Letter to myself written over 7 years ago

Last night I found a hand-written letter I wrote to myself about 7 years ago. It goes like this:

To: Pascal

From: Pascal

Today is Saturday August 25, 2007. I am writing to myself 5 months from now. I am really looking forward to this semester and basically this entire year. I just hope that I can keep my GPA up. The one class that's worrying me already is PHST 330 [Philanthropic Studies] and I am hoping that I can make it through. I will do my best and by the time I get this letter, I will have completed the class with at least an A-. As far as my academics are concerned, I hope to succeed greatly. Other things include stronger spiritual walk, develop professional skills, and more...

-- Pascal --

3 observations I made:

  1. Priorities change. The things I was worrying about back then are things I most likely wouldn't worry about now. Also, grades are important, but definitely not that important. 
  2. I am still pretty much the same person in the letter, with the same aspirations, and weaknesses.
  3. Time sure does go fast. It's 2013 already.

Attention Deficit Disorder & Technology

Today, technology has made it easier than ever to do, know, find, experience basically anything. We are constantly connected to some technology, either consuming or creating information. This constant connection and easier access to information has been mostly positive--affording greater opportunities for education, health, societal well-being (such as crime prevention), entrepreneurship, relationships, etc. However, technology has also negatively impacted our social, emotional, intellectual, and even physical well-being . Technology is making it harder for our brains to focus on what matters, to keep up with and process information the way our brains were meant to process information. Technology seems to be conditioning us to having attention deficit disorder, loosely speaking.

Constant notifications yearning for our attention and action, endless possibilities of trajectories to explore on the internet, millions of people with billions of ideas, opinions, 'truths', etc, are all a few click/taps away. It has indeed become harder than ever to stay focused, to pay attention, to stay on task. Multi-tasking is the new norm. We are restless. We are busy. We are unproductive. We are anxious. We are curious. We lack control. In addition to the inability to pay attention and stay on task, let's reference one of the 'medical' symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)-- "paying too much attention to too many things and details to a point where one loses the ability to focus and pay attention to the task at hand." Google it. Your brain is great at filtering out thousands, if not millions of bits of information you encounter on a daily basis and therefore allowing you to internalize, remember, experience only a focused set at a given moment. This is a fundamental part of cognition. Otherwise you would go, well, crazy. 

The next like. The next view. The next text message. Turning users into addicts, and believe it or not, corporations benefit from your addiction (in billions of dollars at times). That's a different topic by itself. Do realize that there is a threshold where constant yearning for digital attention and connection depletes you. Instead you, the user, remain lacking the attention power you need to be a productive, intellectually, emotionally healthy member of whichever group of society you are interacting in at a given moment.

Technology for the future should be "Calm Technology". Technology that allows us to accomplish tasks. Technology that allows us to connect with people more meaningfully, and not necessarily "signaling" technology as Don Norman calls it (one way communication). Technology that understand the barriers and existing constructs of the human condition and human need, and designs for this. Technology that fits into our lives, augments without distracting.

Forecasting User Experience

I recently did some photography for a football game. One key skill I learned, and this is what the professional photographers do: to be good at it, to capture the shots that separate your shots from the rest of the people holding cameras, you have to have your eyes open and see 5-10 seconds into the play. You have to constantly predict where the ball might be next. This is not guessing. It takes knowledge of the domain and constant practice. With this said, I believe predicting your customer/user's needs for tomorrow is just as crucial to designing for the current need. To stay relevant, competitive, needed, and wanted, you have to think outside of the "current" box. Forecast market trends, your domain's paradigm shifts, and your target user market is key to play both in the today and tomorrow. Your research has to be dynamic and the product constantly iterated. We all know what happened to RIM and many other companies. 

10 Insights on User Experience Design

10 insights on User Experience Design:

  1. Experience is temporal. Remove temporality from experience and there is really no experience. 
  2. The thing being experienced is not a given. That thing is part of the interpretation. 
  3. Every human experience is a unique experience. No two experiences are the same. As a designer you must accept that as a foundation for everything you do. Experience is very subjective. You never really know if you will be "successful" or not in delivering a particular experience. 
  4. As a designer, you can either create an experience or support an experience. 
  5. It's not an experience if it does't have aesthetic qualities. 
  6. If you have an experience, it is changing you. 
  7. Experience takes energy--if you don't want people to spend energy on a design, each time they experience it, be careful how you design it. 
  8. Energy involves focus...involves surrender....involves time....it is a lot of work. Think of music for example. If you ask someone to listen to to music he or she doesn't normally listen to, it takes more energy for them to "get it". 
  9. As a designer, accept that traditional scientifc experiments do not always "work" for experience design. "In the early stages of HCI, people had this idea that if we can just figure out how people work, exactly in detail how people react to everything (psychology), if we can figure out the machinery of human beings then we can create guidelines on what and how to design to get the desired response. This was the focus of HCI for about 20 years up to the mid 1990s. This might work for a scientific experience but if you are a designer, that's not possible really. It will be too difficult and it does not work. The other way of doing is to try to understand the material of interaction, the design. What you can do then is to take all different design interactions and see what happens and study the output experience to map out every little change in the design and its resulting experience (Stolterman)."
  10. My personal interpretation of experience:

    (E)xperience = (A)ctivity + (P)erception
    (Ac)tivity = (TI)me + (I)nteraction
    (P)erception = (C)ognition + (I)nteraction
    Experience = (T + I) + (C + I)


    The following blog post was adapted from notes I took in Dr. Stolterman's Experience Design course a couple of years ago. 





    Are we really connected? Part 1

    Since the beginning of this year, I have been looking into a topic that can easily be overlooked by technology-centered fields such as HCI, CS, etc. This topic is the antithesis to the popular notion of "social connectedness", and the subconscious expectation and push for technological innovation to bring about a sense of utopia in society.

    Here is an excerpt from the paper I wrote:

    As a society, we have become engrossed in technology--gadgets, websites, apps, etc. Some offer to connect us with other people using different modes of interaction made possible by technology. But though technology has simplified parts of our lives and created new experiences and opportunities for connection, technology is also seemingly becoming the object of our attention, affection, and interaction, drawing us away from each other and the physical world and into itself.

    As we focus on what most these technologies make possible, we are missing what they don’t--traditional sociability as experienced in the physical world. We seem to be losing the value of of real life, face to face social interaction to online interaction and its quasi-human-centered social connectedness. I believe that the value of offline sociability in the physical world is being undermined with the pervasive and ubiquitous use of online social interaction and other technologies. Thus, designers that value true social connectedness should start to think outside of the digital box.

    Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, expounds upon this problem space in her book Alone Together. Turkle explores the ways with which our technologies continually shape us and the effects of technology on human relationships and social interaction. She mentions that with technology, we seem to be always connected together but yet alone, “furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens [1].” She mentions, “after an evening of avatar-to-avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers [2].” This same notion is iterated by Mark Wilson, the founder of Philanthroper.com. He states, “the biggest problem in social media right now isn’t getting people engaged online, it’s getting people engaged in person. Foursquare and photo apps like Instagram definitely interact with the real world, but they tend to appeal to friends online more than the friends you’re actually, physically hanging out with [3].”

    [1]Turkle, Sherry. "The Flight From Conversation." The New York Times. 09 Jan. 2012. Web. 2 May 2012. .
    [2]Turkle, Sherry. "Alone Together." Introduction. Alone Together. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 1-22. Alone Together by Sherry Turkle. 29 Apr. 2012 .
    [3]Wilson, Mark. "Jukey: A Networked Jukebox That Only Plays Crowd Favorites." Fast Company Design. Fast Company, 04 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.

    Obsession with the meaningless

    Facebook recently acquired Instagram for $1 billion in cash and stock. To make a long story short, I think that's amazing. However, the obsession with the purchase is sickening. I enjoy reading tech news but looking at some of the top tech news lately, I am realizing how obsessed the Western culture is with technology, the web, and mobile apps.

    Yes, if you are in the tech industry, the Instagram purchase is an interesting piece of news. But what does it say about our values when our top news sources place this much importance on this little cool billion dollar app, and continue to do so days later after the purchase. Does Instagram really deserve days of media coverage by some of our top news sources including the Washington Post, Mashable, CNN, Reuters, New York Times, and dozens of other smaller tech news sources?

    I do not want to play the grinch here, but I am not surpised with the media attention Instagram has received and this obsession is pervasive throughout our society. Tools that are meant to "improve" our lives and enhance our experiences of everyday life have become our greatest problems. From mobile device usage while driving (which results in thousands of deaths a year in the U.S. alone) to skewed priorities and mismanagement of time due to the narcistic overusage of online social networking, it is becoming more evident that the value we place on different technologies, in the long run will determine the effects these technologies have on us. 

    If you want to make a difference in the world, it's about time to quit obsessing over the meaningless. Technology is a powerful tool and has indubitably impacted life to varying degrees. But I hardly doubt that Instagram and/or Facebook is going to help curb the effects of poverty at home and abroad, war in third world countries, homelessness, social and political reform, education, etc. And individuals' obsession with Instagram, Facebook, and similar tools will definitely not contribute to personal growth and productivity. If anything, these tools can be the bane of our existence.

    All I am saying is: there are deeper and more meaningful ways with which technology can impact the world around us. Instagram is necessarily not one of them. Let us not get caught up in the "frenzy", the hype, the next gadget, the next app, the next tech or fashion trend . Don't allow yourself to be simply the consumer, constantly being fed by all the junk companies throw at you. Prioritize your usage of technology, mobile devices, apps, social networking and etc; and strive to be the producer of greater ideas and not solely the consumer of others' ideas. 

    HCI: Interdisciplinary but not intercultural

    How do you begin to institutionalize Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research, practice, and education beyond its predominantly Western roots and influence? I am neither talking about the creation of international standards for usability nor international HCI education.

    I am talking about a complete overhaul of the field's current underlying assumptions, principles, and methodologies by a contributing body of non-western researches, practicioners, and students. Well, maybe an "overhaul" is not the right word. But the basic point is this: HCI, like many other fields, is traditionally founded on Western ideologies, culture, user behavior, etc. This is a good start--good as a foundational piece, a model, but not as an ultimate. HCI is yet to experience a broader diversity of users, researchers, practicioners, and students spanning all economic, cultural, and religious statuses. 

    But I do believe that institutionalizing HCI research, practice, and education across cultures requires the field to reach a higher level of growth and solidity. As we know it, the field is still developing. But I look forward to seeing the field benefit from a multi-cultural understanding of people and technology, and seeing developing countries innovate as well and advance in computing and HCI education as a result of embracing ethnocultural (culturally relevant) HCI principles and methodologies. 

    I am a multi-cultural student existing withinin the HCI field, and expressing an opinion. 


    This cellphone carries with it a unique context of use, meaning, and experience as it travels across different cultures. Sorry for the stereoptypical images of Africa, but you get the point. image source


    Human Experience Part 2

    User (Human) Experience is a topic in HCI focused on understanding the connection between people's intentions, emotions, the different variables of a "contextualized activity" and interaction with technology. Currently, the HCI field is rich in discourse and research on user experience, drawing upon several other disciplines such as psychology and sociology as we seek to understand the intersection between people and technology; and how technology can continually enrich lives and provide and/or support meaningful interaction and experiences.

    To further discuss human experience, a quote from Ben Schneiderman, one of the pioneers of HCI and current professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, states "successful technologies are those that are in harmony with users' needs. They must support relationships and activities that enrich the users' experiences." 

    So once again, technology is seen as a support, a facilitator of an already existing human state. In my previous blog post, I mentioned that people do things for their own reasons and not the reasons that you give them. Additionally, we have to understand that the reasons people do things are connected to their emotional needs and states. People do things that align with how they are feeling at a certain moment, or how they would like to feel in a future moment. Although I do little justice in explaining the true essence of user experience in the previous sentence, I believe that most, if not all conscious human action can be framed within context of an emotive experience. This makes the study of human experience a difficult one due to the very subjective nature of people, emotion, and interaction. Maybe this is the reason why the HCI field in general is not used to dealing with the topic of human experience, as mentioned by McCarthy and Wright.

    Don Norman, one of the early pioneers for User Experience, states that many everyday tasks are opportunistic and not planned. He goes on to state that "opportunistic actions are those in which the behavior takes advantage of the circumstances. Rather than engage in extensive planning and analysis, the person goes about the day's activities and performs the intended action if the relevant opportunity arises." Now this is hard to replicate in a traditional scientific lab environment and it is what makes the design of meaningful interactive technologies a relatively difficult task.

    I believe that at this intersection (of people, experience, and technology), HCI thrives as a field in expanding and contracting upon its own and related fields' research, and offering insights and design implications for interactive technologies. 

    Human Experience Part 1

    Designing successful and meaningful interactive technologies begins with an understanding of user human experience. I believe this understanding starts at the notion that people do things for their own reasons, not necessarily the reasons you as a designer give them.

    Let's take a quick glance at a consumer-based example given by John McCarthy and Peter Wright. In the book titled Technology as Experience, the authors argue that  "people develop their own paths around supermarkets, tactically resisting the architecture and advertisements designed to shape their shopping behavior."

    The authors go on to say that people are not just passive consumers. In fact, "consumers appropriate the physical and conceptual space created by producers for their own interest and needs...consumers complete the experience for themselves(page 11)."  

    People do things for their own reasons, not the reasons you give them. These reasons are often connected their emotional state. As McCarthy and Wright put it, "interaction with technology is now as much about what people feel as it is about what people do." 

    People's actions actually carry deeper meaning--more meaning than what can be conveyed through a quantitative evaluation. A design's "usability" is great to consider but doesn't solely determine the value and experience delivered. This understanding was absent in the traditionally scientific approach of the first wave of HCI, which focused primarily on the quantifiable parameters of a system's usability.

    Some aspects of human experience are studied and partially understood by other fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology to name a few. The HCI field is seeking to draw upon the aforementioned fields and its own research in contributing to a relatively new topic/sub-field known as User Experience. 

    I discuss more about User Experience in the next blog post.