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.



Why Snapchat will grow

Why does Snapchat process 50 million messages a day? All of which disappear 10 seconds after they are delivered?

If you’re over 20, chances are you’ve never even heard of Snapchat, yet it’s one of the fastest growing social media apps we have. I argue that Snapchat is growing so quickly because it offers us something we desperately need but do not have: a way to deal with the routine embarrassments our socially enhanced Web spits back at us everyday. We lack the “intellectual technology” that would provide us socially adroit online interaction. Instead we have technology that ignores decades of sociological work on identity.  For this reason, Snapchat and other ephemeral content tools, such as the new Detour App will fill the gap.

Creating “Intellectual Technologies”

We could never have moved from producing goods to producing services without what sociologist Daniel Bell called “intellectual technologies.” In The Coming of The Postindustrial Society, Bell argued that the intellectual technologies of probability theory and statistical analysis allowed us to understand and manage new kinds of production that did not involve widgets. We could not offer marketing services without first having a way to think about and analyze the “average consumer.” We needed a set of tools to help us conceive of the symbolic world, and particularly the nature of social life

The Intellectual Technology of “normal”

The intellectual technologies of probability theory paved the way for digital technologies, such as the now ubiquitous spreadsheet, which uses statistical algorithms. But tools like Excel would not be possible were it not for intellectual technologies such as demographic variables, conceived through the lens of analysis of variance, confidence intervals, and regression analysis. Were it not for these intellectual technologies, insight into the aggregate social world still be unknown, and services such as policy analysis, marketing, and public relations would not have been possible. We are in need of a similar set of intellectual technologies for this century’s current conundrum: how to manage multiple social spheres at the same time.

The New Intellectual Technologies of Privacy and Identity

We are in dire need of intellectual technologies relating to privacy and identity.

There has been no shortage of digital technologies relating to privacy and identity, but they have no intellectual foundation relating to the nature of social interaction itself. It is as if we are all vainly trying to use Excel, without the benefit of even the simplest formulae with which to program it. We are currently using social networks that are designed without any conception of the nature of social interaction itself. This is why the Web routinely produces humiliating social slips out of even the most pedestrian of social interactions.

The digital technologies we now have are failing miserably in helping us manage privacy and identity. OpenID, for example, attempted to be a single sign-on tool that allowed the user to control his or her credentials by encouraging a standardization across the anarchic system of the Web. Ultimately OpenID failed to achieve this status because there was no accompanying intellectual technology in the form of a robust consensus on what privacy and identity really means.

A user’s OpenID is now simply a signon tool, and not a tool of controlling one’s representation in social life. Technology companies with multiple sign-on experiences, such as Google, have actually made the problem worse, not better, as they consolidate their various ID experiences. Users have become accustomed to having their credentials carry across disparate online experiences, which desensitizes them to the privacy implications of credentials consolidation.

Google Buzz illustrated the problem with this single sign-on experience; users were upset to find that their “google identity” and all its accompanying details, were broadcasted to all their Google contacts. But they had been trained, through single sign-on, not to see that they were passing through different social “spaces” as they moved from site to site.

Facebook, of course, regularly abuses its users and their claims to privacy. They continually introduce technological fixes to privacy without any of the intellectual support for users to own their own identity and present it appropriately in different social contexts. Worse, Facebook has affordances that actually invite social breaches. Its very design sets the stage for embarrassment, humiliation and shame.

Facebook’s various iterations of the “status update” encourages users to share increasingly intimate and emotional experiences. Today, Facebook asked me, “How are you feeling, Sam?” in its best impression of HAL 9000. In the offline social world, astute social actors discern, for themselves, the correct tone and character of shared information.

What would you tell him?

If a work colleague asks “How are you feeling?” I am astute enough to know I should answer “Much better, thank you. That flu was terrible!” I do not answer “Desolate. I lost my car keys and my cat is at the vet and will probably die.” Yet these are the very kinds of status updates that Facebook is attempting to solicit from me. The idea of “TMI” or “too much information” is something most social actors practice particularly well in face-to-face situations. By inviting users to share emotional experiences to a wide and unsorted grouping of “friends,” Facebook is setting the stage for tone deaf social interactions.

Facebook’s lack of intellectual technologies of privacy and identity make it downright autistic.

Socially enhanced productivity tools

The lack of intellectual technologies for privacy and identity has particular implications for productivity. As work has become more geographically distributed and technologically mediated, we are even more in need of these intellectual technologies to manage workers’ experiences, legal rights, and productivity.

Researchers have argued that unlike work in fixed offices, mobile work entails moving through mental, physical, virtual and social spaces (Mark et al, 2005). Productivity tools must allow users to occupy and manipulate these spaces appropriately, not just to be socially apt and but also to be treated fairly and to achieve material results.

Workers in an Ottawa grocery store felt this distinct lack of intellectual technologies when they were fired for talking about their employer on Facebook. OpenID did not help them, nor did Facebook’s privacy settings. Facebook had no intellectual foundation on which it could build a digital technology that would have protected these workers.

These workers themselves had not coherent intellectual concept to glom onto to help them understand and interpret the implications of their postings. Instead, Facebook’s socially autistic privacy settings and overly familiar affordances invited these workers to put themselves in harm’s way. This kind of interaction is happening more and more as people and companies increasingly move more of their working lives onto socially enabled platforms.

Yammer’s enterprise-only service mimics Twitter, but does not allow for users to interact with those outside the company, thereby defeating many of the potential productivity gains that could be achieved. They do this because it is simply the easiest solution — in the absence of intellectual technologies of privacy and identity. While Facebook may make social interaction awkward, it makes work-based social interaction positively treacherous. Building the intellectual technology of social media The digital realm in general needs more of these intellectual technologies for privacy and identity, which unlike the tools like probability theory and statistical analyses of variances, require deep theoretical clarity on the social nature of interaction.

These socially clumsy technologies are committing the sin of “crossing the streams,” or what social scientists call context collapse. Context collapse emerged out of the identity theory of Erving Goffman, who argued in the 1960s that social actors project different “selves” in different social contexts. We engage in “impression management” in face-to-face interactions without even thinking.

Our “work selves” and our “domestic selves” are usually kept apart but when these contexts are collapsed, there is a sense of awkwardness and discomfort, as anyone who has run into a work colleague unexpectedly while shopping with a spouse at the grocery store. Context collapse forces us to grapple with multiple selves at the same time.

This insight is fundamentally sociological in nature, but the sociological has rarely, if ever, been brought to bear in technology design.

How Snapchat closes the gap

Technology forecasters point out that it’s rare to find a technology that completely replaces another. That sort of breakthrough comes once a generation. Instead, you are more likely to see innovations that fill a particular gap between two systems. For example, the computing power of the average desktop computer greatly outpaced the Web’s bandwidth in its early days. This mismatch enabled all sorts of workarounds to take off and be highly adopted. One could argue that text-based email, which takes very little bandwidth, became the killer app because of the bandwidth problem. Right now, we have a privacy and identity problem.

Snapchat fills that gap.

Communication technologies offer extremely sophisticated and instantaneous data transfer. But the intellectual technologies of privacy have not kept pace in terms of sophistication. While you can immediately send a large video file to Kuala Lampur, and have it watched rather effortlessly on many different computers, you cannot ensure that it will not be shared with people you do not wish to see it. We have a rather blunt system of privacy, compared to an incredibly sophisticated system of data exchange. This gap could be closed by Snapchat, which allows for the instantaneous and cross-platform of sharing imagery, but also solves the very real need to control the privacy.

Snapchat is an enabling technology in the sense that it enables better data exchange between people because it offers two key features: better privacy controls and a reduction in information glut. For this reason, I argue that Snapchat, or more accurately, ephemeral content in general, will be the next emergent technology. There is a price to be paid if this does happen.

The archival nature of digital technologies is a wonderful way to save our cognitive burden. We don’t have to remember phone numbers, email addresses, or even complete bodies of knowledge because it is now at our fingertips. Yet, ephemeral content, with its promise of better privacy and identity management, could become the “normal” way to communicate online. What would happen if we come to expect all of our email to disappear? What would happen if our images start to delete themselves regularly, simply because we are scared of identity breaches?

Building the intellectual technology of privacy and identity

Some social scientists have attempted to bring context collapse to the attention of technology designers and provide the intellectual technology to catch up with the digital technology. danah boyd, for example, has argued forcefully that “real name” policies in single signons have the downstream effect of “outing” protestors whose very lives may be in danger from such a policy. This kind of analysis provides the foundation of a sociological tool that may inform the currently socially ignorant and blunt single signons offered by Google and Facebook.

We need a set of principles, based on sociological research, that becomes baked into any digital technology that enables social interaction. We need to create nuanced, elegant and useful algorithms that can provide at least a modicum of protection against social slips. We must do this for social sites like Facebook but also for workplace tools like Microsoft Outlook.

Contrary to what many technology designers believe, there is a robust set of research that already allows us to build prototype algorithms that prevent context collapse. They may be blunt, and they may be imperfect, but they would be a whole lot better than what we currently have.