Category Archives: Design

Room 101

If someone were designing my ideal Hell (or if you prefer atheistic imagery, Room 101) put me on a team that designs by committee for a committee. You don’t even have to sentence me for eternity. A month is plenty to get my teeth gnashing, and more than a month will reduce me to the blackest despair.

The thing that makes a design approach render clear social sense for me is that it makes sense of some region of the world in personal terms. We investigate how a specific person does specific things with specific things and experiences specific things, and our job is to make these interactions, artifacts and experiences good by the standard of that person. When learning from users, design researchers redirect all deflection of personal response (and users always try it) into speculation on how other people might respond with “we are interested only in what you think and feel, and what you would do.” By looking at responses one at a time, and only at the end finding any generalities, we rid ourselves of the noisy refractions of what people think other people think other people will think other people will think, which gives us more information on their social psychological folk-theories and and insights into how they would try to design the thing we are designing, than on their own personal responses to novel possibilities.

Speculating on how heterogeneous groups of people might react to a design, and designing for an audience instead of persons is a different art, and an important one. It changes the activity from a interpersonal one to a social one, to use Buber’s distinction. The skillset becomes that of constructing systems that conform to the social rules of that social setting. These rules help people participate as members of a group, performing standard roles, which entails selectively suppressing personal idiosyncrasies, for the sake of smooth social functioning. This means the construction, too, must use standard language, in standard ways, denoting familiar concepts, used in familiar ways. Change at this sphere of design is exponentially difficult and often requires power and some degree of coercion.

But if you are trying to do this kind of design in a group which is itself so large that it can no longer function by an interpersonal dynamic, but must adopt social rules to function, now we have something requiring a degree of talent for functioning within social rules to design things that function within set social rules. The smartest option in situations like this is to design activities with new, temporary social rules that “program” the group to interact differently to accomplish different outcomes. (Which is another way of saying: design and facilitate workshops, because a workshop is a temporary social setting with new roles and rules that afford new kinds of works and new work products.) Workshops can produce group outputs that differ from the usual, but they are still stiff lumbering things that never result in the kinds of surprising snd brilliant novelty interpersonal dialogue can produce. And that is probably fine. The stars for which very large organizations reach in their grandest moments are suspended like gravel in the upper reaches of clouds, somewhere above incompetent mediocrity but well-below that of the average novelist. Workshop outputs are plenty good enough, 95% of the time.


It just occurred to me: people who always operate by individual social rules, who play the role of themselves, following the rules of their personal ethic, and find it impossible to improvise in a dialogical setting feel like workshops.

Maybe this is what I despise about political types who see roles and rules governing all things. When the “personal is political” dialogue, deep invention, all the divine creative potential of persons encountering persons is lost. Corporate stability is imposed and preserved.

Totalitarianism is eternal design by committee.


Room 101.

Anne-Marie Willis’s “Ontological Designing”

Yesterday, Nick freaked me out about the existence of Anne-Marie Willis’s paper “Ontological Designing”. I was so distressed about possibly being scooped, and also about the state of my current project — a distress possibly biologically amplified by an infected eyelid — that I barely slept last night. I was dreaming about this stuff.

Today I got up, read most of the paper and sent Nick the reply below, which seems worth keeping.

Ok, this is not what I am doing, though it is the kind of ontological designing Willis describes here that informs my project.

This paper appears to be written from the perspective of a user contemplating designs-ready-made, not a design practitioner reflecting on design-in-the-making (to adapt Latour’s distinction).

The experiences that feed my thought (experiences I am undergoing, unfortunately, though quite conveniently, on this very project) are the reworkings of understanding induced by the breaking of individual interpretations and understandings upon an (as yet) inconceivable design problem.

In these situations, designers are forced to instaurate new local micro-philosophies that permit collaborators with incommensurable understandings to “align” their efforts to design equipment that can be readily recognized in a present-at-hand mode, adopted, and then used in a ready-to-hand mode. I think this microphilosophizing is an underrecognized gap both in design practice (which tends to focus its thinking on its tasks at hand, and rarely to macrophilosophize) and in philosophy (which rarely participates directly in the kinds of hellish rarefied design projects that inform my concerns).

My work is describing what happens if we apply the lessons of constant local microphilosophizing back to macrophilosophizing.

I think it is important because I’m seeing the same dynamics I see in my mini-hells unfolding in the larger world in our incapacity to align on what to do about — well — everything. The disgruntled tolerance for the postmodern condition and its refusal to macrophilosophize (due to the po-mo allergy to grand narratives) has contributed to a deep fracturing and factionalizing of our citizenry.

And you can see that this idea of designerly coevolution completely misses the central problem: How do we agree on what to do in the first place, in order to world our world into a state where maybe it can coevolve us back into a more livable, peaceful condition? Everyone is full of end-solutions, but at a loss to explain or even frame the problem of why we can’t get there, except to invent theories of viciousness about those who refuse to cooperate. We do not know how to think these kinds of conflicts, which are essentially just political crises — but I think I do have some clarifying insights, thanks to my occasional hell-immersions, and my funny habit of trying to feel better by understanding their hellishness and applying the resulting insights back to my own grand narrative, which I happen to think is better than the ones that developed in the vacuum of public intellectuals being to smart and stylish to perform their duties.

Random reflections on intuitive UI design

Some people are intuitive users of tools. They are able to make the tools wordless extensions of their intensions, similar to how most of us use a pencil. We don’t instruct ourselves to move our hands in order to move the pencil, we just somehow make a mark on a page. Intuitive users are able to do this with more complex tools like user interfaces.

Other people seem to be verbal self-instructors. They have a monologue in their head — sort a script that tells themselves what to do. These people never really form an intuitive relationship with complex tools. They just memorize steps to execute tasks.

The former users are very sensitive to design. They want the design to follow Beatrice Warde’s ideal of invisibility. After the tool is learned, it should merge with their will, and disappear.

The latter users are less sensitive. As long as they can memorize the script needed to do certain actions, they are more or less indifferent to the nuances of how a thing is designed.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way (and I think it has to do with successive generations of designers brought up on web design), we’ve lost sight of intuitive invisibility as a goal of design. Further, a great many UI designers are themselves verbal self-instructor types who lack even basic awareness of what intuitive means, much less how to design for intuition. These types say “this is intuitive because it is well-organized and easy to figure out.”

Another point. It used to be that Apple’s primary customer base was a minority of intuitive users who could not tolerate the imposition of a thick, glove-like linguistic layer between their intentions and their actions, and who valued design that removed it and would pay for that quality. The people who have never seen a real difference between Apple and Microsoft, except one of slickness or prestige, tended to be the verbal-self instructing majority, and they were Microsoft customers.

But now that Apple is a consumer goods and media company chasing the mass market, this small and choosy segment is no longer worth the effort. It’s a smart marketing decision to bugger this segment, but I’m still mad as hell about it.

This is me throwing a tantrum about PowerPoint’s unbelievably horrible “design”. I’ve passed the point of burning fiery rage, and entered realm of icy hatred where the only thing that helps me feel better is analytic vivisection. Thank you for listening.

Designerly virtues

In my decades of design work, collaborating with a wide variety of people from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds, personalities and workstyles, I’ve noticed that the attitudes most helpful for doing good design work are often reversals of conventional virtues.  I’ve developed a habit of humorously flouting these common virtues and valorizing their opposites.

Over time, this exaggerated oppositional attitude has become my own weird style of professionalism, and these inverted vices have become what I am calling designerly virtues. This post will be a first draft of a list of designerly virtues.

Cooriginality — Designers prize dialogical creativity over individual creativity. We are proud to have contributed to new ideas that pack more insight and expertise than can fit inside the mind of any one person. Cooriginality challenges the modern ideal of the self-sufficient lone genius, who hatches original ideas with no help from anyone.

Epistemic humility — Designers are so accustomed to being wrong, that they eventually become cheerful about the inevitability of being refuted, usually where they least expect it. This acceptance of inevitable error is the mark of experience, not pride that one’s theories will be proved correct. Epistemic humility challenges the desire to be the guy who’s alway one step ahead, who knew all along.

The following three virtues are probably components of epistemic humility, or examples of it:

  • Impertise — Impertise is the opposite of expertise. I guess I could have called it anti-expertise. It is a kind of receptive “beginner’s mind” attitude that constantly tries to perceive all possible novelty in what a more superficial expert glance might dismiss as a redundant, derivative reinvention of the wheel. An impert will try, and almost always find something unprecedented, significant and exciting, to inspire cooriginal creativity. Impertise complements the ideal of expertise, which surveys every situation, classifies it and prescribes a known solution, by adding a critical awareness of expertise’s current limits.
  • Blindsight — Everyone has blind spots. The most perverse characteristic of blind spots is they are blind most of all to themselves. Right this minute you have two blindspots in your field of vision where a optical nerve pokes through each of your retinas, and in each region your vision is interrupted? See it? No, you don’t. When we are blind, literally or metaphorically our vision continues, uninterrupted, right across what we are failing to see — the unknown unknowns — and nothing seems amiss. Blindsight is insight into how blindness really works, and abandonment of the effort to map our blindnesses and compensate with theoretical knowledge, because more often than not, our blindness conceals where we are most blind. Blindsight relies instead on one’s peers — especially the ones we conflict with most — to point out realities to which we are truly oblivious, and think simply do not exist. Blindsight challenges the ideal of corrected vision — the notion that through conscientious calculation, scrupulous adherence to technique and using un-distorting “lenses” we can adequately neutralize our worst subjective blindnesses, biases, and train ourselves to perceive more objectively and justly.
  • Receptivity to be taught — Everyone wants to be a teacher, but the best teachers have something to teach precisely because they have been receptive learners. This is very different from knowing how to inform oneself, which leaves the learner in control. To be taught is to submit to learning: to allow an other to control how the information is presented. Every subject of study has its own effective ways to present its own distinctive kind of knowledge. A math student who comes to a poetry class to interrogate the teacher on the theorems and proofs of verse creates needless obstacles. Human subjects share this characteristic with academic subjects: it is best to invite the teacher to teach, then hand over control. But this is a rare and difficult art especially for people who strongly prefer to play the role of the teacher. Receptivity to be taught complements the ideal of taking the role of teacher.

Phronesis — Phronesis is tacit know-how acquired through hands-on experience. Being tacit, phronesis doesn’t always lend itself to explicit language, but rather, demonstrates itself in practice. When people who understand theory very clearly and who can explain it eloquently, struggle to apply that theory effectively and to adjust their methods to fit contingencies, phronesis is what is lacking. Another reason phronesis is important is “intuitive” design harnesses existing or easily-acquired phronesis to enable users to skillfully interact with a system without having to explicitly figure out or memorize how. Phronesis complements theory with tacit skills that enable mastery of theoretical and physical systems as well as effective improvisation where explicit methods are not available.

Apprehension tolerance — Sartre was right when he said “hell is other people.” Trying to align with other people on how to think about phenomena with no pre-fab interpretation is an intensely anxious undertaking, and frankly, it freaks many people out. Experienced designers learn how to handle this apprehension, and in fact come to see in it a symptom of impending breakthrough, especially when breakthrough seems impossible. Apprehension is the birth pangs of profound insights. With practice we learn how to breathe, relax and deliver radically new ideas. Apprehension tolerance challenges the ideal of the peacemaker who steps in and defuses tension and conflict and restores harmony.

Principled disloyalty — Many designers are afraid to be excited or attached to new ideas, because these ideas might turn out to be wrong, infeasible or otherwise inadequate. But design is inspired and propelled by precisely this excitement and commitment. A good solution to this dilemma is to cultivate an equal and opposite proud and disciplined readiness to reject a beloved idea when it is time to say goodbye. The virtue of principled disloyalty challenges two ideals at once: 1) the passionate champion of the believed-in ideal, and 2) the objective detached rationalist who holds no strong position, out of fear of becoming a passionate champion.

Personal goodwill — Good designers must care more about their colleagues and the people they serve more than their own ideas, and must constantly reaffirm this commitment: “I care more about you and my relationship with you than I care about any of my ideas.” This kind of goodwill is absolutely necessary to do the deep, challenging and often painful work of design. The ideal of personal goodwill challenges the ideal of the true believer whose principles, creed, or ideals matter more than anything else in the world.

Pluralist comparison — There are many good solutions to any problem. Those who believe there is only one ideal solution will be tempted to cling to the first eureka. Sometimes that first solution turns out to be the best. But teams that keep going often find other solutions to consider, and sometimes they find those later solutions are far preferable to the first one. Pluralist comparison challenges the ideal of the discovery of the right solution that is searched for until it is found.

Tradeoff sense — Designers understand that perfection is always a function of certain kinds of partial attention, and that closer scrutiny always reveals unobtrusive trade-offs. The goal is not a solution without trade-offs, but rather a solution with tradeoffs so optimal that they go unnoticed when the solution is encountered in its intended context. Inexperienced and naive idealists often approach problems with impossible standards (and usually highly distorted criteria of perfection) — which lead not to the ideal solution but lackluster ones whose chief virtue is flawlessness according to one unexamined standard. Tradeoff sense challenges the ideal of perfectionism, and all the expectations of perfectionism, especially the belief that the right solution requires no tradeoffs, and everything that does is therefore not right.

Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First, empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”


This is my first list, and it might not be complete. It is a good start, though, and I am relieved to get it out of my head.


Experience mesh

I recently cooriginated a new kind of design artifact that seems to be taking off in the service design world. I call it “experience mesh”.

The purpose of experience mesh is to represent a multi-actor design without taking any of the actors to be more primary or central than any others. This is crucial, because the main advancement of service design over older user-centric or customer-centric or any other actor-centric approaches to design is that service design is polycentric.

Polycentric design does not focus only on one actor, but looks at the experiences and especially the interactions between multiple actors to ensure that all actors are having a good experience and are interaction with one another in mutually beneficial ways.

What has been bothering me about the main design deliverable of service design, the service blueprint — and what inspired the framing of the problem that led to experience mesh — was that a blueprint is only partially polycentric.

The very format of the service blueprint has been impeding service design’s evolution beyond the single actor perspective. Though service blueprints do represent multiple actors, the whole thing is organized around one protagonist’s storyline (usually the customer). The other actors delivering or supporting the service are viewed only in reference to the protagonist, appearing and disappearing on the frontstage and entering and exiting the backstage, called into existence by the needs of the protagonist.

But much of what is most decisive in the service experience of these other actors happens completely outside of a blueprint oriented around a customer. For instance, a call center agent who materializes in a middle of a blueprint, when a frustrated customer calls to ask about her bill, also arrives on the scene with a backstory of his own. That morning he attended a team meeting, where he was exhorted to reduce call times and to increase up-sells and cross-sells. The scorecard he keeps on his desk by his keyboard, shows that his numbers are down: no commissions this month. Also, he is sitting in a cavernous room with agent stats (including his) projected up on the wall the size of a movie screen, and he is surrounded on all sides by teamwork posters, performance award trophies and other motivation aids. These missing moments and touchpoints will affect how he feels about his life throughout the day and the quality of his interaction with the customer when their storylines eventually intersect. Longer term, they will help determine whether this call agent is inspired to stay at his job and jazzed about helping customers, or whether he ends up ground down to robotic apathy, looking for opportunities to quit as soon as he can. These omissions from the customer-centric blueprint might very well represent the problems most needing service design interventions.

An experience mesh keeps the customer’s, agent’s and all other actors’ storylines complete and unbroken, loosely weaving them together to show how the overall design of the service impacts the lives of everyone involved. Where the storyline threads converge and loop together, both actors are frontstage to one another in an interaction. When their storyline threads diverge (and perhaps loop with storylines of other actors within the service) they are backstage to one another.

But every actor’s experience with the service is shown in its full continuity and placed within the scope of the service design. Everyone has a continuous, unbrokenstory. Nobody is disappearing and reappearing in service of one primary actor who is placed at the center of the service design. Everyone is viewed as the center of an experience, which can merge and harmonize with each interaction, all of which can and ought to be designed as a single multi-actor system: this is polycentric design.

Experience mesh is still imperfect in execution. I think it might be one of those artifacts that benefits from the flexibility of digital tools, and might find its ideal form when it sheds the constraints of its physical paper and tapeorigins. But the problem experience mesh is meant to solve is now framed, and as John Dewey said, “a problem well put is a problem half-solved.”

Reconceiving the unconscious

Reading Schutz, and examining the structure of lived experience I am suspecting more and more that what we call “unconscious” and habitually conceptualize spatially as submerged beneath our awareness has been misconceived — or, to put it in more designerly language, is a conceptualization that introduces tradeoffs which might not be optimal for our purposes. And what is this purpose, I’d like to optimize for? I’ll try to pin it down: I think in popular thought (which is the thought that creates, re-creates and shapes society, through ethnomethods) we radically misunderstand the relationship between language and lived experience. We have a tendency to conflate consciousness and speech. If something resists language, and we find ourselves unable to capture it our memory with the help of words, that wordless memory of images, sounds, feelings, etc. seems to sink faster into oblivion, and to be harder to retrieve. My hunch is that words are nonverbal memory aids that condense experience from the mental environment. When we have words for what happens to us we are able to “objectify” what is going on, whether what is going on is “out there” in the world or “in here” in my memory. With language we produce sharper objectifications that go into our memories and we have mnemonic objects that will condense the sensory recollections when we wish to recall the experience later.

So in my model, the unconscious is just those mental activities that we have not articulated for objective knowing. But these are not autonomous demon-like beings who slip in the shadows and depths, who move us against our will when we ease our vigilance, hiding our under-selves from what our minds will tolerate. I see this as a nasty vestige of medieval religiosity — one that keeps popping up among people who fancy themselves secular, but whose minds still move in superstitious ruts.

I prefer to understand what we call the unconscious as that vast set of tacit perceptual, kinetic, feeling realities hiding in plain sight, but inaccessible to linguistic thought. They are there, real, tangible, important but we don’t have words for them so they evaporate like dreams after we experience them unless something happens to us that causes the vapor to condense again. One of the great benefits of words is they are reliable memory condensers.

Folks who “think visually” or who take their intuitions and mind motions seriously as real and significant prior to any ability to articulate or conceptualize or demonstrate or argue them have a capacity to create thoughts outside the dominant language games of the culture. I want to articulate some of these realities and make them more thinkable. But also, I want to banish the latter-day demons of the Freudish “unconscious” that seems to have reemerge to haunt our social and political anxieties.

I also find our beliefs about the role of language in our everyday behavior to mislead designers. If we believe users verbalize instructions to themselves that their bodies obey when using software, we stop trying to directly engage our hands. If we understand that language itself is an interface that we use to help us make sense of experience when other means fail, we create two layers of interface between users and their tools. A great user interface minimizes the requirement to verbalize, so tools become invisible, ready-to-hand extensions of the user’s will.

Try these ideas on with this line of thought. The political crisis we are in now, with deep roots in the American tradition, can be seen as starting with the rise of social media. Much of our social lives, and our lives in general, became heavily word-mediated. Normally, when people gather it is around experiences. Things are enjoyed together — food drink, music, art, laughter — and experiences unfold over the course of hours. Social media is fast language. TL;DR, scan, scroll, start, stop, scroll. Not only are people’s blah-blah flipped through like TV channels, but engagement is sporadic and flitting. Written literature has time to evoke, conjure, hint, suggest and condense memories and knowings. Fast language only recalls or refers. It is spastic and explicit. Expastic language could be a good word for fast language, dittos and hashtags. But things got worse when Covid put everyone in social isolation. Then the entire world had to be strained through screens. The realm of shared tacit realities constricted and the word-world expanded explosively. I think what we are seeing now is the opposite of an eruption of the unconscious. I think the sensible wisdom our tacit understandings were removed from the public setting, and brainless verbal logic took over and is running itself to its logical extremes inside s frictionless, gravityless vacuum of collective solipsism.


It has been said that a soul is a society. Let’s assume this is true. It is true.

And let’s assume that every soul, being a society, has its own internal culture, its own internal political factions, its own internal injustice, and its own persecuted, marginalized parties longing from freedom and recognition.

Every association a soul makes with the external world affects its culture and politics. It empowers, liberates, suppresses, ostracizes or enslaves some soul-faction.

(There is such continuity between the internal and external world that ignoring the distinction has some analytical value. Even denying the existence of essential self can have merit.)

Relationships between people (or, rather, between soul-factions) can overpower those relationships that hold an individual’s soul together. When this happens, the term “individual” is exposed as inadequate. Love is the most conspicuous example of this kind of turmoil.

Being “one in flesh”, or, conversely, feeling “torn”, or having “two minds” has more literal truth to it than one suspects. It takes two to know that truth.

When a person’s internal society changes, that person’s external relationships must be renegotiated, most of all the more intimate ones. Deep internal change transforms an intimate into a stranger.

Jealously is an instinctual defense against estrangement.

Spiritual folks disparage jealousy as an illegitimate attempt to possess another person. Their understanding of possession is impoverished, the consequence of a desire to be invulnerable, to be “not of this world.” We are of this world, especially when we refuse to be.

There are relationships between people and objects that affect a person’s internal culture and politics. This is one reason that design is so important.

Despite what spiritual folks insist, we are as much our possessions as we are “ourselves”.

The world we inhabit holds us together. Our efforts to physically and socially shape our worlds are as important to soul-care as so-called inner work.

Religion is taking our finite place within infinity. Infinity is, from the perspective of finitude, inexhaustible surprise. Infinity literally, etymologically, sur-prises every finite being.

Religion should, especially in these times, attempt profound enworldment. Religion should be the furthest thing from “not of this world.” Spirituality — especially “spiritual-but-not-religious” spirituality — is how we try to get our mind to feel some specific divine way, maybe blissful? or peaceful? or ecstatic? or overwhelmed with awe? And typically, its method is aestheticized solipsism.

What would a designed philosophy look like?

I’ve been bothered by a simple question: if philosophy is, as I believe, a design discipline, what is 1) its material, 2) its specifications (“deliverables”, the plan of the designed thing), 3) its artifact (the designed thing itself), and 4) its actualization (the actual using of the designed thing), the qualities of which are the ultimate, though indirect, goal of design?

I am asking this way, not because of some compulsion for finding structural parallels, but because the problem of what a philosophy is and should do has been perplexing me. What is a philosophy? What is its nature? Is it the assertions? The logic? Is it a kind of thinking style?  When we apply the philosophy, or what is the nature of this “thing” that is applied?

It all becomes a little less perplexing (or gives me some degree of grip on the problem) when I compare it to other forms of design and make structured comparisons.

Even with the most concrete and tangible kinds of design, the ultimate intended effect is practical and experiential, and experiences are painfully indirect. The fact that designs in use disappear in the activity of using does not help matters at all.

Let’s start with some concrete examples, and see if they suggest new ways to think about philosophy. I will answer the question with two design disciplines I know well, UX and service design.

With UX, 1) the material is digital media (screens and other interfaces, and the underlying systems which enable and constrain what is possible); 2) the specifications are process flows and screen schematics (wireframes); 3) the artifact is the software or site; and 4) the actualization is a good user experience — effortless, pleasant and fruitful interaction with the software.

With service design, 1) the material is the entire extended organization (including not only the whole organization, including employees, partners, physical and digital infrastructure, practices/processes, policies, etc., but every point where value is co-created by delivery of the service, that is, with customers and users of the service); 2) the specifications are moment architectures and service blueprints; 3) the artifact is the service in its various forms across delivery channels; 4) the actualization is a good service experience for every actor involved in delivering, supporting or receiving the service.

So, giving philosophy this same treatment, 1) the material of philosophy is language in the most general sense (including not only words but symbols of every kind); 2) the specifications are lessons in the most general sense (books, essays, lectures, conversations, arguments, models, paradigms); 3) the artifact is concepts (understood as thought-producing mental behaviors, which is confusing because these behaviors are impossible to state directly and factually, but must be demonstrated); 4) the actualization is a thoroughly second-natural way of understanding (meaning that it becomes spontaneous and transparent) some domain of life (or the entirety of life) in a way experienced as better. By better, I mean more comprehensible, more livable and more valuable. By better, I mean we are able to avoid feeling perplexed, bewildered or indifferent to our lives.

As with all design, the work must be done with the actualization in mind, which is why the process is one of iterative experiment with direct involvement with those who will finally actualize the design. This is why human-centered design practice, or, in the case of service design, polycentric design practice are not specialized types of design but, simply, design competence. The implications to the practice of philosophy are significant. Does this help explain why philosophers crave conversation? Is the attempt to persuade an informal kind of philosophy design practice?

This is a first crack, so everything is up for discussion.

Redemption by design

Rorty, being intensely Rorty:

…the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature. Monotheistic religion offers hope for redemption through entering into a new relation to a supremely powerful nonhuman person. Belief in the articles of a creed may be only incidental to such a relationship. For philosophy, however, beliefs are of the essence. Redemption by philosophy is through the acquisition of a set of beliefs that represent things in the one way they really are. Literature, finally, offers redemption through making the acquaintance of as great a variety of human beings as possible. Here again, as in religion, true belief may be of little importance.

And redemption by design is arranging the elements of life — people, things, ideas, etc. — in systems that allow them to cooperate for mutual benefit, however benefit is conceived by the cooperating agents.


I would like to count among the number of cooperating agents, “infrapersons” — psychic components of personality whose dynamic relations produce myriad moods, feelings, experiential colorings. Different designs will engage different infrapersons. Writing with a Bic pen or a #2 Ticonderoga is a different experience because it engages different infrapersons than writing with a Pelikan Souveran M800 or a Rotring 600 pencil. Sitting in a cubicle under a cold fluorescent strobe suppresses elements of self that might come out when sitting under sparkling halogen in a studio space. We feel more “like ourselves” when more of our self — more of our own infrapersons — have an opportunity to emerge and participate in our living. An important task of designers is to acknowledge and serve neglected infrapersons. To the degree it accomplishes this, design generates excitement, newness and je ne sais quoi. Cynics might dismiss this as slaking appetites for pointless consumption, but this is an uncharitable view of the profound relationship people can have with things in the world. I view these proud “anti-materialism” sentiments as a leftist strain of “not of this world” puritanism.)

Philosophy adoption

Susan asked: how is the philosophy design you envision different from Kuhnian paradigm shifts? The answer she extracted from me gets to the heart of my project, and I will need to emphasize this point in Second Natural: The physical sciences, and the attitude toward truth inspired by the physical sciences places all emphasis on epistemic and practical knowing (“what” and “how”) and trades off moral (valuative) knowing (“why”), which becomes a sort of ethic of scientificality. “The truth hurts” and being scientific means embracing the pain of sacrificing all other values.

But if we accept that we live in a truly pluralistic reality, and embrace the consequence that no single philosophy is capable of accounting for reality without strategically excluding, distorting or underemphasizing some realities in favor of others, we are freed question this tradeoff. A new scientific paradigm may give physicists a new way to conceptualize some stubbornly puzzling corner of their field, but these advantages might not be worth what is given up for ordinary people whose conceptual needs differ from those of physicists.

Once we see concepts as tools for selective perception, categorization and reasoning which permit some kinds of response and suppress others, we are freed (to a degree) to think of philosophies, components of philosophies and philosophical implications as matters of adoption. We can say physics theories what the best atheists say of God: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” If our concerns do later come in contact with theological or scientific problems, we might have to rework our personal philosophies in order to faithfully contend with their claims. This is especially true if we wish to win the respect of those communities and persuade them to accept our own beliefs. But this is not all that different from the adoption of any other technology that integrates with its design context.

Approaching the designerly

In the 20th Century everyone aspired to be scientific. Unfortunately, the image of science and scientific knowledge was distorted by rationalist fantasies, and attempts at scientific practice were encumbered — and, in fact, sterilized — by misnorms.

In the 21st Century we we are off to a good start, aspiring to be designerly. However the image of design is also distorted and many key design practices are either omitted or falsified. Too much emphasis is placed on “creativity” and too little on the social conditions productive of (and produced by) effective design collaboration. Design practice is still a romantic antithesis to 20th Century misconceptions of science and engineering — which bog design down with the same sterilizing burdens that has plagued scientism.

What is needed is a better synthesis of science/technology/engineering and design that supports a more productive (or should I say “serviceable”?) redrawing of the definitional boundaries, divisions of labor and collaboration, and organizational relationships between the disciplines associated with deploying technology for human purposes.

Service design research FAQ

When you work on a project with Harmonic it is very likely you will have the opportunity to participate in design research. This is something many people have never done before. We find that some people are either curious or anxious about what they can expect.

The following is a list of questions I’ve been asked more than a few times, and the answers I’ve given that seem to help people new to service design research feel informed and prepared, expressed in my own voice. Some of my fellow Harmonicas have expressed concern over how some of my answers are worded, so please know that anything here that strikes you as overstated or impolitic has likely been left in despite the advice of my colleagues.

Why are we doing so much research?

Short answer: Understanding the people involved in the service is, by far, the most important thing a team can do to ensure the success of a service.

Services are provided by people, for people. If you understand the people who receive the service, provide the service, and support the service behind the scenes (what we call in general terms the “actors” in a service) our chances of designing a service people value is far more likely. Our goal is to design services that people find useful, convenient and emotionally satisfying — the kinds of experiences that generate brand loyalty.

But people are surprising. Often what we think we know about them (even what we think we know about people in general) is wrong, and in ways that obscure real opportunities to improve their lives. Having a unique understanding of people gives a team access to new perspectives, new ways of thinking about serving them and can drive innovation and differentiation that is not only different but remarkable and relevant. (We call this “precision inspiration”.)

What kinds of research do you do?

To put it in the simplest terms, we think of our research in terms of foundational research (which helps us understand the actors who receive the service and those who provide and support it, which includes their needs, attitudes, behavior, contexts and worldviews), generative research (which helps us discover opportunities and conceive new ideas for improving service experiences), and evaluative research (which helps us see what ideas are most valuable to actors and how they can be made even more valuable). All these methods are qualitative, which means they are conducted with small numbers of people with a goal of gaining deep insights into not only what they do, and how they do it, but why they think, feel and behave the way they do. Most of the research we do contains elements of foundational, generative and evaluative research, but toward the beginning of most projects, the emphasis is on foundational and generative research, so most of what will be discussed here will focus on these.

Why do we need to do research with our own front-line employees?

Often when a company’s services fall short, it has little to do with the competence or attitudes of the employees who deliver the service. It has much more to do with how employees are evaluated or compensated, policies that limit what they can do for customers, or require them to do things customers don’t want. Or employees lack information needed to help. Or the systems they use get in their ways. Or employees are starting from behind, trying to salvage an already damaged experience, and (in extreme cases) numbed from constant exposure to customer anger. In other words, often a bad experience is not the employees’ fault, or anyone’s fault. The service has just organically evolved into something that isn’t working out for everyone.

And more often than not, no one person understands every factor that is contributing to the problem. The people on the front line who know the problems well are not always in a position to change the situation. And the people with the power to make changes are often far from the sites where the service is delivered and are operating with incomplete and sometimes incorrect information.

We do research with employees to help understand the big service delivery system, so we can find ways to make everyones’ lives easier. And we try to talk with them in ways that encourage them to tell us the full, unfiltered truth as they experience it, which is why we favor individual sessions, or sessions with small teams who collaborate together, especially when we are talking with front-line employees. We can only get the full truth if they are relaxed enough to speak freely and naturally.

How do we decide who we are going to talk with?

In order to ensure we are designing a service that works for everyone, we talk with a representative cross-section of people who use or might use the service we are designing. We are interested in both what they have in common, but also any important differences that might need to be considered.

Using what we learn from members of the client team, stakeholders we interview and available existing research we study, we list all the factors that might change the needs or attitudes or use contexts of the people involved in the service. These are developed into criteria we will use to determine the kinds of people we need to talk to.

Then we develop quotas for each of the criteria. We try to get at least three participants who have each of the criteria we identify, so we can get a sense of how that factor might affect the service. We try to get three because this is the minimum number where we can tell the difference between idiosyncratic answers and typical ones.

These quotas are used to recruit our research participants.

Why do we call them “participants”?

We call the people we invite to our sessions “participants” because they play such an active role in the session. Participant might even be an understatement. Effectively, we are asking them to play the role of teacher, and to help us understand who they are, what their life is like, and what they need and want in a service. We do design activities meant to help them do this teaching, but these are tools to aid the collaborative process of generating understanding.

Aren’t your sample sizes awfully small?

Typically, we will talk with twelve to twenty-four customers and with the same number of employees. To a person accustomed to marketing research, yes, this looks like a puny sample. The small samples make more sense, though, when you realize that what we are after is not only answers to questions — questions we think are the right ones to ask — but an understanding of how people see the world. This can sometimes help us see new non-obvious questions or even help us see that we have been asking the wrong questions!

The kind of research we do, especially early in the process, is designed to help people teach us about their lives, their needs, their way seeing the world, the significance of the service and its context to what they care about. This is very different from surveying them or asking them a list of questions. Imagine if you were learning a new subject at school, but instead of allowing the teacher to explain the subject to you, trying instead to survey the teacher to get the factual data you think you need to pass your tests. To allow someone to teach it is important to allow them to present information in their own way to convey the material in its own terms. (I like to believe we use the word “subject” to refer both to academic subjects and human subjects because we come to understand them by allowing ourselves to be taught.)

Instead of asking our participants a long list of question invite people to tell us stories, to help us understand how they see the world, to help them communicate what is most relevant to them, and in general to help us understand what questions we should ask them to learn what we need to know to design the best service for them.

By the time we are done with the first round of research, we have the information needed to design much better quantitative research. If you start with quantitative research, you’ll have a bigger sample, but you risk having statistically significant answers to insignificant, irrelevant questions.

How do we decide what we will do in the sessions?

We start our process by identifying the research objective: what does the research need to do in order to support the design? This is often mostly a re-statement of the project goal. We need to inform the design of the service by understanding all the people involved in it, their lives and how they might engage the service.

Then we identify areas of inquiry. In order to achieve the research objective, what will we need to learn about. Areas of inquiry are not questions — they are topics the team will ask to be taught about in various ways.

Once the areas of inquiry are defined and agreed upon, the team designs the research approach. It will include interview questions and interactive exercises designed to give the research participant opportunities to learn about the areas of opportunity.

The team then writes up a research protocol (sometimes called a “research guide”) and designs the materials used in the session.

It is important to note that the protocol is not a script. Some parts of it might be read like a script at some points, but the facilitator will use the protocol loosely to pace the session and to ensure the areas of inquiry are covered. But it is only a guide, and facilitators will often deviate from it. The goal of a session is to get the participant to teach, and that means keeping it conversational and giving the participant enough space to tell us things we might not have anticipated. Our sessions are designed for uncovering the unexpected — because this is where the biggest opportunities come to light.

Who from my organization should attend sessions?

Ideally, everyone would attend. Realistically, at least one person from any department or role that will be involved in shaping or delivering the service based on the research should be involved in the research.

We recommend this for two reasons. First, different roles notices different things in the sessions, and interprets them in different ways. Having a wide range of disciplinary lenses present in the sessions enriches the team’s understanding of what it hears.

Second, service design touches many roles throughout the organization. We believe people have a right to help shape their own futures. But pragmatically, it is a great way to build alignment, credibility, ownership and enthusiasm for initiatives if respected members of the teams who will contribute to the service were directly involved in shaping the service, and can explain why the service was designed the way it is.

What do I need to do to prepare for a session?

Generally, very little preparation work is needed. If you are observing a session the team will give you everything you need to know before the session. Often the team will schedule an orientation session to help everyone understand the purpose of the research and the flow of the session. Anyone who is playing an active support role will get additional training. Prior to each session the facilitator will remind everyone of what they need to know.

Generally, for in-person field research, everyone involved in a session will be given all the equipment they need. If the session is remote, you’ll want to bring a notebook and something to write with. We ask that you do not use your laptop for note-taking when conducting an in-person session.

What are the sessions like?

Typically sessions last ninety minutes, and are followed by a debrief that lasts between thirty minutes to an hour. Please plan to attend the debrief for your session, because this is a very important part of our process.

Normally, the session starts with an overview. The facilitator thanks the participant and explains the purpose of the session. The people attending the session are quickly introduced. Then the facilitator gives an overview of the session and sets the participant at ease by telling them that we are here to learn from them, that there are no wrong answers, that it is okay if they don’t remember everything and most of all to please tell us the full unfiltered truth about their experiences, and to not worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. We will sometimes joke with them and generally do whatever it takes to make them feel comfortable and ready to converse naturally with us. We answer whatever questions they have and make sure they have filled in the required release forms, understand the compensation and give us permission to record.

Then we usually start with an interview, leading with some easy warm up questions. We learn about who they are. We will sometimes ask them their opinion on something tangential and fun to answer. Where do they like to eat, or what is their current favorite service? Then we get background on how they use the service, what they value about it, how it compares to other services, etc. We also sometimes touch on their current brand perceptions.

Then we shift into a more interactive mode, and do some collaboration. Almost always will ask them to tell us stories that help us understand their needs, while we visually capture the story, step by step. We are interested in hearing about their whole experiences, not only the part where they might use the service. And we ask them to tell us not only what they did, but how they felt, what they were expecting, what they were thinking about, what they wanted to accomplish. We also might visualize their service ecosystem, inventorying the people, places, tools, and related services that make up their lives. Frequently the team will design other interactive exercises to help us get at needs, behaviors, attitudes and preferences.

Another activity we often do is show prototypes to participants and ask them to respond. By prototype, we mean any kind of artifact that allows the participant to imagine what it would be like to engage the service. It might be storyboards or screens, or we might ask them to act out service scenarios with us.

If all goes well, the facilitator will build enough rapport with the participant loosens up and feels free to express their feelings in their natural voice. We like to get these moments on video so we can show them to people who were not in the session. We want to help everyone in an organization relate to the humanity of their customers and the people who serve them, and to see the human impacts of decisions.

How do these sessions differ from pre-Covid times?

Online sessions are very similar to in-person. The big difference is how the activities are done. In-person, we are handing our participants the pen and asking them to interact with the materials. This is more difficult remotely. We are often using virtual surfaces, electronic sticky notes, and doing some of the interactions for the participants under their direction.

The dynamics are also a little different, especially for customers. When we do in-person session we often visit them in their homes, offices — in their spaces. We work hard to make them comfortable, but sometimes it takes a few minutes for them to get used to us being there. It seems to be a little easier to adjust to a video conference. The downside is there is a connection made in person, and insight you get from being in their space that doesn’t happen with the same intensity in a remote session.

The biggest positive tradeoffs are probably geographic flexibility and the simplification of logistics. With remote sessions it becomes affordable to recruit participants from many diverse regions instead of limiting sessions to a small set of locations. In-person sessions require a lot of coordination of people traveling to the market where the research is being conducted and ensuring they have transportation to and from the session location. Remote sessions remove most of this complexity.

Once Covid is overcome we return to relative normalcy, some of the methods developed to cope with the pandemic will stay in our toolbox and continue to be used to fit client needs and make optimal tradeoffs.

What am I supposed to do in a session?

There are multiple roles in a session. Generally, one person facilitates and one or more people assist. When we do sessions in-person we normally limit the number of people in the session to three, not counting the participant. Participants are not used to research, and they can get stage-fright if too many people are staring at them. With remote sessions it is possible, though not desirable, to have more attendees.

If you are assisting with the research, you will get special instructions and training from the team on how to use the research tools. With remote sessions we sometimes ask for help operating our virtual whiteboards. With in-person sessions we sometimes need assistance with organizing materials or operating cameras. It is never terribly complicated, and you will never be put in any situations for which you were not prepared.

The primary thing to keep in mind is that we are trying to create a conversational dynamic. This requires some conditions that we do our best to set up and maintain. What we do not want to happen is for the session to feel or look like a meeting where multiple people are talking together, and this tends to be the default unless steps are taken to prevent it. When the session is in-person, we usually try to arrange ourselves so the facilitator and participant are facing each other and others present sit to the side out of the direct line of sight. With remote sessions, we often ask everyone to turn off their cameras and microphones except the facilitator, until it is time to open the session up for questions.

Taking notes is very important. Write down anything that speaks to the areas of inquiry, strikes you as relevant to how the service should be designed, or surprises you. And if the participant says any great quotes, capture as much of it as you can, or at least jot down some of the key words and roughly what time it was said so we can find it in the transcript later.

Your notes will be useful during the debrief.

What should I know about asking questions?

During the session, try to hold your questions or comments until the facilitator prompts participants. It can be helpful to write questions down as they occur to you.

Sometimes the facilitator has a specific way to ask the question in mind. And sometimes the facilitator will leave more silence after a question than is comfortable. Trust the facilitator, and resist the urge to jump in and clarify questions, or to try to help the participant answer or break awkward silences. It’s hard to do, but it is important.

When the floor is opened for questions, try to ask open-ended questions. The trick is to start the questions the right way. Starting with “Can you talk to us about…” or “Please tell us about when…” almost always finish well. Sentences that start with “Do you…” or “Would you…” are risky. If you notice your question has devolved into a multiple-choice and you are finding yourself stringing together a bunch of “or” options, your question is on the wrong track.

The good news is you can always interrupt yourself and say “Actually, let me try asking this question another way.”

What am I supposed to do in a debrief?

After the session ends, the team will reconvene for a debrief. This is one of the most important activities we do during field research. The purpose is to capture what was learned in the session while it is fresh in everyones’ mind.

The debrief facilitator interviews the team on each area of inquiry, documenting what was learned in a format that makes it easy to compare findings between different participants.

Often there are disagreements or differing interpretations of what was said, and this is good. The discussions around differing understandings are central to the process and helps the extended team align on what has been learned.

One thing to keep in mind: A debrief is not meant to be an exhaustive compiling of everyone’s notes in a single document. The debrief is meant to be a summary of what the group learned. Someone not in the session should be able to pick up a debrief and learn who was interviewed and how much was learned from that participant about each of the areas of inquiry. The debriefs are a powerful tool the team will use during analysis.

How do we make sense of what we hear?

When the field research is done, the team analyzes the debrief forms and the outputs from the activities, supported by video footage and/or transcripts of the session.

The analysis is done partly in collaboration with the people who helped do the research. Sometimes we will conduct an internal team interview to outline the high level findings of the research. We then use the debriefs and transcripts to guide discussions and exercises to find patterns and themes in what we learned.

We will also compare the stories we heard and look for commonalities and variants which are documented in an experience map which visually documents the experience customers and others are having receiving and delivering the experience.

When possible somewhere toward the middle of research analysis the team will invite employees of the organization into the analysis process. We call this Research Open Studio. We show people our raw research materials, including the stories we gathered, and selected footage from the sessions. We share the findings in their current rough state, along with the questions we are asking ourselves, and bring them into our conversation so they can share the thought process and the excitement of discovery.

When do we get a readout?

Often within a few days of completing the research the team will send out an informal top-line summary of findings, and sometimes will include links to the debriefs. But the full presentation of what the team has learned usually comes at the beginning of the next workshop, when the research is digested and interpreted to identify opportunities to improve or even reinvent the service and to generate new ideas.

What do we do with what we learn?

The research outputs are designed for multiple purposes. First, they are designed to communicate what was learned as clearly and compellingly as possible, and to help the organization align around a single version of the truth created by the extended team.

The second purpose of the research outputs is to serve as workshop tools, to help with opportunity identification and prioritization, idea generation, concept assessment and concept prioritization. The experience maps, the themes we identify and the other artifacts generated during research analysis become ideation canvases workshop participants use to think about experiences from a customer’s or front-liner’s perspective.

Am I going to love research and want to be involved in it as much as possible in the future?


Genre Trouble

Thank you Richard Rorty:

“The more original a book or a kind of writing is, the more unprecedented, the less likely we are to have criteria in hand, and the less point there is in trying to assign it to a genre. We have to see whether we can find a use for it. If we can, then there will be time enough to stretch the borders of some genre or other far enough to slip it in, and to draw up criteria according to which it is a good kind of writing to have invented. Only metaphysicians think that our present genres and criteria exhaust the realm of possibility. Ironists continue to expand that realm.”

1) I love this quote. I have extreme trouble coloring inside the lines of preexisting genres, given the fact that my worldview is a synthesis of an esoteric and Nietzschean perversion of Pragmatism, a hall-of-mirrors reflective design practice, and an idiosyncratic take on religion bordering on universal heresy (which is why I’m Jewish). Consequently, I have little hope of (or interest in) writing a book that does not generate a genre. This is why I will need to continue to self-publish. I feel a combination of impatience and panic when it is suggested that I need to nail down my audience, as if they already exist, and write to them, for their sake.) Also, nobody is going to craft a book to my standards. I may need to buy letterpress and bookbinding equipment.

2) To find a use for a new kind of writing… The above passage was embedded in an extended pragmatic exploration of Derrida’s writing. Rorty suggested that we forget what Derrida was asserting, and instead ask: what was he doing with his writing? I like translating this to: Forget the content — what does his genre want to do, and why? He is doing something new with writing, and to allow it to do its new thing for us we have to release it from the purposes and rules governing the genre(s) of philosophy.

3) Point 2 is getting very close to my interests (which is hardly surprising given that Rorty is the proto- pragmatist pervert). To create a new kind of writing, then find a use for it — is very much, to my designerly eyes, like intellectual R&D. This follows the pattern of how many technologies are developed, especially very new and unfundable ones. Some playful or obsessive technologist in love with a problem or a material intuits a possibility and follows hunches to produce some ingenious invention. This invention inspires other similar types — lovers of engineering problems — to push it further, just to see what they can get it to do. Eventually, the inventing proliferates, refines and develops to the point where it attracts the attention of some practical mind who sees in this invention the key to solving some specific real-world problem. Now a technology is ready to cross the threshold between technology and product.

4) What kind of mind escorts a potentially useful technology through the journey that transforms it into a useful, usable and desirable product and out into the marketplace? Lots of people try to do this work. The ones who are best at shaping technologies into products (a.k.a. goods or services) that fit human needs, desires and life-practices are designers. Designers (whether they are called that or not) are the people who see human life as vast, complex, often messy, systems, and understand that products are subcomponents of these human systems. The success of a product hinges on how readily it integrates into these human systems. (Increasingly designers are considering more than end-user integration, and are getting involved in manufacturing, distribution, promotion, merchandising, purchase, use, service, disposal, recycling, etc.) Wherever human and nonhuman systems are meant to integrate, designers increase the chances the integration will succeed. Some designers see a technology and immediately grasp its product potential, others keep up with technologies of various kinds so when they are given a human problem they can play matchmaker between this problem and the solutions in their imaginations, still others start with a thorough understanding of people and their lives and learn to define these problems so they inspire solutions from more technological minds. The best designers do all three, and effectively straddle and blur (or, rather interweave and entangle) the lines between technological and human systems.

5) What if we view philosophy as it is done today as technological development? And applied philosophies as slightly more focused technologies carried a step closer to problem types? Is there not room for a discipline that uses design methods (especially HCD, human-centered design methods) to apply philosophical technologies to very particular cases. Such a discipline would research problematic situations and the people, things and contexts that constitute them, define problems to be solved with the help philosophical “technologies”, shape conceptual systems that resolve these problems and develop materials to help an organization adopt the improved, more useful, usable and desirable philosophy? What if we use deep HCD to throw organizational business-as-usual thinking into crisis, so that it clears the ground and opens it into perplexity (what Wittgenstein identified as the philosophical negative-space of “here I do not know how to move around”), upon which a new philosophy can be designed (“to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” as Sellars put it).

6) If I view my problem as a genre problem, I can say I want to write a book outlining a new discipline as the first (at least first self-conscious) product of this discipline. I want to design a philosophy of philosophy design. It will be erected on an assumed metaphysical foundation — a faith — that doing such a thing is not only permissible, but necessary. But, being a designed conceptual product, it will seek voluntary adoption instead of argumentative coercion. It will try to demonstrate that this discipline, viewed in this way, viewed from this carefully designed perspective will be a useful, usable and desirable way for certain kinds of people to live their lives and make their livings, and that (this will be secondary) that organizations that hire and support people who do this kind of work will help generate more usefulness, usability and desirability for its employees, partners and customers.

7) Whatever we call them — Organizational Philosophers? Concept Designers? POV Framers — they will be responsible for:

  • Understanding how different people involved in an organization or part of an organization (department, office, team, etc.) think;
  • How these ways of thinking converge, diverge, harmonize and conflict;
  • What tradeoffs each of these ways of thinking make in terms of what domains of knowledge they do a good job of comprehending and communicating, versus what they must deemphasize, ignore, suppress or neglect in order to have clarity?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of values — what values do they elevate and serve, and what must they deprioritize or sacrifice in order to focus their sense of purpose?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of method — what kinds of action does it guide effectively and what kinds of action does it misdirect, encumber or fail to support?
  • Analyzing what the organization wants to be and to accomplish, and determining what an organization’s thinking needs to help it comprehend, do and care about.
  • Leading the development of conceptual frameworks the organization can use to think together in order to better be and do what it aspires to.
  • Communicate and teach the new conceptual frameworks using various vehicles such as visual models, verbal and visual explanations, taxonomies, glossaries of shared vocabulary, reference materials and training programs.
  • Testing and iterating both the frameworks and the communication/teaching vehicles.
  • Socializing and encouraging adoption of concepts across the organization.

This is what I want to do with my life, and this book will be a justification, a description of how it should be thought about and done, and be a proof on concept of what the profession produces.

Now, this is just me writing about a possibility. I cannot guarantee it will stick, and I’m not even sure I didn’t just derail my original plan for Second Natural, but it is at least getting me closer to what my intuition seems to want me to talk about.

I did not start off meaning to write this post, but here we are.

This is why we read Richard Rorty.

SD and UX research

I often get asked questions about the relationship between service design (SD) research and user experience (UX) research. The answer is very simple, but communicating that simplicity is not easy. This post will attempt the briefest, clearest answer possible.

Explaining the difference in the two forms of research will require briefly explaining the relationship between UX and SD, so let’s start there.

  • User experience is  typically defined as the practice of designing digital touchpoints. Digital touchpoints are usually parts of a larger experience that extends beyond digital to non-digital touchpoints, such as voice, physical spaces, printed materials and broadcast media.
  • When many kinds of touchpoints, including digital, are designed together to deliver a coherent experience (usually, but not always for a customer), this is known as omnichannel experience design.
  • Service design extends omnichannel design beyond, by designing for every person (service designers call them “actors”) involved with receiving the service and delivering a service (customers and employees interacting “frontstage”) and with supporting the service behind the scenes (employees working “backstage”). Anything involved in the delivery of the service — whether it is a human actor, departmental or team structures, a front- or backstage touchpoint, a technology, a process or even a policy — falls within the scope of service design.

It can be helpful to think about the relationship in terms of design materials. Every design discipline shapes a certain kind of material to produce value for the people who use it.

  • The material of user experience is digital media.
  • The material of omnichannel design is touchpoints.
  • The material of service design is organizations.

The differences sketched out above should set the stage for understanding six main differences between SD and UX research. Most of the differences are matters of degree, and of course, there are always exceptions.

One key point that should be noted is this: Service design does not in any way replace UX, nor does service design research replace UX research. Rather, service design helps UX do a better job of designing touchpoints that support the larger service experience.

Another thing that should be noted: None of the six key differences I list are matters of technique. The toolbox of techniques used in service design overlap with those of UX, with only minor variations in how they are used. A UXer attending a service design research session is unlikely to see any completely novel methods , but is very likely to be shocked by the breadth of material covered and the rapid pace of the sessions. They might feel anxious about an apparent lack of thoroughness. This is by design, though, and I hope that what follows (in #3 and #4) will shed light on why.

Difference #1: Who helps conduct sessions 

Because the material of service design is the whole organization, many people are involved in the design of a service. A typical service design may change organizational processes, IT systems, policies, physical spaces, call center scripts, even how departments are organized. To improve the chances these changes will be made, it is important that the people who will be making the changes (or will be affected by these changes) understand why these changes are worth the effort and discomfort. If people reject the research or dispute the design decisions, change will not happen. Alignment of understanding is absolutely crucial.

The best way to create this alignment is to bring as many people  along to help with the field research. Service design research is the ultimate alignment tool. When respected representative stakeholders from across the organization participate in research, witness firsthand how the service affects people’s lives, and contribute their own disciplinary knowledge and perceptions to the effort, insights from the field are deeper, more impactful, and more credible across the organization.

UX also benefits from client participation, of course, but can normally win sufficient alignment with far fewer people.

It is important to note that one of the most important stakeholders to include are UX designers, who will derive many of the same benefits from SD research as they would from UX research, or at least from foundational or generative UX research. (More on this below).

Difference #2: Who is recruited to participate

Because a service is designed for both those receiving the service and those providing and supporting it, the research is done with multiple types of participants situated in different parts of the experience, both front-stage and back-stage. Additionally, because services are experienced in many places in many different channels, it is often necessary to conduct research in multiple kinds of settings. For instance, a service design team might investigate how a service is experienced in the home and in a retail space, and how the service is delivered digitally, by voice or in person. While UX research recruits a variety of cohorts and considers use in a variety of contexts, service design expands the number of participants, roles and settings beyond what is typically considered in UX.

Difference #3: Breadth of inquiry

Service design’s scope is relatively vast compared to UX. Not only must we investigate more actors and more settings, we often use different approaches for each of them, to help the team get insights on how the service comes together and how it is experienced by everyone involved. Further, service design is trying to piece together a whole experience as it unfolds over time and zig-zags across channels, so the scope of each research session tends to cover longer spans of time than a typical UX project, and investigates a participant’s experience with equal attention wherever it leads, regardless of channel. With UX research, times spans are often briefer, and non-digital channels are treated as context for the UX design, not as something that itself might be redesigned.

Difference #4: Depth of inquiry

Because its scope is so broad, service design does not go into the detail and depth that UX design does. This is why no service design should ever go directly into implementation. Service design only defines UX design problems it does not resolve them.  Every touchpoint, digital or otherwise, defined by service design requires further work by design specialists who have mastered the craft of designing that type of touchpoint, with service designers staying involved to ensure the service as a whole stays consistent and seamless.

UX research is concerned with gathering insights that will guide the detailed design of a digital touchpoint. It seeks to get deep, detailed information on the person’s use context, mental models, vocabulary, physical and perceptual abilities, etc. Service design research only skims the surface of these questions, in order to keep an eye on how the touchpoints are integrated with one another and other components of the service.

In evaluative research, service design only validates concepts at a high level, concerning itself mostly with the usefulness and desirability of touchpoints in the context of the broader service, and deemphasizing usability to the greatest degree possible.

The only part of UX research that service design mostly replaces is the foundational research, and even there, only partially.

Difference #5: How analysis is conducted

As mentioned above, service design research is the ultimate alignment tool. To stabilize and refine alignment, service design teams will often conduct analysis socially and in the open, preferably in a location where members of the organization can drop in and participate. At Harmonic, we have called this “open research studio”. The analysis is intentionally visual and easily digested. Stories and other insights gathered from the field are displayed in ways that invite conversation and direct collaboration on the artifacts.

The process of collaborating encourages cross-disciplinary conversations and brings out a shared understanding that is relevant and comprehensible to everyone in the organization. And because so many people have had direct involvement in shaping the understanding it is likely to be complete and credible.

Difference #6: How findings are applied

Finally, returning to the earlier point that the material of service design is organizations, a material this complex is too much for any single mind to contain or any single talent to shape. The whole organization must be mobilized in redesigning itself to deliver better experiences. Everyone must learn to function as members of a design team. To make this transition as intuitive as possible, many service design research outputs are designed specifically to serve as large-scale collaboration tools. Most service design research findings include various kinds of experience maps meant to be physically hung on a wall or otherwise shared, and to allow teams of people to interact with the surface as a canvas for collaborative work.

Of course, the design research findings are always tools used for designing. But because the interpreters of other kinds of design research are usually experienced designers who already know how to interpret findings to make design decisions, researchers are free to emphasize the content of the findings over their form. The fact that many of the people doing the design are inexperienced working in that way places special demands on service designers to think more about the form and explicitly make them not only easy to understand, but easy to use in support of opportunity identification, ideation, or evaluation.


Wow, that was not brief after all. But I hope it was at least clear. I’ll make one more attempt at brevity with a summary:

  • Service design research seeks to understand many types of people who receive, deliver and support the service
  • …it accomplishes this understanding using a wide variety of research approaches in many different settings
  • …the research is conducted, analyzed and applied by large rotating multi-disciplinary teams which should include UX designers…
  • …but it does not replace UX research, which should be used to both inform and evaluate the detailed design of each digital touchpoint in the service.


Conceptual Integrity and Empathic Anticipation

In the late 90s and early 2000s, designers used to repeat the mantra “learn once, use everywhere.”

It appears to me that this ideal has been waning for the last ten years or so, in favor of a different ideal, which involves understanding what people will be thinking, feeling and trying to do at each moment of an experience, in order to anticipate their needs and likely responses.

The first ideal emphasizes working systematically to develop and maintain conceptual clarity, consistency and coherence. The goal is to help people understand how the system works so they can learn it and control it easily. Let’s call this ideal Conceptual Integrity.

The newer ideal emphasizes empathizing with people and understanding their experience so that learning or understanding the system is unnecessary. The system shapes itself around their needs, their wants and their desired actions. Let’s call this newer ideal Empathic Anticipation.

It is clear that the two ideals conflict to some degree, which means tradeoffs must be made. Perfect Empathic Anticipation requires flexibility from systems to conform to the momentary needs of a moment. Conversely, perfect Conceptual Integrity would limit the repertoire of interactions to a small and learnable set, and would not support arbitrary deviations to address needs a person might have in only one moment of an experience.

Of course, no design is fully one or the other. Most designers try to strike a balance between the two ideals. The best solutions manage to minimize tradeoffs and cleverly conceal the tradeoffs that are made so people don’t even notice them.

But to make these kinds of tradeoffs designers need at least three skills and toolsets to support those skills.

First, to design with conceptual integrity, designers need to know how to think and work systematically, both conceptually and concretely, so that the relationships between the whole and its parts are perfectly clear and logical.

Second, to design with empathic anticipation, designers need to know how to develop deep insights into the people they are designing for, what they are trying to accomplish and how this need fits into their lives as a whole, so that each moment of the experience accurately anticipates and effectively responds to their needs, both functionally and emotionally.

Finally, to pull together the right experience for this particular person in this particular situation, we need to know how to think about design problems and make the best tradeoffs. We must never automatically apply our own favored skills and best-mastered tools, but rather select our methods intelligently in response to our understanding of the problem. To do this, we need to draw on both ideals and bring them to bear on design approaches themselves.

Foregrounds and backgrounds

I am looking in my anomawiki for a quote from Nietzsche about foreground and background philosophies. I am digging through one of the themes I’ve catalogued, “depth“, and noticing — somehow for the first time! — how many of these quotes involve water, and specifically cold water. Reading Nietzsche I slowly discovered a symbolic language — or did I invent it? — It is probably best to say that in experimental interaction with his corpus, I instaurated a certain symbolic language that invests Nietzschean passages with multiple layers of powerfully direct intuitive meaning. (These meanings have been so intense that at the peak of my early Nietzschean encounter, I sometimes got butterflies in my stomach in the evening anticipating waking up the next morning and reading him.) I’ve learned to interpret water as a symbol of chaos, not only in Nietzsche, but also in Jewish scripture, which is why my Hebrew name is Nachshon. Coldness is another symbol, signifying betrayal. Nietzsche speaks often of coldness at the depths and heights. When we immerse in chaos, when we undergo the deepest, most trophonian perplexities, we often find that our own value hierarchies get loosened and shaken up. And when we ascend so far that we can survey a more expansive whole, this can also effect an inner political shift. The valley is temperate and more stable, but Nietzsche’s preferred valleys were near cold lakes and icy peaks, to remind us of our tragic situation between beneath and beyond.

I did not mean to write this much about Nietzsche.


Here is the quote I was looking for:

The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he [the philosopher] came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

This passage implies that a person can always dig beneath and undermine his own philosophy if he chooses, and raises the question: why don’t we keep digging forever? What are the “stopping conditions”, to put it in wicked problem terms?

My own suspicious stopping point — (and yes, you should ask “why here?”) — is a metaphysics of radical surprise. Due to the relationship between truth and reality, truth is pluralism which “goes all the way down”, that reality is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Truth is the attempt of each center to make sense of the whole — a whole which is constituted entirely of centers. No center can embrace this infinite whole, so we radiate our being outward into the other centers, and they in turn radiate back. The interwoven radiating centers congeal into real situations and overlapping approximate truths, most of which have some validity, and all of which contain significant blindness toward what others know, and which necessarily make tradeoffs, only some of which we are aware. From time to time we are shocked out of our wits by the irruption of some reality for which we are unprepared, and often we have no idea how to make sense of it, unless we actively make that sense. This making of new sense is philosophy.

Some of us even go looking for shocks. We especially seek them when we are dissatisfied. And especially once we learn how easily apparently stable, unquestionable truths can be undermined, and once we learn to handle some of the unpleasant hazards of undermining and gain confidence in our ability to make new sense where we’ve loosened up and broken down old sense, undermining becomes a tool for overcoming some of life’s occasional horrors. In other words we are free to design philosophies that support a life we want. Like all design, philosophy functions in real contexts, must make optimal tradeoffs to meet requirements while respecting constraints, and they will succeed and fail in different ways to different degrees.

My background philosophy tells me that we can and should design our philosophies using all the best practices of human centered design. This is the best we can possibly do. The closest a human being can get to truth is to believe ideas that work well, meaning they help us do what we need to do, they prevent us from feeling perplexed, or getting confused or making mistakes, and they help us feel the value of our lives. (These, by the way are the criteria for good design laid down by Liz Sanders in the most influential paper no designer knows about.) None of these philosophies should be expected to hold up in every possible context and withstand every criticism, and if that becomes our primary goal, it is certain that this all-encompassing generality and well-armed defensibility will demand tradeoffs that will harm a person’s quality of life in innumerable ways. This deeper philosophy is pragmatist through and through, and draws on many strands of pragmatist thought including Actor-Network Theory. I call it design instrumentalism. It is never far from chaos, and dips in and out of perplexity as a matter of method. I can only handle it in small doses. As I was reminded this morning, Nietzsche said “I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out.

My foreground philosophy is what I designed for myself as my everyday conceptual models to shape and guide my understandings. I crystalized them in image and word in Geometric Meditations. The ideas might seem profound, but that is because of their careful design: this philosophy was designed to maintain value-stability ‘warmth” at depths of thought where a soul risks coming apart. That is not to say I do not believe them wholeheartedly, because I do, but I believe them with wholehearted irony, meaning that I see them as some among many ways to make sense. The conceptual models in Geometric meditations function as an interface I intentionally designed to shield me from the instability and complexity of design instrumentalism.

I am sure this has made sense to nobody, but I needed to think it through.

Raw experiential resources for my next book

I am making a list of some strange phenomena which are the daily fare of strategic designers, but which are seldom experienced outside the field, at least not in the way designers experience them. By designers, I mean anyone engaged in human-centered design. These phenomena do not occur at the same intensity and frequency in problems that do not explicitly contend with subjectivity. Designers must live with them at full intensity, for long durations, without any easy escape route. Here is the list, so far:

  • Dependency on conceptual models (which I will just call “models”) to guide the forming of a system that is experienced as clear and coherent to those who participate in them
  • Uncanny difficulties in agreeing on models among members of design teams, which render subjective differences stark
  • Difficulties in interpreting phenomena, and especially subjective phenomena, among different team members
  • Difficulties in weighing design tradeoffs among different team members
  • Existential pain associated with relinquishing (or even temporarily suspending) models that one has adopted — even in order to listen and understand another perspective — a phenomenon that can be called “pluralistic angst”
  • Dependence on profound respect, trust and goodwill among team members to navigate through and out of pluralistic angst
  • Tactics employed by well-intentioned people to avoid the pain and effort required to overcome pluralistic angst
  • The ubiquity and invisibility of models — and the best models are the most ubiquitous and the most invisible — not only in design, but all understanding, which only becomes detectable in pluralistic conflict
  • The miraculous way truths and unnoticed realities leap from nowhere (ex nihilo) when a different model is adopted and used
  • The weird way a change in a sufficiently foundational model can sometimes change (transfigure) the meaning of one’s life as a whole, even when the change is meant only to affect a localized problem
  • The fact that there are no determinate techniques, rules, criteria to overcome pluralistic angst (though there are approaches that can assist the process) — that people are thrown back into their bare unequipped souls to find the resources needed to overcome it together
  • The solidarity among team members which can result from overcoming pluralistic angst with respect, trust and goodwill

Anyone who has been through the harrowing experiences described about enough times 1) to recognize what is happening, 2) to find faith that these things can be overcome, 3) to understand the value of overcoming them, 4) to find the attitude of soul most conducive to overcoming them (which includes grace toward one’s own missteps, doubts and moral failings during the process) might start seeing similar phenomena everywhere, at all scales, from international politics to personal relationships to one’s own inner conflicts. Or, at least this is what happened to me.

I was driven deep into existential philosophy, including phenomenology and hermeneutics then into pragmatism and its offshoots in social science to try to understand the weird kinds of pain I experience as a designer. Philosophy has never been speculative or abstract to me. It is concrete, near and a matter of life and death.

As a result of this search for understanding, I have designed myself conceptual models to help me re-understand the human condition as largely one of conflicting conceptual models.

It is here that it becomes fairly obvious how philosophy and design connect and merge into something inseparable. That is what I plan to write about and publish next, now that I have crystallized my core conceptual models in the form I believe they deserve.