Some advice about giving advice

While researching for a paper I'm writing for my graduate design seminar course, I came across an article by Dr. Perri Klass called "The Elephant in the Exam Room." It's not within the scope of my paper topic, but I thought it was too interesting to discard. In the article, Dr. Klass reflects on the difficulty of giving nutrition and lifestyle advice to her patients when she herself is not thin. She raises the question, is it best to get advice from people who...

  • personally understand your struggles because they have a hard time following the same advice?
  • no longer struggle because they've made their own advice work for them?
  • never needed advice in the first place?

Think about it. How would the advice likely differ among these three people? Whose advice would you be most inclined to take to heart?

Spring break update

Spring break has come and gone without really being. At least, that's how it felt as I spent all week in Pittsburgh, reading and writing for school assignments and thesis preparation. I am glad I got things done, though, especially when I consider all that lies ahead. A quarter-long mini course I had been taking, Adaptive Service Design, has just ended. On the bright side, that means I'm only going to be taking four classes for the rest of the semester instead of five. The sad part is that it was a course with really interesting readings and classroom discussions that flowed freely, buoyed by a natural enthusiasm and curiosity that's rare to find. This was the first time the course was taught, as well, so I feel lucky to have had the experience. For my final project, I created a service blueprint for an adaptive campus dining service, which I will discuss in greater detail in a later post.

Also this week, I finished reading an excellent book called Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. It's full of entertaining anecdotes about food psychology experiments conducted at Cornell, one of the most memorable being a comparison of how much soup people would eat out of a normal bowl versus a covertly self-refilling (aka bottomless) bowl. The finding: people use their eyes, not their stomachs, to gauge when they are full. I won't give anything away, but there are some asides specifically about that study that made me laugh out loud.

I'm halfway through another book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. This book's about choice architecture - the design of environments in which choices are made. It's not as funny as Mindless Eating but still thought-provoking. Some of it reminds me of the material in my Information Design and Rhetoric course, the takeaway being that no design can be neutral. Beatrice Warde's crystal goblet may be an aspiration, but it is also a mirage, ever unreachable. And since design always influences, the designer has a responsibility to influence with intent.

I Spring break! WOooooOOooOoo!

Anonymity in online discussions

I noticed a nugget in the sidebar of the Wall Street Journal Online today. Only online subscribers can create groups, so I created a (free) account to see how the group feature works. In the process, I noticed something interesting in the registration dialog box, but only after I expanded the fine print. The line that caught my eye in particular was, "The quality of conversations can deteriorate when real identities are not provided." Okay...under certain circumstances, with certain individuals, it can. People can more easily avoid real-world consequences when they post inflammatory comments anonymously. 

More generally, attaching a person's legal name to comments increases the likelihood that something they post could affect their personal lives or work. But anonymity is not a shield exclusively for bad behavior. 

Say someone posts with their legal name in a discussion about healthcare and shares the fact that they are coping with an illness. An insurance company could conceivably use that information to deny the person coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition. Or say someone who has been victimized posts with their legal name in a discussion about dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, or harassment in the workplace. Oh wait - most wouldn't do that. Would allowing them to post anonymously really deteriorate the quality of the conversation?

One might argue that the WSJO is a source for business and financial news, so the kinds of discussions that would take place on the site aren't as sensitive as the examples I just gave. Well, I am browsing the Groups directory and here are some discussion groups I've found in the past minute:


Addictions (Members: 3)

Drugs and medical care (Members: 7)

Faces of Health Care (Members: 29)

Health Care Economics (Members: 98)

Workplace & Career

Diversity and Inclusion (Members: 7)

Global Neighborhoods & Social Media (Members: 313)

Management issues (Members: 1081)

Rebuilding Trust (Members: 5)

Looking at these numbers, I wonder how much the site's policy of self-identification influences the groups people choose to join and what they disclose in their posts. In placing such focus on real identities, how much of the real conversation is not being voiced?

Snow and a survey

Unprecedented snowfall has closed Carnegie Mellon for three days running, forcing my team to find creative ways to collaborate and plan our research efforts in the 2010 Social + Service design challenge. Using a combination of Skype, Google Wave, and email, we created an online survey to gather information about people's views, behavior, and values relating to news consumption. As we designed the questions, we also reflected on some interesting points: what it means to be a news consumer, what is the purpose of news, and the many ways in which we get news in a media-saturated environment.

Take the survey*

*The survey is anonymous, but if you take it, you will earn my undying anonymous gratitude - and possibly reflect on the presence of news in your own life.

Lecture day

I just attended a university lecture by Chuck Klosterman, journalist, pop culture philosopher and author of books such as Eating the Dinosaur. In a self-aware storyteller style reminiscent of a stand-up comic, he talked about a variety of things, including Why are things the size they are? How are a blues club and a zoo similar? What is the relationship between reality and realness? How is the Unabomber's Manifesto relevant to society today?

These kind of lectures remind me why I enjoy the university environment. Not only was the talk entertaining and interesting, the students in the audience asked questions that were equally thought-provoking. I especially liked the debate that sparked over whether new media creates a low ceiling for creative thought - whether the images we see in television and movies limit our ability to imagine things outside our own experience.

Earlier in the afternoon, I attended a talk hosted by the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. Ezio Manzini, founder of the DESIS (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability) Network, described how designers are harnessing social resources to tackle sustainability issues. Citing examples from urban vegetable gardens to co-housing, the smiling Italian emphasized four characteristics of successful projects in this area: small, local, connected, and open. The Q&A session afterward for this talk provided additional food for thought.

What kind of foundation is today's generation laying for future generations? Are designers becoming a professional field without an industry? What is the relationship between sustainability and resilience?

I look forward to pondering these questions further, in between the bursts of concentration I will, of course, devote to my course work and thesis topic musings...


I turned in a first draft of my paper entitled "What is interaction design?" this morning for seminar, churned through the weekend's trend analysis findings with my studio classmates this afternoon, went home, took a nap, and arose groggily an hour later feeling like I just came out of a weekend-long design bender that I can't quite remember. Scraps of paper litter my desk, covered with the fragmented ramblings of a deranged design philosopher in my own handwriting. An avalanche of articles in varying states of annotation clutter my virtual desk. I sweep them clear with a single Command-Q and begin reading the assignments for this week. Highlight, summarize, synthesize, repeat. I shall be insane by spring.

A new semester

The second semester of my Master of Design in Interaction Design program began this Monday, and I can already tell it will be a cold, hard marathon to the end. I've been training by walking to and from school each day in the snow, uphill both ways, with a fully loaded backpack. Today was a relatively balmy 34°F day. Sunny. Atypically devoid of precipitation. But I am not letting that lull me into a false sense of security. Oh, no. I am taking vitamin D supplements to get me through the Pittsburgh winter, and I'm keeping a regular sleep schedule to keep the germs at bay. My challenge this time around: Graduate Design Studio II featuring a semester-long team project to design a social service, sponsored by either Microsoft or Motorola (to be determined by a brief yet brutal death match on pay-per-view)

Research Methods in Human Centered Design covering a series of methods for explorative, generative, and evaluative research (my favorite to imagine: "velcro modeling") to support the project work in Studio II

Graduate Design Seminar II reading and writing about interaction design (Will anyone top Henri Bergson for most baffling argument? Stay tuned...)

Adaptive Service Design exploring service design that leverages context-aware technology such as mobile phones, intelligent environments, and robotic products (super excited about this one!)

Information Design and Rhetoric exploring how rhetoric can provide systematic frameworks for designing information products in complex situations (more reading and writing guaranteed to blow my mind, plus two projects)

And just to prove it's on, I'm going to stop this post now and go do some reading. Stay warm, people.

Happy Thanksgiving

I live in a building that someone else built.

I eat food that someone else grew.

I know the joy of music because others shared it with me.

I know how to write because someone else taught me how.

I have been fed, clothed, and sheltered when I had nothing to give in return.

I have learned by the examples of others what it means to be a good friend.

So many of life's blessings came without my having earned them.

So much of life's meaning comes from those who do not count the cost.

To all these people who have made my life what it is:

Thank you.

Help Hammy: an interactive composition

I just finished making an interactive composition in Flash for my Computing in Design class entitled "Help Hammy." My concept was inspired by the Lucas Arts puzzle adventure games, in which a player explores and interacts with the environment in a spirit of playful discovery. "Help Hammy" was my first serious foray into Actionscript, which happily, has syntax very similar to Java. Learning how to animate in Flash was a bit trickier for me, and as you can see, artwork is not my specialty! However, I learned quite a bit in the process and hope you enjoy the result. original-sketch

Future Generations

One of the instructors in my graduate design seminar related a reaction that someone once had during a class exercise years ago. It went something like this: "Why should my work serve future generations? What have they ever done for me?" He brought it up as an example of the egocentrism he wishes designers to  purge from their mindsets. But I think a serious consideration of these questions reveals a very compelling answer in favor of a future-oriented approach in design.

What have future generations done for us? Well, their very existence validates that the present generation will have survived successfully enough to propagate our species. We won't have blown ourselves into oblivion or rendered our environment otherwise uninhabitable. In short, future generations signify that we won't have screwed up humanity beyond all hope. Naturally, future generations can't communicate this comforting revelation to us. The fruits of our labor will be realized in their lifetimes, not ours.

So, getting back to the original question, why should our work serve future generations? In the spirit of being audience-centered, I shall address this question from a self-interested perspective. Future generations will be more affected by our actions than we are, just as we are more affected by the actions of past generations than they were. You can call it the butterfly effect, compounding, or whatever you like. Our work affects future generations whether we intend it to or not.

If we work either without regard to how our actions will affect future generations or suspecting that our actions are likely to cause harm to future generations, we  decrease the likelihood of their existence. The grosser our negligence, the fewer future generations there will be. If the number of future generations goes to zero, then our generation is the end of the line. We end humanity. Do you want to take credit for that? No? Then get to work and stop bitching. The future is waiting.

Of course, if you are really, really successful at eliminating all future generations, there will be no one left to blame you. So I guess the takeaway message is, do whatever you like, but do it well.

Interaction Design Jargon

I am learning new words, and some new meanings for old words, in the course of my graduate education and thought it might be helpful to start compiling a list for my own reference. Keep in mind that these are the definitions I have pieced together from various readings and, as such, they may be incomplete, wrong, or atypical interpretations of their use within the design discourse.

affordance noun invitation to a particular action

A rubber sheath of a suitable diameter on a kitchen gadget, for instance, may be an affordance to grip that spot.

feedforward noun relating to control design (buttons, knobs, touchscreens, etc.), communication of the purpose of an action

The iPhone's "slide to unlock" message, as a feedforward mechanism, communicates the purpose of the sliding action.

inherent feedback noun feedback strongly coupled to the action

The audible click when one presses a mouse button signals that the mouse has registered the action.

teleological adjective the philosophical study of design and purpose

Sometimes academics casually strew words throughout their papers that I've never heard of and can't find in a standard dictionary. I've included a few below. Please comment with their meanings if you know them.

inforced verb

heterarchical adjective

" fails when applied to problems that involve people as informed agents, in heterarchical forms of organizations like markets."     - The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design

praxiographic adjective

This one, I suspect, is rooted in the word "praxis," which refers to practice as opposed to theory.

Thoughts on teachers

The role of teaching assistant is new to me, but after one week, I have already learned three things from peeking on the other side of the student-teacher divide.

Realization #1: Teachers have lives outside teaching.

This may be a throwback to the egocentric perspective of childhood, but I am still adjusting to the realization that instructors don't simply appear at the start of class and dissipate after class into the ether to dream up new assignments while us students deal with all the trials of "real life" - all that stuff that we think our teachers don't appreciate, like all the work we have to do for our *other* classes, our mile-long list of errands, that social event that's going to take up our entire Saturday... Turns out, our instructors have stuff like that to juggle, too - stuff that gets in the way of their being able to flawlessly anticipate their students' needs and questions.

Realization #2: Teachers have two jobs.

Like other professionals, teachers have to be knowledgeable about the subject they teach. Unlike other professionals, they cannot dedicate forty hours a week to continually develop that knowledge because they have to - oh yeah - teach classes. In addition to keeping their specialized knowledge current, they also have to develop the skills to effectively convey that knowledge to other people - people of differing backgrounds and priorities who all have their own preferred styles of learning.

Realization #3: Teachers are learning how to teach while they are teaching.

There is no universal solution for getting knowledge into someone else's brain, let alone thirty different brains simultaneously. Teachers have their experience and perspective to guide them, but they also use student feedback to do their jobs effectively.

A Layman's Reading of "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning"

Reading #2:"Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" Working Papers from the Urban & Regional Development Horst W.J. Rittel & Melvin M. Webber

Bitch bitch bitch. Whine whine whine. Suddenly everybody's an expert, and nothing's good enough, despite the fact that we have well-trained professionals in countless fields. Well, if you think the situation's bad now, just watch while we tackle issues that are actually hard! Goal-formulation, problem-definition, and equity issues are going to weaken the professional's support system in a serious way.

In the 1960s, professionals in the U.S. were asked to consider the systems they dealt with more actively, what they do and what they should do, rather than what are they made of. This "goal-finding" turned out to be difficult. Boo. Meanwhile, people began protesting the systemic processes of contemporary American society left and right. Think the civil rights movement, the student movement, the anti-war movement, consumerism, conservationism, etc. Planners had to pay more attention to end-results, because obeying The Man was no longer a valid excuse for screwing up.

In the face of discouraging complexity, planning and policy sciences have been regarded as potentially viable means of improving society. But are social professionals up to the enormity of their task?

We have learned to question not only the efficiency but the appropriateness of a given solution. We have also become more sensitized to the interconnectedness of systems and, thus, more apt to realize that a targeted action may have undesired consequences.

Problems no longer appear as straightfoward as they once did. Defining and locating the problems turns out to be as difficult as outlining their solutions.

Creating a planning/governing system is difficult for one gigantic reason: we can't see the future! It doesn't help that societal problems do not have a steady state solution. They are less like science and engineering problems and more like Whack-A-Mole. We call them wicked problems in reference to their tricky and difficult-to-describe nature. Also because we've always wanted to see how many times we could use the word "wicked" in a scholarly paper. 49.

Even the task of describing wicked problems appears to first require identification of their solutions. If that doesn't blow your mind, consider this: no matter how good a solution we find, there could always be a better solution. There is no way to tell for sure, so we just stop working when we get hungry or sleepy.

Also, there is no do-over for solving wicked problems. The system cannot be reset, and we can't tell how long the effects of a particular attempt will last.

Come to think of it, we don't even know what our end goal should be. Crap.

Posted via email from corinna's posterous

A Layman's Reading of The Design Way: "The First Tradition"

I am in design school, but I am not a designer. As I plow through stacks of assigned readings, my non-designerly brain is straining to distill erudite works into comprehensible nuggets. And entertain itself late at night. Here goes... Reading #1: The Design Way Chapter 1: The First Tradition

Everything kickass in human history that someone did on purpose should be considered design. And the geniuses who achieved these things should be called designers but probably weren't because the world has never fully appreciated the awesomeness that is design. (Note to future-designer self: Create an experienced reality to fix this!)

Imagine something that doesn't yet exist, then make it: that's design.

Designers can't know the full impact of their creations ahead of time. They're not God, duh. But their creations can still have large-scale impact, either good or bad.

Why do we design? To survive, to improve, to develop, to create. And because we can. Designing gives us a sense of control over our lives and an opportunity to move closer ourselves to perfection.

Back in Plato's day, thought was hot, and manual labor was not. This situation didn't bode well for design, which unites thinking and making. The situation today isn't much better. Consider: we still distinguish between blue-collar and white-collar work. Does maintaining this distinction serve us?

The pre-Socratic era had the idea of design broken down into useful chunks, but by the middle ages, it had become oversimplified to the point where people mostly abandoned design as an answer as they struggled to deal with the changes taking place around them.

Nowadays, people react to problems in their lives by trying to solve them. But some problems cannot be effectively solved with a problem-focused mindset. They are part of a larger system that cannot be optimized by ignoring all but one or two of the revelant variables.

Design wisdom combines reason with observation, reflection, imagination, action, and production. Being design-wise means you can shift from an analog experience of life, to a digital or analytic perspective of the world, and back again.

Agents of change: chance, necessity, and (design buzzword...) intention.

"Design utilizes a process of composition, which pulls a variety of elements into relationship with one another, forming a functional assembly that can serve the purposes and intentions of diverse populations of human beings." (pulled verbatim because this sentence did interesting things to my brain)

A designer should critically analyze the nature of design. Think and practice with intention. Spread the word.