Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Computer Monkeys of the Future (or not... hopefully)

A couple of months ago I wrote the following but never posted it...
"These past seven days have run the gammut — from wonderful conversations with amazing game designers to a faculty colleague insinuating that people do not want or need the classes that I create/teach. Today I sit here reflecting on the latter half of that arc. My writing these words is perhaps a way for me to purge myself of the negative thoughts I've been having. In this tiny dark corner of the digital I feel safe to write these words. More than ever I am filled with self doubt. Maybe I have been going down a wrong path. Maybe graphic design does not need to concern itself with any of the things that I have spent the last 8 years pursuing. If that is true than it's time for me to come to grips and pull the plug. I will concede that graphic designers do concern themselves with notions of user-experience, interaction, systems-level and human-centered design. But, do they do these things well enough? If so then why should I concern myself with any notions of change?

Not long ago I told a friend that I would be happy teaching design the same way that I was taught design 20 years ago. I had a great experience in my undergraduate education. I would be happy to go back to that model. So, why have I felt compelled to do anything differently? Return to your roots. All is well. Let's make things that look great, things that seem like they will solve a problem."

I have been reflecting on these words since I wrote them.  But, things have grown more complicated since then. I have been researching the future of "graphic design" and -- there is no easy way to say this -- it doesn't look great. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that the job market in "graphic design" will essentially be stagnant for the next eight years -- 1% growth. This makes me sad but also very curious.

It appears that other areas of design potentially face a much brighter future. UX and IXd in particular seem to be faced with a very bright future. It seems that I may be on to something with the concepts that I teach in my classes. I have been weaving thick threads of user-research and other IX/UX design notions into my graphic design classes. It has been challenging because both students and some of my faculty colleagues are resistant to the idea that graphic design education needs to change.

It is true that thin threads of IX/UX ideas have been used in some areas of graphic design for decades. But, these threads have been weak, inconsistent and have rarely used the same vocabulary as IX/UX. Increasingly I believe that we as graphic designers and design educators must adapt or face a strange and in my opinion undesirable future. That future is one where graphic designers are brought onto projects toward the very end of development and tasked with creating visual designs based on pre-established specifications -- i.e. graphic designers become computer monkeys.

My vision of the future is much different. It is a future where graphic designers understand and use IX/UX methods and are valuable team members that are brought onto projects before they even begin. It is a future where visual design becomes central to every step in the progress of a project. It means that graphic designers must understand user-research and how to use visual design to make that research better. Preparing students to do that type of work requires a paradigm shift. It means holding off on the design of the grail and beginning with designing the tools (i.e. visual research) that will be used to craft the grail.

Friday, March 3, 2017

It's Not About the Games

I have had on numerous occasions over the past three years people make suggestions or recommendations for me -- suggestions and recommendations that assume I want to teach or pursue game design. I want to be clear -- I have no such desires. It's true that I have a deep interest in the design of tabletop games and yes I have dabbled in designing such things. But, my interest in board game design lies in what other types of designers can learn from the concepts, methods and outcomes inherent in the design of tabletop games.

I believe very strongly that the concepts, methods and outcomes found in board game design can be powerful, powerful tools for designing almost anything. Furthermore, when used in the classroom, board game design can be an extremely effective, efficient and enjoyable means of teaching students (of all design disciplines) principles that will make them better designers. In the five different courses that I have developed and/or taught over the last three years I have used board game design in only one of them. Board game design principles could be extremely useful at any level of education. But, I strategically use game design in the 200 level course that I teach. I believe that the game design principles that I can leverage in the classroom are foundational. So, while those principles can be powerful at all levels it is best to introduce them at an early level in a design students education.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Grail Syndrome

 or Why I am a "Process" Guy

There is in graphic design (and other design disciplines) a tendency to fixate on the "thing" -- the artifact, the whatsit, the object that we believe will be the end of our design process. It can be a blinding obsession that can result in premature design-ation. The "thing" is our sirens on the cliffs, the big red shiny button, the beautiful glowing destination that calls to us like the bug to the zapper, it is our holy grail. It's difficult for me to describe in mere words the overwhelming power that the grail has over us as designers. I have begun calling this obsession the "grail syndrome." This syndrome is real and pervasive. It can result in designers falling in love with early ideas and clinging to them until the bitter end even though those ideas may be bad ones. The syndrome can result in designs that ignore any other number of  problems that should be addressed in order to generate effective, enjoyable and efficient designs.

For designers who don't understand the extreme importance of the context-of-use or the humans-we-design-for or the goals we are trying to help those humans reach, the call of the grail often ends badly. We must understand not just the grail itself. We must strive for a deep understand of it... in context... with humans... and goals. This "grail" is the literal object of our design efforts and it is often referred to in design as the form. Present day forms are rapidly evolving and accelerating in complexity. In the last twenty years we have experienced a radical shift in the types of designs that people interact with. We have moved from relatively static designs like printed catalogs to kinetic experiences like websites and mobile technologies. It is difficult to keep up with changes of this magnitude that are happening at such a rapid pace. And more importantly it is increasingly difficult to predict what we will be faced with fifteen, ten or even five years from now.

Teaching design in such a world is very exciting. It's tempting to spend most of ones time teaching students how to deal with forms that are currently in use. To some degree it is necessary to do this. But, I feel that too much emphasis on this is time misspent. Unlike the scale and speed of the evolution of form, the evolution of "design process" has been much slower. We frame, we ideate, we empathize, we iterate, we test -- these are things that designers have been doing for generations.  An emphasis on "design process" encourages students to understand design in terms of systems, humans, contexts and goals. These are concepts that don't change much over time and as design educators these are where we should be spending most of our efforts. We can prepare students for the rapid evolution of forms by teaching these concepts along with strategies for dealing with complexity (but, complexity is probably a topic best left for future post).

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Design Prototype Fidelity Addendum

Last week I wrote a post about the fidelity level of design prototypes. This topic has been on my mind for some time. Shortly after making last weeks post I created another graph that I think is noteworthy. Much like last weeks graph/post I have no quantitative research to back this up. I have been studying design and designers for a couple of decades now and these two posts reflect my personal experiences. Today's graph reflects how an experienced designer might create prototypes of increasingly high fidelity as a design project progress from its early stages to it later/final(?)/ship state. As with last weeks post this progression may depend on the type of design project that a designer might be working on and the client that the designer is working with. Sometimes it might be appropriate to create prototypes at a very high level of fidelity much earlier in the design process. So, these graphs are intended as rough "rule of thumb" models.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Design Prototype Fidelity as an Affordance for Change

I'm working on a paper that discusses low-fidelity, rapid prototyping for user-experience design. I have an interest in paper prototyping — why it's useful and important. Low-fidelity, rapid prototyping is any quick, rough way of approximating how a design will look and/or function. This is often done just with paper and markers. But it may be done with other common materials that might be found around the office -- paper, markers, tape, glue, rubber-bands, paper-clips, etc.

I also have an interest in affordances. An affordance is "a property in which the physical (or arguably visual) characteristics of an object or environment influence function." For example when you see a large wooden rectangle embedded in a wall and there is a metal knob at waist height on that rectangle -- you assume that's a door. You can assume that by twisting and pulling the knob you can open the "door." A door knob is an affordance that indicates there are certain things you can do.

So it occurred to me today that these two interests work well together. Of course it is one of those seemingly obvious connections.

We do pencil sketches on paper because they are easy to change and easy to change quickly. The low-fidelity of the materials of pencil and paper afford us the ability to change our sketches. As the fidelity of a prototype becomes higher it becomes increasingly difficult to change. A low-fidelity prototype of an iPhone app may be done with several post-it notes stuck to the screen of the phone. Drawn on the post-it notes are a series of screens that represent how the app looks and functions. Peeling off one post-it note after another gives an approximate experience for using the app. Changes to such a prototype can be done in seconds. As the prototype is slowly evolved by the designer the prototyping moves from pencil on paper to digital wireframes and beyond. As the prototypes increase in fidelity it becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming to make changes.

There is enormous value in using low-fidelity prototyping in the early stages of a design project. The low-fidelity of the prototype affords the designer the ability to make changes easily, quickly and very inexpensively. The fidelity level of a prototype acts as an affordance -- low-fidelity acts as an affordance for a high degree of changeability and high-fidelity acts as an affordance for a low degree of changeability.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Metaphorical Gestures -- Designing for a new tomorrow

"Everyone can – and does – design. We all design when we plan for something new to happen..."
-- Cross, Nigel. Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work (p. 3).

Here I am again beating the same old drum... but, I can't help myself. I believe very deeply if we align ourselves with notions of human-centered design or even human-computer interaction design that we must find our way to a deeper understanding of the people that our design is intended for. Crazy right?! There are of course many ways of accomplishing this. It so happens that my preferred route is through methods that have their roots in cultural anthropology. Many approaches from this discipline include some form of participant observation. That means spending time with the people you are trying to understand -- interviewing them, working with them, having conversations with them, etc. Many anthropologists spend years doing this with a single community.

Now imagine how this might be done most effectively, efficiently and enjoyably.

The Don't s
If you are studying a group of people whose beliefs you do not share what are some things you should avoid doing? Here is a short list of a few things you may want to avoid doing...
  • - speak down to them
  • - label them with derogatory words
  • - treat them with disrespect
  • - make them feel unnecessarily uncomfortable
  • - do or say things that will make them feel less human
  • - patronize them 
  • - pound them with facts or comments trying to disprove their beliefs

The Do s
As you might imagine a list of do s would pretty much be the opposite of the list of don't s
  • - speak to people as equals
  • - don't label them at all but if you do try to use positive labels
  • - treat them with respect
  • - try to create a comfortable environment for your relationship
  • - make them feel that they have great potential
  • - be humble
  • - find common ground and build from that

Let me just say that I believe that these are principles of a effective, efficient and enjoyable design process. It just so happens that much of what we do as humans is in fact design.

"...we plan for something new to happen, whether that might be a new version of a recipe, a new arrangement of the living room furniture, or a new layout of a personal web page. The evidence from different cultures around the world, and from designs created by children as well as by adults, suggests that everyone is capable of designing. So design thinking is something inherent within human cognition; it is a key part of what makes us human."
Cross, Nigel. Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work (p. 3).

If you want to design something with an eye towards improving the future then you may have to change your approach. I propose that if you want to create something that will improve the future environment of some group of people (or perhaps just make it more tolerable or more interesting) then you may be well advised to carefully consider how you interact with them.

My design work of late has been to study designers -- my intent being to write, create or design papers or visual schemas that will improve understandings of how they work. When I spend time with the designers that I study I try to practice the do s and don't s that I have listed above.

What are you trying to design? How are you trying to change the future? Who are the people you are working for/with on those projects? Are you acting with them in ways that are productive and  unifying or are you acting in ways that may be counter-productive and divisive?

It's good practice to contemplate what you are planning to do and to reflect on what you have been doing. Write down or record in some way these contemplations and reflections. Always be trying to evolve the way that you work.

There may be readers here who are reading things of a political nature into this post. I'm ok with that. But, please understand I believe deeply that much of what we try to do as human beings are really forms of design. This is just who I am. If you read into this post some ulterior motive then ... well ... oh well. One of my primary missions in life is to help designers to better understand what they do and as a hopeful result improve their design thinking, doing and making. If we are all designers and if much of what we do in life is design then yes these ideas may be applicable to many of the things that humans do... including politically oriented efforts.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Board Game Prototype as Cultural Probe — Research Through Design

"Creative Differences" -- a board game design that I am working on, being tested a protospiel.

Bill Gaver and Tony Dunne developed a research method called a "cultural probe." For Gaver and Dunne the purpose of this method is to explore the context for a yet-to-be-defined design. A cultural probe is a designed object or designed kit of objects with a set of instructions that is given to members of a community (or subjects). A cultural probe may be something like a camera or notebook that the subjects use to record certain aspects of their lives. Subjects use the cultural probe and then return it to the designer who then uses it to gain insights that they might be able to use for a new design.

Cultural probes have been on my mind a lot lately. Not too long ago I attended a "protospiel" — i.e. a collaborative design workshop for board game designers. I had the opportunity to run playtests for a friend's game. It was a great experience and gave me a chance to, from a different perspective, see designers work. I took a lot of photographs, audio recordings and some video clips.

It occurred to me that it might be possible to use a board game as a sort of cultural probe. For example I could design a board game, bring it to a protospiel and have other designers collaborate to help me with the design. In fact I've already done this. But what didn't occur to me at the time is that I could do this — taking notes, photos or video and essentially use the board game as a sort of cultural probe. In some aspects it would of course not be a probe in the ways envisioned by Gaver and Dunne. But, it's an idea inspired by their work and I think it might be an interesting twist that could be useful for my research.

Can a board game be used as a type of cultural probe? Would I need to design the game in any particular way or could it be almost any design? Are there things I could learn about designers by observing them as I playtest a game designed as a cultural probe? To some extent I have already been doing this. But, I haven't done it with any intent explicit to this notion of "board game as cultural probe." I'm not sure where I will go with this or if I will use this idea. But, I feel excited about the possibilities. In this instance the probe could be a means of examining many aspects of collaborative design.