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Broken Worldview of Experience Design

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This talk focused on some key assumptions experience designers tend to make about the world, as informed by phenomenology. It was inspired by research completed for my book, Design for Dasein.

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Broken Worldview of Experience Design

  1. 1. The Broken Worldview of Experience Design Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt thomas@srsg.co srsg.co
  2. 2. Thomas Wendt Design Strategy and Research Consultant DBA Surrounding Signifiers Teacher, Speaker, and Writer Background in continental philosophy, psychology, and literary theory Working on a book: designfordasein.com Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt
  3. 3. Design for Dasein On Design Thinking, Experience, and Phenomenology designfordasein.com Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt This presentation comes from my book research.
  4. 4. Metaphysical Baggage Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt These assumptions are mundane and insidious. Most of them are not conscious; if we were to ask designers whether they believed any of them, they would probably say no, or at least only partially. But their actions and non-conscious speech tell another story. So this is a way to bring these assumptions to the surface and interrogate them.
  5. 5. Assumption 1: Users are Rational Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Experience designers tend to assume that users make rational judgments about the world and then act on those judgments. And this is understandable. Designers are constantly moving between creativity and rational analysis, often forgetting that everyday life is very different from a conscious, deliberate design process.
  6. 6. I think = I am Rene Descartes is responsible for many current, rationalist conceptions of cognitive science and our colloquial understanding of how the mind works. We can trace the roots of rationalism back to the ancient Greeks, but to save us from many rabbit holes, we can say that Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” brought the belief that humans are rational, thinking beings into the forefront. His philosophical work posited the following:
  7. 7. Humans = Rational 1) We are rational creatures that act with intent on the world. If we do something, it’s because we meant to do it.
  8. 8. Mind ≠ Body 2) The mind and body are separate entities. All we know can be deduced from the mind’s work, without regard for the body.
  9. 9. Knowledg e = World 3) The mind can gain knowledge of the outside wold with certainty.
  10. 10. LOL YER ALL AUTOMATA He also believed there was a distinct possibility that other people were automata, but that’s another presentation.
  11. 11. http://imjakechapman.com/content/images/2014/Jun/Screen-Shot-2014-06-20-at-4-42-32-PM.png On the surface, designers would certainly never argue that users are rational beings. Anyone who has tested a product or observed use in context can attest that people do not act with pure intent; they explore and play, often making many mistakes before learning how to accomplish certain tasks, or even act in consciously irrational ways.
  12. 12. We’re all flaneurs here. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/Gustave_Caillebotte_-_Paris_Street%3B_Rainy_Day_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg Products like Buzzfeed and Instagram exploit non-directedness and lack of intention. Others like Amazon and e-commerce sites attempt to give users direction as quickly as possible so they convert into customers. Many times, it is specifically our lack of intention that drives decisions. The flaneurish or wandering behavior of physical life translates to digital spaces as well.
  13. 13. a = b, b = c a = c Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt The assumption of rationality manifests itself mostly in the process of designing. Designers tend to think linearly about users, writing out very specific use cases, mapping user intent to discrete actions, and designing the means by which users accomplish those tasks. While this approach is certainly not ‘wrong,’ what is often missed is how variable user behavior can be. In this process, I’ve seen designers assume that their pretty diagram is actually representative of how humans behave in context, but this is rarely the case. We need better ways of accounting for irrationality in the design process. Some of the following assumptions will get at that more.
  14. 14. Assumption 2: We Think, Then Act Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Related to the points about rationality, it is common in experience design to assume that thought precedes action. This is the idea that humans formulate theoretical or representational thoughts and then act on them.
  15. 15. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/heidegger-crop.jpg Da-sein Martin Heidegger tells us that we are not subjects in a world of objects. Instead, the human condition can be thought of as Dasein, literally translates to being-there/here. The human and world are not separate entities; we can only think of Being as being-in-the-world. It specifically calls out the situatedness of being, or the sense that existence is embedded in the environment.
  16. 16. http://theinspirationroom.com/daily/print/2007/5/legends_boy.jpg Heidegger posits that our behavior is goal-oriented; we use objects in order to accomplish goals. This basic insight frames the bulk of interaction design work. We design systems that aim to hit on key goals and tasks identified as important to users, because we understand that people will use a product in-order- to accomplish an end goal. But what this approach misses is the potential for emergent goals and tasks that only present themselves when something is added to a system. Or we can also have negative goals, to prevent certain things from happening. [Condom ad: product that prevents certain outcomes, an anti-goal]
  17. 17. Behavior Cognition http://thesweetsetup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/B-Clear-hero.jpg Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Much of cognitive science and metaphysics assumes that behavior is a result of cognition. Flowing from Cartesian models of the rational being, we have adopted into our collective consciousness the idea that our minds are authoritative entities, serving an executive function to drive behavior. However, recent research in embodied cognition is rethinking the relationship between mind and body from a scientific, as opposed to philosophical, perspective. We now have ways of articulating the idea that our minds are embodied in the world.
  18. 18. Best praxis. child swimming http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-Rtlmwv1ReIo/U8B6mcwRwaI/AAAAAAABU8A/cKQlOltBFiA/s1600/JMP+2528.jpg Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt All this talk of anti-rationality gets us to the concept of praxis, or the act of generating theoretical models through practical outputs. A classic example is learning how to swim. When an adult teaches a child to swim, s/he does not sit down with the child and study fluid dynamics and kinesiology to determine how the body behaves in water. Instead, they simply get in the pool. The embodied experience of swimming is much more useful than discrete facts. Only after the experience do we reflect on the experience. And this is true of technological experience as well.
  19. 19. Assumption 3: Intention is Primary Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Your intention as a designer is important, but it should not be prioritized over adaptability. So many behaviors are emergent: they only come to be when something new is introduced. - mention Nick talking about adaptation and unknown use cases
  20. 20. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BppZ5DKIgAAVlz7.png Designers are obsessed with their intent. Too often, they assume the role of ‘designer as deity’—the maker-god who molds the physical world to his/her image. Perhaps this is why we depict designers in pristine, heavenly environments.
  21. 21. Down with designer-gods. http://obamapacman.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Book-of-Jobs-Apple-CEO-and-iPad-tablet-Photoshop-Economist-Cover.jpg Designer intent is important, but it is not the whole story. The ‘rendering of intent’ definition of design is a great example of the difference between truth and correctness. While it is correct that design is the rendering of intent, the statement has no truth. It is too simplistic to be useful and fails to encapsulate the most important parts of design: the embodied use of the designed object and the inherent variability that comes with it.
  22. 22. Text Thomas Wendt h t tp :/ /Sobuamrarpoacumnand.cionmg/w pS-ciogntnenitfi/upelorasd s /2 0 1 0 / 0 2 / B o o k -o f- J o b s - A p p@le-tChEOo-manda-iPsa_dw-tabelent-dPhto t o s h o p -E c o n o m i s t - C o v e r . jp g To borrow from post-structuralist thinkers, we might say the designer’s intent is irrelevant once the product launches. That is not to say intention and strategic positioning are not important, but simply that we need to consider more than idealized outcomes. We need to actually observe use in context. It sounds obvious, but it’s not. [Image is a gender identity conference attendee switching icons on bathrooms because they were not accurate for attendees. The action undermines intent.]
  23. 23. Multistability trumps intent. baseball bat in a game and used for violence http://www.formandreform.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/snail-on-the-moon-BM.jpg Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Technology use is what post-phenomenological thinkers call multistable: its use is not determined by designers but rather by its multiple stabilities, or the many use contexts in which its use can take different forms. We can use a car to travel from one place to another. We can also use it as a place to live, as a murder weapon, as a way to convey social status, or as a piece of art. Most often, we are using an object in different ways at different times, and this contextual nature of object use is the most interesting and relevant part for designers. Understanding that context is key to designing, which of course implies that ‘launch’ is not the end of the design process but simply a step toward understanding. Intent only takes us so far.
  24. 24. Benefits of multistability. http://www.formandreform.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/snail-on-the-moon-BM.jpg Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt But multistability is not necessarily a wrench in the design machine. It is simply an area of complexity that can sometimes produce serendipitous results. For example, the touch tone phone was originally invented to decrease the amount of wrong numbers dialed. But researchers at Bell Labs discovered that people were able to dial a few seconds faster, which occupied the line for a shorter period of time, which in turn saved the company millions of dollars over a longer span of time. The touch tone phone evolved to meet both user and business needs. Examples are everywhere: aluminum foil was originally designed to mark racing pigeons, Play-Doh was designed as a wallpaper cleaner, and gunpowder was supposed to be a remedy for skin irritation.
  25. 25. Assumption 4: Invisible Interfaces Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Experience designers get a little loose with their language, especially when talking to clients. Invisibility and intuitiveness are not design goals; they are imprecise words that can get us into trouble.
  26. 26. https://gigaom2.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/siri-featured.jpg Many designers fetishize the idea of an invisible interface. While “invisible” is used here in a mostly metaphorical sense, using that word creates a false definition of what an interface actually is. As I’ve argued elsewhere, transparent interfaces are different from invisible ones and are a more accurate way of describing them. But why should we be concerned with such semantic quibbles?
  27. 27. “Interface is defined in its coupling of the processes of holding apart and drawing together, of confining and opening up, of disciplining and enabling, of excluding and including.” Branden Hookway http://rk.wsimgs.com/wsimgs/rk/images/dp/wcm/201428/0440/img11c.jpg Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt There is no need—and often it can be dangerous or at least undesirable—for an interface to be invisible. In his book simply entitled Interface, Branden Hookway states that the “interface is defined in its coupling of the processes of holding apart and drawing together, of confining and opening up, of disciplining and enabling, of excluding and including.” Similarly, Alexander Galloway says that the interface is an “‘agitation’ or generative friction between different formats.” In both cases, we see an emphasis on this sense of friction and mediation between two opposing forces. The interface is not always, and should not always be, a seamless transition point; they are areas of tension that actively mediate the human-technology relationship. Advocating the design of invisibility is a cop out. Instead, we should understand the interface beyond a simple screen and design with, not against, its complexity.
  28. 28. Thomas and the Invisible Interface http://rk.wsimgs.com/wsimgs/rk/images/dp/wcm/201428/0440/img11c.jpg A Cautionary Tale I used to make pour-over coffee in the mornings because I convinced myself that it tastes better and I enjoy the ritual of brewing it, despite the extra work. Being a bit type-a, I would usually read a book while pouring the boiling water over the coffee grounds, holding the kettle in one hand and a book in the other. One morning while I was doing this, I felt an intense burning sensation on the side of my horse and realized that my brain must have registered an itch, and my hand used the most available scratching tool—the spout on the kettle—thus pouring the hot water on myself. This story illustrates a couple things: 1) How absent minded I can be, and 2) the results of an interface (the spout) becoming completely invisible.
  29. 29. “An important property of interfaces is that they weave human sensory–motor coordination and an artifact’s reactivity into a dynamic whole that human participants in the interface can understand and feel comfortable being in. The human body is as much part of an interface as the artifact interacted with.” Klaus Krippendorff https://touchofmodern.insnw.net/products/000/123/718/e427300ec5049614bb05f438547f3ef4_large.jpg?1411151108 Klaus Krippendorff (2004) extends this line of thinking by identifying the interface as an embodied entity, stating: “An important property of interfaces is that they weave human sensory–motor coordination and an artifact’s reactivity into a dynamic whole that human participants in the interface can understand and feel comfortable being in. The human body is as much part of an interface as the artifact interacted with.” In other words, there is a unique space that opens up within what we call ‘interaction.’ The interface and the body begin to work together and shape this new space in which mediation and interaction happens. Rendering the interface invisible would be tantamount to canceling out interaction.
  30. 30. Assumption 5: Functional Perfection Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Client-driven design projects tend to produce an anxiety of perfection. In the real world, nothing works perfectly. We play with things and adapt them to our own needs.
  31. 31. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BylctRxCEAEv-i2.png:large When we think about the purposes of usability testing, it is easy to come up reasons related to identifying ‘unintuitive’ interactions, gathering user feedback, and fixing what we essentially screwed up in the design process. While all these points are valid, I have seen too many designers approach testing from a point of view that privileges functionality and perfection, ultimately leading to false expectations.
  32. 32. http://static.squarespace.com/static/527d747ee4b04f95c71ef0f9/5294f76ae4b08edc0559e10c/ https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BylctRxCEAEv-i2.png:large 52cf07e3e4b0fb903ecc8dd9/1410544577287/P1010669-small.jpg?format=1500w The assumption here is that everything we design should work exactly as expected. But what this approach misses is that 1) Products do not need to be functionally perfect for people to use them. Imperfection will not necessarily cause ‘abandonment.’ 2) Functionality is only half of the story. The interaction between products and users creates meaning, and that is our ultimate concern.
  33. 33. “Product semantics should be concerned not with material objects as such, but with how they participate in human affairs, how they support understanding and practice. Product semantics should optimize not performance, as measured by outside criteria, but meaningfulness, motivation and the centeredness of humans in their world by their own criteria.” Klaus Krippendorff http://owoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/furniture-charles-eames-lounge-chair-with-solid-wool-rug-area-also-flex- rollable-vinyl-flooring-in-modern-living-room-ideas-best-choice-eames-lounge-chair.jpg Klaus Krippendorff maintains that the goal of product semantics, or the study of how products communicate, is to identify and optimize opportunities for creating meaning through interaction. He says: “Product semantics should be concerned not with material objects as such, but with how they participate in human affairs, how they support understanding and practice. Product semantics should optimize not performance, as measured by outside criteria, but meaningfulness, motivation and the centeredness of humans in their world by their own criteria.” What is interesting about Krippendorff’s account is that he shifts the conversation from functionality, which can ostensibly be measured with a modicum of what we might call ‘objectivity,’ to meaning, which is purely contextual and varies with each individual. It is not terribly difficult to measure functional usability; measuring meaning, however, is a much more delicate process.
  34. 34. “We say that something makes sense when we understand the role it plays in a particular context, when we have a satisfactory explanation of what it does. In contrast, the meaning of an object is the sum total of all the contexts for which someone is capable of imagining some sense for it. In short something means (or enables someone to see or anticipate) its possible contexts of use.” Klaus Krippendorff https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images? q=tbn:ANd9GcRkwoDALkRLv5ZWLghrhOQ763YQZxNBnLj0m9cl7KqVny4_B-Ru Krippenodrff goes on to say: “We say that something makes sense when we understand the role it plays in a particular context, when we have a satisfactory explanation of what it does. In contrast, the meaning of an object is the sum total of all the contexts for which someone is capable of imagining some sense for it. In short something means (or enables someone to see or anticipate) its possible contexts of use.” When something makes sense, then, it is because we can easily understand how it fits into a particular use context. And the meaning of an object depends on the extent to which users can imagine the many use contexts in which it might make sense. So we have a sort of micro and macro conception of how a product can make sense and have meaning.
  35. 35. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_WqSOYRykq2A/TMCMQH3vFpI/AAAAAAAAC_4/GJ0daPRWBJw/s1600/ IMG_8785.JPG Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt User testing tends to focus on sense and forget about meaning. The functionalist worldview dominates our perspective, and we hyper-focus on the measurable aspects of usability in order to assuage our fear of ‘abandonment.’ Sigmund Freud famously told the story of a case in which a child invented a game when his mother would leave the room—apparently, from the child’s point of view, abandoning him. When the child’s mother went away, the child would throw a spool of thread over the side of his crib, pull it back, and laugh. Freud’s analysis pointed out that the child dealt with his mother’s departure by substituting her with the spool of thread, which he could control. He assumed an active stance in the situation, thus bringing a sense of pleasure in an otherwise stressful situation.
  36. 36. http://culturalstudies101.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/saussure_images1.jpg Designers do something similar when we focus solely on functionality. We know usability standards, and it relatively easy to communicate them to clients. Meaning, on the other hand, is more slippery and difficult to explain in a way that makes a client want to write you a check. But we should be up to the challenge if we are to move the industry forward. The language of ‘abandonment’ creates an unnecessary sense of urgency, and is an anxiety reaction. Humans are remarkably adaptive when value is high and meaning is strong. We won’t change the multistable forces of technology, but we can design with it.
  37. 37. Assumption 6: Problems, Solutions Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Design traditionally posits a linear movement from problems to solutions. But more often, problem spaces are only fully articulated when solutions are considered.
  38. 38. http://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lzv81184rU1rn3wcfo1_1280.png I call this phenomenon the designer's paradox. It suggests that the common notion of moving from problem to solution is false. Conversely, jumping to solutions without articulating a problem space is also false. This is a strange antimony, but also a necessary one. Related to what philosophers call the hermeneutic circle, we cannot understand the parts without the whole, and we cannot understand the whole without the parts. In our context, we cannot envision solutions without understanding problems, AND we cannot understand problems without envisioning solutions.
  39. 39. “To understand a hammer, for example, does not mean to know that hammers have such and such properties and that they are used for certain purposes—or that in order to hammer one follows a certain procedure, i.e., understanding a hammer at its most primordial means knowing how to hammer.” Hubert Dreyfus The view that we must understand a problem space before designing solutions is sensible; it emphasizes the need for proper understanding and deep knowledge, and it is certainly difficult to disagree with that. But what it misses is the need for praxis: the bodily engagement in the world that brings knowledge and understanding. Hubert Dreyfus said: “To understand a hammer, for example, does not mean to know that hammers have such and such properties and that they are used for certain purposes—or that in order to hammer one follows a certain procedure, i.e., understanding a hammer at its most primordial means knowing how to hammer.” The idea is that understanding only emerges through use. Applied to problems and solutions, it follows that in order to fully understand a problem space, we need to explore the conditions of possibility that potential solutions afford. If researching a problem space does not include aspects of solutioning, then understanding will always be limited.
  40. 40. http://36.media.tumblr.com/2b45350c32973f152026f2e95b7d5527/ tumblr_n5i54g3Sc31s2jikwo1_1280.jpg Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt This means that we need to design for speculation. We have to spend time on solutions whose only reason for being is to better understand a problem space. We have to play and challenge ourselves. We have to make ourselves uncomfortable. We have to defamiliarize what we take for granted.
  41. 41. Thanks! Thomas Wendt srsg.co designfordasein.com Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt

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