”...thingness has only been invented by us owing to the requirements of logic, thus with the aim of defining, communication (to bind together the multiplicity of relationships, properties, activities).”Nietzsche, The Will to Power (III Principles of a New Evaluation 558, 1887)
Thingness is a consequence of physicality. Objects have boundaries, but even these are a function of context. Soak them, roast them, freeze them, squeeze them, drop them, or swing them and their forms may no longer endure. Our idealized reification of things strips away contingencies to construct “normal” encounters and usage, but every property that we attribute (e.g., color, weight, strength) is the result of interactions in context.
Digital objects have little in the way of obvious boundaries. They blend into the world of interactive usage, making it hard to assign fixed properties or qualities to them. The language and concepts of physical product design do not transfer well to interaction design. Few aesthetics of form can be immediately perceived, as with physical objects. The same holds for affordances, which are strictly physical (see Don Norman’s take on this in interactions May+June 1999). Instead, aesthetics and affordances unfold within the user experience. Furthermore, users’ evaluations of interactions evolve beyond the “end” of an experience. What endures here cannot be properties of the digital artifact or the interaction. Rather, what endures are properties of the world, inscribed in people, places, and things. This is why we interact with all objects in the first place. Good experiences can give rise to revisitable good moods and enduring, reworkable memories. Good outcomes embed value in the world. Goodness here can be evaluated without any reference to the features or qualities of a digital artifact or a user’s experience of it. My writing as you now read it is good or bad independently of my writing experiences, or the feature set of the word processor that I used to write it.
If we think of designing qualities, properties, or value into artifacts, then we enter a nonsensical world critiqued by Nietzsche and many after him. Our world is one of relations, not things. Our intellectual challenge is to relate, not to excavate. The archaeologies of things are genealogical, not ontological. If we thus conceive just “a thing” during design, there is nothing to relate it to. We are reduced to making wild claims for deterministic properties of manmade objects that have power over others. To escape such a fetishized world of “cool stuff,” we must relate the means of digital designs through the further means of interaction to the ends of people as users or consumers. Designing is thus not just a question of conceptualizing and realizing things (although without that there is no design), but also one of connecting between stuff and us.
Designing as Sketching to Connect
Within design the primacy of relations over objects is becoming established. For Clement Mok  the generic purpose of all design is to “create meaningful connections among people, ideas, art, and technology, shaping the way people understand their relationships with ... new products.” Similarly, for Stefano Marzano “design is a connector, a synthesizer, and a translator. It’s a bridge between changes in the economy, in technology, and in industry. The result of the interaction between all these changes has to be brought to an aesthetic synthesis. The designer is the person who takes that final step towards this synthesis .” Sir George Cox too used a linking metaphor in his 2005 UK Department of Trade and Industry Review of Creativity in Business: “Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end .” Linking, bridging, or creating connections is now seen as more fundamental to designing than conceptualization and creation: “Making sense of how people live and behave, and drawing insights from those observations has always been at the heart of what the best designers do. They visualise and give life to radical ideas and create connections that can lead to meaningful change .”
What can go wrong when designing, and why? The fundamental error is fetish fixation: to sketch only things, not what connects those things to good experiences and outcomes. To show the connections between craft design elements and human value elements, we need to sketch both and then sketch the connections between them. Without all three sketches, we cannot properly explore the relationship between feature and interaction alternatives (alternative means to some end) and design purpose (the end of designing). HCI and interaction design have to make one more step to design for connecting. We sketch and prototype design “means” very well, either as various artifact representations (e.g., screen mockups, dialogue storyboards) or as interaction representations (e.g., scenarios). This resulting second focus on storytelling marks out contemporary design . However, video envisionment, dramatic scenarios, body storming, and other forms of experience prototyping still focus largely on means. Experience is not always an end in itself; it can be, but great experiences always result in enduring value. In much usage, experiences are largely means to an end. Thus, the most challenging game interactions can be very unpleasant and frustrating, but completing the last mission at veteran level after a week’s struggle can be immensely satisfying. Value here lies in achievementthis is so with most work and many leisure applications of computing.
Designing to connect requires sketching of (1) envisaged artifacts, (2) desired outcomes and (3) their interconnection in means-end chains. We base sketches of artifacts on craft and technical possibilities, extended by creativity, and we base sketches of outcomes on knowledge of what people find worthwhilegreat experiences and great achievements. Here we sketch happy endings without reference to technologies used to get there. We sketch connections by associating crafted design elements (materials, features, qualities) with human value elements (experiences, outcomes).
Our ability to sketch or prototype interaction design elements is well developed, as is our ability to sketch or prototype user experiences. To see how to communicate happy endings, we need only look to advertising, which has been associating happy outcomes with product and service purchases for well over a century. We should not bring any distaste of advertising with us here. What we must do is reject the dishonest manipulation behind false associations of product attributes and human outcomes, but we can and should learn about how these outcomes are presented in advertising. We can take advantage of this expertise in communicating happy endings but can reappropriate this into ethical design processes that credibly and demonstrably deliver on claimed associations between design and value elements.
Keep the sketches, keep the prototypes, borrow advertising’s heart-tugging media techniques, but proceed ethically, rationally, and demonstrably in connecting them all. Unlike the advertiser with a brief to sell, even at the expense of the truth, designers have a brief to deliver on design purpose without hiding from the truth. A fundamental question that follows here is: How can we sketch hoped-for connections between people and technology?
Sketching and Mapping Connections Between People and Technologies
We can sketch explicit connections by adapting techniques used in advertising and marketing, which ladder from product attributes to the happy endings of consumer values. I call the resulting connection sketch of intersecting means-ends chains a “worth map.” As an illustration, an example is now developed for a U.K. home climate-control system. In the U.K. home climate controllers mostly keep homes warm rather than cool. We call them “central heating controllers.” They are notoriously difficult to use  and have been used as an illustration of how redesign can improve usability . Jenson’s redesign focuses on physical and perceptual interaction, without questioning whether the value of a heating controller is solely about a British fixation on saving money, which is achieved via simply programming the operation of a furnace (“heating boiler” in the U.K).
If we want to maximize the worth of a central heating controller, we need to maximize its value and minimize its costs (i.e., worth = benefits/costs). In the human world of cultural values and socioeconomic resources, we can’t hope for any closures that will fully tell us when we’ve maximized this or minimized that. Instead, we have to track forms of value and types of cost, and reach a judgment about the resulting balance of worth. To do this we can begin by brainstorming on people’s needs, wants, dreams, nightmares, aversions, and related practices, as well as on relevant technical opportunities. Such brainstorming results in initial lists of human and technical sensitivities. “Sensitivities” is used broadly here to mean anything of potential relevance in terms of technical opportunities or human behavior and value. Examples appear in the first diagram, with 13 numbered human sensitivities to the right of eight technical sensitivities.
A creative step re-expresses or translates sensitivities into design and human elements that interconnect in a worth map. These elements can form an intermediate representation called a “worth sketch,” to which we add connections to make a worth map. An example is shown for a central heating controller below: Yellow elements are worthwhile outcomes, pink value elements are user experiences, light-blue design elements are qualities, gray design elements are features, white design elements are materials, and along the bottom, rededged elements are adverse outcomes. This worth sketch is thus populated by design elements (materials, features, qualities) and value elements (user experiences, outcomes). There are also negative versions of some elements: defects (inverse of qualities), adverse experiences, and adverse outcomes. For simplicity, only adverse outcomes appear in the example sketch and map.
Originating sensitivities are indicated by letters and/or numbers at the bottom of each element. To make the connections of the means-end chains explicit, we add associations to a worth sketch, creating the worth map in the second diagram. Sensitivities associated with sketch elements guide placement of the arrows for some positive associations. The worth map is completed by identifying desired means-end chains as arrow sequences that connect design elements via user experiences to worthwhile outcomes. A sample means-end chain is highlighted in red. It begins with the software “material” of predictive algorithms, which can enable the features of predictive cost/ usage and specifically carbon footprint information. These features in turn should give rise to user-perceived qualities of being clear and informative. If both qualities are achieved, then two user experiences should arise. The meaning of the first will take shape as the easing of environmental conscience. The other will be meaningful as a feeling of control over usage and costs. As a result of these chains of means, two design ends may resultthat is, the twin outcomes of caring for our planet and achieving a healthy household budget. In this case, the first outcome is due to representing predicted usage as a carbon footprint that directly addresses environmental concerns and action.
Worth maps also connect aversions to design elements and user experiences. Initially, a design team could believe that all aversions can be avoided. Dotted lines in the worth map indicate such “aversion blocks,” i.e., potential adverse outcomes that are blocked by designed features or qualities or through achievable user experience.
This completes the example illustration of sketching out a worth map. At such an early stage in design, its envisaged means-end chains can be only theoretical, an ideal. However, by using lists of initial sensitivities, worth sketches, and maps, we have reframed designing from conceiving artefacts to connecting between creations and people. Worth maps show envisaged connections between human value and design options. They are one way to start worth-centered development (WCD) processes, which are guided by WCD principles that support a flexible development framework. WCD is not a methodology and thus does not impose rigid methods. Instead, it uses six broad principles to create a flexible structure for a family of design approaches. The first, commitment, begins with the human values that we commit to delivering as design purpose (shown as worthwhile outcomes in worth maps). The second, receptiveness, takes initial sensitivities, fleshes them out, and better grounds them through research and usage studies. The third, expressiveness, requires map elements and associations to be fully communicated via appropriate representations (i.e., not just the labeled boxes and unlabeled arrows above). The fourth WCD principle of inclusiveness requires that all stakeholders will enjoy a good balance of worthwhile outcomes and user experiences. The fifth, credibility, requires that fully expressed elements are realistic and/or feasible, and that all proposed associations can plausibly hold. The last, improvability, requires that many if not all elements be associated with measurable delivery targets; that poor interaction performance can be explained in terms of worth processing; and that alternative design elements could support required improvements.
In designing for people, we must give humans at least as much attention as technology. This means attending to them fully as people, not just as situated users, consumers, managers, or developers. We need to focus on what people find worthwhile, what motivates them, what demotivates them, and how a balance of worth emerges from complex networks of costs and benefits. It’s time for the “H” to truly come first in HCI.
3. Cox, G., Review of Creativity in Business: Building on the UK’s strengths. December 2, 2005. <http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/cox_review/coxreview_index.cfm>. Accessed April 13, 2008.
Gilbert Cockton is the University of Sunderland’s HCI research chair. A NESTA fellowship (www.nesta.org) on value-centred design funded his investigations of designing as a connection between technology and human worth. Gilbert’s career to date has blended education, academic research, childcare, design, consultancy, work for and within business and public sectors, directing large regional economic development projects, and professional service (e.g., CHI 2003 co-chair, past British HCI Group Chair, past IFIP TC13 vice-chair, as well as editor emeritus of Interacting with Computers).
Sidebar: Designing for Worth: One Way to Get Started
The worth-centered development (WCD) framework supports a range of starting points and development routes. The simplest to explain has a waterfall structure that starts by gathering what could be connected as human and technical sensitivities. This is presented here, using a card-arranging approach. However, the WCD framework is flexible. You really can start and end anywhere, supporting, for example, participative or probes-based approaches.
A WCD waterfall structure starts by brainstorming on craft/technical and human sensitivities. Be receptive to all ideas about craft and technical possibilities, and about what motivates people, because it is of value. What do we know from past and current designs that is potentially relevant? What do we know about what motivates people individually and collectively in our design context? What trends and stable regularities exist? Add all to lists of sensitivities. That’s waterfall step one for this iteration.
Next, creatively re-express or translate listed sensitivities into design or human elements. Make these elements concrete by writing them down on cards. Note originating sensitivities on the back. Now arrange them horizontally to reflect their role in means-end chains. Lay out materials in a row in the middle, features in a row above, and qualities above again in a row. You’ve just laid out the middle part of a worth sketch. Then, if you have generated defects and adverse experiences/outcomes, you can spread these out in three rows below materials, defects first, adverse experiences next and adverse outcomes at the bottom. Place worthwhile experiences and outcomes respectively in two rows above the qualities. You now have a completed worth sketch.
To move to a worth map, keep elements in their rows, but rearrange them to expose vertical means-end chains. Noted sensitivities “behind” elements may indicate some associations. Elements related to the same sensitivity are generally associated, as are elements that re-express craft or technical sensitivities as drivers of meaningful user experiences. The rest is down to the hopes of the design team. Associations are added to create complete means-end chains from design elements to human elements. We can think of these means-end chains as providing the structure for a design brief in the form of a coherent system of challenges that a project team has set itself.
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