I wanted to give those of you who are not in Texas a quick update; this year, I accepted an offer from Goodpatch, a global UI company at their Tokyo, Japan office. This means about a week ago I have left the wonderful folks at frog design and moved from Texas to Tokyo. Goodpatch is a wonderful fit and my coworkers are lovely–more on that soon!
The process of moving has been an interesting one; it is a process that doesn’t lend itself to too much self-reflection though from all outward appearances you might seem to be idle for long stretches of time. Whether it’s waiting for your visa to be processed or for Animal Services Quarantine to reply back to your request to import an animal, most of the time for me was spent preparing, worrying about preparing too little, and seeing off folks in Austin. If I didn’t get a chance to see you, please imagine me giving you a big hug. It’s the best I can do from here.
In the time that I have had to reflect, I recently have been thinking about ethics in my profession. We as UX designers are stewards of our users into the digital world, and as stewards I worry sometimes about our collective ethics. This isn’t new or novel, since we’ve been talking about the ethics of technology since before the field of HCI was born. However, I keep referencing Alan Chochinov’s Sustainable Design Manifesto which he wrote in 2007 and observing that we, myself included, are struggling with these concepts.
There are many outside reasons I have experienced: the business case for ethical design is not strong enough, the design case for ethical design is not strong enough (if it is a system fundamentally built on constant use such as Candy Crush or other “freemium” apps), or the organization itself does not support design as a whole. These, of course, are the reasons why these companies sometimes seek outside help. But I can’t help but think part of the blame lies with me, or us.
My vision as a designer is evolving all the time, but especially now, I wonder about what my definition of “user” is in “user-centered design.” Previously, I saw the user as an individual with her own thoughts and feelings, but now I’m starting to explore what a user is in terms of macrosystems and microsystems.
When I talk about macrosystems, I’m talking about the systems that we as individuals are a part of. This could be our community, our location, our company, our society, our universal laws of physics, etc. This is inspired by Clifford Geertz’s book on ethnography Interpretation of Cultures and through reading David Graeber’s Debt. Both are based in ethnography and anthropology throughout the ages and are excellent reads if you have time.
For instance, when I use Skype in Japan to connect with my friends, I am not only having an individual experience of the application, I am also real-time watching my friends struggle with the application. I am also sitting next to my partner, who, from time to time, will take over my fumbling through hooking up the audio to try out some of his ideas. Both groups are sitting in a space with different internet connection types and different ambient sounds in different time zones. In our case, we were much more relaxed in setting up our connection as it was only the beginning of the day whereas our friends were slightly more goal-oriented as it was late evening and they were tired. In the end, we were able to watch a movie together (which was our goal all along), but it took about an hour and a half setup and us collectively watching each other cringe and curse at the screen. I’d like to believe that we as humans are social creatures, and as such, we use technology socially.
Does this mean that we as designers, who are hard at work designing systems that personalize themselves to individual users or surface suggestions based on the user’s previous selections are potentially missing the bigger picture of how users operate with the things we design? We share our technology with others; we expect it to understand and distinguish in turn.
When I talk about microsystems, I’m talking about the concurrent systems running in our own minds that have shaped our reactions as individuals. This could be our own previous experiences, either socially or technologically, the way we grew up, our psychology, or our own nervous systems. This concept is from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and also Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, as well as many esteemed behavioral economists and psychologists. Specifically, I’d like to focus on System 1 and System 2 thinking as outlined in Kahneman’s book. System 1 thinking is our first impressions of a new thing, and System 2 thinking is our longer-term, deep thinking part of our brain. System 1 controls instant gratification and immediate excitement and System 2 controls deep satisfaction.
The easiest example of this for me would be free-to-play phone games. A friend of mine linked me to one of these, to which I instantly became addicted (recovering World of Warcraft addict here). It was fun at the outset–I had so many new things to do, and new, shiny objects that jingled. But over time, my System 1 thinking had slowed to System 2 thinking and I found myself wondering, “What good is this bringing into my life? What am I even doing here?” And eventually, I deleted the application off my phone. It came with a sense of disappointment and regret one gets after going out for 3am donuts (no judgement, please).
I’d like to also point out that while free-to-play games are the easiest example, there are far more that have integrated into our daily lives. While Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr have enriched my life in many ways, I have personally spent more time far past the time I was enjoying myself. It is also part of the reason why I will delete and re-download these three applications constantly on my phone. I’m torn by my System 1 thinking to have instant gratification in knowing I am appreciated and connected to my community and my rational System 2 thinking realizing that even though these apps are powerful tools, they are taking away my mindfulness in reality.
Does this mean that we as designers, who are designing systems to be immediately appealing and intuitive to users, are simply appealing to their System 1 sense and completely missing the opportunity to enable deep and gratifying satisfaction in users? Can digital media provide deep and gratifying satisfaction at all? I’d like to believe that it can enable people to have more knowledge and connect with others who then can provide gratification, but I don’t yet know if the medium itself lends itself to pure satisfaction.
I don’t currently have an answer yet to these issues I raised. It is something that I have been turning around in my mind for some time and will continue to do so in the following months. As an eternal optimist, I still believe in Chochinov’s vision of sustainable and ethical design and believe others do, too. I believe if more people talk about design in terms of ethics and in terms of designing within systems, the idea will catch on. I will continue to do my best to work in both of these systems to help others. In the meantime, I’ll be fleshing out these ideas in more detail later.
Thanks for reading.