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Week 6

Page history last edited by Brie Bunge 14 years ago

Post below to comment on Kirsh's paper.



Comments (15)

Rob Ryan said

at 12:25 pm on May 7, 2010

David Kirsh’s work has certainly come upon me at an opportune point in the quarter: our other HCI seminars have just finishing reviewing the Stanford HCI group’s results on prototyping. The takeaway from the Stanford work? That designers of all stripes benefit from a prototype of their design that can be hacked, modded, shared, learned from, etc. Kirsh astutely points out that the prototype can serve more subtle functions still, essentially summarizing the cognitive benefits of offloading process into the physical world.

Kirsh also raises an interesting assertion in the course of his opening: that representations will always all us to build arbitrarily complex structures. At first blush, that sounds alright -- but do we really want to swallow the notion that “there are cognitive things we can do outside our heads that we simply cannot do inside”?

In his last section, Kirsh acknowledges that this idea has some shaky foundations. Certainly we could allow that models give us physically persistent, shareable, rearrangeble, instantiations of our ideas, but are they strictly better than keeping it all in our heads? Kirsh cites the cases of Tesla, Hawking, and other savants -- humans with a preternatural mental ability to model systems mentally. Apart from these instances, Kirsh would argue, most of us are handicapped. Without an eidetic memory, or godly spatial reasoning, we could never internalize something as simple as an orrery.

I’m reminded here very powerfully of the canonical story of computing and design thinking in the Valley: the design of the Macintosh IIc. In an interview with Jessica Livingston in the anthology Founders At Work, we see what happens to a human to elevate them to this supra-representational state of perfect flow:

Rob Ryan said

at 12:26 pm on May 7, 2010

Livingston: What is the key to excellence for an engineer?

Wozniak: You have to be very diligent. You have to check every little detail. You have to be so careful that you haven’t left something out. You have to think harder and deeper than you normally would. It’s hard with today’s large, huge programs.

I was partly hardware and partly software, but, I’ll tell you, I wrote an awful lot of software by hand (I still have the copies that are handwritten) and all of that went into the Apple II. Every byte that went into the Apple II, it had so many different mathematical routines, graphics routines, computer languages, emulators of other machines, ways to slip your code in and out of an emulation mode. It had all these kinds of things and not one bug ever found. Not one bug in the hardware, not one bug in the software. And you just can’t find a product like that nowadays. But, you see, I had it so intense in my head, and the reason for that was largely because it was part of me. Everything in there had to be so important to me. This computer was me. And everything had to be as perfect as could be made. And I had a lot going against me because I didn’t have a computer to compile my code, my software.

In other words, he had no representational crutch. Did Wozniak suffer from his design process? Almost certainly. Would we have rather had the first Mac any other way? Not by a long shot.

Andrew Hershberger said

at 12:27 pm on May 7, 2010

Kirsh's paper really made me think, and it yielded several insights into and related questions about the design process:

• The constructive process drives interpretation: as you get real and build something, you are forced to answer questions that you didn't realize were there before. (page 3)
- Questions: What does this imply for the designer - is the designer who is less skilled at machining or programming limited in his or her ability to design? Do teams solve this problem? What are the implications for a design education?

• For an external representation to function as a medium of thought, it needs to be highly manipulable. (pages 10-11)
- Questions: Are existing design tools meeting this requirement? What about virtual representations used for design?

• Lastly, a personal point of resonance:

On page 5, Kirsh writes "Certainly there are some people–coreographers, dancers, and people with wonderful imaging abilities–who can hold clear ideas of projected structure, and use them to think with."

This ability–being able to "just do it in your head"–was sometimes glorified in my earlier education, perhaps to my detriment. In geometry and single-variable calculus, I often tried to solve problems in my head - I usually got results that way and it made me feel smart. Now, I'm doing much harder problems that involve other people, but I'm still prone to believe that I can just do it in my head. How silly it now seems to admire people who seem smart. How critical it is to learn learn from those who actually make real impact in the lives of people.

Nina Khosla said

at 2:20 pm on May 7, 2010

I found it really interesting, personally, when Kirsh mentioned the idea of mouthing words aloud as a form of "interactivity" with the material. I've always read this way, people used to make fun of me when I was in grade school. For a while, I tried to stop doing it, until one day I realized my classmates were skipping over words and missing things. I also note that even now, I like to mark up papers in such a way that I can scan my notes on the side to get a sense of the argument and structure of the paper - since I've been studying how people read case studies, I've realized this is a fairly rare thing, too. So, I wonder, have I always been the type of person who likes to represent things in an external way? Is there something about this process that allows me to learn or see more? How can we impart this impulse to designers (or people) everywhere? My bet is, many people don't understand or directly feel the benefits early enough, and so they don't make it a habit and/or skill. It's interesting that much of Kirsh's work pertained to dancers and musicians, areas in which people are likely to start after learning to read and write, and also areas in which they might be taught these externalization methods early on in their careers/developments.
Also, what happens to reading on the computer? When I read on the computer, I no longer do any of this - silently moving my lips along with the words, or taking notes or highlighting. The only digital device that's preserved these tendencies is the Kindle - and what's interesting about the Kindle is, in some ways, it's made it better - I highlight entire passages, knowing I'll be able to get to those passages later. What sorts of tools might be created to facilitate this interaction?

chigusa said

at 6:38 pm on May 7, 2010

This paper was very interesting, as we have formed a research group on "how computers became scientific tool": I am focusing on historical part, and my colleague is science philosopher. In that study, we have been looking through how the first computer simulations were done. On this, visualization is also a key. This paper is related to our concern. And the theme of this paper reminded me of a philosophy paper "Can computer be an artist?", though written in Japanese. The author categorized and analyzed creative activities and some of them are possible for computers but he insisted that fundamentally artists tend to think through hands or body when creating art pieces, but computers cannot do that process. This has a resonance with the passage in this paper, "The upshot is that, often, humans are able to improve their thinking and comprehension by creating and using external representations and structures. By working outside, they change what is inside and interactively they can reach new thoughts."
And the part mentioned "digital natives" saying "it would be clear why most young people can no longer do much arithmetic in their hands" is exactly I have been thinking through reading this paper. External assistance alters human ability, and it is obvious from history, and our rapid dependency on computers may result changes in human thinking process. Should we intentionally educate younger generation to do things without computers? (Maybe a little bit off from the main point of the paper...)

Poornimaw said

at 12:12 pm on May 10, 2010

What I found most interesting about this piece was also the "feedback" loop effect of externalizing the design process. His reference to how the external representation of an idea and manipulating this external object changes the thought process in our own mind (the whole "entraining process Kirch referred to) is fascinating. I am curious to know how this impact differs when working in a team setup vs. working alone. Is the usefulness of a prototype or external representation of an idea more, in a collaborative atmosphere where the prototype acts as an effective inter-group communication tool? Or is the counter-intuitive option that externalization works better when a designer is working alone - and when it is used as an extension to expand his/her own internal creative process more true? - Would this then have implications when deciding on what stage of the creative process one needs to use techniques of external representation. Is it better to allow each team member to visually represent their own ideas even before starting the collaborative design process? Or should you first collectively make design decisions and then externally represent the idea?

@ Chigusa - the whole question of "Can a computer be an artist?" is an intriguing one - and I see how valid your example is about the limitations of a machine when it comes to using a "body" to externalize and idea or add to the creative process. I am curious to know whether there is any research out there to address this limitation?

@ Nina - I also realized that I have a lot of "actions" related to reading or comprehending something. I also highlight, annotate, drag my finger on words and most of the time read aloud to my self. It is interesting to see what kind of subconscious yet effective behaviors we have as humans that help to supplement our creative thinking process or help us understand things better... Has anyone got any helpful tips to share?

Steven Dow said

at 11:54 am on May 12, 2010

It's hard to argue that our cognitive abilities are extended by our bodies and things in the physical world. As a cognitive system, individual minds interacting in their environment deal with increasingly complex concepts (perhaps extending what's possible in the mind alone). What's perplexing is that particular representations can profoundly affect *how* we think. In the world of design, interactions with prototypes affect how a designer frames a problem which in turn affects the next transformation of the prototype and so on. Yes, prototypes are extensions and enablers of our thinking. They are essential for discovery and communication. But, designers also need to be conscious of interactions with the physical world. If we accept the claim that our relatively-limited human cognition is greatly shaped by the environment, we surrender power to it. Designers take back control by manipulating the environment—and hence manipulating their cognitive potential. However, designers' manipulations can both open possibilities and narrow them. I believe one trait that separate experts from novices in design is an awareness and acceptance of the external world's framing effects.

Steven Dow said

at 12:05 pm on May 12, 2010

@Rob: I think you are arguing that Wozniak held much internally for the design of Apple II. He did, however, have some representation—the code itself. He wasn't storing and reciting the code each time he conducted a test. Was he? Wozniak had the passion and attention to detail to do software design with meager representational tools. One interesting thought angle: how do innovators in a new design domain shape the representational tools that affect other people who enter later? Another note: Joel Brandt's talk in Week 9 investigates tools in software design and argues for shortening the loop to interact with software examples.

Steven Dow said

at 2:36 pm on May 12, 2010

@Andrew: You raised some excellent questions. I think there is a potential study looking at the relationship between a designers' ability to navigate a design space (to ask questions, to reframe the problem, to pose solutions, etc) with the mutability of a design medium (which is likely both a function of the medium and the designer's craft ability). Do you have any thoughts on this?

Steven Dow said

at 2:48 pm on May 12, 2010

@Nina - Random thinking exercise: list domains where interaction has increased—thus significantly changing how we think in that domain—and where it has decreased. Your intuition about reading might be right; interaction with reading text has decreased as we move away from paper annotations. Digital readers are supposed to be interactive, but in practice, not so much. As an example of increased interaction, our entertainment media has become more interactive as we move from broadcast radio, to TV, to TV with remotes, to video games, etc. Where has the pace of interaction changed? Software programming has quickly become highly interactive, with the development of real-time compilers and example corpora (e.g., Joel Brandt's work).

Steven Dow said

at 2:56 pm on May 12, 2010

@Chigusa: "Should we intentionally educate younger generation to do things without computers?" Interesting question, but perhaps too black and white. Maybe the question is when do we want to teach children both the old-fashioned way and the computer-mediated way of doing things? What do kids gain by knowing how the calculator works or what an algorithm is doing? Perhaps the means are less important than the overall concepts.

Steven Dow said

at 3:54 pm on May 12, 2010

@Poornimaw: I don't quite understand your question. Could you develop it more? Whether external representations work better for individuals versus groups seems orthogonal, at least as face value. They provide value on both levels. Also, design decisions often occur over time, not in one sit-down period. Prototypes facilitate a discussion process. Now, there may be some interesting questions looking at the group design process and whether prototypes are created independently.... why might this matter?

Andrew Hershberger said

at 11:25 am on May 14, 2010

@Steven: First, to quote part of your question: "...the relationship between a designers' ability to navigate a design space (to ask questions, to reframe the problem, to pose solutions, etc) with the mutability of a design medium (which is likely both a function of the medium and the designer's craft ability)." I really like the synthesis of my original question that occurred here, posing mutability of a design medium as a function of the properties of the medium itself and the designer's craft ability.

I think that limited mutability of a design medium will almost certainly hinder a designer's ability to explore the design space. For example, there will usually be time constraints, and a less mutable medium will allow less exploration in a given allotment of time.

Additionally, I think it is possible to teach design thinking principles (e.g. iteration, etc.) to people with lower craft abilities by choosing an appropriate medium. However, these principles may only translate into other work if the other design media are sufficiently mutable. Another question is how does one gain craft ability? Maybe the only way to gain craft ability is though practice (compare to: iteration), which implies some minimum cost (of time, energy, or other resources) required before design in a given medium is "practical" for a given designer. Maybe a general strategy is to take existing media that have a high barrier to entry and rework them or create new tools that reduce that barrier so that more designers can work effectively in the space.

Nina Khosla said

at 6:09 pm on May 15, 2010

@Steven After class last week, I was discussing how reading on my Kindle is great, because it actually increases my interaction with books - I highlight things, write notes & reactions & summaries, etc. I actually find myself frustrated when I read things on the iPad and these functions aren't really built in.
I've also lately had a minor obsession with people watching on Etsy - it's fascinating to watch people create their own products, some categories of products are very similar, and I'd hypothesize there that people are making small "tweaks" to the products others are making, sort of like a communal evolution; other people are able to buy materials on Etsy itself, which is also interesting to watch.
Math is another interesting category, watching people who are good at math and have a hard time actually drawing out and showing the steps they used to get to an answer. I often got funny looks when I started programming assignments on paper, as well.

Brie Bunge said

at 4:43 pm on May 16, 2010

@Andrew: I was also struck by the concept that the "constructive process drives interpretation". This notion seems applicable to most design schools because of the emphasis on hands on learning. There is nothing to hide behind - paper, poster, etc. - when you have a tangible product that reflects your efforts. As far as being skilled at specific skills, and what advantage they give, I feel that your inclination that teams solve the problem is very true. In CS247, some members of the group stepped up on the programming side, while I learned how to make the hardware work. I do feel though that the necessary skills for a project can be learned. That is what makes design so appealing to me. I could only imagine how limited my design projects would be if I had to stick to my current skill set. The joy of designing lies in pushing these boundaries and finding the people or the knowledge or both to make things happen.

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