Interacting with Possibilities of Existence

Inspired by both Futurama and Rem Koolhaas’ Eneropa in which Koolhaas re-imagines Europe as a network of renewable energy capable of reducing our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, Dunne and Raby in their latest work describe an imaginary future governed by technology and centred around the car, posing a deeply philosophical question: What is the impact of design on ways of existence? And, to which extent does design take in consideration their consequences on the big picture (society, community, economy, etc.)?

This work entitled United Micro Kingdoms (UMK) uses the car to speculate on the future of our world and the power of design in affecting our very ways of living. The car represents not simply a vehicle for moving through space, but more precisely the object that carries out our psychology, our idea of freedom and speed. The work takes the UK as its canvas and divides its lands into 4 imaginary states ranging from the utopic to the dystopic, in this way alluding to the notion that utopia comes at a price and may have undesirable consequences.

At first glance it seemed as though this was yet another utopia initiative. Dunne and Raby started with a big idea and realised that “we knew nothing about government, or car making, etc.” so they went on to learn how to make these things possible by collaborating with engineers and scientists, in turn ensuring that these imaginary worlds are not simply imagined and inert afterthoughts, but possible and realistic new universes. It was weeks after the symposium that it dawned on me that this project was pushing the boundaries of the make-believe aesthetic.

These utopias shed light on the very power of design in shaping our worlds for better or worse. The Digitarian state represents the most dystopian world in which cars are moving living rooms varying in size according to the economic class system and using colours to distract from the idea that the city prioritises economics over everything else. The Anarcho-Evolutionist state is designed around the limits of engineering and genetic manipulation. That world places the human capital at the centre of everything, involving both notions of the individual/singular and the collective/plural community. The Anarcho-Evolutionist car is a social vehicle and varies in its sociability (i.e. multiple interlocked bikes with open hitchhikers seats for good conversationists). The Communi-Nuclearist state is a countryside styled state resting on the edges of civilisation. The Communi-Nuclearist car is the impossible vehicle within which society lives. It is a 7 foot 4 kilometres train in the form of a moving landscape operating as a nightclub door community: one in means one out. Finally, the Bio-Liberal state has bio-digesting cars made of delicate organic material representing a symbiosis with nature.

Dunne & Raby speculate and have given form to utopia(s) under the critical lens of societal ways of living and thinking. Their work considers the very economic distance phenomena taking place in civilised society. While it is important to raise the question of the majority of the world population living in accute poverty, it is quite often the poor communities within civilised societies, within our own neighbourhood even, that are neglected and suffer a lack of attention. UMK addresses that economic gap in a realistic and plausible manner. Granted much is left to be explored and perhaps intensionally so, allowing the audience to react and imagine possibilities. More precisely, the project raises a very important aspect of our ways of living and highlights the criterion whereby we project our very sense of privacy, status, and being through the tangible varied personas of the car.

What these concepts teach us is how to embody dilemmas within the larger contexts of our lives, how utopian ideas may have “complicated” pleasures engendering dystopia. It’s important to challenge our belief systems in order to push the boundaries of our reality and change what we know and incite new concepts and realities into the context of everyday life.

– Raby, Dunne. The Stuff Between Us: Designing Interactions Beyond the Object. “The Aesthetic of Unreality.” Design Symposium: At Zurich University of the Arts on October 4-5, 2013 in Zurich, Switzerland.


On UX Dept

“UX dept” is used to represent the gap between a product’s ideal user experience and its actually quality. The expression gives life to that gap and provides designers a language for perceiving and evaluating the real state and quality of UX experience in terms of the 4 emotional measures: functional, reliable, usable, and pleasurable. According to Aarron Walter’s “Hierarchy of User Needs,” which follows Maslow’s framework of Hierarchy of (Human) Needs, the functional measure lives at the lowest level of the quality axis and supports the increasingly qualitative measures: reliable, usable, and pleasurable; the latter sitting at the top of the pyramid denoting the ideal, target or “peak” experience.

This notion is interesting to me because it gives me a quality matrix to place my work against and aim for when designing a user experience. It seems the work delivered in UX focusses more on the first 3 floors of the pyramid, often sacrificing the best quality defining measure; the pleasurable. For the author of the article, Andrew Walter, “UX dept” only takes place when designers think an experience can or should be better. It is the result of “cutting corners” and making fast constraint-based decisions to the detriment of a pleasurable and best user experience.

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Frog’s Research Learning Spiral (How the Why of data wins over the What)

As clients are becoming increasingly aware of ethnographic-ish research being an essential and integral part of the design process for a high quality user experience offer, it is important for us (designers) to learn an appropriate format for approaching and customizing research on a project basis.

Frog’s Research Learning Spiral, as David Sherwin names it in A Five-Step Process for Conducting User Research, allows us to think of research as not only a set of insight-focused methodologies and collaborative practices, but also very much so as a process of articulating and defining the focus area and scope of the research itself through its 5 learning stages: Objectives, Hypotheses, Methods, Conduct, and Synthesis.

I would like to focus on the the 3 early stages of the spiral. These are fundamental in situating the research area and addressing design questions with methodologies geared towards feeding our knowledge lexicon of people and things in their habitual contexts according to pre-defined objectives and hypotheses.

1 • Objectives focus on the framing of questions following the 3 Ws and an H structure: Who What When Where Why and How. These together help us define who the demographic user base is, what activities they might be involved in while using our service or product, when they would be engaged in such activities, where these activities would take place, under which emotional or rational states (why), and using which processes. These questions are in turn reformulated into simple statements of research objectives, which outline the scope of the research effort.

2 • Hypotheses are assumption packed opinions or suppositions we have about a product or service, its users, and the contextual settings in which the product acts, which are meant to be tested and challenged. Sherwin lists 3 types of hypotheses: attitude (what users would like to get out of a service), behavior (what users would like to do with the service), and feature (which feature users would most enjoy using).

3 • Methods — such as contextual enquiry, surveys, interviews, and benchmarking — can help prove or disprove these hypotheses by revealing key data about a demographic user, their contextual environments, and identify leverage points wherein design can affect their everyday and provide positive change or support. Other more participatory activities which involve probing users — such as diary studies, card sorting, and paper prototyping — can serve as experiential idea generating methods with a capacity for drawing design solutions and concepts that meet the user’s needs and mental models. Finally, evaluative methods — such as usability testing, heuristic evaluations, and cognitive walkthroughs — will demonstrate whether these ideas are effective, useful, and desirable.

[F]inding meaning in your data […] can mean reading between the lines and not taking a quote or something observed at face value. The why behind a piece of data is always more important than the what.” — Lauren Serota, Associate Creative Director at Frog Design

According to Sherwin, data tells us what and when users do things, but not why. Context is in fact king. Integrating such framework for user research helps provide us with the contextual understanding — the understanding of given demographics’ everydayness — for making more informed design decisions.

I am particularly interested in the name “learning spiral”: a looping process that doesn’t need to be lengthy, costly, and a unique event. It is spiral and has the potential of being a cyclical and iterative process, which can be applied as needed at different stages of a design process and with a different scope. That spiral from which I can learn allows me to investigate more specific areas of my users’ everyday by defining learning objectives.

While every research endeavour has a plan and objectives, i particularly found this interpretation because it gives importance to the planning and framing of research and integrates objectives definition as part of the research itself. Typically research seems to begin with contextual inquiry and interviewing right away as a recourse to inform the design approach and concept which does not necessarily end up being a solution that is desirable. Involving research participants in the framing of the research seems to be a more inclusive and humane approach that is bound to have a worthwhile and desirable quality.

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Startups on The connected Home, TV, and Living Room

On May 7, 2013 I attended an event entitled “The connected Home, TV, and Living Room” sponsored by MIT and Verizon at the Yotel Hotel in New York. The talks consisted of 4 startup representatives who Verizon named “Ninja Innovators”… this is I am assuming open to interpretation. Presenters were allowed a total of 3 minutes each, or so. Enough time to give you an idea of what their ideas were and share a URL, but not enough to totally grasp the incentive behind the work and how users find their concepts engaging, useful, and possibly sustainable.

The 4 Ninja Innovators were as follows: provides video distribution over IP, using singular or a combination of multiple devices. The concept was borne out of the simple question: “Can we just beam it to the TV?”

SIMULmedia is an advertising startup that practices targeted advertising as you watch TV, reaching an audience at scale looking at region frequency curves. They called this “the connected living room of the future”. (hmmm…)

KISI systems (here’s my favorite) allows users to control their multi home units with their phones, packing keys and wallet into the phone with the aid of an app suite. This means users can control their TV, doors (including the garage door), etc. Kisi enables this shift by building on top of existing infrastructures within users homes (i.e. alarm system) rather than forcing new infrastructures to replace old ones which can be costly. It does that by providing a Kisi toolkit. Their tag line seemed to be something like that: Kisi is your doorman who knows it all.

Get Blue is the latest Social TV app initiative allowing users to share reactions about content watched with friends on Facebook and Twitter. This app is about discovering, sharing, and the second screen. It works with partners that populate the screens with exclusive TV content; this way re-imagining discovery on the first and second screens.



Last summer, a group of Fjordians took an inspiration field trip to the Park Avenue Armory to experience Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s “Murder of Crows.” In this spatial-sonic installation, Cardiff recounts an uncanny dream through the subtle use of natural and urban sounds, machine-like distortions, intertwined with classical musical scores and a Russian anti-fascist war song.

As we entered the darkened space, Cardiff began her monologue. It sounded as though she was responding to someone in an intimately eloquent voice, as if we had been thrown into a bedroom conversation. There was a feeling of voyeurism forced intermittently into Cardiff’s dream as she dreams it in sound and music, and asynchronously as she recounts the details of it. The high ceiling and the quality of the sounds emanating from the 98 speakers surrounding us were intimidatingly appealing and immersive. Critiqued by the Helsinki Times as “an aural feast,” the installation uses sound and spatial arrangements as sole material for art. It gave the feeling of a 3D sonar experience, with particular sounds sneaking around us to map the spatial dimensions of the room and delineate the boundaries of the artwork.


Some speakers were anthropomorphized, given human status, positioned on chairs opposite the audience and staring at us from all frontal angles. Cardiff’s softly spoken voice sprang from a gramophone speaker placed at the center of the room, giving her a physical presence in the room. A spotlight shone over her metallic body, and our chairs pointed in her direction to form a circle, drawing the focus to the center of the experience.

Filled with cues for various smells, colors, times and places, the aesthetic experience is essentially about discovering the sound mixture as it distributes itself through the space. We felt immersed in the piece both as viewers and as contributors to the total energy within it. We sat, closed our eyes, stood up, walked in between speakers and beyond the experiential space, and to this end, unknowingly completed the artwork. We naturally formed a temporary community as we sunk into the experience of Cardiff’s most bizarre dream, and shared our energy with that of other participants as a distributed state of mind. Only by being there were we able to fully understand the beauty and intricacy of the musical and spatial compositions.


Walking out, each at our own pace, we could still locate the spotlight getting smaller behind us, and hear Cardiff’s fainting voice as she recounted her dream once again. We could continuously imagine experiencing the artwork in new ways by moving differently in the space.

For more information, please visit: Event page

Image sources: 1) 2) 3)

First Published Aug 22, 2012 in conversations.fjordnet

Meadows’ Leverage Points in Complex Systems

“[L]everage points” […] are places within a complex system […] where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.’ (Meadows, 1999:1)


Simple systemic flows connected together create complex systems. Flows consist of stocks moving according to set parameters, constants, and numbers. According to Donella Meadows, a system has a stock-and-flow structure. Its stock represents its state, and its flow represents the inflow and outflow that reflect changes in the system’s stock volume. This flow has temporality and depends on the parameters existing in the system. Parameters indicate the rate at which flows increase (inflow) and decrease (outflow) the system’s stock volume. A system may be stable, slow or rapid (imbalanced). Because this stock-and-flow structure entails that the stock volume and stability depends on the rate of the flows (in and out), a system’s stability requires the leveraging of a stock’s buffer capacity so that, if slow, the buffer decreases, and if rapid, the buffer increases. Decreasing or increasing the size of buffer capacity in a system stabilizes and leverages its stock.

The leverage point is in proper design in the first place. After the structure is built, the leverage is in understanding its limitations […] and refraining from fluctuations or expansions that strain its capacity.” (Meadows, 1999:8)

Oscillations in a system result in delays in feedback loops. Short or long delays account for imbalances in a system, describe the rate of changes in the state of the system, and determine the efficiency of its feedback loops. Meadows calls short feedback loops “overreaction” –oscillations that are too short, rapid, and amplified. When speed of changes and size of delays don’t coincide, one sees imbalances in the system.


Long feedback loops, those that create slowness in the system’s responses to action, cause chaos, collapse, and irreversible damage. However, most important to a system’s stability is its growth rate. Changing delays in a system can have drastic implications on the stability of the system –its inflow and outflow dilemma. Complex systems contain negative feedback loops that are responsible for regulating these changes (oscillations).

A delay in a feedback process is critical relative to rates of change in the system state that the feedback loop is trying to control. […] The strength of a negative feedback loop is important relative to the impact it is designed to correct.” (Meadows, 1999:8-10)

Chaos takes place when strong positive loops take over weak negative loops resulting in an unstable system with unpredictable growing rates –a behavior which may cause the system to destroy itself. “Control must involve slowing down the positive feedbacks.” (Meadows, 1999:12) Control, then, involves delaying the positive loops to allow the negative feedback the necessary interval to react and regulate the system.

On the one hand, positive feedback loops in a system are self-reinforcing. With high positive feedback, a system may destroy itself by self-multiplying and causing itself to collapse. On the other hand, negative feedback loops are leverage points in a system where intervention can be fruitful. Adjusting the buffer capacity (delays) and thereby recalibrating stock flows (“emergency response mechanisms”) help the system sustain itself by self-correcting in response to changes and oscillations in feedback loops. Because the strength of impacts and feedback must coincide, when one strengthens a system’s negative feedback, one raises its self-correcting abilities.

Negative feedback loops become regulating sources for reducing and slowing the growth of positive loops by giving it time and delays to recalibrate and stabilize itself.


In some cases there may be missing feedback in a system which causes it to malfunction. These instances indicate leverage point opportunities to create a “new loop” in a system (Meadows, 1999:13). Making information salient creates awareness and a bifurcation in one’s relationship to the environment, objects, and/or one’s beliefs, in turn redirecting one’s behavior towards and perception of a system. Turning no feedback into persuasive feedback generates a new systemic loop. However, persuasiveness occurs when information is configured in a meaningful and compelling way (i.e. comparative juxtaposition of selected data reveals another layer of understanding –new loop). New loops generate mass behavioral shifts as they raise the notion of accountability for individual actions and decisions –a paradigm shifter.


[R]ules for self-organization […] govern how, where, and what the system can add onto or subtract from itself under what conditions.” (Meadows, 1999:15)

Self-organizing structures allow a system to change, evolve, and sustain itself as external actors and internal entities affect and impact its systemic structure overtime; thus, developing new response mechanism and enacting new rules and behaviors. Self-organizing rules dictate the emergence of complex adaptive structures and behavioral patterns in a system. These rules help the system deal with unpredictable behavior of external and internal actors, leaving the system open to changing conditions, and variable and open-ended in itself to evolve, adapt, and mutate over time.


Donella Meadows suggests that transcending paradigms lies in one’s ability and willingness to perceive multiple mindsets where no paradigm is true or right. With this enlightened view, flexible and open-ended paradigms evolve in relation to a system’s variable purpose, goal, or belief.

Source: Meadows, Donella H. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” Sustainability Institute, December, 1999.

Ethnography in Design Practice

Ethnographic research is important when interaction designers start raising questions about the core values and place that technological tools have in people’s everyday practices. The methods used for understanding user behavioral patterns and cultural realities focus on interaction as inseparable from the environment in which it occurs. Rather than analyzing separate data points, ethnography restores actions within their contextual settings and examines behavior as part of a holistic system in which people, things, and the environment affect each other and intertwine with one another.

Ethnography in UCD

Ethnography can take multiple forms including: participant observation, contextual interviewing, and participant self-documentation; which touch upon the contextual, emotional, and behavioral layers of user-specific practices. (Payne, 2011) Through data collection and analysis, designers are better equipped at identifying leverage points wherein remodeled or novel products or services can have an effective place in users’ everyday lives.

On November 12, 2011, in an IxDA NYC workshop entitled “Ethnography and User Experience”, presenter John Payne, Experience Designer and co-founder at Moment Design, discussed how the application of ethnographic methodologies within design practices effectively uncovers user behavior and belief in situ, in turn influencing and reshaping a designer’s vision and intent. To demonstrate this research approach to design practice, the workshop included a 1 hour fieldwork in the, then, hype of Occupy Wall Street, for which the attendees were split into teams of 5. Each team listed their assumptions about the living conditions as well as the beliefs and goals of the OWS movement. Teams then collectively formulated questions that needed answers before arriving at the site. With 4 research methods laid out by Payne for the exercise – observe physical/digital traces, collect a cultural inventory, observe environmental behavior, and conduct semi-structured interviews – team members assumed the roles of facilitator, photographer/videographer, note-taker, and scout.

The results of the fieldwork proved to be successful in inspiring the attendees as they discovered how their assumptions about their hypothetical “users” – the OWS people– were either conflicting with and/or limited to what they had over/heard and read elsewhere. This exercise required that participants collaborate and set aside their traditional and comforting research practices. Each team presented their findings through storytelling and highlighted specific challenge/opportunity spaces wherein design can have an effective impact. They proved with the inevitably qualitative data that emerged from their observations and encounters that users are heterogeneous and carry varied perceptions, goals, and behaviors. Rather than generalizing users based on assumptions, ethnographic research helps understand heterogeneity and the patterns of behavior that links a people together. This new collective knowledge offers designers the potential to create hospitable and adequate experiences for users.

Digital Ethnography

To prove this approach applicable to everyday design practice, Payne ended the workshop with an introduction to digital ethnography, also known as Digital Ethno (Masten, 2003:76), which consists of traditional ethnographic processes enhanced by participant engagement through the use of digital products and services already preexisting in their daily lives (Rhea, 2006:19). This method invites participants to contribute to research which helps researchers transcend a priori knowledge they might have had about users by highlighting digitally recorded instances of user/consumer behavior in situ and over time (Rhea, 2006:21). Through the use of both traditional and digital ethnographic methods, research teams can access intimate aspects of people’s lives in ways that traditional methods alone can not.

While traditional ethnography entails observation and analysis, digital ethnography enables researchers to capture real-time situated data. While traditional ethnography is the immersive practice which once belonged solely to the realm of sociological research, ethnographic practices in a wider sense have become part of designers and marketers’ vocabulary and processes for identifying context-sensitive user patterns of behavior. This merging of practices (ethnographic research with design) has proven to be a rich source for innovation and empathic design.

Digital ethnography enables designers to identify gaps in users’ lives for which innovation can be fruitful, and opportunities wherein design can make an appropriate and effective impact. This method engages and encourages participants to contribute to the research at hand, making them co-authors of the creative process. The practice exploits the wireless network as an opportunistic space for documenting cultural patterns of behavior over time (Masten, 2003:77).

With the use of digital ethnography, accounts are externalized events in users’ lives that help explain and analyze reflexively the social nature of contextual behaviors and patterns; those in turn indicate possible opportunities for innovation that either complements, transforms, or enhances users’ relationships to their environments, to contextual events, and/or to objects. Ethnographic practices add value to the design process and incentive, and to the products and services which emanate from the understanding of user behavioral needs.

Cultural Probes

Cultural Probes (Gaver, 1999) are tools concerned with gathering evocative responses from participants in order to understand people in new ways and to reach their intimate behaviors and idiosyncratic thoughts.

Probes are both tools for research and vehicles for collecting data about the local culture of a given user group, that engage participants in self-documenting their everyday. Probes are positioned as essential ingredients to experimental design processes that are responsive and centered around the cultural understanding of participants. Examples of probes take the form of picture taking, self-mapping, postcard questionnaires, digital memo-taking, etc. making “the strange familiar and the familiar strange” (Gaver, 2004).

As probes collectively reflect informal and intimate data about users, they provide an understanding of the local culture and an insight into what sort of design interventions can add pleasure to users’ lives. The probes focus on the implication of innovation within local cultural settings and the experiential ideas that may emerge within this new knowledge-base.

The probes are aimed at driving new understandings of technology through speculative design. Speculative design extends the notion of design practices to include questions concerning the function of designed objects, the experiences that they provide, and the cultural context in which they occur. Probes are particularly interesting in data as inspirational. Varied facets of culture serve as inspirations for the design of new kinds of pleasures embodied within ambiguous, unfamiliar, and playful objects and experiences.

With challenging users through probing, designers can identify new opportunities wherein speculative design can enact a new understanding of everyday life through interacting with pleasurable technologies.

A final note

Design Anthropologist Chritina Wasson, in 2000 explains how ethnographic research in user-centered design is employed to better understand ‘how users do things and use products’ and what role technology serves in users’ work, play, or educational practices (2000:380-1). Ethnography made as part of the design process reveals what Wasson calls “a new dimension of the user.” This dimension recalibrates designers’ preconceptions about a given user group by guiding the design process and informing the emergence of intuitive ideas for UCD solutions and experiences.

Gaver, W., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, E. (1999).
“Cultural Probes.” Interactions, January/ February, pp. 21-29.
Gaver, W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., and Walker, B. (2004).
“Cultural Probes and the value of uncertainty.” Interactions, Volume XI.5, pp. 53-56.
Masten, D., Plowman, T. (2003).
“Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience.” Design Management Journal, Vol. 14, No.2
Payne, John (2011).
“Ethnography and User Experience.” IxDA NYC.
Rhea, D., and Leckie, L. (2006).
“Digital Ethnography: Sparking Brilliant Innovation.” Innovation Summer 2006, pp. 19-21.
Wasson, Christina (2000).
“Ethnography in the Field of Design.” Human Organizations, Vol. 59, No. 4, pp. 377-388.