Finally, DIS

design, design research, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, knowledge production, knowledge tools, research, writing

After a few years of submitting papers to HCI venues and learning how to cope with rejection after rejection after rejection*, I finally managed to get one accepted at ACM Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2017.

It’s a full paper, and it’s the outcome of a collaboration with Erik Stolterman. Here’s the abstract:

What are big questions? Why do scholars propose them? How are they generated? Could they be valuable and useful in HCI research? In this paper we conduct a thorough review of “big questions” literature, which draws on scholarship from a variety of fields and disciplines. Our intended contribution is twofold. First, we provide a substantive review of big questions scholarship, which to our knowledge has never been done before. Second, we leverage this summary as a means of examining the value and utility of big questions in HCI as a research discipline. Whether HCI decides that generating and having big questions would be a desirable path forward, we believe that examining the potential for big questions is a useful way of becoming more reflective about HCI research.

I’ll add a link to the draft soon, so if you find the abstract intriguing please do check back to download the paper. Can’t wait to visit Edinburgh!

*If you’re looking for an entertaining text on rejection-proofing yourself, I highly recommend Rejection Proof.

 

 

Death and Dying

writing

My in-laws live on a farm, and one of their horses loves llamas. For as long as I’ve known him he’s had the same llama companion. But last year the llama died. And my daughter asked where he went.

My mother-in-law didn’t know what to tell her. When she told me about this and asked me what I thought she should say, I was staring at a few bookshelves full of children’s books. Animals. Potty training. Imagination. Feelings. Lots of different topics. Lots of different purposes. Letters. Numbers. First words. And others. But none about death or dying.

And as I thought about it, it never occurred to me to buy books for her on the topic. Why would I? Why read a book about death or dying to a kiddo? They don’t need to be exposed to that. Do they? Should death be something that we only talk about in times of grief?

One of our dogs died last year. And so did a grandparent. So why not talk about death? In not talking about it do I just perpetuate it as a sort-of taboo concept? Maybe reading about it from an early age encourages thinking about it more deeply and relating to it differently.

Maybe she’ll have a richer understanding and vocabulary for coping with it when she inevitably does confront it. I don’t know. But I don’t think that death or dying as concepts ought to be avoided even if they seem untimely.

 

The Capacity for Shock

design, research, Uncategorized, writing

One of the first things I read following the 2016 election was an article called Autocracy: Rules for Survival. It’s a great, short read. And it introduced me to Masha Gessen’s terrific writing. I especially like her piece on Arguing the Truth.

One of the rules for survival has to do with maintaining the capacity for shock. This means that when horrible things happen it’s still possible to gawk in disbelief instead of sigh, shrug, and accept what’s happening as a new normal.

And ideally, the shock/disbelief is generative of some other action.

But acting on the basis of shock or disbelief requires first the capacity for both. And in an environment marked by a proliferation of shocking things, what are methods/tools that can be used to undermine the law of diminishing returns? In other words, how do we make sure that we don’t lose our capacity for shock through repeated exposure to shock?

On Critical Thinking Skills

knowledge tools, learning, writing

I saw a Tweet the other day that said something along the lines of “If only people had critical thinking skills, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

I disagree.

Critical thinking skills interact with other things like world views, personal philosophies, religious beliefs, etc., and all of these things influence how critical thinking skills are deployed. Thus, I can deploy them to argue for marginalization or oppression. Or I can deploy them to argue that marginalization and oppression are not occurring somewhere where they are (and have been occurring) for many many many years, like American public schools (cf. The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the Mis-Education of the Negro).

This means that focusing on critical thinking skills as a kind of magic bullet to get us out of the current predicament is by itself a dead end.

This does not mean that critical thinking skills have no important role to play. They do.

Here’s an example of how they do: I suspect that critical thinking skills enable me to notice that children’s books generally feature male protagonists. The mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a dude. Corduroy (the bear with green overalls) is a boy.

These are just a couple examples. There are many others. So many in fact that some of my friends’ children have taken to identifying characters as male even if there is no gender assignment made in the book and there is no obvious way (e.g. blue or pink clothes, masculine/feminine features) to make this assignment.

Critical thinking skills can help clarify that we actively design future generations’ world views simply by reading to them at bedtime. And yet at the same time these thinking skills are shaped by world views.

Critical thinking skills can be effective tools for good, but they have to come from a standpoint that values a particular meaning of good (e.g. diversity, equality, care, etc.).

Absent those values, then I’m afraid critical thinking skills will be no more useful than anything else we might have at our disposal..

Extracurricular Reading

knowledge tools, learning, research, writing

I have a great extracurricular reading list for the summer. It’s not one that I established at the end of the semester or anything. It’s something that will evolve as my outside interests shift in response to whatever it is they respond to. Right now I’m reading the following:

0528161510

I’m just about done with the top two titles and preparing to start the bottom two. There is no logic to these titles or the order in which I’m reading them. They’re just enjoyable and in some cases quite useful (and in some cases peripherally related to current research…). If you’re interested in them, here are some links you can follow to find out more:

Peak by Anders Ericsson

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Leading with Questions by Michael Marquardt

The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Seymour Hersh

 

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

 

curiosity and diverse interests

education, philosophy, Uncategorized, writing

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

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

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

So, what to do?

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

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

Writing Personal, Authentic Text

Uncategorized, writing

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

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

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

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…

Stranger Doppelgänger

design, design theory, HCI, pedagogy, teaching, theory, writing

Today was day one of my narrative theory and inquiry class, and it looks like it’s going to be a winning semester. One of the in-class activities had us writing a brief narrative about a stranger we’d encountered. Recent encounters were preferable, and after an abbreviated memory search I wrote the following:

Traveling to Chicago last weekend, I found myself stopping at an ATM in Merrillville, Indiana, which abuts Interstate 65 in the Northwest corner of the state. The clouds from an impending thunderstorm were hanging low in the sky and just as I pulled away from the ATM I caught a figure out of the corner of my eye. It wore a loose grey sweatshirt, which surprised me given the hot weather. One weathered hand gripped a length of wood atop which sat a sign “Puppy sale. The Pet Store.” The Pet Store is exactly what its name implies, and it’s located in the strip mall adjacent to the bank. His other free hand sort of hung frozen in the air. But as the car rolled by I noticed there was the slightest movement to it. He was waving. Waving to who? Pondering the question gave me time to take in the rest of the costume. Worn jeans with a few tears in the front. Frayed near the bottom. And a red baseball cap relaxing on his head—not really doing the work a baseball cap should. Pulling out into the street, I could see his wrinkled brow, furrowed by the sun. Perpetually furrowed by many suns, perhaps. I wondered how many times he has stood by the road holding signs and waving. How many times holding signs but not waving? What does he think about standing by the road? And who does he stand there for? Is he standing there for himself? For a family? Driving past on our way to the highway, having just put a few crisp bills in my wallet, I tried to see his eyes. I’m not sure why. I couldn’t see them, though, because he wasn’t looking up.

After the exercise, we were prompted to read the narrative to a neighbor and dig a little deeper and consider what the narrative reveals about the author. We had to introduce ourselves as these strangers. These stranger doppelgängers. So, for the above story, I had to think about what it reveals about me. Why did I choose to write about this man? I’ve encountered many strangers during the last few days. Why did I remember (and include) the details that I did? Why did I omit others? What of myself did I see in him? What of not-myself did I see? How did I relate to him? How did I distance myself? These are some really fun, provocative questions to think about, especially considering I thought the exercise was going to culminate in a class-wide sharing of stories to open a discussion about the variety of perspectives and approaches we all adopt and take when telling stories. Moreover, what a great way to illustrate natural proclivities for storytelling. Even without having shared with everyone in the room, I know we all wrote something down. And I know everything everyone wrote down would have been recognizable as a story. Cool stuff.