Work, As of Late

I've been quite lucky in the last few years. Most of my work has been focused on what I really love: teaching and facilitating design. Project work has been slower these days, and while I sometimes miss the big design research projects and weeks of data analysis, teaching and coaching others is where I really fit. 

Much of my work in the past year or so has been with Capital One, helping to facilitate four day design thinking workshops across the country. People ask me all the time which company is making the biggest strides in "adopting design thinking" (still trying to figure out what that means). If it means which company is investing the most and whose employees have the most optimism and excitement about human-centered design, I think Capital One is definitely one of the top. Their people approach HCD with such a unique perspective, and the demand for culture change in the company is tangible. I work directly with the design strategy team, who puts on these workshops. Most of my work is coaching a small group of 4-6 within the large group of about 50, and sometimes doing curriculum revisions to incorporate new methods and prompts. It's one of those rare client engagements where the "clients" become friends. So far, I've personally coached about 65 employees over the past 18 months.

I have also done quite a bit of work with the good folks over at The Design Gym, both for their client workshops and public education. On the public side, we run one day design thinking sessions to give people a taste of the process and principles. For clients, I've worked with them on workshops and projects for Capital One, Marriott Hotels, and Kiehl's skincare. Capital One and Marriott were one or two day design workshops, but Kiehl's was a little different, for which I worked on a field guide designed to be an at-a-glance booklet for people doing observational research in the field. Kiehl's wanted to encourage employees to take a day every month to go out and observe Kiehl's stores, competitor stores, or analogous experiences to stay inspired and get a sense of what's happening on the ground. So we made them a research go-bag, which included the field guide. Again, it's another situation where clients become friends. 

Most recently, I've been working with the Luma Institute. Similar to the Design Gym, they offer public education and client workshops, but there are big differences in how they teach. Luma avoids the phrase "design thinking" and the process baggage that often comes with it. Instead, they teach a set of human-centered design methods that can be mixed and matched based on the project at hand. They call it "process agnostic," which is really how design work tends to happen. I recently did their Beginner and Advanced workshops and am now starting to facilitate client workshops with them. 

Apart from client work, I've been in the process of writing my second book, which has been a bit slower-going that the first, but still just as rewarding/frustrating. I also have a book chapter in review called Arational Design, which should be published in a volume entitled Philosophy and Design later this year. Conference speaking has been a bit slow lately, but I'm okay with that. I had to turn down a couple invitations recently, mostly because of budgets. But I have a few proposals in review now, and I've been accepted to one in Amsterdam later this year (can't say which one yet). 

In the next year or so, I'm hoping to finish writing the book and facilitating workshops, while taking on a project or two with more of a focus on service design, design research, or systemic design. I'm currently talking with a couple organizations about possible collaborations. Wanna talk?

Comment

Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt is a user experience strategist and researcher based in New York City. His specialties include user testing, ethnographic research, facilitating product ideation workshops, and interaction design. He is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary theory. Professional and academic interests include theories of context, semiotics, embodied cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of technology. Thomas has worked and consulted for agencies, startups, and Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from mobile and tablet design to NUI design to new product development within innovation labs.

Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and Design Ethics

Back in the fall of 2014 while editing and revising my first book and finally having some time to read things that were not directly related to that project, I stumbled across a provocative thesis on the relationship between design and deception. We commonly cast design in honest, benevolent terms: design creates new things and experiences, “solves problems,” and restructures our worlds in order to create futures that are more preferable than the present. While true, these conceptions of design tend to leave out the basic idea that any introduction of the artificial tends to do a certain amount of violence to the “natural,” however we choose to define it. Artificial, designed interventions introduce change, and depending on our conceptions of truth and reality, we can read this change as a fundamental deception of what already exists.

Once the current book was published, I began researching these ideas, leading me down multiple paths, from trickster mythology to ethics. After many months of compiling research, I landed on the tentative title of Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and Design Ethics. As it stands, the book outline contains material on rationalist design history and technical mediation, discussions of tricksters and the role of deception, the deception-design relationship, and how we can read the deceptive qualities of design to articulate new perspectives on design ethics. In short, if design is deceptive, how can we ensure it’s not too deceptive?

I am including a draft of the book’s introduction below. Sign up to hear when it’s published.


“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”(Blake, 1927)

“The briefest rummage through the dictionary reveals implies that designers aren’t to be trusted.” (Singleton, 2013)

The trickster archetype has been with us since the beginning of artistic expression. From ancient mythology to modern popular culture, tricksters have shaped our conception of reality and the role of deception in everyday life. Prometheus and Hermes, as two of the original tricksters, have evolved in to figures such as Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The main practice of the trickster is cunning intelligence, bending the truth and manipulating situations to suit his (the trickster is almost always male) needs. He becomes skillful at deceptive practice, honing his skills as if his life depends on it, as it often does. The work of the trickster is to recognize his situation and the elements in his environment; realize what his end goal might be, whether to eat, copulate, acquire wealth, or simply escape a dangerous situation; devise a plan by which he might manipulate his environment in order to deceive an opponent, often through outsmarting the opponent without actually being smarter than them; and finally, to carry out that plan with grace so as not to alert his opponent of the deception in progress. I want to argue in this book that the trickster has much in common with the designer: from reading their current environment, to planning future scenarios, and even to using deception to carry out these plans. There is an inherent link between design and deception, but instead of reading deception as simply a destructive, malevolent force, I want to show how deception and trickery can be used to articulate an ethics of design. I will also show how the use of cunning intelligence can be beneficial for both designer and user—for the designer as a means of circumventing rationalist impulses and driving toward deeper, more sustainable design innovation, and for users as an emancipatory means of restrictive scripts placed upon them by designers.

I first came across the question of design and deception through Vilém Flusser’s work, particularly an essay in The Shape of Things entitled A Word About Design (Flusser, 2013), in which Flusser draws a connection between design as an act of planning and an act of cunning. The word “design” has its etymological roots in “planning,” “drawing,” “sketching,” and other words we quite naturally equate with design practice. But “design” is also related to “scheming” and cunning intelligence. As a designer who got his beginnings in the heyday of human-centered design, it struck me as both interesting and disturbing that design is so fundamentally, at least linguistically, related to scheming, which of course calls to mind various conceptions of cunning, deception, trickery, etc. The positive side of me sees design as a benevolent force, contributing to the betterment of humans and the world. But the admittedly more vocal pessimist in me sees the darker side of design, the side that contributes to hatred, violence, natural resource depletion, and oppressive politics. As François Laurelle (2012) describes philosophy as a “harassment of thought,” this connection between design and the deceptive qualities of trickery and scheming began to harass me. I wanted to reconcile the benevolent and malevolent forces in design, while at the same time resisting the binary lens of “good and bad” design.

Thus, I began work on this book. The research took me in many directions: conceptions of nature through history, trickster mythology, the psychology of deception, etymology, utopia studies, ethical philosophy, contemporary design practice…all of which will be discussed in the coming pages. What began as a raised eyebrow to Flusser’s short essay nested within a larger collection turned in to many months of intriguing and at times dizzying research. Now as I put pen to page, or fingertips to keyboard, I still lack a comprehensive strategy for where I am going, what I will say, and why it will even matter. But I suppose a letting-go of the need to plan, rationalize, and map out details is part of the point of this book. It is an act of persistent foolishness, and as the argument will (hopefully) emerge in later chapters, embracing foolishness and improvisation is a necessary skill among designers — whether designing payment systems in developing countries, mobile applications that help people meet their next mate, or even a book. As cheesy as it sounds, I am experimenting with a “trickster approach” to writing this book, with little outlining or planning, writing nomadically with no real home base, reactively adapting to what emerges in the argument, taking opportunities when they come, and crossing some disciplinary boundaries. The main difference is that I will certainly edit my work.

This is not to say, however, that this is a stream-of-consciousness book. Some planning is necessary for design in order to imagine possible futures, as Tim Ingold (2013) so aptly puts it: “We cannot make the future, however, without also thinking it. What then is the relation between thinking and making? To this, the theorist and the craftsman would give different answers. It is not that the former only thinks and the latter only makes, but that the one makes through thinking and the other thinks through making.” While there is a strong thread of advocacy for adaptability over rigid planning running through this book, the point is not to completely eliminate strategic planning; rather, it it to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of both strong planning and improvisation, with an equal weight on each, as opposed to a strong preference for one that we see in much design literature. I will attempt to resist setting up binary relationships between academic/theoretical and industry/practical design. I want to show how this separation is detrimental through the lens of deception, trickery, and design. My interest is to further develop how the theorist and craftsperson are not separate, and that there is value in one incorporating the skills of the other. The conceptual and practical distance between thinking and making is a relic of past rationalistic modes. Design must move past it.

One of the main goals of this book is to take a deep look at this apparent relationship between design and deception, paying specific attention to how this relationship can contribute to design ethics. This is an uncomfortable conversation. Especially with the emergence of human-centered design and an overall warm-and-fuzziness that commercial design attempts to promote, suggesting that design is inherently connected to deceptive practices and cunning intelligence is a bit taboo. Nonetheless, I want to argue that while deception can have malevolent qualities, we do not need to rely on such extreme definitions. Deception can occur on a much more mundane level and can even be beneficial in some cases. There is, of course, a boundary line between too much and too little, which I will attempt to articulate, using design practices and products as examples. Similarly, I will explore the spectrum of rationality in design, from the hard positivism of much commercial design practice to the unwieldy playfulness of the trickster archetype, in attempt to show where the two might meet.

We design because we are not at home in the world, because nature is lacking. Our environment lacks the necessary components of what humans, as an evolved species, desire. If nature, however we define it, was adequate to provide for all our whims and pleasures, design would not be necessary.But the natural world is not enough. Perhaps as the ultimate narcissistic act, we shape what has been provided for us — sometimes for good, sometimes for evil, sometimes for something in between — to meet our ever-expanding expectations of what it means to live a good life. On one hand, it is liberating and invigorating to know that humans take such an active stance in their world, bending natural materials to suit their needs; on the other, one might point to the many wicked problems human evolution has directly caused or contributed to — from global warming, to the increasing gap between rich and poor, to mass warfare, to citizen surveillance — in order to see the detrimental effects of design. This is the Anthropocene, and it’s not pretty. Whether these problems are the result of some evil genius’s master plan or the unfortunate effects of otherwise well-intentioned individuals is irrelevant to the current study. These problems were designed. They are the result of the human need to make a home, to dwell in a place that was not meant for them, because it was not meant for anything. In this way, the built environment deceives nature, defined as that which existed before intervention.

Design theorists from Herbert Simon (1996) to Tony Fry (2015) have argued that the proper study of humankind is the study of design. It is an extreme statement that certainly does not account for the entire study of humankind, but nonetheless, the idea here is that we cannot understand ourselves without understanding the things we create, care for, and dwell within. The objects that make up our environment, context, habitus, etc., retroactively influence the ways we think, feel, and act. One role of being is to learn how to dwell with what we create. Heidegger (1971) sets up a reciprocal relationship between building and dwelling, in which Dasein — the being who exists as self-consciously thrown into a particular context — cannot build without dwelling and cannot dwell without building. If individual being is literally thrown into a pre-existing context, design becomes a way of actively caring for the things given to us and creating new things for us to encounter, cope with, and use to augment the given environment. The following chapters will study the nature of dwelling through the lens of deception. If we frame dwelling as deception, what emerges from this new conceptual ground?

The difficulty with studying design is attempting to mediate the temporal dimensions planning and action; that is, the activity of design is always a future-focusing practice, but the critique of design is backward-looking. As Hannah Arendt (2013) says, “In contradistinction to fabrication, where the light by which to judge the finished product is provided by the image or model perceived beforehand by the craftsman’s eye, the light that illuminates processes of action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end…Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants.” Yet another goal of this book is to explore how to reduce the temporal gap between design practice and design critique by hopefully encouraging designers to incorporate critical-ethical practice into their work with greater care than ever before. Michel Foucault (1997) highlights the liberating quality of critique with his delightful definition of critique as “the art of not being governed quite so much,” and even further “critique is the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth. Well, then: critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability.” (ibid)

This book is an exercise in intractability. It will ask difficult questions and provide insufficient but honest answers. The real test, however, is its capacity to foster a deeper sense of criticality and ethical responsibility in the reader.

I currently have a draft of the first part on a critique of design and rationalist philosophy. I plan on finishing the next parts—one on design and trickery, and one on design ethics—in the next 6–9 months before deciding whether to self-publish or pitch publishers. Comments and critiques are welcome.

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Citations:
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Blake, William, and Max Plowman. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. JM Dent and Sons limited, 1927.

Flusser, Vilém. Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. Reaktion Books, 2013.

Foucault, Michel, Sylvère Lotringer, Lysa Hochroth, and Catherine Porter. The Politics of Truth. Semiotext (e) New York, 1997.

Fry, Tony, Clive Dilnot, and Susan Stewart. Design and the Question of History. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

Heidegger, Martin. The Origin of the Work of Art in Poetry, Language, Thought, Trans. A. Hofstadter. Harper & Row, NY, 1971.

Ingold, Tim. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. Routledge, 2013.

Laruelle, François, Drew Burk, and Anthony Paul Smith. Struggle and Utopia at the End Times of Philosophy. Univocal, 2012.

Simon, Herbert A. The Sciences of the Artificial. Vol. 136. MIT press, 1996.

Singleton, Benedict. “(Notes Towrds) Speculative Design,” May 2013.

Comment

Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt is a user experience strategist and researcher based in New York City. His specialties include user testing, ethnographic research, facilitating product ideation workshops, and interaction design. He is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary theory. Professional and academic interests include theories of context, semiotics, embodied cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of technology. Thomas has worked and consulted for agencies, startups, and Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from mobile and tablet design to NUI design to new product development within innovation labs.

Burned By Technology

There are plenty of things to hate about pour-over coffee. If you get it in a coffee shop, you’ll pay more and will have to put up with insufferable coffee snobs explaining the correct water temperature to bring out the citrus elements of the beans. If you do it at home, it’s a laborious process compared to drip or even a French press. It takes effort—the kind of effort we like to convince ourselves we don’t have time for, or at least can’t justify when we can spend hard-earned money to have someone else do it.

I’m one of those people who loves his pour-over coffee. I enjoy the morning ritual of grinding the beans, soaking the filter, heating the water, and pouring it over the grounds in that circular movement explained to me on the Youtube video I watched after Googling “how to make pour over coffee.”

As much as I love the ritual, there is a lot of “dead time.” And being a person with compulsive tendencies, time spend not doing anything but watching water drain through coffee grounds is difficult to justify. Most times, as I pour water from the kettle with my right arm, my left arm is holding my iPad so I can read while preparing the coffee. This system has worked well for me in the past. It has become effortless, to the point where I can usually sense when the water is low and continue pouring without taking my eyes off the page/screen.

A couple months ago, while performing this activity—one hand occupied by a kettle filled with recently-boiling water, and the other with an iPad—I sensed an itch on the side of my torso. Being completely entrenched in this strange embodied behavior, my right hand moved down to scratch the itch while my eyes were still focused on whatever I was reading. Given that my right hand was still occupied with the kettle full of hot water, my body acted with the available affordances and scratched the itch with the spout of the kettle, causing me to tilt it in order to obtain leverage and of course pouring the hot water on the side of my torso. The awful burning sensation quickly gave way to soothing coldness as my t-shirt clung to the burn. 

Now months later, I still have a scar on my torso from the burn (I would add a photo, but really, no one wants to see that), serving as a constant reminder to stop being such an absent-minded idiot while handling hot water. At least, absent-minded idiocy was my first explanation, but now I’m not so sure.

The kettle is a piece of technology. It’s technological capability is summed up by its ability to hold water and allow a user to pour the water into a precise area. It was designed to perform these actions, and assuming that the designers did not intend for me to burn myself, it was designed to assist a user in completing these actions with minimal error. This is its intended case. Under most circumstances, the kettle does its job quite well. But in a moment of (perhaps extreme) embodiment, the kettle became an extension of my hand and the design intention was broken, resulted in painful (in terms of physicality, usability, and ego at the same time) error. 

Who is to blame for this mistake? Certainly not the designers: while they might have thought of this use case, or at least a similar one, when designing the kettle, they likely could not have feasibly designed the physical artifact to prevent it. But the fault is not with the user either. Even if he was absent-minded or distracted, as in this case, there is little to be done in terms of spontaneous, embodied reactions to stimuli.

In his examination of how technology mediates the human-world relationship, Peter-Paul Verbeek concludes that mediation always occurs according to the context in which use plays out:

“This definition of technological intentionality implies that the mediating capacity of artifacts is no essential property of things themselves, but emerges from the interplay of things and their context. Technologies are “multistable”, as Ihde observes, in that they are what they are only within the context in which they are used. What things are, and therefore how they mediate the mutual constitution of people and the world, emerges from people’s relationships with them.” (Verbeek, 2005)

Verbeek refers to Don Ihde’s (2002) of multi stability, or the idea that technology can have multiple areas of stability according to a use context. A piece of technology can have certain meanings and functions in one context, which can be radically different in other contexts. For example, a piece of rope can be used to rescue an arctic explorer who has fallen into a crevasse, but it can also be used to bind the hands of a prisoner. It’s the same technology used for very different purposes in very different use contexts. The same can be said about the kettle: in one context, it was used to pour water, and in the other it was used to scratch an itch. One use case results in delicious coffee, the other in a painful burn. 

In my case, in the moment of the itch, the kettle became appendage to my body rather than an object for pouring water, thus being appropriated for the use at hand. However, we should avoid thinking of the kettle as a benign object or a neutral tool to accomplish a goal. It is easy to read the situation like this, but there is a more complex and, I think, more accurate explanation. The kettle was not neutral in this situation: it actively mediated its use as an extension of my body. Its presence as something occupying my hand made it complicit in the end result. Our initial response is to place blame with the agent behind the action: me. But it takes the interaction between agents to shape an experience.

My motive for telling this story is to illustrate the relationship between users and objects, and show an extreme example of what happens when technology becomes “too intuitive.” Intuition is not a design goal, contrary to much thinking within the experience design space. Don Ihde noted that the desire for truly invisible technologies is a dangerous goal:

“When placed in the context of embodiment, these contradictory desires are of special interest—we both want and do not want full embodiment. But, all of this is merely the instantiation of the existential contradiction in the desires we have concerning our technologies: we both want the powers we are not, and do not, have, and which we dream our technologies can give us, and yet we want those technologies to be so transparent that they become our very selves, what we are, and thus we find ourselves in the contradiction of both being and not-being one with our creations.” (Ihde, 1986)

Designers love to talk about creating intuitive objects, and non-designers love it even more. In a certain sense, it seems intuitive to rely on intuition. But a consciousness of the results of intuition and embodiment along with the multi-stable nature of technology begs us to think beyond the colloquial definition of intuition as that which we know without the use of reason or conscious awareness. As my scar illustrates, conscious awareness is not always a bad thing. And it’s up to designers to make the ethical decision about when embodiment becomes “too embodied.”

 

REFERENCES

Ihde, Don. Experimental phenomenology: An introduction. SUNY Press, 1986

Ihde, Don. Bodies in technology. Vol. 5. U of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. "Artifacts and attachment: A post-script philosophy of mediation." (2005): 125-146.

 

 

Comment

Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt is a user experience strategist and researcher based in New York City. His specialties include user testing, ethnographic research, facilitating product ideation workshops, and interaction design. He is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary theory. Professional and academic interests include theories of context, semiotics, embodied cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of technology. Thomas has worked and consulted for agencies, startups, and Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from mobile and tablet design to NUI design to new product development within innovation labs.

Exploring Designer Intention and Creative Misuse

As someone on the periphery of design—who thinks, writes, and speaks about it, does research within it, develops strategy for it, but doesn’t necessarily practice it in the craft-based sense—it is quite natural for me to take a broad approach to looking at design work. Not being caught up in the minutia of object creation can have its perks. And given that most of my literary training took post-structuralism as its jumping off point, it is difficult for me to think of designer intention as anything other than hopeful potentiality. I’ve written about designer intention before, resulting not in substantive conclusions but rather an exploration of the idea. This article will likely serve a similar purpose with the addition of new theoretical material. 

Designing differs from “making” in the sense that design, at least in part, deals with intent. The designed object is never intended for the here and now but is rather always ahead of itself; it is designed for users to accomplish future goals, and thus the design (noun) and the act of designing (verb) are both aimed at creating an entity users interact within-order-to accomplish something else. The object itself is rarely the end point of the experience; a user is oriented toward a future accomplishment. To help users achieve that goal, designers are in the business of teleological instantiation, or making their intent manifest in the designed entity: they must accurately determine what those end goals are and then design a product or service that guides or points the user to attaining those goals. 

What sounds like a simple equation becomes complex when we really begin to pick apart the nature of intention and what it means for design. Don Ihde provides a particularly post-structuralist reading of intention:

“[T]he designer fallacy is ‘deistic’ in its 18th century sense, that the designer-god, working with plastic material, creates a machine or artifact which seems ‘intelligent’ by design—and performs in its designed way. Instead, I hold, the design process operates in very different ways, ways which imply a much more complex set of inter-relations between any designer, the materials which make the technology possible, and the uses to which any technologies may be put.” (Ihde, 2008)

The post-structuralist movement saw the questioning of author intent. In a similar analysis to the current one, Wimsatt and Beardsley (1954) questioned the role of the author in terms of the reader’s interpretation of a text. They argued that once an author completed a text, s/he is no longer a part of it. Any interpretation on the reader’s part is completely independent of what the author meant to say, and therefore the author’s intention is not a valid component of literary criticism. The assumption that authorial intent played a role in interpretation is what Wimsatt and Beardsley called the intentional fallacy, which of course Ihde borrows when he talks about the designer fallacy. Not too long after the articulation of intentional fallacy, literary theorists werequestioning the role of the author, while others simply declared the author dead (this was before it was cool to declare things dead but then explain how they’re actually not). 

Ihde performs a similar questioning of designer intent by linking it to the god-like qualities of creating an object toward a particular end. It is the one-to-one analytical conclusion that Ihde is questioning: just because a designer intends certain outcomes does not mean those outcomes will be the only results. The history of design is full of objects being used in unintended ways, leading Ihde to conclude that technology is multistable, which we will return to later. First, we have to go a little deeper into what intentionality means for design.

INTENTION

Many of the practitioner-based discussions of designer intention take a certain positivist approach: if we can determine what our intentions are and we can design systems that clearly articulate those intentions, then our designs will be successful in promoting the type of behavior we desire. This view assumes that intentions are clear, the ability to communicate intentions is simple, users will interpret intentions in predictable ways, and their subsequent behavior is both static and predictable. While the positivist view sounds good on paper, and clients love the illusory certainty it provides, it quickly becomes clear that human behavior is of course much more complex than we sometimes give it credit for. I contend that intention is very important within the design process, but I want to argue that it is not enough to say that design is driven by intention. 

The key point to understanding designer intention is the differentiation between intention and actual behavior, or pre- and post-action intention. That is, what was the designer’s intention before introducing the designed object into the world, and how did that intention play out in user behavior? Malafouris (2013) summarizes John Searle’s two types of intentionality: 

“The first type of intentionality, called “prior intention,” refers to premeditated or deliberate action in which the intention to act is presumably formed in advance of the action itself. The second type of intentionality, called “intention-in-action,” refers to non-deliberate everyday activity in which no intentional state can be argued to have been formed in advance of the action itself.”

Searle’s “prior intention” is a particularly Cartesian view of human-world interaction. There is an authoritative subject who plans and executes actions based on cognitive intentions. The second type, “intention-in-action,” is more of an embodied action, in which intention is formed in the moment of action, often in response to contextual cues. A simple example is driving a car: one might have a prior intention to visit the grocery store via car, but the the act of driving—accelerating, breaking, changing lanes, signaling, etc.—is mostly intention-in-action. The driver responds to his or her particular driving environment, behaving differently on a rural street, where one might be more relaxed and less distracted, versus a six lane freeway, where one needs to react to many variables at the same time. So the challenge is to somehow account for intention-in-action within the act of articulating prior intentions. But how are we to account for intentions-in-action, which by definition are practical use cases, before the action takes place? And when is the moment in time at which an intuition moves from prior to in-action?

Beth Preston (2006) differentiates between proper functions and system functions:

“A proper function is what a thing is supposed to do—usually understood in the case of artifacts as what it is designed to do. A system function is a contingent purpose a thing may serve on occasion without having been designed to do so. For example, the proper functions of spoons are stirring and transporting food. Among the system functions a spoon may serve are use as a percussive musical instrument, as a unit of measure for cooking ingredients, as a dibble for transplanting seedlings, as an opener for cocoa tins, and so on.”

According to Preston, we can distinguish between what a product is supposed to do and what it actually does; there is a difference between the encoded use intention and the emergent behavior that exists regardless of the original intention. The problem I see with this view is that Preston doesn’t seem to consider the designer. How are we to determine what is the “proper function,” which assumes there is a correct use, without knowing what the designer intended. Her example of the spoon seems too broad for the point she is trying to make. The assumption that a proper functions of a spoon are to ‘stir and transport food’ is a retroactive judgement call based on certain cultural norms of spoon use. However, Preston does avoid the problem of time mentioned above by focusing on almost a retroactive view from use to design, rather than design to use.

Vermaas and Houkes (2006) argue against the idea that designer intention drives object function by pointing out that actions taken with objects are often very different than the designer’s intention. At first, this seems like an elementary statement: of course objects can be used for more purposes than intended. But they expand the notion by separating out function and use. Vermaas and Houkes offer the example of a screwdriver. While a designer might have designed this object as a tool used to drive screws, users might also view it as a tool that a mechanic uses in order to earn money, or something given as a gift in order to make the recipient feel special on his/her birthday (albeit a lame gift). Their point is to separate out the functional uses of an object from the more culturally-influenced uses. If I give my father a screwdriver as a gift, it is not because I want to enable him to drive screws, it is because I want to make him feel special by receiving a gift. In this case, the screwdriver is not a tool for driving screws, it is a means of enacting emotion. 

They further explain the difference between perceiving function and perceiving use:

“By our plan view of use, there is a difference between perceiving the function of an object and perceiving how an object can be used. The latter means that observers perceive an entire use plan by which the object can be used; whereas the former means that observers perceive merely the function the object has relative to a plan.” (Vermaas and Houkes, 2006)

In the screwdriver example, perceiving the object as a thing that drives screws is a narrow, functional approach based on a specific use plan, or the designer’s intention. A less functionalist would perceive the screwdriver within the context of multiple use plans: a tool, a gift, a lever for removing staples, a paper weight, etc. Or think about a product like Twitter, which has almost no use plans at all. It functions as a conversation platform, which enables many use plans to emerge based on those various conversations. It might be different for each user or different everyday for a single user: a promotional platform, emotional outlet, activist network, political discourse forum, etc. 

MULTISTABILITY

Designers spend a lot of time thinking about user goals. When done well, user research helps map out the goals of a particular user group and subsequently helps designers create affordances to meet those goals. But this is only the first step. On a deeper level, we should be thinking about user desire, a point which I believe design thinking has articulated quite well. Research aims to not only point out the conscious goals of users but to also get at the unknown desires: the aspects of everyday life that drive behavior.

Jacques Lacan, a post-Freudian psychoanalyst, focused most of his work on desire:

“Desire is a relation of being to lack. This lack is the lack of being properly speaking. It isn’t the lack of this or that, but lack of being whereby the being exists. […] Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation.” (Lacan, 1988)

Lacan’s notion of desire is literally that which drives all human behavior but cannot be named. While view might be a bit extreme for our purposes (after all, we need to name it), we can take away the idea that desire is usually not accurately articulated. What we say we want and what we actually want are often different, and this difference drives designer intention and user interpretation. 

We might think of the difference between ‘using an object to…’ and ‘using an object as…’ as the difference between goals and desires. ‘Using an object to…’ implies a function; the user picks up the object in order to accomplish a goal, such as using a screwdriver to drive a screw. With ‘using an object as…’ s/he uses the object to replace a missing, or lacking, object, such as using a screwdriver to remove a staple in the absence of a staple remover. In the first case, the screwdriver is a goal-oriented functionalist object used for a discrete purpose. With the second case, its possibilities are open to multiple use plans, as the object is co-opted to fit an underlying desire. 

Returning to Don Ihde, we see that he argued that technology is multistable: once introduced to the world, the ways in which they are used is unpredictable and complex. (Ihde, 2002) Multistability is the wrench in the designer intention machine; in essence, multistability holds that the potential uses for any particular technology are multitudinous, and once the object is released into the world, the designer’s intention is irrelevant. The user is the one who defines use.

We can think of multistability as a way to articulate the contextual nature of technology use. Technologies have multiple stabilities, many contexts upon which they can prop themselves up and function. The problem this view introduces to design, of course, is that the designer’s place ends at launch:

“The typewriter, for instance, was originally designed not as a piece of office equipment but as a device for helping visually impaired people to write. Scripts and intentionalities, therefore, come into being only within specific contexts of use, rather than having a predefined existence. This implies that there is no direct relation between the activities of designers and the mediating role of the technologies they are designing.” (Verbeek, 2006)

The extreme view of multistability holds that the designer’s role ends once the object is released. But how do we measure that transition? If we are designing, testing, re-designing, re-testing, soft launching, full launching…how do we pinpoint exactly when an object is being designed versus when it is public. Contemporary experience design practices are blurring the lines between internal and external, often involving end users in the design process as test participants, or even more explicitly as co-designers. The fading boundary between the design process and public use points to the idea that designs are not necessarily released, they are incorporated and appropriated. 

CREATIVE MISUSE

Incorporation and appropriation play out in the idea of creative misuse. The typewriter example above is an example of creative misuse, as are hashtags moving off Twitter, many of the prescription drugs we take, and everyday examples like using a pen cap to scratch an itch (or a kettle), using a baseball bat to strike someone, or using a shoe to keep a door propped open. As Houkes (2008) points out, the nature of creative misuse does not necessarily render designer intent completely useless. It’s not as if intention means nothing. Rather, it incorporates users into the system in which an object or experience is designed, which raises a big question for design thinking: while decreasing the distance between designers and users sounds great, it is often quite difficult to achieve. Can we maintain a sufficient teleological distance between designers and users if the proximal and epistemological distance shrinks?

The teleological difference is an important one. A designer’s goal is almost always to create an object or experience that fulfills users’ needs, desires, and wants. The users’ goals are often much more complicated, which we discussed with the Lacanian notions of goals and desires above. And these differences between goals and desires play out within creative misuse: “[W]hen users manipulate artefacts in ways that are different to the use for which they was designed, we express this in terms of functions: if a screwdriver is used to extract small objects from cracks, we say that the user manipulates the screwdriver not as a ‘screwdriver’, but as a ‘lever’.” (Vermaas and Houkes, 2006) This goal/desire relationship and its manifestation in “using an object to…” versus “using an object as…” is becoming more complicated within digital spaces simply because we don’t have the proper language to describe the action. A hashtag on Twitter is also a hashtag off Twitter, but a user might be using the hashtag for a number of goals or desires: to make some thing searchable, to add emphasis, to add ironic emphasis, to contribute to an ongoing conversation, etc. The hashtag comes to symbolize the proliferation of multistable uses and meanings. 

WHAT NOW?

I don't have many conclusions to wrap up this article, but rather some questions I am currently thinking about and am hoping to work through in the coming months:

Implications of creative misuse

Is creative misuse something we can account for in the design process? Or is it an emerging behavior we simply cannot predict with any accuracy? My first instinct tells me that good strategy will likely point to potential creative misuse, but this deserves more attention. 

Role of desire

What exactly is the role of desire, as separate from goal-oriented behavior, in design? Again, my instinct tells me that good strategy and research will get at the unspoken levels of user needs, but I would like to better articulate how we get to that point.

The problem of time and roles

What is the point at which we transition from designer attempting to instantiate his or her intent into an object and user interpreting that intent? How do we differentiate between designer and user when our design practices are purposefully blurring the line?

 

REFERENCES

Houkes, Wybo. "Designing is the construction of use plans." Philosophy and design. Springer Netherlands, 2008. 37-49.

Ihde, Don. Bodies in technology. Vol. 5. U of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Ihde, Don. "The designer fallacy and technological imagination." Philosophy and design. Springer Netherlands, 2008. 51-59.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. CUP Archive, 1988.

Malafouris, Lambros. How Things Shape the Mind. MIT Press, 2013.

Preston, Beth. "The case of the recalcitrant prototype." Doing things with things: the design and use of everyday objects (2006): 15-27.

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. "Persuasive Technology and Moral Responsibility Toward an ethical framework for persuasive technologies." Persuasive 6 (2006): 1-15.

Vermaas, Pieter E., and Wybo Houkes. "Use plans and artefact functions: An intentionalist approach to artefacts and their use." Doing things with things: The design and use of everyday objects (2006): 29-48.

Wimsatt, William K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. "The intentional fallacy [1946]." William K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon. Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, Lexington (1954): 3-18.

Comment

Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt is a user experience strategist and researcher based in New York City. His specialties include user testing, ethnographic research, facilitating product ideation workshops, and interaction design. He is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary theory. Professional and academic interests include theories of context, semiotics, embodied cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of technology. Thomas has worked and consulted for agencies, startups, and Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from mobile and tablet design to NUI design to new product development within innovation labs.

Design Reading List

Finally compiled in one place... Rather than an exhaustive list of books and resources, these are the ones I have read, recommend, and believe are important for anyone who practices design.

 

Online Resources

AC4D Library

A Brief History of Design Thinking Part 1 Part 2 

Stanford d.school Methods

AdaptivePath.org

Service Design Network

The Design Gym

 

Beginner Guides

Well-Designed - Jon Kolko

Change By Design - Tim Brown

Service Design - Andy Polaine 

 

Design Methods

101 Design Methods - Vijay Kumar

This Is Service Design Thinking: Basics, Tools, Cases - Mark Stickdorn

Innovating for People - Luma Institute

Service Innovation Handbook - Kimbell

Frame Innovation - Kees Dorst

 

Doing Research

Just Enough Research - Erika Hall

Interviewing Users - Steve Portigal

Practical Ethnography - Sam Ladner

 

Theory

Design For Dasein: Understanding The Design Of Experiences - Thomas Wendt

Design for the Real World - Victor Papanek

Understanding Context - Andrew Hinton

Design Thinking - Nigel Cross

Strategy Without Design - Robert Chia and Robin Holt

Designerly Ways of Knowing - Nigel Cross

What Things Do - Peter-Paul Verbeek

The Semantic Turn - Klaus Krippendorff

Design, When Everybody Designs - Ezio Manzini

The Shape of Things - Villem Flusser

The Moment of Clarity - Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen

Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture - Tim Ingold

Design Futuring - Tony Fry

Idealized Design - Russell Ackoff

Speculative Everything - Dunne and Raby

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses - Dan Hill

Philosophy in the Flesh - George Lakoff

Hyperobjects - Tomothy Morton

Pervasive Information Architecture - Resmini and Rosati

Sustainability by Design - John Ehrenfeld

 

Contact me for articles and essays on specific topics. Happy reading. 

Comment

Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt is a user experience strategist and researcher based in New York City. His specialties include user testing, ethnographic research, facilitating product ideation workshops, and interaction design. He is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary theory. Professional and academic interests include theories of context, semiotics, embodied cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of technology. Thomas has worked and consulted for agencies, startups, and Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from mobile and tablet design to NUI design to new product development within innovation labs.