IASDR 2017

Some additional good news to report. I submitted an abstract for a short paper to the upcoming IASDR conference in Cincinnati about some early-stage research that I’m working on with Erik Stolterman, and the abstract has been accepted! So now we’re writing the short paper and creating a poster to present at the conference.

Here is the abstract we submitted:

Scholars in a variety of academic disciplines have studied the peer review process. There are examinations of the biases that pervade peer review (Lee, Sugimoto, Zhang, & Cronin, 2013). Other studies propose tools or methods that might be useful for improving or standardizing the peer review process (Hames, 2008; Onitilo, Engel, Salzman-Scott, Stankowski, & Doi, 2013). Still others examine the kinds of criteria that ought to be relied upon in peer review processes, and in some cases these criteria are widely known and agreed upon. In the natural sciences, for example, we might say that there is a relatively stable set of criteria that can be used to assess the rigor, relevance, and validity of a scientific knowledge contribution. In this paper, our aim is to examine the process of peer review as it pertains to research through design. We aspire to build an understanding of the criteria scholars use when a design or prototype is the main contribution. How do reviewers evaluate designs as knowledge contributions? Is there any uniformity or stability to the review criteria? Are criteria from other fields (e.g. scientific criteria) used to evaluate designs? Toward this end, we report the outcome of a survey conducted with a group of meta-reviewers (n=15) from the design subcommittee for the 2017 Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) Conference, which is the flagship conference in our field of expertise. The design subcommittee reviews papers that “make a significant designerly contribution to HCI [including but not limited to] novel designs of interactive products, services, or systems that advance the state of the art.” Our findings suggest that there is little agreement on a common set of criteria for evaluating research through design.

I look forward to sharing more as this important project moves forward!

On the Amazon Echo

Note: This is an old post that I guess I never published. Hence the 2016 Labor Day reference.

 

Over labor day weekend (2016) I had some trouble with Alexa. But that’s all I know. I don’t know anything about the cause or anything about possible solutions. Here’s what happened.

On Sunday morning I asked Alexa to tell me the weather. The blue ‘listening’ light appeared and bounced around for a few moments longer than usual and then.. nothing. No ‘flickering’ lights to indicate that she was processing my request and no telling of the weather. What the heck?

And then an ominous red ring of light pulsed a few times and Alexa spoke. Something about how the echo had lost its connection followed by silence followed by “I’m having trouble understanding right now, please try again later,” or something along those lines.

No matter what I requested (or when I requested it) this same sequence of events played out so many times during the day Sunday and Monday. And I have no idea why! I opened the Alexa app on my phone to see if there might be anything helpful there. Nope. Nothing. The app gave me every indication that the Echo should be working. While it was frustrating enough that things were going wrong, it was even more frustrating that the most straightforward way I had of finding out what those things might be (the app) contradicted the fact that there was even a problem.

I use the Echo mostly for banal stuff like getting the news, weather, playing music, and adding items to digital shopping lists. I do have it paired with a smart thermostat, though. What if the Echo were an integral part of how I manage my day-to-day life and what if I had it paired with other smart devices (lights, a fridge, a car). It would be like multiple colleagues being out of the office without having giving any reason thus requiring you to change your schedule and take on a bunch of tasks that you no longer do. Not cool.

I don’t know what the takeaway is here: feedback is important, it’s better to know than not know, the Amazon Echo gives poor feedback, nodal point amenities (I’m making this up this stuff as I go along..) can make day-to-day life just a little bit better but when they fail they can induce anxiety and stress. Somehow I think this relates to the concept of faceless interaction. In the middle of the day on Sunday, staring at that broken cylindrical speaker in my kitchen, I wished, oh how I wished, for a screen.

Theoretical Adequacy in HCI Research

Theoretical adequacy is an concept that comes up in some form or another in various readings in the hci literature. More often than not, authors express concern that hci is currently (or soon-to-be) theoretically inadequate. But what does this mean?

What is theoretical adequacy? Is it the degree to which knowledge produced and published in a discipline is adopted and applied in a profession? Or does it refer to our production (or lack thereof) of scientific explanations of the phenomena we study? For the former, adequacy would be a high adoption and application of disciplinary knowledge in professions. And “theory” is really just another word for knowledge produced (primarily?) in a discipline. For the latter, adequacy could be a numbers game (how many theories do we produce?) or a utility game (do our theories have high scientific utility) or even an interest game (are the theories we generate interesting?).

Whatever meaning we choose, it seems reasonable to claim that theoretical adequacy is important. It seems important that we concern ourselves with the adoption of disciplinary knowledge in the professions (but maybe we should stop using the word ‘theory’ as shorthand for disciplinary knowledge since it does not describe all knowledge produced in the disciplines…). It also seems important that the theories we produce have a high degree of scientific utility or interest. But if I set out to address the applicability of disciplinary knowledge in the professions then I may set aside entirely my concern with scientific utility. Intention and meaning are intertwined, and this message gets lost in the literature.

We can’t hope to address theoretical adequacy without addressing its meaning.

A Short Story About Interactivity Clutter

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…

Summer Research Projects

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…

McCulloch and Pitts’ Logical Calculus

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

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..

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