No one likes selfies… anymore

One interesting thing about social media is that users can notice behavioral trends about themselves. We can see how our timelines are affected by major events such as the Oscars Ceremony Award or the World Cup. Not only we get retweets and shares, but also new content is generated. Either unpublished or recycled. Pictures, videos, and memes. They’re everywhere within social media. However, as any organism, information gets born, grows, and eventually, it fades out.

Do you remember how popular selfies got after the Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie at the Oscars? Selfies has been part of Facebook, but definitely got burst after her picture. Selfies then started to become annoying. It seems that Instagram and the use of its filters have gone in the same direction. Also, we can add to the list the whining through social media, or the flood of cute cats pictures. On the other hand, it seems now that one function of social media is complementing Google, since their users are now asking about things in order to inform their decisions. Also we can note that social media is becoming an informal marketplace. Therefore, we can see social media as an interface in which multiple contexts affect themselves through the generation, modification, exchange, propagation and eradication of information. Of course, all these actions have an impact back to those contexts. They affect the real world.

The social media and the real world altogether affect the former, at least in terms of content and the usage of such content. Trends are consequence of these user-driven information management. And also, users kill those trends eventually, regardless of the actual agency they are supposed to have. Yet, social media, by means of current massive content in each of these contexts, dictates what is on fashion. And eventually when such massive content will not be in fashion anymore. It’s just like the comic strip by the Oatmeal shown below. No one likes selfies (now) (?). 

Selfie by Oatmeal Comics
Vignette from “No one likes selfies” by the Oatmeal. Inspiration to write this blog post. Please check

What does this mean, and why do we need to care? There’s no simple answer whatsoever. That’s why many people try to understand the related phenomena from different perspectives, including HCI and Design. However, I really enjoy the idea of seeing that information is alive. It’s somehow organic. We can see how we apparently affect social media content, and how social media content affect us, and hence the real world. The trends have rhetorical implications for us. The Facebook that will be experienced in USA this 4th of July, because of the Independence Day, won’t be the same as the Facebook experienced in Brazil whilst the World Cup keeps going. Our understanding of the world, what shapes our culture, and what modifies our values are subject to this creation and dead of information. And still, I cannot avoid questioning myself, what’s our role, as users, in this phenomenon?

If you want to know how this phenomenon could be related with design, or user experience design, my colleague Azadeh Nematzadeh and I recently presented a paper in the Design Research Society Conference 2014 about some theoretical concepts by which we try to explain this connection. Please, give the paper a look. Thanks!


Postcolonial design and Mexican culture

I don’t know why I hadn’t paid attention to it before. Maybe it’s consequence of being surrounded by design philosophers, feminists, and rhetoricians as part of my PhD education. I’m talking about the postcolonial role of design in the development of the Mexican culture. I don’t have a concrete argument here, but sparse thoughts and questions. All of them are consequence, in turn, of being exposed to the architecture of some european cities I’ve had the opportunity to visit. By observing and reflecting about the architecture of Europe and Mexico, I couldn’t avoid thinking about how the hegemonic vision is imposed through design.

Puebla City Hall
Puebla City Hall. Picture taken from

The (Mexican) architecture, as I imagine that it occurs all over Latin America and other colonized countries, shows such hegemonic vision. It seems that design, before and nowadays, either we talk about architecture or object design, is clearly the materialization of the hegemony. Design works as a cultural wax stamp. 

Juarez Theatre in Guanajuato
Juarez Theatre in Guanajuato. Picture taken from

I just heard in the DRS 2014 Conference that, as designers, we should pay attention to the design needs of Africa and Asia due to their coming population growth, including its economic impact. Who should be in charge of these design situations? To what extent design should avoid fostering a neocolonialist vision? Is there a design vision and education emerging from not-western countries that should be taken into account? In other words, do we need to use that cultural wax stamp as safe action? How much?

Fine Arts Palace
Fine Arts Palace. Picture taken from

The old zones of Mexican cities show the European heritage in terms of functionality and aesthetics. Furthermore, current developments also follow modern architectural approaches influenced by developed countries. Nevertheless, Mexican cities don’t identify themselves as European cities. The Mexican flavor has developed on its own. So, why do Mexicans need to care about how the european vision has affected what they call culture? Will it make any change? Is it anyhow relevant to make a comparison with the inherited wester design and the design that mexicans are allowing to conquer them nowadays?

Morelia downtown
Morelia downtown. Picture taken from

I know that it might sound as an exaggeration. Too much buzz around the idea of architecture, and hence of design. Nevertheless, just by observing, reflecting, and understanding architecture as an evidence of a repeating history, it comes to my mind more doubts about the failure of design. It comes to my mind images of clumsy Mexican cities where the marginalized zones are not considered as design projects; software that is not inclusive for the heterogenous societies within the Mexican Republic; or even an image of how certain products and services might be unaccessible for people whose user or consumer profile parallels to that of people in USA or Europe.

Mansion in Merida, Yucatan
Mansion in Merida, Yucatan. Picture taken from

I think that Design perceived as a transformative action deserves a couple of thoughts. It changes reality, and hence, it changes us. Therefore, shouldn’t we be more critical about how other forces affect our agency?  Regardless, I’d bet that any thought about Design and its implications is just as mess; as anything that plays part of transforming the world.



Is there a theory of design?

I had a quick discussion with my friend and colleague Jordan Beck, who is now working on the notion of Design Identity. As part of that work, Jordan is creating a list of definitions of Design and an interesting list of possible design theories. Then, we were discussing whether there’s a theory of design as such. As usual, we employed the whiteboard to discuss our viewpoints. The result is shown below.

Schemas about theories of design
a) A typical example form Gestalt theory (Jordan). b) A schema regarding theories in relation to their “belongingness” to Design and their applicability (Omar). c) Design as consequence of a networked non design theories (Jordan).

As it’s shown in the schema b, I was telling Jordan that most theories of design are generated from other fields, such as Psychology, Philosophy, or Literary Studies. This idea is represented by the horizontal axis. My quick comment was made in relation to the applicability of those theories—the vertical axis. I conjectured that, in terms of applicability, designers pay more attention to those theories not generated within Design since they are the ones that are more related with the designer’s competence at the moment of actually doing design. In relation to the theories generated within Design—that is, generated by Design Researchers, in designerly (research) context, and working for and with designers—usually they don’t know or care about those theories because their not “visible” in their everyday practice.

Then Jordan came with the schema c from the picture above by which he remarked about the possibility that Design is (partially) constituted by networked knowledge/theories not generated “within” Design.” From here, he made the interesting question about whether there’s a theory really generated within design. The quick discussion was basically focused on that. I commented that it seems to be no theory of design as such. Since the two of us are taking Erik Stolterman’s seminar on Philosophy and Theory of Design, I added to my point that by discarding knowledge generated from non design Disciplines, Philosophy of Design might represent the theory of design—as theoretical generative means regarding design and for design. Yet we talk about Philosophy, so it belongs to other field at the end. Tricky and funny.

In relation to comments above, we got this quick and crazy deduction that there’s no theory of design apparently. Later, since there’s a relation between some disciplines and design as we appreciate in the current “design theories”, Design seems to be present somehow (or mapped back) in these fields. If it is possible to create this type of bidirectional connection with any discipline, does it mean that design is everywhere somehow? Was Paul Rand right when he said that “Everything is design”?


Design, Science, Art and Craft: among facts and abstractions.

What’s the difference between Science and Design? What about Art and Craft? Is design about something concrete (an object), a process, an line of thought? Further, by taking User Experience (UX) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) as knowledge disciplines, what’s the relation of UX with Science? Does UX belong to Craft or Art? What can we tell about HCI? These are very difficult questions to answer, and they require to take a philosophical stance—at least, I assume—in order to create arguments and hence generate discussion. So, what’s the point of this post any way? Although I think I don’t have the answers to all these questions whatsoever, I would like to share my perspective on how these big words relate each other by means of the following schema.

Relational space between Science, Design, Craft, Art, Actuality and Abstract.
Relational space between Science, Design, Craft, Art, Actuality and Abstraction.

In regard to the description of this relational schema, I would like to start commenting why I took the continuum Art/Craft. In 2008, I wrote this idea in Spanish

El diseño implica arte pero el arte no implica necesariamente diseño.
La ciencia implica diseño pero diseñar no implica necesariamente hacer ciencia.
Aun así, la ciencia implica hacer arte.

The literal translation is as follows,

Design implies Art, but Art not necessarily implies Design.
Science implies Design, but to design not necessarily implies doing Science.
Yet Science implies doing Art.

The last part, “Yet, Science implies doing Art”, seems to make no sense in English. The adequate translation could be,

Yet Science entails Craft.

My point here is that “doing Science” in real life is not that rigid as it looks in paper. To me, it involves both aspects of Craft and Design. Further, this phrase indicates the underlying implications of using a particular language at the moment of reflecting and philosophizing. Regardless, the selection of this continuum is somehow influenced by the perspective of Howard Risatti when comparing Art and Craft—although I don’t share his vision regarding Craft and Design in this “Theory of Craft”.

For the case of Science and Design, I consider the relation between these two as discussed by Nigel Cross and Harold Nelson & Erik Stolterman. As I tried to embed it in my phrase above, I state that it turns out difficult to outline strict boundaries in the relation of Science and Design. All depends on what type of definition, questions, and the place where those questions are made.

The third continuum entails the consequences of Art/Craft and Science/Design in relation to the real world. Thus, I consider—at least—the range that goes from abstraction to actuality. That is, from ideas to things that people can interact with. This continuum is theoretically related with ideas such as the “ultimate particular” and “design inquiry“—as a compound of the inquiries into the real, ideal, and true respectively—by Nelson & Stolterman.

The relational schema presented above doesn’t have the intention of being prescriptive. It corresponds to my personal viewpoint and a attempt to formulate my position as HCI/UX researcher regarding the type of research/discourse generated in my near context. That is, among the faculty and colleagues at Indiana University Bloomington. Further, since I have interest in schemas/diagrams/sketches, I generated it as an example of how schemas may function as a means for argumentation.

My purpose here is for you to take this schema and tear it up. Make it your own.

However, before you go and destroy this relational schema, let me show how it helped me to sketch the answer to the aforementioned issues.

UX and HCI in the relational space

As we observe from the schema above, the relational space is conformed by three axis, each of them representing one of the continuums describe above. Then, I perceive User Experience (UX) as a discipline highly design-oriented, focused on concrete outcomes, and with a high flavor of craft in its practice. I think these qualities make it different from other approaches regarding interactive artifacts-systems such as Software Engineering, ICT, or Computer Science.

UX in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
UX in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

On the other hand, I locate Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) in a different place within the relational space. I perceive HCI as more scientific discipline focused on concrete outcomes, yet with certain nuances of craft in its practice. I remark that I’m talking about a general or traditional perspective of HCI. In other words, a practice—and also its research—more emphasized on the first and second waves of HCI.

HCI in relations to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
HCI in relations to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

I consider that HCI influences UX, more than the other way around. Although HCI provides foundations and methods to UX, the latter seems to lack of impact regarding HCI in this fashion. Of course, this discussion could be very extensive and profound. So far, I remark this influence with an arrow, just to indicate that HCI may entail a more traditional approach whereas UX corresponds to the designerly approach.

Designerly and non-designerly approach to HCI/UX.
Designerly and non-designerly approach to HCI/UX.

In the attempt of describing the relation of HCI and UX and the implications that each has on the other, I’ve observed that within the HCI track—in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington—theory plays a critical role. It provides the discursive components to understand the aforementioned relation. Thus, in this milieu I’ve heard of design theoretical topics such as Slow Change Interaction Design, Sustainable Interaction Design, Feminist HCI, HCI Criticism, Participatory Design, Critical HCI, Design Theory, and Design Pedagogy, Practice and Methods. All of them gathered under the big umbrella of Design Theory (DT).

Design Theory in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
Design Theory in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

From my current perspective, UX influences DT since it provides the input to start theorizing about design. The consequences of UX are actual design cases. At the moment (design) researchers start analyzing those cases, a universe of study is created. By picking one planet, system, or galaxy of such universe, the (design) researchers cannot avoid to meet a philosophical situation since there’s an intrinsic relation between the researcher and the piece selected to study. And just as we may observe from the last sentences, the attempt to understand becomes a matter of (design) philosophy.

The relation between UX and Design Theory.
The relation between UX and Design Theory.

So far, we’ve observed from above the relations of HCI→UX and UX→DT. The question is now, in terms of DT and HCI, what is the discipline more prominent to influence or affect the other? I want to remark that it’s not my intention to be prescriptive. Based on my experience, I think that DT→HCI marks the relation within the type of research I’m currently involved. That is, DT provides HCI with theoretical foundations, which are in turn employed to generate frameworks.

Not necessarily connected with the latter, (design) methods are located very close to HCI in the path of this connection. Nowadays, more that thinking about their degree of applicability, I think that the so-called design methods could work without a deep—and hence philosophical—understanding of DT. I conjectured the latter based on my early experience with HCI, particularly as an undergraduate and latter getting involved with HCI researchers.

The relation between HCI and Design Theory/Theories.
The relation between HCI and Design Theory/Theories.

Research as an act of reconciliation

As I mentioned above the relational schema has the purpose of helping myself what’s my position as HCI/UX researcher. The relational schema is limited in order to respond to such statement. However, it provides a means to make an approximation for such goal.

I notice that more than talking about a precise position as (a possible future) researcher within the relational space, I can better reflect on the interrelation of UX-HCI-DT to understand on what research field I can work at. For instance, in the schema below, I picture a research field with big emphasis on the actuality and Art dimensions—although the connection with DT will always be there. Any change on this membrane represents a different framing on what to pay attention as HCI/UX researcher.

Research on design as reconciliation of HCI, UX, and Design Theory.
Research on design as reconciliation of HCI, UX, and Design Theory.

There are as many membrane variations as HCI/UX researchers. In my case, I know that my academic/professional past as designer and my current formation as scholar influence on how I frame the research field I’d like to work when I reach the dissertation stage. In this sense, I remark that relevance of the context. My advisor Marty Siegel, my mentor Erik Stolterman, the faculty, my colleagues PhD students from all the tracks, and the master’s students from the HCI/d program have a huge impact on shaping my particular membrane.

Questions come along more often than answers. I guess it’s a natural consequence regarding the formation as scholar. Yet I look forward to create many schemas that help me to understand this journey better. 🙂

What is bad design anyway?

Salt and Pepper with grinder included
Salt and Pepper with grinder included

At the supermarket, it is possible to find salt, pepper, and other bottles of spices with a built-in grinder. I consider this design feature not only useful but also enriching (to the experience of cooking). An added value regarding the user experience. I really enjoyed the idea of smelling fresh crushed pepper while I’m cooking. Moreover, grinding certain spices as salt or pepper gives me a sensation of crafting. One of doing something special and gourmet.

The operation of these bottles is very intuitive just by looking at them—as we can observe in the picture. You take a bottle, remove the lid, and then—thanks to the visible affordances of the device—just rotate the grinder to get fresh crushed salt, pepper, or any other similar spice. Very easy indeed. We might talk then about a good design. The design communicates the way to operate it without stressing or loading the user cognitively.

Although the built-in grinder works well generally, there are some occasions where it doesn’t. For instance, from the picture here shown, the grinder of the peppercorn medley bottle doesn’t work efficiently. I assume the grinder’s teeth are not sharp enough to crush the peppercorns easily. It might sound extremist, but this exception has instilled a suspicious feeling on myself to consider this brand the next time I require to buy a bottle of peppercorn with a built-in grinder. It is not difficult to note that a steel-based grinder will do a better job. Of course, a bottle like that will probably be more expensive. That’s to me the biggest downside of design: better design is always more expensive. 

Coarse grind
Coarse grind
Fine grind
Fine grind









The bottles of this brand offer an additional design feature. We can decide between having a coarse or fine grinding. To obtain the former we should pull the half of the grinder up, otherwise we will obtain the latter. Notwithstanding, I think this feature is not obvious to the user. In fact, I just discovered recently—which motivated me to write this post. From my perspective, the affordances from the upper half of the grinder indicate that we can rotate that part in order to make it work. The design doesn’t communicate no offer the affordances that indicate the possibility to pull nonetheless.

Bottle lid
Bottle lid

In relation to the latter, there is a key component for this design: the lid. As it is shown in the picture, the lid has the following text: “Adjustable Grinder. Pull For Coarse Grind. For Fine Grind Push Down.” Curiously, I hadn’t paid attention to the lid before my finding. I always associated the lid with keeping the content fresh. And because I take the bottles at the moment I’m cooking, I honestly hadn’t stopped to read the beveled text on the lid. Was I being neglectful? Or should the design clearly indicate what I can do with it?  How evident to use a design should be in order to be considered “good”? 

This situation might sound stupid or exaggerated, but it generates a basic and typical discussion regarding the relation of the design with its users. How obligated is the design to make user’s life easier? I paid more money for this bottle because of the built-in grinder and hence I’m expecting a higher quality in terms of both the content and the design. If I think in a better design for this case, does it mean that I get what I can afford? Is it my responsibility to read the lid then?

What is good design anyway? These bottles are an exemplar of how everyday objects may engage us to reflect about design, its quality, and user’s agency. In this regard, I would like to share the following thoughts:

  1. Design is about selling an idea. Design it’s about selling the mental effort to project a feasible and producible “solution” to a problem. Just imagine the complexity of transforming the human action of grinding objects into a semi-automatic mechanism. Regardless, conveying why to bring an idea into its material form is relevant. It is equivalent to impact on other people’s ability to imagine the future.
  2. The idea will be always constrained by reality. The factors associated to the materialization and production of an idea will constrain the design process and outcome. Materiality is one of these aspects closely related to these constrainsWhat is the most adequate type of plastic that will better resist and minimize the production costs? What about the policies regarding sustainability and the grocery market? How easy is to reuse the glue employed for the sticker on other products of the same corporation, not necessarily on plastic bottles?
  3. Design is not always about solutions nonetheless. There is a general perception that design is about fixing problems. However, a design object may generate a new problem or contribute to other existing problems that might be consider of a bigger relevance. For instance, we may associate the bottle with the built-in grinder with acquisitive power and hence to think about social inequity.
  4. Bad design is situated. Depending on the context and the outcome, we could evaluate a design either as good or bad. Users bring their own values, desires, literacy, and perspective at the moment of interacting or using any design object. Furthermore, all these, including other aspects such as emotions, intentions, and even the situation, may change the next time the user interacts with the same object. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to completely characterize the quality of goodness in relation to the users and the context of use. How bad is bad? When bad is no that bad? When good will become bad?
  5. Good design is time-dependent. When we sum the previous points we can notice that talking about a good or bad design will depend on whether we can perform our goals in a satisfactory way and the knowledge we have about how that design affects our environment/context/reality. The idea behind a design might still be valid, but these factors might contribute to qualify the design as bad, not convenient, or even expired. Notwithstanding, the latter allows designers to exploit one of the key aspects of design as human activity: the opportunity to improve.

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.


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.
Affinity diagram.
Photography by Sam Xia.

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.
Indiana University HCI/d students testing a prototype.
Photography by Sam Xia.

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.