Designing as Dialogues in Contexts

Subramanian, E., Reich, Y., & Krishnan, S. (2020). We Are Not Users: Dialogues, Diversity, and Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

The authors’ central argument is that we have a much deeper relationship with the things we create than just being users. Social media provides compelling examples of how the usability of the interface, while important, trivializes the sense of how these media affect our lives.  They impact the personal, social, and political ways in which we interact with the world.  Thus, we are not only users; we are designers of the overall interactions with the artifact and other people.

This book reviews the history of designing through various lenses, ranging from nonmessy to slightly messy to more messy to most messy.  The messiness comes from the extent to which designing considers context, which includes behavioral and social phenomena, as well as environmental and cultural phenomena.  At the extremes, the contrast is between designing as algorithmic optimization versus designing as dialogues and explorations by often-heterogeneous stakeholders.

The book conceptualizes designing as a dialogue among stakeholders, the assemblage of which operates as a complex adaptive system.  Stakeholders discuss and debate, pursuing common ground, likely enabled by boundary spanning mechanisms.  The nature of these mechanisms varies with differing contexts.  In my experience they are often pictures, sketches, and diagrams that enable divergent domains to communicate.  The authors refer to this collection of mechanisms as models.

They argue for a “conceptual flat space” where all the representations of phenomena appear by themselves but with traceability to elements of the context, enabling multi-dimensional views.  We have approached this with the construct of “views.”  Views enable seeing the relationships between levels of abstraction as they apply to particular phenomena and stakeholders.

The process of boundary-spanning modeling eventually leads to a theory of the artifact.  This theory can be embodied in what we call “policy flight simulators.” One of their examples is a game – Rubbish! – that addresses solid waste management in Bangalore.  This game enables stakeholders to be immersed in the complexity of their system and learn how other stakeholders perceive the system.

The ultimate challenge is not designing for the future but designing of the future. The authors’ compelling and down to earth case studies cause me to request that they address designing for global warming. How do we span the boundaries and find common ground among all the stakeholders in the energy ecosystem. The authors have, I think, the right prescription but how do we make it happen?

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