Why did I find Spotify using my profile picture as an album cover a little bit disturbing?

Today, when I opened Spotify, I found this (see image below):

Spotify Discover Weekly album coverLater, I mentioned in facebook that using my profile picture for the “Discover Weekly” album is a little bit scary. Moreover, I tweeted that although Artificial Intelligence (AI) could be the next big thing in UI/UX design, we shouldn’t forget taking care of the execution, the how, the form — By the way, this somehow sarcastic since tweets before I was arguing that just paying attention to the looks leads to a poor understanding of what design is (after watching the “Why Design Matters” video).

Later, someone asked me on Facebook to explain what I was meaning of my post and provide an example of how the design could be “better.” This person argued that such a design decision helps to “merge” the self and (his/her) music. I think he’s a good point. However, to me, this design decision was a shocking micro-experience with Spotify. Below, I re-write what I posted on Facebook.

The concept of agency came to my mind when I opened Spotify and saw my profile picture being used as the cover for the “Discover Weekly” album. I think it’s great to like or “plus” a song, and thus to think that I decide what music/genre I like and want to listen. From my perspective, this provides a feeling of empowerment to the user. However, I lost that feeling of agency or empowerment when I saw my profile picture. Setting the music on Spotify is part of my work routine and I was not expecting to find something like that today! Seeing “myself” as an album cover made me feel that I became a thing, an interface component; that Spotify had objectified me, transformed me in another interface component. The idea of being de-humanized crossed my mind. I know it’d sound too dramatic, but coming across this UI change provided me an example or situation wherein micro experiences are important. It’s interesting to see how just a little thing provides an element of surprise that lasts just a little bit! A micro-moment that affected my UX with respect to Spotify for the whole day today! I have to acknowledge, nevertheless, that I might be too sensitive since I’m trying to understand how these ideas of user experience, phenomenology, persuasion and rhetoric, identification and rhetoric, and denotation and connotation work in interfaces.

And about my proposal of making this UI change better, first, I have to say that I wouldn’t argue for “better.” A less shocking transition, perhaps. As I commented on FB, Spotify could have introduced me this idea of the “Discover Weekly” in a more ludic way. As it occurs when Spotify doesn’t allow you to interact with the interface and you have to wait seconds to see an ad, one possibility would be having a similar dynamics. Showing this concept and probably letting the user picking the album cover. Once set, it fades away.

Of course, there is nothing wrong or bad with that design decision for the Spotify’s interface. I’d like to emphasize that. Perhaps, this idea of the profile-album-cover has been evaluated with good results. Possibly, I don’t express the archetypical user’s desires for this case (functionality and part of the interface). Perhaps, a later evaluation will come, and a different proposal will be implemented. That’s the way design is. However, I’d emphasize that the capability of implementing smart functions in a system is just a part of the UI/UX design.


The need for a philosophy of technology

If interactive systems are knowingly designed to change human attitudes and behaviors, we would also need a philosophy of technology that provides us the means for revealing, analyzing, and discussing the human, social, cultural, ethical, and political implications of these changes—that helps us understand ‘the new good’.

Daniel Fallman, 2007
Paper URL: http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-540-77006-0_35



Definition of Design. Yes, another one.

One of the key challenges of being involved in a humanities & design-oriented perspective of Human-Computer Interaction is defining what design (or Design) is. I think that having an operational definition for Design is healthy. It is not only about divagating, philosophizing, or making the word Design to look more scientific—this is, to convert it into something observable and measurable within a certain space, which has its own axioms and laws. It’s also about understanding what being a designer—in a professional sense—means. What’s an Experience Designer? An Interaction Designer? Is it different from an Information Architect? Isn’t a UI Designer an Experience Designer? Coming up with a single answer it’s not an easy task nonetheless. However, thoughts and words are there to shape and play with reality, and hence to understand our human constructions better. So, below I present a quick definition of what design is.

Design is the conjunction of problem framing, externalization and materialization, and communication. 

Design understood as the conjunction of problem framing, externalization and materialization, and communication.
Design understood as the conjunction of problem framing, externalization and materialization, and communication.

These are my simple approaches to each of these dimensions:

Problem Framing

The designer should decompose the design situation (i.e., analysis) in order to understand it, and make a connection about how the current context, current needs, and current users are related to her past projects and personal experiences (i.e., abduction). Nevertheless, I think that separating problem framing from the other two dimensions during a design process is impossible. If so, we’re not talking about Design. We might be talking about problem solving only.

Externalization and Materialization

A design process cannot escape from representation. The rationale behind the problem framing, and hence the design solution must be externalized, communicated, instantiated. In this regard, the designer should find the means to support her argument. Her understanding of how to synthesize information or how to play with the materials is relevant to make a connection with the client, users, stakeholders, and also with herself.


The designer creates communication pieces, messages. This is evident in terms of the design outcome and the deliverables by which a designer supports her arguments. These are closely related to the dimension of externalization and materialization. Moreover, every design project entails people interacting. Design projects of any size will imply, at least, a relation between a designer, a client, and user. Part of the design process is to balance this relation. Perspectives, values, interests, and even whims take part in design processes. Therefore, the designer should employ communication skills to play the role of mediator, and understand how she, as a person, in combination with the messages she creates, will achieve that balance.

So far, this operational definition helps me to understand design in a simple way. Furthermore, it also helps me to understand the role of experience designers as rhetoricians; and idea I’m still developing as part of HCI research agenda.

Note: Thanks to Jordan and Marty for the conversations about [design/Design/designing]. I would bet this definition will evolve.



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 http://theoatmeal.com/comics/selfies

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!


Google’s material design

Google has launched its new design guidelines called “Material Design”. The name caught my attention, since I’m convinced, as visual designer, that observable pixels are really material to play; that is, to create user interfaces. What’s the possible meaning of this called design language?

Well, I bet that my understanding of observable pixels as actual material is not new or unfamiliar to other visual interaction or information designers whatsoever. Also the principles that lead material design. Yet, Google takes advantage of this metaphor to easily convey the role of visual design in systems design, interaction design, experience design, or whatever name you want to pick. Besides, material and design is a hot topic in Human-Computer Interaction research. I think that Google is not saying something new. However, by talking about material, Google attempts to foreground the value of the interface in the success of their products. This is not a naive viewpoint. It represents a Google’s stance before its competitors; in particular, I’d point out to Apple. Hence, material design is a business strategy, similar to others in the last decade, in which design is a marketable entity that is supposed to make a difference. A design-laden discourse that is getting worn out more and more.

Illustration for the principle of meaningful motion in Google's Material Design guidelines
Illustration for the principle of meaningful motion in Google’s Material Design guidelines

Don’t get me wrong though. I think material design is both appealing and useful for the Google’s IxD/UX community. Yet, I glimpse material design as that medium by which Google can create this design-driven cult, à la Apple. It’s unavoidable. Steve Jobs as the material signifier of profitable design for technology is gone. It’s a tough war out there. And Google of course that wants a big piece of the mobile apps cake.

Illustration for the principle of emphasize actions in the Google's material design guidelines
Illustration for the principle of emphasize actions in the Google’s material design guidelines

As a HCI researcher interested on metaphors and visual design for interfaces, these are my quick insights from this case:

  1. Metaphors are effective. Moreover, they can help to unify concepts and actions that are supposed to be understood already. The simple metaphor of material design is an example of this effectiveness that also shows the benefits at a business level.
  2. Visual design might be an old and many time revisited topic. Yet, it’s necessary to state the principles that will lead the visual design in interaction/experience design. In this regard, I argue for paying more attention to visual design, particularly as study object in HCI.
  3. Visual design might be taken for granted for clients, users, and other stakeholders. Yet, it’s clear that conforming a design language is necessary in the IxD/UXD professional practice to build a branding umbrella. IxD/UXD/HCI pedagogy should take this aspect into account and educate future designers with the better understanding of visual principles, both static and dynamic, and the connections not only with the interface design, but also with other communication aspects, such as branding.

I wonder what my very experienced colleagues think about material design. Cheers!



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 http://goo.gl/a1Wzdg

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 http://goo.gl/a1Wzdg

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 http://goo.gl/AUGQIG

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 http://goo.gl/n7jrZy

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 http://goo.gl/oeWDZn

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.



The visual rhetoric of the workplace

What are you communicating about yourself from the arrangements of signs at your workplace? What about your personal spaces?

Today I plugged an extra monitor that I have on my desk to my laptop in order to work with two Word documents at the same time. Suddenly, I couldn’t avoid to step back and put attention to the signs on, in, and around the monitor. Because of my interest on Visual Rhetoric and Semiotic, I was wondering what my visual analysis/interpretation for such image. I’ve observed in many cases that people have different arrangements at the workplace in comparison to their living rooms, bedrooms, inside of their cars, and so on.

Then, these questions came to my mind,

  • What is our workplace telling about us?
  • What are our personal spaces telling about us?
  • Is the same message for both cases?
  • If not, is there something as a “reconciliation” between them?
  • How do our workplace and personal spaces participate on constructing a discourse regarding our identity?
One corner of my desk.
One corner of my desk. Messy. Chaotic. Arranged and cleaned only when I feel that I’ve finished something relevant in my projects or coursework.

And tell me… what do you see here? Who am I?

We cannot escape from the metaphor

Metaphors and metonymies are the two more used rhetorical figures in HCI. Will we be able of getting rid of metaphors and metonymies in HCI design and experience design ever?

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.


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.