Emerging approaches to research and design practice

XV.6 November + December 2008
Page: 23
Digital Citation

FEATURECultural theory and design

Christine Satchell

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Cultural theory helps us understand users' needs and desires; it sheds light on why people are likely to adopt one trend but not another and helps indicate what cultural influences are shaping society at any given time. It points out things like why our love for the iPod extends beyond its functionality as an MP3 player and includes our collective embrace of its distinctive white headphone cords. So although design practice has ways of understanding technological features—and of eliciting user needs—cultural theory helps to illustrate the symbolic value of technological artifacts, which is often at least as important to their adoption and use as their instrumental functions. This makes cultural theory a viable way for a designer of new technologies to produce a well-received product or service.

The use of cultural theory in the design process is not necessarily about telling designers to "do" something different. Instead, like other theories, it is about thinking differently. The use of cultural theory is being applied in the development of a mobile phone prototype called Swarm, illustrating how different conceptual thinking can lead to actual results [1]. This is followed by speculation about how this type of thinking can be applied as part of the design process.

back to top  Application of Theory to Practice

A three-year study of mobile phones and youth culture revealed that participants' needs were not about technology; they were about culture, style, fashion, identity, friendship, and deceit. Translating such complex, subtle user needs into design called for a framework to contextualize these nuances of mobile-driven interactions [2]. Cultural theory was ideally aligned to do this because it provides an in-depth perspective on the ingrained and intangible practices that are at the heart of social communication [3]. What follows are two key concepts—"focusing on the action in the periphery" and "digital identity"—along with an illustration of these concepts as found in user data and in a design.

back to top  Focusing on the Action in the Periphery

Cultural theory looks beyond mainstream culture and focuses on activities occurring on the periphery. This means that previously unrepresented groups and practices come to focus [4]. For example, one of the peripheral groups that have been of most interest to cultural theorists is youth. Significantly, cultural theory provides a holistic critique of everyday social behaviors of youth cultures, not as some sort of novelty but as unique, meaningful cultural formations. This is important because innovation is often occurring within the subcultures of youth cultures: Think hackers and gamers. By understanding the activities of these fringe users, new designs can successfully be brought into the mainstream. The process through which illegal underground peer-to-peer file sharing culminated in the development of the iPod is a classic example of this.

When taking this view, the focus of attention is not what properties youth have as a class of users, but rather by what mechanisms youth is constituted as a cultural category—not so much "what youth is doing," but "how youth is doing it." This highlights the contrasts between what the HCI usability specialist would look for and what the cultural theorist would look for. Another way of considering the difference is an emphasis on goals as compared with experiences; traditional ethnographic HCI technique watches work unfold in a very pragmatic sense. Cultural theory watches culture unfold, in a much more ethereal sense.

Cultural theory offers an alternative to traditional usability approaches by focusing on the cultural contexts in which technologies are put to work.

Cultural theory, then, provided a useful lens for understanding the needs of young people in the user study and helped to reveal features of youth culture as a social construction. In doing so, the signifying features, as distinct to those of mainstream society, were revealed. This analysis demonstrated that for a new generation the mobile phone was integral in the formation of fluid social interactions and had accelerated urban mobility. Users once restrained by premade plans were able to spontaneously traverse the city and suburbs, swarming between friendship groups and activities. A distinct user archetype was emerging from these mobile-phone-driven subcultures—the Nomad. While this may have been a predictable finding for older generations, it represents a dramatic shift in thinking about teenagers and youth. For these users, the mobile phone was central in the construction and expression of social existence, resulting in mobile-phone-generated spaces becoming the new place for the digital generation to "hang out." Could current systems be improved to better meet their needs?

Looking at the signifying elements of youth culture itself provided insights that shaped the development of a design called the Swarm. Mobile users were disconnected physically but connected digitally. They responded to increasingly fragmented lifestyles by turning the mobile artifact itself into a kind of virtual home base. This enabled them to continually express and maintain their identity, albeit a digital representation of it. In response, the Swarm has at its core a virtual lounge room where, through the use of avatars, users can maintain a virtual presence where they can always be found.

The avatars depict the user's current activity and can be programmed to appear on the user's friends' mobile phones. As the activity changes, the avatars can be updated accordingly. This allows individuals to see at glance what the other members of their friendship networks are doing at any particular time. By providing users with this contextual information about what other members of their social group are doing, presence and intimacy are maintained. This can give serendipity a nudge, facilitating interactions with individuals or groups who may be in the same vicinity. In turn, users can draw on their sense of social and cultural etiquette, and depending on the nature of the activity, decide not to disturb one another.

Instead of focusing on user goals and tasks, cultural theory identified an emerging trend, and design activities were used to capitalize on this trend in the creation of tangible screens.

back to top  Digital Identity

A central interest for cultural theorists is the representation of identity and how in the disembodied world of digital space, the cues to identity that we have in the real world are absent. The result is that digital identities have greater fluidity. For example, Turkle finds that digital environments allow users to shed the human qualities of age, gender, race, disability, and even—as in the case of an HIVpositive man who had promiscuous online sex—disease [5]. Furthermore, unlike notions of identity held within ubiquitous computing that aim to reveal where a user is located and what their activity is, the use of culturally informed perspectives into digital identity presents the challenge of allowing different identities to be expressed in a range of contexts.

At a time when designers are theorizing about the nature of user experiences in digital environments—and asking, as researcher Laurel does, "Can we create real social depth? [6]"—these perspectives provide more than academic insights into the ideology of identity politics. They have a practical application, encouraging us to consider the implications as a new generation extends their identity into an increasingly pervasive digital sphere. Being digital is not about being anonymous; it's about reconstructing identity in digital spaces. What qualities do people want to include as they rebuild their digital self? What do they want to leave out?

A major challenge in developing a prototype of the Swarm was to allow the user to create a digital identity that, as in real life, was not singular or static. Instead, users can take on many different personas in accordance with the nature of the activity they are conducting or the person they are interacting with. Therefore, the Swarm supports avatars that simultaneously represent the users' multiple identities. For example, a user can set a social avatar for friends to see while simultaneously projecting a professional avatar to colleagues. Furthermore, in order to allow greater creativity when creating digital identities, the user can embed their avatar with digital content that will be revealed when it is clicked on. This can act as an incentive for those not present to join the person or allow for those who can't be there to "get the picture."

back to top  Situating Cultural Theory in a Broader Design Spectrum

Cultural theory, then, offers an alternative to traditional usability approaches by focusing on the cultural contexts in which technologies are put to work, and it offers a way to understand not just how they are deployed and used but how they are experienced and understood. These glimpses of the complex forces that drive us to engage with technologies in a particular way are useful for designers wanting to move beyond "efficiency" and "function" to incorporate more abstract user needs such as "identity" and "friendship."

If we took an engineering approach to digital systems, we would ask questions about how users or systems worked. If we took a usability approach, we would ask questions about how people would understand systems and put them to use. However, both approaches leave other questions unasked. How do pages on MySpace or Facebook reflect youth subcultures? How do digital cameras change the way that people think about images? What roles do mobile phones play in people's lives? Reflecting the idea that digital media are not simply engineering artifacts but cultural objects, these sorts of questions are the domain of cultural theory.

back to top  Applying Cultural Theory

Our experience with the Swarm prototype demonstrates that a cultural analysis had relevance for our project. You might ask, how could it have relevance for yours? By and large, cultural theory resists easy reduction to rules of thumb and straightforward communicable "implications for design." There are no simple formulas or slogans. A cultural theorist could be hired as part of a commercial design team to provide insights into the forces that drive us to adopt a particular trend. Yet these insights would be inexorably entwined with the discipline's origins in Marxist theory, meaning they would be arrived at via a searing critique of consumer culture. For this reason, although a cultural theorist could be an immensely useful addition to a commercial design team, in all likelihood, their perspectives may not seamlessly align with the vision of corporate culture. So is there a middle ground between these options and the direction to go absorb Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, and Foucault?

There is, but it lies not so much in "what we should do" and more in sensitizing one's self to cultural theory concerns about "what we should recognize" as we go about traditional ethnographic approaches. We should recognize that digital artifacts are important not so much for how they work, but for what they mean to people and for people. What we need to address is not so much how people use technology but how they live their lives through it. If there is a take-home message for design practitioners, then, it is to be aware that usability of information technologies is often secondary to their utility, and that cultural theory offers a perspective on the uses that technologies and artifacts serve for people in everyday life.

back to top  References

1. "Cellphone Tells the World What Mode You Are In." New Scientist. 23 December 2006.

2. Satchell, C. "Cultural Theory and Real World Design: Dystopian and Utopian Outcomes." In the Proceedings of CHI '08, Florence, Italy, 2008.

3. Sengers, P., J. McCarthy, and P. Dourish. "Reflective HCI: Articulating an Agenda for Critical Practice." Extended Abstracts CHI '06, 1683–1686. New York: ACM Press, 2006.

4. Eagleton, T. AfterTheory. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

5. Turkle, S. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

6. Laurel, B., ed. Design Research: Methods and Perspectives, 196. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

back to top  Author

Christine Satchell Ph.D. is a senior research fellow with creative industries at Queensland University of Technology and an honorary research fellow with the Interaction design group at the University of Melbourne. My research is about understanding the social and cultural nuances of everyday user behavior in order to inform the design of new technology. Currently, I am part of a team focusing on the relationship between constellations of technologies including mobile devices, social networking sites, sensors, and shared displays in urban environments.

back to top  Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1409040.1409046

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/1100  $5.00

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