Of Mice and iPods, or The Death of the Designer - 22 July 2008
by Mark Blythe
Read this article in Chinese (translated by Shuguang Kuai, proofread by Christina Li)
Computing technologies are becoming so familiar it can feel as if they have always been here. It is strange to think that the mouse, for instance, was invented by Doug Englebart in the seventies. He must encounter a degree of incredulity when he mentions this to people. “You invented the mouse? Really? How nice. Did you also invent the pen?” Researchers in Interaction Design are very fond of illustrating tools we can take for granted with an example from the philosophy of Heidegger. Heidegger argued that the only time he really noticed his hammer was when it was broken, If it was working properly he thought about the nail he was hammering, not the tool he was using to do it. As someone who is extremely wary of fully functioning hammers I am as likely to be thinking of the possibility of hammering my thumb as a nail so the example never really works for me. The mouse on the other hand, well yes, when it’s working I take it entirely for granted. Tools that feel “natural” in this way are also slightly unquestionable. Thinking about its invention brings it back into focus as sharply as when it is clogged up with fluff and needs cleaning. Then it becomes once more a tool, a tool that was made relatively recently and which, come to that, might well be improved upon.
Bill Moggridge’s book “Designing Interactions” introduces its readers not only to the inventor of the mouse but also a host of the designers who have shaped personal computers into the forms we currently know. The book collects together interviews with the people who have worked in a field which, more than any other, has transformed the ways in which humans work and play. It describes, for instance, how twenty five years ago Bill Atkinson, coded prototypes that would come to define aspects of the desktop that I am using now. “In one night he developed the entire pull down menu system! Everything! He hadn’t just moved it to the top of the screen; he had the idea that as you scanned your mouse across the top each menu would pop down, and they would ruffle as you went back and forth” (Moggridge 2007:97). This is extraordinary, again the drop down file menu is as much a part of everyday life as pens and paper were for the most part of the industrial period. “So, you came up with A4 eh? Not a bad idea that. Everyone seems to like it don’t they?”
The designers of early computer interfaces were primarily concerned with measurable outcomes: how long did it take people to complete a task using this or that interface. Such questions could be investigated through observation and experiment so the design process was relatively transparent. Later innovations such as the new look of the MAC OS X are harder to quantify. Here designers were given advertising images of candy, alcohol and liquids which helped to inspire a new look and feel based on transparency and fluidity. Such moves from usability to user experience necessitate an engagement with aesthetics, enjoyment and fun. These are far less tangible and measurable than the dimensions of usability. How then are we to make sense of these vague and constantly changing requirements? What was it about the iPod, for example, that made it so special? If Apple know they are not telling.
Although interviews with individual designers can provide insight into what they do, the approach risks simplifying history into a narrative of great deeds performed by great people. Questioning such an account is not to doubt the tremendous ability and achievements of the individuals involved, but rather to consider the factors beyond their supreme cleverness, which enabled them to do what they did. Designers find it notoriously difficult to explain how they design or even to say what design is. Accounts of the design process written by designers tend to focus on intuition. John Maeda describes a lecture at MIT by Paul Rand where he was asked what the fundamental skills of a designer were, here is the reply: “The fundamental skill is talent. Talent is a rare commodity. It’s all intuition. And you can’t teach intuition” (Maeda 2000: 306). This is a fine example of the romantic account of the designer as the lone, gifted genius.
Increasingly interaction design is looking to other disciplines with longer histories of attempting to think systematically about problems such as aesthetics and affect. For a long time literary and cultural critics explained the success of poems, novels, plays, film, painting and so on, in terms of the individual geniuses that created them. Why is Hamlet great? Because Shakespeare was a genius and his work is timeless. In the mid twentieth century there was a seismic theoretical shift in literary studies. Approaches drawing on anthropology began to account for particular genres in terms of their structures. They focussed not on the life of the author but the elements of story necessary to make up, for instance, a folk tale. Marxist and feminist critics questioned the creation of the literary and artistic canons in terms of what had been excluded. Literature, they argued, was only that which was taught and began to uncover working class, female and black writers who had been excluded from the canon of great works. The criterion for inclusion in such canons was not genius, they argued, but the celebration of the taste and values of the dominant social order. This radical problematisation of the lone genius could be said to culminate in an essay by the French critic Roland Barthes called “The Death of the Author” which questioned the very notion of authorship.
Barthes argued that the text does not contain a single meaning, it is rather “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146). For Barthes, the meaning of a novel was not what the author “meant to say”, the writer’s only power lay in mixing writings together, countering one with another. Michel Foucault also questioned the notion of authorship noting that it is a relatively modern idea. Some of the oldest and best loved world literature cannot be attributed to a single writer. The Arabian tales of “The One Thousand and One Nights”, for instance, arose from an oral tradition where stories were told in the marketplace by travelling entertainers who told new versions of the narratives they had learned from other wandering storytellers. The tales of fishermen, djinns and magical lamps which are still so resonant cannot be thought of as the work of a single author but are rather the product of a culture.
Like all good titles “The Death of the Designer” has already been taken though usually it is used to signify some employment crisis in one of the design industries. But, design, much more obviously than authorship, is not the solitary activity of a lone genius. This is not to say that designers cannot be geniuses, rather, it is not genius alone which explains the artefacts they produce. Interaction design, in particular, is a team activity, Doug Englebart did not create the mouse alone. But more than this, design, particularly design which is concerned with user experience is a cultural activity. This activity, like authorship, must draw on a range of other sources.
The iPod can be considered a “design classic” in a way that the mouse cannot. This indicates perhaps, some of the principle differences between design for usability and design for user experience. The mouse is generic, yes, but its production was governed more by usability than the kinds of concern for user experience which shaped the look and feel of the iPod. The website “Who invented the iPod” asserts that “Jonathan Ive is a genius” (http://www.who-invented-the-ipod.com/?p=5). And perhaps he is, Wikipedia credits Ive’s team with the design of the translucent colours of the original iMac, the minimalist shapes of the powerbook G4 and the original iPod’s gleaming white plastic design. Ive is described as a modest person always keen to credit the teams of people who contributed to the design. But beyond the pragmatic realities of teamwork and interdisciplinarity there is a broader sense in which design cannot be attributed solely to particular individuals.
Our technologies are the work of many hands. They cannot be adequately understood as the products of individual talent. But more that that the meaning of these devices resides not in the intentions of their designers but in their reception by users. The iPod can only be considered a “design classic” because it was successful. It was not successful because it was a “design classic”. If it had failed spectacularly it would have been unthinkable to argue – nevertheless, the design itself was “classic”. Amongst the competing perspectives now available in literary studies is reception theory which holds that there are as many readings of a text as there are readers. The meaning of an artwork resides not with an author or even in the text but in the “gestalt” that takes place between the reader and the words that are being read. So it is that authors themselves may not understand their work in the same way that their readers do. When asked about a particular reading of one of his novels Milan Kundera remarked – the meaning may be there, but I did not put it there. No designer creates their work alone, all interaction design is team based and interdisciplinary. Further, the constraints which create the spaces in which they work are produced by social, cultural and technological environments which again are the work of many. What is more the final meaning of the design is not determined by the design team but the users. In this sense then, the designer is dead. Though designers may have insight into their work, in order to fully understand and anticipate user experience it is necessary to study the artefacts themselves and their users.
Although Moggridge has produced an invaluable book the strategy at its core is illustrated in the question he asks when considering the wildly successful Japanese i-mode service “How was the service designed to succeed so dramatically.” (Moggridge p.393). When such a question is asked of a mouse the answer is relatively straightforward: empirical tests were undertaken to compare the performances of the various options available in terms of measurable criteria like speed and accuracy. The question is far less easy to answer when the focus is on the user experience of a service like i-mode or a product like the iPod. Moggridge’s book suggests a direct causal link between a focus on users, innovative design and strong leadership. But the question – how was the i-mode service designed to succeed begs another – how is anything designed to fail? The regular appearance of failed designs, like the persistent production of terrible movies, gives the lie to any “how to” system. Observers of Hollywood have long argued that its masterpieces are produced accidentally. Right up until the moment of its release, producers of the Wizard of Oz were arguing to cut the now-classic song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Causal links between the intentions of writers, artists and designers cannot be directly mapped to the reception of the artefacts they produce. The success of the mouse can be explained in terms of its being the best available device for the job. The success of the iPod cannot. Questions of usability are largely empirical questions, questions of user experience are also social and cultural questions. For this reason critical and cultural theory is beginning to be taken (slightly) seriously in studies of human computer interaction. The designer is dead. Any designers that you happen to meet may be taken as signs of the long anticipated zombie apocalypse.
Barthes R., (1977) Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press. London
Maeda M., (2000) Thames and Hudson Ltd. London
Moggridge M., (2007) Designing Interactions. MIT Press, Massachusetts
Mark Blythe is a senior Research Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, University of York, UK. He is an ethnographer with a background in literary and cultural studies. His research interests include "funology", experience centred design and interaction design criticism.He has a tendency to write about himself in the third person, like Julius Caesar.
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