A Design Manifesto

Beginning

Each day, we interact with a plethora of things that populate our every environment: products, systems, ideas. Intangible and tangible. Invisible and visible. All of these entities were designed and created by someone.

How were they designed?

Why were they designed?

If a physical product feels invisible to use, then did the designer succeed in building a natural extension of our human values? Contrarily, what qualities in current designs provoke us and induce ‘fight-or-flight’ responses?

These questions broadly capture the complexity and depth of knowledge involved in design. Design is not restricted to visual aesthetic as otherwise commonly heard. Design is a recursive process through which meaningful human values are maximized and lived experiences are evaluated.

As a human at the intersections between visual arts and technology, and as an undergraduate student pursuing computer science and quantitative sciences with anthropology, I recognize and emphasize the tensions between human and non-human, objectivity and subjectivity, tangible and intangible. My background lends itself well to unraveling design and human-computer interaction into a manifesto.

Surveying the past four months from my course at Emory University, I consolidate my manifesto into the five points as follows:

Point 1: Reiteration and Redesign

If you decide to read only this first point, then you are in luck because for me it is the most important takeaway and motivates the consequent points.

Your first design should not be the last. I will say it now: it is not perfect. It is ridden with biases, stereotypes, fallacies, irrelevant details — you name it. Throughout the semester, I was challenged in understanding the design process; I would create designs that were motivated and informed by literature reviews and novelty, which I would argue is a good approach, but they were still not ideal. My literature reviews focused on my biased representations of the problem. I channeled my lived (or absent) experiences into the product use cases. It is difficult to detach and disrupt your “perfect idea,” but it is necessary. I realized that designing for others is not about me — it is about others.

A design sheet produced from idea brainstorming session.

Two projects that I worked on explicitly emphasized reiteration and redesign. In the first, I worked with my group to redesign the Atlanta History Center’s official desktop website for mobile for Morehouse College students. This project involved remapping what already existed from a third party to a new experience with different modes of interaction, i.e. desktop’s keyboard and mouse to mobile’s touchscreen. From this project, we realized our first design was not the most ideal. We introduced a lot of stereotypes about our target audience and user experiences in the first iteration, which we recognized was not good for both the designers and the target audience. As such, without the additional iterations of the mobile design, the product could have turned malicious. Bad design leads to bad outcomes.

In the second, I worked with my group to further redesign our aforementioned mobile redesign into a physical, tangible product, such as a wearable technology. We evaluated what was good and what was bad in our previous mobile design, thus informing the direction of the next iteration. We opted to prototype a mixed reality-equipped eyewear that emphasized interactions with the eyes. The shift to a physical prototype was interesting as we were no longer limited to the typical touch input of mobile devices; however, our mindsets were still stuck in mobile device-based solutions.

Although the previous two redesigns were more drastic (new modes of interaction, new mediums), this is not to say that reiterations must be drastic. A redesign can be more localized and on a smaller scale, such as adjusting the color palette or font size to improve accessibility. Also, not all experiences can be effectively physicalized or digitized, but changing the medium can present another design solution.

Brainstorm, build, destroy, rebuild, repeat. Consider different avenues or modes of interaction. Repeat, reiterate, repeat, reiterate. The time, space, and motivational complexity will be high, but the end product will be rewarding and meaningful, motivated by your empathy and compassion for others.

Rebuilding versions of a conversational flow.

Point 2: Deconstructing Bias

You may be wondering about what informs the reiteration and redesign process. You may accept and recognize that your initial design is not ideal, but what is the next step?

Why does your design need to be improved? As mentioned briefly in the previous point, it is easy to believe that one’s lived experiences are representative of their target audience, or perhaps that they are a well-versed in and well-informed about the problem. This attitude must be deconstructed. Reflecting on my collaborative work with my team members, there was a reason the projects were not solo projects. Other people must be included in the process. One human does not represent and cannot have the variable lived experiences of all humans, and in our increasingly technologically-pervasive society, we must sustain the multiplicity of this humanness through collaboration and mutual discourse.

Researchers and designers must suspend disbelief and actively reject or deconstruct their own biases when designing a solution for a user group. Results should not skew in favor of the designers’ desires. Errors are inevitable and must be respected. Some of the formal methods involved with deconstructing biases are found throughout the entire design process, emphasizing that bias deconstruction is not a one-and-done task.

Need-finding and data collection

  • When someone informs you of their needs, it is difficult not to comply. Through human-centered design practices, such as contextual inquiry and semi-structured interviews, engaging directly with the user group allows researchers/designers to discover important and meaningful insights about the user group, thus explicitly directing the solution in development and actively keeping humans and relevant user personas in the loop.
Needfinding board for Say, Do, Think, Feel categories

User and usability testing

  • A solution, a product, a system ultimately will have users. Someone needs to test your design. Is it working the way you intended? How do they feel about it? In reinforcing iterative design, researchers and designers must continue collecting and applying user feedback on their designs. Designers must also be conscious about users’ varying backgrounds and their relevance to the product, e.g. users with visual impairments can mean a lot of things — how can you breakdown the population into appropriate samples? Naturally through this step, many biases and skewed perception may be removed.
User feedback for chatbot implementation

Evaluation strategies

  • The design process includes a lot of subjective insights and anecdotal feedback, but it is also important to have objectivity embedded in the design process. Through metrics like heuristic evaluations, designers can fully evaluate what is present or absent in their designs following an objective guideline. They can flexibly incorporate feedback from wide range of users.

Overall, the tensions between subjectivity and objectivity largely impact a design’s success. A designer could follow objective guidelines for creating a solution, but it may feel detached from the human experience, or they could collect a lot of user feedback and not know how to consolidate it productively.

From an anthropological perspective, another area for thought is how we view these ideas. Aforementioned methods in contextual inquiry and interviews generate a lot of qualitative data, which is commonly classified as subjective, opinionated, and unstructured data. Then evaluation methods can focus on more quantitative data, such as the success rate in completing tasks or the time recorded for different interactions. This illustrates quantitative data as more objective and structured, and seemingly “factual.” The legitimacy of Western frameworks of knowledge with respect to quantitative “facts” vs. qualitative “lived experiences” is an ongoing conversation in current anthropology works.

Point 3: Function, Pleasure, Aesthetic

People have different perspectives regarding the order a design should follow in terms of its function, pleasure, and aesthetic.

Some people like minimalist aesthetics, whereas others like them more chaotic. If the product works, but it is slow and ugly, how does that affect the user’s experience? Similarly, if the product is visually-alluring, but it is ridden with bugs and breaks after eleven seconds, then what’s the point? Uncomfortable objects, such as “Masochist’s Teapot” and “Uncomfortable Pot,” reflect the tension in this space. They may be intellectually stimulating or provocative, but they are not the most functional. Will you design another decorative book for your dusty bookshelf, or will you design a book from which will you read, learn, and be guided by its content?

Images of “Masochist’s Teapot” and “Uncomfortable Pot”

Ultimately, a good design achieves a good balance between all three.

Information visualizations are a great research area for looking at the tensions between function, pleasure, and aesthetic. For one design project, I worked with my group to create visualizations for understanding for human air mobility between 2019 and 2020. Our primary goal for the visualization was for users to see general trends between two time periods — a simple goal; however, there were many factors that hindered this, such as visual noise from making attractive charts or frustration from lack of interactions. These extraneous factors that inhibit users’ understanding and contribute to cognitive dissonance must be controlled for in balancing between function, pleasure, and aesthetic.

Unity-based creative visualization for understanding of air mobility between 2019 and 2020
VegaLite analytical visualization for understanding of air mobility between 2019 and 2020

Shifting away from visual pleasure and aesthetic and focusing more on affective pleasure, I worked with my group on building a conversational agent — a Flow XO bot — that informed users about the importance of gender fluidity and pronoun usage. Given limitations in our technical and domain expertise, we were challenged in incorporating function, pleasure, and aesthetic; however, through a series of user testing, we effectively implemented functionality and pleasurability by humanizing the bot’s interactions and expressions with the user. The bot encourages the user to reflect and share their experiences with the topic instead of dryly lecturing. As a result, users learn (function) a lot about an unfamiliar topic by connecting with a human-like agent (pleasure). We were restricted in modifying the visual interface (aesthetic).

Chatbot human-like interactions for improving affective appeal and pleasurability

Point 4: Comfort in the Uncomfortable

Many of the inventions commonly used today are a result of someone being unconventional. Someone wanted to see beyond our planet, and now we have rockets. Someone wanted to fly, and now we have planes. Relinquishing your human control? Self-driving cars are a thing. Touchscreen mobile phones and the Internet are still mind-blowing for me, and if I was born decades ago, I would have criticized whoever would dream of such foolish things.

Design should encourage comfort in the uncomfortable and tackle seemingly controversial or heavy topics. It is with good design and innovations that we can begin to deconstruct these uncomfortable areas. I reflect on David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement speech in which he discusses trying to reject our default settings.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?

David Foster Wallace

We will inevitably be met with tension, conflict, and discomfort that triggers a series of intuitive, default responses, but we can also try to step away from them — it will be difficult. Similarly with design, how can we approach problems differently? How can we innovate and build systems and products that directly tackle the problems we shy away from?

Mentioned in Point 3, I helped build a chatbot to deconstruct misunderstandings about pronouns and inform users about gender identity. Gender identity is still a huge controversial topic in today’s conversations, a topic that is met with hate, violence, and discrimination. Designers must build tools that facilitate and bridge conversation between even the most extreme user groups to improve the human condition and qualities of life. After all, a user’s experience is integral to a product design.

Point 5: Cross-Pollination in Discipline and Diversity

Design is about humans. Human-centered design, human-computer interaction, humanity. We do not see local Emory squirrels building self-driving cars, do we? As such, design must acknowledge, respect, and adapt to the dynamically variable human condition; however, it is easier said than done to design “humanely” due to the multitude of human flaws that exist in our world.

Having learned about design in the context of Human-Computer Interaction, I am amazed by the interdisciplinary and diverse field. The field organically parallels the whole design process — in incorporating multiple perspectives from people and multiple fields, evaluating and acknowledging the strengths and limitations in specific fields, and having open dialogues in spite of differing interests.

The design of design pollinates notions of collaboration, diversity, and flexibility. The design process is an assessment for how well humans can converse and compromise to create a meaningful product. Design is about sharing and embedding different perspectives and background.

In reflecting on all of my group work from this semester, I could not have done it well without all of the people involved, no matter how trivial the interaction: team members, classmates, reviewers, user testers, strangers. The inevitable conflicts vitalized our growth. The intimate environments motivated our mutual respects for each other. The lack of understanding for each other’s backgrounds challenged our desire to understand better.

Through cultivating and fostering open, inclusive, interdisciplinary collaborative spaces, we can walk away from these projects with more and refined perspectives to share again in other projects and disciplines, returning to the importance of reiteration and redesign.

Ending

I have proposed my five main takeaways for design and human-computer interaction philosophies. Iterative design is necessary for assuring that a product is relevant, respectful, and meaningful to the target audience. Personal bias will always be present in products, systems, and ideas, thus it is important to actively deconstruct it to prevent malice. Designs should be usable and pleasurable in a way that organically integrates and extends in human living. Designing for controversy and uncomfortable areas can catalyze novel solutions and foster pro-social trajectories. Design reflects the variety and multiplicity that exist in itself and provokes in other people, ideas, and disciplines.

However, as a budding student, I must disclaim that I do not have concrete answers to the questions that I proposed in the Beginning. It is important to recognize the extents of your perspective and others’ perspectives. My one perspective is only one of many. With more time, more conversations, more perspectives, my takeaways may be reiterated on: deconstructed and refined.

Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge and thank all of the people I collaborated with in the group projects. The projects could not exist without them:

Jasmin Lim, Ruochen Kong, Zhenke Liu, Noah Okada, Vanessa Goris, Sophie Kaplan, Jesenia Perez

I also thank my other classmates who did amazing work, and I look forward to possibly working with them in the future. Finally, a huge thank you to Dr. Emily Wall for teaching and sharing with us the wonderful world of Human-Computer Interaction.

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A human at the intersection of visual arts, computer science, and data science.

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Randy Truong

Randy Truong

A human at the intersection of visual arts, computer science, and data science.

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