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In a world that has become so saturated with commodified signs that they have begun to lose meaning, sometimes it’s best to slap together a bunch of stock footage and just see what happens.

 

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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.

compare-all-the-datas

DO IT

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.

So on recommendation from many people in our cohort, I went and saw the Lego Movie this past weekend. I really enjoyed the movie, but I couldn’t help but observe that the very idea of the Lego Movie itself represents a form of commodified imagination. Almost all of the other franchises referenced in the movie: Batman, The Avengers, Harry Potter, are represented as Lego sets you can buy commercially. And one can almost certainly correlate Lego’s continued success with its ever-increasing line of playsets, particularly as they have been able to leverage movie tie-ins and popular culture. This expansion has also moved into mediums beyond the toys themselves, into the popular Lego video game series and yes, even the Lego movie (which already has a sequel planned for May of next year).

In addition, with this commodification comes new cultural implications for play, particularly for young children. For the past few years, Lego, like many other toy companies, have been struggling with “capturing” the girls toy market. A recent resurfacing of a popular 1980s ad has been making the rounds online:

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Notice the gender-neutral approach to body copy of the ad, the colors of the pieces, and even subtly suggested in the attire of the little girl represented. Why is this relevant? Well, one writer for a progressive women’s blog tracked down the original girl in the ad, Rachel Giordano, and asked her to recreate it for the modern age, with a modern Lego set “targeted” for girls:

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The set pictured with Ms. Giordano, The Heartlake News Van, is described as follows:

Break the big story of the world’s best cake with the Heartlake News Van! Find the cake and film it with the camera and then climb into the editing suite and get it ready for broadcast. Get Emma ready at the makeup table so she looks her best for the camera. Sit her at the news desk as Andrew films her talking about the cake story and then present the weather to the viewers.

While I’m certainly not qualified to speak about feminism in any sort of depth, it seems to me that there is a clear gender binary inherent in this set; one that not only attempts to reinforce stereotypical gender roles, but also commodifies that binary in the Lego “set” itself. Ms. Giordano also seems to be uncomfortable with this particular “evolution” of the sets:

LEGOs [in 1981] were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package. In 1981, LEGOs were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: the toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.

I’d be interested in hearing from others who are more informed in this regard as to the “message” that is being conveyed, the critical approach could be beneficial here.

Does this mean that Lego has abandoned its own message professed in the movie: that master builders are the true “heros,” reappropriating collections into their own unique creations? I think even Lego as a company is at odds here: the main character, Emmet, undergoes a series of oscillations of character: from mere conformist, to amateur builder, to teaching others the value of following instructions, to appropriation and improvisation by the end of the movie. I feel that it is representative of the companies’ own feelings towards their product: as a catalyst for creativity, but also as a Business. I feel that it’s not all doom and gloom, however: these other recent ads from Lego show that there is still hope for imagination and wonder.

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Reading through the Koskinen excerpt, I felt like the majority of it was devoted to distancing critical design and “traditional” empirical research methods. While there is obviously a need to separate the futurist outlook of critical design from the fiscal and technological pragmatism of the present, there were still moments where I wasn’t  entirely comfortable with the direction the passage was headed. The discussion of the Presence Project underscores this discord:

…the Presence Project constructs the notion of “aesthetical accountability.” Success in design lies in whether a piece of design works, not in whether it was produced by a reliable and replicable process (as in science). Hence, designers are not accountable for the methods: anything goes. They do not need to articulate the grounds for their design decisions. (p92, emphasis added)

Granted, the very next paragraph goes on to describe some of the problems with these particular characterizations, especially that of science. But it seems that for Koskinen, that is the point: “it underestimates the power of science and overestimates the power of art and design to change the world,” and emphasizes the need for both empirical review and the cultural implications of the social sciences. The “agnostic ethos” that Koskinen frames the remainder of the discussion about the Presence Project talks about project goals as “projective” and centered around a series of design proposals or tactics based on “returns” rather than data.

And this is all well and good; I can certainly understand and appreciate the need to examine a problem (particularly a people-centered one) using non-empirical methods, there is definite value there. What I’m uncomfortable with is the non-accountability portion: where anything goes, and design disappears behind the curtain. I believe building and fostering trust in design involves making your process transparent, however non-linear and seemingly “messy” it may be. It is obvious that the researchers in the Presence Project utilized a carefully structured process, and though their data doesn’t resemble what a traditional notion of “data” looks like (i.e. something you can draw “conclusions” from), it nevertheless culminated in the “tactics,” which help to ground future design directions.

In short, design methodologies don’t strike me as “anything goes” with respect to accountability, even if the data that emerges from them appears that way. We are all accountable for the designs we bring into the world, and by extension the methodologies we employ to reach the insights that lead to those designs.

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.

Jared’s post reminded me of the discussion we had on that day as well and I thought I’d ramble and write about the topic. Most of us are training to be “user experience professionals.” However, I don’t believe user experience professionals will ever able to be attain the same professional status as Medical Doctors and Engineers. Now, I believe most people won’t find that argument too surprising. However, I want to argue that it should be more gray and complex. A professional has many connotations, but the two I’m going to ramble about is that

  1. A professional acts in a professional manner and there’s an established code of ethics.
  2. There is an established body outside of the normal judicial system to hold them to said rules and punish members that do not adhere to them.

Both doctors and some engineers such as those who build bridges and nuclear power plants fit this definition. These professions and others have successfully argued to society that only they should have an exclusive right to practice their craft because others will get hurt if others besides themselves practice their craft. By this I mean that if any of us were to setup a doctor’s office and started to treat people, it would be shutdown, and for good reason; most people would hope that when they’re on an operating table the surgeon knows his saw from his scalpel or else you might find yourself with one less kidney.

Now where am I going with this? Design is dangerous. It changes the way people behave and how they should think and not always for the “best.” It’s why were taught in this school to be “human-centered” and that we should go through the process of figuring out what people really want before going down that direction. And yet, everyone designs sometimes. Cross calls

The evidence from different cultures around the world, and from designs created by children as well as by adults, suggests that everyone is capable of designing. So design thinking is something inherent within human cognition; this is a key part of what makes us human.

This is troubling for crafting a profession because of its exclusive right to practice its craft. It would be wrong to monopolize design thinking in what Cross calls design thinking. Now am I saying we should professionalize? It’s hard to say. There are probably organizations out there for UX professionals that are trying to do this, but obviously there are a lot of problems here. I will end this rant with one final thought. I suppose it is the utmost importance that our designs must come from somewhere and they mustn’t be “just magic” and that we recognize this. I would probably argue that thinking that our designs emerge from conjuration are more likely to lead to poor design decisions that influence people in “non-good” ways.

Looking over my notes from last week, I found the Plumber vs. Designer comparison we discussed to be interesting, particularly as it related to Cross’ excerpt we read. One concept that I took away from the discussion was that when comparing the skills and contributions of a designer (which could be argued are typically  less tangible) to those of a plumber (who’s core contributions are more self-evident), there is a notion of exceptional versus utilitarian purpose. From a business perspective, the apparent role of the designer is someone who has a specific set of skills (i.e. a specialization) that are then applied to a particular problem. To be sure, the plumber has the same sort of specialization, albeit in a different field. But that makes the plumber no less vital, particularly when there is a problem to be solved. So why is the profession of plumber classified in a utilitarian sense (along with HVAC workers, electricians, and masons etc.), while the designer is seemingly placed on a separate pedestal?

I believe some answer can be found can be found in the reification of design as a practice. Cross describes designers’ reliance on “intuition” and “intuitive approach” as the separation between designers, and those who’s decisions are not primarily influenced by intuitive judgment (e.g. engineers) (Cross, p9).  Drawing attention to this intuition, Cross essentially goes on to reify the design process as a type of exclusive, deeper insight, with designers

…ready, in many ways, to notice particular coincidences in the rhythm of events which other people, because they are less aware and less open to their experience, fail to notice. These designers are able to recognise opportunities in the way coincidences offer prospects and risks for attaining some desirable goal or grand scheme of things. They identify favourable conjectures and become deeply involved, applying their utmost efforts, sometimes “quite forgetting” other people and/ or things only peripherally involved…(Cross, p13)

This is problematic because it sets an expectation for those who hire designers: namely, that their ability to think differently comes at a price of being difficult to work with. And on the other end of the table, designers themselves believe that their abilities, being so hard to make tangible and quantifiable, must be grounded in a sense of extra-sensory insight, their process shrouded by seemingly organic intuition. Both of these perspectives are muddled in the reality of the situation:  designers often follow an unorthodox process that inspires their ideas, but they are ultimately grounded in pragmatic problem solving, and stakeholders are open to innovation, but are most receptive when connections can clearly be made from process to solution. In short, reification of design is a two-way street, and both designers and stakeholders are responsible for expectation-setting to ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

The video we looked at in class the other day really intrigued me. I found this blog post and thought it was quite interesting, as it seems to elucidate some of the designer’s intentions. In my blog post, I will analyze the artifact this way.

http://blogs.cisco.com/borderless/the-future-of-shopping/

Summary of their blog post

There is a blockquote at the top talking about how important customer experience is. Then, a list of the reasons Cisco outlines for rationalizing this device’s (potential, future) existence:

Video: “Seeing how garments fit in real time while you’re moving is only possible in a video-optimized network with capabilities such as media monitoring, bandwidth optimization, and auto-configuration included in Medianet.”

Cloud/virtualization: “Reducing the cost and complexity of supporting multiple technologies such as augmented reality and point-of-sale applications by consolidating them into virtualized servers is key.”

Security: (this is all about monetary transactions)

My critique (based on designer intention as presented in this blog)

First off, their blog post opens with a quote on being customer-centered, which I assumed was meant to set the tone for the rest of the post. And indeed they do address this in one paragraph:

Imagine being able to shop virtually from anywhere much more quickly and efficiently. No more crowded, clunky dressing rooms, or trawling racks of jumbled clothes in a sprawling megastore. No more changing ten times to find the perfect color combination. Simply scroll through the menu to see an unlimited amount of inventory in one place, and see how it looks on you virtually using the latest augmented reality and network technology.

But after that the entire thing turns hardware- and business-centered. “Seeing how garments fit in real time while you’re moving is only possible in a video-optimized network” is just plain wrong. I mean, obviously you can just put on a new outfit and move around in front of a mirror, can’t you? And I as a customer couldn’t care less if my fancy electronic mirror updates to the Cloud or to a laptop under someone’s bed. I just am not seeing how that’s customer-centered.

I was in the “User” group during the class discussion Thursday, and one thing we brought up was the fact that the entire clothes shopping experience with this device is visual. The designer in fact seems to be acknowledging and even embracing this. The fact that customers can’t feel the fit (or the fabric against their skin) doesn’t even come up. Why would the designer neglect such an important part of the clothes-buying (and wearing!) experience? Who cares how quick the network moves data if you can’t even feel how you move in the outfit?

That said I do understand the nod to the “sprawling megastores” and taking forever to change clothes. Honestly, I hate clothes shopping because of this myself. Trying to beat the crowds is irritating. It’s extremely time consuming and not fun for me to try on 10 different things in order to to find anything that fits me comfortably.

However, I question how quick this device really will make the shopping experience. Even if you try on a million color combinations, what if you find clothing with a texture that you can’t stand to wear? Then you’ll have to just try on new clothes again anyway. Clothing isn’t just about the look, it’s how the clothes feel on you, and more importantly how the clothes make you feel to wear. If it’s light and flimsy, I’d probably feel afraid the wind would blow up my skirt (or something).

tl;dr

The problem with clothes shopping isn’t only that it takes forever and you have to deal with crowds of people. You also have to find clothes that you’re confident wearing and that flatter you not only in looks, but also in the way you feel as you move and in the way the fabric feels to you. The blog post claims the design is customer centric, but doesn’t take into account the full customer experience and then starts talking about how fast and secure the transaction itself is. I think it misses the mark, and am disturbed that they give a perfunctory nod to UX and then kinda half-ass it. It makes me feel that we as UX designers have a long way to go in advocating for ourselves.

You’ve heard my rants about Tom Hanks and Cracker Barrel, but the grandaddy rant of them all is about Thomas Kinkade, who died over the weekend. I won’t rant more here, but this Salon article captures much of what I object to in Kinkade, and in a word it is that his work is done in bad faith.

In the readings we are asked to consider “play” as an important aspect of art:

Gadamer has in mind the actual phenomenon of play in its endless variety, including metaphorical senses: ‘ the play of light , the play of the waves, the play of gears or parts of machinery, the interplay of limbs, the play of forces, the play of gnats, even a play on words’ (TM, p. 103). Despite their differences, what these aspects of play all share in common is a ‘to-and-fro movement that is not tied to any goal that would bring it to an end ‘ (TM, p. 103). Play is an activity that is not random and yet has no obvious goal or teleological endpoint; purposeful and yet witho ut some grand overarching purpose.

I thought of this terminal after reading this passage. It was interesting because of its somewhat random interactions with those who move through it. People would go through it several times. It is unclear to me personally if this is actually an interactive display, or if it simply uses different animations based on some estimate of the amount of people on the walkway. One thing that is certain is that people interact with it. I’ve seen people try to trick it, initiate it, (generally try to illicit reactions from it) by jumping, running, turning around, moonwalking, whatever.

This seems like a fun embodiment of play. It seems to meet criteria above. One interesting aspect is that people attach meaning to the play that is taking place. Since it is not apparent how the interaction works, they play as a way of understanding it. They attach meaning and analogy through the play that takes place, although this may not be totally deliberate.