In the 4th Dimension We're More One-Dimensional

While theoretical physics continues to struggle with string theory, and, thus, unify space and time, technology, is already in the process of the space-time unification.  No, an individual cannot literally travel through time, but the digital footprint gathered by most babies born in western society today, carries enough residual facts, moods, and moments, to simulate, if not entirely digitally recreate, the major events of their lives.  In fact, given the current speed of technological innovation and the advancement of computer animation, a future of digitally recreated, life-like memories is more plausible than not.  One can imagine “traveling in time” to a memory in one’s past. Couple this digital memory potential with the future of embedded technologies and an ambient environment, and Rob van Kranenburg warns that the consequence just might be that “there are no more humans, only information spaces.”  Technophiles imagine the future as a space more rich and meaningful, but according to van Kranenburg, backed by Suchman’s insights into human computer interaction, the future looks more and more one-dimensional.

The idea that a human could lose their humanness sounds absurd to anyone who grew up in an analog world.  However, the generations growing up in today’s digital world are integrated so intimately with technology that many see it as an extension of self and means of self-expression.  Turkle’s experiments and analysis of teens’ cell phone usage reflects this idea.  When their cell phone is taken away, teens speak of the loss as an “anxiety of disconnection.[1]” It’s almost as severe as the loss of the companionship of another human being.  The current trend in programming languages toward more characteristically human structures only contributes to the complete acceptance of technology integrated into all aspects of life.  Indeed the computer seems more human as it “employ[s] terms borrowed from the description of human interaction – dialogue, conversation, and so forth” (Suchman).  Computer languages themselves are so abstracted that almost anyone can guess what the Ruby line ‘print “hello world'” will do. As the computer is perceived more human, and “demonstrate[s] some evidence of recognizably human abilities, we are inclined to endow [it] with the rest” (Suchman).  Humans are inclined to see themselves in the computer and therefore more likely to accept it into their lives without questioning its role.

Van Kranenburg recognizes a continued lack of critical thinking around technology through his observation that machines trend more and more toward complexity and less and less toward understandability.  Van Kranenburg sites the fact that a car manual that used to be one-hundred pages is now more than a million, unintelligible without the aid of a computer.  When the parts are unintelligible, human’s natural inclination is to “to ascribe actions to the entity rather than to it’s parts” (Suchman).  Technology is no longer seen as something made and put together, which inherently implies it can also be taken apart.  Rather, technology is seen as a whole, functioning on its own.  Because of this, its acceptance comes more easily into the fabric of everyday life.

A new world of integrated technology promises safety.  It promises that we know more about the world, but also, that more about the individual is known to the world.  Van Kranenburg claims that this results in a loss of privacy where there is no more public, but only audience.  People are only data streams to be analyzed and observed and reduced to a predictable number.  However, it is in acquiescing to these norms the very nature of humanness, with all its fallibility and unpredictable is indeed lost.   Not only are individuals reduced in this ambient world, but the mystery of Nature herself succumbs to the illusion of control.  An abundance of data creates a false sense of understanding, for it is only with mystery taken out of life’s equation, that one can also find the beauty and meaning.

While it’s easier to reduce van Kranenburg’s arguments to some Orwellian warning fit only for Luddites or science fiction enthusiasts, his assertions are backed in the history and progression of human computer interaction.   Without further intervention and an open debate about how and when technologies should integrate into everyday life, humans might are in great danger of losing their form, their essence, their three-dimensionality.


[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/interviews/turkle.html

The one thing I took away

Last week was full of inspirations and reflections. We’ve heard and spoken with individuals that continue to shape our thinking around our approach, attitude, and actions. If there was one thing I took away from each person, here they are:

“You gotta get good at the banal so you know what to do when something meaningful comes along. Good opportunities don’t come into the room and announce themselves.” Mark Rolston

“If you expect business people to care about impact, you should learn to care about the bottom line too. And not many people care if you’re giving appropriately and effectively, but do it anyway.” – Jessica Shortall

“Humor is important if you’re doing the kind of work like fighting for human rights.” – Esra’a Al Shafei

“The term non-profit is a tax code – it should not define what you do nor who you are.” – Doug Ulman

“All my best conversations were when I made what I was doing very public. Instead of sitting there where you’re the only one drawing – go outside, make what you’re doing public, and let people participate. Design publicly.” – Alex Gilliam

“Humans will do a lot for stickers. You need to create a sense of accomplishment that’s not monetary.” – Suzi Sosa

“Scale and impact can only be achieved if you can make it repeatable. Knowing that it works is not enough, you need to know the ingredients that made it work.” – Justin Petro

Director Jon Kolko in Fast Company

Director Jon Kolko recently contributed a three-part series to Fast Company. The series explores the nature of design synthesis from a number of perspectives, and offers both tangible and conceptual advice on exposing the magic of design within a given organization. Explore the series here:

  1. How Do You Transform Good Research Into Great Innovations?
  2. Cultural Values That Will Make Your Office an Idea Factory
  3. When Trying to Invent, Being Objective Can Cripple Your Process

An update after some shifting and zooming from biased perspectives: our process, our finding, and our plan

Photo credit: by Alex Pappas, at Art From the Streets, on Jan 25 2011

When we were two weeks into our research on homelessness last quarter, it began to occur to us that the Maslow hierarchy might be in the wrong shape. Our hypothesis was that people need their emotional needs fulfilled at the same time as their physical needs, rather than after. That led to one of our major themes in the final research presentation: people don’t just need help, they need to help.

We hung onto that idea and kept exploring. Three months after our project kick-off, here’s where we are at:

We believe that when people are given an opportunity to share their knowledge and teach other people, they are actually helping themselves by gaining a stronger sense of self and increasing self-esteem. We don’t have data that is of statistical significance to support this view. However, it is a view that is built directly upon our personal stories, experiences, and world-views. We know to be conscious about the biased perspective and continue to seek feedback from various individuals in the design, business, and technology space. So far, everyone seems to share the same sentiment.

Our 5-hour working sessions typically involve constantly asking ourselves “what if” and “what would make it really fun“. For example, we talked about what ARCH would look like as a co-working space, where clients are encouraged to host sessions like at an unconference. We also think our belief holds true whether it’s for the homeless, retired professors, vulnerable teens, or stay-at-home moms. The continuous lens shifting has become our most powerful tool to cross chasms and connect ideas that are seemingly unrelated in order to formulate new design ideas.

We’ve also committed ourselves to making a physical artifact after every working session: “If it isn’t modeled, written, drawn, and otherwise solidified in an artifact, it never happened.” Concept mapping out our envisioned ecosystem and customer journey map helped us in clarifying what we want to do. More importantly though, it helped us in identifying what our Theory of Change is: When a person begins to see him/herself as a teacher rather than a student, we believe that’s when change happens.

We start building and testing this week. So one good thing to keep remembering: Trust the Process.

user vs. standards

The past couple of weeks we have been doing Think Aloud usability testing on the iphone applications that we built wireframes for last quarter. It was great to take the prototypes out and experience a range of reactions to both the application as well as the UI.

We were charged with documenting “critical issues”. In some cases this proved surprising….The iphone is intuitive and easy to use? Following standards make the applications easier to use?

  • Words matter.Tags are something most designers and developers are familiar with (standard), but only one case manager understood what that meant. Once I explained what Tags were they stated wow that would be really useful. In their words keywords so I can easily search through notes by topic.
  • Symbols can be confusing. The section where the case manager is able to add clients was modeled after the address book on the iphone. There is a plus button to “add” a new client. It was interesting to see that this was not intuitive to the case managers including those that were familiar with iphones. I thought I was following the “standard”, but I would much rather give the users what they were all looking for a “new client” button. I realize there are language issues and that the plus does not require translating, but this is why context is always important.

I am not sure what the answer is for user vs. standards, but feel testing is important to understand the decisions we are making as designers.

Project managers can we please build a little time in the schedule for testing?

Reflection Time

Does anyone watch our “Personal Growth Videos”? Our “Peaks of the Week”? Our reflection videos? The idea behind the videos is that learning requires reflection. This week, Ruby tried to redesign the format of the videos, and ask new questions because the videos were feeling staid.

You can’t force reflection, but it’s an interesting interaction design challenge to note how the structures of the new school you’re designing affect the way your students behave.

We’re all super busy balancing work and school, and when we get super busy, we tend to:

  • go into default modes of interacting with the world and the people in it.
  • go into crisis mode: reactive instead of proactive.
  • feel like there’s no time to think, so reflection becomes optional or bonus.

Why not iterate ways to get better reflection and feedback from the class? Why not iterate the ol’ personal growth video hormone?

Some food for thought, some unfiltered brainstormin’:

  • if a faculty member runs the videos, it automatically means we take it a little more seriously. plus they can call b.s. on any cop-out answers (to our annoyance.)
  • what if a different student were in charge each week, and also in charge of asking a different question?
  • instead of video, some kind of regularly-scheduled stand-up
  • some kind of regularly-scheduled “circle time” or “family meeting” that includes story sharing or reflection questions
  • visualization of the week / gamestorming activity that probes reflection
  • specific questions for the blog that probe or seed reflection
  • regular happy hour with faculty
  • public vs. private to the school vs. private individual reflection
  • filming video at the end of the week at the end of the long studio class = certain results and certain emotions
  • the perils of introspection vs. usability testing/talk-aloud method

Design constraints: easy, quick, consistent…does that lead to the kind of reflection that leads to learning?

Being Empathetically Correct

I was explaining our work with Frontsteps to a good friend of mine last night, and I used the phrase ‘people experiencing homelessness’ to describe the clients at Frontsteps.  Curious, he asked me if that was the politically correct term for homeless people.  I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but it felt like the phrase was important for a reason beyond being politically correct.

This morning it hit me: using ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is not about being politically correct, it’s about being empathetically correct.  We know that the language we use both reflects and shapes how we think about the people and world around us, and these two terms have very different implications.

The term ‘homeless people’ suggests a changed identity and lends a sense of permanence to the state.  This change in identity immediately puts them in the category of ‘other’ and makes it more difficult to empathize.

While more cumbersome, the term ‘people experiencing homelessness’ emphasizes that they’re going through a temporary situation.  I also like it because it stresses that they are people first and after all, people are people.

Posted from Ryan’s blog.

Feelings are Design Insights

While doing design research I try to listen to myself as much as I do everything else.

How do I feel about this situation? Anxious, awkward, excited, satisfied?

This week Scott and I did some quick and dirty testing by giving away McDonald’s gift cards to people panhandling along the road with signs. We then tracked their balance online to see if the cards were redeemed.

It was satisfying to give something away that you knew could not be misused. We were excited to constantly check to see if the cards had been used yet. A couple of times there was traffic behind us so we just had to hand out the card without any conversation, which felt very transactional and inhumane.

How can our final design incorporate those positive emotions and avoid the others?