Women (Conclusions): Society, Storytelling, Technology (9)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 9 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

Back in 2001, I attended a series of seminars in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University led by Professor Lucy Suchman about how women felt excluded online as software felt masculine. At the time I was a new lecturer in the Department of Computing and I was intrigued by the idea that software could be seen as having a gender.

Now I see that my route into the field of technology was unusual. I have ‘A’ Levels in English Literature, French and History and turned up to do a computing degree with my total computing experience consisting of 10 minutes of trying to play The Hobbit on a Spectrum ZX 48k before my older brother took it off me (it was his computer). I had no expectations of what I would be doing, and for much of the time I had no idea what I was actually doing either. So, it was my humanities background rather than my gender which made me feel a bit of an outsider.

Later, doing a PhD in Switzerland, I felt that it was my nationality and the fact I couldn’t understand what anyone were saying to me for a couple of years, which made me feel like an outsider, not my gender.

And, even when I created my first webpage with a photo of myself and five minutes later got email saying You look very nice, do you want to meet for coffee? It just never occurred to me that it had anything to do with my gender, because the Internet to me was a place for sharing research, even if it was with socially awkward men. It took a male colleague in the lab to explain exactly the kind of socially awkward man with which I was dealing.

Now I think I was completely naive and lived in a little bubble of my own thoughts. Last year when a male social media acquaintance told me that he liked to look at pictures of me online, sadly, I knew what that meant (although to be honest, I like looking at pictures of me online too). It also meant that I could never have a professional working relationship with the man, which is something I am still furious about because I didn’t get a say. This man decided exactly how we were going to relate to each other, irrespective of my feelings.

I want, as a woman, to have choices, in what I do, how I relate to people and what sorts of relationships I want with people. I am so tired that a patriarchal society dictates to me how these things go down based on my gender. And I am sad that many women feel the same way about computing and software because some men wrote it completely from a male perspective and the whole field is populated by men who leave no room for women to breathe in. They are not doing it on purpose either – well not all of them. It is semi-institutionalised now, which is really sad, though I have worked with loads of lovely, kind, generous men.

I was going to finish this series with facts about how women make better software engineers than men. But, the truth is I don’t really care and it doesn’t really matter. It is not about which gender is superior. It is not a competition. It is about equal opportunity, feeling welcome and comfortable in a given domain.

The government has spent millions on encouraging women into STEM but they don’t go, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have done had I got a place on an English Lit degree course. Women do not go into Computing because they cannot recognise or see themselves in it. This is because there are:

  • No role models – we are not taught them as part of the history of computing.
  • No tribes – research shows that women are more likely to show up on forums to discuss technical solutions if there are already other women present.
  • No stories which make it seem worthwhile, there are just loads of stories about women being harassed ‘cos of their gender or excluded because of male-group think.
  • No rewards – research shows that women are systematically penalised if they take time out to continue the human race.
  • No equal pay.
  • No respect for their work. Women have justify themselves over and over and over again.

I could go on. Indeed I have already for at least 10,000 words and seriously, I could go on forever about rage, about boundaries, about ageing, about sex, about love, to name but a few topics which I think about when I think about women.

We need to reevaluate the role of women in both STEM and society. For inasmuch as society is stacked in a man’s favour, it is women who raise these men, and give them legitimacy and excuses from a very early age. The boys my girls interact with on the playground are raised by women who would call themselves feminists but I have heard them say things like Oh he is such a boy. But these women were raised by women who were raised by women etc.

In order to make a change, we need to reclaim language, we need a genealogy of women and to make space for women in history whilst we learn again to respect the life of women in the home and elsewhere online and offline.

As the naive optimist I have always been and hope I always will be, I believe that change is coming, and that as more women write books (like this one with the awesome title: A Uterus is A Feature, Not a Bug), do TED talks and go on marches, I believe that change for the good is on its way. I really do.

And, one of the ways in which the Internet can help is that all our interactions are recorded and can be analysed to further understand and hopefully change the bad ways in which we have learnt to interact. It also makes it easy to share the stories about women that we don’t know. For example, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor as well as a movie star.

In a lovely Facebook post psychotherapist Matt Licata says that we all have an innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness but often between men and women this gets misconstrued as sexual and erotic rather than the honouring of one soul by another. If we could teach this honouring to the future generations, in particular, those men and women who will go into marketing and media who by their messages, form society, then perhaps we could see a change in the way the world works – a world which is more peaceful and more respectful and a lot less heterosexy. Now, that would be a world I’d like to live in, it would be just like that bubble I used to live in way back when the world felt like it was magic and new, online and off.

Designing design: Conclusions

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Design is the science of the artificial – Herb Simon

[Part 12 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Humans are overwhelmed with information both online and offline, a desire to understand the world around us, and for it all to make sense. So, we look for patterns and signs, and stories to reduce complexity into something more manageable.

At the same time we love to be surprised and delighted with variety, which is shown by the information users focus on most on social media and by our love of twist in the tale stories and thrillers. And, we use stories most of all to find meaning in our own lives and in everything around us.

We are moving into a most exciting time with the Internet of Things and our Digital Culture which is all part of the Connection Economy. We are only one click away from each other and our devices are all communicating with each other constantly. And, in this world we feel that we must be somehow always connected. It is difficult to disconnect for even a little while, for disconnection is our greatest fear.

Throughout this series we have looked at the various ways designers can manage our expectations and give us cues to manage how we behave with the technology before us. We have even see how designers can manage their own information overload with types and schemas. But, it seems to me that as we advance further into this digital landscape, today, the designer’s job is to now to make sure that we harness the power of technology in the right way. In the past, society was formed by technological advance, and we were just carried along with it regardless of our opinions.

We need our designers to design for the good, to protect humans from even more overwhelm and to support us as we work, and in the same way that a good design solution can come from constraints and boundaries, we need these online. Feedback with care: Hey you’ve been online for hours now, go to bed, we will all still be here later.

Designers are change agents whose job is to make the world easier for us to live in offline and online. Let us all learn to design for that – an easier world for us to live in.

Designing design: Solution spaces

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[Part 11 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

The artificial intelligence community views a design space as something to explore as it if is a mountain or a wilderness. A space may be incomplete or the domain knowledge uncertain and this is reflected in the names of search techniques: hill climbing, branch-and-bound, hunter gatherer.

Fabulously nowadays we have massive computing power which can help us search through big data sets or solution spaces. However, in the broadest terms when we are looking at a solution space we are hoping to manage it by the following:

Constraints

With constraints, we introduce boundaries which may potentially the number of solutions. It is this tension which can cause wonderful solutions such as when artists obey the haiku rules of 17 syllables: three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, to give us pared back poetry.

We can also introduce constraints by fixation on one thing such as cost, or efficiency and then we can see what solutions are possible.

Otherwise, we can use a more exploitative exploitation approach of what-if. What if we place an excessive load on this bridge? What happens then? Does the solution still work? What will we need to change to get it work?

Transformation, combination and exploration

Inside the solution space we synthesise and analyse by using some of the ideas this series has explored. We map our types and schemas or our models of aesthetics and affordances and link our function to our behaviour and then structure. But, when all else fails we can remove the constraints or even remove the boundaries or the domain knowledge which can lead us to moving outside the context.

Thinking outside the box

Sometimes designers do this on purpose, other times like the post-it note, new ideas are serendipitously discovered. SMS texting was originally invented for engineers to communicate with each other whilst working on mobile technology. Who could have anticipated that a tool which made engineers’ lives easier would appeal to mobile phone users as a cheap and cheerful way of communicating instead? The same happened to post-it notes, once the context of inventing glue was removed, the user was free to think of it as a really cool book mark.

With a solution space we can define what we are looking at, and what we are looking for, and then should we decide we want to look at it differently, or look elsewhere then we have a map and a plan, which is what all humans like to have in this information overloading world of ours.

Designing design: Great expectations

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[Part 8 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Managing expectations is the key to success in most areas of life, not just design.

When a design artefact is judged to be useless, it is often because it does not behave in the way the user is expecting. This is because there is a gap between what the designer intended and what the user is expecting, which in user interface design, Donald Norman calls the gulf of execution. Straddling this gulf, is the way to manage user expectations.

Modelling

We all have models of how the world works (mental models), and of ourselves (self schemas) to explain and make sense of everything. In design, we have three models:

  • The designer’s model of how the artefact works.
  • The user’s model of how the artefact should work and how it actually works which changes with experience.
  • The artefact’s image of how it works  which is the way it looks which should be supported by the documentation or user manual.

These models should line up in order to match user expectations, but to do so, the designer has to provide the correct cues.

Cues

Affordance

First proposed by psychologist James Gibson, affordance describes how the physical properties of an artefact will influence its function. So, round wheels are much more suitable than square wheels on your bicycle. It is easy to see that the round wheels go round, square wheels might make you think the bicycle is an uncomfortable seat.

Consistency

When similar looking parts of an artefact or system work in a similar way then users can easily transfer what they have learnt from one part to another and have similar experiences. Consistency can be aesthetic, for example, the windows on a graphical user interface windows have the same layout, or the logo is the same on each restaurant chain outlet so the customer know what to expect. Consistency can also be functional such as how traffic lights work in a certain expected order: red, amber, flashing amber, green.

Constraints

Constraints are used to indicate what actions are possible. These can be physical such as when barriers are put up at sporting events to direct crowds and traffic. They may also be psychological in symbols such as a skull and cross bones for poison or danger, or conventional which we learn, such as we stop when the  traffic lights are red. Or, they can be cultural such as what people wear during mourning, in some countries it is black, in others it is white.

Feedback

Feedback is necessary to guide user behaviour. A dialog box can ask: Is this what you want to do? Less usefully it might say: No, you can’t do that.  The box really needs to add: but you can do this or this.

Mapping

We all need a link between what we do and what happens, so if you are driving your car and turn the steering wheel left you expect it to turn left.

Tradeoffs

In previous posts, we saw that the asethetically pleasing lemon squeezer known as Juicy Salif had sacrificed some of it functionality in order to look good, as did the Lockheed Lounger. In the same way, the more function you add to an artefact, particularly in the cues which are needed to guide and manage user expectations, the less usable it becomes. Complex gadgets may look cool but if they are not functional their value is more asthetic than usable and will only satisfy a tiny section of determined users.

Designing design: The science of the artificial

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[Part 1 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Design is the science of the artificial – Herb Simon

Design is the process of making ideas tangible, in order to improve anything from the task at hand, to changing how a whole government functions. And, because of the impact that design can have on society – just think about how Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web has completely changed our working lives – the design process has been studied for centuries. In Roman times, architect Vitruvius wrote in his De architectura that the human figure is a great example of proportion which in turn inspired Leonardo da Vinci to draw his Vitruvian Man. Design sometimes imitates nature whilst performing the science of the artificial.

Different ways of designing Design

There are several schools of thought when studying design, and sometimes these terms are used interchangeably.

  • Design theory draws on Architectural and Art theory such as the work of Vitruvius and the philosophically-based Aesthetics. Much research is done using mathematics, which is logical given that there many satisfying mathematical designs in nature: The golden ratio, fractals, rule of thirds, and Fibonnaci’s sequence, to name but a few. Sometimes design theory is viewed as the superset of design science and design thinking.
  • Design Science (or design research) studies the best way to understand, teach and perform design, whilst developing tools to support or automate design tasks.
  • Design thinking often focuses on ambiguous problems where success has no defined outcome. This approach is bigger than the design needed to create a deliverable which can be judged as satisfactory, by the client or customer.
  • Design Aesthetics is sometimes used interchangeably with commercial design as a way to produce aesthetically pleasing products in order to have a competitive advantage. Here we see how and why marketing has become inextricably linked to design – just think Apple.

Redesigning design

Designer Don Norman has said that we are all designers, which is partially true, as everywhere we go, we design our spaces in our houses and at our desks. It’s one thing to reorganise your bedroom but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we could all design a complex socio-techical system like the ones, for example, which exist in hospitals where patients, multidisciplinary teams of surgeons, consultants, nurses, and computer systems must all interact, schedule, and record everything from consultations, booking surgery slots, courses of treatment, and follow-up appointments that make up a whole journey which might occur over many years.

It does, however, mean as Architect Paul Grillo says, in Form Function and Design that:

Design is everybody’s business: we live in it, we eat in it, we pray and play in it.

For technology is constantly changing, and so is our society – just think of the need for Simplexity and the Internet of Things in our new Digital Culture, – and so is design, as it expands to support humans in their creativity and communication in an ever more complex world.

And, so I am starting a new blog series where I will look at individual design principles or theories which try to support humans as they create and communicate.