[Research] Interesting discussion with Alex

In order to keep track of interesting stuff, I report here the discussion we had with Alex about user-centered design on Future now.

One of the perogatives of being a blog author is that you can elevate interesting comments to the level of posts. When I saw that John Thackara had left a comment on my post on "Design books as weak signal" I figured this was an opportunity to invoke that privilege. Not uncharacteristically, Nicholas Nova comments first: I think your're right, something's happening out there. However, even though I found all those books nice, interesting and relevant, their conclusion are somehow all the same: focus on people/context/processes and not on technology... Well of course, there are some differences but since Donald Norman's "the design of everyday things" or "things that make us smart", this is a known fact... maybe I'm wrong and taking user into account is obvious for us but not for others (in the cscw course we give here at EPFL, it's crazy to see the engineer-approach of design, so technology-driven).

From a quantitative point of view though, the number of books about this is impressive, it means, as you mentioned, that there is a global move.

A couple days later, John Thackara replies: When I see the words "nice" (Nicolas) and "sensible" (Alex), it's like a dagger in the heart. I live in fear that we people-centered design persons are going to get denounced and/or ridiculed for:

a) being social engineers without a mandate; b) lacking a sense of humour.

If post-tech-push social innovation is about being "good" it will fail, and deserve to do so. It needs to be edgy, controversial, upsetting, and funny.

I suppose there's always the danger in theory that a critic will actually be noticed by an author, but you never really expect it. (Or I never do, anyway.)

So to clarify. My reaction to this literature has the same roots as Nicholas': I agree with their arguments, and find them logical enough to wonder why they need to be made at all. After all, you want to make things that people will buy; you do that by making things that people will use; and you make things that people will use by making them (to quote the Roman poet Horace) dulce et utile, beautiful and useful. (Latin scholars out there, if I've misspelled that, please let me know.)

I mean, what's not to agree with there?

To some degree, Kim Vicente's book does a better job of being usefully controversial by scaring you: he makes a great case for just how dangerous bad design can be. Tens of thousands of people die in hospitals every year from preventable medical errors, many of which could be avoided if hospitals and hospital technology were designed so that overworked nurses and sleep-deprived residents could use them more reliably. Leonardo's Laptop also takes a stab at arguing how users should rebel against bad design, but ultimately (to my mind) is overwhelmed by its own reasonableness.

From what I've read of Thackara's other work, though, I suspect that In the Bubble won't suffer the same faults. I certainly hope not. As I wrote last year, I thought "The Post-Spectacular City" was "deeply opinionated, pointed, and infuriating. Probably the best thing I can say about it is that it's not something to be consumed passively, but engaged and interacted with. It's the kind of writing with which you can fruitfully disagree." Rereading the piece again now, I have the same reactions: some of it bugs me, some of it I agree with, and all of it makes me think.

John's right: "post-tech-push social innovation... needs to be edgy, controversial, upsetting, and funny." Let's hope he usefully stirs the pot.