Category Archives: Design

Conceptual Integrity and Empathic Anticipation

In the late 90s and early 2000s, designers used to repeat the mantra “learn once, use everywhere.”

It appears to me that this ideal has been waning for the last ten years or so, in favor of a different ideal, which involves understanding what people will be thinking, feeling and trying to do at each moment of an experience, in order to anticipate their needs and likely responses.

The first ideal emphasizes working systematically to develop and maintain conceptual clarity, consistency and coherence. The goal is to help people understand how the system works so they can learn it and control it easily. Let’s call this ideal Conceptual Integrity.

The newer ideal emphasizes empathizing with people and understanding their experience so that learning or understanding the system is unnecessary. The system shapes itself around their needs, their wants and their desired actions. Let’s call this newer ideal Empathic Anticipation.

It is clear that the two ideals conflict to some degree, which means tradeoffs must be made. Perfect Empathic Anticipation requires flexibility from systems to conform to the momentary needs of a moment. Conversely, perfect Conceptual Integrity would limit the repertoire of interactions to a small and learnable set, and would not support arbitrary deviations to address needs a person might have in only one moment of an experience.

Of course, no design is fully one or the other. Most designers try to strike a balance between the two ideals. The best solutions manage to minimize tradeoffs and cleverly conceal the tradeoffs that are made so people don’t even notice them.

But to make these kinds of tradeoffs designers need at least three skills and toolsets to support those skills.

First, to design with conceptual integrity, designers need to know how to think and work systematically, both conceptually and concretely, so that the relationships between the whole and its parts are perfectly clear and logical.

Second, to design with empathic anticipation, designers need to know how to develop deep insights into the people they are designing for, what they are trying to accomplish and how this need fits into their lives as a whole, so that each moment of the experience accurately anticipates and effectively responds to their needs, both functionally and emotionally.

Finally, to pull together the right experience for this particular person in this particular situation, we need to know how to think about design problems and make the best tradeoffs. We must never automatically apply our own favored skills and best-mastered tools, but rather select our methods intelligently in response to our understanding of the problem. To do this, we need to draw on both ideals and bring them to bear on design approaches themselves.

Foregrounds and backgrounds

I am looking in my anomawiki for a quote from Nietzsche about foreground and background philosophies. I am digging through one of the themes I’ve catalogued, “depth“, and noticing — somehow for the first time! — how many of these quotes involve water, and specifically cold water. Reading Nietzsche I slowly discovered a symbolic language — or did I invent it? — It is probably best to say that in experimental interaction with his corpus, I instaurated a certain symbolic language that invests Nietzschean passages with multiple layers of powerfully direct intuitive meaning. (These meanings have been so intense that at the peak of my early Nietzschean encounter, I sometimes got butterflies in my stomach in the evening anticipating waking up the next morning and reading him.) I’ve learned to interpret water as a symbol of chaos, not only in Nietzsche, but also in Jewish scripture, which is why my Hebrew name is Nachshon. Coldness is another symbol, signifying betrayal. Nietzsche speaks often of coldness at the depths and heights. When we immerse in chaos, when we undergo the deepest, most trophonian perplexities, we often find that our own value hierarchies get loosened and shaken up. And when we ascend so far that we can survey a more expansive whole, this can also effect an inner political shift. The valley is temperate and more stable, but Nietzsche’s preferred valleys were near cold lakes and icy peaks, to remind us of our tragic situation between beneath and beyond.

I did not mean to write this much about Nietzsche.

*

Here is the quote I was looking for:

The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he [the philosopher] came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

This passage implies that a person can always dig beneath and undermine his own philosophy if he chooses, and raises the question: why don’t we keep digging forever? What are the “stopping conditions”, to put it in wicked problem terms?

My own suspicious stopping point — (and yes, you should ask “why here?”) — is a metaphysics of radical surprise. Due to the relationship between truth and reality, truth is pluralism which “goes all the way down”, that reality is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Truth is the attempt of each center to make sense of the whole — a whole which is constituted entirely of centers. No center can embrace this infinite whole, so we radiate our being outward into the other centers, and they in turn radiate back. The interwoven radiating centers congeal into real situations and overlapping approximate truths, most of which have some validity, and all of which contain significant blindness toward what others know, and which necessarily make tradeoffs, only some of which we are aware. From time to time we are shocked out of our wits by the irruption of some reality for which we are unprepared, and often we have no idea how to make sense of it, unless we actively make that sense. This making of new sense is philosophy.

Some of us even go looking for shocks. We especially seek them when we are dissatisfied. And especially once we learn how easily apparently stable, unquestionable truths can be undermined, and once we learn to handle some of the unpleasant hazards of undermining and gain confidence in our ability to make new sense where we’ve loosened up and broken down old sense, undermining becomes a tool for overcoming some of life’s occasional horrors. In other words we are free to design philosophies that support a life we want. Like all design, philosophy functions in real contexts, must make optimal tradeoffs to meet requirements while respecting constraints, and they will succeed and fail in different ways to different degrees.

My background philosophy tells me that we can and should design our philosophies using all the best practices of human centered design. This is the best we can possibly do. The closest a human being can get to truth is to believe ideas that work well, meaning they help us do what we need to do, they prevent us from feeling perplexed, or getting confused or making mistakes, and they help us feel the value of our lives. (These, by the way are the criteria for good design laid down by Liz Sanders in the most influential paper no designer knows about.) None of these philosophies should be expected to hold up in every possible context and withstand every criticism, and if that becomes our primary goal, it is certain that this all-encompassing generality and well-armed defensibility will demand tradeoffs that will harm a person’s quality of life in innumerable ways. This deeper philosophy is pragmatist through and through, and draws on many strands of pragmatist thought including Actor-Network Theory. I call it design instrumentalism. It is never far from chaos, and dips in and out of perplexity as a matter of method. I can only handle it in small doses. As I was reminded this morning, Nietzsche said “I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out.

My foreground philosophy is what I designed for myself as my everyday conceptual models to shape and guide my understandings. I crystalized them in image and word in Geometric Meditations. The ideas might seem profound, but that is because of their careful design: this philosophy was designed to maintain value-stability ‘warmth” at depths of thought where a soul risks coming apart. That is not to say I do not believe them wholeheartedly, because I do, but I believe them with wholehearted irony, meaning that I see them as some among many ways to make sense. The conceptual models in Geometric meditations function as an interface I intentionally designed to shield me from the instability and complexity of design instrumentalism.

I am sure this has made sense to nobody, but I needed to think it through.

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 Collaborator’s Bill of Rights

Recently I’ve been asking my teammates to exercise certain rights I believe all design collaborators on projects should have. So far, the rights have been listed as occasions arise, but I’m starting to want to keep a list, because I don’t want to forget them, but also because they feel sacred and I would like to see them worded precisely and laid out systematically as a Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights. I will be updating this list, and once it stabilizes I might letterpress it as a physical piece.

  • The right to a brief: every team member has the right to request a clearly framed problem to solve autonomously (as opposed a specification to execute).
  • The right to clarity: every team member can request a detailed explanation for any aspect of the project, until it is completely understood.
  • The right to justification: every team member can raise explicit concerns with decisions, and to have the concerns addressed.
  • The right to propose alternatives: every team member is free to conceive and communicate different approaches to solving problems.
  • The right to have pre-articulate intuitions: every team member can expect to have pure (pre-articulate) intuitions respected as valid, and to be assisted in giving the intuition explicit, articulate form.
  • The right to speak: every team member’s voice will be actively welcomed in discussions, meaning that opportunities to enter the conversation will be offered and space to communicate without interruption will be protected. 
  • The right to be fully understood: every team member can expect active listening from teammates, which means they will be heard out and interpreted until full comprehension is accomplished.

The Jewish-Christian overlap

One of the best things about becoming Jewish is that the process has clarified for me very precisely what I love and what I dislike in Christianity.

What I love in Christianity is exactly what I love most in Judaism. Jesus distilled the most beautiful elements of Judaism and made them harmonize and inter-illuminate. He was an unsurpassed genius, and it was through him that Judaism became capable of producing modern humanity as we know and love it.

What I dislike in Christianity is where Jesus ends and Paul begins — the whole magic legalistic universe he invented and shoehorned his christized Jesus into —  which is also precisely where it betrays Judaism.

I’m not one of those boring people who rejects Paul because he was mean, harsh or misogynistic. According to most experts, relative to the standards of his time he was above average in all the virtues good liberals prize most. He may have even helped advance liberalism, and for that outcome I am grateful, even if I find his methods distasteful.

No: my problem with Paul is that his worldview is poorly conceived and designed. It’s a hacked-together mess, lacking in plausibility and usability. If Paul’s concept of God is the only one you have available, it is a miracle if that doesn’t force you into atheism. The only part that’s any good design-wise is the sliver that reinforces what Jesus tried to teach.

To summarize: Judaism and Christianity overlap in Jesus’s teachings. Judaism and Christianity diverge where Paul started inventing his own religion.

A little something to upset everyone.

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.

Anomalogue Press

I’m told I’m a descendent of publishers (Scribner’s Sons). I certainly do feel book-craft in my blood. I care intensely about the best ideas being given the form they deserve, from conceptualization to language, typesetting, page composition, printing, and binding. I cannot believe that I can buy a life-changing book for less than the cost of a luxury car.

I keep fantasizing about starting a press dedicated to publishing the heirloom thoughts of great contemporary thinkers. I am imagining art chapbooks of about 24-36 pages, each containing one essay written in a rigorous, non-scholarly style for an ideal reader — intelligent, informed and critically sympathetic. The essays would not be popularizations — and in fact might be even denser and harder to read than a full book — but would be streamlined to exclude footnotes and references to other works. The point is to immortalize the thinker’s best idea in the most compact, most beautiful words in the most perfectly designed and constructed physical form possible. They would be letterpress printed, of course, on cotton paper and sewn into chapbooks.

In exchange for the content, the author would get half the copies to give to loved ones, and I would keep half to sell.

I would definitely want the first author to be Richard J. Bernstein, whose Beyond Objectivism and Relativism changed the course of my life.

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, Philosophy of Design of Philosophy, 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.

 

The “material science” of people

My dad is a retired ceramic engineering professor. He is what many people would call “extremely left-brained”. He is the kind of guy who stays up late into the night doing math puzzles for fun. Engineering has always been a core part of his personal identity, even after he became a professor. For him teaching was a process of making new engineers. His job was to take unformed high school graduates and transform them into good engineers, capable of tackling the toughest problems with knowledge, ingenuity, tenacity and a dash of principled impishness.

Like many highly analytical people, my dad tends to view design as a mostly subjective domain, dealing with aesthetic taste and feelings, as opposed to the kind of objective problem-solving engineers do.

This misconception of design is not uncommon. It is especially prevalent in engineering-led organizations. And since designers spend much of their time collaborating with engineers this misconception has practical consequences.

So changing my dad’s view on design and its relationship to engineering seemed like an interesting challenge, and one that might even help solve some tough real-world problems.

I tried several approaches. I talked to him about theory. I explained human-centered design methods. I told him stories about projects. I tried to convey to him what I find fascinating and frustrating about design problems. None of it stuck. So, I backed up and reframed my communication challenge as a design problem. I knew if I wanted him to adopt my concept, I would have to make it intuitive, which meant connecting it to his own experiences and using as much of his vocabulary as possible. Here is what I came up with:

Back when he was teaching, some of the most important classes he taught were on material science. His students learned the properties of different kinds of ceramics under varying conditions, such as heat, pressure, stresses of various kinds, etc.), and how to apply this knowledge to solve engineering problems. Because good engineers build system out of well-understood materials with predictable characteristics.

I explained to him that designers face a similar situation, except our systems include not only physical parts, but also human participants, which we, like engineers, need to understand thoroughly in order to solve the kinds of problems designers are hired to solve. Our problems involve getting people to respond in some particular way to what we are making. Insights into how our human participants think, feel and behave in different conditions helps us develop systems that inspire the right kinds of participation in our systems. Participation might be nothing more than noticing some artifact and forming a positive impression. It might be adopting a tool and using it skillfully. Or it might be actively engaging and actually using a service.

Yes, aesthetics, taste, feelings and subjectivity are an important part of our job, but we are interested in how they coalesce into a person who will experience what we are making and respond with feelings, thoughts and actions that support the overall system we are developing. And that system is made up not only of the participants, but also non-human parts — the parts engineers build.

So, to summarize: design research is the material science of design. In material science, the goal is to understand the rules that determine behaviors of materials, so that when an engineer uses them in a system they predictably function as intended; in design research the goal is to understand the factors that influence certain types of people to feel, think and act, so if someone of that type encounters a design they will predictably respond as intended.

This seems to work well enough for its intended purpose. But unexpectedly, it started working on me as well. Since conceiving design and design research this way, the logic of the explanation has taken on a life of its own, and it has begun to change my own understanding of what design essentially is.

(To be continued.)

Discussion Salon rules

A Discussion Salon is a structured discussion designed to produce substantial conversations. Basically, everyone brings short passages on some theme determined ahead of time. Participants take turns reading passages, and the group converses on that theme.  Susan and I did our first one back in 2000, and we’ve been doing them sporadically since then.

Here are the rules in case you want to do one:

  • The purpose of the Salon is to generate dialogue. We want to make it possible to express ideas that cannot be expressed in normal, everyday conversation.
  • Quotes will be used to seed dialogue.
  • Please come to the Salon with one quote that is connected with the theme of the event.
  • Quotes play a central role in the Salon, but the purpose of the Salon is not sharing quotes. They are a means to stimulate dialogue. Dialogue should not be cut off or rushed in order to give everyone their turn to read. Not all quotes will be read.
  • This is an intellectual safe zone. No opinion is prohibited. The only rule is respect. If you find an idea offensive, please challenge it using reason and constrain your emotions and moral passions. Please do not self-censor out of fear of upsetting someone with your ideas. (But again — be respectful!)
  • We want to be sure people are given a chance to finish their thoughts even if the thoughts are complex. Interruptions can be vetoed by the current speaker, signaled by raising their hand.
  • Contributions to the discussion should always address the ideas of the previous speaker. Evolve the subject, don’t change the subject.
  • Dialogue should be kept thematically close to the quotes and should refer back to them explicitly whenever possible.
  • As conversation progresses and develops, new quotes can be introduced to feed the dialogue.
  • If a dialogue comes to an end, we will restart dialogue with a new quote.
  • The Salon has many modes of participation. Some participants will do more listening and others will do more speaking. Nobody should feel pressured to speak if they wish to listen, or to stay silent if they have something to say.

 

Next book: Philosophy of Design of Philosophy

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 Philosophy of Design of Philosophy. 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 intentional development of 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. 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.

Polycentric design

Design is the development of 1) systems where the definition of the problem includes elements who are people with some degree of autonomy, and 2) where the production and/or delivery of the designed system involves engineered sub-systems (that is systems that do not include autonomous personal components).

In other words, designed systems are nested systems made up of interacting human and non-human elements (“hybrid systems” as Actor-Network Theory calls them)), and some of the nonhuman elements become engineered systems (ideally explicitly framed as engineering problems).

The idea of design as a system that includes its users as internal to the system is not unprecedented (to name a few Cybernetics, Soft Systems Methodology, and traditional usability engineering have all folded users into their systems) — but it is not widespread among designers, who still tend to view what they make as for people who remain essentially separate from what they are designing.

To sharpen this definition of design it might be useful to define some other design-related activities.

The most important contrast is engineering, which, again, is the development of systems where all elements of the problem are non-autonomous, and predictably follow rules. Autonomous persons are excluded from (defined out of) engineering problems.

Some engineering does involve people but prescribes the rules of their behavior so that they become predictable components of the engineered system. This can be called social engineering. People are controlled and made non-autonomous in social engineering problems.

Naive design is design where the people involved in the designed system are assumed to be as the designer imagines them. In other words, in the course of the design work their goals, behaviors, values, perceptions, conceptions, etc. are not investigated. People are largely imagined in naive design problems.

Human-centered design is design where the people for whom the design is intended (the user, the customer, the audience, etc.) is included within the design problem as substantially unknown. Their personal autonomy requires active investigation, otherwise a critical component of the design’s success is being left to uninformed speculation. To avoid this risk, in human-centered design, the people for whom the design is intended are methodically involved throughout the design process.

As the implications of broader definitions of design come to light, more and more initiatives of various kinds are being recognized as design problems, and are being approached with the sensibilities, methods and tools of design. This has evolved at least one new species of human-centered design, which can be called polycentric design.

Polycentric design is design where multiple interacting people within the designed system are included within the design problem, including not only the primary person for whom the design is intended (user, customer, etc.), but other people involved in the system — ideally all the people who participate in the designed system. Understanding the complexity of such multi-actor interactive systems, and treating each actor as an autonomous person encountering the system from their own lifeworld requires more than a shift of concern — it requires new methods and tools.

Currently, the predominant polycentric design discipline is service design. Of course, services frequently feature multiple actors, and the quality of service depends heavily on the mindset of people delivering it, so it is unsurprising that polycentric design methods are developing in the design of services. But, unless we want to define the word “service” very broadly, the approaches used in service design can be used to design any system where humans are interacting with one another within a hybrid system. To name a few obvious examples, the design of organizations, of public spaces and of online communities could benefit from a polycentric design approach that might differ in important ways from service design.

Book

I’ve contacted some letterpress printers about making my pamphlet, which used to be titled The 10,000 Everythings, but has been sobered up into Geometric Meditations, which is a more precise description of how I use the content of the book.

One printer has responded so far, and suggested some changes that seems to have improved it. I looked at the book again this morning, and I am still happy with it, so it must really be ready. There is only one word in the book that I’m not sure about.

I am producing it as a chapbook, sewn together with red thread, signifying both Ariadne’s thread as well as the Kabbalistic custom of typing a red thread around one’s left wrist to protect from the evil eye. Both are intensely relevant to this project. I have to remember how much I use these diagrams to generate understandings and to keep myself oriented. It is the red thread that connects all my thoughts. So the utility and value of the ideas is beyond doubt. It is true that the form does look and sound somewhat pompous, but it is the best (prettiest and most durable) form for these concepts, so I have to ignore my anxiety about scorn and ridicule from folks who know too little or two much (a.k.a. “evil eye”). At least one angle of understanding yields value, and hermeneutical decency requires that it be read from that angle.

I am incredibly nervous about putting this book out there. I am guessing I’ll just box all the copies up and hide them with my Tend the Root posters.

“Transgressive realism”

Reading the introduction of Jean Wahl’s Human Existence and Transcendence, I came across this:

With this critique, Jean Wahl, at least I would argue, anticipates an important dimension of contemporary Continental thought, which has recently been quite daringly called by an anglo- saxon observer, “transgressive realism”: that our contact with reality at its most real dissolves our preconceived categories and gives itself on its own terms, that truth as novelty is not only possible, though understood as such only ex post facto, but is in fact the most valuable and even paradigmatic kind of truth, defining our human experience. The fundamental realities determinative of human experience and hence philosophical questioning — the face of the other, the idol, the icon, the flesh, the event… and also divine revelation, freedom, life, love, evil, and so forth — exceed the horizon of transcending- immanence and give more than what it, on its own terms, allows, thereby exposing that its own conditions are not found in itself and opening from there onto more essential terrain.

“Transgressive realism” jumped out at me as the perfect term for a crucially important idea that I’ve never seen named. I followed the footnote to the paper, Lee Braver’s “A brief history of continental realism” and hit pay dirt. Returning to Wahl, I find myself reading through Braver’s framework, which, of course, is a sign of a well-designed concept.

Braver presents three views of realism, 1) Active Subject (knowledge is made out out of our own human subjective structures, and attempting to purge knowledge of these subjective forms is impossible), 2) Objective Idealism (reality is radically knowable, through a historical process by which reality’s true inner-nature is incorporated into understanding), and 3) Transgressive Realism, which Braver describes as “a middle path between realism and anti-realism which tries to combine their strengths while avoiding their weaknesses. Kierkegaard created the position by merging Hegel’s insistence that we must have some kind of contact with anything we can call real (thus rejecting noumena), with Kant’s belief that reality fundamentally exceeds our understanding; human reason should not be the criterion of the real. The result is the idea that our most vivid encounters with reality come in experiences that shatter our categories…”

Not only is there an outside, as Hegel denies, but we can encounter it, as Kant denies; these encounters are in fact far more important than what we can come up with on our own. The most important ideas are those that genuinely surprise us, not in the superficial sense of discovering which one out of a determinate set of options is correct, as the Kantian model allows, but by violating our most fundamental beliefs and rupturing our basic categories.

This concept is fundamental to my own professional life (studying people in order to re-understand them and the worlds they inhabit, in order induce innovations through perspective shift), to my political ideal (liberalism, the conviction that all people should be treated as real beings and not instances of other people’s categories, because each person packs the potential to disrupt the very categories we use to think them) and my deepest religious convictions (the most reliable door to God is through the surprising things other people can show you and teach you, which can shock and transfigure us and our worlds.)

Though I am Jewish — no, because I am Jewish — I will never stop admiring Jesus for combining into a single commandment the Ve’ahavta (“and you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength”) with the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself. Incredible!

Press

I want to start a press which publishes individual short philosophical and theological essays written in the magisterial mode. The purpose is to give thinkers permission to make straightforward, beautiful presentations of their own ideas unencumbered by concerns unrelated to communication of ideas.

The typesetting, printing and binding of these essays will be the highest quality. Authors should fear being upstaged by the design.

Guidelines for publication:

  1. Material connects with experiences outside the confines of academic life.
  2. Technical terms are used as sparingly as possible and defined within the essay.
  3. No footnotes, endnotes, citations, or any kind of direct references to other works in the body of the text are permitted (though unobtrusive allusions that subtly nod to sources without depending on them to carry the meaning of the thought are allowed, or at least will not be aggressively excluded).
  4. Language is optimized for elegance at the expense of thoroughness, defensibility and etiquette.

I need a name for this press.

Design supremacist rant

If you think about your work output as objective, tangible things, design can look like a wasteful delay to productivity.

But if you think about your work output in terms of improvement to people’s lives, churning out things as fast as possible, without concern for their human impact might be productive — but most of the productivity is production of waste.

This is why, once the world overcomes the industrialist worldview that confuses objectivity with the ruthless disregard for subjectivity (and essentially imposes a sort of institutional asperger’s) and we realize that the world as we know it and care about it (including all our objective knowledge) is intertersubjectivity woven, empathic disciplines will be more fairly compensated. Then we will stop wringing our hands over why so few women are attracted to STEM and begin applauding them for having the good sense to concern themselves with ensuring our efforts are focused on the well-being of humankind. And when this happens, don’t be surprised to see VPs of IT reporting up to Chief Design Officers who gently insist that they hold their horses and think about human impacts before spastically building as much stuff as they can as fast as they can. The world needs people like that, but they need supervision from people who can put all that building in purposeful context.

Civilizational mystery

This passage from Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty offers insights valuable to two of my favorite subjects, 1) design, and 2) postaxial conceptions of religion:

“The Socratic maxim that the recognition of our ignorance is the beginning of wisdom has profound significance for our understanding of society. The first requisite for this is that we become aware of men’s necessary ignorance of much that helps him to achieve his aims. Most of the advantages of social life, especially in its more advanced forms which we call ‘civilization,’ rest on the fact that the individual benefits from more knowledge than he is aware of. It might be said that civilization begins when the individual in the pursuit of his ends can make use of more knowledge than he has himself acquired and when he can transcend the boundaries of his ignorance by profiting from knowledge he does not himself possess.”

If civilization begins and progresses by allowing individuals to benefit from more knowledge than we are aware of, design advances civilization by both harnessing and hiding knowledge (in the form of technologies) beneath carefully crafted interfaces, disencumbering users to advance their own specialized knowledge, which in turn can be harnessed and hidden.

And of course, the mention of “transcending boundaries of ignorance” connects directly with my preferred definition of religion as the praxis of finite beings living in the fullest possible relationship with infinitude. My own religious practice involves awareness of how transcendence-saturated everyday life is, especially toward the peculiarly inaccessible understandings of my fellow humans. But study of Actor-Network Theory and Postphenomenology has increased my awareness of how much non-human mediators and actors shape my life. The world as I experience it is only the smallest, dimmest and frothiest fuzz of being entangled within a dense plurality of worlds which overlap, interact and extend unfathomably beyond the speck of reality which has been entrusted to me. Civilization involves us, but exceeds us, and is far stranger than known.

By the way, I still intend to read Jaspers’s and reread Voegelin’s writings on the Axial/Ecumenic Age to better understand the societal forces which produced the recent and idiosyncratic form of religiosity so many of us mistake for eternal and universal. And I’ll read it from the angle that if it has changed before, it can change again. I think human centered design offers important clues for how it can change.

A great maxim on trade-offs

A few minutes ago I became curious if anyone has written a book on trade-offs.

Over a quarter century of experience working with designers I’ve observed that one of the key abilities designers must develop is making tradeoffs that fit the design problem. Folks who think their standards of excellence or high ideals preclude making trade-offs often make terrible design decisions, keeping their exacting intellectual or moral ideals at the expense of criteria they are unable or unwilling to take as seriously as their users do. In other words, despite themselves they do make trade-offs — just ones they fail to recognize. (And this brings us to another key ability: empathy. The trade-offs we must make in design are those that properly consider how users experience the designed thing, not how those of us on the provider-side experience it.)

The first book I found is Trade-Offs by Harold Winter, and one sentence in the intro is so good I may need to buy this book just for that: “If you are on one side of an issue, you are on the wrong side.”

Expertise & mastery

First draft of an article I’m planning to post on my company’s blog:

When reflecting upon and critiquing performance in situations where key variables are unknown, it is important to analyze it from two perspectives: hindsight and improvisation.

  1. Analysis from the perspective of hindsight asks “Had the unknowns that came to light in the course of events been known ahead of time, what would we have done differently?” The value of hindsight analysis is primarily in developing new forms of expertise — learning to quickly recognize known problems and to respond with established methods.
  2. Analysis from the perspective of improvisation asks “When I find myself in situations with unknown variables in the future, what will I do differently?” The value of improvisational analysis is developing mastery — learning how to respond to novel problems with untried methods, intuitively trying new approaches and adjusting on the fly until favorable results are produced.

In doing these kinds of analysis, it is crucial to stay alert to the fact that unknowns are a permanent feature of practical life, and that no amount of expertise can replace mastery. Internalizing this truth is itself part of mastery.

Expertise and mastery should not be confused or conflated: they are related but distinctly different.

Expertise is about techniques — matters of training in how to do something, following a logical flow. We sharpen technique through repetitive practice. Mastery is improved through the opposite, through exposure to uncomfortable and unfamiliar variety.

Elements of mastery are largely tacit, and involve such fuzzy categories as intuitive depth of understanding of one’s problem space, receptivity to hearing and seeing what people are saying verbally and non-verbally, ability and willingness to shift framings and see things from multiple angles, empathic sensitivity to the interplay of emotion and intellect in individuals and groups, focus on root problems which can change as understanding deepens, emotional self-discipline to stay steady and focused in the face of intense anxiety and chaos, and finally a sense of elevated freedom: knowing and feeling in our bones that we are authorized to do what it takes to solve this problem and liberating ourselves to solve it. It also involves knowing yourself — knowing your own strengths and weaknesses — and knowing others — knowing when other people’s strengths can come to the rescue or where you might be able to come to theirs. If it didn’t have such a ludicrous ring, I’d call these elements “professional wisdom”.