Workshop about Failures and Design Fictions at the Swiss Design Network symposium

Last Saturday, Julian and I gave a quick and punchy workshop called Using Failures in Design Fictions at the SDN 2010 in Basel, Switzerland.

What's better than a broken iPhone screen in a workshop about accidents and failures?

Here's the workshop abstract we proposed to the conference committee:

"The notion of ‘Design Fiction’ is an original approach to design research that speculates about the near future not only with storytelling but also through active making and prototyping. As such, design fictions are meant to shift the interest from technology-centered products to rich and people-focused design. There are of course various ways to create design fictions. One of them we would like to explore in this workshop consists in relying on failures.

We hypothesize that failures and accidents can be a starting point for creating rich and meaningful speculative projects. Think for instance about creating props or prototypes and exhibiting failures within it to make them more compelling. Or showing something as it will work with the failures — so anticipating them somehow rather than ignoring the possibility. What will not work right? What problems will be caused? What does it mean?

Based on short and participative activities, the workshop will address the following issues:

  • Can we include the exploration of failures in the design process? How to turn failures and people’s reaction to failures into prototyping tools?
  • How can design fiction become part of a process for exploring speculative near futures in the interests of design innovation? What is the role of failures in creating these design fictions?"

The 2-hours workshop started with an introduction about the wide range of failures, accidents, malfunctions and problems that are related to designed objects. We basically relied on the presentation made in Torino for that matter. The point of this intro was also to set the objectives: build a failure literacy (taxonomies, categories...), discuss their role in design using design fictions, fictional storytelling to discover new possibilities/unknown unknowns. We then splitted the participants into 6 groups for 3 short activities.

Activity 1: Listing of observed/existing failures

Given that the participants had a very diverse background (industrial design, fashion design, service design, media/interaction design), the point of this was to cast a wide net and observe what people define as failure. No need to write down the whole list here but here are some examples that reveal the range of possibilities:

  • Wrong hair color, not the one that was expected
  • Help-desk calls in which you end up being re-reroute from one person to another (and getting back to the first person you called)
  • Nice but noisy conference bags
  • Toilet configuration (doors, sensors, buttons, soap dispensers, hand-dryers...) in which you have to constantly re-learn everything.
  • Super loud and difficult to configure fire alarms that people disable
  • Electronic keys
  • Garlic press which are impossible to clean
  • On-line platforms to book flights for which you bought two tickets under the same name while it's "not possible" from the company's perspective (but it was technically feasible).
  • Cheap lighter that burn your nose
  • GPS systems in the woods
  • Error messages that say "Please refer to the manual" but there is not manual
  • Hotel WLAN not distributed anymore because hotel had to pay too many fines for illegal downloads

Activity 2: Description of anticipated failures (design fictions)

In the second activity, we asked people to craft two stories about potential failures/problems caused by designed objects in the future. By projecting people into the near future, we wanted to grasp some insights about how failures can be envisioned under different conditions. Here again, some examples that came out:

  • Identity and facial surgery change, potentially leading to discrepancies in face/fingerprint-recognition,
  • Wireless data leaking everywhere except "cold spots" for certain kind of people (very rich, very poor),
  • Problems with space travelling
  • Need to "subscribe" to a service as a new person because of some database problem
  • People who live prior to the Cloud Computing era who have no electronic footprint (VISA, digital identity) and have troubles moving from one country to another,
  • 3D printers accidents: way too many objects in people's home, the size of the printed objects has be badly tuned and it's way too big, monster printed after a kid connected a 3D printer to his dreams, ...
  • Textiles which suppress bad smells also lead to removal of pheromones and it affects sexual desire (no more laundry but no baby either)...
  • Shared electrical infrastructure in which people can download/upload energy but no one ever agreed on the terms and conditions... which lead to a collapse of this infrastructure
  • Clothes and wearable computing can be hacked so you must now fly naked (and your luggage take a different flight)

It was interesting to notice that the "observed failures" (activity 1) were about a large range of designed objects (without necessarily Information Technologies). In this second case, ICT were always involved in the anticipated failures. It is as if we had trouble projecting other possibilities.

Activity 3: Towards failure taxonomies/categories

The last activity consisted in building a taxonomy of failures based on existing and anticipated ones (what the group came up with in Assignment 1 and 2): kinds of, categories. Some categories and parameters that emerged were the following:

  1. Short sightedness/not seeing the big pictures
  2. Failures and problems that we only realize ex-post/unexpected side-effects
  3. Excluding design
  4. Bad optimization
  5. Unnoticed failures
  6. Miniaturization that doesn't serve its purpose
  7. Cultural failures: what can be a success in one country/culture can be a failure in another
  8. Delayed failures (feedback is to slow)
  9. When machines do not understand user's intentions/technology versus human perception/bad assumptions about people ("Life has more loops than the system is able to understand")
  10. Individual/Group failure (system that does not respond to individuals, only to the group)
  11. System-based failures versus failures caused by humans/context
  12. Natural failures: leaves falling from trees considered as a problem... although it's definitely the standard course of action for trees)
  13. Good failures: Failure need interpretation, perhaps there's no failure... alternative uses, misuses
  14. Inspiring failures
  15. Harmless failures

Why do I blog this? This is of course a super quick write-up but we wanted to have these ideas written so that could build-up on them in other workshops. Also, what the groups worked on is close to the literature about accidents and problems in Human-Computer Interaction (I'm thinking about Norman's work) but it went beyond the existing lists. In addition, what was interesting, especially in the last assignment was that the list of categories reveal some important norms and criteria of success that designer have in mind.

Thanks to all the participants!