Friday, January 6, 2006

Voluptuous technologies, acceptable and expected use

Jan Chipchase takes a look at Acceptable Boundaries of Use

"User experience practitioners often use personas and scenarios to understand and communicate how a product will be used. But what happens when use falls outside acceptable limits? What are acceptable limits? Is it reasonable to expect a camera to function in these conditions? Is it reasonable to expect your phone to work after being run over by a car? Is it reasonable to carry your iPod Nano in your pocket without it scratching?"

Man, I've been asking that for ages and am convinced that more than a little of the answer can be found in material culture studies. I've also wondered: Is it reasonable to have to learn to ride a bike but expect a computer to be as simple to figure out as a toaster? (Not the perfect analogy I know, but you know what I'm getting at...) Some days I think that user-friendliness was/is a really bad idea, not least because it's obdurate, so hard to change.

Jan continues, although it becomes less clear to me how this relates to acceptable use and user expectations:

"There are two trends that are likely to considerably shift consumer perception of what constitutes acceptable use: miniaturization; and the availability of flexible componentry. Once objects reach a certain size the range of places that they can be comfortably carried and stored increases - making it feasible for it to be carried without significant extra burden for the user, comfortably placed in a pocket or tucked in amongst other objects in a bag. Objects will be carried and stored in locations and used in contexts which did not previously need to be considered in use cases. It is more comfortable to carry a flexible object next your (soft, fleshy, human) body than a hard object. Smart use of flexible components will increase the range of objects can be comfortably carried in pockets or next to the skin - expanding the range of use case scenarios for many products and along with it, user expectations."

It's obvious that miniatures work best when still within the scale and reach of the human body and senses. (Remember that the first compact Macs were "portable" and that people with small and slender hands are well-suited to the manufacture of all sorts of electronics?) And it's certainly true that I'm more likely to carry a device if it fits in my coat pocket or bag, although I'll admit to often forgetting I have it with me and so forgetting to use it.

But the flexibility factor is even more important, I think. For me, the case for "soft" computing has most eloquently and elegantly manifested itself in the work of Joey Berzowska, Katherine Moriwaki, Maggie Orth and others working in the area of "seamless computational couture". With no desire to essentialise sex or gender, I do think that the dominance of female researchers in this area is significant. In any case, these designers (female and male) work against the idea of hard wearables, or what I refer to as masculine technologies.

In reviewing my doctoral project methodology, I was reminded that I originally began by researching e-textiles and I'd like to return to the subject for my first post-doctoral project. While the linear, the hard and the metallic have certain appeal, I've always preferred the voluptuous, the soft, the fleshy. But mostly I'm interested in the ontological and epistemological dimensions of things that squish and leak, things that move, things that always already shape-shift. (I'd also like to reinvent some old archaeological work I did on pre-columbian textile production and the role of cloth in everyday life.)

So, I looked up 'flexible' in the thesaurus and came up with the following: adjustable, alterable, compliant, elastic, formable, impressionable, indulgent, irrepressible, malleable, recuperative, susceptible, unstable, yielding. Then I looked up 'soft' and found these: affectionate, caressing, comfortable, easeful, effortless, faint, fleshy, fluid, gracious, melodious, murmured, pitying, soothing, spineless, undemanding, weak.

How appropriate, I thought, the best and worst of my culture's feminine traits. Count me in!


Blogger Phil said...

Thought-provoking stuff. And here are some thoughts that were provoked earlier...

Anonymous mag said...

Good thoughts Anne, I wish I had known you in my recent years as an Industrial Design undergrad at Carleton while designing a medical wearable for my Major Project.

The ISWC conference would be something for you to check out...
...filled with engineers, fewer designers and hopefully a growing awareness for human-product interaction. something I wish I had had more time to pursue.

Blogger Anne said...


Interesting thoughts phil - and I left a comment on your site.

Impressive project mag and thanks for the heads-up about ISWC.


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