Understanding Designing

design, design research, design theory, philosophy, theory, Uncategorized, writing

How can we achieve a deeper understanding of designing

There are many ways to answer that question. We can achieve a deeper understanding by engaging in a design process, by reading about design, by critiquing designs (or designing)… all roads of inquiry lead hopefully to one thing: deeper understanding. Achieving one step closer to a thing about which we’re curious. [I like the “step” metaphor, which is not mine, by the way. I once asked a friend why he’d been listening to Mozart for the last thirty years. He said, “Because each time I do I get closer to him.” Achieving a deeper understanding of anything puts us one (perhaps many) step(s) closer to it. But there are many ways to take the steps. So, how do you decide?]

How do you determine whether to design, read about design, critique designs, or scrutinize design theories? How do you decide whether to take a philosophical approach, a scientific approach, or a designerly approach? None of these are really easy questions, so don’t expect any easy (or for that matter well-formulated) answers.

I met Karl Popper for the first time last year. I know. 30 years old and I’d never read Popper before. Or Thomas Kuhn for that matter. Boy did I miss out. But no longer! Anyway, I’m still getting to know Popper but he and I have something in common. We’re both curious about what it means to “be” something. Popper was curious about what it meant for a theory to be scientific as opposed to something else. I was curious about what it means for a theory to be designerly as opposed to something else.

Our overlapping interests fit together quite nicely in a (thankfully still current) discourse within the design community about the relationship between design and science. You see, since design is a relatively new “discipline,” it is helpful to compare and contrast it with more mature disciplines like science in order to establish its “own” identity. Among others, I know at least the philosopher Martin Buber wrote about distancing and relating as methods for ascertaining identity. In what ways is design different from science (distancing) and in what ways is it similar (relating). If I had to speculate, I’d say that the pendulum is swinging towards relating at this moment.

But the relating questions asked, right now, maybe have less to do with what design and science have in common and more to do with how to negotiate the relationship between them. What can science do for design? What can design do for science? Maybe negotiate is the wrong word. Maybe optimize is better. Regardless, both are valuable questions. Both equally meritorious of answers. Both signify a shift in thinking about design and science not as competitors but as teammates.

It’s possible to use scientific and philosophical-scientific approaches to study design in ways that help the design research community attain a deeper understanding of the object of its inquiry. And this is how Erik Stolterman and I are going about it at the moment. In our work, we don’t suggest that what science has trumps what design has. But we are saying that science offers design something worthwhile and interesting.

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? 

Design | Definitions

design, design research, design theory, HCI/d, Interaction Design, philosophy, theory

This morning there was a fantastic debate held as part of the DRS 2014. What struck me during the debate, but especially during the following comments/questions from the audience, was the importance of defining our terms.

Members in the audience came from a diversity of design disciplines (interaction, graphic, architecture, engineering, product, industrial, and others) and, speaking at least for interaction design, and maybe there are disparate intradisciplinary discourses surrounding the meaning of design and its implications for research and practice. When we come together to talk about an umbrella term that seemingly unites us, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon us to at least acknowledge that we bring a diversity of understandings of design as well as what it means to be a designer.

Is the professions definition of a designer different than the philosophical definition? If so, how? And if not, why not? These are important questions if we’re debating the future of design and the role of the designer. What is the nature of the object of debate?

What does it mean for design to become more important? What does it mean to say that designers are going to become less important? I suggest that before we answer these questions, we have to define our terms.

Defining terms creates the common ground atop which we might enter into more constructive debate.

This should not be taken as an indictment of this morning’s proceedings. Clive Dilnot and Anna Rosling-Ronnlund presented wonderful arguments in favor of and against, respectively, the claim that design will become more important in the future while designers will become less so.

Their debate incited wonderful questions and comments from the audience, and it was clear (at least from the informal hand-raising poll at the end of the debate) that thinking had been challenged and minds changed by the event.

Thanks to the DRS for organizing such an engaging conference programme.

ADDENDUM: In light of a discussion at lunch with Clive and Aseem Inam, I want to add that I’m not advocating for a universal definition of design. I’m advocating for defining our terms explicitly such that our readers, listeners, allies, and opponents (in debate) are in a better position to evaluate our contributions, whatever form they may take.

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.