Category Archives: Design of Philosophy of Design

Raw experiential resources for my next book

I am making a list of some strange phenomena which are the daily fare of strategic designers, but which are seldom experienced outside the field, at least not in the way designers experience them. By designers, I mean anyone engaged in human-centered design. These phenomena do not occur at the same intensity and frequency in problems that do not explicitly contend with subjectivity. Designers must live with them at full intensity, for long durations, without any easy escape route. Here is the list, so far:

  • Dependency on conceptual models (which I will just call “models”) to guide the forming of a system that is experienced as clear and coherent to those who participate in them
  • Uncanny difficulties in agreeing on models among members of design teams, which render subjective differences stark
  • Difficulties in interpreting phenomena, and especially subjective phenomena, among different team members
  • Difficulties in weighing design tradeoffs among different team members
  • Existential pain associated with relinquishing (or even temporarily suspending) models that one has adopted — even in order to listen and understand another perspective — a phenomenon that can be called “pluralistic angst”
  • Dependence on profound respect, trust and goodwill among team members to navigate through and out of pluralistic angst
  • Tactics employed by well-intentioned people to avoid the pain and effort required to overcome pluralistic angst
  • The ubiquity and invisibility of models — and the best models are the most ubiquitous and the most invisible — not only in design, but all understanding, which only becomes detectable in pluralistic conflict
  • The miraculous way truths and unnoticed realities leap from nowhere (ex nihilo) when a different model is adopted and used
  • The weird way a change in a sufficiently foundational model can sometimes change (transfigure) the meaning of one’s life as a whole, even when the change is meant only to affect a localized problem
  • The fact that there are no determinate techniques, rules, criteria to overcome pluralistic angst (though there are approaches that can assist the process) — that people are thrown back into their bare unequipped souls to find the resources needed to overcome it together
  • The solidarity among team members which can result from overcoming pluralistic angst with respect, trust and goodwill

Anyone who has been through the harrowing experiences described about enough times 1) to recognize what is happening, 2) to find faith that these things can be overcome, 3) to understand the value of overcoming them, 4) to find the attitude of soul most conducive to overcoming them (which includes grace toward one’s own missteps, doubts and moral failings during the process) might start seeing similar phenomena everywhere, at all scales, from international politics to personal relationships to one’s own inner conflicts. Or, at least this is what happened to me.

I was driven deep into existential philosophy, including phenomenology and hermeneutics then into pragmatism and its offshoots in social science to try to understand the weird kinds of pain I experience as a designer. Philosophy has never been speculative or abstract to me. It is concrete, near and a matter of life and death.

As a result of this search for understanding, I have designed myself conceptual models to help me re-understand the human condition as largely one of conflicting conceptual models.

It is here that it becomes fairly obvious how philosophy and design connect and merge into something inseparable. That is what I plan to write about and publish next, now that I have crystallized my core conceptual models in the form I believe they deserve.

Design-Centered Human

Someone asked me, with respect to my work, what I call myself these days. If people understood 1) what design is, and that 2) all design, done competently, is, necessarily human-centered design, I’d want to be called simply a Designer. Because this is nowhere near the case, I call myself a Human-Centered Designer.

At that point my friend Tim called me Design-Centered Human. That’s pretty apt.

The worst product management fad, ever

I’ve been pretty outspoken about the damage Lean Startup has done to design.

Mostly, I have emphasized the way such engineer-centric methods tend to encourage rushed release cycles that expose users to inconsistent user interfaces, often flawed ones. I’ve complained that an engineering mindset conceives products as things, where a design mindset thinks of products as experiences real people have using them, and that when design is controlled by people with engineering mindsets, experience becomes a thing added to the other thing engineers make.

From this engineering mindset, Lean Startup makes obvious sense. The entire process is optimized to the goal of improving the product as rapidly as possible, the product being, once again, a thing. By this logic the users become valuable means for discovering new places where the product might be improved. Instead of wasting valuable days testing prototypes in artificial scenarios that only examine parts of the experience in ways that might not represent the full context of use and doing so with very small samples of users — why not release the product to much larger samples of users using it in the wild for real purposes, and to monitor that usage so that problems that show up in these real situations can be addressed in the next release that is never far away?

To a design mindset, this is exasperatingly wrongheaded. When designers perform usability tests on a product, yes, the product is improved — but the product is improved (with the help of voluntary, paid test participants) before it is released in order to protect any real users from having bad experiences with the product. This is because — and this is key — any unexpected change, even a change for the better, forces the user out of a learned habitual mode of use into a figuring-out mode that refocuses attention on the product instead of on what the user wants to think about and do.

This is why the engineer’s objectification of “the experience” is not a semantic nit-pick, but a true distortion of meaning with big consequences. If “the experience” is a part of the product that can be improved through experimenting on real users, why not do it? But if the experience is understood as being what happens when real people use the product, the incessant improvement of the product will be seen to occur at the cost of a deteriorating experience.

What designers want is to change the experience as little as possible as infrequently as possible. This is why we work so hard to understand the people we are designing for so we can get the product as right as possible before users invest themselves in learning it and incorporating our product into their lives. “Pivots” in product purpose are extremely disruptive to users, and represent at the least a need to invest in relearning, and at worst can alienate users if the product pivots away from their needs. In products users love, pivots feel like betrayal, and in fact pivots are calculated betrayals. They should not be treated lightly. Designers concept test in order to avoid the need to betray users who have trusted a product enough to adopt it. Designers usability test for at least two reasons. The first is obvious, and seems to be the only reason understood by the engineering mindset: to remove as many flaws as possible from the experience before users are harmed by them. But there is a second reason: to avoid the need to change the user interface later, after users have invested effort in learning them. As Beatrice Warde taught us, great design is invisible, and as Martin Heidegger taught us, when a tool stops functioning as expected it goes from invisible “ready-to-hand” to distractingly conspicuous “present-at-hand”. It stops being an extension of one’s body, mind and (I’d argue, heart) and becomes an unwanted rupture in attention.

One topic I plan to cover in my upcoming book, The Design of Philosophy of Design, is the ethical issues revealed by all the various flavors of extended cognition, which I plan to bloat into a much larger (Haraway-ish) theory of extended self. When a user adopts a product, that user has invited that product into the user’s own being. Contrary to currently hip “Eastern” attitudes that insist that we are not our possessions, I would argue that in an important sense we are most certainly our possessions, and most of all those possessions we use every day and count on to be there when we need them, just like our hands. The trust that users show when they invest in learning a tool so well that the tool vanishes into their body, mind and will should be counted sacred — and I will argue in my book, formalized into a tool covenant.

I am am definitely rambling now, because I haven’t even gotten to my main point yet — yet another way Lean Startup has harmed our daily lives. But before I shift to this next theme, I want to try to pull together the implications of the points I have made so far.

  • If a human being’s self, to some important degree, is constituted by the things they use;
  • And if this constituted self is only whole when these used things vanish and become extensions of their bodies, minds and souls;
  • And if changes to tools break this invisibility relationship and by extension break the extended self;
  • It stands to reason that great care should be taken to change tools as infrequently as possible, as little as possible, only when necessary and only when the change is known to be more beneficial than harmful!

No, most of us don’t see things this way. Even designers don’t. Users lack the language to describe the anxiety they feel when they cannot count on tools they rely on looking or acting the same way when they pick them up to use them, nor can they justify their feelings of betrayal, indignation and violation when product managers decide to overhaul the design of their product. It is as if strangers can rearrange rooms of our homes randomly whenever they feel the whim. We cannot describe, justify or argue for what our sanity requires because we think using philosophies which do not support the thinking of thoughts that clarify our situation and equip us with language to do something to improve our lot! Our working philosophies need to be redesigned to suit this need — and many others that are causing our worst social problems.

My core idea is: We can’t agree on how to emerge from our myriad crises because the folk philosophies we use to do our thinking and persuading are not up to the task. But we can design better philosophies with tradeoffs more suited to our contemporary situation that will render confusions thinkable and give public voice to feelings that are currently isolated inside individual souls. Since I’m coining terms left and right, I’ll add another: design instrumentalism is the concept that thoughts are things we use for our own human purposes (instrumentalism) and which therefore ought to be thought of less in terms of truth vs falsehood and more in terms of better and worse designs, which means that philosophies ought to be designed, using design methods.

And now, enough digression: the second way Lean Startup is harming our lives is by stuffing design processes inside Agile processes, and in the process making it nearly impossible for designers to consider experiences holistically so that every part of an experience relates to the others in a way that makes clear intuitive sense.

Our sanity requires us to sense relationships (even if we aren’t explicitly thinking them) between all the elements of what we experience — the people, the things, the events of the past, present and future, our own purposes, etc. These relationships are how we make sense of things — or, more accurately, they are the sense we make of things. When these relationships are missing, or inconsistent, or blurry, we are unable to make sense of our experience, and we feel perplexity and anxiety, if for no other reason that something is wrong and we cannot even put our finger on where the wrongness is coming from. We don’t have words to explain, only to express our emotional reaction to the chaos.

It is the job of designers to architect these relationships — to place “inside” experiences those connections people look for in all experiences — so there are relationships there to intuit in order to make sense of things, then to give concrete shape to these relationships so they feel unfailingly real. This gives users a feeling of solid ground under their feet. Lack of solidity, coherence, consistency, reliability, endurance — I will call this condition experience volatility.

But these relationships do not emerge automatically in the process of adding features to a product (or service). They cannot necessarily be overlaid onto products as they are built out bit by bit, feature by feature (that is, by constructing atomistically). They coherence needs to be developed at the level of the whole and the part simultaneously, which means both need to be kept fluid as long as possible, which is precisely what design does as a matter of method. Jumping straight in and building and bolting, and breaking and re-bolting is a cumbersome, frustrating and wasteful way to develop holistic systems, and this is why when systems get engineered atomistically the holistic sense of the experience is normally what is sacrificed.

But there’s yet another problem! I need to research this part more, but the IA (Information Architecture) conference I attended last week heightened my awareness of how pervasive stories have become in our design processes. Agile works on the model of nested stories of increasing scale. This has the effect of imposing models of step-by-step procedures onto interactions. The way I put it, it tends “wizard” things by making them behave more like branching linear processes than like objects, or environments, or conversations which afford users more control. I am also finding that Service Design tends to do something very similar, so that the design almost automatically constructed on a timeline backbone.

Time happens to be my least favorite dimension (not to imply that I like breadth or width much better. ) Sometimes time, timelines, the elements of literature/ theater) are the right organizing structures of design, but we shouldn’t assume or or make automatic choices due to habits of method. The structures that undergird our designs should be carefully considered before being chosen.

Back in the early aughts, before UX was a thing, back when I still called myself an Information Architect, the company I worked for acquired a legendary business anthropology outfit. The department they became post-acquisition was called xMod, short for “experience modeling”. This strikes me as an excellent name for the holistic meaning-structure development activity that helps overcome experience volatility, and which again, is made impossible when building and design start at the same time and design is rushed into producing specs for engineers ASAP, lest those engineers sit idle and waste company resources, instead of doing their jobs, which is building something — anything!

So this is my argument 1) that Lean Startup has exponentially increased experience volatility since its mass adoption, 2) that experience volatility matters to our lives, because in a very real way it injects volatility into our own being by constantly breaking our extended selves, and 3) the only reason we don’t all understand this and protest it is because the folk philosophies we use to think and communicate are badly designed for our current situation, but that 4) we can and should redesign our philosophies to help us live saner, more peaceful, and happier lives.

If anyone has actually read this far: Thank you for your patience!

So many ideas. So many coinages.

 

Next book: Design of Philosophy of Design

Now that I’ve gotten Geometric Meditations into a finished state I am starting to feel a compulsion to write a more accessible book about design, tentatively titled Design of Philosophy of Design. I’m excited to be freed from the excessive formal constraints that made Geometric Meditations take so long to finish.

There are several key points I want to make.

  1. Design needs to be rethought, along with its relationship with engineering. I propose re-defining design as “the discipline of intentionally developing hybrid systems composed of interacting human and non-human elements.” Most importantly the human elements of the system should include the people for whom the system is intended, treated as an intrinsic part of the designed system, and interior to it — not exterior users of a system designed to be used by them, as most people currently see it. Follow this link to see a visualization comparing the “conventional” and “hybrid systems” view.
  2. We find it difficult to define design, and distinguish design from other creative activities (like art and engineering) because we think in a way that obscures the question. In particular, the way we think about making tools and using tools has gradually become inadequate for dealing with the world as it has evolved. Our working philosophies have grown obsolete, and their very obsolescence makes us look for solutions every but philosophy.
  3. Philosophies are essentially tools we use for living lives in an infinitely complex radically pluralistic reality. Every philosophy has advantages and trade-offs, meaning they make it easy, even automatic, to have some kinds of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and responses, and nearly impossible to think, feel, perceive and respond in other ways — and these other ways might be the key to confronting what are perceived, conceived and felt to be insoluble problems. Designers will recognize in this description characteristics common to all design problems, and that is my intention. The design field has developed effective techniques for dealing with problems of this kind. I propose we approach philosophy as design problems, using design methodologies to interrogate problematic situations we face to uncover and frame the most fruitful problems, to develop holistic approaches to thinking them that permit solutions to these problems, to iteratively experiment with and improve our practical thinking. I call this understanding and approach to philosophy “design instrumentalism”. We need to design philosophies that help us design better lives for ourselves,and this book will hopefully contribute to this project.
  4. Part of the reason we need to take design much more seriously is that who we are is changed by what we design. Indirectly, when we design things we use, we design ourselves. And this is because human being is extended being. To be a human being means to have one’s own being stream out into the world in every direction. Despite what spiritual conventional wisdom tells us, in some very important ways we are our possessions, we belong to where we live and we are our egos. But what we are can be released, transformed, improved or degraded based on what we do with ourselves: our environments, our physical tools, our conceptual/mental tools, our life practices, etc. This part of the book draws on extended cognition, cyborg theory, ANT, postphenomenology crossbred with existentialism, but I plan to be atrociously unscholarly, synthetic and magisterial in my approach and keep external references to a minimum. The goal here is to reframe human existence in a way that liberates us from the subject-object and self-other dichotomies that dominate the working philosophies that unconsciously shape our conscious thoughts. (The pre-conscious “how” of our thinking produces the “what” of our thoughts. I may have to also take some potshots at pop-psychologism that views the unconscious as sneaky little mind forces that lurk about behind the scenes motivating us this way or biasing us that way. Where most folks see secularized demons, I see poorly designed conceptual systems, a.k.a. philosophies.)
  5. The process of being human is a nonlinear (iterative feedback) process of co-evolution. As we change the world, the world changes us. This process has brought us to a perilous point where we must choose our next step very carefully.

This is an early sketch, but I think some of the ideas are interesting and consequential, and I think it will be fun to right. And my design approach will ensure that at least some people will find the book useful, usable and desirable.