Relearn to unlearn to learn again

I’ve been obsessed by methods for years, but lately I’ve been thinking about frameworks. Maybe I’m fatigued by prolonged immersion in the method stream?1 Methods don’t concern me that much anymore; they can be learnt, borrowed, invented or outsourced.

You can master the methods to build a car, but why build another car in the context of climate change, natural resource depletion and congestion? By changing the frameworks underpinning the methods – in a 21st century context – the question then becomes: how do we adapt our methods to build new kinds of cars?

But where do our frameworks come from? Do we choose them or are they learned? Can we unlearn or relearn behaviours that are rooted deeply?

I worked in a higher education digital context for awhile where the academics discussed pedagogy a lot. I remember someone saying, ‘to unlearn something you have to learn it again’. That made sense to me.

For example, I taught myself to play the classical guitar when I was 15. A few years later I had formal lessons and corrected some of my earlier learning. I still play, but there are areas where I continue to struggle.

So I ask myself, do I practice until I get it right (method), or do I go back and revisit the theory (framework) before I practice again?

Applied to ourselves, this approach offers transformative implications.

  1. The method stream is the accumulated flow of ‘how to’ information via all the digital channels that I plug into. 

What do we do when we design?

In ICON magazine Christien Meindertsma says:

Architects can work across the board because they make things but they also write texts about what they do and they’re able to talk about it, which often designers aren’t. 1

That statement struck a cord because I have been thinking about the relevance, consequence and impact of the work we do as designers shaping the web – and my belief is that as a profession we need to do more to cultivate reflective practice as part of our toolbox. We need to think and write beyond the hard methods that we use: what are our guiding principles? what are the frameworks guiding our thinking? and what are the responsibilities we own up to?

If, for example, all our collective efforts as digital workers are co-creating a postliterate society, and were I to believe this to be a bad thing, is this the kind of work I want to be doing? (Regardless of how much I love the internet.)

I believe that we are doing important work. We are co-creators of the greatest social technology people have yet invented. And we need to engage with it in all seriousness by being able to step back and ask ourselves: what is it that we do when we do what we do? 2

For the web may be the last chance we have to invent something that can change everything – in a good way.

  1. Originally published 1st May 2010, Conversation between architect Alejandro Aravena, filmmaker Gary Hustwit, designer Christien Meindertsma and journalist Bruce Nussbaum. 

  2. In Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World, Ray Ison attributes the question: What is it that we do when we do what we do? to Humberto Maturana. It is used here in the context of ‘critical reflection on our circumstances’. 

The technology of emotion

In my systems studies I’ve come across the work of Humberto Maturana, and his writing is changing how I understand the relationship between emotion and technology:

Technology is not the solution for human problems because human problems belong to the emotional domain as they are conflicts in our relational living that arise when we have desires that lead to contradictory actions.1

Maturana does not see progress or technology as values. Instead, his plea is that we become honest and clear about our emotions and desires. Only then can we take responsibility for what we do – and by implication (my interpretation) design technologies that are rooted in empathy, both for people and the environment.

Technology can’t change problems rooted in our inner conflicts if those technologies sprang from our inner conflicts themselves (Facebook, for example), yet we use technology to try to change our emotions by being inauthentic (contradictory actions). But the problems remain and we abdicate responsibility claiming: technology is changing us. But technology can only change us if we allow it.

Technology brought forth by people contain no power in itself, the power resides in the emotions and desires of the people who created it, and ultimately in those who consume it without question. And this is where we need to take a hard look at ourselves, as we, and not technology, are creating the world we live in.

Transparency or deconstructing opacity

Digital is not new, yet I still think of it as somewhat novel and about to transform the world as we know it. (By digital I mean the Web 2.0 incarnation, where the web evolved into an organic-like being, as opposed to the mechanical machine-like nature of Web 1.0.) And I’m still waiting. Sure, digital is becoming more sophisticated, softer and more pliable, clay-like, its nature is accelerative, predictive, replicative and transferral but it is not transforming our lives in the crucial areas that matter – out of control consumption and the associated patterns of environmental degradation.

Many things are changing, cars are becoming computers as are kitchen appliances, operating machines in hospitals, mobile phones … ubiquitous computing is here and for most of us it is happening as if by stealth.

But these are hardly examples of digital breakthroughs contributing to seismic paradigm shifts in the way we live. They are extenders, or prolongers, of the status quo and are solutions rooted in nostalgia for the carbon fueled intoxication of unsustainable living. What is the point of efficiency gains, acceleration, and increased productivity if the net result is increased consumption that cannot be sustained? A hastening of extinction.

Digital technology holds the promise to make things transparent. By transparency I mean the ability to see through phenomena. Digital technology allow us to deconstruct opacity, which is a good thing because an opaque world disempowers us. The flip side is that we may not like what we see, but it may just provide the motivation for meaningful behaviour change.

For example, we can use digital technology to ‘see’ air pollution, something that is ‘invisible’, and for a visual species things that cannot be seen somehow does not exist. If you can see something heading towards you, you have time to change course.

On the flip side I could argue that irrational concepts (unscientific) that are invisible, exert more sway over us than rational things (scientific proof) that are visible. And this is a worrying aspect of human behaviour.

Lean UX – the book

I finally got round to reading Lean UX – Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience on an 11 hour flight; which is enough time to re-read the book a few times as its only (a lean) 124 pages. The book provides great insight for mapping previous project experiences onto the Lean methodology, and to fine tune methods for future and current projects. On the last page of the book the authors make the following conclusion about Lean UX:

… it blends the best interaction design techniques with the scientific method …

This is important, because it is the part people don’t get about UX, even some describing themselves as UX professionals. From Wikipedia:

The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.

The key concept here is correcting and integrating previous knowledge. This is the point of experimentation and of Lean UX.

The aim is to establish shared understanding of a thing (by repetition) across a team or organisation by involving everyone in the experimentation process. And creating shared understanding is not as easy as may be assumed; in fact it can be very hard.

So what? Well, this is significant when you consider the extreme alternative of Lean UX – ‘blind design’. A product owner in a large financial app development organisation once told me that, ‘we don’t do user testing because we get feedback from users on the app stores after launch.’ This is classic ‘blind design’.1

The scientific method is not readily understood by those entering the UX field from creative (where the cult of the rock-star designer prevails) or non-science/research backgrounds. So if someone asks me, “What is UX?”, this is my response.

And then I’ll recommend this book.

1. I often hear that some products cannot be tested with users because there is a fear that ideas or IP may be stolen. I’m then reminded of what Ash Maurya writes in Running Lean: The first realisation early on was that building in stealth is a really bad idea. There is a fear, especially common among first-time entrepreneurs, that their great idea will be stolen by someone else. The truth is twofold: first, most people are not able to visualize the potential of an idea at such an early stage, and second (and more importantly), they won’t care. For any organisation attempting to incubate an agile start-up culture this is good advice.