Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Report from Italia - Convivial Design

According to our morning lecturers, The EU Convivio Network (our host) believes that the open discussion of the purposes of, and underlying values inherent in, our new technologies is of paramount importance for the future of European society. Designing new technologies raises issues of sustainability, aesthetics and quality of life, and successful design respects the diversity of human practice.

Wendy Mackay spoke on the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary design. For example, those trained in the human sciences tend to ask "How do I understand this?" while designers ask "How can I create this?" and engineers ask "How do I create this technically?". In many ways, the differences between approaches comes down to differences between obtrusive or unobtrusive research operations and universal or particular behavioural interpretations. For example, my research tends toward qualitative understandings of particular contexts, and that sometimes makes it difficult for me to understand and work with quantitative and universal explanations. The challenge is to create shared - but not necessarily common - understandings. What this means is that none of us has all the answers and we can all benefit from different perspectives if we are willing to learn from each other and put each others' expertise to use.

[Update: Been thinking about the distinction between shared and common understanding ... I like the idea of SHARED understanding more because it requires that we remain specialists. In other words, it requires that WE ALL DO WHAT WE DO BEST - and that if an engineer does some ethnographic studies she does not get to call herself an ethnographer (and neither does the ethnographer get to call himself an engineer if he does some engineering stuff). There is a difference between having a good understanding of what other people on the design team do, and becoming expert at it. This also relates to participatory or user-centred design: design expertise is still required even if "users" are more actively involved in the design process.]

She discussed how the best design is done with empathy for people whose lifestyles, values and experiences we do not necessarily share. Good design then is an expression of solidarity, flowing in and out of others. I like this idea, and it certainly shares much in common with what I understand as a sociologist and anthropologist. I also suspect that designers (in the broadest sense) who have no interest in different perspectives will always design things that have little chance of making the world a better place - and despite all our differences, it seems that all of us are here to do just that, to learn from each other so that we may build beautiful technologies. Wendy went on to explain that the basic design process for this type of collaborative and participatory design moves from observation to brainstorming to prototyping to evaluating - which of course moves us back to observation and begins the process again. Human and natural scientists, designers and engineers all have something to contribute to this process, and each will come to the foreground at different points.

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