Design and agency

Where is the limit between an interactive system’s agency and the user’s control? Is Facebook converting us into passive, lazy users?

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.

 

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Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura and Experience Design

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.

 

 

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Art vs. Design. Should we stop asking that?

The Academy of Art University in San Francisco received to John Kolko and Donald Norman –two of the most known theorists in the field of [Interaction] Design. The first question they were asked was to point out the key differences between art and design. I really do believe that making this question in this context is more than reasonable, particularly for the new students. In fact, it’s not hard to notice that trying to answer this question is a pivot in many basic discussions around design. Nevertheless, I believe this question loses its validity eventually. At both levels, research and practice.

Affinity Diagram. Photography by Sam Xia.  http://mypointofview.info/
Affinity diagram.
Photography by Sam Xia.
http://mypointofview.info/

If we consider the case of scholarly research, we can notice that as we go forward in the study of design, the latter becomes into an abstract concept, where art is just a small piece within all the lenses with which design can be studied. I’m not talking about diminishing the value of design whatsoever, but other fields like psychology, philosophy, anthropology, or communication studies can also provide foundations, tools, and methods applicable to the discipline. By being involved with scholarly research, I’ve been witness of my colleagues’ attempts to amalgamate knowledge from other fields with the field of Human-Computer Interaction Design in order to reinforce both our understanding and discussion about design in a broad sense. As Paul Rand said, “design is everywhere.” It’s a human activity, and that’s why we can find it in every [academic] field, in one way or another. Humans cannot scape from design. We design just in the moment we intentionally decide to transform reality. Thus, any design activity would occur in fields like mathematics, chemistry, physics, business, and others that we would not relate to design. The interesting game here is to discover and analyze what design is for these disciplines, and how their approaches to design can affect what we could call “designerly disciplines” like architecture, industrial design, interaction design, and so on.

On another hand, from the research that my colleagues and I conduct at Indiana University about [interaction] design practice, I’ve noticed that design professionals clearly stop paying attention about the relation of art and practice. This is somehow obvious. In the [interaction design] practice, they have to pay attention on how to success in every project,  and this discussion (about design and art) is apparently  left aside. What my colleagues and I have noticed is that practitioners actually care about knowledge that can be applicable to their everyday practice –somehow similar to what scholars do. This doesn’t mean a rupture in the relation with art. But it’s true that practitioners want to employ [design-related] knowledge that makes them more competitive.

Indiana University HCI/d students testing a prototype.  Photography by Sam Xia.  http://mypointofview.info/
Indiana University HCI/d students testing a prototype.
Photography by Sam Xia.
http://mypointofview.info/

So, we should stop discussing about the relation or differences of art and design? Obviously, the answer is no. However, we should recognize that design is more than answering this question. Since the moment we wake up, we face ourselves with designed products, designed services, designed spaces, designed information, and other designed products. Hence, design becomes and involves more than aspects of art. Design needs to consolidate as a discipline that [effectively] gathers knowledge from diverse disciplines, but that stands by itself –as it happens with other disciplines, Computer Science for instance. In this sense, [design] knowledge should be digestible so practitioners can apply or adapt it in their work contexts, in addition to straightforward ways of communicating it to non design practitioners.

I think no one is closed to design. It’s obvious that we’re exposed to a design explosion nowadays. But it’s in the moments when design is transparent (in the everyday) that design is not viewed as art but as design itself. It’s when design is recognized as it is, as another human discipline with its own knowledge set, values, tools, and methods. Education becomes critical for this mind shift. Although design is commonly taught in art schools (or related with art somehow), we should recognize that a current design discourse is quite complex –it should gather and synthesize all these efforts to expand and compact
[design-related] knowledge from scholars and practitioners respectively, and it also should find a way to permeate the mainstream easily, with the intention of reaching out the non designers. This task is not easy whatsoever. However, early stages in design pedagogy –wherever it’s carried out, either named art/design school or not– should transmit this broader perspective of design, so the students’ mindset will evolve and mature with this ideas.

 

 

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Definition of Design

The first step for researching on design is having a personal vision of what design is, in order to use it as a tool for this task. This is my definition of Design so far,

Design is about projecting solutions. First, it starts as a personal process, both cognitive and personal, that requires engaging with people’s needs given a certain problem in a certain context. In the middle, it involves a communication process, with sharing of knowledge, values, perspectives, desires, and aims.

At the end, it concludes with the externalization of an idea, either for immediate use or as a basis for further design. Even more, within a social context, any projected solution and its materialization involve the conformation of stories in people’s everyday.

Under that definition I believe Design should follow these principles*,

  • Design should be human-centered
  • Design should be functional
  • Design should be aesthetic
  • Design should be empower communication
  • Design should be empower understanding
  • Design should be empower transformation
  • Design should be thoughtful
  • Design should be involved with sustainability
  • Design should be useful
  • Design should be rich

* I’ll expand these principles in subsequent posts. The first draft of this personal theory about Design can be found at my SlideShare.

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Drawing, Memory, and Reflection

Drawing is a skill associated with design, and other creative disciplines. I consider this should not be the exception for Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Design. Drawing is a way for synthesizing and engaging into reflection. Crucial skills for an Interaction Designer or User Experience Designer.

Wireframe and Ideation
Doodle made in a lecture about ideation and ellaboration of wireframes in the Interaction Design Practice course at the HCI Design program of Indiana University

The basis of a systems-oriented thinking is analysis. Although when a strong skill for analysis is needed for designing technology-driven solutions, amalgamating all the information [chunks] in order to create a new and feasible design is complex task. Hence, synthesis plays a crucial role in HCI Design. However, not everything is about synthesizing. Abductive reasoning is in essential design thinking. In fact, the three of them –analysis, synthesis, and abduction– practically occur in a non-linear almos-simultaneous fashion during the design process.

From my experience as a designer and teacher, drawing is a powerful tool for supporting memory and reflection. Talking about the relation of drawing and memory is quite straightforward. Drawing allow us to materialize our thoughts and archive them for future references and inspection. That’s why I’ve decided to focus on drawing again. I realize my memory is kind of bad, and this flaw needs to be beaten by the use of some artifact that connects me back with previous thoughts. I found drawing as a pleasant way for creating this artifact. Of course, I don’t deny the power of writing whatsoever. That’s the reason of this blog’s existence in first place. That implies another post, though.

Bits of life
Cover of my personal journal of micro-drawings and written notes for not forgetting things from my experiences I want to reflect upon in the future.

Drawing is also a tool for reflection. Particularly in Schön’s terms –Reflection-in-action and Reflection-on-action. From my perspective, drawing is one way of pushing through all the complexity –expression said by my advisor, Marty Siegel. While drawing, analysis, synthesis, and abduction happen. It is inevitable to reflect in the actual drawing decisions –Reflection-in-action. However, from my perspective, the magic occurs when reflecting upon past experiences, concepts, ideas, or even knowledge during the act of drawing. In this sense, composing becomes more complex than determining which components to draw, their representation, their position, and their relevance. Synthesis and abduction combine during the overall process. They contribute on the creation of meaning around a drawing.

Now that I’m conducting research on Interaction Design practice, and being involved with a HCI Design graduate program, I’ve decided to keep drawing. Of course, it’s also a hobby I really enjoy. Though, it’s a mental and physical activity that connects and disconnects myself from the realm of Design and Human-Computer Interaction.

What I want to remark is that drawing doesn’t require drawing skills. From this perspective where one gets connected and disconnected from the [design] world, it’s more relevant to keep going on drawing. The importance is in externalizing ideas that make sense when you see them time later. I believe it’s a bottom-up process every time. The reflection involved, and the types of reasoning, really will influence your future drawings. That’s why…

Keep calm and carry on drawing.

 

 

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