Simple, but True

I love the blog Knock Off Wood because it shows me how to build furniture comparable to Crate & Barrel, etc. Ana, the blogger, said the most simple thing today that seems to be the central point of my thesis, as yet.

When you buy something, it comes with a price. When you build something, it comes with a story.

Kind of brilliant, right?

Making is Thinking

As a mentor for the incoming Human-Computer Interaction Design (HCID) class of 2011, I engage the students in many philosophical discussions. It is the highlight, I feel, of having a mentor relationship with students, because it allows me to reflect upon myself, my actions, my thoughts, and my understanding of the courses here at Indiana University. For instance, in October 2009, I had a conversation with one of my students, where in being completely honest with him, I surprised myself.

The student was asking for advice about electives. He was unsure what he wanted to take, because he wanted to “get the most” out of his experience in the HCID program, but at the same time, was unsure if he needed to expand his artistry background since he was coming from a technical background.

That said, he asked me what elective I took during my second semester, and whether it was something related to HCID. I told him no, the course I took had almost nothing to do with HCID explicitly. I had taken a fiction writing course. After all, “I am a writer, an artist, a designer, an engineer. In that order.”

It boggled his mind that I, being what he considered one of the top performers in my class, did not put “designer” at the beginning of the list of adjectives describing who I am. I replied,

“It works because writing is all about how to express your ideas. If you have an awesome idea, but can’t express it, it doesn’t matter.

“That goes directly back to HCID. My profession isn’t who I am. It benefits from who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

This is my position in terms of design theory, and being a designer. I am a writer, an artist, a designer, and an engineer. My “ability to know” is based on my “ability to construct meaning” from my “experiences” (Smith 2005). I am, in other words, utilizing my previous life experiences to inform my design thinking, as suggested by Krippendorff. Acknowledging that I am a tactile person, that I must be creative with my hands, and that I must have creative outlets in general or I will likely go insane, is imperative to understanding me as a designer.

You see, I believe “thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making” (Sennet 7). The semester I took this design theory course, I was also taking ceramics. This elective, much like fiction, has little to do with HCID explicitly. However, there are implicit similarities that have altered—and improved—my design thinking.

The craftsmanship of Ceramics and HCID

Ceramics was one of two artistic realms that I had not truly ventured into; photography is the other, and I will be taking a course next semester to fill that hole. As such, by entering the course, I was admitting that I was a novice, but that I hoped to develop a connoisseur’s eye toward ceramic design and craftsmanship. At the beginning of the semester, something as simple as making a slab could take me 45 minutes because I was unused to the clay material, which seemed to have a mind of its own. The clay could be too wet, and not hold its form, or too dry, and fall to pieces. The clay could have bubbles in it which, if not found, could result in the sculpture exploding in the kiln.

The only way to learn all of the different pitfalls of the ceramic craft is either to experience them, or watch someone else go through it and learn from their mistakes. By the end of the semester, I could make a slab in ten minutes, without air bubbles, but only because I put so many hours into failing at slab-making at the beginning of the semester.

In this way, I learned that my discipline with drawing, painting, and playing violin could once again be applied to a new forum, ceramics. It is like the architect Renzo Piano said, “You think and you do at the same time. You draw and you make. Drawing… is revisited. You do it, you redo it, and you redo it again” (Sennet 40).

Why do I have this discipline instilled within me? I could have lost my patience when I first trained myself to draw when I was eleven. I could have assumed I would never reach my sister’s potential when it came to painting when she was fifteen and I was seventeen. I could have convinced my mother to let me quit violin when I was fourteen, the way I wanted.

I did not give up any of these times because I am, I have realized while taking this course, a craftsman. I believe in craftsmanship, meaning that I believe in the “enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake” (Sennet 9). I believe in collecting experiences in which I am a connoisseur, in which I have gained the “art of appreciation” (Smith 2005). I want to have the “ability to see, not merely to look” (Smith 2005).

What does this mean for HCID, and my theory of design? Everything. It means that when I learn how temperamental clay can be, I can apply such knowledge to designing an interface. I will never know what sort of “mood” the clay will be in when I make it to the ceramics studio, the same way I will never truly know what sort of “mood” my users will be when they interact with my interface and/or software and/or product designs.

This is what I mean by believing that I am a craftsman, and indeed that all designers ought to be craftsman. By gathering my experiences to look for patterns of behavior from seemingly unrelated events (i.e. using clay as a metaphor for people/users), I am using a “solution” from one field to “uncover new territory” in HCID (Sennet 11). Through my artistry, I have come to realize that “problem solving and problem finding are intimately related” (Sennet 11). By knowing how the clay works, I am able to recognize when a problem is forming, and therefore determine the possible solutions.

What is the moral of the story?

As designers, it is imperative that we recognize the material properties of our craft.

In ceramics, it is to know the material properties of the clay. It means to recognize that by throwing the clay one way, I am aligning the clay particles to slide against one another so it becomes a slab. Or that by pinching the clay, I will eventually create a bowl. Or that if I add enough water to the clay, I will have a clay solution so thin I can paint it in layers, thus achieving a smooth, delicate surface.

In HICD, it is to know the material properties of the people using our design. Who are they? What is their responsibility? What is their main concern when interacting with my design? Do they realize it as such? Will they have varying moods while interacting with my design? Must they have the use of both their hands? Must they have use of all of their senses?

In this way, I am the writer, the author attempting to tease out the concerns of my characters. What are their motivations, and how can I help them? What can I do to get in their way, and is it necessary? Everything to me is a narrative, from working with the clay, to practicing the violin, to walking through a storyboard for a proposed interaction.

This is because I am a craftsman, and thus represent that “special human condition of being engaged” (Sennet 20). I am fully engaged, and so should other designers be. We all ought to learn from the miniscule events in our lives as much as the traumatic ones. We ought to “do good work,” which means we need to be “curious about, to investigate, and to learn from ambiguity” (Sennet 48).

REFERENCES

Analogy for Affinity Diagramming

Yesterday while at work I was copying insights from interviews onto Post-its for an affinity diagram. The undergrad intern working with us walked past, asking what I was doing.

“Prepping for an affinity diagram,” I said with great aplomb.

Of course, she had no idea what I was talking about. I explained that an affinity diagram is where you write user-generated comments, thoughts, and opinions onto Post-its. Then you take your pile of Post-its and group them based on topics. Topics with the most Post-its are high-interest, etc. This helps you determine what the person who your design is meant for finds most interesting, versus what you the designer might find most interesting.

The reason I’m talking about this is the analogy the undergrad intern used to understand the concept.

“So it’s like one of those things where the words are bigger to show more people have commented?”

Yes. That’s exactly what an affinity diagram is. An analog tag cloud. I love it.

Just what is UX?

Ario from LiveJournal recently wrote an excellent explanation about user experience that I just had to link. I’ve copied some of it below for posterity’s sake.

1. What is “user experience” (aka “UX”)?

In a broad sense, this field examines both improving existing products and the creation of new ones that solve some sort of human problem or fulfill a desire. More often than not, this mainly involves the design of web sites, web applications, and client software (programs that run on a computing device vs the web).

This narrow definition reflects the field as its practiced in techy areas like Seattle and Silicon Valley, but on a greater scale, “UX” means a whole lot more.

If you really boil it down, anyone who prepares anything for someone else to consume is a UX designer… so by this definition, we are all UX designers. Telling someone a story: that’s UX… DJs stringing together songs in a pleasurable way: that’s UX… the sushi chef who prepares an omakase style diner: definitely UX…. filmmaking = UX. No matter what the particular example, these all share the common thread of understanding an audience and satisfying some kind of desire (to be informed, entertained, etc).

2. Where do “user experience designers” work?

Going by the definition above, someone with this printed on their business card can follow any of the following routes:

A. working for a big corporation like Apple, Google, IBM, Oracle, Amazon, etc
B. working for a startup or small company like Twitter
C. working as a freelancer that goes from project to project with various clients (like my friend Sally)
D. working for a design firm that also has multiple clients (Adaptive Path & ZAAZ are popular ones)

A person in this role will spend their time thinking about how to make a given experience easier to understand and generally more appealing, hopefully even pleasurable!

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