Monthly Archives: September 2007

Making design research useful

I found Dan Saffer’s presentation on “How to lie with design research” on Nicolas Nova’s blog today. A User Experience researcher, Nova posts a lot of blog posts of varying insights on interaction design and user experience and such buzzwords.

The talk is a tongue-in cheek discussion of ethnographic design research, which appears to annoy a fair part of the designers. As Saffer puts it, “don’t bother going out into the field, it’s too hard.” In particular, it is about avoiding being “uncomfortable or embarrassed or feel stupid” – experiences that are integral to an anthropologist’s fieldwork, but which designers feel little need to expose themselves to.

In this way, Saffer touches upon this annoyance in a very dead-pan fashion by massaging the imagination of the audience: What would be the alternative? How you can avoid doing research and simply present other people’s photos and anecdotes as your own, and still have the credibility of having done proper research? Nova cleverly connects this dilemma with the ??armchair anthropologists? of yore building their analyses on the data of others.

Others, such as Jan Chipchase does do his own research, but worries about how useful and worthwhile it will turn out, when he is constantly on the road doing tour bus ethnography to gather data, never staying in one place for long, and never seeming to have time to digest and fully reflect on what he experiences.

Reflecting on this problem of speed, another design researcher, Anne Galloway, notes:

So when Jan gets concerned that he may be doing “nothing more than tour bus ethnography” and admits that “without sufficient time for reflection what could be meaningful data is just noise” he’s pointing to very real concerns in the practice of anthropology outside academia.

If armchair anthropology was a product of colonialism, then design ethnography is a product of capitalism. Both suffer similar political and ethical issues, but it seems to me that “tour bus ethnography” additionally suffers a crisis of time that was lacking in the era of armchair anthro.

In a cultural era often characterised in terms of speed, Jan asks:

Given the constraints – what is an optimal and what is a sufficient amount of time to spend in the field? And if your project involves cultural comparisons – how much time is enough to rest, reflect and analyse between field trips?

[…] Where is the questioning of the constraints that bring about these crises in time? Where is the challenge to the cultures of speed?

With cultures of speed, she refers to the work of French philosopher Paul Virilio, who argues that the 20th century has seen a constant acceleration of Western culture, through cheap flight, digital communication and neo-liberal capitalism. And increase in speed which only becomes apparent with the spectacular crashes – whether financial, political or environmental.

Without delving into whether or not this acceleration is a good thing or not (I’ve already presented various points of view regarding that in my essay on the Western Perception of Time), I find it worth discussing according to what criteria design ethnography can be evaluated. As Anne Galloway has noted, design ethnography cannot productively be evaluated according to the criteria of academic anthropology. But which criteria then, and who decides?

Design anthropologist Anne Kirah tackled some of these issues in her talk at the Index Design conference recently [talk audio, slides]. She focused on how designers and concept consulents when appropriating ethnographic methods often fail to realise the importance of the anthropological mindset behind these methods.

Her central point is that anthropology is more than just a toolkit. It is a mindset – a stance that takes as its point of departure a clear awareness of personal pre-assumptions and thus an open-minded notion that “I’m not the expert.” This includes:

  • A willingness to go out of your comfort zone
  • A willingness to learn with these people
  • A willingness to build with these people
  • Being humble and practicing the art of humility
  • A willingness to be flexible and adapt to any given context
  • A willingness to ??live?? in the question

Naturally, many designers don’t really want to do this, since it is hard work which requires a lot of empathy and humility. Kirah’s point would be that that’s why there ought to be a great need for design anthropologists who can do such research and keep a focus on the needs, interests and motivations of people, rather than simply faking your data or using the anecdotal material of others, as Saffer jokingly suggests.

But under what criteria can such ethnographic design research be made so as to both get beyond the initial preconceived assumptions of the researcher and at the same time be developed within the short time span required by the design studios and consulting companies involved in such research?

The Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup remarks that being in the field is about “accepting the empirical unreality.” That is, to recognize and admit the infinity of cultural translation, and instead focus on the ethnographic transubstantiation of lived experience into text, images, film – life communicated: “The empirical data is felt through experience, but it is created and rendered probable through stories.”

Thus, ethnography is produced in the negotiation of experience after the fact. Hastrup notes, much like Kirah, that it essential to set aside your own preconceived assumptions, to continually exoticize the field and in order to get the most out of this experience, and gain new perspectives on your observations.

In relation to design, the most important part of ethnography is gaining a concrete sense of the situation for which you’re attempting to design. To sum up the situation with all its levels of un-comprehended and fuzzy reality. The design anthropologist’s job is thus to present as much of these fuzzy experiences as possible for the designers to relate to and build their design upon.

When I talked to Anne Kirah after her talk, she noted the importance of the design anthropologists bringing the designers and engineers into the field with them. To give them that real experience of the situation and to support the anthropologist’s ethnographic findings.

Recently, I also discussed this problem with Joachim Halse, another design anthropologist, and he recommended bringing the informants to the engineers and recreate the key design situations within their comfort zones, where they couldn’t transgress the cultural norms of the informants.

Either way, the central goal of design ethnography is finding, understanding, and conveying such central situations in such a way that designers and engineers can build upon them without feeling forced out of their own comfort zone, allowing them to focus on the work they do best. As Donald Schön notes, design is a conversation between designer and situation. The design anthropologist’s job is to introduce the designer to such a situation. Not to leading him and telling him what to do, but to guide him and make him aware of the intricacies of the situation.

So how much time would a design anthropologist need to find, experience and understand such situations well enough to convey and present them for the designers and engineers to build upon?

Well… that still depends on the situation. And the anthropologist. Much like it has always been for anthropology. But at least with these criteria in mind, it does not have to take months or years to come up with interesting or useful research.

Kasparov uncut

Wednesday, I went to see former Chess World Champion and current Russian Human Rights Champion Garri Kasparov receive the grandly named Herbert Pundik Freedom Prize. Kasparov proved to be a fairly eloquent speaker, and he managed to summarize the enlightenment ideal of Human Rights very precisely, and underline its importance once more.

What surprised me though, was the tenacity with which he attacked not only the current Russian government, but in fact the whole mindset of the new Russian autocrat ruling class. Basically, he argued that they’re milking the country, the oil, the gas, whatever they can get, for all that it’s worth, pulling that money out of Russia and reinvesting it in Europe, constantly looking to the day when they will be recognized for what they are and ousted from power.

Kasparov claims that the Russia of today has no coherent policy internally or globally apart from creating the best possible terms for making money. “Money, not power is Putin’s agenda.”

I’ve read a bit about how Noreena Hertz has described the capitalization of Russia, and that was fairly shocking in its own right. And while things have stabilized politically, they certainly haven’t improved socially or economically for the majority of the Russian people.

Indeed, Kasparov claimed that if new democratic reform doesn’t come to Russia within the next 5 or 6 years, the whole country is going to implode, as Putin continues to dismantle the Russian state and its services, including its army.

In short, Kasparov is trying to educate the Russian people on the principles of western, liberal democracy, to which they have been unaccustomed. And he would very much like the Western countries to stay out of his way. The best they can do is to acknowledge his efforts, and not acknowledge Putin as an equal as they have done by inviting him to the G7.. er… G8 summits.

Whatever the outcome of Kasparov’s struggle, it will be interesting times in Russia in the coming years.

Dropping knowledge

One of the entries for the Index design award was the Dropping Knowledge website. It’s a fun, if somewhat difficult concept which lets anybody ask a question, and gives anybody else the opportunity to offer their answers.

It is an attempt to use the new sort of participatory culture to find or reach contemplative answers to difficult questions, and thereby highlight some of the many political, social and cultural issues of the day. Just how well it achieves this is open for discussion, since most of the questions asked are so open-ended that it is difficult to answer them without much exposition.

This is perhaps best illustrated by “The Table of Free Voices” event, which brought together 100 thinkers from around the globe to sit around a table in Berlin and answer 100 questions asked on the website. Among the participants were people like Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, Mongolian author Galsan Tschinag, and German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr. This has resulted in a huge databank of the recordings of each participant’s 100 answers, which each viewer then can watch and contemplate as they see fit.

It’s an interesting experiment, but I cannot help but wonder whether these questions and answers actually help much, or if they just create more confusion and indecision.

Does design equal quality ?

Following the INDEX conference, I got to thinking a bit more about how the designers posited design as an unquestionable good to be used to solve the many problems of the 21st century.

But what is good design? How do you know when you’ve found it?

Well, this summer I read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and he discusses that exact question with regards to technology: What makes good technology? What is quality – not only in design and technology – but in all fields of use and application of such? And how do we come to appreciate it?

Pirsig’s book was a big “cult classic” in the 1970s, and some consider it to be the most widely read philosophy book ever. It seeks to find the answers to the questions above both in Western philosophy, represented by the logic of the motorcycle, and in Eastern mysticism, represented through the Zen Buddhism also mentioned in the title.

But today I suspect that only a few members of my generation have come across the book, and even less have been convinced by Pirsig’s style of narration.

For while I really liked some of his insights, I was frustrated by the way they’d been hidden within a 400 page auto-biographical narrative which at times confused rather than illuminated the main points around the nature of quality and the influence of technology on our lives.

So I set out to remix the book to highlight the questions of technology, quality, and design and the interrelations between them. I found an on-line version of the book and turned 400 pages into around 60, which I have gently formatted and made available in html.

I find the way we relate to technology and design fascinating, and I hope that this remix will help to show some of the ways we think and imagine technology and quality. Please have a read and add your comments.

freshened up

I’ve spent some time this morning upgrading this blog to the latest version of WordPress, and changing and editing the theme to something even more simple.

I also spent some time updating the About, Writings, and Best of… pages to make it as easy as possible to find your way around the site. So take a few minutes to explore, and feel free to comment on the new look.

I have also unsubscribed my blog from Planet Ubuntu. I don’t know if this will be a final thing, but since I won’t be blogging directly about Ubuntu for a while, I think it’s the proper thing to do (and besides, I’m having issues with my new feedburner feed…).

Design to improve life

2 weeks ago, I went to the INDEX design conference, which is a prelude to the Aspen Design Summit – a design meeting which takes place in June, and is considered something akin to a design world summit ever since its first instance in 1951. The conference was part of the INDEX design awards, the world’s biggest design award event, drawing interest and participants from all over the world. So it did indeed have a bit of that world summit feel to it.

The overall slogan for the event was “Design to improve life,” and it was soon evident that all of the design specialists had gathered with a belief and agenda in common: That design is the magic ingredient which can solve many of the problems which the world is facing today. As one of the panel moderators, business journalist Alan Webber, put it, “Design creates the world.” It is through design that we shape the processes, the ways in which we live in it.

In this way, the majority of the discussion was centered around what good design is, and how to use it to solve our current issues of growing population, climate change, humanitarian disasters, urbanization, the growing number of elderly, and many more of the official Millennium issues recognized by the UN. It was like everybody in the room had been brought together by their affinity with this force of good called design, and they sought to discuss how best to wield it.

Now, the audio from the talks and some of the slideshow presentations have been put on-line on the INDEX website, so I won’t have to go into great detail about the actual presentations. But what fascinated me was the way that all of these people framed the issues as design problems to be solved.

Ric Grefé, CEO of the Aspen Design Summit, opened the conference by quoting the Roman architect Vitruvius’ classic three tenets of good design: Firmness, Commodity and Delight. Firmness is a good structure that holds up a building under all manner of conditions — during high winds, earthquakes, fires and snowstorms. Commodity is what makes a building comfortable — things are the right size, the heating and cooling systems work and you don’t have to climb too many stairs in the course of the day. But Delight is what makes the building worth being in — Delight is what makes the building more than just a shelter. It may be an intellectual delight, a visual delight or even a delight to be in to listen to music, but it brings something more to the building than just functionality.

Grefé then combined this with science fiction author Bruce Sterling’s aphorism: “hot enough to imagine a future, and cool enough to make it happen.” Again hitting on the theme that they as designers need to combine old values with new, innovative courage to make change happen.

The next speaker, Ged Davis from the Global Energy Assessment initiative spoke about the many challenges for the planet. And he summed up the design problem as: “How can we sustainably manage what currently requires the resources of two to three planets with just the one we got.”

It is a challenge that increases as the population, industrialization and urbanization continues to grow and spread, and Davis argued that it would require designing new large systems such as governance systems, civic solutions, cities and eco-systems based on inspiration from 21st century forms of organization such as Al-Qaeda, the Open Source model of development and the global market economy to design and build a sustainable future.

One example of designing such a large system from the ground up is the British Engineering company Arup’s project to build an ecologically sustainable city to be part of Shanghai. The city, called Dongtan, is to house 500.000 people and it is fascinating to see all of the design concerns to be incorporated in solving the many issues of sustainability involved. I really recommen listening to chief architect Alejandro Gutierrez’ talk and having a look at the slides. The whole room heaved with wonder at what human ingenuity can do. This was what they were here for.

Another example was Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ attempt to influence public policy in Copenhagen by offering a design mock-up for a housing project to solve the problem of affordable apartments in central Copenhagen. In doing this, Ingels sought to show that architects and designers don’t have to wait for politicians and bureaucrats to agree on what needs to be built, but that the experts themselves can take the initiative and enter with constructive suggestions on what needs to be built and how. Though, as he was quick to point out, the design mock-up caused huge discussions all the same.

Perhaps the most eloquent exposition and definition of the design problems to be solved came from Arnold Wasserman, the dean of human centered design with a past at Xerox leading the effort to use the ideas and inventions coming out of Xerox PARC to help reshape that company based on human centered design. He argued for the need for a philosophy of “Deep design” similar to the emergent “Deep ecology” which posits humankind as an integral part dependent on the global eco-system, or “deep economy” which challenges the notion that more necessarily is better.

Deep design takes the same precepts into practical application. It is a matter of taking the converging design trends of the past 30 years and combining them with what we know we need: sustainability – both ecologically and ethically. According to Wasserman, these trends are specifically the multidisciplinarity of humanities and social sciences inspiring new methods and ideas within the design industry (he mentioned his own company, the Idea Factory, as a good example of how this multidisciplinarity is coming alive), and the growing participatory culture that is emerging globally: Wikis, blogs, massive multiplayer games, on-line communities, the creative commons which offer informal learning and sharing.

In short: “Collective generativity is replacing individual creativity. Everybody can do design. Everybody can use those tools.”

Thus, it is not just design anymore, but people-centered design. And in this way, Wasserman sums up a new design problem:

Here’s what we’re struggling with: Design grew up selling stuff. Now it has to focus on improving life – sustainably. We need to ‘design like you give a damn! We need to find the clients to go there, but it is possible.

Again, everybody is nodding, agreeing about the importance of design thinking. The question is how to convey this to the world. How to get the message through to the policy makers, politicians and corporate leaders actually making the decisions necessary to get such design projects funded and underway. Here the discussion stalls.

Ged Davis used a very clever image in his talk to convey this problem:

Getting good ideas and having good intentions isn’t necessarily enough. But the passion is there. Having worked with the Ubuntu community and its new forms of participatory culture and organization driven by clear ethical motives, I see how far that passion can get you. And I see more and more instances of people like Mark Shuttleworth with Ubuntu or the unknown Chinese benefactor behind Dongtan, people with vision and the economic power to make such ethical and sustainable projects happen.

But though these philanthropists can break new ground, it will still require even more from the traditional businesses and nations so singlemindedly focused on growth. Perhaps redesigning these entities to incorporate the interests of all of its stakeholders and their quality of life might be the way to go.

How to write a thesis

Writing a thesis is a difficult undertaking. Before I started writing mine, I hadn’t written any assignment longer than 30 pages (my Bachelor’s essay), and it was quite a step up from that to having to structure a huge complex of data that I’d gathered on my own, analyze it and bring it together in a coherent academic argument.

Luckily, I was well helped along the way by my supervisor, Morten, who really reeled me in from time to time when I was going off in weird and unsustainable directions, which happened fairly regularly. He gave me a lot of pointers, which I have summed up here for anybody about to write a major piece of academic argumentation. It may seem simple enough, but trust me: Once you get involved in it, you lose yourself to the writing, and it is difficult to avoid being overly esoteric with regards to your special niche of interest.

  • Be overly pedagogical! Keep a continuous meta-discourse going to explain to the reader why this bit of information is relevant in the grand scheme of things. It may seem obvious to you, since you know what is coming. But the unaccustomed reader won’t.
  • Use lots of part conclusions! Sum up again and again how each bit of analysis is relevant and necessary to make sense of your overall argument.
  • Focus on readability! Don’t use more than a handful abbreviations that you can reasonably expect the reader to know in advance. Use clear examples to explain difficult terms and processes!
  • Be very careful with descriptive passages. It can easily become either dry or boring or light-weight and irrelevant. Keep your focus on the relevant scientific observations. Those are the ones that you are meant to pursue!
  • Make it perfectly clear to yourself which academic or scientific tradition you aiming to be part of. Are you going for the anthropological insights, or the psychological qualities, or perhaps the computer science bits? There’s no way you can appeal to all, and your thesis will suffer from lack of focus, otherwise.
  • Be analytical: Use quotes or specific data to underline your analyses and conclusions. Hack the data! Fashion surprising and worthwhile points from your empirical descriptions.
  • Write descriptively in order to support your analysis – but don’t write naïvely. The description can be an analysis in its own right if used to expose analytically interesting situations and issues.
  • Use and express clear levels within the text: Who is saying what? When are you being analytical and when are you being descriptive? Use meta-commentary to separate the two, but don’t be judgmental. Try colouring the text so that you can see where you are analyzing and when you are describing. Keep these in separate sections! Otherwise it will confuse the reader!
  • Make clear distinctions between what your informants are saying, and what you are saying: Are you using their metaphors and terms? When are you speaking and when are they speaking? You cannot be reflective and critical when using their terms. Use italics and quotes to signify that you are aware of the difference!
  • Be reflective all the time: Ask: Which implicit assumptions do your informants have that shape their demeanor and convictions? For example: What assumptions are inherent in the idea of the transparency of a computer program? How does this assumption shape relations between people?
  • Focus on the relations between your informants! What does it mean to be part of this group? Is it a group? Where do their shared bonds lie?
  • Pick a theoretical perspective and give it more depth! Illuminate it from different angles through various analytical means. Dig deeper!
  • Use diagrams to illustrate and explain tricky analytical points that you find central. Often, a good diagram will express a thousand words of analysis.
  • Each chapter of the thesis should be a paper in its own right – containing its own analytical focus and conclusion. But at the same time, it should lead on to the next chapter. Ask yourself: How does this chapter lead on to what I discuss in the next chapter? Is there a feeling of natural flow between the analyses?
  • Layout the text as it has to be in the final version. It will make it a lot easier for you to see if you are within the formal word and page limit. Writing too much will require rewriting and cutting, which is arduous and difficult! Better to write it right the first time.
  • Have a draft chapter ready for review for every meeting with your supervisor. Write a letter along with the draft: Describe how the draft fits with the greater whole of the thesis – what function it fulfills. Make it easy for the supervisor to comment it in a way that can help you!

Well, I’m sure this seems like pretty self-evident advice, but it is still hard to remember when you’re getting carried away writing about your very favourite obscure detail about the history of the Unix operating system. And you know it has to go, the moment you finished it…

The thesis is now available

It’s been a long way underway, first through fieldwork, writing, submitting, defending, editing, and polishing. But now, finally. My anthropological thesis on the social dynamics of the Ubuntu community is available for everybody to read.

You can download the abstract, or the full 2.9 MB PDF file.

I’ve released it under a Creative Commons license so that everybody is most welcome to redistribute it and add their comments.

EDIT: My webhost removed the file due to excessive load. But it is now back on-line.

The thesis is now also mirrored at thanks to kind help from Anand Vaidya.

And at Software Libre Rudd-o thanks to Manuel Amador. So please use one of those mirrors in case of any further issues with my webhost.