Sunday, October 13, 2013

Experiential dimensions and practical action


In other posts (as well as at great length in my thesis), I've spoken about the five major dimensions of a representational practitioner's experience when working with participants: aesthetics, narrative, improvisation, sensemaking, and ethics (ANISE for short).

It occurred to me recently that it can help to map each of these dimensions, which can seem kind of abstract, to forms of practical action.

Aesthetics is acting to create meaningful representational forms (creating any desired form, even building a network or working on a car engine, involves considerations of right form). To see aesthetics in action, look for the form that representations take, how ideas are put into tangible visual, textual, and aural form. Ask how do those forms reflect the needs, concerns, and abilities of the people involved? How do the forms depict the subjects they refer to? How expressive are they?

Narrative is acting to create a story, as well as acting within a story (a series of events) or acting out a story. To see narrative in action, you look for the way events and actions connect, the way a representational session moves from start to finish, the way events are understood within the session (which are expected and which appear as anomalous in some way), and what kinds of considerations guide the way events and actions unfold. What are the stories each participant brings to the proceedings? How do they connect or diverge? What are the assumptions or desires different actors hold about the way things should unfold?

Sensemaking is acting in the face of anomaly, uncertainty, or doubt. To see sensemaking in action, look for the “breaches in the canonicity” (Bruner) of events, moments where the expected course of a session did not run smoothly, where anomalies occurred that prevented or impeded smooth or expected functioning – whether briefly or for an extended period. Look for how people respond to, understand, and (if successful) move past the events or stimuli that triggered sensemaking. In what ways did sensemaking triggers disrupt the flow of events, take people off course, or confound expectations?

Improvisation is acting without a net, script, or recipe. To see improvisation in action, look for the spontaneous, unplanned actions people take, often in the face of sensemaking triggers. Look for the ways unplanned acts build on each other and how they address or resolve the events that launched them. Look for the reasons improvised actions were necessary or desirable in that context. Why couldn’t or didn’t the actor choose pre-planned actions, techniques, or methods? Why at these moments did they choose to act in an unplanned manner? What specific form did the improvised actions take, drawing on what skills, insights, or relationships to the people and particularities of the situation?

Ethics are actions that affect others. To see ethics in action, look for the kinds of choices people make in the way they speak and act in terms of the effect on other people(whether those people are present in the immediate situation or not). What informs those choices, whether abstract principles or specific (even impulsive) interactions in the moment? What do actors choose to foreground, emphasize, and pay attention to, or conversely keep in the background or ignore? How do these choices affect others involved in the situation, whether immediately in the moment or at some later point in time?

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Xu Bing's Phoenix and coming back to life

Last weekend we visited Mass MoCA, a contemporary art museum located in a dazzlingly restored old factory in the Berkshires town of North Adams, MA. I hadn't spent any time in North Adams since the late 1980s, when it was a depressed, and depressing, mill town that had lost its mills. Now it is full of galleries, nice restaurants and small businesses, spurred by the renaissance that Mass MoCA has brought (similar to what is happening in Beacon, NY thanks in large part to the similarly dazzling Dia: Beacon art museum, also located in an old factory).

A family friend who works at Mass MoCA took us through the museum and pointed out her favorite parts, which are too many to describe here. We were especially struck by the exhibit called Life's Work, particularly the hundreds of page-size artworks that make up British artist Tom Phillips' A Humument. It would take weeks just to really look at each one of those pages, and it is worth at least an entry on its own. But nothing prepared me for Xu Bing's Phoenix.

When you enter the large hall that houses the two sculptures that make up Phoenix, at first you just see a wall made of the shipping crates in which the birds were brought over from China. It is not until you navigate around them that you find yourself face to face with the first phoenix, stretching back more than 90 feet. They are both beautiful and powerfully rendered, made even more so as you look closely at them and realize they are constructed from thousands of items of construction junk. Each one is made up of wheels, electrical parts, motor covers, tarps and the like that Bing and his crew of migrant construction workers gathered and painstakingly assembled and re-assembled over months of work. This video tells the story better than I can here.

After more than an hour walking around the birds and reading the book that described the many travails and setbacks that accompanied their creation and early installations in China, we moved on to other parts of the museum. But I woke up the next day realizing that Phoenix hadn't left me. The amount of perserverance and steadfastness that Xu Bing and his crew had to have, in addition to the stunning artistry of the pieces themselves, has been inspiring me since the visit.

As I have tried to write about in this blog, there are also explicitly ethical dimensions of this work. Bing conceived the idea after visiting the intended site for the original commission, in a building under construction in Beijing's Central Business District. When he saw the dismal living conditions that the construction workers lived in, in the middle of the flamboyant center of China's capitalist economy, he felt that the work needed to reflect and explore the disparities in front of him. Also, he (again, he says it better in the above video and other interviews) was trying to express and evoke something about the place China is taking in the world and the way that no one, even or especially the Chinese, understand what is happening and where it will go. He is trying to make a touchstone object that will help not only China but the world come to grips with what is happening in front of us at this moment in history.

More personally, somehow Phoenix, at least for the intervening week since our visit, has helped re-ignite my own willingness to continue the work described in most of the entries of this blog, which I have largely left fallow for the past couple of years. Mainly, so far, it has got me to work far more actively on finishing the first draft of a book based on my thesis. Though the achievement will be a tiny dot next to what Xu Bing has created, it is still something I can do and should at least finish. The "forces" arrayed against it (mainly, my own fears that it doesn't add up to much) are nothing compared to what Bing had to face and overcome to create his masterpiece. I got new ideas about job-related areas, that I am now trying to act on. And, I found myself being greatly energized when I got together with some friends to play electric music the day after the visit.

One of the songs we played was David Gilmour's Coming Back To Life, which always gets me going in any case, but has new resonances now in light of experiencing Phoenix and seeing the possibilities of new life in places as downtrodden as Beacon or North Adams once were.

This is one of the best performances of Gilmour's song -- enjoy it.






Sunday, September 29, 2013

Acting with shared purpose and understanding

Simon Buckingham Shum and I are working on a short book based on my doctoral thesis, which will put across the main conceptual and practical aspects of that research in a more digestible form. An early version of the introductory chapter is posted at http://people.kmi.open.ac.uk/sbs/2013/07/new-book-chap1-v01/, and we welcome your comments. 

Below are some further thoughts on the material there that we'll be incorporating into that chapter.

Why bother creating participatory representations? What are they for? What distinguishes this activity from others is that there is overriding goal of not only fostering shared understanding, but actually leading to some sort of action -- at minimum, walking away from a session with a new outlook or solidified insights, but more to create a change or shift in the way people come together around a set of facts, ideas, or issues. The point is to couple "how should we think about this" with "what should we do about this" -- "what understanding should inform our actions, what actions should we take?" Behind this is something even more ineffable than the concept of "understanding", and that is purpose -- the "why" and "what for" behind actions. Understanding alone does not produce action; it is purpose that gives force and direction to any action that rises above simple reflex. 

Representational practice is one way to help people take actions based on shared purpose and understanding, by externalizing these in collaboratively created images, diagrams, maps, text, sound, and other representations. Without some external representation, purpose and understanding are the province of individuals. By focusing on a coherent and expressive representation, querying it and discussing it and modifying it to make it better reflect the aims and needs of a group of people, more faithful to and evocative of what people are saying, thinking, and feeling, participatory representational practice helps to instill and externalize the sense of sharedness behind acting with purpose.

Referencing the story that opens our draft intro chapter: Jackie realized that in order for Tom enjoy his new compass -- to use it -- he'd need to understand what it was, how it workedm and what it meant. She did this by using a spontaneous, improvised, simple but expressive representation that she invited Tom into modifying. She gave Tom direct feedback on the meaning of his modifications, so that he would both understand them and be able to move forward -- to act -- based on a bolstered understanding, sharing her understanding of not only compasses but of how compass directions mattered in their neighborhood, and how the compass could be fun to use -- to act with -- once he understood what it was for (its purpose).

Monday, May 27, 2013

Playing Uncle George's piano

A routine family visit to my uncle's house in Teaneck, NJ in the mid-70s. A teenage boy is banging out blues on a yellow spinet piano in the living room. This upsets his uncle in the kitchen just behind the wall, who can't hear any of the conversation through his hearing aid with the music in the background. After a time (not long enough in the boy's estimation, he needs at least half an hour before his playing runs its course) the uncle comes out and tells the boy to stop. Not without resentment (though there is much love between uncle and nephew), he does.

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I've played music in one form or another since taking clarinet and piano lessons in elementary school. I was in school bands from 4th to 9th grade, switching to bassoon towards the end but never actually practicing it. I quit piano lessons after 6th grade. I never liked reading music much, or more accurately didn't like spending the hours it took to learn a song by reading the notes and picking them out on an instrument. I also didn't much like the avenging-angel style of our piano teacher, who regularly made us cry if we were not well prepared for our weekly lessons.

When I was 14, a few of the kids in my neighborhood started teaching ourselves guitar, picking out chords from songbooks. I had stopped playing piano, but then a friend showed me a blues scale in C, with no written music, and that launched an explosion of piano improvisation for the rest of my high school years, spending hours pounding out chords and runs, mostly playing Allman Brothers songs and the like.

Playing piano like this became something of a lifeline. I was a shy, insecure kid, uncomfortable in social situations. But hammering at top volume on our Yamaha baby grand, or on any piano that would have me, made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile. Low on technique but high on passion, I would go round and round the same 12 bar progressions for hours, barely varying my dynamics because to play as hard as I could felt like I was actually expressing something.

Uncle George, my father's brother, was a complicated man. He was always kind to me and told me many times that I was his "favorite nephew" (I may have been his only nephew), giving me special gifts and generally being nice whenever we'd visit (much nicer, I realized as I got older, than he often was to his wife and son). He was mostly deaf and wore a large, problematic 1960s hearing aid, the size of a cigarette pack, that often would emit squealing feedback. Using it he could hear, within fairly narrow limits, often needing to move it around to different positions in the middle of a conversation.

After I started playing piano in my mid-teens, I would crave playing wherever we were. This was compounded in any sort of social situation, even -- or especially -- when visiting any of my relatives. I wasn't happy sitting around and talking. If there was a piano in the house I would feel magnetically pulled to it. Not only because I wanted to play, but because I also felt that it would allow me to actually say something worthwhile and be heard, rather than sitting silent and invisible in the midst of chattering family members.

I remember the incident described above clearly. It may not have been the only time it happened, but one stands for all in my memory. I never wanted to be interrupted when playing. This is still the case actually, though I've learned to resist the magnetic pull to play (and bang) somewhat.

This situation is an example of the principle that aesthetic choices, when they directly affect other people in whatever ways -- like playing the piano so loud that it prevented my uncle from hearing -- have ethical dimensions. Those dimensions, properly understood, are multi-faceted. What I'm interested in is the complex of feelings and experiences behind the scenes of a situation involving aesthetic actions. There is no question that playing music loudly in the presence of someone struggling to hear people talking was wrong on the face of it. But I want to try to get beneath the surface, to see how the choice to play or not play in that setting had its own history and dynamics, different for the different people involved.

In this case, the way I was playing -- its loudness and unremittingness -- was a choice. Possibly if I could have played with more restraint it would have been more tolerable for my uncle. But then it would not have been the kind of playing that was about the only way for me to connect to other people from inside, since I found it so difficult to do by just talking. It was saying "this is who I am" to my family. Being interrupted, or even told to play quietly, felt like the only voice I could speak with was being silenced. 

This situation shows how an ostensibly "aesthetic" action, taken in a given moment, has a past, present, and future, and how the meaning of that action can vary for the different people involved. An action can have direct and indirect effects on people, including the people making the aesthetic choice themselves. The ethics of shaping are not limited to the their meaning for the aesthetic object (e.g. music) itself, but also in a situation like this, the effect of not shaping (i.e., not playing the piano) had its own consequences. What I'm interested in is revealing and understanding these kinds of dynamics, even in professional situations. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Subject for future investigation

Why exactly is it, that sometimes when I pick up a guitar after not playing at all for a while (in this case, several weeks at least), I can play far more fluidly than usual? Especially if not playing that close attention, e.g. while watching a movie at the same time. It's as if my fingers do better if my mind is not watching them. The moment I start paying closer attention -- or even more, if I try to consciously shape what I'm doing -- the fluidity starts to drop away. What, in fact, is going on there? 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Seeing in networks vs trees

Relevant to some recent conversation on the compendiuminstitute yahoogroup, it is worth taking a look at this bravura performance in visual mapping. It's great just for what it is, whether you agree with all the ideas or not.

Among many things I like about it, it resonated for me with what always attracted to the true hypermedia aspect of Compendium -- the ability to show interconnections beyond what you can do in a single view, and why that always felt right. It's a dimension that doesn't seem to matter to many people, but it still feels fundamental to me -- what the tools enable us to show and work with.

It's about a way of seeing more than anything else -- seeing and being able to represent the richness of the worlds we are trying to come to grips with.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=nJmGrNdJ5Gw

Sunday, January 29, 2012

At a siding

Close followers will have noticed few postings this year. This is mainly due to a manic focus on writing, defending, revising, and wrapping up my doctoral thesis in the midst of an enormous project at my day/night/weekend job.

Now that the above has mostly calmed, I've been letting the dust settle on the research sphere, at least for now, and thinking more about what's most important to me in this work. That seems very much wrapped up with music, mainly the playing of it. I had mostly put my instruments down over the last ten years, but have been doing a lot of playing in the last couple of months. I've got calluses on my left fingertips for the first time this century. It's a good feeling.

This connection is personal as much as anything else. I've been playing with local friends and neighbors and have no ambitions for it, such as recording or performing, and that feels just right. It's the doing in the moment that matters. Sometimes it reaches a level beyond just the fun of it, and that's great when it happens. I want to reconnect musically with some of my non-local friends and am making plans to do that. Some of those friends are also my closest research and Compendium colleagues, which is probably not coincidental.

Which brings me to what I wanted to say in this post. As I've written elsewhere*, I'm really not  interested in making claims about success if you follow this or that technique or approach. Such claims are all wrong anyway, at least in the sense that there will ever be any kind of silver bullet that will guarantee certain outcomes. It will always come down to what people are able to do in a specific situation. Each situation has its own character, each one is unique. Period. So what matters is who you are and what you do in that situation, the choices you make and the things you're able to achieve, or not.

That is not a formulation that is likely to get me many followers, but it's what I believe. What I care about now is learning how to be effective, when you're doing something that involves creativity and communication and some kind of aesthetic medium, whether that is music or talk or drawings or designs or whatever, and how to talk about what that means.

I think about this kind of thing even in the course of playing music with my local friends. Sometimes you have to make choices about which matters more -- having a fun time with a bunch of people of widely varying abilities, vs. giving some particular song the best possible rendition (which might, for example, mean waiting for some of the less able players to go get a drink in the other room). There's not an inherently right or wrong answer (though these days the fun and warmth of a big group making music together are more important to me than virtuosity).

The point is that these are ethical choices about aesthetic matters. That's what I'm interested in. Along with the aesthetic making itself.


* I'd forgotten about this post which touches on some of the same themes. So does this one, and this one, and especially this one.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Making Representations Matter - thesis published

The final version of my doctoral thesis has now been published online in the Open Research Online repository: Making Representations Matter: Understanding Practitioner Experience in Participatory Sensemaking.

Comments welcome here.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

R. I. P. Steve Jobs

The first 'PC' I had any real exposure to was a Mac in 1984. I was a film and video person with little computing background (one intro to programming class, in Pascal). The Mac made perfect sense to me -- moving pictures of documents and folders around on a desktop, drawing things, painting things. When I later saw what most computers were used for, and what their UIs were like (this is the mid-1980s), I was dumbstruck. Text and numbers on black or green backgrounds, arcane text commands, etc.

I started working in IT not much later and pushed every project I worked on (even terminal-based applications for beverage manufacturing and the like) in the direction of the "right" paradigm -- what I learned about what computing could and should be, from the Mac. Even today, when we've moved from the Iron Age to the Iphone Age, I still find myself thinking about UIs with the 1984 Mac OS as my reference point.

R.I.P. Steve.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Transparency in design

I want user interfaces, and for that matter all representational artifacts intended to help people do or make sense of something, to be clear and transparent. When it comes to design, this is the ethic that possesses me. One should not need pre-existing specialist (arcane) knowledge to make sense of a UI, or at least the need for such knowledge should be minimal, and not require knowledge of arcane aspects of the UI itself.

This is an endemic problem for enterprise UIs since they are so often built on previous legacy systems. Veterans of the older systems know the terms, functions, and acronyms so well that they become "natural" -- but they're not. The effects of these kinds of preconceptions are something I constantly work to alleviate when designing new or replacement systems. Knowing what the business purpose itself is (for example, selling and servicing telecommunications products for residential and small business customers), and understanding the business itself, and the customers, should be the only prerequisite knowledge for using the new system, rather than “just having to know” how things have been done and what things have been called and abbreviated and acronymed in the previous generations of systems.

Having said that, achieving effective transparency, like all design in the real world, is a balancing act. You don't want to clutter up the UI with too much explanation and exposition, and you want to enable experienced and expert users to move rapidly though their tasks. It comes back to practitioner skill: knowing the right trade-offs to make.

When I glance at position descriptions for user experience professionals, they often seem to miss the point (which is probably inevitable when you are throwing descriptions out to the masses). They list discrete skills (personas, wireframes, HTML 5, Flex, etc.) as if having such skills are what add up to an effective UX designer. But what really matters most is having the ability to understand user needs as well as business or organizational imperatives and technical capacities and constraints, among other factors, all of which require both listening and "speaking" skills in addition to “design” skills.

You need to understand what people (including developers, clients, executives, as well as end users) need and can do, and you need to be able to synthesize these, come up with design approaches, and advocate (sometimes passionately) for the integrity and value of your design given those needs, capacities, and constraints. Any specific skill or technical ability is secondary to these constraints (and a good UX professional should be able to quickly learn any new technique or tool in any case).

Often a first design proposal will not be the perfect solution (however perfect it may be in your own mind, or in the abstract), but it helps shake loose the thinking and creativity of the people you're working with and for, and the dialogue that follows from considering a well-crafted design gives the best clues for how to evolve the design in the best possible direction given all the constraints and sometimes conflicting needs and desires. Listening, making, and speaking are the lather, rinse, and repeat of user experience design. You have to be able to do them all.