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Tag: product design

Ineffective Automation

I would give anything to be able to pay $28,500 for my computer. Anything! And I can’t, I can only buy these frigging $1000 computers that don’t do what computers are really good for. If you think about it, this is completely fucked up. People are valuing their cars more than their computer? They don’t have any idea what a computer is, they’re just using it to play movies. If you think about this, this is the corruption of consumer electronics and that the computer is basically for convenience rather than for actually doing primary needs.

Alan Kay interviewed by Adam Fisher in Palo Alto, August 2014 – Valley of Genius podcast Season 1, Episode 5 (

It’s hard to ignore the persistence and flourishing of printed books despite an abundance of digital alternatives. Since computers have had screens they’ve had text. Yet MP3s killed CDs and only the most dedicated buy their movies on discs instead of online.

This difference between books, music, and movies, poses a question; what makes digital automation effective for us?

The easy answer is that automation makes things easy. It takes the laborious bits away so you can enjoy the bits you want.

The easy answer makes sense for music and movies because most of the laborious bits of physical media are peripheral to the listening and watching part, not part of it. But reading a physical book is different, it’s not quite as passive. The physical attributes of the printed book are intertwined with the reading part.

Here’s what I mean by that; to listen to recorded music, physical media or not, you use your hands—or voice—to start and stop the music, but your ears are all you need in between.

Printed books, though, need to be held up and open and you can’t stop holding them until you’re finished reading. So the digitisation of physical media for music and movies is effective for us because its only change to the listening and watching part is the potential for higher quality audio and visuals. It automates away the peripheral bits between us and the good stuff because that’s where the physical media was most problematic.

For reading there’s an effectiveness of the printed book that no amount of paper-like display and skeuomorphic interface has managed to fully capture. E-Readers still need to be held like a book. They have pages like a book, and can be bookmarked too. You can highlight passages and write notes. They also do things books can’t do like having internet connectivity, instant purchases, and the ability to hold hundreds of books at a time; none of which have much to do with reading.

Consider the fact that it’s very difficult to do something else while reading a physical book because your hands are required at all times. It’s a binding that makes reading a deliberate activity, you can’t do a Sudoku while reading a book. Yet almost every feature an E-Reader brings to the party is an invitation to do something other than read.

So, what if that binding to the book is what makes the printed book effective for so many people?

This is where automation—or computation—can be seen from a different perspective, a counter-intuitive one. It’s what I think Alan Kay is referring to in his frustrated quote. What reason does the average person have to be interested in the potential of a computer when hardware upgrades are prompted by software that tells you to upgrade, either explicitly or implicitly. Outside of video game and 3D graphics, the computing power of a device does not correlate with any increasing or decreasing amount of tangible effectiveness. We are being sold speed but without any concrete reason for why we need it.

It’s easy to say that automation is what makes things easy because it’s a lazy way to describe the potential for computation. It ignores the potential for automation to make things more involved, more purposeful, more effective. It opens friction to being something more than a UX dichotomy of being good or bad and instead as being varying degrees of effective.

This doesn’t mean that E-Readers should have a spring loaded cover that requires extra effort to hold them open. What it means is to recognise any exertion of energy as being everything it is in addition to being an exertion of energy. A fish swimming against the current could save plenty of energy by turning around, but they aren’t thinking about the swimming.

The effort exerted while reading a printed book minimises awareness and access to any potential outside of what is being read. The book wants your attention, it doesn’t work without it. We don’t long for some device that will hold the book and turn the pages for us because our hands are effective. We’re only aware of things that interfere with whatever we’re trying to do; obvious problems.

It’s not about having a sentimental attachment to the way things have been done. Far from it. This is a design concern; a way to design with a purpose constrained by the circumstances that are relevant rather than the ones that seem relevant.

Printed books live on because digital books automate all the things that seem relevant about reading a book. E-Reader technology is a collection of features that satisfy an array of purposes related to reading—the peripheral concerns—instead of having a purpose of making reading more effective. If we strip away the internet connectivity, bookmarking, highlighting, and dictionary lookups, we’re left with an inferior imitation of a printed book that needs to be recharged.

The Undeliberatable Means

This is a deliberative problem unlike deliberative problems of the past. In the past, deliberation led to decisions about means to be employed in given circumstances to achieve given and desired ends. Means were deliberated, but the circumstances and ends were not subject to deliberation. Today, deliberation is inverted. The computer provides new means — the means are given by technological development — but the circumstances and ends of computer use are, themselves, the subject of deliberation in the process of product development. This is a fundamental characteristic of our time, and it profoundly influences the development of human-computer communication.

Daniel Boyarski & Richard Buchanan — Computers and communication design: exploring the rhetoric of HCI, April 1994 (

The norm in the tech industry is to find ways to use computers to solve problems. “How can we use computers/the internet/software to solve a problem?”.

Computers as the undeliberatable means changes the way we design.

It’s difficult to consider computation as a building material, an option among all other building materials, like metals, woods, stones, and plastics, because of this tendency to start with computing and find things to build with it.

Solutionism is based on this inversion of deliberation where we find purposes we can satisfy with computation, and we squish and twist the purpose and its circumstances till the tech solution seems to be the most appropriate one.

When we say “we need to find a product/market fit” we are expressing this concept by saying that we have satisfied a purpose that we haven’t found yet.

User Experience design as a bridge

Alternatively, if a purpose is identified and as part of the design process the circumstances of the purpose are understood to be human, the human needs are part of the design process. Any need to apply a human concern after the materials are selected would be a failure of the design.

For instance, suppose we believe — as I and others might argue — that the central charge to HCI is to nurture and sustain human dignity and flourishing. Note that this is not to say that HCI’s claim to legitimacy ought to be to nurture and sustain human dignity and flourishing, but rather that it always has been.

Paul Dourish — User experience as legitimacy trap, October 2019 (

As Dourish says, the central charge of HCI is to nurture and sustain human dignity. In this framing it seems strange for human dignity to not be a defined circumstance of a design purpose. Design is not defined by the purpose, but ignoring the circumstances of a purpose will either prolong the path to a good outcome or miss it all together.

I see a lot of things, including the whole discipline of HCI, as a result of this inverse view of design. User Experience design aims to make the interactions between a user and some digital product as smooth and seamless as possible. Isn’t it strange that’s not something that occurs automatically because it’s an important part of satisfying the purpose?

It doesn’t mean that UX is a meaningless effort, we recognise this shift in the design process and UX is a result of that shift. It’s a bridge.

What happens when we stop deliberating over the means, or the materials, we use to satisfy a design purpose? Is it possible to have both a pre-determined means and a pre-determined purpose and design a way to make it work? I believe it is, but that’s what we usually call a hack, a kludge.

The right tools for the job, not the right job for the tools.

It’s important to be clear about what I mean when I say “material” because it suggests a physical entity, an object. If we’re talking about materials as options for satisfying a purpose, we’re talking about anything that has identifiable properties. Something that can be assessed for its pros and cons as they apply to the method being considered for satisfying a purpose. In this sense, a protest, forming a union, paying for a service, are all materials. They are options that should be candidate for selection just as much as the internet or software.

There are realities that make it difficult to consider this demotion of technology as an option on par with things like protesting, or… wood. The world is full of tech companies. Software development businesses that survive and thrive by finding purposes to satisfy with software. They can’t decide that an issue is best solved by political efforts more effectively than a networked software solution. They can decide that it’s not a fitting purpose and move to the next one. They deliberate the purpose.

It doesn’t mean that software companies can’t satisfy purposes, we have plenty of evidence they can. But it does mean that they will try to satisfy purposes that software is just OK for.

Paul Dourish’s article “User Experience as a Legitimacy Trap” talks of usability as being the legitimising value of HCI in industry, therefore trapping it from realising the original HCI values of human flourishing.

But if we consider usability as just a thing that’s done to an existing thing we can see that it doesn’t actually change the design, as in the method of satisfying a purpose. It is more like sanding the rough edges off a wooden table. Usability says nothing about which features are there, it just takes the features and makes them easy to use. It’s outside of the design process of the thing. A micro design process of the things between the thing and the subject of its purpose.

We’re almost proud that design is perceived as the shaping of something to be as inoffensive as possible. Our design influencers speak of things like “Human-Centered Design” or “Humane Interfaces” as if that’s some novel concept that designers of the past neglected to discover.

If someone needs to be told to think and work in a human centered way when they are designing something, it should be a clear indication of how separated the discipline of design has become from what it is the design is being applied to.

Is there Dog-Centered Design in the dog product industry? Do the designers there need to be reminded of the purpose of the things they are designing? Do dog toy companies practice rubber-centrism, where they search for dog related problems that strong, but malleable, rubber can satisfy the purpose?

In solutionism we have to remind ourselves that we make something for a human because we put the means high up on a pedestal, unquestionable in its power to deliver whatever we need, undeliberatable, and we hold it up there above the ends, the purposes, and the circumstances around them. We replace existing things with computational things and we consider any aspects of the old that can’t be replicated by the new to be irrelevant. We treat the ends like clay. We mould and cut off excess parts, so the inadequacies of the tech are less apparent. The ends are a prototype for the tech, something that accepts the tech. The prototype becomes the product when the tech has been accepted.