Context is King

While working on my PhD at the University of Washington, I taught for a couple of years in an Interdisciplinary Writing Program. The fundamental concept of the IWP was to address a fundamental problem common to first and second year composition classes, which is the lack of context.

(A brief aside on “writing in the disciplines” or “interdisciplinary writing” programs: Most college composition courses take one of two approaches: the either ask the students to write about literature or they take a topical approach, choosing topics in which they believe the students will be interested. The former approach assumes the students are interested in what the instructor is interested in, as many of these courses are taught by graduate students or professors whose real interest is something literary. The latter creates an environment in which the ostensible topic of the writing is an artificial academic context usually dealt with very superficially, since the real purpose of the course is the writing, not the topic. IWP and programs like it try to solve that by situating the students and the instructor in a real academic context: an existing undergraduate course in another discipline. The students’ writing tasks are situated in an authentic environment, where they are actually trying to understand and enter an ongoing academic discourse.)

I was reminded of the importance of context (and my love for the insights of the social sciences broadly) this weekend as I watched two videos from an event Microsoft Research held at MIT, to celebrate the launch of their new lab in Cambridge:

(Sorry for the mms links – you can rip them via mplayer if you need to watch in offline mode, but I think reposting them here would be considered a copyright violation).

Both really celebrate / argue for what we might call the situatedness of technology design: the ways in which an understanding of the cultural context of technology use needs to be brought back into the design of those technologies and how non-engineering approaches (from the social sciences in danah’s talk and from Design in Buxton’s talk) can help to provide that context.

danah boyd (capitalization hers) has built a (well-deserved) reputation for being a smart ethnographic observer of teen culture as it intersects with what we now call social networking, having spent many years embedding herself in both the online networks and (importantly) the social contexts in which real teens engage with those networks.

In this video, she talks about the situatedness of what the industry calls “Web 2.0” within a broader social and cultural history which includes moral panic about teens and adult strangers and changing political geographies which eliminated / privatized traditional public spaces.

She outlines several factors which are inflecting teen behavior (ways in which the new technology both has an impact on and is impacted by the behavior):

  1. persistence
  2. replicability
  3. scalability
  4. searchability

And some dynamics which result from these factors:

  • invisible audiences
  • collapsed contexts
  • public == private

For me the key in the video is less the specific issues she discusses (which if you’ve followed her work aren’t necessarily new) but the broader context in which she places the work: how technology creation and design needs to take into account the social contexts in which technology use is always necessarily embedded.

In other words, technology designers and makers can’t really hope to be fully successful without engaging the uses to which their technologies are put. Not that they’ll know in advance what all social uses will be (in fact the most interesting ones are generally those least anticipated) but that they need to remain engaged and active in the kinds of understanding on which social sciences have traditionally focused.

Eminent researcher, designer, and teach Bill Buxton‘s talk, which followed danah’s, actually ends up complimenting it well. He basically makes an argument for bringing “design thinking” earlier and more consistently in the design process for technology products. He also makes a compelling case for doing a different kind of “usability testing,” with two key additions:

  1. Showing users multiple prototypes/sketches. Users recruited for testing will rarely be critical of a prototype when shown only one solution, but will provide stronger critiques when shown multiple solutions. This is due in part to a reluctance to criticize the team running the tests, who are presumably invested in the solution. When users were shown three alternative approaches they were much more forthcoming in their criticisms, as they recognize the design team haven’t “solved” the problem.
  2. Ask users to sketch a solution. It’s long been a truth universally accepted that users don’t provide solutions: they know the problem, but don’t know how to solve it. Buxton shows that by giving users a vocabulary and toolset which enables them to communicate design solutions, they can and will produce more innovations.

As with boyd’s talk, though, the importance for me of what Buxton’s talking about isn’t a specific set of changes to usability testing, but a broader focus on the kinds of skill sets teams need to encourage, facilitate, and perhaps even require. It’s about what he calls “design thinking” and collaboration among researchers and designers with heterogeneous specialties. He talks specifically about bringing together cognitive psychologists, sociologists, graphic designers, interaction/industrial designers, and software engineers on teams to really cultivate the kind of productive discussion necessary to fundamentally change how technology solutions are imagined.