Concrete to Abstract: On the Goals of the Course

We can divide the issues discussed in this class into three broad categories: concrete, particular designs; the underlying design concepts, insights, principles, and strategies that they rely on; and the deeper philosophical implications beneath them. Here’s one of my patentable scientific diagrams:


At the top are actual, concrete designs: “dialing from favorites list on this phone,” or “the use of camera techniques in this scene of this film,” or “the images representing this project in this designer’s professional portfolio.”

In the middle are a series of operational design concepts. I say “operational” to indicate that in some literal sense, they led to or caused the design to come out as it did. These can be implicit or explicit, and I would say that most designs contain a bit of both. Because they are operational, understanding at this level is essential to understanding and evaluating a design (criticism). Likewise, the more a designer is aware of and in control of these operational design concepts (i.e., not taking it all for granted), the more the designer consents to her or his own design. Developing substantial competence with this layer is a primary goal of this class, and in many ways a primary goal of your Masters degree in this program. I would regard how a designer incorporates concerns regarding aesthetics, experience, sustainability, usability, and a host of similar concerns as taking place on this layer.

One of my major goals in this class is to say that this operational layer is itself dependent on a deeper layer, the philosophical. I (following many others) have tried to show that traditional interaction design was grounded on Cartesian dualism (mind/body, thinking/action), and I have laid out the phenomenological critique of this position, from Winograd & Flores to Dourish to things like Situated Action Theory and Activity Theory. More recently, I have tried to show that structuralism and poststructuralism also offer a reservoir of concepts and ways of seeing the world that can be productive: seeing designs as participating in “cultural logics” and “language games,” for example.

At the same time, I want to stress that for Masters students, especially on the professional as opposed to Ph.D. track, I don’t expect you to completely master the deep philosophical roots. I hope, rather, that our brief tours of the philosophical roots in this class can make you more sensitive to the ways that the operational concepts you do use, from design techniques like sketching to research techniques like surveys and focus groups, blind as well as yield insights. Moreover, they yield blindness and insight in predictable ways, based upon their philosophical foundations. Interviews, as a more or less phenomenological approach, yield insight into the ways people conciously perceive an interaction/experience; but as phenomenological approaches, not surprisingly, they tell us less about the relationships among formal characteristics of the interface and the ways that they encode meanings, assumed behaviors, and even ethical positions.

To conclude, I want to reiterate that ultimately what I care most about in terms of what you learn in this class is how to recognize and think deeply about operational design concepts, not how to think deeply about 20th century continental philosophy. (Philosophy can teach you that far better than I can.) Just about all of your readings have been about these operational concepts–from “the language of film” to the structures of collaborative human activities.

My assumption about your final papers, therefore, is that while you may take approaches that are generally phenomenological and or (post) structuralist, you ultimately are exploring how particular design artifacts relate to what you believe to be their underlying operational design insights or concepts.

I am *not* looking for anyone in this class to offer a meaningful analysis or critique of phenomenology or structuralism itself; nor do I expect anyone to claim that they are doing a “proper phenomenological” or “proper structuralist” analysis of an artifact. I myself am not sure what that means, and I certainly don’t expect any of you to defend such a claim.

Above all, I want to see thoughtful analyses of particular artifacts, and I want to see that because I believe it will be a valuable skill for your future design work.

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