Misael: In your book you talk a lot about this concept of [inaudible] and how context mediates the experience, or even that we cannot separate experience from context. Can you tell me how context affects experience, and if you could please explain why phenomenology is especially important for designers?
Thomas: The idea for the book essentially came from me, and a lot of other experienced designers that I knew really trying to define what the feel actually is, which has become sort of a joke. Now it's almost a cliche, like we have to design what we're actually doing.
In that search, in trying to sort of put bounds and parameters around what experience design actually is, I started sort of thinking about phenomenology as essentially just the study of human experience. Which phenomenology is a big scary word. It comes from philosophers who think about big, huge questions like, 'What does it mean to exist?' and all of that stuff.
I think that once you get it's core, it's the study of experience.
I always thought it was interesting that we have one group of designers trying to figure out what experience design needs, and then we have hundreds, if not thousands of years of philosophers thinking about what's the need to experience.
So there's a lot of overlap there, of course, that I saw. I think particularly drawn to phenomenology because I think that going back to college and what I studied in college, I always had a very hard time with the enlightenment rationality or I have passages in the book about [inaudible] , 'I think therefore I am, and my body is split.'
I had a hard time reconciling the idea of that; we have a mind and a body, and they're completely separate, and they do separate things, and they never talk to each other.
I was attracted to phenomenology because phenomenology is at its heart a reaction against that. What the early phenomenology, especially Mark Hipinger was reject that notion of self and world as separate entities. I tend to think that that's quite important for design because like many other fields, design, especially the more digitally oriented experience design, or interaction design. It's really hard as a designer to step back from the things that you're actually designing, and realize that they all actually exist in the same system.
We sort of tend to think about the thing we're designing, whether it's an interface, or a surface, or whatever, and the people using it, and the world at large--it's easy to think of those as three different things. When I think they're all so interconnected. Good interaction design work is realizing that interconnection. That's where the power is.
I think in a lot of senses when we talk about experience and context I'm always tempted to say that the context is the experience. But I think that's a little bit reductive. An experience never happens outside of contextual information. We can never sit in the world passively receiving information, we do stuff with that information.
Humans are these naturally designerly creatures. We're always modifying, we're always adapting. We can take really simple examples like reading a book, I can read a book at my office, I can read a book at home on my couch, I can read it on the subway, I can read it on a beach, but that main experience is radically different in all of those different situations. The context actually helps shape the experience.
Misael: Parting from your book, I stumbled upon this other concept, which they call ontological design. Do you think that which we design can design can design us in return. What do you think about it?
Thomas: The discussion around ontological design, I'm familiar with it mostly through Anne [inaudible] and Tony [inaudible] work.
Really, really interesting field that has a lot of off shoots or took its inspiration from things like actor network theory and earlier theories about philosophy of technology and how technological objects are essentially non- [inaudible] .
It's easy to think of objects, especially inanimate objects, as just these things that exist in the world and we act upon them. It goes back to this Cartesian narcissism almost, right? Like humans are the key agents in the world, [inaudible]
I think what a lot of actor network theory and ontological design is trying to argue is that, 'Yes, we act upon objects. We use objects in the world to accomplish goals. But those objects aren't just balls of physical matter, they have ethics embedded into them, decisions embedded into them. That actually act back on us. And shape our world.'
In a certain sense, designers shape the world, and then the world shapes the designer. Because we can't help being affected by our contextual situation. There's no moment in time when we can ignore everything outside of us.
Misael: So in our case, that we design or build software products, which are intangible, what does it mean then to experience a software product?
Thomas: It's an interesting question in that, the question itself implies that experiencing a software product is different from experiencing anything else. I guess, I'm not really sure where I lay on that yet. I'm not sure if I have a solid opinion about it.
My gut reaction says software objects or software products at least insofar as how we interact with them, how we experience are probably not radically different from anything else that we experience in the world. There's not a lot of this in the book, but I've been thinking about it a lot more lately. That this big question around what is the nature of experience.
The answer to that question sort of revolves around [inaudible] and self-designing. Whenever we encounter an object or encounter a product it's very rarely used the way it was originally intended, without some kind of modification. I think that modification is key. When I use a pen, I can use a pen to write with but I often always chew on it, as well.
That's just a very slight, mundane modification. I think the same is true with software, we use software in all kinds of ways that is a modification or adaptation. This is what this whole phenomenon of hacking is, it's modifying software to meet different needs. I'm not sure that the experience of software is very different from the experience of anything else.
Other than, of course the fact that it's very obviously being heeded by a screen and pixels and things like that. I think it's probably more complex to really wrap our heads around, because software is so [inaudible] .
Misael: It comes to my mind that the two concepts you mention in the beginning of your book about the ready to hand property and the present at hand. Why are those two concepts important when designing or crafting interfaces?
Thomas: The ready to hand and the present at hand, I think those struck me as useful just in the sense that, when we think about object interactions, I think Martin Heideberg does a really good job boiling that down to, we have kind of two categories of interactions: one is almost essentially mindless, where the object kind of disappears or even fades into the background, pick your phrase, in which there's kind of this moment of flow where there's this seamless interaction.
Then the present at hand, when the object kind of represents itself as especially a burping object, or something needing to be fixed. It's tempting and what I always try to avoid when talking to practicing designers, is the assumption that ready to hand interactions, kind of the seatless, fading into the background interactions are good, and present at hand are bad. I think that's too simplistic of a dichotomy there.
I think the framework itself is useful and it's certainly been updated in the later chapters of the book I talk about some more of the updates to that framework. But it's always been useful for me to frame how I think about interactions without simplifying it too much. This goes to the endless, seemingly endless discussion in design around intuition and intuitive objects, which I'm not a huge fan of that concept.
I think there's a time and a place, if designers can kind of realize that there's a time when the things that they design should sort of fade into the background of an experience. And just exist. Then there are other times when those things that are designed should be flashing in someone's face, and should be calling to their attention. Again, it depends on the context of the use, I think.
Misael: But there is anxiety when you move from one point to another from to present at hand. You call this the act of coping. So how can we designers reduce our anxiety from jumping in between two concepts?
Thomas: I'm sure it's possible to reduce that anxiety, but I would almost caution against...that's a very designerly question, in the sense that we're focusing on a problem, anxiety, and trying to fix it. Whereas, what Heideberg might argue there is that, anxiety is part of human existence. It's part of our own being, and it's never going to necessarily go away.
That anxiety of moving between present and ready to hand probably could be decreased, but I hesitate to say that it's a designers role to try negate, or radically decrease that anxiety. Only because some anxiety is quite useful. A life without anxiety is almost unimaginable. That would be a really boring story.
If we could imagine a movie or a story arc without any tension or any anxiety--that's really boring. There is opportunity for, designers especially, to reduce that kind of anxiety when that anxiety is detrimental. There's a line to be crossed there, I'm not sure exactly where it is. What often happens within design conversations is that that anxiety produced by the switching of modes, and how we can decrease it, often serves a very commercial end.
How can Facebook make its featureless frictionless so that they can serve us more ads, and sell us more products. I don't necessarily think that's how we should be framing the conversation, but yea, if there is a role for design within software products, it probably has something very [inaudible] to do with that reduction of anxiety when we're trying to work, or play, or whatever it is we're doing.
Misael: One of my favorite parts of your book was about the problem solution paradox. That was a really, really insightful way to understand what I was experiencing at the moment, with my current projects. But I believe you can explain it better than me, so if you can explain the role of prototypes when trying to solve that paradox, what can you tell me about it?
Thomas: What I essentially call that problem solution paradox in the book, it's interesting that that chapter always gets the most attention, and it's the shortest one, it's like ten pages. That kind of problem, summed up as the inter-connectivity of problems and solutions, again trying to break that role of moving from problem to solution and ending.
That's been pointed out by designer theorists long before me, but I think it's always been treated in passing and no one's really dwelled on it for too long. What that paradox does is point out the really, really uncomfortable truth, fact, I think we can call it, that design doesn't necessarily have a discernible end point. Therefore is something we can't necessarily plan, and is something that maybe never, there's really no end point for any kind of design.
Practicing designers tend to love that concept because it's great fuel for why we should be prototyping, why we should be testing concepts. What prototypes do when treated in a very purist and honest way is allow for playfulness. If we think of a very linear design phase, from research to synthesis to ideation, to prototyping and testing.
And prototyping is really where that playfulness comes in, and we get to try things. Anybody who's worked on a design project where you're actually envisioning ideas, and you kind of settle on an idea, and you go to prototype it, there's so much uncertainty there. But if you could get comfortable with that uncertainty, prototypes allow you to play. The prototype has always been interesting to me because it's an admission of the end point of design can go a number of different ways. It's always circling back on itself.
That's always been of interest to me, of course the practicalities of commercial design stepping, and say, 'Well, we've got to stop somewhere, we can't just go forever.' I think encouraging that playfulness and experimentation within design is great for, not necessarily solving the paradox, it's always going to exist, but at least trying to come to terms with it a little bit more.
Misael: Then I think that things get more complicated when people start coming up with new creative uses to what we design. So what's the relationship between those created new users and original design intention, that you mentioned as well in your book?
Thomas: Intention is always a really complex issue within design, because on one hand intention of the utmost importance if we are to accept the idea that the objects and the things, the surfaces that we create are not neutral, but actually shape the worlds that we live in, then design takes a very ethical tone.
We're literally creating worlds. In that sense, intentionality within the design processes is very important for a designer to act ethically and sustainably, they need to have a point view, they need to realize that they're decisions are political decisions.
At the same time, I don't want to sound like a nihilist, but that intention almost doesn't matter. Once something is sort of released in the world it's co-opted in a number of different ways. We can shape that interaction, but we can't control it. I think the question of creative misuse and adaptation, has always been of particular interest to me. There are a number offshoots in design that explicitly try to explore what creative misuse actually means.
I'm always on the fence with this question because I want to say that intention is so important, but it's also so fickle. In a lot of ways, designer intention is something that should be played with, it should be subverted in a lot of ways. Otherwise, designers have an intention that they design for, and then everybody uses that object for that specific intention, that's kind of fascist. You want things like critical design, for examples.
Which means break all of those intended modes; things like Japanese [inaudible] design, which specifically creates objects that play with our sense of how things should be used. One of my favorite examples of that I came across recently was a mask, almost like a medical mask, with twenty holes cut in it and twenty lit cigarettes in those holes.
The object was a mask for a person who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, so they can save time and just smoke them all at once. It's twenty cigarettes all around so you can just smoke all your cigarettes at once and then be done for the day. It's this tongue and cheek, sort of playful way of subverting how we normally think about interactions, how we normally think about the detrimental things that we do to ourselves every day.
Misael: Do you have any pieces of advice for designers that are in search of that meaning, of what they do.
Thomas: I think my advice to designers that are trying to reflect on their own craft is always pretty simple. It's: be critical. Especially for designers who come from other backgrounds, non-design backgrounds. You've probably dealt with critical thought at some point in your career, or your life thus far.
For some reason a lot, many practicing designers tend to lose that critical aspect. Whether it's from working with clients that they're trying to keep happy, or trying to get that promotion at work, or whatever it is, that capacity for critical thinking ironically tends to be diminished. Exercising critical analysis of your own work, which is very hard, it's difficult for us to criticize ourselves, I think it's really key. Designers for the most part, tend to be radical optimists.
They want to fix everything in the world, they want to make the world a better place, they want to solve problems, make people's lives better, and in that optimism comes an over acceptance of things like new technologies, new design trends, things like that. Developing a critical attitude, have the courage to really have your own point of view will take people very far.
Misael: That kind of relates to the idea of your new book. Can you elaborate more on this idea that you call designers like persistent fools. That there is some ethic implied in what we do. You call designers tricksters and that's really interesting to explore. Can you elaborate more?
Thomas: The idea for this book, which I guess the tentative title is, 'Persistent Fools Deception design ethics. The idea for it came in the late stages of finishing my first book.
So I had to push it aside for a little while, but it came from a design theorist, media theorist [inaudible] who wrote a short article on the nature of the word design. He traces it back to a number of Greek and Latin words that are all associated with trickery, and deception, and cunning intelligence. That struck me as very interesting, in the age of human-centered design we tend to think of design as this very benevolent force that helps designers achieve all of these very optimistic goals.
For him to be coming out and saying design related to deception somehow, it piqued my interest. I think doing a lot of my research, and my own reflection, it became more and more clear when we think about design, and even just linguistically, words that we use that mean something related to design, like craft, being crafty. Or fabrication and artificiality. There's kind of this tone, there's this undertone of design creating these artificial worlds that veil something or mask something.
When we look at trickster archetypes throughout history, all the way back to Greek mythology, the tricksters are designers, they're creating these fictional worlds, or ways to deceive people for a number of different goals. The first part of the book is exploring that relationship a bit more, and then the second part is on questions of nature and how we conceive of the natural world. If we say that design is deceptive, then the questions becomes what is it deceiving? Is the artificial deceiving nature, or what does that look like?
So the second part is all kind of an exploration the natural, and really the big question: whether or not this category of nature is actually useful anymore in a world where literally everything around us is designed. There is going to be a third part on kind of intelligence, and I'm essentially arguing that cunning intelligence, or being clever, or being sort of tricksterish, is going to be a key skill both for designers and the people that use design objects-- especially on the user side as we move into a world that's more and more technically technologically mediated and more and more has design intention jammed down your throat every day.
Being cunning about how you actually use those objects, whether through misuse or adaptation and modification is going to be a big skill.
Finally, the last part has to do with ethics and sustainability. If I'm going to argue that designers have a lot in common with tricksters, and deception, and cunning intelligence can be reframed as, maybe a design skill. Not necessarily a design detriment, then I think I need to [inaudible] something about ethics and how we make decisions around these honest forms of artificiality, and where those lines are between too much, and not enough, and where design starts bleeding over