Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Being Analog in an Increasingly Digitized World

Donald Norman is one of my favorite Odd Ducks. He has been blending technical and human sciences since the 1950's.

In 1957 he received a BSEE in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, went on to earn a M.S. and a PhD in Mathematical Psychology which is "based on mathematical modeling of perceptual, cognitive and motor processes, and on the establishment of law-like rules that relate quantifiable stimulus characteristics with quantifiable behavior."

Next, as an associate professor in the Psychology Department at University of California, San Diego Norman was a founder of the Institute for Cognitive Science and an organizer of the Cognitive Science Society. 

Norman left UCSD to join Apple Computer in 1993, initially as an Apple Fellow as a User Experience Architect, using "User Experience" in his job title, and then Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group.  Don was an early advocate of "user-centered design."

"Design is a way of... determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business." - Donald Norman

But there is a ghost in the machine which Norman attempts to exorcize in an article entitled Being Analog, that was originally published as Chapter 7 of his book; The Invisible Computer.
(Being Analog is a very thought provoking piece, which you should read.)

Norman strikes at the heart of the matter in the first sentence;

"We are analog beings trapped in a digital world, and the worst part is, we did it to ourselves.

We humans are biological animals. We have evolved over millions of years to function well in the environment, to survive. We are analog devices following biological modes of operation. We are compliant, flexible, tolerant. Yet, we have constructed a world of machines that requires us to be rigid, fixed and intolerant.

Here we are, wandering about the world, bumping into things, forgetful of details, with a poor sense of time, a poor memory for facts and figures, unable to keep attention on a topic for more than a short duration, reasoning by example rather than by logic, and drawing upon our admittedly deficient memories of prior experience. 

When viewed this way, we seem rather pitiful. No wonder that we have constructed a set of artificial devices that are very much not in our own image. We have constructed a world of machinery in which accuracy and precision matter. Time matters. Names, dates, facts, and figures matter. Accurate memory matters. Details matter.

All the things we are bad at matter, all the things we are good at are ignored. Bizarre."

A troubling question is hiding on a deeper level; Are we, as children, parents and grandparents, becoming a bit too much like our digital systems? Norman's list of human traits; being compliant, flexible and tolerant, stands in striking contrast to those of the binary machines we have created which are rigid, fixed and intolerant. He says our machines demand that of us and that we, as the creators of those machines, have done it to ourselves. That is true, but falls short of the mark;

What we - as consumers - have done is allow the designers to give us technology the prolonged use of which may be turning us into beings who are becoming inflexible and intolerant. At least some of us.

Looking at the current discourse in the wake of the most recent election, what are we arguing and seeing others argue, about if not matters of accuracy and precision, time, names, dates, facts, and figures, memory and details.

As the ambiguity and complexity grows, left unaddressed, this situation will only get worse.

So, the question is; what can be done about it? Can designers save themselves and their customers from themselves?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reflections on René Descartes

You stink, therefore I don't give a darn.

Rene Descartes is generally considered to be one of the greatest minds of his day and the father of the scientific method of inquiry.

Of Descartes, Philosophers.co.uk wrote;

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was not only one of the most prominent philosophers of the 17th century but in history of Western philosophy. Often referred to as the “father of modern philosophy”... he rejected the final causal model of explaining natural phenomena and replaced it with science-based observation and experiment.

On a much more personal level, the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews review of Desmond Clark's 2006 book; "Descartes: A Biography" makes some very candid observations about the father of modern scientific thinking, adding credibility by stating that the book is notable for its exhaustive detail, drawing helpfully upon Descartes' voluminous and revealing correspondence to reconstruct as best as possible Descartes' movements and mindsets throughout his almost 54 years of life... Clarke provides for the reader to better understand Descartes as a person and as an intellectual. 

NDPR points to three related themes which "edge repeatedly to the forefront throughout the book;"
  • Descartes' seemingly endless travels and his eventual isolation in voluntary exile;
  • Descartes' own largely unflattering character;
  • The ubiquitous and sometimes menacing presence of others exercising an influence over Descartes' life and work, especially his scientific work.

What follows are some edited extracts from the review;

Beeckman, one of Descartes earliest close friends, remarked, on one occasion, that Descartes saw travel as a replacement for study in schools and through books, of which he read few.

His aversion to the ideas of others extended to his avoidance of learned people

In fact, as he matured, he tended to avoid all contact with people, and his adult life was lived primarily in isolation.

Clarke's characterizes Descartes as lonely, paranoid, and generally unpleasant: "He had become [by 1638] a reclusive, cantankerous, and oversensitive loner, who worried incessantly about his place in history and the priority he claimed for various discoveries."

Clark writes of Descartes' "sensitivity to criticism and the certainty that he claimed, prematurely, for his own view", stating further that Descartes "fought with almost everyone he encountered while constantly announcing that all he wanted was 'the security and tranquility' required to complete his intellectual projects".

Among Descartes other flaws Clark lists; lack of modesty, paranoia and suspicion, reluctance to concede intellectual points, a tendency to bear grudges, duplicity, and manipulative treatment of people, even of supportive friends.

Descartes seems to have been in almost constant battle with one or another critic or erstwhile friend, while describing himself as 'docile' and reluctant to speak in his own defense.

Perhaps the least attractive of his many failings was Descartes' duplicity. "He sends pairs of letters to Queen Christina and to Chanut presenting sharply divergent attitudes toward the Queen's invitation to Sweden. 'These parallel letters… ', writes Clarke, "show Descartes at his dissembling best."

I close this post with three questions;

  • How does this seemingly self taught, argumentative, arrogant and self serving critic of everyone and everything but himself end up becoming the father of modern philosophical thought and scientific inquiry?
  • How can one be a fan of Descartes methods now termed :scientific" without simultaneously harboring similar traits, or at least sympathies, within one's self? 
  • Is the Cartesian mindset a necessary precursor for being a competent designer, scientist or engineer? 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Archer's Systematic Method for Designers

L Bruce Archer's Systematic Method for Designers was published 1964 by the  Council of Industrial Design in London and published serially in Design magazine in 1963 and 1964, revised, with additional material.

It is an impressive work, comprising seven sections, described in 13 pages;

1) Aesthetics and logic
2) The nature of designing
3) Getting the brief
4) Examining the evidence
5) The creative leap
6) The donkey work
7) The final steps.

Each section is loaded with the wisdom and advice of a seasoned practitioner, organized with the rigor of an academic mind.

In the introduction, Archer comments about the tectonic shift he saw under way in the design profession;

"The most fundamental challenge to conventional ideas on design, however, has been the growing advocacy of systematic methods of problem solving, borrowed from computer techniques and management theory, for the assessment of design problems and the development of design solutions."

With regard to aesthetics Archer observed that "as soon as two people start to talk abut design, misunderstandings arise. Some... are due to over-leaping vocabularies, such as those of the engineer and the architect, where the same term can mean slightly or completely different things. Many misunderstandings, however are due to fundamental differences in value and logic."

"Some of our most successful designers have been able to draw a line between sense and sensibility, logic and intuition, function and aesthetic, which needs neither analysis nor justification. They probably think that there is a deal too much talk and not enough action. Others, however, remain racked with prejudices which make them lash out at words like 'analysis', 'logic' and 'method' - or even at words like 'good taste' and 'style'. It would probably do them good to talk about design a bit more."

Phase 4 - Develop Prototype design(s)

The arc of Archer's thinking shifted over the years, as he struggled to close the gap between thinking, feeling and doing as foundations for a grand theory of design. After many years pursuing the idea that computers could help manage the immense complexity of a process which filled 13 pages, had 228 steps, plus five pages of accompanying arrow diagrams, embodies in six phases;

1) "Receive the brief, analyse the problem, prepare detailed program and estimate.
2) Collect data, identify and analyse subproblems, prepare performance specifications.
3) Prepare outline specifications.
4) Develop prototype designs.
5) Prepare and execute validation studies.
6) Prepare manufacturing documentation.

This detailed, top-down approach dovetailed nicely with the well organized planning methods being developed in government managed military and aerospace at the time.

Note that some of the arrows in the diagram point left, indicating some recursion in the process flow. (This is also true of the other five phases.)

 Archer's Eight ways an idea can be expressed

In Part five: The creative leap Archer states; "When all is said and done about defining design problems and analysing design data, there still remains the real crux of the act of designing - the creative leap from pondering the question to finding a solution." Several paragraphs later he observes; "...there can be nothing unscientific about the traditional reliance on intuition and inspiration in design." Confronted with the then recent discoveries of the Transactional school of perception, he concluded; "We are thus brought face to face with the reality of the need for rich, wide and fruitful experience among designers, as well as the capacity for flexibility and fantasy in thought." Archer also asserts that this leap is something which the designer must do alone, although I suspect he was referring to the idea that our thinking occurs within our individual minds first, rather than a collective, shared consciousness.

For all his process rigor, Archer understood the value of cut-and-try. He wrote; "In some industries - furniture, for example, it is often quicker and cheaper to build a prototype and submit it to user tests than it is to carry out extensive detailing and stress calculation. The advantage of suck-it-and-see (cut and try? -df) methods is that however subtle the variables, a direct measure of the overall success or failure is possible. The chief disadvantage is that so many problems of construction must be wholly or partly solved before performance testing can even begin."

Archer's family donated 34 boxes of documents to the Royal College of Art in 2007. The RCA's website states; Different stages of Archer’s model for the design process would later be understood in now-familiar terms such as ‘quality assurance’ or ‘user-centred research’, Unfortunately, access to the documents is limited due to their not having been converted to digital formats.

He did use the phrase "design thinking" on page 1 of Systematic Method for Designers, in context it reads; "Ways have had to be found to incorporate knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking. As with most technology, there has been a trend towards the adoption of a systems approach as distinct from an artefact approach."

I'll leave it to the reader to determine if they think Archer was referring to a formalized method of design in that statement. My read is that he was speaking of the way designers think, as opposed to a formalized method - and, based on his work, writings and teaching, he clearly was interested in developing an expression of a repeatable design process.

Contact me for more information on Archer's work.