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…

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

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

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.

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..

Some Thoughts on Purpose

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

I’ve been skimming a wonderful article written by Per Galle called Philosophy of Design: An Editorial Introduction. You can find it in Design Issues Volume 23. Put simply, Galle’s agenda is to explain what is the philosophy of design and what it’s good for. The section I’m about to (briefly) rant about does not in any way represent the whole of the article’s content. Beware of that. The article is wonderful and should be read by all burgeoning designers..

In the section detailing what the philosophy of design is good for, I came across the following snippet of text:

Would you be prepared to tell professional designers working for you, that understanding how to do their job is all they need, while understanding what they are doing is a waste of time? To me, that does not seem like the kind of thing to tell employees whom one hopes to motivate and enable to improve one’s products, increase one’s share of the market, or boost productivity in the industry. (217)

My reaction to it was immediate and more severe than I expected because on the one hand, I read this as a reminder of the importance of inculcating a sense of purpose in one’s workforce. Perhaps this makes the everyday experience in the workplace more productive and genial. Galle is right about that. Working for something (other than a paycheck) is rewarding and motivating. But there’s another (glaringly problematic) side of the coin.

I’m being packaged and sold a sense of purpose not because its important for me to have one, but because my employer wants me to be more productive… wants me to spend more time at the desk… wants me to improve her products or the company’s market share. I don’t think it’s wise to take this point for granted.

Do a brief thought exercise with me and imagine what it might be like to work in a company where sense of purpose (outside of a paycheck) isn’t discussed and where we’re still expected to do all the things Galle mentions (e.g. improve products, increase market share, etc.). It would suck, I’m sure. But does it suck more than being lied to everyday? Maybe. Maybe not. The purpose of a business–any business–is to make money and grow market share. Is it ethical to attain such ends by telling employees that they’re there for a different purpose? Maybe. Maybe not.

EDIT: Maybe I could frame this in terms of the Matrix. We’re plugged into the Matrix when we’re being packaged and sold purpose in order to be more productive workers. The real world is grimy and disgusting, but hey, at least we’re free!

EDIT II: Who am I to say which is the reality: (1) working for a paycheck, or (2) working to make the world a better place. Perhaps it’s a matter of framing. If I calibrate my expectations for work such that I believe I am working because doing so fulfills the sense of purpose defined by my company (or, heck, even by the profession itself) then who’s to say that isn’t my purpose? The paycheck is a necessary part of it. Perhaps so too is being more productive and increasing my company’s market share. But maybe these are just necessary tradeoffs one has to make in order to attain/fulfill a sense of purpose. Am I beholden only to those structures to which I subjugate myself? Or am I fettered within structures from the outset?

McCulloch and Pitts’ Logical Calculus

cybernetics, HCI, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, logic, philosophy, UX

Prompt: Several days ago, a Professor assigned us a reading. “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.” This is not the kind of reading I’m used to doing. It’s science. It’s (shudder) math. Nonetheless, I dove in with an agenda. We were asked (as a preface to reading) to “discuss the implications of the paper and its role in the life of a budding PhD.”

What follows may very well befuddle you. You may be nonplussed. Not because it’s esoteric, but because it’s kind of muddled.

Nonetheless, I think I’ve got a few core ideas worth ruminating on. Strap yourself in….

…How is this paper beneficial to a budding Informatics PhD? In one sense, it is beneficial in that it provides a key historical moment in the development of the discipline. Why is it beneficial to understand the history of a discipline? For the same reasons that conferees at the Macy conference called attention to the cultural situated-ness of their theories. These reasons are both practical and philosophical.

Practically speaking, a paper like McCulloch and Pitts logical calculus opens up avenues for neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. to leverage the MCP model in modifying their treatment practice (e.g., no longer is the patient history required in treating an illness). In addition, it opens up new avenues of research for disciplines like mathematics…opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. How many mathematicians were doing neuroscience through a computational lens prior to McCulloch and Pitts? The seeming simplicity of the MCP neuron makes it easy to process, too: inhibitory synapses and excitatory synapses trigger action (or stasis?) in the neuron (or system of neurons) they stimulate. Is there a way to figure out how to trigger particular impulses or suppress particular impulses? Can we develop a treatment to modify behavior without the patient having to “self-modify”?

Getting back to the pith of the Macy conferees, they pointed out the importance of understanding cultures on their own terms. To some extent, if it is possible to understand a culture on its own terms, then one has to know the history of that culture. Where did its predispositions, assumptions, and practices come from? What does this past imply about the present? What does the past suggest for future directions? What can we infer about a culture based on its past? We might modify these same questions to address an academic domain, such as informatics. Where did its predispositions, assumptions, and practices come from? What does this past imply about the present? What does the past suggest for future directions?The past — as filtered through the McCulloch + Pitts paper — implies that there has been a notable value shift, at least in terms of HCI.

My guess is that this paper would be met in that community with the same warmth as much first-wave HCI research is…The “brain-as-computer” metaphor dominates first-wave HCI. It could be argued, strongly I think, that first-wave HCI was perhaps the most explicit “human engineering” in the field to-date. But the metaphor was soon met with disdain. If the brain is the same thing as a computer, then what does it mean to be human? If scientists adopt this perspective, then how might that color their research? Is it better or worse? Or just different? Is it important to differentiate the brain from a computer? What are the limitations of the analogy? Are all things brain-related simply information processing to be understood — at its most basic — as the meeting or exceeding of thresholds of activity in a net? How do we explain differences in perception? Certainly there are commonalities between us. But so too are their differences. How does the MCP theory account for these differences?

Their theory–which I think they would admit is reductionist–overlooks so much of what might be called humanness. All this is to say, there is a practical aspect of the philosophical side of the role this paper plays: it forces us to turn the lens on the discipline and ask questions of it…and act if the answers we come up with are answers we don’t like. The neat thing about having read the Heims paper in concert with the MCP paper is that the Heims book, The Cybernetics Group, is a beacon of hope for enacting change within a discipline outside the auspices of official publications.

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!