The importance of the problem trumps the beauty of the interaction

Design theory, still in its infancy, has many competing perspectives defining it’s domain and scope. Overbeeke argues that designers need to focus mainly on the beauty of the interaction of their products. Papanek instead believes that designers need to remove their learned, limited, and inhibiting factors for more effective generation of new ideas. While it is important to factor the aesthetics of interaction as Overbeeke suggests, it is significantly more important that designers to heed to Papenek’s call to focus on removing their creative blocks so they can more effectively solve problems that matter.

Overbeeke’s call for designers to build interactions that respect their users should not be overlooked. His perspective of design involves viewing a human being in a holistic manner which considers both emotions and perceptual motor skills. This leads to designs that help preserve the dignity of the user in ways that merely utilitarian designs may lack. Overbeeke also focuses on increasing human enjoyment which is important to consider.

However, Overbeeke’s main shortfall is that he fails to discriminate between design problems of importance and problems of a superficial nature. His examples for a better office chair, pager, and scheduler are exciting to read about but soon feel shallow and pointless upon closer inspection. His over-emphasis of the ‘beauty of interaction’ over practical problem solving fails to move designers past the point of frivolous aestheticism that many designers are currently stuck at.

Papenek is instead concerned with problems of significant social impact. He notes that “to ‘sex up’ objects makes no sense in a world in which basic need for design is very real.” He argues that the main way to address society’s increasingly complex issues is to reduce the cultural, emotional, and associational blocks that designers are burdened with. For example, he argues that rejecting the taboo around human waste could lead to better methane powered energy production. Once we are able to remove these blocks, designers will be able to generate creative ideas that address the root of problems and produce new solutions.

While designers need to consider their users holistically, it’s of considerably greater importance that they address problems of real social significance. While Overbeeke’s perspective leads to beautiful but frivolous interactions with VCRs, Papenek’s arguments lead to designers who are freed to confront difficult and complex social issues in increasingly innovative ways.

Design, behavioral science, and mobile computing are powerful forces in tandem


CC image courtesy of lululemon athletica on Flickr

In my undergrad years I vividly remember when my behavioral psychology professor explained how she “tricked” her kids into enjoying kitchen chores. First, she would carefully control the environment surrounding the chores to ensure that they were fun and exciting. Second, she would make chores a privilege that they could only obtain on good behavior. This resulted in her kids excitedly asking her if they could wash the dishes or set the table.

Upon hearing this, a student raised his hand and expressed his discomfort with the technique. “Isn’t that being a little manipulative?” he asked. To this the professor replied, “They are going to have to do the work anyway. Isn’t it better to make it an enjoyable, desirable experience for them? Do you think it would be more ethical to make my kids miserable while doing chores?” The student was speechless.

Experiences such as these have shown me the positive power of shaping human behaviors. There are so many behaviors that could be addressed. People need to exercise, eat healthy, reduce their energy usage, etc. Why do these experiences tend to be undesirable? How can we encourage people to do them in ways they find enjoyable? Is it okay if they don’t notice how their behavior is being modified? I say yes.

Technology has the power to transform behavior. Just look at how Facebook has changed people’s perceptions on internet privacy and personal information. However, much of this persuasive power is wasted on the encouragement of excessive consumption. I believe it would be highly beneficial for designers to instead focus on using the power of design to encourage positive social behaviors in people.

The emergence of mobile technology has further compounded the potential impact of designing for behavioral change. More and more people are buying smartphones every year. Over 82 million use smartphones in the US alone. These devices contain applications which make quiet but powerful arguments to the user every moment of every day. Why not use this influence to elicit adaptive social behavior?

With these factors in mind I would like to present the second iteration of my personal statement:

I make mobile apps that continually nudge people towards positive social behavior.

The Tragic Tale of the Defensive Developer

CC image courtesy of havankevin on Flickr

My manager sits in silence across the table from me with a determined look in his eyes. His stoic expression and assertive posture both indicate what I dread the most: he has uncovered another software bug. I feel my shoulder muscles tighten.

It has been three weeks since we launched our new client tracking web application; twenty one days of searching through thousands of lines of code desperately hunting for the causes of endless obscure issues that plagued the staff during night shift. I am weary of it. The dull ache behind my eyes increases in intensity.

Breaking the silence, my manager declares, “Here’s the problem. Our staff are failing to sign in clients because they forget to press the confirmation button. I want you to remove that button.” He leans back in his chair and awaits my thoughts.

My brain explodes with catecholamines. While the solution is perfectly sensible from a managerial perspective it makes no sense to an engineer. I feel as though I am being asked to remove the doorknob from a door or the gas pedal from a car. My upper back muscles warp into acutely painful knots.

The adrenaline surges to my speech cortex and my lips begin wildly spouting out excuses. I frantically complain about how impossible the task is and why the staff should know better and why the issue is not my fault. My pathetic display continues for a good ninety seconds before exhaustion sets in and silence once again returns to the room.

I then realize how little I understand the issue. I ask my manager, “So… what exactly are the staff doing when they sign in clients?”

“They fill out the form and then go to search for the next client without clicking the confirmation button,” he calmly replies, “It is easy to forget that step when they have so many clients to address.”

“How about I just disable the search bar until they click the button?”

“That would work perfectly.”

“Oh… okay. I could implement it within the hour.”

“Great! Thanks. That is all.”

I collect my notes and sheepishly rise from my chair. As I leave the office I wonder if I will ever fully comprehend that my role as a developer is to understand and bridge gaps instead of exacerbating them. I desperately hope that I will someday soon.

Forging a personal brand

Without further adieu I am pleased to present my first personal brand statement. While it is only in its infancy and will certainly evolve over the coming months I believe it is a solid start. The statement reads as follows:

I am passionate about leveraging common digital technologies in innovative ways to empower local communities.

Here are the main sites, research papers and people that reinforce my brand:

World Health Organization: Community Empowerment
Describes community empowerment and why it is important to a community’s overall health.

Jonathan Goldstein
An excellent storyteller who has a knack for telling well worn tales from a fresh perspective.

Levelhead: A Spatial Memory Game by Julian Oliver
Used a web cam, 2d bar codes, and open source software to create an amazingly novel gaming experience.

Nora Young
Conducts informative interviews with experts on the cutting edge of technology innovation.

M-PESA:Mobile Money for the “Unbanked”
A sophisticated money transfer system in Kenya built on SMS technology.

Craig Newmark
The founder of Craigslist.

Creating and sharing multi-media packages using large situated public displays and mobile phones
A description of an innovative way for an individual with a camera phone to interact with a public billboard.

Networked Neighborhoods: passionate about local digital
An organization committed to fostering digital society at the local level.

Ted Talks
A collection of inspiring talks regarding technology and innovation.

Rachel Botsman
Social innovator, speaker and author on collaborative technologies.

You can also check out more people and sites that reinforce my brand.

I am using Klout to track the impact of my personal brand. My Klout score began as 15 and is currently at 32. My goal is raise it to 50 in the next two months.