Monday, November 06, 2006

Designer - Linguist not Novelist

At a presentation tonight by visiting professor Josh Tennenberg, a discussion arose about the "problematizing" of the role of designers in a world where design research seems to be finding more and more that the outsourcing of design to the end user (participatory design, experience co-creation, innovation democratization, etc) produces a better design.

My thoughts on this?

Glad you asked - or at least kept reading so far. As designers find themselves outsourcing design and innovation to the users themselves, they become no less "designerly." Instead, it is merely that the locus of the value that they add to the process shifts. This process of locus-shifting is not without historical precedent. Education itself has seen this shift occur, for example. Where once the educator was seen as the disseminator of knowledge and the students as the receivers, now a good educator is often a facilitator that creates the space in which students learn. Where in a monarchy, the ruler was seen as the maker of laws and the determiner of ethics, democracy attempts to create the space in which the people govern themselves. So i see that designers are no longer the designers of designs that consumers consume. Instead they are becoming the designers of the spaces in which consumers (though this name will need to change) can configure and create their own designs.

But there is something more. For the last few months, i have been working on understanding this "space-creating activity", continually conceiving of it as "creating a space" into which user/consumer creativity could pour. But this would merely make the designer a demolition man, blasting holes in the earth in hopes that people would then spontaneously construct mansions. This is as ludicrous as the theories of extreme anarchism, which seek to destroy government in hopes that a civilized society will spontaneously form.

No, the new designer is not a demolition man, but a linguist. Where once the designer acted as a novelist, striving to put together for an unskilled public just the perfect work of literature that would educate, entertain, embolden them, now the designer is a linguist, who creates for her skilled public the grammar, the language, that the user/consumer can easily learn, use and re-use to create their own works of art.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

MITX Panel Discussion

This Tuesday i participated in a panel discussion in Boston around the current research methods in the marketing space (event website here), at the request of One to One Interactive, who sponsored the event. The presentations and discussion was much too short to have any substantive dialogue, but some extremely interesting questions were raised by the industry-focused folks in the audience, and i came away with some thoughts, written here. Each of the 5 panelists presented 10 minutes of their own thinking, and the floor was then opened to 60 minutes of questions, moderated by Sandy Pentland.

There were a few things that struck me as interesting, noted here in short form:

Lowered Technological Barriers
The digitization of commerce and of marketing is lowering the bar for tracking and measurement. The more that consumer engagement is digitized, the easier it is to map those bits to other bits, and to try to gain semantic (what does it mean when a friend sends a piece of media to another friend) and structural (what does the sending of the media say about the structures that allow the sending to occur) meaning from the relationship between those bits. Dr. Carl Marci and his company Innerscope are doing some extremely interesting research on BioMeasures as indicators of what they call "engagement". I will be writing more on this in the coming weeks. S. Adam Brazel and his lab are also doing some very interesting work in eyetracking. The fact that this is economically feasible is a result of the capabilities and lowering cost of the enabling technologies.

The recent lowering of the barriers for end user participation has been significant. High School-age netizens now have better knowledge and easier tools with which to create their own media. As one small example, ~300,000 amateur flash artifacts have been created and uploaded to an amateur multimedia community. This presents a unique opportunity and challenge for marketing folks concerned with the spread of the "brand" of a product or company. As the loci of media production become more dispersed (anyone can create media), and the channels for their distribution become greater (everyone has multiple channels through which they can share all or part or a modified version of that media), the complexity of the operational and of the analytical task of marketing through media channels becomes more and more complex.

Increased Connectivity/Fracturing of Attention
This is of course a long-touted trend, but it is nonetheless steadily coming. A person's (and therefore a population's) attention is becoming more and more fractured as they interact with the digital via mobile devices, computers, laptops, etc etc. For the field of marketing (which actually covers the processes from product ideation all the way to product support), this is a grand new challenge. What marketers commonly refer to as cross-channel marketing can be challenging to manage and to measure.

Humanities and Science
In a recent conversation with Jeff Bardzell , he pointed out the fact that the humanities are very good at asking questions, and at interpreting the answers, but that the hard sciences do the best job of actually answering the question. It was clear to me that all 40-or-so participants (both audience and panelists) in the MITX discussion were open to this view as well. In the discussion, i brought up the question of CGM (consumer-generated media) as a means of advertising. This area of inquiry is a good example of one that is difficult to explain without repeatedly crossing the (i think arbitrary and unnecessary) humanities/science rubicon.

My approach so far at looking at this has been a philosophical one (humanities) to understand the user, the aesthetic, and the experience (thanks to Jeff Bardzell for re-introducing me to my formative thinking in the humanities - and from that to generate some falsifiable hypotheses (science) about the user and network-level dynamics at work in the massive spread and extension of media like Numa Numa and the Star Wars Kid. I am currently considering the design of some studies that will examine CGM phenomena from a semiotic (humanities), network (science), and perhaps even pre-cognitive (science) perspective. My instincts tell me that these will generate some good analytical and perhaps even predictive knowledge. At the end, though, when all of the data is in, i will likely resort to a cultural (humanities) analysis of the results of my empirical research - especially as it pertains to the culture of business to consumer relations in which we currently find ourselves.

In conclusion, i think that there are huge opportunities for all willing to involve themselves in a multi-directional dialectic between business and the academy, humanities and the sciences in pursuit of understanding and productive use of some of the most powerful forces in our world today - media, end-users and businesses. I am very much enjoying the process of diving into this complicated but fruitful space.