|Review of Digital Ground (McCullough)|
|Review of Windows and Mirrors (Bolter & Gromala)|
|Review of Bringing Design to Software (Winograd)|
|Abstract (by Peter Wright)|
By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – March 24, 2005
In this review, I take a personal look at the book Technology as Experience by John McCarthy and Peter Wright.
John McCarthy & Peter Wright
John McCarthy is a Senior Lecturer at University College, Cork, Ireland.
Peter Wright is a Reader in the Department of Computer Science, University of York, UK. He has a research background in Applied Cognitive Science and has developed new approaches to modeling interaction in work contexts and new evaluation methods for human-computer interaction (HCI) and safety-critical applications.
Peter Wright, one of the authors of the book Technology as Experience, summarizes John McCarthy's and his main concern in an introduction to a talk at a research event with the following words:
According to the authors, their main aim in writing the book was "to make lived experience with technology the primary reality in practice and comment on relations between people and technology, especially in HCI and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work." In this endeavor, the author's intent "was not so much to develop a theory of experience with technology as to suggest an approach to viewing technology as experience that is open to the sensual, emotional, volitional, and dialogically imaginative aspects of felt experience." All this adds up to what the authors call an "aesthetic approach to seeing technology as experience," which has its philosophical roots in the works of the pragmatist philosophers John Dewey and Mikhail Bakhtin. Both pragmatists were the sources that inspired the authors most in their efforts to provide a valid account of personal experience of technology.
Let me start with an overview of the book. Chapter 1 "Living with technology" sets the stage for the readers and sketches the position that the authors intend to develop in their book. Particularly, the authors conceptualize their position in six commented propositions. The remaining chapters of the book elaborate on this by providing more detail and discussing the issues that were raised in chapter 1. Particularly, in chapters 2-5 the authors present their conceptualization of technology as experience in detail:
Chapters 6-8 present case studies about technology use, such as a personal experience of Internet shopping, a pilot's reflections about his experiences of following procedures, and the experience of ambulance control in two different settings. These studies serve as concrete, explicit illustrations of the ways in which the authors have looked at people's relationships with technology based on the sensibilities of lived, felt experience that they discussed in the preceding chapters. Chapter 9 finally pulls together some of the "major strands" and attempts to relate them to emerging trends in HCI and interaction design.
The authors start with a short review of the history of HCI and its major trends. They characterize the user model of the 1970s and early 1980s a single user sitting in front of a computer screen performing a fairly well-defined task – information processing psychology and GOMS modeling are some of the buzz words for the spirit of that era. In the late 80s and throughout the 90s the user was recognized as a social agent and attention was drawn to the opportunistic (contingent) characteristics of human behavior. In the HCI field, this movement was termed the "turn to practice." Finally, the 90s are characterized by the computer becoming a consumer product and researchers as well as the industry paying much more attention to the users' experience. As a consequence, the authors see two areas, in which HCI has recently been strongly influenced by a concern for experience:
The authors criticize, however, the turn to practice for underplaying the role of emotional, sense-making aspects of experience. With respect to the "consumer" influence, the authors are concerned that business interests may reduce a potentially rich idea to a simple set of design implications, methods, or features. They criticize that many statements indicate the conviction that a particular user experience can be designed, or that experience can be shaped or controlled by good design. In their opinion, consumers are not passive "cops" that relive "prefabricated" experiences. Instead, they actively complete the experience for themselves and may even turn them into completely unintended directions.
The authors state:
Contrary to what they suspected to emerge, they view "lived, felt experience as prosaic, open, and unfinalizable, situated in the creativity of action and the dialogicality of meaning making, engaged in the potential of each moment at the same time as being responsive to the personal stories of self and others, sensual emergent, and answerable." Sorry, but I was not able to express that in my own simple words ...
Analogously to the four-ear communication model by Schulz von Thun, the authors define four threads of experience:
With the notion of threads, the authors try to capture the multi-facetted, interweaved nature of the different aspects of human experience, which are continually "active" in parallel and more or less perceived as a "unity." An important aspect of this continuous "flow of experience" is that people are trying to make sense of it (interestingly, mainly via the emotional thread). According to the authors, they are doing it in different ways and never finish it off. The authors emphasize that making sense of experience is a means of becoming aware of and constructing a self. Experience ultimately – and one might say, intrinsically, too – changes one's way of being (or becoming) a self. In addition, the authors point to the aspects of extrinsic and intrinsic meaning. The extrinsic meaning is the meaning put to use for a purpose outside the immediate experience that a person is engaged in. In other words, this is the meaning that traditional HCI would focus on. The intrinsic meaning, however, refers to what the authors call the "emotional-volitional shading of an event," that is, to what a person feels about a situation and what his or her primary goals and concerns are.
As a tool for analyzing experience, the authors offer the following six processes (they concede that they leave the "pragmatist route" to a certain degree with this approach):
Having provided tools for at least "approaching" technology as experience, the authors note that it is important to understand and interpret the threads and the sense-making processes in the context of the "sensibilities of felt life" that they mainly derived from the work of the pragmatist philosophers Dewey and Bakhtin. These are:
This book is definitely hard stuff for UI practitioners to read, especially if English is not their native language. Standard dictionaries do not help much in understanding the terminology of the pragmatist philosophers. So let me try to put the pieces together that I picked up from this book.
In short, the authors make us aware of the fact that most HCI approaches neglect or at least underplay the role of the personal experiences that users have in interacting with information technology (or any other technology). As a starting point, they develop a theoretical framework for approaching technology as experience based on contributions from pragmatist philosophers, such as Dewey and Bakhtin. In addition, they offer tools for analyzing experience, such as the threads of experience and the processes of making sense, the results of which are to be interpreted in the context of this framework. In my opinion, these tools can only the beginning – currently, they are at best usable in the hands of experts who are familiar with the concepts of the authors' theoretical framework.
In three case studies, the authors apply these tools to usage scenarios, a personal experience of Internet shopping, a pilot's reflections about his experiences of following procedures, and an attempt to characterize the experience of ambulance controllers in two different settings. While the case studies are revealing for their own sake, the authors' accounts of them, phrased in the language of pragmatism, are less convincing for me. Probably, it is necessary to come up with a vocabulary that is easier to handle and understand for a wider audience.
My next concern refers to the practical relevance of accounts of personal experience for designers of business software. Business software will probably never get the "consumer product" image that personal software, cars, or other consumer products have attained. For a customer of business software, measures of efficiency are definitely more relevant than accounts of how people feel about the software they are using. I do not want to imply that analyzing experience is irrelevant to UI designers; it is connected to motivation and thus finally to efficiency, too. But it will probably never be on the high priority items list of business software user interface designers.
Can I recommend this book and if yes, to whom? For many practitioners, the preface, introduction, case studies, and conclusion, will probably contain all the information they need to gain an awareness of the importance of users' experiences with technology. The rest oft the book is more for the die-hards who like to delve into philosophical thoughts and language, particularly of pragmatism, and have sufficient background to understand and appreciate it.
All in all, this book makes us aware that there is more to using technology, particularly software, than analyzing key stroke protocols or watching people at work – and of the creativity and openness with which people use and experience technology.