the Echo as a pain point

design, design research, HCI, hci research, Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, User experience, UX

i just got an email from Amazon letting me know what’s new with Alexa! I read the very first sentences,

Life is unpredictable. Let me help.

, and i wondered whether Alexa (and other things like it) might be slowly chipping away at my capacity to deal with unpredictability. Do I cope with it less effectively? Do I get more frustrated when things don’t go according to plan?

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…

Attachment to Things | A Eulogy

design, design research, design theory, HCI, HCI/d, philosophy, User experience

Anyone who thinks people don’t form emotional bonds with things should reconsider that position. I’ve been a staunch believer in the emptiness that accompanies attachments to things. A person can’t love a smartphone or a car. At least, not in the same way they love a person or an animal. Surely I don’t have relationships with things in the same way I do with people. But maybe I do.

I just said goodbye to my first car, Betty. Betty transported me through almost fifteen years of life. I was seventeen when we met, and I’ll turn thirty at the end of this month. Betty has been (and will remain) an important part of my life story.

We finished high school and spent all of college together. We chauffeured friends to the movies, to downtown Chicago, to parties. We drove from the depths of southern Indiana home to Chicago on many a late Friday night–belting out songs at the top of our lungs. I cultivated a relationship with my wife due in no small part to the fact that I had Betty to take me from Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs to Hyde Park–a not-so-easy trip to make without a reliable car.

Yesterday, I spent part of the day emptying her of all of her accoutrements. Old receipts, aluminum foil balls, operator’s manual(s), clothes, road maps, a defunct iPass… pocket change, sketches, articles, comic books, more receipts, tools, dog leashes, stickers. I left only the things that I couldn’t take.

I wasn’t removing her organs, even though it felt just as vile. I was removing her personality. Her quirks. The ones we developed together. I was prepping her for the next life by taking from her almost all the things that came to define her in this one.

I stripped bumper stickers from the bumper, and state park and village stickers from the windows. I left an “I Voted Today” sticker on the steering wheel because it just wouldn’t peel off.

Today, I watched through the window as the tow truck drove her away, and I felt as though I was watching an innocent, benevolent someone or something being taken by force to prison, an asylum, or a “home.” Chains fettered her to the truck bed. She shook as the truck revved up as though trying to break free and return to the safety of the driveway to live out her days peacefully. But she couldn’t. She went unwillingly.

As the truck disappeared around the corner at the end of the block, I thought about how I had come to define myself in part through her. Betty was (and remains) part of my identity. And now she’s gone. It was truly a wonderful ride, and this (unexpected) eulogy was the only way I could think to cope with its denouement.

In the spirit of connecting this back to my primary object of inquiry, design, I would like to ask a rhetorical questions: what, if anything, my car’s “status” as a designed object contributes to this sort of attachment forming? are these types of attachments unique to designed objects among other kinds of inanimate objects? is time the most significant determining factor in my having developed such a strong emotional attachment to the car? 

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.

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…

Quantification and Goal Setting

design thinking, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, learning, User experience, UX, writing

Preface: I wrote this in an email exchange in early January, and the idea is still bouncing around my noggin. I’d love to get a dialogue going with anyone interested in any aspect of this content…

Before reading further, you can watch this video: TEDx talk on Keeping Your Goals. If you don’t watch it, that’s fine too. Just know this: in the video, Derek Sivers argues that when you’re setting goals for yourself you shouldn’t share those goals with anyone else because, if you do, your brain will trick itself into thinking you’ve already accomplished a lot more towards achieving the goal than you have (and thus you’ll do less work than you would if you’d kept it to yourself…). I frame my response to the video in terms of body data, lifelogging, and/or the quantified self.

I think the pith of his argument is especially relevant when body data works in some social component. And now I’m wondering how many fitness tracking devices don’t have some kind of social component. Are there any?! Anyway, with my now defunct Fitbit, I was “connected” with my father-in-law, sister-in-law, and my wife. So, they all knew I was using the Fitbit, and I can see how (even though it hadn’t occurred to me before) I might have tricked myself into feeling more accomplished simply because I was getting a social pat on the back from the people who knew I was attempting to take more steps, drink more water, etc.

With anything, I’m not sure this works all of the time. I can think of at least one reason why telling someone might be a motivating factor: shame. If I tell someone I’m trying to lose ten pounds and they check-in with me (informally, not because I ask them to) when we’re chatting, I’m going to feel shame if I’ve made no progress. Maybe potentially feeling shame will increase the odds that I’ll actually work at it…

There’s some kind of social contract forged whenever someone acknowledges their goals to others. Actually, there’s probably different kinds of contracts. One that is pure affirmation. One that is accountability. And maybe others. I do think people should receive some kind of affirmation for their goals (even just saying them out loud) but then its incumbent on the listener to hold the speaker accountable. When Sivers introduces the concept of telling someone about your goals, he uses the phrases “congratulatory” and “high-image” in reference to the listener as though this is the social contract. This is the response goal-setters get when they tell others. And perhaps he’s right. I’m usually supportive when people express their goals to me, anyway. But maybe that contract is wrong. Maybe I should be supportive while healthily realistic. Maybe rather than acknowledging the goal, we acknowledge the work that needs to go into the goal with a response like, “I’m going to check in with you every so often to see how you’re doing. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

This reminds me of a conversation my wife and I were having where I expressed frustration over people in general looking for quick-fix shortcuts to problems; not wanting to put in the work to achieve their goals. Sivers’s talk really resonates with me in that regard. So, perhaps even just buying a Fitbit, a Fuelband, or a Jawbone is enough to make someone feel like they’ve accomplished their goals. They get the affirmation from the salesperson (assuming the bought it in a brick & mortar store) and from the company, which presumably lauds the purchase and sends many emails touting the results users have yet to achieve and the community of athletes of which they’re now a part. Just by buying the device, you’re basically telling people your goal. Funny. You buy a device to get healthy and the effect of just buying it is potentially undermining the process…

I would be curious to know more details about the Gollwitzer study [mentioned in the TED talk]. What were the demographics of the people involved? How were they selected and subsequently divided into the groups of “speak-goal-aloud” and “remain silent”? What kinds of goals did they set for themselves that 45 minutes of silent work was somehow directly related to their achievement? There’s lots to explore here..

Experience Design | Manipulation | Perversion

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

I’ve been thinking about morality and manipulation since class today especially as it pertains to experience design. I get the impression that when we talk about manipulation we generally do so with an implied value judgment: manipulation = bad.

But when we were talking today about theme parks and movies, aren’t we talking about places people want to be (at least in part) manipulated? Maybe this isn’t a conscious thought. Maybe we don’t even think about going to theme parks or movies in terms of manipulation. But upon self-reflection, manipulation of my perceptions and emotions and even my values (consider today’s example of Dexter…rooting for a serial killer) is in large part why I watch movies and why I go to theme parks.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that manipulation is one-sided. It’s not just something that happens to me. It’s something I have to invite even if I don’t acknowledge the invitation. It’s a bit perverse, I suppose. So maybe thinking about manipulation re: experience in terms of a perversion would prove fruitful.

Barnard gets into psychoanalysis in his book, so I think I’ll invoke Freud. In particular, his explication of sadism and masochism in the Three Essays on Sexuality.

I want to draw a parallel between sado-masochism and my pursuing a (manipulative) experience in order to attain consummation.

Freud writes, “…the most remarkable feature about this perversion is that its active and passive forms are habitually found to occur together in the same individual…A sadist is always at the same time a masochist…” (25)

I see a clear parallel with the notion of manipulation (esp. in reference to theme parks and movies). I go to the movies and theme parks in order to be manipulated (masochism) but also to participate in the manipulation (sadism).

So, what does this all mean for designers? I suppose it depends on what kind of thing(s) we’re designing. But suppose there’s a tacit understanding that when we’re designing things for entertainments’ sake we’re going to be engaging in some form of manipulation and that even if our users don’t acknowledge it in these terms, they’re putting themselves in a position to be manipulated..


Freud, S. (2000). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. (p. 25). New York: Basic Books.

Design and the I Function

design thinking, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, User experience, UX, writing

I was re-reading an essay I wrote about The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function several years ago. Currently, I’m in the process of becoming a designer and part of that process entails thinking about everything — or at least trying to think about everything — in a designerly way. In this case, it meant thinking about the key concepts in Lacan’s essay as they pertain to design and to being a designer and developing design thinking skills.

I can’t profess expert knowledge of the I function, but I can boil it down with confidence. Lacan explains it with a narrative: an infant perceives itself in a mirror and notes a discord between its felt imperfection and the perfection of the specular image looking back at it. Thus the infant starts on a lifelong quest to attain wholeness and satisfaction through the “I” function.

This story doesn’t just play out for infants in front of a mirror, though. We’re confronted with imagos throughout life. We see models in magazines, actors and actresses on TV, passersby, neighbors, and others who just seem to be that much closer to perfect than we feel. And we want to feel that way (even though, ironically, we can’t really know what “that” is since we’ve never felt it…). Wonderful, isn’t it? We’ll strive throughout life to attain something we never can. There’s something poetic about that.

As a design thinker, I approach this differently. I approach it as a potential design problem. I ask myself (1) why do people perceive such disparity between themselves and ‘others’, (2) would it be better or worse to perceive a “reflection” that looks as imperfect/incomplete as they feel, (3) what benefits exist in such  a manner of perception (i.e., is it ever good to look at others and perceive completeness/wholeness relative to one’s own inadequacy, and (4) is it good to quest after something unattainable?

As a design thinker, I think it important to point out the inherent complexity of perceiving many different imagos throughout the course of one’s life; that to perceive multiple sources of completeness suggests that completeness is not a single attainable thing but a complex mixture of many things (a mixture which is necessarily incomplete in everyone). That just because something is unattainable doesn’t mean it isn’t worth chasing. That sometimes that means we should chase it all the more. BUT that we should temper the chase with rationality. We should establish and adhere to limitations in order to counteract potentially destructive behaviors that may result from such a quest (e.g., spending more money than one has in order to feel wholeness/completeness, spiraling into depression when one repeatedly fails to attain the unattainable). How does one maintain high spirits when questing after something they won’t get? Is it possible to remain motivated in a race with no finish line?

These are wicked problems that I want to tackle.  I guess I need to start with some design guidelines. But before I do that…user research!

Is Clarity the Path to Enlightenment?

HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, User experience, UX

While revisiting the notes I jotted down when I read Buxton‘s Sketching User Experiences I stumbled across this line of text:

Clarity is Not Always the Path to Enlightenment

It’s the chapter heading for a few pages that describe the necessarily ambiguous nature of sketching as it pertains to design. I especially love one of the chapter’s key ideas: ambiguity is evocative. (Buxton 115)

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the first readings we did my HCI theory class. An Yvonne Rogers reading. The one in which she expressed concern at HCI’s growing too big too fast. An adolescent growing up. Searching for identity. Grasping in all different directions for meaning. Directionless and, as such, confused and at risk of spiraling into greater confusion and dissonance.

“Do we try to stem the tide and impose some order,” Rogers asks, “or let the field continue to expand in an unruly fashion?” (Rogers 2)

Does there need to be a consensus of purpose? Does there need to be a uniform set of criteria by which we can assess HCI’s contribution(s) and value to knowledge and practice? (Rogers 1)

I think about these questions often. But I think about them relative to the cohort as a group of designers within the field and about myself as a designer within the cohort within the field. And I’ve come up with (not surprisingly) no conclusions. Only observations and more questions.

Think about the field as a design. What is our experience of it? Our interaction with it?

HCI is an incredibly complex thing and its identity is necessarily ambiguous; like a sketch. It enables those who work “within it” to design. Imposing order — pinning down “an” identity — works only insofar as it allows for evocation and mystery.

Buxton, quoting Gaver, Beaver, and Benford, writes of ambiguity in design:

their use of ambiguity makes them evocative rather than didactic and mysterious rather than obvious. (Buxton 115)

When I think of our field, I think of it as a place to explore. To play. To discover. To create!

Can such a place exist with clear structure, purpose, and direction? Of course! Sketches have structure, purpose, and direction. But they are still ambiguous.

If you want to get the most out of a sketch, you need to leave big enough holes. (Buxton 115)

Perhaps HCI’s metamorphosis from a “confined problem space with a clear focus that adopted a small set of methods to tackle it … into a more diffuse space with a less clear purpose,” (Rogers 1) is — in part — the field’s response to sketching. The field is made up of designers and designers are in conversation with their sketches. Does that mean that the field itself is in conversation with sketches, too?

The more I sketch, the more I come to understand my own complexity as a designer. The more I grow to embrace that complexity. The more I want to explore. To play. To create…



Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design. San Francisco: Elsevier.

Rogers, Y. (2012). Hci theory: Classical, modern, and contemporary. San Francisco: Morgan & Claypool Publishers.