Alive? Why yes, I am

Things are crazy hectic here. I presented my capstone and it was well-received, as was my poster. I’m working on my paper and planning to print it through Blurb for my personal copy, but I’ll do the required spiral bound copy for the department.

However, capstone is on hold for 48 hrs while I work on a pretty interesting design exercise for a job application. I won’t go into details, but I’m loving the whole doing design in a short amount of time. It’s like being in my first semester of grad school… without the whole oh-my-god-what-am-I-doing-should-I-even-be-here mentality.

I was also a part of a super secret committee that was working on the faculty gifts. We unveiled them this past Tuesday, and it seemed to go over fairly well. I’m really proud of the little blurbs I made for the covers, I tried to make them unique to each professor and played around with the names from the different papers we read for each class.

And because I think it’s important, I made a Vimeo group for capstone and experience design presentations. What better way to showcase what we do at Indiana University’s HCId, than to let people see our capstone projects?

So. I’ve gotten a lot done, I have more to do. I have this design idea that could do fairly well for a design competition, methinks…

Also, for my graduation present to myself, I think I’m going to bite the bullet and get a DSLR. Photography is one of the last artistic mediums I haven’t dipped my hand into, and I already have the composition skills down from drawing, painting, sculpture, and furniture arrangement. Low aperture (f/1.8) means less light means more detail, right? Or is it the other way around…

Design Research as a Design Problem

I had an impromptu conversation with the indomitable Chad Camara the other day that left a mind bomb in my head. Well, not a mind bomb, per se, because he didn’t leave the thought and let it go off later, but rather was blunt about his point and it stuck with me. In any case, I thought I’d blog about it.

You see, Chad made the most excellent point that I am doing something out of the ordinary for design research. While doing my capstone, which is a research-themed capstone, and therefore is termed as design research, I have recognized I have two levels of users:

  1. Designers
  2. End users (i.e. the designer’s users)

I realized this for a number of reasons. I had an inkling about this from the start, which helped my preliminary research. As mentioned in a previous post, I unveiled the first draft of my design theory to members of my cohort and quickly realized it wasn’t tailored to them, but their supposed users. Since then, I have been careful to conduct end user interviews to help build my design guidelines while always keeping my user in mind, the designer. As mentioned previously, I want to create an infographic which brings relevance, meaning, a convincing argument to designers to use my design guidelines.

Bridging the Gap

This brings me back to Chad’s point: the method in which I am conducting my design research is helping bridge the gap between design academics and design practitioners. Typically, a design academic will do research about end users and artifacts, determine a theory, and present it to design practitioners as-is, believing the research will do the convincing.

This, as I’m sure we can all guess, rarely works with practitioners. Why? Because the design theory hasn’t been put into context. The theory isn’t meant to be digested and used by practitioners in a practical way, as a practitioner might expect. At least, that’s how it seems to me. The way my method differs from this traditional method of design academic -> design practitioner is that I recognize it isn’t a one-way street from academy to practice.

Designing Design Research

In fact,  I’m treating my research as if it were a design problem itself. I am treating my design guidelines/framework as if it were an artifact where I need to keep my user (design practitioners) in mind if I want them to use it. And I do. I think it’s so important that we, as design practitioners and academics, look at how we can empower our users to make artifacts their own. If I want design practitioners to take my guidelines seriously, it is imperative that I consider them as I create my guidelines. I need to design for my user.

This seems like common sense to me. If I’m going to design for my user, I’d like to bring my user in for “testing” to make sure I’m on the right track. This isn’t the case, however, with much of design research. It seems rare to me, and to Chad obviously, that design academics bring design practitioners in to poke holes in their theories.

I want designers to poke holes in my theory. I’d rather they do it now, while I’m in the midst of forming it. This way, I have a solid idea, rather than later, when I’m presenting to my cohort before graduation and look foolish for having not considered X, Y, or Z.

Again, this seems obvious to me. I am glad Chad reminded me that the obvious, the common sense, the everyday, is more often than not anything but for anyone who isn’t privy to the ever-churning thoughts in my head.

Breakdown and Breakthrough

So tonight in capstone class we discussed the content of our sketches. Because my capstone is a research capstone, I based my sketches around my design framework. Essentially, I want to make a snazzy infographic that makes people point at my framework and say, “Yes. Definitely. Yes.”

Before I went to capstone class tonight, my framework for designers who want to create artifacts that empower the user to appropriate was as follows…

  1. The artifact should allow users to capitalize on their existing knowledge
  2. The user should be able to interpret the artifact’s function
  3. The user should be able to alter the artifact’s interaction
  4. The user should be able to adapt the artifact’s aesthetics
  5. The user should be able to explore their creative freedom

My sketches tonight were working around the relationships between points 1-5. For instance, I thought 1 and 5 are the most important, because this is where the user makes the decision to (and how to) appropriate an artifact. After speaking with Jay, Heiko, Joe Y, and Thalith, however, I realized that this entire “framework” is from the end-user’s perspective, rather than for my user, which is a designer who wants to make an artifact that suggests it can be appropriated.

It’s late and I’m very tired from the long day, otherwise I would have uploaded photos of my sketchbook to show you what I mean. Suffice it to say that

  1. Tonight’s design session helped immensely and
  2. I’ll upload the images later and also,
  3. It’s always best to have three items or more in a list because it feels right.

Speaking with these guys showed me a glaring problem with my “framework,” namely, that it might not be a design framework at all. It might be a design model, or a set of design guidelines. I wasn’t keeping my user group in mind, but my user group’s user group. If that makes sense. So with this in mind, I’ve changed my “framework” to the following.*

DESIGNER    -> creates artifact that
USER to     -> interpret, alter, adapt artifact

I don’t know if this is a design framework, or a design guideline, or a design model. I do know that I feel like it’s much closer to what I want to say than I have previously, which is good. Tomorrow morning, I have my first user interview, which I’m sure will alter this… thing… again. In the meantime, I’ll keep sketching about the relationship between these verbs until I come up with something I can present.

I like to think this session tonight was my first pilot study on whether this design framework would actually work for designers. I learned that it definitely wouldn’t, because everyone was confused about how the designer was supposed to know how to “capitalize” on the user’s “existing knowledge.” So it’s back to the drawing board for this girl, and boy, is she excited to see what comes out next!

*This really would look better as a sketch, but I’m far too tired, as mentioned above.

Light-bulb Moments

Things have been pretty hectic around here, but somehow I still manage to make progress on my capstone. I love having conversations with the people in my program because the most interesting points come up.

Creativity isn’t consistent

I had lunch with Chad Camara one day, and we got into this conversation about creativity. He mentioned that even though we are both creative, he sees our creativity as being very different. Mainly, that mine is extremely personal. I write stories that reflect some deep belief or question that I have. I paint, draw, dance, sing, sketchnote, and create objects from clay.

I write this because it seems that my intrinsically personal creativity is a huge part of my self-perception and identity. If I can’t be creative, I feel lost. In the same way, if I can’t appropriate something into my world so that it feels personal to me, I don’t care about it. So that’s food for thought.

Getting push-back

I had a design session with my roommate, Lynn, and she had the brilliant idea of looking at how people look at objects. She made the point that I see everything as a potential building material to make something else… which she simply doesn’t do.

Nov 5, 2009: Lynn Dombrowski suggests that I do a design exercise where I take people to Goodwill, etc, and ask people what they would do with the objects they find. Will they see built/”finished” materials as components of new projects?

It has since occurred to me that not only do I learn from what they choose, but also what they don’t choose. As in, what do I see as building materials, and why don’t they see them that way?

Nov 8, 2009: Rachel Bolton asks me questions that stump me, only because all my information is stuffed somewhere in an inaccessible part of my brain. Her questions, however, start a subtle thought-chain which eventually lead me to my light bulb moment.

  1. What makes the steampunk appropriation unique… what are the
    specific implications for HCI?
  2. What makes the creative/identity rewards of appropriation
    (specifically steampunk?) different from other identity-forming
    endeavors like sports?  Is it the process, the materials, the people
    that are attracted to it?

Because I find I have difficulty answering these questions, I begin to wonder if it’s so smart to be studying steampunk in the first place. I love the topic, I find it fascinating, but really, what does it mean for HCI? I asked for push-back from Rachel, and she gave it to me, and I had no answer. Sigh.

Class Exercise

On Tuesday, Nov 10, we were required to bring our sketches in for discussion in small groups. Because I’m doing a research capstone, I was a bit stumped. I’m not sketching, at least not in the visual sense. So I brought in my pseudo-affinity diagram, pictured below.

Poster of Themes and Questions

So I threw it up on the wall with all the other sketches.

Sketching Exercise

Sketching Exercise

During this exercise, we had groups of four-to-five students. We walked to our different sketches and discussed the purpose of them, etc. My group was awesome with feedback. CJ Page admitted that he doesn’t appropriate anything at all, which just boggles my mind. I appropriate almost everything that comes into my life, in some form or another. It’s my way of engaging with the world. Which struck me as a worrying point while CJ spoke.

Light-bulb moment

That night after capstone, I climbed into bed with a frown. Something was off, I realized, in how I was approaching this entire research project. It wasn’t until about eleven at night that I had my epiphany.

You see, I had a dream about capstone. Specifically, a dream in which I realized my case study group (steampunks) don’t have to be my target user group. At first, I stayed in bed, repeating that mantra to myself: “Case study doesn’t equal target user.” I quickly became paranoid that I would forget the epiphany by morning’s light. So I grabbed my whiteboard markers and attacked my unsuspecting whiteboard for about two hours.

Sketching Exercise

I’m feeling pretty good about this direction. I feel like I have an idea of how I can apply the literature and my own experiences, compare them to the experiences of people who don’t do such things, and see what we can learn. Now if I could only find the time… and get some sleep!

Making my thoughts tangible

Over the weekend, I threw together some sticky notes, as mentioned in my status report. This has been extremely helpful for me to get some of my thoughts out without censoring myself, which is great. When my thoughts are hidden in my head, they’re locked in a black box. When thrown out onto sticky notes? I can move them around, create associations, transcribe the ideas into a meaningful post on a blog, etc.

Theories, Concepts, Issues and Questions
Theories, Concepts, Issues and Questions

Above, is a photo of the wall above my bed. The orange notes are my questions, the blue notes are questions that are explicit from the papers I’ve been reading, and the fuchsia are the theoretical concepts, theories, and issues that I’ve determined from my papers. Continue reading

Status Report

I think it’s time for my first real status report. Here is what I’ve accomplished in the last two weeks…

  • I finished reading a number of papers on creativity, DIY, and appropriation. I would list them, but I don’t have them with me at the moment
  • I created some fake Steampunk goggles for my Halloween costume
  • I completed my Steampunk machine for ceramics. It’s currently drying out and waiting to be fired in the kiln
  • I defined my current idea of appropriation
  • I went through all of the papers I’ve read and pulled interesting or important quotations that help build the argument I’m forming in my head
  • I went back through all those same papers and pulled out interesting/important concepts, theories, issues, and questions from them. Each one got its own sticky note and pasted to the wall above my bed
    • There are about thirty of them, and I still have more papers to go through, so eventually, I need to determine which concepts/theories are more important, which are sub-concepts, etc
  • I dressed up as a Steampunk character for Halloween
    • I created an entire persona and spoke with a fake English accent. I was “Lady Almyra Gunn, Steampunk scientist, researcher, and explorer extraodinaire.” It was awesome
    • Someone actually recognized I was Steampunk! Apparently they have a friend who modded their laptop to look Steampunk, and was highlighted in Gizmodo back in August
    • Obviously, I got their contact information and have asked to speak to their friend, especially since the friend lives in Indiana, perhaps Bloomington, even
    • I documented all stages of my costume, including the original clothing selection, the additions, etc. I plan to blog about this later
  • I’ve collected some initial research questions on sticky notes

You know, I kind of thought I’d done more than that. But I guess not. It’s amazing how much time certain tasks will take! Well, with that out of the way, what would I like to accomplish in the next two weeks?

To do list

  • I have to determine an activity for my capstone class tomorrow night. Don’t know what I’m going to do yet
  • I want to determine my primary research question and any related sub-questions or potential opposing questions
    • This means I need to come up with more questions
    • I also need to start card sorting my questions, concepts, theories, issues, etc
  • I want to determine my primary research plan. Where will I try to get interview subjects, and why? This includes sources like Etsy, Flickr, blogs, indie magazines, etc
  • I’ve looked up the CHI work-in-progress details, but I still haven’t determined a plan of what I would like to have accomplished when
    • I need to figure out my plan for the remainder of the semester, actually. Gulp
  • I keep finding more books and papers to read, but at some point, I need to cut myself off
    • Gotta find some reasons to do primary research
    • Again, this means I need to determine my primary research question

So yeah. That’s my plan.

What do I mean by Appropriation?

This is a great question that was brought up by Nate Husted during an impromptu design session over Thai food at lunch.

(By the way, while Siam House on 4th in Bloomington is pretty good, I’m still partial to Esan Thai’s chicken fried rice. Thai curries just don’t do it for me the way Indian curries do. Yum.)

Back to business.

“What do you mean when you say appropriation?” Nate asked me as we walked to Siam House. It was drizzling, and cold. A miserable day, actually, where it wasn’t wet enough to open my umbrella, yet, it was misty enough that my glasses were rendered useless. His question was simple. So simple, that I was, for a moment, dumbfounded that I hadn’t thought to define my understanding of appropriation yet.

This isn’t to say that I hadn’t thought about it a lot, I had. I’ve read almost every paper in the ACM library on appropriation, so I have a working knowledge of how other HCI/tech researchers are approaching the appropriation research/design space. What about the general public? When they want to understand what it means to appropriate something, where do they turn?

  • Free Dictionary: (1) To take for one’s own use, esp illegally or without permission. (2) (Economics, Accounting & Finance / Banking & Finance) To put aside (funds, etc.) for a particular purpose or person.
  • Wikipedia: Appropriation is the act of taking possession of or assigning purpose to properties or ideas and is important in many topics.
  • Wiktionary: v (1) To make suitable; to suit. — William Paley. (2) To take to one’s self in exclusion of others; to claim or use as by an exclusive right. (3) To set apart for, or assign to, a particular person or use, in exclusion of all others. (4) To annex, as a benefice, to a spiritual corporation, as its property. –Blackstone.
  • adj (1) Suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion, etc. (2) Belonging to or peculiar to a person. v (3) To set apart, authorize, or legislate for some specific purpose or use. (4) To take to or for oneself; take possession of. (5) To take without permission or consent; seize; expropriate. (6) To steal, esp. to commit petty theft.
  • Merriam-Webster: (1) To take exclusive possession of : annex. (2) To set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use. (3) To take or make use of without authority or right.
  • Oxford English Dictionary: (1) To make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart. (2) Const. to oneself: = next. (3) Hence ellipt. To take possession of for one’s own, to take to oneself. (4) Eccl. To annex (a benefice) to some religious corporation, as its property. (5) To allot, annex, or attach a thing to another as an appendage. Obs. (6) To devote, set apart, or assign to a special purpose or use. Const. to, for. (7) To assign or attribute as properly pertaining to; to attribute specially or exclusively. arch. (8) To make, or select as, appropriate or suitable to; to suit. arch. (9) To make proper, to fashion suitably. (So Fr. approprier.) Obs.

So that’s a pretty good start, right? This, of course, is all impromptu research I did after Nate’s question sparked genuine worry that I wasn’t doing my job as a researcher. How could I possibly attempt to understand why people appropriate, without having a general definition of appropriation in the first place?

My answer to Nate went roughly like this:

“Well, I’ve read a lot about what the ACM community thinks about appropriation, so I guess I could talk about that. But to me, appropriation is when you take something, whether be a finished product or simple materials, and adapt them to fit you. You engage the artifact, whatever it is, and bring it into your lifeworld, as it were.

“Example… okay, so a ton of people have an iPhone, right? But no two iPhones are exactly alike, if you think about the apps that people download. Or the cases they buy. Or the other little personalizations and customizations that make your iPhone yours, and someone else’s iPhone theirs.”

“So appropriation is personal customization?” Nate asked.

“Yes, to me anyway. It’s making the object personal to you. But that’s just appropriation. I think my topic, my subdomain of appropriation, is actually about the do-it-yourself, creative aspects of customization and personalization. The extreme end of appropriation, where you engage the artifact to the point of using your creative talents to make it your own. What drives people to do that? Why do I do that?”

“So steampunk fits in…?”

“Because steampunks are all about doing it themselves. They embrace their creativity and engage the objects around them. They are an extreme of the appropriation spectrum. They are my people.”

So… okay. What’s the moral of the story? I’m sure you’re wondering. Well, the fact is this is why it’s so great to talk to people about my capstone. The fact that everyone seems interested, asking great questions… it’s invigorating. So invigorating that even though I was completely ready to sleep, having been laying in bed for an hour, I couldn’t sleep. Why? Because I kept thinking, I need to write down my thoughts on appropriation before I fall asleep and they drift away. So here I am, writing this entry at 12:30 AM EST on a Saturday night, after having literally traveled across the country, starting my day at 3 AM PST (6 AM EST, to be fair). I spent twelve hours traveling, and returned to Bloomington to partake in an excellent Diwali celebration.

I should be exhausted. I should be unbelievably cranky.

I’m sure I will be when I wake. But hey, let’s be completely honest here… What’s another few hours of late night, bloodshot cogitation to a seasoned graduate student, anyway?

Pilot Studies

There are a couple of great things about SteamPunk which I would like to share.

  1. True SteamPunks are all about sharing their knowledge of craft. For instance, I-Wei Huang wrote an article describing how your SteamPunk drawings can be more authentic… which has helped my sketching immensely for ceramics.
  2. People have no idea what it is, and when I describe it, they’re always excited. Or at least intrigued.
  3. If I decide to go SteamPunk for Halloween, I only have to buy goggles and potentially make a bustle because guess what, I already have the rest of the costume in my wardrobe. Sweet.
  4. There is so much information out there about SteamPunk for me to sift through, and most of it is entertaining.
  5. Did I mention there’s a SteamPunk Guide to the Apocalypse? I’m prepared. Are you?

All right, now let’s get a little more serious, here. This past week one of the first years, Robert Begley, engaged my topic. He asked me some great questions that helped crystallize some of my thoughts, and I wanted to document that somewhere, i.e. here at Siriomi Reflects.

Robert’s email:

Okay I have a couple questions 🙂 🙂
First off, are you focusing more on why people (self)customize, DIY, etc vs. buying the actual, branded, product or going to a professional to get something customized? Are you using Steampunk more as a reference in terms of.. well so for example in video games, in the genre, there tends to be customizations of weapons/tools/etc. You mentioned Bioshock for example, have you played it? Have you seen those “customizations”? I want to say Steampunk comes with the idea of the “mad scientist” where there is *only* one person who creates these “technological advances” in a non-technological world – or rather that it is more rare to see tech. So no commercialization obviously etc…
Is customization/DIY/hacking/<add another word here that relations> more of your focus?
I’m just trying to understand more of your focus and where Steampunk fits in ;p

My reply…

Excellent! I’m glad you’re asking these questions.

I’m focusing on why people self-customized through DIY. I’m using Steampunk as an example of the DIY movement, as the people who alter the aesthetics of their technology typically do it themselves… they have the skill set and apply it creatively to something that traditionally is bought and used without any particular customization (keyboards, monitors, iPhones, etc).

I have not played Bioshock, I had only just heard about it before speaking with you.

I see Steampunk almost as a rebellious movement against the homogenized technology that currently rules our world. I’m interested in that. Why are people rebelling against this? Why is it important for people to feel connected to the objects in their lives? Why do they take that extra step to customize/personalize/hack something, when others don’t?

But yes. I am interested in self-personalization, the creative motivations that go into DIY appropriation. Steampunk is merely my example of this, as there are plenty of people to interview, either online or in-person.

Thanks! This helped me clear up a lot of things. Let me know if you have any more questions.

Robert then surprised me by telling me a story about his own DIY dabbling, which is EXCELLENT, and a great pilot study example of DIY and some appropriation. I did a happy dance. I have yet to respond to his email because I’ve been running across state lines this past week, but that’s next on my To Do list. Just wanted to update on my capstone progress.