Genevieve Bell continues to inspire

Dianna Miller : Which areas of research do we still need to put more focus on?

Genevieve Bell : I think we have a great deal more work to do, which is good because I like research. We have spent a lot of time focusing on the obvious and the obviously sexy stuff – mobility, gaming, social networks, and of course the individual and youth. We have, as a consequence, neglected the other stuff of daily life – religion, spirituality, love, child-care, anyone over 40, who does the dishes, who puts out the recycling, community, the nation-state, changing ideas of citizenship.

Transcend the Material

This is the challenge designers and vendors of interactive products face: Experience or User Experience is not about good industrial design, multi-touch, or fancy interfaces. It is about transcending the material. It is about creating an experience through a device.

Read the full post at InteractionDesign.org

Interactions vs CHI, Oh My!

I’m in the process of absorbing everything I learned at Interactions 11 this past week, but the topic of this post is to address the surprising backlash against ACM’s SigCHI. I’m writing this post because I attended both conferences in the last year,  and feel like chatting about them.

For full disclaimer, I have a masters degree in human computer interaction design from a program that emphasizes the philosophical discourse of experience design, churning out graduates who choose to be user researchers, user experience designers, interaction designers, information architects, the list goes on. I submitted to CHI 2010 and was accepted as a work-in-progress for my masters thesis, an honor for me because I was a master’s candidate only. So I have ties with the CHI community both because of recent achievements and my background in computer engineering.

The first keynote speaker was Bill Verplank at Interactions 11, the man who caused the hoopla that set the tone for the remainder of the conference until Bruce Sterling gave his closing remarks. Verplank’s keynote was a rehash of what he usually talks about…he sketches his understanding of the system that we as designers need to understand: the relationships between people and what they think, feel, and do in the world. Search Verplank and you’ll see a youtube video that is basically the keynote he gave, but with one small difference.

In his keynote, Verplank said that he hadn’t been to CHI in years and wouldn’t recommend anyone go there anymore because the conference was rigid and outdated. Caught up in the moment, I’ll admit I laughed and maybe even cheered a little with the crowd. It wasn’t until later, where I was joking with someone, did his words sink in. He was saying CHI was the hairy old uncle that no one wanted to listen to anymore, because it had history and rules and the like.

Seems to me that an organization who has Genevieve Bell as its opening plenary, one that accepts a paper about empowering personal identity which discusses Steampunk, isn’t quite so old or hairy. I want to be Bell when I grow up. My sketchnotes on her plenary are filled with Bell-loving because she is pushing the CHI community to think about more than just computers. Cue fangirling now.

What is the point of this post? I’m trying to understand why Interactions has such a backlash against CHI. At its heart, I suspect it’s because Interactions is trying very hard not to be CHI. The whole “we’re better because we aren’t you” type thing that defined the relationship between America and the UK, historically-speaking. Interactions needs to assert its place in the conference world and unfortunately, Verplank took it in a negative direction that fed into latent culture clashes.

Here’s the thing: CHI probably isn’t a good venue for most of the people who attend Interactions, but not because CHI sucks, but because most IxDA practitioners don’t have a formal education in interaction design. It all depends on your intent.

For most IxDA practitioners, CHI isn’t going to work. Not because it sucks, but because most IxDA practitioners don’t have a formal, academic education in interaction design. They are primarily DIY and learn-as-you-go.

This is why I feel Interactions attendees won’t enjoy CHI. They aren’t used to academic presentations, which are, admittedly, often very dry. CHI presentations are content heavy; focused on methodologies, rigor, grounding their claims in user research. I think more than a couple of lightning talks at Interactions would have benefited from an academic asking the simple question of, “And why do you say that?” There were a number of claims made that had little support, except that the speaker had been chosen by the Interactions committee to speak.

The great thing about the closing remarks from Bruce Sterling was that he attended the entire conference, and had comments about all the major points made, giving tough love to everyone. He reminded everyone in the room that whether they liked it or not, they came from CHI. They would never escape CHI. Heck, in less than 20 years, they were going to be CHI. No one likes to be reminded that someday, they are going to be that hairy old uncle no one wants to listen to. People went nuts over his statements like interaction design was suffering from “user-Stockholm syndrome.” What does that mean? What can he mean?

I’m not sure either. The fact is, CHI and Interactions both bring beneficial thoughts to the world. It just depends whether you prefer a more academic- or industry-minded approach.

/end Reflection

Binaebi and Advanced Ceramics

Last semester, I took a ceramics class for the first time. It was eye-opening, and helped me learn the one most important life lesson that I still struggle with: how to let go. I am detail-oriented, but can often still see the big picture, except when it comes to my own life. Ceramics is slowly curing me of that fault.

Today, in our first session of advanced ceramics, we were advised to think about why we were in the class. I thought the questions were applicable to why this class is important for me to take as an interaction/user experience designer. So here are my thoughts on the matter.

Why clay?

Clay is a mysterious, moody medium. You never really know how the clay will behave and feel each time you come into the studio. Much is the same for our users as interaction designers. We never know how our users will behave and feel each time they come to our designs, whether they be software, websites, interactive media, etc.

Why the human figure?

The specific topic of this advanced ceramics course is the human figurative sculpture, taught by Chris Boger (who is amazing, by the way). Now, ever since I began to teach myself to draw in elementary school, as well as the drawing and physiology classes I took in high school, I’ve always been interested in the human form. I’m especially interested in the human form as a means to communicate. For example, the way I’m sitting communicates something about my mood, how I feel about the people and situation surrounding me, etc. So much about our lives is about communication—or lack thereof. I’m interested in exploring that channel of interaction through the medium of clay because of the 3D qualities of a finished sculpture. You are able to circle it, analyze it from multiple angles and determine how its message changes depending on the way the light shifts.

We have been encouraged to be inspired by all types of human figures: Disney, anime, sports, politicians, dancers, the medicinal understanding of the human body, the psychological understanding, fashion, etc etc etc.

What do I hope to learn from advanced ceramics?

Woof. This is a tough question. I’ve gone through a lot of changes this past year. I don’t mean to be dramatic when I say 2009 was the worst year of my life, considering I’ve only lived 24 years. As such, I’d like to explore the idea of identity, personal meaning, morals, relationships, and other such abstract ideas through the human figure. What does it mean to love, and be loved? What does it mean to be autonomously happy? How can I possibly portray this through the human figure? Will my human figure be anatomically correct?

So, I suppose what I hope to learn from this class is my thoughts on how people communicate. It will be exploratory, therapeutic, and, most importantly, will allow me to get my hands dirty while working in a larger scale than I’m used to. My figures haven’t been larger than 10 inches tall. In this class, it’s suggested we work in a 3/4 or 1/2 life scale. That’s huge to me, and will be my biggest challenge. I’m looking forward to it.

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

Magic

magic-computers
via jacobbijani.

Oh, how completely true and brilliant that above image is. Makes me wonder whether this is a good or bad thing. How much does the “user” need to know? Is it okay for them to think the computer is this magical box that may have an odd quirk or two?

More importantly, why do I miss the days of seeing the computer as said magical box? Funny how such a feeling seems nostalgic.

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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