Monday, June 29, 2015

Apps, products and misunderstandings of design

The design and development of apps has in many ways become easier over the years. Today there are tools and development kits that make it possible to fairly easy put an app together that actually works. The app can also easily be released on a market (if accepted by the 'platforms') . An app does not have to be manufactured, packaged and shipped.

At the same time, it seems as if many of today's most influential interactive products are actual products, that is, they are made of materials, have a shape and form and have to be manufactured. It is of course possible to see software design and product design as similar in the same way as we can see similarities between many design fields. But the similarity is usually on a more abstract level than seems to be usually understood.  Software design is, even though to some extent similar, it is radically different from product design.

In a great article about Silicon Valley industrial designers, Bill Webb (at Huge Design), is interviewed and gives his very insightful view of how and why product design is not understood and valued among those who live in the world of software 'products' and one of the reasons he mentions is the difference in working with material products versus software products.

One of the most distinct differences is that software is possible to change, add to, and remove from over time without having to bring it back to a factory. New updates can be released while it is being used. This is the basic idea behind a lot of modern design and development approaches within interaction design, create a barely functioning version, send it out to users and keep working on it.

When it comes to 'real' products, this is of course not possible. When you are dealing with manufacturing, products have to be defined in detail and when manufacturing has started no changes can be made without exceptional effort and cost. Product design, in any form, is a process of irreversibility. It is not possible to go back, to iterate, in the way as with software products. In the article with Bill Webb, he nicely explains this simple point and what consequences it has.

One of the consequences, and the one I see as detrimental to the larger field of designing, of this difference between software and product design is the inability to understand each others design process. This inability leads to serious management and leadership issues that have become harmful to many startups.

To me, a bigger problem lurking behind this more practical level is that the inability to understand that there is always a 'material' reality in each design area that in a distinct and crucial way not only influences the design process but in some ways determines it. When design thinkers and practitioner talk about designing as a generic process and advocate their own design approach, there is almost never any disclaimers about what kind of designing they are addressing or to what extent their approach is relevant for other areas. In many cases the proposed approach is based on or shaped by the 'material' foundation in the specific area and will not easily be transfered to other design areas.

This becomes a major problem for the whole field of  'design thinking' since it leads to many less insightful recommendations about designing that may be tried by others and found not only useless but not at all suitable for their particular design process. In the next step this can (or have already) lead to a backlash to a, otherwise growing understanding of designing.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

HCI research and the problems with the scientific method

A few years ago I read an article in the New Yorker about the phenomenon of 'declining truth'. I have been thinking about this article since then and today my PhD student found it and I had the chance to read it again (thanks Jordan). It is an article that asked critical questions about the scientific method in general and specifically about replicability. Reading this article today makes me reflect upon the present status of HCI research of course and its relation to the scientific method. Will come back to that.

The article is "The truth wears off -- is there something wrong with the scientific method?" by Jonah Lehrer. The article was published in 2010 so things may have changed a bit since then. The questions asked in the article are interesting and challenging to any science practitioner. The topic of the article is a phenomenon that has been described and discussed by several scientists over the last decades. It is by some called the "decline effect". The phenomenon is that scientific results that are highly significant seems to wear off over time. It is not easy to understand what could be the cause of this effect. Lehrer discusses several potential answers to why this effect is showing up, for instance, it could be that scientists are biased when they conduct experiments, maybe there is a bias in the publication system towards studies with 'positive' results, etc. However, it is not easy to find one simple explanation.

Lehrer describes the history of the idea of 'fluctuating asymmetry' that was discovered in 1991. The discovery showed that barn swallow females prefer males that show a symmetrical appearance. The idea drawn from this was, among other things, that aesthetics is genetics. Over several years there were many studies around the world that confirmed the theory by studying other animals, even humans. But, a few years later the theory started to become questioned. More and more studies could not find any results that supported the study. Even so, the theory is still today found in textbooks and has influenced other areas. Lehrer shows that this is not a one time thing, there are large studies that show this effect in other areas and disciplines.

I find this article interesting and I think it should be read by anyone who deals with research and science. It is not that the article destroys science in any way, but it does add a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to our general trust in the scientific method. And especially when it comes to the role of empirical research and its relation to truth. As the author ends, it reminds us of how difficult it is to prove anything and it asks some good questions about what evidence is.

I think this article is also raises good questions for HCI research. Our field is of course not a field based on scientific inquiry in the same way as physics or biology but there is a strong belief in our field that at the end of the day ideas have to be tested against nature, that is, empirical studies are needed to make convincing claims.

What is maybe disturbing for HCI research is that if the fields in the article, which are disciplines with a strong history of scientific empirical practice, have problems, then the problem in HCI might be much worse. Despite the problems in these other fields their tradition and culture of doing scientific studies is something HCI is not close to. Replicability, which is a core concept in these disciplines, is barely mentioned in HCI research and not taken seriously. I am not arguing that HCI research should become more rigorous or scientific, actually the opposite. I do not believe that almost any research in HCI is of a kind that either require or is suitable for scientific research in the way that the article discusses. However, I see a serious problem in HCI research that is caused by a conflict or internal dilemma that stems from a shared view that HCI is not really a scientific enterprise while at the same time scientific research  is still valued and rewarded. This dilemma is easy to see not only on the level of the discipline but in individuals. It is possible in HCI to see condescending remarks about science that are strangely mixed with a scientific practice that seems to aspire to become 'real' science.

HCI research will of course over time develop a position in relation to science as practiced in other disciplines in a way that hopefully is adequate for the purposes and context of the field. I am quite optimistic in the sense that I see more debate about HCI research today than just a few years ago. I also find it intriguing to see where the field will go. As far as I can see it, there are so many potential directions open right now. HCI can move towards a more scientific tradition, a humanistic tradition, or towards a designerly tradition, or towards a new and particular understanding of what research in this field is all about.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Book note: "Thing Knowledge" by Davis Baird

For some time now, my good friend and colleague Ron Wakkary has talked about the book "Thing knowledge - a philosophy of scientific instruments" written by philosopher Davis Baird. Ron has made the case that this is a book worth reading. I finally ordered the book a few days ago and have now read a couple of chapters.

Baird makes the argument that scientific instruments are knowledge in themselves. He draws on a large number of historical and contemporary examples and he makes a convincing case for his thesis. His exploration has led him to develop an 'instrument epistemology'.

What is interesting and as far as I can understand quite unique is that Baird pushes the argument of instruments as knowledge further than others who have made similar arguments. He is highly critical to the common 'text bias' that science or at least studies of science suffers from. Baird is very clear that his materialist account of epistemology does not mean a critique of traditional word based knowledge. And, as he also writes, there 'is no single unified account of knowledge' that fully can serve science and technology studies.

A key argument in the book is that an instrument creates a "phenomenon" that in many cases is indisputable, even though it may not be possible to explain or theorize with established knowledge. Instruments express 'working knowledge', another key concept that Baird introduces.

Overall, I find this approach extremely interesting and a possible way for a field like HCI research to explore and develop further its practice. Or maybe it is the opposite, maybe HCI research in many ways already are living with an 'instrument epistemology' and with 'thing knowledge'. So, while being stuck within a 'text bias' paradigm, HCI research is desperately trying to escape it based on some intuitive understanding that there are other ways of knowing that maybe are better suited for our field.

So, I am very much looking forward to read the rest of the book and also to see how these ideas can be developed to support a field that constantly work with 'instruments', that create and develop 'instruments' and in so many ways is trying to understand how these instruments express knowledge.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why isn't there more progress in HCI research?

One of the questions that always comes back to me is if HCI as a field of research is actually making any progress. Is there any form of knowledge accumulation or growth? Is what we know as a field getting more stable? Are there things we today know with some certainty that were open questions some years ago? My personal answer to these questions is basically "no". I do not think there are any serious progress made. I think it is clear that the field has matured in the sense that there are more researchers and scholars who are able to perform well developed research. The field has also matured in the sense that there are some deeper understanding of what constitute the core of the field, even though I doubt that now and then. So, is it possible to figure out if the field is making progress or not?

In a new book "Philosophers of our times", edited by Ted Honderich, the well known philosopher David J. Chalmers has a chapter titled "Why isn't there more progress in philosophy?" (from which I
obviously borrowed the title to this post).

Chalmers explores and elaborates on the question of progress in philosophy by dividing it into three questions (1) is there progress in philosophy, (2) in there as much progress as in science, and (3) why isn't there more progress in philosophy? These questions forces Chalmers into some quite detailed discussions of what "progress" is or should be understood. He uses the notion of "large collective convergence to the truth of the big questions" as a definition of progress. This definition is not difficult to understand even though Chalmers goes into substantial detail in examining each of the words in the sentence, such as, "truth", "large", "big", "convergence" etc. Then he makes the comparison with science who undoubtedly has been extremely successful in making progress. His conclusion is that philosophy is not really making any progress, he speculates on why that is the case, and he discusses the future prospects of progress.

I will not go into any more detail of Chalmers' chapter, just mention that it is possible and interesting to read his chapter while substituting the word "philosophy" with "HCI". Maybe not to anyones surprise, HCI comes out much more similar to philosophy than to science (at least in my analysis). If we look at what HCI has achieved during these last 30 years, the results seem more similar to the kind of "progress" that we can see in philosophy than what we see in science. The conclusion of this is not necessarily a bad thing for HCI, but it is definitely a result that challenges the common understanding within HCI research of what kind of field it is, and it definitely should influence the hope within HCI of what it should aspire to be.

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