Being practical: Heidegger’s lesson for design research

Next Wednesday, I’m giving a guest lecture in Katy Pearce’s social research methods class at the University of Washington. Dr. Pearce has asked me to come and talk to the class about some of the real-world applications of social research. I suggested I talk about ethnography in product design. She agreed.

My goal of the lecture is to show the students – many of whom are already working in professional capacities – that social research can and should play a significant role in the business world. More specifically, I plan to show them how ethnography is an ideal method not just to gather insight, but to “de-centre” themselves and put the customer at the centre of their enterprise.

Just using social research alone will not guarantee this epistemological shift.

Social researchers often approach product design research as an opportunity to flex their methodological muscles, not to understand or empathize with the customer. Perhaps because they wish to differentiate themselves from “mere designers,” social researchers such as sociologists, anthropologists and human computer interaction scientists, tend to employ advanced and complex methods to determine “significance” of a particular product feature. A case in point is the “time to completion” metric often employed by usability researchers. This metric is often stripped of all contextual meaning, and the focus becomes the metric itself. It offers no insight into the user’s actual interpretation of that experience, whether it is meaningful, useful or delightful. Yet, you will see “time to completion” metrics in private-sector usability studies, and countless published papers.

I avoid these kinds of decontextualizing methods in my practice, in part because I find them ineffective, but more importantly because I find them inconsistent with deep empathy with potential product users. What must one really understand to make great products? One must understand context, history, culture. In other words, one must be open to what potential product users themselves are thinking, rather than cramming a method on top of their experience and using it as the interpretive frame.  Choosing to use a more contextual research method is more skillful, empathetic, and selfless. It may not offer fancy calculations or complex interpretations, but it is absolutely more practical.

This is the orientation underneath my upcoming book Practical Ethnography, which is called “practical,” for a very good reason. It refers to Heidegger’s zen-informed, anti-modern conception of our modern world. In a sense, it is a concerted rejection of the “specialists’ world” which seeks methodological flourish over participants’ needs, desires, and mindsets.


In my lecture, I’ll talk about Heidegger’s idea of “being practical” versus “being theoretical.” (As an aside, Nassim Taleb takes up these ideas in his current book Anti-Fragile; he has little time and much disdain for “Harvard Business professors” who have never managed a business in their lives. Talk about “being theoretical”!)

Heidegger argues that “being theoretical” is to use ideas that you have purposefully chosen as being part of a specialists’ world.  You bring with you a set of beliefs as a researcher, for example, that brings you to a narrow, focused understanding of a particular phenomenon. You have chosen to measure “time to completion” because this metric has currency within your discipline. It makes sense to other researchers but very little to actual users.  For Heidegger, that narrowing is the problem. You are unable to “open worlds” and see only a tiny sliver of the phenomenon at hand.

Scholar Carole Steiner has an excellent (albeit very challenging) article on how this approach stunts innovation. Social scientists themselves are “being theoretical” in their research, she argues, because their theoretical knowledge limits their investigations. As researchers, we fail to “de-centre” ourselves and “re-centre” the participants. The result, she argues, is a stilted, overly specialized approach which ultimately fails to provide either human insight or innovation.

Instead, we should aspire to techne which refers to the original Greek work that roughly translates as “know-how.” A techne way of knowing the world does not involve disinterested knowledges or theories, but contextually defined understandings of our surroundings. As Heidegger explained, objects have “assignments,” or the historical imprints objects impress upon each other. Objects make sense together. They derive meaning from each other and their placements in relation to each other. Objects also have “involvements” or functions and uses made meaningful through human involvement.  The “assignments” shape and influence the human “involvements.” We make sense of objects through intuiting their assignments. We give objects “involvements” or possible human uses through our interactions with them.

We do not “make” assignments or involvements; they are revealed to us. We are thrown into this world which is already populated with objects and people. We do not make this world. It is revealed to us. Objects’ historical significances are revealed to us through their connections to other objects and their possible functions we infer therefrom. In this sense, Heidegger argues that we should be passive receivers of knowledge like assignments and involvements. This is what he means by “Da-sein” which could be translated as “be there.” We must simply be in the world and thereby understand its meaning.

We cannot “know” attachments and involvements without interacting with objects. We cannot “make” these by forcibly creating an object to have particular functions or uses. All objects have assignments and involvements that have little to do with purposive human activity, and more to do with historical human experience.

In short, no object emerges without assignments or involvements, pure and unencumbered. No object is an island. All objects are inextricably linked to other objects and to us.

We would do well, Steiner argues, if we approach research with this idea held firmly in our minds. We must approach the topic of our research with the logic of techne. This means that we see objects in our social world as necessarily embedded within their contexts. We must pay attention to its holistic and historical position. It is not sufficient for social scientists to occupy the world of the specialist; that would be “being theoretical” because it does not appreciate the world in its historical nature.

As Steiner writes:

[Social researchers]….cannot…be described as being practical just because they use equipment, have professional practices or do practical things: to Heidegger, they can only be practical, when they involve themselves with the complex relatedness of the historical, public world that is open to non-scientists, non researchers (Steiner, 1999, p. 592)

It is this appreciation of the public world that allows us to design and build great products. We must be engaged with assignments and involvements, and we cannot do this if we do not reflect on our participants’ worlds, rather than our own specialist ideas such as time to completion. To focus so narrowly means poorly conceived products. But worse, it can even trigger existential crises.

In fact, once we enter the specialists’ world, we risk total meaninglessness. As Wrathall has argued, this is Heidegger’s interpretation of what Nietzsche meant when he said “God is dead.” This is how God has died; we no longer have a fixed point of reference for meaning but are instead set adrift in a sea of disconnected objects, severed from their meaningful places in the world. Researchers could be complicit in such existential violence if they fail to re-contextualize their research. Product designers too would be mindlessly creating objects that pile up metaphorically and literally because they have no meaningful place in the world. One could argue this is the true root cause of over-consumption.


The Heideggerian approach is not new to product design research. Dotov and Chemero have used this approach in a usability-influenced study of computer users. They found that technology that “broke” suddenly became apparent to users. Johnson takes up in his article on user-centred design (UCD). He argues that UCD, ironically, has a deeply impoverished conception of use. He suggests we recover the word techne from its original Greek, which would include not just the technology itself, but also the know-how of putting it to use and the context in which we use it. In other words, to be better user-centred designers, we must know the attachments and involvements of potential objects that we bring into being. We must know their context.

This is the heart of my theoretical justification for ethnography in general and Practical Ethnography in particular. In the rest of the lecture, I’ll provide examples of how impoverished other methods are when attempting to understand attachments and involvements. I’ll also offer case studies from my own practice.



Electronic medical records and interation design

A recent study on electronic medical records (EMRs) found that they may not fulfill the promise of lowered health-care costs. This  study, and the reaction to it, illustrates much of what is wrong with technology studies, and the unintended social effects of technology itself.

Many technology studies have false ideas of how web and interaction designers actually work. We collectively tend to think of technology as a “fix” that “automagically” eliminates  “waste,” even if this is not the intent of the designers themselves (which it frequently isn’t).  But as this study points out, there are far more subtle and nuanced issues relating to technology. Specifically, technology makes it easier to do some things. Is it any surprise we end up expecting more things to be done?

Let me illustrate with EMRs.

Image licensed under Creative Commons to MC4 Army on Flickr

Researchers from Harvard Medical School found that the use of electronic medical records (EMRs) is actually correlated with a higher number of diagnostic tests, such as MRIs, which in turn implies higher — not lower — health-care costs.

The authors suggest:

These findings raise the possibility that, as currently implemented, electronic access does not decrease test ordering in the office setting and may even increase it, possibly because of system features that are enticements to ordering.

This study was a quantitative analysis of medical records so did not offer any insight into why there are more tests ordered with EMRs. The authors can only speculate that the easy availability of imaging results translates into more tests being ordered. The “enticements” to order more tests could be built into the EMR systems themselves.

Anyone who has worked in interaction design will tell you that “enticement” is precisely the kind of emotion they want their users to feel. Take, for example, Stephen Anderson’s research on on “emotional design.” Anderson argues that web and application design should be “seductive” to really be successful. Trevor van Gorp also argues that designers should be aspiring to connect “affectively” with their users, and to tap into deeply held emotional experiences.

Both Anderson and van Gorp have written and spoken extensively to the user experience designer. Their ideas are au courant in the web and application design community. It is likely that some members of that community have read van Gorp’s book or use Anderson’s psychology inspired “mental note” cards in their design practice. It is just as likely that some of these people have designed the very EMR systems that strive to, surprise surprise,  “entice” physicians to order and view diagnostic tests.

Physicians are responding to a design philosophy, which is to extract from users a deep engagement. “Good” interaction design is usable, but also engaging. Instead of boring users, contemporary web and application designers are “seducing” them. Indeed, good interaction design, according to industry leader the Nielsen Norman Group, includes the principle of “explorable interfaces.” How is it any surprise at all that physicians are “exploring the interface” by ordering more tests? Good systems are designed to entice them to do exactly that.

In their story covering the Harvard study’s findings, the New York Times reports that other researchers disagree with the conclusions. The Times reports:

Dr. David J. Brailer, who was the national coordinator for health information technology in the administration of George W. Bush, said he was unconvinced by the study’s conclusions because they were based on a correlation in the data and were not the result of a controlled test.

Dr. Brailer doubts the conclusions because he does not understand how design is currently practiced, nor does he have direct input into the design principles of EMRs. If EMRs are being designed according to current ideas, they are designed not to save money, as Dr. Brailer hopes, but to entice users to explore and be engaged. Dr. Brailer clings to his scientific method here, and rightly points out that correlation does not equal causation. However, the Harvard researchers are more in tune with current design practices.

I don’t mean to knock interaction designers. Heck, some of my best friends are interaction designers! No, really. What I’m saying here is that designers design to principles. A laudable principle is to “seduce” or emotionally affect the user. This principle creates great systems. But it results in more use of systems, not less. It should come as no surprise that imaging tests represent a “seduction” for physicians, who, like all scientists, are voracious consumers of “more data.”

This case study reminds me of how we so frequently miss the mark in understanding technology. We assume it will be “efficient,” without asking how it might actually work. Worse, we routinely ignore the normative shifts that come along with cheaper and easier labour. Take, for example, house-keeping technology. We believed that the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine and the dishwasher would lead to more leisure time. What it actually lead to was higher standards of cleanliness.

Will EMRs lead to “higher standards” of imaging desire among physicians? Perhaps they already have.