“We design ourselves in language!” Selective attention rules.

After reading the articles for this week (the first two, i couldn’t find the third.. is it up and I’m missing it?) , I was blown away by the explanation given of Heidegger’s theories in the Winograd & Flores article. It helped me make sense (I think) of many things… many ideas that were fluttering around my brain like kites with no strings.

I thoroughly enjoyed Winograd & Flores’ explanation of the dominating computer science philosophy. I agree now that this philosophy needs to change. I won’t rehash the article, but see if you don’t agree.

Heidegger’s example of the hammer while discussing readiness-at-hand, which I believe we touched on in class, really began to make sense to me. To quickly summarize:

In driving a nail with a hammer, I need not make use of any explicit representation of the hammer. My ability to act comes from my familiarity with hammering, not my knowledge of a hammer.

I think I get it now (maybe???). I see how this is so very important in HCI and computer science. As I sit and type this post, the keyboard is not of my concern. I’m not thinking about it. I’m not thinking about the world wide web, my internet connection, the symbols I’m typing, the English language, my Firefox browser, my MacBook, my firewall, the memory in my computer, the video card, etc. etc. etc. I’m thinking purely about my idea and how I’m formulating it on the fly. My cat at my feet isn’t really here, my home, my wife in the other room, you – all at your own homes…. You get my point. This seems really obvious now, but it wasn’t so obvious to me before … especially in the sense of HCI and application/web design.

It seems to me Heidegger was basically talking about selective attention. Our brain’s do it ALL the time, 24/7, without our knowledge or our permission. If the brain didn’t filter out the noise, we’d all go nuts. There would be no society, no language, no survival. It’s interesting to look at the effects produced by this phenomenon (oops, i used a buzz word). But it is also a structured process, like binary. On or off. At least that is what comes to my mind when I try to understand it.

And the notion of present-at-hand… When all of a sudden the thing that didn’t exist comes shooting out of the dark to claim our attention. Such as my keyboard, when I must have accidentally pressed the CAPS button and all my words were screaming at me. And the notion of the breakdown, which I agree is much better terminology to use then problems or problem solving, which allows us to notice the object fully for perhaps the first time.

The article then jumps around to understanding and they discuss that we need to focus on social-based understanding of understanding.. not individual-based. They also touch on the idea that mental representations are irrelevant. We need to switch from mental representation to patterned interaction. From an individualist approach to a social approach of understanding.

At the end of the reading, Winograd & Flores state two things that I love:

A design constitutes an interpretation of breakdown and a committed attempt to anticipate future breakdowns.

We design ourselves in language!


  1. Angel

    I think the difference in perspectives here is coming from a different definition of design. I believe that design = making it work for people.Usability and content and user experience are all part of good design, and you need feedback to do that well.

  2. Tyler Pace


    I think Heidegger would agree. For him, design is about recognizing, anticipating and hopefully preventing breakdowns. “Preventing breakdown” is one way to to create or define “usable” or a “good experience.”

  3. tdbowman

    @Tyler, Angel

    Yes. That is exactly what I understood… but for me it was interesting in the sense that the user is separated from the design/application/web space by readiness-at-hand or what seems to me to be selective attention. The understanding of this one action has been lost to me in the past. I don’t think about it when I design. However, it is so important that we provide the user with this action so that they don’t have to think at all about the multitude of processes occurring in the background. In essence our design becomes transparent, gone from the foreground.

    Perhaps I’m just naive, but I’ve taken this for granted in the past. Again it seems to come full circle in the sense that the ‘information’ is the most important aspect of any design/application/web site. Not the shell it is being sent in…. or the experience of the shell.

  4. thismarty

    … the ‘information’ is the most important aspect of any design/application/web site. Not the shell it is being sent in…. or the experience of the shell.

    I know Tim probably means this in a completely sensible way, but I want to sieze on the opportunity to point out that there is no “the” important aspect in designed information: not the information, the design, the experience – nothing. It’s all taken as a whole and all equally important. Any one element neglected or over-emphasized can kill the entire communication.

    Information designers love to tell the info-design horror stories of the “Broad Street Pump” and the “Challenger Disaster” to illustrate these very points, where infocentricism trumped good structure and abstraction in the final visual design, ultimately costing [gasp] lives. That’s right, bad design that killed people. And there are lots of other examples involving street signs, wayfinding and so on.

  5. tdbowman

    You are right. I like to make blanket statements at times when I’m thinking about a new idea… so you are correct. My bad.

    @ Jeff –

    Am I way off base comparing Heidegger
    to Psychology’s selective attention? Definition for selective
    attention: Selective attention is purposely focusing your conscious
    awareness onto a specific stimulus.

    The word ‘purposely’ doesn’t seem to fit, but I would argue that by
    engaging the act of hammering, we are purposely ignoring the hammer.
    Above I talked about filtering of ‘noise’ be it the keyboard, the
    cat, etc.. I would also argue that our mind purposely filters the
    noise -without- our conscious consent.

    At this point in time, I would argue
    that we really want to create tools that become forgotten about. In
    my mind, this means that either the tool was intuitive and easy to use
    and we just started and haven’t had problems -or- that even if it took
    some time to learn and understand, the tool now makes sense to us and
    in essence fades from our immediate thought. Which, I think, is great
    if we are concerned with what the tool is doing for us. I don’t think
    about my iPod when I’m listening to it. I don’t care about it. It
    works. I also don’t think about the Gmail interface, it works and it
    allows me to send email.

  6. jeffreybardzell

    Am I way off base comparing Heidegger to Psychology’s selective attention?

    I’m hesitant to speak for psychology (my training is not in that area), but I do not think you are too far off-base. The main difference, I guess (and I really am guessing) is that Heidegger uses the concept of ready-to-hand philosophically, that is, as a part of his offering of a fairly comprehensive and robust theory of epistemology, whereas the notion of selective attention in psychology is primarily interested in a very specific cognitive state, which they are seeking to understand as an aspect of the domain of human psychology, not necessarily as a part of a coherent, unified theory of human knowing in philosophy. In other words, I guess they are similar ideas but deployed for different purposes.

    At this point in time, I would argue that we really want to create tools that become forgotten about.

    You are not crazy to believe this and indeed most of HCI believes this. I refer to this as the transparency aesthetic, and while I don’t think it’s insane or generally counterproductive, I don’t agree with it, unless you add so many disclaimers that you sort of change its meaning.

    First, many interfaces are desirable because they are not transparent, in at least some sense. The most conspicuous examples of this are video games, which immerse you in the interface for the interface. One can counter that within that interface, you still want transparency; so for instance, in a first person shooter, granted that you are only there to experience the interface, nonetheless you expect your gun to fire consistently given the correct input.

    Second, even interfaces that are primarily transparent most of the time can nonetheless be non-transparently lovely some of the time. Your iPod is a good example. If all you care about is the music in your ears, why didn’t you buy a Nomad and save yourself a few hundred bucks? The capacity and functionality is largely the same. Part of the pleasure of the iPod is indeed using its interface, the tactile sensation of moving your thumb around its circle while seeing the scrolling and hearing the satisfying clicking noises. It’s so lovely it calls attention to itself as a sort of reverse-breakdown: you like it so much (especially in the first week or two) that you wish it took longer to navigate to your song.

    If the objective of the user is play, then present-to-hand can in fact be desirable. If the objective is pure efficiency or performance, then ready-to-hand is generally more desirable. And, as I mentioned earlier, this can be complicated, because games, which by their very nature could be described as the opposite of usability (their purpose is to take a lot of time making you do stuff that delays the final outcome), nonetheless, usability of games is a huge topic (as this month’s Wired attests, with a great article on Microsoft’s game usability lab). That is, when the joystick becomes ready-to-hand, the desired game experience becomes present-to-hand.

  7. thismarty

    Great post, Tim! 😉

    You’ve got me wondering about this whole notion of “forgetting about” the tool. I mean, even though you may not be conscious of the tool, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve forgotten it. You just think you have.

    For instance, when you listen to music on your iPod or use the Gmail interface to read email, you are still doing things the iPod or Gmail Way, respectively. You may think that the iPod has become transparent, but the way you do/don’t/select/shuffle/etc. your music-to-go is all filtered by the deisgn of the iPod and that that entails. You may not be thinking “iPod, iPod, iPod” but you are living it.


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