Category Archives: Design

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 scroll.

  • 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 understood: every team member can expect to be listened to actively, meaning that they will be heard out and interpreted until full comprehension is accomplished.
  • 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 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, 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.

 

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.)

Salons

Our next Shabbat (and probably more after it) will be a Salon.

The 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.
  • 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: 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.

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”.

Reasons to love design research

Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.

These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.

Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:

  1. Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means  that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
  2. Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
  3. Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)

 

Inducing collective self-actualization

Design Thinking workshops are innovative in the way Multi-Level Marketing conventions are entrepreneurial. These are experiences designed to induce some enticing  collective feeling of self-actualization along some culturally desirable axis.

It is a well-known fact among people who actually create: the larger the group the less anything truly new or good is likely to happen.

 

Facets of empathy

Working in design research, empathy is one of our primary tools. Reflective practitioners quickly learn where they and their teammates have strengths and weaknesses using empathy to produce understanding.

Continuing this week’s trend of identifying distinctions and creating categories, here’s a list of skills associated with what is commonly called “empathy” and what I prefer to call synesis, which is a form of interpersonal understanding that emphasizes worldviews as much as feelings and which sees understanding, not so much as a receptive act, but as an collaborative instauration (discovering-making) between persons (researcher and informant) within a situation.

  • Reception – detecting signals from an informant that something requires understanding that is not yet understood
  • Reaction – controlling one’s behaviors to permit or encourage signals to emerge
  • Perception – interpreting the signals and sensing what they signify from the perspective of the informant — feeling-with or seeing-with, using whatever immediate signals are available to the researcher
  • Constraint – suspending one’s own perspective in order to make space for the informant’s understanding
  • Response – interacting with the informant to spiral in on understanding whatever truth the informant is trying to convey
  • Immersion – developing a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview and “entertaining” it, or “trying it on” through detecting the validity in the informant’s truths
  • Application – using a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview to participate in understanding with the informant — to attempt understanding of the situation at hand and explaining it in the informant’s terms
  • Approval – iteratively testing applications of understanding with the informant, and continuing to test applications of the informant’s worldview until the explanations are accepted and confirmed by the informant
  • Conception – clarifying, articulating and internalizing the informant’s perspective in terms of other perspectives
  • Collaboration – dialogically working with researchers and informants to craft new concepts capable of earning approval from all persons involved

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From this, you can see why the emphasis on emotions — pathos — in the word “empathy” strikes me as impoverished. Synesis (together-being) is a far better word, especially when you take it in the two-fold sense I prefer:

  1. It is putting together the experiences of a situation so they make sense (understanding a situation)
  2. It is using the pursuit of understanding a situation to develop understanding between persons.

So, yes, sensing and feeling the emotions of other’s or intuitively grokking their mindset are crucial skills required for understanding, but empathy must not be confused with understanding. It is only a necessary starting point. Further effort and deeper insights are required to develop empathy into genuine understanding.