You are currently browsing Stephen M.’s articles.

The discussion we had on Tuesday reminded me this morning of a quote from Stolterman & Nelson in The Design Way:

“We are lame gods in the service of prosthetic gods.”

The word “prosthetic” was, I think, carefully chosen. According to the dictionary, a prosthesis is, “A device, either external or implanted, that substitutes for or supplements a missing or defective part of the body.” It’s an approximation, at best, of an organic limb or organ.

We closed class by establishing that Kieślowski used formalistic techniques to approximate the inarticulate felt experience of longing, and that this formalistic approximation was analogous to what we do as designers.

In the same way Kieślowski at best could only approximate that inarticulate felt experience, we can only approximate how people will react to and use our designs. Because of our education and experience we can make a pretty damn good guess, but a guess is the best we can hope for.

Technology is a means by which we can create prosthetics for our bodies and minds. We can remember things better, communicate over greater distances, and access information more readily than ever before in human history. But in the same way a prosthetic arm can’t communicate a sense of touch, our technology only can increase our abilities so much.

The best we can hope for is an approximation: there are a million to-do list mobile apps, but I still manage to forget to post on this blog; I can FaceTime with Hillary in Philadelphia, but it can never compare to sitting across a dinner table from her;  I can look up Nelson Mandela’s birthday with Wikipedia in an instance, but the same article could also describe Mr. Mandela as the spawn of Cthulhu. I think this relates heavily to several of Dennis’ posts from earlier in the semester regarding the danger/necessity of normative thinking in design practice.

We build prosthetics, supplements, substitutes, extensions…but nothing more. But my question is: Why not? Why can’t we do better than that? Is it a human shortcoming? Is our technology not “advanced” enough?

The philosophical version of that question could be this: If we could easily manipulate the very fabric of our reality, would we then be able to design the ‘perfect’ prosthesis? What do you think?

I’ve really struggled with choosing something to write about for the final paper. I tried a collection/survey approach with my prewriting as practice for the type of paper I thought I wanted to write later in the semester. The prewriting was a total botch job, and I’ve been in a holding pattern since then. Thankfully, Jeff’s diagram in class today helped me put the pieces together of something else that’s been floating around my mind for a while. This paper might be a chance to dig into it further.

I’d like to make the claim that digital learning applications, services, and technologies represent the means to begin thinking about new ways to approach education at all levels. I cite Khan Academy, Duolingo, Wikipedia, & Glerb as examples. These are also the interactions/designs I’m interested in exploring in my paper – specifically, their educational components (more obvious in Khan, Duolingo, & Glerb than Wikipedia, perhaps).

Based on my survey of these designs, I’d use the paper to propose one possible “new way” to think about education. While I’m sure my thinking will evolve once I’ve done a more careful analysis of the designs, my existing knowledge of this space suggests that I may be able to reference the same Monroe Beardsley quote Jeff shared in Foundations, and that served as early inspiration in my Capstone problem framing:

“We must be careful not to lose sight of our main purpose, which is not primarily to increase our knowledge of the arts, but to improve our thinking about them.”

I think digital learning tools may give us the means to restructure the role brick and mortar schools and universities play in education. How can we use the very different but equally valuable strengths of modern technology and physical classrooms in concert to improve education?

Some readings I’d leverage off the top of my head: Bardzell IC paper, the recent Barnard reading, perhaps ‘Cinema as Skin & Touch’, probably Carroll, and probably the Design Way.

I’m having trouble focusing my thinking, but I also only put all this together myself a few hours ago. What do you think? How can I scope down the discourse I’ll need to work through? What frameworks of analysis might you recommend to help understand the value, educational or otherwise, of a design within the scope I’ve defined here? Is this a bad idea for a paper?

“The outcome of this intensive training and supervision of the steward is a highly disciplined self, or as Hochschild puts it, a managed heart, who is required to manage emotions, demeanour and appearance in order to project the principles defined by the corporation.”

Having been neck deep in the job hunt for the last 3 months, this sentence really struck home with me. On the one hand, each recruiter I talk to is projecting some aspect of the company on the behalf of which they’re interviewing me. On the other, I’m trying to present the version of myself that is most in line with their “company image.”

It reminds me of the club my friends and I started in third grade – “The Mighty Goobers.” Somewhere in my old files is the Mighty Goobers Constitution, laying out the tenets of the group. I have very distinct memories of other kids in our class wanting to join the club…naturally, we held tryouts. They weren’t particularly rigorous tests, as everyone ended up joining the club (which was really just an excuse to give ourselves and our friends nicknames).

Trying out for The Mighty Goobers is analogous to applying for and interviewing for a job. As we ran around the playground during that recess, each kid was trying to get a handle on what version of themselves would give them the best chance at making the group. Applying for a job is no different in many ways, albeit more sophisticated: I tailor my résumé and cover letter to the specific position for which I’m applying; I do my research to learn about their approach to and the nature of their work; and when I speak with an interviewer I try and put my “best foot forward” so they’ll be more likely to consider me for the position.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that applying for a job is as much a social activity and subject to the influences of the the cultural status quo as a third grader’s recess club.

This post is kind of in response to Roy’s “Not Functionality” post. He asked why functionality is the go-to standard to measure a device’s success, and posited that it was in large part due to ignorance of context – what Jeff calls the Artworld. That is, we can’t critique something we don’t know anything about.

I definitely agree with that point of view; however, while reading Roy’s post something else occurred to me. Ignorance is definitely an obstacle to critiquing beyond an object’s functionality, but I believe we’ve also been trained over time to measure products by their functionality. I’m talking about full-on “Sit, dog,” style training. Ring-the-bell-and-we’ll-start-drooling style training (I’ve got more analogies lined up, if need be).

Consider how products’ most frequently comapred – with a feature checklist. “We’ve got more RAM! And a stylus! And a 400 megapixel camera! And that device over there doesn’t! Nyah nyah nyah!” I think this is such a pervasive technique that many people have come to understand this standard as the only meaningful way to measure a product.

I’ve been trying to decide on buying a new Windows machine, and it’s been a maddening experience. On the one hand, people selling the computers describe them in terms like I previously described – processing speed, RAM, hard drive capacity, available add ons, …etc. And yet, when I describe to those same people how I’ll be using the computer it’s a more qualitative narrative. “I’m working on this project and I need to be able to use these other technologies. I also bike everywhere, so I need something that can survive that sort of lifestyle…,” and so on. There’s a big gap between the two narratives!

Amazon is one of the biggest exemplars of the “functionality first” approach. It’s embodied in the actual layout of the website – products are presented in a grid to allow for the most careful comparisons of all the data points.



But what if Amazon and other retailers could find a way to bridge this gap and leverage user narratives as the primary means of selling a product? Maybe it could be built out of the existing user review system – and it only takes one glance at a product’s Amazon review page to see individuals are willing to spend time discussing products’ impacts on their lives.

What if the Amazon user experience was a story? What if it were a ’20 Questions’ style conversation with an intelligent recommendation system? What other form could a story-based shopping experience take?

A story to make a sale – storyselling (it’s a play on storytelling…get it?).

P.S. – I ended my post with the title. THIS POST IS A CIRCLE.

Angélica’s “The designs don’t exist…O_o” post is a good one, but a few words in particular stood out to me. I’m going to focus my entire post on the phrase that caught my attention, which, to be honest, doesn’t relate to the rest of her post at all. For some reason it fired a trigger in my brain; make sure to go read her post for her separate thoughts. Here’s the quote I’d like to discuss:

“…because at the end of the day, products sell (ughhh).”

My reaction to the last three words, or rather my lack of reaction, is what piqued my curiosity. At first read, I immediately agreed with the sentiment expressed – there’s something…distasteful about selling products. I carried right on to the end of the post, but something about that quote stuck in my mind.

It makes so much sense to me, that there’s something inherently nasty about the “market.” Our entire discussion last Thursday was predicated on the idea that the market/profit driven process is flawed in some way. If only we could design free of the pressures of the profit, we could unfetter our imagination of notions of commodification.

Why do we think this way about money? More importantly, why do I think this way about money?

Evidence of humans using items as a standard currency can be found dating back over 10,000 years. Coins were first minted around 700 B.C. in Lydia, India, & China (they all started doing it around the same time and separately). The Chinese first printed paper money in the 11th century. So, ‘currency exchanged for goods’ sure as hell is a persistent system.

And yet in our modern society, few ideas are more maligned – the acquisition of wealth is driven only by greed and the basest of desires. Many would describe the über-rich Wall Street Banker archetype as the ultimate arch-villain of our modern era.

Actually, there’s an easy answer to my question: thousands of years of abuse of monetary systems have created systematic distrust in the notion of currency and in those who make those systems their life’s focus. 

And yet nearly all of us are engaged in serious efforts to jump headfirst into this world of commodity and profit as professional UX designers & researchers. Am I required to swallow my discomfort and push my doubts aside about the very system that will support me and those I love for the rest of my life?

I think no. To me, the vilification of money is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, the tail wagging the dog, a few bad apples spoiling the bunch…(I’ve got more). Like, an iceberg we only see the most extreme end exposed above the water (told you I had more).

Yes, there are evil people with way too much money. Yes, our glorification of money and capitalism is a fucked up lens through which to view the world.

No, we don’t have to let ourselves subscribe to that worldview. This is what I choose to do, and I hope you will too. There is another way to think about money.

The things we will design will feed the coffers of giant corporations. But that ignores everything that happens between you designing something and the profits going to the bank.

Somewhere in there, a real live person decided to spend her dollars on your design. Her dollars didn’t appear out of thin air before she handed them to the cash register. They were earned at the office, on the delivery run, on eBay. And she only has so many dollars left – just as money doesn’t appear from nowhere, it also isn’t an infinite resource. Her decision to spend her monies on your design is a serious one. It may have been quick, and perhaps not well thought through, but the decision to purchase will have implications that will ripple through her life for days, weeks, perhaps years. And as it affects her, it also affects the purchased item and the system that created that item. Her purchase is like a stamp of approval. In a way, her purchase is a small piece of influence.

Just as “money is power” in large quantities, it is power in small amounts too. Small power, but power nonetheless. Don’t discount the small power those for whom you design will have.

“‘Aesthetic delectation is the enemy to be defeated,’ Duchamp has said in connection with this genre of work, and the readymades, according to him, were selected precisely for their lack of visual interest.” Danto, page 72, PDF page 12.

But if the choice of objects was founded on their “lack of visual interest”, Duchamp is acknowledging their are also objects that are visually interesting. More simply put, if it’s possible to have a lack of something then it’s also possible to have an abundance of that same something. For Duchamp, that something is visual interest.

By admitting that some objects of aesthetic consideration are, in fact, beautiful, isn’t Duchamp giving validity and form to the extant framework of aesthetic delectation?

Have Duchamp, and subsequently Warhol, shot themselves in their collective philosophical foot?

A couple of disclaimers/bias notices up front:

  • Bob Dylan is one of my all-time favorite musicians – if I was trapped on a desert island for eternity his discography would be the soundtrack for that eternity.
  • I do also really like the commercial I’ll be discussing, as well as the Chrysler 200. It’s a classy, well-built vehicle.

Now, watch this:

Ever since I first saw it, this ad has been driving me crazy for one reason – it is an excellent example of an effective Predispositions/Research/Insights argument based on the Principles format.

Right out of the gates, we get a predisposition to end all predispositions. “Is there anything more American than America?” Predispositions are meant to be something you agree with and understand easily. Dylan’s question is so logically circular that you can’t hope to think of an alternative answer. There isn’t anything more American than America, because America is American. BOOM.

And it’s clear Dylan knows this is the king of all predispositions, because he doesn’t bother with anymore assumptions and jumps right into his research and insights. In fact, the rest of the commercial is his research and insights – as a purely persuasive argument, he doesn’t need the back half of PRInCiPleS (or does he? Comment and tell me what you think!).

Dylan begins listing his claims: “You can’t import original. You can’t fake true cool. You can’t duplicate legacy. Because what Detroit created…became an inspiration to the rest of the world.” As pure text, these sound unfounded at best, hubristic at worse. However, the commercial’s visuals act as the “research” in this example.

“You can’t import original.” Bob Dylan himself, Marilyn Monroe, and Dr. J flash across the screen.

“You can’t fake true cool.” James Dean, Harleys, and a tattoo of Rosie the Riveter.

“You can’t duplicate legacy.” The tattoo switches to a real poster of Rosie the Riveter, and then fades to Dylan decending in an old-timey elevator.

“Because what Detroit created was a first, and became an inspiration to the rest of the world.” Early 20th century racing footage plays, and transitions to an “AUTOBAHN” sign.

Frankly, I could do this for every line in the rest of the commercial. Every claim Dylan makes is directly supported with visual evidence. And even the subjects themselves reinforce the initial answer to Dylan’s initial question about America – many of the references and individuals would only be recognizable to an American audience.

This is a fascinating comparison to me. Clearly, the commercial’s intent is to sell Chryslers. And yet, it fits so nicely into a framework of design thinking and argument. Perhaps designers should think twice before poo-pooing the marketer’s job.

On another note – grad school has ruined my ability to watch TV.

Strangely enough, reading architectural case studies is like a breath of fresh air for me. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad discussing the constraints of a building site – his struggles reconciling the different stakeholders needs, the requirements of the building itself, and his personal desire to effectively balance the built space and the local ecosystem & context.

I’ve always wondered if this is part of why UX design was a natural fit for me. Architects know instinctively that no two buildings will be the same – even if the blueprints are direct copies. Every solution has its own context that imposes its own set of constraints. In Rowe’s first case study, the architect must balance the desires of the client with the reality of the physical properties of the building site. As Rowe says, the architect’s early ideas were, “…dictated in large measure by the size of the program of accommodations and the geometry of the site.”

Throughout the case study, words like “attempt”, “backtracking”, “evaluation”, and “exploration” all make multiple appearances. This reflects one of the ideas we just discussed in class – defining the problem and solving the problem happen simultaneously, with each effort informing the other. Early in a process, Rowe describes the space as “underconstrained and lacking a specific direction.”

I like the word underconstrained – it gives voice to an all too common problem. How do you overcome this obstacle and start developing constraints? Rowe says, “The apparent deadlock was addressed by systematically evaluating different aspects of the scheme….” The designer knew he didn’t have enough information to advance the process, so he or she went back to the beginning. In essence, a designer must engage in a dialogue with a problem and its constraints.

It is in the dialogue between problem framing and problem solution I think most of the excitement of design occurs. Through this dialogue, a fuller picture of a problem’s constraints is elucidated; thus, a fuller understanding of a problem’s solution is also achieved.

It seems that there are some strong similarities that can be found between UX and architectural design. However, I can’t help but think of Jeff’s challenge at the end of today’s class – to problematize the notion of “The Designer.” Architecture is probably more guilty than most design fields of encouraging the view of the designer as a lone genius. Perhaps HCI is ill-advised to look to architecture for reference and inspiration as we may be more likely to fall into similar patterns of thought and practice.

“The modern motor car is a wonderfully sophisticated design solution to the problem of personal transportation in a world which requires people to be very mobile over short and medium distances on an unpredictable basis. However, when that solution is applied to the whole population and is used by them even for the predictable journeys we find ourselves designing roads which tear apart our cities and rural areas,” laments Lawson. I agree – the petroleum powered vehicle has been overextended as a travel solution. We’ve taken the square peg of the automobile (a perfectly valid peg, might I add) and jammed it into the round, triangular, and hexagonal holes of commuting, urban transit, and long distance travel. 

With my recent reframing, my capstone has come to focus on learning in new contexts. As I’ve been thinking about it, I think our modern education system is perhaps analogous to the automobile. The American school system is in many ways a propped up version of a 150 year old system. While automakers lobby for concessions to maintain the status quo in their industry, educators in many cities can barely find the funds to attain even a baseline level of tech access for students. I think the auto/school analogy continues in that both are at an inflection point – each is experiencing upheaval in its own way, and both have been forced to start taking hard looks in the mirror (so to speak).

The irony is that cars are running out of a resource (oil), and education can’t come to terms with a new resource (the Internet). 

I believe one possibility for building a sustainable framework for education in the future could be to explore new contexts for learning. In particular, I think the home is an area ripe for innovation. What do you guys think? Should teaching and learning stay school-centric, or can new technology help us refactor where and how we learn?