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 (https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/174809.174812)
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 (https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3358908)
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.