Saturday, February 19, 2011

Are We Only Concerned with Fashionable Morality?

Listening to Kaleem Khan at Interaction 11 last week, I thought he was on to something, at least in his intent. The main problem was in his delivery, which somewhat obscured his message. If you read the talk description (linked above), it seems clear the focus is 1) to encourage designers to be reflective about the ethical dimension of design and 2) to start a discussion specifically about how we can find an ethical framework to support interaction design.

But unfortunately the most memorable parts of the talk were 1) if you own an iOS device, you killed workers in China, 2) you shouldn't use technology you're not familiar with for your presentation material, and 3) Kaleem is pretty proud of his decision to turn down a gig for a gambling concern (he could have generalized the actor instead of saying he himself did it, and still illustrate the point).

On that count, I think Bruce Sterling was right to add a little perspective in his keynote that closed the conference Saturday. A person chooses to kill himself, nobody forces him to do it, and people die and are harmed in all kinds of professions. Bruce mentioned people dying in the tuna industry, but people also die in other more common professions. It is extremely tenuous, to say the least, to effectively lay the blame for worker suicides at a factory in China at the feet of consumers of that factory's output half a world away, who neither directly nor indirectly willed those people to kill themselves nor willed the conditions that may have contributed to those individuals' choices to take their own lives. Especially for products like Apple's, which are typically seen as premium devices, one can imagine that such consumers would be willing to take on extra cost to avoid those conditions and their potential consequences.

If anyone is directly responsible, it is the particular executives at those companies who have full knowledge of the conditions and/or even created them and choose to do nothing about them in order to increase their profits. But even then, there is still a matter of individual human freedom--the people choosing to work in these conditions and, most importantly, choosing to then end their own lives. I don't pretend to offer a full account for ethics in business by any stretch, but I simply offer a more thorough treatment than that given by Kaleem in this particular example he used to make his talk "controversial."

What makes the example even more perplexing in the context of his talk is that it is pretty tangential to the question of ethics in design. I doubt anything about the design of these devices necessitated the creation of factory conditions that influenced these individuals to commit suicide. I also seriously doubt that the designers at Apple (or perhaps even many executives) were aware that their designs would be realized under these conditions, so how could they have reasoned beforehand about the ethical import of what they were doing? I imagine they are proud of their work--see it as enabling people to live happier and more enjoyable and satisfying lives.

Now again let's take the example of whether or not working for a gambling concern is ethical. At the least, I'd say it is not black and white. He asked us to raise our hands if we thought he did the right thing (or not), but there was so much context lacking. For instance, what if you were able to influence the design so that it at least helped gamblers to be more aware of what they're doing, of the risks involved? What if the work was even explicitly focused on helping people to make the right decisions, e.g., only risk money that is truly surplus, to think of gambling as a form of entertainment and don't risk more than you can safely throw away?

In that case, I'd say he would be almost morally wrong to turn down the gig. And there are degrees to this. In the more traditional ethical quandary, what if taking that gig was the only way for Kaleem to maintain his fiscal obligations (debts) or to support his family? Would the potential, even the likelihood, that some people would choose to risk too much and harm themselves through something he designed be worse than him directly choosing to not meet his own obligations, to in a sense risk too much of his own livelihood by refusing to facilitate others choosing to do the same?

Am I a supporter of gambling? No, I'm not. As a rule, I think it's unwise and on the whole is a wasteful and potentially damaging form of entertainment. But so are many other things that are superficially harmless, or at least mostly harmless in moderation. I personally do believe in moral absolutes, but that by no means makes every moral choice an absolute, black and white.

In any case, these examples, though in my opinion poorly chosen, were not the essence of Kaleem's message. I can fully agree with him that we should be cognizant of the ethical dimension of our work. Honestly, there's not much controversial about the actual content of his message. I just wish he'd taken it a step further--that we should be cognizant and aware of the ethical dimension of our entire lives.

It's pretty fashionable right now in the design world, and our culture at large, to be concerned with the environment, with living sustainably. I'm not saying there is not good in that, but it keeps the focus on something distant and unmeasurable enough that we can safely treat it, agree with it, and not be touched too personally by it. But what about our day to day ethical choices that more directly affect us and those around us?

For instance, how many of us are reflective about gossip at our workplace? Do we think about the negative impact our talk has on our co-worker's lives? Do we sense that we are doing real violence to their character? How about when we get angry at the person driving near us? Do we reflect on the ethical dimensions of being quick to anger? Or (the ever hot topic) what about how we express our sexuality? Do we reflect on the ethical dimensions of hooking up anymore? Do we really believe these sexual encounters really don't have any moral content, that they have no bearing on our well being or the other's well being (or the well being of potential offspring)? How about how we eat or drink? Are there ethical dimensions to overeating, or under eating? Or getting drunk?

It's nice to be concerned about "the environment" and "nature" and "our posterity" and people in a distant land, but what about the person next to us? What about our own selves? The examples above are but a few of the many ethically charged situations we encounter that we have direct influence on and that have direct consequences that we can observe. Fashionable morality comes and goes, but there are moral issues that are always present and personal and, often, more uncomfortable for us to examine and face than whether or not we dropped that bottle into the recycling bin or whether or not that Web form we designed encourages people to spend money they maybe should not be spending.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't care about these more distant, potentially harmful effects of our choices--we should be--but we should also be taking our concern a step closer to home and looking at those ethical concerns that aren't so fashionable, and I would even suggest that these should take more of our effort and have a higher priority because not only do we have more control over them, but they also have more direct consequences, and, taken additively, probably have more impact on society and humanity as a whole. Plus, if we get these straight and practice being reflective about them, we will naturally be reflective about other, more distant concerns that we face.

As for the second dimension of Kaleem's talk, creating an ethical framework for the practice of interaction design, I see a problem. The problem is that in a pluralistic society that has been and continues to erode anything resembling a moral consensus, it will be difficult to create a shared ethical framework for a profession practiced in that society. His example, specifically, of gambling speaks directly to this problem--no doubt there are plenty of IxDs who see nothing wrong with gambling.

I could name another, more controversial topic--pornography and masturbation. How many IxDs would advocate against practicing in the sex industry, despite the very real, documented damage that it has done to many people, both practitioners and consumers? There was even a vocal, apparently proud-of-himself (judging by his tweets) attendee at the conference who specializes in just this industry, and another presenter thought showing improvements in personal sex toys was a good way to illustrate her point about IxD aesthetics. Are there IxDs who would refuse to work in that industry today? Surely a few, but hardly, I suspect, would we find anything resembling a consensus to inform an ethical framework.

I think the best we can do on this count, in our society, is to do what Kaleem did--to promote reflection on ethical issues, and to have open discussions on the particular issues at hand--to help each other think them through and make good ethical choices.

If nothing else, Kaleem's talk did spark people to think about it, which is a good thing. I just hope that we as a group can take it beyond the controversy and beyond what is currently fashionable and become more reflective across all aspects of our lives and let that reflection have real consequences in the choices we make and the way we act. Here's hoping!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

IxD11 r0xx0rz!

The IxDA's annual conference this year, Interaction 11, was awesome. I just got back yesterday, and I plan to write (let's hope I can be disciplined enough to do it). Gave me a lot to think about, connected with a lot of fun, interesting, and smart people, and had fun, except for the ridonkulously bitter cold & snow we had the first day.

Let me sum up. If you watch the soon-to-be-released recordings, be sure to catch the keynotes by Richard Buchanan & Bruce Sterling. Apparently, I also missed some awesome stuff (was in the wrong track it seems) about using stuff from film in design by Adam Connor and an apparently life-changing experience provided by Brenda Laurel. I appreciated Carl Alviani's realism and outsider's perspective (much like I did Bruce Sterling's), got some good ideas on the important subject of codifying aesthetics in IxD by Callie Neylan, and found out about some neat kids' apps (and touchscreen pitfalls) from Nina Walia. And there was more... I'm stewing, like I said, especially about Sterling vs. Khan...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Quince Pro is for Real

Just wanted to drop a quick line to say that the newest rendition of Quince is now officially launched/live at

With this comes a redesign of the free, community Quince UX patterns library as well as a number of new features like the corkboard and annotated pattern examples.

The Pro version let's design professionals create private design libraries to store patterns and design examples to facilitate team collaboration creating consistent experiences.

To learn more about all this, you can check out Craig Shoemaker's post and video introduction or just go and start poking around for yourself.

I hope y'all think it's as cool as I do--I'm really glad to be able to work on cool products like this one.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New Design Jobs at Infragistics

It's that time again. :) We're expanding our Design team here at Infragistics with some interesting and challenging spots that call for some specialization in interaction design that is not standard.

Who is Infragistics? Among other things, we make Quince, a RIA design patterns tool, which we just updated to enable folks to have their own private libraries and annotated examples. We've also been in the software biz for over 20 years doing UI tools and component for devs.

We have a vibrant Design team consisting of a gaggle of IxDs and visual designers who collaborate together to design awesome stuff.

So here are the open spots with more info. Feel free to email me with portfolio, CV, etc. at ambrose [at] infragistics [dot] com or use the Apply buttons on the linked pages below. (Hint: Emailing me is better. ;) )

  • Developer Interaction Designer - focused on the holistic developer experience, with a special focus on API design as well as dev helps like design-time support and help integration.
  • Senior Dev IxD - same as above, only with more experience. ;)
  • Information Designer - focused on empowering people to create beautiful evidence.

Thanks for listening!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thoughts on Thoughts on Interaction Design

Sorry, couldn't help myself with the title. I just finished Thoughts on Interaction Design by Jon Kolko. For me, just finishing a professional book says something--most of them don't hold my interest enough to push me through to their ends. Of course, it could be that it was only 150 pages, too.

In any case, after reading the first two sections, I felt like just buying copies for my co-workers because it pretty much expounds the way I think and feel about interaction design at this point, which due to its relative newness to mainstream product development and other factors is often misunderstood. Even I must admit to coming to this understanding as a journey myself, so I sympathize with the confusion people face, especially given the shifting terminology among those who more or less fill the same gap in the (software) industry.

There was only one part of the book I really didn't care for--the guest essay by Justin Petro. Maybe it's because I can't personally relate to the negative experiences so much, having come to IxD through a different path, but that essay just smacked a little too much of narcissism, whinging, and perhaps even a bit of arrogance--the designer as some kind of superior being. That sort of thing just doesn't seem helpful, certainly not if you want other disciplines to take us seriously.

In terms of content, I only mildly disagree (FWIW!) with the contention that behavior is our medium/what we design/shape. I guess it's no coincidence that Robert Fabricant and Jon Kolko, both top folks at frog design, share this idea about what we do. If you consider the medium as the thing the designer directly shapes and expresses himself through, I don't see how you can say it is behavior. We design things--things that involve and influence behavior to be sure--but to say that we design behavior or that it is our medium is too strong of a claim.

Human beings are free, reasoning creatures whose behavior is of that same substance--of their own volition--and the best we can do is influence it. True, we can in a sense dictate the specific interactions to some degree that people have with our designed things, but even then, people are free to either do or not do what we imagined we are inducing or inviting them to do, and often (maybe always) what they actually do--as conditioned by their context and individual nature--will at least be at some variance with what we hoped or intended.

That's why design as rhetoric, which is discussed in the book, may be a better way to talk about what we do as it relates to behavior. Even so, I found "design as rhetoric" only a partially fulfilling idea. Acknowledging we are in a way trying to induce some kind of particular response or behavior, the rhetorical element is only a part of what we do in design--we also understand and analyze, synthesize, imagine, and create, among other things. If I had to choose one main activity, it would be synthesis as the primary (differentiating) activity of design.

It also seems to me that speaking of design as a shaper of behavior or rhetoric puts the emphasis on the wrong place for most practical industrial or interaction design work. I guess I align more with Christopher Alexander's approach in Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A Timeless Way of Building--that what we design should fit, not so much change or shape, the way people already behave or want to behave, and it should only be rhetorical if put to ends that align with the good of those being designed for.

I thought Section Three, while it is always fun to philosophize (no, I really think that!), is a section I feel comfortable telling folks they can skim over, unless they're really into the theoretical aspects of design, because I think it is unfinished. To say that design is poetry or language and to delve into particular theories of language is interesting and inspiring in some ways, but it's easy to say these things without taking the effort to draw the necessary lines that would help the average designer to design better. I would have loved Uday to keep going and illustrate a design language, its various concrete parts (more than fleeting references to icons and buttons), and show how consciously developing such a language has (or at least can have) meaningful, practical impact.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of the idea of language in design. I just have yet to see a good, full-fledged implementation of the theory, either based on patterns or otherwise. Most discussions of language in design seem to stop just before they get useful or only develop part of a language (usually just a vocabulary).

The last section was the one I most enjoyed, chiefly the essay by Ellen Beldner, partly because her content was just so crunchy but also because of her style and unexpected off the wall comments/footnotes. I laughed out loud a couple times reading it.

So overall, I think that Jon's done the profession a service by publishing this book to help people think more clearly about what interaction design is all about. Even if I disagree on some details, the overall message and explication is extremely valuable and is a great starting point for further refinement of the discipline of interaction design as well as just generally helping people to come to a better understanding of it. Whether you are an interaction designer or you have to work with them, this is a worthwhile read.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Process is Pedagogy

More thoughts stimulated by ongoing discussions on IxDA discussion board...

Process and methodology are not bad. They are a form of practical pedagogy.

That smart, talented people are key is axiomatic; saying so doesn't add much to our collective wisdom.

We need both because even smart, talented people do not start out knowing how best to do things, and even when they know, they can get so busy and focused that they forget important things.

The critical question is how can we share and build up our collective experience, knowledge, and skill in ways that are practical and effective.

This is where process, methodology, and techniques (and formal education, of course) come in really handy, and I think that's why we tend to spend more time focusing on those and discussing those--not because we don't know good people are important.

Saying you need "great designers" is just not enough.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

UCD vs. Design Again?

This is a direct copy of a post I just made over on the Interaction Design Association email list. I wanted to post it here to pull it out of the weeds as a kind of open letter to folks in UX and Design.


Jared, Andrei, Charlie, et al,

I'm writing as someone working full time in the software industry for over 10 years and a hobbyist/wannabe for most of my life. I came up through the ranks with no formal computer, science, or design education. The only degree I hold is in history and humanities. I was a developer and architect for most of my career.

So why the heck am I presuming to speak up amidst you juggernauts of usability and design?

Because I'm someone who really cares about making great software and making the software industry in general better.

Look, I'm here because it seems pretty obvious to me that the best way to make software better is through a focus on people and good design. The last 8 years of my career have been a steady enlightenment in that direction that all started with a rather silly incident involving some terribly amateurish visual design. (I guess my humanities background predisposes me, too.)

Anyways, the point is that from my perspective (i.e., not having much vested interest in UCD, Usability, HCI, Design, IA, and so on), you're setting up an unnecessary (and damaging) dichotomy. It's not understanding people OR designing. It's both.

Even software devs (those arch nemeses!) have figured out that involving the actual people who will use their software in the design process helps them to make more successful software. They also have figured out that being able to iterate and try different things helps them come to better solutions. These two principles underly what is broadly known as Agile. And if you want an amorphous term, man, Agile beats UCD any day!

The way I see it, the people advocating UCD/UX and the people advocating Agile both see the light--they see the way to make this stuff better. They're coming at it from different directions but essentially marching to the same drum. In the last few years they've been sidling up to each other and saying, hey, we can learn from and work with each other and achieve our common goals.

Now you got folks coming alongside, saying, "no, you silly people don't get it, it's Design!" Well, of course it's design! It's never not been design. You say, no Dee-sign, with a BIG D. We say, okay, what the heck do you mean by that? And you (IMO) have slowly been articulating it in ever clearer ways.

Now, I have gone from more skeptical to almost a believer in Dee-sign, but still, I don't see it as some magic or something antithetical to Agile or UX. I see it as complimentary. Because all along we've known we gotta do good design--that's what the frak we've been trying to do. So you have a different background and discipline, and maybe it's better. Yeah, I think so.

So again, from my perspective, you have the UX folks coming in and helping the somewhat floundering software developers do better in understanding people and you have the Design folks coming in and helping the somewhat floundering software developers do better in design.

Awesome! More, smart, educated, passionate, and talented people marching together. Now what heck are we arguing about??