Design for Dasein: Understanding the Design of Experiences


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This talk explores the connections between design and phenomenological philosophy. It is based on my book by the same title.

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Book description from Amazon:
This book draws from philosophy, psychology, object studies, and design theory to articulate the intersection of design thinking and human experience.

When designers talk about related fields, they often mention anthropology, cognitive science, psychology, information science, etc., but philosophy is usually left out. Why? Why don’t we talk about philosophy as a contributor to the understanding of design, especially when phenomenology, the philosophical study of human experience, has contributed so much to our understanding of the interrelation between humans and technology?

Design for Dasein attempts to apply phenomenological thinking to design in order to further inform what designers (especially what we might call "experience designers") do in their day to day work. Many activities designers perform every day can be traced back to insights from phenomenology. Activities like user testing, prototyping, sketching, interaction models, personas, interviewing, ethnography, participatory design, and processes like design thinking and lean UX all have phenomenological roots. The book will highlight these connections and explore how they contribute to designing better experiences, providing the reader with new ways of thinking about his or her work, and new strategies for designing systems for both present and future scenarios.

Published in: Design, Spiritual, Technology

Design for Dasein: Understanding the Design of Experiences

  1. 1. Design for Dasein Understanding the Design of Experiences Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt
  2. 2. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Thomas Wendt Design Strategy and Research Consultant DBA Surrounding Signifiers Teacher, Speaker, Author Background in continental philosophy, psychology, and literary theory
  3. 3. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Design for Dasein Understanding the Design of Experiences
  4. 4. Introducing Phenomenology For the sake of time, I’m going to do phenomenology a massive disservice by summarizing it on a couple slides.
  5. 5. Phenomenology is the study of human experience - began with large questions like “what does it mean to be?” -eventually started to consider objects and technology -probably the first western philosophy to take technology seriously as an area of study
  6. 6. All experience occurs within a use context. - the context of use shapes the experience -the interaction is important, but peripheral information has most influence
  7. 7. Technology use creates ourselves and our worlds. - we literally find ourselves through the things we use -technology affects the mundane level, the system level, and the evolutionary level
  8. 8. Heidegger’s Influence Dasein in praxis
  9. 9. Heidegger’s concern is how people interact with technological objects and what this interaction says about our conception of reality. Heidegger broke from earlier phenomenological philosophers such as Edmund Husserl with a single word: Dasein.
  10. 10. Dasein, translated literally as “being-there,” is the individual’s mode of being in the world. Heidegger says that humans and their environment are not separate. We do not “act upon” the world as if the world is something “out there.” Rather, human and world are inherently connected through action. Dasein loses itself within action but is also self-reflective, in much the same way as a musician loses herself in the moment but still reflects on her practice. Dasein is both invisible and conspicuous.
  11. 11. “Heidegger characterizes everyday life as being an engaged, absorbed involvement in an undifferentiated world.” Phil Turner, Susan Turner, and Fiona Carroll Or as Turner, Turner, and Carrol state: “Heidegger holds that human beings […] and world are not two distinct entities but only one which results from Dasein’s involvement in the world. […] Heidegger characterizes everyday life as being an engaged, absorbed involvement in an undifferentiated world.”
  12. 12. The identity of an object is understood via potential actions. Heidegger rejected purely theoretical formulations and asserted that our understanding of the world is based on how we use objects. Hubert Dreyfus explains: “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.” (Dreyfus, 1991) In other words, Heidegger wanted to understand how we come to know the world through active engagement rather than theoretical speculation. Hence, our understanding of objects is not necessarily “what they are” but rather “what they do.”
  13. 13. Heidegger was a bit technophobic, especially on the topic of how technology changes our relationship to the world around us. One of his more famous concepts is the standing reserve, or the idea that modern technology frames the world as a well of resources constantly at our disposal. For any given need, we simply reach into the well and grab a handfull of pure fulfillment. This attitude is problematic for Heidegger because it orders the world as pure substance, as opposed to recognizing the inherent other-ness of technology, thus extending the ego outward in a sort of narcissistic grasping motion.
  14. 14. Things, Technology, Context Becoming conspicuous Our primary interest as designers is what phenomenology has to say about objects and artifacts.
  15. 15. Something-in-order-to Heidegger’s analysis of tools is a pragmatic one; he starts from the assumption that all tool use is ‘in order to’ accomplish something else. We exist to accomplish goals, and technological objects are the means by which we do so.
  16. 16. Crayon_de_charpentier_2.jpg Simple material : “knowing-that” We cannot refer to things in isolation; even something as simple as a pencil is wrapped up in a multitude of cultural references and, most importantly for phenomenology, its conditions of use in the world. It is much more than a piece of graphite surrounded by wood.
  17. 17. Use Context: “knowing-how” That is, we might know that a pencil is made of certain materials and has a certain shape, but more importantly, we know how to use a pencil in order to write. Even further, we know that the use value of a pencil is particularly suited for when the writer seeks a lack of permanence.
  18. 18. Present-at-hand representations In his core text, Being and Time, Heidegger introduces a model for how we might understand our interaction with objects. The German terms he uses have no English equivalent, but are commonly translated as presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand. Presence-at-hand is the relationship to an object based on theoretical knowledge and scientific observation. It is a relationship to an object not in use—a state that can be broken down to discrete facts, decontextualized as an object of examination, and analyzed according to its existence outside the relationship to a user. Within digital design, might think of a wireframe as a type of present-at-hand object, as it functions as an artifact for communication, and is detached from the one who uses it.
  19. 19. Ready-to-hand embodied engagement Readiness-to-hand is a relationship between object and user based on active engagement. It is predicated on the object in use in order to accomplish an end goal. In this interaction, the user achieves a sense of fluidity, acting through the object as opposed to with or upon the object. The object itself fades into the background of relations that enable the user to accomplish a task. The prototype is a common example from the design world.
  20. 20. In this sense, an object with which one is not currently engaged simply exists as a present-at-hand piece of material. When it is picked up and used, however, it becomes an embodied instrument. And through that embodiment, we learn the potentials for use. The prototype testing situation, for example, is an observation of the movement between present-at-hand and ready-to-hand modes.
  21. 21. Heidegger referred to this movement as varying levels of conspicuousness.
  22. 22. Conspicuous While in the ready-to-hand mode, the object blends into the background of worldly relations. When that mode is interrupted, it becomes conspicuous as an object of analysis, as does this rider on the NYC subway during the annual No Pants Subway Ride. Returning to the pencil example, it is easy to see how during the act of writing the pencil becomes inconspicuous; the writer acts through the pencil to write a message. But as soon as the tip of the pencil breaks, it becomes conspicuous again as an object in need of repair. Or when the writer makes an incorrect marking and needs to erase. We can think of writing as a mode of ready-to-hand relations, and erasing as present-at-hand. Heidegger calls dealing with this switching of modes “coping.”
  23. 23. Coping Conspicuous We cope with things that break, poor design, and unexpected surprises by creating our own solutions to fit our needs. And even on a more everyday level, we cope with our environment whenever it presents us with challenges.
  24. 24. Designer intention is a rationalist illusion. Technology designers see this all the time in user testing. It is tempting to think the end goal of designing a technological object is to create something with which users can ‘intuitively’ interact, hence user testing as a means for identifying the ‘unintuitive’ features of the object and eliminating them. However, there are problems with this approach. While intuition is important within object relations, to design an intuitive object would mean to create an object so embodied with our ‘natural’ interactions that its existence is unnoticeable. I’m not sure this is possible or even desirable.
  25. 25. A better way of approaching user testing is through the lens of coping.
  26. 26. Try to ignore the situation Laugh awkwardly and feign disinterest Laugh openly with others Coping Strategies What we are testing is not whether the product itself can be labeled usable or unusable. We are observing the various coping strategies users employ.
  27. 27. Intention Breakage Coping The area of focus during user testing, then, is not the product itself; it is the space of interaction between user and object, the space where coping happens. The object tends to beg our attention, but the real focus should be the complex system of engagement that opens up between object and user. This space opens new possibilities for designers.
  28. 28. Behavior is adaptive. To quote Hubert Dreyfus again: “When equipment malfunctions […] we discover its unsuitability by the ‘circumspection of the dealings in which we use it,’ and the equipment thereby becomes ‘conspicuous.’ […] But for most normal ways of coping, so that after a moment of being startled, and seeing a meaningless object, we shift to a new way of coping and go on.” (Dreyfus, 1991) I want to argue that user testing, when done well, extends beyond short term implications of levels of intuition and into coping strategies and creative misuse. Whether testing for usability, need-finding, or product-market fit, there is no correct way to interact with an object, and the unintentional interactions often tell us more than the intentional ones.
  29. 29. Paradoxes Dualism and multistabilities By recognizing the role of intention as problematic, we are beginning notice a paradoxical relationship between two key concepts in design: problems and solutions.
  30. 30. Design Thinking has been largely successful in formalizing a design process that, instead of starting with business goals, concentrates on a human-centered process by which designers empathize with others, frame a problem, ideate solutions, and test assumptions. It emphasizes understanding a problem before designing solutions for it.
  31. 31. A somewhat related movement, the Lean User Experience, also highlights the need for proper problem framing and awareness of assumptions before designing solutions. The end goal is to systematically create a product that solves a problem for a well-defined group of people.
  32. 32. Design Thinking and Lean UX have been successful in getting designers to think about feedback loops and end user sentiment driving design decisions. However, there is still a sense of tension in terms of linearity when thinking about problems and solutions. If phenomenology has taught us anything, it is the importance of praxis: the real world situations in which users interact with an object will tell designers more about a product than an infinite amount of time speculating from afar. But there is a paradox here.
  33. 33. We cannot think about solutions until we understand problems AND We cannot understand a problem until we think about solutions Problem-solution paradox The problem-solution paradox states that we cannot think about solutions until we understand the problem, AND we cannot understand a problem until we think about solutions. The first part of the statement is easy enough. Designing solutions for a poorly defined problem space is exactly what a good design process tries to avoid. But moving from problem understanding to solutions assumes that there is a final answer at the end of the “understanding” phase, and once we find it, we will be able to design solutions without anything changing in the problem space. It assumes we can understand a problem space before exploring all the conditions of possibility it affords. The second part allows for exploring these potentialities, but it largely ignores the need to for upfront exploration.
  34. 34. All designers have been caught in this trap before. Linear project timelines and budgets often get in the way of messy design processes that resist the positivist view that humans act with intention to move from problem understanding to solution generation. Design is much more complex than that, and mindsets like lean design have emerged as a reaction to commercial design dualism. And while design theorists such as Kees Dorst and Richard Buchanan have noticed this paradox before, we are just now beginning to understand it via phenomenological thinking.
  35. 35. Technology has multiple stabilities on which we can understand its meaning. One way of understanding this complexity is through Don Ihde’s theory of multistability. Ihde says: “Technologies do not determine directions in any hard sense … [W]hile humans using technologies enter into interactive situations whenever they use even the simplest technology […] the possible uses are always ambiguous and multistable.” In Design for Dasein, I use the example of an old bottle filled with change I use to hold my bedroom door open. In this instance, the identities of these objects evolve. The bottle is not a bottle but rather a door stopper, and the change is not currency but rather weighted matter. They were designed for different uses, but their multistability allows for emergent behavior and emergent identity.
  36. 36. Things are defined by action, not intention. Interaction with a technological object goes both ways; we use the object and the object uses us. In this way, to understand a problem space, we need to see the effects of different types of objects and how those new additions affect the entire system. Ihde goes on to say: “A hammer is designed to do certain things—to drive nails into the shoemaker’s shoe or into shingles on my shed, or to nail down a floor—but the design cannot prevent a hammer from becoming an objet d’art, a murder weapon, a paperweight, etc.” A designer has a certain intention when designing an object and creates affordances to help make potential uses apparent. But the dictation of use is impossible. Artifacts are multistable: their use is context-dependent, and the attainment of goals trumps design intention every time. When one needs to prevent a stack of papers from blowing away, a hammer has completely different possibilities of action versus when that person needs to drive a nail. Or if one needs to prop up a broken chair, a block of wood or a sponge might do the job.
  37. 37. Interactions and Relations Embodiment and Affordance Contemporary phenomenological thinkers have started to formulate ways to understand the nuances of interaction without an over-reliance on dualist, positivist notions of intention. This is one of the biggest insights phenomenology can offer design: the idea that our relationship with designed objects is context-dependent, embodied, and multistable, and therefore this relationship is mediated by both real solutions that exist in the world and possibilities for new solutions that only exist as potentialities.
  38. 38. Glasses: Public Domain, Source” Noun Project Google Glass: Creative Commons - Attribution (CC by 3.0) Google Glass design by Damionfrom the Noun Project Embodied Hermeneutic Philosopher Don Ihde was largely responsible for rethinking and reframing phenomenology into a more concentrated theory of objects and interactions. He called this new theory (of course) post-phenomenology and showed how his new vision extends much of Heidegger’s thinking into new fields of study. One of Ihde’s major contributions to this new field is his extension of Heidegger’s present-at-hand and ready-to-hand distinction to what he called embodied and hermeneutic relations.
  39. 39. Embodied relations are those in which the object of use becomes incorporated into the user’s body and enables a true ready-to-hand experience. A common example is a pair of eyeglasses. The user wears glasses in such a way that they become embodied and remove themselves as objects of analysis. The wearer looks through them to see the world, and given that the glasses are not smudged or broken, s/he forgets about them completely. In this relationship, the glasses are more an augmentation to the eyes than they are a physical object.
  40. 40. Hermeneutic relations, on the other hand, are classified by object-ness. In this state, the object must be read and interpreted as a completely other entity. Peter-Paul Verbeek gives the example of a thermostat as a hermeneutic object. The thermostat provides a representation based on cultural symbols, language, and measuring systems the user must interpret in order to make sense of it. We literally read the world through it.
  41. 41. The two types of relations just mentioned—embodied and hermeneutic—can often be viewed as two separate and distinct categories, but there is a massive, detailed space in between. This is the space of interactions, where poles like embodiment/hermeneutics, technology/humans, and subjects/objects start merging together. A useful way to understand this “in-between space” is through James J. Gibson’s theory of affordances.
  42. 42. Simply put, an affordance can be thought of as an aspect of the animal-environment relationship that communicates potential action. A common example is a doorknob; its shape affords grasping and turning in order to open a door. Water affords drinking, chairs afford sitting, pens afford writing, etc. But Gibson saw affordances as much more than objects in the environment. He viewed an affordance as the connective tissue between self and world. Gibson says: “When in use, a tool is a sort of extension of the hand, almost an attachment to it or part of the user’s own body, and thus no longer a part of the environment of the user. But when not in use the tool is simply a detached object of the environment, graspable and portable, to be sure, but nevertheless external to the observer. This capacity to attach something to the body suggests that the boundary between the animal and the environment is not fixed at the surface of the skin but can shift. More generally it suggests that the absolute duality of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ is false. When we consider the affordances of things, we escape this philosophical dichotomy.” (Gibson, 1986)
  43. 43. Environmental Behavioral Physical Mental All of these None of these The theory of affordances is a way to resist the urge to categorize human experience in unnecessarily restrictive buckets. Instead of thinking only about self and world, we can think about the space in between: Gibson says “An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer.” (Gibson, 1986) Post-phenomenology embraces the complexity of this in-between space. Gibson’s theory of affordances has always been of interest for designers, but we have not been able to fully realize its effects. I believe that post-phenomenology—with its tolerance for complexity, resistance of simple dichotomies, and focus on technological relations—can help us come to terms with the implications of Gibson’s ideas.
  44. 44. Hermeneutics and Mediation Acting upon and being acted upon This “in-between” space is where where post-phenomenologists have identified mediation. Technology mediates the relationship between humans and their world. It is not that technology shapes behavior, nor is it that behavior shapes technology: they co-construct one another. Peter-Paul Verbeek has been influential in this conversation over the last decade, focusing on rethinking linear frameworks of human-technology relations. Vebeek, alluding to Bruno Latour and other theorists involved in actor-network theory, asserts that humans are not sovereign in the human-technology system. They are simply parts of a larger whole, and each part is equally able to influence others.
  45. 45. A favorite example over the past couple decades has been the gun. The National Rifle Association’s slogan, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” has been influential in the discourse around rights to bear arms in the United States. The slogan, meant to shift responsibility off of the technology and onto the active agent that wields it, can be thought of as particularly misleading. While we might think of the person with a gun as ultimately responsible, the slogan ignores how the simple act of holding a gun changes someone. A person with a gun is very different from a person without a gun, as evidenced by the way we refer to that person: a “gunman.” This linguistic classification points to a particular way of combining man and gun. Separate, they are agent and object; but together, a new form of being emerges in which the agent is mediated by the technology that incorporates itself into the body of the user.
  46. 46. We can see some divergence from traditional phenomenology at this point. While someone like Heidegger would conceive technology as something humans act through in order to accomplish something else, post-phenomenology stresses that the object itself also has a mediating role. It is not simply that the human agent acts upon the object, but the object also acts back upon the agent. Together they become something else.
  47. 47. Post-phenomenology has much to offer design thinking. It is easy for designers to think of their work as the intentional process of creating a set of conditions, including objects that support those conditions, that increases the potentiality for a certain outcome. Much of this sentiment, I believe, stems from the same sentiments voiced by post-phenomenology—namely, that technology mediates the relationship between self and world. If this is the case, then designers are not only creating objects and affordances that allow users to perform an action in order to accomplish a goal. Instead, designers are creating conditions of possibility for certain outcomes, but should always be aware of the multistable, mediating forces of technology.
  48. 48. “The mediating role of technologies comes about in a complex interplay between technologies and their users. At the very moment human beings use them, artifacts change from mere ‘objects lying around’ into artifacts-for-doing- something. […] Technologies have no fixed identity; they are defined in their context of use and are always “interpreted” and “appropriated” by their users.” Peter-Paul Verbeek I want to end with one last quote on technology and users: “The mediating role of technologies comes about in a complex interplay between technologies and their users. At the very moment human beings use them, artifacts change from mere ‘objects lying around’ into artifacts-for-doing-something. And this ‘for doing something’ is determined not entirely by the properties of the technology itself but also by the ways users handle them. Technologies have no fixed identity; they are defined in their context of use and are always “interpreted” and “appropriated” by their users.” (Verbeek, 2011) The designer’s goal is to examine how objects in a system change from being ‘objects laying around’ to ‘artifacts-for-doing-something.’ Design lies in this act of transitioning objects and systems from simply existing to existing “for something.” All designerly activity circles around this idea of for-ness, around instilling purpose and meaning to otherwise meaningless things.
  49. 49. Thomas Wendt Surrounding Signifiers @thomas_wendt Design for Dasein Understanding the Design of Experiences