Ingrid Erickson, Lisa Nathan, Nassim Jafarinaimi, Cory Knobel, Matthew Ratto
Our relationship to technology continues to change, in no small part due to the insights of those involved in the design and critique of technological systems and devices. During the past few decades, we have moved beyond a functionalist understanding of the ways in which we engage with technology and embraced the idea that the human-technology relationship is complex and nuanced. Rather than see technologies as external and separate from us, we now understand that we exist within socio-technical infrastructures. We inhabit technological ecosystems that allow us to shift from one device to another, move from one context to the next, and enact multiple identities. We are embedded within technologically-mediated groups, organizations, and cultures that generate their own norms, rituals, and practices.
Understanding this complex reality requires an engagement with design that grasps values beyond those found in the traditional contexts of business and work, such as efficiency and optimization. In HCI, however, many of our design principles have not grown beyond the rational goals of production-oriented design. We feel it is time for our field to embrace a conversation that draws on a new, expanded canon of valuesvalues such as equity or transparency or any number of others that often go unrecognized or are relegated to personal categories of taste and opinion.
This conversation isn’t new. Design scholars have long written about the relationship of design and values. In our own field, we can credit a few foundational voices with establishing a discourse in this area over the past two decades. But however rich the scholarship on value-sensitive design, values at play, values in design, and critical making and similar initiatives is, we are at a critical moment, when the academic practices of labeling and claiming risk fragmenting this multifaceted and generative conversation into separate intellectual silos.
Prompted by what we consider to be a problematic cleaving in this area, the five co-authors of this article came together to explore our shared interests in the intersection of values and design. To spur our attempts at synergy and integration, we challenged ourselves to design and make something of our ownin this case, a workshop for the 2012 iConference in Toronto last February . Early planning conversations for the workshop uncovered distinct positions on such foundational concepts as the nature of products, the place of values in design, the role of material objects, and the function of reflective discourse in design activities. We debated the connotations and relations among the terms values, design, critique, and making, which were reflected in our final title for the workshop: Values|Design|Critique|Makingnotably lacking in prepositions and conjunctions.
We are not a group to politely avoid our differences, however. We seized on them as creative fodder, acknowledging their potential to push our ideas forward in new ways. In recognition of our belief that rolling up our sleeves and jumping into the fray of making and doing is an excellent way to unravel some of the subtleties of values in relation to design practice and designed products, we framed the workshop as a parallel opportunity for participants to tangibly and collectively engage the topic.
To our delight, our proposal was accepted, and more than 50 people signed up to participate in the full-day event. As part of our design process, we are pleased to share the details here alongside the things we learned about values, design, and critique via our own making and doing.
We oriented the day to prompt reflection and conversation by way of active engagement. We wanted to build on that tension between thinking and doing, which can sometimes be unsettling, especially when people are asked to juxtapose familiar and often iconic designs with a call for active making.
Exercise 1: Stories. In our first exercise, workshop participants were invited to bring an “enchanted” object to the workshop: a toy car, a robot, a phone, or any item to which they strongly ascribed some sort of value. To set the tone for the activity, we elected to share one of our own enchanted artifacts with the group. Holding up and occasionally donning a gigantic pair of purple, plastic sunglasses, Lisa explained how the oversize glasses had shifted from an item of little personal value into a wearable memory of an enchanted family afternoon. She recounted a family walk along the Vancouver waterfront when her 15-year-old daughter transformed her feelings of horrified embarrassment at her mom’s public display of the glasses (enacted by walking 10 paces behind the family) into a secure acceptance in which she felt comfortable enough to wear the glasses herself.
Building on Lisa’s introduction, we asked the participants to share their own stories of enchantment. In random groups of five and six, seated around a hotel ballroom, attendees got to know one another by sharing stories of their chosen artifacts. We then asked the groups to collectively select one artifact to share with everyone as an example of something that was especially evocative of a value. Some groups had chosen items valued for their functionality: a wallet-size New York City map was noted as a reliable companion for orienting its owner; a pair of sunglasses was perceived as vital for allowing highly sensitive eyes to manage the bright Arizona sun. Other groups identified objects that held deep personal meaning: a ring that replaced a lost cherished ring from a loved family member, a bag that acted as a memento from a memorable trip to Australia. All of these examples reinforced the idea that our relationship to value is rarely the product of detached intellectual curiosity. Instead, our feelings often reflect our care for people and their experiences. We develop stories to express these feelings and inscribe them onto material artifacts in recognition of this value.
A quick note of explanation may be necessary at this point. Our move to steep participants in an experiential exercise about enchantment was in no way meant to belittle the weighty construct of values. But it is that very weight that we were aiming to avoid. In particular, we wanted to connect values quickly with the everyday objects that have importance in our own lives. Additionally, we were keen to delay the inevitable litany of introductions that would sort participants according to rank and research interests. We were also mindful to avoid the type of activity that instantly devolves into simple list making, such as elaborating the names of possible values associated with an artifact.
By contrast, our focus on enchantmenta state in need of no disciplinary expertise or advanced degreequickly established an intimacy all too rare at academic conferences. Focusing on the narratives through which we articulate our values, we attended to our lived, embodied experiences and began to see them as something to explore, not discard.
Exercise 2: Remix. In that spirit of exploration, we asked the same working groups to imagine how their chosen artifacts might be associated with values other than those with which they had been originally connected. Groups were charged with developing a design brief (in verbal, textual, illustrated, or performed format) to capture these imaginings, which were then to be passed to another group. For instance, one group developed a brief asking for a city map that would encourage getting lost; another asked for a pair of glasses that would support alternative forms of vision.
Using an array of provided materials ranging from pipe cleaners to pie tins to faux coins, recipient groups spent the next hour designing and making the artifacts outlined in the visionary briefs they had received. To prime the creative juices, we provided the following questions for teams to ponder as they settled into their remixing tasks:
- What other needs or values could the artifact engage?
- What could the artifact do that would be unexpected?
- How could the artifact be altered or augmented to foster an alternative value?
- How might the changed artifact rewrite the dominant or peripheral stories associated with it?
The exercise ended with another round of sharing, in which groups explained their processes of interpretation and implementation and then symbolically returned the remixed products to their collective owners.
Exercise 3: Design. Fortified with caffeine and cookies to counteract midday conference fatigue, we introduced the final exercise of the daybut not before mixing up members of the groups to cross-pollinate ideas and establish new conversations.
In our final challenge, we asked each new working group to design and craft an artifact from scratch, one that articulated any of the many values that had emerged during the previous exercises. Pillaging the glittering supply table and scavenging their earlier remixes, groups proceeded to build artifacts and create experiences that captured the day’s insights. As in previous sessions, we provided a series of prompts to scaffold divergent thinking in non-prescriptive ways:
- (How) can we mindfully imbue new artifacts (not necessarily novel) with values?
- How does intention shape a new system in constraining and enabling ways?
- Can we make artifacts that equally prioritize intended use and stories of future enchantment?
- Where do stories end and activities begin?
- What are the limitations of language in constituting our embodied experiences?
The products crafted by our participants exemplified a broad understanding of the relationship between values and design. One set of participants built a magical mirror that would speak only the truth to anyone reflected in it; another group designed a game that called upon players to debate issues related to values. We ended the workshop with a final shareback session, asking groups to demonstrate their productions in use and describe how they engaged values. One of the last groups to present went so far as to incorporate the five of us into their demonstration. Using a simple paper ribbon that we passed among ourselves, this designed experience had us weave a visual representation of our relationships and the ideas that connect us at key conversational turning points.
Our closing discussion reminded us that direct encounters with artifacts, both technological and not, in the situated context of their use can be powerful starting points for understanding the complexities of value. Furthermore, reflecting on these complexities with others powerfully showcases how much our values are dynamic, continually being reformed and refined as a result of experience and interaction.
Inhabiting the Conversation, Continuing the Craft
Pulling off a successful workshop is no small feat, and our experience with the V|D|C|M event attests to our collaborative skills and collective goodwill as a working team. Yet, together, we achieved something much greater than this administrative accomplishmentsomething that would not have been possible without getting our own hands dirty as makers.
This insight came rushing to the fore during the late afternoon, when the workshop participants were busily engaged in their making activities. At the front of the room, the five of us sat down to talk about next steps and associated projects. We were also trying to work quickly as a team to make our own material artifact in parallel with the others. Soon a somewhat heated conversation ensued that highlighted how much our respective positions on the role of context, the nature of values, and the activities of making still differed markedly. Our spirited debate, including challenges to substantiate our claims both rhetorically and materially, was being observedwe discovered laterby several workshop participants, who interpreted our perceived collaboration as a demonstrative feature of the workshop.
Being caught arguing is nothing new to most scholars, but having it acknowledged as a worthy act of making felt celebratory! It reminded us that while we use different tools and supplies, we are all building parts of the same scholarly conversation. This insight propelled us forward that afternoon and continues to motivate our collaboration as a group of scholars interested in value and design today. Making something, particularly in unison with others, engenders a more nuanced kind of insight than less interdependent activities. In our case, our weeks-long slog on Skype conference calls and editing on Google Docs, coupled with our spotlight debate, brought forth a mutual understanding of our differences that was more than tolerant. We now knew from the experience of designing and making the workshop that the issue of values and design could, and should, be powerfully engaged via the intertwining of multiple paths rather than with a single conceptual toolkit.
One way to read this story is that those of us who study the intersection of values, design, and technology need to inhabit more of a “maker” orientation toward the artifacts and systems we build and study. Such a finding would be lovely but inaccurate. Making is not a magical formula for bridging silos and integrating ideas. Nor should we suddenly redefine ourselves as designers. Enchantment as a strategydefamiliarization, pulling backis useful, but only if there is a commensurate pulling forward, a reengagement with the specifics and nuances of less enchanted and more mundane moments.
The challenge is to figure out how best to keep the material and conceptual in a productive balance. The real work that remains is not only in the making or telling of stories; it is also in the development of both physical and conceptual spaces that support integrative practices and their results. Our conversations as a design team after the workshop reinforce the importance of multiple modes of engagement including making, telling, and listening to stories about objects and people, as well as the building of scholarly conceptual frameworks that provide perspective and contextualization. Varied modes of engagement are necessary to connect the embodied and specific moments of making/doing together to the individual and social arenas in which values are grounded, performed, and debated. What is clear is that the reciprocal relationship of values and design cannot be parsed purely via one mode or another. Rather, it requires moments that traverse different modalities and involve transformations of the cultures and institutions of critical and technical work.
Design studies and HCI are fields that demonstrate commitments to both social and technological outcomes. However, we believe these fields are often hindered by a lack of rigorous attention to critical questions of value. There are examples of synthetic practices that link values, stories, and technical production, but for the most part, these remain implicit or under-addressed, obscured by the often functionalist perspectives inherited from previous tropes associated with technologies and technical work. It is also clear that many current academic practices and institutions need to change to better connect critical scholarly work, design, and engineering practice. This is not simply an individual problem: It is one that requires structural changes in how the work of designers, academics, and engineers is carried out and what kinds of institutional support exist for hybrid conceptual/material work.
Our goal is to uncover and make explicit these existing but under-studied modes through our own collaborative and hybrid work, and as a community contribution, ensure that the existing and emerging strands of workthose we are concerned may become siloedremain in productive contact and form stronger collaborations. We will continue to explore these intersections through our V|D|C|M conversations and shared makings, and we invite you to do the same.
1. The annual conference of the “iSchools,” or Schools of Information; http://www.ischools.org/
Ingrid Erickson studies the co-constitutive relationship between people and technologyparticularly mobile technology and new forms of social organization. She holds a Ph.D. in management science and engineering from Stanford University and will be an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University beginning Fall 2012.
Lisa Nathan is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (the iSchool@UBC). Her research investigates the explicit design of information systems to address societal challenges (e.g., sustainability) and the creative information practices these systems enable (or do not). She received a Ph.D. from the Information School at the University of Washington.
Nassim Jafarinaimi is a visiting research faculty member in the Digital Media program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In her research, she explores the ethical and political aspects of design as they relate to the experiential and participatory dimensions of digital media and information technology. She has a Ph.D in design from Carnegie Mellon University.
Cory Knobel is an assistant adjunct professor and co-director of the MetaLab@UCI at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests lie at the intersection of emerging multimodal technologies, knowledge representation practices, and issues of scale in sociotechnical systems. He has a Ph.D. in information from the University of Michigan.
Matthew Ratto is an assistant professor and director of ThingTank Lab in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. His current research focuses on how hands-on productive workmakingcan supplement and extend critical reflection on the relations between digital technologies and society. He has a Ph.D. in communication from the University of California, San Diego.
Sidebar: Related Readings
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Knobel, C. and Bowker, G.C. Values in design. Communications of the ACM 54, 7 (July 2010); doi: 10.1145/1965724.1965735
Ratto, M. Critical making: Conceptual and material studies in technology and social life. The Information Society 27, 4 (2011), 252260; doi:10.1080/01972243.2011.583819
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