Feb 28, 2011

Human Dignity and User Stockholm Syndrome: Some Thoughts on 2 Talks From Interaction11

Josh Williams's picture
Josh Williams
Director, Product Strategy

Two of the most tweeted and talked about keynotes at IxDA's Interaction11 earlier this month came from Richard Buchanan and Bruce Sterling. At the surface, the two talks seemed to represent a conflict between the ways people think and talk about design, and the actual work that gets done.

Richard Buchanan has the resume and presence to talk, sans slides, to the room full of highly experienced, highly opinionated, and often highly impatient designers. By applying his academic's lens to the field of interaction design, Buchanan brought context to the past, added meaning to the present, and illuminated possibilities for the future.

Fast-forward to the closing keynote, wherein sci-fi author, futurist, and professional curmudgeon Bruce Sterling opened with the line, "I am your victory condition," as it's the work of interaction designers that steadily chips away at territories formerly reserved for imagination by converting science fiction to design fact.

This is were the conflict, or at least appearance of conflict comes in: on the Buchanan side, we were advise that it's the human condition that matters, first and foremost; on the Sterling side, we were accused of suffering from "User Stockholm Syndrome," which, he claims, stunts innovation.

Both messages largely hit home, even though at the surface it might seem like they're at odds. Buchanan was imploring the roomful of designers to bring their practice to bare on the elevation of environments in order to better facilitate participation. Through thoughtful design of environments—virtual or real—meaningful human interactions can and will take place. "The principles behind all design," he said, "is human dignity," and the materials of design are the purposes and values of the people that a design serves. Then Sterling, speaking first of his field and professional, said, "If you have too much sympathy for your characters you're a crap writer!" He described a UX version of what sounded like the Madonna-Whore complex, where designers either idolize users as saints who should never be allowed to fail, or users are devalued to the level of idiots who aren't worth serving. Towards the end of his talk, Sterling asserted, "If you say something and no one is upset or freaked out, you haven't said anything."

Buchanan says design is here to elevate the human condition. Sterling says design fails if it tries to make everyone happy. And I agree with both statements, and don't see them as contradictory.

During the Q&A after Buchanan (woe that there wasn't one after Sterling), @JasonMesut said he was worried that Buchanan's definition of the goals of design risked spreading us too thin. Interaction designers have only recently begun to find traction and recognition within organizations by focusing their work on what's commonly referred to as "user experience". The risks associated with expanding the borders of interaction design include losing momentum in efforts to establish the discipline, fragmenting the design community, and being able to reliably deliver against goals and expectations associated with interaction design today. I see this as the difference between "design" and "work". I think there's room for design to be broad, referencing whatever subject matter it requires to continue evolving. But I also know that work is all about specifics. When Buchanan talks about the principles of design serving human dignity, I see that as design in the broadest sense. And when Sterling says that UX needs to own up to the fact that there are "shit-users" out there, and we shouldn't feel compelled to design for them, he's talking about doing work. Buchanan's design is loftier, inspiring, idealistic, and speakers to our best intentions as human beings. Sterling's talking about innovation, forging the future, and also getting paid to do it.

I was drafting this post, and Dan Harrleson brought this article to our attention, which essentially calls out the perils of applying a dogmatic, user-first approach to product design. Phil Lam (our New York office GM) responded, "There's a difference between user-centered and user-led," and I think this also applies to Buchanan v Sterling, though I'd like to add, "There's also a difference between design ideas and design work." And the trick is they can't exist independently; each needs the other or neither matter.

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