Phenomenology in Practice

In a conversation on thursday with Marty and Tim about practical uses of phenomenology as descriptive and prescriptive in HCI, it occurred to me that i’d recently used a phenomenological lens without realizing it.

One of the biggest challenges we’ve had over the past 6 months in designing was understanding the sometimes aligned, sometimes competing worlds of our very different types of users.  This has been a challenge with other previous systems i’ve designed as well.  To make this concrete, here is a simple example:

  • A business owner’s interactions with the system are informed by a very strategically directional, functional lifeworld (at least in the context of their business).  Their goal in using BigTreeTop is primarily functional – to take ideas and strategically make them a reality within the business.
  • An employee’s lifeworld is different. In the context of the business, it is both functional and social, but not terribly directional in the strategic sense.
  • A customer’s life-world, in the context of local businesses, seems to be primarily one of social self-expression.

About 5 months ago, in thinking through the system, i had drawn the following venn diagram as a brainstorm, then never really went back to it until some time last week, which may help to account for the lack of design focus currently existing in the system.  You see, the place where a system like ours (with a variety of types and roles of users interacting simultaneously with the exact same data from very different perspectives) adds its real value is the place where intersubjectivity lives, not necessarily in the tools it provides for each of the various users.  The difficult part is defining explicitly what those areas of intersubjectivity are, and, given that three different user lifeworlds are overlapping there, finding productive ways to ensure that feeding one user’s sense of meaning within the system does not trample that of another user.

In our next iteration, though, we’ll finally be going with laser-like focus after those areas.  Oddly enough, i think it is the case that our original business plan focused more closely on the areas of intersubjectivity than our system design does.  If it does (i’ll have to go back and read the first version of the business plan to verify), it’s a nice example of how mutually bankrupt theory and practice are when separated from one another in a “reified design” (business).

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