Finding New Solutions in Old Philosophy

As a graduate student at Harvard University, one of my main influences was the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that many philosophical statements, and indeed, much of philosophy itself, became preposterous when applied to the real world. Since completing my doctorate in philosophy, I have been a professional programmer for more than twenty years, and I have learned a lot about applying philosophical thinking to design and development. Philosophy offers deep and profound insights about subjects like knowledge, meaning and justice. Insofar as computer programs concern these subjects, philosophy can be a fantastic source of ideas – and often is. Reading philosophy books has given me ideas for writing useful computer programs that span multiple industries, from healthcare to business, which contradicts Wittgenstein’s belief. After all, if philosophy can guide the design of profitable products, it must be meaningful. Ideas and techniques from such varied philosophers as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rene Descartes, Karl Marx, and W.V.Quine can advance UX development and design. In this article, we’ll explore three software challenges, and the solutions philosophy inspired. Solution#1: Descartes and Austin complete sales Every point-of-sale (POS) transaction faces the same challenge: how do we bring users through the sales funnel and complete a sale? We know we must provide enticing content and a positive experience, but how? A certain number of prospective customers are expected to leave without purchasing, but the designer of a POS system wants to keep that number as low as possible. In order to reduce the number of times users abort a POS transaction, we consider an idea from the philosophy of knowledge. Descartes, in...

Web 2.0, Web 3.0, and the Internet of Things

The internet has become an integrated, seamless, and often invisible part of our everyday lives. Some see this connection as a way to a brighter future, while others have trepidations. The only thing that seems certain is that the Internet is changing rapidly, the laws surrounding the Internet are changing even faster, and it’s all we can do to try and keep up. Changes in style, design, and interactions across the web have big implications for users, but even bigger implications for us as creators. While we often highlight the importance of connecting our design to the big picture goal, it’s less often that we consider the much bigger picture: the World Wide Web. Knowing where web technology is now and where it might be going informs the quality of our daily work. How can we create optimal user experiences if we don’t at least have a basic knowledge of what the technology is capable of? It’s akin to trying to build a house without knowing what houses looked like in the past, or what materials might exist on a future project. So let’s explore the web—from the 1990s to today, and onward into the future. The world of the web The web was originally a tool used for military, scientific, and academic purposes, but since the early 1990s, it has become a huge part of our everyday lives. As technology has progressed and as more people have begun using the Internet, the web has has gone through (and continues to go through) dominant shifts, specifically Web 2.0, Web 3.0, and the Internet of Things. As the Cretaceous, Jurassic,...

Breaking the Constraints

On August 7, 2014, UX designers and developers around the world cheered to the news that Microsoft would officially drop support for older versions of Internet Explorer, effective January 2016. Yet by and large, the outcry was less “hooray for Microsoft!” and more “why didn’t they do this sooner?” The answer is “because people still use IE,” and yet people still use IE because it’s supported, and it’s supported because people use it. It’s a vicious cycle. Two years ago, Nicholas Zakas wrote an article for Smashing Magazine entitled “It’s Time to Stop Blaming Internet Explorer,” in which he said: It’s not actually old browsers that are holding back the web, it’s old ways of thinking about the Web that are holding back the Web. He went on to explain that constraints will always exist, be they older browsers, business requirements, or user needs, and it’s the UX designer’s job to focus on what can be done rather than how to rid the world of the constraint. It’s an intriguing idea. We do work within constraints on every project, and many of them will never wane no matter how much we complain about them, but some constraints can be cracked, or at least altered, if we know where to begin. We’re often told to ask for serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage (or coffee) to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. By understanding where constraints originate and why users react to a given constraint the way they do, we can gain the wisdom we need to identify whether each constraint...

What a Difference a Lab Day Makes

Four years ago CauseLabs started setting aside one day every two months for our team to build projects of their own choosing. Little did we know the impact these lab days would have on our company’s internal motivation, our employees’ skillsets, and our ability to work collaboratively in innovative ways. Now, four years in, we’ve broken down our insights into best practices for other companies to follow, to help them achieve similar success. Innovation days go by many names, but the key elements are consistent: Bring together a few people, set up a basic process, and tackle acute problems. At its core, a “lab day” is any amount of time devoted to team collaboration on an agreed upon problem or project. Companies from Google to small start ups are finding that committing to lab days can make an immense impact on productivity and engagement in every other area of their business. Lab days engage our imaginations, address our restlessness, and allow us to tinker. During a lab day the blinders are on to other projects, email, and all other distractions. Teams of one to three people build for a set amount of time, then join with other teams at the end of the day to demo and get rapid feedback for next steps. Any organization with design thinkers and makers can use time like this to solve problems. Our path to lab days At CauseLabs, a software strategy firm, we began lab days a few years ago after one of our staff members came back from a conference with the idea of doing an internal day of innovation. Nonprofits...

Facebook, Sentiment Analysis, and Emotional Contagion

Sentiment analysis and emotional contagion are nothing new, but Facebook’s recent research study, dubbed by the media the “emotion manipulation” study has launched heated debates regarding the accuracy of the research and the ethics of performing experiments on people without their knowledge or consent. Sentiment analysis is the study of positive and negative words in communication and has been employed in various fields, including traditional and social media marketing, brand analysis, poll predicting, and even dream analysis. In today’s big-data-driven world, algorithms are used to analyze text in an effort to distinguish what emotions are behind the words. As the algorithms improve, the analysis will as well, but some argue that the algorithms are far from where they need to be for accurate analysis. Recently, Facebook conducted a sentiment analysis on possible emotional contagion via status messages. Emotional contagion has been theorized for centuries and continues to be researched heavily by modern psychologists such as Elaine Hatfield of the University of Hawaii, who states that emotional contagion, “may tell us something about the awesome contemporary power of celebrityhood and of the mass media as these agencies of large-scale emotional and cognitive contagion continue to expand their capacities to define reality for billions of people.” However, the media and thousands of Facebook users were not convinced that Facebook’s expanded capacities were worth their feeds being “manipulated” to mine and influence their emotional responses. The controversy stems from how Facebook used sentiment analysis to perform research into emotional contagion, whether their findings were scientifically accurate, and whether they violated peoples’ rights. It all began with a simple study, made public back...