Friday, February 29, 2008

Behold: a disturbing hole!

Or: Principles for designing future artifacts, post the first.

One of our
jobs at HRCFS drew to a close recently, with the delivery of a number of "prototype futures" -- visual mockups of the possible social context for prototype technologies, as opposed to images of the hypothetical gadgets themselves.

I want to start a new thread here at t.s.f. which will reflect, with practical ends in mind, on how we create artifacts from the future, and why. For confidentiality reasons I can't say much about the aforementioned project, but the lessons and ideas that our team has been able to derive from it, among other experiential scenario design projects over the last couple of years, seem well worth sharing for those interested in scenario design.

Some ideas may be a little cryptic at first, but I expect to be able to illustrate and extend each point with examples as we go along.

The first thing to note is what seemed a throwaway line from Ambient Findability author Peter Morville in a comment to a July 02007 post at his blog,, that has wormed its way into our design lexicon for futures artifacts:

"[S]ometimes, it's better to invite contributions with a disturbing hole than to silence conversation with a pacifying whole."

Morville was referring to a framework for "user experience strategy" in which he had left one cell of a honeycomb-shaped diagram unlabelled, seeking feedback from his readership as to what term it should contain.

The post (and diagram) could in principle have been about anything, and his remark would still have made sense as a statement of the value in deliberately leaving gaps when soliciting feedback, i.e., active engagement by an audience. But in a pleasing bit of symmetry, it turns out that he was talking about linking user experience strategy with futures studies, which is precisely the point of ensuring the (temporarily) "disturbing hole" in a future artifact. It's a design characteristic of an effective user experience of a future scenario.

This came to mind after a discussion during the week with some futurist colleagues about the relative merits of priming an audience by explaining the content or intent of an experiential scenario, versus leaving these to be resolved by audience members themselves (or revealed only after exposure to the experience).

I suspect that the moment of puzzlement which the viewer must bridge for herself is, pedagogically speaking, priceless. You can read initial puzzlement transforming into comprehension on the faces of people when they encounter a well-designed future artifact for the first time.

A disturbing hole is a worthy goal.

But too large a hole is a cognitive drain. Just as bad as a pacifying whole, which is basically soporific, because insufficiently challenging. A self-explanatory, but not simplistically self-evident, proposition is best. Actually, it's a lot like humour: a skilled comedian may craft the delivery of a gag, yet spontaneous laughter (arising from connections the audience makes for itself) is the index of success.

Hmm. The value of comedy in futures has now cropped up in three consecutive posts. Funny.

[Continue to the next post on designing future artifacts...]

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