Beki Grinter

When not to Design

In DRAFT on July 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

I just finished reading (finally) Baumer and Silberman’s CHI 2011 note “When the Implication is not to Design (Technology).” I should say from the outset that I thought their treatment of Susan’s research was very thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as kind. But I liked the paper even without that extra plus. I’ve been wondering for a while what the boundaries of HCI research might be. Where should we stop? That’s the question I see them taking up. I liked their questions to ask to think through the question of whether a novel technology is useful.

Of course, and as they also point out, it might be worth building that system anyway, but not for usefulness perse, but for a demonstration and proof of a different technical concept/approach/technique. Even though I am far more involved in empirical HCI, I think usefulness is sometimes harmful. (Hmm… useful considered harmful…). There are other outcomes for HCI. Learning in any form about the human-technology experience and what it takes to create, sustain, evolve, etc…

Finally it reminded me about failures. I’ve been reading up in the area of ICTD. A number of scholars have called for more studies of failure. This paper makes the same claim for HCI. I agree. If we are really interested in the human experience of technology then understanding how we, and others, continue to create poor examples, despite what we have learned, seems interesting to me. Indeed, I wonder whether we can ever really eradicate failures, or whether we can only come to predict them with more accuracy and timeliness.

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  1. It’s worth asking ‘what do we get by talking about failures?’ I doubt we can, or want to, eradicate design failures. If we are not failing, we are not trying anything new, and we are not learning. We may be able to predict failures better. But for me the central question about failure is ‘after we fail, what next?’

    This question is more about how we design, and how we decide what to design, than about specific designs. How well do we maintain what we build? How responsive are we to feedback? How closely do we observe the ways in which ‘the street finds its own uses for things’? If we make something, and it doesn’t do what we expected it to, what does that tell us about our ideas about how things work? What does it tell us about what our goals should be? [1]

    These questions are more about process (or practice) than product (or outcome). [2] They may be familiar for ICTD people. But I think they’re important for anyone who uses and sees design not only as an end in itself, or as a means to produce knowledge about design, but also as a way to act in the world. If we are interested, say, in ‘sustainability’ — we’ll skip the question of what that means — then when we design something, that activity is not really about the design, but about ‘sustainability’ — that is, about the world. More of what makes the design succeed or fail is outside the design than inside it. [3] Whether we eventually succeed, then, depends on how closely we pay attention to the world outside our designs.

    Because I believe this, I’m heartened to see new sustainable HCI research that looks ‘outward’ at what people are already doing to ‘be more sustainable’, rather than trying to persuade or annoy them into changing their behavior to align with the designer’s ideas of sustainability.

    1. We can imagine a formal notion of design ‘correctness’ that is a measure of how closely our achieved effect matches our intended effect. (We’ll skip the question of how to separate effect from coincidence.) Above a certain threshold of correctness, we could call a design a ‘success’; below it, a ‘failure’. If a design fails, we often ask how to make it a success — how to achieve our intended effect. But we could also ask whether our intended effect was correct.

    2. I’m reminded of architect Stan Allen’s essay ‘Practice vs. Project’. He quotes art critic Dave Hickey, who writes, “Art and architecture are practices, not sciences. The constructions of science aspire to universal application. Pictures and buildings need only work where they are.” To me it seems obvious that the same holds for system design.

    3. I think this is what Kentaro Toyama is trying to say in his arguments about ‘wisdom’ in ICTD. Venture capitalists who talk endlessly about ‘product/market fit’ also know this.

  2. thanks for this very thoughtful and thought provoking comment. I hope you and Eric continue to write about this and keep this discussion going in the community. We need it.

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