Writing/Thinking

design, design research, HCI, hci research, Human-Computer Interaction, SIGCHI, theory-practice gap, Uncategorized

This year was a good one for CHI rebuttal writing. I say that not knowing whether our rebuttal swayed any of the reviewers one way or another. But we took a different approach for this year’s CHI reviews than we have in year’s past. This year, we made changes to our paper as we wrote the rebuttal. Changing the paper became a way to think through the viability and possibility of each critique, and the rebuttal became (primarily) a record of changes already made to the submission. It may not be an approach for everyone, but I totally recommend trying it to see whether and how it works. And, I’d be curious to hear from others who take this approach when writing rebuttals (with short turnaround times) about how it has worked!

why is theory useful to designers

design, design research, design theory, theory

Erik Stolterman and I are currently working on a paper about design theory and design research. When I gave a recent presentation of our progress, I discussed the origin of the ideas for the paper. I located the origin in conversations we’d had during the last academic year; conversations that centered on the gap between “theory” and practice. I put theory in quotes because it really is a synonym for academia. There is a gap between academia and professional practice, which is to say that there is a gap between the work design researchers are doing and the work that designers are doing in the private (i.e. non-academic) sector.

As we make progress on our paper, I find myself wondering about interesting things that I want to share here. So, first, how do designers in the private sector use theory in their everyday work? I know they do. They have to. To some degree, everyone uses theory in their day-to-day lives. How do designers think about/understand theory? My understanding of it is probably naive and incomplete; it’s a work in progress But I can articulate it thanks to the help of other thinkers.

Theory is the thing that helps us “go beyond observation of a phenomena towards explanations of how and why given phenomena occur.” [1] Theory is an “ordered set of assertions about some generic behavior or structure assumed to hold throughout a wide range of specific instances.” [2] Ken Friedman’s definition (the former) is perhaps more useful than Karl Weick’s (the latter) in forging a connection between theory and non-academic design practice. Don’t designers go beyond observation of phenomena all the time? When designers create a design, isn’t that design one of the key constructs in a theory about why or how some artificial phenomenon (might) occur in the future? Of course it is.

Perhaps the more interesting/relevant question is, What does framing a design as a key construct in a theory about some future phenomenon do for the designer? How is this useful?

I’d welcome any answers (or challenges or suggested revisions) to these questions. I have some thoughts in mind, but I’ll save those for the next entry.

Referenced material/suggested reading:

1. Friedman, K. (2003). Theory construction in design research: criteria: approaches, and methods. Design studies, 24(6), 507-522.

2. Weick, K. E. (1989). Theory construction as disciplined imagination. Academy of management review, 14(4), 516-531.

Writing | Quality as a Function of Utility

design, design thinking, interaction design, Interaction Design, learning, online learning, pedagogy, teaching, writing

Everybody writes. Emails, blogs, papers, journal articles, book chapters, theses, dissertations, books… So at the draft stage of writing, how do you know enough is enough? This question popped into my head today as I was sending a draft of a section of a paper to my co-author. I wrote to him via email something along the lines of, “… I’m glad that I wrote something; that I gave us material to work with. but i also don’t know if what i wrote gives us enough.”

I regret having wrote that because all I was doing was qualifying the quality of the writing. In other words, “This draft sucks, so prepare thyself for a slog…” This is a crumby way to frame any writing.

Stuff just “is” for better or worse no matter how you choose to measure it. Would it be better if I got closer to “final draft” quality the first time around? Maybe. But, among other things, that assumes the goodness of badness of writing is a function of quality and speed.

See any standardized test for examples of how this assumption surfaces in reality. “Write 500-700 words in 25 minutes… etc.” Don’t mistake this as a criticism of touting speed as a key factor in the quality of writing. It may very well be important.

I want to put forth a different assumption about writing, which, in and of itself, is not incommensurable with speed as a component of quality, but which emphasizes another aspect of writing. The goodness or badness of writing is a function of its utility and its utility is inextricably linked with its context. 

I’ll try and explain with a design analogy.

We talk about iteration a lot in design. Sketch quickly. Sketch often. And always be in dialogue with and about your sketches. The same principle can be applied to writing. Write quickly. Write often. And always be in dialogue with your writing. A designer doesn’t have to be great at sketching. They don’t even need to be good at it, whatever “good” might mean to you. They need to be an adequate sketch artist, meaning that when someone else looks at their sketch they need to be able to be able to converse with it (even if the designer-creator of the sketch isn’t there). In other words, their sketches need to be useful given their spatio-temporally constrained role. Sketches need to be different things at different times in the design process. And maybe the same is true with writing.

I’ve read some pretty bad writing and been able to converse with it, and at the early stages of writing perhaps we all need to relax the “selection criteria” for what gets out of the brain and onto the page. You’ll write something useful. Guaranteed.

If you sketch a lot, you’re going to get better because you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level (1) what it means for a sketch to be good and (2) how you can improve as a sketch artist. I think the same is probably true of writing.

If you write a lot, you’re going to get better because, through your own dialogue with your writing and through your dialogue with others about your writing, you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level what it means, to you and to others, (1) for writing to be good, and (2) how to get from where you are to where you want to be (as a writer).

On Writing Papers

design thinking, experiential learning, knowledge tools, learning, pedagogy, teaching, writing

In the interest of writing more posts, I’m going to try constraining myself to just a few hundred words or less for each entry. We’re talking 250-ish words. I need to get better at jamming lots of meaning into a few words instead of saying a lot without actually saying much. This came into sharp focus tonight as I chipped away at the first draft of one of my final papers. It’s a 10-pager exploring a common thread of computational thinking in the works of Kuhn, Popper, and some third guy who isn’t a philosopher of science.

While working, I had the realization that I’m going to be writing papers more or less for the rest of my days (unless my career path veers out of academia and into the private sector). And if that’s going to be the case, I should probably develop some kind of system for writing so that I don’t reinvent my writing process with every paper… which is kind of what I’m doing now. I wrote a lengthy piece last semester critiquing the design of interactive learning applications by doing a close reading of Khan Academy, and that writing process broke down as follows:

  1. Start early… and by start early I mean gather a metric ton of papers (i.e. 30-40 papers)
  2. Create an annotated bibliography that includes: citation, summary, and relevance of each source to my purpose
  3. Engage in a lot of exploratory brainstorming
    1. Stream-of-consciousness writing
    2. Affinity diagramming
    3. Sketching
  4. Skip the outline. Write the first draft.
  5. Revise thrice and send the draft to the Professor for feedback
  6. Write final draft

But different classes necessitate different processes. I haven’t followed the same process for this most current work-in-progress. I suppose, ultimately, the nature of my research will dictate the nature of my writing process. For now, it remains in flux…