Cybernetic UX Design

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by Ariel Waldman, 23. August 2010.

Early concept for Iron Man 2 by Prologue

Exploring semantics

I think about language, definitions, taxonomies/folksonomies and semantics constantly and find an enormous amount of value for myself and others in doing so (as a friend at NASA recently wrote to me, “Sometimes…labeling something is just the spark that’s needed.”). This post is a bit of an “out-loud” personal exploration for a term that defines my approach to design.

Lately, I’ve been sifting through terminology debates over “interaction design” versus “user experience design” versus “human interface design”. There’s, 52 Weeks of UX’s “Is the term “UX” being marginalized?” post. There’s Dan Saffer’s thoughts on how the majority of designers don’t fill the full umbrella of what “user experience” covers and that the title interaction designer is more accurate (and IMHO, cooler sounding than UX) in most cases. There’s commentary around how thoughtful Apple is for using the label “human interface” instead of “user”. And don’t get me started on the term “service design” (I have quite a rant for why I don’t like it).

I find that all of these terms lack something for me. User experience, despite its great thinking around holistic ecosystems, does have the fatal flaw of the term “user”, which assumes a narrow technosocial delegation of roles between technologies and people. Putting “user” aside and just using the label Experience Designer sits awkwardly for me – it sounds like I’d be some sort of event curator, like a Wedding Planner. Interaction design is precise, and as a result can be seen as pertaining to a fairly narrow set of tasks. Human interface design’s “pro’s” are also what I would consider to be its “con’s” – focusing on humans as the end-all entity to design for, leaving behind machines, data and systems as things that will only ever need to directly interact with humans. Designing with only humans in mind creates major gaps in knowledge about how technology works and why (perhaps why Apple chooses to use the word “magic”?).

Thus far with my work, I’ve used the term digital anthropologist – someone who studies interaction between humans and digital ecosystems. I still find this title to be accurate, however, anthropology, I would argue, sometimes suffers from not being perceived as an applied science, mostly remaining contained to academia. On the “applied” end of my work, my approach and aim with design focuses around the systematic integration of man, devices, data, and the systems that living/non-living objects operate within. The term Human-Computer Interaction starts to get at the heart of it, but using the term “computer” still feels a little narrow.

Zeroing in on the Term Cybernetics

Through my exploration so far, I have begun zeroing in on the term Cybernetics as one that closely defines what I aspire to do in my design work. Cybernetics gets more at the science of interaction between things and how they connect to create an overall system (or “experience”). It also seems like a good fit with my active interest and work with the science community.

The dictionary definition of Cybernetics is “the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things”. There’s a whole world of design that exists outside of focusing only on humans. Thinking about how objects and data interact, how they work at the level of a crystal oscillator, and how they can be given the ability to communicate outside of their own technological species. I’m fascinated by this world similar to how I’m fascinated with space exploration – it’s why I’ve been learning the basics of Python and Arduino in my spare time, it’s why I typically surround myself with developers. Putting cybernetics under the microscope further:

From those that coined the term, “a cyborg, or “cybernetic organism”, was initially defined as follows:

“The Cyborg deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulating control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments.” This verbose sentence can be simplified to, the cyborg represents “a notion of human-machine merging”".

Many people when they first hear the term cybernetics, they think of it pertaining mostly to the overtly physical; machines being embedded in our skin, wired to our nervous system. But, cybernetics can also pertain to being something that is mental, requires physical interaction (as opposed to embedded), and/or is based in how a system of things work together. As Andy Clark, a cognitive scientist, pointed out, “we shall be cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts”. When you consider the definition further, it’s something that is completely ubiquitous to us now. As my friend Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist, often points out, cybernetic organisms are not the dystopian future from Star Trek – we are already cyborgs. We sit inside exoskeletons on highways that allow us to travel at super fast speeds, we create what can be considered to be technosocial wormholes when we make a phone call, etc.

“Cybernetics … has evolved from a “constructivist” view of the world [von Glasersfeld 1987] where objectivity derives from shared agreement about meaning, and where information (or intelligence for that matter) is an attribute of an interaction rather than a commodity stored in a computer [Winograd & Flores 1986].”

So what does being a designer with a focus on cybernetics mean?

To me, it’s an aspiration of thinking about and finding balances within augmented human experiences, the potential of assimilated technology and science in living and non-living organisms, social interactions, and systems on both intimate and astronomically large scales. I think Tom Igoe’s Making Things Talk is in my direct line-of-sight on some of this.

So, a simplified example is, if a “non-cybernetic design approach” results in a large touch-screen interface of data (or as Mike Kuniavsky would refer to it, a “terminal”) within a museum exhibit, a cybernetic approach might result in a networked experience like the London Science Museum’s The Science of Spying exhibit. As you explore the exhibit, a magnetic ID card tracks your performance data within a system of interactive installations (or individual “machines”), porting the data to a “meta machine” of unified information. Various ID touch points are scattered throughout to guide you through the exhibit. A couple of people’s work that begins to intersect on a similar level is Adam Greenfield’s thinking around urban systems design and Jane McGonigal’s reality-based gaming.

At this point, I’m still struggling with the exact words that sit well within the larger umbrella of system/community strategy and design for living and non-living organisms. Cybernetic interaction designer? Cybernetic UX designer? Cybernetics designer? Cybernetic experience designer? I’m curious of your thoughts.

Right now, I’m using Cybernetic UX Designer, including UX almost as an outward beacon to a community of searchers – something which Whitney Hess sums up nicely: “At best, [UX is] a common awareness, a thread that ties together people from different disciplines who care about good design, and who realize that today’s increasingly complex design challenges require the synthesis of different varieties of design expertise.”

In my discussions with Amber on my thoughts, she somehow implanted a chip in my brain and summed it up in a way that tickles the space geek in me:

“The idea is that spacesuits fit people for space travel, to become accustomed to external hostile environments. In the same way, a Cybernetic UX designer is designing interfaces for people to handle environments full of intense amounts of data radiation, etc., so that a user might be able to survive their trip through the Internet and arrive at their final destination. A well-designed interface protects people from the hostile environment of raw, complex data. It helps them to breathe as they go about their work.”