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.

Under the Shadow of the Sign

When considering design as a discipline, it’s possible to consider it from an broader social perspective or from a practical user-specific perspective. The former approach is taken by Maurizio Vitta in his essay “The Meaning of Design,” while the latter has been taken up by “User Guru” Jakob Nielson. Both authors are interested in solving for what they view as negative tendencies in the realm of design, and both are interested in heightening the awareness of both designers and users about our interactions with the objects that surround us. However, Vitta is more interested in exploring the larger picture of human relations to the objects we create and consume, while Nielson explores the efficiency of the user experience.

Nielson argues for advancing methodology and metrics in designing a more efficient user experience. He is interested in the nuts and bolts of usability that can be quantified and demonstrated to allow for the most universal and wide-reaching human experience. Nielson views the role of the designer as a vehicle for the user’s experience with the object; therefore their responsibility is in producing the most measurably effective experience. His metrics include learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction: If the user can’t get none… it can’t be considered an effective design. Nielson promotes a kind of methodology whereby the designer should iterate and prototype to attune their attention towards developing around user needs. This type of awareness throughout the process can help ease the larger issue of how we consume the products of design, from the root.

Vitta on the other hand, is more concerned with the ramifications of the social experience of consuming the object. He would not position himself against a more efficient user-centric experience, but he would argue that at a certain point the process becomes irrelevant. Society has reached a point of consumption in which, to a certain degree, the usability of objects becomes moot. At this point the function or utility vanishes in the shadow of the sign. For Vitta, designed objects are goods people use “not for their functionality but as images of himself or herself to be projected toward the outside world as the sole contact with others.” In this view, objects of consumption substitute for the loss of identity, and thereby replace the individual with manufactured signs that serve as social connections. Vitta goes further to posit that the identity of the designer thereby becomes entwined with and ultimately subsumed by the objects they design.

By taking this perspective, Vitta introduces the notion that there is a larger, more threatening problem with how dominant societies interact with themselves via the multiplicity of objects that surround us. This is not a new idea, but one that needs to be better addressed by the system of design education. Vitta suggests that by introducing varying disciplines into design education we could begin to be more aware of the contradictory role of design. It may be a ‘painful awareness,’ but we must begin to confront it in order to avoid collapse under an “avalanche of goods.”

It may not be practical in our everyday lives to espouse the concept of the object as sign, but we would argue that it’s necessary to do so, in order to understand and contribute to the larger social dialogue, and thereby to keep a critical eye on our methodologies, from the utterly practical level to the holistic facilitation of disciplines. Designers should keep the user needs in mind throughout the process, but we should likewise also address the impact of our designs within a broader social context.

[by Cheyenne Weaver and Diana Griffin]

Major over-thinking followed by a minor epiphany

If I had to break down my process for revising my brand statement this week and moving into the realm of storytelling, it would work out to about 85% wallowing in introspection and over-thinking, 12% frantic mad-dash rush to produce something, and 3% post-all-nighter epiphanic “OH! I get it!” moment. All in all, not a very successful or well-planned approach. But I did learn a few things, at least.

In the midst of my vortex of inward thought, I tried to break out of it by getting some outside perspective; I made up a little survey about how others see me and asked my friends and former teachers to fill it out for me. It was only three questions, asking first, to choose three adjectives that describe me, second, to name the biggest strength and weakness in my work or way of thinking, and third, to complete the thoughts: “I know you care about…” and “I think you should be…”. I spent some time (probably too much) gathering, grouping, and distilling the responses. Below is the word cloud I generated from the results.

With these words in mind, I sat down to rewrite my brand statement. Last week it was declared too academic and not actually saying anything, which is true, but still hard to confront. It means that this week I had to cut the crap and actually make a statement about what I believe in. “Less ‘I am’ and more ‘I am about’,” as we were advised. After many iterations, here’s what I’ve got right now:

I believe that design is a process that is strategic, creative, and participatory, and I’m passionate about using it to tackle social and environmental problems.

The next step was to make a story out of this statement. For me that meant trying to be concise and compelling, in plain language, without hiding behind big words and long sentences. In order to visualize it, I relied on photos more than sketches, which was a cop-out that I’ll have to cut out in my next iteration. For now, though, I made a short video to present my story (somewhat) dynamically. See it at the link below.

What I Believe

Meanwhile, besides all of this delving into my own values and ideas, I had to take on the task of visualizing two other stories as well; one, the story of another classmate, and the other, a visualization of a process. For the first, I interviewed Cheyenne about her most recent artwork, and used her story to infer a statement about her process. I visualized it as below; the background image and type tell the story of the sculpture, while the foreground text is my interpretation of her process.

Cheyenne's Story

The second visualization, of a process, was much less involved. I chose a simple, anecdotal process to illustrate, inspired by Jaime’s having interviewed me about my experiences as an ESL teacher:

How to Explain Peanut Butter

It wasn’t until after all of that, and after waking up from my 2.5 hours of sleep last night, that the point of the “Not ‘I am’ but ‘I am about’,” advice got through to me. I’d been so resistant to letting go of what I was trying to capture in my first version of my brand statement, because I felt that my new statement just didn’t capture everything about me. This morning it very suddenly occurred to me that it doesn’t have to. Of course, right? I’m not trying to express every single nuance about myself all smashed up into a little nugget of wordiness. I’m just trying to express the essence of what motivates me to do what I do (or try to do what I want to do). Not that that’s easy, but it seems a whole lot easier than how I was approaching it until now. Here’s hoping the next iteration will come out more smoothly.

Telling Stories

There are many amazing qualities that separate AC4D from any school I have attended before. Allowing me the opportunity to articulate my opinion is just one example that came to mind this week – whether it is the pronunciation of the word “Canuck” or the interpretation of a homework assignment. I’m comfortable with my Western New York accent, but the homework assignment interpretation haunted me for most of the week. I am much more comfortable given a problem set in structural mechanics than an open-ended assignment asking us to make and tell three stories. So what does it mean to me?

My Brand Statement: I’m Jaime, I build systems to grow sustainability.

I began the week with an idea of the qualities I wanted to portray in my brand, but I was convinced that my previous developed statement needed a diet. I worked to take away words until nothing more could be subtracted, and the result was this:

I’m Jaime, I’m creating a home for the environment in business.

I asked friends for their reaction to this statement, and the reaction was far from good. It provoked questions of the ideals and emotions I was trying (unsuccessfully) to evoke in a single sentence. I sat back down at the proverbial drawing board, first creating a narrative to use as a foundation to draw out those few words. I build systems to grow sustainability.

An approach: How to move to Austin in 10 days

Telling the other side of it: Diana Griffin’s story

And what did I learn?

When we are asked to tell stories, they need to be clear, concise, and clever to truly be memorable. Of most importance, they must be authentic to resonate fully with your intended audience. A perfect example of my authenticity failing miserably this week is exemplified in my experiment to leverage social media. I have abruptly changed my tone and content of posts on facebook and twitter in this process, posing unemotional questions and comments that are very unlike me to gain insight into my brand – and I was called out on the artificiality today.  To gain strength, respect, and a following of my stories and brand, I need to converse and write with sincerity, keeping my personality and personal interests intact.

Ben's Story and My Process

Benjamin D. Franck (I’m not sure if his middle name really starts with a D), is a super interesting dude. Prior to coming to AC4D he worked for a non-profit in Canada that served the homeless. From scratch, he created a data management system for multiple service sites that ended up tremendously helping both the organization’s clients and employees. While there, he was also able to create awesome augmented reality visuals during some of the organizations’ experiential marketing efforts.

As part of our studio class’ focus on telling stories, I interviewed Ben and synthesized the information I gathered to ultimately create my own version of Ben’s brand statement. Below is a description of my process.

Step 1: Interview Ben at…

While it may seem like a strange choice for an interview location, especially since this year’s AC4D humanitarian focus is food, Popeye’s chicken is damn good and I hoped the absurdity of a fast food chain would create a fun interview environment.

During the interview, my goal was to have Ben talk or reminisce about something that really made him smile. I felt that in order to create an authentic brand I had to get beyond the technical or specific talk of what he was interested in (I already had a pretty good understanding of this) and find some anecdote that showed Ben’s heart and personality.

Step 2: Create a romanticized character sketch

All good brands have some sort of inherent drama. To find the drama in Ben’s brand I created a character sketch much like an author would do before writing a play or a novel. My character sketch was really inspired by the part of the interview where Ben talked about his first computer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeuZy8aX_ak

Step 3: Write Ben’s brand statement

After creating the character sketch and watching the interview a few more times, I sat down to write Ben’s brand statement. This step was more fluid than the previous steps (a nice way of saying messy). There were many iterations or as Anne Lamott would call them shitty first drafts, and lots of sticky notes containing key points, characteristics, metaphors and half-baked ideas. Ultimately, I arrived at the brand statement below. Ben, I hope this is helpful…

My name is Ben and I want to use technology to change how those in need experience life. Yes, this slightly nebulous, partly because given enough time I feel that I can create just about anything. Ultimately what differentiates me from other people with similar skill sets is my story and my heart. I was born in the 80’s and can’t remember life without a computer. My dad repaired electronics and I remember being five or six and messing around with old desktop models. When our family bought our first computer it had very basic programming software which I taught myself. I used to tell my friends that I could make my own video games, and when they told me to put my code where my mouth was I had to run home and throw something together. Usually the games were stupid, but technically they were video games, so I felt like I won. The first time I witnessed how technology could be used to change someone was during the summer I was part of church drama troupe. I was in charge of all things audio-visual. Looking back, I’m not sure if I agree with all that we were “selling,” but nonetheless seeing how a few lines of code could cause something to fundamentally change in a kids life was powerful. My life has never been the same since.

-J

@jtomylew

3 Stories

1. Refined Brand Statement (as in second draft, as in down the rabbit hole)

More good for more people with fewer things.

1.
You: What do you mean by “fewer things”?
Me: I mean the objects we as artists and designers put out into the world could be made to last longer, be more efficient, and accomplish more.
1A.
You: What sort of things do you mean?
Me: Anything can be made to be more useful. If we build for the outliers of human needs, we’ll be making more usable objects for everyone.

2.
You: What do you mean by “more good”?
Me: I mean that we can make more ethical choices in the problems we invest in solving.
2A.
You: What would you consider “ethical”?
Me: I’d say that for me, ethical would be to do the most good for the most people with the fewest resources.

3.
You: What people are you speaking of?
Me: If we’re solving problems worth solving, we all benefit.
3A.
You: What do you consider “benefitting”?
Me: My definition of benefit is to empower, not necessarily financially but through quality of life

 

 

2. Jaime’s Story
In a lighthearted effort to learn a little more about who Jaime Krakowiak is I asked her to tell me how she came to be wearing the clothes that she had on. Here’s what she had to say…

“I didn’t put money on my card to do laundry.
Three quarters of my clothes are in the laundry basket.
I tend to get a lot of free Roxy crap.
This is the oldest one, and the only clean thing on a hangar.
These shorts were on the floor from when I wore them earlier to go running.
I had 10 minutes to get here (to class).
I had to put Diesel (her dog, I found out later) in my car to get here.
I hope I don’t smell.”

Today I went for a run on the greenbelt.
I loved the hill (reminds me of home).
But the run to Barton Springs was lame: was 1:45 minutes in circles.
I lived in the middle of the woods back in Colorado.
A bear came every week and poked in the trash.
Diesel would bark.
I was very polite to the bear and asked him to please go home.
I threw a bunch of food away when I was getting ready to move.
There was an Earth Balance tub of butter that was in the trash.
I heard noises and looked outside and looked at her and then shut the door.
There were snout marks in the tub of butter.
It took me a half hour to clean up.
That’s my “Whumph in the butter” story.

 

 

 

3. My Approach to Problem Solving
I make some tea.
I set out to understand the rules of engagement with the subject.
I write down a few initial ideas of what the rules mean to me in my sketchbook or notepad.
I set about doing something repetitive which does not require my attention (bath, jog, cleaning house, folding laundry, etc)
I am able to think more freely about my interpretation of the rules
Sometimes the interpretation will broaden enough to slurp in the outer perimeter of one or more ideas. Then the ideas begin to appear.
I throw down my towel and grab a pen to scribble down what has just appeared.
Sometimes the ideas appear on the surface but I cannot write them down fast enough to commit them to memory and they are lost.
Sometimes if I wait or slosh around, they’ll come back to me, and I can capture them.
Sometimes the ideas suck, but sometimes they do not.

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.

I am vs. I am about…

You have to move from “I am” to “I am about.”

This was the sound bite I took away from last week’s studio as we discussed our personal brands.

“What am I about?”

This is a tough question because I want my answer to be something that is super concrete and directly leads to a job that will provide the type of security where I know I will never have to move in with my parents.

To try to wrap my head around what it is that I am about, I made sticky notes with pictures on them. Since my handwriting hasn’t changed since the second grade and I am still perfecting my sketching skills, I turned the sticky notes into a video. Big thanks to the band SUNBEARS! from Jacksonville, Florida, for letting me use their song Fingerbumps and Gumdrops as epic background music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ghmii5LSq9M

After bathing in sticky notes for another week I came up with a revised brand statement (below).

My name is Jonathan Lewis. I am about asking questions, discovering purpose, affecting change and occasionally making people smile. To me it’s more important to deeply know what you want to do, why you want to do it, and whether the answers to those two questions are contributing to making things better. I try to bring this ethos to whatever I do. Inherent to this rather ethereal passion of mine is a belief that most people, including the satisfied, the oppressed, the oblivious or even the asleep want something better, they want real change. Sometimes all it takes is a question to wake us up.

-J

@jtomylew

Synthesis on the fly: a mid-class exercise

In class last night we did a quick exercise around the three readings we’d been discussing: Maurizio Vitta’s essay “The Meaning of Design,” Allan Chochinov’s “1000 Words: A Manifesto for Sustainability in Design,” and Victor Papanek’s preface to Design for the Real World. Our task was to synthesize these authors’ points into one cogent argument. We split into two groups to think it through.

 

sketch of synthesis process

One team came up with the following statement:

We increasingly experience the world through consumption of objects and try to exhibit our individuality through the consumption choices we make. However, industrial processes of mass production and replication have promoted a social culture of over-consumption with adverse impact on the sustainability of our lifespaces. Designers, given the capacity they possess to influence behaviours on a mass-scale, need to consider the consequences of their designs. They need to design more systems utilizing existing artifacts, products or services to solve existing problems. They can better achieve this by working in trans-disciplinary teams with designers essentially acting as facilitators to synthesize diverse perspectives.

The other team put it succinctly like this:

Design in its current trajectory is leading to a loss of meaning as well as function in the things that we produce. To remedy this we need to remove historical constructs with which we view design, and instead adopt a more holistic understanding of the things that we produce as designers.

Despite the differences in phrasing, we all seemed to be expressing the fundamental idea that to design is to accept responsibility for the effects our creations have in the world, and so requires awareness and consideration of the broader reach of our work throughout the process.