Top 5 Books of 2015

Reading time: < 1 minute As 2016 begins, here are my favourite books of last year.        Follow David’s board 2015 Top Books of th Year on Pinterest.

Feel free to share any you think I should read.

On “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory”

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

When I was floundering about in graduate school, I read “Aramis or the love of technology” cover to cover. At the time, I was obsessed by the then state-of-the-art ASRS automated materials storage system that had just been installed at the heart of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC. Now, of course you can find automated, miniature sorting and retrieval systems at public libraries, and Amazon’s warehousing and delivery systems are Things of public legend:

My first steps into ANT were to ponder mediation, affordances, and the classic Engstrom activity theory model with Mary Bryson.

That led me to think  about the assemblage of scholars, librarians, research knowledge artefacts, research libraries, giant climate-controlled storage environments, retrieval robots, computer networks, and the software that connects them. I even delved into the military-industrial history of the development of automated storage by the RAND corporation in the glorious, Modern 50s.

Which brings me to “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory“. The book presents Latour’s explanation of the basic premises and implications of Actor-Network Theory. Its object is social science in general, and sociology in particular. Latour presents a methodology of activity-network theory.  It is a history of ANT and a history of the Science Wars from the 1990s. Strangely, reading Latour brought be back to sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in 1996 as an English undergraduate, listening to an “As it Happens” interview about the Sokal Affair and those long-ago attacks on postmodernism.

I am struck by the sorts questions that Latour offers as a heuristic for courageous analysts to follow:

  1. What controversies? What actants? Where do they lead?
  2. “Where are the structural effects actually being produced” (p.174)
  3. “in which movie theatre, in which exhibit gallery is […The Big Picture…] shown? Through which optics is it projected? To which audience is it addressed? (p.187)
  4. “In which room? In which panorama? Through which medium? With which stage manager? How much?” (p.189)
  5. “How is the local itself being generated?” (p.192)
  6. “Where are the other vehicles that transport individuality, subjectivity, personhood, and interiority?” (p.206)
  7. What form “allows something else to be transported from on site to another?” (p.222)
  8. What happens upstream and downstream of the situation where subject and object arise? (p.237)

I doubt many people outside of academia will want to read this book but it offers a masterclass in how to question the most basic assumptions that most people take for granted, particularly society, culture, nature, science and politics.

Students of higher education will enjoy how Latour uses the example of a university professor lecturing in a lecture hall to explore how cognitive abilities assemble and are shaped by the scripts, forms, capabilities, and materials.

Despondent graduate students wrestling with theses can take solace from Latour’s perspective on academic writing. In a nutshell, write the 40,000 words and move on to the next challenge. One text does not a career make. Academics can also learn a lot from Latour about writing. Even though his text is complex, Latour is also entertaining, self-aware and humorous.

Thoughtful designers may want to consider Latour’s analysis of the relation between local, global and context in connection with the recent practical scholarship on context for post-thing design. For example, part of me wants to reconsider Andrew Hinton’s “Understanding Context“, Resmini and Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture” and Thomas Wendt’s “Design for Dasein” with Latour in mind. If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social in the context of design before designing solutions or platforms. Furthermore, reading Latour made me wonder what ANT might offer design for social innovation. social innovation should embrace concepts like cosmopolitan-localism and rely on “sociologists of the social”, as Ezio Manzini suggests.

If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social present the context of design before designing solutions or platforms?

Service Innovation Handbook (Kimbell, 2015)

Reading time: 2 – 2 minutes

Lucy Kimbell’s Service Innovation Handbook offers different value than most popular texts on service design. Like classics in the field like This is Service Design Thinking or Experience Design,  Kimbell grounds the book in rich case studies and particular how-to methods, including templates and worked examples. But what differentiates Kimbell’s text is that she prefaces the case studies and methods sections with solid, rich evidence-based introductions to the theory and research underlying service innovation. In particular, Kimbell doesn’t shy away from addressing service-dominant logic, boundary objects, or progressive approaches to outcomes and assessment. 

 Another useful feature of the book is that it focuses on the very front end of service innovation. It shares some similarity to Terry Pinheiro’s The Service Startup:Design Gets Lean, but Kimbell’s methods are more thoughtfully interconnected and less complex. Like the dSchool’s Make Space, Kimbell’s methods include how-to equipment, but she also included a work example for a sample case that threads throughout the text.  

Kimbell’s blend of theory, cases, and methods is a key strength and reminds me of Sam Ladner’s Practical Ethnography or Andrew Hinton’s Understanding Context.

But a copy for your methods shelf and one to share with design clients who want to go all in.

What is your favourite handbook on service innovation or design? What is your prefered blend between theory, cases, and methods?

On Experience Design: Concepts and Case Studies

Reading time: 2 – 4 minutes

In the wake of reading Thomas Wendt’s post-phenomenological exploration of experience design, I picked up Peter Benz’s edited collection Experience Design: Concepts and Case Studies.

The collection offers a wide-ranging set of essays, research articles, and case studies. What I enjoyed most about the collection was the range of contexts it explores: everyday micro-interactions with commonplace objects like a tea kettle (Grimaldi), urban public spaces (Rajendran, Walker and Parnell), eating situations (Sommer et al.), and festivals (Strandvad and Pederson). Most of the studies were short enough to be read in a brief sitting, so after the deep dives that Thomas Wendt and Andrew Hinton’s Understanding Context offered me, this collection offered a fast-paced, high-level survey.

I’ve already started experimenting with one of frameworks presented and extended in the book: Grimaldi’s adaptation of Desmet and Hekkert’s “Framework of Product Experience”, which proposes that experience can vary on four dimensions:

  • aesthetic experience
  • cognitive experience
  • emotional experience
  • narrative experience

I’m starting to experiment with using these dimensions as a point of departure in conversations about designing learning experiences.  The categories are intuitive, and, in retrospect, I realize that aesthetic experience includes interactions with objects, things and other material elements in the learning setting.

Rajendran et al.’s chapter on how people experience urban public settings prompted me to wonder about how learning might be orchestrated in new and novel ways in the very constrained setting of large, front-facing lecture halls. Might there be creative, inexpensive ways of creating spaces within the room? Many years ago, I interviewed SFU mathmatics education professor Peter Liljedahl and he shared an anecdote about how he uses construction tape to direct student flows. This chapter also probes why people value particular spaces.

The final chapter that has stuck with me is Tara Mullaney’s case study of her design education intervention to disrupt design students’ tendency to adopt a problem-solving mindset rather than to search for transformative solutions to existing experiences. Working in the context of transforming the interaction between a bank and it customers, Mullaney had student do a one day design sprint to externalize an initial complete design and then mid-project had the group collectively ideate alternative concepts to interweave a personal finance and banking concern.  I appreciated how this chapter questioned the dominant logic of observational and user research. It made me wonder how collective brainstorming across disciplinary and educational knowledge domains (e.g.workplace business practice + higher education) might produce learning experience designs that transform learning experiences.

There is a lot of rich material in this collection and I anticipate returning to the first section on phenomenology and other theoretical perspectives over time.

What are you reading on experience design and how has it shaped your practice?