Position Ourselves Towards a Dynamic Future
"What is missing when we shift the social interactions from offline to online?" I kept asking myself in these three months of self-isolation when I felt disconnected from the world and experienced loneliness and depression. Why do most of our social behaviours are already online, we still have a sense of disconnection?
This article tries to explore how human behaviours change when physical objects and social interactions are transected into digital platforms. I tried to identify how technologies modify human behaviours and experiences in relationships with practical examples from my Micro UX Project and critical reviews of extensive articles. The last part of this article reflects on what UX designers should bear in mind when building the future of a more humane world.
The Dark Clouds
During the pandemic, people strongly feel that the Internet is indispensable in our lives, and even unable to imagine the previous life that without the Internet. In the article "Thank god for the internet" by Joshua Topolsky, he mentions, "There is still GOOD, still UTILITY, still HUMANITY present here (Topolsky, 2020)". He gives an example of his daughter learning how to draw an elephant online with 200,000 kids around the world on a live webcast. He claims it reminds him of the utopian world that we were promised and the state the internet prophets proposed. If it's in the 1980s, kids might also draw elephants without the Internet, since they have the natural-born desire to create. But the time that there was only pure and connective act on the Internet only existed when everyone recognized the value of openness, and the capital had not yet fully occupied the industry, which is a long time ago.
In our Micro unit project, we conducted dairy studies with young people aged 20-25 to understand their real experience and their behavioural changes with the current situation. We asked them to record their daily activities by writing a photo diary that focused on recording their emotional feelings. The results show a striking consistency in their routines: chatting with friends online, playing video games, watching youtube, working or studying online. On such a screen-oriented day, the media they use were also very similar, just like in 2005, people carried akin objects in their bags.
However, in 2005, the way people interact and manipulate an object with our hands includes holding it, grasping it, shaking it, balancing it, putting pressure on it and so on. Objects designed for everyday life like watches, keys, wallets, provide a tactile response to human hands and value what our hands are capable of (Victor, 2011). Nevertheless, a glass touchscreen on a tiny subset is less expressive and only affords to swipe. It ignores how powerful human hands are and provides no connection with the task we are doing (Victor, 2011).
From the result of the diary study, we also found that anxiety and stress mostly came from online social activities and spending too much time on digital platforms made them feel not productive. Those who spent time focusing on creating new things feel relaxed and have a sense of satisfaction. Based on the findings, our initial design concept for this project was to build connections through the process of making and sharing. Making things connects us with people who have the same interest, and when we are making, we connect materials and ideas, as well as connect a social dimension (Gauntlett, 2013). To experience the connection of making, we experimented with making crafts following the theme. We found ourselves calm and focused when putting materials together carefully and thoughtfully with our hands, and this experience can not be imitated when using the mouse and keyboard.
From our literature review on mental states, we found that face-to-face contact, like the frequency of family dinners, has a positive impact on mental health (Harrison et al., 2015). So we decided to enhance the mental states of grandparents and grandchildren by strengthening the relationship bonds between them. We tried to think about how physical objects can intervene in their relationships and aims to promote communication and enrich their emotional experience.
We chose the Pop-up book as a medium to trigger emotional resonance between grandchildren and grandparents. When the grandparent tells a story, the kid will listen and make it into a pop-up book with components we provide. The parts come with a template book and an instruction booklet that provides hints to inspire kids to ask questions about details of the story or ask for objects or photos from their grandparents. During this process, the pop-up book itself not only affords to hold the components, drawings, writings but also intervenes in their relationships.
When the making of the book is completed, having this physical object to present and talk about might enable them to communicate and connect more directly (Gauntlett, 2013). Apart from the physical parts, we also designed a platform for sharing 3D pop-up books using photogrammetry. The hybrid of offline and online activities can enhance the value of a platform, and the Internet enables us to connect with others, share what we made, exchange ideas and flourish creativities (Gauntlett, 2013). The 3D pop-up books will be stored online according to their regions and cultural backgrounds so that the value will pass on to generations.
Anticipating the future as designers requires our minds to be open and see forward on the direction of unknown creation (Spuybroek, 2016). It's about being open to all the possibilities and improvising a movement rather than pre-determining our design outputs and trying to implement it (Ingold, 2013).
For many years, many designers in the UX industry find it hard to think beyond the interface, and it sometimes results in design outcomes constraining the user's range of experience. We should use technologies as tools to create rich human experiences and the economy of the future by working on things that matter to us more than money (O'Reilly, 2017). More specifically, making empowering and responsive experience design, not those require reduction to use. And when involving with machines, make sure they augment human and the complex system we are participating in and can build up a sensibility fitting to our environment and the time (Ito, 2017).
One example I found is the Dynamicland project by Bret Victor, which is "A humane dynamic medium embraces the countless ways in which human beings use their minds and bodies, instead of cramming people into a tiny box of pixels (Victor, 2014)." In this new form of computer, people interact with objects and compute together in an authoring environment. This system is so different from screens and how we think and work with technologies now. However, it shows the possibilities toward a future of computing that value human capabilities — all senses, all forms of movement, all kinds of understanding — instead of exhausting some and shrinking the rest.
Although the Internet and technologies have frustrated us with the dark clouds, they are not necessarily the problem or solution but the medium that modifies our experience of being human (Andrea, 2019). Moreover, if technologies can be invented and designed, human nature and our relationship with people and the world around us are the things we should be stuck with. And we should always keep in mind that we are living in a three-dimensional world with physical responsiveness.
Since visions are powerful and can give us direction and inspire people to act (Victor, 2011), as UX designers, we should consider technologies as tools to touch on diverse human-richness and to improve human wellbeing. Through deliberate and conscientious design works to stop us from being cram into technology that ignores human capabilities. Only by actively engaging with these intentions at the design stage can we contribute to the flourishing function in our future system.
Andrea, M. (2019). How Technology Reduces Us, and What We As Designers Can Do About It. Journal of Design and Science. Retrieved from https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/hsxloiq4
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Haghighatdoost, F., Kelishadi, R., Qorbani, M., Heshmat, R., Motlagh, M.E., Ardalan, G. and Azadbakht, L., 2017. Family dinner frequency is inversely related to mental disorders and obesity in adolescents: the CASPIAN-III study. Archives of Iranian medicine, 20(4), pp.0-0.
Harrison, M. E., Norris, M. L., Obeid, N., Fu, M., Weinstangel, H., & Sampson, M. (2015). Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 61(2), e96–e106.
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Topolsky, J., 2020. Thank God For The Internet. [online] Input. Available at: <https://www.inputmag.com/culture/thank-god-for-the-internet> [Accessed 6 June 2020].
Victor, B., 2011. A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design. [online] Worrydream.com. Available at: <http://worrydream.com/#!/
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Victor, B., 2014. Dynamicland. [online] Dynamicland.org. Available at: <https://dynamicland.org/#project> [Accessed 6 June 2020].
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