Sprint #1: On the Track

I love what I’m doing in this sprint!

Seriously, it feels so amazing when I bring a concept in the misted air down to a prototype that I can show around and explain to other people.

Last week, when I looked at the problem with algorithmic personalization in YouTube, I see 1. the lack of awareness to the existence and implication of recommendation engine; 2. the lack of agency in controlling their experience and received information.

The prototype I’m building currently explores awareness/transparency in the problem space. To an extent, I think agency requires awareness. I do want to build something people can experience themselves. To do so, I built Blinds, a Chrome extension that allows people to gain some control of their YouTube viewing experience by hiding video recommendations on homepage and when viewing a video. It is a very simple CSS-injecting extension. If you’re reading this, check it out on Chrome Web Store!

Back to the prototype. What does transparency look like? The question guided me to build a prototype that shows when a viewer could see the algorithm and understand how it influences the choices s/he sees. I drafted the definition of “transparency” in the video recommendation algorithms through secondary research, including YouTube’s explanation of neuron network algorithms and my learnings from the Design for Trust class at CCA.

The definition is below:

  • Define: What is the goal of video recommendations?
  • Act: How much did these attributes influence the video recommendations?
  • Measure/feedback: What actions influenced the video recommendations? Can I see the feedback?

I brainstormed the concepts and built a prototype with the following features:

  • Attention score: a metric of YouTube’s prediction on how likely people want to engage with a video. 
  • Attribute labels: the attributes that influences the recommendation for a video. 
A low-fid prototype.

I’m at the end of the first sprint in my senior project, and I felt the need to extend it. I think it is worthy of doing so because there is so much promise in the first prototype – I’d love to see how other people will react to it.

Topic Workshop: Education

When Claire, Jay, An and I sat down and talked about creating a workshop about the design of education, we didn’t know that we ended up making a something dramatically different than what we had in mind.

We didn’t want to create a lecture in the first place, because we believe we can create an engaging activity where people could stay present and learn through making. Thus, designing with an intent is essential to ensure everyone can learn something meaningful from the workshop.

What helps us design better education experience? I thought: how can we design better education experience if we’re not conscious of the education that we received?

Our random thoughts on education @ CCA IxD.

The center of our initial discussion became the reflection on our own education, largely in CCA. I felt more mindful when I connected what I experienced in the institution to what I am and hope to become as a designer. More importantly, we hope that people will be more empowered to understand the impact of education and design such experience for themselves and others.

The curriculum model designed by Kristian Simsarian, the founding chair and ex-chair of IxD BFA program, helped us clarify the concept and design the activity. His whole body learning curriculum framework depicted a dependent relationship between craft, process, and purpose.

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The whole body learning curriculum framework.

Our activity started with thinking about the classes, projects, resources, and skills. We hope the reflection happens when the participants are asked to connect them with their values and beliefs that they hold today. From there, they can look for the missing pieces in their education experience to fulfill their hopes and needs. We think it’s an appropriate depth of critique on the program in this workshop.

Sketches of activity sequence.

Each of us designed the different portions of the workshop but stayed collaborated in testing and iteration. It’s more difficult to design a one-hour activity than a one-hour presentation! I found mapping our little steps useful in clarifying the design and reaching consensus within the team.

The workshop plan.

Through a dry run test with one of the students, we gained confidence that the activity seems to deliver what we intended to share. We shortened the ending and tweaked the small moments throughout the workshop to make the process smoother and more engaging.

The team conducting a dry run.

When we were at the presenters’ table, there’s too much running in my brain that I can’t assess the result well. If I had to make a conclusion, I would describe the feedback of the class as a “lukewarm” response. I think we had a lot to say, and we delivered some of that through our activity. I think the activity could be more engaging with a clear explanation of our intent before it ends.

At least we weren’t sleeping in the morning class!

While I was writing this, I realized that this seems to be my first time designing a workshop. So, hooray!

Topic Workshop: Games & Gamification

I consider myself a person with adequate knowledge about the streaming business since I casually follow a couple of streamers’ gameplay on Twitch and have been supporting some channels. It is indeed rare to see this part of the world that I’m interested in gets brought up in the classroom. My life as a designer and a gamer usually don’t overlap. As a gamer and streamer of League of Legends (who really suck at the game), I’m happy that Sherrie, Alvin, Tiger, and Tia did the topic justice.

Gamification, however, could be a difficult topic in today’s design world. The topic team provided great resources from Bunchball on types of game mechanics and how they elicit certain emotions. I have to admit that the word brings up many negative connotations, when behavioral manipulation and user “engagement” as a design tactic has become more prevalent and pervasive on most popular digital products, especially social media and shopping.

The Crazy Libs game was a fun dessert for the event. Even though the team didn’t mention the educational intent before the game starts, it was a well-thought activity that involves physical movement and social interaction by design. It did make me realize when the gamification is used intentionally and discreetly, its impact could be positive and encouraging. This is especially useful since our team is designing workshop for the next week.

Sprint #1: YouTube is the Devil

Interested in the missing gaps in algorithmic personalization, I talked to Apurva Shah, my professor at CCA, who’s also the CTO/cofounder of Duality, a startup company that develops a QA and prediction platform for autonomous robotics. I was inspired by his thoughts on different relationships between customers and providers of algorithmic personalization. Below are two types and their examples.

Declarative:

  • Could be initiated by customers or program, but well-informed and consented by customers
  • Established and trusted agreement of data collection
  • Clear intentions and process explanation from the program

Implicit:

  • Program making decisions for customers
  • Unsolicited advice
  • Pretending to be the “magic machine”

I started to reflect on the moments that I feel overwhelmed, and especially overloaded with information. Did I ask for it? If not, why is it there? The questions struck me. The answers to them are important to differentiate what digital experiences take advantage of the lack of people’s consent.

In my short exploratory interviews with my friends, YouTube came to be a well-understood example among them as a platform that recommends deeply personalized content. It makes use of the cutting-edge deep learning technology by Google. Such effectively-designed algorithm boosts engagement by exploiting human desire. YouTube has been condemned for pushing inappropriate videos to children and accelerating political radicalization. The consequences are the results of people gaming YouTube’s algorithm.

Coming back to the project, what can be done here? After flowing the thoughts with sticky notes, I wrote down the molecules (people/problem/solution statements). Wow, so fast! Who knew?

Molecule framework provided by Kate Rutter.

It seems easier to decide which problem I want to tackle when the project is two weeks long. I’m more comfortable to roll with assumptions and experiment, because there is less commitment to the idea and thus less fear of failure.

The personal challenge is to find something worth making for the rest of the week. I can’t change YouTube’s algorithm, but I can find ways to address the problem in more impactful ways. Below are two facets of the problem/solution with different levels of fidelity.

  • Freedom of control: Giving options to turn on/off elements on YouTube website. Feasible with chrome extension/userscripts. Might be shippable.
  • Transparency of algorithm: Displaying the most decision factor next to recommended videos. There might be ways to undercut, but within a week it will stay at prototype stage.

Wow, I just gave myself so much work.

Sprint #1: Fishing and Scoping

In the first sprint, I’m looking at the intersection between algorithmic personalization and agency – what is missing from today’s timeline feeds in Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify? Following the exploratory question, I started the academic research.

To read actively, I started skecthnoting the articles and books along the way. It feels a lot like fishing: I found the method more helpful than expected in capturing any inspirations that might slip away fast. (Talking about collecting information – so meta!)

Sketchnote: The Future of Algorithmic Personalization

Reading The Future Of Algorithmic Personalization by Jarno Koponen, I’m intrigued by the idea of “choice algorithm” and giving people abilities to customize (Gosh, the meaning of this word has been severely contaminated) control the delivery of information. The essay introduced the concept context-aware interactions, and I think it’s an appropriate direction to take on the problem from user-centered perspective.

I planned to schedule expert interviews in advance for each sprint, but since this is the beginning, I had to act fast and look for the grass around me as a rabbit, (why am I writing this Chinese idiom here) so I’m interviewing one of my professors who has machine learning. I’m currently brainstorming the contexts where the opportunity fits, and I think the expert interview will certainly inspire me with more concrete use cases.

Semilattice: Project Brief

This post is last updated on 20190927.


Context

In mathematics, semilattice means a partially ordered set in which elements could have multiple parents. Christopher Alexander compares the city with a tree and a semilattice in his essay, A City is Not a Tree. He borrowed the mathematical concept to illustrate the necessity of viewing a city not as defined and separated districts, but as multiple overlapped and organically-grown communities

Diagrams of tree (left) and semilattice (right) structures. Christopher Alexander.

The idea of semilattice doesn’t only apply to urban planning. It also offers designers an approach to map out dynamic systems and complex relationships. The word does not directly relate to the technology’s stance in our life. Instead, it honors the complexity of:

  1. The nuanced understanding needed to design intervention for systemic problems.
  2. The non-linear, spontaneous, and organic formation of thought.
  3. The societal, cultural, and political implication of the technology’s influence on one’s mind.

Intent

How does technology augment and/or undermine humans’ ability to think?

The full context of the inspiration could be found in the essay On Thinking, as a Way to Build the Future


Problem Space

The project considers the following items as relevant issues in the problem space.

Wicked Problems:

  • Deteriorating space for public discourse
  • Climate crisis
  • Political extremism and division

Technologies:

  • Algorithmic personalization
  • Information and knowledge management system
  • Machine learning

Skills and Abilities:

  • Systems literacy
  • Critical thinking
  • Agency / freedom of choices

Approach

To address different opportunities in the tangled and complex problem space, the project is organized as multiple short sprint sessions to create as many playful and communicative prototypes as possible. Each session focuses on a particular intersection of the problem space. (i.e. Climate crisis & critical thinking.) As the research progresses and new challenges emerge, the definition of the problem space will change accordingly.


Plan

In the first 6 weeks (Sep. 28 – Nov. 8), each session is two weeks long. In the next 4 weeks (Nov. 9 – Nov 29), each session is one week long.

Sat&Sun / Sat
  • Academic research into the problem space
  • Expert interview (depending on schedule)
  • Determine primary research interviewees (3 users/customers)
  • Contact and schedule appointments with primary research interviewees
Mon&Tue / Sun
  • Context collection
    • Inspiration
    • Analysis of existing solutions
  • Expert interview (depending on schedule)
  • Exploratory interview with users/customers
Wed&Thu / Mon
  • Expert interview (depending on schedule)
  • Formulation of exploration/problem statement
  • Brainstorming session
  • Technology/feasibility research
Fri&Sat&Sun&Mon / Mon&Tue
  • Rapid prototyping of interactive prototype or multiple prototypes
  • For two-week sessions: Documentation online
  • For two-week sessions: Reflection writing
Tue&Wed / Wed&Thu
  • Concept testing with interviewees
  • Evaluation of concept testing
  • For the next session: Brief academic research into the problem space
  • For next session: Determine expert interviewees (>1 expert)
  • For next session: Contact and schedule appointments with expert interviewees
Thu&Fri / Fri
  • Documentation online
  • Reflection writing
  • Refinement on problem space

In addition to sprint sessions, there will be daily JavaScript learning as preparation to kickoff building the MVP next semester.

In the last 2 weeks (Nov 30 – Dec 13), the project shifts focus as the semester comes to the end.

  • Wrap-up of any additional work from sprint sessions
  • Determine MVP direction from proofs of concepts
  • Evaluation of JavaScript learning progress
  • Project Plan for second semester
  • Presentation

The Plan to Bounce Up and Down

It was uneasy drafting the project brief. I spent a lot of time articulating the problem space, and it made me slightly uncomfortable. It got me thinking the reason it took me so long to finish the brief.

At this moment, my primary struggle is: how can I communicate the conceptual problem to others? How do I demonstrate the value in solving the problems in a clear and comprehensible manner (without writing a fifty-page essay)? Earlier this summer, I had the thought of creating and distributing things that demonstrate the value of addressing such problem. After bouncing off ideas with friends, mentors, and professors this week, I’m more convinced that the approach will be promising.

But how much should I push to demonstrate the proof of concepts? After asking around and learning about the technical constraints and coding knowledge required to build possible MVPs, I (spent some time to get over with the fact that I can’t magically build something without learning to code, duh, and) learned that instead of pushing beyond prototypes, it’s more realistic to focus my time for the rest of the year on learning skills that will allow me to build and ship concepts.

Right now, my mind is extremely close to the problem. I felt the voice at the back of my head shouting to take a step back and bring my thoughts to the ground. By creating prototypes (interactive? writing? videos?), I could highlight the leverage points of particular moments in the complex problem space.

An optimistic prediction of my timeline in Fall 2019.

Starting next week, I will start working on the definition of problem space as I make sense of how and when I should make concepts into prototypes. I hope I can use the learning to update the brief. This relatively unconventional approach is different than any project that I have ever taken on at school or at work, but it is exactly what I was craving for. I can’t help feeling anxious, but also extremely excited.

Process Post: Early Idea Exploration

Four ideas in initial ideation process.

I chose the first two directions to explore, because I believe they touched on the same fundamental problem that I mentioned in the other blog post.

After estimating the scope of the project, I decided to focus the first semester on producing one working productivity tool that aligns with direction of idea #2, as a medium for research and learning. I believe working with a concrete example will help me ground myself in manifestations, not the never-ending philosophical questioning of ideas.

I sorted out the research resources that I collected throughout the summer, and looked for more publications as I prepare for the secondary research.

Organizing notes from different places

The research part hasn’t officially unfolded, since it took some time and effort to rebuild my personal website as a blogging place powered by WordPress and sort out all the back-end dirty work. I already had a sense of procrastinating and looking for excuses to not get started – so I better fix some nitty-gritty stuff of this website and work on the project brief now!

On Thinking, as a Way to Build the Future

On Reflection

On the Third Annual Phil Patton Lecture, Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram in New York, gave a talk about The Designer as Critic. She argued that designers should not be critics, for most of them already strive to be critical of, yet remain too close to their work. Instead, designers should be skeptics. The word opens up possibilities for designers, who are “obsessed with prescriptions,” to explore the possibilities beyond existing understanding of the field and its methodology, a.k.a. Design thinking.

A difference was pointed out between the critique on the quality of work and the reflection on the way we work. Reflection is important to designers because it gets us closer to the “possibilities removed” by the process of brainstorming, research, etc., even though we don’t know what we don’t know.

To an extent, designers’ trust and reliance on methodology resemble people’s trust and reliance on technology. Methodology promises abundance (of “ideas”) and excellence; technology (and consumerism) promises simplicity, freedom, and individual choice. Both could be deceptive. Our world is becoming increasingly complex, and people, including designers, have trouble navigating within it. Meanwhile, designers keep releasing inventions with vast implications into the world.

In the 1960s, Christopher Alexander, architect and design theorist, described designers’ unique role, which is summarized in Architectural Intelligence (2017):

Alexander argued that the designer was designing for an increasingly complex world in which it was impossible to keep in one‘s mind all of the inter-meshing systems with all of their details. “In spite of their superficial simplicity, even these problems have a background of need and activities which is becoming too complex to grasp intuitively.” The complex systems of which he spoke sat within a growing ecosystem of other pressures, whether social, cultural, or informational.

The reflection on how we engage in and create with technology is critical in the present world.

One could argue that it must and can only be done by designers because 1. they contributed more or less to the growing complexity of the world, and 2. they are more capable of “thinking out of the box” and recognizing the cognitive bias involved and deliberately used to construct the complexity.

On Thinking

Looking back on Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think (1945), many of the promises of technology became true today, but we are still confronted with a confusing world.

On the one hand, compared to fifty years ago, it is beyond our cognitive abilities to find answers to many systemic and global challenges that exist today. In New Dark Age (2018), the artist and writer James Bridle commented:

We don’t and cannot understand everything, but we are capable of thinking it. The ability to think without claiming, or even seeking, to fully understand is the key to survival in a new dark age, […] Technology is and can be a guide and helpmate in this thinking, providing we do not privilege its output: computers are not here to give us answers, but are tools for asking questions.

On the other hand, it is essential to examine if technology fulfills its promise as “intelligence augmentation.” To put simply, does technology help us think better or not?

In my last year at the undergraduate IxD program at CCA, I would try to answer this question. Many arguments and counterarguments could be made here, but without a focused and analytical approach, we will end up in spiraling fruitless discussions, which we’ve had too many before in this world.

We have to move forward, and it won’t happen if our ability to think is threatened.