What technologists can learn from the tragic Greek myth of Cassandra

Lately we’ve been inundated with news about how terrible technology is, and how “no one could have known” what awful outcomes would come from mixing humans and technology together. This blog post is a redux of a talk I gave in Vancouver recently, and it’s a hopeful (though a little stoic) analysis on how social scientists inside tech companies can stay the course, and keep talking about awful outcomes. If you’re just such a researcher, or maybe you’re a social scientist working outside tech companies, this post is for you.

Social scientists inside tech companies might see a little of themselves in another social scientist, Tim Lee. Mr. Lee, a self-employed economist and works alone in an office in Greenwich, Connecticut.

To make his living, Mr. Lee sells subscriptions to his newsletter called piEconomics to institutional and private investors –  a boring, 10-page block of text analyzing, macro and microeconomic trends.

Source: The New York Times

Back in 2011, the bearish Mr. Lee predicted a crash of the Turkish lira. Specifically, he said one dollar would buy 7.2 lira. Most people thought he was crazy. By 2018, Mr. Lee’s prediction came through. In August, the dollar bought 6.95 lira, and it may well his that 7.2 by year’s end. As you might expect, Mr. Lee was rewarded for his prescience…with cancelled subscriptions.

Wait, what?

That’s right, his subscribers rewarded his accuracy and insight by taking back their money. Mr. Lee seems realistic about the whole affair. “It has been some hard sledding,” he told the New York Times. “I have lost a lot of clients because I am too bearish.”

People who do human-centred research inside a tech company know what Tim Lee feels like. These researchers have probably told people what they know to be true, only be disbelieved. Maybe there was a researcher inside Twitter that warned it would be a platform loved by Nazis. Maybe it was a researcher inside Facebook who warned the newsfeed is easily gamed for nefarious purposes. These researchers, just like Tim, both bearish, and probably both “rewarded” in the same way.

Social scientists inside tech companies, and Tim Lee, are a little like Cassandra, the tragic Greek hero who absolutely knew what sorrow was to come, yet no one believed her either. Social scientists inside tech companies, listen up: you can learn from Cassandra. A lot.

Cassandra in the Temple

When Cassandra of Troy was little, she and her brother camped out in the Temple of Apollo. While there, they had their ears licked by the temple snakes. This gave her the gift of prophecy. But Apollo being the vengeful Greek God we know him to be, also cursed her: she would see the future, but no one would ever believe her.

In the beginning, she saw trivial things, like when visitors would arrive. But eventually, here visions became more grand, dramatic, and even scary. It culminated in the mother of all warnings: Cassandra knew there were soldiers inside the Trojan Horse. And of course, no one believed her.

Of course, Troy fell and the Trojans lost the war. She was kidnapped and enslaved by Agamemnon, of the winning side. When she got to Agamemnon’s palace, she got a terrible sense of foreboding. Sure enough, she was right: Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra murdered her and Agamemnon, and that was the end of Cassandra. All the she ever did was tell the truth about what she saw, and accurately predict the future, and this is what she gets. A little bit worse than cancelled newsletter subscriptions, eh?

Technology researchers know how she feels. They have real information that will help their technology partners do their jobs better. And yet, we often have this challenge: no one believes us. That is some hard sledding.  I mean, sure not-taken-as-a-slave-after-the-war-and-murdered-by-your-slaver’s-jealous-wife hard sledding, but you know, still kind of rough.

What can we learn from Cassandra? This gift – her gift, our gift – comes at a cost. But it’s still a gift. In fact, the fact that it comes with hard sledding is actually a blessing. But Cassandra didn’t understand that. The people of Troy really didn’t believe her, she got more and more hysterical. It was just this vicious circle. She didn’t embrace the cost of her gift.

The Cassandra Complex

 Psychologist Laurie Layton Schapira writes about what she calls the Cassandra Complex, or the persistent experience of being unable to accept that others will not bow to your will. Schapira uses Cassandra to describe her patients who had become plaintive, immature whiny people who continually fail to move past the moment when people disbelieve them. Instead, they stay arrested in time, mired in pain, regret, and anger. That anger is often justified; some of her patients had led very traumatic lives. The problem is that they stay angry, instead of reconciling and integrating that anger. They are unhappy, and stuck. They cannot move on with their lives.

You can see how a researcher could fall into this same trap. She might be literally saying, “My usability test predicted people will mistakenly post personal things” or “My ethnographic data clearly showed that the newsfeed is full of garbage.” But if you are not believed, over and over again, this begins to morph into “I am angry you do not believe me.”

This is where Schapira finds her patients: caught up in the pain and anguish of not being believed. The Cassandra Complex is a real risk for researchers, either working within or even outside technology companies; we predict terrible outcomes and no one believes us. Eventually, they just stop listening.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been the one saying, “There are SOLDIERS in THAT HORSE!”

So how do you solve for the Cassandra Complex? I’ll start with what won’t solve it. First, self-care.

Look, self-care is bullshit. I’m sorry, it is. I’m not going to stop those soldiers from jumping out of the horse by reading a lot skin care advice from some rich white lady. No. It might give me nice skin, don’t get me wrong, but it won’t solve the problem. Sure, go ahead and get your 8 hours sleep, by all means, but that’s not what keeps Tim Lee alive during patches of hard sledding. So forget self care.

Do people fail to believe social science warnings because we are bad researchers? Also no. Decades of psychological research has shown that fixed minds are hungry for confirmation, not for refutation. Data can be valid and sound and still no one believes us, so it’s not the quality of the research.

No, wait, that’s not entirely true. Absolutely we can improve. We don’t spend enough time analyzing our data. We report a laundry list of “things that happened” instead of providing explanations of why they happened. We are fearful of making universal statements. We’re afraid of our voices, so we bury them. I quote here the Robert Solow, who says, “The fact that there is no such thing as perfect antisepsis does not mean one might as well do brain surgery in a sewer” (cited in Geertz, 2000). So just like self-care, being good researchers is necessary but not sufficient to solving the problem.

Why do people fail to believe when the evidence is clear? I gather data, as I’m trained to do, with the utmost rigor and care. I take pains to present the data in rigorous but also compelling ways. I encourage stakeholders to come along with me, to witness product failures first hand. I build relationships, and above all, I care. And yet I still fail. Why?

This phenomenon of not being believed is not about any individual but about the cultural context in which researchers practice their work. I like to believe it’s all about me but it’s not about me, or you, or Tim Lee, or even Cassandra. It is about the way we organize ourselves, as humans, into groups. It’s very difficult not to take things personally, but it helps if you understand that the context, which is not something you can control. Culture is, as Peter Drucker said, what eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is what makes confirmation bias a generalized phenomenon; one person’s disbelief is confirmation bias, but a whole organization full of confirmation bias? That is culture.

Humans need consensus for groups to stay cohesive and unfortunately, the nature of what we do attacks that consensus. The data we collect is what anthropologist Elizabeth Coulson calls, “uncomfortable knowledge” (as cited in Ramírez & Ravetz, 2011).

Technology researchers are the bearers of news, which can often mean bad news. It’s not about the individual researchers, but the hard role they are required to play. We are here to tell people things they don’t want to hear. It’s a hard job, and hard sledding is guaranteed.

But it turns out, being the bearer of bad news is a unique and wonderful opportunity to become more self actualized, and lead a more meaningful life.

It is the opportunity to be a hero. All heroes must deal with failure. W.H. Auden wrote, “The typical Greek tragic situation is one in which whatever the hero does must be wrong” (Auden, 1948, p. 21 emphasis mine). So, you know, we are doomed. Sorry. We researchers are heroes, but more specifically, we are tragic heroes. Being Cassandra is actually a GIFT. It is something that many people only dream about. It is the gift of self-creation. Sure, it’s foisted upon us, but it’s a wonderful gift. We know from philosophy that making oneself is the key to becoming a realized person.

Nietzsche wondered what makes a hero, and he found that it’s about integrate the best and the worst together: “What makes [us] heroic? To go to meet simultaneously one’s greatest sorrow and one’s greatest hope” (Nietzsche, 1977, p. 235). This is the path to a unique and truly meaningful life. Imagine if you lived your entire life without meeting your greatest sorrow. On the surface, it seems like a pretty good life, but it’s not. You cannot make sense out of goodness without badness.

People whose job it is to point out the essential problems with their company’s products must face their sadness. But this is a gift.

Simone de Beauvoir puts it bluntly. “Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face” (de Beauvoir, 1948, p. 24).  Let us embrace looking truth in the face.

Facing your sorrow can be a path to reinvention. Polish Canadian psychologist Kazimierez Dabrowski has a wonderful way of thinking of meeting one’s greatest sorrow. He called it the theory of positive disintegration. Contrary to most psychologists, Dabrowski believed there was value in fear, anger, despair, and psychic pain because it can lead to a crisis, and then, ultimately, to growth. The key to this growth is taking advantage of psychic pain, making an opportunity to question yourself, your beliefs, and the gap between your ideal self and your current self.

The key to weathering being a Cassandra is making peace with the gap between your ideal self and your actual self. As Schapira tells us, “She needs to pull herself out of her with her own ego, finally to meet her own animus equal terms” (Schapira, 1988).

What does this mean? This means respecting that power you have inside you and embracing your masculine animus, or masculine power. Your animus is strong, confident, but can also be arrogant and aggressive. Cassandra is insightful and prescient, but she is plaintive and whiny. Imagine you integrate the two. Incorporate that power, don’t being afraid of it.

We need to take a stand, be bold, and tell people when we disagree. At the same time, we must accept that we will probably fail. We must have courage in the face of this failure and instead of attaching ourselves to “success,” we should attach ourselves to the struggle. This is how we become whole: by recognizing the struggle. There are some specific steps you can take to focus on the struggle, and meet your animus.

To do this, researchers will need a daily dose of meaning. A lot of us believe meaning is something that exists out there, in the world, and our life’s task is to just find it.

Meaning is not something you can find. Creativity coach Eric Maisel tells us that meaning is not something sitting on a shelf somewhere. It is something you must make, with the processes of your own mind.

“There are so many ways to kill off meaning: by not caring, by not choosing, by not besting demons, by not standing up” (Maisel, 2013, p. 129).

Incidentally, Maisel does endorse self care as well, but note that he too sees it as a enabler, not the outcome itself.  “You will also have to change your life so that you feel less threatened, less anxious, less rageful, less upset with life, and less self-reproachful, and so on” (Maisel, 2013, p. 63).

I keep asking myself, why didn’t Cassandra just go up to the horse and open the door!? Why didn’t she go all Arya Stark and just kill them all herself? Or at least die trying to kill them? What was WRONG with her? She let us all down, really.  So don’t be like Cassandra. Be more like Tim Lee. Tim Lee is now predicting a new crash, bigger than 2008, bigger than the Turkish lira. People don’t believe him, because of course.

Courage, Sartre wrote, is the ability to act despite despair. So if you come in tomorrow and that same goddamn boulder is at the bottom of the hill, look at it. Think about its meaning. It your chance to be courageous. Tim Lee is still going. He’s had some hard sledding sure, but he’s also accepted that. And he has also said he stands by his predictions. So should you.

 

This post the full text of a presentation at the Radical Research Conference in beautfiul Vancouver, British Columbia in September 2018.

References

Auden, W. H. (1948). Introduction. In W. H. Auden (Ed.), The Portable Greek Reader. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Bailey, F. G. (1983). The Tactical Uses of Passioin: An Essay on Power, Reason, and Reality. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

de Beauvoir, S. (1948). The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York, NY: Open Road Integrated Media.

Geertz, C. (2000). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Gilligan, C. (1993). In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Maisel, E. (2013). Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative. Red Wheel Weiser. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=dJ1dQrbR-rkC

Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1977). A Nietzsche Reader. London, UK: Penguin Classics.

October, T., Dizon, Z., Arnold, R., & Rosenberg, A. (2018). Characteristics of physician empathetic statements during pediatric intensive care conferences with family members: A qualitative study. JAMA Network Open, 1(3), e180351. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0351

Ramírez, R., & Ravetz, J. (2011). Feral Futures: Zen and Aesthetics. Futures, 43(4), 478–487. Retrieved from http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0016328710002880

Schapira, L. L. (1988). The Cassandra Complex: A Modern Perspective on Hysteria. Toronto, ON: Inner City Books.

 

 

Design researchers must think fast and slow

Research into brain science some surprising insights for guiding research practice. These findings suggest that the scientific method constrains our natural creativity.
Too often, researchers take their cue from the scientific method. While this method undoubtedly changed the world and our knowledge of it, it is antithetical to the creative needs of a well-rounded researcher. It is especially problematic for design research, which requires creative solutions to existing problems.

Design researchers should embrace less structure and more openness at the early stages of product design, and rigor and structure in the mature stages of product sales. As sales drop off and the product loses its natural match to the culture, design researchers should once again embrace openness in their research approaches.

research phases

Generally, we think of research as the focused, systematic collection of data, over time, in keeping with a given framework or theory. In this view, research is intended to confirm or deny given hypotheses, and incrementally improve our knowledge about a given topic.

We know from the book Thinking Fast and Slow, however, that this research approach only serves one type of thinking. Thinking Fast and Slow author Daniel Kahneman tells us that “Type 2” or “slow thinking” is a disciplined, focused, kind of thought that roughly matches the deductive reasoning of the scientific method and other traditional forms of research. It is structured and deliberate, requiring the cerebral cortex.

But Type 1 or “fast thinking” is less structured, more instinctual, and involves the more reptilian parts of the brain. At first glance, fast thinking appears to be undisciplined or even lazy – the antithesis of the scientific method. But fast thinking produces creative and intuitive leaps that are impossible with the iterative, deductive, and controlled manner of slow thinking.

Design research both thinking fast, and thinking slow. Thinking fast entails creating novel combinations, unusual interpretations, or unique syntheses. Thinking slow entails systematic evaluation and the structured contribution to a body of knowledge.

Gifted researchers engage in both thinking fast, and thinking slow. As sociologist C. Wright Mills describes, a researcher must have her “files,” which is a set of unstructured, messy, and without order:

mills

C. Wright Mills

“…You will notice that no one project ever dominates [the files], or sets the master categories in which it is arranged. In fact, the use of the file encourages expansion of the categories which you use in your thinking. And the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added – is an index of your intellectual progress and breadth. Eventually, the files will come to be arranged according to several large projects, having many sub-projects that change from year to year. [1, p. 3]”

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski echoes this messy disorder when he describes what will eventually become his masterwork The Argonauts of the South Pacific:

malinowskiBranislaw Malinowski

“I estimate that my future publication will be voluminous, roughly three volumes of 500 pages each at 500 words per page. It will take me about two years to get the [manuscript] ready and see it through the press. My material is now a chaotic mass of notes. To work it out and put it into the right theoretical frame is perhaps the most difficult, exacting, and important stage of research. To work it out efficiently I must give it all my time. [2, p. 582]”

Malinowski recognizes the “chaotic mass of notes” must be whipped into shape to become a manuscript, but he must first grapple with the disorder. This is precisely what psychotherapist Rollo May describes as the “creative encounter,” or the unstructured time an artist (or researcher) spends with her subject of study.

may

Rollo May

“The first thing we notice in a creative act is that it is an encounter. Artists encounter the landscape they propose to paint – they look at it, observe it from this angle and that. They are, as we say, absorbed in itOr scientists confront their experiment, the laboratory task, in a similar situation of encounter.  [3, p. 39] P. 39″

Consider also the “commonplace book,” or the kind of notebook great thinkers like John Locke and Charles Darwin used to organize their thoughts. As innovation author Stephen Johnson tells us, early modern readers did not read sequentially, but jumped around, setting the stage making creative connections.

 

johnsonSteven Johnson

“The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association….Each re-reading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. [4, pp. 109–110]”

In other words, researchers who allow themselves to read out of order, or to collect without regard for structure, are able to make creative, intuitive leaps. But researchers who fail to methodically manage their knowledge fail to close the loop of production. Researchers need to think fast and to think slow. They need to think broadly and think narrowly. Type 1 and Type 2 thinking translates into 3 kinds of research: exploratory (thinking fast), evaluative (thinking fast and thinking slow), and experimental (thinking slow).

Frequently, social scientists in particular focus on “rigor” as the solution to good research. But rigor without creativity adds little to our collective knowledge.  As Heideggerian scholar Carol Steiner argues, this “fore-structure” – or predetermined way of looking at the world – stops us from conducting innovative research and producing innovative things. Instead, innovative researchers, she found, are open to “Being,” or the ability to have experiences, people, and objects reveal themselves to them.

steinerCarol J. Steiner

“The innovators I studied seemed sometimes to be attuned to that old understanding of the relationship between Being and people…Losing faith in the scientific method has allowed them to understand themselves as other than knowledge-makers. Consequently, they often project an openness that allows them a different world to shine through for them, the public world. “[5, p. 594]

In other words, researchers in particular must struggle against the “fore-structure” or their extensive theoretical and methodological training which interferes with receptivity. As Rollo May argues, being receptive does not mean lacking in rigor.

“The receptivity of the artist [or researcher] must never be confused with passivity. Receptivity is the artist holding him or herself alive and open to hear what being may speak. Such receptivity requires a nimbleness, a fine-honed sensitivity in order to let one’s self be the vehicle of whatever vision may emerge. [3, p. 80]”

Rigor must be introduced later in the process – after the researcher becomes open to a vision, after the researcher grapples with the complexities of the data and their incongruence. Rigor often comes after a period of unconscious processing of the data.  Taking walks, playing, napping, and engaging in unstructured activity have all been shown to allow synthetic ideas to emerge.

Researchers should therefore use the scientific method with caution. Be aware of when you need rigor, and when you need creativity.

 

 

 

 

References

[1]      C. W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[2]      M. W. Young, Malinowksi: Odyssey of an Anthropologist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

[3]      R. May, The Courage to Create. New York: WW Norton, 1994.

[4]      S. Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2010.

[5]      C. Steiner, “Constructive Science and Technology Studies: On the Path to Being?,” Soc. Stud. Sci., vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 583–616, 1999.

 

What even IS this? Why tech companies are still failing us

Why do we know so little about the social implications of technology? It plays a starring role in everyday life, as essential as food, shelter, and clothing. A huge share (70%) of Americans use social media, and even 65% of senior citizens use Facebook  – that’s more than the number of people who eat family dinner at home, attend church, or have a pet.

Yet, we know so little about technology’s impact on everyday life. We are only just now recognizing problems like coordinated disinformation, breaches of personal data, and algorithmic discrimination.  Clearly, technology companies are falling short on understanding the social implications of their tools before and after they build them. But why? Why are tech companies failing us?

Woman in kitchen.
Woman in kitchen. Source: Art Institute of Chicago

Sadly, it is all too predictable that technologists underestimate, misjudge, or otherwise underappreciate how humans will interact with their technology. This is for one simple reason: engineering, as a discipline, does not bother to ask:  “What is this?”

Engineers are not scientists, much less social scientists. They typically have no knowledge of basic human behavior such as loss aversion or impression management, even though these are the building blocks of social interaction – and entry-level knowledge for social scientists.

Engineers could ask, “What is this?” but instead choose to ask: “Does this work?”

“Does this work?” underpins research within tech companies. Once upon a time, tech companies hired engineers they called research scientists and stuck them in labs to tinker endlessly with pieces of hardware and scraps of computer code. Even today, there are over 7800 job postings for “research scientist” on LinkedIn, which are typically engineers or computer scientists. A posting for an Uber research scientist intern is instructive. In addition to having a Master’s degree in a “technical field,” the intern is also encouraged to engage in “risk taking” and to “turn the dreams of science fiction into reality.”  Another job posting for a research scientist at Facebook asks for skills in the scientific method, but then specifically narrows that down to “evaluate performance and de-bug.” In other words: Does this work? Notably not mentioned: the ability to develop basic knowledge.

Academics would see much of this activity as more akin to prototyping than to scientific inquiry. Indeed, these engineers produced many technology prototypes, but not much in the way of generally applicable knowledge, or what the rest of us might call “science.” In other words, they never seem to stop and ask, “What is this?”

Painting by Salvador Dali
Inventions of The Monsters

Today, tech companies need to ask things like “What is a digital public sphere?” and “What is the nature of privacy?” and “What is artificial intelligence versus human intelligence?” Tech companies need typologies of human-computer interactions, motivations, fears, and human foibles. They need to create a system of knowledge around key questions of technology like artificial intelligence and social media.

Some argue that technology development doesn’t have time for “understanding,” that asking “What is this” takes too long and is too expensive. But this is a false economy. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum tells us plainly that we need that understanding, not for understanding’s sake but because it guides our planning:

“Understanding is always practical, since without it action is bound to be unfocused and ad hoc.” — Martha Nussbaum

In other words, if you don’t know “What is this” you’re probably going to build the wrong thing.

We can see this pattern of building the wrong thing in technology, over and over again. The term “user friendlywas invented way back in 1972. Curiously, “user hostile” wasn’t invented until 1996, just before Microsoft’s infamous Clippy appeared in 1997. Clippy’s abrupt entre onto the desktops of the world indicated that technology “researchers” had no idea what they had made. Word famously exploded from what appeared to be a digital typewriter, to a swollen behemoth that did everything from create a newsletter to automate mailing labels. Pick a lane, people. Clippy was there to tell users how to make Microsoft Word work, but no one bothered to find out much less explain what Microsoft Word actually was.  Word is still so swollen that a new user today can credibly ask “What even IS this?”

Clippy the paperclip
Source: NYMag.com

Flash forward to today, and the so-called “lean startup” approach to building technology is really just a faster, even more facile way to ask “Does this work.” In reality, tech companies still don’t know, “What is this?” even after they’ve built a working prototype.

In my former role as a hiring manager at a major tech company, it took an average of 100 days to hire just one ethnographer and more often than not, the job remained open much longer than that. These are the very people who can tell us, “What is this?” The demand for these social scientists only grows. Yet, the tech industry as a whole has not yet figured out they need to ask “What is this?” before they build something.

Were tech companies to ask, “what is this,” they would learn the basic properties of their tools, their coherence, intelligibility, performance, and affordances. Instead, they are fully occupied with “does this work,” and create horrific blights on our collective consciousness like Tay, the racist AI Bot on the relatively innocuous end of the scale, and Compass, the racist parole algorithm at the full-on evil end of the scale.

Technologists do not know what they do not know. Ethnographers hope for the day when they can just ask “What is this” without worrying about whether it works, because it doesn’t even exist yet. But tech development continues apace.

It’s time for ethnographers to stop this sad venture, and instead insist on asking: What IS this? Before another Tay, before another Compass. Technologists too must take responsibility because if we don’t, the 21st century will become even more technocentric, and even less intelligible. Let’s find out what’s going on before we build anything else.

The Desirability of Handbags

Handbags, like technology, can become part of your “everyday carry” – if they fit into your everyday life. Sometimes a handbag doesn’t “fit” your lifestyle, but you buy it anyway. Good handbags should be usable, but some very popular handbags are not at all usable. Why do people buy handbags that are hard to use?

In my last post, I outlined the major dimensions of handbag usability. In this post, I describe another “job” people hire handbags to do for them: social signaling. This post might help you avoid buying the wrong bag, but it will also reveal something quite invisible to most folks: consumer products are not pragmatic, functional things, but complex cultural memes that are infused with social meaning. People buy handbags (or phones, or software) not just to carry their stuff, but also to project a desirable image.

Beyond usability: what “job” do you hire your handbag to do?

Some in the user experience community talk about products and objects you “hire” to do a job for you. The Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework is highly influential beyond the UX field; business strategists use it as well.

Using the JTBD framework, we might ask, what do we “hire” handbags to do for us? First, the obvious: we do hire handbags to carry our stuff for us.  But if that’s all that handbags are, we’d all be carrying plastic shopping bags. Something else is going on here. But what?

Here’s Miley Cyrus with a truly stylish white plastic tote and brown plastic jumbo tote.

Many technologists make the mistake that functionality will automatically translate into product love – it doesn’t.  Plastic bags are pretty usable, but they are not at all desirable. Some of the most desirable handbags are not usable at all (I’m looking at you Hermes Kelly bag).  Even unusable handbags will be highly sought after if they effectively project a desirable image.

We “hire” our handbags to tell other people: “This is the kind of person I am.” No amount of Carry-ability will convince me to buy an all-crocodile handbag, for example, because I don’t like killing crocodiles for leather, and, more germanely, I don’t want other people to think I support killing crocodiles. Jane Birkin herself did not like killing crocodiles, and begged Hermes to stop using crocodile leather on their Birkin bag (They did not stop but managed to come to an agreement with Birkin).

Projecting An Image: Handbag as PR Machine

Handbags tell people what kind of person you want them to see in you. Sociologist Erving Goffman called this “impression management”; a handbag is part of the impression you architect.

We “hire” a handbag just like we hire a PR firm to create an image for us. Who can forget the Sex in the City episode where PR executive Samantha bought a Birkin, pretending it was to enhance the image of her client Lucy Liu? Ironically, this is exactly what Samantha was hiring the Birkin bag to do for herself.

Consider the person who might carry each of these bags.  The Kate Spade Mini Simone Satchel is feminine, even child-like, and playful. The Marni shoulder bag is clean, lean, and minimal. The Gucci Babouska Boston Bag is sumptuous, bursting with ornamentation, and brassy in its presentation. Each bag would perform similarly on the Handbag Usability Themes, but they signify very different concepts. Feminine, clean, or sumptuous: people recruit a handbag to project one of those ideas.

A desirable handbag might be so good at projecting just the right image that you might forgive its lack of Search-ability, for example. A slouchy hobo projects one image, while a crisp satchel projects another, as you can see with Ashely and Mary Kate Olson. One of them (I cannot tell which!) carries a classic black Birkin, while the other carries a slouchy Chanel hobo. These two women are literally identical but the handbags project completely different images.

So it’s about money then? Umm, no.

Handbags are more than just usability – we hire them to tell people who we are. Sometimes, people take this to mean simplistically that handbags are “all about money.” You hire a handbag to tell people how rich you are, right? Wrong.

Sure, the most expensive handbag in the world was the Himalayan crocodile Birkin which recently sold in Hong Kong in 2017 for $377,000 USD. But how much a bag costs is not the only signal people want to send. Notably, this particular bag is, you guessed it, made from crocodile leather (Sorry, Jane Birkin).

You are projecting exclusivity. You can’t just walk into a store and buy an Hermes bag, even if you have the money. You have to “know” when they are available. You can’t just pick the most popular bag – you have to know which bag has cache. It’s more than just the price tag, but also the insider knowledge you possess.

This is sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital – we distinguish ourselves with our “good taste.” Good taste is often expensive, but not always. Too many logos? Too obviously expensive, and worse, readily available? How gauche. Handbags rich in cultural capital are exclusive – hard to find, hard to know about, and hard to buy.

Buying the wrong bag: when desirability trumps usability

If you’re like me, you’ve bought The Wrong Bag. The Wrong Bag looks good, and probably was pretty expensive. It probably has some sort of cache, maybe it’s the “it bag” of the season. You think it will enhance your image. But maybe this bag is simply not usable enough. And maybe you bought into someone else’s concept of desirability, instead of your own.

I do this all the time with certain cuts of clothing; I know what works for my silhouette but I conveniently forget it when something is “on trend.” This happens with handbags all the time, like this Celine. I loved the look of the Celine Tricolor Trapeze bag, but it was the least usable handbag I’ve ever used.  It spilled open at the worst of times, was impossible to open, and was hard to carry. I got a lot of compliments on the bag, but when my rental period was over, I was happy to send it back.

 

Buying the right bag is about making sure it’s usable enough, and projects the image you are curating for yourself.

The Chanel Perfect Edge medium shoulder bag had great grab-ability, and easy carry. I would have preferred the shoulder strap to be a shade shorter, but I did find the handle to more than make up for that. The challenge here was to hold the bag open while carrying it. The handle was great for grabbing, but poor for opening. But just look at this biker sensibility! The chunk of the handle strap gave it an edge (get it?). I actually really liked this bag. It was easy to use and wasn’t too stuffy. Its unusual style compensated for it usability flaws.

 

The Prada Saffiano tote was high in Grab-ability, and with a pochette performed well on Search-ability. The problem was that it was entirely too big for everyday carry. I put *everything* into this bag, including my laptop. But you can see, it’s a bulky bag. I found myself toting around more than I could carry. As much as I’m a fan of Prada and its image, this bag was not for me.

 

The Louis Vuitton Alma was, by far, the most usable and desirable handbag I’ve ever used.

Its classic clamshell shape has a pop of patent leather to give it depth, but it still goes with everything. Note that there is also a shoulder strap, which you can use, in a pinch, though I rarely did. The grab-ability of this bag is second to none, and the full-length zipper made this bag so much more usable – I could unzip to the maximum, and find everything I was looking for. The double handle allowed me to hold the bag securely while I was looking, and the shape allowed me to keep the zipper somewhat open without spilling out its contents. But this bag was also desirable because of its black patent sheen and texture, and its brand identity.

Back to the point: what handbags can tell us about tech

Technologists like to think they are engineers, creating engineered products for humans’ technological augmentation. But we know that tech is just like any other product: it must be usable AND desirable. Handbags hit that sweet spot when they are easy to use AND have an element of exclusivity.

Technologists take note: you are fulfilling both functional and emotional needs. Sure, people want their tools to do heavy lifting for them, but they only love products that fulfill a deep emotional need like “project the right image” or “connect to me to my loved ones” or “make me feel safe.”

Products that can fulfill both types of needs are the ones most likely to become both popular and useful. Handbags can teach technologists a lot about product design, but first and foremost, it teaches us that humans are not “rational” beings, but complex, emotional, and culturally aware. Good products fit simply into a complex landscape, provide emotional rewards, and signal culturally appropriate messages.

The Usability of Handbags

What do handbags have to do with technology?

Technology seems exotic, but it’s actually just another new object in our everyday lives. How handbags become part of our “everyday carry” is similar to how technology becomes part of our daily lives. In this series, I’ll examine first the “rational” part of handbags: how well they perform the job of “carrying my stuff.” In later posts, I’ll look at the “irrational” (some might say more human) aspects of choosing things that are really just a pain in the butt to use.

I have always loved luggage and leather goods of all sorts. My favorite gift of my entire childhood was a rattan-and-wood briefcase my aunt gave me when I was 10. I carried that thing to school every day for a year, after which it disintegrated. By the time I was in my 20s, I began an endless search for the “perfect bag.” This was challenging, mostly because I’m cheap but with expensive taste.

My pursuit got a lot easier when my husband began work at Bag, Borrow, or Steal, the handbag rental company (full disclosure: he no longer works there, but many of the links in this post are to BBOS). I was finally able to use as many handbags as I liked, of all sizes, shapes, and even prices. This post is based primarily on that unusual experience of having access to, and regular usage of, a wide variety of handbags. (edit: my second post is about the desirability of handbags).

The Usability of Handbags

Handbags are not just pretty but also workhorses of your “everyday carry.” They can be very expensive, so when you invest in a quality handbag, you want them to “just work.” I have high standards for valuable but good quality accessories, and how they work is one element I consider deeply.

I work as a user experience researcher, which means I help design and evaluate software and hardware products. Usability is a core tenet of quality technology products, and while I’m not a usability lab specialist, I have done my fair share of usability tests for desktop and mobile software, as well as hardware devices and voice-enabled agents like Alexa and Cortana.

I take this experience and apply to handbags, and boy, do you get a different kind of “handbag review.” Handbag reviews online are generally how pretty this thing is, how it looks upon first unboxing, or how rare or expensive the bag is. Rarely – if ever – do reviewers use the bag over a period of time, and evaluate its ease of use. I’ve broken down the key dimensions for what makes a “usable” handbag: Open-ability, Grab-ability, Search-ability, and Carry-ability. I debated including “security” but found its lack only applied to a few bags (I might revisit that).

Qualifying usability

In tech industry circles, usability can be measured in a lot of ways. I myself have used the System Usability Score (SUS) to systematically measure things like system complexity, intelligibility, and ease of use. But that doesn’t work for handbags because “complexity” is not really a problem for handbags. Worse, the SUS is a quantitative measure, which really just saps the beauty, experience, and all the bloody fun out of handbags.

So instead, I describe my Handbag Usability Themes (HUT) which you can use to qualitatively analyze any handbag you’re thinking of buying (or renting!). I can (and very well might) translate this into a Handbag Usability Scale (HUS) at some later date.

Open-ability

How easy is the bag to open? Some bags have complex screws or zippers, while others have no closure at all.  Hobos and totes are two examples of extremely easy to open; many simply have an open top, like this Mansur Gavriel tote. It is as simple as they come – just pull apart the handles.

But the open-ability of this Celine Trapeze bag is terrible. First, it has a clip that you have to turn, carefully¸ in order to open the bag. Then, in order to get the bag full open, you have to flip the cover off. This means that if you’re holding the handle, you will probably drop the bag. In this video of the Trapeze bag, you’ll see that it has to sit on a table to be fully opened. Avoid this like the plague!

 

Even the classics have Open-ability challenges. Opening this Hermes Kelly bag on the go is all but impossible. And what a shame. Just look at that beautiful bag!

I guess we should all “settle” for a Hermes Birkin instead, because of its dual handle design. Notice how the Birkin hangs on one handle when it’s open (incidentally, this a mouth-watering unboxing video of a new Birkin in the signature Hermes orange) .

 

Grab-ability

How easily can you pick up the bag? Grab-ability is the ease with which you can pick up the bag with one hand. Hard-to-grab bags have a combination of large size and long handles. An example of a hard to grab bag is my Jack Georges Alexis briefcase. Its long handles and large size make it quite challenging to pick up quickly. Note that I can easily grab my BCBG clutch with one hand.

This clutch from Alexander McQueen looks like it’s great for grabbing, but it actually has better Carry-ability. The signature bejeweled brass-knuckle handle is gorgeous, but gets in the way of a quick pick up (don’t get me wrong: this particular bag has been on my radar for a very, very long time; I love the look of this bag).

Carry-ability

Carry-ability refers to the comfort and ease with which you can carry the bag, particularly when it’s full. Carry-ability isn’t something you can fully evaluate until you use the bag for an extended period of time. But you should consider the length of the handles (short and long) and the weight of the bag.

Hobos and some totes are generally great for carrying because they are easy to slip over the shoulder. But be careful! Large bags can be filled with everything (like the notorious Louis Vuitton Never Full). Sometimes, you need to carry on your wrist, and here’s where hobos fall a bit short, like with this Balenciaga Sloane Hobo, which will probably break your wrist if you try this when it’s fully filled with your stuff.

Modern minimalist handbag maker Chiyome has two bags that are both high on Carry-ability: a tote and a shoulder bag. The one on the left can be slipped over the shoulder but also has good Grab-ability because of the short handle drop of the shoulder strap. The one of the right has good Carry-ability, but the straps are too long for grabbing. Both have hand holes (is that a word? It’s a strange design), but in practice they are not as “grabby” as handles).

German leathergoods company PB0110 has a shoulder bag that has both good Grab-ability and Carry-ability. The two handles help you grab the bag quickly and carry it for an extended period.

The weight of the bag is another aspect to Carry-ability. Notorious for this is the beautiful, amazing, God-I-have-always-loved-this bag, the small Sac du Jour by Saint Laurent. This bag has such gorgeous architecture (which helps with Search-ability, see below), and its classic design will never go out of style.

BUT, and this is a big but, the bag is heavy AF (2.6 lbs, totally empty). That weight, plus the lack of the a useful shoulder strap all but guarantees that you will find this bag low on Carry-ability.

Search-ability

This is probably the most annoying part of an unusable bag: never being able to find anything. Generally speaking, the larger the bag, the worse the search-ability.

Hobos are terrible for Search-ability because of their slouchy style and lack of architecture. The Mansur Graviel tote was so easy to carry, but it was basically a big empty sac, which made finding anything impossible.

Some handbag designers attempt to solve this by including built-in card slots, pen holders, and the like. Purses with built-in wallets are over-kill, however, because every time you change your bag, you must manually remove your cards and other items. A Search-able handbag allows for some organization, but not too much.

Pochettes are a good solution for a large-empty bag, like the one that came with my Celine Lefebure Alice bag.

 

In part two of the this series, I’ll review some of the bags I’ve had, and how usable they were, including Celine, Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. I’ll also talk about why none of this usability seems to matter (emphasis on the “seems”) when people talk about the It Bag of the Season or the Bag That Got Away.