We cannot escape from the metaphor

Omar Sosa Tzec sketchnotes - Notes from one of my classes

My personal taste for taking notes is based on a regular sketchbook, a needle point gel pen, and a brush tip marker for shading. Since I’ve seen one of my colleagues using his iPad for taking notes, I’ve wondered how convenient is carrying your information in a single artifact, and how natural the sensation is.

Omar Sosa Tzec sketchnotes - Notes from one of my classes
Example of notes I’ve taken in one of my classes

I discovered that paper is the app for creating sketchbooks à la moleskine in the iPad. Further, I saw that pencil, a stylus to work with this app, was released. It reminded me some of the thick sketching pencils I’ve had, in fact. This is the promotional video of both working together:

I should remark that I have no intention of making any type of advertisement in this post. However, since the app is called paper and the stylus pencil, I couldn’t avoid having some quick thoughts in relation with design and HCI:

  • The metaphor is a great way of naming/advertising a product. Calling an app paper and a piece of technology pencil gives you pretty much idea what to expect and how to interact with.
  • Since technology is constantly evolving, it’s more easy to refer to concepts we have already implanted in our minds. Metaphors operate as smooth means for coming up with innovative designs.
  • However, translating something that we already have/use into a new technological form is easier if the metaphor doesn’t loose meaning in the translation. I think this is the case of paper and pencil.
  • Metaphor-oriented design for HCI involves the conjunction of other designs (or other design thinkings). For instance, designing pencil involves thinking as an industrial designer (in terms of the materials and ergonomics), and paper involves thinking as a graphic designer (in terms of the different visual signs within the interface).
  • Metaphor-oriented design for HCI allows to bring new styles of interaction, and hence more metonymies. For instance, paper has an interesting undo feature: moving (two) fingers in a counter clockwise fashion to rewind within the current sketch.

Since it may look that current HCI designs are more related with creating and enhancing people’s everyday, rather than accomplishing systematic tasks, I see complicated to get rid of metaphors and metonymies for a while. They represent a bridge between what we perceive as technological and not technological. Then, I wonder how current metaphors in combination with new styles of interaction will settle the basis for future metaphors/metonymies of that technology we haven’t designed yet.

 

Design and agency

I’ve heard once that a good design is a transparent design. In HCI, I’ve also heard that a good design is one that uses computer imagination. In our eagerness for bringing a friendly interactive design to users, we seek for features that make user’s life easier. Sometimes we conceptualize designs capable of collecting and processing data from the user, and hence inferring some possible actions. Thus, we attempt to give our designs some sort of agency.

The other day I had the intention of publishing in Facebook a snapshot of a Skype conversation with a colleague and friend. Also, I was planning to tag him on the picture. Of course, the two of us were aware about disclosure matters in relation to Facebook. Surprisingly, Facebook recognized and tagged my friend’s face automatically. What if I wasn’t considering to tag my friend? Was Facebook rude in this sense?

Facebook auto-tag feature. Do we have any control on how our image is used?
Facebook automatic tagging for pictures.

As we can observer as Facebook users, it also decides what to show and what to advertise in our news feeds. The Facebook algorithms are supposed to be smart enough for providing us a pleasant user experience. For informing us about the people we could care most, regardless of physical distance and/or time zone. However, I have the impression that sometimes my  news feed looks stuck and not fresh. Particularly, in the advertising part.

I might assume this situation is generated in part because we don’t feed Facebook enough. In my case, I should confess that every time I’ve seen a request for updating my profile data, I’ve skipped most of it. I feel that having a quick access to information has converted me into a lazy user. A passive one. It’s not that I believe that Facebook should decide for me, but I think I already do that. Nonetheless, I’m aware that not feeding Facebook properly will lead to a poor information output on my news feed.

Sometimes I would like to be more than a filler of data-oriented placeholders for Facebook. Sometimes I would like to refresh my news feed based on other qualitative aspects–for instance, my mood. But then again, we return to the data-oriented approach for setting the user experience. However, I still claim that considering a more person-qualitative-awareness approach for feeding this type of systems will contribute on breaking this passiveness and bringing back a sense of agency to their users.

 

Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura and Experience Design

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek

In “A Short History of Photography“, Benjamin Walter introduces the concept of aura as follows,

What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance—this is what it means to breath the aura of those mountains, that branch.

In other words, we can interpret aura as the quality derived from perceiving something, which involves intertwined stages of contemplation, admiration, reflection, and analysis. For instance, when we visit a museum and we find a piece of art of our predilection, we cannot avoid to be engaged with it. We take our time for observing, contemplating, measuring our level of admiration for the piece and the artist, or analyzing the technique or the historical context for that piece. At that moment we magnify the experience, and we take piece of art (and all the meaning around it) as unmeasurable and distant.

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek
Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek

Later Benjamin adds,

Now, to bring things closer to us, or rather to the masses, is just as passionate an inclination in our day as the overcoming of whatever is unique in every situation by means of its reproduction. Every day the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture, or rather a coy, becomes more imperative. And the difference between the copy, which illustrated papers and newsreels keep in readiness, and the picture is unmistakable. […] The stripping bare of the object, the destruction of the aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness –by means of its reproduction.

Here, Benjamin is pointing out that aura is threaten by reproduction. Because we become aware of the piece’s (or phenomenon’s) aura during the actual moment of perceiving, reproduction devalues the aspects of uniqueness and authenticity. By relating these ideas with HCI and design, I could not avoid thinking of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The extensive use of social networks implies a massive conversion of real-world phenomena into multimedia objects, facilitating their circulation all around the globe. Reproduction is not limited anymore for those who can access and control technology. In this sense,

  1. Have ICT and social networks killed  the notion of aura?
  2. Or are we just witnessing an evolution on Benjamin’s notion of aura?
  3. How aura and experience design are connected?

Although these questions may lack of basis, we could sketch some arguments by paying attention to our own experiences with any of the aforementioned social networks. For instance, I understood (in Benjamin’s words) that what I enjoy is breathing the aura of nature. As a designer, I like to listen what nature says to me about design principles. Nature’s aura facilitates my reflection about design. Although I understand that I can’t keep the state of mind caused by facing nature’s aura, I know that my reflection should be recorded, so I can remember and revisit it in the future. For doing this I use Instagram.

Beauty is in rhythm. Picture of one of the moments on which I try to ground design principles form nature. Instagram: @omitzek
“Beauty is in rhythm”. Picture of one of the moments on which I try to ground design principles form nature. Instagram: @omitzek

Once that moment is materialized into a digital picture, I have no control on who will watch it, share it, or even modify it. Further, what I contemplated, admired, reflected, and analyzed –in other words, experienced– might not be the same that my Instagram friends (or any potential owner of the picture) will experience. Notwithstanding, I wouldn’t argue that aura is being diminished as consequence. It just changes.

At the moment other users interact with Instagram (with the digital picture as one substrate of the use experience design) a variation on the original aura is present. Now, we talk about the combination of perceiving the digital photo and the experience of interacting with the system. Moreover, since the context of use can vary –type of users, geographical location, devices, and culture– even for a group of Instagram friends, the manifestations of the “new” aura are plenty different. Aura becomes an inherent element of the experience design. Certainly, the latter generates more questions than answers for experience design practitioners. So far, I glimpse matters of literacy, culture, aesthetics, and materiality. Further third-wave HCI research could contribute to a better understanding of the relation between Benjamin’s aura and experience design.