eating a late dinner — I tore open the plastic and ran my fingers over the cover, the spine, and the pages (while closed).

Running my fingers along the closed pages stirred memories of sitting in classrooms from middle school to high school during the first week of school on the day textbooks were passed out. Reminded me of being in used bookstores browsing the shelves. Reminded me of being in the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park, staring back at the densely packed shelves of theory and criticism. Unique experiences, each.

There’s a certain smoothness to the surface formed when hundreds and hundreds of pages are pressed firmly together. There’s nothing quite like it, actually. You feel a surface and yet you’re keenly aware of each page. Beautiful, really. It’s reminiscent of a wood floor. Perhaps a sign of the pages’ forebears.

It’s interesting to think about what a book might look like if it didn’t look like a book. Ebooks look like books. Why? Does a book mean two covers and pages between? Would you read a book if it didn’t have those features (physical or digital)? Would you call a thing without those features a book? If so, why? If not, why not? How does a book feel? How does it sound?

Why am I asking all these questions about books? I’ll explain…

Another habit of mine is flipping through books before reading them…looking for pictures, judging chapter length, gauging vocabulary, sensing tone, and looking for quotes.

Near the very end of Designing Interactions on page 733, I zeroed in on a passage where Moggridge explains the brainstorming process at IDEO:

Brainstorming can give a fast start to ideation and is often the most useful early on, as the constraints are being shaken out. A typical brainstorm at IDEO has eight to ten participants, with one or two experienced recorders, dubbed, scribes, who record the ideas as they flow from the group. Each session lasts about an hour and 50 to 100 ideas are recorded…Ideas can come at any time, often from unexpected directions.

50 to 100 ideas! In about an hour! Fifty. to. One hundred. Ideas! Unbelievable! And wonderful.

So then why all the questions about books? Because I feel like I should be asking those questions about everything — and today it happened to be a book — in order to grow as a designer.

If as an interaction designer I’m going to shape others’ lives with interactive artifacts,  then shouldn’t I be constantly/consciously evaluating and re-evaluating my own interactions and how they shape my life? So that when I’m on a team, I can contribute my share of the 50-100 ideas generated during that first brainstorming session?

HCI Study Journal

HCI, Human-Computer Interaction, interaction design, Interaction Design

Last week brought with it a slew of activities: project submissions, presentations, and exams. The weeks in this program end soon after they begin. It’s wonderful.

Our third design project for the semester centers on time, and I find this apt because  — even before the design brief was released — I had taken a step back from myself to fathom just how much time had passed since the program began. As I philosophized (in my head) I was struck by the discord between the breadth and depth of my learning and the amount of time I’ve spent in the program.

I imagine the graph would look something like this:

Learn Graph


I represent learning in terms of bits: units of knowledge. I’m not sure exactly what is a unit of knowledge. Quantifying knowledge this way is reductive and serves only as an illustration of the relationship between the amount of time I’ve been in this program and the concomitant knowledge acquisition.

A better graph might be more abstract — one without numbers and a steep positive slope. But the numbers in my graph have one thing going for them: they communicate clearly the disproportionate relationship between time and learning. For as little time as I’ve been here — .01% of what I can only hope will be a full life — I’ve learned so much.

If you invest yourself fully in the HCI/d program, the intellectual and creative returns will explode your expectations.

What do designers do?

HCI, Human-Computer Interaction, interaction design, Interaction Design, Uncategorized, virtual worlds

One of the tasks in my introductory design class is a weekly reflective journal. I got in the habit of keeping a study journal over the summer, and I think that this reflective journal is akin to a study journal. It’s more formal, though. And so I find myself approaching it like a short essay assignment of sorts. I pick a question or issue I’m grappling with, and I try to answer it.

This last week I attempted to grapple with the question, “What do designers do?” I’m talking about interaction designers, experience designers, and the like. Not architects or graphic designers, necessarily (although I’m sure there would be some disciplinary overlap..)

This is an important question. I know this because it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. I’m not sure that is has been answered completely. I’m not sure that it can be answered completely. It seems an insurmountable task. To articulate what designers do is akin to answering the question Who am I.

I don’t make this claim because I believe a person is what he or she does. I do so because the answer to the question Who am I is equally complex — so much so that it, too, seems unanswerable. As soon as you’ve dotted the last i, the answer has changed. Are you the same person you were when you set out to answer the question in the first place? Almost definitely not. If you were, then you would not have grown an intellectual millimeter in the time you took to attempt an answer.

The key observation is this: How can you answer a question if the answer to the question will have changed by the time you “finish” crafting your answer? If the answer is never the same?

Think of it like this. I’m talking about summiting a mountain that keeps getting taller as you climb it. Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet tall. What if, by the time you got to 29,029 feet, the mountain had grown to 31,031 feet? Does that mean you don’t try to reach the top because it is physically (or intellectually) impossible to do so? Or do you drive an ice axe into the mountain and keep climbing?