Finally, DIS

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

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

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

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

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:


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

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

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.